Monday, January 22, 2018

The Story - The Kingdoms' Fall

Message         Jan. 20 and 21                       The Kingdoms’ Fall
Scripture:  Ezekiel 37: 1-14

            Today we continue The Story, a 31-week journey from Creation to the glorious promise that God will one day make all things new. This has been a journey filled with God’s grace, mercy and faithfulness, all of which should inspire us to live with hope. But hope is hard to grasp when you’re standing in the middle of your worst fears. If you have your Bibles…

            One of the reasons we gather every week is to keep our eyes focused on God’s activity in our lives. The writers of the Story call this the “Upper Story,” or the divine narrative that God is working out in his good timing. And that’s important to keep in mind because all too often we are fixated on the “Lower Story,” or the day-to-day realities that fill our lives. And if we’re not careful to consider God’s story, we could very easily draw some wrong conclusions about our world and even our faith.

From their vantage point in the “Lower Story,” the Israelites were staring down their worst fears. Babylon had invaded their land, just as Assyria had done with the North, and everything they had known about their life, their kingdom, was in shambles. The worst thing that could’ve happened to them had just happened. Jeremiah, one of God’s messengers who lived through this debacle, explained it this way: “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people. How like a widow was she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is no one to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.” That’s what if felt like to be Israel. Abandoned. Betrayed. Hopeless. Everywhere they looked, they saw death and destruction, smoke and fire, desertion and enemies. Like a hurricane had just ravaged their soul. But that was only their side of the story.

            Ever since they started identifying as God’s people, the Israelites struggled to fully live into their identity. You might say they were like a wayward child who just couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. From time to time they would obey and experience the life-giving presence of God, but then they would stray and put that same life-giving relationship on thin ice. And it exasperated God! Out of a deep and abiding love, like a father speaking to his children, God would remind Israel to turn back, to come home… and occasionally they would. And they probably thought that’s how it would always work. They would do their own thing, go their own way, occasionally return to God and everything would work out the way they wanted it to. But then God had enough. And out of the deepest of loves, God let his children go.

            That’s how this part of The Story looks from God’s vantage point. He’s the exasperated parent who has tried every method to help out his children, but nothing seems to be working. He’s tried to lay down the law, so the speak. He’s sent them the best prophetic counselors the world had to offer. He’s even loved them in their most unlovable moments. But as one biblical writer puts it, “They mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy” (2 Chronicles 36:16). And so finally God lets his children go. He’s not done with them, not by any stretch of the imagination. But he is done with this part of the Story. And interestingly enough, God begins to write the next chapter of His Story in the oddest of places.

            As this new chapter of God’s divine narrative unfolds, we’re introduced to a new prophet named Ezekiel who is standing in the middle of a valley full of dry bones. The place reeks of death and hopelessness, like an earthquake ravaged Haiti or a Nazi concentration camp.  There were no signs of life anywhere. No children laughing; no businesses booming; no cries from newborn babies. The desolation and silence would’ve been enough to make even the most optimistic person cringe. As he surveys this death-valley, he knows he’s not in Kansas anymore and probably wished he could be anywhere else. But before he has the chance to change the subject or look away, God asks Ezekiel a question that demands our attention: “Ezekiel, can these bones live again?”

            This could very well be one of the most significant questions we’re ever asked to wrestle with.  Maybe we’ve never used those exact words, but we’ve asked this question in different ways.  Every time we see the unthinkable happen, we ask this question.  We’ve asked Can this situation ever change?  Can this person ever live differently?  Can this town ever recover? Is there any reason to have hope? Can these bones live again?  All of these questions point to a common struggle deep within our souls- the struggle to believe that something that looks so hopeless can be redeemed and renewed. Can these bones live again?  And we need to keep asking this question, because this is a question of faith. 

