Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Our Wedding Jitters

Preached on Sunday, August 13, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 19:1-19; Hebrews 12:18-29
Seeing that I’ve never been married, it might not surprise you to know what I think about this part of the Exodus. When I read this story about the promises made at the foot of Mount Sinai, between God and his people, it reminds me of a wedding.
Mission San Diego de Alcala
San Diego, CA
June 2017
Yes, it does. Actually, this is a very Biblical idea. The Old Testament has lots of references to Israel being the Lord’s bride. And the New Testament is full of references to the Church being the bride of Christ.
We believe that those two marriages are the very same marriage. But think of that idea: the idea of getting married to God; because that’s exactly what we are.
In Exodus, though, we see a problem with this marriage. We see a lot of fear and caution before the wedding. How crazy is that: feeling fear before your wedding? How could that possibly happen, when weddings are about love?
Maybe there are reasons to be afraid. You might find yourself wondering if you are actually capable of being a good husband, or a good wife; and, later on, wondering if you are capable of being a good parent. Perhaps, just as with the process of getting old, these things are not for the faint of heart.
Promises can be scary, can’t they? Maybe this shows our deepest need for God. It is the nature of God to make what’s called a covenant with his people. The promises we make in marriage are promises of the covenant kind. For me, that defines covenant as a relationship based on promises, which we find scary.
Some people define a covenant as a contract. I don’t think that’s right.
Contracts tend to be conditional. Marriage might be more of a contract when it includes a prenuptial agreement. But I don’t like hearing about that kind of marriage.
It’s true that the covenant between God and his people seems to have conditions. It sets conditions of obedience, but it really only has conditions for happiness. Obedience, or submission are necessary conditions for happiness. God’s people broke those conditions constantly. That’s the lesson of the Old Testament. That’s a lesson for us, because the Bible is a picture of God, and a picture of us.
The Lord began the covenant with his people on his own initiative. The only condition his people met, at that time, was that they were in great need of help.
Up until this point in the story of God recreating a human family for himself, all of the basic, fundamental promises, and qualifications, were made on his side. At the foot of Mount Sinai, the Lord told his people how he had started the next level of his promises. He said: “I carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.” (19:4)
God was starting the wedding by acting and proposing unconditionally. This is what brought them through the desert to Mount Sinai.
God knew what would follow. The wedding would follow. His people would say “I do”. They would make the promise: “We will do everything the Lord has said.” (19:8) But they never kept their promise.
Surely the Lord was not surprised by this. The Lord was well prepared enough to see to it that the happiness of the marriage would be conditional, but that the marriage itself would be unconditional. That’s how it worked out in the course of things. Marriage with God is like that, all through the Bible. In our marriage with God, there are conditions set for our happiness, but our marriage itself is unconditional. It will go on.
In Jesus, God won our hand in marriage by his death for our sins on the cross. There is the condition of saying yes, I do, but to truly see Jesus on the cross, unable to kneel at his proposal to you only because of the nails in his hands and feet: to truly see this, robs your heart of the power to say “no”. And you know that it’s always unconditional when you see that there is nothing you can do to adequately repay him for it. Your gifts to him can never equal his gifts to you.
Marriage is a new life for those who undertake it. In marriage, something has got to give; and, in this way, we could compare marriage to faith, as faith is shaped by Jesus. With Jesus, something within us has got to give. In Jesus, we die to ourselves and we rise to a new life.
It’s another way of looking at what Jesus meant when he said: “You must be born again.” (John 3:7) But I don’t think we understand what it means to say, “I’m born again,” unless we can say, “I’m married to Jesus.”
Are you married to Jesus? Can you remember if you got the wedding jitters before you went through with it? Have you exchanged vows with God?
Here’s one of the questions I ask the bride and groom in a wedding. The words are the same for both, except for the personal pronouns. “Will you pledge your loyalty to him, in all love and honor, in all duty and service, in all faith and tenderness, to live with him and cherish him, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?” Are you married to the Lord? Are you married to Jesus?
The problem is that, in Exodus chapter nineteen, something seems wrong with the proceedings of the wedding. There was fire on the mountain, and a dark, gathering smoke, and the flashing of lightening, and some sort of trumpet-like sound that got louder, and louder, and louder. The ground shook. Scurries of rock clattered down the sides of the mountain above them. The Lord was coming to their wedding! What does this say about God?
There’s violence in the long course of this story. There were the plagues in Egypt, and the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red sea. God’s people have had to fight battles, and face thirst and hunger. It’s been a hard journey, so far, and there’s so much more to come. God has gotten angry with his people. God has gotten angry with Moses.
We don’t know what to think of this. God’s people didn’t know what to think, and it terrified them. Then they and we, both, think of the same thing. We think that God is dangerous, and that following God is dangerous. We think of God’s anger. That fire and lightening could turn out to be quite effective weapons.
Jesus seems like an antidote to the anger of God, but even Jesus got angry, and not just with the money-changers and the Pharisees. Jesus got angry at his own disciples. When Peter protested about the inevitability of the cross, Jesus got mad and said, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) But we hope he’s gotten over that, now that he’s been crucified and resurrected.
When I was five, I stuck a wire coat-hanger in a wall socket and got a painful shock, and I screamed really loud. I remember my mother running from the kitchen, and she saw what I had done, and then she screamed at me, and then she hugged me, and then she scolded me, and then she got ice to put on the burn: the big red welt that ran across my hand.
