Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Great Story - A few Good Men and Women Swim Upstream

Preached on Sunday, October 27, 2013

Scripture readings:
Judges 3:1-11; Judges 13:24-14:20
Mark Twain was a famous smoker. He wrote a lot about this, and sometimes he wrote about quitting. He is reported as saying (although there is no actual record of him saying this), “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it thousands of times.”
July 2013: Manito Park Conservatory; Spokane WA
My dad quit smoking when he was about fifty years old. He had been smoking since he was fourteen. That makes it hard to quit.
He had tried to quit any number of times. This wasn’t because smoking ever seemed to affect his health. Once, when I was a teenager, he hiked with me to the top of a ten thousand foot mountain. In his annual medical exam, his doctors were always amazed that he didn’t seem to have the lungs of a smoker at all. There was no tar or other deposits there.
But my dad could be cheap and he hated spending all that money. He hated to think that something was controlling him and making him spend money against his will.
Finally, when he was about fifty, he had such a bad cold that he simply couldn’t smoke at all. Just one puff on a cigarette would make him cough so hard he could hardly stand up.
The cold went on and on for more than a month. When it was over my dad decided that he had suffered from withdrawals for so long that it wasn’t worth going back to it. He used a negative experience as a positive motivation.
When we talked about this, years later, he said that he still wanted to do it sometimes, but it wasn’t worth it to go back. He quit for good, until he fell off a neighbor’s roof, and hit his head, and left this world, at the age of eighty one.
Smoking is an addiction, and yet the cycle of addiction applies to all of us. The Book of Judges shows us a cycle of addiction and the desire to be free from that addiction. The Bible calls our common addiction sin. It means that human nature is hooked on something.
In the Garden of Eden the first humans got hooked on a desire to be like God in terms of self-government. They wanted to be free to decide what was good or bad for them without reference to God, without need for God. That is why they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
They got what they wanted (a life they could live without reference to God) but this achievement started them on a path that led away from God. And, since God is the source of all life, this path led away from life itself into a kind of spiritual death.
Instead of serving God, they served themselves. Instead of loving God first, they loved themselves first. Instead of worshipping God, they worshipped themselves. Human nature was still in the process of being “programmed”. It was still being fine tuned. And their choice tuned the human nature that we have inherited into a cycle of addiction.
It was an addiction to ourselves that separated us from the good health of having a God who is really bigger and better, wiser and more loving, than we are. Addictions always begin with an attraction to something we think will make us happy, but it keeps us from the life that is really life worth living. It keeps us from true happiness.
In the real world (in the universe as it is) there is only one source of all things. There is only one God. To worship something else beside God, in service of oneself, is to make what the Bible calls an idol. An idol is anything you worship first, or serve first, instead of God. This false worship is called idolatry.
The story of the creation, in Genesis, tells us that, after the first humans turned their lives away from God, God passed sentence on them, and on the earth in which we live. It was like a curse, and a curse is a command that turns things against you.
A curse makes things hard. It can make some things fatal. For the first humans, before their fall, surely nothing had seemed too hard, nothing had ever proved fatal.
And yet it was the goodness of God to do this to us; to make some things hard and other things dangerous and fatal. This was a defense against idolatry. When you live in a world where life can be hard and where dangers can be fatal, it is harder to worship yourself. In such a world you know you are not invincible.
But it is not a perfect defense, because our process of making idols out of the things in our lives, or our making ourselves into idols for our own worship, is simply a part of human nature. It is the sin we were all born with.
When the first humans reprogrammed human nature to go the opposite direction of God, God reprogrammed the world we live in to turn us around, back in his direction, if only we were willing to do so. In a way, God designed the world to be like a traffic roundabout.
I hate those things. They always make me feel like they are going to make me go in a different direction than I want to go. On a real traffic roundabout, that would be a bad thing. But in God’s roundabout it is a good thing. God’s roundabouts are roundabouts of grace because they are designed to unsettle us. They are designed to take us in an unwanted direction. They make it possible to come back to him.
A simple version of how God made our lives and our world into his roundabout is like this. First there is the wrong direction, and that is called sin. It’s the great hereditary rebellion. But when we are turning into the sin part of the roundabout, it is the part that feels good. It feels right to us. It’s what we want.
This reminds me of a very bad joke. Did you know that diarrhea is hereditary? It runs in your genes. (Only in English is this joke possible.) The hereditary nature of sin is very much like this in so many disgusting ways.
The Book of Judges gives to the main sin of God’s people the name “idolatry”: the making and the worship of idols. We should say something about idols here. The Bible names some of the idols as “Baals” and “Asherahs”. These are male and female gods. Part of their male and female business was sex and fertility: lots and lots of children and grandchildren, lots of livestock, and lots of crops. These were important because these were all sources of power, success, and wealth. They made it possible to get what you wanted and to be in control. It is our nature to worship such things.
The principle behind idol worship was that here were gods who would serve you. You could make a deal with them. You could give them something they wanted, so that they would give you what you wanted. They gave you control over your life and, control over other people.
In the end, worshipping idols was the ultimate success scheme. Worshipping idols was a roundabout way of worshipping yourself and serving yourself.
The next part of the roundabout is oppression. Oppression is trouble. It’s the trouble that follows sin. God redesigned the world to save us by not serving us when we misuse it for misguided purposes. God has designed the world to make it sometimes hard, and dangerous, and potentially fatal to those who worship themselves.
In any individual life, worshipping yourself alienates other people. It can make real enemies. When nations do it, the same thing happens. It even leads to war, and invasion, and decline. The people of Israel found themselves surrounded by enemies when they worshipped idols and (through their idols) themselves. They tried to serve themselves and went into decline. This is part of the grace of God.
