Saturday, January 28, 2012

Pour Out Your Heart - Psalm 62 - January 29, 2012

What music would you choose to be the sound track of your life?  Would it include people like Bennie Goodman or the Andrew Sisters, maybe Perry Como or the Lettermen, or perhaps the Rolling Stones and Billy Joel.  My kids will tell you that James Taylor sang out in our household in Thailand, Malaysia, Texas, and even in Oklahoma.  

Because we see the Psalms as a book in the Bible we can forget that they were written in musical form. When we hear the Psalms we are listening in on the music that shaped and defined life for many of God’s people through passage of time.  They are the soundtrack of worship.  They sing of real life emotions, personal struggles, and of moments of grand celebration. We heard all of these emotions in Psalm 62, sung by our Sanctuary Choir only moments ago.  With each note and movement the choir helped capture the flavor of this song sung to God that emerged fresh from the life of His people. It speaks with majesty, beauty and power. It calls us closer to God. It pleads with us to trust God.  It offers us rest and invites us to pour our heart out to God.  Take a closer look at this song of faith with me.

The Psalm begins; Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. 2 Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon preached a great sermon of encouragement just on these two verses.  He focused on the promise that God is our rock, our salvation, and our fortress. These are words to hear and cheer.  But I do not want to miss that initial word that our soul can find rest in God.  Our lives can be so busy, so hectic, and we can have so many different people and obligations tugging at us, we can find ourselves weary – weary to the depths of our soul. 

Our temptation is to decide to try to fix it ourselves.  If we only make a minor change in our schedules, or get someone to cover one of our tasks, and it we believe everything will be better.  We tell ourselves when we are down that we will find a way to cheer ourselves up then everything will be OK.  There are times when what we need is not to reset our schedules or cheer ourselves up.  What we need is to claim rest for our soul in God’s presence.  We are invited to claim an unhurried time of rest with God, who is the way of our salvation; who is our rock, on whom we can stand in the midst of the storm; and who is our fortress, in whom we can find safety and security in times of difficulty or distress. The Psalmist wants it clear that a deep relationship with God is a safe place for us to be.

The Psalm sings out; 3 How long will you assault me? Would all of you throw me down— this leaning wall, this tottering fence? 4 Surely they intend to topple me from my lofty place; they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse. The Psalmist looks around and sees people who have brought pain into his life. You can fell the hurt in his words. Sometime people let us down.  Sometime people who are suppose to love and care for us can hurt us. These are hard but irrefutable truth.  When we feel wounded by others it is easy to feel isolated.  Hear that you are not alone. The psalm reminds us that this is an age old issue that transcends place and time.  When you come find yourself wounded by those around you, cry out to God.  God cares and God hears. 

The Psalmist knows this.  We hear the psalm echoes his first themes of assurance and goes a step further. The psalm sings out; 5 Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him. 6 Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. 7 My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. 8 Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. I love how Eugene Peterson sees verses 7 and 8.  He interprets them this way…”My help and glory are in God —granite-strength and safe-harbor-God— So trust him absolutely, people; lay your lives on the line for him. God is a safe place to be.” I think Peterson captures the picture of God as place of strength of refuge.  But, I think he missed the invitation to pour out our heats to God.  I chose to the title of the sermon on verse 8’s call to Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge because I believe that the invitation to pour our heart out to God is at the heart of discovering a deeper relationship with God.  The psalmist has over and over again used language to help us understand the safety and security we find in God.  The psalmist has over and over again used language to help us understand the strength we find in the arms of God.  I believe that all of this language is designed to help us understand that trust God enough to pour out our hearts to God.

I think a lot of us can imagine pour out our hearts to a close friend.  We believe that the love and care for us enough to hears the cry of the depths of our heart.  But, I am not sure we fully understand and embrace what it can mean to pour our heart out to God.  Some many of us have been taught structured prayers with a religious sounding vocabulary. We are tempted to hurry into prayer and back out of it because the language we have learned somehow feels unnatural to us. The Psalmist imagines conversations with God that are so deep and so pure that the words we claim emerges from the core of who we are.  This kind of conversation with God is more focused on its honesty and sincerity than it is its vocabulary.  If we believe that our closest friend would care about the cry of our heart, how much more would God, made us in His image, who breathed the very breadth of life into our soul, who is our salvation, our mighty rock, the one in whom our honor depends, invite us to pour out our heart to Him? 

