Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - The Long View of Hope

Preached on Sunday, September 17, 2017

Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 32:36-47; Romans 15:1-13

Around Tall Timber Ranch (Camp), Cascade Mountains
Above Leavenworth, WA
Between the White and Napeequa Rivers
When I was little, when I would do something wrong and absolutely no one was there to see it, my mother would immediately know about it. She would say to me, “I can read you like a book.”
I don’t know what scared me most about this. Was it her ability to read me? Or, was it my frightening ability to be read by anyone who took one look at me?
The Book of Deuteronomy tells us that God can read his people like a book. God tells Moses to finish his book by writing into it what God reads in his people. God gave it to Moses in the form of a song.
It’s a very long song. As a whole, it isn’t pretty, but it is beautiful. The song is the story of God and his people from beginning to end; or from the first beginning to the new beginning, in the kingdom of God. The song tells us the long, long story of God’s plan to make a new world out of the one that causes us, and him, so much distress.
The song tells Israel the long story of what their history was going to be, and their part in God’s plan to include the whole world in the joy of his good news. The song teaches them that their part in the story does no credit to them.
It also speaks to us about what our own long history consists of, and our part in that same plan. Those who come to the God of Israel, though Jesus, the King, Son of David, Son of God, from all the nations, also become part of “The Israel of God”, as Paul tells us in the New Testament. (Galatians 6:16 - see also Gal. 3:39; Rom. 9:6; and Phil. 3;3))
So, the long song is our story as well. Because of this, the song tells us that we share the same credit in the story as Israel.
The song has its beauties. The Lord is like rain, and showers, and dew on new grass. The implication is that we definitely need the Lord to be rain for us. It also makes us think about the real rain we need at the end of this year’s fire season.
The Lord is like a rock, everybody loves a rock. In Desert Aire, there are never enough rocks on the ground, but people building a new house always have to bring in more rocks, the bigger the better.
The Lord is our creator and, more than that, the Lord is our Father.
The Lord is like a mother eagle, who catches us (her eaglets) when we fall out of the nest. The Lord carries us on his wings, so that we can learn to fly with him.
So, our place in the song, on the wings of God, is beautiful, but we’re not pretty. God finds us in the middle of a desert. God has to bring us out of the barrenness, and out of the lonely wasteland.
Perhaps you can remember something like that, yourselves. Could the desert mean a fruitless life, a lonely life, a howling angry life? Could the desert mean lovelessness, helplessness, emptiness, failure, or blame?
But there’s grace in the desert: the grace of God. Even a single life can make a long, long song with grace at the beginning and at the end, and grace is there to set right all that goes wrong in between. For all of us, this is a long song of the life of every soul, through all the ages of time, in this world as we know it. (32:1-43)
The song is a picture of all time, and it doesn’t have a lot of concrete, definable events. The desert in the song is Egypt, where the Lord found Israel in slavery. The heights are the high country of The Promised Land with its walled cities on the hilltops. The honey, and milk, and curds, and oil, and wheat are the abundance of the new land which the Lord gives to them. It’s a land that makes them fat. (32:10-14)
Even in the Bible, being fat can be bad. When Jeshurun (which is God’s pet name, or love name, for his people, and it means “My Upright One”). When the upright one gets fat, he kicks and abandons God. (32:15)
This lesson goes all through the Bible: of being so close and blessed by God that you forget who he is. You worship what God gives you, instead of worshiping God. You don’t think you’ve changed, but you have.
To say, as the song says it, “They are a nation without sense,” could happen to us, in our own way. We could worship our work or our retirement. We could worship our freedom or our commitment. We could worship church instead of Jesus.
Even when we come into God’s country, with God’s help, God often has this new work to do. His job becomes getting rid of our new false gods, showing them up for what they are. When God takes those new false gods down, the Lord will say (in the words of the song): “Now where are their gods?”
This long song is, for Israel and for us, sort of a long view of our history: past, present, and future. Long as it is, it’s too short to tell us everything. Even the Bible, long as it is, is too short to tell us everything. It’s designed to tell us not what we want to know, but what God believes we need to know, and God does not think like us.
This shouldn’t be that hard to see. God has a plan, and he’s planned it to be good to Israel, and the same plan is planned to be good to everyone else, as well. Israel goes wrong and gets disciplined, to say the least. All the nations go wrong in their relationship with God’s people, and with each other, and they all get disciplined, to say the least. All of this happens in this one song.
Songs are poetry, and Hebrew poetry often works by repeating the same idea over, at least twice, in adjacent phrases, or a progression of phrases. The mystery of the way God works can be seen in one pair of phrases: “The Lord will judge his people and have compassion on his servants.” (32:36) The poetry of this half sentence is an equation of judgment and compassion. Judgement and compassion are not two separate things. They are two measurements of the same thing.
