Sunday, July 23, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Expectations Versus Surprises

Preached on Sunday, July 23, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 14:10-15:3; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Walking around the Feather River: Live Oak, CA
June 2017
You could say that Moses and the Israelites were caught between a rock and a hard place; but in this part of the story they were caught between a superpower and a wet place. Each of us, in our own way, has been caught like that, over and over again. After that, we never struggle with faith, ever again! Or not?
Well, the word of God gives us a pattern of getting caught and getting faith. In our reading, it says: “And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” (Exodus 14:31) This is said at the end of chapter fourteen and it will remain absolutely true all the way until chapter sixteen.
The scriptures are inspired to tell us who God is and what he does. They are also inspired to tell us who we are and what we do. I believe what it says, because it certainly fits me.
About God: what we’ve read this morning tells us that God is a warrior (Exodus 15:3) and that he will fight for us (Exodus 14:14). About us: this is the first place that I know of, in the Bible, where Israel is called an army (Exodus 14:20); and what applies to them, applies to us.
This is pretty impressive, until you take a real look and see how they acted. When they saw the Egyptian army coming for them, in the distance, the Israelites basically told Moses, “We told you so!”
“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” (14:11) This is an old, old joke, because of the pyramids. You know: the pyramids were graves. No one could miss them. Everyone could see that there were graves in Egypt. It’s a four-thousand-year-old joke.
The Bible has a sense of humor, because God does. God has to have a sense of humor just to handle his own people.
The Bible shows us that there is a running battle between our expectations and God’s calling for us to trust and obey. But what does it mean, in our readings today, to trust and obey? We are to obey…but how? The guy with the faith is Moses, and even Moses doesn’t know quite what to do next.
The Lord seems to scold Moses for not guessing the improbable (or seemingly impossible) surprise that the Lord has planned. “The Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me?” (14:15) It’s almost as if, by telling his people what to do, Moses is telling God what to do. Moses had a running battle with his own expectations.
Moses gave the people these commands: “Do not be afraid.” “Stand firm.” “You need only be still.” (14:13-14) In some way these all say the same thing. There’s a line from Psalm forty-six, where God says: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) This doesn’t mean, “Do absolutely nothing, and you will know that I am God.”
“Being still” is an inward determination to trust. It’s a kind of peace that enables you to do something: whatever it might be that God is calling you to do. It might be a calling to stop doing something. It might be a calling to come to attention and get ready to go.
Whatever it may be, it’s a way of standing firm. Years ago, during World War II, a British poster carried the motto: “Stay Calm and Carry On.” Those are slightly different words, but they carry the same meaning as “be still.”
The Israelites were in a mood to be still by putting their hands up in surrender. That seemed, to them, to be the best thing to do, if they were smart. I’ve always had the feeling that Moses thought that something entirely different would be smart. It’s as if Moses was saying: “Face the Egyptians, get in battle formation, prepare arms, and see how God will fight for you (meaning: see how God will fight through you, and on your behalf, as you do your part).”
For Moses, as the guy with the faith, knowing God just a little bit, this seemed, to him, to be the best thing for them to do, if they were smart.
It can seem smart to trust God, and stand your ground, and do what you must. Sometimes this is the right thing to do. Sometimes I’ve been smart enough to do just that.
Apparently, God’s idea of a really smart thing to do was for them to cross the Red Sea on dry land. But who could have had enough faith and trust to have thought of that? It’s as if the growth and survival of God’s people depended on God giving them options that their faith could never hope to have imagined, or foreseen, or held onto.
Another part of the pattern is that, in order to live as people of faith, we seem to need to be confronted by the truth of what we are without God (or without faith). We seem to need to be confronted by the truth of what we may become with God (or with faith).
God’s people, Israel, needed to know that. Even Moses needed to know that. And so do we.
Looking at it another way, even Moses needed to be confronted with the limitations of his own faith. In this sense, faith is not enough. Our faith, or our lack of it, can be so much about us, and not about God.
Moses was showing real faith, but the limitation of that faith was that he was prepared to use faith to make something happen, and faith is something that rests in the faithfulness of God. The faithfulness of God often comes to us in surprising ways.
Surprise is at the core of knowing God and having a relationship with the Lord.
We see this, all the way through the Bible. Moses asked God for his name. God told him that he would be known by a name that wasn’t a name at all, but a verb and a state of being. God was “I Am Who I Am”, or “I Will Be Who I Will Be”. This verb of God is a state of complete independence and self-being (uncreated and unconditioned being, if you can imagine that).
This absolutely independent God needs nothing, and, so, (obviously) he creates everything. God wants to change the world through a nation of people who know him, and so he, obviously, called an old, barren couple named Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of that nation.
