Saturday, August 09, 2008

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Where Did God Go? (Getting Ready for Worship, August 10, 2008)

[Most weeks, I try to publish at least one post dealing with the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday. My hope is that I can at least help the people of the parish I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. Others may find these explorations helpful because we use the same Bible lessons used by most other North American Christians each Sunday.]

This Week's Bible Lessons:
1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

The Prayer of the Day:
O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen

A Few Thoughts:
1. All of the lessons for this week talk about the importance of listening to God amid the din of competing voices. Those competitors may include an idol-worshiping and bloodthirsty queen, as in the text from 1 Kings; performance-based religiosity as discussed by Paul in the Romans text; or fears the laws of nature will trump God's power as in the lesson from Matthew. Listening to God brings life, peace, and hope. Failing to do so leads to death, chaos, and fear.

2. It's easy to identify with Elijah, whose story is told in the lesson from 1 Kings, and Peter, whose faltering faith is recounted in the Matthew lesson.

Each have legitimate reasons for their fear. Elijah has been threatened with death by Jezebel, the foreign wife of Israel's king, Ahab. She was a promoter of the false god, Baal, encouraging idol-worship and the adulteration of Israel's dependence on Yahweh, the only God of the universe. She wanted Elijah dead and had sent messengers to him to say so.

When Peter sees Jesus walking on the stormy Sea of Galilee, he asks Jesus to help him do the same. Jesus calls him to climb out of the boat; Peter does so. He begins to walk on the water toward Jesus. But then it dawns on Peter: He can't walk on water.

Facts, as John Adams once said, are stubborn things. Both Elijah and Peter are confronting stubborn facts: a murderous royal and the basics of physics. The challenge for both of them is to trust a deeper truth: The sovereignty of God and God's willingness to help believers to do what they cannot do. (Of course, Peter walking on the water could be dismissed as a mere parlor trick if it weren't for the fact that Jesus' dominion over a chaotic sea, evocative of Genesis 1, points to the fact that He is the same God as the One Who first created the universe.)

Elijah's and Peter's fears may be as understandable as the fears with which you and I wrestle. But I anyway, can identify with them at another level. It's this: Their fears prove to be as ill-founded as all the things that make me afraid.

We tend to laugh at both of these guys for their frequent flights of sanctimony interspersed with turn-tail-and-run fearfulness. We wonder why, given their experiences with God, they find it so hard to trust.

But I have every reason to ask the same thing about myself. Given all that God has done and is doing for me, why do I worry about what's going to happen tomorrow? Why do I concern myself with what others may say about or do to me?

Given all the forgiveness with which God has covered my sins, why do I sometimes worry that God will throw me away?

The answer, of course, is that I allow the din of my sin and the danger and fiat lurking in a world held captive by sin to drown out "the sheer silence" of God. The words of the psalmist were written for all the Elijahs and Peters of the world, including me: "Be still, and know that I am God."

Verse-by-Verse Comments: 1 Kings 19:9-18:
I'm fairly certain that I'll be preaching on the Old Testament lesson this week. Before giving verse-by-verse comments, a little background.

1. 1 and 2 Kings: These two books of the Old Testament tell the story of what happened over a 400-plus year period when ancient Israel and its divided successor nations, Judah (or Judea), with its religious and civil life centered in Jerusalem, and Israel, centered in Samaria, had their own kings.

The story of Israel's kings begins in the book of 1 Samuel in which God reluctantly agrees to allow Israel to have their own kings, like the other nations of the world. Up to that point, the life of Israel was under the direct dominion of God. Occasionally, God would send judges, who would adjudicate disputes and lead the nation in battle.

But, wanting to be more like the nations that surrounded them, Israel insisted that God give them a king. The first king, anointed by Samuel, was Saul. Saul started out well, but his reign ended disastrously, destroyed by Saul's hubris and his forgetfulness of God. Saul also anointed David. David was Israel's greatest king and "a man after God's heart." But he was also a murderer and adulterer, who's God-given success led first to complacency and then to sin. Two other kings stand out in this whole five-century story. As Eugene Peterson notes, "Human beings, no matter how well intentioned or gifted, don't seem to be able to represent God's rule anywhere close to satisfactory."

Most of the kings described in 1 and 2 Kings are, after a few descriptive paragraphs, dismissed as people who walked away from God. One theme to be derived from the two books is unless God rules over our lives, they cannot be all they're intended to be, even if the world considers us successful.

