Years ago, when our kids were younger, I spent entirely too many hours one evening putting together a basketball goal in our garage. The reason this hour max project took so many additional hours was a small round metal object included in the assembly kit. At first, and even second glance, this, maybe 2 inch, piece seemed totally superfluous. So, I did what you do when you don’t know what to do with an unneeded piece, I quickly found a place where the object almost fit and crammed it in until it didn’t fall out. I gave little consideration that it might be of importance – I soon, however, discovered that it was of great importance. As I finished the project I found it would not stand alone. I was pretty sure that this was not right – I had seen enough inspirational basketball movies to know that something was wrong. As I analyzed this conundrum I recognized the problem. It needed of a small, 2 inch round metal piece at the base of the post. Embarrassingly, it took me a few moments before I remembered that I actually already had small round piece of metal that was crammed into another slot. I disassembled the entire project and reassembled it with every piece, including the small round metal piece in its appropriate spot, the goal stood tall, just like in Space Jam.
Sometimes we are not as smart as we think we are, sometimes we are not as wise as we want to be, sometimes we are not as discerning as we need to be, sometimes we are not as confident as we could be, sometimes we are not as patient about seeking answers as we are called to be. Sometimes we disregard a useless piece that is actually critical to our mission.
Our gospel passage this week is a difficult read. It is especially troublesome when we consider the fact that this was the last official teaching moment that Jesus spent just with his followers. It was of urgent importance.
In 1517, an obscure German monk named Martin Luther challenged 95 theology points that made up the prominent Christian thought. The one we are most aware of is his insistence that our salvation comes through faith, not faith in our works but faith in the works of Jesus Christ. His premise was based on the Apotle Paul’s writing to the Ephesians
‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.’
We owe Martin Luther and his brave contemporaries for taking the risky stand and insisting the religious institution recognize this. However, we must also realize that Luther had a small round piece of metal he did not know what to do with still laying on the floor of his study. The next verse is a light from the window reflecting on the metal piece, constantly blinding Luther as he continued to work.
‘For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’
Martin Luther was convinced that any teachings, especially the book of James and its emphasis on doing good, that did not blatantly proclaim salvation by grace did not belong anywhere near the ‘gospel’ writings of the apostle Paul that he said…
‘St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.’
― Martin Luther
Luther erred in that he felt that the ‘gospel’ is just about eternal salvation. However, the true gospel is is found in everything about Jesus, for that matter, everything about God – it is all essential to understanding the gospel, the good news. This truth is the missing piece that keeps us standing upright, it turns us away from a totally selfish Christianity that leads our focus to self and our own agendas.
Later, another German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke to the small round piece of metal on Martin Luther’s floor, saying.
‘Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.’
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letting me start with the basic premise of this message, let’s take a moment to begin to grasp the basic point of what I am going to be saying this morning.
Our deliverance from a hopeless filled void of eternity is in the person and work of Jesus Christ, we have nothing to do with it except that we recognize truth and embrace it with our whole being. Being a good person does not give us an out on eternal hopelessness because we are unable to be that good, only Jesus could.
However, the gospel is not just a truth about us, it is not just about the exit door from eternal hopelessness and despair. The gospel truth is about being in a place of eternal hope and what that creates in our very existence here and for eternity.
We were created, not just to find the escape, but to mercifully bind up the wounds, to compassionately address the needs, to show the way through our words, our actions, our very being. It is about doing good, the same good we hope others will do for us. This aspect of the gospel call is not for eternity, it is for now, it is what happens when we have the greatest investment possibly, this life of the Son of God, invested totally in each of us.
Mother Theresa said it succinctly and correctly, ‘The best gift we have been given is to feel alive while we are alive.
This week, as I struggled with our gospel passage God brought me back to Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus. The believers in the city of Ephesus had a small round metal piece problem. In Ephesians chapter 1, Paul says:
‘I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the boundless greatness of His power toward us who believe.’ (NASB)
Now, how could they, how can we, not love a passage like this? Inheritance, boundless greatness, riches, power…those are promises that can grow a church!
But, now look at this passage from another, just as legitimate perspective:
‘I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can see something of the future God has called you to share. I want you to realize that God has been made rich because we who belong to Christ have been given to God! I pray that you will begin to understand how incredibly great God’s power is to help those who believe him.’ (TLB)
Did you hear that, ‘Godhas been made rich,not us but God, because we who belong to Christ have been given to him’? Let’s look back at the first translation,, a translation that is probably similar to your own Bibles – Look, there, on the floor, is our important piece, there it is in the first translation, it is saying the same thing as the second translation – ‘the riches of the glory of His inheritance IN the saints’
There it is – the word IN. It is lying there on the floor, completely dismissed, easy to step on it, its presence neven recognized. In this two letters, this small word, we can understand what has confused the church for centuries. These two letters ‘I’ and ’N’, this one word, ‘IN.’
I know a man spends a majority of his time watching the stock market on the computer screen, the television screen, in newspapers, and anywhere else he can find out the latest market news. He does this because he is invested in the market and has, in fact, placed all all of his funds in one stock. Everyday he continually looks at what he has invested his valuable resources ‘IN’. When that stock takes a nose dive, when that business experiences a financial disaster, he never considers trading that stock for another – He is invested ‘IN’ that stock, he believes in the work of that company, his hope is in that field, he has calculated that his most valuable resources are best placed with this institution. He has decided that his greatest assets will be most powerful when invested IN this stock.
