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Friday, September 23, 2011

Review of "The Walk" by Shaun Alexander

The Walk (Shaun Alexander)

Book review by Rob Tennant, September 23, 2011

I enjoyed The Walk by former NFL running back Shaun Alexander for several reasons. Alexander writes as a Christian who played football, not as a football player whose religion happens to be Christianity. That’s extremely important. Often high profile athletes (or actors or politicians) give lip service to faith. On the award stand, they “thank Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.” But nothing in their words beyond a pithy thanks reveals that faith has any influence on their life.

One NFL star talks about his faith in Jesus, but a few years ago, he was found guilty of obstruction of justice in a murder case. He never referenced his faith in his public comments about the experience.

Another superstar football player said in an interview with a national sports magazine that his top priority in life was to make Jesus his Lord. But then, he listed all his other priorities – to be a record-setting running back; to win several Super Bowls; to be remembered among the all-time greats. He went into considerable depth describing how he would achieve these goals. He gave no elaboration on what he would to do make Jesus his Lord, the Lord of his life. I have seen him in subsequent interviews and he never misses an opportunity to expound on his football acumen. He rarely, if ever, discusses what he says is his top priority – the acknowledge Jesus as Lord.

These are a few of hundreds of examples of athletes and other famous people who mention “Jesus” but do not display in anyway that I can see a life of faith. Shaun Alexander’s book The Walk is a book about true faith by someone who happens to have played football.

I am an avid football fan who enjoyed watching Alexander, especially the year he played in the Super Bowl. I love sports-books, especially when they are well written. In that spirit, I wish Alexander would have given more locker room or on-the-field vignettes. However, in light of what I wrote in the previous paragraphs, I salute Alexander for staying on topic – living the life of a disciple of Jesus. Or as he wisely puts it, God is not out to make “you a success at anything other than a success at hearing His voice, knowing His name, and doing His will” (p.214).

That sentence from the concluding paragraph is another reason I admire Alexander’s approach. So many people, who have made it big, go to great lengths to say that God gave them their success and that if their fans/readers/followers believe as they believed, they too can be successful. Alexander realizes he has lived a unique life, and God is not going to make everyone a starting running back at the University of Alabama, or an NFL probowler or a millionaire athlete. Alexander’s writing shows a faith that runs deeper than such shallow spirituality. Shaun Alexander is not calling people to prosperity that is worldly, but not Biblical. He’s calling people to true faith and truly faithful living.

I would happily recommend Alexander’s book to young people, teens or young adults, or to people who are football fans and who are new to Christian faith. But, my recommendation would come with a couple of caveats.

First, I look at the categories of “the walk” Alexander lays out. He cites five steps and these come in progression: the Unbeliever, the Believer, the Example, the Teacher, and the Imparter. I have not seen this succession of steps in the Christian life worded in this way. I want to know more about where this comes from. The way Alexander writes, it seems to simply come out of his own experience with the church, with pastors, in his own Bible reading, and his own relationship with the Holy Spirit. Those are completely valid sources, and I don’t dismiss them in the least. But, I wish Alexander would have given more specifics in where his schematic comes from. How did he arrive (besides experience) at this system for following Jesus? A theology or faith practice that is solely based on experience is shaky because it is so subjective.

Perhaps Alexander’s writing does have a foundation beyond his own life experiences. I wonder as he writes about the Imparter if this is the case. I have not used that term, and I wonder if it is based in a denominational tradition I am unfamiliar with. If so, Alexander would have done the reader a great favor in expounding on where the term “imparter” comes from so that the reader go do further reading.

A second caveat to my positive review of The Walk has to do with those examples in the book where Alexander shares that he feels God has given him, at special times, supernatural perception or even a heeling touch. I don’t doubt the veracity of those incidents. I believe miracles occur today, and some people are gifted by the Holy Spirit to do unexplainable things. Shaun Alexander may well be one of those people. But it sure would have been helpful if he had give references that give the basis of his beliefs about the Holy Spirit and heeling touch and divinely inspired knowledge. I understand what he’s saying. But, besides his own ideas, where does this come from.

My base criticism of The Walk is that it is poorly referenced. There’s no real research offered. Shaun Alexander isn’t writing his own biography. He’s writing a persuasive piece – inviting readers to consider a life that he feels would be a tremendous blessing. I happen to agree with all he has written. But I think if I were not already a believer, I would not be convinced. There has to be more than simply Shaun lived, it works, so you (reader) should live this life too. As a testimony of genuine faith, The Walk is excellent. As a witness of the joy and power of Christianity, The Walk is inspiring. As a persuasive piece that would positively impact readers predisposed to disagree, The Walk is lacking.

