Monday, November 25, 2013

The Need for Thanks

Preached on Sunday, November 24, 2013
Scripture readings: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 10:1-11
A father just got back from helping on his son’s Boy Scout back-packing trip. He was still pretty excited when he told his friends the highlights.
September 2013: scenes around the Palouse River
They had taken a pack-horse with them. “And, boy, am I glad we had that horse!” he said, “After one of the boys got hurt, we used the horse to carry him out.”
“How was the boy hurt?”
“Well, the horse stepped on him.”
The apostle Paul says, “In everything give thanks,” or “give thanks in all circumstances.” And then Paul writes, “Do not quench the Spirit,” or, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.” From what I can tell, Paul was pretty unquenchable himself. I think he was as full of fire as he was full of thanks, and that the two went together, and that they played a part in making Paul a person who was really, abundantly alive.
Now, when Paul says, “Give thanks in all circumstances,” it sounds almost like a command. In a way, it is. Thanksgiving is not an elective. It is not an option. Thanksgiving is needed. It is required. It is required for our happiness right now. It is required for our everlasting happiness.
In a way, thankfulness is as important as patience. It is hard to learn patience. You learn patience by having all the things happen to you that make you impatient.
But the people who have learned patience are the people who make our lives better. Patient people make the hard things easier for us. They give us confidence, and they help us to live abundantly.
Then, when you find someone who is actually thankful for you (for you!): why, that is the gift of life itself! But it is just as hard to learn to be thankful as it is to be patient. You only learn to be thankful by learning the alternatives. And the alternatives to being thankful are dark and bitter things.
But if the patient and thankful people are the source of life to you, aren’t you glad they learned, the hard way, those lessons that God wants every human being to know? So, when the Lord says, “Hey you! You be thankful too!” you can begin to understand why it is so important. The command to be thankful is as important as God’s command to love.
Jesus said, “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) The people who are abundantly alive around us (the people who make our lives full) have these qualities: thankfulness, patience, love, forgiveness, peace. They make life worth living now. And they are what will make heaven truly heavenly.
All these gifts come from God himself, and it is God who makes heaven so heavenly. This is because, as strange as it sounds, God himself is full of thanks.
There is something essential to God (as we see and hear him in Jesus) that looks at us and longs to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:12) That is thanksgiving in the heart of God. God created us so that, in the end, he might rejoice over us. (Zephaniah 3:17) Thank has its origins with God who rules heaven and earth. Sooner or later, if we want to be at home with God, we must give thanks.
The more we read about Paul (in his letters, and in the stories of his life in the Book of Acts) we realize that being thankful cannot mean a self-generated feeling of thanks. The commandment to be thankful is not a command to pretend, or to put on an act.
Paul explains that thanksgiving is part of receiving the peace of God that goes beyond understanding, “Do not be anxious about anything; but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
For me, that kind of peace does not mean that all conflict and struggle will go away. Peace is a kind of harmony. But it doesn’t mean that everything is harmonious toward you. It means that you have your footing. You have your foundation in God who is peace.
So people and circumstances may seem to be coming at you in the wrong way, but you can come at them in the right way. You can do what it takes to meet those things, and deal with them, because the peace that passes understanding is in you. I think it is called the peace that passes understanding for two reasons: first, we don’t quite understand it ourselves, and (secondly) nobody else does either.
I’ve told you my “peace that passes understanding” story before. It comes from the time when I drowned. I was seventeen and my senior class on an outing in the foothills. I was swimming in a lake with my friend Danny.
We were out pretty far from the shore for my level of skill. I got tired, and went under, and I couldn’t get back to the surface. I felt as though God were with me and saying, “Trust me”. But he didn’t tell me that I was going to live. The silent voice left me just afraid as anybody could be who was struggling not to die.
At the same time, I felt as though I was calmly watching and waiting for whatever came. I felt both fear and calm at the same time. This seemed to go on and on, for a long time. Time slowed down, full of fear and calm. Finally, I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and so I breathed my last breath, and everything went black.
Next thing I knew, I found myself without a body, flying incredibly fast through nothing but brightness. Then I woke up choking up water on the beach. One of the teachers had given me mouth to mouth resuscitation. My friend Steve told me that I had not been breathing, and that I was purple when they got me to shore. My strange experience of absolute terror and calm define for me that peace that passes understanding.
If anyone has the right to tell us to be thankful, it is Paul. In his second letter to the Corinthians he wrote about some of the hardships he had gone through since he became a Christian. He wrote: “I have worked hard, been in prison, been flogged, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I have received the forty lashes minus one. Three times I have been beaten with clubs. Once they tried to stone me to death. Three times I was shipwrecked, and spent a night and a day in the open sea.” (2 Corinthians 11:23ff) And the list goes on.