So we see Jesus, speaking to his followers for the last teaching moment before his arrest. This is not one of his large hungry crowds that we saw earlier in his ministry, teaching a group of nonbelievers….this is a moment with this crowd of probably around 120 people, mostly those who would also be with Jesus after the resurrection. It is here, with this group of those who are already followers of Jesus, that he is explaining God’s entire investment strategy. Jesus is sharing that God has invested his all, his most valued asset, in them, in us. There is not plan B, this is where he has placed everything of true worth. This is to who he gave creation and this is who he gave Jesus.
Jesus message about sheep is not about salvation it is about life here on earth, it is about the abundance Christ desires that we live in. It is about lives that reflect God’s investment, it is about us recognizing that our relationship with God is not one sided, it is not just us escaping eternal hopelessness – No, it is about our participation and work to multiply God’s resource by us meeting our suffering world and seeking to do what Jesus did, striving to meet the needs with compassion and mercy, attempting to make our lives worthy of the most valuable investment that has been made in us. It is about how we interact, it is about how we treat others, it is about how we choose to love all, it is about how we vote, it is about how we spend, it is about how we walk with others, it is about our burdens in the face of injustice and oppression, it is about treating all people as the beloved created by God the creator.
God’s investment is Jesus, and his stock is you and me.
God is watching how his investment feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, inviting the stranger in, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner. He is seeing how our very presence is a proclamation of the God who has invested his all in us. He is seeing how these followers do not even realize that they are doing it, how they love without his push or prompting, how they care and show mercy without God saying screaming threats.
We are God’s INvestment plan. A plan that takes those who have INvested everthing they have, Invested everything that they are in God. A plan that leads him to pour all of his worth into these Invested individuals, into us, who have placed their hope, our hope, their eternity and our eternity, and their now and our now, in the same INvestment the God has chosen. A plan to see ‘his will be done on earth as it already is in Heaven.’
A plan to do, a plan to be, even when we do not realize that we are doing and being. A plan that will leave us asking, ‘WHEN DID I DO THAT?’ A plan that send us out to be his hands, his feet.
So, what does this mean in practical terms. As Paul closed out his first letter to the believers in Thessalonica he said, “I really do not need to tell you what to do, you already know that.’ And they did, and we do. It is the same thing that we have been told since the beginning. The prophet Micah was on the same path as the apostle Paul when he said to the wayward and struggling believers,
‘God has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, to all people, be compassionate and loyal in your love…oh, and don’t be arrogant, don’t take yourself too seriously— instead take God seriously.’
What do we do with this, how can we be the highest preforming investment in God’s singular portfolio?
First we seek to know God, not our self centered view of God, but God. A type of understating that trumps all other views. A recognition that is allowed to change everything in our life, our agendas, our judgement, our doubts, our fears, our faith, our relationship with God. A transformed mindset that is permitted to alter us to the very core.
Second, look at life and evaluate all your values, your views, you judgements, your condemnation, your religious practices, your stances, your everything and ask yourself, ‘Is this increasing the value of God’s investment in me?’
Third, give the Holy Spirit free reign in your life. Hold nothing back, let the Spirit clean out you closets and every corner of your life. Let the Spirit sweep out hatred, and anything that you have forgotten is there, everything that is devaluing God’s investment in you.
Fourth, Know God, Follow God, Know God More, Follow God More – in the life where God has placed you, be His investment in you, to the point that you will ask, ‘When Did I Do That?’
5. Important Note: All four of these points are dependent on each other. We cannot do any of these without the willingness and opening of our humanity and, at the same time we cannot do any of these apart from the freedom of the Holy Spirit to work in our life. We are not puppets and the Holy Spirit is not a magician changing us apart from our work or willingness. Christ identified the Holy Spirit as being a helper, a helper can only help when we are willing to be helped and are willing to be the active participant in this help. This word helper, also found in Genesis 2 when God says that he is going to create a ‘suitable helpter’ for Adam – a helper comes along side, a helper prompts and sometimes pushes but nothing is possible if we are not open and willing – willing to do the difficult word and make the necessary sacrifices.
So, we close with this question: What are the current returns on God’s INvestment in you?
Audrey Hepburn note to composer Henry Mancini, 1961
I have just seen our picture – BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S – this time with your score. A movie without music is a little bit like an aeroplane without fuel. However beautifully the job is done, we are still on the ground and in a world of reality. Your music has lifted us all up and sent us soaring. Everything we cannot say with words or show with action you have expressed for us. You have done this with so much imagination, fun and beauty. You are the hippest of cats – and the most sensitive of composers!
Thank you, dear Hank. Lots of love, Audrey
We seldom forget the impact of a well said word of encouragement, a well written note of affirmation, or even the simplest nod of approval – such moments can lift us up, they can carry us through, they spur us on – they lift our spirits and send us sailing through the good times and the horrible times, in our times of doubt and in our times of greatest confidence.
I frequently think of the apostle Paul’s opening words to the church at Philippi – ‘Every time I think of you I am filled with Joy!’ I cannot imagine the thoughts that must have gone through the minds of those who heard these words.
Or, in Paul’s opening affirmation to the church at Thessalonica as he wrote, ‘We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering your faith, labor of love, and steadfastness hope. We know that God has chosen you. You received God’s truth with joy in the midst of persecution and bad times, and you became an example to all the believers in your community and beyond. God’s truth has been seen and heard in every place your faith has become known – I have people telling me they already know what I have to say because they have heard it from you, and even more, they have seen it in your life – I am so inspired by you!’
