Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Ravens and the Rest of God's Strange Help

Preached Sunday, July 24, 2011

Q&A: How was Elijah fed by ravens in the desert?

Scripture readings: 1 Kings 17:1-9; Mark 2:13-17

Elijah was a prophet in the northern part of Israel. He lived after the great days of King David and King Solomon seemed long past. The kingdom had been divided between the northern and the southern tribes.

Ahab ruled the northern kingdom. He had married the princess Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon. It was a lucky match because it gave northern Israel an alliance with the great and wealthy sea power and trading power of the Sidonians.

But it was an unholy match. Jezebel and her parents looked down on Israel’s worship of such a primitive God as the Lord, the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses: the God of smelly shepherds and ex-slaves. How hideous!

Jezebel was determined to reform Israel to a civilized faith full of gods and goddesses who seemed designed to serve your every need for listed prices. There was a weather god, and a sex goddess, and a money god, and more. What more could you ask for in a religion?

The prophets and priests who were determined to remain loyal to the Lord had the choice of hiding or being killed. There were people who helped them hide at the risk of their own lives.

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, backed by Sidonian money and power seemed to represent the winning side. They were the civilized side, the intelligent side, the side of the future.

As if to confirm this, a peasant dressed in a goat-hair robe (see 2 Kings 1:8) came up to the king and said, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there will be neither dew nor rain in the years ahead except by my word.” (1 Kings 17:1) As it was, Queen Jezebel’s people, and her husband Ahab had the god Baal whose specialty was rain and storms. Elijah was defying one of their most impressive gods. Elijah was defying the new order of things.

More than that, Elijah was making himself a specific target. He was claiming to be the Lord’s special agent for rain. The king and queen would have to bargain directly with Elijah, or meet his terms, or else kill him. Knowing them, they would choose the killing option.

We read that it was at this point that, ‘The word of the Lord came to Elijah, “Leave here and hide!” (1 Kings 17:2-3) Elijah hid in one of the best hiding places in Israel, the Kerith Ravine. It was so good a hiding place that we have no idea where it is today. And, “Ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening.” 1 Kings 17:6)

These ravens are important. The Lord took care of Elijah by means of the ravens. In fact, this meeting with the king and the command to hide and be fed by ravens was all a part of whatever early training Elijah had as a prophet.

Specifically what we have read, so far, about Elijah is his introductory course in the providence (or the providing-care) of God. What happened to Elijah, especially in the ravine, and especially with the ravens, taught Elijah to trust God’s care. It showed him what God’s care looked like. It showed what God expected of Elijah and the people who followed him; like us.

The ravens tell us that God’s care does not isolate us from the world or from the needs of others. Ravens are carrion eaters. They were labeled as unclean by the Jewish law. They could not be offered to God because, according to the Law of Moses, they were dirty and unfit for the presence of God. They were forbidden as food, and to eat raven meat would make the eater unclean, dirty, and unfit to come into the presence and worship of God. They were birds of weakness, sickness, death, and rot. They reminded Elijah of the starvation and death going on around him, even though he could not see it.

Elijah had been commanded by God to denounce the evil of his world and to speak God’s judgment against it. And then it was the strange help that God gave to Elijah to make him look at the face of the starvation, and sickness, and death of his own people twice a day, when the ravens came.

It is God’s strange help to his people, to us, for us to see the face of the suffering of others every day. The early Christians interpreted the hiding, and the isolation, and the strange feeding of Elijah as God’s way of teaching him compassion and love for others. The ravens are a message from God to say that we, as Christians, need to remember our connection with the needs of the world around us, even when those needs are out of sight, even when we have more than others, or especially when we do have more than others.

Every day Elijah was visited by carrion birds. This reminded him of his own danger, and of his own need for God’s care. Elijah was in trouble over his head for the very reason that he had obeyed God. There was a death sentence upon him, or there was going to be a death sentence on him if he kept listening to God.

Something deep within us tells us it is not quite safe to listen to God. That is why, when I was a kid, I didn’t want to go into the ministry. But even if you don’t become a pastor, or a missionary, or work in an inner city mission, there is a risk in serving God. There is the danger of being misunderstood. There is the danger of a thankless job that everyone has a better idea of than you do. There is the danger of you causing actual harm to others because God has put you in a place where everything you say and do has expectations put on it. People will judge God and judge the gospel by what you say and do.

One perfect spring day, I was taking my long walk out by the Snake and Palouse rivers and I found a nice place to sit down. There was some grass and a place to lean back. It was perfect. I drifted into contemplation and from there into sleep.

All of a sudden, I woke to the sound of the flapping of big wings. I jumped out of sleep and saw a big black bird take off, just as startled as I was. I couldn’t tell what kind of bird flew off, but I think I was visited by a curious buzzard.

It is God’s strange help to remind us that we are at some kind of risk when we follow the steps where the Lord’s love and goodness lead us. Elijah read this good and helpful advice from God in the face of those ravens, every day.

If you have livestock out grazing somewhere and you drive or ride out to see them, and you see big black birds circling and descending, you want to see what they are up to, or you know you need to go and see what there is to see, whether you will like it or not. For the rest of us, we drive along the highway and see the same big dark birds in formation, and then we see the red spot on the road. If we were like Elijah and saw the ravens come to us with gifts of food in their talons, how would we feel about that food?

The bread and meat in the raven’s claws were not raven food. They were people food. Still we would know where else those claws had been. We would feel a little sick. We would feel a little rising in our own craw, to put their meal in our mouths.

In Elijah’s world, only rich people ate meat every day. Only the richest people ate meat twice a day. Something in me wonders if the ravens flew very far indeed, twice each day, to the royal palace in Samaria where they stole the king’s and queen’s food and brought it back to Elijah. I don’t know. Only it seems that Elijah ate like a king while he was in hiding deep in Kerith Ravine.

