Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Story- Rebuilding the Walls

Rebuilding the Walls                        Feb. 17 and 18
Nehemiah 2: 1-6, 11-19

Today we hit a milestone on our journey through The Story. This is the last message in the Old Testament. Go ahead and cheer! I know what some of you are probably saying and praying under you’re breath and celebrating, because it’s been a long 21 weeks. The Old Testament isn’t easy. It’s filled with names and histories and details that don’t seem to be important to God’s upper story. So I hope along the way you’ve learned something, and I hope you haven’t given up on this journey, because the end of the story is approaching, and it’s good!

Nehemiah, where we’ll spend our time today, isn’t the last book of the Old Testament, but it is an appropriate book that helps us understand a big shift happening in the Upper Story. God is preparing to do a new thing! God is going to take the mess that we’ve made and rebuild His kingdom in a new way, a way that will lead to renewed spiritual life and a renewed world. In Nehemiah’s story, things are looking up. People are returning home, the temple has been rebuilt, and all is well! Not so fast! As Nehemiah soon finds out, there is still work to be done. The temple has been rebuilt, but the surrounding community remains a mess. Let’s turn together to our reading for this day:

Nehemiah is heartbroken. The city he loves, the place he longs to call home, is a wreck. When the foreign armies laid siege to the city, they did a number on the place. They tore down the walls, set the whole place on fire and gloated as a once proud city lay in ruins. It was a mess. But even more troubling were the memories. Nehemiah knew well that Israel’s unfaithfulness was truly the source of the city’s downfall. It wasn’t just Babylon. It wasn’t just foreign opposition. It was years of God’s people neglecting God’s ways. It was years of trying to skate by without fully committing to God’s plans. And it all led to this big, old mess, and Nehemiah had to wonder if anything could be done about it.

I probably already know the answer, but I wonder if you’ve had that same nauseous feeling that sickened Nehemiah. You look around and wonder, “How did this happen?” “How did I let myself get this way?” “How did we end up here?” “How did things become so messy?” And then you wonder if anything can be done about it? Well I have some great news for you. The answer is yes, because No mess is bigger than God’s heart! Maybe you look at your marriage and wonder if it can be salvaged…Or maybe you scan the obituaries and read about another overdose death and wonder if our current opioid epidemic can be reversed…Or maybe you want to have a closer walk with God but wonder if you’ve wasted too many opportunities…No mess is bigger than God’s heart.

Nehemiah is deeply troubled by the mess he sees, but he comes to find out that he’s not the only one. God is also troubled by it, and God wants to do something about it. And so in the middle of that broken mess, God gives Nehemiah a vision. Now a vision is picture of how things could be. Pastor and author Andy Stanley puts it this way: A vision is a clear mental picture of what could be, fueled by the conviction that it should be. (p. 18). Deep in Nehemiah’s soul, he sees in his mind’s eye what could be. He envisions that ancient city standing tall, with sturdy wall rebuilt. But even more so, he envisions the rebuilding of lives. He pictures God’s people gathering for worship. He sees children running around and playing, safely protected from the enemy. He sees new life rising from the ashes. This vision consumes him; it keeps him awake at night; his heart burns to make this vision a reality. And he knows what he has to do.

Let me ask you a question. What vision is God giving to you right now? What does your heart burn for? Maybe you haven’t thought about that question in a long time. Maybe you’ve been so occupied with simply living that you haven’t had time to think about the way things could be. And I understand that. But if you did, what do you think you’d see? Do you see a strong marriage where you and your spouse pray together? Do you see a church filled with little ones singing praises to God? Do you see hundreds of people finding victory over their addictions? Do you see a burdened community bustling with hope once again? This is the power of vision. I’m getting excited just thinking about the new life God could resurrect through each of us when we ask God to give us vision, to help us see with fresh eyes. And here’s the thing about vision. Vision doesn’t discriminate. Just ask Abraham, who was old and Mary, who was young, and Moses, who said he couldn’t talk that well, and Paul, who had some type annoying thorn in his flesh. You’re not too far-gone, messed up, old, or inadequate to experience God’s vision for you right now. You just have to ask for it. And once you have vision, once you have that burning desire, it’s time to take a step of faith and start rebuilding!

