Monday, September 11, 2017

Joseph: From Slave to Deputy

Sept. 9/10      Joseph: From Slave to Deputy
Scripture: Select Readings from Genesis 37 and 42

            Today we continue The Story, a 31-week journey where God sets out to redeem a broken creation and makes it possible for us to be in a loving relationship with him. In today’s story, we find ourselves moving from the old man Abraham to a young man named Joseph.

            I thought it just a bit strange this week, with the news reporting much on the so-called “Dreamers,” the children of undocumented immigrants, that we find ourselves considering a young teenager whose life was lived mostly in a country not his own. As a 17 year old, Joseph was the second youngest son of his father Jacob, and he was about the age most of us start asking existential questions, questions about being and purpose. It’s obvious from the text that Joseph’s brothers do much of the heavy lifting around the farm, which means that Joseph has plenty of time to sit around and think. I imagine Joseph asked the questions we all find ourselves asking from time to time, questions such as: Does my life have meaning? What is my purpose? And Is God working through me?

            It’s that final question I find to be interesting because God seems to be mysteriously absent in first part of Joseph’s life. Unlike the story of Abraham, where God is plastered all over the chapters and we undoubtedly know that God is moving in and through Abraham, God seemingly takes a back seat in this young man’s story. We can see how that might happen. I bet it’s probably happened to many of us. We get so caught up in life that God is kind of put on the back burner. I mean, we have careers to plan for, children to raise, community responsibilities that we can’t neglect… And if someone were to write a book on our lives, they might very well ask the same question, “Where is God in the midst of your story? “ So maybe Joseph and his family were moving through life quite unaware of God’s activity. But even if this was the case, or even if they were simply ignoring God, God was still very much telling his story through them. So is God at work through Joseph’s life? Of course, even if he couldn’t see it!

            The first indication we have of God at work can be pinpointed to a dream that lodges itself in Joseph’s consciousness. This dream becomes a part of Joseph’s identity, and you might even say his calling. We can say a lot about Joseph’s life, but we can never separate his life from this dream. And it’s a pretty phenomenal one. In this dream, which God actually gives in two different ways, Joseph sees his older brothers bowing before him. Who wouldn’t want that? This is a great reversal of his life. The younger one will rule over the older ones. The weaker one will become the stronger one. And as the excitement grows inside, he can’t keep it to himself. He goes and finds his family and blurts out, “Hey everybody, guess what you’ll be doing someday…” And you can just imagine the reaction. Whatever quiet life they enjoyed had now been disrupted. Whatever normalcy they counted on had been uprooted. His dad was embarrassed and offended, and the brothers? Well, they were livid and filled with jealousy and hatred.

            The more familiar we become with Scripture, the more we notice that we should pay attention to the “older brother” reactions. Much like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, it’s the reactions of Joseph’s older brothers that cause the most division. Already jaded by their father’s preferential treatment of their younger brother, they couldn’t bear the thought of letting little brother win the day. And so they plot to kill this dreamer in hopes of also crushing the dream. They strip him of his robe and strip him of his dignity, then they mock him and shame him and finally humiliate him by throwing him into a cistern where he will rot and die. But then as they see oncoming travelers, they get another idea. Instead of killing the dreamer, why not make some money off of him? And so they sell him for silver and watch with pride as this band of travelers take this young man far, far away. But what they could not see, or maybe what they refused to see, was that this was never Joseph’s dream; it was God’s dream. And God does not easily abandon his dreams.

            The story quickly shifts to Egypt, which was the international superpower of the day. Nobody messed with the Egyptians. And in Egypt, it certainly seems that this dream has no fighting chance to survive. Joseph is quickly sold into slavery, and then falsely accused of seducing his master’s wife, and then finally thrown into jail, which probably didn’t feel too different than the old cistern. In the bowels of this ancient superpower, in a country he didn’t ask to live in, Joseph finds himself out of the public eye: lowly, marginalized and largely forgotten. And this is exactly where God begins to resurrect the dream.