They aren’t two stages of the same thing. They aren’t a process, as we might think. Judgment and compassion are two expressions of God’s love, or God’s faithfulness. Any good parent can understand this.
Preachers can get this wrong. We are warned about the dangers of judging because it’s so easy to get it wrong, even though we have to do it.
Preachers can get this wrong. For instance, some preachers blamed the sinfulness of the city of New Orleans for bringing on the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, but I didn’t hear any preachers blaming the sinfulness of the city of Houston for bringing on the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey. When preachers do this, they create many of the unnecessary problems that the world has with the Bible.
I’m just saying that when we are confused about (and when we misapply) God’s judgment and compassion, we can misunderstand everything that happens in this world.
The song is really about the Lord’s unchanging love. It tells us that, in the end, the Lord will bless all the nations and bring them together in joy and praise. This comes out right at the very end of the song. “Rejoice, O nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.” (32:43) And so it’s all good.
Paul says that this verse is about bringing Israel and all the nations together, and it’s about a gracious acceptance of other people who are different from you. He says that this verse is about the gentiles, but the word “gentiles” means “nations”, not merely non-Jews. Paul’s quote is the same as the verse in Deuteronomy. “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” (Romans 15:10) “Rejoice O Nations.”
Paul means us to know that this whole long view of the history of humanity is about the mercy of God. It’s all about hope.
We don’t often look at the world around us with hope, or thoughts of mercy. Mw might not even look at our own lives with thoughts of God’s mercy. Because of this, the long song of God and his people is God’s loving provision for us. Our life needs hope.
The song was written into God’s law, and God’s law isn’t only a matter of rules. The law of gravity isn’t about a rule like “what goes up comes down”. That often shows up, with gravity, but it’s about much more.
Any truly important law is more about the nature of a thing: like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are more than rules. They define the nature of what we are as a nation. God’s law presents us with a picture of the nature of God and the nature of God’s ways.
The song is about God’s ways of judgment and compassion working as one. Paul makes the two one in the gospel: the gospel is the good news of the righteousness of God given to us in Jesus (the King of the Jews), crucified for the sins of the world (and for our sins), and risen from the dead.
The song in Deuteronomy tells us that the hope and joy of Israel and the nations will be complete because of God’s atonement of his people’s sins. But the song has the nations joining Israel in their joy, praising God with one voice. God’s atonement doesn’t only work for Israel. It works for everyone.
Atonement is a solution to a problem. Atonement, heals a conflict or a division. You could say that (by happy chance) atonement means “at-one-ment”. The problem that atonement solves is the conflict and division between the human race and God because of human pride, self-worship, missing the mark, and sin.
Jesus is God becoming human and (by dying and rising from the dead) bridging the gap between God and his fallen children, who have been caught by the power of sin and death. The atonement that changes the world, and all people, is a bridge built by God, in Jesus.
In another way, atonement means “covering”. It refers to the blood of a sacrifice covering the wrong, and the sickness, and the sin that divides us. God provides the covering blood, in Jesus.
I know this can sound yucky. It works in such a strange way, as if God, looking at us covered with the blood of Jesus, sees his Son in us, and upon us. We have peace with God through the blood which God, himself, provided for us to give us a new identity in Jesus.
In the song, and in Paul, we see the long view of history: the wars, the brutality, the pride, the wrong, and the injustice of it all. The long view, without answering all our questions about how and why, tells us that the long view is about the hope which God, in his love, has worked out for us.
I saw a post on Facebook that said this: “The hardest part of being a parent is watching a child go through something really tough and not being able to fix it for them.”
This is true on a human level. But “we live, and move, and have our being” in God. (Acts 17:28) God has the power, and the judgment, and the compassion to fix us, and to fix this world as we know it.
All of us, as God’s people, like those who traveled with Moses to the promised land, have a long view held up to us for our learning and for our encouragement. Our part is often not very pretty, but God’s part makes it beautiful.
We are told to learn God’s song. We are told that: “They are not idle words for you – they are your life.” (32:47)
In Moses’ song, we can read ourselves like a book. Our life depends on being able to read ourselves, and our part in this long journey, in this long song.
Our life depends on receiving the gift that comes from God’s good judgment and compassion: his infinite love for us, and for the whole world, in Christ. In Christ, God covers us with compassion and with faithfulness. We need that if we want to make our journey of faith with hope.