This raises the question of pain, suffering, and punishment. These things do not always come from sin or self worship. In the New Testament, in First Peter, Peter wrote this. “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17) For Peter innocent suffering was a way to share in the sufferings of Christ. (1 Peter 3:18)
For the people of Israel, the oppression part of the roundabout brought them back to basics. It reminded them that they were not God. It reminded them that there was a God who loved them. There was a God who made them for a better kind of freedom than they had tried to get for themselves. It reminded them of a God whom they had known, and loved, and forgotten, or held at arms length.
As hard and unfair as our own troubles can be, they do bring us back to basics. They bring us back to God, even when we don’t deserve those troubles. In that sense, they are not a form of punishment. The God of the Bible may call it punishment, but this is because often he has to speak to us as if we were children.
Pain and trouble are a strange kind relentless of therapy that we, humbly, cannot explain. They are a form of grace. We find this when we turn to God in our troubles. When we turn to God in our troubles, we find him there. The nearness of death is the same, if we will listen. But who can dare to explain it?
C. S. Lewis wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (C. S. Lewis; “The Problem of Pain”) Even the terrible oppression of the people of God was this grace. Even the pain that God’s people gave to other nations was grace.
The next part of the cycle, or roundabout, is repentance. Repentance means turning around; going back to the source, retracing your path; from your service to your self to the life of real worship and love.
God’s people “turned to the Lord”. In our reading about the judge name Othniel, it says that “they cried out to the Lord.” It was the cry of “self-forgetting”. It was a cry of “God-remembering”. They stopped worshiping and serving themselves.
Have you ever found that you have been wrong after you had been very sure of yourself and sure of how right you were to insist on something? You stop thinking so highly of yourself.
You may be tempted to hate yourself. I think, in this case, it is as wrong to hate ourselves as it is wrong to hate any other person who sins against us. But we can hate what we have done, if only we remember that God is, by his very nature, a deliverer.
God, above all, is love. God, in his love, takes the sins and evil that we properly learn to hate, and sets us free in his mercy. The pattern of calling people to be deliverers (because that is what the judges were: judging, in the Bible means, eliminating what is wrong and making things right) was a pattern that pointed to God himself, in Christ. As we follow Christ, we should think that we, too, are called to be deliverers.
We read that, because of the deliverance of Othniel, “the land had peace”. In Christ, we find that God has taken our sins and carried them on the cross, and buried them in his tomb, and risen to give us the freedom of life with him. That is our land of peace.
The Book of Judges shows us that God has designed life, and the world, as a roundabout. In this traffic pattern, God diverts us from the dangerous direction that our own will would take us. God diverts us into the direction of his grace and his love.
We need some caution here. In our own individual lives we may find dozens of roundabouts, all created to save us from the same temptation over, and over and over again. Or we may find one great crisis roundabout that should cure us of every other mistake; and yet it doesn’t.
These cycles come not because we don’t know about God. They come not because no one ever taught us the story of God in our childhood, or our younger days.
This pattern of cyclical faith and sin comes from our nature. We know God without allowing for a depth of experience with God. We may very well commit our lives to God in Christ, as our Lord and Savior, and enjoy a little bit of intimacy, and yet we always cut it short. We try to make God into just another one of our idols. We try to love God him on our own terms.
Knowing God means living with God in true and deep intimacy. Israel fell into temptation and oppression, not because they had not been taught, but because we all want to rule ourselves. God has designed the world to turn us from our shallow and destructive self-will, and to direct us toward a will that finds its rest and freedom in intimacy with God.
There is another pattern that we are taught, by the Book of Judges, and that is the pattern of decline and corruption. It helps us see the ongoing, perfect faithfulness of God in a declining and increasingly corrupt world. It helps us see that God is not absent. God is never unavailable.
This part of The Story teaches us to live in hope. It tells us that someone went through the bad old days into better days to come, and lived to tell and write about it.
It helps us to trust the ongoing and perfect love of God, when the church itself seems to clearly be in decline; in a state of growing weakness, and imperfection, and sin. The Book of Judges is, after all, about the people of God. And that is what we are.
The early judges are people of virtue. The later judges, like Samson, are powerful but also disappointing and incredibly selfish and weak (if a superman like Samson can be weak).
In Samson’s case, the story tells us about the grace of God, even to the stupid, because Samson could be so stupid. There is no other way to describe him. The Bible is designed to give us the hope that in a world of decline and imperfection, the people of God, as unpromising as they are, still can be filled with the Holy Spirit of God in powerful and inspiring ways.
There is a refrain in the Book of Judges that goes like this: “In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit (or everyone did what was right in his own eyes).” (Judges 17:6, 21:25) This tells us that God’s people truly need a king.
The Book of Judges was probably written in the time of the early kings, like David and Solomon. These kings made lots of mistakes, but they also ruled after God’s heart and with God’s wisdom.
The disappointment was that even human kings could not keep God’s people from doing whatever was right in his own eyes, but the kings were designed by God to point to the King of kings. The kingdom of David was designed to point to the kingdom of God in King Jesus.
The eyes of your heart look at Jesus and you see that he is the God who died for you. He died for all your wrongdoing and for all your wrong heartedness. He died for all your self-serving and self-worship.
In such times, Jesus comes to you with new power and with hope. He has designed your world and your life to lead you upward to him.
In a world of decline you can go through the roundabouts, and they are more like swimming through a river full of eddies and whirlpools. You can swim upstream, against the flow, with Jesus in you. The author G. K. Chesterton wrote, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” (“The Everlasting Man”) This kind of life comes from the love of God.
The Story, in the Book of Judges, is written to tell us that such a time will come. There will be a time to find our way upstream for good.
There have been times when this has come true for me. God has delivered me and given my land rest. The plot of The Story tells me that, in Jesus, God will take me there for good.

