Sunday, February 27, 2011

“Bound to God” Deuteronomy 11:18-22 February 27, 2011

This morning we come to the last of the five sermons in our series where we have been looking at what it means to live lives beyond belief and become the people God. We have heard from the prophet Micah, from Moses, from Paul, from the Gospel of John, and we end the journey by coming again to Moses. We come Moses again because he calls to the people again and again, trying to help them understand what it means for their lives to be shaped by the love of God. They struggled, like we do, with the temptation to give in to tradition, to culture, to their own wants and wishes and in the process lose their way.

Our focal passage for the morning brings us to an encounter between Moses and the people soon after their utter faith failure when they commissioned the building of the golden calf. While Moses was on the mountain top with God receiving the Commandments, the people lost heart and focus and crafted a symbol of a God that they hoped would meet their expectations. With the golden calf constructed they threw a party that played to their desires Many of you probably remember the visual of this spectacle of this scene from the classic movie The Ten Commandments. I think the probably the best contemporary image would be moral insanity and unadulterated movement and pageantry witnessed at Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro. As the story unfolds Moses comes down the mountain and walks into the chaos. Somehow I cannot escape the picture of Charleston Heston in the role of Moses raising the stone tablets above his head and crashing them to the ground in a fit of righteous rage.

But Moses knows the people cannot live without God’s presence, God’s power, and God’s love. So Moses goes up into the mountain again to plead to God for the people. For forty days and nights he lays on the ground prostrate in prayer before God. Finally God speaks. God forgives. God again gives Moses a word and way for His people. Slowly but surely Moses makes his way back down the mountain and tries to help them understand. In Chapter 10 verses 12 and 13 Moses proclaims; 12 And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? He tries to help them understand what this means and he comes back the same thought again and again. In verse 20 we hear him preach; Fear the LORD your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. Again in Chapter 11 verse 13 he echoes, faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul. On and on he pleads with them that there is a different way of living, a way of life that draws them close to God and helps them become the people of God, the people they were created to be. It will take a radical reprioritization of their way of life. Moses tells them nothing less will do.

We come now to our passage, where this theme echoes again; this time with some very clear instruction. Andy read our passage aloud earlier in our service. Let’s take a closer look at it together. It begins; 18 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.

I love the way Eugene Peterson casts these words in his interpretive translation The Message. He offers; Place these words on your hearts. Get them deep inside you. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder. Teach them to your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning until you fall into bed at night. Inscribe them on the doorposts and gates of your cities so that you'll live a long time, and your children with you, on the soil that GOD promised to give your ancestors for as long as there is a sky over the Earth. Moses wanted them to understand that becoming a people of God was not an occasional religious expression but should be a reflection of every moment of everyday. God’s word and God’s way is suppose to be worn on our heart and mind. It is supposed to be written and wrapped on our arms so every time we look down we are reminded. It is supposed to be written and wrapped on our foreheads so every time someone sees us and every time we see our reflection we reminded. It is suppose to be a central topic in our conversations with our children and the children within our care. Moses describes a conversation that begins the moment they wake up – includes every moment we walk at their side – and carries them to bed at night. Moses wants them to understand that becoming a people of God is a sacred task and how they teach their children to follow God is a sacred responsibility. Their future and the future of their children depend on it.

When I do premarital counseling with a couple I tell them something that I wished more people realized. The only way we know how to love is how we saw our parents love. We have to identify what part of our parents’ modeling is a blessing and we should claim for ourselves. We also have to identify what part of our parents’ modeling is curse that should be set aside. Equally true is that the only way we know how to be married is how we saw our parents live out their marriage. Again there are elements of blessing and elements of curse. We who have children shape their capacity to love and to sustain relationships. In addition, frequently we talk about the people outside of our immediate family that offered us a model of love and relationship. It is amazing the great good an aunt, or uncle or family friend offers for those who struggle to see a healthy way of love lived out in their parents. What I have learned is that kids are watching us – learning from us- and will model what they see in us.

