Monday, November 28, 2011

November 27, 2011 - Writing A New Story

Matthew 1:18-23

We live in a time of great poverty of language. So much of our language is unimaginative, unexpressive, and uninspiring.

I love modern praise and worship music, but the old hymns are much more beautiful in terms of their language. This year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, which is not my favorite translation in terms of readability, but the language of the King James is beautiful and it has had an immeasurable impact on Western society.

Some language is either so powerful or beautiful that it lives on in just a phrase. In fact, if I start a few phrases you can probably complete them.

Today begins the season of Advent. As we begin our celebration of Advent we begin with a short phrase that rewrote the story of history. Matthew writes at the beginning of our Scripture passage for this morning with a ten-word phrase – This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. Those ten words herald the news that God was writing a new page in the course of human history, a new story that everything was about to change and history would be forever transformed.

The Christmas story is one that reminds us that while mankind attempts to write one story God is writing a new story. While mankind attempts to write the story to suit humanity’s purposes, God writes the story to suit his purposes. While humanity writes the story of power and domination, God writes the story of peace. While humanity writes the story of hatred and strife, God writes the story of love. While humanity writes the story of riches and wealth and gain, God writes the story of giving and sacrifice.

As you follow the Biblical story you find time and again God writing a new story. When Egypt enslaves the Hebrew people to build their buildings and become their servants, God writes a new story. God writes the story to say that people were never created to be enslaved by others and he frees the Hebrew people and fashions them into a people and into a people who would demonstrate to all people throughout history what it meant to be people who would follow God.

And the Biblical characters are time and again a demonstration of God writing a new story for individual lives. Moses, who took the life of another man, was the one chosen by God to lead the Hebrew people out of captivity in Egypt. After killing a man Moses flees Egypt but God sends Moses back. Who would ever imagine someone like Moses to be qualified for such a task? But God wrote a new story in his life.

David, the great king of Israel, enjoyed a lot of high points in his life, but he also endured some terrible lows. His power and political achievements fostered in him an arrogance so terrible that when he wanted the wife of another man he took her and then ensured her husband would be killed to cover what he had done. His family, because of his tragic example, became the textbook example of disfunction that led to the tragic death of his beloved son Absalom. And yet God wrote a new story in David’s life to the point that Scripture would say of David that he was a man after my (God’s) own heart (Acts 13:22).

Peter was a fisherman just living his life, scratching out a living, when Jesus approached him on the shores of Galilee. He was a willing, though flawed, follower. He denied Jesus, was restored, but still struggled. Paul had to confront Peter about Peter’s hesitancy to welcome Gentiles into the church. But Peter was faithful, and gave his life for his faith. God wrote a new story in his life.

Paul, still breathing threats and murder against the members of the early church, found God on the road to Damascus and God wrote a new story in his life.

And then there are the characters of the Christmas story. Joseph and Mary, a young couple chosen from obscurity to raise Jesus. That God would choose a poor, young couple would be a major new story in the course of human history. Jesus was born in the humble surroundings of a manger, not the halls of a palace, to a poor family rather than into the comfort of wealth.

Herod, who had both secured and protected his kingdom by any means necessary, was frightened to hear of the birth of Jesus. He attempted to rewrite history the same way as other tyrants – violence. But God was writing a different story. God’s story was one that said the tyrants of history will not always have their way, and in the end, a different way will prevail. We are seeing in our own time the story of tyrants being rewritten. The Arab spring has unseated tyrants and dictators and signaling a new story in nations that have long been subject to tyranny. The story of God’s kingdom, as opposed to Herod’s kingdom, was heralded long ago by the prophet Isaiah in the immortal words they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isaiah 2:4). The birth of Jesus was a sign that the days of tyrants and their kingdoms were numbered. Though they may have power for a time, God’s story is that there is a far greater power and kingdom.

The magi, who came from a land far away, tell the story to always look beyond the boundaries and limitations set by humanity. While the story of humanity has often been that of us versus them and who is in and who is out, the magi being led from far away is God’s writing of a new story to remind us that he neither sees nor sets boundaries between people. It is a writing a story to say that his kingdom is open to all people.

