Sunday, March 30, 2014

Change of Habit ~ Galatians 6:22-26 ~ Lenten Sermon Series

I once heard someone say that if you don’t train your dog, your dog will train you…

My family certainly knew the latter to be the case…

Six months after my family adopted our little Lhasa Apso Sandy, my little sister and I thought it would be "cute" to feed her morsels of food from the dinner table-- particularly the foods we didn't like...  The way we saw it, anything was better than brown, dry morsels of Hill's Science Diet she got to eat...

Within another six months, Sandy was so used to eating people food that she would whimper and beg at every meal...  And most of the time, everyone gave in and fed her from the table, just to keep her quiet...

It wasn't long before my parents were subject to stern lectures by the vet, as Sandy became overweight... 

But by now, there was no going back...  You can't teach an old dog new tricks.

Later on in her life, she wouldn't even touch the Science Diet.  We'd put it in her dog dish, and she'd turn her little nose up and walk away.  She'd even go on hunger strikes, just to get her way. 

By the second half of her life, her diet became Cesar and Chef Michaels premium dog food, served on a dinner plate...  Of course, she'd inhale that meal in about sixty seconds, and she'd run right back to the dinner table, begging-- because you can't teach an old dog new tricks...

Does that rule apply to human beings?

Whether we realize it or not, our lives are full of habits-- some good, some bad.  These habits become the building blocks upon which we live our lives.  They are the routines, the rituals, the practices which pervade everything we do, from work to school to play, to keeping house and driving the car, to how we think and how we sleep.  Our habits influence the ways we deal with stress and disappointments, and attempt to solve problems.  Our relationship with Jesus is even built upon the foundation of habits.  I once heard it said that it takes only about three weeks to break the good habit of going to church, and just three days to break the good habit of daily prayer...

Since habits make up the foundations of our lives, Jesus' imagery in the sixth chapter of Luke is very fitting: a life full of bad habits is as a house built without a foundation.  When the waters of trouble rise, we fall and fall apart. 

Isn't that true?  Bad habits are far more than just annoyances to the people around us, like chewing with your mouth open...  Bad habits can be dangerous to public safety, toxic to our health, and ruinous to our relationships.  Whether we like it or not, we all have bad habits...

When I was working my last job, my bad habit was Pepsi.  I typically drank 2-3 twenty-four ounce Pepsis per day.  The reason why was that I never worked consistent shifts.  I could start as early as 6:30 a.m., and I could finish as late as midnight.  So all that sugar and caffeine got me going in the morning-- and it kept me going.  Plus, I loved how it tasted...  It never crossed my mind that I might have a problem, even after my boss criticized me in a performance review for being "jumpy."

It took me nearly five years to break that habit.  But that was one bad habit.  How can we break free of these bad habits that entangle our lives, cloud our thinking, threaten the health, safety, and well-being of not just ourselves, but others too? 

Can we old dogs learn new tricks?

We are now one week into the Lenten season; a time in which we carefully examine our lives and seek God's help to cast aside and toss away anything and everything that is holding us back from living and participating in Christ.  It's an annual season of spring cleaning for our lives, if you will.  But we don't do this to get ourselves right with God, in hopes that we'll be saved.  We do this because our sins are forgiven; because we are children of God.  The same Holy Spirit through which God called the creation into being is upon us, forming and transforming us into the people God wants us to be.  We are being changed, so that we can live faithfully as God's people and be at peace.

If there's ever one thing that happened as Jesus walked the earth, it was change.  The blind began to see; the lame walked; the demon-possessed were cleansed.  Sinners were forgiven.  Outcasts found their place in God's family. 

If our eternal destiny is changed by the death and resurrection of Christ, we can fully expect that our hearts and minds are changed as well...  The saving grace that forgives our sins also transforms us, destroying those bad habits that do us harm and entangle us in sin.

We old dogs are learning new tricks!

So take an inventory of your life:

·         What are the bad habits that put your health and safety at risk? 
·         What are the bad habits that affect your relationships?  How do you react when people mistreat and abuse you?    Do you manage your stress, or does your stress manage you?
·         What are the top priorities for spending your time, money, and energy?  Where does Jesus fit in? 

The trouble with bad habits is that we don’t necessarily call them bad.  We may call them good.  We may not want to break them.  We depend on them.  They make life fun.  They give us control.  They save us time.  We can't imagine life without them. 

 But God isn't waiting on us to change.  We're being changed.  And you are invited to change so to know Christ more deeply. 

