Hearing Silence

Hearing Silence 08.09.20

They should have known better, almost half of them were fishermen, for heaven’s sake.  They should have been able to glance at the sky and realize that it was not going to be safe, especially since it was going to be dark soon.  When the winds began to pick up it was like everyone had never seen a storm, everyone was yelling out instructions, most had a white knuckle grip on the sides of the boat, it was terrifying.  The waves were pounding the side of the boat, rain was hitting the disciples’ faces for the entire night.

In their defense, it is possible that the weather could have radically changed after they pushed the boat out into the deeper waters.  I asked our resident weather and climate expert this week if it was possible for a storm to come out of no where, a storm that even seasoned fishermen would not be anticipating.  Renee told me about the KAT-a-bat-ic winds that come down off the colder high mountains to the smaller mountains where the temperatures are warming and then to the shallow waters of the Sea of Galilee – stirring up the waves and wind with great veracity. 

So the scared men were mad and frustrated with each other and then at the same time  ashamed of themselves.  Truth was, they were mostly aggravated that they had jumped into the boat in the first place.  A carpenter telling a group of grown men, many who were at home on the water, a carpenter telling this group to jump in the boat, at dusk, and go on ahead. The entire situation was ludicrous!

Some would say this storm was all part of God’s plan to bring the men to a fuller recognition of who Jesus is; an orchestrated weather disaster. However, bad stuff happens –

– when people have a free choice that impacts other people and the creation –

– bad stuff is going to happen. Stuff, that often in the end, we can see how we have grown, and possibly even benefitted from the reality of bad stuff.

In many ways we have recreated God, gentrifying him, so that he is a Genie who pops out of a bottle and makes everything perfect in life – including suspending the given gift of free choice. 

That is not our reality though.  Ten years ago this month we sat in a hospital room for 11 nights with our daughter Grace who had a potentially fatal reaction to a common antibiotic, even in bringing her home we knew we weren’t out of the woods.  A couple of years later, we sat in the surgery waiting rooms four times, and then in doctor’s offices for over six procedures until the professionals were able to figure out the medical solution to a medical issue our son Isaiah had. 

We lose spouses, we watch loved ones slip away, relationships unravel, automobile accidents happen and auto parts break, brother and sister human beings are abused and oppressed, pandemics leave us living in limbo, and plumbing problems cause kitchen sinks to overflow. 

I say that because that was my struggle this week – not that it is in anyway is in the same level as the struggles mentioned before, but it is on the level of most of our struggles.  Our plumber was booked for four days.  I tried again to work the few plumbing miracles I had up my sleeve.  That is when I met Kris Reece.  Kris has a 13 minute Youtube tutorial on how to fix plumbing problems that cause sinks to overflow.  Kris’s plumbing problem was a result of putting cooked pasta in the garbage disposal, I realized that I had put cooked pasta in my garbage disposal. – it was like Kris and I were brothers.  Later, I was reprimanded by my daughter Hannah who reminded me that Duffy Musgrove had told us the dangers of pasta and disposals.  So, I watched Kris, for 13 minutes unclog his disposal, making sure that I would not get half way and realize this was out of my league.  It wasn’t, I unclogged the sink, well, with Kris’s help.  Now, I know how to unclog the kitchen sink, and I know that you don’t put cooked pasta in the disposal. Two lessons from one problem.  I was pretty proud of myself the rest of the day, consider getting a tool belt.  Plus, I learned how to use the plumber’s snake my plumber’s had insisted I purchase years before – Kris taught me how to use that as well. 

Good came out of bad.

I’m not sure Paul was thinking about plumbing problems when he said, 

‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’

Romans 8:28

…but it is the same dynamic.

So the disciples had strong winds, a shallow sea, scary waves, pelting wind, and were consumed with fear  – it was a rough night.  Interestingly, the experience prior to the storm had been positively amazing, the kind of day you talk about for the rest of your life. They had just fed around 10,000 hurting and hungry people, with almost nothing to work with.  One moment the men thought it was time to send the crowd home and the next moment they were collecting baskets of leftovers!

Jesus was exhausted, and still helping the people that delayed leaving, the disciples were on an adrenaline rush, so hopping into a boat was not as outlandish as it sounds.  But still, everyone was disappointed in themselves and each other.

It must be said though, the men were a little frustrated with Jesus – although no one was going to say that. One moment he is conquering hunger and disease, oppression and misery, the next minute he abandoned the disciples sending them to their death in the middle of the sea.

Then, in the punishing storm, just as the fear, anger and frustration were about to hit a boiling point, the disciples were distracted by something even more startling than the storm.  Between the flashes of lightening and the crushing waves, something, or someone, could be seen in the distance – on the water.  Every time the waves would crash the unidentified object or person was visible.  So, as the scared men continued to hold on to the tattered sails and the sides of the water logged boat, screaming in fear, they heard the voice.