            One reason we need to keep asking this question is because it holds us accountable to our decision to follow Jesus.  With this question, we are compelled to fully acknowledge whether or not we are willing to go where Jesus goes… or if we’ll try to avoid places and people that make us uncomfortable.  I think we need to pause and recognize that God doesn’t ask this question until Ezekiel is standing in the middle of barrenness.  Can these bones live again is a question that can’t be answered from afar. Only those who find themselves in the middle of the mess and stay long enough to see what God is up to can answer this question.  That’s what makes this new chapter of God’s story so interesting. Instead of God attempting to save us from afar, God is preparing to enter our dry-bones world (we call this the incarnation) and bring forth new life as one of us. I think this is why God leads Ezekiel to that place of hopelessness, because it’s in those places God begins to write a new story. I wonder how many places remain dark and void of hope because of our unwillingness to enter, to learn and then to stay?  If we’re serious about our desire to follow Jesus, then we have to go to people and places that are dead and dying.  And we have to stay there, watching for signs of God’s activity.  This work can’t be done from afar.

A second reason we need to keep asking this question is because it forces us to wrestle with our understanding of hope and the outworking of our faith.  Most of the time, when something is dead, it’s dead. But with God, we are drawn into a new possibility.  With God, we are invited to believe that new life can actually happen!  Sometimes I wonder if we’re guilty of forgetting the very power of the Gospel that draws us together each week, and we’re as surprised as any when new life happens. God doesn’t want Ezekiel to be surprised. He won’t let this exile and pain endure forever. He made a promise to his people that they would have a King from the tribe of Judah, and God intended to keep that promise. But this promise is more than reclaiming land or building a new temple.

The promise God gives is not relegated to hospitals and surgeons and therapists.  The promise God gives is about making hearts new through a different kind of King. What is unfolding before Ezekiel’s eyes is a vision of God’s next move, good news that will be fully experienced in Jesus, who made of a habit of bringing hopeless situations back to life; who broke out of a grave and was resurrected; who knelt with an adulteress and offered her mercy; who looked at a criminal hanging beside him on a cross and offered him forgiveness AND Paradise! You see how the story is changing? God is doing a new thing in the middle of this dead-end desert.

All of this makes me what to ask: If God can add flesh to dry bones and breathe new life into adulteresses and criminals, can he help an addict stop using?  Or can a he transform a rebel into a saint? Or can he give peace to the mentally exhausted and offer grace to those who have hurt us? There might even be something in your life that begs this question. You see why this question’s so important? We have to ask it and we have to proclaim it because it’s clear that many in our world have given up any sort of hope that new life can happen.  Following the San Bernardino shootings a few years back, a national newspaper covered this shooting with the headline that read, “God Isn’t Fixing This.”  It was an attack on the prayers of some leaders, but more generally, that headline revealed what many believe: our world is going to hell and not even God can fix it. And, you know I’m not sure they’re wrong. Maybe our world is beyond repair. But the story God is writing isn’t one of fixing us. It’s a story of making us new. That’s what God invites Ezekiel to see that day. He’s not going to fix this mess. He’s going to make it new. That’s the hope and faith we are invited to ponder with the question Can these bones lives again?

What I love about this dry bones story is that we aren’t the ones who have to figure out how to cultivate new life.  We aren’t charged with the task of figuring out how to reconnect bones and create sinew and flesh.  That’s God’s job.  All we are asked to do is to stand in the brokenness and believe that something new is possible. And isn’t that what faith is all about?  A faithful few believing that God is not finished; a faithful few, despite the ever-growing darkness and evil, maintaining their devotion to a God who had promised restoration. Today, it’s not Ezekiel standing in that valley. It’s you and me. We’ve been called by God to pay attention to a different narrative, a narrative that believes new life is possible, no matter how dead something may look. And we’re called to a faith that sticks around long enough to watch those old dry bones begin to rattle.  Can these bones live again?  I sure hope so, because our faith is built on the conviction that they most definitely can.  Amen. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Story- The Beginning of the End

Jan. 13 and 14, 2018                        The Story:  The Beginning of the End
Scripture: Isaiah 6: 1-13

Today we continue our journey through the Story, and I think for the first time in this series, I’m truly beginning to understand the value of holding this entire divine narrative in our heart. We’ve said all along that this story begins like a beautiful dream, a garden filled with God’s goodness and presence; the type of life our hearts yearn for. And then we watched as that goodness quickly crumbled at the hands of human sin, a web of destruction that continues to trap us. But we know the story doesn’t end there. We know there’s more. We know there’s redemption waiting to happen. And that’s important for us to keep in mind because the question of faith we must wrestle with today is this: How do we follow Jesus when everything’s falling apart?