            It’s probably no coincidence, but this is the first time we hear of God’s presence mentioned in the story. With Joseph unable to do anything- he can’t run, he can’t fill up his calendar with to-do items, he can’t stay busy- we begin to see what we’ve suspected all along, “The Lord was with him.” And that reassurance is enough to rekindle the dying flame of any dream. I’m sure Joseph had moments when he wanted to throw up his hands, give up and mark his life as a failure. He didn’t ask for this dream. He didn’t ask to be the younger son. He didn’t ask to be sold into slavery. He didn’t ask for his master’s wife to seduce him. He didn’t ask to be thrown in prison. He didn’t ask to be broken, forgotten and abandoned. But sometimes those are the places where we finally see what we need to see: the Lord was with him.

Something happens to us when we are broken and vulnerable. We tend to allow God to have a bit more influence over us. As Henri Nouwen, the great Catholic theologian and priest reminds, “Jesus didn't say, 'Blessed are those who care for the poor.' He said, 'Blessed are we where we are poor, where we are broken.' It is there that God loves us deeply and pulls us into deeper communion with himself.”[1] As Joseph sat quite alone in that brokenness, I think he was drawn into deeper communion with God. And I’m probably making some assumptions here, but I think as Joseph experienced that grace-filled communion, God’s kindness began to unravel his worldview and began to shape him into a new man. Maybe in that lonely prison Joseph was learning the lessons that would be taught by another dreamer generations down the road: If you want to be first, you must be last. If you want to become great, you must learn to be a servant. It is better to give than to receive. And above all, pray for those who persecute you and love your enemies.

Years later, Joseph’s situation would change. This one-time slave became second in command in all of Egypt; only Pharaoh was more powerful than he. As a matter of fact, the whole world finds itself at his doorstep, looking for food in the midst of famine. Hungry and needy, bruised and broken, they come to Joseph looking for hope. And among those who arrive and knock at his door are his older brothers, the very ones who thought they were doing the world a favor by getting rid of this dreamer. But again, you can’t get rid of God’s dreams too easily. Bowing before Joseph, their cast off little brother, the older boys are at his mercy. With one word he could fell them, with one snap of his fingers, he could wipe them off the face of the plant. Instead, he does something what only a God-dreamer would do: he runs to them, embraces them and forgives them. And then he shares his newfound perspective that I believe he learned in his season of brokenness: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good. He brought me here to save the lives of many.” And the first life saved? I believe it was his own.

God does not easily abandon his dream, and his dream- the same dream he planted inside a 17-year old Joseph- is alive and well today through the work of the Holy Spirit. It may seem at times that very few are paying attention to the work of God, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t moving. It may seem at times that we feel as if we are in a prison, cast aside and forgotten with no way out. But the Lord is with us. And it may even seem at times that evil stands strongly opposed to the goodness of God’s ways, causing division and chaos…but hold on to hope, because evil cannot deflate the dream of God where “one day, every knee will bow and tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

That day has not yet arrived, but it’s coming. Until that day God will keep telling his story, and if we’re willing participants, he’ll tel       l it through us. You are called to help keep God’s dream fresh and vital in our culture, and you can do it in three ways. First, pay attention to God. Don’t let God be a blip on the radar of your life. Secondly, cultivate a deep communion with God. He will change your perspective on the world. And finally, allow God to break you so that when you see the God-famished souls, you offer them nothing but open arms and grace. Amen.  


Thursday, September 7, 2017

God Builds A Nation

We continue a 31 week journey known as "The Story." This series is based off the work of the same name by Randy Frazee and Max Lucado. Some of the stories and anecdotes are taken from their sermon manuscripts. My sermons are loosely based on their outlines, but most of this work is original. Enjoy! 

Sept. 2/3                     God Builds a Nation
Scripture: Genesis 12: 1-4, Genesis 17: 1-19

            Today we continue “The Story,” a 31 week adventure spanning the beginning of creation in Genesis to God’s beautiful work of “making all things new” in Revelation. On this journey, we’re exploring the grand thrust of God’s narrative: creation, fall, redemption and restoration. If you’re just joining us, last week we looked at God’s vision to come down and be with us in a beautiful garden in relationship with us, but the first two humans rejected God’s ways and introduced to us the problem of sin. And ever since, we’ve found ourselves in the same boat, rejecting God and desperately trying to find our way back. In response, God hatches a new plan to be with us, and the rest of the Bible is an unveiling of how God makes it possible for us to enter a loving relationship with him and truly become his people. And that’s where the Story leads us today.  