Earlier in that same letter he wrote, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:8ff) It is in the middle of a life like that that Paul encouraged us to, “give thanks in all circumstances.” Paul gave thanks as an experienced and sensitive human being, not as some kind of thanksgiving robot.
He wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15) Paul was able to feel deeply for others, and for himself. After a friend recovered from a nearly fatal illness Paul wrote, “But God had mercy upon him, and not only upon him, but on me also, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.” (Philippians 2:27) A thankful heart is a feeling heart, a vulnerable heart, a caring heart that has its footing and foundation in God.
What do you say when someone asks, “How are you?” Some people have a stock answer to that. They just say, “Fine!” Or they might say: “Can’t complain!” And they are always waiting to add: “It wouldn’t do me any good if I did!” These are people you know who could give, if they chose, a long, long list of reasons why they could complain. But it is their choice to be easy on you, and on themselves, by not reciting that list.
More than that, they know there is more to their life than their list of pains and struggles. No matter how long that list grows, they are thankful for their life, and they do have another list up their sleeve. It is the list of God’s blessings. They have learned that you can have an abundant life, a full life, and a happy life by keeping the right list up your sleeve.
We are made for thanks. We are made to receive thanks. According to Jesus, one of the great experiences we are created for is the future day when we come into his presence, and he will laugh and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much, enter into the joy of your Master!” (Matthew 25:21) We will have the joy of hearing the Lord’s own “thank you.”
We are also created to give thanks, because giving thanks is part of love. Look at how quick thankful children are to show their thanks and love by making presents, and cards, and pictures for those who love them, or those whose love they long for. Thanks is really, only a stifled instinct in us. It is a long lost habit waiting to be relearned.
I know that I could do so much better at being thankful. I think it would help if I started by learning to give thanks for little things. That is part of the reason for giving thanks when we eat.
I often forget to give thanks before my meals. I didn’t grow up in a home where this was normal. Sometimes I remember to give thanks in the middle of my meal, or after it is over.
I am not a bad cook, for the things I do cook, but I find that giving thanks makes the meal better. Not that it changes the taste, or the amount of nutrition I get from it. Thanks changes a meal from being a thing to being a gift. It gives life to the meal. That makes a big difference.
Giving thanks changes everything that way. People are changed, circumstances are changed, pains are changed, struggles are changed, and failures are changed. They don’t look any different. They don’t act any different. They don’t feel any different. But you are changed because you have gotten your footing in God, and everything else becomes a calling, or a cause, or an opportunity, or a gift. That makes a big difference.
Do you need reminders to give thanks? Get something or make something to remind you to give thanks. Maybe you have someone at home who helps you be thankful. Put a note on your mirror. Have a picture or poster, or have a gift from someone. Put it out where you will it and be reminded to give thanks.
Patiently ask the Lord to show you how, and where, and when to be thankful. He will teach you.
Sometimes, by giving thanks you will find healing. By saying thanks, you will feel that you have dropped a burden into God’s hands, or you will see how you should have given thanks a long time ago. You will see the Lord’s gifts better than you ever saw them before.
Saying “thank you” sharpens your senses. It helps you see the difference between the good and bad things. This is important because it can be risky to thank God for something we feel is bad, because God doesn’t do bad things. Thanking him for the bad things may lead you to blame him for them. But if you thank the Lord, in spite of the bad things, your eyes may be opened, so that you can say, “Here was the evil that happened. I can see now that God did not do that thing, yet he was there with me in the middle of it all, and he has helped me. God taught me, guided me, and changed me, as a result of it. God has brought me through, and I am glad to see that he has done it.” Thanks can be hard work: but thanks has this reward.
Now, when Paul says that thanks is God’s will for you he means not only that it is necessary for you, but it is the thing that God is working for in your life. Thanks is the shape of your soul in God’s blueprint for your life. Thanks is your destiny.
God became human, in Jesus, to live a perfect life for you that you could not live on your own; and to die a perfect death for you that you could not die on your own. In Jesus, God died for you; for your forgiveness, for your healing, for your peace, for your everlasting joy.

When we know the Lord, when we know God in Christ; our life is built upon his gift of love. Our life is built on thanks for this love. When you know his love, you also know that God is thankful for you. You are the child that he has won for himself. Real life is thanks, from beginning to end, from everlasting to everlasting.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Great Story – The Making of a Heart like God’s Heart: The Shepherd King

Preached on Sunday, November 17, 2013

Scripture readings: 1 Samuel 17:17-54; 1 Samuel 24:1-22

The story of David and King Saul in the cave is very serious and also very nearly crazy and absurd; absurdly funny. This is basic. I don’t think we can understand the Bible, or the God who is revealed in the Bible, or God’s way of working in our lives without understanding this foundation of seriousness and absurdity.
