Be Found At Peace

Last week we lit our first Advent candle – the HOPE candle.  Hope was the catalyst for those who were waiting and watching for the coming Messiah. They did not have a clear grasp on the details of the arrival, the how and what of the Messiah – but there were those who were diligently waiting, constantly looking, and always hoping.They had the hope, and many had a thought or an idea, but in the end, nothing about the Messiah matched what they expected – which was a good thing.  It was the hope that kept Anna and Simeon in the temple, day after day, waiting to see the Messiah. It is the same hope for us today, a return of Jesus, a new heaven and a new earth, whatever all of that will look like and however it will all play out – our call is to keep an watchful eye and a determined hope.  Hope is the underlying theme of the Christmas story, it is actually the underlying theme of the Christian journey, including the crucifixion and resurrection, it was the hope of the promise to Abraham, it was the hope that sat with Joseph in the prison cell and with Moses on Mount Sinai, it is the same girding that the Holy Spirit empowers us with today.  Hope. Faith gets us on the path, Hope uses the path to prepare us for the destination.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. Hebrews 11:1-3

Hope brings us to peace.

Our Advent candle today is PEACE.  Peace is an end to hostilities, it is a comforting calming in the midst of anxiety, a sense of confidence in a time of insecurity – a necessary respite in the midst of chaos, fear, uncertainty, isolation, and all the other life situations that tie us in knots.  

In his letter to the believers in Asia Minor Peter wrote encouraging them to ‘strive to be found, by Jesus, at peace.’ 

It is an interesting choice of words, ‘strive to have Jesus find you at peace.

Listen to it in its context,

We wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, while you are waiting, be diligent, without spot without blemish, and be found by him in peace II Peter 3:13-14

Look at the words in bold, these are the emphasis words, words that give us a key to understand what Peter is saying.

Peter uses the greek word eiréné  (i-ray’-nay) for Peace.  It is defined as  one, quietness, rest.  eiréné connotes peace of mind; wholeness, and the joining together of all the essential parts.  It is a holistic state of being – Body, Mind, Spirit bound together, at peace in whatever the circumstance.

Look at the apostle Paul – a very religious and righteous man – he was faithful in his religion to the point of sacrifice and he was hopeful in in watching for the promised Messiah.  He, in his faith, accepted the mission to eliminate anything that would mislead and misguide the  followers of God.  His specific mission, was to stop this new ‘Jesus’ movement from diluting the faithful following the true God.  He had sought truth all his life, he had strived to live truth all his life, he had sacrificed everything for the advancement of truth.  He was a seeker, a searcher, and a hopeful follower.  On a path to the city of Damascus, he knew he was following God’s calling, and I think, he was right.  He was going to address the ‘Jesus’ movement, he was going to identify the followers of Christ.  He thought his destination was to stop the Jesus followers through any means necessary.  While on the path – God transformed Paul, he corrected Paul, God redeemed Paul, God permitted Paul to see why he was on the path.  Paul confidently approached the path by faith, on the path hope led him step after step, the hope of the path brought peace, peace allowed Paul to accept the new twist in his mission, a twist he had never seen coming until he arrived with peace. In reality this was not as spectacular as we would think.  Paul had spent his life seeking God and looking for the Messiah, the path led him to both.  Paul was not, however, expecting to become a Jesus follower, that was not the destination he was expecting.  When he hears Jesus saying, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ Paul biggest surprise was probably his own lack of surprise.  This was a natural step of his path, he just had not known it until now, he was not ready to accept it until this peace. Now, he found what he was looking for, the Messiah, he recognized that this Jesus, the one who had been his problem and mission, was no longer a problem but still his mission.  The hope and  peaceful steps allowed him to recognize and accept this destination, permitting him to go to the house of a Jesus follower, not to persecute but to learn, not to stop a movement but to be a part of this movement – not to dilute his faith but now to complete his it.  This was all a part of his path, he continued on the path, only now his mission had been clarified, refined, and defined.  Now his hope and his peace was anchored.  