“Take heart, it’s me, don’t be afraid.”

“Jesus?”

Then, of course, Peter, yells to Jesus,

“If it is really you, tell me to walk out to you”

Peter was audacious and, most often, annoyingly eager, however, he was the only one thought about walking out to Jesus. The storm was so loud you could only faintly hear Jesus’ response,

“Come.”

We all heard that word, ‘Come’,  everyone looked at Peter, he swallowed hard and stepped out of the boat. From the rocking boat the men watched as Peter navigated the waves.  He was knocked down a couple of times, but he would just get up.  After about three knock downs, he began to look out over the never ending waves often blocking his view of Jesus – his determination and confidence was visibly waning.  He was looking back at the boat and ahead at Jesus trying to decide which would be the most rational direction to go.  No way could he swim in this turbulence. Jesus picked up his pace to get to Peter, pulling him up out to the water.  Jesus grabbed Peter’s hand and pulled him up just as Peter’s head was going under.  As the two men made it to the boat, the waves and wind remained unforgiving – the disciples struggled to pull them in.

Jesus and Peter crashed onto the floor of the boat, Peter looking wet, scared, and humiliated. Jesus looked wet and strangely peaceful.  A few seconds later, the rain stopped, the wind calmed, and the waves disappeared. It was quiet, eerily silent.  The men all looked at each other, they looked at Peter, then all eyes turned to Jesus.  No one said anything – there was really nothing to say, but you could tell that everyone was thinking the same thing, you could see it in their eyes. Everyone released their grip and fell to their knees. No one spoke because there were no words to describe this moment.  In the silence, they all began to understand that this was not an ordinary human; it didn’t make sense but Jesus was holy.  They were in the presence of God.

Silence.

That was how the men knew that the boat had become a holy place, God was there, God was present.  How odd that it came in silence.  Everywhere Jesus went there had been thousands of loud voices screaming for his attention and now, in the boat, on the calm seas and the peaceful sky, there was silence – that is where the disciples saw God. In the middle of the chaos and fear, in the middle of dire circumstances, there was Jesus, first walking on the deadly waves in the brutal wind, then, in the boat, in the silence, there was peace. God was there.

No one expected silence to be the place where they would see God but this silence had pierced the deafening waves and the unforgiving wind.

It is interesting – the different places that people see God.  For Jacob it was in a multiple overtimes wrestling match, for Moses it was in a burning bush, for Isaiah it was at a funeral, for John, the Baptizer, it happened while he was still in the womb, for the centurion it was at the feet of the bloody cross, for Stephen it was as he was looking up, while being brutally stoned, for Paul it was in blindness on a public highway, for the disciples it was in a boat…and, for the prophet Elijah it was on the side of a mountain just outside the cave where he was scared and in hiding.

Nine hundred years earlier, Elijah was walking on eggshells rather than water, he, too, had seen a miracle in an awe inspiring act of proving God to be God, but now, he had a Jezebel problem.  A Jezebel problem was pretty much the worst problem you could face.  It was the seal of death to anyone that angered Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab.  Jezebel’s anger had no mercy, her power had no boundaries, the fear of Jezebel was the one shared fear in the hearts and minds of everyone, including her husband, the King.  

Elijah received the threatening message from Jezebel and could imagine the veins popping out on her face, he only needed to hear her name to know that she was livid.  Elijah had humiliated her false prophets, he had negated the power of her false gods, and to make matters worse, he had the audacity to do it in such a public way, – it was humiliating, Jezebel didn’t do humility or fear, instead, she was the source of everyone’s fear and humility.

Elijah had run away, he was now hiding in the back of a dark damp cave.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah, in no uncertain terms, outlined his complaints to God. He was disappointed in the people, he was frustrated at the failures of his mission, he was alone and isolated, he was in danger, he was angry at God.

“Go stand outside the cave, I am going to come by.”

God said in a tone that expressed love for, and frustration with, his prophet Elijah.

Elijah was still standing with his arms crossed, and his brow squinted tight, his disappointment and aggravation were on full display. He stood up defiantly, like a child who is angrily and resentifully obeying his parents, positioned half way to the entrance of the cave and not a step closer, Elijah stood his ground. 

A strong wind

began to blow outside of the cave, it even whipped around inside the cave, Elijah took a few small steps back as he began to hear and feel the force of the wind that was actually moving and cracking the mountain.  God was not in the wind.  

Then the ground began to shake,

the walls of the cave began to vibrate, the sound of the earth moving beneath his feet was deafening. Elijah didn’t know if he should retreat further into the cave or if it would be wiser to run outside.  God was not in the earthquake. 

