Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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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.

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Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Essential Question


            So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
            So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
(John 8:21-32 ESV)

The essential question the Jews asked Jesus was, “Who are you?”  This is the question every human being must ask when confronted with Jesus.  It is impossible to see someone do the things Jesus does and not ask that question.  We cannot “demythologize” Jesus, because his works are neither mythic or mystical. 

When John’s disciples came to ask Jesus, “Are you the one, or should we seek another?”  he quotes Isaiah, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22)  If Jesus only did these things somewhere in the history of mythology, we who believe have nothing to hope in.  If the works of Jesus are only upper story stuff to be accepted “spiritually,” then everything we have believed is a lie.

When Jesus prays for his disciples in John 17:17, just before his death and resurrection, he says, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”  Again he says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” 

Where we get fouled up as Christians is when we imagine, as the Pharisees did, that truth is always empirical; that all we need to know about God can be put in a book.  But from the beginning it was not so.  “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”  (Genesis 2:15)  What the man needed to know he needed to experience.  There is no shortcut to the knowledge of God through the knowledge of doctrine any more than there was a shortcut to knowledge through the eating of fruit. 

The gospel is eminently practical and physical.  What did Jesus mean when he said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples?”  To be a disciple you need that unique combination of listening and doing that only comes from going about with the living Logos.  That’s why Luke, who presumably never met Jesus before the resurrection, says, “In the first book… I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.”  (Acts 1:1)  He couldn’t separate the teaching from the doing.

I want to know Jesus today.  So I must go where he goes and apply his Word in my going.  I must go visit the man whose wife is dying of Altzheimer’s Disease even though I don’t really know him and it is inconvenient to my day.  I must do it because Jesus has gone to Concord Hospital.  I must prepare a healthy dinner and bring it to my neighbor who has diabetes because Jesus has gone across the street.  And I must bring the words of Jesus with me when I go or I’m just doing good deeds.  But let’s be clear: I am not going to these places because I don’t want to die in my sin or because I am obeying some law or even because Jesus said it was right to do.  I’m going to these places because that’s where Jesus is, and I love him, and I want so badly to be with him that I will gladly do what’s uncomfortable if it means I get to spend time with him.

Jon

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Glory


Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.
(John 8:12-20 ESV)

Glory is a very important thing to think about.  How often have I focused on the wrong things!  Take this passage, for instance.  When I started reviewing it this morning, the first place I wanted to go was to discuss judgment, because that is the word that comes up most often in the passage.  But while that is true, that isn’t what Jesus wants us to see here.  He actually goes out of his way to say, “I judge no one.” 

I’m sad to say that for most of my ministry I have most certainly drawn people’s focus toward judgment and how to escape judgment rather than toward glory and how to achieve it.  There’s a classic pulpit illustration I used to use that pictures we human beings as a criminals in the dock in a court of law with God on the bench.  Once the judge passes sentence on us, so the illustration goes, he gets up from his bench and lays aside his robe and the bailiff leads him away to be executed.  Viewed from one angle, John 8:12-20 is all judicial language.  Jesus is making a very sound legal argument as to whose testimony can be admitted in a Jewish court.  But if that was what he intended us to walk away with, he would have said, “I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Judge who sent me bears witness about me.”  But that’s not what he says.  

The legalese is all for the benefit of the Pharisees who are questioning him because that’s all they can see.  But for him who has ears to hear and eyes to see, this passage is about the profound love between Father and Son, and the glory – the light, if you will – that is generated by the exchange between them.  Anyone who gets sufficiently close to that light will end up ablaze because of it! 

John, in his First Letter, says, “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the Day of Judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (4:17-18) 

Is there a Day of Judgment?  Yes.  But those who run to Jesus out of fear of punishment will never know the light.  They are merely trying to save their own skin.  And they may as well take shelter in the Law.  It is cleaner and easier to understand.  “Do this and you will live; do this and you will die.”  Love is more complex and harder to grasp.  And if I run to the Light simply because I love the One who has light in himself, I will become enraptured, basking in the glow of the relationship between the Father and the Son. 