We who desire to become a people of God are also shaping how the children of this church family and our community will see and understand what it means to follow God. This means that parents, Sunday school teachers, GIGGLES workers, children’s choir teachers, KidsHope mentors, and all who encounter the children within these walls and beyond these walls are helping shape the faith walk of the children they call by name. They are watching us. They are listening to us. We have a sacred task and a sacred responsibility. There are no time outs and no do-overs. Moses was right – becoming a people of God should be a reflection of the depths of our hearts and the first thoughts on our minds. Our future, and their future, depends on it.
Moses returns to his theme one more time, pleading -no demanding - they hear and understand the impact of becoming the people of God would have in their lives and in the lives of others. He offers it in an “if/then” format. He tells them. 22 If you carefully observe all these commands I am giving you to follow—to love the LORD your God, not to revere God for what you can get from God, not to fear God because of what God can do to you, but to love God out of who you are as a child of God.

to walk in obedience to him, claiming the image he has just used to describe the parent walking side-by-side the child, leading the child, instructing the child, Moses tells them to walk with God side-by-side, staying close and following God’s lead.

and to hold fast to him— perhaps best heard as “wholly embrace God, cling to God with all of your might and do not let go. They had walked away from God before. It had led them in to captivity in Egypt. Not long ago they had lost heart and lost hope and crafted the golden calf, Moses wanted them to understand that they had to get close to God, grab on, and hold tight. Who they were and who they were called to be could only be found at God’s side.

Moses then offers the promise, If they will observe the way and the word of God THEN…The “then” he describes is a future where God makes a way for them. It is a future of hope and promise. It is the future they were created for. It is the future as God intends it. It is a future with God!

The choice to live lives beyond belief, to commit ourselves to live our lives as the people of God, is not a religious obligation that weighs you down. It is not about a life driven by rules and regulations. It is about claiming the kind of relationship with God that founded in love and shaped in a side-by-side walk with God and a clinging embrace. It is about a faith walk that not only empowers us in this place, but defines us every moment beyond it as well. It is a faith walk that carries us into the future with God. The choice is ours. Let’s not settle for less.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

“Becoming: Who Do You Want to Be?” Ephesians 5:1-2, 8

I love to hear kids talk about what they want to be when they grow up. You often hear the regular: policeman, fireman, pro football or baseball player, movie star, artist or world famous musician. The occasionally you hear the less common, wishes to be a race car mechanic, a writer, or President of the United States. I was a bit of an odd kid. I wanted to be Roy Rogers. He always got the bad guys. I had a special outfit I would dress in every time that television cowboy show came on. If not Roy Rogers, then I thought maybe Gene Kelly. He could sing and dance and seemed to cool to me. And finally, if I could not be either of these two, I had a simpler desire. I wanted to be the first missionary on the moon. I thought the floating moon colony would need someone to help them. At some point childhood wishes give way to real life plans. I think most give great thought to where we might want to live – what kind of career path we want to claim – even what kind of person we want to share our lives with. But, I wonder if we give the same kind of attention to what kind of person we are becoming.

This morning we come to the third of the five part sermon series entitled, “Beyond Belief: Becoming the People of God.” In the first week we heard from the prophet Micah who told us that we to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Last week we heard from Moses in his last grand speech to the people of God and love God passionately, to listen to God’s voice intently, and to cling to God with all of your might. This week we hear from the Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus. We claim this particular passage in a effort to join the conversation many of our youth have been having as a part of their weekend DiscipleNow experience. The question that they have been asking and we now ask with them is “who do you want to be?”

There are a lot of different ways you could answer this question and how you answer shapes your life and your way of life. Who we are and who we are becoming is not accidental. We have to come to terms with the fact that who we choose to be influential in our life, how we conduct ourselves, and how we choose to express ourselves, all significantly shape who we are becoming. It is one thing to talk about becoming a people of faith, but it is something very different to move from a grand spiritual conversation to a life defined by who we are in God. In Ephesians 5 Paul raises three interwoven characteristics that I believe are critical for us to embrace if we desire to become the people of God. Let’s look at the passage together.


◊ Be Imitators of God. Paul begins; Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children. (NIV) The New King James Version phrases it a bit differently, and I think more clearly. It reads; Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. Immediately the image of a small child giggling and imitating their mom or dad comes to mind. Paul claims a similar image with his choice to call those hearing him “dearly loved children.” He speaks to them – he speaks to us – not as strangers or even friends, but speaks to us as those that God loves dearly. Becoming the people of God begins with the choice to follow God’s example, of mimicking the way see God act toward us and the world. One the ways I knew where it was same to walk in some of our recent snow events was to look at the footprints of others. I wanted to see where their steps led them. I wanted to know if they would carry me to the place I wanted to God. Can you imagine if you could see the footprints of God going ahead of you, showing you the way? Would you try to place your feet in God’s footprints or go you own way? What do you think it would look like in your life if what drove you was to imitate God in every relationship, in every moment, in every decision? Would it change anything? Would it change everything?