God is the real judge, the real deliverer, and the real king. He has designed your life to bring you around, and around, and back to him. The Story tells us that He regards this as his greatest work. We see this work best as he did it in Jesus. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Great Story - The Battle: Rules of Engagement

Preached on Sunday, October 20, 2013

Scripture readings: Joshua 1:1-11, 16-18; 10:1-28

My Uncle Eddie sent me a short video, by email, of how cats take over dog beds. It’s true. My mom has a black Labrador retriever and a black cat; and the cat rules the dog and takes over everything it wants.
Nishinomiya-Tsutakawa Japanese Gardens, Spokane, WA
July 2013
Although I like both dogs and cats, I really think that dogs make better Christians than cats do. Dogs are humble. Dogs do share. Cats aren’t, and don’t.
Among the dogs, the smaller dogs are more assertive toward the invasion of the cats. Chihuahuas, poodles, and terriers resist and persist. The medium and big dogs (like Boxers, Labs, and Shepherds) are more half-hearted. They do more surrendering and whining, or compromising. They might try to squeeze themselves in around the cat.
We have reached a part of the great story of the Bible that looks like much more than an invasion of space. It’s a terrible invasion. I my dog versus cat comparison, God’s people start their invasion like feisty, monster cats and wind up being gentle, whiny German Shepherds. So I struggle with my dog favoritism.
We are traveling through the part of the great story as it is found in Joshua. It looks like God’s people invading other people’s spaces and doing terrible, bloody work in the process. It’s true.
In another way this part of the great story is actually God’s invasion. As to the question of “why all the blood and slaughter”; the very skeptics who will condemn the blood and slaughter also condemn the idea that there can be a good and all-powerful God who also allows evil to continue. The bloody invasion of the land of Canaan (the Promised Land) would have put an end to great evils.
The Canaanites had public religious sexual orgies in order to make the gods give them fertility and prosperity. They burned babies and children as living, human sacrifices to their gods to get the gods to give them success.
When the Israelites stopped driving the Canaanites out, they learned the Canaanite way of worship. Sometimes became their way of worship. The Canaanite gods became the gods of the Chosen People because the invasion had not been complete. God’s people had not everything they could to eliminate the contagious evil.
How do you destroy evil? Isn’t it costly? In the Bible, God’s most nonviolent way of ending the power of evil involved his own death on the cross. In history, how did the evil done by the Nazis end? In the Second World War, the end of genuine evil was genuinely costly. It was horrifically bloody. The Great story of the Bible, in the invasion of the Promised Land, tells us about the high cost of destroying evil.
In this part of the great story of the Bible, as we come to the book of Joshua, we find that, when God promises his people a home for grace, and for justice, he keeps his promises. The world, both then and now, is no real home for grace and justice.
It seems to take some kind of supreme effort, in the form of a fight or a struggle, to make such a home in this world. The world does not give up any space without such a fight or a struggle.
I don’t know what to say about the slaughter that fills the book of Joshua, and so much of the Old Testament. God’s people were commanded to be violent in order to create a home, and to keep that home.
The fact is that, without this bloody invasion, we would never have heard of Israel at all. There would have been no King David, no prophets, no Jesus. The world had no room for such things. The world would not make room for these willingly.
In the Exodus and the wilderness, God’s people had been kept alive by artificial means: by means of manna (or bread from heaven) and by water flowing miraculously from rocks in time of need. There would never be any room for God’s people to be God’s people, in a place of their own under normal conditions, without an invasion.
The slaughter of whole cities was not an Israelite thing. It was a thing that everyone did, and they would have done it to Israel, if they had had the chance. How would God’s people survive in such a world?
In the beginning of the invasion, God’s people were banned from taking anything for themselves for their own gain. This was a symbol that none of this invasion was for their personal gain. The invasion was only for a place that would be the gift of a home for grace.
They did not invade for power or glory, because they were not to have a king like other nations. The plan was for them to learn to be a humble people. And they were not called to conquer the world, but only make a place where they could be God’s people.
They did not invade because they had the right to invade. They were not better than others, though the others seemed to be worse. Most of all they were going into the land to make it their home because God had promised a home to their ancestors.
In Deuteronomy Moses told them this about that. “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Deuteronomy 9:5-6)
They did not invade to dominate other people. In the Book of Leviticus their law says this. “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
When one of the cities that were fated to be destroyed tricked the Israelites into making an alliance with them, Israel was honor bound to protect them. By trickery the people of Gibeon became the alien in their midst. The people of Gibeon were being attacked by an alliance of other Canaanite cities because they had this alliance with Israel, so they called on God’s people for help, and they got that help. (Joshua 10:1-15)
Giving help to the strangers and aliens who were in distress was God’s requirement for his people. They owed grace and mercy to the alien in their midst. That was God’s law, even when God’s people were invading the land. Think about that.
Remember that we were strangers and aliens to God. Grace to strangers and aliens, in Joshua’s time and ours: that’s the strange and wonderful law of the word of God.
This helps us understand that ancient, bloody invasion. And we need to understand this because, in our own way, we too are invaders. We are struggling to make a place, or to become a place within our fellowship, where people are free to become God’s people, and free to live out a new way of life: a life of grace and mercy.
The Israelites did not deserve the land, because they were “a stiff-necked people”, and so are we. We don’t deserve a place for grace. If we are able to create a place in this world that is full of God’s grace, it’s not because we are good at grace ourselves, no matter how much grace we have received. We only try to make a place where the law is all about learning and giving grace.