I acknowledge that there is vulnerability in pouring our heart to God.  It seems that there are parts of our lives that we are proud of and are glad to share with God.  But, for many there are darker parts of our lives that we have a hard time imagining lying at God’s feet. The hard news is that God already knows all that we have thought or done. The good news is that relationship with God is a safe place to be wholly who we are. God is big enough, strong enough, and loves us to hear our secret shames and our deepest pains.  Only when we pour out the whole of who we are to God can we begin to discover the depths of God’s love and the breadth of God’s grace.   Our brokenness is a part of our story and should be a part of our story with God.  Our brokenness is where God steps in.  In pouring our heart out to God we invite God to change us and renew us – to truly redeem us in the midst of our pain and brokenness.  God is ready for us to pour out the depths of our hearts to Him.  Through our faith relationship in God through Jesus Christ we come to God feet and there we can discover His healing and restoration not only for eternity but for our daily hurts and real life pain. 

The Psalmist has already sung out in despair that others have hurt and betrayed them. Next the Psalmist reminds out that when the weigh the value of other and anything you can hold in your hand against God it is like they are nothing at all.  He tell them this as the Psalmist sings; 9 Surely the lowborn are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie. If weighed on a balance, they are nothing; together they are only a breath. 10 Do not trust in extortion or put vain hope in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them.  The answer is clear. There is no one like God.  We can trust God enough to pour out our whole heart to God. We can lay ourselves spiritually bare before God.  God is not far away or is on his throne in heaven waiting to zap you for every misstep. No, God is near, ready to love us, ready to hear us, ready for us to pour out our hearts and to meet our greatest needs. The Psalmist ends in song with the incredible assurance that “Power belongs to you, God, 12 and with you, Lord, is unfailing love.”  

This morning I invite to pour your heart out to God.  Share the depths of who you are with God and invite God to sweep into your life with healing and redemption.  God has the power to redeem and renew you.  God has the unfailing love whose desire for you is a life of abundance joy – of life like it was meant to lived.  I just keep thinking about the description of Moses relationship with God reported in Exodus 33 when we hear, The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.  May we chose to pour out our heart for God and discover a relationship with God where the Lord will speak to us face to face, like one speaks to a friend. Let’s not settle for less. God awaits us. How will we respond? 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Food Bank Follow Up

Larry Hawkins just came by my office with an update on yesterday's mission venture to the Regional Food Bank.  21 people participated, ranging in age from youth to senior adults.  They sorted 15,500 pounds of food. The Food Bank estimates that they help to prepare for distribution the equivalent to 11,769 meals.  Photos to follow soon.  Well done FBC church family and hats off to Larry Hawkins for putting this event together. 

Grace and Peace, Tom 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

What words.......?

If someone asked you about your church what words or phrases would you use to tell your church's story? OK, I want to stretch you. Don't use the generic words to would apply to any church.  What makes your church distinctive? Over the past two weeks I have been in a couple of settings where I had the opportunity to hear some members and ministers in our church family offer their perspectives on what makes First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City who were are. What I heard made me smile. Almost no one talked about the brick and mortar building. I listened as people talked about finding a church family where they actually felt a part of the family - even when people knew all about them. People talked about being a place where broken hearts and broken lives find family and healing.  They talked about the way music sings across the life of the church and of finding joy in worship that speaks across generations.They talked about what it meant to grow in their walk with God together - listening to one another and learning from each other.  They talked about the way our church family pours itself into our community. Still others talked about being part of church that cares about refugees and others who need a place to call home. 

The conversations reminded me how each church has a unique sense of mission, purpose and personality - and the our church has chosen a path direct from many others.  It is not a place to just come and sit as a spectator.  It is a place to dive in, to open your heart and mind to what God has to say,  to invest in others, to listen for where God is calling you, and then to roll up your sleeves in living expressions of love and service to others. {While I was working on this blog I stopped to take a phone call from a church member who was working at the Furniture Bank this morning - saw a need - and saw God open the way to meet that need within a matter of hours.}  It is fun to be a part of a place where all you have to do is look up to see God at work.  

