Monday, August 9, 2010

Help for the Road Home: U-Turns

Preached Sunday, August 8, 2010

Scripture readings: Exodus 2:11-3:6; Acts 9:1-25

The story of the exodus, that takes us through several books of the Old Testament, is a travel story: a story of the road. So is the Book of Acts.

They are stories about a road home.

Moses and others with him take their people, God’s people, from slavery in Egypt to the home they never knew. They go home to the Promised Land.

In the Book of Acts the disciples of Jesus learn, and grow, and become the church (which is a kind of home). But the church is a home that is made out of people, not a building.

The church in Acts is very much on the road. And the road leads them out into the whole world. Their road home spreads them out like a rising tide; a pretty small tide in their own generation, but one that is still rising and growing in ours.

The story of God’s people, modeled for us in the Scriptures, is the story of a journey home. If we want to be part of that journey it is important to notice that their road home does not run in a straight line. If we want to be part of that story of what God began so long ago, and what God is still doing today, we need to know that it would never be the story that it is without many corrections and many u-turns.

In fact the whole Bible is the account of one giant u-turn. We and the whole world ran away from home (ran away from God) in the Garden of Eden, in the Book of Genesis. We don’t return home until the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, which is also a book of the road home.

The gospel, the good news of God, in Jesus, is the news of an amazing plan on the part of God to engineer the correction of a tremendous mistake; a disastrous and deliberate wrong turn. The first humans, in the form of Adam and Eve, were part of a plan by God to make us children of God by means of intimacy and partnership with him. Adam and Eve took this plan and ran with it in the opposite direction. They decided to bypass the children of God part by engineering their own god-status by means of breaking their ties with God (Genesis 3:4-8); by breaking faith, and trust, and love toward God; by taking their lives in their own hands, and making their lives into a story about themselves. This created a human race, and a whole world, that have not worked well ever since.

God came down from heaven, in Jesus, and shouldered our human life, and pain, and sin, and injustice. God, in Christ, took all the dysfunction that works at the heart of the world; all the dysfunction that makes it (and us) work in vain. God, in Christ took all of this upon himself, on the cross.

In Christ, by faith, we die to that old life and we turn homeward from the depths of our being. We round that long u-turn in the new life that comes from the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection.

We are people headed for home, which is intimacy and partnership with God. Home is harmony with others. Home is harmony with the whole world no matter how the world seems to work against us. And home is harmony with our true selves, as God created us to be.

But it all begins with a willingness to die with Christ. It begins with a willingness to come to the end of ourselves and to let the one and only God be the one and only God.

This is not as simple or as easy as it may sound.
Moses, in the Old Testament, and Saul (or Paul as he came to be known), in the New Testament, have a lot to teach us about the importance of u-turns in the story of our own lives as people of faith. Moses and Saul were both people of faith.

Chapter eleven (11:24-27) of the Letter to the Hebrews, in the New Testament, tells us that Moses had faith in God long before he met God in the burning bush. This faith enabled Moses to leave his life as an adopted prince of the royal family in order to identify with his real people.

Saul, who became Paul, lived in that odd time of change, that odd first generation of believers. It was the time when the faithful people of Israel were being sorted out by whether they would believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel, the center God’s plan of salvation and transformation for them and for the whole world.

Saul loved the God who had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who had made a covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai. Saul loved the Lord of the covenant enough to fight with all his might against those who endangered the faith of his people. And God had Saul in his sights. Saul was a person who was going to know Jesus.

You never know just who those people might be. But you should know that, whoever they are, God loves them. If we treated everyone in the world as if they were people who were going to know and love Jesus better, then we Christians would be a lot more effective as God’s people. We would truly be people of the good news.

God’s idea of both Moses and Saul was that they needed to know and understand him better; and that they needed to stop, and learn, and listen, and love. What God did with each one of them was to make them stop, and learn, and listen, and love. This is the source of the great u-turn in each of their lives.

Their halt and about face were not their own idea. It wasn’t something they were working on. It wasn’t something simmering on the back burner. It was something that God made possible.

God forced their surrender. God brought them to the end of themselves. Both Moses and Saul had to die to themselves and rise from the ashes into the new life that God would give them.

Both Moses and Saul teach us that God’s own people need to make u-turns. There are times when we have a false confidence. There are times when we are far too proud for our own good, or anyone else’s. There are times when we think we are right; but we have not listened to God except to hear what we wanted to hear, and we have not listened to the people around us who are really wise.

There are times when we go far too far in the wrong direction. We find out the hard way that we have been wrong, and we need to turn around. God meets us on our long detour, and shows us this, and points the way home.

Both Moses and Saul were smart. A speech by Stephen in the Book of Acts (7:22) tells us that “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” There was a time, after Saul became Paul, when he was on trial and speaking in his own defense, and one of the officers of the court had this warning for him: “You are out of your mind Paul. Your great learning is driving you insane.” (26:24)

Moses and Saul were both smart. At one or more points in their lives they were too smart for their own good, and God had to stop them in their tracks.
There are times when we really are too smart, too clever, for our own good, and our smartness makes us stupid. If we were really smart we would learn and listen even when what we hear seems like nonsense, or like something that may apply to others but not to us.