2 Basics 2 Understanding

  1. The Holy Spirit moves us onto our path which the apostle Paul refers to as our ‘salvation journey,’ which is not a journey TO salvation but a journey OF salvation.  The path shapes and refines us FOR the destination which is earthly as well as eternal.  Stepping onto our path is an act of faith, faith lets us recognize the Hope of the path.  We may think we have the path and the destination figured out, or, instead, we may attempt to waste time on the path attempting to avoid lesson and transformation, however God builds the path time intentionally  in order to prepare us for the destination.  We responsibly ask questions to spot ‘wrong path’ signs – questions such as, ‘is this path in harmony or conflict with the life of Jesus?’, or, ‘does this path seem to be paved with a priority of Loving for God and Loving all Others?’  Doubts & questions are gifts from God to propel us to seek and search, to know God more in order to recognize the warning signs, even along the path.  Paul was on the path, a path that he assumed was taking him to destroy the Jesus movement, but, actually it was taking him to build up the Jesus movement.  The path, including an experience of blindness, were all part of the work of refinement enabling Paul to see and accept the ultimate purpose of the path. 
  1. Faith is where it starts. Hope provides a confidence that permits us to ‘hang in there’ on the path and to absorb peace regardless instead of our blindness, confusion, surprise, and fear. A wasted path that results in an absence of peace at the destination – such is the story of Jonah.  The prophet Jonah was completely at home proclaiming the message of God, he was not a stranger to calling for the people to return to God.  He had never scoffed at this mission until he stepped on a path and heard the destination coordinates.  Ninevah. (A side note here may be helpful – this is why God often does not give us the destination – we need the path to prepare us to embrace the destination). Jonah attempted to change the destination, he headed in the direction of ‘anywhere but Ninevah’, while on this new path he even did God’s calling, only to a different destination and a different people, it was actually a very successful work. Gracefully, God provided a resistant Jonah a ride back to his right path, the path designed just for him, the path paved with Hope that would not only take him to a people in need of hope but also to prepare him to communicate great news.  The path was intended to remind Jonah of his own hope path, letting him enjoy this path and destination with an unexpected peace. See, God wanted the brain in Jonah’s head to click on the switch of compassion and mercy letting him see that hope is a need of all people. Regrettably, Jonah used the entire path for pouting instead of hoping, therefore, at the destination he did nothing more and nothing less than God said to do, he failed to see Hope in action as he had failed to let God give him peace – instead of an experience of faith, hope, peace, love, and joy, Jonah ended up with a destructive worm, a destroyed vine, and a dastardly wind while finding himself at the geographical coordinates he deeply hated and despised.

The pattern of Hope and Peace is the same many times over in the Bible.  Noah, a follower of God in a time when only he followed God was at peace in his own ‘rightness’, even though is was foreign, odd, and strange to everyone else.  His hope was in God and that firm foundation increased his peace daily, a peace that was formed on his path that led him to an outrageous destination..  As a result, when God told him of the coming flood, his response was not to question or to resist, instead, he picked up his saw, grabbed his hammer and went to work.  It was peace that woke him up each morning and put him exhausted to bed each evening.  Or, Abraham, who came from a long line of idol worshippers, idol makers, idol sellers, he had grown up with nothing except for false gods.  Then, the true God spoke to Abraham.  We do not really have the details of the dialogue except that Abraham accepted.  Abraham, too, was at peace saying yes, yes to this unknown God because Abraham had allowed the path to do its work of peace.  There were three wise men, who were not Jews, who, for most of their lives, had been watching the stars, reading the prophesies, hoping to see the moment when God would break in, so when God said ‘It’s time’ they saddled up, with a path given peace that enabled them to follow the star. There are stories of prostitutes and priests, politicians and tax collectors, Kings and Queens, military leaders and and dismissed marginalized people, there are rich and poor, there are women, men, and eunuchs, there are lower class, middle class, and upper class, there are greeks, romans, jews, gentiles, hebrews, and even samaritans, there are masters and slaves, there are good and bad, they are all on their path, each facing the choice of refinement and peace or pouting and being stuck.  Each faced a destination of joyously striving in God’s peace or an alternative to face their destination pouting, resisting, resenting, and seeing nothing but fear, hatred, and dread – that is their journey their path, that is our journey our path.

The Israelites faced a seemingly unbearable path that would take decades to complete, Isaiah spoke the Hope of their path to them, Peter spoke to a people who could only see suffering and pain on their path and he reminded them of their hope encouraging them to be found at peace. A strange prophet that wore even stranger clothes and held to a disgusting diet pointed out the filth of the paths that restricted many from seeing the hope that was already there. Two young people were put on a God awful path that could not have come at a worse time, but, as they traveled on that hopeful path, God prepared them for a peace that would carry them through a smelly stable,  years away from home and on the run, a vicious and paranoid ruler, a cradle set next to a nursing cow, visitors from the pastures and palaces, and the Son of God, the Messiah.