Her screaming and her scolding were a part of her love for an endangered and accident-prone child: which I sort of have been all my life.
There were many other times when I did something I knew I shouldn’t do, when I deserved to be screamed at, or yelled at, by my parents. They did this because they loved me.
The whole story of the Lord freeing his people from slavery, and leading them through the desert to the Promised Land, is a story of love. In spite of his frequent anger with them, and his punishment of them, the Lord never left them. The Lord saw them through to the end of their journey, and beyond. The Lord is with his people, Israel, still.
What other tiny nation of people has maintained its existence for four thousand years? It’s a miracle. It’s love.
God is with us in the same way.
The Letter to the Hebrews (meaning the Hebrew Christians) talks about two mountains. It tells of the scary mountain of Moses, in the Exodus, and the happy mountain of Jesus, called Zion.
It’s very strange that one of the happy things on the happy mountain is also a very scary thing. The scary thing is blood. The blood of Jesus has gotten on everyone who enjoys life with Jesus on that mountain.
There was a time when Mount Zion had crosses nearby, and Jesus hung on the cross. There wasn’t smoke, but there was darkness. Mount Zion shook, just like Mount Sinai, when Jesus sacrificed himself for us there. It was scary, but it was love, and it was a miracle.
We live here on Mount Zion with our spouse, Jesus. And we live here reliving that scary thing. We meet with Jesus as he now is, crucified, and risen, and full of glory, and we receive him into ourselves. We eat and drink, and he comes into us through that eating and drinking. Jesus says that we take into ourselves his body and his blood in the Lord’s Supper; and, so, we live the good news because of a scary thing. We die and we rise with him.
Saint Augustine, back in the late fourth and early fifth century, said that this is a miraculous food. Everything else that we eat and drink we change into ourselves. The food and drink of the Lord’s Table, the body and blood of Jesus, turn us into him.
This changes us. Something gives way. There are so many ways and opportunities to get more of Jesus and grow in our union with him: our marriage with Jesus; two lives growing together, two hearts beating as one.
The love of God is like the sun that shines upon our world. There would be no life without the sun. But the sun is dangerous. It can make you sick. It can even kill you. The sun can blind you, because our eyes are too weak to look at it, and truly see it, and survive.
Only a total solar eclipse can enable us to look into some of the mysteries of the sun. But, even then, the sun will destroy our sight, unless our eyes are properly protected.
Love thundered, and lightninged, and burned, and smoked on Mount Sinai, but it was all love. Perhaps the smoke made it possible for God’s people to see a bit more of him than other ordinary people. The smoke was like the moon that shields us from the sun in its eclipse.
We think that we want love, and we do. We are made for love that never ends. We are made to experience miracles of grace and love. We are made to love, and to be loved, forever.
But our love is weak. We often know this in the marriages and families that form our lives. Love requires great emotional, spiritual, mental, and even physical efforts from us. Sometimes we rise to them. Even when we do so, we see that giving more would be better. Sometimes we know that we have not, or cannot, meet the needs that call to us. Our love may prove very strong indeed, but our fall from what we were created to be has made our love too weak to see, face to face, the holy love that has created each one of us. Our fall has made our love too weak to see all of the love God wants to give to others, and to our world, through us.
The warnings against getting too close were not warnings of anger, but warnings of love. It’s as if the sun could speak, and thunder, and shake us, so that we knew better than to look straight at it.
There are discoveries and understandings that we are not ready for. God, in his love, has the power to give us what we need (and what we are ready for) in knowing and seeing him. That’s why we are told, in another place in Hebrews: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)
The dangers of our going too far in, or seeing too much that we’re not ready for, are like the dangers of a baby who has immune deficiencies, who needs the shelter of a bubble, and the parents can only hold their child with gloves that are extensions of the bubble, through which they put their arms and hands. It’s what their child needs, and so they do it. Jesus is like the gloved hand of God reaching through and holding us; getting as close to us as our current health will allow.
But there’s more. The message of Mount Sinai had the power to warn and to teach God’s people, and that message was a gift of love and grace. It’s grace to have good warnings and good learning. But learning may not transform us. The message of Sinai could not transform God’s people, and they showed this all the way through their history.
God becoming one of us, in Jesus, his living our life in our own flesh and blood, his living as a servant, his sharing the darkness of death, his dying for our sins, and conquering sin and death for us: this is the grace that enters us, and changes us.
Only grace can complete us, make us whole, fulfill us, and bring us to what God has created us for; what God has in mind. The old mountain is actually a good place, a good covenant, a good promise, but the mountain we live on with Jesus is so much “better in every way”.
Grace enables us to approach and serve. Grace empowers us to be bridges and mediators of grace to the people and the world around us. That’s what it means to be “a kingdom of priests” like Jesus. Priests are mediators. They are go-betweens.
Grace, in the blood of Jesus, bridges the gap we could never cross by ourselves. It empowers us to become what we could never fully be on our own.
There was a wedding at the foot of Mount Sinai. It was a wedding of God with his people. Well, it was not the full-fledged wedding. It was only one of many rehearsals for the real thing. We have the real thing in Jesus, the real wedding that gives us a new life.
The truth is that the wedding still isn’t finished. We are just in the process of making our vows. When God’s plan for this world is complete, Jesus will step over to us and lift the veil for a kiss. Then all the jitters will be over.
Right now, it can still be awkward. We’re in the middle of our vows. But this is the time for us to say: “I’m doing it! We’re doing it together! We’re getting married together.”