Then, Elijah recognized a burning smell,

the heat began to be unbearable, the flames began to approach the entrance of the cave.  God was not in the fire.

Here, on the mountain where God had appeared in a burning bush to Moses – God, on this day, was not in the fire, the earthquake, or even the wind.  Now, however, there was a new phenomena, there was silence

Not just silence but a ‘sheer silence.’

The kind of silence that demands your attention much like the still silence on the calmed waters of the sea, a silence that drowns out the sound of the water slapping against the sides of the boat, a silence that you actually hear.

There was God, in the silence, it was deafening.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Again, Elijah outlined his complaints. He was disappointed in the people, he was frustrated at the failures of his mission, he was alone and isolated, he was in danger, he was angry at God.

God didn’t reprimand, he didn’t correct, he didn’t try to comfort or encourage, he didn’t walk away, he didn’t forget that he had been the one that called Elijah to be a prophet, he just remained there, in the sheer silence.  

God was present, he was there.

Elijah went outside of the cave and stood in the silence, he stood before God.  Elijah remembered God’s calling, he was reminded of God’s mission, he returned to God’s leading, he rested in God’s loud silent presence. 

The silence was all that Elijah could hear. The silence cleared up Elijah’s vision and strengthened his hearing.

Then, God began to speak. In a very ‘matter of fact’ manner God returned to Elijah’s calling.  God never wavered from the selection of Elijah, he never turned from his confidence in Elijah the prophet.  As Elijah stood in God’s presence, he was ready to return to God’s mission.

As God began to speak, Elijah realized that his previous Jezebel problem was nothing compared to the Jezebel problem he was about to have.  Even here, enveloped in God’s presence, he could see reality, and it was frightening.

Bad stuff was definitely going to happen.

Now, however, he remembered that he wasn’t alone, in fact God reminded him of those who had not turned from God, those he was to continue to encourage and lead.

Oh, bad stuff was bound to happen, Jezebel was going to be angry, she had no idea how audacious Elijah could be.  God told Elijah to anoint new Kings and to begin training his own replacement. Elijah could already see the bulging veins popping on Jezebel’s face, she was going to be livid.  There would be no silence in the palace.

Metaphorically, Elijah was now in the boat with Jesus. He, along with the disciples, would all face other frightening storms, there was sure to be other Jezebels, but now there was peace, there was calm, there was silence.

What is your storm, who is your Jezebel?

Are you gripping the sides of the boat holding on, sure that you will not survive, are you cowering at the thought of a livid Jezebel?  Or, do you realize that Jesus is in the boat, God is outside your hiding place?  What is your focus? How are you listening?

It is all about our vision – what are we looking at? It’s all about hearing – what are we listening for.  Are you looking at the rocking boat and the crashing waves? Are you looking at a furious Jezebel? Or, are you listening for the reminders that Jesus sat in the boat earlier, when he calmed the waters? Are you focused on Jesus’ pulling you up out of the rough waters?

Our hope is an eternal hope – the ways it takes action in the midst of an unpredictable reality are not always what we image or expect.  Hope is the catalyst of faith, it is the affirmation of assurance, it is our power in our struggles, it is the tie that binds, it is Jesus in the boat, it is God outside the cave. 

God is there, when words do not need to be said, God is there.

God is there, when reality unnerves & unsettles us, God is there.

God is there, when we are sinking & the boat is too far, God is there.

God is there, when the rain, & the winds are blinding us, God is there.

God is there, when furor & vengeance waits at our door, God is there.

God is there, when we are exhausted & isolated, God is there.

God is there, when grief & mourning are all we can see, God is there.

God is there, when chaos & turmoil seem in control, God is there.

God is there, when we can no longer see him, God is there.

God is there.

Wrestling til’ Daybreak

08.02.20

In seventh grade there was the group of boys who have already become ‘men’ – puberty for them was a thing of the past. Then there was the other half, like me and most of my friends, who were still a decade or two away from puberty.  Then, there was Matt, Matt experienced puberty prior to learning to walk.

No where was this categorization more obvious than in Physical Education class. Everyday, class would begin the same, when seemingly a 1,000 seventh grade boys would cram into the small locker room to change into our required gym clothes.  Not only was this a challenge because of space, but also, because the past puberty seventh grade men would just walk up and rip the lock off their locker, while the pre pubescent seventh grade boys would be in a panic, scrambling to remember their combination – at the end of class, we would all crowd back into the same locker room to take the required shower all together in the no privacy group shower room. It was terrifying.  Coaches would stand at the exit door to make sure everyone had wet hair before leaving. In between the beginning and the end of class, there was the actual class.  Small, beanpole, frightened boys playing games such as Dodge Ball against huge and hairy men. 