Friday, September 15, 2017


Tall Timbers Ranch
September 2017

You whisper at my back: so soft.
I groan. I don’t know what you mean.
But I say “yes.” You knew I would.
I can’t say “no” to all that blood.
That cross: I know well what it means.
But what that whisper means; I don’t.
And on, and on, you go: so still
Behind my shoulder; and your touch
So silent. Tell me louder, please...
You’re crazy, God! To work this way
And keep me going, wondering what
And where it leads: through doubt and fear,
And grace, and sudden “doing it.”
You whisper at my back: so soft.
I laugh. Insane! I love you! Yes!

September 13, 2017

Monday, September 11, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Anger Gone Wrong

Preached on Sunday, September 10, 2017

Scripture readings: Numbers 20:1-13; James 1:19-25

You’ve heard of Murphy’s Law, which goes like this: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” The law comes from Edward Murphy, who was an Air Force major and an aerospace engineer. I’ve found out that his saying was what he called a rule for “defensive design”. He devised his law to encourage planning for the worst-case scenario. Apparently, he hated the way his law got turned into comedy.
The Hills of Southern California
June 2017
My dad liked to consider himself to be Irish, which was a big over-simplification of the truth, because he was really only one eighth Irish. My dad thought that Murphy’s Law was an old Irish saying. So, he had one plaque hanging in the garage with Murphy’s Law on it, and he had another plaque with the words: “Murphy was an optimist.” This worked for my dad. It says a lot about him.
I wonder if Murphy may actually have been Jewish, because anything that could go wrong really did go wrong in the exodus of God’s people through the desert. Finally, Murphy’s Law happened to Moses. For me, that’s what we read about in the scriptures for this message.
Moses was done in by his own anger. This might seem strange to you. After all, the Book of Numbers also describes Moses this way: “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men who were on the face of the earth.” (12:3)
But meekness describes a different kind of mildness or softness than you might imagine. In the Bible, a meek person is the kind of softy who is soft to God. It’s the quality of being a servant. It means responding to every signal from God, giving to God exactly what God wants.
A perfectly trained war horse was expected to be bold and fearless, and also to be perfectly meek to every signal from its rider: to charge, to halt, to retreat, to turn on a dime. That was the meekness of Moses toward God: except for this time. This time, his temper, that always went right, finally went wrong.
Paul says, “Be angry but do not sin: do not let the sun go done on your wrath.” (Ephesians 4:16)
I think anger can be the right response, the meekest response, under the right circumstances. There is such a thing as “righteous indignation.” So many people in the Old Testament seem to be angry all the time. In the New Testament, Paul gets mad. Jesus gets mad. And, as such, Jesus is the perfect image of God, because God seems to get mad a lot, and that seems to be the very result of God’s holiness and righteousness.
I have a different problem. I don’t seem to be able to get mad without getting sinful about it. One way I go wrong is by holding onto it. Paul’s teaching applies to that. It’s OK to get mad, just don’t hold onto it. And then there is this: don’t let your anger make you do something that breaks God’s law of love. That’s hard.
Then James tells us something that I believe applies to where Moses went wrong in his anger. James says” “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger doesn’t bring about the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20) This applies so many ways.
Here’s another word study: righteousness. Righteousness, in Hebrew and in Greek, is about rightness. It’s about being right and doing right. But being right is not about being correct. Being right is about doing and being what you are supposed to be, whatever the circumstances, and making things good, and making things better. I
t’s like the song “Things go better with Coca Cola.” That means that Coca Cola is righteous, within certain limits.
God’s righteousness, in this light, is very clear. God’s righteousness is his faithful love that is devoted to getting his people to freedom and the Promised Land, no matter what.
When God got angry it was part of the process of providing for his people, teaching them, shaping them, building their faith and trust and love for him, and for each other. Even God’s discipline (or his punishment), in anger, is basically devoted to providing for his people and giving them a grace and an abundance of gifts for which they are clearly not ready, and for which they show no desire whatsoever. In all that God does for them, they show no sign of change.
But God is faithful. That is God’s righteousness: just a small part.
God has ways of showing his people that he is always with them. The pillar of cloud and fire was just a small part of that. That was his righteousness too.
God was going to give them water again, even though they forgot that he always made sure they had water when they truly needed it, and even though they could see that God was with them all the time. They acted as though God wasn’t there at all. They acted as though Moses was the one who was leading them through the desert all along.
In spite of this, God was going to give them the water he knew that they needed, anyway. And his reason for doing this was because he is holy and righteous.
God’s plan in having Moses serve as the spokesman for God to the rock was a plan to show his people that God was a God who would always care for them. God would always stick to them, even when he was angry.