What greater motive can there be than to want to see another reach Glory?  I can spend my days trying to keep someone from hell.  I might even do it, and yet leave them living in the twilight of a dim void.  But to offer a person Glory! 

As C.S. Lewis said, "It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor's glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.” (from The Weight of Glory)

Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling.  (1 John 2:10 ESV)  May you be ablaze and be found in Christ today.

Jon

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Laughing with God


If there is a thesis statement embedded in the early chapters of Romans, it is chapter 5, verse 1: “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  And Paul wants to demonstrate to us that this teaching is not something new he is suggesting, but is something as old as God’s dealings with man.  For his example he chooses Abraham, because he is the first Jew.
 
“For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
            That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. “
(Romans 4:13-25 ESV)

There was a large movement in early Christianity that said you had to first keep the Law and then add Jesus to that.  Like modern Christians who make the mistake of interpreting Jesus through Paul, these early believers were interpreting Jesus (and everything else) through Moses.  They had allowed themselves to become Mosaic believers – putting their faith and trust in Moses – rather than Yahwistic believers who put their faith and trust in God. 

Paul himself testifies here that this thinking is in error.  In setting up his case for justification by faith he says, “Look, even Abraham, who was the first to receive circumcision, didn’t trust in his circumcision.  Quite the opposite!  Without getting too graphic, when God told Abraham he was about to have a son, Abraham looked in the mirror at his nearly 100 year old body and laughed.  In particular, if he had ever thought the line of faith was to be transmitted via this circumcision, there was no longer any reason to trust in the abilities of his flesh.  It was way too late for that.  And yet, something inside told this man that God had spoken truly.  Whether the child would come through the normal means of conception or some miraculous way, Abraham couldn’t say.  He just accepted that it would be so, and that gave Abraham an extraordinary peace with God.

Much later (Genesis 22), when God tested Abraham again by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac, that peace held fast and Abraham was able to say to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.”  Abraham had peace with God because he did not trust in how things seemed to be.  He trusted in the Logos – the God who had spoken to him.  God had said Abraham would be father of a multitude and that multitude would come through Isaac.  So even if God chose to kill Isaac on the mountain, Abraham had quiet assurance that both he and Isaac would return alive to the servants.

With one stroke of the pen Paul nullified circumcision as having any value in salvation and testified that the simple obedience of faith is of the greatest value. 

Do you want to experience profound peace with God?  Listen to the words of Jesus and obey his voice today!  The great adventure of faith is that I have the opportunity today to look at situations as they are, realistically determine there is no possibility, given the facts, that I can do what God has told me to, and then to go out and do it!  Faith is looking in the mirror and laughing, not at the impossibility I see before me, but at the very real probability of what God will do today with this wasted body.

Jon

Monday, March 28, 2011

Church Growth Plan


The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Stand in the gate of the LORD's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’
            “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
            “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, declares the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim.
(Jeremiah 7:1-15 ESV)

At the end of the street I live on, right at the corner of US 4 and nearly in the center of Northwood, stands a beautiful white New England church.  The building is a classic of the type.  It was built around 1880 and the sanctuary is on the second floor, with dual staircases ascending from a small entry lobby, behind which is the fellowship hall, a small kitchen, and a couple of classrooms.  I think it seats about 200 people.  On the building, just at the left front corner as you look at it, there is a small bronze plaque you have to actually walk up to in order to read.  It says, “First Baptist Church, Northwood, NH, 1884.”   The building underwent a face-lift last summer, and was completely repainted.  It is really beautiful.  But here’s the problem: There is no First Baptist Church of Northwood, NH.  The building is kept in perpetuity by a committee of three “trustees,” I’m told.  But the church died several years ago.  You can rent the building if you’d like.

This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.

As much as we’ve all heard horrific stories of Church splits, generally that’s not how churches die.  Actually, more churches are begun through a church split than are ended that way.  Generally, when churches die it is due to a lack of interest.   But look at what Jeremiah says.  “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place.”   Can you imagine a church where people were so desperate to be with God that they literally changed how they lived in order to have the high privilege of entry into his Sanctuary?   I can’t.  As long as I’ve been alive churches have struggled to advertise for new members, and today most are in crisis mode simply trying not to hemorrhage any more.  They are more concerned about how many members they have lost this year than about how to come before the Lord.  The ad campaigns continue though…

This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.