◊ Walk in the way of love. Paul continues in Verse 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. In a sermon on this text the great Reformer Martin Luther offered; "Walk in love," counsels the apostle. He would have our external life all love. But not the world's love is to be our pattern, which seeks only its own advantage, and loves only so long as it is the gainer thereby; we must love even as Christ loved, who sought neither pleasure nor gain from us but gave himself for us, not to mention the other blessings he bestows daily-- gave himself as a sacrifice and offering to reconcile God unto ourselves, so that he should be our God and we his children."(1)

I think the Martin Luther is on the right track. Paul describes a way of life where we walk in the way of love that we see demonstrated in Christ. What he is describing is a love that is self-sacrificing, purposeful and redeeming rather than an expression of emotional passion or claim for personal benefit. A conditional love that demands ”if you love me you will(fill in the blank)” or “if you really cared you would (fill in the blank)” has no place in our conversations or relationships. Likewise a conditional forgiveness is equally foreign to this kind of love. My fear is that we have given more power to judgment and shame than we have to the power of a redeeming love. Paul tells us that we are to walk in the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated in coming from heaven to earth for our sake. It is the kind of love demonstrated in Jesus when he wept for those who lived apart from God. It is the kind of love demonstrated in Jesus when he claimed the cross for us. It is the kind of love that brings us and others to the feet of God. Is this the kind of love you show to others? Let’s be honest with one another. Our model of love falls far short of this kind of love. The call to walk in this kind of self-sacrificing redeeming love seems impossible. We know that there are times we are self-centered rather than self-sacrificing, judgmental and vengeful rather than redemptive. There is only one way we can walk in this kind of love, that is to follow God’s example, to become an imitator of God’s love.

◊ Live as children of light. In verses 3 through 7 Paul describes the kinds of behaviors and relationships that carry them away from being the people of God. So often we think of the Ten Commandments, but Paul wants them to understanding it is not just about what you do, it is about our heart. He tells them that there should not even be a hint of these behaviors in their lives. He then moves from the “don’t ya dare do this” list to remind them that they were meant for more. As the “dear loved children” their way is supposed to be a different way. In verse 8 we hear; For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light. There is a temptation to claim a life in the shadows, shaving the corners of being who we are created to be. It is easy to give in here or there – doing what is best for us, not thinking about the price to others or ourselves. Sometimes it we choose the easiest path even at the expense of the best thing or the right thing. Sometimes it we find ourselves demanding our way, with little thought of whether or not it’s God’s way. Each of these choices – and many others like them – are choices that move us into the shadows. In our minds we are clear that they are not decisions for evil or darkness – just the decisions that let us get our way. Our problem is that we do not serve a God of the shadows. We serve a God of light. Paul boldly proclaims; Live as children of light. It means we choose to become the kind of people where everything we do can stand the light of day and the light of God right way. It means that the choices we make and the relationships we claim draw us closer to God rather than pushes us away. But, let’s be honest, we know how to live life in the shadows. There are times it seems most comfortable there. If we choose to become children of light it means that we are ready for our lives to be on display before God and others- on display in a way that points people toward the God who calls us his “dearly loved children. There is only one way we can live as children of light. It is to follow God’s example, to become an imitator of God’s way.

So, who do you want to be? What kind of person do you want to become? Our choice begins with our decision about our relationship with God. We are invited to become “dearly loved children” God, those God calls His own. How you respond to that invitation will shape every other decision that follows.

We are invited to become the people of God. Paul tells us that if that is who we want to be then we need to be people who follow God’s example as imitators of God; to walk in a self-sacrificing redemptive love that draws us and others toward God; and live as children in the light of day and the light of God’s way. Who do you want to be? What kind of person do you want to become? Do you want to become the people of God? The choices are yours. Choose well.

(1) Available online at http://www.lectionarycentral.com/lent3/LutherEpistle.html on February 10, 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

“The Choice Between Life and Death” Deuteronomy 30:11-20 NIV Tom Ogburn

[Do this as the entry to Scripture Reading] This week’s message is the second in the five part series entitled, “Beyond Belief: Becoming the People of God.” This series is looking at five powerful passages where we hear clearly from Scripture what it means to move beyond our belief in God to becoming the living people of God. Last week we heard the prophet Micah echo God’s call to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. This morning’s passage comes from the fifth of the five books of Moses. In it we hear Moses trying to prepare the people to move from their 40 years of wandering in the dessert to cross the river and take possession of the land that God had promised them. This was more than a thundering speech from an impassioned leader. Moses has heard his call from God in the midst of a burning bush. He had stood before Pharaoh on the people’s behalf and brought the plagues of God down on the people of Egypt as a part of the quest for freedom. Then in the midst of death and pain, Moses had led the people out of slavery in Egypt. This same Moses had stood in heart of Mt. Sinai and received the Commandments from God for God’s chosen people. He had wept when he saw the people had built a golden calf, choosing to worship an idol rather than God. Moses had chastised the people; argued with them; worried over them; and wandered in the dessert with them. Now he speaks to them full in the knowledge that he would not cross the river with them. They would go into the Holy Land without him. This is Moses’ last challenge to the people. This is his last chance to help them understand what it meant to be a people of God. His words for them still speak with power for us today.