So consider these fruits of the Spirit:

·         What opportunities exist for you to love selflessly? 
·         How can you create peace in tense situations? 
·         How (and when) can you be kind, patient, and generous? 
·         Can you give up trying to control people and situations and just trust God to sort it out?
·         Can you give up aggressively pursuing your own interests and live gently?
·         Can you break the habits of self-indulgence and control your appetites?

Change of habit is a gift God gives.  The Spirit is upon you-- so you can be the person God created you to be.  The seeds are already planted in you to bear these fruits.  You can obey God's will, and discover the peace and joy of doing so.  God will heal your wounds as you act to heal the wounds of others. 

But do not mistake that there is indeed a sense of urgency here.  Habits are matters of life and death.  Yet God desires life for you-- and God will give you whatever it takes to live in faith, trust, and love.   

Suddenly I See! ~ John 9:1-41 ~ Fourth Sunday in Lent

There once was a time when I was a very picky eater…

In my grade-school years, I was so picky that I could go to just about any restaurant, and find nothing on the menu that I would eat.  And it wasn’t because I’d tried and disliked all of those foods.  The fact that I’d never eaten them made them gross…

My dad used to say to me, “How do you know you don’t like that?  It could be your new favorite food, but you’d never know!”

A Sunday school teacher got so frustrated with me, she said, “someday, your wife is going to teach you a few things!”

She definitely has—because most of the foods I eat now, I would never touch as a child.  I found I even like Brussels sprouts…  Dad was right!  My horizons have definitely broadened.

But it’s so easy to assume that we know the whole truth about something or someone, when in reality, we know nothing at all. 

Case in point: the Pharisees in today’s Gospel…

It all begins with a blind beggar seen on the side of the road.  The disciples ask Jesus, “who sinned, that this man was born blind?”  In those days, the answer would have been common sense.  His parents obviously sinned—and their child was suffering God’s punishment.  This is what the Pharisees would have taught.  In those days, they were the authority on everything religious to the Jewish people.  And their answer would not have been unfounded—because it is written in Exodus that God punishes children up to the third and fourth generation for their parents’ sins. 

But notice Jesus answer: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Jesus then spits on the ground, and spreads the mud on the blind man’s eyes.  He tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam, and subsequently he gains his sight. 

But now, the Pharisees are all up in arms.  At first, they don’t believe that the man was ever blind, and that this whole thing was a put-on.  But once his parents confirm that he was, they debate turns to the identity of Jesus.  The man argues that Jesus had to come from God.  To the Pharisees, Jesus is a sinner.  A false prophet.  A deviate.  Jesus did work!  He violated the Sabbath.  He made mud—and he healed.  Therefore, he cannot possibly be the Messiah.  But the man believes—and the Pharisees expel him from the synagogue on account of his faith.

So who was really blind here?  The man was, until Jesus came along.  This life-long beggar, whom everyone believed was struck blind by an angry God, now sees the truth.  Just as he said, Jesus used the blindness as occasion to reveal God’s works through him.

This all happened right before the Pharisees’ eyes—but they refuse to believe, because Jesus doesn’t fit into their box of who God’s Messiah should be and what he should do.  They were so set in their beliefs, and so intoxicated by the authority they enjoyed as gatekeepers to God, they became blind to the truth. 

For as much as we may despise these Pharisees, we share in their blindness.  There’s so much of Christ we just don’t see, even though he stands right before our eyes.

We, too, look for the Jesus who fits into our own little box.  One who conforms to our expectations of what he should do for us, because we believe in him. We look for a Jesus who exposes no sins.  One who fits comfortably into our lives and lifestyles, never challenging us to live or act differently.  We look for a Jesus we can worship our own way.  One who agrees with all of our beliefs and reads the Scriptures just like we do.  We look for a Jesus who would join us in sitting in judgment of other people, but would approve fully of how we live.

Trouble is, we’re not going to see Jesus with this kind of tunnel vision.  It’s like having blinders on.  Jesus will in no way fit into the boxes that we try and create for him.  If we are to truly see Jesus, we need to broaden our horizons.

Jesus says a very powerful thing: “[this man] was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Jesus revealed himself to this man in the midst of his blindness; the shame he’d been under by people who thought God was punishing him.  Notice how this was not exactly a pleasant healing.  Jesus smeared mud in the man’s eyes—and he had to go wash in a pool.  Later, he was expelled from the synagogue on account of his testimony to Jesus.  Jesus comes into the midst of our hurts just the same—but his healing does not always come in the manner in which we’d like.  Furthermore, we cannot be passive recipients of his healing grace—only active recipients.  We participate in our healing through obedience to his word.  Through trusting.  Through acting. 