In the coming days we will be finding ways to hear the voices of others in the church family - and looking for other ways to help tell our church's story.  If you are a part of the FBCOKC family, what words or phrases would you use? If you are part of another church family, what words or phrases would you use to share your church's story with others?        Tom 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Taking Jesus At His Word - John 4:46-53 - 1/15/2012

He never looked comfortable in a coat and tie. His hands were work worn and he had lost a part of a finger in a work accident many years before. His work clothes were coveralls and you were more likely to find him on a tractor or in his truck then you were riding in the Cadillac his wife had come to love.  He had been raised with some simple but clear beliefs; you work hard, you do right and your word is as good as a bond.  His once rural farm had been surrounded by bustling suburbs and somewhere along the way he had to make the transition from tobacco farmer to land developer - and somewhere along the way had become a man of wealth.  But whether you found yourself talking to him in his role as a farmer – or him in his role as a land developer, those old beliefs still rang true. I liked Omer.  If Omer said it you could believe it – and if you shook on it you could take it to the bank.

There are some Jesus stories that are used in sermons and Sunday school lessons over and over again. We hear about Jesus walking on water, feeding the 5000, and even speaking to wee little Zacchaeus up in the tree. But there are some other stories that seemed to get passed over.  Somehow their story and what it tells us about Jesus is almost lost along the way. This morning’s focal story is one of those stories.  In this story we see Jesus meeting an unnamed and unknown public official whose son is very sick.  In this story we see that you could take wake Jesus said to the bank.  Nolen read the passage as a whole earlier in our service, but let’s take a closer look together. The story begins; 46 Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.  

This story comes as the second miracle story that John will share.  John sets the stage by telling us that Jesus was going back to Cana of Galilee the site of his first miracle. If we are paying attention that intro should give us fair warning that something significant was about to happen.  A “certain royal official” with a very sick son enters the scene.  It is interesting reading over the struggle many pastors and scholars put into trying to unravel whether this official was a Jew or Gentile; whether he was an official in the political realm or the religious one. But as I read the passage the personal details of this nameless faceless office do not matter.  John has something much more important for us to hear.

John wants us to hear that this “certain royal official” came to Jesus in person. The gospels provide several stories of where officials would dispatch a servant on their behalf to speak to Jesus. This official could have sent one of his servants or one of his underlings to do his bidding.  It is one thing to send someone – it is something else also together to come in person.  This royal official thought the life of his son was so important that he personally came to Jesus face-to-face.  He came with hope that Jesus could do something to heal his son.  He was not above begging Jesus in front of others if it meant Jesus would come to his home and help. 

Jesus heard him pleading and spoke directly. 48 “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.” Jesus was right, so many can only believe when it is accompanied by a grand show.  We are so easily captivated by the grand, the impressive, even the miraculous.  But this officials heart was different.  He did not care about the show, he just wanted to have his son alive and well and in his arms again.  49 The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 “Go,” Jesus replied, “your son will live.” How many of us would have looked at Jesus and say something like, “That sounds great, now come to Capernaum with me and heal my son.” But this is not what happens.  What happens next is what makes this story incredible.  John reports simply, The man took Jesus at his word and departed. Wow!  No more pleading, no more begging, he just gets up, scoops up his stuff and heads home.  His action is a remarkable display of faith.

I imagine that many gathered that day must have found his response ridiculous, but what John tells us next should make us stop in our tracks. 51 While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. 52 When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “Yesterday, at one in the afternoon, the fever left him.”  53 Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” This nameless faceless official took Jesus at his world and everything changed. The official’s faith was reward. His faith changes the life of his son. Life and love replaced the prospect of death and grief.  John also tells us, So he and his whole household believed. His faith changes his life and the life of everyone in his household. It all begins when he took Jesus at his word.

What do you think our lives might look like if we took Jesus at his word?   Jesus tells us; “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’”(Matthew 17:20) He says this in response the disciples wondering why they cannot do some of what they had seen Jesus do.  Jesus wanted it clear that if we really took him at his word we could have the kind of faith to move a mountain – not one shovel at a time, but to push it out of the way in whole, to do what God calls us to do.  Do we have the kind of faith that moves molehills or mountains?