One of the conditions of a successful invasion was going to depend on keeping close to the Word of God, as God’s people had received it. “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.” (Joshua 1:8)
The Book of the Law is the Torah. Torah is the Hebrew word for law in the Book of the Law, but it is not so much about rules and procedures. The Book of the Law is the whole first five books of our Old Testament. The creation in the Book of Genesis is part of the law. When God, in the beginning, “created heavens and the earth” and said “let there be light”, that is part of the law. (Genesis 1) When the Lord said to Abraham, “I will bless you” and “you will be a blessing”; that is part of the law. (Genesis 12)
 Torah (or Law) means way. The Law is God’s way of working, the law of God’s nature. It reveals who God is, and what God wants to give us, just as much as it reveals what God wants from us and what God wants us to be.
When the law says, “It is not because of your righteousness or integrity”, and “love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt”, the law is about grace. The sacrifices in the law were about the costliness of grace in God’s forgiveness of our sins. The sacrifices in the Old Testament point to God’s own sacrifice, in Jesus, on the cross. It is about grace just as much as it is about goodness and holiness
We must let God invade us to make us about grace. We must meditate on this law of grace in order to be faithful to it and not imagine things about ourselves, or our rights, that we don’t deserve.
When we invade our part of the world to make a family, or to make a community (like a church), or to make the world around a a better place, we meditate on the Word of God, the law of grace and goodness, so that we do not create dishonest and self-righteous patterns of living. Otherwise our families and our church will not be holy ground at all.
We seek to be a blessing to the world around us. We seek to be a blessing to our neighbors. It is a kind of invasion of love and service to our community and to our neighbors. We have to be people who dwell in the word of God, and take it with us and live out its patterns and ways of goodness, and grace, and humility.
We are not told to read and know the word of God and be able to quote it, chapter and verse, in order to prove that we are right and deserving. We are told to obey it. We are told to live it, and the heart of this living is grace.
Grace is the opposite of the ways of this world. Grace destroys the world as it is, wherever we set our feet. The Lord told Joshua, “I will give you every place you set your foot.” (Joshua 1:3) Just take the grace of God with you wherever you go and you will destroy the world as it is.
The word of God disciplines us because it has been designed to change us. It has been designed to teach us about the God of grace and the life of grace. Otherwise it teaches us nothing of value.
The Book of Joshua shows us a way of life where God speaks and God’s people listen. Sometimes they actually talk to God before he talks to them. Most of the time, in Joshua, God speaks first. Joshua begins with God speaking.
This is prayer, and this is essential if we are to be faithful to God’s invasion of us, and our invasion of the world. We cannot be God’s people without being on speaking terms with God; and most importantly, being on listening terms with God.
Often, in the Book of Joshua, God’s people renewed their identity as God’s people. They were always making promises to God. They made a memorial of God’s intervention in their lives when they crossed the Jordan River on dry ground. They were circumcised when they crossed the river.
The adult men, for some reason, had not been circumcised during the Exodus, as all male babies were supposed to be. We need to remember that circumcision is for babies. The grace of God begins with us as babies. God’s people begin their identity as God’s people, as babies. Grownups, if they want to be identified as God’s people, need to see their babies as God’s people.
God’s people celebrated the Passover for the first time since their ancestors did it in Egypt. They built altars of remembrance. They gathered together to renew their covenant with God many times during their battle for a home.
We allow the invasion of God into our own lives by renewing our identity as God’s people. We can only allow God’s invasion of our families, and our church, and our community, and our world, as we renew our relationship to God.
Sometimes we do this as we listen to other people confess their faith and commitment. Sometimes we do this when we confess our faith by repeating the ancient creeds or statements of faith that have been handed down through the centuries of the church. Sometimes we renew our relationship with God when we confess our sins together and hear the word of forgiveness together.
Joshua is in line with the whole of the word of God. The whole Bible gives us the model and the example of how God’s people are not merely his as individuals.
I commit my life to the Lord every day, and there is no other way to be God’s people. But that is not enough. All of God’s people are always God’s people by means of coming together, struggling together, serving together, and praying together in the promises of God.
Baptism is our identification with the grace and with the common life we share as God’s people. Baptism is never something we do to ourselves. It is always done to us. The Bible never tells us to “get baptized” but to “be baptized”. It is passive. It is never something we do for ourselves, because we can only belong to God by grace. We have to “let it be”.
In some ways there are great advantages to being baptized as a baby. You can’t claim the beginning of God’s work in your life. God began his work before you could add or subtract anything from it.
For me, God’s love was always, only, a gift that I could only respond to, and receive. I committed my life to God in Christ as the unconditional surrender to something that God had already done for me, in Christ. The beauty of God, the beauty and the horrible extremity of the cross, were simply something I could not say “no” to. I was afraid to say “yes” to God; but I was much more afraid of saying “no”. How do you say “no” to the cross?
The daily discipline of the law of grace in the word of God, and in prayer, and in constant renewal of our relationship are how we allow God’s invasion of our lives, our family, our church, and our world. These disciplines form our “rules of engagement”. They tell us how we go forth. They tell us how to engage with people around us: the people we love, the people we don’t know, even the people who seem to be against us.
If we are in a battle, if we are in any sort of struggle, these disciplines tell us how to do it. They tell us how to fight.
It is a constant reminder of who we are and who we struggle to be. It calls us to go out into the world, and to take the kingdom of God with us, with great humility and grace toward others.