And if we are to see Jesus, we must first own up to the truth about ourselves—that we are sinners.  There are those sins of which we are ashamed—but there’s much that we call treasure that lures us into sin just the same.  We should expect that Jesus will challenge how we live; that Jesus will change our priorities in how we make use of our time and energy and the things we call treasure.  We should expect Jesus to lead us to worshipping him and serving others in ways that are not comfortable or familiar to us.  We should expect Jesus to challenge our long-held beliefs as he reveals his truth to us.  We should expect Jesus to demand that we forgive those who hurt us most. 

At the end of the day, we are all blind—we are all beggars on the side of the road, desperately in need of God’s saving grace.  But thanks be to God that Jesus meets us wherever we are, to open our eyes to the reality of his awesome love and forgiveness.  Know that as you walk with Jesus, what you see now is only the beginning of the vast horizons of power and wisdom and mercy that Jesus is bringing to this earth.  So may your eyes be opened today.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Waiting is the Hardest Part ~ Bible Study blog for March 27

We finally finished the first chapter of The Story!  From Noah we turned the page to Abram and Sarai.  God appears to Abram and tells him to leave his country, his people, and his household, and go to a land Gold will show him.  God promises to make him into a great nation; to bless him and make his name great; to bless those who bless them and curse those who curse them; and all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through them. 

Abram, Sarai, and Lot, and their families set out, with all their possessions in tow—even though they did not know where they were going.  But they go, believing that God keeps promises. 

Over and over again, God re-appears to affirm these promises—because they continue to wait and wait and wait…  Much time passes and no child has been born to Abram and Sarai.  But they believed God.

The fact that Abram and Sarai wait twenty-five years demonstrates to us that God’s promises do not always come to instant fulfillment—nor do they come to fulfillment apart from great personal challenge and struggle.  Even as Abram and Sarai remain some of the greatest heroes of the faith, the waiting was not easy.  But faith persists in waiting.  Faith’s desire is to see God’s promises fulfilled.  Faith expresses itself in obedience.

Which of God’s promises to you struggle most to believe?

It was agreed that one of the hardest promises to believe is that God answers prayer.  We all can remember times we’ve prayed to God in the face of a tremendous struggle or need.  Sometimes, we see miracles—and other times, we do not.  It is so hard to trust God as we do not and cannot fully understand what God is doing or know God’s plan.  It is also tremendously difficult to believe that God and God’s goodness are stronger than evil, when there is so much evil in the world.

The story of Abram and Sarai (whom God renames Abraham and Sarah) teach us what we are to do in the face of unanswered prayers and promises that remain unseen—we move forward with confidence that God is faithful and God’s promises will be fulfilled.  We walk in obedience and trust—because the journey of faith is one in which promises are fulfilled.  Like Sarah, we will soon laugh with joy when God fulfills promises.  In the meantime, we wait with patience, which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Though we may wait on God for what feels like an eternity, God works even through our waiting to form us in faith and ready us for God’s promises to be fulfilled.   The waiting will make it possible for God’s greater purposes being fulfilled. 

Those who wait on God never wait in vain!

Our next Bible study is in two weeks; Thursday, April 10. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Grace in the Desert ~ Exodus 17:1-7 ~ Third Sunday in Lent

Lately, I’ve developed the bad habit of losing my cell phone…

I’ve left it at home, at church, in the car, in my coat pocket, and even at the Waffle House…

And the second I realize that I’m not carrying it, I get this stabbing fear in the pit of my stomach…

I feel like I’ve lost a vital bodily organ…  And all these worst-case scenarios begin circling in my mind…

What if the car breaks down?  What if I’m stranded in the middle of nowhere, and the only house around has a sign out front that reads “trespassers will be shot.”

What if I miss an important call?  The whole universe will collapse in on itself, and it’ll be all my fault.

Of course, I’m exaggerating.  But to me, my cell phone is a lifeline.  I’m never alone, because I can reach anyone, and anyone can reach me—provided we have each other’s numbers.

It’s a much better feeling to know I can be that in touch—rather than feeling “cut off.”

But what about those times and places in life when we feel as though we’re cut off from God?

In our first lesson from Exodus, the Israelites are in the desert.  But don’t let the name of the wilderness fool you.  They’re not in the wilderness because they’ve sinned.  They’re there because God has miraculously freed them from slavery in Egypt.  Thus far, God has miraculously provided manna and quail for food.  But now, there’s the problem of thirst.  There’s no water—and facing the danger of dehydration, the people begin to panic…  That panic wipes from their memories all the miraculous acts God had done for them.  Any measure of faith they had has evaporated in the dry desert air.  Now, they want to be back in Egypt, where they were slaves, because at least there, they had water to drink.  Moses is caught between the people are ready stone him, and God, who has yet to provide what the people desperately need.

