Saturday, April 28, 2012

“Hearing God’s Voice” - I Samuel 3:1-10/Acts 9:1-17 - April 29, 2012

I was about twelve years old and I saw it.  It was the latest thing in technology.  It was an AM-FM hand-sized transistor radio. It was graphite colored plastic with a silver speaker cover. I wanted it! But since it was till new technology, it was pricey.  I had to cut 10 to 12 lawns before I could afford to buy it. The day finally came when I could buy it.  I bought a battery, hooked it up, and began turned the dial to try to find my favorite station, WKIX to listen to one of my favorite shows, Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 40. This was in the days before digital tuning so as I turned the dial I heard that annoying scratching sounds of static. Finally, when the dial was neither a little to the left, or a little to the right, but just one the right frequency, Casey’s voice called out the week’s pop music favorites. Joy!

One of the real big spiritual questions we struggle with is how we hear God speak to us – how do we tune into God’s voice? This morning we come hearing two stories separated by centuries tied together by the voice of God.  One story features a young boy listening in the darkness. The other, a man in the prime of his life, is stopped in his tracks. Both of these stories are dramatic moments when a person’s life direction is forever changed when they heard God speak; when they heard God call their name.  

In our first story young Samuel listens in the darkness. His life had been entrusted to the care of the great priest Eli.  He had demonstrated a love for God and faithfulness in his service to Eli and God.  He has settled in for the evening and from his bed he heard a voice calling out to him.  He could only imagine that it was the old priest Eli calling for him, so he ran to his beside to see what his needed.  Eli told him that he had not called for him and to go back to bed.  Samuel once again settled in, once again heard a voice calling his name, and one again went to Eli’s side, only to be sent away again. We hear (I Samuel 3)8 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.  God speaks and in a vision tells Samuel that he will become the voice through whom he would speak to his people. It will be Samuel that witnesses Saul installed as king, and later will anoint David to take his place as the leader of God’s people.  What began as a voice in the night pulled Samuel into the history of all Israel.

Our second story is better known to us.  It is when God stopped Paul in his track on the Damascus Road.  Paul had been virulent and violent in his persecution of the early followers of Jesus.  He saw them as heretics, challenging the established Jewish faith and its traditions.  While others saw someone to be feared, God saw one who could be a valued apostle and help care the love of Christ to the ends of the earth. Saul the persecutor neared Damascus and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”  In the same moment in Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. God instructed him to go to Saul, to get him, and to minister to him.  Because of the way God will use Paul in the days ahead our tendency is to focus solely on him in this story.  But I want you to see that God spoke to two men that day. Both had to hear and respond for God’s will to be done.

Across the breadth of Scripture we see story after story of God speaking to those who love him.  We are witnesses of God’s call of Abraham and picture of God wrestling with Jacob in the desert and later directing him to Bethel.  We watch as God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, call out the grand prophets of old. We also hear some dramatic language to describe the voice of God.  We hear Job tell his friends. (Job 3)At this my heart pounds and leaps from its place. 2 Listen! Listen to the roar of his voice, to the rumbling that comes from his mouth. 3 He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven and sends it to the ends of the earth. 4 After that comes the sound of his roar; he thunders with his majestic voice. When his voice resounds, he holds nothing back. 5 God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways; he does great things beyond our understanding. We also hear through the Psalms and beyond that the voice of the Lord shakes the desert, strikes with flashes of lightening, sounds like the rushing water, and makes the earth melts.  It is easy to see why we begin to think that the voice of God must be a deep booming bass voice, a James Earl Jones kind of voice that would make us quiver if it was pointed in our direction. It is easy to understand why so many think that God used to speak to his people, but wonder if God still speaks to people like us today.  The answer is a resounding “yes!” God still speaks. God still calls. If we are ready to listen, God is ready to speak into our lives. 

Jesus tells us in John 10:27 that My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. Jesus wants is clear that all of us who are the sheep of is pasture, the people who call him Savior, then we will hear and know his voice. While some might have a Damascus Road experience, we need to understand that God speaks into our lives in many, many different ways.  Sometimes God might speak in the boom bass voice, but God is also One who spoke to Elijah in the sound of silence.

You expect me to say that God speaks through Scripture.  The reason we come with this assumption is because almost all of us can testify to a moment when we needed a word from God and someone shared a scripture with us that spoke into our lives. 12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  God word is alive and God is ready to speak through the Bible into our daily walk with him.

You will also expect me to say that God speaks through prayer. This one is equally easy to affirm. LaJuanda can testify that in the short time our PrayFirst ministry has been up and operating that we have seen moments when God answered prayer and spoke through prayer.

You will expect me to say that God speaks through music.  How could you be a part of worship here and not come with this bias. Psalm 40(3) sings out; He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.  God speak to us through music. Have you not experienced a moment when a song seemed to be more than music, but a word from God just for you? Have you not found yourself swept away and drawn into the presence of God when a familiar hymn or a piece of music speaks to you in unexpected ways?  Music speak to us and into in a way that disarms us and opens us for God to speak.

