Monday, November 28, 2011

A Generous Life - I Chronicles 29:14-18 - November 27, 2011

This morning we begin our journey toward Christmas.  Most years we would be looking at an Old Testament prophecy like the one read earlier in our worship service. (Jeremiah 23:5-6).  But this year I want to set a different tone for our Advent passage to the Christmas manger.  I want to offer an invitation to a different way of living that will shape our Christmas celebrations and grow our walk with God. This morning I invite you individually, and as a church family, to embrace a life of generosity. It is a way of life on display in the Christmas story and lived out in front of us by people we love and cherish.

Not long ago I attended the memorial service for Jim Denton’s mom, Rachel.  I listened to person after person describe the impact her life of generosity had on them and on seemingly countless others.  I asked Jim to share how her story inspired him to become the person he is through Christ.
THE EXAMPLE THAT KEEPS ON GIVING – by Jim Denton -   I was delighted to finally get that package had finally come in the mail.  Income taxes are due on April 15 and it’s a busy time of year at my CPA firm.  Since my father passed away more than 15 years before, each year I have handled my mom’s federal and state filings.  I rapidly shuffle through her envelope seeing familiar with her accounts, properties and payments; but I notice substantial and consistent gifts to her church and a long list of gifts to missions, faith-based organizations, TV preachers as well as a few local charities.  Seeing the TV preachers, my face flushed, I lurched for my cell phone to call my brother who lives in the same town to complain that she was being frivolous and he needed to control her payments. You see she had just moved to a nursing facility and being a true accountant, I was considering how long I projected that she would live, the potential for expensive care that she would need, and how the stock market had dropped and with a fixed income she keeps on giving these large amounts!  Especially those to her TV preachers!  
But something stopped me from hitting the speed dial.   I looked back at the previous years’ tax returns and saw that she had given similar amounts to her church and to missions.  She gave gifts to the organizations and the TV guys as well.  This was her pattern.  This was her belief and commitment.  Most importantly, it was her life! Her contributions list told me what was important to her.  I put the phone down, smiled to myself as I was beginning to understand her beliefs, her commitment and unwavering devotion to God’s work in the world today. As usual, my reflex was more than a few degrees off. 
My Mom had a disease.  Specifically, she had what I term as the “generosity gene.”  She wasn’t exactly born with it.  She developed it through circumstances along with some great examples, a few learned behaviors and an open heart.  Countless times she would see someone truly in need and she would make something happen.  I think it came from the fact that she grew up in a meager setting herself and a handful of kind people constantly reached out to her. Later on when she had some means, her overriding desire was to keep giving back. 
She also understood the commitments she had made and was true to them.  More than anything she loved the Lord and was highly devoted to her local church.  She showed that through her giving of money and her time.  Best of all she and my dad instilled in me the importance of consistent generous giving.  We lost her in October of this year but I believe that her legacy lives on.
At First Baptist Church we have some amazing examples just like her.  I see these legacies from the choir on Sunday, teaching our Bible Study and in the kitchen on Wednesday evening.  They give faithfully because of their love, their beliefs, commitments and their broken hearts for a broken world.  They have the generosity gene. I cherish each of them.  I know that their gifts to the Lord are their life!
My belief is that the generosity gene can be passed along to the next generation and the next and the next.  But the key is that it must be consistently demonstrated, taught and exercised or it just lays dormant and stops.  If we want our next generation to be selfish, that example is prevalent in our popular culture and we just let the world do the teaching for us.  If we want the next generation to be generous then we must show them the way by being generous ourselves and talking about our love for God and our mission here on earth.  It’s time to take them by the hand and show them how generosity fits into everything we do.  You never know who you might inspire!
Thank you, Jim.  Your mom’s story – and the story of others like her – calls us toward a generous life. I believe that this way of generosity is at the very heart of the Christmas story.  The gift of the Christchild is the ultimate act of God’s generous nature.
We hear it in Paul’s instructions to Titus, the 3rd Chapter, Verses 4 through 7: 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
When you look at the range of the way dictionaries try to describe “generosity” we discover that it is an open-handed, selfless, ready, abundant, substantial way of giving. I think it takes the full breadth of this kind of definition to begin to wrap our arms around the depths of God’s love and generosity reflected in the birth of the Christ child.   The very act of God’s incarnation – of God coming in flesh through Jesus – and God’s gift of salvation through Christ is God’s generosity on display.  God’s redemptive act of grace shown in the birth, crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus that we could be forgiven and become heirs of eternal life is the ultimate open-handed, selfless, abundant, and substantial act of giving.  It is a Christmas gift of scandalous proportion. Generosity is a manifestation of the very nature of God.  Simply said, generosity is at the heart of God, and as His children we are to mirror this same kind of selfless generosity. 