Now, a lot of people who have a vision for the way things could be are so excited to get started that they just start doing things. That’s a recipe for failure. All vision, all rebuilding, begins with prayer! I know it might sound counterintuitive and it might sound like a stall tactic, but prayer is the only surefire way to see a vision transform into reality. I’ve seen so many great ideas falter and peter out because there was a flurry of well-intentioned activity in the beginning, but very little prayer. Nehemiah’s vision of rebuilding the city walls was built on intense times of seeking God in prayer. Before he did anything, Nehemiah prayerfully walked from wall to wall, inspecting and examining every nook and cranny to know what he getting himself in to. That’s what prayer does. Prayer helps us uncover the “root” and see what lies behind the surface, because we’re bound to miss something important if we only look at the surface. But there’s a even more important role for prayer. Prayer reminds us that the vision is God’s first, who has graciously shared that vision with us. And ultimately, if the vision succeeds, it will be by the grace and strength of God. Remember, the city walls were destroyed because people forgot God’s initial vision. And the only way Nehemiah will see this new vision bear fruit is to keep his heart firmly rooted in God’s presence and God’s ways. Whatever vision God has given you, the work of rebuilding begins with prayer.

A second fatal flaw to every vision is the attempt to accomplish it all alone. That’s not going to work. All rebuilding requires help. You aren’t enough to get the job done, no matter how skilled or intelligent you think you are. You aren’t enough to see this vision unfold, but God is. And God will always be your first source of help. When you set out to strengthen your marriage, God will be there to lift you up. When you set out to help others in their struggles, God will give you knowledge you don’t have on your own. And what’s more? God will bring others into your life to share this journey with you. Remember, together, and only together, are we the body of Christ. As Paul says in his famous teaching on the body of Christ, we all have different gifts and roles and functions. Some are like hands, some are like feet, while others are like ears. And when we use them together, the result is like a beautiful symphony. But just imagine the trumpet player ignoring the tempo set by the conductor. Or the soprano who thinks the song would sound better if she was in a completely different key. The vision, the music, would come crashing down. That’s because all rebuilding requires help. Whatever vision God has given you, pray for help. And when help comes, receive that help with open arms. He, she or they are gifts from God to get the job done.

The third flaw that can cause any vision to fall is having the wrong goal. As much as Nehemiah wanted to see the walls rebuilt, his vision wasn’t primarily about rebuilding a city; it was about rebuilding faith. That’s because Nehemiah understood that all rebuilding should lead to worship. The vision should never replace the One who’s given it, but sometimes it can. Sometimes we’re satisfied with simply accomplishing the goal- saving the marriage, getting a friend some much-needed help, starting a new initiative-but that only reveals that our goal was spiritually shortsighted. Once Nehemiah’s vision became reality, he gathered the people for worship. He did what he could to help others remember that rebuilding the walls was about rebuilding the people’s faith. Listen to these words: Ezra the scribe opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen, Amen!” They they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. A troubled people, finding new life and reconnecting with a God who promised to never leave them. The glory of God filling hearts and lives. That’s the vision Nehemiah saw when God first moved his heart.

Every vision God gives us is part of a larger story God is telling. Every marriage rebuilt points to this Story. So does every life saved from hurts, habits and hang-ups. Even those crumbling walls rebuilt by Nehemiah and his friends are telling God’s story. Soon those same rebuilt Jerusalem walls will hear the echoing cries of “Hosanna” and “Crucify him” as Jesus makes his way through the city streets and on to a cross. And one day, the grand finale of that Story will unfold before our very eyes, when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. I believe every vision God gives us for the here and now is meant to point that moment. So whatever your vision, whatever burns in your heart, whatever keeps you up at night, Let’s start rebuilding.” Amen.