We don’t know where the ravens got those meals for Elijah. Elijah didn’t know either.

Even if angels prepared those meals, they were delivered in those awful, stinking claws. Elijah had been raised to hate the sight of ravens but, in the course of time, they became like angels to him; messengers of God and God’s care for him.

Imagine there are people in your world who are like the ravens. Imagine there are people you don’t want to see, or talk to, or have anything to do with. Those may be ravens.

There are some very odd people who become ravens. They are innocent people, yet others avoid the very sight of them. People in nursing homes become ravens, especially if they have dementia or Alzheimer’s. People with cancer become ravens. People who have lost their life’s work or even their home become ravens. People in the depth of grief become ravens. Old friends, and even family, avoid them.

Jesus told a parable about how those people we might try to avoid are somehow representatives of him. He will say to the people who claimed to have loved him (if they were among those people who avoided the ravens), “Depart from me….For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me….I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

If you read the story of what happened after the brook of Kerith dried up you will see how Elijah learned this lesson. He went, as the Lord commanded, to the land of Sidon, the land of Queen Jezebel. He found there a widow and her son who were starving. The famine and death in Israel had spread to the people of Jezebel the Terrible. This was news that would have made Elijah glad. The widow and her son were people who worshiped Jezebel’s gods and knew nothing better.

Elijah moved into their home and took care of them in miraculous ways. (1 Kings 17:7-24) They would have been nothing but ravens to him, and here he found himself becoming part of their family for a while. Elijah, in his coat of goat-hair, became a raven for them and brought them gifts from God that kept them alive and when the boy got sick and died Elijah even raised the boy from the dead. (1 Kings 17:17-23)

We really are ravens ourselves. Surely there are people who aren’t glad to see us coming. Let’s pray to be ravens sent by God for them, in spite of ourselves.

Jesus was, and is, the ultimate raven. He was feared and hated by the best people in the world, by the best of the people of God. They crucified him because they found him offensive, and his cross just made him look all the more black and sinister to them. Jesus became dead meat to save a world that is full of decay.

The good people, the religious people didn’t want to get too close to Jesus. They didn’t want to listen to him because Jesus attracted the wrong kind of people. Jesus attracted the people they spoke ill of and wanted to avoid. It was as if he drew flies, or crows and ravens.

The truth was that Jesus drew to himself the people who knew their own tremendous need. He drew the people who saw how much they desperately needed him. I hope that includes us.

Through the awful things of his humility, and his suffering and death, grace comes to us in our desert and our drought. The inner and invisible healing of Jesus that we ache for comes to us in our isolation and our hiding places. Through his life, and his cross, and his resurrection Jesus brings us healing, and mercy, and a new life every day.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lessons from obscure Questions: Who Were the Nephilim?

Preached July 17, 2011

Q&A: Who were the Nephilim? (Genesis 6:4)

Scripture readings: Genesis 6:1-8; Hebrews 13:1-2; John 20:30-31; Deuteronomy 29:29

It is said that the great poet Robert Browning gave a public reading of his works and, afterwards, one of the members of the audience raised their hand and asked about the meaning of one of the more difficult lines. The poet smiled and said, “When I wrote that poem, many years ago, only God and I knew what those lines meant. Now only God knows.”

One of the questions you gave me was this. “Who were the Nephilim, in Genesis 6:4?” And Genesis 6:4 goes like this. “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterward – when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”

The only simple, definitive answer to the question, “Who were the Nephilim?” is: only God knows. There are lengthy, scholarly answers to this question (really there are only two serious answers to this question), but an honest and thoughtful scholar will conclude any list of the possible theories about who the Nephilim were by saying: really only God knows.

The truth is there are a lot of people, and groups of people, named in the Bible about whom we know essentially nothing. Centuries in the future, scholars may come upon a list of people in the dim past called the Kahlotusim, and the Hooperim, and the Ralstonim, and the Washtucnaim (all our own little tribes) who were upon the earth in those days. People will ask: “Who were they?” And the scholars will come up with their learned answers and end up saying: only God knows.

All we know about the Nephilim is that the world seemed to be becoming a darker and darker place to live, and to marry, and to raise families. Terrible things were happening in the world, and the Nephilim seem to have been the result and the cause of many of those terrible things.

But some people were not a part of it. Noah and his family were not a part of the growing darkness.

Even the story of Noah and his family, up to the time of the flood, is not really known. We only read that, “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:8) Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” paraphrases it like this. He says, “But Noah was different. God liked what he saw in Noah.”

If we read the story of Noah and his family through to the end, in the peace after the flood, we see that they were far from perfect. I am not sure we would have liked them much. But there was something God saw in them that was different from the world at large. They were different from the world around them, and God liked what he saw.

But, as I said, it is mostly an unknown story. Only God knows. It’s the same with us. Great, and terrible, and wonderful things are happening around us every day. The human world and the world of nature around us seem to be going through unthinkable changes toward an unforeseeable future; except that we know that God holds the future in his hand.

Only our part in this story seems very small and unmemorable. Who will tell our story? Who will hold our story in their heart for all time? And the answer is God will. God: the God of the tiny baby hidden in a stable in Bethlehem, the God of the wanderer on the road, the God of the lonely man on the cross, the God of the empty tomb will always tell our story. God holds the meaning of our lives in his birth, and his cross, and his resurrection.

He will tell the story to us, and the story of the part he played in it all, and we will have eternity to be like children listening to a bedtime story, only this will be a waking up story. And we will hear God tell all the stories of all the people that God only knows and holds in his heart.

I thought, for a while, that this is what we could learn from the Nephilim, even though we don’t really know who they were.