The best ad campaign the church could possibly run, the tactic that would produce the most bang for the buck, and would assure that people would be beating down the doors of the church just to find out what we’ve discovered here, is this: to “truly execute justice one with another, not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, [and] not go after other gods to your own harm.”  What if the whole program of a local church was geared around these six priorities:

A.     Executing Justice
B.     Practicing Hospitality with Strangers
C.     Teaching Men to stick with their family obligations
D.    Offering Practical help to Single Mothers
E.     Maintaining Biblical Unity (I will not stab my brother/sister in the back)
F.     Worshipping God single-heartedly

Churches that do these six things always grow.  And they grow exponentially in response to how seriously they take these priorities in order.  Oddly, Jeremiah doesn’t start the list with Worship.  That’s where he ends.  How come?  I think it is because he knows our very human tendency to use worship as an excuse not to enter into servant ministry.   

It is far better for most “small group” ministries to begin with a purpose and plan based on the first four things on the list so they can look outward.  Invariably the result is that the oppressed begin to have an advocate, the hurting have a helper, the stranger finds a home, meals and groceries magically appear on doorsteps, warm socks and sleeping bags end up in the hands of homeless people, AND churches gather in praise and adoration and thanksgiving, privileged to be where God is.

THIS is the temple of the Lord.

Jon





Saturday, March 26, 2011

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
(Romans 3:21-26 ESV)

I can’t think of any statement I ever heard that did more to form my theology than this one from Ray Steadman (1917-1992).  He said, “All good theology begins with God.”  If you will use that statement as your beginning point in interpreting the Word, you’ll be on safe ground every time.  Let’s apply this idea to Romans 3:21-26.

The gospel is about God’s righteousness, not about man’s sin.  If we start with our telescope set on the phrase, “All have sinned and fall short,” we have begun our theological journey by saying, “Man has a problem, and it is up to God to fix it.”  But if we start at the other end, as we saw yesterday, and say, “God is utterly and completely righteous in all his being and all his deeds,” Man’s sin is seen to be what it is, an utterly selfish separation from the very root of our being that came about because in our hearts we want God to serve us, not the other way round.

God is so completely righteous that he “hems me in behind and before” (Psalm 139:5); he pursues me like Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, not in order to demonstrate to me how great a sinner I am.  I already know that.  His purpose is to demonstrate to me how great and faithful a lover HE is. 

But there’s that pesky word “propitiation,” the dictionary definition of which is, “relating to an appeasing or expiating, having placating or expiating force, expiatory; a means of appeasing or expiating.”  That gives us the very aboriginal idea of sacrificing virgins to keep the gods happy.  It gives us very much the picture that we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” to utilize Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon title.

The word “propitiation” is troubling until you do a little research and discover that the only other time it is used in the New Testament is in Hebrews 9:5 where it is translated as “mercy seat,” referring to the covering of the Ark of the Covenant, the place from which God would execute judgment, yes!  But it is called the Mercy Seat because his abiding and overriding desire is always to offer mercy.  As James 2:13 says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” 

God had no problem he was compelled to solve on behalf of Man.  Popular culture understands this better than the church.  In the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz,  this is portrayed as the realization that “home” is always better:

Glinda: You don't need to be helped any longer. You've always had the power to go back to Kansas.

Dorothy:
I have?

Scarecrow:
Then why didn't you tell her before?

Glinda:
Because she wouldn't have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.

Tin Man:
What have you learned, Dorothy?

Dorothy:
Well, I - I think that it - that it wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. And that it's 
that - if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard,
because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with. Is that right?

Glinda:
That's all it is!

Glinda was never nervous about whether Dorothy would figure it out and doesn’t step in until her presence is requested.  I don’t mean to say that sin and redemption are as easy as all that.  Without the specific intervention of the Holy Spirit, none of us would ever want to go home to be with God.   We would never ask for his help.  We would all forever be vagabonds out alone on the road of our own desire.  And isn’t that where Hell begins?