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

[Begin message section here.] In late summer I read a book by Randy Pausch entitled, “The Last Lecture.” I had heard about the book for several months and it had been named a New York Times Best Seller. On September 18, 2007, computer science professor Randy Pausch stepped in front of a (capacity) audience of 400 people at Carnegie Mellon University to deliver a last lecture called “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” With slides of his CT scans beaming out to the audience, Randy told his audience about the cancer that is devouring his pancreas and that will claim his life in a matter of months. (from the lastlecture.com) The book tells the story of the Pausch’s journey toward his final lecture. In it he is eager to share what he has discovered and is discovering along the way. It would have been easy for the book to claim the heavy weight of death as the writer comes to terms with his own mortality. But, Pausch carries the reader a very different direction. Instead of claiming a morbid tone he offers a hopeful spirit and a deep appreciation for the people and experiences that had defined his life story. You can palpably feel the love he has for his family and the pure joy he has found in teaching and leading others in a process of creative discovery. This small book serves as a testimony of life in the shadows of death. It also provides a glimpse into the author's faith that sustains him in his journey. The cancer that claims his life does not define him; the true living of his life and his invitation walk at his side does. In this last lecture, instead of angst and grief he brings words of encouragement and hope, calling people to live out their dreams with passion.
Few get the chance to deliver a last lecture or sermon to the people they love and lead. But, if you were given that opportunity, what words would you choose? What would you want to make sure those closest to you heard from you? What would you want to make sure your children, your grandchildren, and your best friends heard? Our passage invites us into Moses’ last message to God’s chosen people. After all the words he has spoken to them over their more than 40 year journey together, he offers this last call that he prays will carry them into the Promised Land and define their relationship with God. God had chosen them, but Moses wanted them to understand that they needed to make choices that would define them as the people of God.

◊ He begins by assuring them that what he, what God, asks of them is not impossible; it is within their reach. He tells them that what he is commanding them to do does not require them to send someone to heaven to get what they need to be successful, nor do they need to commission sailors to cross the seas to discover the resources they might require. No, Moses tells them, all that they need is close at hand. This is a good word to hear. It seems that too often we hear voices that fill our faith with so many rules and regulations, traditions and expectations that it seems impossible to ever truly live as the people of God. Moses tells us that not only is it possible, all that we need to live as the people of God is close at hand. No, Moses tells us, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

◊ Next he lays an incredible choice in front on them. On one side there is life, prosperity, and a future with God. On the other side is the promise of death and destruction. On the surface the choice looks utterly ridiculous. Of course we would want life over death….prosperity over destruction. But Moses wanted them to understand the scale of the decision that lay in front of them. Ultimately they were choosing live as the people of God and all that it means – our choosing to live a life apart from God. With an intentional intimate relationship God there was life – not existence – not just getting by – but lives with purpose and meaning. For Moses – and for me – any choice that would call people to worship objects, idols, or nothing at all is a choice for destruction. Apart from a relationship with God we cannot live the lives we were created to live. Without a relationship with God we cannot be the people we were shaped to be. Apart from a relationship with God we cannot find redemption. Apart from a relationship with God we cannot find life. Choosing a relationship with God born in obedience to God's commandments is the single most important choice they will ever make.

◊ Early in the passage we hear Moses try to help the people understand this call to be the people of God in the more formal “For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws.” Now, as time slips away, he claims different, more personal, more impassioned words. He calls to them; “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life.” I can almost hear the strain in his voice, if you have not listened to anything else I have said to you over our four decades together, then hear this – do this. Make a choice for life like it is supposed to be. Love God. Really, love God.. Block out all the distractions – clear the calendar – make time to be still and listen to God’s voice. Hold on tight to God. Get close and stay there.

◊ Moses wanted them to understand that the choice was not a one and done kind of decision. It is a decision to keep on choosing. Our belief carries us to the cross of Christ and the empty tomb that becomes the emblem of God’s saving grace for us, the call to call to love God, to listen to God’s voice, and to hold fast to God are acts that carry us to God’s feet over and over and over again. We do not love God for a fleeting moment and move on. The love of God in this passage is used as a verb not a noun, not a description of an emotion, but an action word that defines a nature of a relationship with God. The call to listen to God is not describing a moment when God speaks and we hear, but a lifetime of moments when we listen for and hear God’s voice for our lives. The invitation to hold fast to God – to cling to God - is not an embrace in times of crisis, but a choice to hold on with everything you have - all the time – never letting go, never wanting to be separated from the presence of God. Moses wanted them to understand that the choice for life was a choice that they would have to make every moment of their lives.