I love a good story. And I believe every great story provides a moment where someone is invited to change their circumstances by stepping out and taking a leap of faith. It might be the moment he pops the question and you say, “Yes, I’ll marry you.” Or the moment the job offer is thrust in front of you and you sign on the dotted line. Or the moment you find yourself praying the words, “God, I can’t do life like this anymore.” A few weeks ago I had the chance to pray with a young man who’s made quite the mess of his life. If anyone fits the role of the prodigal son, it would be this young man. He’s literally wasted his riches on wild living. He’s tried to make sense of his life’s downward spiral, but in all the wrong ways. He’s done it through alcohol and sex. And now he’s not allowed to see his kids. As we prayed, this young man sensed that God was calling him to step out and begin again, to start at square one and do life the way God always meant for him to do it. But it would require a lot of faith and a lot of trust. Becoming God’s people doesn’t happen any other way!

In many ways, this young man’s story points me back to story of Abraham. Like this young man I prayed with, Abraham was invited by God to step into an adventure that would redefine his life- and millions of lives that would come after. Long before Jesus walked along the shores of the sea of Galilee, calling men and women to follow and be his disciples, God called a man named Abraham to follow, to be a sort of “disciple” and to counter-culturally reorient his life around a deep faith in God. And Abraham responded, becoming the “father” of a new nation called Israel, and a model of faith for all who yearn to walk with God.

My guess is that when we hear Abraham’s name, we think of someone who is larger than life, someone whose standard of faith and holiness we hope we could live up to, but doubt we ever could. Three major religions trace their roots back to Abraham- Christianity, Judaism and Islam- so it’s obvious that Abraham’s life has influenced millions of people throughout the ages. But Abraham’s story didn’t begin as a larger than life story. God doesn’t call larger than life people. He calls people like Abraham, who was a pretty average guy. In an earlier passage of Scripture, we discover that Abraham is more appropriately described as just “another name” in his father’s family tree.  He had a mom and a dad, two brothers, a wife named Sara.  His was a fairly ordinary life. There’s nothing about Abraham’s life that would suggests he was bound to do great things. In fact, what makes Abraham stand out is not what he possesses but what he lacks: He doesn’t have any children. And this proves to be a not-so-small detail that greatly impacts this story.

In the ancient world, when reproductive knowledge and biological information was not readily available, fertility was viewed a sign of God’s blessing, proof that God looked at you with favor. Children were an inheritance from God, and childbirth was the natural way of continuing a family legacy. From the beginning, God’s plan was for humanity to “be fruitful and multiply,” (the first commandment we have in Scripture) thus extending God’s life-giving blessing from generation to generation.  But that blessing is absent in Abraham and Sarah’s life.  For no particular reason, Abraham and Sarah find themselves in hopeless situation: no matter how hard they try, they just can’t fulfill God’s original plan. They can’t live up to God’s first commandment. What has happened so naturally for previous generations, what has become normal for so many others, has become for Abraham and Sarah a dark, unexplainable reality. They are barren. They are fruitless. And they have no idea why. 

Although it’s a theme we don’t care to bring up too often and would much rather ignore, barrenness is a common theme in Scripture. It’s common because barren situations are the places where God’s redeeming work begins to take root, where God’s desire to do a new thing is conceived. It was in the dark and hopeless chains of Egyptian slavery that God began to lead Israel into the Promised Land.  And it was in a dark and hopeless grave where a messiah lay dead that God began to resurrect and overcome the power of death and sin.  And so it’s no coincidence that God begins to fashion a new nation, that God begins a plan of redemption, out of a barren and hopeless situation. When we find ourselves in trying situations, we should begin to look for signs of life and signs of God’s activity. But barrenness is a powerful, seductive force in our lives that causes us to dig in our heels and settle for what we do have, so that we don’t lose anything else. 

