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Monday, October 27, 2014

God, the Good Shepherd

God, The Good Shepherd (Ezekiel 34:11-16)

            I have mentioned this before, but I bring it up again because I continue to find the question tricky.  What is God’s job?  Steven Colbert posed the question to his guest, a Catholic clergyman, and the priest responded, “God’s job is to sustain the universe.”  I thought it was brilliant. 
            It though a very general way of answering the question, and general works in the setting of a talk show, especially a comedy show like the Colbert Report.  But when you and I are living our very real, day-to-day lives, what answer to that question will help us?  What knowledge of God will inspire us to push ourselves through the challenges we face?  What reality about God will carry us when we can push ourselves no farther?  The specifics of the priest’s general observation that God is the great Sustainer are varied and go in countless directions.  We find one thread of God’s sustenance, God’s upholding of everything, in these words of the Prophet Ezekiel which we have read.
            To get to this, I look to another passage, one familiar to some readers, Psalm 23, and I compare Psalm 23 to opening verses of Ezekiel 34.  In Psalm 23, between the years 1000 and 930 BC,[i] David who was a shepherd sang about the ways God took care of him in the midst of trying circumstances.  God often, not always, but very often works through people.  This includes God working through his chosen people Israel.  Ezekiel 34 opens with prophetic condemnation of Israel’s leaders who failed to lead the nation to trust in God’s provision in the face of difficult times. 
            Ezekiel fires off his prophecy.  “You shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!  Should not the shepherds feed the sheep?  You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.  You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (34:2-4).
            Ezekiel speaks 400 years after David wrote his shepherd poems in the wilderness of Israel.  David could not see what would become of the nation.  It is quite possible that when he first imagined the words that eventually became what we now call the 23rd Psalm, he did not even know he would become Israel’s king.  Surely the poem went through many versions in his own singing of it.  Verses 5-6 make more sense from the lips of a king than a shepherd.  But however removed, David was from Ezekiel and even more from us, there is a constant that draws him and the prophet and you and me together.  God is watching over us with a big picture perspective that takes into account the experience of every human being simultaneously.   At the same time, God is with each person individually.
            We just read Ezekiel’s condemnation of the leaders of the Israel, the king and the leaders in the temple.  In summation, they neglected the needy of society as they used their privilege to advance their own wealth and well-being.  There can be no more damning words of someone with privilege than to say they who already have everything take what little the poor have.  They who are strong load the backs of the lower class with taxes, high prices, endless work on back-breaking tasks.  This can apply in numerous ways in countless situations, but the principle is someone in power using that power to exploit someone without power.  Think of what’s happening in Hong Kong right now, or the imposed conformity in North Korea of the past 65 years.
            In Ezekiel’s day, God’s nation, the people of Israel in the southern Kingdom of Judah, had survived intact during the terrifying Assyrian empire.  Then, a new power arose, Babylon.  With Egypt to her east and Babylon advancing, why did Judah fail to stand?  Ezekiel’s prophecy, time and time again, declares that the exile imposed by Babylon was permitted by God not because of Babylon’s might but because of Israel and Judah’s sin.  In chapter 34, Ezekiel specifically cites the leaders of Israel for failing to care for the nation. 
            In contrast to their self-serving, heavy-handed leadership, David tells of how God does thing.  The leaders scattered Israel and did not seek the lost.  They left the lost out in the cold to whatever hazards the wilds would present.  David said that God as a shepherd led him to green pastures and still waters.  When all David had in the wilderness to rely upon were his wits, his staff, and prayer, he never felt safer.  He could feel that he was in God’s hands.  There was no lion or enemy warrior that could pose a credible threat.  God held him.
            It was not always easy.  He says in the Psalm, “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”  But he does not stop there.  He does not die in that shadow.  He walks through and without fear because God is with him.  This is the extent of faith that David declares.  He’s not trying to teach it.  He does not offer four steps so that if you follow these you too can have a David-type faith.  He simply sings.  I walk through the valley … and I fear no evil.  Nothing could happen that was scarier or mightier or as powerful as the God who held him.
            In verse 4, Ezekiel rattles off a succession of specific failures.  “You did not strengthen, you did not heal, you did not bind wounded limbs, you did not gather the distracted, you did not seek the lost.”  Leadership comes with responsibility which is magnified 100 fold when your leadership is in God’s name.  In God’s name leaders are to point people to God.  Those falling under Ezekiel’s condemnation may indeed have spoken God’s name and recited temple prayers and led sacrifices in worship and done it all quite eloquently.  But their actions involved gathering all the food, property and money for themselves.  When they came across the broken, the broke them even more.
            David saw God in the Shepherd’s role do the opposite.  He said of God, “He restores my soul.  He leads me in paths of righteousness.”  He restores my soul.  Because of this, David could conclude him poem by saying, “Goodness and mercy will follow me and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
            The God who protected David in this way was still in business 400 years later.  When Ezekiel blurted out his seething invectives, it was not God’s way of stomping Israel into the grave.  God had not stopped being the good shepherd.  All the divine anger leading up to Ezekiel 34, anger at Judah and at foreign nations that deal in exploitation and injustice, came to a head in Ezekiel 34:11.  God’s demand for justice would not blot out God’s mercy. 
            As I again read the promise that comes in these verses take this to heart.  Just as the good shepherd of Psalm 23 was still a good shepherd 100’s of years later for Ezekiel, that same good shepherd came to walk in the skin of the sheep when God became a human himself in Jesus of Nazareth.  The God of David and of Ezekiel, the God who walk the dusty roads of Nazareth in human skin and died on a Roman cross, is as much a good shepherd today as God ever was.  Ezekiel spoke and wrote his prophecy at the beginning of the 6th century BC.  The words, breathed into his heart by the Holy Spirit, still speak today.