We hear Jesus say; 18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:18-20) Jesus describes for his disciples the kind of faith and the kind of prayer than can break the power of evil and lead us to praying for the heart of God. We hear Jesus but we are tempted to give up on the power of prayer when we do not immediately get what we want or believe we deserve.  Jesus teaches us to pray for the will of God and to trust God to answer in the way that is best for us. Do we take Jesus at his word when he tells us that God hears and responds to our prayers?

We listen as Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan and when in another setting he is questioned he teaches; “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-40) We have emblazoned this greatest commandment on the walls of our main hall because we understand that a call to love God and love each other with abandon is at the heart of God’s way.  But, it is one thing to write in on a wall and something very different to chose to emblazon and another all together to emblazon it on our hearts.  Do we take Jesus at his word and live a life defined by our love for God and others?

We hear as Jesus stands on a hillside in Galilee and tell his disciples and us that;”But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:8) Jesus tells us that our witness is empowered by the Holy Spirit and that God will use us to take his word to our city, nation, and world. If we took Jesus at his word how might it change the vigor with which we proclaimed the good news of Jesus to all that we know?

This story of Jesus’ encounter with a nameless faceless official invites us to embrace a passionate pursuit of God’s way. It is a way that calls for us to take Jesus at his word – to truly trust God and then to pick up our stuff and go – knowing that God has gone before us. It is a bold way not a timid one. When we choose to take Jesus at his word things change.  We are changed. Our way of life is changed. When we take Jesus at his word we get to see God at work and those around us cannot help but be impacted.

The Gospel of John tells a story about a nameless official that took Jesus at his word and he and his household believed.  What will be your story?  What would happen if you took Jesus at his word?  What would happen if you became a household of faith? 

Passionate Pursuit- Isaiah 51:1-3 - 1-8-2012

On January 9, 2005 I stepped onto this platform for the first time as your pastor.  I vividly remember that first moment like it was yesterday. I came with to the moment filled with both hope and trepidation.  I wanted to convey a sense of self confidence and a sense of direction. While a part of me could claim those feelings, there was another part of me that wondered if perhaps I had gotten in over my heard.  I had done considerable research and knew much about the church’s heyday when ministries were blowing and going and every room was filled to capacity.  I knew a great deal about the powerful preaching that defined Hobbs and Garrison’s era, and the compassion that defined Jeff Zurheide’s season here. I knew about First Baptist’s heart for its community but I also had heard stories of pain and heart break, of the struggle to define the church’s identity as it looked into its future.  I knew that felt that God had lead me here, but I do not think I could have imagined how much I would come to love this church and the church family that calls it home. 

So now, some 2,555 days later, I step on this platform again. In that first sermon I tied to lay out some sense of where I saw God leading us, and every year on the second Sunday in January I have tried to do the same.  Now for the eighth time, I look to Scripture and I look to God for a fresh word of hope and direction for us. While most years I have claimed this moment to announce a new inititiave, mission or ministry program, or staff change. This year is different.  This year the message speaks to the heart of who we are in our walk with God.  This year, the passage that seized my heart and has defined this service is Isaiah 51:1-3.  It is calls us to be defined by a passionate pursuit of God. 

You need to know that the words of this passage was originally written to a people that we broken hearted and drowning in uncertainty.  They were in a lost and longed to hear that God was ready to work on their behalf. “This passage contains strong words of encouragement for people who have been through terrible times. Perhaps their situation is still awful and words of hope are not easy to believe. They may sound like wishful thinking, pious optimism, a futile blowing in the wind. So the prophet works hard to present his message of hope in as convincing away as possible.”[i]  While our setting is very different, the words the prophet brings speak with power to where we are as we seek to be a relevant and a meaningful people of God in an ever changing cultural context. 