It’s important to know that God will not let Abraham settle for what he has.. God’s call to Abraham, this simple word “Go,” is in stark contrast to the concept of settling, which we might find to be quite unsettling.  To a God who is seemingly always on the move, settling is not a something to be held up as an achievement. To be rooted, is one thing, and to become rooted is a fruit of deep faith, but to settle is another conversation. Out of his barrenness, Abraham settled for life as he knew it, and by most accounts, his settled life was pretty fulfilling. By all accounts, Abraham has a fine life. He’s a good man. He does good things. But that’s not what God calls us to be. And Abraham had just about everything else most human beings long to have.  He had great wealth and a loving and supportive spouse. He had a great career and the resources to ensure economic success. What more could a person want?  And yet God was calling Abraham out of that settled life. This was not a call to be a great man; it wasn’t even a call to be a good man; it was a call to be God’s man. Completely God’s. And we should settle for nothing less.

 I think this is a good moment to pause and ask some questions that might challenge us. Why is that God would ask Abraham to leave what most of us deeply value? I mean, is there anything we value more than our families, our country, our employment, or our traditions? And why doesn’t Go just say, “Abraham, your purpose is to be a good person? These are the things we live for! These are characteristics we value. But here’s the question we must wrestle with: Is this the adventure to which we have been called? Is this truly the life Jesus died to give us?

A few years ago, a movie called “The Hobbit” hit the theatres. In the movie, the main character, Bilbo Baggins is invited to go on an adventure.  The only thing is, he doesn’t want one.  Bilbo’s life contains all he ever wanted.  He spends his days in peace and luxury. He has the most wonderful neighbors and is always well fed. But one day Bilbo is visited by a divine-like wizard named Gandalf, who has witnessed what Bilbo has never experienced, because Bilbo has never stepped out in faith.  And Gandalf invites Bilbo to travel with him on a journey that will forever change this hobbit and the way he views the world.  But Bilbo is in no hurry to follow, as his initial response makes clear:  We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty, uncomfortable things. I can’t see what anybody sees in them. We don’t want any adventures here, thank you!“ If you know the story, you know that eventually Bilbo throws up his hands, runs out the door and jumps into the adventure.  He simply cannot ignore the life he could have.

God’s call to Abraham is pretty simple. Go.  Go from your kindred, your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you. And I could see Abraham responding in much the same way as Bilbo Baggins. This adventure would invite him to be marked in a new way. God would soon make with him a new covenant called circumcision and it would be a sign that Abraham was no longer his own man, but God’s. Jumping into that invitation would forever change his life. And he doesn’t think twice. The text simply says, “He went.” This wasn’t a call to do something great that will go down in history.  Nor was it a call to go to a third world country and fight wild beasts and learn a new language.  This was a simple call to trust God to be God and to obey his will. This was a radical call to fully surrender his life to God’s goodness and God’s plans.  And that’s the greatest adventure we could ever take.

Through Abraham, God begins to redeem creation by building a new people. Those who were “out” are now part of God’s family. Those who thought they couldn’t be part of this covenant community are now invited to come on in. You have been called to be part of God’s new people, to receive a new name. It’s the call offered to Abraham. And It’s the call offered to you. But it’s an adventure full of risk, one that no longer trusts your heart to show you they way, but chooses instead to trust God’s heart.  “To stay in safety”, says theologian Walter Brueggemann, “is to remain barren.  To leave in risk is to have hope.”[1]  I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the young man I prayed with a few weeks ago. There were no promises that life back home would get better, no guarantees that his situations would automatically change. No promise that he would get his kids back. There was only hope. Hope that this God who says “Go” and “Come” and “Do” and “Be” would meet them in his barrenness, give him new life and will always be there for him as Savior and Provider. And for young prodigal, the hope of what could be was a risk worth taking. What about you?  Remember, old Abraham was 75 when God called him! So, when God says, “Go, leave your well-constructed life and follow me” will you stay or will you go?  Amen. 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, ed. James L. Mays (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 118.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Beginning of Life As We Know It

Today we begin a 31 week journey known as "The Story." This series is based off the work of the same name by Randy Frazee and Max Lucado. Some of the stories and anecdotes are taken from their sermon manuscripts. My sermons are loosely based on their outlines, but most of this work is original. Enjoy! 