There is a great Old Testament passage that describes the kind of life of generosity that can grow our walk with God. It is text we looked at once before but I think speaks uniquely to this moment as we begin our Advent journey and as we face God’s bold future as a congregation.  Look with me at I Chronicles 29: 14-18.  It reads;  14 “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this?  Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. 15 We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. 16 LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. 17 I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. 18 LORD, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you.  
This passage emerges from Solomon’s dedicatory prayer for the grand temple in Jerusalem.  At the time of its construction, Solomon’s Temple would have been one of the most beautiful and remarkable buildings in the world. The construction of the grand temple, that was to serve as God’s earthly home, had been his father’s, David, dream.  But David’s choice to claim the wife of a married man and then arrange for the death of the man, one of his loyal soldiers, so he could then make Bathsheba one of his wives, was a stain on David’s legacy and the cause for God to deny David’s dream and allow his son to build the temple. So with this story, at once very personal and profoundly religious, in the background, Solomon comes to dedicate this remarkable structure. Instead of focusing on his own story or seizing the moment for his own glory, he offers a prayer that celebrates a generosity flowing from complete dependence on God.  The abundance of their gifts for the temple begins with God’s generous gifts to them.  Our culture of self sufficiency stands in sharp contrast to a theology that begins with the belief that everything belongs to God and all we have comes from God. Solomon had no doubt. He understood that God has made the means for him and his people to be the people of God. We see this even more profoundly because we are a people made the children of God through God’s great act of love and grace through Jesus Christ.  We are called to a generous life because of God’s generosity in our lives. 
It is important to hear that a generous life is an expression and reflection of the whole of who we are. It is not choosing a category of our lives where we give of ourselves. Our stewardship is a life stewardship. It means giving of our time, returning to God a portion of the time he has given us. It means giving of our talents. God has uniquely gifted and equipped you for the work of the Kingdom. The kind of giving I am talking about is not just about generous gifts of money, because while money is important it is about more than money.  Money alone is not enough. The kind of giving I am talking about is not just about the generous giving of our time, because while the giving of our time is important it is about more than the giving of our time. Giving time alone is not enough.   Living a generous life means giving of the whole of us - an open-handed, selfless, ready, abundant, substantial way of giving of ourselves for others and for the Kingdom of God.  At some level we know that this is the kind of way of life God desires of us, but it is hard to image what that might actually look like in our lives.
Early in my ministry I had a friend that loved to work with horses. One afternoon I watched him working a young horse and it blinders like these on.  I could not understand why he was using them and he explained that sometimes a young horse can be easily distracted by what other horses, or even people, are doing.  The blinders, he explained, was to help limit the horse’s vision to only what was directly ahead of him.  I believe the greatest single obstacle for us to live a generous life is that we are harnessed with spiritual blinders. We are so defined by what we have witnessed before, and so laser beam focused on the future we think we see in front of us, that we simply do not see all that God is doing in our lives and in the world.  We are so focused on the demands of the day, the tugs of the monthly bills, our already stretched schedules, and our theology of limited resources, we cannot see anything beyond what is in front of us.  As a congregation, we can be so wounded by the failures and frustrations of another season, so shaped by the long season of decline, so anxious about the survival of the church, so consumed by a theology of limitation and limited resources, that we cannot see beyond what is in front of us.  By allowing our vision to limited by spiritual blinders we miss seeing God at work in our lives and in the world around us.  By allowing our vision to be limited by spiritual blinders we remove God from the throne in our lives.  By allowing our vision to be limited to be limited by spiritual blinders we cheat ourselves from experiencing the bounty of God’s love, grace, and generosity.
It is time to let the failures and the frustrations of yesterday go.  We have to look up. We have to throw off our blinders and intentionally look to see where God is at work in our lives, in the life of our congregation, and in the world around us.  When we begin to see the wonder of God’s works and a glimpse into God’s bold future for us, our walk with God will be changed.  We will begin to understand that it really all does belong to God and that God is incredibly generous in our lives.  I know that there are times you must hear me like a used car salesman as I describe where I see God at work in our midst.  So, decide to open your eyes and your heart wide and see for yourselves. Eagerly seek the signs of God’s generosity in your life and the life of our church family so that your heart and faith will be strengthened.  Seek the signs of God’s generosity so that you might find the courage you need quit holding on in fear and release yourself to a generous way of life that reflect the heart and the way of God. It will change how you give of yourself and the resources that God has given you.
May our prayer – our very life song echo the words of Solomon; “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this?  Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand….I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