The great prophet Isaiah begins, calling out for the people’s attention. He raises his voice and summons them with expectation; “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD. Isaiah begins with the presupposition that the people to whom he spoke were people who were actively pursuing righteousness – actively and passionately pursing living the right way – God’s way.  In 2 Timothy 2 we hear Paul describe to young Timothy what it means to pursue a rightly focused life. He teaches, “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”(vs.22) This word that both Isaiah and Paul uses is a strong word.  They do not talk about walking or jogging toward a right life, they choose that word that is active and passionate.  When one pursues righteousness – it is about an all in, fully committed, dead sprint kind of pursuit of a right life.  It is a mad dash, pushing forward, straining toward the finish line kind of commitment to living God’s way. 

In the past I have called to restructure our church ministerial staff, to step out in new mission endeavors, and to expand our congregational programming.  This year I believe that our call is to strengthen our spiritual core – to choose to personally and congregationally grow in the depth of our walk with God.  In the weeks and months you will hear about: expanded opportunities in prayer ministry; a focused small group Bible study experiences for men; a parallel focused small group Bible experience for women; a special discipleship opportunity for Senior adults; a DiscipleNow weekend event for youth: and occasional book studies designed to stretch our worldview and help us gain a new understanding of the heart of God. During my summer sabbatical we will partner with the Baylor School of Social Work to do a Church Census that will help us to understand the heart cry and the great spiritual needs in our congregation in an effort to design our ministries to meet those needs.

But it is important that you understand that the call to a passionate pursuit of a right life with God is ultimately more personal than programmatic. The choice to embrace a passionate pursuit of God’s way is not something you do for a moment and then go back to your normal routine.  Isaiah tags the call to purse righteousness with the additional qualifier as those who seek the Lord. Paul adds the qualifier as those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. They were clear that the pursuit of a Godward life found its foundation not in just in what we do, but in the nature of our walk with God. They both envision that God works in the midst of a people with a passionate pursuit of a rightly focused life; a relentless drive to become the people God calls us to be; a tireless and ceaseless seeking of the way and will of God for our lives. 

This kind of faith – this kind of faith life – is contagious.  We felt a flavor of it in the testimonies we heard on Wednesday night and in testimonies offered from this pulpit over the past year.  We see glimpses of this way of life in the face of those around us that give of themselves freely and are drawn to God’s feet in prayer as a pattern of life. Many in our community and many in the world long to encounter followers of Jesus who live authentic lives of faith and devotion instead of encountering people who fill their language with religious words but live lives that are indiscernible from them own. Our community and our world long to see examples of people wholly dedicated to living their lives God’s way.  The way one person can change the world is to embrace a passionate pursuit of God and then to allow God to use them as a witness for all the world to see.

Isaiah knew that call to pursue righteousness and to seek the Lord might strike the community as hollow religious words in light of their current circumstances.  For us too, the word might sound like just more church chatter for those living in a culture that is growingly hostile to the Christian message.  So Isaiah called them to remember whence they came. He called out, Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; 2 look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was only one man, and I blessed him and made him many.

Isaiah took them back to the beginning of the beginning – of the moment when God first created His covenant with His people.  He called Abraham to leave all that he knew and to trust God to lead him, provide for him, and to bless him and to bless others through him.  Isaiah reminded them of Sarah, Abraham’s wife who was to give birth to a child despite her advanced age.  She laughed at God’s promise, but God was faithful and birthed a nation through her.  Abraham and Sarah’s stories were not easy one – but they demonstrated that God was faithful over and over and over again.  They were cut from the rock of people of trusted God and passionately pursued God despite the challenges. They were hewn from a quarry of faith and faithfulness.  God had led them in the past – God would lead them into their future.  He wanted them to understand that the God he called them to pursue with passion, had pursued and sustained them with an even greater love and passion.

Many of the dreams I laid out before us over the past seven years have come to fruition and are now a part of our church life. We sought to reach out to those on the margins and have become the centerpiece congregation for the work among refugees. We talked about reaching into the Classen-Ten-Penn community and launched our S3 mission endeavor. In one of these sermons we announced the plan to offer an Experiencing God opportunity and we witnessed together God move in our midst over the twelve week small group study and prayer program. We dream of the birth of a missions center, of renovating the facilities, of becoming a model of a missional congregations that would encourage other downtown congregations. In several of the sermons we announced changes in church staffing that has lead us to the ministerial staff that helps to lead us every day. I celebrate what we have been able to do together. But, I should also note just as quickly that a number of the things I brought before us moved toward development and just as quickly faded away. I celebrate these as well, because they showed the heart of a congregation willing to try new things – and to continue to try new things – as we sought to discover God’s way for us.  I want to thank you for trusting me enough to be willing to push outside of tradition and comfort zones to seek to be the church calls us to be for this era.