Some Creatures: Summer and Fall of 2013
The stories of our life are often very serious and it is often hard to make sense of them. Until we do, these parts of our life can seem crazy and absurd. They seem like thing that should not happen, or cannot happen; and yet they do happen. As God’s people we must learn to build our lives through these serious parts of our lives that seem as though they should not happen. We need to learn to live through these parts of our life by faith
I have to confess that I can never read about Saul using the cave for a bathroom, and David being able to argue with his men at the back of that cave, and sneaking up behind King Saul, and cutting off a corner of the king’s robe, with a knife, undetected, without my wondering about how it was even possible.
David should not have been able to cut the corner of Saul’s robe without getting caught. Saul shouldn’t have been allowed to escape from the cave. Saul should have ordered his army to slaughter David and his men, when David came out of hiding. Saul should not have responded to David by weeping. David should never have been forced to live so much of his life on the verge of destruction.
Most of what I can say to explain it (or to explain it away) is just that I have had a lot things happen to me that shouldn’t have happened. There have been so many things that were highly improbable and completely ridiculous. The improbable and the ridiculous do happen.
And then there is an old limerick that suggests a biological process. This process could have resulted in a miracle for David. The most ridiculous thing in the world could have covered up David’s movements in the cave. The limerick goes like this.
I sat next the duchess at tea,
It was just as I feared it would be.
Her roarings abdominal were simply abominable.
And everyone thought it was me.

Yes, the king could have had the same symptoms as the duchess; only much, much, much worse. The king could have made quite a racket all by himself. We know that Saul was always very up tight.
One of the foundations of The Story of the Bible is the process of how the shepherd boy (David) became the king of Israel. It is another part of the story that tells how such a king as David could be the foundation of the whole gospel, the good news of Jesus. David was an ancestor of Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, the King, the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed; somehow, strangely based on the kingship of David.
We have, before us, a stretch of The Story that tells us the long process of how a shepherd boy could become a king. In this story we see how God works in human lives. If we can imagine the process of God working in you and me, this part of the story shows us that God shapes us and works in our lives through a long process of struggle
A struggle can just be a long, hard job. In such a job you probably have some set of tools to do the work. A struggle can also be a fight, or a battle. In such a battle you probably have a set of weapons.
In the Old Testament Book of Proverbs there is a line about people being like tools or weapons. It goes like this: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)
God shaped David’s life and character by means of the strangest tools and weapons: people who grossly underestimated him, people who hated and despised him, people who loved him, and people who feared him. God shaped David through insanity, and fear, and betrayal, and confusion. God changed David, or transformed David, by taking him, just as he was, and mixing him up, over a long period of time, through many crises, with many people, through hot and cold, and thick and thin.
Every person and every success and failure is a tool of God in a never ending project. There is that saying from years ago: “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet.”
The judge and prophet Samuel, who secretly set the boy David apart as king, said this to King Saul, “The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.” (1 Samuel 13:14)
But just when was David a man after God’s own heart; when he was a shepherd boy, when he was a commander of Saul’s troops, when he was on the run, when he was the miserable father of spoiled children? Were you a person after God’s own heart when God first made himself to be real, and beautiful, and strong, and good, and desirable in your heart? By the grace of God you were. And are you a person after God’s own heart today? By God’s grace you are.
But do other people think so? Do you always think so? Or do you see some awful difference, some great gap, between God’s heart and your own? By God’s grace you do see it: you must see it. Yes!
Yet there is a danger in not seeing what God has done, or what God has put there, or what God may do. There is the continual danger of the sin of underestimation. You underestimate others and they underestimate you. We all underestimate the raw materials God is giving us to work with. We can’t begin to know how to estimate our successes or our failures, our virtues or our sins, or our time in life. We don’t know how to place the right value (God’s value) on all these parts of our lives, or on all of these people.
When Samuel went to Bethlehem to find the man who would be the king after God’s own heart, he went to the home of Jesse because he was told to find that king there, among Jesse’s sons. The very first son, the oldest, looked like the one. He looked every bit the king.
The Lord told Samuel “no”. The Lord said, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
David’s father knew that Samuel was there to make something important happen, and so he had his seven sons there, ready to be part of it. Only he had an eighth son who clearly wasn’t needed for something so important. David was the eighth son.
David was the spare boy. Maybe he was the runt. Clearly his older brothers saw him this way. When they were out facing Goliath (or not facing him) and David came with the supplies, they saw their youngest brother as a nuisance and a brat. Maybe they had good reason to think of him that way. Then David must have been a nuisance and a brat after God’s own heart, and his brothers were underestimating him.
The more I read about the Goliath business, the more I think that King Saul was only using David. Sending a kid against Goliath was an excellent way to insult the champion warrior, or to put him off guard. Saul deliberately sent David into what had to be certain death.
The only good that could come of it was that David might beat the odds and injure Goliath just enough to put him off the field. Goliath might get so mad at the sight of David that he could get careless.
