Monday, September 20, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Follow-Through

Preached Sunday, September 19

Scripture Readings:
Numbers 11:1-35
Philippians 2:12-18

A wife had a husband who was hard to please. He was a complainer by nature, and he was getting worse. She tried to deal with this by pleasing him; but it was so hard (especially when he got up in the morning).

He always insisted on having eggs for breakfast, and he would only eat them poached or scrambled. But when she scrambled them he said he wanted them poached, and when she poached them he said he wanted them scrambled.

One morning she tried serving him one poached egg and one scrambled egg. He looked at his eggs, and he looked at her, and he said, “You scrambled the wrong one.”

God’s people were real, regular complainers. They had seen amazing things. God had filled the year with his gifts. And they were complaining.

It had been a year since they left Egypt. During that year God had set them free from centuries of slavery. God had made a way for them to cross the Red Sea on dry ground, and drowned the Egyptian army which was hot on their heels.

They were safe, although they didn’t feel safe. When they were afraid of dying of thirst or hunger, in the desert, God provided them with springs of water and with a mysterious and miraculous food from heaven. The food appeared regularly; six days out of seven. They called the food “manna”, which (in Hebrew) means “What is it?” or “Whatchamacallit”.

They had camped at the foot of Mount Sinai and God had given them his laws, along with the summary of God’s law in The Ten Commandments. The people regularly saw the glory of God, and they were led by God in something that looked like a column of smoke by day and a column of fire by night.

Best of all, they had turned around. They were heading the right direction, at last. They were heading north toward the Promised Land. They were heading for home.

When we catch up with God’s people they had just finished celebrating their first feast of Passover in freedom. It was the first anniversary of their escape from Egypt. And God’s people had been complaining almost all the way, that whole year long; murmuring, grumbling, whining, griping; on, and on, and on, and on.

Soon after this, in the thirteenth chapter of Numbers, at God’s command, Moses was going to send scouts ahead to bring a report back, describing the Promised Land to the people. The scouts came back with a glowing report about the land, but they also reported that the people living there already were strong. There was a war to be fought.

And so, in the fourteenth chapter of Numbers, God’s people decided not to go home after all. They decided to go back to Egypt and be slaves again.

It was a struggle. In the end they did not go back to Egypt. In the end they went ahead to home, but that is another story.

One of the miraculous things about the Bible, as the word of God, is that it is often very funny (even where the story it tells seems horrible); and there is something funny here. God’s people were complaining because they were looking back on the good old days when they were given food for free. And just why did they get their food for free? (They were slaves!) How stupid! How crazy they were!

It serves to show just how slave minded they were. Freedom is a lot like true happiness. Freedom and true happiness are alike in this: freedom and happiness are not about being able to do whatever you want but about being able to do what you know is good for you and for others. You are truly free when you are able to pursue what is truly good for you and able to work for what is truly good for others. Others are free when they are able to pursue what is good for them and to work for the good of others.

In Egypt God’s people did not have this freedom. They were slaves. God promised them a home (a Promised Land) where they would be free. A real home (a good home) is a place where you are free not to do whatever you want, but to do what is good (what is truly good) for you and work for the good of the others. Children are hard at work, every day, contributing to the maturity of their parents. Home is where you work to bring confidence, and caring, and encouragement to each other.

In Egypt you did not work for your own good, or for the good of your family, or for the good of your community, or for the good of your neighbor. You only worked for the good of your master; or for the king and for the state.

Still (insanely) the people of God wanted slavery in Egypt. They did not want freedom in the Promised Land.

This is where we see the evil of a complaining nature. God’s people wanted Egypt (which was bad for them). They didn’t want Home (which was good for them). What was bad for them made them happy. What was good for them made them unhappy.

It’s not hard to think of people we know who have messed up their lives by choosing what is bad for them. Sometimes we are like the overweight man who confessed to his friends: “Inside me there is a thin man struggling to get out, but I can usually sedate him with a couple of doughnuts.”

A year before the complaints about the manna, God’s people voted to go home by walking out their doors in Egypt and stepping onto the road with Moses. They chose the Promised Land. They chose the true freedom of pursuing the good. They chose home.

The problem is that they seemed determined to not follow through. They kept un-choosing what they had chosen. When God gives you a good gift, you have to have enough discipline to keep on choosing it. When God gives you the gift of a spouse who loves you, you have to choose that gift every day. When God gives you the gift of a child, you have to choose to be the parent of that child every day; all day long, and all night long. When God gives you the gift of work, you have to choose that work every work day. When God gives you the freedom to rest, or to sit and think, or to learn something new, or the time to heal and mend, or the time to play, you have to choose it.