We’re marrying Jesus now. Let’s get into it. Let’s live into it.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Tangent II

The airish* people have their charm,
The leprechaun his treasured gold,
The fearsome jinn his wishes three,
The elven maid her snares of love,
But they are fleeting as the breath
Of coolness on an August eve
(No more substantial are their gifts).
Our quest for magic drives us on
To seek in flesh, and blood, and more,
A fuller magic than before.

Written ‘79

*”Airish” people is archaic English for “aerial” beings, such as sprites, etc..

Tangent I

How foolish I am,
Have I lost my heart?
Mislaid it somewhere,
Until all my art 
Is spent in searching,
And not in giving?

written 1979

Monday, July 31, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - The Survival-Challenged Life

Preached on Sunday, July 30, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 17:1-13; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

The Apostle Paul mentions a couple of the stories that we’ve been reading, about Moses and the Exodus. He has a whole list of stories, and he calls them examples. Paul tells us that these stories were written as examples for us. Actually, he tells us that these are examples to warn us.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
June 2017
The word that gets translated as “example” here is interesting: because the word, in Greek, has become an English word. It’s “tupos” or “typos”. It’s our word “type”. It can refer to a certain type of person, or a certain type of situation: a type of this or a type of that.
Paul implies that, if we’re not careful, we can become the type of person he warns us against and get into the same type of situations they got into. The fact is that, if we don’t listen to Paul, and if we don’t listen to the stories about God’s people in the past, we may end up being typical of so many who continuously tested the faithfulness of God.
It’s a very common type. Nowadays, it’s the type of believer who gets in the headlines on CNN. (I’m only joking!)
The whole idea of type carries an interesting story in itself. In one way, type is a sort of impression or mark. It could mean the impression of a stamp of identity, like a mark you put on your possessions or your property. It could be like the government stamping images on its coins in order to identify them: one cent, ten cents, twenty-five cents. In olden times, the word could mean something as simple as the impression that a cooking pot left in the ashes, after the cook-fire went out.
It could be the impression of footprints on a trail. If you were a hunter, you might follow the tracks of a deer and notice any signs it left behind. The tracks would tell you a story, and you would be on the track of its story. You would be going where it was going.
That’s what Paul is saying we are doing in the Exodus. We’re on that ancient trail. We are on the tracks of that story. We’re going where it went before us.
Paul tells the people of the church in Corinth that they are following the trail of their forefathers in the Exodus. You know that the Corinthians were Greeks, mostly. In a sense, when they began to follow Jesus, they stopped being Greek and they became Israelites on the trail in Exodus. They also became Abraham and Sarah.
So, do we. When we turn to follow Jesus, we stay what we are, and yet we have a double life, and one of our doubles is walking on another trail. We are walking on the trail out of slavery in Egypt. God has saved us from our beloved slavery, and God is saving us now. God is leading us out of what we were into a journey of faith that will complete the story of our salvation, in the end.
Of course, that story doesn’t end with the Exodus. It doesn’t end with the entry into the land of Canaan, which was called the Promised Land.
The trail keeps going from disaster to disaster, and it leads to God coming, in the flesh, in Jesus. It leads to the way of the cross and the path to the empty tomb. It’s the path of our death to the slavery of sin and our rising to the Promised Land of a new life, and everlasting life.
It doesn’t end there, either, Paul says that his friends (and that we too) are still on that road, even though “the fulfillment of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11)
We’re still in the same story that began so long ago. We are traveling a certain type of trail. It’s the type of trail that typically leads through a certain type of dangers.
Our trail leads to more than danger. The truth is that our ancient path leads to dangers, and gifts, and blessings.
Certain typical types of experiences are found along this trail: typical wonders and typical hazards. Along the way, there are choices between these experiences, and these choices test us. They show what we’re made of. These choices show the stamp of our identity. Or they create the stamp of our identity.
These choices are what we sometimes call temptations. Temptations test us. God doesn’t tempt us. God only tests us to see where we’re at. Tests are a part of any good teacher’s lesson plan. It’s the students who tempt themselves: whether they’re going to do the work and study, or whether they plan to mark all the multiple-choice questions with choice “C”. “C” is claimed to have a good statistical reputation for being the correct answer.
The Israelites hadn’t studied. There’s so much they didn’t seem to remember. God’s wind had blown a dry path for them though the Red Sea, and Israel was saved from Egypt and from the Egyptians.
Along that ancient path, everything that could go wrong did go wrong and yet God turned it to good.
God turned bad water good.
God sprinkled the sand with crumbs of a miraculous food called “manna” which was so strange that the Israelites couldn’t even give it a proper name: “manna” is Hebrew for the question “What is it?).
When the bad news was that the next oasis was too far away, God told Moses to hit a big rock with his walking stick. An artesian well broke out.
When the bad news was that they were being attacked by one of the desert tribes, Moses knew what God wanted him to do. He sat on a hill top with his staff raised, for some reason that we aren’t told: perhaps, as a sign of faith, or as a reminder of the miracles that had been done with that staff, or as a form of prayer that lifted the fighters of Israel up to God and God’s power.
If the people of Israel had held still, the stamp of the image of the faithfulness of God would have marked them with a new identity. The trail of God’s faithfulness would have worn a path of faith in their hearts. If they had held still, and studied what God had demonstrated, over and over again, they would have shown peace, and a readiness to see new and surprising great things when they needed them most.
