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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Come, Join Us (Luke 8:43-48)

In 2010, I wrote a couple of Mother's Day messages on Luke 8:43-48.  It's the story of the woman with the unceasing blood flow who touches Jesus in a crowd and is healed.  In these two messages, which I post here and in the previous post, I looked at those healed.  This Sunday (January 22, 2017), I will again look at Luke 8.  This time, the focus is on what we learn about God.  Here is the second of those messages.

Sunday, May 9, 2010 – Mother’s Day

          Let me encourage you to join me in looking at this text through a lens colored by the dynamic of inclusion-exclusion.  In the school yard, a group of friends are laughing and playing on the monkey bars.  They climb, they play tag, they just hang out and talk; it seems endless, so fun, so free.  But it’s not what it seems because you pan back just a little, see more the scene, and there’s another kid off to the side, on the swings, alone.  She longs more than anything to be laughing with her peers on the monkey bars. 
Why isn’t she?
Maybe she’s new and shy, and she hasn’t made any friends yet.  Might she have a physical condition that prevents participation in vigorous recess games?  Since 1st grade, the other kids ran and played, and she had to sit out.  Now they’re all in 4th grade.  For four years, the friendships formed.  For four years, she has sat out. 
Or, no, maybe she’s not new.  And, she’s pretty healthy.  But, for whatever reason, she’s kind of socially awkward.  For some kids, relationships come easily.  But not her; she has trouble picking up cues, knowing when to laugh.  She was kind of odd in 1st grade, and once that label stuck; no one dared risk befriending her.  They didn’t want to called odd too.  So, for four years, her friends have grown closer and closer in those monkey bar sessions.  New kids have even come, and blended right in seamlessly.  And for four years, she’s become more and more alone.  They think she wants to be alone, but no, she’s dieing inside.  She would like for nothing more in the world than for someone to come and say, “Join us.”  But they don’t.  They are all inside.  She is the outsider.
Does this only happen at recess?  Of course not.  Kids get excluded on little league teams, in church youth groups, in neighborhood.  Is this inside-outside dynamic in play only with kids?  It gets worse in middle school, and by high school, the popular kids are obvious.  They strut through the hallways.  The outsiders are invisible, sometimes even teachers overlook them.  As they enter adulthood, the popular kids exude confidence.  The not-so popular kids have trouble making it.
I am generalizing here.  On occasion, the popular kid experiences the pinnacle of his success in life while in high school and find rather rudely that the working world did not care that he was captain of the football team or that she was prom queen.  It’s not that rare for the awkward geeky 9th grader to blossom and become a great success in college and beyond.  The issue is people being included and others excluded – in-crowds, and those locked out of the “in-crowds.”  It is easy to spot on the playground, but just as often it occurs in the adult world, and there, it can hurt just as much.  In fact, adult who feel alone, left out, overlooked by the society around them might feel it much worse because they become resigned to the idea that whatever “cool” is, it is not them.  Whatever acceptance feels like, they don’t have it.  I have talked to adults who want more than anything for people around them to say, “Come, join us.”  But they don’t hear it.

A brief overview of the last half of Luke chapter 8 brings to us people who were excluded, kicked to the margins forgotten, and people who were very much the center of attention.  There is the demon-possessed man of the region called Garasenes.  With thousands of demons living in him, the man was a wild animal.  Naked, raving, he roamed among the tombs without human contact.  The people in the nearby town tried to bind him, but he ripped the chains.  He was like a dead man, no living person wanted anything to do with him.  He was feared, rejected, and alone. 
There is also in Luke 8 Jairus the synagogue leader.  He would have been a respected member of the community.  Everyone paid attention to the happenings of his life because he was such an important man.  So, when his 12-year-old daughter fell sick, and the ancient physicians determined that she would soon die, it became a topic of community concern.  When something happens to an insider, everyone notices.
However, in the midst of this insider’s story, we also meet an outsider – an unnamed woman.  Of course she would be unnamed; why would her name matter?  She didn’t matter.  She had an uncontrollable blood flow.  A gynecologist from Washington University, Lewis Wall, has written about this passage.  He believes the woman suffered from a condition where irregular and unpredictable her menstrual periods were irregular and unpredictable.  In most cases it is due to hormonal imbalance, and if untreated for 12 years – the Bible says she had suffered from the blood flow 12 years – then the woman would be infertile.  She couldn’t have children and because of the blood flow, she was ritualistically unclean.  She couldn’t join the community for worship.
Luke places side by side and even in overlapping fashion the stories of an outsider (the demon-possessed man), an insider (Jairus and his dieing daughter), and an outsider (the bleeding woman).  The outsiders had no hope that anyone would say, “Come, join us; be part of our group; we welcome you.”  But, we find something crucial for all of us in our summary of these stories, something that binds the insider and the outsiders.  This binds us to them and to one another as well.  All three desperately needed a touch from Jesus.  Every one of us needs Jesus too
The outsider needs to know he’s included.  The insider discovers that being accepted in social circles does not ensure a person he won’t suffer.  The ultimate insider, the synagogue leader, suffered anxiety and powerlessness and only Jesus could help.  Elsewhere in the gospel and New Testament, religious leaders like Joseph of Arimathea (a council member) and the Pharisee Saul (who would become the Apostle Paul) realized that being an insider isn’t all it is cracked up to be.  Like the rejects who found their only hope in Jesus, the insiders’ only hope for ultimate meaning and truly fellowship with God was and is in Jesus. 

The outsider-insider dynamic plays out on Mother’s Day.  The insider is the mom who has children who love her.  She gets to be with them on Mother’s Day – or if they are grown, they call and send cards and gifts.  They might even bring grandchildren over.  The woman is loved by her husband and surrounded by offspring who adore her.  It is wonderful and it is to be admired.  She’s done a great job with her family.  Today that mom should be celebrated.  There is much good about Mother’s Day, if you are an insider.
Not taking away from that, I hope every mother in that situation can celebrate all the joys of motherhood and at the same time come to understand that motherhood is not the highest good.  The highest good is to be a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ and to grow in that relationship daily through prayer, worship, Bible reading, and Christian service.  A friend recently, with great seriousness, said to me, “You cannot find your validation as a man in your wife.  The only one who can validate you is Jesus Christ.”  I would turn that to all the wonderful Moms around.  It’s awesome that you have great kids and grandkids.  I am happy that you are happy as a mom.  You cannot find your validation as a woman in the children you have raised who love you so much.  The only one who can validate you as a woman is Jesus Christ.  That’s true for the person who’s been a mother for 1 year and for the person who’s been a mother for 60.
That’s also true for those who are not celebrating Mother’s Day with joy.  Mother’s Day, for some, does lead to happy nostalgia, smile-producing reminiscing.  Perhaps someone is bitter because the relationship with his mother is soured.  The relationship with her mother is estranged.  A woman is alienated from her children.  It’s the first Mother’s Day after the divorce; after the death.  The pain of Mother’s Day is hard to capture because a woman feels maternity deep inside her, but she’s 40, and still single.  With the passing of each year, she’s more resigned to a future that includes loneliness marked by uncertainty and feelings that are evasive.  Each person for whom Mother’s Day produces tears not joy finds validation, meaning, and deeper joy in the same place as all the happy moms – in Jesus.  He’s inside the insider’s circle, but he looks out at all who struggle and weep through Mother’s Day; he looks out at those whose chin is bucked and shoulders squared, who won’t give in to the loneliness, who bravely try to put on a smile; he opens the insider’s circle, looks out and says, you there, you who are in such pain, come, join us.  You belong with us because you belong to me.

The doctor I mentioned, Lewis Wall wrote about the woman with the blood flow in an article in Christianity Today magazine.  Because the discharge of blood wise most likely tied to irregular menstruation, she probably had no children.  And this had gone on for 12 years.  “A 12-year stretch without a pregnancy would have been very unusual in ancient Galilee.  [Annual pregnancies were] commonplace.  It would have been almost unheard of to go 12 years without a pregnancy.”[i] 
The woman was unable to obey the command of God to be fruitful and multiply.  “She was thus cut off from something that gave her life meaning and provided her acceptable social status: motherhood.  To be infertile in a culture where motherhood was the supreme female virtue hung a cloud not only over her current life, but also over her future prospects.”  In great detail, Dr. Wall discusses how this situation made life debilitating and without hope for her in terms of health, in terms of social interaction, and in terms of future hope.  She was no one.  She knew it. Everyone knew it. 
Yet, she did not stand pat.  Her status as outsider was actually legally mandated.  If one touched her during her bloody discharge that person would become “unclean” and disqualified from temple worship.  Her rejection from normal society and thus relationships and human touch was law.  So, to force her way into a dense crowd was to break the law.  That’s what she did.  I don’t know if her move is best described as faith, determination, or desperation.  But, she covered up, forced her way in, went unnoticed, and violating all convention touched Jesus.
And it worked!  It worked because coming to Jesus is always the very best solution to a problem.  Don’t take that simplistically!  If someone has a cancerous tumor, it is not enough to turn to Jesus.  He must also get with an oncologist and maybe have surgery.  If someone is being sued, in addition to turning to Jesus, she should get a good lawyer.  The doctor will take care of the tumor.  The lawyer will guide us through the case.  Jesus is there to make sure it is well with our souls on the hard days, on the good days, and on the uncertain days.  The woman turned to Jesus and was healed.
Better still!  She managed to remain anonymous.  There many people and they were caught up in the excitement of all Jesus was doing.  They had no time for her and didn’t notice.  They didn’t see her violate the law.  She could slip away and clean up.  She would put on a new outfit, show herself to the priest, be declared clean, and start life again. 
This was perfect – but one did notice.  We are not ever out of God’s sight.  God is not, as Bette Midler sang watching from a distance.  God is up close and personal.  Things didn’t slip Jesus.  He noticed her.  He always notices outsiders.  You may feel like the biggest loser around, someone who fails at everything, but don’t believe it.  God notices you and me.  God made us.  God made you unique and God wants to fill your heart with His love.  As that happens, God will show you that your life is not a failure.  As we are filled with the Spirit, we see that God will work in us and through us to accomplish mighty things.
Jesus stopped the procession, the phalanx of people parading to watch as he healed Jairus’ daughter, as he worked yet another miracle.  Jesus stopped in the middle and looked out and called the outsider.  The woman had determinedly come and touched Jesus’ garment when his back was turned and no one was watching her.  Now, she trembled as she came and with all eyes on her explained her shame and why she had touched Jesus and what she had done.  Famed preacher Fred Craddock remarks “Faith is indeed personal, but it is certainly not private.”[ii]  As true as it was for that woman, it is equally so for all who trust in Jesus.  We are to tell who He is and what He has done for us and for all sinners.
The outsider, the now healed woman, explained herself and Jesus re-classified her on the spot.  The world she lived in called her “unclean” and relegated her to the forgotten fringes of society.  Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”  Daughter!  An outsider, this lady?  No, no!  The king of kings and lord of lords, God’s own son, our Savior, God in the flesh called her “daughter.”  He called her daughter and bid her “peace.”  All this woman had heard in her life was “keep out, you’re dirty, stay away.”  Now Jesus said, “Come, join us.  You are a daughter of God.  Welcome into the eternal family.  Your place is at the main table.”  She wasn’t just restored for human relationships, wonderful as that was.  She was invited as a child of God.

We are too.  Is Mother’s Day hard because of loss or broken relationships or unrealized dreams?  The gentle hands of Jesus are extended to you and he says, “Come, join us.” 
Do you feel awkward, like you can’t fit in, like everyone is laughing and you didn’t get the joke?  Jesus reaches to you in your loneliness and says, “Come, Son, join us.” 
Do you feel a pain you are sure no one else knows or understands?  You might be right.  No one else does understand what you’re dealing with.  But Jesus does.  He says, “Come, Daugher, join us.”
Do we dare believe him?  Do we dare accept that Jesus means it, he will truly love us?  Can we let go of our identity as the forgotten ones, the excluded ones, the losers?  Can we let go of the hate that’s been building, brick by brick, each time more person is cruel or indifferent?  Can we let go and run into Jesus’ waiting arms?
Twelve years is a long time to bleed.  A lifetime is a long time to spend as an outsider.  This is not a call to conformity.  Jesus was not a conformist.  This is an invitation to community – communion with God and God’s family.  This is God asking for relationship with you and me because he loves us.  That’s why Jesus came.  Representing God Father and the Holy Spirit, Jesus came to say, “Come, my friend.  Receive forgiveness of your sins.  Receive freedom from the consequences of sin and shame, failure and loneliness. Come to me as a beloved child of God.  Come, and join us.”

[i] Lewis Wall, “Jesus and the Unclean Woman,” Christianity Today, January, 2010, p.48-52.
[ii] Craddock, Fred, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Luke (John Knox Press: Louisville, 1990), p.120.

The Unclean Woman in the 21st Century (Luke 8:43-48)

In 2010, I wrote a couple of Mother's Day messages on Luke 8:43-48.  It's the story of the woman with the unceasing blood flow who touches Jesus in a crowd and is healed.  In these two messages, which I post here and in the next post, I looked at those healed.  This Sunday (January 22, 2017), I will again look at Luke 8.  This time, the focus is on what we learn about God.  Here is the first of those messages.

The Unclean Woman in the 21st Century (Luke 8:43-48)
Sunday, May 9, 2010, Mother’s Day

          Imagine this.  You are a 14-year-old girl.  You’ve never been to school.  You were married to a man at age 13, and became pregnant 6 months later.  Now you are in labor.  Labor has already lasted three days.  At midday, on the fourth day of labor, you pass a still-born child.  Relieved, you think the madness and torture is over.  But on the fifth day, you discover to your horror that you have no control over your bodily functions.  No matter how much you wash, no matter why you try, you have no control.  You cannot get rid of the odor.
          Your husband is disgusted.  He cannot stand you.  Your presence is unendurable.  You were supposed to become the mother of his firstborn son.  Instead, this has happened.  It must be some punishment for something you have done.  So, he throws you out of the house. 
          Your parents take you in, but they can’t stand the sight or smell of you any more than he could.  They make you stay in a shack at the edge of the family compound.  Your condition does not improve.  With no control over your body, you always reek.  You are put out again, this time to fend for yourself. 
You are 14.  You illiterate and have no skills.  You just want to die.[i] 

Here’s what the girl in that unbelievably desperate situation doesn’t know.  There are approximately 3 to 4 million women who deal with the condition she has and the condition has a name - obstetric fistula.  “A fistula is simply a hole between an internal organ and the outside world that should not exist.  There are two primary causes of fistula in women in developing countries:  childbirth, causing obstetric fistula and sexual violence, causing traumatic fistula.”[ii]  This impoverished girl thinks her life is over and quite possibly it is her fault.  The problem is unique to her and so she bears the agony of being punished for some unknown sin.  In truth, for only a few hundred dollars, a surgical operation could repair the injury and restore her life.
Instead, she has been kicked to the curb, and herself believes that the curb, the gutter, the waste heap is where she belongs.  Lewis Wall is the professor of obstetrics/gynecology in the School of Medicine and professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.  He’s also on the board of directors of the World Wide Fistual Fund,  That website gives loads of information about fistula, about what women go through, and it gives ways concerned Christ-followers can pray and help. 
Another website with even more information is the site of the Fistula Foundation  There, Asosa, an 18-year-old young woman from Southern Ethiopia shares her story.

I studied in school until 7th grade. I helped my mother at home with housework, but I didn't have to carry too many heavy things.
I got married when I was 15. I met my husband for the first time on my wedding day. My parents chose him for me. I felt sad that I had to quit my education, but otherwise I liked my husband. He was a good man.
I got pregnant one year later. My pregnancy was fine. My labor started at three in the afternoon and my husband and my mother were with me. A traditional doctor told me to go to the hospital. I got a free letter from my kebele. I went to Asosa Hospital and they operated to take out the baby, but it was dead.
After the baby died, I went back to my village and two months later my husband married another woman. My friends were there to help me in the village. I lived with my mother. When I came to Fistula Hospital, I was very happy. I knew this was the place where I would get cured. It has been 15 days since my operation and now I am dry.
I have made friends here. We have fun together and we talk about our health and our operations. We ask each other, what will you do when you are cured?
When I am cured, I want to go back home and continue my education. I want to study and I want to become a doctor like the doctors here and help girls like me who have this problem.
When I go back to my village, I will tell other women to go immediately to a hospital so that they won't have a problem with their labor. Most people don't know that a hospital can help them, but if they knew, they'd go.[iii]

          The pains of those who deal with fistula are real, but isolated.  It’s easy for someone in the United States to not know and not care.  Obviously men don’t need to be concerned about it.  And women who live in industrialized nations and have access to modern medicine don’t have to worry either.  Obstetric fistula is a third world problem and there are so many third world problems. 
How can we care for them all? 
Jesus cares for them, and we – His church – are his body.  We make up the body of Christ.  What burdens His heart is to burden ours.
I had never heard of fistula until I read the wonderful book Hospital By the River.  It’s the story of two Australian Christians, doctors Reginald and Catherine Hamlin.  They answered the call of God to go to the mission field, specifically Ethiopia.  There, they treated numerous problems, but their specialty was care for women who had suffered fistula.  These women, and sometimes their parents (rarely their husbands), spent all the money they had to travel from remote villages to the capital, Addis Ababa, so they could be seen and treated by the Hamlins. 
When they were cured through the routine surgery, it was like a miracle had taken place.  These women Catherine Hamlin describes thought their lives were done, and then they had life again.  Over and over, women praised the Lord, and saw life with new eyes.  Many stayed and worked as nurses and administrative assistants in the hospital.  Their lives in the villages they left behind were over anyway.  Husbands rejected them, parents saw them as burdens, a shame on the family.  They didn’t contribute anything and so were often relegated to the status of unproductive animals.  Not all husbands and parents were so calloused and cruel, but many were.  No one gave these women much hope. 
That complete rejection is what caught my eye as I thought about the Gospel, and as I thought about preaching on Mother’s Day.   
Luke 8:43-48 says,
As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. 43Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. 44She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” 46But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” 47When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

          The connecting point for the woman came when Jesus called her “daughter.”  It says in verse 44, “immediately, here hemorrhage stopped.”  At that point, she was anonymous.  The crowd was so dense they did not notice her steal into the midst of them and touch Jesus.  Her bleeding condition rendered her ritualistically unclean.  By law she was cut off from society.  She couldn’t be in normal relationships because if anyone touched her, they too would become unclean.  She couldn’t go to temple or synagogue.  She was a “reject” in every way describable. 
          Yet, her gamble worked.  Violating law and convention, she made her way unnoticed through the crowd and touched Jesus.  Upon grasping his clothes, she was healed.  She could then wash up and present herself to the priest.  She’d be a part of society once again. 
          But Jesus didn’t leave it at a simple healing.  No healing is complete in his eyes until the broken spirit is healed.  She needed more than just her ailment corrected.  She needed to know that though everyone around her treated her like she was a piece of nasty garbage, God loved her.  In shame and despair, God saw her, was with her, and was for her. 
That point is driven home the moment Jesus calls her “daughter.”  The most legalistically minded among the Pharisees would have called her a lawbreaker.  Jesus called her daughter and commended her faith.  He also bid her “peace.” 
Peace in the Jewish sense is so much more than a simple absence of conflict.  It is wholeness, shalom.  The idea of shalom is that all right between a person and her neighbors and a person and her God.  Jesus called this troubled soul “daughter,” and he bid her “peace.”
This is what Jesus does for all people; you, me, everyone.  The Biblical lesson about an afflicted person and Jesus meeting her in her pain, at her lowest, most desperate point speaks into our lives because Jesus does the same for us.  When we seek him, force our way through obstacles to touch him, and have faith in him, he responds with love and grace.  And our lives change forever.
The woman didn’t suddenly have an easy life because she was healed.  Dr. Wall says of modern fistula sufferers who do not have access to treatment, “They are seen as hopeless, drifting to the margins of society where they live lives of misery, isolation, worsening poverty and malnutrition, unloved, unwanted, and alone.”[iv]  If a Christian ministry, reaching out in the name of Jesus identifies these women and helps them get treatment, they don’t pop right onto their feet and live meaningful, self-sufficient lives the day after the surgery.  The healed woman didn’t have an easy street the moment she heard the Master call her “daughter.” 
She did though have peace of mind because she knew without a doubt that God was on her side.  She did have a reason to live a purposeful life – she had been blessed by Jesus.  She would, from that point going forward, need a new community of people of faith to embrace and welcome her.  She most likely joined the ranks of Jesus’ women disciples (see “daughters of Jerusalem,” Luke 23:27-28).  Those who followed him would be a group on the fringes of society, but though they along with the male disciples were marginalized, it was they the Holy Spirit filled at Pentecost.
Similarly, the women healed of fistula will often need the church to help them find employment, and maybe a place to live.  Many will need the church to become their family, a source of friendship and emotional and social support.  It’s true of any group or individual today rescued from the brink of destruction by Jesus working through his body, the church. 
We help the alcoholic put the bottle down.  We must then help him get on his feet and discover God’s purpose in his life.  We help the person struggling with depression find joy and a loving community.  We then need to help that one move into a productive, sustainable joy that lasts throughout life.  We help each other through times of crisis and provide community and family as brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are there for one another in good times and in bad.  And, the church is always open, ready to enthusiastically welcome whomever we would deem to be the lowly, the outcast, the bleeding woman.  Just as the hurting soul can find hope in hearing Jesus call him “son” or her “daughter, he or she can find that hope in God’s people, the church. 
The connecting point for us is we are as broken as anyone.  The Wall Street banker and the starving child in a poor country have this in common: both are lost without Jesus.  But, both are saved when they recognize their own condition (of being lost apart from God), and turn to Jesus in repentance and in faith.  He welcomes and saves both.  AMEN

[i] Wall, L. Lewis, “Jesus and the Unclean Woman,” Christianity Today, January 2010, p.48-52.
[ii] The Fistula Foundation website,
[iv] Wall, Christianity Today, p.52.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Made to Know God (Job 13:2; 23:3-7; 38:4-7, 34-41)

Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, January 8, 2017

         I began 2017 by inviting the church to join me on a quest.  We seek to see God.  Just as an iceberg looks impressive, and yet we only see above the surface all the while knowing there is much more beneath, so then, God is that much more amazing.  Yet for all the wonders we know of God, there is much more we do not know. 
Together, we go into this year seeking to know more of God.  We are made to know God.  Each one of us was created by God intentionally.  God made us to be in relationship with him.  Our quest, this morning, brings us to a man who got to know more of God than he bargained for.  In fact, he wasn’t even looking as we are and yet he saw more of God than most ever do.
Turn with me to the book of Job.

Job 13:3
But I would speak to the Almighty,[a]
    and I desire to argue my case with God.

Job 23:3-7New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
    that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
    and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
    and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
    No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
    and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

Job 38:4-7New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings[a] shouted for joy?

34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
    so that a flood of waters may cover you?
35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
    and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,[a]
    or given understanding to the mind?[b]
37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
    Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38 when the dust runs into a mass
    and the clods cling together?
39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
    or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40 when they crouch in their dens,
    or lie in wait in their covert?
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
    when its young ones cry to God,
    and wander about for lack of food?

There is a gorilla named Koko who learned signed language.[i]  She was able to communicate complicated concepts.  Think about how remarkable this is: an animal, not human, having a real conversation with humans. 
However, an earthquake hit scaring the poor primate half to death.  She had never been taught the word for earthquake.  All she could say, that is ‘sign’, is “Floor.  Big bite.”  I think Koko the gorilla is to be appreciated and even admired.  Using what vocabulary and concepts she did have, she tried to say what happened and how it made her feel; obviously terrified.  She couldn’t possibly know things about tectonic plates or seismographs.  She gets high marks for saying what she knew even though we know an earth quake is more than the floor taking a bite out of us, however apt the metaphor may be.
We are like Koko when we try to describe God.  We lack the words and the experience.  Still, we try.  With our insufficient vocabulary, we speak about God and attempt to know God because God created us for relationship with Him.  From my reading of scripture to my study of the history of Christian theology to my own logical conclusions to longings deep within my soul, I am thoroughly convinced that God wants relationship with us and wants us to reach to Him. 
Even pronouns are insufficient.  God is Him.  Some might be upset if I said God was “her,” but either pronoun fits and at the same time falls short.  For tradition’s sake, when pronouns are necessary, I will use the male, but rest assured.  I don’t think God is male.
As I have talked to others about this launch into 2017 – a quest to see more of God that we might be drawn closer to God and also grow in our ability to speak about God and for God in the world – I appreciated counsel I have received.  More than one person has reminded me – we only see of God what God chooses to reveal.  One book in the Bible is called “Revelation,” but the content of the entire Bible is what God chose to reveal.  Jesus is God revealed in human flesh.  In upcoming weeks, we’ll look at bits from Jesus’ life and see what we can learn about God.  We’ll probe, inch by inch, beneath the iceberg’s surface.  This morning we do the same following what is revealed in the book of Job.
In the beginning of the book, Job’s life is ideal.  His 10 children – 7 sons and 3 daughters are young adults who all get along with each other.  They dine in one another’s homes.  And Job oversees it all.  Chapter 1 verse 5 says Job makes a point of sacrificing on behalf of his children in case they have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.
I get a sense that from the outset, the book of Job presents God as a distant, punishing deity Job appeases both for himself (by not sinning) and for his children (by offering sacrifices on their behalf).  God holds Job in high esteem, but I don’t get the sense that Job has a prayer relationship with God.  God is impersonal. 
Then things fall apart.  Satan and God talk and God allows Satan to harm Job and wreck Job’s life in order to prove Job’s righteousness.  After Satan kills Job’s children and afflict Job’s health, chapters 3-37 are commentary.  Job talks about his plight with his three friends.  The friends think Job’s problems are God’s punishments for sins Job must have committed.  Job insists he is innocent and repeatedly demands an audience with God. 
We see in the opening verses a comfortable Job who is happy with life and happy with keeping God distant and appeased.  That placid Job is contrasted with the agitated Job who occupies the central portion of the book.  The agitated Job is much more motivated to have a personal encounter with God.  The agitated Job wants to have a face-to-face with God and to give God a piece of mind.
Various theological perspectives led me to think of Job in terms of contrast – placid, comfortable Job v. agitated, insistent Job.   First, the great reformer John Calvin from whom we get the term ‘Calvinism.’  Calvin believed that God directs everything in life – even our misery.  In his most famous work, ‘Calvin’s Institutes,’ he writes, “Whether poverty or exile or prison or insult or disease or bereavement, or anything like [these things] torture us, we must think that none of these things happen by the will and providence of God.”[ii]  This view accord with the theology of Job.  Job would need to sacrifice to a God like this because he would fear this God’s discipline upon his children.  Job’s friends appeal to this retributive theology when they urge Job to confess his sin and thereby alleviate, or at least understand his suffering. 
Against is a 20th century theology that has appeared at various times in church history.  The 20th century version, represented by Clark Pinnock is called open theism.[iii]  Open theists believe that God, as an act of supreme love, has created beings – humans – who are capable of choosing to love God.  God is affected, we might even say changed, by the way his created being act toward him.  Open theists believe that God knows all that can be known.  However, since the future hasn’t happened yet, it cannot yet be known.  Thus God doesn’t know the future.
Calvin severely limited human free will.  What happens is predetermined by a sovereign God.  Pinnock and other open theists limit God’s sovereignty.  I don’t believe either position can be defended with certainty.  I don’t know all that God knows.  I don’t know if it is possible that there are things God doesn’t know.  I find both positions uncomfortable.  I am uneasy about the thought that my very words and ideas were predetermined by a sovereign God who micromanages the universe.  And I am equally unsettled by the thought that there are limits on God’s power and knowledge. 
Job dealt with the tension between a distant punishing God and the frustrated desire to get up close and personal with that God.  Calvin presented an all-knowing, all-controlling God and open theists respond with a God who is in process and experiences new things.  A third contrast I found comes between a wholly other God v. a familiar and close God. 
In the book Reaching for the invisible God, Philip Yancey shares his experience in Russia shortly after communism fell in the early 90’s.  He went with a Russian Orthodox priest to visit prisoners.[iv]  One of the others in their party requested that the Orthodox priest have prayer with the inmates.  The priest brought out an icon.  He donned an elaborate prayer outfit involving gold crosses and other vestments.  He went through a complex ritual.  I have visited people in prison.  When it’s time for prayer, I and the inmate each bowed our heads and prayed.  That’s too simple and too cozy for the Orthodox priest Yancey described.  For that priest, God is ‘wholly other.’  Conversation with God is not like conversation with another person and it should not be approached that way.
Contrast this with the way many popular American praise songs approach God.  Yancey quotes from Chris Tomlin’s song “In the Secret.”  “I want to know you more/I want to touch you/I want to see your face.”  It is a very intimate reaching for God.  Yancey observes and I have observed this too, that some praise songs are indistinguishable from teen-aged romance songs.   Just insert God’s name for the name of the intended lover.[v]  One of my seminary friends often joked that these are “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” songs.  Yancey goes on to remark, “Nowhere in the Bible do I find a promise that we will touch God or see his face.”[vi]
Which is true?  Is God so removed that like Job the best we can do is offer sacrifices?  Or find a priest who will don gold crosses and kiss them in elaborate rituals as he prays on our behalf because God is unapproachable?  Or is the relationship to which God invites us so intimate, we dare to liken it to romance? 
What has been your own experience?  How have you experienced God as all-knowing, all-powerful ‘wholly other’ who inspires and awe and fear? How have you experienced God as close, personal relation?  What would the word be?  Father?  Friend?  Disembodied Spirit that dwells within? 
“Oh that I might find him,” Job lamented in chapter 23.  “That I might even come to his dwelling.”  He knew the theology that ran through the Old Testament beginning with Moses.  Anyone who sees God will die.  Job knew this.  His wife, as a wrought with grief as him, told him to “curse God and die” (2:9).  She spoke out of her pain, not out of malice.  But Job wouldn’t take that easy route.  He would accept death, but he wanted a word with God first.  Though he lived in an era dominated by the Calvinist-type of Sovereignty of God theology which the Orthodox priest would also appreciate, Job broke the paradigm by demanding an appointment with God.  Only the select few – Abraham, Moses, the real heavyweights – came that close to God.  Job did not care.  He would not rest until he had his audience.
God gave Job what he asked for but it didn’t happen as Job thought it might.  Remember his self-assurance?  He said, “An upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.”
When God came to Job, it says God spoke out of a whirlwind.  Have you ever been in a tornado?  I haven’t and don’t want to be.  And yet, I propose that we do what Job tried to do – see God and speak directly to God.  I don’t know if we are like the Orthodox priest or like one of today’s praise song writers.  God came to Job in the whirlwind, but never ever answered a single one of Job’s questions.  Remember, as hard as we look, we only get to see what God chooses to reveal. 
“Where were you, when I laid the foundation of the earth?”  God asks Job, and us.  Yes, God is wholly other.  No, we weren’t there when God, with tender care, formed every creature, made the earth in a way that it truly is good.  But in the end, Job was found to be righteous.  It wasn’t because of his sacrifices.  He was, I believe, because he sought God. 
If out of our brokenness, out of our confusion, out of our pain, out of our curiosity we seek God, here is what we will find.  We will find that God will not give us everything we ask for.  God will not fix everything the way we think it ought to be fixed.  God will give us what God gave Job; not in the way it was given to Job.  Each person’s encounter with God is unique.  But God will do for each person who seeks Him, what He did for Job.  God will give us God’s very self. 
“Would God contend with me in the greatness of his power?  No.  But God would listen to me.”
When we explore beneath the surface and begin to see a bit more of God we discover that God created us to be in relationship with Him.  And when we call out Him, God hears us.

[i] Student’s Life Application Bible (1997), Tyndale House Publishers, p.984.
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes, Book 3, Chapter VIII, section II.
[iii] C. Pinnock (2003), chapter 6 in the book Alister E. McGrath & Evangelical Theology, edited by Sung Wook Chung, Paternoster Press (UK), p.147-164.
[iv] P. Yancey (2000), Reaching for the Invisible God, Zondervan books (Grand Rapids), p.26.
[v] Ibid, p.31.
[vi] Ibid, p.32.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Inhabiting Two Worlds (Philippians 3:18-21)

Inhabiting Two Worlds (Philippians 3:18-21)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
“Facebook Live Post” – Sunday we got Snowed Out – 1/8/17

Good Morning.  We here in North Carolina have been totally thrown off by weather that people in Michigan or Wisconsin might describe as a normal January day.  In those Northern states, this is no big deal; some snow, some sleet.  Whatever!  But, for us in the Tar Heel state, everything closes, including church.  The roads are covered and in my neighborhood, kids are sledding down the middle of the street.  Nobody wants to drive out to worship services when temperatures are barely in the 20’s.
I hope you have taken time this morning to pray and worship God.  Our family sang some worship songs and shared Bible readings that are on our minds.  We prayed together.
If we were at HillSong, in the sermon, time, I would continue what I began the year discussing – the quest to see more of God.  As part of my study for these messages that have opened 2017, I have revisited a couple of my favorite Philip Yancey books – Reaching for the Invisible God and Rumors of Another World.  In Rumors, Yancey touches on the notion that we live in two realities – the Heavenly realm inhabited by God and unseen by human eyes, and the earthly realm which we experience everyday with our five senses.  In his treatment of this peculiar dynamic – us living two realities concurrently – he refers to two other authors who also saw things this way: C.S. Lewis and Augustine of Hippo.
Augustine’s great work City of God shows how we are residents of two cities – the one, the city of man, is where find ourselves now.  But in Christ, we are oriented toward something more permanent – the eternal city of God.  I picked up an e-version of City of God on Google play for under $2.  I am just a few pages into the 800-page work, so I will have to report back on that later. 
C.S. Lewis deals with the two worlds with his brilliant creativity in the Chronicles of Narnia series.  In another of his novels, the Great Divorce, Lewis depicts the Heavenly realm as decidedly more real.  The physicality, the vibrancy, and tangibility in the Heavenly realm are all more than we in this earthly realm can tolerate.  However, if we have in our lives grown in our knowledge of God and our relationship with God, then we gradually change.  The theological term is ‘transformation.’  We become prepared to divorce this fallen life and move into eternity – eternity spent in resurrection in God’s presence. 
All three writers – Philip Yancey, C.S. Lewis, and St. Augustine – have helped me understand that what we see around us is not all there is.  The reality I cannot see with my eyes but that God reveals to our spirits is more permanent and real than what I know by sight and sound, taste, touch, and smell.    Another Christian thinker who elaborated on the two levels of living is Biblical author Paul the Apostle.
Paul was a Jew from Tarsus.  He also went by the name Saul.  He was an expert in the scriptures, a Pharisee.  First century Pharisees, one group among many in that era of Judaism, were the ones who preceded the group now known as Rabbis.  Pharisee Paul felt that the new group, the followers of Jesus, were blasphemers.  He had arrest orders from Jerusalem to bring Christians into custody on blasphemy charges.  However, the resurrected Jesus met him in a blinding flash of light on the road to Damascus.  Saul the Christian-persecuting Pharisee became Paul, church-planting follower of Jesus.  He began traveling the Mediterranean world, starting churches.  One of those churches was the city of Philippi.  After starting that church, he writes a letter back to them and that letter is in our New Testament: Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
He writes in chapter 3 of that letter,
18 For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship[l] is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform the body of our humiliation[m] that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,[n] by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Paul’s two levels of understanding are clear.  He knows he is a citizen of the world.  He even sounds a bit arrogant in describing how he fits in the world.  In verse 5 of chapter three he writes,
circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Paul wasn’t just an average Joe.  He had a privileged status in Jewish society as a Pharisee and before deciding to follow Jesus, he used that status.  He also used his position when became a disciple.  In addition to being a Jewish Pharisee, Paul was a citizen of the Roman Empire.  And in the book of Acts, when he gets arrested on false charges, he uses his citizenship in order to appeal to the Emperor.  He does this in order to preach salvation in Jesus in the capital – Rome itself.
Paul exhibited an extraordinary intellect.  He was adept in using earthly systems in Israel, Greece, and Rome for the Heavenly goal of helping people come to faith in Jesus. 
Yet as we read, he tells the Philippian believers as well as future readers of the leader, people like you and me, “our citizenship is in Heaven.”  When he returns, he transforms each of us so that we conform to his glory.  What exactly does that mean?  It means after death, our bodies are resurrected as Jesus’ body was.  It means at his return – the Second Coming – he calls us to Himself and live in loving fellowship with God and with one another forever.
The most important effect of that promise of eternal love and fellowship with God is the way it forms how we live today, in the here and now as we await Jesus’ return.  Anticipating the final act of salvation and paying attention to the way God speaks to our hearts, we begin practicing the loving fellowship of Heaven in our lives on earth.  Because we know God is real and is present, we forgive instead of holding grudges.  Because we feel the touch of the Holy Spirit, we are motivated by love, not by selfish desire. 
Paul contrasts citizens of Heaven, followers of Jesus, with those he calls enemies of the cross.  He has certain Christian-persecutors in mind, but we can extend his definition to anyone who is apart from God and has no relationship with Jesus and has not receive forgiveness of sin.  Paul writes that their end is their destruction and their God is their belly.  People apart from God are driven by what satisfies them in life.  Followers of Jesus are convinced that God knows better how to fulfill than we do.  We trust that God’s grace is what we need more than anything else.  This is why Jesus says we “die to self.”  We know God will give life, so we give ourselves to God.
Paul was so convinced of this that he writes in Philippians 1:21,
21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

Paul was so acutely aware of the blessings of Heaven, he considered himself a citizen there – not here on earth – and he wanted to depart from here in order to be there.  That was his honest desire.  But that God-awareness also made it crystal clear to Paul what his calling was.  God wanted Paul to plant churches, help people become Christians, and build up the way of Christ in the Roman Empire.  Because he knew of another world, the Heavenly realm, and because his certainty of the reality and goodness of God was unshakable, he devoted his life to establishing communities of love on earth.
When we inhabit two worlds, we always have hope because we know God is with us, because we know are part of a greater community, and because we know our future is resurrection.
When we inhabit two worlds, we try to do as much good here as we can because we have been and are being transformed into the image of Christ who is the supreme example of perfect compassion, complete forgiveness and mercy, and total love. 
If you are unaware of two world and your life is spent only this one, which is snowy in North Carolina today, I pray that you would come to know Jesus as your Savior.  Ask God to come into your heart, forgive your sins, and open your mind to His presence and love.  When the snow clear, drive to a church and meet the people there.  Find out what they are all about and what it means to have life in Christ.
If you are aware of two worlds – Heaven and Earth – I pray that today your citizenship in the Heavenly world will form how you live in the earthly one.  Let Christ speak in you.  Be a person of compassion.  Be patient with the world around you.  The world is fallen and is falling away from God.  We in the church are his agents.  Through us He speaks his promise of salvation and redemption.  If you know of the Heavenly realm, let your life speak.  Maybe someone you know is hurting and the healing will begin when they meet Jesus in you.

Thanks for listening everyone.  Wherever you are, I pray you feel God’s blessing today.