Most of all, if Goliath killed a kid like David, it would not be in a fair fight and the term of the duel could be disputed. The terms were that the winning champion would decide which nation had defeated the other, and which nation would serve the other. In a clearly unfair fight, all bets were off.
What Saul saw as a game and a plot, his son, the crown prince Jonathan, saw as the evidence of God at work in a kid of faith, and courage, and humility. As cocky as David seemed, he had no problem admitting that he wasn’t a warrior who could wear a king’s armor, or that he could fight with anything but a slingshot.
This is a courageous humility. So we read that as soon as Jonathan saw David, he loved him.
Jonathan was very close to being a person after God’s own heart, and he saw that David was just such a person. And so Jonathan saved David’s life more than once, and he was like a good brother to him; much better than David’s own brothers, and his best friend.
The tools and weapons that God used in David’s life (in order to transform him from a shepherd into a king) included commanding the Saul’s troops and marrying the king’s daughter. They also included nursing an insane king; singing and playing music to calm him, running from him when the king tried to pin him to the wall with a spear. The tools of God included years on the run, years of danger, and years away from anything like home.
In the end, when David was king, when we are told that “the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies” (2 Samuel 7:1), David was grateful. We might not have been so grateful. We might have resented all the wasted years.
We underestimate God’s raw material for our lives. We underestimate God’s tools and weapons. We think that God owes us rest, when rest is a prize, a miracle. David’s real life was never about rest, except as a miracle.
Rest was a blessing that came in the moments when God gave it. Rest was something to be passionately enjoyed and celebrated and lived to the fullest, but always as a blessing and a miracle.
Sometimes, in his worst possible moments, David did not underestimate or undervalue the tools and the weapons of God. And so, after he cut off the corner of the king’s robe, he was cut to his own heart. He went out and showed himself to Saul; and David called Saul, “My father!” (1 Samuel 24:11)
Even though Saul had devoted his life to destroying David, something in David’s experience, when he was still young, kept him loving the mad king. There was something between the times of madness, and maybe even during those times, when David had played his harp for him, that Saul had become just like a father to him.
Sometimes David would fail at this but (in the case of Saul) David had a heart after God’s own heart. So David could see the very thing that God had seen and loved, when God told the prophet to make Saul king. David never turned his back on that. David never undervalued the gift of Saul.
David could see what the others around the king could not see, because those others were using Saul for themselves and for their own security and their own ambtions. They were underestimating and undervaluing Saul. They were making a mistake that David would never make because he was a person after God’s own heart.
David was a person after God’s own heart, and he could an honest look at “Saul the mistake”, and love him, and see what God might do with him, or might have done with him. At least for a while, David’s confession broke Saul’s heart and brought him to tears. David’s sorrow led to Saul’s shaky change of heart.
Though we hardly see it or hear it, and though it didn’t change Saul’s future or his final failure, Saul may have gone to his end with a better heart than he had for many years. David’s willingness to speak to Saul’s heart shows us God’s heart, and this is the God we meet in Jesus, the Son of David.
We underestimate the people around us as the proper and legitimate tools of God (if we can call them that). We do not love them. We are not thankful for them though they are working on us through the hands of God who shapes us through them. We are not thankful for the times in our lives when God may be doing his most important work. We are not always people like David: people after God’s own heart.
God uses strange tools and weapons in his struggle with us and in his long, long labor of love. God became human in Jesus in order to be the iron that sharpens our iron. Just as David went out to fight the giant with sticks and stones, God comes to us with sticks and stones: the sticks of a cross and the stone that covered his grave.
We are not changed into people after God’s own heart by our intelligence and courage, or by our practice and wisdom, but by receiving the mercy of a cross and the defeat of a grave. As the apostle Paul says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Our hearts are only made in the image of God’s own heart through receiving the power of mercy and grace. Only through the strangest tools, in the hands of Jesus, does God make our hearts like his. Will we let him change us and give us a heart that sees all the strange seasons in our life, and all the people in our life, as the work of God to make our hearts like his own heart?

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Great Story - To Stand or Fall: Listening to the Faithful Listener"

Preached on Sunday, November 3, 2013
Scripture readings:1 Samuel 3:1-21; 1 Samuel 13:2-14

I’ve been thinking a lot, this past year, about hearing. I began to have a whooshing sound in my right ear, since early last summer. I tried my doctor’s prescription for sinus drops, and that didn’t seem to make any difference. My hearing finally seems to be getting better on its own.
Palouse Falls, August 2013
About the time I was a teenager, I had a hearing test which showed that I had much better hearing than most kids my age. I told my dad about this and he was amazed, because I had never acted as if I had such good hearing, as least not when he told me to do something. As for older, married men, doesn’t hearing loss first appear when you don’t hear what your wife is saying?