But that wasn’t the easy way. The easy way was to worry. I’m a worry wart, and so I know this. The easy way was to get mad. The easy way was to grumble. The easy way was to quarrel under pressure.
They did it all. They demonstrated a certain type of response to difficulty, and danger, and uncertainty. They didn’t test well.
They doubted their own survival in the hands of a faithful God. There’s a lot of that going around today: worry, anger, grumbling, quarreling.
The Book of Exodus tells us, here, that the Israelites traveled “from place to place as the Lord commanded.” Well, they followed the pillar of cloud and fire wherever it moved, and whenever it moved. The pillar was the visible presence of God with them, leading them everywhere.
And they did follow it. They actually followed everywhere it went.
They were very good, at this point. They never left the pillar. They never left the presence of God. They were never in the wrong place at the wrong time. They never took a detour or a wrong turn of their own choosing. When there was a detour, it was God’s choice for what was best for them.
Actually, the journey was a detour right from the start. God never intended to take them by a straight forward path. That’s a story of faith in itself.
The straight path out of Egypt would have followed the Mediterranean coast, and the Philistine cities. God wanted to protect his people from fighting too much, and too soon.
God wanted to toughen them in other ways. God wanted to teach them faith, and faith takes time and difficulty. Faith always wrestles with the question of survival.
The point is that God always led them, and God always was with them, and God always got them through their survival-challenged lives. The Israelites never studied this.
There is an important challenge in following this trail of faith, with this almost endless repetition of the challenge of survival. C. S Lewis wrote: “Relying on God has to begin over again every day, as if nothing has yet been done.” (in “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer”) The people of Israel, in Exodus, show us that we can be the type of people who begin each day by not relying on God.
Another important point about the word “type”, in the ancient world, is that it could also be an image or a picture. The stories of Exodus are events that are God inspired, to such an extreme, that they became pictures of what our lives could be: images of what we should or should not be. And all of these pictures show us the abiding presence of God, and the ability of God to lead his people.
There is a lot of violence in the story of Moses, Israel, and the Exodus. There is clearly violence shown in the relationship between God and his own people. I can never read these stories without wondering about them.
There are some things we neglect to notice about this.
It’s true that complaining or grumbling was fatal a few times, but they complained so many times. They were always complaining. Most of the time, when the people complained about Moses and his God, God generally gave them what they asked for, and what they needed. God did this in spite of them. God does this again and again. It must be love.
There’s another very strange thing about the anger of God. When God gets mad, his people are always surprised by it, as if God let them get away with all kinds of nonsense.
I think they were right. God let them get away with a lot of what was worse than nonsense. God never stops helping them. God never gives up on them. God has a plan to save them and give them a new and better life, and he does it. God continually protects them, and fights for them.
The sea, and the cloud, and the rock are all images or pictures of this. They are pictures of salvation, which means God coming to our rescue in our great need.
They are pictures that still hold true for us, even though we don’t have a sea that parts for us, or a pillar of cloud and fire that guides us, or a rock that gives us a drink whenever we strike it. We are in the same story, following the same trail: the tracks of a faithful God and his people.
Something happens at the rock, and it gives us a scene that tells us another story. The Lord stands before Moses at the rock. We don’t know if there was any visible sign of the Lord doing this. It was simply something that God promised Moses.
To stand before someone is a way of describing a special relationship. It’s not an ordinary phrase. It’s an ancient way of describing something like receptivity. To stand before someone means to present yourself for instruction, or for service.
In all of his power and glory, in all of his independence, the Lord has, in his essence, the nature of a servant. The Lord was going to be of service to Moses and his people. Standing before Moses formed the posture of the Lord presenting himself as a servant of his people.
Paul tells us that the rock was Christ. In the Bible, there is the same word picture for God.
One of the images for God is the Rock. Psalm 18 says: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; God is my rock in whom I take refuge.” (18:2) Jesus quoted from the Psalms to call himself a rock: “Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.’” (Matthew 21:42; Psalm 118:22-23) Peter calls Jesus the rock: “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by men yet chosen and precious in God’s sight….” (1 Peter 2:4)
Jesus stands before us as the rock and as a servant, just as the Lord stands before Moses as a servant. It’s really a picture of the same thing. Jesus and his Father are one of a type. They form one image.
The picture of Jesus is a stone that gave of himself, to his people, when he was struck. Jesus was struck by the soldiers, and by the priests. The cross itself was a blow to Jesus; and, through the cross, Jesus gives himself to his people: gives himself to us, as food and drink for our salvation.
The parted sea, the cloud that guided God’s people, and the rock that saved them from dying of thirst, are all picture of a Savior God. This God, whom we meet in Christ, is the faithful God who never leaves us, and who always leads us, and who always fights for us.
We may have to learn faith every day, but we can hold in our hearts something like a picture, or the impression of a stamp, that comes from walking the same ancient path every day. The way to get through whatever is hard, whether it serves as a test, or whether we are tempting ourselves, is to know that we are in the same old path as all of God’s people who ever were. It’s the story of the faithful Lord and God: of Jesus, and his love.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Expectations Versus Surprises