Most of us know just how they feel.  A crisis or tragedy strikes, and we’re in need.  The problem doesn’t go away.  So the question becomes, “is God among us or not?”

“If God was here, we wouldn’t be in need, right?”  “If God was here, this terrible thing wouldn’t have happened, right?”  “If God was here, everything would be okay, right?”

Such questions tempt us to put God to the test; and unless God immediately comes through, and supplies what we need in a timely manner, we won’t trust God.  God will not be worthy of our faith.

Now let’s be clear—the Israelites wouldn’t have sinned by asking God to provide water.  They needed it. Their sin was in rejecting God.  They didn’t trust God.  They believed that God or Moses led them into the desert to die.  They refused to believe that God was still with them. They gave no thought to the fact that the only way out of Egypt led through the desert.

Do you still trust God, if other people’s lives and lifestyles appear “better” to us than our own.  Do you trust God if things in your life aren’t like they used to be?  Do you trust God in light of the person God has made you to be, with all your shortcomings and weaknesses?  Do you trust God to get you through the desert, whatever it may be?

How quickly we forget the simple truth that God is faithful.  If there’s a hurt, there’s a worry, there’s a need, we have only to take it to the Lord in prayer.

This is what Moses does—and Notice God’s answer: God directs Moses to leave the people, and go to the rock at Horeb.  God doesn’t lead him to a river, but a rock.  Moses will strike the rock, and water will come out of it.  Kind of a strange command, isn’t it?  But this is how God provides their water.

That’s the first lesson for us to learn here: we, too, must listen to God—because God’s Word assures us of God’s abiding care, even in the face of hardship.  God’s ways are not always our ways.  But the Word guides us in doing God’s will—because this is way to see that God is indeed among us.

One of the most powerful ways to know God’s presence is by interceding before God on behalf of others, which is what Moses does.  Like the Israelites, we are a covenant community.  We are bound to one another, by the promises of God.  Therefore, when we intercede in prayer for each other, we become God’s means of caring for each other.   Before believers and non-believers alike, we become living proof that God is indeed among us.  God’s Spirit enables us to do what we would have otherwise been incapable or too afraid to do.  We know God’s with us as we live out the Gospel together.

We also must remember God’s goodness to us in the past.  How quickly we forget the awesome things God has done for us when we’re facing trouble.  Our memories get wiped clean.  But you see God today by remembering all the ways God has helped you in the past.  God’s not giving up on you now.  The God who was is the God who is and will always be, among us.

So when the troubles pile up and tomorrow looks so bleak, listen to God.  Live as God desires for you to live.  Do good to all.  The proof of God’s presence is seen in the love and care we provide each other, and that we show forth to the world.  So many in our world don’t know this live-giving truth that God is here.  We can show them.  God is healing our world; forgiving our sins, and bringing new life to where there is death.

Sometimes, God takes us through deserts to get us to the Promised Land.  Sometimes, God uses rocks instead of rivers to give us water—but the only way to get there is to listen; to trust; to obey; and wait—because God keeps promises.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Living as God’s People in a Sinful World ~ Bible Study blog for March 13

Tonight, we meditated upon the story of Noah.  As the human race grew increasingly violent and corrupt, Noah was the last man to walk with God.  God commanded him to build the ark, and together with his household, they gathered two of every creature to take refuge upon that ark during the great flood that God sent upon the earth. 

This story is a challenge to us as we consider the sinfulness of our own generation.  How do we compare with them?  And how do we as God’s people live faithfully in a world so full of sin?  How does God want us to relate to those whose hearts are inclined toward evil?

First of all, it’s easy to look past our own sinfulness to the sinfulness of others.  For the child of God, there will always be the temptation to look down upon others and act “holier than thou,” merely by virtue of our faith.  The one fact that remains true for all persons is that we are all sinners—and as such, we all desperately need the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  Thankfully, this is a gift freely given to all people, that we receive by faith.  It is when we fail to recognize our need for his righteousness and forgiveness that we go astray.  God’s Law functions like a doctor’s diagnosis—it reveals the truth about who we are.  But Christ immediately stands by, giving his body and blood as the perfect sacrifice that cleanses away all sin.  His selfless love becomes the power that turns us from our sin to walk in newness of life. 