Even more encouraging is Paul’s final words to the Thessalonianhs, ‘We don’t really need to write anything else to you, you know what I will say – the day of the Lord will arrive without warning and you need to always be ready. So, we leave you with this (again you already know this) – encourage and build up each other, – which you are already doing. Respect and esteem the attitude, spirit, and work of those who are working hard. Be at peace among yourselves. Guide the lazy, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil, but always do good to one another and, for that matter, to everyone. Rejoice always, pray constantly, and, now in your situation I know this is tough, always give thanks in whatever is happening. Don’t ignore or dismiss what the Spirit is doing. Remember truth and test everything to make sure it is not lies or darkness; hang on to what is good and turn away from what is evil.’
To encourage and build each other up is a necessity, not just in our faith, but in life. We need each other, in bad but also in the good times. It is in its absence that the sufferings of Jesus on the cross were so abominable – He was all alone, going through the most horrific moment that has ever been experienced by any human, the physical pain, the emotional humiliation of the false accusations that put him there, the spiritual unbearable weight of the sins of all mankind, and the loneliness, separation, and isolation in that moment.
That is why it had to be God’s son on the cross, not just because he was the only pure and spotless one, nor was it just because he alone was righteous and holy, it was because only he could take our journey of separation and isolation, our journey that could only be done alone.
There were only 2 times when our earthly human element of time impacted our timeless God, the first was the creation and the second was giving Jesus from his birth to the empty grave. An agonizing wait and an unimaginably sacrificial act. For Jesus was a part of a community, a community that built him up, encouraged him through, and loved him fully – this community was first the Godhead and then an earthly community, an extended family, of humans. He too, in the same way as us, suffered greatly without the encouragement of those communities.
Today, we look at an example of this encouragement and building up each other spoken of by Paul to the church at Thessalonica. It is not an example from Jesus words to his followers or his moments with those closest to him, nor is it from the apostles letters and travels to lift up the believers. Instead, it comes from the book of Judges and ultimately culminates with a hammer, a tent peg, and a woman willing to do what needed to be done in order to build up those who were in the greatest need of encouragement, deliverance, and hope.
It is the story of two exceptionally strong women, who, in today’s vernacular would probably be referred to as beasts – not because of their appearance or presentation. Beast, because in a society that dismissed women, these women did all that needed to be done, in faith and action to listen and act on the words from God, to encourage and build up a leader to go to battle against an oppressive and warring neighbor, with a people against their fiercest enemy.
It is also a tale of a man who was not afraid to depend on his community to build him up and encourage him along in the times when he knew he could not succeed without his community.
Let’s begin with a little context, after the death of Joshua who lead the Israelites into the promised land, the leadership fell to individuals called Judges who would literally the judge of disputes among the people and they would lead the people when leadership was needed. The first three judges reigned for approximately 138 combined years after the death of Joshua – Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar, all were men. By the time the fourth judge was in the position of authority, a woman named Deborah, the Israelites had turned from God who was in the process of correcting them through the brutal oppression and attacks from Canaan King Jabin and his sadistic military leader Sisera.
Then, the moment God was waiting for, it is the moment that God still waits for, the moment when we, as humans, realize that our hope and deliverance is not in our selves, it is not in our rulers, it is not in our institutions, it is not in our power, it is in God – it is in God alone. It was at that moment, as it is always in that moment, God set into motion the plan that was already in place – God heard and God acted.
God began with Deborah, the prophetess and judge. The wife of a man whose surname was Lappidoth; a name that meant lightning and a torch. Not only was Deborah’s surname defining her as power and light, she was also a faithful follower of God, a woman whose confidence was in God, a human who was chosen to speak for God, a beloved who was willing to be used by God.
‘Speak this to the leader Barak’, God instructs Deborah.
So, Deborah does as Deborah always does, she obeys God and speaks to Barak. ‘God, the God of Israel, commands you: Go to Mount Tabor and prepare for battle. Gather ten thousand fighters. I’ll take care of getting Sisera the commander of Jabin’s army, to the Kishon River with all his chariots and troops. I WILL make sure you win the battle.’
Barak said to Deborah, ‘If you go with me, I’ll go. But if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
Deborah said, ‘Of course I’ll go with you. But you need to know now that there’ll be no glory, nor public acclaim for you. Instead, God will use a woman to take get rid of the commander Sisera.”
Sometimes we can see more in what is not said than in what is actually said.
I have never heard this passage preached, and quite honestly I have never preached this passage without labeling Barak as a coward. Usually, our own biases, insecurities, and prejudices keep us from seeing truth that is right in front of us. Most of the time we let our own closed minds keep us from opening up amazing gems that are right in front of our nose. Instead of this story depicting a slam on gender, it is not really a story of gender at all, nor is it really about the manly action of going to war. It is in fact a story of the need of all of us to be ready to permit someone else to be the light that God leads us with, a directional sign that leads us to the path and keeps us on course.
This is a story of encouragement and building another up, it is an unique visual of what it looks like to be the encourager and the builder, however, it also reveals the need to permit God to strengthen us through all that he sends our direction.
When Paul spoke to the church at Thesslonica, to the Hebrews, and at Corinth, he applauded them for the fact that they been ‘imitators of Paul and his companions’, he encouraged the Hebrews to ‘imitate those who were following Jesus.’ He was not telling them to follow humans instead of Jesus, but, he was pointing them to those who could build them up and encourage them to actually follow Christ. It was and is a first step of many steps for a believer.
When John the Baptizer pointed to Jesus and told his disciples ‘that is who I have been telling you about, that is the one I have been building you up to follow, that is the one I am encouraging you to trust.’ Then, as the John’s disciples left to follow Jesus, John was not offended, he may have been lonely but he knew this was the whole reason they had been ‘imitating’ him, so that they could then imitate and follow Jesus.