Moses words for them are equally applicable in our lives. If we seek to be the people of God then the core of our faith expression is not found in these walls, but in our everyday choices to draw close to God. It is about loving, listening, and holding on tight so that the only kind of life we can imagine is life with God. Doing whatever is needed to be in God’s presence. Taking the time – and making the commitment – to be with God. Knowing that any other kind of life would lead us to the wrong way. The Promised Land stood before Moses’ first audience – and the kind of life God created us to have stands before us. We have a choice to make – a choice for life or death – a choice for a life with God or apart from God. Choose well…

Thursday, February 3, 2011

“What Does the Lord Require of You?” Micah 6:1-8 NSRV January 30, 2011

One of my favorite moments in elementary school was story time. I vividly remember that my teacher would sit in a big chair in the corner and our class would all sit on the floor at her feet. She would smile at us and introduce the book of the morning to us. Sometimes they were grand stories of kids like us from other parts of the world. Sometimes they were stories of whose rhythms and rhymes would make us laugh with joy. She made books something special. You wanted to learn to read so you could take your turn with these books and read the stories for yourself. I want to claim a moment like this one this morning and share a book with you that I found in our church library. The book I claimed is “I Can See What God Does” by Carolyn M. Wolcott. It was published by Abingdon Press in 1969. I have asked Patty Murcray, a first grade teacher at Charles Haskell Elementary School, and some friends, to share the story with us. Patty reads book with children around her.

Thank you Patty and kids. You helped take me –and probably a lot of others – back to one of my favorite childhood memories. The story we just heard helps sets context for a five week series that we begin this morning entitled, “Beyond Belief: Become the People of God.” Over these five weeks we are going to look at passages from Scripture that will help us to understand what it means to move from just believing in God to claiming the kind of relationship with God that allows us to become a living reflection of God’s Word and God’s way.

This morning’s passage emerges from the Old Testament prophet Micah. Leslie read our passage from the Contemporary English Version. I claim NSRV to give us a bit of a different take on the passage. It opens with a dramatic scene of God bringing a case against His people. He invites all of creation to serve as the jury. God has a controversy or case to bring against his people. One would think we would begin to hear a litany of complaints against Israel for its repeated choice to go their own way rather than the way of God. One would think God would describe the countless times where the people would lose heart and turn away. The Old Testament is absolutely full of stories of where the people of God fail to honor God, to follow God, to truly be the people of God. But as we so often see in Scripture, God does the unexpected.
Hear with me God’s complaint; “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.” Instead of offering a litany of complaints, God asks, “what have I done to make you tired of following me?” or “why is following me so burdensome for you?” Emphatically God demands a response. Rather than bring charges against his people, God begins to remind them their story as His people. God reminds them that when they were slaves in Egypt, he brought send them Moses, Aaron and Miriam to bring them out. God reminds them that when King Balack of Moab came to curse them, God turned the curse into blessings. God reminds them of the place he led them to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. God tells them he did all of those things so that they might know the His saving spirit.

Ultimately God’s complaint is that over and over again He had displayed His desire to bring salvation to His people. Over and over again God displayed His love for them. Over and over again God stepped in to history for them. And over and over again the people wearied of following God. It seems sometime we are like the people of Israel and find following God wearying and burdensome. Going our own way is just easier. It is the path of least resistance. I fear that it is too easy for us to become captured by the path that WE have chosen that we become deaf to the voice of God. I fear that it is too easy to be consumed by our story that we fail to remember that over and over again God has come to our rescue. I fear it is too easy to become so focused on fulfilling our own hopes and expectations we simply wander away from doing what is required to follow God’s way.

A single voice calls out, representing the whole of the people. The response starts simply; what should I do when I come before God – would you have me bow down to honor God? Would you have me bring a traditional sacrifice of a year old calf? But then, with rising voice and intense sarcasm the voice escalates; would you be pleased if I sacrificed ten thousand rams? How about oil? Would you be pleased if I brought you rivers of oil? Would you have me sacrifice the heart of my heart -my firstborn child? The response first seems to honor God and then progresses to an offensive hyperbole, implying that nothing would be enough. That the burden of being God’s people is just too heavy. That there was nothing they could do that would satisfy God. It is all about what they can do for God.