"I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review."

Monday, September 19, 2011

“Saved in the Wilderness” (Exodus 16:2-16)

Once upon our time, there is a man named Joe.

Twenty-nine-year-old Joe, an only child, is going through his parents’ financial records. Or, more accurately, he’s trying to read what is left of those records. He’s a week into sifting through materials from the bank, documents from the lawyer, reports from the police and fire department.

Five years ago, Joe finished law school and got married. He started his job with the firm that represents nonprofit organizations, mostly those that advocate for environmental causes. Four years ago, Joe’s young marriage failed – infidelity on the part of both spouses. Joe cranked up the partying for a while. Booze carried him through the depression, but only so far. It stopped working. Then, booze made the depression worse.

Hitting what he thought was rock-bottom, Joe three years ago accepted a friend’s invitation to church and within a few months, accepted Christ. His life truly turned around. He was even awarded greater responsibility at the firm and nice pay raise. Life was looking up.

Then, one of the major clients went out of business. Less lawyers were needed and a few months ago, Joe was let go. The search for new employment has been fruitless.

Last week, Joe’s parents were killed in a house fire. It is still unclear what happened, but it is entirely possible that medication both parents were taken played a role in them being unable to escape before they died. Now Joe has made the startling discovery that his parents had a lot more debt than money. He’s dealing with investigators who want to determine what happened. He’s dealing with creditors. He’s had to work with the funeral home and the attorneys who handled his parents’ will.

Joe feels utterly lost and completely alone.

I thought about beginning this morning with some word association. I would say, “Wilderness.” And you’d maybe shout out the first thoughts that came to mind. The campers and lovers-of-all-things-outdoors among us hear “wilderness,” and get excited. When can we go?? Others despise bugs and itchy, hot weather, and frosty cold nights in a tent with a sleeping bag that just isn’t quite warm enough. I say, “Wilderness,” and they say, “Next question.”

Or, I thought about opening up by saying, “Now imagine, without any preparation, you were dropped into a wilderness that is far, far from the nearest home or road. It’s so far out there, you have no idea which direction is civilization. What would you do?” And we would each write down our answers and share with the person on our left or on our right.

The problem with that illustration is it isn’t going to happen to you or to me. No one is going to take us out to the middle of nowhere with zero warning and then just leave us there. We can imagine what we might do in such a circumstance, but that imagining is unrelated to anything that will happen in our lives this week. It’s unrealistic.

Joe is not unrealistic. You can imagine being Joe. Many here don’t have to imagine. Sudden losses hit us, drastic life change, change that is not for the good. If you live a charmed life and haven’t dealt with sudden job loss or sudden relationship loss or unexpected financial trouble, you might think I have exaggerated Joe’s circumstance. If you suspect me of overplaying it, ask people in our church about their life circumstances. We’re not one large collection of people down in the dumps, but many here have had to and are traversing the desert of pain, loss, disappointment, and crippling uncertainty.

If you haven’t been lost in the desert, it is something that is probably going to happen. Don’t seek out calamity. Just know that it hits everyone.

What do we do in the desert, with nowhere to turn?

Exodus reads, “The whole congregation complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness” (16:2).

I suggested in my hypothetical that we might imagine being taken so far into remote, wild barren lands that wouldn’t even know the direction of civilization. We wouldn’t know which way to walk for the nearest road. The Hebrews we meet in Exodus were in a wilderness where there were no roads in any direction. They had to make there way and they had no idea how to do that.

The wilderness was a place where they were lost. The wilderness was a place where they had no direction. And they had no provisions. And no ability to provide for themselves. They were powerless. They found themselves at the mercy of nature, and nature, as hurricanes and earthquakes and famines show us, is merciless. The desert wilderness was a place void of hope. In scripture, the ocean depths embody abyss – a bottomless, black chaos that threatens to completely swallow a small, insignificant speck that is the human being.

If the ocean fills the man or women with the dread, the ultimate fear of annihilation, the desert robs the person of hope. The desert is a wasteland where there is nothing, and the person is forgotten. Loss, abandonment, isolation, alienation from human touch and human society; in the ocean we are swallowed; in the desert forgotten. Either way, we become nothing, cutoff from humanity and worse, cutoff from God.