Barak was not a coward, he was a man who knew his limitations, his weakness, in light of what he saw in Deborah. He saw her presence before God, her ability to listen and hear God – he knew that for Deborah, God was truly God. This was new to him as his generation had turned their backs on God.
As I said, it is often what we do not see, what he do not hear in scripture that teaches us the most. We do not see any further doubt or hesitancy, Barak obeyed, he just needed to be built up, he knew he was going to need the encouragement in the dark times to come. To Barak it was not about himself, it was not about acclaim, fame, or position. It was about God’s plan in response to the cries from the people, the people that included Barak.
While our own biases interpret Deborah’s words as a belittling of Barak because of a negative mindset towards her own gender, we, through our filters, read it as a challenge to his manhood. However, we do not see this in his reaction, it is just information regarding the plan, information that will guide him in trusting Jael as she tells him to come into her house to see what she has accomplished.
Barak needed the same thing that Paul told the Thessalonians they needed – building up and encouragement. They were to be that and to accept that.
Even if it was from those culturally considered to be ‘less than’ himself.
So, it was a woman named Jael, a woman that we only know as a ‘wife’, a woman who was considered an ally of Sisera, a woman who was not part of the oppressed people, a woman who was not even an Isrealites nor a Jew. A woman who did what had to be done, a woman who, somehow, knew what God was calling her to do. A woman who knew how to swing a hammer, a talent that sustained her at the right time and in the right place.
So, as we close, we return to the apostle Paul’s words to the believers at Thessalonica, we return to the words of Paul to us.
‘I don’t really need to write anything else to you, you know what I will say – the day of the Lord will arrive without warning and you need to always be ready. So, we leave you with this (again you already know this) – encourage and build up each other, – which you are already doing. Respect and esteem the attitude, spirit, and work of those who are working hard. Be at peace among yourselves. Guide the lazy, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil, but always do good to one another and, for that matter, to everyone. Rejoice always, pray constantly, and, now in your situation I know this is tough, always give thanks in whatever is happening. Don’t ignore or dismiss what the Spirit is doing. Remember truth and test everything to make sure it is not lies or darkness; hang on to what is good and turn away from what is evil.’
God, may your people listen to your teaching; may we incline our ears to the words of your mouth.
May we deeply consider your truth as you open your mouth in a parable, as you utter insightful sayings of old – saying we have heard and known, sayings our forefathers have told us.
Lord, we will not hide these truths but will tell the coming generation of our praises of you Lord, and of your strength, and the wonderful works that you have done.
For you, father, established a rule in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which you commanded to be known and made known to the children, that the generation to come might know them, even those not yet born, may they, then, arise and declare them to their children:
God, we pray that they will set their hope in you God and not forget you works, and will keep your truth not repeating our mistakes. For we are a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation that has not always set our heart steadfast, and a generation that is not always faithful to you, O God.
God, may we choose you. May we put away our false gods, and worship only you, may our celebrations and practices be sincere and acceptable to you. God, may our faith be genuine and true.
I stood with a older gentleman in a large open room as he pointed out a table in the middle of the room. He was in the middle of describing to me what it is like to have your brain gradually shut down and the ability to make even the most simple decisions begin to dissipate. He pointed to the table a distance away and said, “I can walk over to that table and when I get there my brain often fails to tell me what to do. I am often unable to remember how to get around the table.” This man had been an engineer and then a philosophy professor, it wasn’t not surprising to have him explain his experience of his journey in such basic details in such an objective manner.
It is estimated that humans make, on average, 35,000 decisions a day, if we break that number down removing, seven hours out of the day for sleep, that calculates to be around 2,000 decisions processed and made by the human brain every hour. Researchers estimate that of that 35,000, around 230 of those choices are just about food – I think I may be above average on that one. That is a huge number, on average your brain, 35,000 times every day, process what you will eat, or not eat, or quit eating, how you will navigate walking from point A to point B, how you will respond to people and then, how you will relate, to those people, how you will do your work, your play, your life, how you will love, how you will hate, how you will live.
Joshua, the leader of the Israelites into the promised land, watched as God led his people into and through the promise land. He had watched as God led them to victories against the people of the land, he had also seen that God had corrected them through defeat, he had witnessed God’s settling of the people into this new land, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, a promise of a people and a land. Joshua had also watched as the Israelites came to the precipice of civil war only to step back and make the choice to turn back to God. He had seen a lot, he had made a lot of choices, I would imagine that on some weeks he had made his weekly allotment of decisions on day one.
In Joshua, chapter 23, we see Joshua, a long time after the people had gone to their respective lands and settled in, ‘after God had given the people rest from all their surrounding enemies, and when Joshua was a venerable old man, Joshua called all Israel together—elders, chiefs, judges, and officers and spoke to them:
“I’m an old man. I’ve lived a long time. You have seen everything that God has done to these nations because of you. He did it because he’s God, your God. He fought for you. Now stay alert. Now, stay strong and steady. Obediently do everything written in the Law—don’t miss a detail. Don’t get mixed up with the nations that are still around. Don’t so much as speak the names of their gods or swear by them. And by all means don’t worship or pray to them. Hold tight to God, your God, just as you’ve done up to now. Now, vigilantly guard your souls: Love God, your God. Because if you wander off and start taking up with these remaining nations still among you (intermarry or have other dealings with them), know for certain that God, your God, will not get rid of these nations for you. They’ll be nothing but trouble to you until you’re the ones who will be driven out of this good land that God, your God, has given you. As you can see, I’m about to go the way we all end up going. Know this with all your heart, with everything in you, that not one detail has failed of all the good things God, your God, promised you. It has all happened. Nothing’s left undone.”