But God did not put Jesus forward to appease the just demand of an Angry God.  God put Jesus forward as a propitiation, as a mercy seat for a world full of wayward Dorothys.   If you’ve been hanging back from giving your life to Christ because you’ve always thought of God as a judge, remember that God is not a human judge and does not judge for the purpose of punishment.  God’s purpose in judgment is mercy and love and grace.   If you hear his voice today, don’t just click your heals together three times.  Run to the mercy seat and discover the God who is there.

Jon

Friday, March 25, 2011

Cutting to the Chase


For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
(Romans 2:25-29 ESV)

Paul has bad news for most in the Evangelical community, for he has written here the proposal that some who are not card-carrying Evangelicals may be with us in heaven. 

Now, hold the tar and feathers, and look at the logical argument he is making.  There is an outward sign that God commanded for every Jewish male, beginning with Abraham (read Genesis 17:1-27 for this). 

What Paul is saying is that the real outward sign of the covenant with God is that you then go on to obey the Law.  The ability to stand before God with rectitude really has nothing to do with that initial identification of circumcision.  Paul argues that if we are going to use the Law as a standard of righteousness, then we have to go way beyond obedience to a single command.  The comparison between circumcision in Israel and baptism in the Christian Era must not be lost here.  How many “Christians” have been baptized and then failed to do anything else?  At the other end of the spectrum, how many in the Christian Age have spent years trying to make sure every member of their church could cross every T and dot every I theologically before they were sure they had got them saved.

So let’s ask the obvious (and often asked) question:  Is it possible for a person grew up as a complete heathen in some unreached aboriginal people group to live their entire life trusting inwardly for salvation through some unknown agent from an unknown fate that no one ever defined for them, to die and find themselves in glory in the eternal presence of God?  If you place an infinite number of monkeys before an infinite number of typewriters, eventually, through sheer coincidence, one of them will write a Shakespeare sonnet.  Sure.  It is possible.  But look at the extreme example you have to give to make it possible!

As it turns out, there is a great deal of danger in reading a single paragraph from a letter and not reading the rest.  The danger is that you can easily misunderstand the intent of the writer.  Paul isn’t trying to set up the imponderable question of whether somewhere out there there’s a Moslem or a Hindu or a Buddhist or a no-faith-at-all who is actually walking around saved.  Two paragraphs further on you discover he isn’t looking to include everyone else, he’s trying to exclude the claim on the part of people born under the Law that they are innately in a better position with God because they went under the knife.  Quite the opposite: the minute you start to hold up a standard of righteous behavior, with yourself as the example, you begin to broadcast to the world that not only are they not saved; someone is a liar and it is either you or God.

            But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
(Romans 2:17-24 ESV)

The whole legal “Jesus came to save you from the charges against you” argument; the classic way Reformation Christians have verbalized the gospel, goes out the window, because the point he is making excludes LAW as the basis for salvation. 

Now we’re able to approach Paul’s punch-line trademark verse and read it for the full salvation it really is offering us.  Romans 3:21-26 isn’t about how you and I have to receive Christ to be saved (though that is true).   But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
(Romans 3:21-26 ESV).

The message of the Gospel isn’t about splitting hairs over who can be saved and who can’t be saved from a righteous judge.  The message is that God is righteous AND it is his joyful gift to offer salvation to anyone who has faith in Jesus, even those who haven’t a clue as to which laws apply and which don’t, even those who can’t verbalize anything more than that they love Jesus.

Jon

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Identity


Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
            Now that day was the Sabbath.
(John 5:2-9 ESV)

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
            Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.
(Romans 1:28-2:2 ESV)

“Do you want to be healed?”  These words are so pregnant with expectation and the man by the pool is so clearly in need of a kind of physician that didn’t exist in the First Century, it is incredible to our Twenty-First Century ears that the man didn’t leap up at the mere sight of Jesus. 

Not that he could have.