But, it is important to hear that there are also other ways God speaks to us.  Hear that God speak throughcommunity. In the story of the mission commissioning of Barnabas and Paul we see that God spoke into the midst of community.  God still does. I was called to serve a church as a Minister of Youth at a church just as Beth and I began our life together as man and wife.  I loved the youth and the parents that I had the opportunity to serve beside.  But, the pastor there was apparently in a mid-life struggle and made my life living misery. Another church approached me about joining their staff.  While I needed to get away from that pastor, I hated the thought of living the kids and their parents.  I was emotionally and spiritually battered and bruised and was having a hard time discerning God’s will.  I reached out and listened to Beth, the pastor of the new church, and the search committee I was working with to hear their sense of what God was saying.  God spoke to me through them and this moment proved pivotal in my ministry development.

God also speaks through those around us. Melody Pryor, pastor of First Baptist Church of Stanton, Mo., said she first had a notion of being a pastor while in the second grade but “blew it off” as something a girl couldn’t do. It resurfaced after she lost her son to cancer in 1997 and was taking classes at Oklahoma Baptist University. A professor told her he saw “a pastor in you” and introduced her to Baptist Women in Ministry, a national support organization. Knowing that Southern Baptists as a denomination do not accept women as pastors, "I thought I would have to change denominations," the retired U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant said. "But I'm loyal to Baptists, and I was torn between whether to do it. Ultimately she was asked to step into the pulpit at First Baptist when her father was forced to step out of it because of illness.  She has to overcome her own fears of her father’s potential response and the reality that her being named pastor might create issues among some in the congregation and in the wider Baptist community.  God had called her and now provided her the right place for her to serve. [i]  God had called Melody in her childhood but used the voice of an OBU professor to challenge her to listen and follow in the now of her life.

While these stories are tied to people and their call to congregational ministry, the same principals apply whether you are a teacher, salesman, lawyer, construction worker, doctor, mechanic, or anything else.  In Job 13 we hear God say, Listen carefully to what I say; let my words ring in your ears.  In teaching the parables, Jesus told us; let those who have ears, listen up.  The question is not whether God is ready to speak or whether we have ears set to hear what God has to say. We have to make a choice to open our ears, our hearts, and our souls to God’s fresh word for us. Let those who have ears, listen up. Let my words ring in your ears.  Tune in, listen in the darkness, stop dead in your tracks on the road, look for a burning bush, stand in the mouth of a cave, open your heart in prayer, listen to a song, open the Bible, listen to those that walk beside you in faith. Listen up. God is ready to speak.

Listen, you heavens, and I will speak; hear, you earth, the words of my mouth. 2 Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants. (Deuteronomy 32:1-2)

[i] Vicki Brown, “Woman follows father into pulpit” available online at on March 27, 2012

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Seeing God's Face - Genesis 33:1-11 - April 22, 2012

Last week we talked about living lives of faith that make mountains quake and nations tremble. This week we turn to one of my favorite stories with an equally challenge message for us.  Earlier in our service you heard our narrative read in four languages.  That moment was a powerful for me because it reminded us that the Bible speaks across language and culture and this passage calls us to live in a way where we can see the face of God in the faces of one another. 

You remember that the story is of the grand reunion between Jacob and Esau.  In the verses that run up to this morning’s narrative we hear that Jacob is nervous about this encounter.  Jacob cannot forget that he manipulated his brother into selling his birthright for a bowl of soup.  Jacob cannot forget that he, with his mother’s help, staged a show for his father Isaac, making Isaac believe that Jacob was Esau so that he could steal his father’s blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau.  Jacob could not forget that he had spent his life as his mother’s favorite but had left her in Esau’s care.  Can you imagine how cold the dinners must have been that Esau shared with his mother, knowing she loved him less, knowing she had helped Jacob steal all that was precious to him?  Jacob came to this reunion with us brother knowing what he deserved.  Jacob came to this reunion with his brother expecteing vengeance and rage, pain and maybe even death.  Jacob had been a horrible brother and a scoundrel and came ready to pay the price.                 

When Jacob sees Esau and his men on the horizon he tried to send gifts ahead of him, hoping – maybe even praying – that this rich gesture might placate his brother’s rage. Esau draws closer and closer and you and almost fell Jacob quaking in his boot.  I have to tell you that I am ready for Esau to act.  It is time for justice.  It is time that big brutish brother to rain down pain and vengeance on his manipulative younger brother.  When you first come to the story you are waiting for Esau to pulverize this little punk – to give him all that he has coming to him. But, this is not where the story goes.  Just in the minute we think we will see justice we encounter forgiveness; just in the moment we think we will see hatred we encounter love; just when we think Esau will destroy his brother we encounter redemption and restoration. We hear Jacob’s voice. He has feared seeing Esau’s face but now proclaims; For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. (Vs. 10) I just keep thinking about those words that we were created in God’s image. Jacob testifies that this is true. In Esau’s response he sees the face of God.

I want that.  I want for people to be able to see God’s face in mine.  I want my life and way of life to be a living witness of the heart of God.  I want the same for you. I believe that this story demonstrates four characteristic we must embrace if we long to a reflection the face of God. 