Instead of literally trying to imagine how to survive the harshness of the desert the way an explorer or army ranger might survive imagine powerlessness and hopelessness. When reading Exodus and trying to enter the story, we submit the story of our lives to this Biblical epic, and in doing so, through Exodus, God speaks into our journeys. To connect with Exodus, we don’t put ourselves in the desert. We call to mind our own experiences of powerlessness, abandonment, dependency, and frustrating loss; frustration that brings us to tears because we know we cannot do anything. That’s the wilderness.

It clouds our vision. Why was Israel in the desert? Through Moses, God led them there. Why did God lead them there? In agony, they cried out to God. Why did they cry out to God? In Egypt, the monarch, Pharaoh was cruel. He killed the Hebrew boy babies. He made the people slaves. He made their labors impossible – making bricks without straw. He had his overseers drive the Hebrews with the whip. They fell into a less than human existence and cried out to God and God led them out from that horrid situation.

Now, 2½ into their desert sojourn, they follow God’s Moses, and they feel the massive wilderness engulf them, and their anxieties and their aching bellies create a fiction of where they came from. They forget the Egyptian whip. They forget the murderous evil of Pharaoh. They only remember that Pharaoh wanted his slaves fed, so they could work. “In Egypt, we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread. You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill the whole assembly with hunger” (16:3). They are shouting at Moses and Aaron. They have completely forgotten God and are instead turning full force against God’s representatives, and they shout words that are absolute idiocy. They wilderness does that. It makes us go mad.

The same happens in life when stress builds. It becomes all we can see. We feel totally trapped – maybe it is financial stress. The treadmill is (1) go to work; (2) pay bills and expenses that exceed what came in on the paycheck; (3) dig into savings and watch that number decline; (4) repeat. This trap is a hopeless cycle and we lose the ability to see anything else in life. We cannot think creatively about ways to altar life so we aren’t caught in this rut. We cannot see the blessings that are in life and are obvious to those who look into our lives on the outside. We just feel lost, we then lose sight of God, and then we say and believe the absurd.

What did Jesus think of the wilderness? “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Oh? Is the desert as awful as we’ve made it sound? Jesus proactively sought out the desert, the deserted place. Why would he do that? “Now when Jesus heard this [the news of the death of John the Baptist], he withdrew … in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (Matthew 14:13). In the instance from Mark, Jesus tried to slip away in the pre-dawn darkness. He fled the company of others and sought the solitary isolation of the desert. In the example from Matthew 14, grieving for the loss of his friend John, He got in a boat and sailed away so others couldn’t follow him. Jesus wanted to be alone, so he went to desert places.

We’ve cited the dangers and the potential for spiritual evil in the desert, but throughout the Old and New Testaments, the desert is also where we meet God. In fact, sometimes God leads his people out to the wastelands because they aren’t really wastelands at all. The barrenness and the deathly quiet and the isolation – only there will God be heard.

In fact, Moses says to the complaining people, “You shall know that it was God who brought you out of Egypt.” That is repeated twice in the passage. In the desert, the people would know the power of God.

God tells Moses, “I have heard the complaining” (16:12). God hears Joe as Joe wallows in all his misery. When marriages die, God hears us. When our loved ones are faced with cancer, God hears. In times of job loss, financial uncertainty, depression, and unexpected calamity. God hears. It’s not wrong to cry out to him. There’s an entire Old Testament book called Lamentations. The prayer of complaint to God is sanctioned by scripture. In dire straits, what else should we do? We cry out, and God hears.

“You shall know.” “I have heard.” Moses also tells the people, “You shall see the glory of the Lord.” There’s something about God we cannot see until we are in the spiritual wandering places where it seems despair, hunger, solitude, and pain are in abundance, and hope and sustenance and safety cannot be found. There are aspects of God we need and we can only see God in that saving way when we journey into the desert. That’s where God shows up.

He said to Moses, “I will text Israel.” God provides quail meat and manna bread, and God imposes some rules on how these gifts of his grace are to be used. Only use what you need for today. The day before Sabbath, gather extra, and bake the manna and boil the meat so you can rest on Sabbath as God rests. God tests to see if his people will embrace a life of dependence on Him.

He didn’t save them from Egypt for the sake of freedom. He saved them so they would be a holy people, called out by God to be a nation of priests. Israel was saved to be in service to God that God’s holiness and love and grace and salvation would be known throughout the world.