God’s people would get their water, even when they didn’t deserve it; even when they turned spiritually ugly in their unfaithfulness to God and to Moses. This would help them understand his holiness and righteousness. It was God’s plan to faithfully teach and shape his people.
Over and over again, we see that, when God gets angry, and when Moses gets angry, Moses consistently prays (in his anger) for the undeserved grace of God to forgive and help his people. I wonder how Moses did this over and over again. It would be so easy for Moses to get his anger wrong. It could have gone wrong so many times. But it didn’t go wrong, until it did. Murphy’s Law proved true.
On a human level, Murphy’s Law is never out of sight. It wasn’t supposed to be that way, in the beginning. We were created for the joy of seeing our love blend with God’s love, and to see our love doing good, and making good, and being good. We were made for this joy, as well as for this love.
Soon after the beginning, in the garden of Eden, the Garden of joy and love, we decided to limit our love’s dependence on God’s love. We decided to make ourselves into our own little gods, with our own independent instinct for good and evil, on our own terms. And, so, Murphy’s Law was born.
God had a defensive design from the start, and so he told Adam and Eve about that design as soon as he got them out of hiding. There would be, sometime in the future, a son of Eve who would grow up to be wounded in the heel by evil, and the serpent Satan. But this child of Eve would crush evil, and the serpent, with his heel. In the ages to come Jesus would be the son of Mary, the long-drawn-out descendant daughter of Eve. (Genesis 3:14-15)
On the cross, Jesus would be bitten with evil’s poison, the poison of the serpent, and sin, and Murphy’s Law. Then Jesus would crush those enemies with his wounds. The wounds of Jesus, the wounds of his death on the cross, were the fatal bite of the serpent that killed Jesus. The wounds of Jesus were also the weapons of his victory over the serpent’s bite.
Jesus was able to stomp that serpent of evil. Jesus rose from the dead as conqueror of the serpent, and as the conqueror of the sin and death that came from the serpent’s rule. Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them,” was like the prayer that Moses was always saying for God’s forgiveness and grace for his guilty people.
Jesus’ prayer got everyone who would become one of his people back on the track to the Promised Land. The cross of Jesus is the very heart of his prayer that changes those who trust him into receivers of God’s holiness and righteousness.
God’s anger at Moses seems ungracious, at first sight. Moses’ unrighteous anger didn’t break one of the Ten Commandments, but it did break Jesus’ law, in the Sermon on the Mount.
In the case of Moses, we see something surprising about the heart of God. We see God get angry about anger. God got angry at the anger of Moses. And there, God, in his heart, looks suddenly, on that point, like Jesus. Jesus got angry, but he also got angry at anger.
Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” (Note: that judgment, here, means death by stoning) “But I tell you that anyone who is angry at his brother will be subject to judgment. Anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca (or worthless empty head!)’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
It wasn’t only because Moses didn’t mention God when he struck the rock, or that he struck the rock instead of talking to the rock. In essence, Moses, in his anger, forgot the heart of God that he normally knew so well. He and his brother Aaron had just been in the direct and full presence of the Glory of God. They had heard the voice of God. (Numbers 20:6)
In seeing and hearing this, Moses saw the holiness and righteousness of God, which expressed God’s faithfulness and grace for the unworthy. He saw what he always remembered to pray for; until now.
Then he came back and looked at the people who hated him, and who had no faith in the God who had forgiven them countless times before. (Numbers 14:18-19) When Moses came back and looked at these people, his anger returned, and he forgot God’s absolute love.
Moses called God’s people “rebels” which was perfectly true, but God’s intention of showing his forgiveness to his people was a greater truth. Moses failed to give God’s message to God’s people. Moses might just as well have called them “fools”, as Jesus warns us against.
In praying for God’s forgiveness of his people, so many times, Moses had prayed according to what he had seen of the heart of God. In praying according to the heart of God, Moses had been praying according to Jesus.
Jesus is the heart of God’s holiness, and righteousness, and faithfulness. Moses, praying as he did, was, in his own heart, giving his people Jesus. Moses praying for his people’s sins, and for their forgiveness, was praying an equivalent to, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  By forgetting to hold such a prayer in his heart, Moses was withholding Jesus from the people.
Anger can do this. Anger can withhold the love and grace of God, in Jesus, from those who don’t deserve it, and yet they need it. And we are in the same boat. We don’t deserve grace, but we need it. It’s the faithfulness and holiness of God.
There are many times when anger is the right thing, but it will always go wrong if we don’t hold onto the heart of God, in Jesus, when we are angry. We will repeat Murphy’s Law.
Other people are just as much the image of God as we are, and we condemn ourselves when we forget to work for the righteousness and holiness of God in those people’s lives. Anger goes wrong when it stops showing the absolute love of God.
Moses was punished because he let his anger make him forget to pray for his people, even though they played the part of being his enemies. Moses forgot to love them anyway.