Before we judge them too harshly, we need to acknowledge that it is awfully tempting for our faith life to become focused on what we do for God. The story of what is going on in our church is a great story. We serve our community with passion. We send teams all over the world in missions. And we have staged musical events that have drawn thousands in our doors. These are all great things and it fill my heart with joy to see the way you pour yourselves out in service. But if we are not careful we can slip to the temptation that makes it our story of what we are doing for God – instead of making it God’s story of what God is doing amongst us. This perspective is narcissistic – self focused – and steals the glory from God.

The response to the people turns everything on its head. They hear that it is not about what they can do for God– it is about being the people of God. It is about having the kind of relationship with God where they display God’s character. He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? This short verse offers a powerful picture of what it means to be the people of God. It is all relational. Do justice – Look at people with the eyes of God so that you see those who deal with injustice, that you become a voice for the voiceless and an advocate for those with no advocate. It means that what we do in the name of God emerges from who we are in God. It comes from the reality that we who were not a people are now a people of God, we who knew no justice find justice in relationship with God. To love kindness – this is not a play nice and be kind of people kind pronouncement – it means that we love others and care for others like we would for our very best friends and the ones we love. It is about understanding that we need each other – that there is real and authentic value in our relationships with one another. It means what we do in the name of God emerge from the love we know from God. To walk humbly with God – acknowledging in humility that it is God who makes us who we are – letting go of pride – letting go of self - long enough to see the face of God. We are invited to walk with God – an incredibly intimate image that reminds of Adam and Eve walking in the Garden with God. It reminds us of Enoch walking so closely with God that God sweeps him into heaven. I love long walks with Beth where there are no phone and no distractions – just a focused time with one another. We hear that what God expects from us is the kind of relationship where we walk and talk together – no distractions – focused time when we can hear God speak to us –and direct us.
“’And people?’ asked Debbie. ‘Is God’s goodness in people?’ “Oh, yes,’ answered Mother. ‘When people are kind and love each other, when boys and girls are friendly and share with each other, then we see God’s goodness in people.’ Debbie jumped up and clapped her hands. ‘I’m glad,’ she said. ‘I’m glad I can see what God does. May people see what God does in us and through us. May we live lives beyond belief, claiming the kind of relationship with God that allows us to become a living reflection of God’s Word and God’s way.

“Arise, Shine” Isaiah 60:1-5, 18-22 January 2, 2011

Do you remember the childhood song, “This Little Light of Mine”? I think I learned it at Vacation Bible School at my grandmother’s church a lifetime ago. OK, I am going to try something. This will either be fun, or a complete disaster, so I need your help. Will those of you who remember the song sing it with me? (Sing) Why in the world would I lead us through that rather interesting experience? It is because the simple words of that childhood song offers help shape how we hear our focal passage this morning. We heard a dramatic reading of the passage from Brocks Barr earlier in our service. It comes from the poet verse of the great Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Isaiah brings the people of God a call to get up, to arise and shine, because God was ready to do something special in them and through them.

The prophet carries us to the moments just before dawn. We hear the pronouncement that darkness covers the earth and a thick darkness covers the people. It is vivid picture of that moment when all is quiet, all are asleep. This is not a picture of rest and peace, but rather an image of a people who are spiritually asleep. One commentator used the image of people who had settled down in a rocking chair, rocking back and forth, back and forth, and going nowhere. Another claimed the image of people dozing in the backseat of the car, going wherever the driver choose, with no input or involvement. We do not have to look back over the centuries to see people of faith who seem to have lost their passion, their vision, and have slowly but surely drifted to sleep. You also feel it in a larger sense when you walk into churches who have become so comfortable sitting in their pews going through the motions and that they seem to be playing church rather than being church.

Isaiah calls out; “Arise! Wake up! Get up! Stand up! On your feet! While others are content to slumber in darkness, bask in the sunrise of God’s glory. Shine! Glow with God’s love! Let your little light shine! Don’t hide it under a bushel or let evil put it out. Shine! Glow with God’s love! Let your little light shine! While others are content to sleep in a dark as black as night, your place is in the bright light of God. If you will arise and shine an amazing thing will happen, the nations will notice and come to find out why."

The prophet’s call is important to hear because it is easier to stay still and do nothing. There are so many voices that will bless us to stay right where we are. It is easier to stay sleeping when rather than to rise and shine. You hear the voices of those who sleep. You hear it when people whisper; “we always done things a certain way around here.” You hear it when someone declares, “I don’t talk about my religion. I do not want to offend anyone.” You hear it when someone asks, “I believe what I believe, and they believe what they all believe, don’t all religions lead you to God?” You hear it tragically when someone utters, “I just don’t know what to believe, so I don’t really believe in anything.” Countless people are confused and have become content living in the darkness of doubt and disbelief. Our response of many Christians is equally tragic. Somehow it seems that many – too many –Christians have become embarrassed at the prospect that those around them might see that they are a person of faith. In their desire to be socially appropriate and politically correct, they choose to walk around silent and spiritually asleep rather than to radiate the love and grace born in their relationship with God and the pure and unadulterated glory of God. In their effort not to offend anyone they forget that their job is to shine! Their light has been hidden beneath the basket so long that it is extinguished from the lack air born in the wind of the Spirit.