God humbled himself on the cross, in Jesus, to give us grace. Grace is how we do battle. Grace is our rule of engagement. Grace is how we will succeed.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Great Story - Wandering: Our Road to Life Is a Detour

Preached on Sunday, October 13, 2013

Scripture readings:  Numbers 13:1-2, 13:17-14:4; Deuteronomy 30:11-20

Around the Palouse River, September 2013
For many years when I was a kid, my family owned a 1957 Ford Ranch Wagon. It was a station wagon with an extra seat that could be folded up in the back. At first it was our only car.
When my mom learned to drive it became our second car. It became the car my dad drove to work.
When I got my driver’s license it became my car. By that time it shimmied a lot, if I drove it fast. So I didn’t drive very fast in those days. I make up for that now.
While the car was still good enough for adults to drive, it was our family outing car. When my Uncle Don and Aunt Joyce came over with our three cousins, we could squeeze all ten of us into that car. We would go for picnics and sight-seeing together, and we would sing while we drove.
  C                                                              G7
I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track
                     C                      G7                     C
And as I go I love to sing, my knapsack on my back

            C          G7         C         G7          C
Chorus: valderi, valdera, valderi, valder ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha
         G7       C       F                  G7    C
valderi, valdera, my knapsack on my back.

(By Friedrich-Wilhelm Moller)
It’s a song about a happy person who hopes to wander until the day they die. “Oh may I always laugh and sing, beneath God’s clear blue sky.” It’s a happy song. It’s a song about the love of God’s creation, the love of people, and the love of life.
When my family sang this song we were in the same good spirits. We were loving life. We were lively. We were happy wanderers.
In our reading from Deuteronomy, God tells his people to choose life. “See, I set before you today life and good, death and evil (or life and prosperity, death and destruction).” “Now choose life.” (Deut. 30:15, 19)
He means life with God: life that leans on the covenant and the promises of God; a life of love with God. The truth is that the other kind of life is not truly life; not fully alive. To choose something other than a life of love with God is to choose death.
The danger that God’s people were in was that they were not happy wanderers. They had not truly chosen life.
Yet they were on the brink of entering the Promised Land. It was the land where they would have the freedom to live fully as the people who were faithfully loved by God. But they wanted something else.
They were loved by God, but they weren’t happy with God; at least not unless they could change him into the kind of God they wanted him to be. This is part of the reason why, all the way to the Promised Land, and all through their long detours, they were not happy wanderers.
The great story of the Bible is full of wanderers. Abraham and his family wandered around the edges of the Promised Land, but never really entered in to make it home. But they wandered the edges of home, as if they were spying through the windows of someone else’s house. They had been told that the house would belong to them, someday. They did their spying while they wandered with God, in faith and hope.
The evidence is that they were not always happy, but they always remembered that they belonged to the God who described himself as belonging to them. He was the God who was never ashamed to call himself “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. When they were restless and unhappy it was only because they dearly wanted to see the promises of this God come true in their time.
The people of God who wandered through the desert with Moses were restless because they dearly wanted to go back to their lives as slaves. They didn’t want the freedom and the risk that comes through faith, and they wanted to be owed something by someone.
That is why they were attracted to idol worship. The gods represented by the idols were gods you could bargain with. They would owe you something if you gave them something.
The first time God’s people stood on the border of the Promised Land they got scared. The freedom of a land of faith was almost within sight. But God gave them no other way to enter that land except by the risk that seems to come with faith. They were too scared to choose faith and the life that comes with it.
The land itself was a covenant. It was a promise. They had to enter the promise as if it were a gift through faith, and not as the gift of something that was owed to them. They would have to choose to live their way into that land, and not just walk into it. They would have to choose life.
Instead they chose fear, and grumbling, and anger. They would prefer to choose the life of a slave: the fear of the lash, the grumbling under a task-master; and the anger of injustice and being forced to be, in some essential way, less than human, less than themselves, less than alive.
The only good thing about slavery was that it didn’t demand you to go forth and live. It didn’t require faith, or hope, or love.
The odd thing about human nature is that, according to the Bible, we went wrong, back in the beginning, when we wanted to be like God. We wanted to have the knowledge of good and evil so that we could choose our own standards and choose our own way in the world.
The wish to be a god doesn’t seem like the wish to be a slave, but the desire to be free from the need to have faith in another, or hope in another, or be bond in love to another is a kind of slavery. Doesn’t it ring true that being your own god is the same thing as idol worship? And they did worship idols when they were slaves in Egypt? (Joshua 24:13)
Running away from the choice of faith, hope and love based on another (the choice of commitment) is a way of running from life. It is a way of choosing death.
I think that the people who seem to wander away from God and from others (even when they seem to choose to live with an intense and ferocious freedom), are often simply reacting to something. They are reacting with a kind of fear, or grumbling, or anger at what they think that a relationship with God or with others might require of them.
I don’t understand wandering very well. I never rebelled against my parents, and so some people may be right when they see me as a perpetual pre-adolescent. I was never a rebel at all (although, for most of my adolescence, I tried to love Jesus at the same time that I wanted to not listen to what he wanted me to do with my life).
In the Bible, choosing life means choosing faith that works through love and loyalty. If we simply look at what happed to Israel, we see that fear and faith are enemies. Choosing to serve their fears instead of choosing faith and life required God’s people to take a detour. It required them to go back and learn forty years of hard lessons, and still not be very good at the life of faith. Fear was a real obstacle to entering into faith and life.