The real core of the God who is known through his surprises, is the gospel. This uncreated and unconditioned being, beyond time and space, became a human being, bound by time and space, born as a regular baby, and taught and raised like any normal child, and trained by his father to work as a carpenter. This perfect, uncreated, and unconditioned being got himself killed on a cross by everything that was wrong with this world in order to set us free from everything that was wrong with this world. Even set us free from sin and death. What better way could there be, to beat sin and death, than being killed by sinful humans?
This is what Paul claims to be the foolishness of God and the weakness of God. And Paul claims this foolishness and weakness to be the source of God’s his victory and the source of our new life in God. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 25)
Who would have guessed it? It’s a surprise. How strange it is for God to love surprises. His word tells us that this is his way.
We want to have faith in proven techniques for dealing with God. We want the Bible to provide us with such techniques.
It’s true that there are disciplines for a life with God, and the Bible tells us these disciplines: prayer, servanthood, worship, study, generosity, the love of our enemies, and so on. There are principles of life: laws, wisdom, and so much more; and these are to be found in the Bible. But these are not the core of the message.
The core of the message of the Bible is this completely surprising God. This God is absolutely beyond us, and beyond our control, and this God has a purpose and something he is aiming at. It’s something that he wants to share with us. God wants to take us along with him, and it’s all too big for us. It’s beyond our expectations, and we wouldn’t understand it if we knew what it was beforehand.
The Bible tells us that this God comes to us in our need and our abject slavery; like the slavery of Israel in Egypt. This God gets really close and takes us with him to freedom and life. You can call it an exodus. You can call it the way of the cross and the resurrection. You can call it Jesus: God in Christ; Christ with us. Christ in us. What a surprise!
And so, there we find ourselves, caught between a rock and a hard place, or caught between a superpower and a wet place, and there is some impassible barrier between us and the goal. God makes our own limitations clear, and that makes the impossible all too clear. God says, “Go forward through the impassible, impossible barrier. That is the road to my plan for you.”
Perhaps you have passed through the impossible with God, in Christ. I have. But it’s always something new. I never know what’s next. The Bible tells me so. I have no idea what those surprises will be. I pray to know them when I come to them. Don’t you?
I hope that the church can always be this place where we make it through the impossible barriers and find the road to God’s promises together. The barrier, and the road that takes us through it, will be God’s surprise. Let’s trade in all our smartness, and all our expectations, for God’s surprises.

We should know our exodus. Most of all, we should know our Jesus. In Jesus, we meet the God who is the master of surprise.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Navigating the Uncontrollable

Preached on Sunday, July 16, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 3:1-14; Luke 5:1-11

Walking to the Feather River from Live Oak, CA
June 2017
When Moses got near the burning bush, God told him; “Moses take off your shoes and approach this burning bush.” And Moses did it, and he burned his feet. And God said: “Ha! That’s the third one today!”
And then there’s what Woody Allen said about the difficulty of faith. He said: If only God would give me a clear sign, like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”
For the next couple months, we’re going to think about what I’m calling “the underbelly of faith”. It’s the challenges of learning to trust God.
We see that there is this underside of faith when God speaks clearly to Moses for the first time. It’s face to face, although it doesn’t seem like Moses sees an actual face.
Moses sees fire. He hears a voice from the fire. It’s not wishful thinking, because Moses doesn’t like what he hears. Something direct happens, and Moses can’t believe it, doesn’t want to believe it, and yet he can’t deny it, either.
In the end, of course, Moses is going to do what God tells him to do. But, at the start, he looks as though he won’t do it. In chapters four and five of the Book of Exodus, Moses argues, and makes excuses, and raises objections, over and over again. What God is asking for looks impossible to Moses. It turns out not to be impossible, only incredibly difficult. The projected journey that shouldn’t have taken more than a couple weeks will take over forty years, and that was the least of the difficulties.
The Lord’s reason for calling Moses was that the Lord wanted to take a new step back to what he intended for creation. The Lord wanted to begin a new creation out of fallen people, out of the fallen human race.
The Lord wanted to begin by creating at least one nation of people who would change the world by living as a truly free people. The Lord planned to help them use their freedom for harmony with God, and harmony with each other. The Lord planned for this to take place in a Promised Land, in an environment where people could know the will of God and do it, and find forgiveness and recovery when they sometimes failed.
God’s plan began with Abraham and Sarah. Now the plan would go forward with the help of Moses.
It would only take a couple of simple steps to make the project of a new creation work. First, it could begin if the king of Egypt was willing to let tens of thousands of valuable slaves go free and leave the country. Second, it could get done if the people of Israel would trust God to lead them through a vast, barren, and waterless desert, and cross over the border into the Promised Land where God would enable them (as slaves who had never handled weapons of war before, and who had no military training at all) to drive out several existing nations from their fortified cities.