Jesus is the voice of God telling us to never forget to love others, even when we are angry. Moses shows us, and Jesus tells us and shows us on the cross, to remember to pray for others and to speak and work so that God’s grace becomes known to them. Let’s not go wrong with this.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Stepping over the Line

Preached on Sunday, September 3, 2017

Scripture readings: Numbers 14:1-25; Romans 11:25-32

Santa Monica Pier, Southern California
June 2017
In the latest episode of the Exodus, right when they seem to have arrived, right when they stand ready to enter in, God’s people decide that entering into the Promised Land will be the death of them. They want to survive at all costs, even if it means going back to slavery in Egypt.
All through this saga, God’s people never come out with the adult equivalent of the child’s question, “Are we there yet?” They’re always thinking that they were better off before they left Egypt. There’s a home of freedom ahead of them; but they’re always hankering for the home they left behind them.
It’s Moses, for all his maturity, who is always reminding the Lord of how important it is to get them to their new home. He’s always reminding God to fulfill his promises.
The Lord’s reputation for faithfulness was on the line at the expense of his anger. Moses warned the Lord not to let the nations say, “The Lord was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath.” (14:16)
Moses kept insisting on what he knew about the true heart of God. He had seen that heart many times. Moses says to the angry God: “In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now” (14:19) This was the real rule of God’s heart.
This had to be how Moses knew that it was possible for God’s people to successfully, effectively enter the Promised Land: their new home of blessing, their new home of freedom. Moses knew God’s faithfulness, at its most tested, and he trusted that source of strength in the heart of God.
This is what true faith does. Faith has layers. Those layers go deep, or else they go high. Faith takes us somewhere. Faith is more than knowing. Faith is trusting what you know. That requires you to allow the God you trust to take you somewhere.
Chapter eleven in the Letter to the Hebrews is called the faith chapter. It gives us a number of working definitions and examples of faith. It contains a long list of the people of faith and, in each case, it tells us where faith took them, or what faith enabled them to accomplish that they would never have accomplished otherwise.
One of the definitions of faith is found in verse six of the faith chapter. It says: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
In that sentence, you can see at least two layers of faith. Faith begins with a conviction of the reality of God. You meet God. You know, at some point, that there is a higher power that requires some level of mutual recognition. That’s essential, but it’s not nearly enough.
To say that “God is the rewarder of those who earnestly or diligently seek him” implies change. It implies a process of trust, and the crossing of a line, and entering in. The reward is a goal. It’s the end of a quest. It changes you and it makes you a new person. Hebrews will go on to tell you that faith leads you to run a race, and that it’s the sort of race in which only faith will enable you to “not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:3)
The people of Israel knew that God existed. The Lord was right there in the pillar of cloud and fire. The Lord never left them alone although it seems like they often wanted him to leave them alone.
They knew that God existed, but they took their faith no farther. They didn’t turn their faith into trust in the heart and the faithfulness of God. They wanted survival, and they thought that God’s chosen future for them would put their survival in jeopardy. In spite of the faith of Moses, and Aaron, and Joshua, and Caleb, God’s people lost heart at the thought of entering into a new world and a new life.
They formed the majority, and they won that day, and they also lost. Moses and his friends, in the minority, won the day, but they had a very strange victory. Moses’ prayer for the love of God to prevail was answered. The plan for God’s people to enter into a new life was on track, again, but it would take a lot longer now.
One of the things we learn, here, is that faith is not about survival, per se. Faith is about a higher calling. Maybe we could say that survival, itself, at its best, is about more than mere survival. Any survival that is worth of the name is about a higher calling, or a farther calling.
Something that Jesus said puts these things together. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
There can be a real difference between life, and life to the full. Jesus said that life is not about mere survival, because he said this: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)
Faith is about a higher, fuller life; and God, in Christ, calls us to this kind of life. It’s part of the life of a higher, fuller faith that trusts the heart and the faithfulness of God. Such a faith steps forward. Faith crosses the border and enters into that life.
This is essential to simply being a Christian and following Jesus in a genuine commitment. I made a commitment to Jesus when I was in the fourth grade and watching Billy Graham on television. It wasn’t hard to do. I always love Jesus. I always prayed and read the Bible, or Bible stories. And I tried to do what Jesus wanted me to do; like, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12) I understood that.
It was also easy to stop going to church when my family stopped, when I was about fifteen. And my church didn’t seem to know how to give me what I needed. I was the last to keep going, but it was easier to let the majority rule. I suppose it still is.
Then, when I was eighteen, God told me to go back to that frustrating church. I had to do that by myself, on my own. It didn’t seem to matter to God what I felt, or what I expected.
This turned into something completely different than I expected. There was a really good youth group leader who seemed to understand what I needed. And he took the youth group to a huge youth evangelism rally. And the Lord told me to go forward.
I told him that I didn’t need to go forward, because I already trusted him and belonged to him with all my heart. Which was true except for the fact that I was too chicken to do anything for him out loud or in public. So, I had to go forward, for that very reason.
I also had to go forward because the Lord seemed to be pushing me to understand that the only alternative to my not going forward was for me to be willing to be someone who said no to him. I didn’t dare not go forward.
Faith requires you to do things in order to know God better, and in order to move, and change, and enter in. You can’t do that by saying “no”.
This applies to much, much bigger issues in life. Marriage and family would be such a bigger issue. I think I’ve really tried to get married before, but my best efforts never worked. Someone once offered to help me get a bride from China, and I said no to that, but I think it was right for me to say no to that.
I’ve been in the pastoral ministry for a long time. I didn’t want to do it, but the Lord kept making a point of his requirement that I not say no to him. No one who knows my life would ever accuse me of being in the ministry as a matter of survival, because (a lot of the time) it hasn’t been that easy. I certainly have learned much more than I meant to. Faith (such as it is) will do that.
The people of God need a faith that goes much farther than mere belief that God exists, and even farther than believing that Jesus died for our sins. The faith of the people of God must trust God enough to move out, and step over borders, and enter into larger and higher callings. We must trust God enough to be ready to do the next thing he shows us. Maybe he will point the way soon.
What if we fail? The Bible teaches us that God doesn’t fail, and that his people remain his, and God’s plan goes forward. Paul says: “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29) The failure of one part of God’s people simply allows God to include more people in the growth of his plan and his kingdom.
In the present episode of the exodus, the Lord declared his pardon of his people. It was a strange pardon that felt more like a punishment. God’s people, who didn’t want to enter the land, would not be allowed to do so. They had complained that it would be better for them to die in the desert than to try to enter the land and, so, the Lord granted their wish. They would die in the desert exactly as they claimed to prefer. But they took this badly.
They expressed the fear that, if they tried to enter the land, they would be losers and their children would be taken as slaves. So, the Lord promised a solution to their fears. The Lord promised that their children would enter the land as conquerors, in their place.
God’s people wanted to choose a leader of their own choosing and, so, God really did punish them, this time. God gave them back Moses to lead them for the rest of their dreary lives. Moses was given the blessing of leading those pathetic, faithless people for the rest of his life.
The punishment was that there would be more hardship ahead, for a very long time. The forgiveness was that there would be plenty of miracles, and the chance for their children to learn the strength and the faithfulness of God that their parents had yet to learn. The children had the chance to live a larger, deeper faith. It was part of the punishment, to be sure, but it was also part of the forgiveness. It was God’s faithful blessing of his people, in success and in failure.
The mystery is that God’s people were pardoned because an overruled minority believed what they didn’t believe. Even such a minority counts for something in the effectiveness of the grace and power of God.
Moses, and Aaron, and Joshua, and Caleb would faithfully walk the path of hardship, and delay, and punishment with their people. Faith and faithfulness do this.
Jesus came to walk the same path with us. God came down, in Jesus, to walk through the wilderness of this world with us. He walked through the dangers, and injustices, and anger, and hatred, and hypocrisy of a world torn by unbelief, and selfishness, and rebellion, which are the result of sin.
God, in Christ, walked the longer path of suffering that led to the cross, and sacrifice, and loneliness, and pain, and death. The Lord does this in good faith, in the power of his love to overcome all that is wrong in our hearts, and minds; all that is wrong with the world.
The Lord died and rose from the dead to open a door to a new life, a life of freedom from the power of sin and death. By faith and by trust in the heart of God, we can die with Christ to ourselves and we can cross the border, and enter into that higher life, that abundant life.