As Christians, we aren’t saved so we’ll get to Heaven. We aren’t saved so we’ll be happy. We aren’t saved so we will have financial and material success and prosperity and perfect health. We are saved to be God’s people sharing the gospel of salvation in the world. We experience the desert in order we understand our absolute need for God. With that understanding, we receive Jesus and the forgiveness he offers, and then we live as dependent people. We depend on God every day for spiritual truth and for spiritual feeding. In the desert, God tests to see if we will truly depend on Him, or as soon as we feel confident, will we depend on our own strength instead of his grace?

What happened to Jesus? He went into the desert and ate nothing for 40 days. For forty days, he lived off prayer and nothing else – no shelter, no food. Then he was tested by the temptations of Satan.

Obviously the wilderness is many things. It is where we are lost and without hope. It is where God hears us and we know God and see God’s glory. And it is a place where God tests those who would be his people. Disciples are tested in desert times of life.

The hungry Israelites gathered before Moses and Aaron and the blinding glory of God look at the flaky white substance and ask and simple and logical question. Man hu in the Hebrew. “What is it?” That Hebrew phrase Man hu, that natural question from hungry people, “what is it,” is translated into English ‘Manna.’ What is this blessing God has given to satisfy our hunger and help us know we can live in complete dependence on him?

They had never seen this ‘bread from Heaven.’ Upon eating it, they discovered it tasted like honey-soaked wafers, a creamy, sweet taste. Where was God leading them? The land of milk and honey? Ah in there more desperate wilderness time, God gives a foretaste of all his promises of abundant blessing – blessing given to those who live in complete dependence on him.

What’s the path to hope, the path that leads us out of the desert wilderness of fear and despair and into salvation? Jesus. He said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). In Jesus God, hears us as we cry out from the pain of our sin. In Jesus, we know God. In Jesus, we see God’s glory. He is our salvation in the wilderness, our manna. What is it? It is Jesus.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The God on the Other Side (Exodus 14:19-31)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Today is a significant anniversary, and a solemn one. Ten years ago, the most massive terrorist attack in our country’s history hit when hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Some Americans don’t think often about 9/11, but many others are profoundly affected and think about it frequently. The story of 9/11 is a far-reaching story that evokes deep thought and feeling a decade later.

The Old Testament lectionary reading for today is Exodus 14. Moses raises his staff, the Red Sea parts, and the nation of Israel walks through on dry land. Talk about far reaching; the events of 9/11/2001 will at some point fade into history. The exodus continues to be a story that is so important, we define ourselves according to this story.

Why does this ancient text matter? How does it accomplish so much?

Peter Enns of Westminster Theological Seminary says the Exodus forms Israel as a people (NIV Application Commentary, p.279). The Israel we meet throughout scripture, Old and New Testaments, becomes who they were right here. They got their name in Genesis. Ancestral roots reach back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the beginning of Israel as a people and not just any people, but the people of God, happens when they leave Egypt and follow Moses into the desert. For Enns, the Red Sea crossing is a paradigm of deliverance.

Renowned scholar Walter Brueggemann locates Exodus at the center of Israel’s faith history (New Interpreter’s Bible, p.677), more so than the creation in Genesis, more than the reign of King David, and more than the Messianic prophecies in Isaiah. Everything else points forward to or looks back on the Exodus.

Judy Fentress-Williams illustrates this by calling the Exodus a lens. Israel was enslaved in Egypt and God broke the chains and walked Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Every other movement, every other period, every other event, and every other era of her history is interpreted in terms of the Exodus. This is especially true of the period of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century. One cannot know who Biblical Israel is without knowing the Exodus story.

I was talking to my wife about this. When I described to her the Exodus as the foundation, she caught me off guard. She said, “Why? Why is it so important?” I wanted to say because it is!

Instead, I asked, “As Christians, what is our foundation? What’s our starting point?” She immediately responded that we begin with Jesus on the cross dying for our sins, and then the empty tomb – Jesus crucified, Jesus resurrected. She was exactly right. For Christians, everything is based on our knowledge of God as God is revealed in Jesus Christ. We have inherited the Exodus story from our spiritual ancestors. By the grace of God we receive through Jesus, we are adopted by God, “grafted in to Israel” Paul says in Romans 11. But, we experience the stories of ancient Israel from the vantage point of cross and empty tomb. We read the Old Testament through a lens colored by the Gospel. In fact everything in faith and everything in life for us is defined with reference to Jesus crucified, Jesus resurrected.