So, along the path, we have 2 essentials of our path.  

First, we are called to an ongoing search to know God, a constant pursuit.  We know God through the written truth through which we never cease to learn and are never unqualified to use. We know God through the person of Jesus Christ and the revelation of the example of his earthly life.  We also know God through others and everything around us – 

The 2nd second essential tool of the path – In order to do number one we must stay awake & pay attention. This was the final request of Jesus to the disciples before his arrest.  Staying awake and paying attention to others and everything around us, when this is accompanied by our growing knowledge of God we begin to notice and recognize notes from God, as well as identifying and eliminating those things inconsistent with God truth and the life of Jesus.

So, on the path, we learn and we notice, everyday of our life and every step of our path.  Mary and Joseph were different people by the time they arrived at Bethlehem than they had been nine months prior.  When Paul stepped on the path heading to Damascus he was a different person than he had been in the beginning of his religious vocation.  The same is said for Eve, for Noah, for Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, for Moses, for Joshua, for all the prophets, all of the apostles, all the new testament believers, and for each of us. There are others, individuals like Jonah, King Saul, Judas, Annanias and Sapphira, who chose to miss the preparation of the path, they died with no growth, no hope, no peace.

We are on the path, our path, let’s make the most of it.  Intentionally know God, do the work, pursue the relationship – knowing God is not a spectator sport.  Next listen, look, question, everything, look for peace with every step you take. Don’t limit the Holy Spirit on revealing peace to you by limiting your pursuit to only a few approved voices that align with your thinking, also do not block out anything that the Spirit can use to teach and strengthen you on the path.

In his book, Peace In Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh says,

‘We know how to sacrifice 10 years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on.  But, we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.  Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity.  We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

God speaks, along the way, through many avenues and voices, God gives peace as we recognize him at work all over and all around us.  It is the description of the path of those detailed in Hebrews 11, people that were headed to an unknown destination letting God gift them with hope and peace on the path. Be found at peace

this is the encouragement given to us, it is the hope for a world in chaos, disappointment, confusion, hatred, pain, and death.  It is the lesson of, and during, the path – it is peace regardless of what we can or cannot see. It is Jesus’ call to the Abundant Life, to an intentional Life, to a Real Life. It is God’s call to us.

Hope and Peace.

Prayer Together

11.29.20 – First Sunday of Advent – Hope (based on Psalm 80)

O God, radiate Your light!

Lord, arouse Your strength and power, and save us!

Bring us back to You, God. Turn the light of Your face upon us so that we will be rescued from this sea of darkness.

Let Your protective hand rest on the one who is at Your right hand,
the child of man whom You have raised and nurtured for Yourself.

Then we will not turn away from You. Bring us back to life! And we will call out for You!

O Eternal God, Commander of heaven’s armies, bring us back to You. Turn the light of Your face upon us so that we will be rescued from this sea of darkness.

Amen.

Staying Awake

Waiting is tough, it can be extremely difficult.  The Christmas season has more than its share of waiting, it can be torture. Waiting to give and receive gifts, waiting for the food, waiting for family, waiting for beloved traditions, waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

One of my favorite torturous Christmas waiting stories came from a coworker of Andrea’s following a Christmas break.  She told of her three year old who could not wait for Christmas morning, everyday, and multiple times each day he would ask ‘how much longer?’  Finally, Christmas Day arrived and this toddler found that he still had to wait.  Way to early on Christmas morning, while it was still too dark to celebrate anything, the little boy appeared at his mom and dad’s bedside.  He quietly waited for them to wake up until he could wait no more.  He began to softly talk, then, when that received no response he spoke louder, again no response, he continued to increase the volume until it was clear drastic action was needed.  He reached up and began to gently tap, and then a little less gently tap on his parents arms.  When they awoke, again they told him he would have to wait a little longer.  Disappointed, he turned to walk away, as his mother reminded him to stay away from the tree and presents until they could all do it together.  Then tone of his response set of a warning bell in the mom’s mind and so she asked, “Have you already been to the tree and the presents?’ He responded no and continued out the door, she watched him walk away and noticed that on his feet were his new Spongebob house shoes that had been wrapped and placed waiting for him to open that morning.

Like I said, sometimes waiting is tough, but on certain occasions it is impossible.