But what about those who fully believe that they are righteous?  Un-repentance is a condition of the heart as well—a hardness of heart.  Unrepentance acknowledges no need for Christ’s righteousness.  It confesses no need for forgiveness.  It blindly and erroneously believes that God approves of how that person lives.  The unrepentant sinner seeks no amendment of life, and continues to do what he/she believes is right by his/her own eyes.

So what are we to do as we are confronted with so much evil, day in and day out?

First of all, we remember our own sinfulness.  We have no high horse upon which to sit in judgment of our neighbors.  We need Christ’s gift of forgiveness just as much as even the most evil person.  So we confess our sin and receive forgiveness.  We return to the waters of baptism daily, where the sinful person is drowned and the new person rises up from the water for new life in Christ.

Secondly, we pray for sinners.  We pray for God them, not in the hopes that God would necessarily make them “holy like us,” but instead that God would break their hearts of stone and give them new hearts.  We pray for Jesus to become the faithful shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one who has gone astray, so to save him/her from being devoured by their sin.

Thirdly, we bear in mind that God often empowers and sends us in ministry to the very people we pray for.  There is no tougher love than to confront a brother or sister with the reality of their sin.  But this is the very essence of interceding for another on God’s behalf.  In Matthew 18, Jesus instructs his followers to go and point out the person’s sin in private.  If that fails, take others with you, so that your word may be confirmed by the presence of two or more witnesses.  If that still fails, tell the church.  And if that fails, and the person refuses to listen, we must then distance ourselves from that person.  As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are bound in a covenant of faithfulness to God and to each other.  When someone goes astray, love demands that we do everything in our power to restore that person.

It is incredibly difficult to live as a child of God in a sinful world—especially given the fact that we ourselves are sinners.  To walk in love of neighbor, to forgive, to reconcile, to intercede, and to put Christ first—I daresay these are more gargantuan than Noah’s task of building his humongous ark, filling it with two of every creature, and maintaining it and his family during the flood.  But God’s grace enables us to do God-sized works.  By grace, we can be who we were created to be and live as we were created to live.

The Demand of Grace ~ Genesis 12:1-4 ~ Second Sunday in Lent

If I could re-title the Book of Genesis, I’d call it A Series of Unfortunate Events—a title I admit I’m borrowing from children’s book series from author Lemony Snickett, of that same name…

Think about it: the creation begins so majestically, and so beautifully…  Human beings are in paradise, walking with God.  Then just when everything appears perfect, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit—and sin enters the creation.  Before you know it, their son Cain murders his brother Abel.  The human race becomes so corrupt, that God is sorry for creating it.  So God sends an enormous flood to wipe everything out, save for a man named Noah, his family, and the creatures they bring on the Ark. 

So after the flood, you’d think things would be back on track.  And you’d be mistaken.  Once again, human beings turn corrupt and arrogant.  They, too, wanted to become like God—just as Adam and Eve did.  So they set out to erect the Tower of Babel—as a monument to their own greatness.  God comes down, and confuses their language, so that they must abandon the project (hence the word Babel). 

Then, without warning, God appears out of the blue to a man named Abram. 

God commands him, “Go.  Leave your home, your land, your kin, and travel to where I tell you to go.
And God makes a whole bunch of promises:

“I’ll make of you a great nation.  I will bless you and make your name great.  You will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you; I will curse those who curse you, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Now keep in mind that there’s nothing special about Abram.  The Bible doesn’t praise him as being righteous and blameless before God, like Noah was.  Abram is a seventy-five year-old man, with a barren wife, and a brother who isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed.  Abram wasn’t even seeking God—but God showed up. 

What we have here is God’s new plan to deal with the chaos and corruption that’s plaguing the creation.  God is choosing a husband and wife, to create from them a nation.  These are a people who will be loved by God unconditionally, even in the spite of their own disobedience.  They will know God in relationship through faith; and they will be empowered by God’s Spirit to do God’s work of blessing the creation.  This is pure grace.  But grace demands obedience. 

If Abram and Sarai are to see God’s promises come to fulfillment, they have to leave behind their familiar world, including their land, and their extended family.  They must step out into an unknown world.  And that’s only the beginning.  They are going to wait a very long time for these promises to come to fulfillment—and they must trust God to keep the promises in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  Remember, Sarai is barren—and she’s already 65 years old the day God appears to Abram.  They will wait another 25 years just to get a son.  Hundreds more years will pass before Abram’s descendents will take possession of the land God promises. 

But they trust God.  They believe that God keeps promises.  They obey God.  Those who wait on God and obey God while they wait will see God’s promises fulfilled.  Those who obey God see God.