If we are God’s people, we have a special job related to hearing and listening. On one hand we have to faithfully listen to this world and to each other. On the other hand we must listen even more to God.
One of the great themes of the story of the Bible is that God has a plan to make a new creation by means of creating a new people who are specifically designed for that creation. That requires hearing: hearing God and hearing others, because those people will live in a world of faithfulness and love.
One of the great themes of the story of the Bible is that God seeks to create people who will be what he calls priests. A priest is a person who offers the world to God and God to the world. A priest is a person who listens to the world and hears it on behalf of God, and who listens to God and hears God on behalf of the world. A priest is someone who can speak and act in the presence of God because they have listened to the world. A priest is someone who can speak and act in this world because they have listened to God.
We are called by God, and transformed by faith and by the grace of God, to be part of his new creation. We are called to be able to represent God, to act for him and to speak for him. But we can only do this if we listen more to him than we do to the world. Especially, we can only do this if we listen more to God than we do to ourselves.
In the Book of Exodus, God spoke of this calling to his people. “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) Peter wrote about this calling in one of his letters in the New Testament. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who brought you out of darkness and into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) We are called to declare God in this world: to speak for God and act for God so that others can know God and have God living in them, and through them. This requires hearing and listening.
In today’s part of the great story, as we go through it from Genesis to Revelation, we are in the part of the story that includes the priestly judge named Eli, Eli’s sons, Hannah, Samuel, and Saul. In their own ways they all show us that how we stand or fall (or how we succeed or fail) as God’s priests depends largely on what kind of hearers and listeners we are.
Eli’s sons, like their father, were actual priests in the Lord’s Tent. They offered the people’s sacrifices and prayers to the Lord, and they spoke God’s mercy and blessing to his people. They went through the motions of priests and they talked the talk, but the real life of a priest was simply not in them.
They didn’t listen to God. They didn’t listen to their father. They didn’t listen to the people who came to them. They only listened to themselves. They lived as if everything they had learned about a life of faith, and a life with God, was nothing more than talk. They seem to never have heard the voice of God, let alone listen to that voice.
In a way, the sons of Eli were users. They used God, they used the place of worship and the fellowship of God’s people, they used their father, and they used others for their own agenda.
God’s people include some who appear to think it is all an act. They don’t hear God for themselves, and so they assume that other people of God are all play-acting. Maybe this is because too many of God’s people are play-acting; saying and acting words of love and words of faith, and yet serving themselves.
The Bible is God’s word to us. Eli’s sons are God’s word to us; not to other people. The words about them are written to speak to you when you read or hear them. They are meant to speak to me when I read or hear them. The story has been written so we can know God and know ourselves truly.
This challenges us to look for examples of our own play-acting and self-serving. When we are play-acting and self-serving we can never speak or act for God because we are not hearing him or listening to him.
Eli, their father, actually knew very well what it meant to hear God, and listen to God, so that he could speak and act for God. He was able to teach this truth to Samuel, and so he was a much better father to Samuel than he ever was to his own children.
Eli made Samuel listen to God and be willing to take what he heard from God and give it as a gift to others, even when that was hard and unpleasant. He made Samuel learn to be a real priest, a bridge between God and his people, a bridge between God and the world in which his people lived.
But Eli, as able as he was to hear God, was not able to speak or live out what he had heard for the sake of others. So he never made his own sons learn the connection between God and their lives.
In a way, Eli could hear God and not know how to represent God to the world around him. In Hannah’s case, Eli could see a woman’s lips move in heart-felt prayer, and mistake her agony for drunkenness. (You have to realize that ancient people didn’t read or pray silently. The ancient writers explain this to their readers because Hannah’s silent prayer was so unusual.)
Still, Eli should have known what was going on. He needed help from her to know how to serve her on God’s behalf. He needed her to speak up and he needed to listen when she did. (We all need that help.)
In his own family, Eli could clearly see his sons’ cynical, and selfish, and faithless way of life. What he could not see clearly was what they really needed from their father, which was truth plus action. In their case, they needed discipline, and their father never gave it to them.
Although we are never told anything that the sons said to their father, we know that he must have allowed their voices to speak louder to him than the voice of God, because Eli gave them what they wanted from him. He gave them his surrender. He feared his own children more than he feared God. Eli is a warning to us that, even though we hear loud and clear, there is no real listening to God without being willing to speak (and to do) what we hear from God.
Saul was a continuation of the same warning. The people wanted a king who would make them like the other nations.
They didn’t want to be made new. They just wanted to be made into more of the same old thing. It looked so much easier to fit in.
God gave them a king named Saul, but God refused to let Saul get away with making them like everyone else. God insisted on giving them a king whose kingly job it was to be a bridge between God and his people, to keep his people on the road that required them to be priests, or else fail.