I am shy. I’m timid. Fear is a problem for me. I can see how fear has stood in the way of my choosing life. I merely lay that before you.
For Moses, the problem proved to be anger. In a story that we have not read this morning, God’s people were being led through a part of the desert where there was no water.
Even though God had taken care of them in thirsty places before, they were afraid, they were angry, and they grumbled. They said they wanted to go back to slavery.
God told Moses to take his walking staff, and speak to a big rock, in the name of God. He promised that the rock would open, and a spring would flow for the people and their livestock. Instead of talking to the rock, Moses got mad and said to his people, “Do you want me to give you water? I’ll give you water! Take that!” (Numbers 20:11) He struck the rock instead of speaking to it. God told him that, because of this, he would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
This seems harsh. Moses had been angry many times. The truth is that he had always been angry for God’s sake (for the love of God). He had never taken the fear, and anger, and grumbling of his people personally; at least not out loud.
Suddenly, something in Moses snapped. He became angry for his own sake, not for God’s sake: not to honor God, not in faith. I think he must have been keeping this bottled up inside him for some time. Personal and loveless anger and a lack of faith often go together.
God meant to give his people the grace of water. Moses, in his anger, did not give them grace. Moses responded in a way that did not give his people life. So he did no choose life. He chose anger. He chose death.
Anger can stand in the way of life. It can stand in the way of our being what God wants us to be. It can stand in the way of doing what God wants us to do. It stands in the way of the promises of God, to us and to others.
I have known of people in the ministry who did not love their people. They harbored anger in their heart towards God’s people.
Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I try to find refuge from my anger in being willing to simply be confused and mystified. Better than that, I try to find refuge from anger in faith and love. I think, so far, I have succeeded.
Grumbling is the other thing we see so much of in the People of God who were with Moses in the wilderness. With fear and anger (and the people were often angry at Moses, as he was at them), grumbling was part of the cause for forty years of detouring from their arrival at life.
Grumbling is a form of self-brainwashing. It is a way of conditioning yourself and others. Grumbling is like never opening the curtains on your windows.
I like music set in a minor key. That music can be grand and strong and wild and fierce. It can also be sad. Sometimes I have to be careful about my choice of music. Grumbling is like listening to sad music all day long, day after day, and making others listen to it as well.
Grumbling is a subtle way of carrying your independence from God under the radar. It seems like a little thing. There is no drama to it. You can’t see that you are actually doing anything bad or wrong. No one can accuse you of anything directly.
Grumbling is just an absence of love. It’s an absence of hope. It’s an absence of faith.
It is the determination to not be happy. It is the determination not to be fully alive or to choose life.
It stops good things from happening to you and to others. It stops you from being what you could be, and from doing what you could do, for faith, for hope, for love; for God; for others.
God was never far from his people. They always could see his presence. God was never far from them, but they were far from him, in their attitudes, their thinking, their heart and will.
The surprise is that, when they didn’t want to go where God wanted them to go, and when they wanted to go back to slavery, God did a third thing. God led them by detour. Instead of going forward, God circled with them. He led them forward by leading them back.
God led them by delay. God led them by reversal. God, in his grace, may lead us away from life because of our fears, our angers, and our grumblings, but he is always ready to steer us back to life if we will let him; if only we will see what we have lost and surrender our fears and angers and grumblings to God, in faith.
The fact is that, when God’s people wandered, he kept wandering with them. This is in his nature, because God’s love is faithful. This is something that we can see. We can find him wandering with us in our wanderings. He quietly puts up with us over, and over again.
This is what our life in this world is about. Our world was made for life with God, and we vandalized the human heart so that it became our nature to shut God out. When we vandalized our heart, we also vandalized the world we live in. So God changed our world from being a main road to life into being a detour to life.
The history of the world, ever since the human race became a rebel race, is all about God winning us back by coming to wander with us, and living in us by grace. The whole history of the world, as we know it, has been one long, horrific detour on the road to life.
When I am taking a detour, it isn’t strange for me to wonder whether I am really on the right road. I wonder if one of the signs is missing, or if I have missed one of them by mistake. We need to know that this is the way of a faithful God, to make our life in this world a detour that we can take with him.
This detour is the road where we must learn to choose faith, or not. This detour is the road on which we learn to choose life or death.
This is what God showed us, when he came down from heaven to show us his face in Jesus. He took the same detour as the whole human race. He became a wanderer in Jesus, even more than when he wandered with Moses and Israel in the desert.
Jesus said this about himself. “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
In the end the only places where God, in Jesus, could lay his head were a cross where he was willing to be the sacrifice for our sins and for the sins of the world, and that niche inside a stone tomb where he let sin and death do all they could. He laid his head where all human wandering would lead us, if not for him.
Then he got up again. He got out. Even though he sits on the throne of heaven, he also continues to wander with us, through the power of his Holy Spirit. He lay down his head in the midst of our sin and separation from God, where we were so determined to shut him out, so that he could get in and stay with us wherever we may go.
Where does Jesus want you to go? If you stopped choosing fear, where would he lead you? If you stopped choosing anger, how might he change you? If you stopped choosing grumbling what would he give you to do?
I have obstacles that stand in the way of my choosing life, even when I live with a crucified and risen savior. So do you. Maybe we have these obstacles in us as a church: fear, anger, and grumbling. Maybe we all share fears, angers, and grumblings that blind us to what we could do together, if we were willing to choose life by choosing faith, and hope, and love.
We need to repent and surrender to the life that only God can give us in Jesus. Only through what God has done in Jesus can we be free from our obstacles to life.