The first characteristic I see is that we must learn to Forgive Outrageously.  It is easy to be held captive by a living past – things that have happened to us that frustrate us and cause us to carry the boundless weight of bitterness.  Esau had every reason to be consumed by what Jacob had done to him in his youth.  The entire course of his life had been altered by Jacob’s deceptions and manipulations.  If anyone had a right to get even it was Esau. But he forgave outrageously!  This is at the heart of God.  We hear Jesus teach the idea of forgiving outrageously in a conversation with Peter.  (Matthew 18: 21)  We hear; Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. We hear Jesus teach on another occasion; (Luke 7:40) “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. 41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred (days’ wages), and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. In Colossians, Chapter 3, verse 13 we listen as Paul teaches; Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  There is no better or stronger picture of outrageous forgiveness then the picture of Jesus on the cross on our behalf. 

Many in our culture will condemn the Church for being “judgmental.” The Church had done its share to earn that title, but the reality is that the world around us makes little room for forgiveness or mercy.  Ours is a law and order, justice and punishment driven culture. Hear me clearly, there is a place for law and order, justice and punishment, but we must see that God calls us to be people that reflect His mercy and His grace. We do not have to carry the pain that others inflict upon us.  We can give it away to God.  When we choose to forgive others outrageously, we show them a different way – God’s way. When we forgive outrageously we are able to let go of what has been holding us back and dragging us down and release it into God’s hands.  When we forgive outrageously we reflect the face of God.

Esau had every right to be wrapped up in hate. I cannot find a single time that when the Bible reports Jacob doing anything for Esau, but instead offers a litany of horrible things Jacob did to him. It is easy to begin to build a catalog of events when we believe someone has treated us unjustly.  Many times the list emerges from authentic moments of pain and angst. Other things noted on our internal list reflect moments of miscommunication or misdirected emotion. Sometimes we hold on to our list so firmly that we allow little room for love to break into our hearts.  There is an incredible moment in our story that makes me stop where I am to watch and listen.  Esau races past the gifts that Jacob had presented before him and just when hatred should unleash its full force, we read in verse 4; But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Did you hear that – just when we expect to see swords clashing, we see instead Esau choosing to Love with Abandon. It is unexpected and unmerited love. Esau did not wait for Jacob to act or even apologize. He did not let pride get in the way.  He took the initiative. This is exactly what we see in how God pursues us with His love.  Paul teaches in Romans 5, 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God did not wait for us – but even when we were still on the wrong side of faith died for us – and rose again – that we might be called “the children of God.” Too many around us live lives bereft the feeling that anyone really loves them.  They long to experience love with abandon.  When we love abundantly, we reflect the face of God.

Our story rushes forward and we hear Esau say ‘Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.’  This looks like such a small statement, but it displays an incredible act to Radically Restore Jacob to his place as his brother. Esau’s culture would have allowed – in fact would have anticipated – Esau going ahead of his younger brother to display his power and his position.  The offer to ride at Jacob’s side is scandalous in its graciousness. If we seek to have a heart that Radically Restores people to their right place in our lives, and a heart that leads people to be restored to a right relationship with God then we must be clear that it cannot be done from over and above. It cannot be done from in front of them to secure our own spot. Instead it calls us to their side, breaking open the shackles that separate us.  This is a critical characteristic for us to embrace both on a personal level and a congregational one.  Too many people – too many of us – live with broken relationships.  This is an invitation for us to reach out boldly with a heart shaped by God rather than our past failures.  Hear me clearly, I am not advocating an effort to restore an abusive, or manipulative, or destructive relationship. There are some in our lives we must learn to forgive at a distance.  But, it is an invitation to make sure that our hearts and our intentions are defined by a restorative spirit.  We must reach out where we can with integrity and hope.  We see God’s restorative heart again in Romans 5 when Paul teaches. (10) For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! God is in the reconciliation business, and if we want to be a reflection of God’s face it should be our business as well.     

It is also important that we model a way of reconciliation for our community.  There is a covert racism that is alive and well in our community.  It sees people by the color of their skin and by the language they speak.  Our choice to worship together and to be family together across the boundaries is a living witness to our community that God’s way is a different way.  It pronounces we believe that all of us are created in God’s image and were redeemed to be family with and for one another. 

As the story ends Esau does one more thing that moves and inspires me.  He offers to go with Jacob, or to at least send some of those with him along with Jacob for protection. Esau chooses to Serve Beyond All Expectations.  This fourth and final characteristic is echoes in the words of Jesus; (Matthew 5:39ff) But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. We also see it on display as God loves us and cares for us beyond anything we could ask or imagine.  When we choose to serve others beyond the bounds that anyone would expect from us they are left to wonder why. Our answer is clear.  God have loved us and served us beyond our wildest hope or our greatest dream.  If we serve other beyond all expectation then we reflect the face of God.

When we forgive outrageously, love with abandon, restore radically, and serve others beyond all expectation we have the opportunity to reflect the face of God to all we encounter. We long to see God at work.  Our world longs to see God at work. What we learn is that if we are faithful to the way of God we see God at work across language and culture in the face of one other.  If we are faithful to the way of God we become witnesses of God’s heart and a reflection of God’s face to our community and the world. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Mountains Quake - Isaiah 64 - April 15, 2012

Several weeks ago Kim brought me the piece of music that was written by Bruce and sung by our Sanctuary Choir earlier in our service.  She brought it to me because we had a change in our worship schedule opening this Sunday up for a new direction.  She told me that the piece was based on Isaiah 64 and wondered if it might be a good theme for our worship.  I must confess that I had not spent much time with the passage, but as soon as I read it I knew it was right for the day. It is a psalm of waiting and expectation. It speaks to those who live between; between the act of God that first drew them to God’s feet and the next moment of their lives.