2. Elijah: Elijah is considered Israel's greatest prophet. He raised the dead, among other things. He lived in the 9th-century BC and was active during the reign of Ahab in Israel, the Northern Kingdom.

Ahab married Jezebel of Tyre, in a marriage probably motivated by the desire to forge an alliance and secure wealth. Ahab's reign was marked by material prosperity and power akin to Solomon's from a century before.

It may be because things were "going good" that Israel not only countenanced, but went along with, Jezebel's importation of Baal-worship. This represented a perversion of Israel's covenant with Yahweh, who centuries before had revealed Himself to not only be Israel's God, but the God of all creation.

Some in his country engaged in "syncretism," the synthesizing of religious practices surrounding Yahweh and of those surrounding Baal.

This is exactly the kind of thing to which people enjoying material well-being are tempted. When things are "going good," it's easy to delude oneself with the notion that one's spiritual life is akin to material aspects of one's life. "If I can choose between Coke and Pepsi, paper and plastic, I can choose God or Baal. I can even mix them up in way that makes sense to me." By thinking in this way, Israel was ignoring God's covenant with them and His first commandment:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1-3)
Elijah railed against Jezebel and her sponsorship of the prophets of Baal as well as the construction of altars, and even a temple, devoted to Baal-worship. He also condemns Ahab for going along with it all. Israel seemed oblivious to the message from God that Elijah was delivering.

Finally, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel. Actually, it was a contest between Yahweh and Baal. You can read about it in 1 Kings 18:17-46.

It was a triumph for Yahweh and for the faith of Elijah. But Jezebel was displeased. 1 Kings 19:2 says:
Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow."
(Jezebel's use of the term "gods" underscores a characteristic of Baal worship. It was syncretistic by nature. It revolved pick-and-choose, any-rabbit's-foot-will-do religiosity.) In spite of having seen God do amazing things, Elijah is terrified. He undergoes a crisis of faith. He wonders where God is and whether God cares about him.

Under God's direction, Elijah gets something to eat and travels for forty days. This is where our lesson begins.

9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
(1) Elijah ends up in a cave at Mount Horeb. Deuteronomy identifies it as the place where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments many centuries before. Nobody today knows where Mount Horeb was. Some think that Horeb and Sinai are just two names for a single place. (Exodus says that God gave Moses the commandments at Mount Sinai.) Interestingly, Horeb means glowing heat, perhaps a name for the sun. Sinai, on the other hand, is derived from the semitic word sin, which is a name given by some Mideastern peoples to a sun god. If Horeb and Sinai are the same place, as I suspect, God's gift of the commandments, with its implicit claim to being the one and only deity of the universe, is a gauntlet thrown down at the location of idol-worship.

(2) Elijah's decision (or God's decision for him) to go to Horeb is interesting. It was as if he was going back to the basics of God's covenant with His people.

(3) Caves are usually mentioned in just a few ways in the Bible: (a) As places to hide. David and his followers, for example, hid in the cave at Adullam when King Saul was trying to kill him and destroy his army. (b) As places of burial. Abraham and Sarah were buried in a cave. Jesus was also buried in a cave. This part of the world is filled with caves.

(4) One thing that really interests me is that, in the midst of his fear and, as we'll see, his certainty that he is "God's man"--and the only one to be in God's corner, at that, Elijah doesn't call out to God. God seeks out Elijah ("the word of the Lord came to him"). Sometimes, overwhelmed by the rush of events, we can forget to call out to God. At least, I know that I can.

10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
(1) Legitimate though his fear is, Elijah couches them in self-righteousness. "I'm the only one," he says. Wah-wah!

11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
(1) Several commentators have pointed out that Elijah had been involved in several theophanies, displays of God's presence, that involved earthquakes, wind, and fire. Maybe Elijah expected God to do those sorts of things again. Instead, God meets him in the silence. In this, God was reminding Elijah of who really calls the tune. God will meet us, but we cannot set the terms. If faithful Elijah needed to know that, I need to know it even more!

13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
(1) Elijah, the prophet frustrated by a nation oblivious to God's message and will for them, is equally oblivious at this point. God has come to him in the silence to comfort him.

Elijah has traveled to this point, apparently thinking that God was going to give him special protection or some "success" as a prophet. But these aren't the reasons God has called Elijah to Horeb. Instead, God wants to prepare Elijah for what comes next. God does that by assuring Elijah of his presence and giving him his next assignment. Elijah wants to wallow a bit. God will have none of it!