While the Friday Seventh Grade Dodge Ball games were enough to send shivers down the spine of a 7th grade boy….we were unaware of the true evil coming our way – until we did, it all began on a late fall Monday, in third hour.

The Wrestling unit.

The coach had quickly educated us on the first move, this was holding down your opponent or freeing yourself from your opponent. Followed by coach pairing us up with our opponent for the entire wrestling unit. His method of choosing partners is best described as ‘sadistic’.  From the beginning pair up, his strategy was painfully obvious – man against boy. The most terrifying of all pairings came at the moment when coach, sporting an evil smirk, yelled, ‘Anthony’, then taking a long pause to build the suspense, his evil smirk gradually widened as we turned and looked at all men waiting to be chosen. There was only one man left, I had been keeping track. He looked at me, and the fear in my eyes, and then turned to Matt and said ‘Matt, you will be Anthony’s partner.’

Coach was now in his happy place.

As Matt and I were called to the wrestling mat, instead of walking to the center of the mat, Matt walked directly to me. He bent his head down to my ear, remember that Matt was a giant, whispering, ‘I will be in thee floor position.’ At this point it was all semantics for me, on the floor or kneeling, the outcome would be the same.  I had resigned myself to a death on a Monday in late fall on the mat in the wrestling room during third hour.

As we took our positions, I unsuccessfully attempted to hide my fear, coach blew the whistle. Matt quickly rolled out of my grasp – exactly the way Coach had instructed, his next move, however, was a bit more unorthodox.  He rolled to his back, pressed his shoulders to the wrestling mat and yelled, ’Anthony pinned me!’

Coach still had the whistle hanging between his teeth, but now his evil smirk had change to a look of pure confusion.  His joy was gone, his sadistic anticipation of a bloody match, had evaporated in an instant.

Matt stood up, looked at coach, and said, ‘I don’t do wrestling.” He then walked away from the center returning to his seat on the edges of the mat.  

It was a surreal moment as coach raised my hand in the air and instructed me to return to my seat.  The next day we coach announced that we had completed the wrestling unit and would be moving on to the second part of the basketball unit.

Matt was now a hero for all the seventh grade prepubescent boys.

Wrestling is probably the world’s oldest sport, dating back to 3,000 BC.  It was introduced into the ancient olympics in the year 708 BC. My, career in wrestling, began, and ended, on a mat in the wrestling room of West Junior High School of Norman, OK, in the year 1973 AD, during third hour on a late fall morning.

The grandson of Abraham, the son of Isaac, the father of Joseph, was a hard and successful worker, but not really a fighter, or a wrestler, he was more of a runner (as in run away), he was a natural manipulator, an even better deceiver, but, he was not a fighter.  However, he was about to face the most epic of all wrestling matches.   

Jacob was on his way home, it had been 20 years since he had run away from a fight at home, a fight, with his brother which he was sure to lose.  During that 20 years he had married 2 sisters, had children by both wives and servants, had amassed a fortune, and realized that he was a good business man. He had also, for the first time, met his match in Laban, his deceptive and manipulative father-in-law….who had warriors to fight for him.

Jacob had weighed the odds of facing his scheming father-in-law, or, facing his brother Esau, who had surely been nursing a very justified grudge for the past 20 years.

As he secretly snuck out of Laban’s house with his wives, children, servants and possessions, he headed home, on the way, Jacob attempted to soften the anger of Esau by sending daily gifts. As he approached the ultimate face to face confrontation, Jacob delayed the inevitable for one more night.  Continually calculating the potential risks, Jacob split up his family, people, and possessions and hid them safely to minimize his losses. Then, after enlisting the use of all of his strategies of manipulations, Jacob went back to the overnight camp and prepared for a night alone.

Even with all of his selfish faults, Jacob was a very determined man.  His very name meant ‘one who holds onto his brother’s heel’ – which is what he was doing at his own birth.  Even in the womb he was determined to get, and be, the most of every category.

Back at camp, as Jacob was alone, there was a man who gave Jacob no option but to engage in the epic wrestling match of a lifetime.  It was dark so Jacob could not see who he was against, but the possibilities were endless. It could have been the ghost of his father, Isaac, who Jacob has deceived, or his bother Esau, who Jacob had deceived, or his father-in-law,  Labah, who Jacob had deceived. That was just the top three most obvious choices.  He did not realize it but he was actually about to engage in an all night wrestling match with God.  If the fight had been during the daylight, Jacob would have never engaged, he would have recognized the odds were definitely not in his favor, Jacob would have employed his most successful maneuver, he would have run away.  It was dark though, and Jacob unknowingly, engaged in an epic struggle.