As we move away from Easter Sunday we are reminded that we are a people that live between.  We live between the resurrection and ascension and the promised return of Jesus. We live between the moment we first came to a relationship with God through faith and that moment when we are live in God’s embrace forever.  We live between who we are and who God called us to be. We live between our youth and the December of our lives.  We live between our last grand memory and the next moment that will capture our heart and mind.  We are a people who live between. Even as a congregation we live between. We live between the era of the Model T who the community called us “blessed” and the next era where we will live out our faith from the margins. We live between the years when every seat in this room was filled and the days with God that still await us.  This passage brings a word of hope and promise to people that live between.  It brings a word of hope and promise to us.

Listen to the first four verses as translated in the New Living Translation.  Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down! How the mountains would quake in your presence! 2 As fire causes wood to burn and water to boil, your coming would make the nations tremble.  Then your enemies would learn the reason for your fame! 3 When you came down long ago, you did awesome deeds beyond our highest expectations. And oh, how the mountains quaked! 4 For since the world began, no ear has heard and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!

The picture he paints is a dramatic one.  The writer calls out to God to tear open and burst out of heaven and come down with such a force that the power of his presence would make the mountains quake and the nations tremble.  The psalmist dreams a grand act of God that would shake the foundation of the world.The psalmist waits for God to do something of scale that would affirm their faith and lift their spirits.  He remembers, When you came down long ago, you did awesome deeds beyond our highest expectations.  He remembers when God moved in ways that were so powerful and so clearly demonstrative that it blew everyone away.  It exceeded anything they could have hoped or imagine.  This is our Easter language.  We have celebrated God’s great grace gift so powerfully demonstrated on the cross.  We have celebrated the moments the mountains quaked when the stone was rolled away and the power and presence of a resurrected Jesus was on display.  And oh, how the mountains quaked! For since the world began, no ear has heard and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!

The Psalmist sings out in between the yesterdays when God’s work was clear and the tomorrow when they expect God to move again.  They found themselves broken and uncertain in this time between.  Over the rest of Isaiah 64 the psalmist acknowledges the spiritual stumbles, bumbles and falls of the people.  The psalmist cries out realizing that they can do nothing about their circumstances without the movement of God. The psalmist cries out, waiting for God to do something to change their story. If we stop with the psalmist’s cry we might lose heart.  But laced within the cry we find the words of hope and promise. Within the psalmist cry we discover that the mountains still quake.

When we use language like “the mountains quake” we imagine that we must wait for God to do something big and dramatic. But, if we are not careful we miss God at work right in front of us.  God’s presence and power is at work in the world. God is doing so much more than we can expect or imagine. Jesus teaches that there is a whole new ways to see the mountains quake.  In Matthew 17:20 Jesus teaches; “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible. ”Two weeks ago, just over here (walking toward and pointing to an area of the pulpit platform), we witnessed God at work shaking mountains in our midst.  Here is how Kristin Rogers tells the story;

“On Palm Sunday, as the children’s choir sang, our church witnessed a beautiful picture of how God intends us to love and care for one another. Christopher has been in children’s choir for many years, though he does not sing. Chris is autistic and non-verbal, but he is a part of our children’s ministry and involved in everything we do. Our children have always loved and accepted Chris for who he is. I see visiting children come into a classroom and act a bit startled to see Chris oooing and waving his arms. Without a word, our visitors look around to see how the children who know Chris respond to him. They see that everyone accepts Chris and his behaviors and the visitors also accept that this is normal for us. Everyone relaxes and class begins. Ah, the power of peer pressure! It can be a good thing. But on Palm Sunday, it wasn’t just peer pressure that touched us. In the past, an adult has stood in choir with Chris to help him focus and do the movements. As Chris gets older, he needs this less, but it is still hard for him to focus, especially when he doesn’t sing. But on that Sunday, he stood between his friends, Dalton and Emry. Chris tried to take Dalton’s hand once and Dalton jerked away, as any normal boy would do, until he saw that it was Chris and he held Chris’ hand. But for most of the service, Chris relied on Emry. He held her hand and laid on her shoulder. She gently reminded Chris to stand by her side, helping him to keep in the right place and doing the right thing.”

In seeing Dalton’s and Emry’s love and care for Chris we were witnesses of God at work in our midst.  When Dalton and Emry reached out in love in Jesus name, the mountains quaked.

In the main hallway that runs between the north and south entrances you will find pictures from the cookout and Easter egg hunt. In the pictures you will see our children serving food and our young adults preparing and facilitating the egg hunt.  You will also find people of all ages and multiple nations and languages engaged together in conversation and relationship.  In an era when we hear so much about what divides us, we were witnesses to God at work breaking down barriers and building up people.  Through your hands and heart of service the mountains quaked. 