The Beginning of Life As We Know It
Aug. 26/27  Scripture: Genesis 1 and 3

            Little Johnny and his Sunday School class were learning about Genesis and how God created the universe. Johnny was especially intrigued about the story of Adam and Eve, and how God had created Eve from one of Adam’s ribs.  A few weeks later, Johnny’s mom noticed that Johnny continued to rub his side and groan. Finally, when she asked what was wrong, Johnny said, “I’m in a lot of pain. I think I’m having a wife.” (Story offered by Randy Frazee). 

Today we begin a 31-week journey known as “The Story.” In actuality, this is simply the grand narrative of the Bible, from the creative beginning in Genesis to the redemptive re-creating in Revelation. But it’s also so much more than that. In this story, which we probably don’t know as well as we think we do, we come to discover a God who is authoring the greatest adventure ever recorded. And what’s so phenomenal is that we’ve been invited to not only read it, but to participate in it! Over the next 31 weeks, we will grow to know Scripture like never before. If you think you know the Bible, maybe it’s time to dig in again. And if you don’t know as much as you would like, then you’ll be immersed in a story that will change your life. And that’s really why we’re doing this. I believe this story has the power to transform your very being. And in a world that grows more divisive by the day, transformation is a good and necessary thing. So let’s get started.

The story quite simply begins in the beginning, with the moment God begins his creative work. And this is so important to understand. The first words of the Bible read like this, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And with that simple introduction we are introduced to the main character of this grand story. And guess what? It’s not us! It’s God! We will get this story, all of it, wrong, if we start off on the wrong foot by assuming this story is primarily about us. But it’s not. This story is fundamentally about God. It’s his story; what God is up to, what God is doing…and it just so happens that God wants us to be a part of it.

This simple understanding has the potential to change the way we live. When you get up in the morning and ask the question, “What is God up to and how am I a part of that?” you will begin to live like no one else. Because again, this isn’t about any of us. It’s about God. But here’s the thing…God doesn’t want to live this story alone. He wants nothing more than for you and I to come on this journey with him.

As God begins to create, a universe full of glory and beauty begins to takes shape. Now, sometimes we get into unnecessary arguments over how God creates. We are so quick to move from Who to How, which is a move that just leads to more division and arguments. I have friends who believe in a literal 7-day creation and friends who subscribe to evolutionary theory and all of them love the Lord. I’m not smart enough to tell you how God creates, but I do know that nothing exists with God’s creative power behind it. When we pull back the curtain, we see God hard at work. That’s good enough for me. So in the beginning, God shows off his creative prowess! Blue oceans as far as the eye can see. Breathtaking, snow-topped mountains. Skies filled with stars and bright lights. Animals that gallop, birds that sing, flowers that give off sweet aromas. And it’s wonderful. In fact, God says it’s good. What a tremendous word. So simple, but yet so powerful. It’s good. I spent a week at the beach, watching dolphins play in the water and gazing at the pink sky as the sun would set, and I have to agree with God. It’s good. Millions of people stepped outside to see the eclipse last Monday, and it was good. So much of what we see is good. But yet, despite creation’s goodness, it was incomplete until God formed us. Did you catch that? God considered creation incomplete without you and me!

Now, this boggles me. Why would God make us? I mean, creation, untouched by humanity, is so pure. I was out hunting one snowy day and it was one of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen. The sun was shining on the fresh snow; there were no tracks anywhere. And I thought, nobody (but me) is here to ruin this! But you see, God’s view of beauty if different than ours. For God, there is nothing more beautiful than to share life with others. That’s why he formed us- to laugh with us, play with us, work with us, to be our friend. And when God created man and woman, it wasn’t just good; now, according to God, it was very good. But that would soon change because of a gift God explicitly reserved for us, a gift that no other created object or being has been given: the gift of choice.

You see, authentic relationships don’t happen because one side wants them to happen; they happen because both sides make a conscious choice to enter into it. And even though God knows, without a doubt, that a relationship with Him is the best type of life- eternal, pure, joy-filled- He doesn’t force us to buy into it. You can’t force someone to love you. You can’t force someone to desire your friendship. You can only offer your hand and wait to see if they take it. And this is what separates us from all of creation. God has given us the freedom to choose him or not. And all too frequently, we choose a different sort of way and it gets us into all sorts of trouble.