We have this call, as children of God and as the people of God, the church. Let’s hear the call, and trust the one who calls us, and let us move forward.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Living God's Presence

Preached on Sunday, August 27, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 33:12-34:9; Matthew 28:16-20

Photos taken around Imperial Beach and San Diego, CA
June 2017
When I was a student in seminary, there was another student named Gordon. One day, at lunch, Gordon shared a conviction of his that people could never properly understand the Bible, unless they knew Hebrew and Greek.
Gordon was a pretty scholarly guy, and I knew that he had more Hebrew and Greek in him than I did; so, naturally, I disagreed with him. I told him to the effect that if you read the Bible sincerely, and prayerfully, and humbly, that the Holy Spirit will help you to understand and to learn whatever you need to know.
Gordon disagreed with me. He and I argued about this for a while, and neither of us changed the other’s mind. I still haven’t changed my mind.
As I think back to that incident, I find myself wondering where on earth Gordon was coming from. For me, one of the primary realities of God is the constant effectiveness of God’s presence. God’s presence is constant and infinite. God’s presence is constantly effective, constantly working: meaning that the Lord’s presence is constantly available to those who seek it, and the Lord’s presence constantly works to give them the help they need.
The Lord’s presence enables us to understand his message in the Bible, according to our need. The Lord’s presence also enables us to do even greater things, and much harder and seemingly relentless things.
Moses and his people had all seen the power of God’s presence. In spite of this, God’s people, and even Moses, show a lack of faith in the constant, continual nature of God’s presence. And, although they knew how powerful God’s presence was, they lacked faith in its effectiveness.
The people were afraid that their problems were too big for God to handle. Moses was afraid that his people were too much for God to handle.
Was God truly stronger than their weaknesses and their sins? There are people who fear that their weakness and their sins may prove stronger than God effective presence. To live life in all its potential and fullness we need God’s presence to work effective within us. We need God to have his own way, and to not leave us to our own ways. “Lord, teach me your ways!”
Growing up, I had some weaknesses that my parents tried to cure, but I outlasted them. Were those weaknesses stronger than my parents’ love? Families deal with such things all the time.
God’s people had a knack for blowing their relationship with God. Since God, himself, claims to be “slow to anger” I think we can assume that we know only a fraction of the times his people got it wrong every day. Was their knack for betrayal and dysfunction stronger than God’s knack for being slow to anger? Did the anger of God that we so often read about really build up slowly?
Moses keeps bringing up the matter of God’s real constant and effective presence. Moses is clearly worried. Under many variations, he asks the Lord: “Teach me your ways. Show me your glory.”
Moses wanted to see, or to know, God clearly enough so that he, and his people, could securely rely on God not giving up on them until his will was done. Would the Lord truly promise to be with them always, and no matter what? Could Moses meet with the Lord in such a way, and with such intimacy and clarity, that he could truly and finally know for sure?
Do you want to know for sure?
So, what does Moses ask to see and know? And what do we read that he saw?
My knowledge of Hebrew has shrunk to a pitiful state, but maybe it would be good for me to give you an idea of the strangeness of what we are thinking about. The Lord told Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (33:20) Earlier, in verse fourteen, the Lord told Moses, “My presence will go with you.” (33:14) The interesting thing, here, is that the English word “presence” translates the Hebrew word “face”. “My face will go with you.” But it is a face that cannot be seen. The thing is, here, that the Hebrew word for “face” doesn’t stress the anatomical face with its measurable and physical features: eyes, nose, mouth. The word “face” means being close, and in contact, and directly present. A husband and wife can be face to face together in their room, in the darkness of night.
The word “glory” doesn’t mean appearance. It means heaviness. It means being heavy and weighty. How much weight you carry doesn’t mean what the scale says when you stand on it, or how much weight you can press or lift. The weight you carry sort of means how much push or pull you have in the world around you. God’s glory is a weight like that, and that glory is all powerful. God has infinite push and pull.
In the Bible, God’s glory looks like light. If you saw glory, you would see light. But God’s weight is made of something. The Lord tells us what it is that gives him so much weight, in chapter thirty-four, verses six and seven: compassion, grace, slowness to anger, abundant love, abundant faithfulness or truth, keeping love to thousands of generations (which is what the Hebrew means), forgiving wickedness rebellion and sin, punishing as long as four generations; but that’s comparatively short next to his love lasting for thousands of generations. That last phrase is interesting, isn’t it?
These represent the nature of God. They represent who and what God is, and they describe God’s glory. These are the anatomy of God that describes why God has all-powerful weight, and push, and pull. In God’s universe, God’s creation, these are the energy of God: God’s weight, God’s glory. These are God’s ways: how God operates and even how God expects us to operate.
These are God’s presence. These are what God looks like. It’s what Moses asked to see, and God showed it to him. God made all his goodness to pass before Moses, and that’s what Moses saw. (Exodus 33:19)
Moses’ face got lit up like a light bulb from catching these rays. God’s glory got put on Moses’ face and the people were scared by what they saw, in that light, when Moses came down the mountain.
Why would compassion be scary? Maybe God’s compassion is so much bolder and stronger than ours that it can be terrifying. We would all, perhaps, claim that we would like to see more compassion in this world, but what if that compassion scared us, once we really saw it for what it was?
Think about this on a human level. And this isn’t even a Christian example. In rebel held areas of Syria, there are civilian volunteers called “White Helmets” who are committed to saving and helping other civilians who get trapped and injured by bombings and other violence of war. The White Helmets stand for compassion for those in dire need, even though the White Helmets have a one-in-six chance of being injured or killed in the process of their saving the lives of others. That is some scary compassion.
What if you were called upon to supply some kind of scary compassion? God’s own compassion is scary in exactly the same way. Jesus says, “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) When Jesus is with you, it means that a crucified person is with you. Of course, it also means that a resurrected person is with you, but is that any less scary, when you think about it?
Jesus was tortured to death for the sins of the world, and for your sins, and for mine. Think what it means to be guided through life by a person who was unjustly killed for you, as if he were the bad one, and that he got himself into that mess simply in order to die as a sacrifice for all the evil in the world.
He willingly became a bloody mess for everyone, and while Jesus waited in the garden for that to happen, and while he prayed in agony over it, he sweated blood. (Luke 22:44) Jesus found his own compassion to be that scary. That compassion is his glory, and he wants to share that glory with us and make it ours.
Moses prayed, “Teach me your ways.” It’s the same as asking “Show me your glory.” Jesus really says to make disciples by teaching the nations his ways, which means showing the nations his glory: “Teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20)
Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45) Jesus prayed for his enemies while they were killing him on the cross, “Father, forgive them.” (Luke 23:34” Jesus is sharing his glory with us by showing us his ways and telling us to follow. “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself and take us his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) If we do that, we will shine with the glory of Jesus and his Father.
Moses prayed, “Teach me your ways so that I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” (33:13) Moses wanted to learn God’s ways, for himself and for his people, for two reasons. One reason was simply to know God more deeply (meaning to grow in his love and trust for God). The second reason was so that he and his people could continue to find favor with the Lord, by learning God’s ways and obeying them, making his ways into their ways.
Finding favor (as a whole concept in Hebrew) means giving pleasure, but it also means finding grace, and mercy, and the power to do the Lord’s will, by living the Lord’s ways in their own lives. Then the glory of the Lord would shine out from them, just as the glory of the Lord would shine out from Moses’ face.
The Lord’s compassion is to be our compassion. The Lord’s graciousness is to be our graciousness. The Lord’s slowness to anger should be our same slowness. And the Lord’s forgiveness being bigger than any anger should be true of us, as well.
Maybe God’s glory appears as light because our own world is often so dark.
Sometimes it’s said that seeing God’s back but not seeing God’s face means seeing what God has done, but not yet what God will do. Moses didn’t see what God would do in Christ. Moses saw that God’s love reached thousands of generations (well, for at least four hundred years of slavery in Egypt). Moses saw that God’s anger would only go for three or four.
God’s love was bigger than his anger, and this is exactly what God’s face was going to show in Jesus. The victory and the glory of the cross and the resurrection are more lasting, truer, more powerful, and more effectively present with us now, and for all time, than our own weakness, and our wrongs, and the whole world’s evil.