Waiting is a mainstay of the our faith.  If you consider the Biblical historical events there is a huge element of waiting embedded in each.  Eve waiting outside the garden for a child, Noah waiting for the floods to come and then for them to recede, Abraham and Sarah waiting for a fulfillment of God’s absurd promise, Joseph waiting in a dungeon, Moses waiting for God’s affirming sign, Joshua waiting on the walls of Jericho to fall, Isaiah and Jeremiah and quota of prophets waiting on a people to listen, Elijah waiting on a mountain side, Joseph and Mary waiting on a miraculous birth, Anna and Simeon waiting for the arrival of the Messiah…. And the list goes on and on.

Waiting is universal but it is also unique to us humans.  An animal can crouch waiting on its prey, a plant can wait on gemination, my dog can sometimes wait on breakfast lunch and dinner and treats in between, but with each of these, when the moment arrives the anxiety of the waiting is complete.  Whereas, in our faith, the moments of waiting may be finally fulfilled, but each time of waiting is a sub wait of an ultimate wait.

It would seem to be an almost mean system, designed by a arrogant God, to toy and mess with us.  Actually, the waiting is a precious gift given by our merciful and compassionate God, our God who is also our biggest fan.

Actually, the waiting is only understood in the context of a more exclusively human characteristic – another gift from our loving God.  The waiting is really just a symptom of our larger issue, and that is the element of time. 

Dr. Christopher Davis of Memphis Theological Seminary says that ‘time was made for humans, not for God.’ adding, ‘Thus, God is not in a hurry.

This may be the most blatant disconnect between humans and God. God is in no hurry, we are almost always in a hurry.  God takes the time for the right time, we plow through seldom considering the collateral damage to ourself or others. Ironically, the creation of time is because we because we desperately need it. Time holds us back until it is the right time, time paves the way for us to be a part of God’s timing, time refines us to be ready and prepared for the exact time.  Time gives us the opportunity to allow hope to replace hopelessness, the hope that gives us the strength to wait and the power to persevere in the midst  of time.

Influential Greek statesman Pericles said, 

‘Time is the wisest counselor of all.’    Pericles   

The apostle Peter said,

‘But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.’    II Peter 2:8 

The apostle Paul said to the believers in Corinth,

I cannot stop myself from thanking God for all the tools he has given you in your wait for Jesus.  He has not only enriched your lives but he has guided you in your pursuit of a very personal understanding of your faith, your story, now you can not only live it out naturally but you can put that story into your words when anyone asks for an explanation. I told you Christ would do this, and now Jesus has!  It is amazing what God has done. In the midst of you waiting for him, in the midst of your struggle with time. Now you not only have God’s grace but you also recognize his blessing on this part of your journey, God has set all the tools in front of you that are essential in order for you to wait, the tools that are the power God has instilled in your to successfully flourish during this wait – you will be ready when Jesus returns. Even more amazing is the fact that, at that end of wait, end of our time moment, you will still be free from sin and guilt because of what Jesus has done for and given to you.  You can rest assured that God will do what God says God will do, we know because God always does what God has promised to be done!

I Corinthians 1:4-9

It was the exact right time as Joseph and Mary sat in a stable surrounded by by animals, feed, and poop, to see the culmination of their wait.  Sometimes the exact right time, the end line of a wait, finds us surrounded by poop.  It was by this time that these two young people had grabbed ahold of the hope God was setting in front of them.  It was not something visible that they could show others, it had been reinforced by events and words that could only be captured by the heart and the mind.  Hope is unseen, based on the unseen, but once we grab hold it guides us through time, it affirms us through the often hopelessness of our human response to time. 

Here is truth about time and waiting. Hope always precedes our problem. While we know that Mary and Joseph experienced difficulty and even doubts up to, and assuredly after, the birth of Jesus, we know that they were surely rejected and isolated, even moments of isolation from each other, God’s hope was still always there.  God’s hope and been a part of their journey from birth, it had actually be there before creation, waiting on the need to surface.

Over a century before the Israelites were attacked, conquered, and carried away to slavery, God already was revealing HOPE.  The prophets were calling them to return to God but at the same time their prophetic message was salted with Hope.  Isaiah spoke to a generation that they, themselves, would have passed by the time of the exile but their descendants would suffer – still, God spoke to the Hope that would be waiting for them.  This prophet did not speak with soft and gentle words, he was confronted and aggressive but still he could not help but point out that, even in their rejection of God, Hope would still be there waiting on the moment they would cry out to God. 

‘From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for God.’