God, being a father, fought like a father. He withheld his own power to match that of his child Jacob. This was not just a struggle of Jacob with God, it was also a struggle for God against Jacob.  In many aspects, Jacob had been in this wrestling match his entire life.  Battling the powers within himself that were constantly at war with what he knew was right.  Choosing to mistreat and mislead loved ones, leaving them with no choice but to compete with each other for his love and attention; the very ones who should have been able to rest in his love and acceptance, his wives and his own children.  Then there were those who love for Jacob was betrayed by his determination to ‘get more’ – his father and his brother.  This was not Jacob’s first wrestling match, but it was his first honest interaction that mattered, this struggle was pivotal and essential in the life of Jacob.

There is something very different in a wrestling struggle and a mere street fight.  In a fight your goal is to destroy your opponent, to a the point that he cannot even rise up as the fight is over – in a wrestling match, your goal is to prevail, to take inventory of all of all your resources, your strengths and your mind, and then use those resources to out maneuver, to out wit, and to out discern your opponent.  In the dark, when you do not know who your opponent is, reading the situation and the powers against you is much more difficult – all you have is your own resources doing all you can to prevail.  

As a sliver of daylight became visible on the horizon and the two men were still struggling, God,  released his power through a gentle touch.  A touch that displaced Jacob’s hip – a touch that broke Jacob, a touch that reveled to Jacob that this was no ordinary opponent.

Let go of me,’ God said to Jacob.

‘I will not until you bless me,’ Jacob replied.

Jacob was beginning to recognize the fullness of this situation.  While getting a blessing had been the goal of his life, he was fearful yet interested in the possibilities of this moment.  This was a transformative moment for Jacob, his struggle now turned inward, no longer being about prevailing but, instead, it now was about coming to terms with himself.  Understanding that his life was meant to be more than just about Jacob, but, quite possibly his life was about something larger.

The Jewish understanding of the concept of ‘blessing’ was not the self-centered, fortune cookie vision, that we have now. A blessing was given so that the blessed would bless others. God was going to bless Jacob so that, in order with the promise that had passed from his grandfather, to his father, and now to him. 

Understanding the full meaning a blessing, and understanding the cultural and religious understanding of the day, is essential for us to understand the transformation taking place in Jacob. A truly selfless spirit had to exist to receive such a blessing, and, until this struggle with God, Jacob did not have such a spirit. This struggle was the nudge, or push, that connected the dots for Jacob, he had an epiphany as the sun rose that morning. He was finally ready and willing to receive the blessing that he had been seeking his entire life.

Jacob used his greatest power, the power that he had been endowed with in the womb, the power to hold on.  As the night-long exhausting wrestling match depleted Jacob’s strength and power, he held on to this opponent. To which his opponent said,

‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’

God to Jacob

It was all very fuzzy but Jacob thought he heard the words ‘striven’, ‘God’, ‘humans’ and ‘prevailed.’  Jacob had no problem with the word ‘striven’ that had been the storyline of his life, a constant struggle with someone, but the words ‘God’ and ‘Prevailed?” 

‘Have I just wrestled with God all night? and, did I win?’

Jacob to himself

As Jacob considered the implications of his opponent’s statement, an opponent who had now withdrawn himself, Jacob began to have, as he allowed, an experience of transformation. He could see beyond himself, he realized his role in the course of the world, he was humbled and depleted, he was broken, he was being rebuilt.  He now walked with a limp, but there was also a change in his countenance, no longer was he dependent on his own wits to survive, life was much bigger now. He was not perfect, there would still be a lot of rough edges but this was at least a partial metamorphosed Jacob. As can be seen in the name he gives to this place, ‘Peniel’, meaning ‘I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ It was a transformation that his life was no longer about prevailing, he wasn’t a prevailer, he was a runner – he had not prevailed, all he had done was to hold onto God, and in the struggle, he had been preserved.

He was now ready to face life, all the unknown, with no guarantees, no assurance of victories or personal gain, no recognition of importance or worth, but now, he was facing life with hope, sustainability, mercy and humility, all grounded on love.

In in order to understand the pertinence of Jacob’s wrestling match with God, to our own lives, let’s jump forward a couple of thousand years.  We end up at a wilderness place with thousands of hungry humans along with an exhausted Jesus and his weary disciples. Jesus has been denied even the shortest of breaks as he has, once again, has seen the oppression, the suffering, and the misery of the people.  His compassion and mercy compelled him to address their needs.  His passion makes it impossible to ignore. His, was a gut response to the needs, it pushed him to release, to heal, to free. There was an everlasting line of needs, one after the other. Jesus lived in the Kingdom of Heaven, even while on earth, a dwelling place that he calls all believers to live in,  a place where the physical needs of others are of priority to address, when the earthly reality is that the Roman Imperial system, as well as the existing religious system, did not see physical needs such as health, hunger, disease, poverty, shelter, abuse, and education as issues of priority.