Then we can become the happy wanders; full of life. Then we can wander with a purpose, until God leads us home.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Columns rear up, tall and grey
To a green glass roof, through which is streaming,
On soft brown grass, the light of day;
A refuge and a place for dreaming
In woods so near, yet far away.

By Dennis Evans, written in the spring of 1968, at the age of 16, my first poem.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Great Story - Commandments, Covenants, and the Indwelling

Preached on Sunday, October 6, 2013

Scripture readings: Exodus 19:1-25; 20:1-21

Often we think of the life of faith, the life of following the Lord, as a kind of bargain we make with God; as a kind of deal. In the story of the Bible God calls this life with him a “covenant”.
Covenant is a fancy word. In ancient times, in the ancient Hebrew language, covenant sometimes meant contract. That would be a deal. But most of the time the word means a solemn promise.
God’s covenant seems two sided, and that may make us think about a deal: I promise this if you promise that. God said to Moses and the people of Israel, “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)
When they heard God’s promise, the people responded to it. They made their own promise in return, and they said, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” (Exodus 19:8)
Only they didn’t: they didn’t keep their promise. They saw what God had done to set them free from slavery in Egypt. They saw the Red Sea parted so that they could escape from the Egyptians on dry land. They saw the column of smoke and fire that led them, in their escape, across the desert to the foot of the mountain of the commandments of God. They saw and heard the glory of God. They heard God speak to Moses.
It seemed to make an impression. It terrified them. But it didn’t take long for the effects to wear off. Not so very long after Moses went back up the mountain to receive God’s laws, the people of Israel forgot the meaning of what they had seen and heard. Even when the signs of the presence of God were thundering overhead, they didn’t keep the people from getting restless and untrusting.
They did exactly what they had been told by the God of the terrifying voice not to do. They made a statue, an idol, a portrait of their idea of a god who would lead them on their own terms. While God spoke in the thunder and lightening on the mountain, the people turned away and worshiped their golden calf for comfort.
It was a male calf made out of gold. The calf stood for potential; the potential of power, energy, strength, fertility and success. Turning their backs to the smoke on the mountain, they bowed their faces in the sand in front of a shiny, gold-plated thing of their own making.
The promise was broken, yet the promise went on, and on, and on. The promise still goes on. This is an essential part of the great story of the Bible. God called the promise “my covenant”.
It was made between God and his people, but God marked it as “mine”. He says mine in spite of their misbehavior.
God is the opposite of the two parents of a child having a tantrum; where one parent turns to the other and says, “Will you please make your child stop?” God never stops saying “my covenant, my people.”
God can be uncomfortable old-fashioned. Or is it old-fashioned for parents to teach their children that, if they say they will do that thing. They have to do it, no matter what the others choose to do, no matter how the others let them down. It is called, being true to your word.
This is what God still does. And in God’s great story this happens again and again. God is a determined creator and does not let go and does not stop. When creation went bad as a result of sin, when humans corrupted their hereditary human nature, God’s work as creator took a new direction to make all things new.
God began to make all things new by making a new human nature, and God began that new nature with one family, the family of Abraham and Sarah. God changed them by grace and faith. This is what blessed them and made them a blessing. Grace and faith were the start of God’s process of bringing the world back to himself and making all people his people.
We see this at work in the Exodus. Bringing Israel out of slavery was part of God’s covenant. It was God’s gracious faithfulness to people who would never have freed themselves, even though they resisted him every step of the way.
Giving his people his commandments was also God’s faithfulness. His commandments gave them the direction they needed to shape their lives into a holy shape. God’s commandments showed them the form their life could take under the power of his grace, so that they would be a blessing to the world.
In Eden, the human race grabbed the knowledge of good and evil because they were led to believe that it would that give them the ability to decide for themselves what was good for them. They would have independence from God.
At least because they grabbed this independence on their own terms, without asking, they altered human nature into a thing that instinctively shuts God out, except on our own terms. The golden calf was just another example of that; acknowledging God only on their own terms, in a shape of their own invention. This is human nature, as it comes down to us from Adam and Eve.
God was set on much more than simply giving us new chances and fresh starts. God’s plan was to create a new human race, on his own terms, by breaking into it for himself. First of all, he set a course of continual interference in human lives; and a continual insistence on his covenant, his promise, and his faithfulness; all on his terms. The whole point was to recreate the relationship we were all created for from the ground up. The Lord said, “I carried you on eagles wings and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19:4) His aim is to get us to himself at any cost.
The Ten Commandments are a summary of the life that God wants to give to his people. They are a portrait, or a sketch of that life. They are even a portrait of God, himself; or a portrait of his love.
The first four of the Ten Commandments are about the fellowship of heaven and earth. They tell us who God is, and who we are to be for God. They tell us that God is a God who comes to set people free. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2) “Have no other gods.” (Exodus 20:3)
All of life is created to have what we might call a “vertical relationship”. Every bit of creation is continually kept in being by the love of God. Every bit of our lives can be taken up into the way of life of being a creation of God; living in trust and thankfulness; seeing God in what God has made; serving God as he gives us his wisdom.
When God would come down and visit Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, he showed this vertical relationship, this vertical love. God showed it again and again with Abraham and Moses. God told Moses, “I have come down to rescue them.” (Exodus 3:8)
God showed this vertical relationship most of all, in the good news of the gospel, when he came down to rescue them and us, in Jesus. In Jesus, God has come down to rescue all people, at the cost of a cross, in the power of the resurrection. God has come down to rescue us.