On Monday and Tuesday nights you can find the mountains quaking when people step outside of their everyday lives and serve in the Good Shepherd medical/dental clinic, in the Food Pantry, and in the Clothes Closet. On Wednesday nights Rosemary Lackey and the other Language Center volunteers make the mountains quake when teach people in Jesus’ name.  On Wednesday night you can see God shaking the foundations of creation as our Sanctuary Choir works to prepare to lead us in worship. When some of you stepped forward to prepare to meals for Jim Hall as an act of love the mountains quaked. 

We hear the psalmist in Isaiah acknowledge, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. (vs.8)The Easter story tells us that our redemption was and is eternally significant to God and that God is ready to be at work in our lives and that His work in and through us demonstrates his power equally with the grand acts of God record throughout scripture. We do not have to wait for God to tear open heaven and come down to act.  God has already torn the bounds of heaven and God has already come down on our behalf.  We do not have to wait any longer.  We are not on a permanent pause between God’s last grand act and God’s next great work.  We do not have to languish, waiting on God to move.  God’s work is on display here and now. God is moving now. Every time we see God’s beloved and redeemed people loving and caring for one another and those in their community and the world, we see God at work. We see it demonstrated every time someone opens their hearts in faith to God through Christ. God is at work in front of us and through us so that we become living witnesses that “no one has heard, no ear has perceived, and no eye has seen any God besides you, who comes for those who wait for him.”

We are also invited to be a part of the story not just as witnesses but as active participants in the work of God.  We are invited to live empowered lives of faith as God’s redeemed people - rooted in God’s power and God’s faithfulness. If you want to see God at work, go to work as His children. If you choose to live in and through God’s grace get ready to see the mountains quake and the nations tremble. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

From the hand of a child

At the close of a wonderful day of worship I moved from our sanctuary to our Commons, the place where we meet and greet after worship.  As usual, a short line formed to share their thoughts on our morning worship experience or to fill me in on something going on in their lives. As usual, those in the line spanned a wide range ages and life stories. But, yesterday something very unusual and unexpected happened.  One of the couples in line had their children at their side.  Their two young girls ran up and gave my wife and me wonderful hugs filled with love and joy.  Their young son walked up to me and showed me small bag of plastic Easter eggs. You could tell that they had instantly become a prized possession.  He then surprised me by reaching into the bag, pulled out a bright yellow egg and showed it to me.  He explained to me that each egg special because it had a piece of candy in it.  I smiled and told him that these were great eggs and I knew he must like them a lot. He nodded his head with exuberance and in the instant when I thought he was about put the egg back in his bag he instead lifted it higher toward me.  “It’s for you,” he said with a huge smile.  With that he closed his bag and the family headed out for their day.  No one had told the boy to give me this unexpected gift.  He did it as an act of love. There were a number of wonderful things that transpired at our church on Easter morning, but I do not think I will ever forget the precious Easter gift given by a child. On a day when we celebrate God’s great grace gift this little boy provided a living demonstration of an unmerited gift of love. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter Morning Message - The Broken Redeemed - Romans 5:12-15

There are some stories that we like to hear so much that we read them over and over and over again.  Have you had a moment at a child’s beside when you finish reading a story and the child looks up at you with eyes of hope and expectation and asks, “Oh, I liked that one.  Read it again.  Please read it again?” Are there books on your bookshelves that are worn with wear from those times you had to read it just one more time? Do you find yourself drawn to stories like “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Great Gatsby,”  “Pride and Prejudice” or another great classic that draws you back in every time you read it?  This morning we come to the Easter story.  We have declared with power, He is Risen!” and sung with passion “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” There is so much that is familiar about how we celebrate Easter.  Year in and year out we come to tell the story of how the risen Christ changes everything for you and for me. It is always the same story.  Except, it is not just a story – it’s our story. It is the story who makes us who we are as Christians.  We are an Easter people - a resurrection people – claiming life and faith through the one who was dead and is now alive. So, here I am this morning reclaiming the same story retold every Easter for two thousand years. It is our story.

Six weeks ago we started a sermon series that began at the beginning to give us a fresh look at the redemptive work of God.  We watched as God created humanity in His image. We were created in the image of God for a real and personal relationship with God.  We were created by God to walk with God. God gave humanity control over everything that would sustain us and bring us joy.  Somehow it seems, all of God’s grand provision was not enough. Somehow the one thing, the only thing that God has set aside seemed irresistible. In a sad but predictable twist in the story Adam and Eve chose their own way rather than the way of God.  Their choice created the spiral of sin that sweeps us into whirlwind of stumbles, bumbles, failures and falls. 

In Romans 5 we hear Paul take us right back to that moment in the Garden. We hear Paul teach; Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned— To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

We tend to think about sin as something we do – a distinct act, a moment when we step out bounds and do something that breaks our relationship with God or one another.  But hear that Paul teaches us that it is more than this one by one action; it is a pattern that plays out over and over again in our lives.  It is not taking a bite of the forbidden fruit like Adam, it is about choosing to back to the tree of disobedience and self-centeredness and making its fruit a part of our regular diet.