For most of my life, I’ve considered myself to be a pretty positive person. I’m the guy who has trouble simply throwing in the towel because I’ve always believed there’s a way. I grew up hearing things like “where there’s a will there’s a way” or “God will make a way where there is no way,” or “there’s a miracle waiting to happen.” And so when I’ve faced challenges in my life, I’ve always tried to keep one eye on reality and the other one on hope. I still think that’s a pretty good and faithful way to live. But my young faith was challenged about 20 years ago when we learned of my dad’s illness. And I’ll never forget my mom’s words when they sat us down to tell us the news: “The doctors feel they can treat his cancer, but they’ll never be able to cure it.” I can’t remember exactly how I reacted when I heard that news, but I will tell you this: there was a part of me that bristled that day, because I also grew up hearing you should never say never. But they uttered that word and somehow, deep inside of me, I knew what they were saying was real. This was really happening. This cancer was really progressing. This was the beginning of the end. No amount of platitudes or prayers was going to change the situation. And without turning our backs on God, we had to figure out how to have faith when God’s answer was “no.”

It was a bleak reality for the Israelites.  Their nation had been torn in two, and recently, the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the mighty Assyrians, and there this vast army, this enormous enemy, stood at the back door of Judah, the small southern kingdom of God’s people. And God’s people began to fret. It certainly looked like the proverbial writing was on the wall. Their national identity was in shambles. Doubt began to creep in, as did second-guessing and some were even questioning their faith. These are all natural responses to tough times. If we could’ve asked those ancient Israelites, they would’ve told us they were living in the end times. But in the midst of this fear and bleak outlook, God continued to raise up His messengers for His people. And a young prophet named Isaiah enters the story.

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard of Isaiah before. He’s probably the most prolific of all the prophets. His book is one of the largest in the Bible and his career of speaking the Word of the Lord spanned 60 years. In Isaiah, we read the famous “suffering servant passage,” where a messiah will come and heal us by his wounds. We read of a future kingdom where the people walking in darkness will see a great light and where wolf will live with the lamb. And of course we can’t forget Isaiah’s words that those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength and will mount up with wings as eagles. But maybe Isaiah is best known by his commissioning, which comes at a time when Israel needs God the most.

As the story is preserved, Isaiah had a glorious vision of God, a beautiful vision that revealed both the majesty and holiness of God and the humanity and sinfulness of Isaiah. And in a wonderful act of grace, God has one of his angels touch the “unclean” lips of Isaiah with a burning coal, as if to purify him and burn away his sin. Now, let me just pause there and say that this must’ve been a tremendous and life-changing experience. Isaiah experienced firsthand the powerful love of God, a God who forgives, a God who makes wrongs right, a God who takes our brokenness and makes us new again. This was transformative! You might say that the love of God was burned into Isaiah’s heart. And so when God says, “I need someone to go. I need someone to do my work. Who can I send,” Isaiah rises up and says, “Here am I. Send me.”

This story, of course, is the basis on which the old hymn, “Here I Am, Lord” was written. It’s always a crowd favorite because it speaks to that hope we so desperately want to hold on to, a hope that we firmly believe God can initiate in our world. Every year, my colleagues and I gather for what’s called the “Executive Session” where we vote on official pastor matters, and every year, we finish our time together with that song. It’s a powerful reminder that we are loved, that we’ve been called and that we’ve been sent by God (as have each of us). Those annual moments are hard to leave because they’re small slices of heaven on this side of eternity. For those few hours, there are no funerals and no overdoses; no emergencies or budget crises; no worries about bills or heat; there’s just a tremendous and overwhelming sense that we are in the presence of a God who loves us so much. For that brief moment, the eternal clouds out the present. Yet the present is where we’re asked to live out our calling.