Whether we realize it or not, God has come to us in the very same way God came to Abram and Sarai.  God chose you, at the foundation of the world, to be God’s own.  God didn’t choose you because you live up to human expectations of being righteous and worthy.  God chose you totally out of divine grace.  God has claimed you to love you forever.  The blood of Christ cleanses you from all sin.  God promises you eternal life through the death and resurrection of Christ.  Today, you are being formed and gifted to participate directly with God in loving and healing the world. 

In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed. 

But every promise demands faith and trust.  You must be the person you are becoming by the power of the Holy Spirit.  You must walk with God in faithful devotion.  You must pray, and pray often.  You must immerse yourself in God’s Word and in worship; you must eat at the Lord’s table.  You must confess your sins and receive God’s forgiveness.  But your inner faith must also be your outer faith.  You must forgive sins.  You must love others and serve them, according to their needs and according to the gifts God has given you.  You are a living sign of God’s graciousness by how you live and how you love.

So ask yourself two questions:   1) In what ways are you struggling to obey God and do God’s will?  2)        Which of God’s promises do you struggle most to believe and trust?

It wasn’t easy for Abram and Sarai to wait on God—and it certainly isn’t any easier for us.  God’s Spirit is upon you, raising you up from fear to faith, and empowering you to be a blessing to the earth.  God does not want for to be mired down in life’s Series of Unfortunate Events.  That’s why Christ walks with you.  Life is a gift to walk with Jesus, and see with him the awesome acts of God.  So let your eyes be always open for opportunities to do good, to forgive sins, and be a living sign of God’s love.  God keeps promises.   So while you wait, carry on in faith and faithfulness—and know that as you do, the dark of night will give way to the dawning of the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Yes! You Can Live Without Chocolate! ~ Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 ~ First Sunday in Lent

My wife suffers the unfortunate condition of being allergic to chocolate.  Truth be told, her allergy is more devastating to me than to her.  She doesn’t like sweets of any kind.  I, however, like them more than enough for both of us… 

So it’s probably better for me than it is for her that we allow no chocolate in the house.  That’s our rule.  It’s sweet, it’s delicious, and it’s horrible for me, and it makes Elizabeth sick.

But is life without chocolate really all that bad?

All throughout life, there are so many rules—and it’s in our nature to despise most of them.  “Rules are meant to be broken,” the old saying goes—which is not that far from reality.  The mere presence of a rule can be enough cause to want to break it. 

“What harm will it do if I tell our secret?”

“Who are you to tell me to stay behind the yellow line?”

“How can I have fun if I can’t feed the bears?”

That contempt for authority is exactly what we see in the story of Adam and Eve…

What we have here in Genesis is the most simple of stories.  God puts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and gives them a job to do: they are to till it and keep it.  Their work is to make the garden fruitful—and care for it on God’s behalf.  They are free to eat of every tree in the garden, except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

This isn’t a bad deal for Adam and Eve.  It’s a great deal and a great life.  They get to live in paradise—and they are co-workers with God.  It’s great privilege with great responsibility.  But, as we quickly see, there is something more to be desired, above and beyond being God’s people, and doing God’s work… 

Soon, their attention turns to the only forbidden fruit in the garden…  And gradually, they become consumed with desire—to the point that nothing else matters.  The serpent then exploits that desire to cast suspicion and doubt upon God.  “You surely will not die,” it says; “you’ll be like God.”  And we all know what happens next…

But the story of Adam and Eve is not a story about what wretched fools they are.  It’s a story about us! 
We share their contempt for God’s authority.  It’s not our nature to serve another’s interests.  And it certainly isn’t our nature to entrust ourselves to a ruler we cannot see, understand, or control.  What is our nature is to deny God the right to rule our lives.  We make gods of ourselves, and do whatever we can to make the world revolve around us.

We make ourselves the authority on what’s right and wrong.  And if we acknowledge God at all, we put expectations on God.  God ought to do right by us, in exchange for our faith.  Then we blindly believe that God completely endorses our own standards of right and wrong. 

Secondly, it’s not our nature to be content with what we have.   Sin is born when our hearts burn with desire for what is not ours, for what we cannot have, and what we really do not need.  That desire then leaves you feeling insecure, inadequate, worthless, cheated, bored and unlovable.  Then it consumes you to the point that nothing else matters.  But the pain of desire doesn’t go away if the desire happens to be met.  Look at Adam and Eve.  They took what they wanted—and then there’s shame.  There’s fear.  The husband and wife are now pitted against each other.  And more consequences await them…

For the sinner, life is about freedom, fulfillment, and fun.  But boy, is there a cost…  Can we be happy if we’re never content?  Can live peacefully with one another if we’re constantly looking out for number one?  Do we really know what’s best for ourselves and the world?  I think not…  Look at the mess our world is in right now…  There must be a better way…

God is fully mindful of the hurting in this world—and the sin that pits us against God and one another.  This is why Jesus was born.  This is why he revealed God’s truth to the world—and then laid down his life as the perfect sacrifice that cleanses all sin. 