Isaiah 64:4

The highly influential Charles Spurgeon, the 1800s British preacher still known as  the “Prince of Preachers” around the world, said,

‘God does not wait for us to return to him. He meets us. He comes to us the moment that we turn our feet towards his throne, [the moment we remember and cry out to him]. While we are, like the prodigal, a great way off, he sees us, and has compassion upon us, and runs to meet us.’ 

Hope always prepares us for the even greater hope, is enables us to weather the wait, it calls on us to be awake and alert, to see and participate in own preparation process.

I am convinced that this Advent season we are in a world wide time of wait.  A time when God is allowing us into our own preparation for the greater hope ahead, the greater wait on the horizon.  Seldom does has the entire world knowingly faced the same wait as it has this past year.  We have seen millions die and even more millions infected. We have been forced to step away from the life we considered normal and, instead, wear masks, meet on a computer screen, to stay in our homes, to shut down businesses, schools, and churches.   At the same time we have been confronted with some realities that we have failed to fully see up to this point.  God has opened the gates, he has forced us to open our eyes, he has woke us up and turned made it so that we cannot turn away from our problems, we can no longer ignore them.  In the midst of a pandemic we have seen protests in our streets spurred on by a deeply hidden in plain sight racism that has oppressed generation after generation of humans created by our God.  We have seen a divided country that has made sport out of our own destructive divisiveness. These plus many other realities have been in our view and impossible to ignore, impossible to dismiss.

But dismiss we often to.  It is probably the most powerful tool evil has in its tool box. We see the protests and proclaim that they should not be so noisy or violent, we hear of the political divide and we attack those with whom we differ using terms that villainize but never are truly and honestly defined. We choose to expand our division rather than seeking to bridge the gap.  We have seen churches defend their rights to gather at the expense of the health of their congregants and even more than that, the risk to those who encounter any that chose to act in a disregard of the health of others.  Even a pandemic has been politicized to the point that wearing or not wearing a mask is a political statement.

We have squandered an opportunity to let God grow us in our understanding of ‘Love all your neighbors.’  We have taken a moment of refinement to strengthen our ability to wait, to weather time, to grab ahold of the tools he has given us, to open our eyes and see what we have failed to see.  We have been surrounded by poop and instead of grabbing a shovel to clean up, we just added more. And, we then have found ourselves anxious, resentful, hateful, angry, delirious, scared, and sadly, in much the same way that we were before we had ever hear the word Covid.

This applies to us all, me included.

As Jesus spoke to his intimate followers in his final moment before his arrest, this was on his mind.  He knew that as he suffered the nonhuman horror that he was about to face, his followers would travel their own journey of pain, misery, frustration, and the temptation to default to hopelessness. He knew that these next days, as the followers faced all that was about to take place, Jesus knew it was not going to be the end of their wait, even this would further prepare them for more waiting, more unbearable human time.  So, he told them to watch for the signs, to not be unaware, to hold on to the hope from God who had never, and would never, let them down.  He called them to stay awake, to keep a watchful eye, to hold lightly their own speculation of how it would all play out, and to make the most of the waiting in between, to let God grow and prepare them, to hold onto the hope in the midst of the poop. To continue to trust, to hold on to hope, to continue to live and work, to continue to shovel and clear, to turn from the voices that called them to anything else, he was actually calling them to Hope that would lead to Peace, and to Peace that would stand them on Love, resulting in a Love that can carry a world.

To look for the coming blooms on the big tree, a sign that spring and summer are close.

Let’s return to where we started, with the words of Dr. Dr. Christopher Davis,

‘The reality is that God reserves the right to keep us waiting; time was made for humans, not for God. Thus, God is not in a hurry. The Lord is worth waiting for.  No matter how long it takes, no matter what you have to go through, when you get to the place that God has purposed, planned, and provided, or you receive what God has promised, prepared, and produced, you will gladly testify that it was worth the wait. Sometimes God uses slow because we are not ready for what God wants to give to us? Sometimes God uses slow because the ultimate end is not our gain but God’s glory.  We would do well to remember that God is not human, thus does not lie and has no need to repent. In other words, God is gonna do what God said. What we go through cannot cancel what God told us. Because God’s Word is more powerful than any struggle we go through along our way. If God said it, I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care what we have to go through. I don’t care what comes at us. None of it is strong enough to revoke, rescind, retract, reverse or repeal God’s promises. God promised to be the God of Israel, and they were to be God’s people. Thus, slow is never to be confused with no.’

Dr. Christopher Davis, Memphis Theological Seminary

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of  slowness, but is patient with you not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.  

