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.

Think Long

Think Long      July 22/23
Scripture: Daniel 10: 1-14

Today we are continuing the Circle Maker sermon series, and I hope you’ve been just as inspired and challenged as I have. This series is meant to deepen our prayer lives and add an element of boldness to our faith. We’ve been learning to make big, bold requests of God because we believe God gets the glory when those big prayers are answered. And so as we continue today, we’re going to add in a final element to our prayer lives: praying with long-term vision.

In his book, The Circle Maker, Mark Batterson recounts another story of Honi the circle I’d like to share with you. One day, “Honi was walking down a dirt road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Always the inquisitive sage, Hone questioned him. ‘How long will it take this tree to bear fruit?’ The man replied, ‘Seventy years.’ Honi said, ‘Are you quite sure you will live another seventy years to eat its fruit?’ The man replied, ‘Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able eat the fruit of these trees.” And Honi’s prayer life changed after that. After that, he started to view praying like planting seeds.” [1]

Praying bold prayers is like planting a garden, which requires a long-range view. And that really is the nature of faith. Faith requires a long-range view of God’s activity. Without this perspective, we’re bound to experience disappointment. I often use the metaphor of a journey to describe the life of faith, because a journey is filled with ups and downs, mountains and valleys. Without a long-range view, we can trick ourselves into believing that it’s all valleys and no mountaintops, or that the valleys will never end. But long-range praying helps us focus on the ways of God even when life is filled with struggle. It’s helpful to remember that with God a day is like a 1,000 years and 1,000 years are like a day. God has a plan and we have to trust that plan, which is what allows us to be bold! If we keep praying hard and circling the dreams God has placed in us, those prayers will come to pass in God’s good timing. We might not reap the fruit of prayers, but maybe our children and grandchildren will.

One man who learned the practice of praying with long-range vision was Daniel. Now, we know Daniel mostly from the familiar lion’s den story, which is a fascinating story. Growing up, it was one of my all-time favorite bible stories. That story lifts up the deep and bold faith of Daniel, a faith he often expressed through his unwavering commitment to pray. In fact, Daniel ended up in the lion’s den because of his prayer habits. He refused to quit praying, defying the king’s edict. He was another one, just like Honi, who seemed to have a direct line to God. When he prayed, things happened. Except for the story we read today.

In this story, we’re kind of receiving an all-access, back stage pass into prayer realities that most of the time we don’t even think about! I mean, we are so present day focused that at times we forget about the spiritual side of things. Well, after Daniel has spent time wrestling with God in prayer, he has a vision of an angel. And the angel tells him that from the moment the words formed in Daniel’s heart, God heard them, knew them and was determined to answer him. Now, that should give us pause. When you pray, God hears. And when you pray, God is not slow to answer. Remember, he’s a good Father who loves to bless his children. But something happened as God’s answer was being delivered to Daniel- the messenger, the one bearing God’s answer to Daniel, faced opposition. For 21 days, spiritual oppression put up a fight until breakthrough finally happened.

This is an important word for our “instant gratification” culture. Sometimes our prayers seemingly go unanswered because there is opposition to God, and that opposition doesn’t want to see our dreams realized and certainly doesn’t want to see God’s plans unfold! Sometimes we get a little squirmy when we think about realities that we can’t see, but you know, we can’t avoid it. A quick look at Scripture, and even a quick look at our lives, tell the truth: there is an enemy of God, and that enemy will put up a dogfight to keep God’s plans from moving forward. When we pray, we need to keep praying until we feel confident God is on the move. The old-timers called this “praying through,” or praying until that moment when you can get up off your knees and say, “It’s done. It’s finished.” This angelic encounter is a helpful reminder that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Those are words Paul writes to his church in Ephesus, to help them keep the main thing the main thing. Humanity was not the enemy; the enemy was and is the spiritual forces of darkness that want nothing more than to kill the hope and joy Jesus brings. This is why Daniel had to keep on praying. It wasn’t just about saying his prayers at night; it was about entering a spiritual battle and praying until spiritual breakthrough. And when there’s spiritual breakthrough, eventually there will be physical, tangible breakthrough as well.

Now, Daniel goes down in history as an extremely intelligent man. As a man taken captive by the Babylonians, he won their favor with his wisdom and discipline, and earned a powerful seat in King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. But what set Daniel apart was not his intellect, but his commitment to prayer. He was a man who would pray three times a day and fast faithfully, even if it meant disobeying the king’s orders and getting tossed into a den of lions. But was makes Daniel’s praying even more astounding is that he knew some of his prayers would not be answered in his generation, yet he continued to pray with urgency. That’s impressive. He looked beyond the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the end of Babylonian captivity, which he knew were never going to come to pass in his lifetime, but he still prayed for that day when his people would be set free. And one day, through the work of Jesus on the cross, his people and ALL people would be set free in a way not even Daniel could fathom. Daniel’s prayers became the seeds through which we enjoy salvation. It took longer than a lifetime, but eventually Daniel’s prayers were answered!