The Birth of the King- The Story

Feb 24 and 25           The Birth of the King
Matthew 3: 1-12

            Today we continue our journey through The Story, and something truly beautiful is taking place. For the past 20 plus weeks, we’ve watched God engage with His people from a distance, and in very mysterious ways. There was a burning bush and pillar of cloud; there were the prophets and smoke-filled mountains. There were dreams and visions and commandments and laws and angels. But now it seems as if God is writing a new chapter. He is putting all the cards on the table; now God chooses to enter the story in a real and tangible way through Jesus. And with the birth of King Jesus, we are finally beginning to see God’s plan of bringing us home, of bringing us back into relationship with him. I invite you to hear our text for today…

            I don’t know how many of you remember the ministry of the late Billy Graham, who died just this past Wednesday. I asked our youth a few months ago and they had never heard of him. But Billy Graham was a special man. As a southern Baptist evangelist, Graham had a way with words, an ability to proclaim God’s message of salvation for the entire world to hear. He was known as “America’s Pastor,” and many came to know Jesus as Lord and Savior during the “Billy Graham Crusades.” He was a well-dressed man, polished and polite, and his humble demeanor was the stuff any person would want in a preacher or even a grandfather. The world will miss Billy Graham. But before there was Billy Graham, there was another evangelist known as John the Baptist. And as John the Baptist enters the story, we know we’re not in grandma’s church anymore.

            John the Baptist shocks us with his weird factor. He’s the type of guy you might try to avoid by crossing to the other side of sidewalk when you’d see him. He doesn’t wear the right type of clothes (how much skin can camel’s hair really cover up, anyway?), he doesn’t have the right education (who goes out to the desert to learn?) and he doesn’t eat the right type of foods (I can picture certain people eating locusts, and I don’t think I’d let my kids near ANY of them). He is no Billy Graham. But what John the Baptist does have is a message that intrigues us. “The Kingdom of Heaven is near,” he says. And despite John’s strange looks and choice of diet and clothing, people flock to him. They come in droves because they’re hungry for a new reality and they’re thirsty for new possibilities. They line the banks of the river, ready to shed their old selves and commit their lives to something heavenly.

            I find it interesting that John’s ministry doesn’t begin in the bustling city streets or in the busy temple courtyard, but in the wilderness. But then again, maybe that’s what makes this moment and this message so powerful. Maybe it’s the ones wandering through the proverbial wilderness who need a taste of God’s kingdom more than anyone. Taste and see that the Lord is good, says the old Psalm. When you’re stuck in the wilderness, tasting and seeing God’s goodness is an absolute delight.

            Our family caught a glimpse of that goodness this past Monday. We traveled to Brookville, to visit Joanna’s grandma, who is now spending the rest of her days in a nursing home. And to call that nursing home a wilderness is not a stretch. You can walk up and down the hallways and see very few people; it’s almost as if you’re alone. The administrative staff gives only passing glances when you walk by and most of the residents’ doors are closed. And then there’s grandma’s fading mental health. Weren’t you just here yesterday, she asked. And we would shake our heads no. And tell me about my friend. And we would share the same news we had shared just five minutes earlier. But just as we were about to leave, there was a moment of unexpected clarity. Would you say a prayer for me? And in that nursing home wilderness, we gathered, held hands, prayed and acknowledged God’s presence. There was peace and hope and comfort- the kingdom of heaven was near.

            For those in the wilderness, the news of the kingdom of heaven is wonderful and life giving. It’s like seeing a pool of water in the desert or a looking through the window of an ice cream shop on a hot summer day. But there’s something more John is trying to say with his message. Something more along the lines of an invitation. He’s trying to tell us that that we don’t have to just glimpse this good news, we can enter in to it, we can actually be a part of it. We don’t just have to stand outside the window and dream of an ice cream cone as sweat drips down our faces; we can go through the door and enjoy it! The kingdom of heaven is near, says John, so prepare the way. Make straight paths for him.

