Monday, September 25, 2017

New Commands, New Covenant

Sept. 23/24   New Commands, New Covenant
Scripture: Exodus and Deuteronomy

Today we continue our sermon series called, “The Story,” where we’ve been exploring God’s plan fix our world gone wrong and make it possible for us to be in relationship with him. Last week recounted the story of the Exodus, where God freed his people from Egypt. Today we look at how God doesn’t settle for rescuing us, but longs to reshape us through the giving of commands.

I heard an interesting hypothetical question this week. What would happen if communities of faith ceased to exist? The question was posed as conversation piece on “Q,” which is a podcast dedicated to helping people stay curious, and was offered partly as a response to the growing idea that religion doesn’t really impact the larger community. And so a research team was sent to collect data around the area of homelessness, which many people (religious and non-religious) agree is an area we should all be doing something about. And what they discovered is that 60% of all efforts dedicated to eradicating homelessness are provided by faith-based organizations.  And what that tells me is this: First, the church saves the government a lot of money! Just imagine what would happen if the church just stopped doing what the church is supposed to do. And secondly, this tells me that when we are on the right path, namely, the path Jesus lays before us, we are on the type of path that changes lives and changes the world. But it’s so easy to forget just how good this path truly is…  

Like most high school students, I needed some extra motivation to stay on the right path, if you know what I mean. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. But one of my quirky attempts to live a good life was a funny little picture I taped to my bedroom door called “Art and His Sin Avoidance Technique.”  Art was this goofy character who looked like he would never gets things right. And whenever Art would think of sinning or committing some act of disobedience, he would light the seat of his pants on fire. It was Art’s simple way of remembering what happens to those who sin. Every morning when I would get out of bed, I would go to open my door and I would see Art, with his butt fully engulfed in flames.  I would see that funny, but poignant little picture, always of Art looking back at his fiery pants, and I would go on my day trying to live a life of obedience because I didn’t want to end up that way. But one morning I noticed something about that picture I had never noticed before:  Art was always looking back. He was always looking back at the flame that drew awfully close to his pants.  Never did the picture portray Art looking ahead…

Obedience is never a fun topic to discuss. When it’s taught appropriately, obedience can be a wonderfully meaningful way to live out our lives as disciples; but unfortunately obedience has been taught with as much grace as the proverbial old schoolmarm who scared her students with the infamous slap of a ruler. I’ve heard horrible stories of students getting lashed by a ruler for simply misspelling a word! Now, I don’t know this for sure, but I’m guessing many of you grew up in homes, churches and communities where obedience was taught as something you strived for or, at the very least, tolerated, so that you wouldn’t end up in God’s naughty list.  Quite simply, obedience was proclaimed as your primary hell-avoidance technique.

The first time I saw this live was at church camp. When I first attended church camp, I was excited to go and meet new friends and maybe encounter in new ways.  And then I was handed a list of rules to follow. Before I had met anyone, I was told “Here are the ways we do things around here.” And I always thought they were quite strange.  Girls had to wear long dresses.  Boys had to wear long slacks.  Radios and cd players were not permitted.  And you certainly didn’t bring with you the devil’s playground- a deck of playing cards.  I’m sure the rules were once written with the very best of intentions, but those intentions were never spelled out.  I was simply told to follow them because that’s what God would want his people to do. And if we didn’t follow them, we would be scolded or even worse, sent home.

A college professor once had a class of 40 students, many of whom had grown up in churches like mine. And sensing an uncomfortable trend, Burge assigned each of his students to write a one-page reflection on the motivations behind the shaping of their Christian faith.  Over 90% of his students admitted in that assignment that they lived they way they lived because they were afraid of God. They were afraid of what God might do. They were afraid of spending eternity in hell. They were afraid of punishment. And like my little cartoon character named Art, the majority of their faith was spent looking back to see if the fire was growing too close instead of looking ahead and responding with joy to what God had done and was doing for them - all in the name of love.

I don’t know how it happened, but somehow we managed to separate love from obedience. Maybe it’s because following rules is easier than love. “Do this.” “Don’t do that.” Avoid these behaviors and you’ll be good to go. But to love, now that’s a different matter. To love means that we have to communicate and talk with others. To love means that we have to see others for who they are in God’s eyes, and that’s not as simple as simply keeping a bunch of commandments. But I don’t think God ever meant for these two ideas to be pulled apart. In fact, I think God gave us rules to remind us what love actually looks like!

Within God’s commands, we see the same hope for creation that we first saw when God lovingly spoke the world into being: Life to the fullest. One of God’s first acts after rescuing Israel from the hands of Egypt was to give them a law. Before God brought them into a new land and before he built them a new home, God gave them a law that, in essence, showed them how to live again.  There’s something to be said about the wisdom in that decision. God doesn’t just free us. God doesn’t just rescue us. He shows us how to live again! Anybody remember the movie “The Shawshank Redemption?” I think they played that movie over and over again on TNT a few years ago. But in that movie, they depicted just how frightened newly released prisoners were to reenter society. They had grown so accustomed to life in the cell that they had no idea how to live in the real world. In one sense, they were free. But they had no idea what that freedom meant. Thankfully, God doesn’t do this to us!

Jewish scholars have counted 613 commandments in the Old Testament, and most of them were built upon two great hopes:  The hope that people would learn to love God and the hope that people would learn to love one another. In fact, this is exactly what Jesus points to when questioned about the greatest of these. Love God. Love neighbor. For God, this is what freedom means. It doesn’t ONLY mean release from bondage, but also the reframing and the reshaping of life. This is how God desires for his people to live- to experience the joy of friendship with God and the joy of friendship with each other.  Jesus later said that the law would never go away, not even one stroke of a letter, because the law reveals God’s heart for creation.

One of the Old Testament stories that has proven foundational for many Christians is the giving of the Ten Commandments. In those commandments, the first four speak of our relationship to God, and the final six commands speak of our relationship with others. And what we find as we read are not 10 rules that restrict us from joy, but 10 gracious God-given commands that free us to enjoy life as it was always meant to be! Thou shall not kill. Why not? Because it’s good to give life! Thou shall not covet.  Why? Because God wants to be what we crave! When we think, live into and obey these commandments, were not just being good people, we’re not just avoiding the flame, we’re receiving gracious reminders of what life with God looks like! And it’s a very, very good life!

For our wedding, Joanna and I selected as our main Scripture a passage from Philippians 2 known as the “Christ Hymn.”  I want to share this with you because it means so much to me.  Read passage. In this passage, Christ’s obedience is a model for our own. Christ was obedient, says the passage, even to the point of death because Jesus was convinced that God’s love for the world was worth giving up his own life- and he trusted that love. The face of Christ’s obedience, the emptying of himself and taking up the form of a slave and being made in human likeness was not his impending crucifixion, the mocking of the crowds, or the hopelessness of the grave; the face of his obedience, the reason behind it, was love- the love that God had for him, the love he had for God, and the love he has for you.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that God hasn’t set us free to look over our shoulders. He’s set us free to give us new life, to teach us how to live again. And that’s why he gives all these rules and regulations on an old mountain called Sinai. It really is about love. As funny as my little cartoon was, it didn’t teach me about love. It just taught me how not to be bad. And that doesn’t transform anything. Obedience isn’t really about avoiding the flame. Obedience is about saying “Yes’” to God’s way of ordering this world.  Quite simply, obedience is saying Yes to love. Amen. 

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.