But there is more to it than that. Who were the Nephilim? There are basically two ancient ideas about who they were. Both ideas go back thousands of years. If you want to know the scholarly details, look up Nephilim in a really thick Bible dictionary.

The Nephilim lived so much closer to the beginning of things than we do. They lived closer to the time of Adam and Eve, and the time when Satan tempted the first humans to declare their independence from God.

The forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate was some kind of conduit to the knowledge of good, and evil, and everything. Crossing the line to that fruit would make them smart enough to take care of themselves and not depend on God.

When they did the rebellious deed, they changed the nature of the human heart and mind and will that has been handed down to us. The whole machinery of what we love, and what we choose, and why, was twisted just enough to make it go wrong. Human nature became compulsively self-motivated and stubbornly inclined to see good or evil in terms of whatever suits us and our plans.

When Adam and Eve had done the deed that has caused the world (and us) so much harm and misery, God made a promise so that they (and we) would have something to hold onto. God promised that there would someday be born a child who would grow up to be hurt by Satan and, in being hurt, would crush Satan’s head. (Genesis 3:15)

This promise was about Jesus. This was the promise God fulfilled by coming into our world in the child Christ, so long after Adam, and Eve, and their children, and their children’s children, and the Nephilim, and Noah lived and passed from this world.

In the time when the Nephilim were on the earth, this promise was still in people’s minds, but it was beginning to waver. It was beginning to grow stale. Some of the descendents of Adam and Eve held onto this promise in hope. And some of their descendents wanted to hold onto their independence from God at all costs.

There were families who held onto the tradition of faith. According to this theory, these were the sons of God. There were families who were happy in their self-will. And these were the daughters of men.

The time had come when the promise began to grow old and shaky. The world was changing. Faith, and holding onto old promises began to seem like a disadvantage. It wasn’t any fun. It was inconvenient. It got in the way of getting ahead. If the world was becoming a darker place, why not just go with the flow?

So those who were faithful to God compromised and blended in. They didn’t care if they found spouses for their children from families that had no faith and no relation with God.

It also might be that good people were even attracted by the naughtiness this involved, and the adventure of breaking the rules. In fact it may be that the rules had become nothing but rules to them, because they had lost their love and their passion for the beauty of God, and the beauty of truth, and the beauty of goodness.

Their children became heroes in a world that had forgotten how to love God, and truth, and goodness. They became people of renown, because they built a world where people made their own rules and got as far ahead of others as they could before they got caught, or others got even. They got ahead in an increasingly shallow, and aggressive, and valueless world. The Nephilim are the result of what happens when God’s people go too far in their effort to blend into the world as it is

They teach us that families play an important part in the great issues of nations and of the whole world. Families that teach their children the beauty of the God of promises, the God of the crushing of Satan’s head, the God who was wounded and died on the cross: families that teach their children to hold onto these; such families hold back the darkness.

Families play a central role in the great contest between good and evil. Families are part of God’s plan for restoring heaven and earth to unity in Christ. God built the foundation of this plan on the family of Abraham, who would become the ancestor of the people of Israel, who would become the people among whom Christ was born and raised.

Long before Christ, long before Abraham, God started with the family of Noah. But this is a message to our families, and it is a message to the family of God which is the Church. Don’t be too anxious to blend in.

That is one idea.

The other idea is that the daughters of men were simply the humans on the earth at the time. The sons of God were the angels who left their fellowship with God in order to become part of our world and married into human families. If you want the details of this, look it up.

Angels are spiritual beings, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have bodies. They just have spiritual bodies. This is an old idea, and no one living five hundred years ago (or more) would have any problem with it. The lines we read in Hebrews about the possibility of humans entertaining angels without knowing it comes from this idea. (See also Psalm 104:4 in the King James Version)

There are only three places in the whole Bible where the word Nephilim is used. Nephilim is a Hebrew word, and it isn’t used in a way that we can clearly understand it from its context. Some translations translate it into the English language as giants.

The King James Version did this because that is the tradition handed down from the ancient Jewish rabbis. And there is one place in the Book of Numbers where it seems the right choice. (Numbers 13:33)

To call them giants doesn’t mean that they were the Jack in the Beanstalk sort of giant. Back in the 1980’s I met a retired National Football League player named Bill Glass, who had played for the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns. He had been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Bill Glass is an evangelist who specialized in prison ministries. I met him when he led an evangelistic campaign on the Oregon coast.

All of this is just to say that Bill Glass was big. He was the biggest man I have ever seen in person. He seemed to be twice my size. His head was as big as my whole torso. His hand was as big as my head.

This isn’t true, but it felt true to me. I felt like a grasshopper in size compared to him. (See Numbers 13:33)

Giant just means really big. Bill Glass was twice my age and, if he had wanted to, I am sure he could have pounded me to a pulp. Actually about half the people in this room could at least do me some serious damage.

If the Nephilim were the offspring of humans and angels, physical size might not have been the most gigantic thing about them. Even little people can be big people. They can be heroes, and people of renown and fame.

If the Nephilim were the offspring of humans and angels they might have been giants of talent and intellect. They might have had the power to see, and hear, and know things that were beyond the grasp of mere humans.

This would give them great advantages. But what does it say to us? It simply gives us the ancient picture of a world where what we call the physical world is not separated from the spiritual world. It is all one thing.

The ancient Biblical title for the universe is “the heavens and the earth”. (Genesis 1:1) For ancient people heaven and earth, the spiritual world and the physical world, were all one thing.

This is the way all the people of the Bible saw our universe. It is the Bible’s view of the universe. I believe it is the true measure of the universe we live in.

