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.


  1. You know the hymn "Trust and Obey", I am sure. You must know the story behind it...
    The hymn was inspired in 1886 when the composer of the music, Daniel B. Towner (1850-1919), was the music leader during one of Dwight L. Moody’s famous revivals. Towner provided the following account cited by Moody’s musical partner, Ira D. Sankey, in his biography, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns: 

    “Mr. Moody was conducting a series of meetings in Brockton, Massachusetts, and I had the pleasure of singing for him there. One night a young man rose in a testimony meeting and said, ‘I am not quite sure—but I am going to trust, and I am going to obey.’ I just jotted that sentence down, and sent it with a little story to the Rev. J. H. Sammis, a Presbyterian minister. He wrote the hymn, and the tune was born.” 

    “Trust and obey—for there’s no other way
    To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

    1. I think that story's new to me. Thanks for sharing it.