That is the presence of the Lord. That is God’s way. That is God’s glory, and God wants to make his glory your own.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Trusting a Faceless God

Preached on Sunday, August 20, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 32:1-24; Romans 1:18-25

Do you know what Moses did when he saw the golden calf?
He had a cow.
The Golden Calf is the start of a very long and complicated series of events that takes three chapters to tell. Even the language is complicated, in the process of translation. I will get to that in a little bit.
One thing is clear. God’s people did something wrong. The Lord, himself, puts what they did in the simplest possible terms. This is what he told Moses: “They have been quick to turn away from what I have commanded them and have made themselves an idol in the shape of a calf.” (32:8)
August 21, 2017 Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
The Day of a Partial Eclipse.
But, in Hebrew, a bull could be called a calf for the first three years of its life. Truth is, a three-year-old calf is all bull. That young bull is the very picture of energy, strength, and male-fertility (meaning that he can generate life). In the ancient world, a young bull or a mature calf was a common picture for the gods.
What the people of Israel wanted was a god that they could picture. They wanted a god with a face. They wanted the God who saved them from slavery in Egypt, and who brought them through the desert, to have a face. So, they helped make an idol.
There are plenty of Hebrew words for idols. The Golden Calf points back to the Ten Commandments and the word “graven image”. Once again, it’s an image, a picture, something with a face.
According to Aaron, he pronounced the calf to be a picture of the Lord, even though making such a picture broke the commandments. Aaron declared a feast to the Lord, to be celebrated at the altar of the Golden Calf. He told the Lord’s people to celebrate, because he had given them what they wanted. He had given the Lord a face: the face he thought most fitting for the one God.
The people seemed to ask for more than one god. The Old Testament language about God presents a different way of thinking from ours. It’s a problem of translation, and the tradition of translation, and it involves concepts that we take for granted.
There’s even a problem with the word “Lord”. In our thinking, the term “the Lord” generally means something like saying “the Boss”. But it’s not usually that way in the Old Testament.
Usually, in the Old Testament, you see the word “LORD” in capital letters. Whenever you see that, it is there to translate an almost indecipherable phrase that means “I AM”. I am what? Just “I AM”. Perhaps we could think of “I AM” as God saying, “I AM whatever I want to be and I AM whatever you truly need me to be.”
The word translated as God is almost always a plural singular noun. “God” is, in Hebrew, almost always, the word “gods”, but the verbs, the action words, describing what God is and what God does, are almost always singular, but not always. The term that calls God “God” is a plural of majesty and fullness; like the royal “we”. God is One, but God is a bigger One than words can hope to express.
So, our problem in translating, and even in understanding the Old Testament, is judging, from the context, whether the Old Testament is talking about the one and only true God, or about more than one god, because they’re both plural. Did the people want Aaron to make them lots of pictures of lots of gods, like those worshiped in Egypt, or did they want a picture of the one Lord who brought them out of Egypt?
I was reading in the Book of Nehemiah, recently, and found him praising the Lord for not abandoning his people in the exodus. He says this: “Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ‘This is your god who brought you out of Egypt….” (Nehemiah 9:18)
It stayed light, but the light changed.
In Nehemiah, both the English and the Hebrew versions cast God in the singular “singular”, and this tells us that Nehemiah thought that they had made an image of the one God who brought them out of Egypt. They made a statue, an image, a face of the Lord who was with them always, but never showed his face.
I’m glad that most of the Bible is not so technical and tied up with linguistics and ancient traditions of translation. But this story is.
So, what is it about faces? It’s about knowing, and bonding, and belonging, and loving. Babies study faces to bond, to belong, to know, and to love.
When the family of travelers used to be allowed into the waiting areas at airports, and you flew by plane to visit them, wasn’t it great to see their familiar faces, right there, just when you got off the plane. It was happiness, reunion, love, and comfort too: yes, comfort. You got comfort from their faces.
A familiar face gives you the comfortable message that you know what you’ve got. You know what to expect. There might be faces that give you the opposite message, and those make us uncomfortable.
Strange faces present us with an adventure. We don’t know what role a strange face may play in our future. Familiar faces offer us predictability and stability. Children may enjoy adventures, but they like predictability best. They want you to read their favorite story over and over again, and never try to change the words. They like family traditions and they like to participate in those traditions year after year. When someone goes missing from those traditions, we all feel the loss.
Shadows turned to eclipse shaped crescents.
So, when God’s people wanted to give the Lord a face, they wanted something we can all understand. We may wonder, deep down, why such a thing would be forbidden.
In our life with God, we want to know exactly who he is. We want to read his thoughts. We want to read his motives. We want to know what to expect. And we really expect predictability and stability. In a way, we want faith to be our anchor.
You remember, though, that faith isn’t pictured as an anchor. Hope is the anchor. For faith, hope, and love: love is a heart, hope is an anchor, and faith is a cross. The cross of Jesus is very comforting, but the cross you take upon your own shoulders to follow Jesus may not be comforting, and it’s certainly an adventure, to say the least.
The people who surrounded God’s people were people who had many gods, and each god had a picture, an image, a face. You could look at their image and see what they were there for. There would be a god of agriculture and food with a scythe, or a sheaf of wheat, or a basket of fruit. There would be a god of wealth and money with some symbol of treasure. There would be a god of fertility and sex with an appropriate pose. There would be a god of the home with a roof, or a cupboard, or a hearth with a flame.
If you were those people, you knew what your gods were for. You knew what to expect and how to get it. Their faces told you so.
Actually, we have the same gods today. You can see them in magazines, and in commercials, and on the internet. Those gods offer us ways to get what we want.