II Peter 2:9-10

Let’s close with a look at a jumbled pile of bullet points (remember the the text  of this message will be included with the video posted tomorrow),

  • Wait and Time are realities in our humanity and our faith 
  • Hope is essential in wait and wait is essential in Hope 
  • Hope focuses us back on work to be done, waiting without hope leaves us longing for past normal and a failure to grow in the waiting 
  • Hope always precedes our problems
  • Hope is always our preparation for a greater hope
  • Hope enables us to wait, Hope empowers us to weather  time 
  • Hope is recognized when our heart is looking and our mind  is searching
  • Hope ushers us into peace and holds us there 
  • Hope is on God’s plan not our agenda 
  • Hope is on God’s perfect and timeless non-time table
  • Hope is grounded in God’s sacrifice and our intentional faith
  • Hope leads to Peace, Peace stands us on Love, Love carries the world

Today, as we begin this season of ‘wait’ we light the Advent candle of Hope, next week we will light the candle of Peace. In the meantime, this week, look for hope, grab ahold of it and don’t let go.  It may require that you let go of many other things, because sometimes it is impossible to keep a tight hold on Hope while holding things that interfere with hope, but as God refines and prepares you, the work he does will make the letting go worth the release of your grasp.

Prayer Together 11.22.20

(Based on Psalm 95:1-7a)

God, we come before you and sing to you, our Lord.  We hope that you are able to discern the joy in our voices as we honor you, our Rock.

Lord, we come to you with grateful hearts singing praises to you.

Father, you are our great God, the King of all Kings and the the one and only true God.

You, God, have formed the seas as well as the mightiest of mountains, they are yours.  May we recognize your gift of them all, may we honor you in the midst of this beauty and power. 

Lord, you made the seas and formed the land, those are yours as well, those, also deserve our honor and respect.

Father, we come before you in a reverent manner for you are our Lord and Maker.

God, you are our God. God, we are your sheep. God, you are our Shepherd.

Amen.

When Did I Do That?!

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.

Mother Theresa

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, ‘God has 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.’ 

Micah 6:8

What do we do with this, how can we be the highest preforming investment in God’s singular portfolio?  

  1. 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. 
  1. 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?’ 
  1. 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. 
  1. 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?

Build Up

11.15.20

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.’

Prayer Together

A Prayer Based on Psalm 43

Defend us, O God. Argue our case against those people who don’t know you. We trust that you will protect us against those who follow evil instead of you.

God, you are our place of safety. You do not desire that we suffer this sadness that evil brings on us.

Send your light and your truth to guide us, lead us to your holy mountain, to your home.

We want to go to your altar, to you O God, you, who make us so very happy. God, our God, may we sing praises to you!

Why are we so sad? Why, then, are we upset? We tell ourself, “Wait for God’s help! We will again have a chance to praise you, our God, the one who will save us.”

Amen.

Really, What is Truth – Living a Life of Differentiation

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. 

Bizarre times.  Scary times. Exhausting times. Frustrating times. But, Hopeless times?

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 – 

‘Do,’  

‘Not’, 

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 3:5

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.

Psalm 43:3

“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.”

John 3:19-21.

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.” 

Ephesians 5:8

Four Questions to Ask Yourself in All Your Searches for   Light and Truth.

  1. 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?’
  1. 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.”
  1. 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? 
  1. 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?

What is YOUR choice?

Face To Face – Never Since

‘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.’

Leviticus 19:18

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. 

Deuteronomy 34:10

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.

Exodus 3:3-6 

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.  

We are on holy ground.

Take off your shoes.

Let’s Pray

Sounds Like God

Eleven words and my focus was set.  Eleven words that showed up in the middle of our I Thessalonians passage that wrapped the message of the entire reading, and most of the book, into one thing – sincere lives that are genuinely noticed.

And, in those 11 words one of those words pulled me in by the collar and yelled at me ‘LOOK AT THIS!’

The word is exēchētai. We only see this word, in this form, used in this verse.

In most of our translations, this word is transcribed as our word ‘SOUND’ or ‘SOUNDED’ 

and in this particular greek word means ‘TO SOUND FORTH’.

The basic meaning can be referring to the volume or level of the sound itself, such as ‘It is loud,’ however, more often, it is used to described something that is that is very clear and precise – ‘Oh, that was really understandable’.  It is not referring to words or speaking, it is in fact our sound. It is the sound of our life that reveals our hearts.  It is the sound of our life that comes across clean and precise to which the world can say, ‘Oh, I get it.’ It is the sound that is heard long before words are spoken or actions are undertaken.