How can we understand the story that birthed us as a people – a worshiping community? Our starting point, the cross and empty tomb, is different than ancient Israel’s starting point – the Exodus. So, how do we get into the Exodus story? How do hear it?

At this point, a quick summary is helpful. Jacob whom we meet in Genesis was the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. Abraham was led to the land flowing with milk and honey, modern day Israel and Palestine, ancient Canaan. It was the land God promised to Abraham, and from there, God would, through Abraham’s descendents, bless the entire world.

Abraham’s grandson Jacob had 12 sons. The descendents of these 12 became the 12 tribes of ancient Israel. Jacob’s favorite son was the 11th of the 12, Joseph. Joseph bragged of the way his father smiled on him over his brothers. He was gifted with future vision in his dreams and also with the supernatural ability to interpret dreams. He told his brothers of a dream in which they would bow before him. They hated his arrogance and favored status, so they took him by force and sold him to Midianite slave traders who carried Joseph off to Egypt.

The brothers told their father that an animal had killed Joseph. Meanwhile Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams became known and he went from the misery of slavery to holding an important position in Pharaoh’s court. He had become Egyptian royalty. Then, the famine he had foreseen hit. Starving, his brothers and father come to Egypt in search of food and were reunited with Joseph.

Genesis ends there, with Jacob and his 12 sons prospering not in the Promised Land, but in Egypt. Turn the page to Exodus, where several generations later the Hebrews’ numbers have swelled into the hundreds of thousands. As the years go by, history puts great distance between the Pharaoh who was loyal to Joseph and the era of the book of Exodus. It says a new Pharaoh took over, one who did not remember Joseph at all. He enslaved Israel and built the pyramids with Hebrews as his labor. They went from being a prosperous, immigrant people to chains. The Egyptians overseers drove the Hebrews with cruelty and brutality. Their backs were reddened from the Egyptian whip.

As the Egyptian burden mounted and the Hebrew knees buckled, the people hit a breaking point. Spiritual breakthroughs, much of the time, come in seasons of spiritual brokenness. The people cried out to God. Exodus 2:25 says, “God saw the Israelites, and He took notice.”

In God’s noticing, we see our own place in the ancient story, the narrative on which the Israelites forever stand. We see how in fact this story is our story. Or rather, we enter the story and submit our lives to it. All because of that last verse of the second chapter, “God saw the Israelites, and He took notice.”

God is a god who notices. Some may be offended that a gentile Christian community would try to own an ancient Hebrew text. We aren’t doing that. We know this is not ours, but that the Exodus has formed us by way of the cross. So, we would never say because of the cross the Exodus no longer has relevance. Nor would we say, we will forfeit all authority for reading the story to Jewish readers and only read in it what they say is permitted. The authority belongs to God and God has been revealed in Jesus who himself is God incarnate. We look to Him to see what God is like.

One of the things Jesus does is to show what God is like. He is God in the flesh. Similarly, the Exodus reveals who God is. And for the record, even in the Old Testament, God’s self-revelation goes beyond what God does in Israel.

There is no question that Israel is the chosen nation and God’s plan is to bless the world through Israel. That’s not debatable in the Old Testament or the New. There’s no wiggle room. God chose Israel. But it doesn’t mean God just left the rest of us out in the trash heap.

Consider Abraham. His first son Ishmael was born of his concubine Hagar, not his wife Sarah. The promise of God went through Sarah, so this other woman and this other child were outside of God’s plan, and Sarah expelled the servant women sending her to die in the desert. God showed up. As Hagar fled into certain death, her own and her son’s, she lost hope, but God “noticed her,” just as God noticed when Israel cried out in Exodus. God provided salvation for Hagar and Ishmael. Why? Because when people are broken, at the very lowest point, God notices. God intervenes. God saves.

God sees us. God notices and gets involved in our lives. As we submit our lives to the word of God, and the story of God and God’s people as we see it in Exodus, we realize God has intentions for us. And the best life a person can have is the life God plans. Israel ran into trouble in her history when she strayed from the course God set. Likewise, we suffer when go off the track and go our own way instead of God’s way.

Flipping over to Exodus 14, Pharaoh has released the Israelites but then decided to change his mind. He’s lost all his free labor and there are more cities and pyramids to build. He will chase his former slaves with chariots. He will round them up and bring them back to their miserable lot in Egypt.