11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

            In Jesus, God has extended the invitation originally given to Israel.  All who come to Jesus acknowledging sin and complete need for God’s forgiveness and leadership will be received, forgiven, made new, and adopted as a son or daughter of God.  Jesus welcomes every person who comes in genuine repentance and sorrow for sin by.
            Once we are we in Christ, we are his church, and much of the work God does in the world today is done through the church.  We are not in the same position as the leaders of Israel in Ezekiel’s day.  The world is clearly a different place.  But we do have a calling to tell the world about Jesus, to invite the world into God’s Kingdom, and to show God’s goodness by using all our talents to do things God promises in  Ezekiel’s prophecy. 
            God says, “I will seek, I will rescue, I will bring my people together, I will feed them with good pasture.  I will bind up the wounded and heal the sick.  I will give justice, peace, and rest.”  We are beneficiaries.  As we have received these things from God, we are made new and then we are called to do these very things – seek, rescue, feed, heal.  We are commissioned by the word and empowered by the Spirit to be bringers of justice, peace, and rest.   
What’s God job?  God does many things.  Included is God’s provision.  This is no denial that we go through tough times and followers will face trials and difficulties, but never alone.  The good shepherd never leaves us alone. 
            This is a special day for our church. Today we enter into partnership with Pastor Lucio Moreno and Iglesia del Amor de Dios (the Love-of-God Church).  HillSong joins our efforts to other English-speaking congregations throughout our town and area in pointing the world toward the Good Shepherd God.  And Iglesia del Amor de Dios under Pastor Moreno’s leadership will join with us and with the other Spanish-speaking churches around to point the world toward our loving God.
            With God working through us, people will be drawn from the dangers of the wilderness of sin, disappointment, grief and loss into his love.  And together, in Spanish and English, we can truly say.
La bondad y el amor me seguirán
  todos los días de mi vida;
y en la casa del Señor
  habitaré para siempre.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us
All the days of our lives;
And we will dwell in the house of the Lord


[i] Gottwald, Norman (1985).  The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, p.601-602.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review of "Evolving" by Steve Davis

Evolving by Steve Davis is one of the most refreshing books I have read in a while.  Steve’s approach is confessional and apologetic.  He tells his own story as a Christian and an educated, thinking person.  In doing so, he give an excellent rationale for why Christians can confess the truths found in the Bible and at the same time be sensible in dealing with the findings of geology, physics, biology, and other sciences.  More than common sense, the truly confessing Christian can celebrate science as a means by Christians come to read God’s “other book” or “second book.”
The “two books” mentality for me is the most helpful element of Davis’ book.  Of course one book from God is the Bible.  The other is creation, or nature.  In some works the two terms, creation and nature are set in opposition.  One is either a naturalist or a confessing Christian, but the two worldviews are inherently at odds.  Davis show that the book of nature is a way God reveals God’s self to humankind.  The idea of two books with nature being one of those books stands on Paul’s assertion that people unfamiliar with the scriptures of Israel can know God by observing creation (Romans 1:19-20).
Alister McGrath and the late John Polkinghorne both point to nature in their own writings in which they celebrate nature (including evolution as God’s means of creation) along with confessing Christ.  I have read much of their works and at times struggled to fully understand what they were saying.  Both are theologians who started as scientists and then came to theological writing later in their careers.  Davis’ detailing of his own story helped me make sense of the portions of McGrath and Polkinghorne I previously found confusing or difficult.  Maybe that is my strongest commendation for Davis.  In telling his own story, he’s illuminated mine. 
I do offer this caution in Davis’ work.  The reader is stepping into the middle of a conversation – one Davis is having with himself and with every teacher of fundamentalist, literalist Christianity who has ever influenced him (and continues to try).  He is breaking out of a shell, a specific mode of thinking.  He undergoes a worldview shift and this can be quite dramatic.  Frequently, a page or two after he communicates a thought, he elaborates his thinking including some further development of ideas.  But I wonder is some of what Davis writes comes in “insider language.”
And this leads to my disclaimer.  Steve Davis and I are both evangelical Christians.  We come from the same “tribe” within Christianity.  He is also my personal friend.  His background is more conservative than my own, but the differences are not that dramatic.  I understand his lingo.  I am not saying his terminology is inaccessible to readers who are not evangelical Christians.  I am saying I don’t know.  I often run into this myself.  When I am talking to someone who does have a background reading evangelical literature and hearing evangelical speech, I have to stop myself.  I have to ask if they are hearing what I mean in the words I say.  I truly am not accusing Davis of being too insider-evangelical in his work. 
I am saying he starts in the middle of a conversation.  His style is easy and light yet he deals with a serious topic that has the potential to alter how a lot of evangelicals understand the Bible and God.  I read along, nodded in agreement; paused to consider the implications for my own faith, and often found myself laughing out loud (Steve has that effect).  I just had a few moments where I wondered if people who don’t live in the evangelical Christian world would get the joke.
That said, evangelical Christians are the primary audience for this book.  I agree with Steve that it would be great if scientists read this and respected that not all theists are in opposition to the work of science.  In fact, true loving the Lord with “all the mind” requires the Christ follower to seek God and seek knowledge.  That’s what Davis is doing here.  I hope evangelical Christians, even those predisposed to reject evolution, will read his book with an open mind.
And read with an open heart.  Steve Davis is sharing his own story.  His goal is not to convince you of anything.  He’s saying “this is my journey.”  Go with him on it.  To be invited into someone’s story is a gift and Davis shares this gift with any who will read his book which is whimsical, smart, and helpful. 

I recommend “Evolving” to pastors, church goers, especially to seminarians, and to anyone who wants follow Jesus by reading both the books God has given us.  It is not weighed down with difficult technical language, and it will free you as a reader to go on your own journey wherever it may lead.  Davis and I are both confident that if you read both books, you will grow in faith, you will have a relevant faith, and you will see God. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Coffee Colored Faith

In our church this past Sunday, a man gave the children’s sermon.  It was about obedience.  He wanted to show how obedience to God’s ways fills and flavors one’s life so that life lived in obedience to God is better, more wonderful than a life of disobedience.

He used three images.  He showed the children pictures.

First, he used a carrot.  What happens when you boil a carrot in water?  It gets soft and mushy.  Do we want to be soft and mushy on the inside, no form, nothing to stand on?  Of course not!

Next, he used an egg as his example.  What happens when an egg is boiled?  Inside it hardens.  And our apart from the ways of God our hearts harden until we have no heart left and are nothing more than stone inside.

I get that his illustrations are not all that sophisticated, but this was a children’s sermon with kids as young as pre-school age.  They got the point.  And with his third example, I got an even better blessing, one I am sure he did not intend but would be happy with nonetheless.

He showed a picture of a coffee bean.  When that is ground and boiled, it turns water into wonderful, delicious coffee.  First, the man who gave this demonstration is my friend and I did not know he is coffee drinker.  Maybe he’s not.  Maybe he described so beautifully for the sake of the illustration.  I am a total coffee drinker.  I think it is a wonderful invention, brought the world by Ethiopia, by the way! 

So, as a coffee-lover, I loved that he likened the wonders of a life of obedience to God to water that has been turned into coffee (which I would take over wine any day).  But there was, for me, a deeper blessing.  Here is my family.

Notice, my children are vanilla, milk chocolate and dark chocolate.

Now think about colors and the images they usually convey.  When someone is in a dark mood, is that a good thing?  Is a black mark on your record something you want?  Do we yearn for dark times?  Is the phrase “black as night” accompanied by happy butterfly music?  So often “dark” and “black” conjure up negative thoughts.  Other colors are used to arouse happiness, joy, or peace.

What does that mean for people who are categorized as “black”?  Africa in some circles is called the “dark” continent.  By the way, that is about as ignorant as it gets.  Travel to Ethiopia and you’ll be blizted by vibrant color, especially red, green, and yellow!

When my friend did his children’s sermon, the negative were the hard white egg and the mushy orange carrot.  That was life without God’s word.

The good life, the delicious life is the coffee-darkened life.  As that deep blackness of coffee permeates the colorless, flavorless water, excitement, goodness, energy, and joy seep in just life is invigorated when it is filled to the brim with the ways of God.  I didn’t realize until I heard that simple children’s sermon how I yearned for something that connected dark colors (the colors of my children’s skin) with something wonderful. 

I thank my friend for giving me this delicious, beautiful metaphor I can hold onto in order to celebrate my Lord and my kids. 

Metaphors aside, I think I’ll celebrate right now with a snack of buttered steamed carrots, a salted hard-boiled egg, piping hot black coffee, and clear ice water.  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Repentance: A Disciple’s Way of Life (Ezekiel 33:7-11)

I was scheduled to preach this coming Sunday on Ezekiel 33:7-11, but I have spent the week sick.  I am very thankful for my associate pastor Heather for filling in on 3 days notice.  

Here is a message I did from this passage in 2008.  

Sunday, September 14, 2008

            Billy Graham wrote a book called How to be Born Again.  What a straight forward title from a man who has spent his life telling the simple truth in a direct manner.  In this book, Rev. Graham tells us about Joe.
Joe was brought up in Bronx Ghetto. … The streets of New York had been his home since [birth].  Gang warfare, knife fighting, stealing and lying were simply a way of life.  He was … a drug user and an accomplished thief.

Joe, however, went to a meeting at which Akbar Haqq, [a Billy Graham Association] evangelist was speaking.  Before the evening was over, Joe had given his life to Christ.  The day after his conversion, one of his buddies was trying to induce Joe to go with him to get drugs and Joe didn’t want to be bothered.  The friend pulled a knife and threatened to cut Joe.  Joe was much quicker and he got the better of his friend, stabbing him many times.  His friend was in the hospital for two weeks.

Joe [had accepted Christ, but he] had no Christian background to fall back on, and he had many ups and downs in his spiritual life.

            Is there a common thread between you and I and Joe?  I haven’t met gang members here at our church.  Of course there is drug use, violence, and crime in Chapel Hill, but I have not run into many people like Joe.  I have though met a lot of people in our town and in our church that go through ups and downs in the spiritual life.  No matter how dedicated we are to prayer, to worship, to Bible study, and to Christian service, we have high points and low points and many days where we are somewhere in between.  There is no solution to that.  Discipleship is a journey.  What we can see in Joe’s life and in the words of the prophet Ezekiel and in other stories we’ll hear this morning is that repentance has to be a critical part of the disciple’s journey.  Repentance is more than something we just do when we initially confess our sins and accept Jesus.  Repentance is more something we just do when we know we have committed sins or lived in a season of spiritual dryness or in a season of decadence or sinfulness.  Repentance is a crucial, consistent element in the disciple life.
            I read about a young German girl in the 19th century who was giving a piano concert in her town.  She was not famous, but she wanted people to come, so she fudged her resume.  She said she was a student of the famous composer, Franz Liszt.  She had never met him or studied piano under him, but this was a great way to generate a crowd until she learned that the day of the concert, Franz Liszt would be in town.
            In her embarrassment, she dealt with what she had done.  She didn’t try to hide.  She didn’t hope the whole thing would blow over.  She went to Franz Liszt when he arrived and confessed all.  He said to her, “You made a mistake.  We all make mistakes.  What you need to do is repent and I believe you have.  Now, I want you to sit down and play what you will be playing in the concert.”  She did.  He corrected a few of her mistakes.  Then he said, “Now you can truly say I have been your teacher.  Proceed with your concert.  Your teacher will play the final number.”  And he did.[i]
            As this pianist found redemption from a kind hearted master in Franz Liszt, the New York street-tough turned Christian, Joe, found redemption through the faithful witness of Akbar Haqq and Billy and Ruth Graham.  Joe was led to Jesus when he heard Billy Graham’s associate present the Gospel.  However, just because Joe accepted Christ does not mean he was instantly a perfect disciple.  Like the 19th century small town German girl, Joe made mistakes even after he was saved.  He made a lot of mistakes.
            When Billy Graham came to NY to do an evangelism crusade, he learned of Joe’s story.  Ruth Graham met Joe and urged him to come to the worship services and he did.  A friendship formed between this evangelist’s wife from NC and this tough-guy turned believer.  On one occasion, Joe, frantic, called Mrs. Graham.  She by now knew him well enough to ask, “What have you done now, Joe?”
            He responded that he had robbed a filling station.  “Why would you do that,” she asked. Here is his response.
Well, it’s like this.  I have this buddy.  He really needed money, but he had never robbed a filling station before.  I had, so I just thought it was my Christian duty to help him.

She told Joe, he had to repay all the money.  He was shocked and hurt at what she said.  She asked if he had stolen anything else.  He looked at her strangely.  Everything he owned was stolen.  Through much guidance and love from the Grahams and their associates in NY, Joe did return all the things he had that were stolen.  He grew in faith and eventually went on to graduate from Columbia Bible College.  He has given his testimony at many Billy Graham Association evangelism events.  He presents himself as the ultimate example that no one is a hopeless case.[ii] 
            Joe’s journey has not been easy.  It was not easy for the young girl in Germany to confess her sin to Franz Lizst.  Repenting – turning away from sin and toward the truth – is difficult work.  It is work that must be a regular part of the life of any person who would follow Jesus.
            You and I sin.  We say mean things to people we love.  We look at others and we judge them to be less than us.  Maybe we look down on people in certain profession.  Maybe we have latent prejudice toward people of certain ethnic backgrounds.  This is uncomfortable to face because we know that all people of all races are beloved in God’s eyes.  We know from scripture that we are not to judge or despise anyone.  But when we look honestly into our hearts, we know we do.  We may try not to.  But those feelings are in there and they come either bluntly or subtly in our words and in our actions.  It may not be a judgmental attitude.  It may not be a deep seeded prejudice.  Maybe the sins that keep recurring are related to rage, excess, greed, or omission.  That’s one on which Jesus hit the Pharisees pretty hard.  We know what God wants us to do and who God wants us to help, but we don’t help because we don’t want to.  That is sin as grievous to God as theft or adultery or even murder.  To us, it’s that not that bad.  But to God, it is someone taking the name ‘disciple of Jesus Christ’ and then acting by the world’s values instead of kingdom values.  This is not being said to beat us up.  We simply have to be honest and specific in acknowledging that sin is a reality in our lives. 
            God doesn’t want to punish us for our sins.  It’s not His preference.  Ezekiel, writing in chapter 33, has spent much time and exhausted many words in calling out the disregard for God of the people of God.  They’ve sinned and Ezekiel has pointed it out.  It can’t be missed.  They’re sitting as slaves in exile.  Ezekiel is set in Babylon in a time after invading armies have ravaged the land God promised to Abraham.  The temple has been destroyed.  Sin and the results of sin, the brokenness and utter defeat are apparent.  And yet, after all he has said and written, God tells Ezekiel to write this.  “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from their wicked ways and live” (33:11b).
            When someone goes out and drinks and then drives, God doesn’t want that person to get in an accident and live as a paraplegic for the rest of his life; or to live with the guilt of knowing he killed someone while driving under the influence.  When two friends speak words in anger and the result is the end of the friendship, God doesn’t want them to each live in pain and loss and bitterness.  The language God tells Ezekiel to use is oath language.  “As I live,” God says.  He’s making a pledge to people.  The almighty isn’t obligated to do that, but He does it to get through to us.  He promises the depths of the diving heart, he doesn’t want us to hurt from our sins.  Sometimes we will even though God doesn’t want that.  But, there is a way to cope with our sins and even grow past them.
            Turn!  We must honestly face the sins in our life.  We must confess them.  We must turn from those sins and the lifestyle that ends in making mistakes and hurting others and ourselves.  We turn away from that life and those bad choices, and we turn to God.  Five times in the NRSV translation of Ezekiel 33:7-11, God implores his wayward people to turn.  We, because of Christ, are counted among the people of God.  In verse 11, he pleads with us.  “Turn back; turn back from your evil ways.  Why will you die?”
            Sin leads to death and destruction.  As long as we live in sin and with sin clinging to us, our souls are in decay.  Death lurks in the corners and even hovers over us.  But God asks, why?  Why accept such a spiritually dark, depressing existence.  Turn to me and live.  Jesus said the type of life we have when we follow Him and obey the Father.  He offers right now abundant life, joy-filled life, exciting life.  There is though work involved.  One aspect of the work of a disciple is regular repentance.  Regularly we examine ourselves, identify where our hearts are oriented toward values of the world, and we turn.  We turn from sin, to God.  This is not easy work, but it is necessary work. 
            The journey of Israel, God’s chosen people, from Abraham to Joseph to slavery in Egypt to Moses and exodus, and Moses and law to monarchy and the golden days of David and Solomon to slavery again, this time exile in Babylon is a study in the hard work of repentance.  At times, leaders like David and Solomon and Hezekiah and Josiah did things to call the people to God.  They shined as His people, chosen to represent Him in the world.  But as soon as the nation seemed to get it together and start to move toward holiness, human values instead of heavenly values would begin to take over the corporate mindset.  Israel would fall into the worship of statues, idols representing foreign gods.  Israel would look to strong foreign nations for security instead of putting her trust in God.  By the time Ezekiel came along, it seemed all was lost.  They weren’t even in Israel anymore.  They were the property of their Babylonian conquerors. 
Yet God forgave the past.  Through Ezekiel God told them the past is in the past.  God implored them to turn back and live.  How could they live the faith and the identity of God’s chosen while wallowing in servitude?  God would take care of things.  Their only concern was to faithfully turn back.  Repent and turn once again to God and He would lovingly accept them.
This is a story with two sides, whether we are talking about ancient Israelites or the present day church.  On our side is the burden of repentance.  God give gives us free will.  He will not force us to turn to Him.  We must choose.  If we choose to reject God we will continually suffer the painful consequences of our sins and we face eternal destruction, eternal death.  God’s side of the story is grace.  If we turn back to Him, he forgives all and gives us abundant life and the promise of eternal life. 
As we said, ‘the turning back’ is not as easy as it sounds.  Last weekend, Candy and I watched a comedy – Failure to Launch.  It’s a silly movie with some good laughs.   The 3 poignant moments of the movie are when the different characters have to apologize for the devious and cruel ways they have treated each other.  Each apology is accepted and ends in a warm embrace.  In real life, apologies are not so easy or feel-good.  Sometimes pain lingers. 
Doug Wendel, writing in Discipleship Journal, explains,
Blaming someone else is not repentance. Crying is not repentance. Even feeling sorry for people who've been hurt by our sin is not necessarily repentance. True repentance is the inner focus of my heart on my own sin—realizing the pain and separation I have caused in a situation, feeling sorry about my wrong actions and attitudes, and being willing to turn away from my sin. It is [to quote Jesus in Matthew 7] recognizing and dealing with the plank in my own eye before trying to remove the speck in my brother's eye.[iii]