Joshua was nearing the end to his journey, his brain, filled with the wisdom that had come from seeking and searching, from differentiating darkness from light, truth from lies, how to walk around a table, was shutting down. It was time to get the people, who, as promised, were now A people, to get them ready to continue their journeys. There was an urgency in his voice in his cracking voice, a signal that his words were intentional, his message was vital.
Then, in chapter 24, we see Joshua’s final address to the people. He began his speech not with a shining version of their past and their ancestors, he did not make Abraham a super hero, or their journey a simple one. He began with their beginning, the starting point for them as a people which began with a young man named Abram who was part of a family who worshipped false gods, carried the idols of those gods, and even propagated their false faith to others through the making of idols. This flawed and imperfect man, Abraham, a false god worshipper and an idol carrier, was their ancestral patriarch and his wife, Sarai was their ancestral matriarch. It was Abraham, to whom God gave the promise, a promise that had then carried this people through an impossible and brutal journey that had ended here, at the promise, a journey which was successful only because of all the works that the Lord God, the one true God, had done before their eyes.
Then Joshua’s speech went in a very uncomfortable direction, “Get rid of the false gods of your ancestors past in Egypt, the false gods you have adopted from the peoples who inhabited this land before us, get rid of these false gods that distract you from me, the Lord, Your God. And, if you cannot make that decision, if you are unwilling to make that choice, it is time to make A choice! If not the true God, our God, then worship these other gods, but, now, make a choice!”
The people were horrified, they became defensive, they were offended, they were wounded by Joshua’s suggestion that they worshipped any other gods. “We already have made the choice to follow only the Lord God,” they cried out.
Then they are devastated when Joshua replied, “It is impossible for you to worship only the Lord our God. It is impossible to worship the true God and your false gods. It cannot be done. And, I must remind you that God is a Holy God, God is a Jealous God. God will not put up with your unfaithfulness, God will not tolerate your foolishness or your sinfulness, your worship of other gods, God will come down hard on you, you will suffer as you live separated from God.
Again, the people protested Joshua’s accusations and the insinuations of their disloyalty. Again, they swore they had already made the decision, the choice, to worship only the Lord their God.
And then Joshua, in blunt terms, ‘shut them up.’ In today’s time his reply to the people may have been “God has seen your twitter feed, God has taken notice of your likes and shares on Facebook, even worse, God has seen inside your home, inside your heart, God knows what is hidden under your sleeping mats and in the corners of your tents. If you are to truly worship the Lord your God, you must first turn away from your false god, you have to get rid of the idols you hold onto in the secret places where you think God cannot see. It is impossible to say your are making a choice for God when you are, instead, also worshipping the false gods you have not made the choice to let go of.”
The stunned and shocked, now humbled, people stood silent for a moment, the gravity of this revelation that their secrets were not secrets to God had shook them to the core. The choice to follow God had taken on a new gravity, a new level of commitment, it was full surrender, it was letting go of all the other things that they had trusted in along the journey. It was a huge decision. Finally, in mass, they timidly answered, “We will worship the Lord our God. What God says, we’ll do.”
It was their choice, a choice with no secrets, a choice with a lot of risks, it was a choice to let go of the things they had held onto out of comfort and fear, it was a choice that was going to limit their other choices, it was a decision that would remove the options of many other choices. It was final, and, final can be scary.
35,000 times a day we make decisions, we make choices, and this one decision, the decision to follow only God, becomes the guiding light to most all of those decisions. So, how does this work?
Let go back to what we saw last week as we looked at God’s call for us to be a people who look for light in the midst of darkness, a people who seek to differentiate between truth and lies in the midst of all our life journey.
“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”
We Saw Four Questions to Ask Ourself in Our Search for Light and Truth, our journey seeking wisdom to make the best of our 35,000 choices.
Is it in harmony with God’s baseline to Love God and Love Others? Or, does it conflict with that baseline? Does it lead me to ‘Love my Neighbor” does it lead me to “Love all my neighbors?’
Does it hold back the darkness, or does it seem to have dark shadows itself” Sen.
Is it consistent with God’s word? – Is it consistent with the life lived by Jesus?
Will it lead me to have attitudes and actions that will guide me to a life that positively impacts others?
It is the light, it is the truth, that guides us to the wisdom necessary to make right choices. It is that wisdom that gives us the recognition of a choice beyond our raw human instincts, impulses, and self oriented agendas. The choice is ours.
So, what does that look like. God does not gives us a manual with cross references that lead us to the exact choices we make in every situation and in every environment. Instead God gives us truth, God shines light that leads us to wisdom. God brings our search to the elements considered as we seek to make the most of our 35,000 choices.
The prophet Amos, a harsh orator who had a brutal confrontational style, told the people, much like Joshua had said before him, “God has seen your heart, God knows you insincerity and your dishonesty, God is disgusted by your selfish worship and self centered sacrifices, God is calling you to make right choices, God is calling you to put him at the center of your 35,000 choices!” Then, he left it with the people to seek and search what those choice would and should be. Amos gave the people one parameter, “Instead of your noisy songs of insincere worship, instead of your melodious harps, instead of your meaningless religious celebrations and assemblies, instead of your empty sacrifices, instead – “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Amos points out the goal line, a visual description of what he wants to see when he looks at the twitter feed of their heart, he says “I want to see a mighty flood of justice—a torrent of doing good.” Amos does not say the how of this goal, he does not give them the play by play, he leaves it to them to seek and search for the avenue. Just as he leaves the playbook to us, to search and seek truth and light, to grab hold of wisdom and let that lead us to the manner in which we will get down the field.