It all begins to go wrong in a garden, called the Garden of Eden. And in that garden are all sorts of beautiful things, and none more beautiful than God’s very presence, tangible, authentic, perfect. It’s the very place God meant for us to be (and it’s where we’re headed by the way. You’ll notice in Revelation that God’s Story takes us back to a garden), but only if we want it.; only if we want Him. On one hand, God has planted all sorts of trees that are filled with good fruit, life-giving fruit, and it’s ours for the taking. On the other hand, there is one tree, called the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that God says, “Please don’t eat that one. It’s not good. It looks good, but it’ll just put to death something really important in you. And Adam and Eve kind of look at each other, and they look at the tree, and you just know how the story is going to end.

It’s tragic, really. And I wish it was just their story and not ours. If only we could blame Eve’s gullible nature or Adam’s pig-headed ways. But we all know the truth: this is our story. Every single one of us. Some like to call this original sin; others simply see this as a universal truth: Deep inside each of us is a desire to follow God’s call to do life His way, and deep inside of us is a strong pull to do life any other way. Quite simply, we call that “other way “ sin. It started with Adam and Eve, but it found its way into their children. Cain experiences this. He tries to live a good life, but ends up murdering his brother. Amazing how one poor decision can lead to an outpouring of hatred and evil. But I don’t think that surprises any of us. It even found it’s way into Noah, who was God’s choice to begin again. But even Noah, a man full of righteousness, the very type man you would choose to recreate the world, succumbed to a night of drinking and ends up causing a horrible situation for his sons. His fate? He dies just like Adam and Eve. And if you are a human being, you are in the same boat. Somehow we are blind to the goodness of God’s ways; maybe it’s the fear of not being in control, or the fear of getting hurt, or the fear that God is keeping something valuable from us- so we reach up, grab the proverbial fruit from the tree we never should’ve touched, and the next thing we know, God’s garden turns into a memory instead of a reality. And no matter what we do, we just can’t get back.

We spend our lives trying to get back to the garden. Just like Moses, David, Peter and Paul. And it’s battle we’ll never win. That’s a scary thing, knowing that there’s nothing we can do to get back to the Garden, to get back in God’s good graces. And God’s not happy about it either. In Genesis 6, we read some of the most discouraging words in Scripture. “The Lord God regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and he was deeply troubled. I will wipe them from the face of the earth.” Just let that sink in for a moment. How quickly this love story has turned tragic! The very crown of God’s creation has rejected their Creator. And it breaks God’s heart. And it still does. Every time we have the opportunity to choose God’s way, which is a way that brings life and hope, and we reject it, we’ve essentially rejected God. It doesn’t get much worse than that. It’s so bad that the thought of wiping us off the face of the earth has crossed God’s mind. But that’s not where the story ends.

In God’s story, there’s a force that’s stronger than anger. And that force it’s love. It’s not that anger doesn’t exist, it does. But God knows what we are still trying to figure out: anger doesn’t work. It doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t satisfy the soul. It doesn’t bring healing. Only love can do those things. And so for a brief moment, God’s broken heart scream “I’m done with you people!”…but then he looks once again at his beloved creation- he looks again and again and again at you and me- and says, “No. They are mine. And I’m not going to give up on them.”

If there’s one thing I want you to know today, it’s this: God has not, nor ever will, give up on you. He wants you back! And he will go to any lengths to bring you back into his beautiful garden. Towards the end of Adam and Eve’s story, we catch a glimpse of just how this is going to happen. Naked and ashamed, and guilty as could be, Adam and Eve respond to God’s call of “Where are you” by coming out of hiding. And God’s next move was this: The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. Here God gives us a sign of his plan of redemption, one that involves someone else’s life and somebody else’s blood, someone else’s skin. You see where this is going? The rest of the Bible is the unveiling of God’s grand plan, how his love wins out and makes it possible to enter a loving relationship with Him. And the good news? You can still enter that story today, if you want it. Amen.