In another era we would have listened to pastors rail away at “sinners” and we tended to think that he was talking about someone else – someone who had done such bad things that we should avert our eyes in from the glare of their shame. But here we hear that the reign of sin and the spiritual death lies equally at our feet.  In God’s eyes we are not good people who rarely and occasionally do something wrong or fail to do something right. No, at our core we are we are people who at our core chose our way over God’s way.  We are Adam’s spiritual decedents. We, at our core, live in a pattern set by Adam, choosing a path that leads us away from God to brokenness and spiritual isolation. If left to our own, we like Adam and Eve, would end up hiding from God, rather than to walk open and honestly with God in the cool of the day.

Something had to happen to change the story.  Something had to happen because our stumbles, bumbles, failures, and falls kept us from being the people we were created to be.  Something had to happen because or we would forever be weighed down by self-destructive choices and secret shames. Something had to happen or we would live our lives separated from God.  Something had to happen and we could not do it on our own.

This morning we come to celebrate God’s grand act on our behalf. When we come to the foot of the cross we see God pay a price for our salvation that almost too great to comprehend. The gift of grace takes on a painful and bitter face when Jesus taken on our sin and our shame on our behalf. The violence of the blood stained cross gives way to stillness of the empty tomb and we see that in Christ’s resurrection God’s promise of life and eternal life is made real.  In simplest terms, God’s great gift makes the way for us to find our way back to God – it makes the way for people like you and mean who are broken to be redeemed and our relationship with God made right. Paul words it this way;  But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!  Charles Talbert, a great Baptist New Testament scholar hears Paul’s words this way; “Adam, by his sin, brought sin, brought death, condemnation and sin to all.  Christ, by his obedience, brought justification and life.” [i]  In the story of the cross and resurrection the price for sin and shame and the price for our stumbles, bumbles, failures and falls is paid.

I love the image that Paul claims.  He contrasts what Jesus did against what Adam did, and talks about what Christ did for us as a gift. I do not know anyone who does like to receive a gift.  I am sure that there is someone somewhere out there that might disagree, but I have never met them.  There is something about see a box all wrapped up, with a bow on top, with our name on the tag.  Paul wants us to understand that the gift he describes in now ordinary gift.  It is a gift given by God.

There is a reason behind most gifts we receive.  We receive gifts to celebrate our birthdays, marriage anniversaries, at Christmas, or as markers of other significant life events. But this gift is different.  It is a gift of grace. It is an unmerited gift – we did nothing to earn this great gift.  It is an undeserved gift – we did nothing to deserve this gift.  It is an unqualified gift in scale – it is beyond price we could conceive or pay. It is a gift that only God can give. It is God making the way for our right relationship with God to be restored.  Paul wants us to hear clearly that Adam’s choice for self, his choice for disobedience, his choice to choose his way over God’s way put all of us on a path of spiritual destruction.  But with this gift God makes a choice to make the way for forgiveness and life for us. With this gift God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and God’s promise of life now and life forever with Him overflows. 

This is the great grace gift that God offers to us.  But, like all gifts, it must be received. God does not force it on us.  It is offered in love.  It is offered in hope.  It is offered in grace.  But you and I have to make a choice. We, like Adam and Eve, were created in the image of God for a real and personal relationship with God.  We, like Adam and Eve, have to make a choice between going our way or God’s way.  We, like Adam and Even have to make a choice between hiding in the bushes in shame from God or standing opening and honestly before God. We have to make the choice of embracing God’s great gift of grace that makes the way for forgiveness and life with God for us or walking away on our own.  If we claim the Easter gift of grace we choose a life of obedience – a life with God – a life walking God’s way.  So, what will you do with God’s gift? Will you embrace it, or go your own way?

[i] Charles H. Talbert, Romans, Symth & Helwys Bible Commentary, (Smyth and Helwys Publishing: Macon, GA, 2002), p. 152.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Maundy Thursday Experience at our lunch time Bible study

I can hardly imagine what the disciples must have been feeling as they headed up the stairs to the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover Feast with Jesus.  Over the past few days they had walked behind Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on a small donkey.  They had watched and listened as people gathered along the roadside and yelled, “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  They had been at Jesus’ side as he drove the corrupt money changers from the Temple and had stood toe to toe with Scribes and Pharisees in confrontation over the intent and meaning of God’s word.  They had listened as Jesus taught in the streets and heard Jesus stand on the Temple Mount and pronounce the impending destruction of the Temple.  Jesus had tried to help them understand what was about to happen but it seems that they were so consumed by the events of the week that they had a hard time hearing him and believing that he was about to leave them. It seems that as they entered the Upper Room they were ready to revel in their experience and celebrate the Passover Feast with joy.  They came ready for a party only to discover Jesus had something very different in mind.

From the moment they entered the room Jesus tried to help them understand something was about to happen – that their lives were about to change.  In an incredible act of servanthood he washed their feet. It was a humbling moment for them. During the meal Jesus lifted up the unleavened bread from the table and tore it and explained that the bread was like his body which was to be given for them.  AT the close of the meal Jesus picked up prophet’s cup from the table and began to teach that the wine in this cup was like his blood. This wine would be the wine of the new covenant and it would be a sign of his blood that would be shed for the forgiveness of sins of the many. Can you imagine the looks on their faces as they struggled to understand?  Can you imagine how the party atmosphere had changed into something darker and more difficult?  Can you imagine how their hearts must have stung when Jesus told them that one of them at that very table were about to betray him?