Of course, the Lord admits that the king of Egypt won’t let the people go. The Lord will have to force him. But Moses will still have to go and ask politely (at least at first) in order to give the king a chance. It means something to say that this story shows us that God always gives absolutely everyone, no matter how hardened of heart, the right of a choice and the right of refusal.
The surprising thing is that the Lord knew what he was talking about when he said that the elders of Israel would actually believe Moses. They believed and worshiped. At least, they did at first. But they changed when the king denied their polite request, and called them lazy, and added to their work without reducing their quotas. Then they stopped believing in Moses and his calling.
The weakness of so much of God’s planning is that it involves people. God’s plans always seem to involve some kind of human partnership, and some kind of human agreement. It’s almost as if God truly valued human beings. It’s almost like being in love.
Yes. Love is God’s part. And faith is our part; which means trusting and obeying, or following, the calling of God. I’ve been in love and it was everything I wanted and it scared me to death. For faith to work, it’s almost like being in love.
For us (for me) when we (when I) find faith difficult and challenging, it’s tempting to think that it would work so much better if only God would speak more clearly; more dramatically. If only we could know for sure, and in a way that we could hold onto with a firm grip. If only God would speak though a burning bush, or guide us with a pillar of smoke and fire. Then we would get it right.
Wait! God did that and it didn’t work very well. This is a lesson to us.
Or, if only God would find ways of reassuring us that he cared about what we care about. If only God had made it clear to the Hebrew slaves that he was truly interested in their freedom. Or, what if Jesus clearly showed Peter, and the other disciples, that he knew how much they loved and cared about fish. He did that, and it still didn’t work very well.
God did all of this, every time. If God spoke as clearly to us as he did to Moses, we would respond just as confidently as Moses did; and just as unconfidently; and we do.
We could claim that, when God calls us to a task, that he’s calling the wrong person. God could surely find someone better to do the job. The Bible shows us otherwise, because God found, in Moses, the very best of all that God’s people could offer.
Moses (the best of them all) appeared, at that point, to have no promise at all. And yet, Moses’ parents who hid their baby son in order to defy the genocide laws of the king, and the midwives who also defied the king, acted, all along, like people do act when they hear the voice of God without any burning bush or pillar of guiding light.
How can God get anything done? Sometimes, I feel so sorry for God who seems determined to rely on us. We seem so out of control. Yet God gets his work done, in his own way. The king did let those slaves go, and they truly got away, and they made their long journey, and they lived with God in the Promised Land. Although, none of this looked like they thought it would look at the start.
This teaches us the foundation of faith. Everything looked out of control and God was in control. God’s promises were kept. God’s choices were right.
This teaches us about the challenges of faith: Faith’s underbelly. What God planned got done. Even more important: what God called his people to do, they did. They did it in spite of themselves, and in spite of the realities of the world around them, and in spite of the people and forces beyond their control.
Paul says: “Everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23) The fact is that everything in life requires some kind of faith. We just don’t think of it at the time. Getting out of bed in the morning takes faith. Going to bed at night takes faith. It all takes faith, because we really aren’t in control of anything, and God takes care of us. God loves us.
There are times in all of our lives when we become like those other people who frustrate us so much. You know how they are. They make you so mad that you want to reach inside them and tweak some button, or knob, or switch that will stop something, or start something, or change the channel, or adjust the tuning. But you can’t do it, and you know that they are uncontrollable. Really all our important relationships, all our important commitments, and all our missions and callings in life are uncontrollable.
There is so much that we can do, and learn to do, in order to protect our health, and we should take that pretty seriously, or else we will live to regret it. And yet, we know, that health is sort of uncontrollable, too.
I’ve seen great wisdom, in husbands and wives, that enables them to build and guard their marriages, but there is so much in a marriage, in the heart and mind of the other partner, that is uncontrollable. It’s surely true in parenthood and any other part of being a family. And yet those relationships, commitments, and callings are as precious as life itself. They are life for us.
When Paul says, “Everything that does not come from faith is sin,” I think it means that if you live those precious relationships and callings without faith you’ll do insane things; you’ll do horribly dysfunctional things. Or, you’ll run away from saying or doing something so important, because it’s the gift of faith that helps to show love the way.
We, ourselves, are uncontrollable, and this is another point where faith is needed. This is faith’s underbelly.
We only read the beginning of Moses’ argument, or debate, with God. The good news is that God reveals the secret of faith at the very start of the argument. The Lord says to Moses’ first objection: “I will be with you.” (Exodus 3:12) That’s where faith begins, even when it begins with the same conflict with which Moses’ faith began.
“I will be with you” is deeply the identity of God. Notice what this means with Moses. Moses didn’t know very much about God, except for some stories from his early childhood that, somehow, set him on his strange course in life.
Maybe Moses knew that “I will be with you” fit the old stories about God leading Abraham and Sarah, even in their old and barren age. But the current story shows us who the God is who says, “I will be with you.”