Your bold prayers are seeds through which God will further His kingdom. Every time you pray, you are making a deposit, an investment, in the work of Jesus. And that’s a tremendous legacy to leave. Like a carob tree planted long before our time, yet we enjoy it’s fruit, our prayers, dreams and risks will bear fruit as we continue to circle them. And here’s something else to consider: the bigger the vision and the bigger the dream, the longer you’ll probably need to pray and allow God to give you eyes to see new realities. But at some point in time, they will take root and God will give birth to possibilities that eclipse even our greatest hopes.

I want to conclude today with a simple story Jesus tells about seeds in the Gospels. It’s called the Parable of the Sower, and I think it’s a powerful illustration of praying boldly and thinking long-term. Close your eyes and listen to these words:

13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

Plant your seeds of prayer. Keep circling, or maybe better yet, keep sowing your dreams. And trust that God, in God’s good timing, will produce a crop, a hundred, sixty or thirty times what you’ve prayed, even if you can’t see. Amen.

[1] The Circle Maker, pp. 135

Dream Big

Dream Big                  July 8th/9th
Scripture: Numbers 11

            Last week we began an exciting new sermon series called The Circle Maker, which is a series that I believe will deepen your prayer life and lead to a faith that is bold and courageous. This week we’re going to talk about “dreaming big, which will both challenge you and inspire you!”

            When we first started this series, we kicked off with the bold prayer of an old Jewish sage named Honi. Honi was famous for praying for rain, and his prayers came in handy during an extremely dry season in Jerusalem. Drawing a circle in sand, Honi cried out to God, “Lord of the Universe, I swear before your great name that I will not move from this circle until you have shown mercy upon your children.” Now that’s a big dream! Amidst the suffering of the land, Honi boldly asks God to move in ways only God can. And when I hear the confidence of that prayer, I’m convicted. I want to pray like that. I want that type of faith to define me! But that type of faith doesn’t happen without risk. Honi was taking a big risk by stepping out and asking God for what seemed to be impossible. He was risking his credibility; he was risking whatever schedule he worked around; and mostly, he was risking his reputation. But if you don’t take the risk, you forfeit the miracle.

            Financial advisors will tell you that the riskier your investment strategy, the better opportunity you have to make a whole lot of money. But you’ve got to take the risk! And the same could be said of faith. Big God adventures begin with risk, because they count on God doing what only God could do. Noah had to learn to take a risk when God told him to build the ark. There were those who poked fun at Noah day in and day out, but he ignored them. What would’ve happened if Noah had listened to them instead of building the ark? David had to step on to the battlefield if Goliath was to be defeated. What if he had listened to the others who were trying to convince him that he was too young, too small and didn’t have the right equipment? If you don’t take the risk, you forfeit the miracle.

            In 1925, Elizabeth Dabney and her husband began a ministry in the troubled streets of Philadelphia. As she surveyed the horrible situations that made ministry so difficult, she asked God for a spiritual victory and promised to covenant with Him in prayer. The next day she walked down to the Schuylkill River and prayed this prayer: Lord, if You will bless my husband in the place You sent him to establish Your name, if You will break the bonds and destroy the middle wall of partition, if You will give him a church and congregation—a credit to Your people and all Christendom—I will walk with You for three years in prayer, both day and night. I will meet You every morning at 9 AM sharp; You will never have to wait for me; I will be there to greet You. I will stay there all day; I will devote all of my time to You. Furthermore, if You will listen to the voice of my supplication and break through in that wicked neighborhood and bless my husband, I will fast 72 hours each week for two years. While I am going through the fast, I will not go home to sleep in my bed. I will stay in church, and if I get sleepy, I’ll rest on newspapers and carpet. Now that’s risky, isn’t it? At some level it even sounds a bit absurd. But soon the mission outgrew their space and a nearby 25 year old business intentionally closed up shop so that Mother Dabney and her husband’s ministry could go on. Praying boldly and dreaming big requires risk! And part of that risk is offering God what we have to give.

            After 400 years of slavery, God delivered the Israelite people out of bondage. It was easy to get them out of Egypt, but it was much harder to get Egypt out of them. You would think that freedom would bring praise and gratitude, but yet the Israelite people were filled with grumbling and complaining. God was providing daily miracles (the ones we are so prone to miss, by the way), but all they could think about was the way things used to be. When we stop dreaming of what God is going to do, we start yearning for yesterday and as we do, somehow we conveniently forget about all the chains and challenges that once defined us. Somehow the daily source of manna could not compare to the genocide of Egypt, but that’s what happens when we forget what God can do!