However, it won’t be as easy as he thinks. As Pharaoh predicted, his charioteers easily overtake the Israelites, but he did not count on God’s continued activity. It says, the angel of the Lord came between the Egyptians and the Hebrews. At first sight, it would seem Israel was completely hemmed in – with the enemy army on one side, and the Red sea on the other. But the angel of the Lord stood between Egypt and Israel and made a confusing, disorienting darkness rest over the Egyptians forces. They were completely unable to do anything all night long.

That same Godly presence gave light to the Israelite camp. God physically located himself and how he was experienced all depended on your vantage point. If you were Egyptian, opposing God, you were blinded by night. If you were Hebrew, following God, you were given light.

God notices.

God protects.

God throws confusion into the enemy.

When Moses stretched out his hand, God blew a wind, and the Red Sea opened up. The God who notices, protects, and confuses, also is Master over nature. Yes, there are natural laws. Gravity says things that go up, must come down. The sun rises in the East and sets in the west. These laws are unavoidable. Yet God is free to work out with nature outside the laws that cannot be broken. The Red Sea cannot just be opened and closed again. God opened up the Red Sea so his people could walk through and begin their journey to receive the law and enter Canaan, the Promised Land. Then, God closed the Red Sea, swallowing the evil that pursued his people.

In our baptism, the waters pour over us burying in death the evil in us, our sinful selves. But like Israel, we emerge from the water alive, as new people, new creations. On the other side of the sea, Israel was new, the people of God freshly born again. Who is the God of the Other Side, the God who took them their, and greeted them upon their arrival?

It might be argued that central narrative is the creation, when God made the world in seven days. I suppose one could make a case that the most important story is Moses on Mount Sinai receiving the 10 Commandments and the rest of the Law. Many other stories in the history of the Chosen People might vie for that spot at the center. But that spot belongs to the Exodus, the journey through the sea where God’s people were born and entered into a relationship with God who carried them.

On 9/11, we are on the other side. We’re on the other side of terrorist attacks that occurred on a grand scale. We’re on the other side of the Cold War – the Soviet Union and the Apartheid government in South Africa – those are institutions of the past. We live in the age of technology. The world has shrunk. Two weeks ago, I had a long on-line chat with a guy in Ethiopia. Even though we’ve only actually spent a week together, we see each other as dear friends who share much including faith in Jesus. The world has shrunk and has become immensely crowded. There will be 7 billion in the planet in my lifetime. Caucasians will no longer be a numeric majority in the United States. We live in a world that is strange, new, unpredictable, and changing before we can get ourselves settled.

What God do we see here? What God is waiting for us as we emerge from the waters of slow-moving history and try to speed up so we can drive in the current time which is as crowded as rush-hour and moves at breakneck pace?

The God welcoming us and walking with us is the God who reveals Himself in the New Testament – Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior. Because of the incarnation, we can place ourselves in the story of Great Exodus. We need this God who notices; who protects; who confuses evil and the enemy who would harm us. We need this God who is Master of nature, who splits open so we can walk through. We desperately need Him and the good news is, He is Master over history. As every new thing, new technology, new notion of family, new war, new diabolical technique of crazed terrorists threatens to swallow us in confusion and fear, God is a step ahead. The Master of nature is Master of history and goes before just as He went before our spiritual forefathers.

The God of the Other side is waiting for us on the other side no matter what valley we must walk through or sea we must sail across or mountain we must climb. This God greets on the other side and goes with us every step of the way.

We will close this morning with a time of silent prayer. I invite you to empty your mind and heart of all thoughts and all distractions. Often in the invitation, I encourage you to bring it all to God. That is most appropriate, but this morning, I invite you to let it all go out of your heart and mind, and sit quietly before the God who notices. Let all distractions be quiet, and in the quiet open yourself to the God who protects. Let your spirit receive the God who is Master of Nature and Master of History. As we spend a few moments in silent meditation we are simply receiving God’s Spirit into our Spirit. There’s more specific prayer than that. We ask God’ Spirit to notice us and enter and take up residence in us.

[After a few moments sing “Step by Step.”]

Repentance is Life (Ezekiel 33:7-11)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

“Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them.” The Jews said this of themselves in 585BC. They were enslaved, living in Babylon, 700 long desert miles away from their home – the Promised Land. They were slaves in the desert, far from God, and they knew their plight was due to their own sin.

“Our sins weigh upon us.” They cried. “We waste away. How can we live?” Ah … this is the question.