God is with Moses, arguing and yet never giving up or giving in. God lives with Moses and with us where we’re at, even in our doubts and questions.
The story of Moses is simply the proof of that.
Right toward the very end of the argument, Moses is going to say, “Send someone else.” This is saying “no” to God. It’s what I dread most and have prayed most to avoid. I have said “no” to God, and I have had to take it back. It was my sin. Let me say that it was Moses’ sin. It just was.
God got mad at Moses for this. That is where God’s temper, at last, clearly broke out. But God did not give up. God let Moses’ brother Aaron be a helper, but Moses couldn’t shake God’s call.
It seems to have had almost nothing to do with Moses’ faith. It seems to have had everything to do with God’s faithfulness and grace. God, in his grace, covered for Moses.
God dealt graciously with Moses’ sin. God deals graciously with our sins. God comes down, in Jesus, to be what the prophet Isaiah called “Immanuel”, which means “God with us”. In Jesus, God is with us, in our sins and in every way, including the way of dying for our sins on the cross and rising from the dead to give us a life that is infinitely stronger than sin and death.
The Lord says: “I will be with you.” It’s all a part of God’s identity; all a part of God’s name. But it’s a name that isn’t a name. “With you” is a place. It makes every place holy ground for you with God. It makes every relationship, every commitment, and every calling into holy ground. It makes every day and every moment, and every year into holy ground.
“I will be with you,” has more to tell us about the identity of the God whom we trust, because God is trustworthy. It’s in the words “I will be.”
When Moses asks God’s name, God gives him a name that isn’t a name at all but an action and a state of being. God’s name is a verb. “I am Who I am.” But the Hebrew language doesn’t have verb tenses the way our language does. “I am Who I am” is just as easily “I will be Who I will be.” When the Lord tells Moses, “I will be with you”, the phrase “I will be” is exactly the same word that appears in the name “I am.”
The gist of this is that God can’t be labeled, and names have no control of him. God’s actions reveal who God is. God’s relationships demonstrate who God is. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and the same is true with faith in the faithfulness of God.
“I Am” means that God is, and that God is uncreated. God is self-existent. God is completely independent of everything else that he has created, and yet God loves his creation. God is known by the way he lovingly, patiently commits to his creation and to us.
God is completely independent; and, so, God, himself, is uncontrollable. We can’t control anything in this world, and we can’t control God, but nothing in this world can control God. Nothing in this world can defeat him. The forces beyond our control can’t defeat God. Even we can’t defeat God, even though we often find ourselves to be uncontrollable. This is the God who is with us. This is the God who will be with us.
We can’t name God with any single name, but we can meet God. We do meet him in Jesus, who is Immanuel: God with us. We can learn and experience this God who promises to be with us. We can learn and experience this God who overcomes our arguments, our excuses, our doubts, and our questions. We can experience this God who overcomes our sins by dying and rising from the dead.

The Lord’s Supper presents us with the God who is with us and will be with us in Jesus. It gives us the God who covers for us on the cross and in the resurrection. It shows us that God is our life and our salvation. This is how we navigate our way through the uncontrollable.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Joining the Resistance

Preached on Sunday, July 9, 7-9-2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10; Hebrews 11:1, 23-27

Sometimes, when I hear people talk about events that happened long ago in their lives; toward the end of their story, they pause. Then, they sum it all up by saying, “But that’s ancient history.”
Photos along the Columbia and the Willamette Rivers
May and  June, 2017
I think it may be their way of saying that those old issues didn’t matter anymore, or that they shouldn’t matter anymore.
Personally, I love ancient history. I love ancient Greece and Rome. I love ancient Egypt. I think they matter a lot. I think that the people we call “cave men” and “cave women” matter a lot to us now.
In my own life, some of the oldest things matter. Some of the most important events of my life happened before I was born. They happened to my dad. They happened to my mom. These old events shaped what mattered to them, as human beings, and shaped their parenting of me and my sisters. I believe that such old events matter to God himself, and to his plan and his purpose for each one of us.
You may have no way of knowing how you are reaping the benefits or paying the price (because of me) of the events that happened to me before I was born.
Time is a creation of God, who has eternal purposes and loves. No matter how far back an event or an experience may be in the past, or how far forward in the future, the distance of time doesn’t change God’s purpose for it: to love it, deal with it, prepare for it, or work to heal it and transform it. We reap the benefits of that. And God has paid the price for that. It all contributes to his work for us. It all contributes to his love for us.
I love the Bible. It’s ancient too. It shows us what is real and what matters most. It teaches us who God is, and who we are, and what we can be when we learn to live with God, in his world, by faith.
In the Book of Exodus, we are jumping back in time to about fifteen hundred years before the birth of Jesus. It’s a time about six hundred years after the Lord spoke to an elderly couple named Abraham and Sarah, and made them into the beginning of his chosen people Israel, and into the beginning of us (his Church).
Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, had been sold by his own brothers to slave traders who took him to Egypt. As a slave, in Egypt, Joseph served his master well, got put in prison, got out of prison because he had the interpretation of the king’s dream, and Joseph became Prime Minister for Life, of the great civilization of Egypt.
His brothers and their families came to Egypt and lived there for about four hundred years, without ever quite blending in. They were the worst kind of immigrants imaginable. They were only one of a whole group of similar immigrants who just would not blend in.
These unblended people grew and grew in numbers, until the Egyptians got scared and tried to control them by making them into slaves. Then the Egyptian government tried to set a policy of genocide by requiring the killing of all the male babies born to these people.
None of the Egyptian genocide policies worked. But the genocide policy did result in one baby, named Moses, getting put in the river, in a basket, and getting found by an Egyptian princess.  This princess raised Moses as her own son, and gave him a life of leadership-training, wealth, and power.
Moses was a worldly success, until he blew it all to pieces by identifying himself with his unblended, immigrant, slave people. His own people couldn’t understand what was with him, to make him do this.
Moses didn’t know anything about God’s intention for him to lead his people out of Egypt, into freedom, into a land of their own, into a life intimately shared with God though all the highs and lows of this life. His own people wondered what was with Moses, to so identify with them as to kill their slave-driver.
Moses, himself, could hardly have told them what it was with him. We know what was with him. What was with Moses was God.
His own Hebrew mother got the job serving the princess as his milk-nurse, but that was a job that, sometimes, in unusual cases, lingered on until a child was four or five. Moses seems to have had some link with his family long enough into his life to remember his true identity, and he must have held onto simple stories that a small child might recall: stories about the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
Moses had no plan. He had no concept of his own future task. The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews tell us that the faith of Moses, at that point in time, was a sorrow for the suffering of his people, a willingness to identify with them and to share their disgrace and suffering, and a willingness to know the God who had come to his people.
Moses ran for his life, but we are told that he ran with faith, and not with fear. Moses had just enough faith to know that he was right to care. He had, it seems, enough faith to know that God cared about his caring, and that this was part of his calling and purpose as a human being who belonged to God.
Moses and his people lived in a world where it didn’t make any sense to claim that such things were real. We share that same world today. The eleventh Chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews begins by recognizing this important point. It says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
We have to understand “the substance of things not seen but hoped for.” There’s no simple cause and effect that we can prove from faith. Faith doesn’t always make something happen visibly. Faith is created by the reality, or the substance, of what God is working for.
Faith is the protrusion into our souls of the reality of what God is doing and what God stands for. This protrusion creates desires and actions in us that we simply must follow, even when it is really hard and strange to do so.
What no one can predict or prove becomes the intimate, personal influence of a God who makes himself, and what he is, and what he stands for, real to us. We must obey, and that is faith, even when faith feels like a struggle.
There was no evidence to show that an influx of immigrants turned into slaves was the place to look if you wanted to see what God was up to, or to see what God is like. But God was there, caring and preparing the way. Centuries before this, the Lord told Abraham the story of the enslavement and the liberation of his future descendants. (Genesis 15:12-16)
What mattered to the Egyptians was the opposite of what mattered to God. What made sense to the Egyptians was the opposite of what made sense to God.
The midwives who refused to carry out Pharaoh’s policy of genocide, and the parents who hid their sons, and Moses himself, formed part of a holy resistance. They were God’s people and they showed this by becoming, in their lives, the evidence of things hoped for by the least and the most looked-down-on of people.
They joined God by faith. They joined God’s resistance to the world as it was, and as it is today.
We think that faith makes things happen, but faith is simply identifying with what God wants to happen, and with who God is and what God is doing. We care about the things that no one else notices or cares about because we know the love of God for us, and for all such invisible things, and for all such vulnerable things and vulnerable people.
Faith is taking the side of “the God of the least of things.” Jesus, who is God in human flesh and blood, is the Savior of the least of things. Trusting him as the savior of sinners is just an extension of this. This becomes our rule. Knowing and living with the God of the least of things and the least of people leads us to identify with a world that is not yet visible: the world that God is planning and building from the raw material of the least of these: including us.
Jesus wants us to know that he will recognize us as belonging to him by whether we have joined the resistance. Jesus told a parable which pictured him saying to his own, at the end of time, “’Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)
These are famous words and, yet, we often try to wiggle out of them. They don’t make sense, the way this world teaches us to see things, and commit to things. Only the faith that joins God’s resistance to this world has the ability to see what the world teaches us not to see.
Moses was one of the least of these. He was one of the babies that a king was trying to kill. He survived, and lived, and then he became an outcast and a lost cause. And yet, in God’s purpose, this “least of these” came back to set his people free.