In spite of all our rebellion and our stubborn insistence to live life our own way, God remains gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  What more do we need?

Today is the fifth day in the forty-day season of Lent—a season to turn from sin and return from Christ. But this is also a season to be real about the hurts, the fears, and the desires in our hearts.  What are they?  What do you need?  What do you desire?  What is the chocolate that you crave?  What do you fear to lose? 

Faith is all about surrender—knowing that we are sinful; accepting the fact that we cannot control everything; admitting that we do not know what’s best for us and that we are not the authority on right and wrong.  Faith trusts in God’s love and God’s desire to do good in our lives.  Faith trusts that God knows our every hurt and every need—and knows how best to provide.  Faith lets go and lets God be gracious and merciful. 

Will you trust God to take care of you and meet your needs?  Are you willing to focus on taking care of others’ needs, believing that God is providing for your own?

Do you trust God to die to every love and craving and desire that is not of Christ, so that you may live more fully in him?  Do you trust him to dramatically change everything in your life if that’s what it takes?

God’s will is then to take the emptiness that exists in our lives and fill it with the peace of Christ; the hope of Christ, and the love of Christ. 

I can live a good life without chocolate—and there are most certainly things in all our lives we can live without just the same, to enjoy the One who is our greatest treasure.  

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Trouble in Paradise ~ Bible Study blog for 3/6

What a terrible and unexpected turn of events for the readers of Genesis…  The story begins with God creating, and God being pleased with God’s own handiwork.  God creates human beings, puts them in the Garden of Eden, and puts them in charge of tilling the soil and keeping it.  The entire garden is at their disposal and free for the taking—save for the fruit of one tree…  What could possibly go wrong?  Who is to blame for the chaos that ensues?  Is it Eve?  Is it Adam?  Is it the serpent?  Is it God?

What we see in the serpent, as well as in Adam and Eve is free will—the freedom to accept God’s authority and obey, or to reject it and rebel.  God did not create us as robots, but as beings with the capacity to give love, receive love, or reject love.  The serpent does not force Adam and Eve into sinning; the devil just begins casting doubt on God’s authority and God’s Word.  The serpent works to cast doubt on God’s good intentions for them—and tell them that they can become gods.  Isn’t that what everyone wants?  To be large and in charge?  To determine what is right and wrong?   To try and have it all, know it all, and do it all?  Both Adam and Eve acted on these desires, to their own downfall. They grow so blind by their desire for the forbidden fruit that they no longer trust God, give thanks for God's blessings, and live contentedly in their God-given vocation.

In spite of Adam blaming Eve and God for his sin; and Eve blaming the serpent for her sin; Adam and Eve bear equal responsibility.  They rebelled against God—and now there are consequences to their disobedience.  Ultimately, the story of Adam and Eve reveals the rebellious nature of our human flesh; our desire to be god; and our tremendous need to be saved from the destruction of our own making.  

As the narrative continues, God’s “good creation” quickly spirals out of control, to the point that only one righteous man is left upon the earth—and God will save the entire creation on his shoulders.  God is saving creation and the human race from human beings—which is an act of judgment and wrath, but ultimately an act of mercy.    God is still exercising control, in spite of all the chaos and evil.  God is bringing the creation ever closer to the intended result—of which we still await today.  We are baptized and sealed for the future Kingdom of God that is dawning upon the earth.  We’re not there yet—but, in spite of all appearances, God is acting beyond the world and within the world to bring it to its ultimate purpose.  The evil rebellion of our flesh and the death that destroys the precious gift of life will no longer wreak havoc on this earth—and by God’s grace, all creation will reach its ultimate goodness.

Thankfully, the blood of Christ cleanses all sin-- and the baptism of the Holy Spirit drowns the old Adam that is enslaved to sin, so that we may rise to new life as servants of God and caretakers of our neighbor.

SPOILER ALERT: Sunday’s sermon will be based on the Adam and Eve story, and I hope to dig in a little deeper to this notion of human sin, the pain that it creates, as well as God’s grace that frees us from its deadly grip.

