Pastoral Relief and Retreat

My photo
Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

Pages

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lord's Day Message: God Uses A Stick

God Uses a Stick
Lord’s Day Message
Immanuel Community Church
March 13, 2011

A young traveler on the mountainside of the Alps was puzzled as he watched in the distance an old shepherd among a herd of puny sheep and goats. The traveler saw the gnarled old hand reach down into a battered old bucket and pluck something so tiny out. Then with his shepherd’s crook, he pierced the mountainside and dropped this tiny thin into the ground and then reached out his foot so softly and packed the ground.

The traveler called down. “Old shepherd! What is it you are doing here on this God forsaken mountainside?” The old man looked up as though it seemed obvious,” Why, I am changing the shape of my mountain.” The young traveler drew back and sneered, “Old man, everyone knows you cannot change the shape of a mountain!”  “Nevertheless,” said the old man, as he again reached into his bucket and dropped another tiny seed in the ground, “that is what I am doing.” 

Perplexed by what he had seen, the young traveler walked sadly away.

Years later, the traveler grew old and dreamed of taking a nostalgic trip back to places he had traveled. The map in his hands said he had reached the mountain, but nothing seemed the same. For where he had once seen a God forsaken barren hillside, he now saw giant oak trees. He saw little children running down country pathways. He saw villages nestled under massive branches. He heard birds singing overhead. And then he remembered one old shepherd who believed he could change the shape of his mountain.”

-- Originally told by Mary Taylor Previte

We began ministering together in late November.  Over the past four months one thing has been very clear.  It is something even the most casual observer of Immanuel Community Church would recognize in a moment.  It is something everyone I’ve ever talked to about you tells me right off.  It is something that can’t be missed when a visitor shows up here on a Sunday morning.  And it is something God has used and will continue to us into the foreseeable future.  Here it is:  Immanuel Community Church is a small church. 

The important question this church needs to ask isn’t whether it can become a big church, but rather, does God use small churches?  Not only is Immanuel Community Church a small church; it is a small church with a small building in a small city in a small state.  Everything about this church is small.  You have a small choir, a small altar, a small pulpit, a small number of children, only a few people under 50 years of age, which mean you have a small amount of human energy.  You have a small budget, a small piece of property, a small parsonage.  

As we begin to grapple together with the very serious question of what this small church is going to become in the future, there are two things we need to seriously believe, and they are the premise of our Lenten series this spring.  If Immanuel Community Church is to face the future and do God’s will, we must believe that we serve a Big God, and that he is a god who routinely uses small things. 

We’ve all heard the famous sermon quote by James Allen Francis (1926) that focuses on how God uses small things in the Messiah’s life.  It says,

“He was born in an obscure village, the son of a peasant woman.  He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter's shop until he was thirty. Then for three years he became a wandering preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn't go to college. He never visited a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of those things one usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies and went through a mockery of a trial. He was executed by the state. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race and the leader of mankind's progress. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that One Solitary Life.”

But that was Jesus!  And somehow either our removal from the events of history or our own personal experience tells us that, while Jesus was only one man, he was God in the flesh, and that’s not small at all.  We all long to be used by God, but when we look at the facts of our little lives, we feel ever so insignificant. 

Over the weeks leading up to Easter we’re going to see how God used a A Stick of Wood, A Cracked Pot, and A Small Stone.  He twice used A Loaf of Bread.  And he used A Pile of Bones, and A Little Donkey to do his will in very big ways. 

In the early 1970s Francis Schaeffer, the theologian and philosopher who started the L’Abri Community, wrote, “As a Christian considers the possibility of being the Christian glorified, often his reaction is, “I am so limited.  Surely it does not matter much whether I am walking as a creature glorified or not.” Or, to put it another way, “It is wonderful to be a Christian, but I am such a small person, so limited in talents—or energy or psychological strength or knowledge—that what I do is not really important.”

The Bible, however, has quite a different emphasis: With God there are no little people.  And If a Christian is consecrated, does this mean he will be in a big place instead of a little place? The answer, the next step, is very important: As there are no little people in God’s sight, so there are no little places. To be wholly committed to God in the place where God wants him—this is the creature glorified.”
-- Taken from, No Little People, copyright 1974; The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, vol. 3, 1982.

As I thought about what confidence this church needs in order to move forward, it all boiled down to this one thing.  You need to believe that God is a Big God and that he routinely uses small things.  If together we can grasp that between now and Easter, then between Easter and Pentecost we will be able together to make a plan for how we will step into the work that God wants to do with us.

That’s where we’re headed.  Now, turn in your Bibles to Exodus, chapter 3, starting at verse 10.  We are part-way through the Call of Moses as God spoke to him from the burning bush, and I want you to see what I mean about God using small things.