If Isaiah was anything like most of us, I’m sure he wanted to fix things. I’m guessing this is why he so quickly offered his services to God. When you have the love of God burned into your heart, all you want to do is fix the world’s brokenness. But Isaiah isn’t going to be able to fix Israel’s reality. I don’t know if Isaiah’s answer would’ve changed had God offered the job description before the job, but that’s not what happened. God simply said he had a job to do, and when Isaiah offered his services, God said, “Good. Now go and tell the people that the end is near. Go and tell them that they’ll hear but never understand, they’ll see but never perceive, that their cities will lie in ruin, their houses will be deserted and their fields will be ravaged.”   In other words, there would be no cure for Israel. There was no miracle on the horizon.

If I can be honest with you, those words trouble me. They trouble me because we have a God who can do anything. We have a faith in a God for whom nothing is impossible and who sometimes goes to great lengths to save us. And the reality is that sometimes God tells us no. And sometimes God says there won’t be a miracle. That’s hard to reconcile, isn’t it? I don’t know why some prayers are answered with miracles and some with silence. I don’t know why some house fires lead to death and others do not. I don’t know why some illnesses can be cured and others have no answers. But what I do know is that this current reality, however it’s defined, is never the end. And somehow we must cultivate a faith that looks reality in the eye and stands firm, because giving up and just living are not faithful options. But how we do that remains the question.

I don’t have any easy answers for you today, but what I do have for you is a story. And I think this story might help us learn to persevere in our faith. I had the privilege of preaching a funeral during Christmas week, and it left me with a blessing that I’ll never forget. This man had no church affiliation and no pastor, but what he did have was a small gathering of friends and family who grieved. Their world had just come crashing down. I knew that evening there would be no miracle, at least on this side of heaven, no chance of this man coming back, no hope that this situation would have a different ending. In those situations, I only know how to do one thing: proclaim the story of Jesus and his love. And so that’s what I did. I told the story of creation. I shared with them the reality of sin and the fall. I told them that in the midst of the world’s brokenness, God appeared as Jesus and paved a way of redemption. And I told them about a promise, a promise proclaimed by God that one day all things would be made new.

As I proclaimed this story, I began to notice a change in the room. You could hear a pin drop. Distractions gave way to attention. Wandering minds and eyes that just a few minutes before could’ve cared less that I was there were now hanging on every word. And as that story of Jesus and His love was proclaimed, there was no doubt that God was in that place. In that place of suffering, in that place of ending, in that place of death, God was still there. And as the service ended, a young lady came up to me, and with tears in her eyes said, “I’ve only ever read four chapters of the Bible, but I think I’m going to go home and read the whole the book.” In that moment, I remembered the words of Jesus “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” And it struck me: It wasn’t a miracle God wanted to give that night; it was a seed.

Nobody likes endings. And if we had our way, we would just keep things going the way they are. But some endings have a way of making room for new possibilities, new opportunities and new life. Isaiah’s call story ends like this: But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.  Do you know what that seed led to? It eventually led to a Savior. You see, a miracle was not what Israel needed. They had experienced plenty of God’s miracles, and very little about their way of living had changed. What they needed was a new beginning. So friends, stand firm and keep on believing. Endings will happen, but so will beginnings. It is, after all, the story of our faith. Chaos leads to creation, suffering leads to glory and death leads to resurrection. God’s story continues to march on, even if our stories seem to be falling to pieces. And THAT, friends, is good news. Amen.