We are not created to live in the darkness. We are created to shine! God is not a God that calls people to darkness, but calls us to live in the bright light of God’s glory and grace. I want to celebrate the many ways I watch people in this congregation shine every day. You are the church I always dreamed of and was never sure actually existed. You are a people who get up from the pew, roll up your sleeves, and go to work serving our community and reaching out to the world. You have opened the doors and opened your heart to refugees and immigrants from all over the world. Over the last six years you have been a part of the birth or development of Fusion/Convergence Church, the United Myanmar Baptist Church, Lai Baptist Church, the Cowboy Country Church in Chickasaw, Crosstown Church here in downtown, the Sudanese Christian Fellowship, and most recently Western Winds Cowboy Fellowship in Choctaw. You have also affirmed serving as the sponsoring congregation for the rebirth of the Korean First Baptist Church located in south OKC. When many moderate Baptist talk about good examples of a missional church, we are one of the examples they use. I celebrate the church we are and the church we are becoming. But, a place of challenge for us in the coming year is to respond to the edict to shine as a transformational witness to those walking in spiritual darkness in our community. We are called to shine so bright that those living in the dark of night might catch a glimpse of the sunrise of God great light. Isaiah tells us that when we arise and that we will become radiant – infused by the love and light of God – and that our hearts will throb and swell with joy as we share the light of God with others. When was the last time you felt radiant? Do you remember when your heart throbbed and swell with joy from God. This is what God intends for us. Let’s not settle for anything less.

In the second half of our focal passage we hear Isaiah make some amazing promises on behalf of God. He tells us that if God’s people awake and shine then God will do an amazing work in us and through us. The verses talk about sorrow giving way to God’s bright light of glory; of violence giving way to peace; of people finding a right relationship with God and grow in faith and faithfulness. Isaiah understood that when the people of God rise up and become a reflection of the light to God amazing things can and will happen. Things can change – people can change – when they get a glimpse of the glory of God reflected in our words and our way.

I love how this passage ends. The grand old prophet reminds them that it is not about them, but about who they are in and through God. He tells them that even the least of them will be like a thousand – a veritable parade – and that even the smallest will be like a might nation. He wanted them to know that when they lived in God’s glory and out of God’s power, God would multiply their efforts beyond their wildest imagination. I long for God to use this me this way! I long for God to use our church this way! We would turn our city upside down and the light of God would shatter the darkness of those walking in the black of night and those who we content existing as spiritual sleep walkers. God is already doing more in this place than I could have ever imagined. How about you? I wonder what God has in store for us – what God will do in us and through us if we are ready to arise and shine.

Let’s begin to pray today for those God will put on our path and in our lives this year.
Let’s begin to pray today that God will give us opportunities to shine into the spiritual darkness of that claims the lives of many in our community.
Let’s pray today that God will give us the words – and the courage – to be a people of light without apology when God gives us the opportunity to shine into the life of others.

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Hide it under a bushel? NO! I’m going to let it shine. Hide it under a bushel? I’m going to let it shine, let is shine, let it shine…..” How about you?

[Picture from stardel.com]

“Divine Adoption” Ephesians 1:3-8a January 16, 2011

To my pleasant surprise I opened the newspaper a week or so ago and saw a picture of Billie Fogarty. The picture was tied to an article on a session she was leading related to genealogy and the War of 1812. I understand she had more than a hundred gather for her lecture on January 3rd. I have a great appreciation for the work she does. Some of may not realize that Billie is one of our state’s leading genealogist. She speaks across the country and works with clients to help them chase their family histories. I think that a part of the reason people are passionate about finding out more about their family tree is that we understand that somehow those who have walked before us have helped to shape who we are. We understand that our family is more than a random collection of letters, but is a part of our identity.

The church in Ephesus was located in the most important city in western Asia Minor, which would now be Turkey. The city has a great harbor and was a trade route gateway to the Aegean Sea. It was world renowned for its pagan temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana. It was a difficult place for the fledging Christian church. Paul has spent three years with them, claiming them as his base of operation for his teaching and preaching mission for the region. In the midst of their struggle he writes them and in these opening verses reminds them of their faith family line.