Preached on Sunday, July 23, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 14:10-15:3; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Walking around the Feather River: Live Oak, CA
June 2017
You could say that Moses and the Israelites were caught between a rock and a hard place; but in this part of the story they were caught between a superpower and a wet place. Each of us, in our own way, has been caught like that, over and over again. After that, we never struggle with faith, ever again! Or not?
Well, the word of God gives us a pattern of getting caught and getting faith. In our reading, it says: “And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” (Exodus 14:31) This is said at the end of chapter fourteen and it will remain absolutely true all the way until chapter sixteen.
The scriptures are inspired to tell us who God is and what he does. They are also inspired to tell us who we are and what we do. I believe what it says, because it certainly fits me.
About God: what we’ve read this morning tells us that God is a warrior (Exodus 15:3) and that he will fight for us (Exodus 14:14). About us: this is the first place that I know of, in the Bible, where Israel is called an army (Exodus 14:20); and what applies to them, applies to us.
This is pretty impressive, until you take a real look and see how they acted. When they saw the Egyptian army coming for them, in the distance, the Israelites basically told Moses, “We told you so!”
“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” (14:11) This is an old, old joke, because of the pyramids. You know: the pyramids were graves. No one could miss them. Everyone could see that there were graves in Egypt. It’s a four-thousand-year-old joke.
The Bible has a sense of humor, because God does. God has to have a sense of humor just to handle his own people.
The Bible shows us that there is a running battle between our expectations and God’s calling for us to trust and obey. But what does it mean, in our readings today, to trust and obey? We are to obey…but how? The guy with the faith is Moses, and even Moses doesn’t know quite what to do next.
The Lord seems to scold Moses for not guessing the improbable (or seemingly impossible) surprise that the Lord has planned. “The Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me?” (14:15) It’s almost as if, by telling his people what to do, Moses is telling God what to do. Moses had a running battle with his own expectations.
Moses gave the people these commands: “Do not be afraid.” “Stand firm.” “You need only be still.” (14:13-14) In some way these all say the same thing. There’s a line from Psalm forty-six, where God says: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) This doesn’t mean, “Do absolutely nothing, and you will know that I am God.”
“Being still” is an inward determination to trust. It’s a kind of peace that enables you to do something: whatever it might be that God is calling you to do. It might be a calling to stop doing something. It might be a calling to come to attention and get ready to go.
Whatever it may be, it’s a way of standing firm. Years ago, during World War II, a British poster carried the motto: “Stay Calm and Carry On.” Those are slightly different words, but they carry the same meaning as “be still.”
The Israelites were in a mood to be still by putting their hands up in surrender. That seemed, to them, to be the best thing to do, if they were smart. I’ve always had the feeling that Moses thought that something entirely different would be smart. It’s as if Moses was saying: “Face the Egyptians, get in battle formation, prepare arms, and see how God will fight for you (meaning: see how God will fight through you, and on your behalf, as you do your part).”
For Moses, as the guy with the faith, knowing God just a little bit, this seemed, to him, to be the best thing for them to do, if they were smart.
It can seem smart to trust God, and stand your ground, and do what you must. Sometimes this is the right thing to do. Sometimes I’ve been smart enough to do just that.
Apparently, God’s idea of a really smart thing to do was for them to cross the Red Sea on dry land. But who could have had enough faith and trust to have thought of that? It’s as if the growth and survival of God’s people depended on God giving them options that their faith could never hope to have imagined, or foreseen, or held onto.
Another part of the pattern is that, in order to live as people of faith, we seem to need to be confronted by the truth of what we are without God (or without faith). We seem to need to be confronted by the truth of what we may become with God (or with faith).