What does that mean? Justice and Righteousness? That is our journey.
One more thing, we have the what and we even have the how, we also have the when. As Jesus was just a few short days from his arrest and crucifixion, he began to speak with an urgency to his followers. Once again, he used a parable, a parable that would have made a bit more sense to his listeners than to us today.
Jesus used their customs in regard to a wedding. See, their tradition was that as the bride and groom become engaged, they would sign a legal document of their promise of forever to each other, and then, they would separate for a year as the bridegroom would go to prepare their home. When the bridegroom’s father said that it was time for his son to go and get his bride, he would go. During this time, the bridesmaid would be waiting, watching, and also preparing, in order to be ready for the day her groom would come for her. His parable detailed how a groom, who actually had ten bridesmaids waiting for him (another element of this parable that is strange to us). Five of those bridesmaids were fully ready for the bridegoom but five were not. Only the wise and ready brides went with the bridegroom when he arrived, the foolish and unprepared were not able to enter into the home with the bridegroom.
Jesus message is to us, make our choice now, do not wait. Our readiness is seen in our 35,000 choices each day, it is in the how we live now that enables us to be ready for Jesus when he returns. Making the choice now prepares us for Jesus tomorrow.
Eleanor Roosevelt said,
‘I am who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.’
‘Make your choice today, who are you going to serve, so you will be ready to follow and obey tomorrow.’
We are in scary and bizarre times. We are now approaching eight full months since we went entirely online for our Sunday worship. At that time I am sure most of thought that we would be back together by summer, we are way beyond summer. We had a surge in Covid cases then a decrease now we are hitting record numbers again and predictions of a surge of infections that we cannot fathom. We have seen racial unrest and a major ‘Love your neighbor’ reckoning that should have been dealt with, by the church, decades, if not centuries, ago. We have craziness in our politics and now an election just two days away that has many feeling anxious and afraid. We have seen domestic terrorist groups come out of the woodwork, unapologetic white supremacy no longer hiding behind masks and hoods, and people of color continue to be killed. We have seen confusion at our borders leaving thousands of refugees in danger while border officials attempt to adapt to constantly changing rules and processing record numbers of families and children with as much dignity and humanity as is possible under the circumstances. This morning we have faces on our screens that have dealt with trees and branches falling due to ice build up, power outages that have gone on for days, and neighbors depending on their fireplaces for heat and to cook, not to mention our homeless looking for a safe and somewhat warm place to take shelter. In additions to those faces, we also are able to see those living in the southwest who have immediate family members fighting dangerous fires while leaving family at home with concerns of their own fires. We also hear of the hurricane devastation to our south for a region that is still recovering from the last weather disaster.
And so, in these times, on this morning, we gather. We gather to seek and search for truth in a time when deceit has become acceptable and expected. We gather to look for light in a time when darkness has become comfortable. We gather to worship a God who does not desire us to live in fear, in exhaustion, in frustration, in hopelessness.
The most frequently used group of words in the combined Old and New Testaments are the words –
and the word ‘Fear’. These words in various forms are found 365 times. One for each day of the year. One for every day to remind us that God does not desire that we live in fear. One for every day that we are overwhelmed, out of control, or simply not in control of our situation, the behavior of others and our surroundings. One for every fearful situation, every tragedy, every failure, every loss, every emotional roller coaster, every time living in this world is more difficult than the day before. One for every single day that God desires us to live in peace, regardless of the situation and emotions.
This is not a ‘just don’t be fearful’ grouping of words, we know that would be a waste of words. Sometimes ‘just don’t be afraid’ combinations of words are beyond impossible.
When our daughter Grace was very young, she was convinced there was a monster in her room. Every night I would look under the bed, behind the door, in the dresser drawers only for her to eventually figure out that the monster was in her closet. So, I began looking in there as well – thanks to a Pixar animated movie where a furry looking blue monster with hhis annoying yet funny eyeball friend were able to not be seen hiding in closets by adults, an adult looking in the closet was a total waste of time. There was no way for this adult, me, to sooth this fear from a child who was the only one capable of seeing the monster. Finally, I realized that I was incapable of removing this scary monster from her bedroom and probably the entire house, but, I was capable of removing the ultra scary impact of this monster hiding in the closet. So, we installed a latch at the top of the closet doors which made it impossible for the monster to get out at night. So, after that, every night I would simply latch the monster lock and she could go to sleep in the same room with a monster in the closet.
God is not removing the scary things, we live in a world where we all have the choice to be scary, to be deceitful, to be hateful, to be racists, to be all the things that can hide in our closets – however, God give us truth, he gives us light, which, in turn, gives us hope and peace. God gives us the latch to take away the need to Be Afraid in the midst of our scary situations.
Jesus, in our gospel passage, and Micah in our Old Testament passage, for this week, are both addressing this truth. They are warning the people of who they listen to and who they follow.
“Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray” cried the prophet Micah, “those who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.”
Micah, a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, was calling the people back to God before disaster hit, at the same time false prophets appointed by the politicians in conjunction with the religious leaders were telling the people ‘Everything is fine’ and the people were choosing to listen to the easy message. All the while, Micah knew that the only way to avoid the oncoming very scary situation was only avoidable if they listen and turned to God. The people, much like people today, didn’t want to be inconvenienced or uncomfortable, so they listened to the voices that were soothing, those who were not going to cost them anything, those who were not going to call for a sacrifice of any kind.