Some one who has never felt the crushing weight of his own guilt before a holy God cannot truly claim to be a person of faith. We don’t go through life long-faced, a perpetual depression stemming from our overwhelming sense of guilt. Of course not! The way of Jesus is a way of Joy, of community, of love, of grace. In the with-God life, a life realized when we put all our trust in Jesus Christ, we experience happiness, fulfillment, purpose, and excitement no other life can offer. But the journey to that life includes a real, heart-to-heart reckoning of who we are.

We are sinners and our sins are an absolute offense to God. It’s true of every one of us. We are sinners who have hurt others and rejected God’s ways. We cannot enjoy the blessings of God until sin is admitted, confronted, and dealt with. The journey to the abundant life Jesus promises is a journey out of sin and out of guilt.

The Jews in exile arrived at a crucial moment of clarity. “Our sins weigh upon us. We waste away because of them. How can we live?” Well, how do the people who worship at HillSong Church deal with the question, if we’re being honest? Do we know of our own sins? Have we arrived at that spiritual illumination? The ancient Jews feared it was too late. It took exile for them to see the truth. What does it take for us?

Ezekiel begins this section of his teaching with a parable.

The word of the Lord came to me: 2O Mortal, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take one of their number as their sentinel; 3and if the sentinel sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people; 4then if any who hear the sound of the trumpet do not take warning, and the sword comes and takes them away, their blood shall be upon their own heads. 5They heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; their blood shall be upon themselves. But if they had taken warning, they would have saved their lives. 6But if the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any of them, they are taken away in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.

God tells Ezekiel to use a classic military image to get the point across. In the ancient world, cities were walled. When invaders came, everyone came in from the farms and took refuges within the city walls. The defense of the city against an attacking enemy began from that point, from within the walls. To take up this defense, the people had to know an enemy was coming. Responsibility lay heavy on the sentinel’s shoulders. Should he fail to blow the warning horn, the city would be rampaged, the people enslaved and slaughtered. And it would be his fault.

The exiled Jews we meet in Ezekiel 33 must have felt this was an after-the-fact parable. Their prophets had warned them of God displeasure at their sin. They knew they had not taken heed of the warning and so their blood – exile, death, separation from family, slavery – their blood was on their hands. It’s almost like the parable of the sentinel and the walled city was a poetic I told you so! The people of God ignored the warnings, continued the sins of idolatry and abuse of the poor and vulnerable among them, and now they were paying for their mistakes. Their response to the parable, in light of their utter defeat, was despair.

But Ezekiel was not saying “God told you so.” This prophet still had work to do because God still loved his people. No matter what we do, no matter how far we fall, God’s love doesn’t fail. Mercy, grace, love – these things are components of God’s character. This is what makes God who God is. Just because humanity sins doesn’t mean God stops being God.

A second element of the parable, besides the people listening or ignoring the warning of the sentinel is the responsibility of the prophet. God says to Ezekiel, “You, son of man, are the watchman. I've made you a watchman for Israel. The minute you hear a message from me, warn them. If I say to the wicked, 'Wicked man, wicked woman, you're on the fast track to death!' and you don't speak up and warn the wicked to change their ways, the wicked will die unwarned in their sins and I'll hold you responsible for their bloodshed” (The Message). The people assumed they were already under God’s punishment and in fact they were, but it wasn’t permanent. God had a future prepared for his people. Ezekiel’s job was to deliver the message to Israel that exile was not the end of the story.

This second element of this passage was the burden on him. God was telling the people that in spite of their dire circumstance, He had blessed future planned. They could submit to despair or in faith, repent and claim the hope God offered. But they could only do it if they heard the good news. Ezekiel’s job was to deliver the good news. If he failed, then the death of God’s people was on his shoulders. If he did his part and shared the message of repentance, the Ezekiel was God’s good and faithful servant no matter what the people did with the message.

So, we have a word from God – repent of sin, turn to God, and live. A second component on that word from God is the mandate to the messenger. Deliver this message, or the death of the people is on you. In the 6th BC, prophesying in Babylon, Ezekiel did his job. He delivered.

The third factor in all this comes today, September 4, 2011. What Ezekiel spoke 2500 years ago was canonized. His words became scripture. The writing of the message, the delivery of it, the preservation of it in what we call the Old Testament, the reading of this word in churches down through the centuries all come together to make this authoritative, holy word to us. God says to us, repent and live. Once again, Ezekiel has done his job. His message has been read in the worshipping community. Now we know. Sin is death, but death is not God wants the story to end. Quoting Ezekiel directly: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from your evil ways” (33:11).