Furthermore, Wendel points out that the New Testament word used for repentance literally means to change one’s focus or purpose.  Our purpose, in doing the work of repentance, becomes receiving God’s grace and extending to those who have sinned against us.
            I find it helpful to look to Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline for further help on this.  Foster’s book is a prescription for applying the classic disciplines of the disciple life in our 21st century American lives.  The purpose of performing disciplines is to do things we are able to do in order to accomplish – holiness – we cannot accomplish on our own power.  The example is of the amateur weightlifter who wants to bench press 300 lbs.  When he starts, he cannot.  He can’t even do 150 lbs more than twice.  But he can do that twice, and so he does three times a week for a year.  By the end of that year, it’s not 150 lbs, it’s 175.  And he’s not doing it 2 times, he’s doing it 8.  The discipline of something he could do, lift 150 lbs, helped him accomplish something he could not – 300 lbs.  In spiritual discipline we do things like confess, worship, study, fast, and pray in order to become like Christ. This is work, lifelong work.
            I am suggesting here that repentance be a part of our spiritual discipline.  Foster does not include a chapter on repentance as a discipline in his book, but he does include a chapter on confession.[iv] In that chapter, he writes of his own experience.  He was pastoring his first church and he felt he was missing something.  Something of the power of God was absent in his life.  He couldn’t figure out why.  He knew there were spiritual resources available for facing the challenges of living the disciple life that seemed beyond his reach. 
            So, he devoted a day to prayer.  He got three pieces of paper, each representing an era of his life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood.  In silent prayer, he asked God to reveal anything that needed forgiveness or healing.  As things came up, he wrote them down.  He was careful not to analyze or judge himself or anyone else.  He trusted that God would reveal what he needed to confess or be healed of.  When this time of prayer was up, he had three pages representing those three seasons of life. 
            With paper in hand he went to a trusted brother in Christ.  He read it all, slowly, painfully, confessing his life.  He finished and went to take the paper and leave, but his friend, took the paper from his hand.  He watched as his friend ripped the history of his sins to shreds and dropped them into the trash.  He knew he was forgiven.  Then his friend laid hands on him and the power of that prayer has always lived in the heart of Richard Foster. 
            What I have described is the practice of confession.  How does that relate to repentance?  Initially, Richard Foster had to turn to God and that led him to remember his sins.  Writing them, confessing them, and receiving forgiveness was all a part of the work of turning away from sin.  Recall the story of Joe, the tough guy-turned-disciple.  Part of his repentance was doing what Richard Foster did.  He confessed. Part of it was following Ruth Graham’s advice.  He repaid the money he had stolen.  Part of it was working with Graham association to tell his story.  And in Joe’s life and I suspect in Richard Foster’s life this work of turning and confession, making amends and telling the story has had to be repeated not for already forgiven sins, but for newly committed ones.  Add to this the young German girl who had to face the one her lie affected and we start to get a picture of repentance. 
(1)           We acknowledge the sin.
(2)           We turn from it.
(3)           We turn to God and confess.
(4)           We repair relationships with people who have been hurt by our sins.

Consider two examples from the New Testament.  Jesus told a parable of two sons.  The younger asked for inheritance he would receive when his father was death even though he wasn’t.  The father could have thrown the son empty handed out at this insult.  Instead he gave the cocky young man what he asked for.  The son went into the world and spent it all on prostitutes, booze, parties, and anything else that would bring a cheap thrill.  When it was all gone and he was starving, he returned to his father hoping to be hired as a worker.  His father received him with love and celebrated his homecoming.
At this point the older brother got really mad.  He couldn’t understand the grace his father gave.  He considered his rebellious younger brother dead.  He judged him and he hated him.  He hated him for his wildness, and he hated that the father forgave.[v]  I have heard a lot of believers say, “I can really identify with that older brother.  What the father did wasn’t fair.”  Keep the older brother in mind.
Jesus also told a parable about a landowner hiring day laborers to harvest in his vineyard.  He went early, 6AM, and hired those who were looking for work.  He went again at 9Am and found more who needed employment, so he hired them too.  He did the same at noon, at 3PM, and again at 5PM.  The last group hired only worked for an hour. 
When it came time to pay, he paid everyone equally – an acceptable wage for a day’s work.  The workers hired at 6AM were quite upset.  The pay was fair for a day’s labor, but it wasn’t fair that those who were hired after them received that pay.  Instead of being grateful for what they got, they grumbled at what someone else got.  I have heard many Christians over the years say, “I can really identify with those workers hired early.  They had a legitimate gripe.  It wasn’t fair.”
The older brother and the workers hired early were more upset about the grace someone else received than the grace they received.  Too many people who claim to follow Jesus, get caught up in thinking that faith is theirs because they deserve it or they earned.  They’ve gone to church for 30 years.  They’ve tithed.  They’ve served in ministries.  They deserve the grace God gives.  People who come wandering in after a life of sin and get saved don’t deserve the same grace of God.  Doesn’t this sound ridiculous?  This is the spoiled fruit of neglecting repentance.  This is what happens when people look at murderers and drug dealers and porn-addicts.  People in church look at those who commit more obvious transgression and say, “Well, I am not that bad.  I don’t need to repent.”  We all need to repent.  Repentance is a disciple’s way of life. 
As Jesus followers, we don’t begrudge the grace of others.  We are so happy that we are forgiven we rejoice in the grace of others.  If we are in the role of the older brother, we join the party and celebrate the prodigal’s return.  We don’t get angry at the celebration thrown for him.  We help plan it.  We don’t rub his nose in his mistakes.  We embrace him in his new life.
Rick Warren asked John McCain and Barak Obama each about their greatest moral failings.  McCain confessed responsibility at the failure of his first marriage.  Obama confessed drug use and other aberrant behavior in his teens.  If I was asked that question – about my greatest moral failure – I could say honestly, I have never committed adultery or fornication.  I have never used an illegal drug.  I am not as bad as those guys.  In doing this, it might be tempting to take on air of moral superiority.  If that happened, it would be damning to my walk with Jesus.  I’d become a Pharisee who stood in the way of his work of leading people into the kingdom of God.  My safeguard against such arrogance is practicing repentance as a normal part of my life.  It’s something we should all work on. 
(1)           We acknowledge the sin.
(2)           We turn from it.
(3)           We turn to God and confess.
(4)           We repair relationships with people who have been hurt by our sins.
Right now, begin picturing what repentance would look like in your own life.  What sins do you need to turn away from?  What things do you need to bring to God?  What relationships do you need to approach with a new heart, a disciple’s heart? Imagine right now how you are going to do the work of repentance in this upcoming week.  Plan how this will become a part of your spiritual practice, your exercise of spiritual disciplines.  Five times in Ezekiel 33:7-11, God emphatically tells the prophet to tell the people to turn away from wickedness and turn to God.  This is repentance; changing one’s purpose, direction, and focus.
Zenji Abe, a native Japanese man, lived in Tokyo most of his life.  However, on December 7th, every year he made a trip to Hawaii.  Why?  He had to visit Pearl Harbor on that day.  Why? He was one of the pilots of those Japanese planes that bombed the US navy and brought the United States into the war.  He recalls in detail his own horror at what he saw that day.  He was a part of the second wave of attack.  When he arrived, he said he could see “indistinct, black anti-aircraft bursts, flashes of exploding shells and tracers flying all [over the place].”[vi] Abe barreled his fighter jet down on the USS Raleigh.  His bomb hit his target and he almost passed out from the dive and then delivery. 
Abe counts himself fortunate to have survived WWII.  He did not talk much about his experiences until 1991 when he was invited to Hawaii to speak at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the attack.  After that, he returned each year.  Through his annual meetings with Americans who also survived the war and specifically December 7, 1941, Abe has developed friendships with those who were his enemies.  Every year on the 7th, he places a rose on the memorial wall that lists the names of the Americans who died. 
Abe is not going back each year to receive again forgiveness from America.  It was war and he has long since been forgiven.  He goes back to continue to do the work of reconciliation, respectful remembering, and future friendship building.  His effort is a good model for us.  Once we are forgiven, our sins are gone.  What’s left for the disciple is to repent of future sins and to do the work of reconciliation and relationship building with God and with people.  In our walk with Jesus this week, let us hear Ezekiel’s word.  There’s no need to live a living death.  Let us turn to the Lord and live the abundant life.

[i] I got this story from the illustrations list in the E-sword library.
[ii] Graham, Billy (1977).  How to Be Born Again, Guideposts (Carmel, NY), p, 80-82.
[iii] Wendel, Doug, “True Repentance,” Discipleship Journal, online archives.
[iv] Foster, Richard (1978).  Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (HarperSanFrancisco), ch.10. p.143-157.
[v] Luke 15:11-32.
[vi] Wenger, J. Michael (December 3, 2006).  The News and Observer, 1D, 5D.