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;” Jesus later proclaimed, “therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Matthew 23:2-4, 11-12
Jesus, just two days from his arrest that would lead to the cross, was preparing his followers for another oncoming tragedy, the cross and their ultimate persecution. His warning was also about who they listened to, they could listen to the politicians and religious leaders or they could remember the words spoken and lived out in the life of Jesus. While Jesus was being called a radical liberal threat, the political and religious leaders were familiar to the people,, they were comfortable. Jesus was pointing out the hypocrisy and deceit coming from the leaders’ mouths.
Jesus and Micah both were calling the people to seek truth and to step into the light. It remains our calling today.
“O send out your light and your truth;” the Psalmist begs God, “let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
“We constantly give thanks to God for this” the apostle Paul says later to the believers in Thessalonica, “that when you received the word” (Remember that ‘the Word’- Logon/Logos (root), a word that has been spoken by God/Jesus and implied through the life of Jesus-how he lived consistently – it is the truth) Paul continues “ when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.
I Thessalonians 2:13
’What it really is – God’s word’ – Truth – Paul is calling the believers to live a life of differentiation, to separate lies from truth. To not become comfortable with the darkness.
When we speak of ‘Truth’ and ‘Light’ we often designate the both to religious or holy things, but truth is for all things, all times, every area of our life. Truth and Light are timeless. Our bibles give us God’s Words and his workings, it provides us with a real life portrait of this spoken and lived out word in the life of God’s son. That Word, verbal and lived out, are to give us the wisdom and the tools to seek, search, and find, Truth and Light.
Biblical scholar Peter Enns puts it this way, “When we allow the Bible to determine our expectations, we see that Wisdom, not answers, is the Bible’s true subject matter.”
See, God gives wisdom to differentiate truth from lies, wisdom to differentiate darkness from light. Truth does not always give us specific answers, because questions change over generations, but truth, and light, leads us to the wisdom to find the answer. This is why God was so pleased when King Solomon, who could ask for anything he wanted, asked for wisdom. God knew that wisdom could give him the ability to differentiate between truth and lies, between light and darkness.
Now, wisdom only takes us as far as our use of wisdom is permitted to lead. Solomon chose to step away from the wisdom he had been given and soon was unaware of the lies and darkness that he was choosing.
Oddly, in a time where we have access to facts and figures, it is also a time when we are least determined to search and find truth, it is a time when light is at our fingertips but we have become satisfied with darkness. We settle for the information that comes from the source we have chosen because it appears to align most with our own viewpoints, we are fed our own choice of news by the algorithms that match our data, and we angrily defend our stance based on truth that has not been truly vetted by us. We get angry and hostile when other views are expressed which is what happens when we have not verified truth for ourself. A recent study has found that this is a problem across the spectrum, young people, elementary age through college and young adults are ill prepared to find truth, instead they, like us, are settling for the lies and the darkness
Truth works in tandem with Light. One leads to the other and then back again. Light differentiates between truth and lies – Truth leads us to a life in the light. Truth leads us to light, light leads us to truth. Truth leads us to light out of the darkness, light leads us to truth out of the lies.
When our power went out this past Tuesday we didn’t think much of it, however as the week progressed, the darkness and the cold began to take its toll. We had assumed that we were pretty tough, but as the numbers on our thermostat began to decrease, and we had to live in darkness and without Netflix day after day, night after night, we began to recognize a truth – we are not so tough. Solitaire and carrying branches can only keep your attention so long. So, on Friday afternoon, when we first experienced power of light and heat and hot water….and Netflix, we were reenergized, we suddenly had the ability to carry more limbs and play more solitaire. We could see as we walked down the hall, we could feel the tips of our fingers again, and home was home once again. Now, it went out again after two hours, but those moments in the light were amazing! We did get it back that evening, when we, once again, realized that we are actually super tough.
Look at the difference – Darkness divides, Light unifies
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
I John 1:5-7
Light or Darkness, it’s Your Choice
“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”
Four Questions to Ask Yourself in All Your Searches for Light and Truth.
Is it in harmony with God’s baseline to Love God and Love Others? Or, does it conflict with that baseline? Is this going to enhance and grow my love for God and others? Does it lead me to ‘Love my Neighbor” does it lead me to “Love all my neighbors?’
Does it hold back the darkness, or does it seem to have dark shadows itself” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse recently said, “When you find hypocrisy in the daylight look for evil in the shadows.”
Is it consistent with God’s word? Remembering that God’s word is the words spoken by God, [which is not the same as the things that humans say God means] Also, God’s word is the transparent life lived by God in the person of Jesus Christ. Is it consistent with the life lived by Jesus?
Will it lead me to have attitudes and actions that will guide me to a life that positively impacts others? Will it lead me to lead others to truth and light?
‘A Relationship with God.’ It is a vernacular of much of the Christian community and finds its roots in the fairly recent history. Abbie and Billy just sang of it in the Sandra McCracken song,
I cannot see him, But oh how I love him. I cannot see him, but I believe, I know he walks with me. I believe, that he walks with me.
Merle Haggard sang of it as well,
And the voice i hear falling on my ear, The son of god discloses. And he walks with me and he talks with me. And he tells me i am his own. And the joy we share, As we tarry there, none other has ever known.
A relationship with God is a tough thing to quantify. He is unseen, seldom heard, He seems absent in our difficult days and no where to be found in the midst of our loneliness. Moses expressed the same frustrations. It is in the life of Moses, that we see a most intriguing relationship with God. In fact, our passage tells us, there has never been a prophet with a similar relationship since.
Our Deuteronomy passage this week brings us the the death of Moses. The story of Moses is significant from the moment of Moses’ birth all the way until his death. It is the tale of learning to trust and follow God. A tale of a human who was willing to take off his shoes.