Much like a parade – you stand at your location as the participants walk, drive, or roll by. While you stand there looking at what is in front of you, you are always aware that there is a marching band in the parade and it is coming your way. You are unable to see it but you hear it, and then, after the band passes by, the sound lingers, and you continue to hear it even after it is once again out of sight.

In the instance of the Thessalonians, that sound that you are aware of before and even after – sounds like God

Silence my soul, these trees are prayers. I asked the tree, “Tell me about God;” then it blossomed.

Rabindranath Tagore

The believers in Thessalonica had blossomed, they had an amazing sound.  Their words, and more importantly, their actions of joy in the midst of persecution, hospitality to all persons, their unity even in disagreement, and their passion in serving God and serving all others. It was a sound that could not be dismissed – it came before them and stuck around after they left.  People were surprised, the Apostle Paul was amazed.

One of the regrettable circumstances of the modern evangelical movement is that words have taken priority over all else, more than actions of kindness and love, and presence – words, whether personal or scripted, have become the sound.  Without the sound of God, there is little that we hear that lasts.  Apart from God, our awkward or powerful words, our charm or pushy speech, all eventually fall short.

‘For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven,’

I Thessalonians 1:8-10a (NRSV)

Or, listen to vivid account from the paraphrase, The Message:

‘Do you know that all over the provinces of both Macedonia and Achaia believers look up to you? The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore—you’re the message! People come up and tell us how you received us with open arms, how you deserted the dead idols of your old life so you could embrace and serve God, the true God. They marvel at how expectantly you await the arrival of his Son,’

I Thessalonians 1:8-10a (MSG)

‘Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word’.  Imagine being told that, imagine your day to day life being described in that manner.  ‘Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word’. ‘Your are bringing the sound of God wherever you go.’

Surely they were beaming when they read Paul’s letter.

Paul is telling the believers in Thessalonica that God’s truth is being ‘Sounded’ by the them, sounded through words but even more through their presence, it was their sound. Their sound had created a life of its own. Their sound was attractive – their actions were contagious, their words were credible.   

Paul tells the believers that they are doing his job, they are doing what he came to do.  All the more amazing is that Paul is finding his own story now not being told to him instead of by him. Anything Paul tells the people, the listeners have already heard.  Paul is obsolete, they are telling HIM the truth.

Paul precedes his praise by giving an explanation of how the Spirit has done this work among the Thessalonians. We often view the work of the Spirit as being entirely ‘other worldly’, that the Spirit overtakes us and does what we have been unable or unwilling to do on our own. We see it as magical and apart from ourself – almost as if we are receiving a reboot and better software is downloaded into us to make us work better.

Paul points out pertinent elements to the Thessalonians transformation.

‘And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joyinspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.’

I Thessalonians 1:6-7

‘Became imitators of us and of the Lord’ -The people, entrenched in their life habits, beliefs, religious practices, view of God or gods, did not really know where to start, the Spirit pointed to Paul and his companions and to God. They watched and learned from their examples.

‘In spite’ – even though they were persecuted and their faith could endanger their lives, they still found a way to express truth in a subtle and quieter manner.  They found ways to ‘sound’ like Jesus, even though their ‘sound’ often had to remain silent. Their sound was amazingly effective.

‘Received’ – receiving the Spirit was a choice, in choosing they were aware that there would surely be things that they would have to reject, ways and practices of their lives that were not able to share space with the Spirit.  They ‘received’ without any guarantees of what they would look like in the future.

‘With joy inspired’ – This choice a ‘choice’ that could upend their ways of life, it could make enemies out of friends, it could threaten vocations, reputation, and position.  They chose regardless, this was their state of mind, they made a choice out of joy.

So that you became an example to all the believers – this is self explanatory, their joyful choice permitted them to not only become a visual image for others to follow, but it also gave credence to their words – to believers and non believers.

Paul also addresses the foundational factor in their witness as he says, 

‘Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.’

I Thessalonians 1:5b

The Thessalonians had not listened to Paul and his companions because of their eloquence or their charisma, it was not because of their status or their position, it was not because of the orchestrated emotion of the moment, nor was it due to a fear of the consequences.  They listened, and they followed, because they could see the ‘sound’ of these men’s lives. 

Their real, raw, and vulnerable sound.