We are an Easter people.  We know the rest of the story, but for those gathered in that Upper Room it would be experienced blow by blow.  Jesus would go into the Garden to pray, grieved to the point of death.  The soldiers would come with Judas leading the way.  They would seize Jesus and the ridiculous cycle of trials that were a mockery to justice would begin.  The crowds that had only days before called out “Hosanna!” would now scream out, “Crucify him!”  The Romans were masters of torture and death and we see it lived out in the passion of the Christ.  But, sometimes we become so focused on the physical pain that Jesus had to endure we fail to see the deeper pain.  Jesus, who knew no sin, would take on the pain and shame of the sin of the world.  Jesus, who was one with the Father would have to become abandonment on our behalf. Jesus would experience the Father turning his back on him as he took on the depths of darkness of our souls.  The sky would grow dark as night and earth would quake uncontrollably. The curtain that divided the Holy of Holies – the symbolically the presence of God – from the rest of humanity would be ripped from end to end. A story that the Jewish religious leaders and the local Roman authority thought ended in death would be changed on Easter morning to a story resurrection, forgiveness and grace.  So we come on this Maundy Thursday to remember and to take our place at the foot of the cross.  We come to wait with humility and thankfulness.  We come to because we can do no other.

In the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine Jesus instructed claim this symbolic act as a part of their life together in remembrance of him.  So, we who follow Christ, now come to remember. Listen now as Cynthia Clawson and Bruce Greer call us to the table.  

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Dark Night of the Soul - 1 Kings 19:1-5, Matthew 26:36-41 - April 1,2012

(Sitting on a stool five feet from the pulpit) I love balloons and confetti, fireworks and marching bands.  I love almost anything that mark good days and grand celebrations.  I love worship services where the music is filled with passion and energy and sermons designed to uplift, encourage, and call us to more.  But every day is not a celebration and every worship service cannot be filled only with songs of praise.  Sometimes life is difficult and sometimes the themes of worship must call us into difficult places.  There is no week where that is clearer than this one.  For many, they will go from the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday to the victorious songs of Easter morning.  But there is so much story between the two.  There is so much darkness and pain between the two. 

We do not like to talk about darkness.  It makes us uncomfortable. It troubles us and even frightens us. We quiver as we try to figure out what goes bump in the dark or what might be lurking in our closet or beneath or bed. We worry and we wonder about what might happen in the dark.  The prospect of spiritual darkness is even less palpable. But, it is a very real part of the spiritual journey of many of us. Over the past seven plus years as your pastor I have shared stories emerging from my battle with a catastrophic illness.  It is easier to talk about the time in the coma, the weeks in ICU that followed, the battle to reclaim my body through physical therapy, and the support I experienced from those who stood with our family and those who stood by me in prayer because these stories are hopeful and happy.  Still, there is another part of the story that I have struggled to share because it is so intense and spiritually painful.  I wondered how God might redeem and use that part of my story. Only recently I have begun to discover that it speaks into moments like this one when we peer into the darkness.   

You would think that the day I came home from the hospital after 100 days in captivity I would sing and celebrate.  My family did everything they could to make the day special.  There were balloons, welcome home banners, and even a special meal to mark the occasion. I wanted to celebrate with them.  It was good to be home but the house had become strangely unfamiliar and I discovered that I had embraced the security of the hospital where there were trained personnel available at the push of a button if something went wrong.  I found myself unsettled and unsure. But most surprisingly, I found that I felt nothing. I felt no joy, no sadness, no exhilaration, no excitement, nothing. It was hard on my family.  They wanted the old me – the excited, optimistic, energized me – back. But, instead there was nothing. I am sure that part of that experience was some depression.  The medical journey had been physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually exhausting.  But there was something much deeper than that at work.  I found myself wandering in the spiritual darkness longing for the light of God. I did all the things I was supposed to do. I did my devotions, read my Bible, offered prayers, sang songs, and when I was physically able I returned to church.  While others around me celebrated the divine miracle that pulled me from the edge of death to life again; I found myself struggling – feeling my prayers bounded off the ceiling. The darkness was deep and the sense of spiritual isolation was unmistakable. So I did the only thing I found I could do - I waited; finally realizing that only God could pull me from the darkness into His light and joy again. I was reminded of this season of struggle only a couple of weeks ago.  On the first day of the trail I had to sit and listen to the plaintiff tell stories of endless surgeries and the demands of physical therapy and her story struck deep in my heart. I felt it blow by blow but I could not react.  I was pulled back into my season of the dark night of my soul.  It broke with pain in the depths of my heart.   I remembered, but this time the lessons from my earlier walk in the darkness carried me toward healing and hope.

(Shift to pulpit) In the 16th Century a mystic Catholic priest named John of the Cross wrote a poem and a follow up treatise entitled, The Dark Night of the Soul.  His poem narrates the journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God. The journey occurs during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties the soul encounters in detaching from the world and moving toward a full and complete life with God. Christian theologians and counselors have used the image of The Dark Night of the Soul to describe a spiritual crisis or a season of spiritual difficulty in one walk with God. 