So, when the disciples suggested that it was getting dark and that it would be best to send the crowds home, Jesus was perplexed.  There were still needs to be met, plus, now the people were hungry.

‘You feed them,’

Jesus to Disciples

‘We do not have anything to give them,’ the confused followers said, ‘we didn’t plan on feeding anyone, let alone a crowd this size.  We don’t have anything! What good can 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread for all these people?’

While what they didn’t have was the earthly focus of the disciples, the kingdom focus of Jesus was on what they did have.  They had a starting point. Jesus took that bread and the fish, and broke it all apart and distributed the small, tiny pieces into the baskets to be passed among the people.

The disciples had to be horrified at the thought of passing these basically empty baskets among the hungry crowd, to a crowd expecting something great to happen. The disciples had to be frustrated.  Jesus needed to rest, the crowds were hungry, the line for help was endless, they were in the middle of no where, it was time to go home.  The disciples were upset, they were struggling, they were in an epic wrestling match.  It was daylight, they could see their opponent, it was the whiny and complaining crowds with all their needs, their suffering, their oppression, their ancestral passing down of this oppression based largely on pigmentation, their nationality, their societal placement, the color of their skin, their enslavement, their poverty, and now their hunger.  They were not prepared and now it was on Jesus, and the disciples to provide.

‘When would this end?’ They questioned.

The more their frustration simmered the more they realized that the crowds were not their opponent, much like Jacob, they were wresting against Jesus, they were wresting against God.

Jesus was the problem, God was the source of this ridiculous situation. If Jesus did not have to stop every time a hurting person appeared this would not have gotten so out of hand.  If only God were to instruct Jesus to dismiss the needs sometimes, if only he would moderate the passionate compassion of Jesus.  Afterall, there were more important and pressing things to get to.

As with all of Jesus miracles, the miracle of creation to this moment of needs and hunger, we do not know the technical details of the abundance of food that filled every person in attendance that day, but we do know that the day ended with an abundance. It could have been a magical moment when the tiny broken pieces strangely multiplied, or it could have been an even more miraculous transformational moment as the people put themselves aside realizing they didn’t have to take more than they needed, or possibly seeing the contribution of the fish and loaves spurred them to realize they also could contribute.  Regardless of the how, the reality is that there was not only enough food there was actually an abundance.

The disciples then realized that their struggle was not with the crowds, nor was it with Jesus, it was with themselves. It was about a struggle with trust that came with living outside of the Kingdom of heaven where earthly things are allowed to hinder us from answering the call of God. Keeping us from addressing issues of injustice, oppression, deep inherited baggage that is more than humans can bear, hunger, sickness, racism, hatred, dismissal, disregard, poverty, and all suffering. All the things that tangle our roots and restrict our sight.

A wrestling match can bring us to transformation if we hold on. A struggle can show us what we have instead of what we do not have.  What is your struggle, what is God bringing into your vision?

With an attitude of willingness to be a part of God’s answer to our prayer, let us pray.

The Perplexity of Me

 07.05.20

I vividly remember a friend in high school telling me that her mom was wanting to switch churches.  Since I also attended the same church I was very curious as to the reason.  The story was that her mom was mad at the pastor because he didn’t speak about sin enough.  She especially wanted him to preach about the sin of smoking. I found this amusing as my first memory of church was going to a small town First Baptist Church every Sunday morning and the doorway which we entered in was also the smoking spot for all the deacons.  Mom and Dad would tell us to take a breath and in we went.

Bobby Schuller, pastor of Shepherd’s Grove Church in Irvine, California, tells the story of being a new pastor, and coming up with what he thought was a genius marketing strategy to reach their surrounding area.  Most of the commercial business establishments in the immediate vicinity of their church building were bars, so Bobby thought it made sense to have match books made up with their church name and basic details. The plan was to give them free to the bars and then ask them to, in turn, give them to their customers.  Customers would stick them in their pockets and later, pull  them out and read the cover.  After he handed out several bulk boxes of matches to the bartenders and bar owners, several of his members were  aghast to find the name of their church on the match boxes they were given at the bar. Ironically, it was the effectiveness of his marketing scheme that landed him in hot water with several of church members and leaders.  They accused him of inciting people to sin by giving them matches.

As I have planned out this message, I have attempted to formulate a soften, and possibly humorous, way to announce the theme – However, I have to just be honest. Today we talk about Sin.

There is a high likely hood that even as I say this word, you are thinking of the sins that you most enjoy judging and condemning in other people, or, you are thinking of the sins that you are most ashamed and humiliated by in your own life. 