God, himself, (in Jesus) became one of the babies that a king was trying to kill. In Jesus God became one of the least of these. He became an outcast; and the rich, and the powerful, and even those of God’s people who thought about their own goodness, and their own self-preservation and success, succeeded in killing the grownup Jesus, on a cross.
But Jesus (the God who became the least of these) used his own downfall to set his people free. He sets us free from the kingdom of this world and its values. He sets us free from the kingdom of sin and death.
The Lord became one of the least of these, one of the least of us, to save us. We need this, because we (each and every one of us) is another of the least.
Just as it was with the slaves in Egypt, we, in our own way, on our own, are the least of these. We fail to be what we are designed to be.
Faith is knowing that God is our God. God belongs to us because God is for people like us. This truth doesn’t make us great or powerful. This truth makes us loved, and honest, and compassionate toward anyone who is one of the least. This makes us members of the resistance, which is God’s side of the great conflict.
The least of these, in Egypt, were in a mess for a long time. Their mess lasted for generations, when you look at what the Lord foretold to Abraham.
The least of these don’t always receive visible deliverance and visible help. What they do receive is a God who will die for them. This God has died, for them. In Jesus, God has died for all of us and with all of us. So, in Jesus, God is most truly our God: The God of the least.
There is a song that says “Faith is the victory.” But it’s also true that faith is the battle. Faith is the resistance. This is what I’m calling “the underbelly of faith.” It’s the challenge. It’s the learning process: learning to trust and live by the truth of who our God is.
The lesson of Exodus, Moses, and the wanderings of his people, is that the underbelly of faith. This lesson of faith tells us that faith is given and learned in such a world as ours; with such needs, and dangers, and fears as we see in our world today. The truth taught to us by this story is that a world such as ours is the very place where we can find the real truth about God: that he is to be seen and known by faith at his clearest and deepest in just such a world as ours.

God is to be seen in the resistance, just as he is most clearly and deeply to be seen in the cross. That is where real faith begins. That is where our real life with God begins.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Declaration of Something New

Preached on Sunday, July 2, 2017

Scripture reading: Acts 17:16-34

Photos from Independence Celebrations
Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
July 3-4, 2017
A new garden-lover asked a master gardener for advice. “What would be good me to plant in an area where we get very little rain? And my best place for a garden has too little afternoon sun, clay soil, and it sits on a rocky ledge?” The master gardener thought for a moment and asked, “How about a flagpole?”
By the time he left Athens, Paul may have felt like he’d been trying to plant a garden in a spot like that. Athens was the one spot where he had been least persecuted, and yet the least accepted. Still, I think, many have underestimated his success in Athens. Paul made a dent in it for Jesus.
It hadn’t been Paul’s plan to plant anything in Athens. He was there by accident. He had simply been kicked out of everywhere else along the way. His only real plan was to wait there for his friends and helpers to catch up with him. His friends (Timothy and Silas) were slow in coming because it took them a lot longer to get kicked out of a place than it did for Paul.
Whatever the plan, the waiting seemed endless. Paul grew impatient and agitated, which might explain why he was so good at teaching patience and peace to us.
If Paul had been a tourist, or an historian, he should have loved Athens. Athens was a beautiful city: the cultural heartland of ancient Greece. It was full of beautiful temples and statuary. But the white marble statues were painted in vivid living color, and a lot of them were naked, and a lot of them portrayed gods and goddesses that were being actively worshiped by everyone there. That is now mostly all in the past, and those statues and temples have become admired as great art and architecture.
It would have bothered us as much as it bothered Paul, to see the evidence that the temple of the goddess of love served as a house of prostitution. Chariot salesmen saw nothing wrong with asking the god of business (Hermes) for help in making sales. People in troubled times would burn incense to the dead emperor Augustus. Would we have smiled at this, snapped our photos, and thought it was all so quaint and picturesque?
Paul was distressed by this. So, he stopped waiting and he went to work for Jesus. Paul did what he was so good at: sharing his faith, sharing how strong and real Jesus is, and how good it is to know him. For Paul, the clinching sign of Jesus’ power was shown by his resurrection from the dead.
Resurrection, in Greek, is Anastasia. Anastasia sounded like the fancy name of a goddess. Greek gods often came pairs: male and female, husband and wife. Jesus and Anastasia: were they a foreign god and goddess pair? The Athenians wondered.
To Paul’s amazement, he wasn’t kicked out of town, but he was called to court to explain himself.
Some people were laughing at him, calling him a “babbler”. If Paul spoke the way he wrote, in the letters we have of his, it might explain the laughter. The “babbler” word, in Greek, is hard to translate. It literally means “seed-picker”; like a bird pecking here, and pecking there, hopping from place to place, seemingly at random. Paul, as a speaker, might not have been so easy to follow. What made up for this was his enthusiasm and creativity.
Luke tells us that the people of Athens loved to talk more than anything. So, they didn’t mind encouraging even a babbler to join in their talk.