The other set of the Ten Commandments, the other six, show how our life with God reaches out to others. “Honor your father and mother.” So, respect where you have come from and the people who have contributed so much to what you are. “You shall not murder.” So, honor all life. “You shall not commit adultery.” So, see all relationships and commitments as holy. “You shall not steal. You shall not covet.” So, honor what you have and what others have. Be happy and thankful for the blessings of others.
This second set of commandments, within the Big Ten, describes what we could call our “horizontal relationships.” This is about being a blessing. We are blessed to be a blessing. This is the new creation that has its roots way back in God’s calling to Abraham.
It applies to the God of the gospel (the good news of Jesus). God came down, in Jesus, to claim his authority over his own promise and covenant. “I have come down to rescue them.”
God did this for a creation, and for a human race, that seemed to be set on shutting him out. In Jesus, God became our brother. He came to live beside us. In Jesus, God reached out to be a blessing. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He lifted up the downtrodden. He brought in the outsiders. He became a friend of sinners.
Jesus summed up the good life with two commandments that summarize vertical and horizontal love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Mark 12:30) And then, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31) God reaches down to us to lift us up to himself. He reaches out through us as he lives with us in Jesus, who is God in human flesh.
In Jesus we see the true face and the heart of God. We see God in action in our world in visible form, in our very skin.
God became human, in Jesus, in our image, to restore his image in us, to make us a new creation. God became human, in Jesus, to be the atoning sacrifice that takes us out of our old sinful nature and plants the beginning of our new nature in Jesus. On a human level, atonement means making people “at one” with each other. Paul says, “For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Just as the story tells us that Moses’ face would shine when he came back to his people from his time with God. The pattern of the life that God gives us, and the power of the life that comes to us from Jesus, are given to us for a purpose. The purpose is that people are supposed to be able to look at us and see that (like Moses) we have been with God. They are supposed to be able to look at our everyday lives and see the very pattern of the life of God’s love (the love of God as we see him in Jesus) in our way of life.
The commandments are not only rules. They are a work of art. Or they are like dots in a child’s puzzle: when you connect the dots by number the hidden picture comes out. The commandments are the dots of the shape of the character of God and his love.
God’s covenant with the people of Israel included a continual pattern of sacrifices for sin to show them that they needed sacrifice in order for God “to bring them to himself.” But God planned something much deeper and stronger. God planned to take authority over his own promise to them by becoming the infinite, atoning sacrifice, made once for all. This would bring all people to him, and make us all “at one”.
The people of Israel needed such a sacrifice right from the start, because they were unable to hold onto the reality of God that they had seen and heard for themselves. We need it too.
Every human being has the same need, for God to be the one who is faithful and who (by himself) will become the infinite, atoning sacrifice that brings us to him.
In Eden, the Lord came to the Garden to be with his people. In the Book of Revelation, the voice from the throne says, “Behold the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:3) Jesus said, in the Gospel of John, “Abide in me and I in you.” “Dwell in me and I in you.” (John 15:4)
The purpose of the creation was supposed to have been the fellowship and the enjoyment of the presence of God, dwelling with what he had made. This is the purpose of the new creation: enjoying the dwelling of God with us and in us. It is like the presence of God in the camp of his people, in the tent that was called “The Tabernacle”. God wants to set up a dwelling place for his intimacy with his people.
The cross is necessary for planting this presence in us and making it a part of us, or us a part of his presence. The purpose of the sacrifice of the cross was to enable God to dwell with us by dwelling in us; otherwise we would fall back into our old slavery.
So God wants to live with and in us, the way he lived in the tent with his people, but with an even greater depth and intimacy. In a sense each one of us is designed, by the new creation in Jesus, to be a tent or tabernacle of the presence of God.
But this is not only for our own blessing. When God dwells within us, the goodness and blessing of that intimacy is not enough. Our personal blessing is not everything that God intends by dwelling in us.
Peter tells us that Jesus is building us, together with our brothers and sisters in him, into a spiritual house, or a temple; a dwelling place where he will live with all people. If God only lives in you, as an individual, without your allowing him to build you into a dwelling with others, then you are not letting him do what he wants to do with you. If you are not letting him do what he wants with you, then he won’t do very much living in you. Peter wrote, “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” (1 Peter 2:5)
God did not dwell in that tent in the camp of his people merely to bless that tent. God dwelt there to be a blessing to everyone. Each one of us, as individuals, has a mission to be a blessing to others, just as our fellowship in the Church, the Body of Christ, has the mission to be a blessing to others. In the pattern of our individual life, and in the pattern of our relationships with each other, we are a spiritual house where God must be found; where God must be the only God present. We must be a place where there are no idols, no getting along on our own terms or our own expectations. We must be a place where there is only faith, and hope, and love, as individuals and as a fellowship together.
A Sunday school teacher was telling her class of little kids about the Ten Commandments. She got to “honor your father and mother” and told them how this commandment taught all children how to relate to their parents. Then she asked, “And is there any commandment to tell us how to treat our brothers and sisters. And one child said, “You shall not kill.”

It doesn’t come easily, but the pattern in God, as we see him most clearly in Jesus, and the power of God that comes to us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, make this life possible. The failure of our sins is removed through the cross and the life of Jesus in us, the commandments and the covenant of God shape our lives in his image through grace and faith. We become the dwelling place of the Lord where others can meet him and receive the new creation that his love desires us all.