The ancient view, the Bible view, is that we are surrounded by an unseen world, and that world is populated by angels who love and serve God, and by fallen and rebel angels who try to fight the love of God and defeat the plans and the power of his love. The angels who love God help us in ways we usually cannot know. The angels who have left the fellowship of God in order to mount their rebellion, try to enlist our allegiance. They try to infiltrate our defenses and deceive us. They try to vandalize and destroy God’s creation; which includes us. They try to destroy God’s salvation and wholeness working within us.

Personally, I have met both kinds of angels, but I am not going to tell those stories now. I am thankful for God’s good angels, but I know they are just doing their job and that their job includes not being the center of my interest and attention. Their job is to claim my interest and attention for God.

The bad angels like to hide themselves behind our own thoughts and feelings and temptations if they can, if that makes them more effective. They only like to get our attention if they can create an obsession or an unbalanced, unhealthy interest in them, if that will help them get their way. Or they will come out in the open to scare us and threaten us if they think that fear and oppression will overcome us, as if Jesus hadn’t already crushed their heads with his cross.

The Nephilim came about because there seemed to be the opportunity for people to plug into the spiritual world and tap into its power and knowledge. It was an extension of the same temptation that Adam and Eve met in the Garden of Eden. By ignoring the barriers set up by God in his wisdom, humans formed relations with spirits in the interest of gaining resources of knowledge and power that would render faith unnecessary. They did not want to live within the limitations of being creatures of God dependent on their Creator.

I have loved God for as long as I can remember. Well I can remember loving God when I was three or four. I made a commitment of my life to Christ about the time I was in the fifth grade, watching Billy Graham on the TV. But when I was a teenager, I got interested in what is called spiritualism and the occult. I got interested in contacting what is sometimes called “the spirit world”.

I did not know, and the church did not teach me, about the danger of doing this. I thought there was no real barrier or forbidden line to cross. I thought I could know more, and understand and improve my life by creating relationships of my own making with beings in that invisible world that surrounds us.

God’s angels don’t indulge in those contacts. They have a mission to do and contacts (of the kind I wanted) are forbidden to them. They are called to help us make contact with God as our real way of life. But forbidden contacts with us are welcomed by the angels who do not love God, and who do not have our true interest at heart.

The Nephilim are a lesson that we cannot create our own spiritual life; our own spirituality. We cannot dictate the terms for living life in touch with spiritual reality. God is the Lord of that spiritual world, just as God is the Lord of this world. There are laws that the relations between the heavens and the earth must obey; laws that are as real and demanding as the law of gravity.

Inventing your own spiritual reality is like diving into a pool of water where signs are posted that say, “No diving!” We live in a world where the growing darkness says, “Create your own highway to God,” as if God was not the Lord of the highways of heaven, and as if the signs on those highways were not written by him.

But in spiritual matters we are always tempted to be our own God, and build our own road, and weave our own network. It is a problem as old as Eden and as big as the world. And it was all written about for our benefit long ago.

John, in his gospel, writes us that he could have told us a lot more about Jesus than he did, but that he gave us the stories he chose so that we could have life in Christ. “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Moses said that the revealed things were revealed, “That we may fulfill all the words of this law.” But Genesis is part of the law, it is part of the ancient Torah, and it gives us the promise of Christ. Christ is in the sacrifices of the law.

In a way, our desire to know for sure just who the Nephilim are is part of the old desire to know everything, and that desire has gotten this world in so much trouble. Sometimes, to have life, you have to choose to not want everything, but just one thing. You have to want that one thing enough, or else you will lose everything.

In life, when marriage is the core of your life, you have to want your spouse enough to say no to so many other things you may want. And if you don’t want that one thing you may lose everything. In the moral life you may have many things that you want, but if you don’t want the one thing called integrity deeply enough, you will lose everything else.

The Nephilim were the result of a world full of people who wanted everything more than they wanted the one thing above all other things. They did not want God and the Life that comes from God enough. In the end the darkness in their hearts grew upon the world, and the floods came, and the world they knew came to an end, and they lost everything.

It is a sad story. It was the end of a tired old world. But there is a new world that God has created in Christ. Noah pointed to it as an exception to his world; just as a beam of light is a contradiction to the darkness.

Christ is the ark and the voyage to that new world, a re-born world, and a new life. Our lives will become part of a new world in Christ that we can live, even now, in this world.

We will not be puny people who need to blend into our world in order to find life. The real life Christ gives is too big and too full to blend in.

We do not need to find a spiritual road for ourselves. If we are willing to see it, love itself, God himself, has built the road that has brought us Christ, and life through him.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Bible as an Interesting Thing

Preached on July 10, 2011 as part of a short series of Questions submitted by my congregations.

Scripture readings:
Exodus 17:8-16; John 5:30-47

Somebody asked me this question: “Which two books (of the Old Testament and New Testament) do you think are most interesting and why?” I asked you to give me some questions and this is one of the questions that I can’t really answer. It’s too hard a question.

The obvious reason, in my case, is that this is a question, after all, about books. It is as impossible as the question, “What is your most favorite book in all the world?” And the Bible is a book full of books; a world full of books. Only two answers are possible: whichever book I happen to be reading at the time; or, dozens and dozens of them.

But I’m not going to tell you the dozens of books in the Old and New Testaments that I find the most interesting, and why. I am just going to tell you a few. Then I hope to share with you a bit about what the Bible is, and why Jesus is interested in it for your sake.

For me, the most interesting book in the Old Testament is the Book of Genesis; the first book in the Bible. Genesis means beginning. It is not just the beginning of the Bible. It tells us the beginning of the universe, the beginning of everything, which it calls “the heavens and the earth.”

I am interested in Genesis because I like to know where things and people come from. I like to know what makes them tick; why they are the way they are. I like to know the purpose of things. I like to know the meaning of things. And an important part of the answers to those questions are often to be found in their beginnings, especially when things begin with God. And what doesn’t begin with God?