He was full of the idea that he was an invalid.  He had “been an invalid for thirty-eight years.”  Given the average life span of the time, this man had done rather well for himself as an invalid.  Somehow he had persisted for thirty-eight years without passing away. 

Our Evangelical Mind has often delivered commentary about whether the man was merely lazy, content with his lot in life.  But our Evangelical Mind never read (or never took to heart) the wonderful juxtaposition of these verses with Romans 2:1.  Let’s have no further talk of why the man was still an invalid after thirty-eight years.  Instead, can we revel in the miracle that, after thirty-eight years the man walked? 

If anything is revealed placing these two passages side-by-side it is that all of us are filled with something.  The man by the pool was full of being an invalid.  That was his reality.   He had most assuredly been in pain from this affliction that whole time.  Paul gives us a list of afflictions that are no less painful to bear:  envier, murderer, striver, deceiver, malefactor. gossip, slanderer, hater of God, insolent, haughty, braggard, inventor of evil, disobedient to parents, fool, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  When one is full of any of these things, one becomes what they are identified with.  Societies that have a caste system are not the only places people cannot escape their identity.

Yesterday I was with a group of pastors, and one of them commented that he had been working with a woman living in real poverty.  She couldn’t afford cable TV or Internet, was unable to really look for a job that would lift her off the welfare roles.  He noted with some discomfort that one of her kids had shown up at church with brand-new $100 athletic shoes.  The pastor told the woman that if she spent what little money she had on things like that she wouldn’t have money for necessities.  Her response was, “I’m poor.  That’s not going to change.  Every once in a while I need to do something nice for my kids.”  

The woman was full of poverty, and had been for many years.   It would take a miracle of Jesus-proportions to “heal” her life.   I am not Jesus, and do not have the power to say “rise, take up your bed and walk.”  But I am the evidence of Jesus in the world and I can rise and walk and offer a bed to someone who has none.  

If Jesus never walks past the squalor of the assembled multitude of beggars by the pool of Bethesda, if he enters the Temple through the main gate and bypasses where the beggars are he can put coins in the alms box, but he will never call a beggar “friend”.   The trick, of course, is that before I will choose to spend time with the beggars, or the envious, the murderers, or all the identifiables on the list, I have to come to the place where the label, or even the need, isn’t the first thing I see.  I have to come to the place where I see Jesus walk up to me and ask, “Do you want to be healed?”

Jon

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Meditation on Psalm 61


Psalm 61 (To the choirmaster; with stringed instruments.  Of David)
1Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; 2from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint.
           
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, 3for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.

4Let me dwell in your tent forever!
                       
Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!
           
5For you, O God, have heard my vows; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.

6Prolong the life of the king; may his years endure to all generations!
           
7May he be enthroned forever before God; appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him!

8So will I ever sing praises to your name, as I perform my vows day after day.

Really soaking in what Psalm 61 is saying isn’t easy.  You sort of have to de-construct the Psalm to discover what David is really after.  Arranging the material on the printed page in sentence form rather than in poetic form is helpful (as above). 

First of all, David is coming before God five different ways.  He is Crying, praying, and calling in verses 1 and 2.  He is making a promise to God in verse 5.  And in verse 8 he is singing to God.   

And what does David want from God?  He needs God to guide him in verse 2b, to hide him in verse 3, to provide for him and to fly for him in verse 4. 

He’s also praying for ever widening circles of influence.  A tent, a shelter, a heritage (inheritances were usually in the form of real estate in those days), a kingdom (and a throne). 

But unlike most people, David has the wisdom to ask God for these things, not to spend them on his own self-aggrandizement or for his own pleasure, he really wants God to be glorified (as in verse 8).  He sees having these things as vehicles to praise him.  It turns out that what he has vowed to God is to fear his name (verse 5).  And he is asking God to give him the equipment to do that beyond the limits of natural life.

I ask a lot from God.  And I know he wants to give me the desires of my heart because he is a loving Father.  He especially loves to give me the desires of my heart when they are also the desires of his heart.  I regret to say that so often the desires of my heart in order that I might spend what he provides on making a name for myself rather than on the glory of his name.   What would it look like if I spent my days walking around in this world simply fulfilling the vows I’ve made to him?