The apostle Paul makes a very personal revelation as he writes to the churches in Rome:

‘I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’

Apostle Paul (Romans 7:15b)

Philosopher and theologian, Philip L. Quinn, described the manner in which the three major world religions approach the subject of sin:

‘Sin is the concept of a human fault that offends a good God and brings with it human guilt. Sins’ natural home is in the major theistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These religious traditions share the idea that actual or personal sins are individual actions contrary to the will of God. In the Hebrew Bible, sin is understood within the context of the covenantal relation between Yahweh and his chosen people. To be in covenant with Yahweh is to exist in holiness, and so sin is a deviation from the norms of holiness. In the Christian New Testament, Jesus teaches that human wrongdoing offends the one whom he calls Father. The Qur’an portrays sin as opposition to Allah rooted in human pride.’

(Quinn)

Regardless of our definition, sin is, by all counts, a bad thing, and to be considered a sinner or sinful, is an even worse thing

This was the mission of John the Baptizer, to prepare the people for the arrival of the Messiah –  by preaching a message of repentance from sin.:

Let’s define Sin. 

The prophet Isaiah defined sin this way: 

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, 

Isaiah 53:6a

God sums this up with the word Iniquity.

So, ‘going astray’ and ‘turning to our own way’ is our  iniquity.

‘Straying from God’, ‘turning away from God’, changes what guides our actions, reactions, responses, thoughts, plans, and agendas.  So, ‘Our way’ as opposed to ‘God’s Way’ is what points us in the direction of actions that are right or are that are sin.

Next let’s look at the first Sin to better understand,

Eve, perfect until the serpent tricks her into taking the forbidden fruit, OR, Eve, created with the ability to make her own choices, having already placed herself on the trajectory of taking the fruit as she would sit everyday, eating the the identical fruit as she could get from the forbidden tree, however, the more she stares at that same fruit on the forbidden tree, the more she wants the forbidden fruit.

She has had the choice of which way to look, God’s Way or Eve’s Way.  One way reminds us of truth, the other takes us to a fantasy deceitful world where anything forbidden will taste better.  By looking away from God, Eve has allowed her personal ‘wants’ to take over.

Enter the serpent, his job is pretty easy, he just has to point Eve in the direction of the forbidden fruit, she has already set her mind on it, she has already quit listening for the voice of God in the garden, or even looking his way,  so she can have a better and unhindered focus on this fruit that she does not have, she just needs a little nudge, a little encouragement, a little affirmation, that this bad choice is actually the best choice.

The same way that Eve ended up with a forbidden fruit, is the same was that we end up with forbidden fruit. It begins with our turning away from God, going astray, is a sometimes subtle, sometimes blatantly intentional, choice on our part.  At some point, it is a choice, that often comes in times of stress, boredom, grief, exhilaration, desperation, insecurity, arrogance, self-entitlement, and any other time we are longing for an escape, or we end up focusing solely on me or my cause.

It is then that the action, or inaction, manifests as sin.

And, as Paul states, once actions of sin, manifest in our life, it festers and soon becomes an automatic response.  We become enslaved by it.

Paul explains our sin problem by starting with the law.  

As Adam and Eve, due to their turning away from God, were expelled from the garden, they were separated from God.  This meant that God was no longer there, walking with them, telling them what would harm them and what was good.  This harm would be in regard to their relationship with him, their relationship with each other, as well as their relationship with all of God’s creation.  So, now, on their own, by their own choice, they were without God’s instruction; no rules, no laws – the wild west.

This is how life was for humanity for the next 3,000 to 4,000 years.  They did not know what was harmful, they did not know their actions that were literally killing them, each other, God’s creation, and especially their relationship with God.

They were the walking dead. Digging themselves into a deeper grave with every action and inaction.

Life was chaos, murder, unfaithfulness, deceit, jealousy, revenge, hopelessness, suspicion, hatred, betrayal, theft, destruction, abuse, threats – all without having been told that these things are harmful and wrong.

In our weekly Bible Project we ask questions, a lot of questions, and then we ask more questions.  Then, after we have exhausted asking the questions we begin searching for answers.  The process is often chaotic, especially on zoom, and sometimes overwhelming. It is not a process for every personality.  Since we began with the book of Genesis in January, we have had one consistent question, that has increasingly become a complaint, and most recently an acknowledgement that the lineage of Jesus includes a very shady group of individuals.  That constant, is the horrible actions and relationship of all most everyone we have encountered in Genesis.  They are a mess, they are miserable, they are mean and often vengeful, they are manipulative and calculating, they are dismissive and neglectful, they are bad parents, they are bad spouses,  they are often, very bad people. 