I am interested in Genesis because it tells me who I am, why I am here, why I am the way I am, and what my life means. It tells me the beginning of my story and it gives me hints about the end of my story; I mean my everlasting future.

It answers the same questions about you. It tells me so much about you, and this world you and I live in!

My favorite books in the Old Testament are the books that Genesis leads us into: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books tell the story of God bringing his long enslaved people out of their centuries of bondage in Egypt, and how God led them through the desert into the Promised Land.

You would think it would be a joyful story. Think of hiking and camping with God. But God’s own, chosen people are so awful to God. They are so stupid about life, and themselves, and they are stupid (most of all) about God: who is right there, hidden from them only by the shape of a pillar of cloud and fire. Sometimes they can even hear God. And they are so picky, and petty, and whiny, and completely incapable of faith. And God’s love, in return, is so faithful, so patient, and so, so scary; and so strong.

These books tell me about the Ten Commandments that are the basic pattern of the life for which God has designed us and created us. They tell me about the other laws, and rules, and ways of doing things that would help God’s people stay focused on him, and prepared for him.

This was so that they would recognize him when he came to earth in Jesus. We know how well that worked.

I love these books that tell me about this. They tell me what it means to belong to the messed up people of God who are so passionately and frighteningly loved by God; so strongly and faithfully loved by God. They don’t tell me about some other people of God who have nothing to do with me. They tell me about all people of God, including me.

For me the most interesting book in the Old Testament is the Book of Psalms, which is the book of prayers, and praises used by the people of the Bible for worship. They pray like this: “Arise, Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies.” (Psalm 7:6) They pray like this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) They pray like this: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” (Psalm 23:1) They pray like this: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)

The ancient prayer and worship book of God’s people teaches me that I can be myself, and come to God, whatever I am thinking and feeling, and straight come out with it to him. They tell me that God is big enough to take it. And God is big enough to change my heart even when I foam at the mouth, and fret, and stew, and sweat, and wallow.

This tells me about the love and power of God. It tells me that God can change me when I pray, no matter what I may pray; and no matter whether my worship is beautiful or ugly.

For me, the most interesting book in the Old Testament is the Book of Job. I have shared the message of Job about injustice, suffering, and loss several times this year with people who needed it. The key verse is in chapter 42, verse 5: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” This is the voice of Job, saying that he is satisfied.

This is the answer to every desperate question. It is one of the most important messages in the whole Bible.

For me, the most interesting book in the Old Testament is the Book of Isaiah. There is no time to tell you why.

Now we go to the New Testament.
For me, the most interesting book in the New Testament is Matthew-Mark-Luke-and-John. I like it because I like seeing the maker of the heavens and the earth as a human baby in Bethlehem. I like to hear what the grown-up Jesus says and does.

It is interesting to see who Jesus welcomes kindly, and who Jesus is hard on, and to ask myself, “Which one of those am I?” It is interesting to think of standing in the crowd and wondering what I would do with this Jesus. It is interesting to be one of the twelve disciples when they are confused by Jesus; and to fear along with them on the final road to Jerusalem and the cross.

Long ago, in the spring of my twentieth year, I wrote a poem about this experience that goes like this.

I see you walk among the sick,
The poor, those laden with despair;
Yet something more than love is there
That makes my soul within me quick.

I see you bending, making clay,
And with your fingers touch blind eyes.
As dusty as you are, the skies
(I almost think) would sing your praise.

I could believe, if I could bend:
The others being moved to tears
Around me (men mature in years);
Thinking you their sorrows end.

So much fervor! Yet I too
Sense some strange power when I see
You turn and fix those eyes on me:
Lord, can I also follow you? (Written spring 1972)

My favorite book in the New Testament is the Book of Acts. In its opening lines, Acts tells that it is about all the great things Jesus continued to do from the throne in heaven through the lives of his people who are called to be his church, his family, his body on earth, his hands and feet on earth. These actions of Jesus (which he continues to do through us) were (and are) great things. I see timid, fearful people acting boldly in the face of danger and uncertainty, because the love of God has empowered them through the energy of the Holy Spirit.

God enables them to go where they never would have gone on their own. God enables them to speak with people they never would have given the time of day. God enables them to do what they never would have dreamt was possible.

God’s people were continually in an alternating state of puzzlement and amazement, and this made them thankful and compassionate people. This made them hated by some and sought out by others. I find it interesting to live with them in that continually alternating state of puzzlement and amazement.

For me, the most interesting book in the New Testament is “The Collected Letters of Paul and the Apostles”; especially Paul. I enjoy having Paul for a companion because I am often so reserved and so worried about the awful things that may happen if I forget my reserve. But Paul wears his heart on his sleeve and never worries about this at all.

It’s a good team. He and Timothy formed a team like that, as well. I can see it did Timothy so much good, as it has done for me.

For me, the most interesting book in the New Testament is the Book of Revelation. I love the pictures. I love wondering about them. They are pictures of glory, and horror, and ecstasy. Best of all, is the fact that it all ends with ecstasy.

I am most interested in this book because (as my mom and sisters could tell you) I am one of those readers who have to peek at the end of a book if I want to be able to keep on till the end. And so God apparently designed the Bible for people just like me.

So those are the two books (within the Old Testament and New Testament) that I think are the most interesting and why.

It is an interesting question. But hope, from what I have shared, that you can see that the Bible can be much more than interesting. The Bible can be very involving.

Of course the Bible can be interesting simply for the same reasons that a good movie or a good book can be. Some books of the Bible have a lot of action: like the intrigues and battles of the life of David in First and Second Samuel. Some books are adventure stories; like the Book of Acts with its arrests, and trial scenes, and shipwrecks, and snake bites. Those are interesting.