It may be that we do know something worth following, but what we know is half-baked; half wise and half fatally-flawed. If we don’t listen then God will bring us down until we learn to listen.

Both Moses and Saul were strong people who could get things done.
Moses was raised as a prince in a civilization that had really mastered the art of organization. The Egyptians knew how to do things, and Moses knew how to make things happen.

Moses was a ruler, and having the power of life and death over others was nothing to him. It was his right. It may be that he considered making himself ruler and judge over the Israelites and using them to overthrow Pharaoh. After all, he was a prince.

Paul tells us in one of his letters (Galatians 1:14) that at an early age he had advanced beyond many other people of his own age in the power-structure of the Temple and the Jewish Senate. As a Pharisee, he represented a different party in the Jewish faith that was at odds with the priests of the Temple, but (in spite of this) he had gotten their approval to carry out his plan for persecuting the Christians and killing the most dangerous of them.

Paul was strong. He didn’t hesitate to seek the power of life and death over others. And he had the knack for getting a thing done when he put his mind to it.
Sometimes we are too strong for our own good. We know too well how to get what we want, even at the expense of others, even to the point of using others. This is a turn in the wrong direction. If we don’t stop and turn away from this God will stop us; life will stop us, and show us the horror of what we are. And then God will turn us and point us home.

Both Moses and Saul were people with a good cause. Moses cared about justice. He cared about it passionately and selflessly.

It’s true he cared about the injustices that the Egyptians had committed against his own people. But he cared about justice even when it had nothing to do with him.

When he escaped from Egypt, and was wandering in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, he came across a scene where a group of sisters were trying to water their flock, and a group of men were trying to cut in line. The impression we get from this story is that this was a daily ritual of injustice.

It was strange for the sisters to come home so soon, the day someone finally stepped in to do justice. Moses stopped the men and helped the sisters do their work, even though he had lost the world that was so familiar to him in Egypt.

He cared passionately about justice wherever it was needed, and so he was the follower of a good cause. But God had a better plan for showing his justice to the world.

Saul cared passionately for righteousness. In Philippians (3:5-6) he described himself as: “A Hebrew, born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.” This righteousness was the status of being right in your relationship to God; and right in your duties to your neighbors, and to your family, and to the world around you.

According to the letter of the law, Paul was exactly what he was supposed to be, but the law alone is not enough (not even God’s law). Jesus said that our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. (Matthew 5:20)
By this he meant the law of love that no law can enforce. Only the grace of God can empower love.

Paul persecuted the Christians because he was afraid that they would put Israel’s obedience to God at jeopardy. Paul was afraid that, through the Christians, Israel was in danger of losing the covenant life for which God had shaped them throughout their history. He was afraid they would stop being a nation that was humble and faithful before God; a nation that stood for a righteous society.

Paul was the follower of a good cause. But God had a better kind of righteousness in mind.

We might be people of a good cause, and yet we may be so passionate that we cannot hear God’s plan for that cause. G. K. Chesterton said something on the order of, “Reformers are always right about what’s wrong, but they are also generally wrong about what’s right.” For instance there may be ways of helping victims of injustice that take away their God-given freedom. There may be ways of preserving the value of righteousness that take away the virtues of mercy and compassion. You may teach someone to be good by making them a hypocrite. You may teach someone a form of faith that takes away their ability to think and use their brains.

The passion for a good cause may be a wrong turn when the good cause becomes a god in itself. C.S. Lewis wrote about the dangers of adulterating Christianity with other priorities. He called this the temptation of “Christianity-and” or maybe we could call it “Christianity-Plus”. There are things like “Christianity plus Prosperity”, “Christianity plus Positive Thinking”, “Christianity plus My Politics Whatever It Is”, or “Christianity plus the Perfect Church”, or “Christianity plus being Modern or Post-modern”. These other priorities are like false gods.

When a lesser god is mated with the gospel we lose the ability to stop, and learn, and listen with the true and only God. We have made a wrong turn, and we need God to stop us and make it into a u-turn.

The Lord’s Supper is the story of the great U-Turn in a nutshell. The broken bread and the poured out wine tell us of a broken and bloody world, and a life that has taken the wrong turn.

Most of all, they also tell us of the God who came down from heaven in Jesus Christ, to be broken and bloodied on the cross for the hope of the world, to give us the new life that only comes from God. When God comes into our lives through Jesus; and when we stop, and learn, and listen, and love; our lives turn with the power of God who leads us through the great u-turn.

1 comment:

  1. Pastor Dennis,

    Thank you so much for dropping by and your most generous comments.
    Loved your post!Thank you for the reminder.
    Most definitely something I needed to hear today.
    I also thank you for the follow..I am now following you back.

    Hope you have a wonderful Wednesday!