Jon   

Friday, March 18, 2011

Exalting Jesus


            Now a discussion arose between some of John's disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
            He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
(John 3:25-36 ESV)

Without suggesting for a moment there is a hierarchy of material in the Bible, for it is wholly the Word of God, let us suggest that the traditional way of looking at Scripture leaves open the damaging view that all Scripture is doctrinal in nature.   

1.     Old Testament:
a.     History (Genesis to Job)
b.     Poetry (Psalms to Song of Solomon)
c.      Prophecy (Isaiah to Malachi)
2.     New Testament:
a.     History (Matthew to Acts)
b.     Letters (Romans to 3 John)
c.      Prophecy (Revelation)

It is as if the words of Jesus and the things Jesus said and did should have the same weight placed on them as the writings of Daniel or of Paul.  And because Paul is responsible for the largest portion of the New Testament, Evangelical Christians have long abandoned the Old Testament witness and the Gospel witness in favor of what really is a hierarchy of doctrine, built on a series of proof-texts, largely from the writings of Paul.  It is not a stretch to say Evangelicals have tended to be Paulists more than Christians. 

Paul himself warns against this in 1 Corinthians.  “What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12-13 ESV)  Is it a sensible place to start a theology of doctrine with, for instance, verse from 2 Timothy?  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV).   While this is true, it is not the place we ought to begin building our doctrine.  All Scripture is not doctrine, just as not all squares are rectangles.  We must say, however, that all doctrine comes from Scripture, or we will be on very shaky ground, indeed. 

But what if we look at Scriptures the way a disciple of the First Century might have.  The teaching they received worked more like this:

1.     Old Testament
a.     Primary Source Material (The Core Law)
b.     Secondary Source Material (Specific Laws built around the Core Law)
c.      Tertiary Source Material (History, Prophecy, and Poetry – how the Law impacted real life situations)

And so their view of the burgeoning New Testament material might have been similar:

2.     New Testament
a.     Primary Source Material (Jesus)
b.     Secondary Source Material (Commentary on what Jesus did and said)
c.      Tertiary Source Material (History, Prophecy, and Poetry – how Jesus impacted real life situations)

Now we can ask the question of what John is actually getting at in John 3.   Here, perhaps, is the Primary Source Material:

Question: “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan (Jesus), to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”  

Answer: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’

The Secondary Source Material in John is really interesting.  I wonder if John the Baptist really said the next sentence or if this is John the Apostle commenting.  Given the reference to the bride (the church), this is certainly written from the view of a few years’ distance:  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.

The voice changes back to John the Baptist:  He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Why does any of this matter?  I think, because it has the effect of exalting Christ to the highest place at all times in our reading of Scripture.   The key to this passage from John 3 turns out to be, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him,” and “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
May Jesus be exalted to the highest place in your life today.

Jon

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pointing to the Father


The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
(John 2:18-22 ESV)

There is something we need to get right from the start as we look at this passage.  The “cleansing of the Temple” is reported in all four Gospels.  In the other three, the so-called Synoptic Gospels, the incident happens at the beginning of Holy Week, probably on Monday, if we accept Jesus Triumphal Entry happened on a Sunday. 

W. Hall Harris, in his commentary on John’s Gospel on the website Bible.org is commenting on the differences between John’s account of the Cleansing of the Temple and the ones in the Synoptics.  He says, “The most important difference is one of time: In John the cleansing appears as the first great public act of Jesus’ ministry, while in the synoptics it is virtually the last.”

Even if John’s Gospel is not in chronological order, wouldn’t it be strange to lift an event out of Holy Week and place it, out of context, prior to any of the teaching Jesus did that raised the ire of the Temple leaders and public officials?  Hall’s solution to the problem is to suggest that Jesus probably did this symbolic act on two separate occasions.

Hall’s suggestion seems likely.  Look at what people did or said immediately after Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables.