The Lord’s people often envied the people who had it simple with their gods. All those other people had an element of predictability and stability that God’s people weren’t allowed to picture and see, in their God. And their life of liberation from slavery, and their wandering in the desert, were not reassuring. They were actually well cared for, all along the way, but they didn’t feel safe. They never knew what to expect next.
Right there, you have a whole different level of faith required. It’s a challenging faith. It makes faith into an adventure at its best; maybe an extreme adventure. The parting sea, the pillar of cloud and fire that led them, the smoke and lightening on the mountain were the signs of the God of adventure.
There was a Promised Land that was promised to them. But they didn’t have any idea what that would be like, or when it would happen to them. The way to the Promised Land was the way of adventure and faith.
God’s people weren’t satisfied with that. It was too much for them. They wanted much less. They want what other people settled for.
This is the place to lay out the words of the Apostle Paul. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Romans 1:20-23)
Photo of the Eclipse: by Laura Swift Engel
West Richland, WA, August 21, 2017
God’s people knew that their God was strong and always with them, but they wanted something less. They wanted something less overwhelming. They wanted something simple, and they weren’t getting it. The Golden Calf was simple, and easy, and it was fun.
When I say goodbye to kids, sometimes I tell them, “Have fun and be good.” I say that because, if they’re trying to have fun, then also trying to be good will hopefully keep them in line.
When God’s people tried to give God a face, they deliberately made him out to be less than he was. If people make you out to be less than you are, how does that make you feel? We read that God was angry.
We know that God’s people knew that he was more than whatever the young bull, or the mature calf, imaged to them: energy, and strength, and creative potency. Their God was so much more. They knew this, and yet they created an easy lie with a face.
How do parents feel when their children tell lies? When I was a kid, lying was one of the worst things I could possibly do. My parents rewarded my lies with anger, and that anger came from love. Lies are a breach of faith, and you can’t have a life of loving and thriving with lies and betrayals. Children need to learn that, and how do you teach them?
It’s the same with God’s people. It’s the same with us. If we make God less than he wants to be for us, if we design God to be our technique for getting what we ask for and what we want, if we design God to be our technique for safety, then we aren’t talking about faith. We aren’t even talking about God at all. We are talking about ourselves.
If we were to read through, into the next chapter, we would find a new kind of faith: the faith of Moses. “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” (33:11)
Photo of the Eclipse: by Laura Swift Engel
West Richland, WA, August 21, 2017
Now this says that it was face to face, but it was also God seeing Moses’ face, but Moses not seeing God’s face. Moses knew the Lord almost the same way as his people did, in terms of faces. Up to this time, all that Moses ever saw was the fire, and the cloud, and the smoke on the mountain. Moses had the faith that comes from being seen, and yet also from being the friend of someone who is something more than you can ever see: something without a face. That is the adventure which God wants for all of us.
When the Lord presented his anger to Moses, as from one friend to another, Moses knew something more than he was seeing or hearing. He heard the Lord called the Israelites “Moses’” people, and not his own, but Moses knew that there was more to God than this. He spoke to God after God’s own heart, which he knew by faith. Moses knew, by faith, that his own people were still, and would always be, God’s own people.
The Lord spoke of blotting out the people of Israel and making a new nation out of Moses’ offspring. Moses knew, by faith, as one friend knows another, that there was much more to the Lord than this.
Moses offered to let himself be blotted out, as the punishment for the sins of his people. Here Moses shows the faith of knowing more of the heart of God than you can see (as one friend knows another). Moses knew that one person might give himself as an offering for the sins of many.
There was no other way for Moses to know this than by faith. We know it was in the heart of God to enter this world as one man, in Jesus, and to offer himself for the sins of others: for the sins of the world. Moses knew something deep, deep in the heart of God that was infinite love. Even though he didn’t know the name of God as Savior, in Jesus, Moses belonged to that God, in Jesus.
Photo of the Eclipse: by Laura Swift Engel
West Richland, WA, August 21, 2017
The faceless face of God, for Moses and his people, shrouded in cloud and smoke, was love like lightening, or like looking into the face of the sun, even in eclipse. For people like us (such as we are in this world), with weak eyes and weak hearts, that faceless love was too strong, and too holy, to see and survive. But God would acquire a face of his own choosing, in his own time.
The Gospel of John says this. “No one has seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” (John 1:18; New International Version)
Of course, we don’t know what Jesus’ face looked like, either. For us, by faith, Jesus looks like not what we want, but like what we truly need. And this is what Moses knew, and this is what God’s ancient people, in the exodus, needed to know. This is what we need to know.
There’s an author named Frederick Beuchner, who wrote this about belief and unbelief, and it’s not a stretch to apply this to faith. He says: “Unbelief is as much of a choice as belief is. What makes it in many ways more appealing is that whereas to believe in something requires some measure of understanding and effort, not to believe doesn't require much of anything at all.” (Frederick Beuchner, “Whistling in the Dark”)
The God without a face, who chose a face in Jesus, is our adventure. This God is the God who is visible to the eyes of a level of faith that knows that God is much more than we can see or hear. He only has no face because he is both our Promised Land and our Adventure.
There’s a poem I love, and I’ll end with that. The poem is “Christ Who Is Our Life” by Adah Richmond. Knowing that God is like this is what faith is about. The poem goes like this:
“Christ Who is our Life”

“I AM.” Who art Thou Lord?
I Am– all things to thee;
Sufficient to thine every need;
Thou art complete in Me.

I AM- thy Peace, thy Joy,
Thy Righteousness, thy Might;
I Am– thy victory o’er sin,
Thy Keeper day and night.

I AM-thy Way, thy Life;
I Am– the Word of Truth;
Whate'er thy lack, I Am– to thee
El Shaddai, enough.

I AM-thy Life within.
Thine everlasting Bread;
Eat of my flesh, and drink of My blood
I AM– what dost thou need?

-Adah Richmond