God transformed Saul into someone who could hear the voice of God, and communicate the message of that voice to God’s people. Samuel told Saul that he would be changed into a hearer of God. “The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy…and you will be changed. Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you.” (1 Samuel 10:6-7) The Spirit of God gave Saul the ability to be a king who could hear, and listen, and do what he heard.
Saul was given the gift that empowered him to speak what he heard and do what he heard. He was changed into a bridge (a priest) so that his people could understand what God wanted them to do and to be. This way they would not be like the other nations. They would be something new. They would be a nation of priests.
God always listens to his people and sometimes God gives them what they ask for, but never in a way that lets them off the hook. Like Paul says, “God’s gift and his call are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29)
Saul failed, because he listened to the voice of his people more than he listened to the voice of God. Saul listened to their fears when they were outnumbered by the enemy and his troops were deserting. Saul listened to their fears, and became a person of fear, instead of listening to God’s promises. So Saul became disobedient.
Saul wasn’t merely disobedient because he offered the people’s sacrifices to God instead of waiting for Samuel to do it, instead of trusting that Samuel would show up when he said he would. Saul was disobedient because he backed away from his calling to teach his people to trust God’s power and grace.
If Saul had stood up to his people, they might have understood and followed God’s path. They might have learned to listen to God for themselves. They might have become a kingdom of priests for the sake of Gods’ plan to create a new world of faith and grace.
Samuel learned, even as a child, to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9) And he learned that, once he had heard God speak, he must not hold back.
The story of the Bible always leads us to a God who hears us and does not hold back. It leads us to Jesus. The Bible leads us to God as he comes to us in Christ.
Samuel would have heard his mother’s stories about his birth. After all they did get written down in his book. He learned that his very life came from a God who hears. He learned that this fact that God hears was the very meaning of his name. Samuel means “God hears”.
God heard the prayers of his people for a king and God gave them a king whose job it would be to make his people truly God’s people. God heard their prayers by giving them something better than they asked for.
This is the God we meet in Jesus. Here is the God who heard the cries of a muddled and fearful world and gave us better than we ask for. God heard a world of anger, and despair, and confusion, and doubt, and spoke to that world (and to us) by coming into that world in a way that he actually shared in the world as it is.
God stands by us in this world, in order to save us from it. And he stands beside in Jesus us to save us from ourselves.
God took the risks and died the death that we would fear, if he were not with us. He met and did battle with the dark powers that seem to make the world, and all our good intentions, work in vain.
He overcame the darkness at its worst. He defeated evil, and sin, and death on the cross, and in his resurrection from the dead.

In Jesus, God shows that he hears us and does not hold back. Then he lives in us so that we can hear him very close, every day, and not hold back. We can only stand in life effectively (for ourselves and for others) when we hear this God speak and do what we hear, and not what we fear.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Great Story - An Alien's Faith and God's Grace

Preached on Sunday, November 3, 2013
Scripture readings: Ruth 1:1-18; Ruth 2:1-12; 2:17-20; Ruth 4:13-17
Scenes outside my Door: October/November 2013
The Book of Ruth is a beautiful story: tragic and happy. It seems to show us the beauty of good people, but it shows a greater beauty than that. It shows us the beauty of gracious people who take vulnerable people under their wing. They do this because they know and trust a God who does the same. They trust in a God who takes the trouble-bound, and the poor, and the defenseless under his wings.
Boaz says as much to Ruth when he first meets her. “May the Lord repay you for what you have done. My you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wing you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2:12)

One of my favorite authors is G. K. Chesterton, a British writer and Christian of the early twentieth century. Chesterton wrote this. "There are two things in which all men are manifestly and unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever, or equally muscular, or equally fat…. But this is a spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And this, again, is an equally sublime spiritual certainty, that all men are comic." 
I think it takes some faith to say that. Some lives seem to fall toward one end of the scale or the other. Naomi’s family seems to have fallen, for a time, on the tragic end of the scale.
Naomi and her husband Elimelech, and their two young boys, were forced off their land by a long drought and famine. They became refugees in the land of Moab, to the southeast of the land of Israel. Perhaps there was food there because the mountains of Moab caught more rain than the hill country of Judah. Somehow they eked out a living, but Elimelech died in that foreign land. Naomi had to raise their sons alone.
As soon as the sons were old enough to marry, around the age of sixteen, Naomi found two Moabite girls, who would have been a little bit younger. But the boys died together before any children could come, and left their mother, and their young brides, to fend for themselves.
Naomi had spent ten years trying to make a life for her family in a foreign land, and she had less to show for it, in the end, than when she had begun. She had become an old woman because, by now, she was certainly in her thirties, and (therefore) practically unmarriageable.
Naomi heard that the long drought and famine at home were over. She still had her two daughters-in-law. She loved them and they loved her. They wanted to go with her.