Let’s look at the story of Paul in Athens. Let’s think about the strange, mixed response he got there: laughter, interest, and faith. Paul tried to translate the message of Jesus into their thought patterns. He tried to shed a light into the weakest and neediest places of their ways of thinking.
The people of Athens had built many little philosophical worlds in their own minds to help them deal with reality, and with the spiritual reality that was populated by their gods and goddesses, and yet also pointed to something beyond those many gods and goddesses.
Some of their philosophers, for a long time, wondered if there was one thing, or one single source, of everything. Paul had to open up those little worlds, and his efforts only succeeded for a few of those who heard him: at least at the start.
Luke mentions two main groups of philosophers: The Epicureans and the Stoics.
The Epicureans taught that the most important thing was to be happy. Some of them really went overboard on that, and these have plenty of followers today, although I don’t know anyone who calls themselves an epicurean. There were party-animal epicureans. Their philosophy of life was, “eat, drink, and be merry, and let the good times roll.”
The stricter epicureans were fairly serious people. They said that, the way life is, it’s hard work to be truly happy in the end, especially if you go overboard. The serious epicureans said to seek the good life by setting your sights a little lower. Live a quiet life. Try not to let yourself get involved in other people’s troubles. Don’t expect too much; and, then, you won’t be disappointed.
They read this lesson into their history, which was easy for them to do. Four centuries earlier, the Greek city states (especially Sparta and Athens) became strong and wealthy. Sparta and Athens became ambitious, and proud, and they basically exhausted themselves in a twenty-seven year-long war (the Peloponnesian War).
Sparta won, and went straight into decline. Athens was conquered, but kept its fame. Everyone wanted to go to Athens: to see, and listen, and learn.
Pride and ambition had reduced Athens to being a tourist destination. So, the epicureans said: be satisfied with a little. Keep a low profile.
There was, in Athens, at least one altar dedicated to An Unknown God. The Greeks knew about lots and lots of gods, and it was quite a lot of work to keep on the good side of them all. Then someone had the horrifying thought: what if there was a god that no one knew about, and what if that god felt left out and got mad at them for forgetting?
People could get into a lot of trouble because of this. So, they built the Altar to the Unknown God, in order to cover all their bases.
As long as they had that altar, and left offerings on it, they didn’t worry whether he remained unknown. They were satisfied to keep it that way. The epicureans believed there couldn’t be any true contact with the divine, anyway, so why bother?
Once, in our own early history, there was a temptation to a political way of keeping your sights low. In colonial times, in America, Britain began trying to make real money off her colonies. The King and Parliament took away the colonists many of their existing legal rights to pass their own laws, and set their own taxes, and elect their own officials. Some of the colonists were tempted to just go along with it, set their sights low, and make the best of it. They had always thought of themselves as loyal British citizens, and so it seemed like treason to stand up for their old freedoms.
One of the leaders in Massachusetts, named William Prescott, wrote against this temptation: “Our forefathers passed the vast Atlantic, spent their blood and treasure, that they might enjoy their liberties, both civil and religious, and transmit them to their posterity. Now, if we give them up, can our children rise up and call us blessed? Let us all be of one heart, and stand fast in that liberty wherewith Christ has made us free….”
Some early Americans refused to let go of a spirit of adventure; a desire not to make the best of things as they were. That refusal to give in made our revolution possible. As you read history, you discover that this spirit of adventure had been in decline, and only revived about forty to thirty years before our revolution, during the time called “The Great Awakening”. It came from a spiritual revival that swept the colonies. The adventure of becoming spiritually alive, within, had made other adventures and revolutions possible.
When Paul preached in Athens, he quoted words written when it was still an adventure to be Greek. In those earlier days, centuries before Christ, they had known as much of a spiritual adventure as they were capable of having before the gospel came. These were words about one God, and this is how they went: “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” “We are indeed his offspring.”
It may have embarrassed Paul’s hearers to be reminded that they had left their adventures behind them, and that they had sunk to the level of being content to let an unknown God remain unknown.
The days of groping are over, Paul said. Yet many things remain unknown for us. The epicureans kept their sights low, for fear of being disappointed.
Have you ever been afraid of being disappointed in God? Have you ever been afraid to pray? Have you been afraid to pray for someone to be healed, or for yourself to receive guidance and direction?
Of course, we know that God is God, and we aren’t God. We know that God will only answer our prayers as he knows is best for us; but have you ever prayed to know God’s will and then found yourself too fearful to listen for the answer?
There are times when I’m afraid to know God’s will, because, then, I might have to do something about it. For instance, if I know God desires you to have more freedom in sharing your faith with others, then I know that I will need to do it more myself. And, if I’m afraid to live out my life with energy in the will of God, isn’t it because I’m afraid I’ll fall on my face? And, if I’m afraid of that, isn’t it because I’m afraid that God won’t help me? And, if I’m afraid he won’t help me to do what he wants, isn’t that because I still don’t know him and trust him well enough?