His life begins with the bold and risky moves of three woman who deliver the deliverer of a people. Incidentally, this is also the tale of the first female primary protagonists in scripture.
Moses’ life plays a major role in the three main religions on the planet earth – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In addition, most of the other Middle Eastern religions pay some sort of homage to Moses.
Moses spends the first decades of his life living as entitled royalty only to then be rejected by everyone. He, a man who was craving anonymity, was called to be a voice advocating for the oppressed. He is a key character in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and a core element in God’s promise of a people and a land. He is central to the establishment of the religion of Judaism. And, Moses removes his shoes.
The final encounter between God and Moses takes place on Mount Nebo with a view of the promised land. God kept a promise to Moses – a promise to show him the promise land. Moses stood there with God looking out over the land of the land of the Canaanites promised to the Israelites. It was a front row to seat to a land he would never enter. This was also an affirmation of the character of God. Moses, near the end of the journey, tired and exhausted by the complaints of the people, had acted in a disobedient way. A maverick, disobedient, exhausted leader would have been a disaster in leading the people into the promised land. It was time for Moses to rest, it was time for a new leader. ‘I am the Lord, I will be gracious and I will show mercy’ God had promised Moses. As Moses looked out over the promised land, God was acting out of that grace and mercy. Moses was done, he had done all that his calling required, it was time to pass the torch. God in his grace and mercy permitted Moses rest.
To grasp the calling of Moses we must see it through the filter of Christ.
As believers in Jesus Christ we cannot dismiss the significance of the role played by Moses in our own faith. God gifts the law to the Israelites through Moses. You may have noticed that in our readings this morning we had two that sounded almost identical – that is because the words of our Matthew passage were actually the words from God given to Moses from our Leviticus passage.
Word that we know as the greatest commandments, words that are the summation of the law, words that Jesus said to silence the antagonists.
‘You SHALL love your neighbor as yourself.’
A message that humanity still struggles to grasp even today
At Moses’ death, a brief and concise obituary is given,
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.
The relationship between God and Moses is described as being unmatched and face to face. Their’s was truly a discourse, the two would discuss, God would instruct, they would talk each other back in moments of greatest frustration with the people, Moses even confronted God with the promises God had made – it was a back and forth that we can only imagine was God’s intention for the garden.
Possibly, more than ever, the ‘face to face’ description holds our interest even more in this time of pandemic, political fear and unrest. We may be living in a time that has more in common with the days of Moses than ever before. The question lies in the hebrew words
panim el panim – literally means face to face
These Hebrew words describe people talking and interacting literally ‘face to face’. They are words that mean exactly what they say…face to face. These two spent as much as a month and a half, just the two of them, sitting arguing, debating, listening, encouraging, confronting, comforting. It was intimate, they were both fully present and fully invested. But, how could Moses be panim el panim with God? A human is incapable of handling a face to face with God. For 6 months we have struggled with the how of panim el panim – an previously ordinary action that threatens life. God and Moses had to figure it out just as we have had to figure it all out. It was a burden but they did it, we don’t really know how, but they did, and it worked, – theirs’ was a very unique relationship for a very unique time and situation, as is ours. Working together to figure out the mechanics of a panim el panim when the very act of panim el panim was is always a challenge but God uses it to strengthen our relationships.
Moses was called to unify a divided people so that they could be a functioning people ready for the difficult transition to freedom. God’s plan called for a unified people – a unity that God would use to break the hardened Pharaoh. God’s calling of Moses was in the midst of Moses ordinary daily routine, a moment just like all other moments, however, this moment would become a holy and defining. It was a moment that could only begin when Moses removed his shoes.
Moses said, “I must go over and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that Moses was approaching the bush, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses said, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no closer! Remove the shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Then God introduced himself to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
In those few words of introduction the limitations and restrictions to be overcome are given, the recognition of God as the ‘I Am’, the holy nature, and most importantly the invitation to enter into the relationship.
‘Remove the shoes Moses, for you are standing on holy ground.’
Moses was not a religiously educated human, nor were the people religiously savvy. There was little known about God other than the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. They were a people holding onto a centuries old promise. Taking off shoes was huge. Being on holy ground was mysterious. A bush was burning that did not burn up, an angel and now he was being spoken to by God. Moses remained, shoeless, vulnerable, not invisible, hands over his face, on holy ground.
This was the origin of the genuine relationship between God and Moses. Moses accepted this relationship as he removed his shoes. “Take off your shoes Moses. You are standing on Holy Ground.”
Thousands of years after Moses took off his shoes, another man named Martin Luther King stood on the holy ground of the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. It was the the evening of April 3, 1968 and King unknowingly was about to preach the final sermon of his life, for the next day he would be assassinated by a gunman. As he spoke he harkened to that moment of Moses on Mount Nebo as God showed him the Promised Land. King preached
‘We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity. It’s alright to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’
God’s call to deliver the oppressed did not end with Moses, nor did it end with Martin Luther King. It was the call Jesus gave to his apostles, it remains God’s call on us today. It is verbal call to us from God, it is the post ascension work of the apostles and all those who have come before us. It is the call to us to follow God and imitate his work of grace and mercy in a world that has forgotten to love others, a world that has failed to bring justice to the oppressed, to reveal hope to a hopeless world.
The command remains the same for us that was given to Moses.
‘Remove your shoes, you are on holy ground.”
Our holy ground is our homes, our work, our front yards, it is at the grocery store and the restaurant, it is on the road and it is in the voting booth, it is in our churches, it is across town, across the nation, across the oceans, all over the world – wherever and however we are panim el panim in the midst of life.