Me and my vegetable garden after a few thorough frosts
Although this could have helped Naomi, it would be a bad idea for the girls. The people of Israel and Moab saw each other as enemies.
The common wisdom was that the daughters-in-law would have trouble being accepted in Bethlehem. The truth is that Naomi’s family could only have chosen to go to Moab because they were really desperate. It looks like most people had managed to stay put. Maybe their farm had been smaller than most in the first place.
Her daughters-in-law were still only slightly used, pre-owned candidates for marriage. Naomi was certain that they would be able to start a completely new life by just going home. She knew, and they guessed, that this would be for the best. So, one of them did just that: but not Ruth.
This was because Ruth, the pagan, had surprisingly become a person of faith, and faith had made her a person of grace. The poor refugee widow named Naomi must have taken Ruth under her wings very graciously when Ruth married her son.
Even in the tragedy of the death of a young husband who was Naomi’s young son, Naomi had shown Ruth something surprising. Naomi had shown something more that Ruth might have expected. Naomi had shown her something (someone) bigger and beyond herself.
Ruth knew how things really stood between Israel and Moab. She knew that if she went to Bethlehem she would be worse than a stranger.
But Naomi had clearly brought something from Bethlehem to Moab that attracted her. That strange country would be her country. That strange God was already not quite so strange. She wanted that God, and she wanted to go to a place, and to people, where that God was known.
This was trust, and so this was faith, and it was making Ruth into a person of grace who surprised Naomi beyond words. Ruth gave herself to Naomi. Grace always goes beyond what anyone requires, and beyond what anyone expects.
Grace is unconditional love. Grace is, first of all, what God is; because God is love. When this God truly dwells in you, you become a person of grace.
There were people in Bethlehem who were not people of grace. We don’t see much of them in the Book of Ruth. There were people who could not be trusted. There were people who could have been a danger to Ruth. But there were also many people of grace who were watchful and on guard on her behalf. There were people who cautioned her and warded off the dangers posed by the ungracious people.
The story of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges. It was a time of chaos. It was a time when God’s people made their land a terrible place. They were not the people of faith, and so they were the opposite of being the people of grace. The Book of Judges gives us a sad refrain, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 17:6; 21:25)
This even happened in Bethlehem, only we don’t see or hear much of it. What we see is the grace.
Boaz went out to his fields, where his people were bending and cutting the barley with hand scythes. He shouted: “The Lord be with you!” “The Lord bless you!” They called back. (Ruth2:4)
This was more than a common expression. This was not like one of us saying, “How are you?” without realizing that the other person is actually going to tell us how they are, because they think we might be interested.
Here were people who really listened to each other. They secretly planned and plotted how to help the innocent, and the needy, and the defenseless: people like Ruth and Naomi, and (maybe) people like you, if you had been abducted by flying saucers and taken back in time, and dumped down in that ancient place.
When Naomi and Ruth had taken the long walk from Moab to Bethlehem, and Naomi’s old neighbors and friends saw them, they said, “Can this be Naomi?” They hardly recognized her because they had last seen her as a glowing young mother and, now, here she was, almost unrecognizable as an aged woman in her thirties. But the town conspired in her favor.
Boaz knew about their story, and Ruth’s kindness, before he ever met her. He saw her working in the field and he recognized that what she did for the sake of good (what she did for others) she did with all her heart. He conspired to do her good with all his heart.
Naomi had said, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” (Ruth 1:20-21) In Hebrew, Naomi means “pleasant” and Mara means “bitter”. The great surprise, for Naomi, was that grace would make her pleasant again. It would surprise her because real grace is always unrequired and unexpected. The Lord had plans for her, for her hope and for a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)
Naomi had no idea of this. She called herself bitter. She seems to have talked as if she were bitter. But she lived as if she loved others.
She wasn’t as bitter as she dearly wanted to be. She couldn’t help being excited when she thought that she could see the good things that were possible for Ruth. She couldn’t remember to live up to her bitterness when she had the chance to plot and conspire for a hope and a future for Ruth. It is the grace of God when we are able to become something good, for the sake of another person, that we thought we were never going to try to be again: a person of grace.
Naomi seemed to forget that there might be a way out of at least some of their hardship. Her husband’s farm was in some sort of state of limbo. We can’t be sure what was happening to it. It might have been lost to pay the family’s debts from the famine times, before they became refugees. It seems to have drifted outside of the clan. There were two relatives who had the means to buy the land back for Naomi’s husband’s family. They might do something.
These would be called “kinsmen-redeemers”. It was the job of someone among the relatives, if they could afford it, to step in and save the land (to redeem it) for the part of the family that had lost it. Then it would be given to the man who lost it, or to his sons. But there was no such man to give the land to. There were no sons. And Ruth wasn’t a daughter, but a daughter-in-law. A kinsman redeemer wasn’t required to come to their aid and, if one of them wanted the land, they could buy it for themselves and keep it.