(2) This reminds me of times in my own life when God has allowed me to be part of God's actions in the world--someone surrendering to Christ in my living room, seeing God help my former parish erect a church building when no one seemed to think it could be done, watching my own children evidence being people of faith in spite of my severe limitations as a father. When I see these kinds of things, for which I can take no credit, I want to sit back and gaze at my gold medals for awhile.

That's a spiritually dangerous impulse! Centuries before Elijah, King David was used by God to do wonderful things. But David wanted to look at his gold medals. One spring, instead of doing his duty by leading his soldiers in battle against those who wanted to destroy God's people, David stayed behind to enjoy himself. That's when he saw a beautiful woman and using his "influence" as king, invited her over to his place. One thing led to another and that beautiful woman, Bathsheba, the wife of one of David's valiant soldiers, became pregnant. David concocted a plot whereby Bathsheba's husband was killed in battle. All of this happened because, instead of appreciating God for past triumphs, or glorifying God, or taking God's next assignment, David decided to "take a little me time."

God wants us to rest and recharge. That's why God created the sabbath. But care must be taken that our resting and recharging doesn't turn into "me time" that makes us self-righteous or filled with a sense of entitlement.

15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.
(1) God isn't interested in Elijah's pity party. God has allowed Elijah to vent. God has comforted Elijah. If Elijah won't accept God's comfort, it isn't God's fault. God simply gives Elijah his next assignment. God practices tough love and demonstrates that at times, the antidote to our worries is getting busy doing God's business. No believer in God has the luxury of the sort of self-inflicted depression of which Elijah is guilty.

(2) The two kings were known for their violence. Though tyrants whose reigns and methods certainly fall under the judgment of God, they also were instruments by which God called His people to repentance and renewal. The reign of God in history is a complicated thing.

Elisha also continued Elijah's prophetic ministry of calling Israel to worship God alone.

18Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
(1) God delivers a none-too-subtle rejoinder to Elijah's claim of being the only faithful one left around. There are, in fact, seven thousand people who remain faithful in worshiping and living for God alone in Israel. "So, knock off the pity party!" God seems to be saying.

(2) Several commentators have indicated that kissing statuary representations of the Baal gods seemed to be part of that worship.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sharing What We Value Most

[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Romans 9:1-5
John Harper was a sort of child prodigy. A Scotsman born in 1872, he came to faith in Jesus Christ at the age of thirteen and within four years, he’d begun getting notice as a convincing preacher with a passion for helping people to know and follow Christ. In 1896, he started a church in London, beginning with a core of 25 people; thirteen years later, when he left to become pastor of a congregation in Chicago, there were 500 members there.

In 1912, Harper and his six year old daughter took a trip on the maiden voyage of the HMS Titanic. When the Titanic hit an iceberg and began to sink, John Harper made sure that his little girl got safely onto a lifeboat and then began running up and down all the decks of the ship, looking for women, children, and those uncertain about where they would spend eternity, hoping to get them all safely onto lifeboats.

“Survivors report that he began...” telling anyone who would listen that eternal life belongs to all who will turn away from their sin and trust Jesus Christ with their lives. “He continued [telling others about Christ] even after he had jumped into the water and was clinging to a piece of wreckage (he’d already given his lifejacket to another man.)”

Four years later, Harper’s final moments were recounted by a Titanic survivor at a large public gathering in Hamilton, Ontario: “When I was drifting alone on a spar that awful night,” said the man, “the tide brought Mr. Harper..., also on a piece of wreck, near me. ‘Man,’ he said, ‘are you saved [from sin and death by Christ]?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I am not.’ He replied, ‘Believe [in] the Lord Jesus Christ and [you will] be saved.’

“The waves bore him away, but…brought him back a little later, and he [asked if I had allowed Christ to save me yet]...’No,’ I said, ‘I cannot honestly say...[that I have…].’ He said again, ‘Believe [in…Jesus Christ…’ and shortly after he went down; and there, alone in the night, and with two miles of water under me, I believed...”

That man was one of only six people plucked out of the water by the packed lifeboats. Harper, on the other hand, at age 40, was one of 1522 people who were left to die that horrible night. But at least one of the survivors owed his eternal life to John Harper’s faithful witness.