The shepherds, the lowly shepherds, saw God rewrite their story as a reminder that God never forgets the poor, the outcast, and the powerless. The story written by humanity is to favor the rich and the powerful, but the story written by God is that a great reversal of values is on the horizon. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, Jesus said.

God is writing a new story. There is much handwringing about the state of the world today, and there are many reasons to bring us concern, but God will write the story all the way down to the final chapter of history. The story of humanity will not be decided by the principalities and powers of this world, but by God.

And God is writing your story, and my story. When fears and worries, challenges and failures, appear to be writing the story of your life, remember that God is the author and the finisher of your faith and your life.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

November 13, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - Beware the Shortcut

Matthew 7:13-14

When I was in high school, one year I tried out for the cross-country team. Running in West Virginia is not easy, as there is very little flat land. The practice course went down the road a little from the school, across a small bridge and then onto a hilly, winding back road. Most of that road was very secluded and was a difficult run. A couple of the guys on the team decided to take a shortcut, so they parked a car along that road. They would run to the car, sit for a while, and then drive the car until they were near the end of the course, get out, and run the rest of the way looking barely winded.

I’m sure they thought it was a great idea and a great shortcut. But do you think they ever won a race? No. They won in practice but never came close to winning a race. The shortcut didn’t help them at all; in fact, it worked against them.

As we draw near the end of the Sermon On the Mount Jesus warns us to Beware the Shortcut. Let’s read what he says in this passage –

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Jesus is beginning his conclusion to the Sermon On the Mount and starts this final section by making an obvious point – the path he is offering is not an easy path. By this point in the Sermon this should come as no surprise considering some of the things Jesus says, but it is a final reminder that the path of faith is often difficult and demanding. It is not easy to step away from our own self-interest. It is not easy to walk the path of love, of grace, and generosity. But it is the best path, and the path for which we were created.

When I was growing up my family would sometimes pile in the car on Sunday afternoon to take a drive. Was it just my family, or did your family think that riding around in a car for no good reason was a good idea? Can you imagine getting your family in the car now just to drive around for no other purpose other than to cram in the car and burn up gas that costs $3.50 a gallon. Who has time to do that now? Who wants to do that now?

My dad loved to load us all in the car to drive up the river to the Dairy Owl for ice cream. The Dairy Owl sat right across the road from a smelly steel mill that was spewing ash 24 hours a day, so it wasn’t the most picturesque spot. To get there from our house was about a ten or fifteen-minute trip up Route 2, but my dad could not go the short, easy way. We had to drive all around the countryside and through the hills rather than the straight, easy journey. While my dad was extolling the virtues of the winding path we were in the backseat turning green because of that winding path. But looking back on it, every one of my siblings and I would now take a very different view, recognizing there was value in those times for our family and that our dad was trying to teach us that value.

Man makes the straight canal; God makes the winding rivers (A Word In Season, John Bishop, Nashville: Abingdon, 1979, p. 45).

There are no straight paths in Scripture.

When God called Abraham to leave his homeland and to follow him he did not provide a roadmap. The journey was full of twists and turns, surprises and challenges, but each one added to what Abraham learned while on the winding path. When the Moses led the Hebrew people out of captivity in Egypt and into their journey to the Promised Land there wasn’t a great physical distance to travel. From where they were in Egypt to the Promised Land was a distance of about 200 miles. If they had taken the shortcut they would have traveled along the Mediterranean Sea and could have spent some time at the beach enjoying the weather, but they didn’t. The book of Exodus tells us they didn’t take that path – though that way was shorter (Exodus 13:17). They wandered, and wandered, and wandered. They took long, winding, difficult, desolate, and dangerous path. And while they traveled that path they faced great difficulty and they complained. Moses, they would cry out, why did you ever lead us out of Egypt? We were better off in Egypt, though we were slaves (Exodus 14:10-12, among other passages). Why not take the shortcut? Why take the most difficult path?

But generations later, their ancestors were able to look back and see how God fashioned them into a people on that winding path, and how he made provision for them, and those lessons would continue to teach them for generations.