Hold Someone’s Hand (Ezekiel 16:46-52, 59-63)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

            Is it easier to hug another person or to avoid being involved with that other person?  This is kind of tricky.  Some folks are huggers: they just hug everybody.  For others, it is less certain.  Maybe they came from a family of hand-shakers.  Maybe in their experience, there has not been much physical affection.   It could be their culture is not as affectionate as other cultures.  I went through a phase in my early 20’s where the only real contact I wanted with other people was of the violent kind that came in rugby matches; no hugging or affection!  I walked around proudly showing off my bruises and blackened eyes.  Then I went on a trip to Mexico.  All the men hugged me and all the women kissed me.  I had more affection in one week than two years.  It was great.
            But, be careful with this.  In my life now, in the sexual climate of the United States, I have to be aware of how my actions could be perceived.  It would be foolishly irresponsible for me to be oblivious to how someone might interpret what I do or how I do it.  I hug female friends, but I also watch for cues or hints that someone might misunderstand my intentions.
            Hugging comes with risks.  Innuendo is one.  Vulnerability is another, and here I mean literally the act of the embrace, and metaphorically, the posture of embrace.  The best book out there on this is titled Exclusion and Embrace by theologian Miroslav Volf.  To present yourself to another, arm open, face inviting, heart expectant is to let your defenses down.  You have opened the gate in the wall that is safeguarding your heart.  You are saying to the other, this is how close I want to beI want to pull your body to me.  This is not sexual.  It is intimate.  Intimacy scares us.  Vulnerability scares us.
            It is also risky.  What if you decide the hug is worth it, the relationship is worth it and the other feels differently.  You open, and the other closes.  Now what?  Are you embarrassed?  I certainly am when that happens.  It definitely does happen.  I am left there, arms opened.  More significantly, I have opened my heart, and the other’s closed posture is an unmistakable message.  Stay back.  Stay at a distance.  I do not want you close to me – not in body, not in spirit. 
            Mistaken intentions, unwanted vulnerability, terrifying intimacy, needless risk – is the posture of embrace worth it?  We could leave the gate in the wall locked up tight.  We could protect ourselves by never opening ourselves to anyone.  A lot of people live this way, emotions withheld, arms stiff, bodies rigid; it is a cold way to be. 
            To live rejecting embrace – this is so isolating.  Those who live this way lose the art of living in relationship and God made us to live in relationship.  To live in a perpetual defense mode keeping the world at bay is to say to the creator God, I know you made me to walk with others, but I cannot.  We all go through seasons in which we shut others out.  Sometimes solitude is necessary.  But if rejection becomes our life, we in effect say to God, I know you created me for relationship, but it hurts too much.  I have been beaten up by lovers, by friends, by family, and by strangers.  I cannot do it.  Then your experience becomes more powerful in defining your life than God’s wisdom. 
            Yes, embrace is confusing, exposing, intimate, and risky.  It is all those things.  If you choose to embrace others and relationships of love with other humans who sin as much you do, you will get bruised and burned.  You will also be living in the way God created you to live – life in relationship.  I intend to show that faith is comprised of a life in which we live by God’s designs even when our experience would suggests this is not always the best idea.  No, it is not easier to hug than to not hug.  But it is better.  Embrace is the pathway to life lived as people who are made in the image of God. 
            Is it easier to worship God or to rely on the self?  I know that I am asking it in the midst of a worship service.  The answer might seem painfully obvious.  But, let us look at it. 
            When we truly worship – worship in spirit and in truth as Jesus says (John 4) – certain realities are in play.  First, we really believe there is a force, a personality, a being, a reality present – one we cannot necessarily see, feel, or hear.  But this thing – God – is here.  We set ourselves up for a diagnosis of some mental illness.  We gather, study, sing to, pray to, and give our allegiance to this empty space that we claim is occupied by … what?  God.  What is God? 
            Moreover, we not only claim God is real.  We also assert God is all powerful.  Dina typed out the worship bulletin.  Starlyn selected the songs – song that were written by people, humans and sung by the humans you see up on the stage.  I wrote this sermon.  Yet, we all conspire to say God is the one who is in control.  Are we sure?  Are you?  If we are truly worshipping, we have to be pretty convinced that this whole idea of God is real.
             Yet, we cannot be because doubt always has seat in our gatherings.  Some Sundays, you are so in touch with God, you feel a light and see a heat in the sanctuary that normal human senses could not perceive.  You don’t need convincing any more than you would need someone to prove water is wet.  Some Sundays, you know God.  But someone a few rows behind you isn’t so sure.  He got himself here.  He came.  The effort to do that was all he could muster.  He is right now hearing this sermon and thinking, oh, I don’t know.  This whole thing might be a farce. 
            He leaves less convinced than when he came in.  But then, over time, he sees God.  Others don’t what he’s talking about, but he knows it is God.  And in a month, he’s back in church and it is real.  By then, things have happened in your life, and your faith is being hit by gale force winds and you are unsure.  Is this house built on drifting sand or a firm foundation?  You do not know.    Then there is the Sunday where you are sure and your friend is sure and everyone here is absolutely sure of the reality and presence and love and power of God; everyone except the pastor.  He or she has days of doubt too.
            To worship is to acknowledge uncertainty.  If we want a positive spin, we say it is mystery.  That sounds nice.  But often mystery is scarier than it is inviting because it is mysterious. 
            I mentioned the power of God.  That’s another thing to acknowledge when we are trying to figure out if a life of worship is easier than a life in which we eschew worship.  When we worship, we are bowing, whether we literally go to our knees or not.  We say that God is the one in charge, the one with the power, not us.  Do we want to say that?  Do we want to name our weakness?  Do we want to confess sins?  Do we want to have to ask the unseen, unfelt, all powerful one for blessing?  Is life easier like this?
            No!  No, if we put our hearts into worship, life is not easier.  I say this not because getting up for church on Sundays is all that difficult.  It is not.  Thousands of people get up every Sunday, go church, and they do this without fail all their lives.  Not all of them truly worship, truly pour their hearts before God.  For many this is just part of the weekly routine.  If we really believe God is here right now, there can be nothing routine about this moment.  If we seriously think God is all-knowing, we cannot hold anything of ourselves back in this moment of worship.  To hold back would be a pointless waste of the time, time in God’s presence. 
            I say a life of worship is not easy because it is a life in which we give up control.  We pray, often very specifically, but God chooses when and how to answer.  We seek, but it is God’s decision as to how God will reveal God’s self.  God calls us by God’s initiative.  Worship, in one sense, is an exercise in waiting.  In hope and in faith, worship is a life of waiting to see what God will do in the world and how God will involve us in what God is doing.  Of course that is not all worship is.  Some might take great offense at this definition.  Fine.  Take offense.  Or embrace the definition and get to waiting, but always waiting in faith, expectantly, and hopefully. 
            No, this life of worship will not feel easier than a life of ignoring God.  It is though better than the godless life because God does act.  God is involved in the world.  God indeed does call us before we ever step toward Him in worship.  Giving ourselves to a life of worship does not guarantee we’ll be in the starting lineup on God’s team.  But it does orient us toward God – the God of infinite grace and infinite love, the God who calls us to be His sons and daughters.  Living in worship is better than avoiding God.  Living in worship points us to Him.  However it plays out, to choose the opposite of worship is to choose to turn away from God’s love.