There is a tremendous part of his love and power that are unknown to me. George MacDonald says, “Faith is doing what God says.” Until I do that, I won’t know much of him, or be much like Jesus who died for me to make me a child of God. I want to “live, and move, and have my being” in Jesus.
For the people of Athens, their little world of low expectations kept them in the dark.
Another little world that kept them from responding to Jesus was the world of the past. You didn’t have to be a philosopher to come under the spell of the past in Athens. The hill called the Areopagus, or the Hill of Mars, on which Paul and his audience stood, or the court building in which Paul may have spoken, was surrounded by monuments of the past and the homes of great men long dead. They looked at the past and whispered: “What if?” and “If Only?”
They relived old battles and they placed the blame for the failures of long ago.
There’s a saying that goes like this: “We are too soon old and too late smart.” Athens was an old, old city, in Paul’s day; and even the young people in it were old and set in their ways, even though Luke says that they loved talking about the latest thing. They loved talking, just as long as it didn’t lead to doing. Even the young were old.
Paul gave them his theory of history. “God made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them, and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps feel after him and find him.” (Acts 17:24-27)
Paul spoke to people who had built up a world of attitudes that taught them to see the past as lost opportunities for success that made every new possibility impossible. For them, knowledge had come too late.
Not so, said Paul. The past wasn’t only your chance for getting what you wish you had. The past was a challenge to feel after God and find him. You can still do that, now. That invitation has not passed.
Paul turned the focus to the present. Paul said: “But now, God commands…” (Acts 17:30) Paul’s call (God’s call) to repent means two things. It means to reverse and go back to God’s place for you to start. It also means having a new mind, and having (within you) a new “everything within” that comes from God, not from yourself. That becomes the new present.
That present (God’s present) is holy. God overlooks the past ignorance, the missed chances, for the sake of the holy present, now.
There is such a thing as lost opportunity. Those lost opportunities do affect the present.
As individuals, as a congregation, as a community, and as a nation, we live with the consequences of our choices; but this is God’s present moment. The whole purpose can get going again, now. The purpose, even of the failures, is…what? The purpose is repentance. It’s a changed mind, a changed feeling, a changed heart, a changed state of faith and hope and love.
The ancient world didn’t believe in change, except as a change for the worse. Are we any different? Do we believe that God could turn a world like ours around? Do we believe the course of things can change? Do we believe that we can change?
The state of our faith may be such that only God still believes that there can be a new direction, or a new chance. If only God were more realistic! The word of God, through Paul, says that everything else was times of ignorance, but now…. Change in you and change in me, and change in the most surprising things, if only we will not be prejudiced against God’s will by the failures of our past. The past cannot be changed, but now…now, what will we do?
The other little world of philosophy was the stoic world. One of their teachings was “self-sufficiency” or “self-mastery”. It was a kind of independence. Part of it was not letting the world and the people in it sap your strength. Don’t depend on these too much. Be responsible for yourself. Pull yourself together. Pull yourself up. You have ability within you, if you choose. The stoics taught this.
The stoic way is (in many ways) the American way. The American Founders were trained in the old classical philosophies, and Stoicism was a favorite of theirs. But it really only became the American way as the Great Awakening receded in their memories.
If you know much about Benjamin Franklin, his words, spoken at Independence Hall, at the Constitutional Convention, may surprise you. Franklin said: “In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard and they were graciously answered. And have we now forgotten this powerful friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need his assistance?”
Paul pointed to dependence on The One who rose from the dead. He said very little about this in our record of his speech on the Hill of Mars: perhaps because the laughter cut him short.
The goal of history for nations (to have the chance to seek, and feel after, and find God) would wind up not in the self-sufficiency that is so popular now, but in a declaration of dependence. Our dependence has to take seriously the words of the Declaration of Independence: “With a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.” Reliance has nothing to do with independence.
We depend not only on God watching out for us daily, but on someone who died and rose from the dead, for us, to make an inner change possible.
This is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We know what he is like. We can read about him, and we can meet him for ourselves, if we want, if we ask him in our heart.
Even if we feel good about ourselves and what we have done, here is someone who has done more for us than we can ever do, in return, for him.
We don’t have an unknown God to speculate and make guesses about, although we may have so much more to learn and to know about this God.  We have a God who is a risen Savior, and we can know him, and depend on him.

Just as in Athens, we don’t always make much of a response to this Lord. But, let’s give God, in Jesus, something to work on in us. Let’s give him a great expectation that matches our growing knowledge of him. Let’s give him a willingness to let the present be the start of something new in us. Let’s give him a decision to depend on Jesus who died and rose to be our Savior and our life: life for us and a new life for the people and the world around us.