The Gospel of Mathew is interesting because it has the Sermon on the Mount which offers Jesus’ ideas on a radically different way of living. You have got to read that and see how its message applies to you. You will find it very interesting.

But you could also find it interesting if you wanted to teach that it is so radical and so demanding that it cannot apply to us and is not a model for any human life. You could write books and give lectures about this, which would be very interesting.

But Jesus would not be interested in any of those books or lectures. He would never believe you, in spite of all your interest. Jesus would not be interested in your interest.

I love history and the study of ancient civilizations. I love it as a part of my love of knowing lots and lots of stuff. The Bible is chock full of that kind of knowledge. And knowledge is a good and excellent thing, even for its own sake. But for me, if I find the Bible interesting for the sake of knowledge alone, I am in big trouble.

Jesus, and his Father, and the Holy Spirit want this book, called the Bible, to be the place where we find life by meeting the living God in Christ. In meeting the living God, and seeing him revealed, just as he is, we can find our eyes miraculously opened. We can find ourselves miraculously able to see and know ourselves just as we are, and our need for a new life. The Bible shows us the living God offering us a new life through the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Our reading from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John tells us something about this. Jesus told the religious leaders who opposed him that they wanted to be impressed with themselves and not to see themselves just as they really were. That made it impossible for them to really see and know him. ”How can you believe if you accept praise from one another…?” (John 5:44) Jesus said, “I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.” (John 5:42)

They studied and studied the scriptures, yet they hadn’t studied with an interest in what was really important to God, which was a humility deep enough to be aware of their true neediness; and the readiness of God to receive them by grace. “You diligently study the scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)

Those who thought they loved God, and thought that their study of the scriptures connected them in fellowship with God were really only interested in their reputation for knowledge. They were not interested in God but only in themselves.

If they had been interested in receiving something that they could never have gotten for themselves, they would have seen that Jesus was the answer. They would have seen Jesus demonstrating the life of God given to needy people a relationship that they could never have gotten for themselves. They would have seen the beauty and the life of God in Jesus, and they would have opened their hearts to real life. And that life in Jesus would have satisfied them for ever.

If the Book of Job is not the oldest written book in the Bible, then the oldest book is a book within a book. It is the little book that the Lord told Moses to write about Joshua and the battle against the desert tribes called the Amalekites.

This little ancient book (which was probably nothing more than the few sentences we have in the seventeenth chapter of Exodus) is, in a sense, a gospel. It shows God’s people winning a battle that was impossible.

They had never been anything but slaves. They had never fought a battle in their lives. The Amalekites were desert raiders who knew how to strategize and how to fight to the death.

The Israelites won a battle they did not know how to fight, and should have been doomed to fail. And, even at that, it wasn’t their fighting that won the battle. It was Moses, who served as a kind of mediator between them and the Lord, praying for them, that won the battle.

The battle started with Moses praying on a hilltop above the battle, holding his staff up over his head in his two hands. The people of Israel were winning. But, when he couldn’t stand it any more, he was forced to lower his arms that held the staff and his people were driven back. Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms with the staff above his head, until the sun went down and the battle was won.

It was Moses holding up the staff in his hands as he prayed that won the battle. The biggest battle was not fought by the armies that clashed in the valley, but by the one man praying on a hilltop.

One of the oldest writings in the Bible was written down to be a simple gift for Joshua. It was important for Joshua to know that there was a book that God had caused to be written for especially for him, in which he could read about his own crisis, and the Lord’s provision for him. It would be Joshua’s special story about a battle that he fought and won because of another man’s battle to pray for him.

This is a gospel story, a good news story, because it is a story about the grace of God that came from the effort and pain of one man who bore that effort and pain for love and the victory of his people. What Moses did on the hilltop, with his hands stretched out upon a staff of wood, was a miniature example of an infinitely greater prayer which is the greatest prayer in the world.

The heart of all true prayer is the offering of your self totally to God in love and trust and desire. The greatest prayer in the world is the prayer of Jesus offering himself in love and trust and desire for us on a cross set on another hilltop; with his hands stretched out upon a staff of wood. It was this prayer that won our ancient battle with sin and death.

The generation that saw Jesus and heard him had in their possession the scriptures that had been inspired to lead them to life. Those scriptures had been inspired to tell them the way to salvation and wholeness. Those scriptures were full of models and examples of the kind of thing that was being fulfilled before their very eyes by Jesus.

But those who opposed or ignored Jesus were interested in other things. They were interested in themselves, and so they were blind.

The Lord’s Supper offers us something like the Bible itself. This is a place to meet the source of life. The bread and the cup represent Jesus. And here he comes in such a simple way, and in a little thing we do at a table with words from the scriptures, and with prayers, and with bread and wine or grape juice that anyone can think is silly or something that has nothing to do with the life of God.

It is a kind of test, just as the humble appearance of Jesus was a kind of test. If we are willing to come, just as we are, to the Lord, just as he is (and just as he chooses to come to us), and if we are interested in that fellowship with all our heart, that is the interest that Jesus desires. That is the interest that will open our hearts to his abundant life and to his everlasting love.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Gift of Freedom and the Good News of Christ

Preached Sunday, July 3, 2011

Scripture readings:
Leviticus 25:8-24; Romans 8:1-11

We cannot understand what it means to be a Christian unless we know what it means to be free. Freedom is not the most common word used in the Bible to describe a Christian, but freedom (in the Bible) is just as important as any other word to describe who we are and what God intends us to be. The word freedom is just as important as any other word in the Bible to help us understand the Good News of Christ and new life that comes from Christ.

The good news of Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of the world, and his rising from the dead to defeat the power of sin and death, is God’s fulfillment of a promise he made to the world many, many times through the people of Israel. It is the central promise of the Old Testament. And the promise has always been about freedom.

In the Garden of Eden, our human race rebelled against God in the desire to be our own gods and goddesses. It was a rebellion to make ourselves smart enough to be independent from God. When we did that, we altered our very nature, and we became a hereditary race of rebels and failed gods. Every new generation has been born with their parents’ addiction to this ancient rebellion. The patterns of human life show our slavery to this addiction. And yet, in that same garden, God promised that there would come a time when we, in the human race, would be set free from this slavery.

The promise was brief, and simple; and it was made by God to the devil, strangely enough, who had taken the form of a snake. God promised that a time would come when a son of Adam and Eve would crush the devil and his power. God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) A human would be hurt and, in being hurt, would kill the devil.

Jesus was hurt by the devil, working through human powers, on the cross. Jesus was hurt to the death. But he rose alive, and he can no longer be hurt or defeated.

The devil is the defeated one, and we can rightly call him a dead man walking. The devil and the rebellion he led are defeated and in retreat.

Jesus in his hurt, and in his rising, sets us free from the devil, and from sin and death. Jesus plants his Holy Spirit in those who trust in him, and the Spirit has the authority and power to plant the sacrifice and victory of Jesus in our heart.

Through what Christ has done for a fallen world, and for each one of us, the Holy Spirit has the authority to write our personal declaration of independence from the power of the devil, and from the power of sin, and death: and this is exactly what he has done. This is the meaning of what Paul writes to the Christians in Rome: “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of Life has set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2)

In the Gospel of John (8:36) Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.” And so, if we belong to Jesus, we ought to know what it means, and what it feels like, to be free.

But freedom is confusing, and sometimes the rebel nature, lurking within us all, jumps at the chance to be confused about freedom. Our confusion about freedom gives us an excuse to go our own way. There are so many advantages that come from the excuse of confusion.

Sometimes freedom seems to be the very opposite of what Christians are about. Christians seem to be all about rules and not about freedom.

If you think about it though, freedom needs rules. The old radio news-man, the late Paul Harvey, would say, “Freedom without self-discipline is anarchy.”

My grandpa Evans had an insight into the danger of being confused about freedom. He had a saying he used, when someone passed him on the highway in dangerous circumstances. If someone passed him on a curve where no one could possibly see far enough ahead to know what was coming, or if someone passed him on a straight-a-way where anybody could see the cars approaching without the room to pass, he would say, “That man is in a hurry to his own funeral.”

I drive fast, but I am very cautious about passing. But we all know people who, in the name of freedom, are in a hurry to their own funeral.

The sin, and the defeat, and the slavery that came out of Eden began when the first humans decided to set up shop as their own little gods and goddesses. They wanted the failed freedom of being in charge, and of being at the center of their own lives. (Genesis 3:5-6)

Everybody is tempted this way. Some people try to pretend they are their own little gods and goddesses by living like they are in a hurry to their own funerals. Or they are in a hurry to the funeral of their relationships with the people who love them and count on them. They would rather have what they want than have real love. They are in a hurry to kill relationships of trust and hope because they have become the slaves of destructive habits and attitudes.

Good people are different. It is easy for good people to be tempted to use goodness as a mask. Without admitting or facing what they are doing, they act like little gods and goddesses by using a bunch of rules to give them the right to sit in judgment on others. They use the mask of goodness to control and wound others.

This all comes from the same motivation. It is all part of the same natural reflex of our slavery to the old rebellion of Eden, and Paul wrote most of his letter to the Romans to warn his friends of this danger. If we belong to Jesus we will learn to listen to his friend Paul.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, the work done for us by Jesus becomes a part of us, and the personality of Jesus becomes a part of us, and it begins to motivate us and grow within us. It’s not like being brainwashed, or having part of your brain removed. It isn’t like being bullied by someone bigger, and tougher, and even smarter than you are; although God is bigger, and tougher, and smarter.

It is more like finding a friend and finding your real self that was lost in Eden long before you were born. And that friendship and that lost self fit you so well that you would never be happy without them again.

Paul describes the new self that is really your true and long-lost self. He says that the Holy Spirit makes it possible, and the Spirit is not interfering with your freedom when he gets this new life growing in you. It is life in the image of God, and you were created for a life in the image of God in the first place. Your long-lost self is your long lost freedom.

Paul says that the image of God planted in you by the Holy Spirit looks like this: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

We stop thinking about rules that hold us in a vise, or laws that others are always using to judge us when we will fail. The Spirit is giving us a holy freedom.

When the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives we stop thinking about rules and we start thinking about Jesus. We start thinking about our love for God, and how we desire to love God with everything in us, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Spirit brings Jesus into us and we grow in our freedom to love God, and our neighbor, and even ourselves in this God-given life.

Martin Luther, one of the great reformers of the church, five hundred years ago, wrote something about all of this that is so good that (if you have never heard it before) you need to hear it, and think about it. Luther wrote: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none, a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” This is the freedom of being a Christian. This is the freedom of belonging to Christ.

This leads us to the Book of Leviticus and the amazing principle of The Year of Jubilee. In Old Testament times, if you lost everything and if you lost every legitimate way of supporting yourself, and if your relatives had no way, and no means, of helping you out of your situation, you only had two options. One was to become an outlaw and live by robbery and murder; and that was forbidden.

The other option was to become a slave. Then someone with resources would take you in and provide for you, in return for your labor.

But God’s law for God’s people required that anyone who bought you would only have you and your labor for six years. When the six years were over and the seventh year came, you had to be restored to freedom, because God’s people are supposed to be free. (Exodus 21:2-11; Leviticus25:39-43) When your slavery was over, you recovered your long-lost self. You found your true freedom-self.