When Jesus called his disciples there was no easy path laid before them. Follow me is a very simple request but it set before them a path fraught with many challenges.

In our modern lives we are always so anxious to just get somewhere, but God wants to make something of us on the way. My youngest sister got a speeding ticket not long after receiving her driver’s license. She was driving my dad’s old Ford Pinto. I believe she was clocked at over 80 miles an hour. I was amazed she could get that Pinto to go over 80 miles an hour! My dad did not like us driving fast. In fact, he had an old Chevy pickup truck that I often drove. The front end was in terrible need of an alignment. Around 45 miles an hour the front end would start shaking. We would often ask why he wouldn’t get it aligned. His response was if I do you all will drive it too fast! I remember the conversation between my dad and sister about her speeding ticket. He asked where were you going in such a hurry? My sister said nowhere, really, but I was in a hurry to get there! In our rush to get somewhere, we often miss what God is trying to teach us on the winding path.

It took a windy road through the wilderness to bring the Hebrew people to the realization they were a free people and it took the winding path through the wilderness to forge them into a nation. Only in the long and winding journey, I believe, could they learn those lessons. They could not learn them by taking the shortcut.

Paul had a pretty good life going for himself, and then came his conversion on the road to Damascus. Listen to where that path then led him - I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches (II Corinthians 11:23-28).

It is tempting to take the shortcut in life. Jesus calls us to avoid the shortcut. There are easier ways than the way we are called to by Jesus. There are easier ways than the way of loving one’s enemies. There are easier ways than the way of praying for those who would persecute us. There are easier ways than the way of being a peacemaker. There are easier ways than the way of investing in the kingdom of God rather than investing in ourselves. There are easier ways than the way of withholding judgments of others. There are easier ways, but they are not better ways.

In many ways, my life has not at all followed the kind of path I would have predicted or expected. My life has taken some unexpected and strange turns. My life has not always gone neatly from point A to point B, and there have been times when I was greatly troubled by the strange, winding path of my life. But I have learned that each turn, however unexpected, led to something I needed to learn or experience. There are times when I wish I could go back and do some things over, but I think if I could, I would miss out on a great deal. To go back, I would be tempted to straighten out all the winding and twisting turns of my life, and in doing so, would undo much of what God has taught me through that winding way.

Beware the shortcut. May we pray.

Monday, November 07, 2011

November 6, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - Is God Good?

Matthew 7:7-12

Steve Jobs, often in the news, has been in the news even more in the weeks since his passing. Known primarily for his business skills, the details of his spiritual life were far less familiar to the public. When Jobs was thirteen, he asked the pastor of his parents’ church if God knew about starving children. Yes, God knows everything, the pastor replied. Jobs never returned to church, refusing to worship a God who would allow suffering.


After Christmas we will begin a new sermon series. It will deal with questions of belief, unbelief, faith, doubt, the intersection of science and faith, and suffering. This morning we get a bit of a head start on that series as we continue our study of the Sermon On the Mount. In this passage Jesus is answering the question that Steve Jobs was really asking his pastor years ago – is God good? I think there were some serious flaws in Jobs’ logic, and we’ll touch on those briefly today and in more detail after the first of the year.

Let’s read what Jesus has to say in this morning’s passage –

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets – Matthew 7:7-12.

Immediately upon reading that passage there are a few questions that come to mind – does everyone who asks really receive? Does everyone who seeks really find? Is the door opened to everyone who knocks? I think there are some people who would question the reality of the statements made by Jesus, and many people do question it by asking whether or not God is good. There are people who, like Steve Jobs, look at the suffering in the world and ask whether or not God can really be good in light of all the suffering.

Jesus is affirming that God is, without a doubt, good. That is his beginning point, which is made in the second half of this passage, so we’ll start with that affirmation, as we look at the first half of the passage.