From the Old Testament we hear this morning a story from the life and ministry of the great prophet Elijah. Many of you remember the story of Elijah’s mountaintop contest with the prophets of Baal. We laugh when we remember how he mocked them when after all kind of gyrations and incantations their pile of wood and their sacrificial bull stood untouched. Then Elijah, in a grand act of faith, douses his wood with water three times and then God publically demonstrates his power by sending fire that consumed Elijah’s sacrifice and the drought that consumed the land was broken.  You would have thought that this moment would define the rest of Elijah’s life – that he would be secure in the presence of God, the provision of God and the power of God.  But soon after this mountaintop experience the Queen, Jezebel, threatens him and he runs away in fear.  The fear, not his mountaintop experience, seizes and defines him.  In a time he should have been relishing in the power of God, he instead finds himself in the dark night of the soul.  The glory and power of God seem distant.  He finds himself struggling, sitting beneath a lonely tree, waiting to die alone. An angel comes and attends to him and directs him toward a cave where he might have a fresh encounter with God.  Elijah listens for God in the loud roaring of the wind and hears nothing from God.  Elijah experiences the rolling and jolting of an earthquake – the raw power of God on display and hears nothing from God.  Elijah sees a roaring fire – a symbol on unrestrained purity and hears nothing from God.  So he sits and waits in the dark night of his soul and finally in the “sheer silence” God speaks.  Into his fears God speaks.  Into his darkness God speaks.

In this Holy Week as we walk through the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus, we witness Jesus driving the money changers from the Temple; we listen as Jesus teaches and preaches and we relish in the beauty of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and sharing the Passover feast with them.  But as Jesus breaks the bread and lifts the goblet and talks about the breaking of his body and the shedding of his blood for the forgiveness of the many we realize something drastic is about to happen.  We follow Jesus into the Garden and we see him sorrowed and troubled and we listen as he proclaims, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  We like the preaching, healing, teaching, and loving Jesus.  It is hard for us to look at his face and see the Man of Sorrows. But we have to look and we have to listen.  Jesus is preparing for a dark night of the soul.  So often in Holy Week we focus on the physical suffering of Jesus. It is unmistakably there.  But, the physical suffering is only a part of the story.  The dark night of the soul will demand that Jesus bear the pain and the weight of the shame of the sin of the world alone.  The dark night of the soul will demand that in his agony he will experience isolation from the Father – that the Father will turn His back on Jesus – that Jesus will become abandonment for us.  In everything Christ understands us, even the moments when we fill like our “soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”

A time in the dark night is not a sign of spiritual weakness.  It is a part of the Christian walk. Some were shocked to read about Mother Teresa’s struggle with the dark night of her soul.  They had seen her as so self-sacrificing and so pious, they could not imagine any spiritual struggle or doubt in her life.  But, as a part of her canonization by the Catholic Church scholars looked at every letter and journal entry from her to get the best understanding of her. “In a letter estimated to be from 1961, (Mother) Teresa wrote: ‘Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can't explain.’”[i]  From her darkness and willingness to follow God even when she did not feel the warmth of God’s light, she became light for those she served. In the midst of her own spiritual pain, she was able to reflect the depths of God’s love and grace.  Her dark night of the soul does not make me appreciate her less, but instead it causes me to be thankful for her life and faith all the more.  Her night dark of the soul makes her more human, more accessible than almost mythical paragon of virtue, self-sacrifice, and servanthood she had come to represent to the world.

The dark night of the soul is hard, but it is a vital part of the Christian journey of faith. It is a place where we learn the power of the longing for God. In the great devotional classic, Mu Upmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers anticipates that darkness as a part of our walk and teaches that when in the darkness, don’t speak, listen; don’t act, wait on God.[ii] While I believe he is right, waiting in the darkness is hard and in those moments my soul longs to cry out to God, to cry out to someone for help.  The dark night of the soul is hard, but it is a time when God refines and redefines us. While we may feel broken and isolated, God does not abandon us.  He is there in the darkness with us, even in the moments we may feel God is far away. It is in the walk through darkness where we learn to cherish the light of God’s presence and the warmth of God’s love in a very deep and personal way.

Some of you worshipping here this morning find yourself living in the midst of the dark night of the soul. Hear that you are not alone and God has not forgotten you. Be still. Listen. And wait on God. God has not forgotten you. God has a plan for you. In some way, all of us here this morning must walk through the dark shadows of the Garden and the cross, where pain and agony claim the day. We must go there because it is at the heart of the gospel story. We cannot fully embrace the depths of God’s light and love on display on Easter morning without understanding the power of the darkness of sin and soul it shatters. We go into the darkness but we do not go alone.

[i] Shona Crabtree,Book Uncovers a Lonely, Spiritually Desolate Mother Teresa,” Religion News Service, available online at on 3/28/2012.
[ii] Oswald Chambers, “January 19” My Upmost for His Highest, (Discovery House-Thomas Nelson Publishing, Nashville, 1963, 1992).