But, your heart to be shaped to be the right church doing the right things for the right era should not surprise anyone.  For those who are newer to First Baptist, know that when you look back across the history of this church a discernable pattern emerges.  In each era that the church has been willing to embrace whatever needed to be done to be the best church possible.  In the midst of the Great Depression the church rallied together to build a new building to expand discipleship opportunities.  In the 50’s the church was willing to call the first Minister of Christian Recreation in Baptist life and build a gym as a part of a new youth education building to reaching people in a changing culture.  This same spirit led the church to say “yes” to launch Good Shepherd Ministries and to be televised.  It lead many of you in the room this morning to lead Sunday School classes and departments where you raised your children side-by-side and sustained the church ministries with the same passion you sustained your families.  When other churches left downtown for the comfort of the suburbs you choose to stay and minister to this community.  Who we are now and who we are becoming is unmistakably shaped by the way God has worked in this church and through you in the yesterdays and the yesterdays before that.  Who we are now and who we are becoming is unmistakably shaped by the faithful spirit you have demonstrated doing quality ministry yesterday – and now today.  God has pursued us and was faithful to fulfill his promises in our yesterdays – and we can trust Him to be faithful in where he leads us in our tomorrows. 

With those words of strong assurance lingering in the air, Isaiah points them toward tomorrow.  3 The LORD will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing. This short verse from Isaiah 51 emphatically seeks to break open an unimaginable future. Expectations are reversed; life is to be changed. We struggle with the idea of change because we it is always easier to stay huddled and event content where we are. Change can be unsettling – uncomfortable – and even unnerving.  But only when we allow ourselves to continually be changed and reshaped by God can we know what it is to pursue a right life with God.  While we can cherish our yesterdays – whether ones from years ago or weeks ago or days ago – we cannot linger there.  God has more in store for us.  Isaiah wanted them to know that their situation was about to change - but that they would find joy and gladness, thanksgiving and the sound of singing on the other side.

We live in the moment between the days defined by memory and the days that will shaped by our dreams; between already and what is next before us.  I believe that we focus ourselves and our congregational life on a passionate pursuit of God that God will lead us to a place of joy and gladness.  While our tomorrows may look different than our todays and yesterdays, I believe that if we commit ourselves and our church community to follow God’s lead with abandon we will come to a spirit of thanksgiving and sing songs of praise. If we choose a passionate pursuit of God and God’s way as our way then God will turn the deserts and wastelands of our spiritual lives into overflowing gardens of growth and beauty. Isaiah wanted the people to understand that God was about to do something amazing in their midst – and that what God desired of them was for them to pursue a right way of life that would lead them only to Him.  His call is our call – we can see how God has moved in and through First Baptist Church in the past and in this most recent season together – but I believe to the very depths of my soul that we are only beginning to see what God has planned for us.  I do not pretend to know all that God has in store for us. But, while many Christians quake in fear of the future, I believe we are called to step out boldly and to pursue God’s way and God’s word with passion.  Choose to make space in your lives and participate in the opportunities we will offer to give you the tools for a passionate pursuit of God.  Make space in your life to spend time with God – reading, praying and listening.  Make space in your lives to take time to remember how God has moved in your life in your yesterdays.  Prepare yourselves for what God might call you to do and where God might call you – and us – to God.  Great days with God await us.