One of the underlying questions in the Sermon On the Mount is this – do we want to be like God? In the beginning of the Sermon, in the Beatitudes, Jesus lists qualities that demonstrate the nature of God – mercy, righteousness, offering comfort, and peacemaking, among others. Then there are all the qualities that show what a person is like not on the outside, but on the inside, demonstrating that matters of the heart are of incredible interest to God. And love, of course, is the foundation to everything, and we see this in a very dramatic way when Jesus makes the incredible statement that we should love our enemies.

Over and over, as we read through the Sermon, Jesus is sharing the attributes of God as markers for what our lives can be – we can be people who exhibit mercy, people who demonstrate righteousness, people who bring comfort, people who bring peace, people who are more concerned with the inward condition of the heart than with external appearances, people who will love all people, people who offer grace, people who make an investment in matters of the spirit and not just in matters of the world, to name just a few.

If we want to be like God, then, we will want the same things as God and we will seek the same things as God. So when Jesus says ask and it will be given to you, by the time we arrive at this point in the Sermon we will know the kinds of things for which we should be asking. If I have made it thus far through the Sermon, and if it’s getting through to me, I will certainly not be asking for a couple of new PRS custom guitars and expect that God is going to leave them on my doorstep for me. That’s the approach that the prosperity gospel preachers have taken with this passage. It’s Lord, gimme! Gimme this, and gimme that. Provide for me what I want. Indulge my selfishness with lots of stuff and by showering me with affluence.

Instead of demonstrating that kind of attitude, Jesus calls us to pray for what makes us like God – Lord, make me a person who brings comfort to those who mourn; make me a person who will work for peace; make me a person who does not strike back in anger and retribution at those who may harm me, but reach to them in love and grace. I don’t think God is going to give me a new car or a couple of new guitars just because I ask, or because I ask dozens of times. But if I ask to be a person who brings comfort, to be a person who works for peace, to be a person who will love my enemies, I believe that is a prayer that God will be very happy to answer.

But those are not qualities that come to us very easily. We may have to persevere in our asking and seeking for those qualities. This is why Jesus talks about seeking and knocking. Those are qualities that represent perseverance. I’m not sure that the first time someone comes up and whacks me on the jaw I’m going to be very forgiving. I’m not even sure that I’m going to be that way when they whack me on the other cheek. But with enough seeking and persevering in prayer I can become a person who says I can love a person who would persecute me or hate me. I may not be a person who wants to move beyond keeping up a nice fa├žade in life, but with enough seeking and perseverance in prayer God can transform me into a person who is concerned that my heart is transformed and that the passions of my heart are equal to the passions of God’s heart. I may be a person who prefers to invest in the things of this life but with enough seeking and perseverance in prayer God can open my heart to the importance of investing in the matters of the kingdom and the giving of my resources rather than hoarding them for only myself.

And when we are transformed to become more and more like God it really changes the way we deal with people, and that’s where the last verse in this passage comes in. Often called the Golden Rule, it’s a version of a saying that long predated Jesus. But Jesus changes the nature of the saying that had been used. Prior to Jesus it was used in the negative – don’t do to someone what you don’t want them to do to you. Jesus turns it around into a positive expression – do to others what you would have them to do to you. He is saying it’s not enough to just avoid causing harm to another person. It’s good not to harm them, certainly, but it is more in keeping with the character of God to be active in our seeking to do good for others.

This is a big difference in how we deal with others. In the view of Jesus, it’s not enough to sit at home and say well, I’m not doing anything to hurt anyone. That’s great, but what are you doing to help another person?

This is where the young Steve Jobs made a mistake in his logic. He was disappointed that God wasn’t doing enough to help the starving children of the world. But don’t you think there’s some inconsistency in a person who was sitting on more than $8.5 billion dollars of personal wealth and yet decides God is not worthy to be worshipped because of the starving children in the world? How many starving children would $8 billion feed? Keeping a half a billion should be enough, shouldn’t it? My point is not to criticize Steve Jobs, but if you are critical of God for not doing enough shouldn’t you be certain to be doing all you can?

Being passive and not causing harm, Jesus said, is not enough. We are called to be active in our working to do good for others, and that’s why, in the end, the question is not really is God good? The question that is more pressing is are we good?