God’s people, Israel, needed to know that. Even Moses needed to know that. And so do we.
Looking at it another way, even Moses needed to be confronted with the limitations of his own faith. In this sense, faith is not enough. Our faith, or our lack of it, can be so much about us, and not about God.
Moses was showing real faith, but the limitation of that faith was that he was prepared to use faith to make something happen, and faith is something that rests in the faithfulness of God. The faithfulness of God often comes to us in surprising ways.
Surprise is at the core of knowing God and having a relationship with the Lord.
We see this, all the way through the Bible. Moses asked God for his name. God told him that he would be known by a name that wasn’t a name at all, but a verb and a state of being. God was “I Am Who I Am”, or “I Will Be Who I Will Be”. This verb of God is a state of complete independence and self-being (uncreated and unconditioned being, if you can imagine that).
This absolutely independent God needs nothing, and, so, (obviously) he creates everything. God wants to change the world through a nation of people who know him, and so he, obviously, called an old, barren couple named Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of that nation.
The real core of the God who is known through his surprises, is the gospel. This uncreated and unconditioned being, beyond time and space, became a human being, bound by time and space, born as a regular baby, and taught and raised like any normal child, and trained by his father to work as a carpenter. This perfect, uncreated, and unconditioned being got himself killed on a cross by everything that was wrong with this world in order to set us free from everything that was wrong with this world. Even set us free from sin and death. What better way could there be, to beat sin and death, than being killed by sinful humans?
This is what Paul claims to be the foolishness of God and the weakness of God. And Paul claims this foolishness and weakness to be the source of God’s his victory and the source of our new life in God. “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…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 25)
Who would have guessed it? It’s a surprise. How strange it is for God to love surprises. His word tells us that this is his way.
We want to have faith in proven techniques for dealing with God. We want the Bible to provide us with such techniques.
It’s true that there are disciplines for a life with God, and the Bible tells us these disciplines: prayer, servanthood, worship, study, generosity, the love of our enemies, and so on. There are principles of life: laws, wisdom, and so much more; and these are to be found in the Bible. But these are not the core of the message.
The core of the message of the Bible is this completely surprising God. This God is absolutely beyond us, and beyond our control, and this God has a purpose and something he is aiming at. It’s something that he wants to share with us. God wants to take us along with him, and it’s all too big for us. It’s beyond our expectations, and we wouldn’t understand it if we knew what it was beforehand.
The Bible tells us that this God comes to us in our need and our abject slavery; like the slavery of Israel in Egypt. This God gets really close and takes us with him to freedom and life. You can call it an exodus. You can call it the way of the cross and the resurrection. You can call it Jesus: God in Christ; Christ with us. Christ in us. What a surprise!
And so, there we find ourselves, caught between a rock and a hard place, or caught between a superpower and a wet place, and there is some impassible barrier between us and the goal. God makes our own limitations clear, and that makes the impossible all too clear. God says, “Go forward through the impassible, impossible barrier. That is the road to my plan for you.”
Perhaps you have passed through the impossible with God, in Christ. I have. But it’s always something new. I never know what’s next. The Bible tells me so. I have no idea what those surprises will be. I pray to know them when I come to them. Don’t you?
I hope that the church can always be this place where we make it through the impossible barriers and find the road to God’s promises together. The barrier, and the road that takes us through it, will be God’s surprise. Let’s trade in all our smartness, and all our expectations, for God’s surprises.