“Left Over” - John 6:1-14 - We Gather Together Dinner - 11/16/2011

Tonight our church hosts an event where our congregation and those we share Thanksgiving baskets will share a meal together.  Folks from across the life of the church and across the life of our community will share their stories with one another.  Below is the devotional thought I bring to this great event.  It captures my heart for Thanksgiving.

In 1994 Beth, the kids, and I spent our first Thanksgiving in Thailand. In a whirlwind year we had been appointed as missionaries, sold our home and the vast majority of belongings, attended a month long orientation training process, had landed in Bangkok, and had begun language school. We had been in language school about four months and every day had been a struggle. While the language school process was still the hardest thing I have ever done academically, it was the heat, and the pollution, the strain of living cross-culturally, and the difficulty of getting from point A to point B in a city of 12 million that had almost worn us down. Because our language school was taught an international population, they did not take a break for Thanksgiving Day. But we decided to take a day off to spend with our kids and to remember Thanksgiving celebrations of years gone by. We shared our Thanksgiving meal with an older British – actually Scottish - couple that lived on the other side of our duplex home. Carl and Angus McNeil had become like family to us and we were glad to share our table with them. Beth had worked hard on the meal. While it did not have many of the normal fare, we had been able to buy a frozen turkey from a specialty grocery store. We tried very hard not to think about how old the turkey might have been or how long it had been frozen. I cherished the day away from language school. I cherished the day with my family. I cherished the meal that we shared with friends. But, the thing that I will always remember and still cherish from that day was something that Angus told us over the dinner table. He told us that this was only their second Thanksgiving. They had been a part of one years before when they served in Africa. Their American missionary friends had invited them to join them then – and now we had invited them to join us for our Thanksgiving meal. Angus told me that while Thanksgiving was a uniquely American holiday, there was reason that he was celebrating with such joy with us that day. He had learned that the Thai term for Thanksgiving was Wan Kap Kun Prajow – that means “the day to thank God.” He shared that he relished claiming a day to thank God for all God had done in his life. These were words that encouraged me and nourished me. Even in the midst of a crazy and difficult year I had seen God at work. I had so much to be thankful for and relished setting aside a day to offer my thanks to God. Ever since that time I put aside stories of pilgrims dressed in black and white and Indians welcomed to the feast. No, when I come to a moment like this one – I come with the single purpose of thanking God for all God has done and is doing in my life.

So, let me share a very different Thanksgiving story with you from the Bible – the Book of John, Chapter 6. 1 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near. 5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” 8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. 12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. 14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”

This is one of the first Bible stories I remember hearing in my childhood. Maybe the reason it stuck with me so quickly is because as a little boy I thought it was pretty amazing that Jesus used a little boy’s lunch to do something really amazing. But, as I have grown my appreciation for this story has grown with me. It is a story of the disciples who were so focused on what little they had and how big the crowd was that they had little room left in their heart or faith for Jesus to do the unexpected. It is the story of Jesus who is so focused on the needs of the people in front of him that he could not imagine not meeting their need. This is the story of a little boy who trusted Jesus so much that he was willing to give him everything he had. This young boy demonstrated a life of authentic generosity – open-handedly sharing the best of who he was and what he had with God. God not only used what he offered to feed the huge crowd of people – there was food left over.