For Harper, dying was not the most frightening prospect he faced as the Titanic sank; the most frightening prospect was for the thousands who surrounded him to enter eternity without believing in Jesus Christ as the advocate Who covered their sins and charitably gave them a place in God’s kingdom.

Do you and I have that same passion, that same zeal, for those who are living this life apart from the empowering presence of Jesus?

Do we ever give a thought to the thousands of people around us who, day in and day out, try to live life without the lifeboat of Jesus Christ to see them through good and bad times?

Do we really care about all those who haven’t sensed that they can call out to Jesus to save them from their sins, from death, from everlasting separation from God?

Sometimes, I’m afraid, I’m so bent on just getting through my day and I so desire to “get along” with others, that I allow my passion and my love for my neighbors to be forgotten. I don’t tell them about Jesus.

Shame on me for that!

Shame on me for lacking the passion of a John Harper!

This was the passion with which the writer of today’s second Bible lesson dictated the letter to the first-century church at Rome from which it’s taken. Early in that letter, the apostle Paul tells the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel [the good news of life forever with God for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ]; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek [which means everybody else].” (Romans 1:16-17)

Today’s second lesson, from a later chapter in Romans, finds Paul contemplating his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus. Contemplating is too tame a word to describe what Paul is doing. Agonizing is better. It hurt Paul to think of anyone not knowing Jesus and facing the titanic questions of how to live and what will happen to them when they die without Christ at their sides.

Paul writes, “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 9:1-5)

In this passionate passage, Paul was pleading with the non-Jews among the Christian believers in Rome to never forget his fellow Jews. It was the Jews, he said, who first bore testimony about the gracious God Who came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. They shouldn’t be written off or ignored, Paul argues. They too, need Jesus.

As John Harper knew on that fateful night in April,1912, you and I who follow Jesus Christ are called to live with passion for Christ, anxious to find opportunities to present and live the good news about Jesus. But of course, it has to be done with the right motives and the right sensitivity.

Years ago, when I was in my teens, a neighbor called me on a Saturday afternoon. It surprised me because the guy rarely had much, if anything, to do with me. He asked if I were doing anything in the next few hours. Caught by surprise, I said, “No.” Long story short: He invited me to go with him to see a movie. It sounded like a comedy, but turned out to be an evangelistic drama. I might have gone willingly with the guy had his invitation been forthright and honest, even without his subterfuge. But, as it was, I felt like he’d ambushed me.

As I sat there in the Ohio Theater in Columbus that summer’s day, I was seething with resentment. My neighbor’s sneaky invitation turned me against him and helped to turn me, for a long time, against Jesus. My resentment was heightened after my neighbor tried to high-pressure me into surrendering to Christ as we sat in the theater following the film.

When our motive is genuine concern for others though, I have found that people don’t object to our putting in a good word for Christ.

I’ve told a few of you about something that happened in the life of one of my favorite seminary professors, Trygve Skarsten. Tryg was the son of Norwegian immigrants and he grew up in New York City, where as a teen, he was a member of a gang. In his late teens though, no doubt as the result of the patient praying and quiet witness of his parents, Tryg gave his life to Christ and went off to college and then seminary.

After serving as a pastor for a few years, he went back to New York to get a doctorate in New Testament studies at Columbia University. Every day while enrolled there, Tryg took a bus to Columbia’s campus. During these commutes, he struck up a friendship with a rabbi, also a daily rider on the bus. They enjoyed one another’s company. Tryg was coming close to completing his degree requirements when he asked God to give him the courage to tell his rabbi friend how important Jesus was in his life and to invite the rabbi too, to follow Jesus.

On the bus one day, Tryg told his friend that he would feel guilty if at some point in their few remaining daily conversations before he completed his doctoral work, he didn’t tell him about his own relationship with Jesus, and ask his friend to follow Christ, too.

The rabbi smiled at Tryg and replied honestly, “My friend, I can't take you up on your offer. But I am deeply touched; only someone with great love in his heart would share what is most precious to him with his friend.”

Is Jesus the most important Person in our lives? If He is, let’s ask Him to stir up our zeal for the well-being of our neighbors--all our neighbors--so that we too, can share with them what is most important to us: Jesus, the Messiah, God-in-the-flesh, our Savior King. Amen!

[The true story of John Harper is from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion and is reprinted from "Sacrifice at Sea" by Elesha Coffman on christianhistory.net (August 11, 2000) and was adapted from The Titanic's Last Hero (Moody Press, 1997).]