Based on their experience with Paul and his companions, the believers chose to listen, they chose to follow, they chose to receive the Spirit, they mindfully chose to imitate these who genuinely pointed to God.  Their imitation of Paul landed them at the feet of God in the flesh, Jesus, who they then followed – much like the disciples of John the baptizer who ultimately followed Jesus.

We must recognize this process of trusting before listening and then listening before following took an extended period of time. Paul speaks of the delicate balance practiced in order to not be a burden to the church.  Paul made a choice to trust the intentional work of the Spirit, regardless of how long it took. Paul made a choice of personal vulnerability permitting the believers to hear his honest sound.  The Thessalonians soon hungered to have the same sound.

One other dynamic must be noticed in this story.  A culminating lesson for all believers, for all of us. The sound of the Thessalonians was not due to one individual, or even a small group of individuals, it was the result of all the individuals who together were the church at Thessalonica. Their combined sounds became the sound of the church at Thesslonica.

Michael Joseph Brown, President of Payne Theological Seminary, sums it up by saying.

‘If anything, [I Thessalonians] is about relationship and imitation. Paul makes this clear from the beginning. He says, “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution, you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit”. The apostle reminds us indirectly that human beings can only experience the fullness of their humanity when they are in deep, trusting relationship with one another. Even more, this relationship has more depth when it is experienced along with God. In addition, imitation becomes an outgrowth of this strong relationship.’

Michael Joseph Brown

This huge impression made by the Thessalonian church on other believers and non-believers alike, was as much about the whole as it was the individual. Those watching the sound of the individual believers at Thessalonica, which then became the sound of the church at Thessalonica was a sound that could not be dismissed.  People noticed the Thessalonians by their real, raw, and vulnerable sound.  

The outsiders saw the new sound that the Spirit created. In the midst of the believer’s trials – the community saw the Thessalonians at their most vulnerable – they saw that this sound could not be mitigated, even as politicians and the religious establishment sought to turn their sound off. Even inner disagreement of the church did not quiet their sound, in fact, the manner in which they worked through those disagreements made their sound even stronger.

It is the questions all churches must ask, it is the question we must ask.

Does our actual sound match the definition we have given to our sound? 

Do we seek, search, and stand on truth?

Are we actively searching for truth in all aspects of our life, in the way we live, in the way we respond to the world around us, in the way of our politics, in our presence, in our sound?

Do we meet the world with the embrace of Jesus?

Are we committed to seeing all humans as humans created by the same God who loves us all? Are we ready to embrace, without judgement and agenda, those who are of a different skin color, different religion, different nationality, those of a different political persuasion, those who are LGTBQI, the rejected, the despised, the alienated, those who make us uncomfortable?

Do we trust the affirming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the lives of others?

Are we committed to letting the Spirit decided the work that need to be done in each life or are we stuck with our own judgments and own ideas and agenda for other people, do we trust the change the Spirit wants to work in them and each of us?

What is the real, raw, and vulnerable sound of Grace Fellowship?

At 2:45pm, on a cold day mid December 2001, I stood with other parents on the ramp to Mrs. Cook’s pre K class at Monroe elementary school.  We were waiting until the bell would ring and our children would be match up with us and released.  As we stood waiting, we visited.  Most conversation, including mine on that day, did not end once the door opened and the matching process began.  As my child was match with me and released she ran to me with an undeniable sound that could not be ignored. I know this because I attempted to ignore the sound in order to finish my conversation.  Her sound was persistent however, and eventually the teacher’s aid got my attention and summoned me to take notice of my child’s sound.  The aide had a sound of her own which was communicated by the look on her face.  I took notice of Hannah’s sound. Santa Clause had visited the class that day and Hannah, as promised in her sound, was about to bust by her need to share all that she had learned about Santa and Mrs. Clause, about the reindeer and life at the North Pole, about the fact that Santa was trying to lose weight because he had not been eating right or exercising, although Christmas Eve did always manage to take a few pounds off him which delighted Mrs. Clause who was in much better shape and didn’t eat as much sugar, however, the most important thing, the thing that probably had the most influence on the sound of my daughter was that Santa Clause needed to quit eating so many cookies, it was very repetitive, and also not very healthy.  So, ironically, the children had suggested that they might leave pizza instead, an idea that seemed to greatly please Santa.  The sound of Hannah continued through Christmas Eve when we, in fact put out the much more healthy pepperoni pizza than the unhealthy sugar cookies, and then through Christmas morning when Hannah glowed at the note from Santa thanking her for remembering the pizza instead of the cookies.

What is the sound of your life?

What the sound of our life?