The Story- God's Messengers

Jan. 6 and 7               The Story: God’s Messengers
Scripture: 1 Kings 17: 17-24, 1 Kings 18: 16-39

Well here we are in 2018 and the quest to live differently is fresh in our minds, isn’t it? I don’t know how many of you have resolved to do something differently this year, but I’m guessing you have an idea of how you’d like this year to pan out, which is what makes today’s message so appropriate. Today we’re heading back into a sermon series known as “The Story,” a 31-week journey through God’s Word and we’ve come to a place in Scripture where living differently is the overarching theme. Throughout this sermon series, we’ve seen God call His people Israel and invite them to be His people. That’s what we mean by living differently, and that’s the journey we’re on: Becoming God’s people. If you have your Bibles…

 How many of you like going to the doctor? I didn’t think so. I’m the same way. I’m grateful for doctors, but I try to avoid them like the plague, mostly because I don’t want to hear what’s really going on inside of me. I’d rather just not know. You ever feel that way? Last year, I finally reached a point where I couldn’t avoid the doctor anymore, so I made an appointment. We were in the process of making some big decisions and it was taking its toll on me in more ways than I recognized. Looking back, I can see that there were warning signs all over, but somehow I managed to overlook them. Stress. Lack of sleep. Weight gain. And so when I finally saw my physician, he said, “Brett, this isn’t good.” And then he gave me the diagnosis:  “You’re blood pressure is too high and you need to make some serious changes.” I was angry and disappointed when I heard those words, but not because of what the doctor told me. I was angry that I had missed the signs.

Warning signs are all around us, aren’t they -on the road, at work or at the doctor’s office? They’re all around us, but yet we manage to miss so many of them. Sometimes we just forget and sometimes we just get lazy. I don’t know how many times I’ve ordered a coffee from Mcdonald’s, only to mishandle the cup, spill some on my hand and think, “Gee, that’s hot!” And staring back at me are the words, “Caution: Contents hot!” Or like one of my dad’s former employees who experienced the sting of hammer hitting his head when it accidentally slipped out of another worker’s hands twenty feet above. Even though he read the sign everyday that said, “Hard Hats Required.” I think you’d be amazed at the sheer number of warning signs and caution signs and danger signs that fill our lives. And the truth is we need them. We might not like them, but warning signs exist for our good. They remind us to pay attention, because if we don’t, we might get burned or hurt. And that’s true of our spiritual lives as well.

When it comes to the grand narrative of Scripture, God’s Word is filled with warning signs that are meant to help us experience God’s vision for creation. We know where we’re headed; we know the end game- an eternal kingdom where there is no darkness, no sin, and no evil. And we’ve also been told the way to get there: Jesus! In Jesus we’re reminded that God has a certain way for us to live, a way of loving God and loving neighbor. And when we live life with that singular focus on love, God is glorified and the world is transformed. But here’s the reality: so often we are distracted from that type of life, which is why God has given us divine warning signs.

Throughout the next few weeks in the Story, we’re going to spend some time with a group of people known as the prophets. The prophets were God’s messengers, divine warning signs who were sent to help us stay on the right path. We’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with prophets because they help us see the reality we don’t often see, or maybe better yet, the reality we don’t want to see. They remind us of God’s ways and they’ll often show up on the scene and say things like, “If you don’t change your ways or stay away from that place, you’ll find destruction and it won’t be good.” You’ll get burned or hurt. It’s important to remember that prophets are God’s instruments meant to call us back to His heart and that’s something we always need. And so over the next few weeks, you’ll hear from some of these prophets, and my hope is that they will help draw us back to God.  

The last time we were in the Story, which was just before Thanksgiving, the nation of Israel had divided into two kingdoms- the northern kingdom (called Israel) and the southern kingdom (called Judah). In those days, the epicenter of worship was in Jerusalem, which was in the southern kingdom. That’s where David established the “house of the Lord.” It was the “holy city.” Now what began to happen is that worship in the northern kingdom took place less and less in Jerusalem. The kings began to take shortcuts (for political reasons) and set up new places of worship, and God called it sin. And if you study those kings, you’ll notice that little by little their hearts were drawn away from God and instead were drawn toward the ways of other nations and cultures. More often than not, we see many of those kings described by the following phrase: “and he did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” And that goes on until we come to a king named Ahab, who takes the prize. In 1 Kings 16 we read, “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.”  And his biggest crime? Idolatry. Ahab’s wife Jezebel introduced him to other gods, most notably a god named Baal, and Ahab began to worship and serve this god and the people were led astray.