[i] DANIEL J. SIMUNDSON, “Comfort and Challenge: Prophetic Preaching in Pentecost,” Word & World 16/3 (1996)
“TEXTS IN CONTEXT” Copyright © 1996 by Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, p.360

Renewing the Covenant - 2 Kings 23:1-3

“Renewing the Covenant”                2 Kings 23: 1-3                    1/1/2012

I borrowed a book a couple of weeks ago from Joe Hodges.  Its title intrigued me. It is entitled, “Does God Have A Big Toe?  It is a book of stories about stories emerging from the Bible.  It comes from the Jewish teaching tradition called a midrash where a rabbi tells story about a Biblical story to help draw out a specific point or meaning.  This morning I want to share a midrash by the author of the book,  Rabbi Gellman.  It is a story emerging from the story of Enoch, one of the people whose story is told in Genesis 5, as a part of the transition from Adam to Noah.  Enoch is known for one thing.  His faith was so strong that he walked with God, and God loved him so much that he took him into heaven rather than having him face the stark reality of death.   The midrash is entitled, “The Announcing Tool” and I have asked Joe to read it for us:

     A long time ago, when all people lived in one place, getting news was easy. They had
     yellers then who would walk around town and after a few minutes of yelling everyone got    
     the news. But when people began living all over the place, even the yellers could not yell     
     loud enough to get the news around. Mostly people didn’t get the news. But some special
     times just had to be announced. And the arrival of the new year was one of those times.
  So God asked Enoch to go find an announcing tool.
  The next day Enoch returned with tow rocks. “Oh God, listen to my find announcing tool,” said Enoch, who nagged the two rocks together making a lock rock-banging sound.
  God said to Enoch, “What kind of announcing tool is this to tell of the arrival of the new year? Rocks don’t make music.  They only make noise. The new year is a time for music and singing, not banging and yelling.”
  Enoch ran off to find another announcing tool.
  The next day Enouch returned with a gong. “Listen to this one!” shouted Enoch as he gonged the gong, making lots of gonging sounds until God said, “STOP! What kind of announcing tool is this to announce the arrival of the new year? The gong does make a strong sound, but the going is made of iron and iron is used to make swords and spears and arrows and other weapons of war. The new year is a time of peace, not war.”
   So Enoch ran off to find another announcing tool.
   The next day Enoch returned with a harp. “God, this one is a winner!” he said as he strummed some lovely harp sounds that filled the air.  “Close,” Said God. “Very close, but not close enough.  The harp is a lovely instrument. It is not noisy. It is not made of iron. But it is too soft and find for an announcing tool.  The new year is a time of loud rejoicing.  We need an announcing tool that will carry the news from hilltop to hilltop around the world. Try again.”
   The next day Enoch returned with a golden trumpet in his hand and announced to God, “What you see here, God, is the perfect announcing tool! It makes music and not noise; it is not made of iron. And it is loud enough to carry the news of the new year from hilltop to hilltop!” Enoch then blew some fine notes on the golden trumpet. The God said, “The golden trumpet is a good announcing tool.”
   Enoch jumped up and down with joy until God continued. “Good, but not good enough.  The golden trumpet makes loud, beautiful music and is not made of iron. But it is made by somebody who pounded it and rolled it and shaped it. I want a natural announcing tool that is not made of gold. Prices are going up. Nobody could afford such an announcing tool.” Enoch was getting depressed, but he ran off one more time to hunt down another announcing tool.
   The next day Enoch was a little late coming to God.  When he did arrive, he was out of breath. “I am embarrassed, God, to show you my new announcing tool.  It is only this ram’s horn – not nearly as sweet as the harp or as beautiful as the golden trumpet.  But it is not made of iron. And nobody pounded it or shaped it (except for the ram).  I even think it is loud enough to get the news from hilltop to hilltop. But I am not sure if it is a good enough announcing tool.”
   “Why are you not sure?” asked God.
    Enoch replied, “Well, you see, Oh Holy One, Blessed be You, I have been practicing with this thing all morning and it is ever so hard to blow.  Sometime I blow and blow and I get is a peep!  or a pfft! or skeek! and then maybe another pffft!.
    God spoke to Enough with great love: “Enoch, you have done well! The ram’s hone is the perfect announcing tool.  It is natural and loud and can make beautiful sounds.  I know that it is hard to play, but that is just right. The new year is hard too.  It is a time for deciding to do good things and give up bad things.  The new year is a time for apologizing to others for hurting them in any way.  An all that is very very hard to do, even harder than blowing the ram’s horn.”
   The God sat Enoch down and taught him how to blow the ram’s horn for the big celebration of the new year that was soon to begin.  By the end of the lesson from God, Enoch could blow the ram’s horn with a peep! a pffft! or a skeek![i]