We could recite all the differences that separate us from the 6th century BC Jewish community in Babylon. They were Jewish. We are Gentile. They were slaves. We are citizens of a large, powerful democracy. They lived before Jesus came. We know the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. We aren’t them! But we are. We are sinful people before a Holy God. So we face the two choices they faced.

The first choice is despair. The spirit of the ancient Israelites was broken and they assumed theirs was a future of slavery and death. What I experience with people in our day and time is an acceptance of spiritual failure. People ask a pastor to pray on their behalf, as if somehow hears my prayers but ignore theirs. A clergy person is no better than a lay person, no more holy, no more reverent, no more acceptable to God. But people inside the church and outside act differently. People act as if ministers have a “hotline” to heaven and the only way they can hope to tap into God’s love and healing is if someone holy enough will pray on their behalf.

This thinking is based in the reality that we are sinners. But it implicitly rejects another reality – that God loves us and will remove our sin and make us new creations. We hear the Apostle Paul say, “The wage of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). We hear that and believe it. It sinks in. We are sinners, cut off from God. We somehow fail to hear the very same Apostle in the continuation of the same verse say, “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b). Somehow, we fail to hear the prophet Ezekiel when he tells us that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked but longs for the wicked to turn away from evil and from sin and to turn to Him. We don’t hear that. We accept our fallen state and live as fallen people.

That’s our first choice of responses to the gospel of Ezekiel, a word from God. We respond by giving in to spiritual despair and death. There’s a second choice.

From later on in Ezekiel 33 (the Message):

On the other hand, if I tell a wicked person, "You'll die for your wicked life," and he repents of his sin and starts living a righteous and just life—being generous to the down-and-out, restoring what he had stolen, cultivating life-nourishing ways that don't hurt others—he'll live. He won't die. None of his sins will be kept on the books. He's doing what's right, living a good life. He'll live.

17-19 "'Your people say, "The Master's way isn't fair." But it's the way they're living that isn't fair. When good people turn back from living good lives and plunge into sin, they'll die for it. And when a wicked person turns away from his wicked life and starts living a just and righteous life, he'll come alive.

The second choice is to renounce our sin. We don’t renounce ourselves, but the evil thoughts we think and the ungodly words we say and the unchristian things we do. Consider your sins – sins committed in relationships. We acknowledge these sins and turn from them. First, we turn to God in humble confession and receive His forgiveness. Second, we turn to those we’ve sinned against and in humble love and confession, we restore the broken relationship. This is our living out the word delivered by Ezekiel. We don’t accept despair. We choose repentance and as Ezekiel showed and as Jesus taught and modeled, repentance is life.

A beautiful picture of this life that is the end of repentance, where repentance leads, is seen in the worship song praising Jesus, recorded in Revelation 5:9. Sung to Jesus it says, “You were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.” In renouncing our sin and in believing in and receiving the hope God holds out to us, we enter into a life of repentance. Turning from sin becomes a regular practice. In that life, we become a part of the Kingdom of God. We become saints and priests, Revelation says. We have a future of an eternity spent the beloved presence of God and all worship him. This is choosing life.

“Our sins weigh upon us. How can we live?” The Jewish exiles asked this in their 6th century BC captivity. The answer for them is the same for us. We sin through pettiness, through self-worship, through cruelty to the ones we love most, through materialism and greed, through sins of omission (failing to love and serve whom God has called us to love and serve), through prejudice – in all these ways and many more, we sin! How can we live? By turning to God in faith, as God is revealed in Jesus Christ.

Our prayer is three-fold.

First, God, reveal with great clarity our sins and the affects of our sin.

Second, Father God, help us turn from our sin to you, and help us receive your forgiveness.

Third, God, help us make repentance prayer a life-long spiritual practice.

I am going to lead us in silent prayer, praying along these three steps. Afterward, I will lead a prayer for our offering today that will conclude with us saying together the Lord’s prayer. Then we will move into our offering time. As the offering is being collected, Heather and I will be at the back. If you would like one of us to pray with you about something specific, a need in your life, or a need for clarity or discernment or guidance, please come at that time.

Now, together, in silence, we reject despair, we claim the hope for life, blessed life, offered by God, and we enter into prayer of repentance.