The Bible Study will meet next Thursday, March 13 at 7:00 p.m.  Then we will break for two weeks and regather on March 27th.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lifted from the Pit of Despair ~ Matthew 17:1-9 ~ Transfiguration of Our Lord

As a teenager, my bedroom walls were covered with posters of classic and exotic cars…

So I was a little heartbroken to learn of the massive sinkhole that opened up in the Skydome Area of the National Corvette Museum, devouring eight priceless “treasures” of classic American muscle.

Thankfully, no one lost their lives—but sinkholes have become a disturbingly common geological phenomenon.  They almost always strike without warning—and in some cases, they can be deadly.  They are a stark reminder of one of life’s most painful realities—that tragedy can strike at any time.  In an instant, we can fall into the most painful and dreadful times in our lives.

But what if you could get to a place in life where you could always be well and live in the peace of God?  A place where you would never experience fear?

Peter, James, and John thought they had found such a place—and they were glad to be there.

They’d been disciples for several years now.  They witnessed miraculous healings and feedings.  They heard Jesus’ teaching.  But they also saw terrible human suffering.  They saw the powers-that-be becoming ruthlessly opposed to Jesus.  Most recently, Jesus told them in no uncertain terms that he would undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious leaders—and be killed. 

So they had tremendous reasons to put their faith in Jesus and be at peace.  But they also had tremendous reasons to doubt—and be afraid.

Then one day, Jesus invites them up onto the mountaintop.  When Jesus begins to pray, he becomes radiant with the glory of God.  Then Moses and Elijah appear and begin talking to Jesus!

What a moment this must have been—even more spectacular than all of the healings and miraculous deeds they had witnessed.  In this moment, heaven meets earth.  Every doubt evaporated; every fear dashed away. 

Peter is prepared to build dwelling places, so they could all stay on the mountaintop and bask forever in the glory of God.  Up here, they’re safe from all the troubles of the world below.  Up here, no one could touch them.

Just then, a mighty and terrible voice from heaven interrupts him, saying, “this is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”  The moment of glory turns becomes a moment of sudden terror.  But then it’s all over.  Jesus says: “Get up and do not be afraid.” 

Then, Jesus goes back down to the world below; back to the human suffering; back to the very people who will put him to death.  He also commands his disciples to speak nothing of these things they’ve seen until after he rises from the dead.

I don’t know about you, but I find the end to this story a big disappointment.  I wish Jesus were putting an end to the human suffering happening in the world below.  I wish Jesus were doing away with everyone who was opposed to him, so that he would never have to endure the cross. 

Instead of a crucified Jesus, I’d love a Jesus I could show off to the world: who takes suffering and fear out of my life in exchange for my faith in him.  Don’t you think we’d have an easier time growing our church if we could proclaim that receiving Christ would solve all your problems and make your every dream come true?
But that’s not reality..

Several weeks ago in our Bible study, we struggled over the question of why God allows suffering and evil to exist in the world.  It just doesn’t seem fair that bad things could happen to good people.  And it doesn’t seem right that God allows evil to exist in the world.

But this mysterious story has much to teach us about who Jesus is.  Jesus chooses to go back down into the world, to reveal God’s compassion and mercy to those who need it most.  Jesus chooses to walk straight into the hands of his enemies who will crucify him.  In the end, we’re all sinners—which makes us all enemies of God.  Yet he lays down his life for us and calls us his own.

We’ll never know the answer to the question of why God allows bad things to happen to us.  At the same time, could we really truly know the saving power of Jesus if our lives were perfect—and we were perfect?  Perfect people living perfect lives don’t need a Savior.  Now I’m not suggesting that we should call suffering a gift.  But Jesus will be a gift to us within suffering.  His cross is a sign that he is one with us on our pain.  When death and evil strike, he will be showering us with his mercy and grace.  God can take even the most terrible tragedies and use them to draw us into the life of Christ. 

Therefore, when you are in the depths of suffering, listen to the voice of Jesus.  To you, he says: “you are mine.  I give my life for you.  You are forgiven.  You are loved forever.”  Hard times will always raise questions and doubts—and these can plunge us into great despair if we do not listen to Jesus. 

We must listen and obey his words: we must get up, and we must not be afraid.  Grace pulls us out of the depths of despair.  We face our hurts and fears head-on, believing that we do not face them alone.  We can embrace tomorrow as a gift if we believe that he will love and care for us, regardless of whatever the day will bring.  God’s grace will be sufficient to meet our every need. 

Sometimes, the only sign of God’s presence will be there mere persistence of life in the face of unimaginable pain—but that is the power of God working.  So get up and do not be afraid.  Tomorrow may bring more trouble, but Jesus will bring even more grace.  God’s grace will be at work to draw you into the life of Christ
—and bring you to a new day and a new life.