We should know our exodus. Most of all, we should know our Jesus. In Jesus, we meet the God who is the master of surprise.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Navigating the Uncontrollable

Preached on Sunday, July 16, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 3:1-14; Luke 5:1-11

Walking to the Feather River from Live Oak, CA
June 2017
When Moses got near the burning bush, God told him; “Moses take off your shoes and approach this burning bush.” And Moses did it, and he burned his feet. And God said: “Ha! That’s the third one today!”
And then there’s what Woody Allen said about the difficulty of faith. He said: If only God would give me a clear sign, like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”
For the next couple months, we’re going to think about what I’m calling “the underbelly of faith”. It’s the challenges of learning to trust God.
We see that there is this underside of faith when God speaks clearly to Moses for the first time. It’s face to face, although it doesn’t seem like Moses sees an actual face.
Moses sees fire. He hears a voice from the fire. It’s not wishful thinking, because Moses doesn’t like what he hears. Something direct happens, and Moses can’t believe it, doesn’t want to believe it, and yet he can’t deny it, either.
In the end, of course, Moses is going to do what God tells him to do. But, at the start, he looks as though he won’t do it. In chapters four and five of the Book of Exodus, Moses argues, and makes excuses, and raises objections, over and over again. What God is asking for looks impossible to Moses. It turns out not to be impossible, only incredibly difficult. The projected journey that shouldn’t have taken more than a couple weeks will take over forty years, and that was the least of the difficulties.
The Lord’s reason for calling Moses was that the Lord wanted to take a new step back to what he intended for creation. The Lord wanted to begin a new creation out of fallen people, out of the fallen human race.
The Lord wanted to begin by creating at least one nation of people who would change the world by living as a truly free people. The Lord planned to help them use their freedom for harmony with God, and harmony with each other. The Lord planned for this to take place in a Promised Land, in an environment where people could know the will of God and do it, and find forgiveness and recovery when they sometimes failed.
God’s plan began with Abraham and Sarah. Now the plan would go forward with the help of Moses.
It would only take a couple of simple steps to make the project of a new creation work. First, it could begin if the king of Egypt was willing to let tens of thousands of valuable slaves go free and leave the country. Second, it could get done if the people of Israel would trust God to lead them through a vast, barren, and waterless desert, and cross over the border into the Promised Land where God would enable them (as slaves who had never handled weapons of war before, and who had no military training at all) to drive out several existing nations from their fortified cities.
Of course, the Lord admits that the king of Egypt won’t let the people go. The Lord will have to force him. But Moses will still have to go and ask politely (at least at first) in order to give the king a chance. It means something to say that this story shows us that God always gives absolutely everyone, no matter how hardened of heart, the right of a choice and the right of refusal.
The surprising thing is that the Lord knew what he was talking about when he said that the elders of Israel would actually believe Moses. They believed and worshiped. At least, they did at first. But they changed when the king denied their polite request, and called them lazy, and added to their work without reducing their quotas. Then they stopped believing in Moses and his calling.
The weakness of so much of God’s planning is that it involves people. God’s plans always seem to involve some kind of human partnership, and some kind of human agreement. It’s almost as if God truly valued human beings. It’s almost like being in love.
Yes. Love is God’s part. And faith is our part; which means trusting and obeying, or following, the calling of God. I’ve been in love and it was everything I wanted and it scared me to death. For faith to work, it’s almost like being in love.
For us (for me) when we (when I) find faith difficult and challenging, it’s tempting to think that it would work so much better if only God would speak more clearly; more dramatically. If only we could know for sure, and in a way that we could hold onto with a firm grip. If only God would speak though a burning bush, or guide us with a pillar of smoke and fire. Then we would get it right.
Wait! God did that and it didn’t work very well. This is a lesson to us.
Or, if only God would find ways of reassuring us that he cared about what we care about. If only God had made it clear to the Hebrew slaves that he was truly interested in their freedom. Or, what if Jesus clearly showed Peter, and the other disciples, that he knew how much they loved and cared about fish. He did that, and it still didn’t work very well.
God did all of this, every time. If God spoke as clearly to us as he did to Moses, we would respond just as confidently as Moses did; and just as unconfidently; and we do.
We could claim that, when God calls us to a task, that he’s calling the wrong person. God could surely find someone better to do the job. The Bible shows us otherwise, because God found, in Moses, the very best of all that God’s people could offer.
Moses (the best of them all) appeared, at that point, to have no promise at all. And yet, Moses’ parents who hid their baby son in order to defy the genocide laws of the king, and the midwives who also defied the king, acted, all along, like people do act when they hear the voice of God without any burning bush or pillar of guiding light.
How can God get anything done? Sometimes, I feel so sorry for God who seems determined to rely on us. We seem so out of control. Yet God gets his work done, in his own way. The king did let those slaves go, and they truly got away, and they made their long journey, and they lived with God in the Promised Land. Although, none of this looked like they thought it would look at the start.
This teaches us the foundation of faith. Everything looked out of control and God was in control. God’s promises were kept. God’s choices were right.