I think the reason I liked this midrash so much is I watch as we dive head long into the new year with grand resolutions to lose weight, to change jobs, to get out of debt, or some other profound personal change, only to discover within days or weeks we have fallen back into our old patterns and find ourselves frustrated, aggravated, and somewhat depressed.  This story understands that a choice to truly change at new years is hard and demands the work of God. Rabbi Gellman’s midrash reminds us, “The new year is hard too.  It is a time for deciding to do good things and give up bad things.  The new year is a time for apologizing to others for hurting them in any way.  An all that is very, very, hard to do, even harder than blowing the ram’s horn.” In our hearts we yearn to be more fit, more faithful, more the person God created us to be.  But, we despite our efforts we find ourselves stumbling and falling again and again.

Our story is not a new one. In 2 Kings 2 we hear about a dramatic moment of when the people of God took stock of who they were and what they needed to do to make real change in their lives.  The young king, Josiah, was having the temple cleaned up and renovated when the workers came across the Book of the Covenant, the book that described the nature of God’s relationship with the people and the people’s relationship with God.  This young king realized that they were far from where they were supposed to be in their walk with God and called the people together.  It was a moment that would change the course of the lives of all who were there. The traditional translation of the passage is printed in the worship guide, but hear the telling of the story from Eugene Peterson’s interpretative translation, The Message.  It reads; The king acted immediately, assembling all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. Then the king proceeded to The Temple of God, bringing everyone in his train—priests and prophets and people ranging from the famous to the unknown. Then he read out publicly everything written in the Book of the Covenant that was found in The Temple of God. The king stood by the pillar and before God solemnly committed them all to the covenant: to follow God believingly and obediently; to follow his instructions, heart and soul, on what to believe and do; to put into practice the entire covenant, all that was written in the book. The people stood in affirmation; their commitment was unanimous.

In this moment the king stood before the people and read the book to them.  For him these were more than words held in a scroll.  They were a call to a different way of life and a different standard of living.  Then, in front of everyone, he made a personal choice to renew his covenant relationship with God.  He did not demand they follow him.  The people choose to follow in renewing their covenant relationship with God because they saw how it impacted their king and wanted that same kind of relationship with God. They wanted the kind of life only possible when you walk with God.

Earlier in our service we listened and participated as Paxman shared a new year tradition from his church background.  It was a call to reflect and to pray.  In the midrash we heard a call to choose good, to reject the bad in our lives, and to reconcile broken relationships.  In our passage, we listened as the King Josiah invited to people to seize the moment and renew their right relationship with God and others.  Each of these voices call us to do more than simply make a fresh set of New Year’s resolutions this year. I want to invite you to become an announcing tool, making a bold but wonderful sound of music for the world that you have chosen to renew your covenant relationship with God rather than to simply make New Year’s resolutions.  While traditional resolutions beckon us toward something a quick and/or temporary fix, our choice to renew our covenant relationship with God reminds us who we are in God.  It calls us back to the moment we were redeemed and set free. It calls us to remember, to seek God’s face, and to start again.  Blow your ram’s horn so that from hilltop to hilltop the word will go out that it is a new year – and a new season in your walk with God.  Embrace this moment as a spiritual touchstone verse a pledge of fleeting resolutions.  Our resolutions are not very resolute.  Our covenant relationship with God is.

Now is a time of decision.  How will you respond?  Will you go through and compile our usual list of New Year’s resolutions or will we choose to seize this moment to renew a right relationship with God and with one another?  Will this be a year we choose to do right, to walk away from evil, and to reconcile the places in our lives that our broken?  In minutes, when we come to the table to remember God’s great grace gift, will it call us to God’s presence in a spirit of renewal or will we simply go through the motions one more time?  This is a time of decision – a new year awaits us – how will we respond? 

[i] Marc Gellman, “The Announcing Tool” in Does God Have a Big Toe?, (HarperCollins: New York, 1989), pp. 85-88.