That is freedom. That is also the way to true happiness and home.

You choose to choose the good and not to un-choose it. This is the discipline of following through. Prayer comes into this discipline of choosing to follow through. Moses was right to pray, even when his prayer was a complaint.

Prayer opened his heart to hear God speak and call him back to the love of the good, which was where Moses would find his God-given freedom. The Lord said, “Is the arm of the Lord too short? You will now see whether or not what I say will come true for you.” (Numbers 11:23)

Complaining is contagious. It began with a small group called the riff-raff, but it didn’t stay there. Everyone caught the contagion bug. Moses became a complainer too. In fact Moses shocks us by how deep his complaint goes, “If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now – if I have found favor in your eyes.” (Numbers 11:15)

Besides prayer, God’s help for Moses was fellowship, which means partnership. Now in our reading from Numbers, chapter eleven: The Lord said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people.” (Numbers 11:16) And the Lord says, “They will help you carry the burden of the people.” (11:17)

The basic thing about this group is that they are a team, and they will help Moses. They will help each other. They will carry burdens together.

There is a funny thing about the verse about choosing the elders known as leaders; and you would never notice it unless you had a way of knowing what it said in Hebrew. It is strange because it is redundant, repetitive.

It really tells us (and the King James Version says) that these elders are elders whom Moses knows to be elders. It’s the same word twice. It means elders who are really elders. It means people who are really what they are supposed to be. We need such people.

The help we need for the road home is to have a team of people around us who are what they are supposed to be. A team is not automatically a team just because they practice together and wear the same uniform. A family is not, automatically, a family merely because they have all lived under the same roof or share a name, or a history.

For us to be what God created us to be; and for us to be what God has saved us to be through the cross and the resurrection; we need a team of people whom we can trust to not un-choose being what they are supposed to be. We need a team of people on whom we can depend to follow through, even though they may fumble and fail us at times. These are the people who can help us choose to be what we are supposed to be, so that we can follow through with them.

The first church I served after I was ordained had some really difficult problems. There were some deep conflicts that I didn’t understand. These conflicts caused things to happen that I didn’t understand. It was confusing.

I was also learning to do a lot of things for the first time, and I had a mentor in the person of Dick Cochran who helped me deal with this.

Dick was the pastor of a Presbyterian Church in the neighboring town. He was close to retirement age when I met him, but he took an interest in me. (The way I do weddings and funerals owes a lot to Dick.)

I got a sense of perspective from Dick, and I even learned from him to have just a little bit of a sense of humor about any church I have served, and about my own ministry. I don’t know that I would have learned this without his help. Once I was down at his church talking about something I was working on, and I accidently called him Father.

He was like a father to me. I believe this was actually something he chose to be, and I could depend on him not un-choosing it. I could count on him to follow through.

God told Moses to find a team of people who would play with him and follow through. This is what we all need, and this is why God never called a single person to follow him in solitude: never.

This is what the church is for. The church is called to be a little world of people who are committed to being, for each other, what they are supposed to be; committed to being, for the world, what they are supposed to be.

The church is supposed to be Jesus in this world. Christians often un-choose the choice of being Jesus. Jesus is good and we un-choose his goodness. Jesus is beautiful in his ways, and we choose the other way.

We need to see where this authenticity comes from. We need to see how it can be possible for us to be members of a team in which we can be depended on to be what we are supposed to be.

It is found in the thing that the Lord did with Moses and the seventy elders. Moses had the Spirit of the Lord. God made sure that Moses had a team of people who shared the Spirit of the Lord with him.

This is God’s work, and we can never be what we are supposed to be until God does it. When God came down from heaven, and became a human being named Jesus, and when he lived his life out for us, and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, and rose from the dead, he brought us into himself and made it possible for his Spirit to rest upon us and live in us.

When we look to Jesus, we see the one who followed through in his desire to restore his image in us. We see the one who followed through at great cost to give us new life, to make us people of the Holy Spirit who have the grace of God at work in us. We see the one who enables us to be the people we are supposed to be.

We are people who may fumble and fail, but we are people who can remember to keep on choosing what we have chosen. Jesus, with his cross and his resurrection (so beautiful in his ways), shows us that he can be trusted to be faithful to us; that we can trust him to always be what we need him to be, so that we may have the power to follow through together on the road home.

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