Now, why does any of this matter? It matters because idolatry has always been a problem for God’s people, and God takes idolatry very seriously. We might not think we have an issue with idolatry – we aren’t making golden calf images or setting up altars- but that’s not what idolatry looks like today. Today, idolatry happens whenever God’s authority and position in our lives is replaced with something else. In other words, we’ve created an idol whenever Jesus Christ is no longer first in our lives. This is what the prophets help us to see.

I came across a sermon this week that really helped me put idolatry into perspective. We need to know about idolatry because it’s so easy to let God take a back seat in our lives. So, this pastor asked a series of questions that help us understand what idolatry might look like today.[1] I’d like to share those questions with you. First, where do you experience disappointment? Disappointment happens when we’ve placed our hope in something other than Jesus and that something has let us down. Let me tell you, Jesus is the only hope that won’t let us down, and if you’ve placed your hope in anything else, you’re guilty of idolatry. What do you sacrifice your time and money for? This is probably a good way of defining who or what your god is. Do you sacrifice for work? For your kids? For your own sense of accomplishment? The way you spend your money and your time will tell you who or what you worship. What do you worry about? That’s another good way to determine if your faith is off track. What keeps your from sleeping? What occupies your mind in unhealthy ways? And here’s a big one. Where do you go or what do you do when you hurt? Do you eat? Do you look for sex? Do you drink? Do you go on a shopping spree? Do you turn to God for comfort or to something else? And let me tell you a secret: You can’t have it both ways.

The people of Israel, under Ahab’s leadership, were torn. In some ways, they followed God, but in other ways they did not. So God sent a messenger named Elijah. And Elijah goes before the people and says this, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing. I just want that to sit in our hearts for a second. Choose God or choose this other thing. If the Lord is God, then follow him. But the people said nothing.

That’s scary isn’t it? An answer that should be so clear isn’t clear at all. This silent answer sets the stage for what happens next. Elijah sets up a divine competition to prove once and for all that false gods never give us what we truly want. And he lets the prophets of Baal go first. They sacrifice their bull, put in on the altar and stack it with wood and they begin to call on the name of Baal. All day and all night they ask Baal, who was the so-called ‘god of weather’ to bring a consuming fire…and nothing. You can almost hear them crying out, “Baal, bless us. Bring us fire. Bring us hope. Bring us what we need.” But nothing. No idol can ever do what God can do. And so finally Elijah says, “Get out of the way.” He covers the wood in water, three times so that it is good and drenched, and prays this: “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (See why we need the prophets? That’s their goal!) And the fire of the Lord fell. “When the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord- He is God. The Lord- He is God!”

As you begin a new year, I want to you to know something, something Elijah wanted those divided-heart Israelites to know: God is going to fight for your heart. And if it takes prophets, warning signs and even fiery moments to get your attention, God is not going to give up until He has your entire heart. That’s how much He loves you. Your heart is of utmost importance to God and He’s not going to settle for any competition. You know why? Because God knows they’ll let your heart down every time. Only Jesus can fill your deepest needs. No person, no career, no team, no substance, no amount of money can bring you a life filled with peace, hope, love and joy. Only Jesus can do that. Your homework for this week is take inventory of your heart. What is it God’s biggest competition for your heart? What is it keeps you from being fully devoted to Jesus? Name it and give yourself fully to Christ. He hasn’t given up on you. He’s waiting to fill your heart with His life. Would you let Him do that today? Amen.

[1] Questions proposed by Pastor Kyle Idleman