He starts with a blessing; 3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. Paul draws their eyes to the stars and reminds them that the God of all of creation is the author of the blessing they find through Christ. When we hear the word “blessing” it seems that many of us have been cultural conditioned to think about something that God “get” from God. So often it seems that blessings mentally become material blessings. Paul has something very different in mind. He wants them to understand that the spiritual blessings they receive from Christ are beyond price. I just keep hearing the tagline from the Visa commercial, “priceless!” He wants them to understand – and we should understand – that the blessings are relational.

Paul focuses first on their family identity. This was a very big deal. The name you carried determined your place in the world. It defined the kinds of work you might do, the kind of homes you might live in, the place you would have at the table, and the way others would treat you when they greeted you. Come to think of it, in many ways things have not changed that much. Paul says, For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—. The word’s Paul chooses are loaded with meaning. He wants them to be clear that their capacity to come before God begins and ends with God’s choice to make the way for them. He chooses to use a term that would have made them stop in their tracks. He claims the Greek word for adoption to sonship, which a legal term referring to the full legal standing given to an adopted male heir in Roman culture. The mere speaking of the word “adoption” immediately draws powerful emotions for those who have been adopted and for those who have chosen to adopt children into their family. They are very clear that what it means to be family is much more about relationship than it is blood type or DNA profile. Paul wants that same quality of emotion to seize those hearing this letter. They understood that when a male was adopted into a family in the Roman culture it meant that their complexion and their family history were disregarded. All the culture would see was their new given name. Paul wants them to understand that when they were adopted through faith as a child of God that nothing else mattered. Their identity was defined by their relationship with God. God not only knew their name, he had given them His name.

My family tree includes limbs with names of heroic soldiers, an award winning scientist, a rather odd inventor, and many successful business leaders. It also includes an assortment of horse thieves, a royal assassin, and several slave holders. Obviously I celebrate some and am ashamed to be connected to others. But, Paul would tell me while my family lineage is of value; my ultimate identity should be found in my role as an adopted son of God.

Paul pushed the hearer a step further. He wanted them to understand the price that was paid for them as a part of this divine adoption. He continues his thought, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. Paul again claims an image that the hearers would have immediately understood. He tells them that they have been redeemed through the blood of Christ-that they would know forgiveness out of God’s rich grace. The idea of redemption has almost been lost to us because it has been a “church” word for so long. It has become a part of the Christian vocabulary and has been used in so many sermons that we have almost become numb to the term. But for the hearers of Paul’s letter the term has immediate application. They understood that the Roman concept of “redemption” leveraged in the redemption of slaves. When a slave was redeemed they were purchased for a great price, much higher than the actual monetary value of the slave. You were not purchasing the services of a slave. Instead you were freeing a person from the bounds of slavery forever. You were changing their place in the world. They moved from being a possession to a person of individual value. The price of redemption was high, but the power of redemption was life changing. I think we unvalued ourselves. We are so consumed by our flaws and failures that we fail to realize that God was willing to pay an incredible price, the blood of the One he loves, given freely for our redemption.

Have you heard the incredible news? God has chosen to adopt you as a son or daughter; God has paid an incredible purchase your freedom. Paul tells us that God has also laid out an inheritance for you and me. We heard the first 8 verses read earlier and our service and shared through this message. Hear now, verses 13 and 14. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. The Holy Spirit, who is the presence of God with us now, acts as the seal of the deal, the divine down payment given for God’s glory. The inheritance is eternal in nature. “All through this passage, Paul has been assuming that God is the creator of the world and that God has no desire to abandon that creation. Instead, God’s purpose is to redeem the world and renew it, which is the whole reason Christ came into the world in the first place. Our inheritance, then, is a new and renewed world; a world that is being made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus and will be completed when he comes again.” The inheritance is a forever with God.

I love our deacon ordination services. Last Wednesday we listened to five testimonies of how God has moved in the life of our newest deacons. We were also witnessed as people lined up to share words of affirmation and blessing to the five. The time of blessing and affirmation always proves to be emotional for those who are ordained because it seems that we can imagine people lining up to tell us our faults, but can hardly believe that people would stand in line to bless us. Hear a word of blessing this morning. You are so important to God that he had adopted us and God us His. You are so important to God that he paid the high price required to redeem you – to purchase your freedom. You are so important to God that he has prepared an inheritance of eternity for you –and sealed with the down payment of the Holy Spirit. I would love to hear more about your family tree. I imagine that your tree, like mine, is filled with interesting characters. But hear that our ultimately identity is found in our divine adoption, our place as the chosen children of God. Thanks be to God for His great love for us and that through faith in Christ God calls us His own.