In Matthew, the Chief Priests are angered, and act like children themselves: And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

            “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”

            And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.
(Matthew 21:14-17 ESV)

Mark is a little more blunt.  He simply says, “The chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.
(Mark 11:18-19 ESV)

And Luke joins Mark in his brevity and adds the conclusion that the crowds were devoted to him.  “And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.”
(Luke 19:47-48 ESV)

I think the key to whether this is one or two events is really in the response.  And the response of the Jewish leaders that appears in John’s Gospel is so different that it leaves me with the conclusion that Jesus may have been using this symbolic “cleansing” to signal the beginning and the end of his public ministry.  I think he’s also pointing us to the Temple.  He wants us to know that the whole thing – all his miracles, all his teaching, all of his healings – everything, was about worshiping and loving his Father.  In a very tangible way Jesus is saying to the world, “Look!  It is here.  This is not even about me (the earthly Jesus).  This is about God the Father.  And I want to testify to him.”

Even Jesus, who certainly allowed people to fall at his feet in worship and adoration, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”  HE always pointed to the Father.  And he calls us to as well.

Jon

Monday, March 14, 2011

Water and Blood


On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
            Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
            After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.
(John 2:1-12 ESV)

The first miracle of Jesus, like all his miracles, is sometimes pointed to by those who are looking for signs of his divinity.  But the miracles of Jesus don’t prove that he was God – even his grandest miracles.  Peter and Paul both raised the dead.  Peter, Paul, and John all restored the sick.  The disciples (probably not just the twelve either) reported after going on mission that the demons were subject to them in Jesus’ name. 

Nor are miracles like this restricted to New Testament times.  The changing of water into wine is unique in only one respect: the medium the water is changed into.  In Exodus 4 we have the first miracle ever reported as performed by a man.  Notably, it involves water.  As God finishes giving Moses his commission for ministry, he gives him three signs to perform in the event the people of Israel and/or the Egyptians don’t believe he’s really on the level.  First his walking stick becomes a snake.  Next, he puts his hand in his cloak and it becomes leprous.  Finally, he takes a bit of water from the Nile River, pours it on the ground and strikes it with his stick.  It immediately becomes blood.   When Pharaoh refuses to let Israel go, the first miracle (called a plague in context) is turning water into blood.

Water turns to blood.    

At a later date, after Israel crossed the Red Sea on dry land (another pretty cool manipulation of water, by the way), the only source of water to be found is “brackish.”  Here was the whole nation in a pretty parched situation.  As the old maxim goes, “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”  God tells Moses to take one of the trees nearby the spring (called the spring at Marah, meaning bitterness) and throw it into the water.  It instantly turns the water sweet and clear.   Not quite wine, but a significant and needed change nonetheless.

Jesus turning the water into wine is not the final miracle to do with water.  Just as Moses was instructed to stike the water with his staff and it turned the whole Nile to blood, so a centurion took a spear as Jesus hung on the cross and pierced his side.  Now the two media are co-mingled, as water and blood flowed out.   Long ago I heard a well-meaning pastor explain the medical significance of water and blood at the crucifixion.  He said this was a sure sign that Jesus was dead already. 

Perhaps.  But what if there’s something more God is trying to tell us? 

Water turned to blood.  Dirty water made clean.  Water turned to wine.  Blood mixed with water.  As John says, “This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.”
(1 John 5:6-10a ESV)

The water is a witness that this one or that one has been with God.  That’s why we baptize those who profess faith in Christ.  They have believed the testimony that God has borne about his Son.  Moses believed God and changed water into blood.  He continued to believe God so that water was no obstacle to him.  He walked believing God in such a way that the most brackish water could become sweet sustenance to Israel.  Water was the medium by which Jesus is first publicly identified by God (“this is my Son, listen to him”), and by which Jesus foreshadowed his own crucifixion and the coming consummation of the Church with her bridegroom by changing water into wine.  And the water and the blood are a final witness, present at his death.

Yes, Jesus was the Son of God.  But the water is not a proof of his divinity.  It is a witness to his divinity.  Oh!  To live to see the water change to wine once more as Christ pours it out for the church at that great supper the day after the Last Day.

Jon

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