I often wonder who in the story we are most like. Are we like the disciples who were defined by the boundaries of what they could see and hold in their hands? Are we like Jesus, so focused on meeting the needs of others that there was room for a miracle? Are we like the little guy, so trusting of God we are willing to give God everything and trusting God to multiple it and make it work for His purpose?

Part of what I love about this story is that fact that the two fish and the loaves of bread were small. It lets me know it is not about the size of what I offer to God, but is instead is about having to heart of trust and thanksgiving. When we truly trust God will all we are and all we have, we give God the opportunity to do something greater than we can even begin to imagine. May this be a Thanksgiving where you share yourselves generously with others and celebrate a Day to Thank God for what God has done, is doing, and will do in and through you in the days ahead. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

“A Collection of Directions” - Hebrews 13:1-8 - November 13, 2011

My junior and senior year in college I served as a resident advisor for dorms filled almost exclusively with freshman. Every year the scene was the same. Parents pulled up and helped their child load way too many belongs in a room half the size than their rooms back home – and it would be a room that would have to be shared with another. After the poundage of personal belongs had squeezed their way into the room the tears would begin. Having now taken Aaron to college, and in anticipation of taking Elizabeth to college in the fall, I understand these emotional farewell scenes. But what always made me chuckle was what would happen next. With tears following either the mom or dad would stand with one foot in the car and the other still hanging on to the parking lot and say something to the effective of, “OK, before we go, I want to tell you one last time….” and with this the litany of last minute instructions poured forth. Some were predictable: “get enough sleep,” “use your money wisely,” and “remember you are here to study and not to play”. But each year there were some of these last minute directions that could not help but make me laugh to myself. I heard parents call out; “don’t forget to brush your teeth.” The prospect of an 18 year old that still needed to be reminded to brush his teeth made me wonder about where this student was ready to be there. A dad called out, “don’t forget to be nice to your teachers.” I could not help but think that if the young man had to remember this message his life in class was going to be tough. And the one I did not fully appreciate at the moment, “make sure you don’t forget to wash your clothes.” After six or seven weeks a stench began to drift from this young man’s room that reminded me of a smell I had first encountered just outside a paper mill or when driving past a dead skunk. When the smell became unbearable I stuck my head in his room and called out, “remember that your mother told you not to forget to wash your clothes. I think it has been a while.” His response was, “oh yea, probably need to do that. I have not washed clothes all semester. Can you tell?”

When we come to the last chapter in Hebrews we hear the writer offering a collection of directions that included some vital things the people needed to hear before they moved forward in their walk with God. The writer has spent twelve chapters trying to help the earlier followers of Christ understand Christ’s ssupremacy over everything else that was, that is, that was to be. He had tried to help them grab hold of the divinity of Jesus, while still holding fast of the personal, present and intimate nature of Christ’s grand redeeming act of their behalf. He had tried to help them understand that they were part of the grand race of the faithful but theirs was a faith not built on works, but God’s incredible grace. Now, as he moves to conclude this missive, he pauses to offer them some final directions. Earlier in our service you heard this collection of directions read by a diversity of voice from across the life of the church. Their very different voices help remind me that that are many people who speak into our lives. Let’s take a closer look at this collection of directions and the voices who call us to remember a life meant for more.

1 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. In this I hear the echo of a parent’s voice reminding their children that they are family and that they need each other. It is too easy, seemingly too common, to talk about a church in terms of a “church family.” But, if this term is to have meaning it must be born in our true love for each other following from God’s love for us. This is an invitation to get past petty personality differences, social boundaries, and personal differences and love each other in a way that transcends friendship and makes us belong to each other. We did not get to choose who was a part of our natural families and we do not get to choose whom God brings together in our church family. This pushes us out of our comfortable small groups of friendships and compels us learn to love the whole of who God has brought together in the place. We have much to learn from one another and must to do side-by-side. God’s love is a redemptive love. So should our love be for one another. It is time to let go of anything attitude that separates from a brother or a sister and to learn to authentically love one another. Love one another.

2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. As these words roll from my lips I hear my grandmother’s voice. I will always remember the time I spent with her in the last year of her life as she battled cancer. But, there is one memory I will carry forever. My grandmother heard that a neighbor had the flu. It was not one of her close friends but they were a “neighbor.” So, she had the person that was helping her make it day by day, help her out of her bed and into the kitchen, so that she could make her neighbor a pot of soup. I deliver that pot of soup and wondered if the person I handed it to would ever appreciate the amount of love, pain, and heart that went into that simple pot of soup. We easily express our love and hospitality to love in our families and to those we call friends. Hebrews calls us to more. Hospitality is more than an act or a dinner it is a heart attitude about making our homes – but more importantly - our lives open to those God brings into our paths. Seize a spirit of hospitality.

3 Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. We tend to view those in prison as people who deserve what they got. Sometimes we are right. But, sometimes the inability to secure appropriate legal help….sometimes life patterns that began in childhood….sometimes tragic acts of injustice leave people behind bars. This is only one of many times we are taught to remember and to visit those in prison. It is amazing that such a clear teaching is so comfortably pushed to the edges of church life. But, here the writer takes another step. It also calls us to the side of all those whom are mistreated – with the same passion and urgency we would show if we, or the ones we love, were the ones mistreated and suffering. This morning I want to express my appreciation to Larry Ray and Anna Ellis for the way they stand with kids who know lives of mistreatment and suffering. I want to thank the KidsHope mentors and prayer partners for pouring themselves out into the lives of kids who could so easily be forgotten. I want to thank those who teach in our schools and those who serve at Good Shepherd for investing yourselves in the lives of those who live on the economic and social edges – those that our society pushes away so callously. Well done!

But, I also want to claim this moment to tell you that over the next few months I will begin to share with you a vision that God has laid on my heart to bring together Christian business, educational, non-profit, and congregational leaders to work together to transform our city into a place of hope and grace. This will not be about another nice religious effort to pacify our need to do good things. The vision will call us – not just First Baptist Church, but the whole of the Christian community, to become agents of transformation for our city and for those who have been mistreated, pushed aside, forsaken and forgotten. Invest your lives in those who are imprisoned, mistreated, forsaken and forgotten.

4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. This direction seems so counter-culture in a society where the idea of a pure and loving marriage appears a vestige of another era. It is our loss. Scripture uses marriage as the model to describe Christ’s relationship with the Church. When you look at how some treat one another this could be a scary prospect. God calls us into marriages that are model grace and faithfulness. In premarital counseling I tell couples that we learn to love and we learn to be married by watching our parents. For some this is a blessing. For others it can be a curse. Make your marriage one defined by love and faithfulness – the same kind of love and faithfulness we learn in our relationship with God.

5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Money shapes us more than we want to admit. For some it is a monthly struggle to make month and money end on the same day. For others is it at the heart of daily worry and stress. For others, watching every penny and guarding every dime can become a consuming way of life. We worry we will not have enough for today. We worry that we will not have enough for retirement. We worry that we will not have enough to carry us to the closing day of our life. We worry that we will not have enough to leave our children and our grandchildren. We worry, we work, and we wonder. Hebrews speaks with authority to this heart struggle. It reminds us that God is with us – taking care of us – providing what we need – that God will never leave us – or abandon us. We do not have to worry. We have to learn to trust God with our today and all of our tomorrows. Do not let money define you. Trust God enough to know that he will make the way for you.

6 So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” Just as money can shape us, fear can define us. The nightly news will sensationalize each story to attempt to capture as many viewers as possible. But sometimes the words we hear make us fear. There are other voices in our lives that cause us concern – that trigger our hearts to race every time a strange car passed by or an unknown person speaks to us. We fear for our homes. We fear for our possessions. We fear for our lives. While reasonable caution has its place, we are not supposed to be defined by a spirit of fear. God is our helper. God is with us. God is there to bring us peace. Fear can isolate us. Trust in God will set us free.

7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. As he wraps up, the writer of Hebrews comes back with a familiar refrain; follow the lead of those who teach you and who demonstrate lives of faith. I want you to notice what the passage does not say. This passage is not about submission to the authority of those in ministry or in congregational roles of leadership. Instead it focuses on following the example of those who are living authentic lives of faith. I am weary of high profile preachers proclaiming one way of life while living another. Hebrews tells us to look at the product of a leader’s way of life. When you lay their life and way of life against the teaching of the Bible, does it ring true? When you find people whose lives and way of life are an authentic reflection of their followship of Christ – listen to them and imitate the choice to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. This phrase is familiar to many who have spent any lengthen of time within the bounds of a church family. It is one of the great affirmations of faith. As Hebrews moves to a close we end where we begin – with the acknowledgement that our life story begins and ends with Christ at its center. We see how Christ moved in our life. We witness Christ moving in our life. And we wait and trust with eager anticipation to see how Christ will lead us, guide us, redeem us, sustain us, and lead us toward joy in the days ahead. Thanks be to God for being faithful in our yesterdays – is faithful for today – and in whom we can trust because he will be faithful forever.

Verses 15 and 16 sings out: 15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. This collection of directions paints the picture of how to live that life that is a sacrifice of praise- a life that demonstrates our live for God, our love for others, and our trust that God will be faithful in every part of our lives. Let’s not settle for less.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

“Shaped By God” - Hebrews 12:1-3 (4-13) - November 6, 2011

Next time you are in the church offices, pop by my office and take a glance at the shelves. Of course you will find a couple of thousand books. You would also see an accidental elephant collection that grew from one to 82 over the last couple of decades, one at a time, from a wide range of family members and friends. But, one of the things that you would notice that might surprise you is my growing collection – or better said – growing obsession with pottery chalices and bowls. I begin with a single chalice to use for a Lord’s Supper service and now have probably ten or twelve sets in my office or at my home. I think the reason I like them so much is that each is truly unique but also truly simple. What began as just a lump of mud has been shaped by an artist’s hands into a thing of beauty that comes a tool to help remind me of Christ’s last night – that last supper – with his disciples. (Lift one goblet from among of the couple of sets sitting on a table). When you look closely, you can see the care the artist took in slowly but surely shaping the clay to craft this wonderful goblet. Almost every time I look at one of them I cannot help but think about the Old Testament story in Jeremiah where God sends him to the potter’s house to watch a pot being shaped by potter and there gives his a prophecy of how God will shape the people of Israel just like the potter shapes the clay. I think of Isaiah 64:8 where the great old prophet proclaims; Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

For me, it is remarkable to think about the fact that God loves me so much, that He is shaping me, molding me, making me into the all He dreams me to be. As we continue our walk through the Hebrews, we come to Chapter 12 where we are taught more about what it means to be shaped by God. We hear that while the process is not always easy, it is purposeful. God is alive and at work in our lives, shaping us, just like a potter at the wheel, to become the work of art that we were created to be.

Earlier in our service we heard the first three verses of Hebrews 12 read in multiple languages. It sets the tone for God plan for us. It reads; 1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

We could spend hours just looking at these three verses, but what I want you to hear is that we do not run this race of life alone. Others have gone before us and still others go beside us. We are called to this grand race and we have to choose to strip away – to let go of – anything that might slow us from going where God wants us to go and to become the people God wants us to become. Christ goes in front of us, showing us the way. But you know, and I know, the path we run is not easy. Sometimes we stumble and fall. Sometimes our way of faith even seems painful because it is different than the path of least resistance – it is the way of God. Look with me at the Verses 4 through 13. They teach us that God is shaping us, molding us, teaching us – even discipling us, to make us who we were created to be. I read these verses from Eugene Peterson’s interpretive translation, The Message. I think his take gives us the best feel for what the writer of Hebrews wanted us to understand.