            In the midst of their complaining, God calls us out to Moses says that he will give them meat to eat; not just for a day, but for a whole month. Over six hundred thousand people, in the middle of the desert, and God says he’s going to feed them for an entire month! And Moses isn’t quite sure how God’s going to do it. “Here I am among six hundred thousand men on foot and you say, ‘I will give you meat to eat for a whole month!’ Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?”  The math wasn’t making any sense. We’ve been in that desert before. You’ve had that little nudge from the Spirit of God and you have no idea how God could conceivably make that dream come true. You have no idea how God’s going to deliver you from that addiction, or open the door to a new job, or give you the resources to adopt a child or even reach out to your friend to tell her about Jesus. It just doesn’t add up. One of the stories I love to recount is the story of one of Hopewell’s own, Jeff Smith, and his call to ministry. Jeff had planned to make a career out of the military (he was almost 10 years in!), but one day God called him to leave and start an innovative drama ministry. On his own. Without a plan. Without any guarantee of income. As he sat and delivered the news that he was resigning his commission, he had very little clue as to how God would make this dream happen. But he took the risk and offered what he had. It didn’t add up. And if you ask Jeff today, it STILL doesn’t add up. But God finds ways to multiply when we can’t even add- and there are many people in the Kingdom of God today because Jeff said “I don’t know how you’re going to do it, God, but my answer is Yes!”

            There’s another food miracle in the Bible where the math didn’t add up. Jesus was teaching on a hillside to a crowd of thousands when the day grew long. And when the disciples realized it was too late for the crowd to go home and eat, they found themselves in quite the predicament. There were no Mcdonald’s or Sheetz around, but a small boy brought to them a few loaves of bread and a few small fish. It was all he had to offer. And Andrew spoke aloud what everyone else was thinking, “This is ridiculous. This isn’t going to feed many at all!” But before their very eyes, God took what little they had to offer and began to multiply. When you take a risk and give God what you can, He will multiply the blessing! Whatever you have, and it might not seem like much, is enough for God to start a movement. What is the step of faith God is calling you to take? Where is God asking you to risk it all?

As it turns out, the miracles we pray for are only miracles in our eyes. To God, they are easy. But we need to remember that God is far bigger than our problems and our dreams. God is going to answer the Moses request in a profound way. Soon, the entire Israelite camp will be knee deep in quail- a meat lover’s dream! But not until God asks Moses a question. Remember the question Jesus asked Bartimaeus? What is it you want me to do for you? Well, God has another question he calls us to wrestle with. Here it is: Is there any limit to my power? Is there any limit to my power?

            The answer you give will change the way you pray. It will either help you pray prayers that are so big that they sound absurd (like Honi) or it will keep your faith right where it is. Is your God bigger than the problem you face? Or do you pray as if God can’t even begin to do anything about it? Is your God bigger than your grandest dream? Or is your dream so big that you don’t think God can accomplish it? What you believe about God will determine how you pray. If you think God is powerful, you will pray for God to unleash his power. If you think God is distant, then you will pray prayers that really don’t matter if they get answered or not.  A.W. Tozer, who wrote the famous devotional book “The Pursuit of God,” says that a low view of God is the cause of a hundred lesser evils, but a high view of God is the solution to ten thousand temporal problems. Out in that hot desert, with a grumbling people, that’s the question Moses was invited to answer. Was God bigger than those grumbles? Was God bigger than that hot sun? Was God bigger than a request to feed a hungry community of thousands of people? You better believe it, and God was ready to prove it!

            We need to give God a chance to show off a little. Too many of us stick our toes in the spiritual waters but we don’t jump it. Too many us pray for a little, then we allow those dreams to fizzle out. Too many of us say, “that’s a great idea,” be don’t do anything about it! We need to give God a chance to be God! We need to pray such bold prayers that when they are answered, no doubt is left as to who is in control. We need to pray with such large visions of God’s grandeur and God’s hope that we are left knee deep in so many blessings that we don’t know what to do with them except to turn them into shouts of praise and gratitude. Anything less will proclaim that our God is too small!

            So what dream is God calling you to dream? What step of faith is God calling you to take? What risk is God asking you to make? Dream it. Take the step. Take the risk. If God has planted a vision within you, He will bring it to fruition. This is His world, after all. He owns it all. He has more resources than our minds can comprehend, and He wants nothing more than to grow his Kingdom IN you and to grow His kingdom THROUGH you.