This teaches us about the challenges of faith: Faith’s underbelly. What God planned got done. Even more important: what God called his people to do, they did. They did it in spite of themselves, and in spite of the realities of the world around them, and in spite of the people and forces beyond their control.
Paul says: “Everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23) The fact is that everything in life requires some kind of faith. We just don’t think of it at the time. Getting out of bed in the morning takes faith. Going to bed at night takes faith. It all takes faith, because we really aren’t in control of anything, and God takes care of us. God loves us.
There are times in all of our lives when we become like those other people who frustrate us so much. You know how they are. They make you so mad that you want to reach inside them and tweak some button, or knob, or switch that will stop something, or start something, or change the channel, or adjust the tuning. But you can’t do it, and you know that they are uncontrollable. Really all our important relationships, all our important commitments, and all our missions and callings in life are uncontrollable.
There is so much that we can do, and learn to do, in order to protect our health, and we should take that pretty seriously, or else we will live to regret it. And yet, we know, that health is sort of uncontrollable, too.
I’ve seen great wisdom, in husbands and wives, that enables them to build and guard their marriages, but there is so much in a marriage, in the heart and mind of the other partner, that is uncontrollable. It’s surely true in parenthood and any other part of being a family. And yet those relationships, commitments, and callings are as precious as life itself. They are life for us.
When Paul says, “Everything that does not come from faith is sin,” I think it means that if you live those precious relationships and callings without faith you’ll do insane things; you’ll do horribly dysfunctional things. Or, you’ll run away from saying or doing something so important, because it’s the gift of faith that helps to show love the way.
We, ourselves, are uncontrollable, and this is another point where faith is needed. This is faith’s underbelly.
We only read the beginning of Moses’ argument, or debate, with God. The good news is that God reveals the secret of faith at the very start of the argument. The Lord says to Moses’ first objection: “I will be with you.” (Exodus 3:12) That’s where faith begins, even when it begins with the same conflict with which Moses’ faith began.
“I will be with you” is deeply the identity of God. Notice what this means with Moses. Moses didn’t know very much about God, except for some stories from his early childhood that, somehow, set him on his strange course in life.
Maybe Moses knew that “I will be with you” fit the old stories about God leading Abraham and Sarah, even in their old and barren age. But the current story shows us who the God is who says, “I will be with you.”
God is with Moses, arguing and yet never giving up or giving in. God lives with Moses and with us where we’re at, even in our doubts and questions.
The story of Moses is simply the proof of that.
Right toward the very end of the argument, Moses is going to say, “Send someone else.” This is saying “no” to God. It’s what I dread most and have prayed most to avoid. I have said “no” to God, and I have had to take it back. It was my sin. Let me say that it was Moses’ sin. It just was.
God got mad at Moses for this. That is where God’s temper, at last, clearly broke out. But God did not give up. God let Moses’ brother Aaron be a helper, but Moses couldn’t shake God’s call.
It seems to have had almost nothing to do with Moses’ faith. It seems to have had everything to do with God’s faithfulness and grace. God, in his grace, covered for Moses.
God dealt graciously with Moses’ sin. God deals graciously with our sins. God comes down, in Jesus, to be what the prophet Isaiah called “Immanuel”, which means “God with us”. In Jesus, God is with us, in our sins and in every way, including the way of dying for our sins on the cross and rising from the dead to give us a life that is infinitely stronger than sin and death.
The Lord says: “I will be with you.” It’s all a part of God’s identity; all a part of God’s name. But it’s a name that isn’t a name. “With you” is a place. It makes every place holy ground for you with God. It makes every relationship, every commitment, and every calling into holy ground. It makes every day and every moment, and every year into holy ground.
“I will be with you,” has more to tell us about the identity of the God whom we trust, because God is trustworthy. It’s in the words “I will be.”
When Moses asks God’s name, God gives him a name that isn’t a name at all but an action and a state of being. God’s name is a verb. “I am Who I am.” But the Hebrew language doesn’t have verb tenses the way our language does. “I am Who I am” is just as easily “I will be Who I will be.” When the Lord tells Moses, “I will be with you”, the phrase “I will be” is exactly the same word that appears in the name “I am.”
The gist of this is that God can’t be labeled, and names have no control of him. God’s actions reveal who God is. God’s relationships demonstrate who God is. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and the same is true with faith in the faithfulness of God.
“I Am” means that God is, and that God is uncreated. God is self-existent. God is completely independent of everything else that he has created, and yet God loves his creation. God is known by the way he lovingly, patiently commits to his creation and to us.
God is completely independent; and, so, God, himself, is uncontrollable. We can’t control anything in this world, and we can’t control God, but nothing in this world can control God. Nothing in this world can defeat him. The forces beyond our control can’t defeat God. Even we can’t defeat God, even though we often find ourselves to be uncontrollable. This is the God who is with us. This is the God who will be with us.
We can’t name God with any single name, but we can meet God. We do meet him in Jesus, who is Immanuel: God with us. We can learn and experience this God who promises to be with us. We can learn and experience this God who overcomes our arguments, our excuses, our doubts, and our questions. We can experience this God who overcomes our sins by dying and rising from the dead.

The Lord’s Supper presents us with the God who is with us and will be with us in Jesus. It gives us the God who covers for us on the cross and in the resurrection. It shows us that God is our life and our salvation. This is how we navigate our way through the uncontrollable.