It reads: In this all-out match against sin, others have suffered far worse than you, to say nothing of what Jesus went through—all that bloodshed! So don't feel sorry for yourselves. Or have you forgotten how good parents treat children, and that God regards you as his children? My dear children, don’t shrug off God's discipline, but don't be crushed by it either. It's the child he loves that he disciplines; the child he embraces, he also corrects. God is educating you; that's why you must never drop out. He's treating you as dear children. This trouble you're in isn't punishment; it's training, the normal experience of children. Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves. Would you prefer an irresponsible God? We respect our own parents for training and not spoiling us, so why not embrace God's training so we can truly live? While we were children, our parents did what seemed best to them. But God is doing what is best for us, training us to live God's holy best. At the time, discipline isn't much fun. It always feels like it's going against the grain. Later, of course, it pays off handsomely, for it's the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God. So don't sit around on your hands! No more dragging your feet! Clear the path for long-distance runners so no one will trip and fall, so no one will step in a hole and sprain an ankle. Help each other out. And run for it!

I have to be honest. This passage makes me uncomfortable on multiple fronts. First it parallel’s the way a parent trains and disciplines a child with the way God trains and disciplines us. The reality is that there are some in this room who we instantly draw back because their experiences with their parents were far from ideal. Instead having a dad and mom who loved them and taught them and shaped them through blessing and discipline, they experienced tyrannical control and senseless abuse. In the proclamation of “spare the rod and spoil the child,” they experienced nothing short of brutality. Hear me say loud and clear that this is not what God teaches and I am deeply sorry for the emotional, spiritual, and physical wounds you now carry.

The second reason this passage makes me uncomfortable is that clearly understand there is a pervasive attitude in our culture that seems to walk away from any concept of discipline and blurs the power of the image the writer is trying to use. Many in our current cultural context have seen enough of the strong armed parenting approach of another generation and have reacted against it. This attitude is as prevalent within the Christian community as it is outside of it. So, I know what I say now will run counter culture to what some in this room hold as truth. But, please hear me out rather than tune me out. I believe this and countless other passages portray the role of the parent as a sacred responsibility. We are responsible before God how we live out this role. The Biblical principle is not a heavy handed abusive controlling model of parenting. In fact I believe this is counter to the way of God. Likewise, when we do not establish boundaries for our children and allow our children to behave in the way they sit fit, we have fallen short of what God asks of us. The Biblical principle is that our responsibility as parents is to love, guide, and shape our children in a way that leads them toward becoming the people God created them to be. Appropriate and purposeful disciple is not only a valuable tool in this process, it is essential. It teaches them to respect you and others, and will help them to understand God’s work in their lives.

With this in mind, our passages wants us to understand that just as loving parents shape and guide their children with discipline as one of their tools, God shapes and guides us, with discipline a one of God’s tools. We understand that there are consequences for our poor choices and actions, but this passage tells us that there are also times when God’s changes our circumstances as a way to redirect and reshape us. The passage is clear that God’s discipline is not malicious, or capricious, or irresponsible. It is quite the opposite. God’s discipline is purposeful – design to that we might share in God’s holiness. God’s discipline is loving – done for our good. God’s discipline is hopeful – intended to let us experience God’s grand will for our lives. God’s discipline is not punishment – it is divine shaping and training that pays off handsomely, for it's the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God. I want to be clear. God is not sitting there waiting to zap us with punishment or pain. God is not playing with us like living toys. God is not “doing things to us” to make us miserable. God is leading us and shaping us to be the work of art we were created to be. In this process we discover that he is shaping us with His divine love and touch. Sometimes God’s shaping is uncomfortable or even painful. The pain is born in our resistance to do what God wills for us. It is unpleasant because we have to give up our way for God’s way. So what does it look like when God shapes us or disciplines us? It is different for everyone. We will know when it is happening because we will be forced to make painful but essential decisions that will cause us to move in another direction or address a sensitive part of our lives. We will know it because we will realize that the only one we can turn to for help and direction is God.

God knows we have a race of faith to run that will carry us to His feet. God knows that we are tempted to fall back and to drift off course. We were created for more. God loves us enough that he shapes us and disciplines us so that we might follow his will and way and live the life of joy he intends for us. God is shaping us and disciplines us that we might be all we were created to be. God loves us enough not to let us settle for less. Do, what are your takeaways for the morning? * Let go of what is holding you back and seek God’s way. * Know that God loves us and wants us to be our best. * As followers of Christ, when we find ourselves in difficult and painful situations we must tune in and focus on God’s voice to see if this is a moment where God is shaping us or redirecting us. * Finally, Help each other out. And run for it! We do not run this race alone.