Last Tuesday Mitch Musgrove, in speaking about this issue and the sad state of affairs in the OT,  said,

‘[Throughout the Old Testament] God is painting us a picture of life without God.’    

Mitch Musgrove

So, after three to four thousand years of this misery of existence, Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God gave them the ten commandments, the Law.  How to live. Much more extensive than just ten bullet points it covered everything.

One rabbinical tradition is that the Law, the details of what is harmful or what was healthy, was offered to all nations – however, with the exception of the Israelites, all other nations said that they didn’t want to know what was wrong and harmful because they wanted to keep doing the things they figured would be wrong. They could already assume the the law was going to forbid adultery, murder, and theft, so they passed. They instinctually kind of already knew the error of their ways, but, without the law, they could claim ignorance.

So, now the Israelites knew what was already killing them.

They were no longer ignorant. 

However, now that they knew, this new knowledge, combined with their freedom of choice, put them on a perplexing journey. Their rebellious nature wanted to partake of the forbidden fruit – just life Adam and Eve,  and their new affirmation of right and wrong countered their temptation, this put them in a perplexing dilemma. 

Theologian C.S. Lewis said, 

‘No man knows how bad he is until he has tried to be good.’

C.S. Lewis

So, Paul says the same thing that all of humanity has said for thousands of  years and still says today:

‘I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’  (Romans 7:15b)

 The great British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, explained our perplexity this way:

“It was the custom of ancient tyrants, when they wished to put men to the most fearful punishments, to tie a dead body to them, placing the two back to back; and there was the living man, with a dead body closely strapped to him, rotting, putrid, corrupting, and this he must drag with him wherever he went. Now, this is just what the Christian has to do. He has within him the new life; he has a living and undying principle, which the Holy Spirit has put within him, but he feels that everyday he has to drag about with him this dead body, this body of death, a thing as loathsome, as hideous, as abominable to his new life, as a dead stinking carcass would be to a living man.” (Spurgeon) 

A. What is Paul’s manner of dealing with this?

First, he stands on the assurance, that, although we may be weak, God is not:

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.’ 

Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:13)

Second, he adopted a life philosophy: 

‘beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. …for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.’

Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:8-9, 11b)

B. The mistake of religious institutions in regard to sin.

First, we have had the audacity to think that we can stop, control, and eliminate sin. Much of this comes from a misunderstanding of sin and the Law, but it has led to training believers (of all faiths) to be the exact thing we are told not to be – Judgmental and Condemning.  Both of which we do not know how to do without also being hateful, arrogant, and condescending.  Our approach has turned us into the opposite of Christlike.

Second, we have failed to truly understand that sin is just the tip of the iceberg, that it is actually something much different, often times something that could be better addressed with compassion, mercy, justice, grace, and love – however, our approach has been to rank sins without regard to the fact that all sin is a result of a deeper turning away from God and going astray.  We have made those sins that rank highest in our ‘most heinous’ list the ones we focus on – we love the word ‘abomination’.  Giving us even more reasons to judge, condemn, hate, chastise, reject, and basically be very unChristlike.

Third, since our sins are less heinous or are more invisible, we have made ‘Being a Christian’ to be an impossible journey, pushing the labeled sinners into the closet.  Once again, making us very unChristlike.

Fourth, we have missed the opportunity to go out on the journey that Jesus sent his disciples on. A journey to free the oppressed, to heal the sick, to cure diseases, and, as we are there, to tell that ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is Near.’ 

C. The Reason for God’s Desire that we Live Right 

Jesus said the reason is:

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly

Jesus (John 10:10b) 

Sin is the killer of right. 

Sin is the killer of mercy.

Sin is the killer of justice.

Sin is the killer of abundance.

God is the perfect father, who desires the best for us.  He does not bait us into sin, nor does he reject us because of sin. He does not desire us to carry around death but, instead, to live in freedom. He want us to live in Joy, that is why he has told us the things that will take away that joy.

Paul, as he explained the law, stressed that our obligation to the law in only until death, in the same way that a woman is obligated to her marriage vow until death of the spouse. So, as Christ died for us, we are not guided by the law, we live in the freedom of the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

As Christ died, he died our death, therefore we are free.  It is our privilege then to live in the freedom that he secured for us all.

The redemptive nature of grace is not just an eternal thing, it is a now thing.  God’s desire that that we not live in the flux of a perplexing life met with death at every turn.

Jesus is our resurrection from death. Jesus is our life outside of the tomb.

Jesus said to the woman who had been caught in the act of sin,

‘Go and sin no more.’

Jesus (John 8:11b)

He didn’t say this so that she could be forgiven, or acceptable – he said it because he wanted her to have life and to not have to carry that dead body around anymore.

Jesus says the same to us, in order that we too, can live in, and with, that joy.