            I’ve always thought it a bit strange that John says we need to prepare ourselves for Jesus. I mean, we call him the King of kings and Lord of lords, which tells me that Jesus can do whatever he well pleases. But he doesn’t and he won’t. He waits for us to give him the “green light.” He stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, refusing to kick it open and waiting patiently for us to stop looking through the peephole and turn the knob. This is one of the reasons the good news comes to those who are in the wilderness. Those who are in the wilderness are far more aware of their need for the kingdom of heaven than those who are not, and thus they are more likely to drop their old ways and latch on to something new. It’s the sick who need a doctor, says Jesus, not the healthy. But sometimes our sickness is spiritual in nature, a faith that is dried up and withered. It’s to those whom John speaks today; it’s to those who John says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

            I don’t know if that describes you today, but I know it’s described me before. But if that is you, and if you sense that maybe the Holy Spirit is calling you out of the wilderness, John the Baptist offers a way to let Jesus in, a path so that the king might be birthed in your hearts once more. I will caution you, however. These are not three steps you take for a better life, nor are these three steps you take once and then you’re done. Rather, these are steps disciples must come back to time and time again.

            The first step on that path is to confess. Confession, which St. Augustine once described as “good for the soul,” is an honest examination of the heart and a willingness to call it like you see it. And it’s not all about sin. Sometimes it is, and sin certainly keeps Christ on the outside, but sometimes it’s hurt, and sometimes it’s fear and sometimes it’s just the awareness that something about my life isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. That’s what happened to the younger brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. He “came to his senses” and looked around and was living in pig slop. He didn’t want to be there, his father didn’t want him to be there, and I’m pretty the certain the pigs were tired of sharing their pen with him. But that moment of realization, that confession, began his long journey home. What needs to be confessed in your life? What needs to be acknowledged? What needs to be proclaimed? That’s the first step in preparing your heart for the King.

            The second step is much more difficult, and it will probably hurt more than the first step, but it’s this: repent, which is an old word that means “to change direction.” In other words, what needs changes, tossed out and thrown away? Jesus also calls this process pruning. And sometimes we need a good pruning. There are habits, behaviors, attitudes and lifestyles that just need to go because they’re no good.  And if they stay around, they’ll steal our joy and rob the fruitful life God wants to give. A few years ago, my mom had some of her trees pruned by a professional. It was hard to watch those old limbs and branches come down, but they were literally killing the trees. And left unattended, those unhealthy parts would’ve killed mom’s trees way before their time. When the professional was done, we could hardly believe they were the same trees! These were the same trees, but then again, they were different. You could see the difference. The trees took on different shapes and they weren’t quite as big, but over time they sprung to life like we hadn’t seen in years. The old had been tossed, making room for the new. That’s the work of repentance. We toss out the old to make room for Jesus. Like an annual rummage sale. So, when you examine your life, what needs to go? What needs to change? What needs to be tossed and thrown out? That’s the second step of preparing your heart for Jesus.

Now, there is a third step, and John the Baptist would remind us that repentance doesn’t end with walking away from an old life, but in walking into a new way of life. That’s the third step. Committing to a new journey. What new way of life do you need to commit to? That’s the role of baptism in this wilderness story. In a very powerful way, those who entered the waters of baptism burned with a desire to embrace a new direction. You might say that they were sick and tired of being sick and tired and were ready for their hearts to catch fire. This past summer I had a conversation with a young man who was at the end of his line. His marriage was in shambles; he was estranged from his kids and he was emotionally worn out. But the real problem is that my friend isn’t ready to commit to a new way of life. That wasn’t our first conversation, and I doubt it will be our last. That won’t happen until something in his heart catches fire and he opens the door to the One who knocks and says, “Will you let me come in?”

I hope my friend eventually finds freedom and victory. And I believe he will when he confesses, repents and finally lets Jesus set him on fire. Confess, repent and commit. It’s a simple (though not an easy) path that leads to life. It’s the message of John the Baptist, pointing to the King who wants to enter our lives and set us on fire. So, what needs to catch fire inside of you? What do you need to commit to? What doors does Jesus still ask you to open? “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. May that be our hope today. Amen.







Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Story- Esther

Feb. 10-11     Esther: Woman of Beauty and Courage
Scripture: Esther 4: 1-16

Well, I just want to say a word about last week. What a testimony from our friend, Bill Hebenthal. I’m so grateful that Bill was willing to share with his story with us. Bill’s story is a story of redemption and restoration, of God’s story breaking into his life. I think we can all say that we were blessed by Bill’s message. And I hope it encourages us to think about the ways God directs our steps and repurposes our lives. So thank you, Bill. And if you didn’t get a chance to hear Bill’s story, might I suggest you take him out for a cup of coffee and hear it personally? You won’t be sorry!

In many ways, Bill’s message was a wonderful bridge to our next movement in the Story. Today we find ourselves lodged in the middle of a book entitled Esther, which is a wonderful example of how God’s story intertwines with our own. This a book filled with all sorts of juicy subplots. In Esther’s story, we find oppression and abuse, beauty and tragedy, trials and courage, the powerful and the powerless. But what I really want to focus on today is this: This book is about Esther’s invitation to claim her role in God’s story, and to step into it. And that’s our invitation as well.

Now, to really understand this story it’s important you have some background information. Like several of our recent stories, Esther’s story also finds its location in exile. Esther lives in the city of Susa, which was the capital of Persia. The Scriptures tell us that she was a Jewish orphan, (God always seems to have a special compassion for orphans) taken in and raised by her uncle Mordecai and eventually she ends up as part of the King’s harem. As the story is told, the king notices her good looks and tells his entourage to bring her in. So here is this young woman, exploited by a man in power, thrust into a man’s life she doesn’t know. But behind the scenes, God is working. Over time, Esther ascends to a prominent place in the King’s palace and becomes his queen. And that’s where we pick up the story today

For such a time as this…that’s the statement that most people remember about the book of Esther, and it changes the tone of Esther’s story. It’s a statement of invitation, and signals a deeper lens through which to explore Esther’s journey. It suggests that maybe God has placed Esther in a particular place at a particular time to influence a larger story. And, I would suggest, it’s a statement that invites us to see our places in history from a redemptive perspective and to step into God’s initiating activity. Essentially, this story begins to answer the question: How can God use me, right here and right now, for God’s grand purposes?  How can God take my situation, my story, my brokenness and use them for bigger purposes? If you’ve ever asked that question, Esther’s story is a story for you. So, how does this story speak to our hearts and inform our faith? I’m going to suggest to you three ways this story helps us see the very real and tangible ways God wants to bless others through us.

First, I would offer to you that Esther’s story invites us into the work of justice in our world. I believe Esther’s story makes abundantly clear that God’s grace-filled activity involves standing up against injustice in whatever shape and form that injustice takes. Now, let me say this: I know we try at times to toe the political/spiritual line, but sometimes our faith cannot avoid the messiness of lines we wish were clearer than they really are. And sometimes, our faith requires us to get off the fence and speak out. There’s a potential for disastrous consequences in Esther’s story. Mordecai has uncovered a plot to exterminate the Jewish people, threatening the existence of an entire demographic of people And in Mordecai’s mind, this isn’t the time to discuss whether the matter at hand is political or spiritual, because it’s both! And when injustice, oppression and inequality threaten the wellbeing and existence of fellow human beings, people of faith have a role to respond. This is the messy work of faith.

As Esther listens to Mordecai’s plea, it is not her politics that are put on line, but her faith. She is invited to claim faith in a God who demands nothing less than love for our neighbors, even if (and especially when) they don’t look or think like us. I can’t help but think of the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Fundamentally, it’s a story that answers the question, “Who is my neighbor” and Jesus, of course, stretches our faith to include all people as our neighbor. As the old prophet Micah ponders, “What does the Lord require of us? The Lord requires justice, mercy and humility. These are words of action and activity, words that get down into the dirty work of living out our faith.

In no uncertain terms, Mordecai tells Esther, “If you don’t do something, people will die. So will you do something or not?” Injustice and oppression happen all over our planet and in our backyards. It’s the stuff and decisions that threaten the well-being of our friends and neighbors, that threaten to rob them of the quality of life we all long to lead. And somehow, our faith compels us to act. Sometimes our faith demands that we speak truth to the abuse of power that leaves others with no hope; sometimes our faith demands that we stand up and with those who can’t stand up for themselves; and sometimes our faith demands that we raise our voices for those who go unheard day after day. For such a time as this. Maybe God has placed you where you are so that somebody else’s life is saved.