There was another rule, in God’s law, that if a brother was married and died without producing a child, that man’s brother was required to marry his widow in order to produce a child (a son) who would continue that lost father’s line and hold the father’s property.
That was the law for brothers. Neither Boaz, nor the other relative were brothers of Ruth’s husband. Neither of them was required or expected to marry Ruth. Neither of them was required or expected to give the land, once they had bought it with their own money, back to a son that she might bear.
Naomi, knowing Boaz to be a man of grace, and knowing that Boaz saw Ruth as a woman of grace, conspired to have Ruth propose to Boaz. She did this, knowing that it was an outrageous and disgraceful thing for a woman to propose to a man.
The most outrageous place to dare to do it was right under the nose of everyone in town. This was at the threshing floor, where the wheat was knocked out of the heads, and the grain was separated from the chaff.
There was a party and feast at the threshing floor to celebrate the end of harvest. It was a warm harvest night and everyone slept side by side on the ground of the floor, and (after everyone was fast asleep) Ruth went to Boaz and tucked herself under the hem of his robe. Think of the strangeness of doing this in a world where men didn’t wear any pants (although they did wear loincloths).
Boaz woke up and felt a person up against his feet. This person felt very much like a woman. Ruth asked him to cover her with the corners of his robe. This is part of the madcap comedy of Ruth that grew out of tragedy: making a man wake up to find a woman under his clothes.
It was a comic proposal. The word for corners of the robe is also the word for wings. Ruth asked Boaz to take her under his wings (just as Boaz had once told Ruth that God had taken her under the divine wings; did he remember?). Boaz he said yes; but they hade to plot in order to do it right. She would have to wait, and see, and trust him.
Then Boaz tricked his kinsman into agreeing to buy the land, and then set him the completely unexpected and completely unrequired terms of having to marry Ruth in order to do it. The other relative had enough money, but money was rare. As poor as the old farm probably was, it was not worth it to spend good money for it, marry Ruth, give the land he had bought to her children, and then not have the money for his other children’s inheritance.
Boaz didn’t care what was expected. He didn’t care about what was required. He was a better kinsman redeemer than anyone expected or required him to be. He was a person of grace.
Ruth was not quite acceptable because she was a stranger and an alien in the land. God’s people hated to think of themselves as strangers and aliens in the land. They wanted to think of themselves as better than this, but God had set this model for them, and for us. Abraham had learned to call himself “a stranger and an alien” in the land. This is what it means to be someone who is called by God to be part of the great story of God’s love. (Genesis 17:8; 23:4) You are a stranger and alien when you are called to bring grace into a graceless world.
In the New Testament, the apostle Peter calls us “aliens and strangers” in the world. The reason is that we are not supposed to be more of the same old thing in this world. We are supposed to be part of the great story of God building a better world (a new heaven and a new earth): a world where people of faith also become people of grace.
You cannot be one of the people of God without some experience of being an alien and stranger. With God we become something from outside the world, by not living like those who live without faith and grace. We become a contradiction to the world as it is. We become a visible antidote to what is wrong in this world.
But, in another way, we are all aliens and strangers to God. He is the God of all grace and we are nothing like him. We are not people of grace until we know what grace is. We receive the grace of being bought and paid for by God himself. Then we know what to be.
God entered the world, in Jesus, and was treated as an alien and stranger. He was not allowed to be at home in his own creation. He was crucified and killed because he was too different. He refused to be the same old thing. Yet he was also killed as part of his plan to bring home to himself this faithless and graceless world that killed him. He was killed to make it into a new world of grace. Until we know him, and have his life in us, we belong to that old, deadly world; a world that does not live with God, or with others, as people of faith and grace.
When we hear the story of Jesus, when we get a glimpse of him, we see a strange and alien grace. It is an unexpected grace upon which we have no claim, but it claims us.
Boaz joined hands with the alien Ruth and they became the great grandparents of David. David became the earthly king of the kingdom of Israel, God’s people. God came down, in Jesus, and became a man who was descended from David the king.
God decided to be king of this world by being our kinsman redeemer on the grandest scale of all. He made us stop being alien and strange to him by making himself one of us. God lived in this world, in Jesus, as a person of faith who became for us a person of infinite grace.
This part of the story is God’s story, but it is meant to be our story. Ruth, and Boaz, and bitter old Naomi, and their little town all played a part as kinsmen-redeemers to each other.
And so they were all redeemed. Their lives were changed. They found that they had become part of a higher story in which tragedy could be changed and made into comedy, and tears could lead to laughter.
We can see in Ruth, and Boaz, and Naomi, and their little town how we can be people of faith. We do it by allowing God to make us into redeemers of others.

You all know people who need this. Will you be people of grace to them?