God says, “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
            Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”’ And they will listen to your voice, and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.”
Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.’” The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it. But the LORD said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand— “that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” Again, the LORD said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.” So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. “If they will not believe you,” God said, “or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.”
            But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.”

If you strip away all the extra language that is necessary to recount an incident from life, this makes a wonderful moment of theater.  It is a dispute between a man and God; an argument the man is about to lose. 

It begins with God’s Call
God: “I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”

God’s Call is answered by Man’s Falsely Humble Objection
Moses: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

This could be any one of us!  It is absolutely ludicrous that Moses would say this.  Who else would God have used to talk to Ramses?  Moses had been raised as Pharaoh’s Grandson, but he was clearly from an ethnically Jewish background.  No one else had these credentials.  Of course God would call Moses. 

So the first lesson is not to underestimate or think too little of yourself.  It is easy to look at the externals and decide that you’re really not up to whatever task God has for you.  But if you will review it for a moment, you’ll see the reason. 

Again, God Calls
God: “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
           
Again, Man Objects out of his insecurity
Moses:  “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

The lesson here is, don’t look too far down the road when God calls you.  It would be wrong for this church to make a 10 year plan.  I don’t know about you, but at 55 I’m not really sure I’ll be here in 10 years.  And even if age isn’t a factor, if we didn’t know how fragile life is before this weekend, the events unfolding in Japan – a country most of us would have said was a safe, modern place with good services and a high standard of living – convince us 10 year plans are nonsense.  Don’t try to anticipate how a Call from God is going to go.

Again,God Calls
God: “I AM WHO I AM.  Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’  Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

This is a God who is persistent, if nothing else.  In his answer this time we have what should have been the end of all the discussion.  There’s nothing you can add to God’s self-disclosure here.  “I AM WHO I AM is the superlative of superlatives.  You can’t properly talk about God’s love or God’s justice or God’s wisdom because each of those attributes are already wrapped up in his self-existent nature.

Still, the Man has a lot of nerve with his Obstinate Objection
Moses:  “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.’

This is where, if I had been God, I’d have gotten out my fly-swatter.  But instead, God exercises infinite patience and condescension and asks the man a question:
God’s Question
God:  “What is that in your hand?”

Man’s Answer
Moses:  A staff.”

God’s Call
God:  “Throw it on the ground.”

The pace of the drama quickens:

Man’s Fearful Objection
Moses throws it on the ground.  It becomes a serpent.  Moses runs from it.

God’s Call
God:  “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”

Man’s Response (finally, a little faith)
Moses puts out his hand and catches the serpent.  It becomes a stick again.

God’s Silent Call

This is the one that’s the hardest to handle in any argument.   God says nothing, and yet Moses knows what God is trying to say to him.  So what does he do?  He lies.

Man’s Inaccurate Objection
Moses:   “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”

Moses had been a man of considerable influence even before the incident with the burning bush.  He didn’t need anyone to speak for him, and there is no evidence in the Scriptural record that Moses was “slow of speech”.  His ability to verbally spar with God right here is proof enough of that.

Once more God Calls
God:   “Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”

Now all pretense is stripped away.  God has worn Moses down, and his final anguished plea demonstrates he knows he’s finished.

It is a Near Refusal
Moses: “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.”

When I picture this story, I like to think there’s a long pause right about here during which Moses has a few brief moments where he thinks that maybe God will leave him alone.  But that is not to be.

God’s Final Call
God (Angry): “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.”

I want you to see that in all of this Moses’ focus is on himself, not on what God wants to use.  “I’m not important enough.  They won’t listen to me.  They won’t believe I’ve been talking with God.  I’m not eloquent.  I… I… I…” 

In reality, if Moses had taken the time to see what God really wanted to use to call Pharaoh to account for his injustices, to judge Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites, to bring down plagues upon the house of Egypt, to part the Red Sea, to signal triumph in battle, if Moses had taken his eyes off himself and how small HE is, and seen that God wanted to use a common walking stick, nothing more than an old piece of wood that Moses had probably carried with him for years and never paid any attention to; if God can use an old, dried up STICK to display his splendor, his power, and his glory, then there is no question God can use a man to hold the stick.

Dear Friends, take your eyes off yourselves and all of the ways you are not the man or woman to bring about God’s will.  Take your eyes off what a small, aging group you are.  God IS able to use your small church with a small building in a small city in a small state.  And he will use your small choir, your small altar, your small pulpit, your few children, your small amount of human energy, your small budget, your small piece of property, and your small parsonage.  They are all sticks, and all they need is a hand to grasp them and pick them up.

AMEN  
  

No comments: