Total Pageviews

Monday, July 25, 2011

King Solomon

Lessons from Solomon (1 Kings 3:1-15)

I was reviewing a list of books I had read, great works that had walked across my path, filling my mind – The Brothers Karamazov; Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger; Pilgrim’s Progress, and the like. It’s similar with movies. I was around some guys watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade this past week, and I had sit in with them. I’ve seen the movie 20 times, but it is still good.

I wonder if it is like that with books in the Bible that go unread for periods of time. Some people have read the Bible from cover to cover multiple times. Some are well versed in the New Testament or the Psalms, and some have never actually picked up a Bible and read it. That’s just reality.

I am not sure of your level of Biblical literacy, but I know you have not heard a sermon from 1st Kings in the last five years here at HillSong. I keep track of these things. So, like revisiting a favorite old movie or book, we turn to the Old Testament. The saga of Israel’s greatest king, David, is told in 1st and 2nd Samuel. 1st Kings begins with the reign of his favored son, King Solomon.

The assumption about Solomon by many readers is that after David struggled to establish Israel, his son ruled during the nation’s golden age. He accumulated vast amounts of wealth. His empire was envied and feared by surrounding nations. He was the one to build the temple – one of the wonders of the ancient world.

Furthermore, part of the legend of Solomon is his wisdom. Tradition identifies him as the author of three Old Testament wisdom books – Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Songs. He was endowed with sage knowledge from God.

From success and wisdom, Solomon moves, according to popular perceptions, to excess. He becomes enamored with his own power and he sins against God. He turns to his wives and concubines – women numbering in the thousands, many of them foreign to Israel. To please them, he practices their religious traditions and acknowledges their gods. Such syncretism is an affront to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. David was the man after God’s own heart, but Solomon uses religious faith to acquires power, so the story goes.

Can the story be believed? In 1st Kings 3, we see the beginnings of the the Biblical story behind for the legend of Solomon. As we look closely, we hear God speaking to us.

Immediately, chapter 3, reveals a problem. Solomon marries the daughter of the Pharaoh. One thousand years or so earlier, Pharaoh was the main enemy of Israel. He enslaved the people. Moses led them out of bondage and toward the Promised Land. God killed all the firstborn in Egypt, including Pharaoh’s son. So Pharaoh pursued the Israelites and God swallowed up Pharaoh’s men in the Red Sea. The Egyptians were Israel’s ancient enemies. They were not Jews. The book of Deuteronomy, probably the source of the moral law that underpins 1st and 2nd Kings, says marriage to non-Jews is forbidden (7:3).

Solomon was a lover, not a fighter. He wanted those Egyptians as his friends. So he sealed the friendship with a marriage. Also in first Kings 3:1, we also see Solomon overseeing construction – two projects. He had to get his new wife’s palace built, and he had to build the Lord’s temple. Do we see the issue? His own creature comforts are listed before his attention to the house of worship.

That leads to a third significant error in perspective on Solomon’s part. Because the temple was not yet complete, the people and the king worshiped in high places (hill tops or man-made elevations, that usually involved worship to some god of nature, but not to Israel’s God). Solomon would say he was using Pagan form to worship Yahweh, the God of Moses, but worship in high places is consistently associated with idolatry and the worship of false gods in the OT.

First Kings shows us sinful Solomon. He makes a bad marriage choice, he makes the building of his own house equal in importance to building of God’s house, and he worships in a way that has consistently led Israel away from God.

Those were he mistakes. Did Solomon get anything right? Oh yes.

He goes to the most important of high places, Gibeon, to make an offering to the Lord. While staying there, sleeping, God came in a dream. God said to Solomon, newly crowned, “Ask what I should give you” (3:5). Like a genie in a bottle, God offered Solomon whatever he wished.

Solomon’s first response is to praise God, specifically referring to the history of relationship between God and Solomon’s father David. “You, [God], have shown great and steadfast love to your servant, my father David. … You have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.” Before Solomon sets a wish list before God, he acknowledges that God is the reason for David’s success and for his own privileged position. Just because he made serious blunders does not mean Solomon was all wrong; few people are all good or all bad. Reality is in shades of gray more than stark black and white. .

After the praise, Solomon sets his own inadequacy alongside God’s limitless power. He says of himself, “I am only a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And [I], your servant, am in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted” (3:7b-8). In all relationships, and especially in the relationship with God, we proceed in humility, not making much of ourselves.

Repeatedly, Solomon refers to himself and to David as God’s servants. This type of identification occurs throughout this passage. In this way, Solomon identifies himself with the king who was the man after God’s own heart. And he sees his own status as King in its proper light. Being King primarily means he is the most recognizable servant of God in the nation that is God’s chosen people. His calling is to serve more than it is to rule.

Solomon has exalted God. He’s humbled himself. Finally, he makes his request. “Give your servant … an understanding mind” (3:10). God loved this answer so much, unsurpassed wealth and honor were also promised, but with the condition of obedience. God would make Solomon the greatest king ever if Solomon was the most obedient and faithful king ever. “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life” (3:14).

Maybe the reason we don’t read 1 Kings as often as the Gospels is the stories are about Kings. Jesus was a carpenter. He spent his time with unassuming, common people. Most of us are never written up in the newspaper. We go to the grocery store and no one notices. And we like it that way. Solomon enjoyed prestige than most of us will never know. What do the stories of a 9th century BC Jewish monarch have to say to us? Maybe it is best we leave this classic on the shelf and flip over to Paul’s letters or Luke or John.

No, we must read 1st Kings and read about Solomon because this part of our Holy Book was by the Holy Spirit to form us as people of faith. Solomon is a man before God. We are people – men and women, boys and girls, who live our lives with God or against God. If we want the abundant life Jesus promised then we have to consider the will of God and the way of Jesus today, right now, and every day of our lives. We aren’t kings. But like Solomon, we live our lives before God.

I summarized popular assumptions about Solomon. There are some assumed notions about believers too. If someone goes to church, pays his taxes, gives his tithe, and is generally a nice person, he’s in God good graces, right? We can be certain that the person that I’ve described is one of the good guys, bound for Heaven.

The late Christian pop-singer Keith Green smartly said, going to church makes someone a true believer like going to McDonalds makes someone a hamburger. As we stripped away the assumptions about Solomon, we will do the same regarding believers who attend churches.

“Bad” Solomon got into the wrong marriage, worshiped in an offensive manner, and put his own needs before or on equal footing with God’s priorities. Our sins are just ugly.

Sociologist and religion scholar Ron Sider wrote the book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. Citing statistics related to divorce, abortion, sex outside of marriage, spousal abuse, and substance abuse, he shows that Christians aren’t doing much better than the secular world with regards to holy behavior. We sin – a lot.

Moreover, we who are believers in America tend to be considerably more affluent than our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But, our affluence does not lead us to greater generosity in combating hunger, poverty, illiteracy, and other forces that impose suffering on millions.

We behave badly; we fail to show compassion even though we have resources; and finally, some – not all of us – judge those outside our camp to be lost and hell-bound. We assume our brand of Christianity is the closest thing to pure orthodoxy, and we judge those who are too liberal or too fundamentalist. We judge those who practice others faiths. We judge atheists. I am not saying there won’t be a judgment. The Bible is clear – judgment is coming. It is equally clear that we aren’t going to be holding gavels. Jesus calls us to love, not condemn. Love includes telling the truth about sin and about God and about false religion. But the truth telling must start with our own sins.

Solomon had relationship problems, worship problems, and priority problems. We have moral problems, compassion problems, and perspective problems. But it’s not all problems!

Just as Solomon got some of it right, the church does too. First, we are possessors of the truth. The world may not believe it, but the only word that is truly Word of God is the Bible – the Old and New Testaments. The church is who has the Bible, and the church has the responsibility of sharing it with the world.

A second good thing about church, especially evangelical churches, is we do try to share Jesus with the world. Though we might experience distance from God and a sense of being lost even when we are in the church, we have worship, we know about prayer, we have the Word. People in the world have none of that, so we need to, in love and with humility, share Jesus with the lost. And we try to do just that.

A third good to mention about churches like ours is compassion. I know, I know! I just said in our opulence, we fail to share with our neighbors. Sometimes that’s true. But sometimes, we are possessed of the Spirit and we demonstrate generosity, kindness, and Biblical justice. I think of our youth at Mission Serve, or our members who participate in Restoration Carrboro-Chapel Hill, or our year-end project, Operation Christmas Child. I think of all the members who sponsor extremely poor children in Ethiopia and Uganda and Rwanda and other places. When we set our minds on compassion and let what breaks God’s heart break ours, then compassion is a strength, not a weakness.

The ancient king, Solomon did some things well in his faith and in some areas he came up short. The same can be said of us. We are not kings, but like Solomon, we are people before God. Though God hasn’t given us the responsibility given to Solomon, God has a keen interest in our lives. We matter to Him.

What do we take from all this?

We should each do something Solomon did in his prayer. We acknowledge God’s holiness. Following the wise king’s example, we recognize, believe, and declare that God is sovereign – all powerful, all knowing, and present in all places. Along with this, we humble ourselves. God saw the great king as his servant. It’s something we have in common with Solomon. We too are God’s servants. Our reason for being is to serve God in whatever capacity he demands.

A second response to the Solomon story, after we’ve acknowledged God’s holiness and committed ourselves to His service is relationship. We strive to get to know God better. Through various forms of prayer, through worship, through scripture, and through practicing a life lived God’s way, we come to understand God’s heart. The God we serve loves us and we feel it. We, more and more, see the world as God sees it. Solomon did this early on in his reign, but then his faith waned. We stick with it. God’s part is grace. Our part is worship, service, and prayer, and we remain committed to all three.

Finally, we re-adjust our values. As we get to know God, we see what is most important to God, and that becomes most important to us. Solomon wanted wives, wealth, power; we recognize that the greatest pleasure we’ll find come in what God gives, not what we acquire. We find that the world is a better place, a happier place, when God has the power and we trust in His provision. So we don’t live to advance ourselves. We live by a set of values – God’s values.

Solomon’s life was mixed bag with much to be admired and much to be criticized. We can learn from all of it and when we do, we are on the road to becoming the disciples Jesus wants us to be. It begins when we trust that His way is the best way. I invite you to trust Him with your life today.



O God,

I am sorry. My life has had stress - stress of my own making. Stress from events that are by all accounts good things. Stress from a change that is a blessing I will rejoice in the rest of my life. Stress doesn't only visit during bad times. The starting pitcher in game one of the World Series (hopefully Justin Verlander this year) is under stress, but it's stress he would want. It is stress he sought out.

And the stress of being an adoptive Dad is something I sought out. My new daughter's arrival home has been the victorious culmination of a process that's over 18 months in the making.


But ...

She has to adjust to her new family, to a new place to sleep, to a 4 and 9 year old brother (instead of 15 other 2-year-olds), to english, to American foods. So many adjustments. Her language of adjustment is crying and she's found her voice. When we met her, she was silent ... sooo quiet. I had no idea what she was holding in. Now, she cries, whenever she needs to. It doesn't matter if her brothers are sleeping or I am trying to sleep. She cries, loudly.

I have reacted badly. I have yelled. Of course not very much at her, she's only two for goodness' sake. But I yell and blame even though yelling is not called for and there is no one to blame. In the absence of a suitable target, I yell at my wife. Then I apologize. Then, later, when I am super tired again, I yell again. I bring stuff up from years ago. I throw stuff in her face. It's awful. I'm awful.

You'd think I would know better. This is my third time round with adoption. But, I think I am worse than ever. My poor wife, the woman I love most in the world, gets all my crap and she takes it. God, when I sin against her, I am sinning against you. I am so sorry. There is a lot of debate about the right application of Ephesians 5. I know this. Based on the words directed to husbands in that chapter out of YOUR word, I am not doing my part. Please forgive me.

Father, I ask you to go beyond forgiveness. Help me stop. Fill me with your Holy Spirit and speak. As I am about to explode on another rampage, yell in mind or in my heart or in my ear, "Rob, stop it!!" Remind me in those moments to be grateful for the incredible woman who is my wife. Remind me to love her. In those moments, speak so that I cannot avoid hearing YOU, no matter how tired I am, no matter how cranky I am.

If I am being honest with you God, then I know I have to say, I have not done so well in the husband department, and I need to do better. With YOUR help I can.

Thanks for listening, Father.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Matthew 13 - the Sower Parable

The Foolish, Extravagant Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

I talked with someone from another church this week. His church was having VBS, and Tuesday night was “decision night.” The volunteer teachers were to strongly encourage the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders to consider asking Jesus into their hearts so that they might be saved.

It troubled me. Not the desire to introduce young kids to Jesus – I am all for that. What I am opposed to is evangelism that sounds like fire insurance. Do you know if you died tonight, whether you would go to heaven or hell? How many times did Jesus take that approach? He was set on guiding people into the kingdom of Heaven. But rarely did he present it as crossing a line or making a step. For Jesus salvation was discipleship – living all the time as a God follower. Jesus did not set it in terms of Heaven or Hell so much as he invited people to faith and to life; those who rejected his invitation were blind or lost.

To force older elementary students into a contrived situation in which they opt for Heaven or Hell doesn’t feel right. More importantly, from my reading, such an approach is not Biblical. And this is true for adults as well as kids. Evangelism – bringing people to Jesus, helping them grow in faith, equipping them to do ministry in the world in His name – is crucial. Any life of faith that ignores evangelism is severely spiritually impoverished. But, reducing evangelism to hell avoidance is just as impoverished.

This summer we’ve spent time in Old Testament passages – Psalm 8, Genesis 22, and Zechariah 9. We’ve looked at life when life is spent following Christ. Last week, we stepped out of that series to hear the Mission Serve testimonies, which included a teenager announcing her decision to give her life to Him. It was thrilling because it’s clearly something God brought about.

Evangelism must be initiated by God, and it must be about God. Evangelism leading someone to a a fork in the road with one turn leading to flames and the other to eternal bliss. Evangelism is itself a road, a road where Jesus is walking with us.

I said last week I would put the sermon I had written down in essay form on my blog. I ended up not doing that. After learning about the high pressure approach at my friend’s church during VBS, I decided to preach last week’s message this morning. Next week, we’ll return to our OT series on the life of a God follower.

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”

What a fool, this farmer who is out, randomly planting, sowing seed just anywhere. At our house, my wife, a gardener, has various 50lb bags - manure, top soil, compost, mulch. At her command, I get my workout for the day by hauling these various chemical combinations around the yard, and dumping the proper amounts into holes she has told me to dig. Months later, I get rewarded – fresh beets and tomatoes on my salad; blackberry jam; fresh basil; homemade blueberry sauce over ice cream. Candy’s careful planning and endless attention, and a little of my labor, result in homegrown food at our house.

We wouldn’t have it if we just walked through the yard tossing seeds everywhere. Nothing would grow in the kids’ sandbox. Or if seeds feel on the paved driveway, they would be bird food, and nothing more. If something landed in my neighbor’s yard and happened to take root and grow, it would become my neighbor’s cucumber plant. A gardener randomly tossing seeds and hoping for the best - what a silly story Jesus has shared.

Jesus didn’t come to talk about farming or gardening. Jesus came, he said, “to seek out and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). To proclaim the good news of the kingdom of Heaven, available to us in Him; proclamation – this is why Jesus came (Mark 1:38).

So what, in his parable about a farmer who sows seed haphazardly, do we learn about Jesus’ purpose of spreading good news about salvation? The point is not farming. The point is planting. What is God planting?

It says in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The sower in Jesus’ story is God. Through the word, through Jesus, through the church, God is getting the message out to the world that all who confess faith in Christ have life and have it abundantly. All who walk the Jesus way and live the “with-God” life, have joy and are in the right. All who turn to Jesus and confess their sins are forgiven and are adopted as sons and daughters of God.

God gets this message out over and over so that the people will have multiple opportunities to respond in faith. He speaks through evangelists like Billy Graham. God spreads the word of salvation through popular books like The Purpose Driven Life. Through music and art the message is spread. Through unchurched people glancing at a Gideon-placed Bible in a hospital room, the gospel is proclaimed. Through celebrities like Super Bowl-winning football coach Tony Dungy expressing their faith, the message goes out. Through church members sharing their faith with neighbors, the word goes forth. Through God coming to earth in the form of a man, Jesus, salvation is made known. Through the Holy Spirit nudging people’s hearts, it spreads. The sower repeatedly spreads his seed everywhere because most people are not in good soil most of the time.

This parable of Jesus points to the generosity of God. God is the sower who goes out to sow and will continue going out, seeking the one lost lamb even when 99 are safe (Luke 15:1-7). Jesus will reach out to those excluded from worship like shepherds and leather workers. Rules makers say these folks have jobs that make them unclean. Jesus invites them.

Jesus befriends tax collectors and prostitutes. Religious leaders insist they are cut off from God because of their sins. Jesus welcomes them.

Jesus will heal the blind and the disfigured and the demon possessed. Scribes say God has cursed them with suffering because of past transgressions. Jesus brings compassion and frees them from their maladies so nothing will keep them from coming into a right relationship with God.

Who is the most outcast, uncool, unpopular, unwanted person you can think of? Jesus loves him and goes to great extent to reach him.

Think of trampled soil on the path, or the rock-filled soil where nothing can take root, or the soil overgrown with weeds. Think of someone you know who would represent these types of soils, sure to undermine any planting effort. The sower, year after year, spread his seed in these bad places, and God over and over brings his love and offers His salvation to the unreceptive, the unconvinced, and even those who are downright hostile to him. This story of Jesus is about a sower who keeps spreading love; a father who treats his returning prodigal son like a prince. The story is about God who relentlessly pursues us.

Jesus follows up, explaining his parable to his disciples. From Matthew 13:

10Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, … (v.16) blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. 18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

The sower, our extravagantly generous and recklessly loving God, pours his seed, the Word, on us that we might hear, and believe, and be saved. God reaches out to us, but that does not mean we receive Him and become disciples.

There is an enemy, Jesus says, who snatches away what was sown. Jesus calls him the evil one. Satan is real, as are his minions. He desires to be worshiped and he desires to hurt God. So he goes after God’s children – all who put their trust in Jesus. If Satan can sow discord into the lives of people who are trying to follow Jesus and thus throw them off track, he wins. Jesus represents the threat posed by Satan with seeds that fall on the trampled path.

There is also shallow faith, represented by seeds sown in rocky ground. I remember a guy I knew who went to an old fashioned revival. He received Christ. His wife, who had been going to church alone for years, was thrilled. Then, he lost his job. He abandoned his faith as quickly as he had claimed it. He had that teary-eyed “come-to-Jesus” experience, but there was no depth. He never examined the scriptures or developed a prayer life or served in ministry or worshiped in all seasons. He thought it was baptism water and good feelings. When hard times came, he fell away, as Jesus says in the parable. I have sadly known many with similar stories.

The path is the enemy; the rocky soil is unrooted, shallow faith. What about the thorns and weeds? Seeds that fall among thorns are like the word of God coming to a person who has a lot going on. He’s filled up at work; he’s concerned about his money; his personal life is exceedingly busy. God and faith and Jesus just make up one area of his life and not the most important area. He hears the Gospel and likes what it says. Who wouldn’t want the salvation God offers in Jesus? But, he’s not going to give anything up to live the life of a devoted Christ follower.

Our greatest passion must be for Jesus. The Bible says so. So do the great thinkers in the history of our faith. Our most complete devotion is to Jesus. In the parable, the weeds are the things in life that choke out a person who is trying to be a “part time” Christian.

In life we spend time in each of these bad soils.

We get tempted by Satan to chase after other pursuits and leave Jesus at home, and we only break out our faith once in a while. Temptation has threatened all who have turned to Jesus.

And, Most of us have had a time where our faith didn’t run very deep. Dig deep and you find other forces, not Jesus, motivating us; driving us. It seems like every year, I see deeper inside my own heart and find places I am holding on to, places I have not turned over to Jesus’ lordship.

Finally most of us get distracted by the cares of the world, the weeds and thorns. Business, the pursuit of success, materialism, - we relegate Jesus to the backburner. Church people who sing the songs and bow for the prayers are at times living in each of the soils where the word fails to produce true faith.

But in His mad crazy amazing love, God keeps sending His love and sending His truth and pouring the seed of His word into us. God never gives up; rather God continuously reaches for us.

All the while, God is pruning; cutting back the weeds. God is working the soil of our hearts, getting the rocks out, dealing with us at our deepest psychological, emotional, and spiritual levels. Finally, God is clearing out the clutter and setting up protection from the evil one.

Eventually, through our willingness and cooperation, and more through God’s tireless efforts, we become good soil. When the seeds of the Kingdom fall into a heart that is good soil, there is life change, transformation. Heaven comes yes, but more importantly, the person who is good soil begins living in the Kingdom as he begins follow Jesus. Jesus says, “This is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23).

You may have throw your hands in the air and said, “Life is too much! I am not perfect. I cannot be who God wants me to be. I give up on faith.” That’s OK. Our generous God is not giving up on you. In fact, God keeps working the soil and planting the seed, tending to your heart and offering you the bread of Heaven, the body of Christ. He keeps on keeping on in terms of reaching out to us in love.

Our response is to lay everything we have before Him – all the good, the bad, all experiences and thoughts, all our relationships, everything. We present it all as we present ourselves to Jesus. We let Him take it from there.

Come to the sower, the God who loves us abundantly. Come and bow before Him in faith. Receive forgiveness and stand as a child of God.

The parable and the subsequent explanation end in the same way – in the good soil, God produces fruit. The planting God is also a producing God. What will God produce in your life? Come to Him today to find out.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Depending on God for True, Lasting Peace

Dependence Day (Zechariah 9:10)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A little over a week ago, Candy and I were in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We stayed at the Yebsabi Guest House, which has four floors with four rooms on each floor for a total of 16 room. Sixteen rooms occupied by American families adopting children from Ethiopia or Rwanda. The Rwanda families have to complete their adoptions at the U.S. embassy in Addis.

Many meals are shared together at the guest house. Families are constantly coming and going. Some have just met their kids and praying to pass court. Others have passed court, have children in custody, and are waiting for the papers from the embassy so they can bring their new kids home to the United States.

Then there are those who have completed all the formalities are just waiting for the ride to airport. The stay for adoption in Ethiopia can be short as a few days or as long as a couple of months. The conversation among those who have been there a long time always turns back to America.

I can’t wait to be able to drink water out of the faucet.

The first thing I am going to do is go buy a cheeseburger.

Man, I miss my bed.

We who adopt love Ethiopia. We love that nation, the people there, the children. But, we also love America. We miss it too. Most American couples I’ve met in other places in the world are pretty to return. When we were first home, I was struck by a profound thought.

I am standing in my yard. Twenty-four hour ago, I was surrounded by the incredible convergence of humanity at the Addis Airport. I saw people from all over – Arabs, Muslim Africans, Christian Africans, Europeans – all gathered in that place. Now, it’s a quiet Saturday, and I am in my yard, on my street, at my home in the United States.

Whenever I think of America and of special days in our country – Independence Day, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day – I am filled gratitude. I appreciate that this is where I am from.

Pausing to ponder America, I am also filled with love. I love baseball. I love that I can drive from here to Seattle and back, and I don’t need my passport or any papers – just my driver’s license. I love that I can vote. I don’t always love voting. I don’t always love the choices. But I love that I have the choice. I love that in our country, people from different racial backgrounds and ethnic heritages can be the mayors of cities, governors of states, and president of the nation. I love America. It is where I am from.

It is not where I am headed. Neither is America where you are bound if you follow the leading of Jesus. Jesus is not pro-democracy. Jesus is leading us into a kingdom where God is king. Jesus is not pro-equality. We are each gifted differently. Our responsibility is not to outperform our peers in business or academic accomplishment or income acquired or popularity. Jesus does not promote a system in which we all each an equal chance to succeed those who work the hardest and do the best get the rewards. That’s not what Jesus stands for at all.

Jesus promotes a system where each is gifted by God. And we do the most that we can with gifts we are given for the sake of praising God, glorifying God, and spreading His love and salvation in the world. Some of us have more gifts than others, but our only responsibility is to rely on Jesus and do as much as we can with the gifts we’ve been given.

Blessings – life, relationship, meaning, purpose, joy, vision – blessings are given abundantly by God, at God’s pleasure. Both forgiveness of our sins (and we all sin), and blessing are things God gives. That doesn’t fit well with the American dream of rugged individualism. The Gospel’s economy of grace doesn’t jive with America’s self-serving capitalism. So, which gets our loyalty?

As I said at the outset, I love America, and as I long as I live this life, my nationality will be American. I won’t be a South American. I won’t be a generic North American. I am from the United States of America. But, who I am is a follower of Jesus Christ – the one in whom all peoples of all nations are one.

A lot of Christians in our nation proclaim through misty, teary eyes, “God Bless America!” Really? In scripture, God blessed Israel as God’s chosen nation. Israel was enslaved by Egypt, bullied by Philistia, slaughtered by Assyria, taken to exile by Babylonia, violated by the Ptolemies, and subdued by Rome. For almost 2000 years, Israel was lost as an independent nation. Then, after World War II, Israel was re-created. I don’t associate the modern political state of Israel with the Biblical Israel that was called out by God. But let’s say it is one in the same. Today, Israel is in a constant state of war, and is surrounded by nations that would like to annihilate her. That’s the country God blessed. Really? God bless America?

John the Baptist was blessed to be the one God raised to pave the way for Jesus. John spent his final years rotting in Herod’s cell before he was beheaded. Peter was blessed to be the leader of the 12 disciples. Legend has it his end came when he was crucified upside down. A wealthy young ruler begged Jesus for the blessing of eternal life. Jesus told him to go sell all that had and give the money to the poor and then come and follow. Jesus offered the blessing of discipleship.

What are we asking for when say, “God bless America?” I think most of the time people say that because they want America to be the most powerful nation on earth – power being seen in military might and economic dominance. We want to preserve our freedoms and our prosperous way of life. We don’t care that 10 3rd world families don’t use as many natural resources as one American. We’re not worried about our carbon footprint or the suffering that happens elsewhere. We want to be the freest, the strongest, the richest, the best, the happiest, and the most powerful, the most feared. And we think if we have all these things, then we are blessed.

Why is it that whenever Jesus talks about blessing, sacrifice is involved. And I don’t mean sacrifice of the military to preserve our way of life. I mean sacrifice made by the individual disciple. I mean sacrifice that says to Jesus, “All that I have is yours – my bank account, my car, my house, my family.” That’s what Jesus wants from us – everything.

How different would it look if in fact, “God blessed America?”

The Bible is full of pictures of God’s blessing; today, we turn to the late Old Testament prophet, Zechariah. He lived after the Babylonian exile. Israel had been crushed. Many Hebrews fled and lived throughout the world – in Greece, in Northern Africa, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The royalty, the highly educated, the young, and the rich and talented were taken off in chains to Babylon where they stayed for an entire generation. Solomon’s magnificent temple was reduced to rubble. King Zedekiah was forced to watch as his sons were executed. Then his eyes were cut out and he was led into slavery. The only ones who remained in Israel were the poor, those who were stooped with age, and the crippled. For fifty years, they lived on the brink of starvation.

How exactly is this a picture of God’s blessing? Zechariah will show us. He came along after the exile. Babylon was eventually overcome by a rival empire the Persians. Persian Emperor Cyrus was able to acquire allies because he persuaded nations that living under Persian was for their benefit. The Assyrians and then the Babylonians demolished all who resisted them. Cyrus invited those before him to join him and prosper in doing so. In this way, he was able to amass an army that defeated and Babylon and ended that empire.

There was no “Red Sea” moment when Israel returned from exile in Babylon. Nehemiah and Ezra were able to lead the Jews home to Jerusalem because Cyrus gave them permission. The prophets in those days after exile were Haggai and Zechariah.

Zechariah’s prophetic poetry is among the richest in the Bible and I recommend this prophet to you. This morning, we narrow in on one verse, chapter 9, verse 10. The contrast between the blessings of God and bombastic American independence are obvious.

Zechariah says, “I [God] will cut off the Chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and [God] shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Naming Ephraim, an allusion to the Northern Kingdom, and then Jerusalem, which is the capital of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, Zechariah here addresses his words to everyone in Israel.

The scope of the vision goes beyond the confines of the nation’s borders. Zechariah’s message extends to Jews everywhere; but not only to Jews. God will command peace to all nations. It’s not enough to call this man just another obscure Old Testament prophet. Zechariah was a visionary who spoke God’s word, God’s reality. All the nations of the earth would fall under God’s reign because God is sovereign, all-powerful.

God does this. This peace is not something achieved by human beings, by nations of the earth, or by Christian peacemaking teams. We can try whether through military might that acts as a deterrent or through alternate approaches like pacifism, but we cannot bring peace. Human violence began in Genesis 4, when Cain killed Abel. Ever since the earth has cried out to God with the shed blood of victims of warfare and violence. Our beloved United States became a nation in a bloody civil war that involved colonists, the British, the French, and Native Americans. Today, our nation is at war in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Supposedly, there are no other superpowers. But we cannot stay out of war; not by our own efforts. Peace only comes from God.

Zechariah 9:10 declares God will bring peace, and verse 16 says, “On that day, the Lord their God will save them for they are the flock of his people.” The actor is God and the ones acted upon are those who stop rebelling and in humility bow before God and in gratitude receive all that He gives.

Two weeks ago, I talk about us – the people of HillSong Church who worship God as He is revealed in Jesus Christ – conspiring with God to make beautiful things in the world whether our work is teaching students, building houses, or managing our own families. To join God in the creation of beauty is the calling of a disciple.

Last week Heather talked to us about living in faith that is so complete we give everything to God, even our own precious children. We entrust God will with all, as an act of faith. To live in such faith is the calling of disciple.

Today, we hear another call to all disciples. We are called to live in dependence upon God. Doing so won’t end the bombing in Libya or bring our troops home from Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever the next conflict is. To depend on God is to see that the Libyans, Afghans, and Iraqis matter to Him as much as do the Americans. To depend on God is to live the peace of His kingdom in the midst of a world that is fallen, violent, and bent on destruction. To depend on God is to seek God’s blessing for America knowing it would make America very different that it is today, but trusting that it would be better. To depend on God is to stay near God because peace only comes from God, in God’s presence.

Jesus approached the city Jerusalem knowing he would be executed there on a cross in a few days.

41As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

He wept over the city because they did not see Him and therefore fell into darkness, pain, and chaos. The story is different when we let go of our own plans and instead declare our dependence on Jesus. If we are to walk as disciples and enjoy God’s peace, that’s the thing to do. Watch the fireworks, enjoy the barbeques and baseball, and say the pledge. Do all of it this weekend. But right now and going forward in our lives, may we declare our dependence on God, revealed in Jesus Christ, present in the world in the form of the Holy Spirit. May we declare our dependence to the one whose dominion is from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.