Secondly, I would offer to you that God is fully capable of making sense of and redeeming our messy lives. Anyone feel like your life is a mess and hard to understand? That’s Esther. Esther’s life is a tangled-web of misfortune, seduction and opportunity. But the door has been opened for her to step into a new God-given identity. She doesn’t have to play the role of victim. We’re so good at this, allowing ourselves to be suppressed by the things that have happened to us. And they are real and deserve healing, but those things don’t have be the defining story of who and Whose we are. Esther doesn’t have to let her past define her present. God acknowledges our pasts but calls us out of what we can’t change and invites us to step into the presence of One who make all things new!

Esther might not be able to see it, but she is right where God needs her to be. Sometimes we wish we could be anywhere else than where we are, but maybe where we are is exactly where we need to be. Let this be a word of encouragement for you: I don’t know the circumstances that led to where you are right now, but I do know that God is waiting and willing to redeem your “right now” reality. You can grow into the person God wants you to be when you choose to move forward with God’s leading. Your past steps –however you define them- have shaped you, but so will your next step. God is not done shaping you. God is not through defining you. God is still forming Christ-likeness in you. We call that grace! I love how Esther responds to Mordecai’s challenge. She embraces her identity, puts her mind to fasting and praying and prepares to embark on a new journey. She trades in her “woe is me” attitude for the chance to be a change agent for God’s people! What past steps do you need to release today? Let go of the victim status. Let go of the shame, the humiliation, the hurt, the pain, the failure... Let go of those things that cannot be changed and instead embrace the Savior who calls you his own.

Finally, I would offer to you today that Esther’s story points to God’s invitation to receive and reflect His story of self-giving love. This is what faith looks like. Jesus puts it this way to his disciples in John: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” As Esther listens to Mordecai’s plea, she senses that this might cost her her life. To be so bold and courageous as to lift her concerns to the king was risky, as she knows it. But to step out in faith would be an undeniable act of love, and in doing so, the whole world would be introduced to a new kind of power, a power that gives instead of takes, a power that chooses the needs of others over self. In a way, Esther is what we call a “forerunner” of Jesus Christ. Her actions prepare the way and model the actions of a God who so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son to the world to save it. Esther, of course, doesn’t know that story yet. She doesn’t know that the Cross of Jesus will foil an eternal conspiracy set in motion by Satan, that Christ’s love will overcome the power of sin and death. All she knows is that God has invited her to step into a similar story of self-giving love, for such a time as this, and Esther responds with bravery and courage: If I perish, she says, then I perish.

I had a friend in college who once asked me why Christians are so wimpy. He could never wrap his mind around our interest in Jesus and the things of the Bible. He wanted to lift weights and be strong; he wanted to strut with authority and power; and when he was angry, he wanted to let the whole world know with his fists and his voice. And I guess my answer is that we are allowing Jesus to show us a new and different way to live. If that’s wimpy, so be it. But what I see in Esther, and what I know in Christ, is the stuff of real strength and courage and faith. To offer yourself in an act of self-giving love is one of the strongest actions you could ever take. And what’s more? It usually leads to life!

All the emotions Esther experienced are no different than the ones we endure. To live out our faith, especially in the face of tangible evil, could cause us to “lose out” if we’re concerned with the things of this world. Like Esther, we could die, suffer, get hurt, finish second, go unnoticed, feel forgotten, experience humiliation or even fail. Or, we could experience the grace of God who is mighty to save. Mordecai’s words ring out: Maybe we’re right where we are for such a time as this. Which story will you claim today? Today is a day to claim your story, to claim your faith. Will you claim the story that says “Stay put, be comfortable and live out your days?” Or will you, like Esther and like our friend Bill, step into God’s story of self-giving love, and let God tell His story through you? Amen.