In the Old Testament world, land was the symbol of freedom and dignity. When the people of Israel entered the Promised Land, each family received an allotment of land that was supposed to remain in the family forever.

This allotment of land represented their inheritance and their resources as children of God, as the people of God. It stood for their relationship with the God of freedom who set them free from centuries of slavery in Egypt.

Sometimes a family would get in so much debt that they had to sell part of their land, or all of their land. It would be bought by a more fortunate neighbor. But there was supposed to be a year of jubilee, every fiftieth year, when every family that had lost their inheritance, as the people of God, would have it restored to them.

To be among the people of the land was to be free, and to have your land restored to you was like receiving a long-lost self, the dignity of children of God who had their rightful and equal place among all the rest of God’s people. But there is no record, anywhere in the Bible, of this law ever being kept.

Even though it was never kept, it was never forgotten. It was a symbol of the freedom promised by God all through the Bible.

The year of Jubilee is a symbol for Jesus who restores to us the life of the image of God for which we were created. Jesus is the Jubilee. Jesus is our freedom.

But Jesus also lives in us in order to live through us. You cannot understand the good news of Jesus unless you understand the old law that the people of Israel never kept. The people of God were expected to form a freedom-giving environment, not just for themselves but for others.

Land, in the Old Testament, gave you freedom and the means to be your full self. In a sense land gave you dignity, and resources, and abilities: and these came from God, the real owner of the land. (Leviticus 25:23) And this helps us understand the meaning of freedom.

Our full self was designed by God to have the resources and the means of focusing outward. Our real self was designed to have the ability of caring for others beside ourselves. Our full self was created to love God, and our neighbor as ourselves.

The truth is that this full, many-sided love can only by given by you to others when you, yourself, are restored to your long-lost land, or to your long-lost self. In Christ you are given the dignity, and resources, and abilities that you need to live the full life of love, and you are able to help those who have not been restored to their long-lost life, and freedom, and dignity.

Now we have to remember that, in the Old Testament, freedom and dignity were things that were lost and restored over and over again, in times of famine and in times when Israel was occupied and ruled by its enemies. The freedom of each slave came in the seventh year, and the restoration of land every fiftieth year.

If these laws were followed they would have involved everyone in the practice of planning and preparing for freedom for themselves and for others. Setting people free, and restoring them to their landed dignity would have become a way of life. It would have formed the very spirit of their community and their nation.

God’s people were supposed to form a community where the freedom and dignity of others was the natural concern of everybody. As a body they would know that the gift freedom was being given to someone every day. Everyone would be counting the days and years for someone’s freedom.

The church is called to be nothing less than that. Are we working for the freedom of others? Are we giving others the opportunities they need? Are we giving others the encouragement and the patience they need to find the freedom of Christ?

Now, in the Old Testament, this freedom was not only a matter of words. It was very practical. It involved labor, and money, and land, and the will to do something with it.

In the New Testament, the people of God, the people of the church were concerned about very practical issues. They were concerned about slaves and masters, workers and employers. They were concerned about the role of marriage and family. They were concerned about the poor. They were concerned about victims of disasters. They raised funds for hunger relief in the Holy Land. They visited the sick, and people in prison.

They were concerned with how to play a part in their society. They thought about how to live with the laws of the land and how to relate to the emperor and his government. They were concerned about laws, and rights, and justice. Paul was concerned about his right to be properly tried when he was arrested and jailed. (Acts 25-26)

His friends and their churches cared about this too. They all cared about these things because their freedom and the freedom of others were at the heart of the matter: because, through Jesus Christ, they knew the God of freedom.

In the United States of America, we have a tradition of freedom that owes a great debt to the founding generations of our nation. Those founders were raised and educated in communities and in an environment that were deeply rooted in the Bible.

In the events that led up to our Declaration of Independence, and our war for independence, and the writing of the constitution, they were very worried and serious about what kind of nation they were creating. They wanted to design a nation of freedom; a national community that nurtured freedom and dignity.

They knew that we would not survive as a nation of freedom if our citizens only cared about being the enjoyers of freedom. They knew that our laws and our customs would have to allow freedom, and to teach freedom, and (as much as possible) to require our citizens to make the effort of acting and living like free-minded people.

They knew that Americans would have to be people who spent time, and energy, and resources (and even their lives) helping people into freedom. Benjamin Franklin helped establish a free lending library to educate the people of Philadelphia, because he knew from personal experience that education was essential for freedom.

One of my great-great grandfathers came to America from Great Britain around 1850. He came here with practically nothing, and it took him a while to get settled. His family back in the British Isles had a number of different trades. One of them was candy making.

On first arriving, my great-great grandfather worked as canal digger. Then he worked in a starch factory, which was much better than digging canals. Eventually he started a business as a candy-maker, but he also worked as a part-time missionary, teaching in a Sunday school. On those days Sunday schools were established to teach the factory children who weren’t able to go to the regular schools.

There were no child labor laws. Many children worked six days a week (just as most grown-ups did) and they had only Sundays free. Some of these children wanted to learn how to read, and write, and do arithmetic, so they went to a Sunday school where my great-great grandfather and others taught them.

Doing this would set them free. It would open up whole new chances for freedom in their lives. My great-great grandpa also taught them how to live well, and he taught them about Jesus who would give them the strength and the will to find that better life.

He taught them about Jesus who would lead them to an even greater freedom, an everlasting freedom: the freedom of the gospel, the good news of God. In that freedom, those children would learn, like my great-great grandfather, to use their time, and their money, and their energy to be givers of freedom, and the nurturers of the freedom of others. If we know Jesus, then we will be lovers of freedom, and we will work to make this freedom real for others.