            I have made the claim that embrace while not easier is better than a relationless life.  It is better to choose embrace.  I have made the claim that to live in worship while not easier is better than a godless life.  It is better to live in worship.
            What did Jesus name as the two greatest commandments?  Love the Lord your God with all your, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.  Obeying this by loving God begins in worship.  The second of the commands Jesus names is that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Neighbor-love begins when commit ourselves to embrace. 

            The prophet Ezekiel did his work about 600 years before Jesus came on the scene.  But what Jesus said about God-love and neighbor-love was as true in Ezekiel’s days as in Jesus’.  In God’s view of how the world ought to work, God-love and neighbor-love are absolute truths going back to the very beginning, Adam and Eve.  Ezekiel’s prophecies come after God had determined that his people, the nation of Israel, had worshiped idols of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. 
            Idolatry is at the root of all sin.       Idolatry is giving worship that belongs to God to someone or something other than God.  It is a failure of Jesus’ first command – the command to love God.  This failure always leads to a failure of the second command – the failure to love people. 
            Ezekiel was an Israelite priest, but he lived in Babylon.    The Babylonians had overrun Jerusalem, defeated the Israelites in battle and enslaved the most powerful among the people.  Are you one of the educate elite among the Israelites?  Off to slavery in exile in Babylon you go!  Are you an army officer?  Off you go to exile.  One of the religious leaders, a priest?  Off you go! 
The first 25 chapters of Ezekiel are comprised of prophetic allegories Ezekiel wrote and shared among the exiles in Babylon.  He graphically tells of God’s punishment.  Israel practiced idolatry, exploitation, and host of other sins and did so for many generations.
In Ezekiel 16, the prophet likens Israel to Sodom.  The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is found in Genesis 19.  Abraham’s cousin Lot is lives in Sodom.  Along with its sister city Gomorrah, Sodom is known for sexual excess and perversion.  God is going to wipe out both cities, but first, Lot and his family must be rescued. 
Angels come to extract Lot, but when the men of Sodom see the angels, they have other ideas.  These angels appear as human men.  The men of Sodom are going to spend the night raping them.  Lot shelters the men in his home not knowing that it is they who will rescue him, not the other way around.
At daybreak, the angels hustle Lot out of town and then Sodom and Gomorrah are obliterated by fire from Heaven.  Some interpreters believe this story is a condemnation of homosexuality.  The men of Sodom intended to have relations with these angels whom they took to be men also.  That would be rape, a crime of violence that is sexual in nature but not the same thing as consensual homoerotic relationships.  The Sodom account definitely relates to sexual purity, but it would be wrong to hold this up as a cornerstone defense in arguing that homosexuality is sinful.  It would be wrong because it would be missing the point of the story.
Other readers make the case that the real failure in Sodom was a failure of hospitality.  There clearly is this failure by the men of town.  They want to take something from the visitors instead of offering shelter and food to the visitors.  Just as there was sexual sin involved in the story, there is the failure to care for travelers.  But again to say the Sodom account is primarily about the sin of not showing hospitality is to focus on a detail instead of the overarching theme. 
The overarching theme is faithfulness to God.  This is seen in worship and neighbor-love.  In Ezekiel 16, the prophet says to the people of God who now wallow as slaves in exile, “The people of Sodom … were never as sinful as you.  … They had everything they needed [yet] they refused to help the poor and needy” (from Ez. 16:48-49, CEV).  In the verses leading up to this, Ezekiel rails against the exiles for idolatry (see v. 36).  Both idolatry (failure of God-love) and Sodom (failure of neighbor-love) enrage God. 
In verse 60, God reminds the beleaguered exiles that he has not abandoned them.  They have not stopped being God’s people.  They are just under God’s heavy hand of discipline.  God will one day fulfill all his promises to Israel.  We Christians believe that day came in the life of Jesus, his death on the cross, his resurrection, and his sending of the Holy Spirit.  He is God’s final answer to sin.  He defines worship and embrace, God-love and neighbor-love for us. 
We live awaiting the final consummation of the Kingdom – Jesus’ return, the resurrection of all the dead when those in Christ will enter the Kingdom and those not in Christ will be banished.  That’s coming. 
Until then, we bear witness to the goodness of God, and we do it in a posture of embrace as we love our neighbors.  As we await Jesus’ return, we worship, loving God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. 
In the commentary on Ezekiel Franz Delitzsch and Carl Friedrich Keil translate the Biblical text into German.  Later, James Martin, translated their work into English.  His rendering of their translation of Ezekiel 16:48 sets for me a concept that is the essence of what it is to love in God-love and neighbor-love, worship and embrace. 
“Behold this was the sin of Sodom, [your] sister, [Israel]; pride, super abdundance of food, and rest had she with her daughters, and the hand of the poor and needy she did not hold” (p.219).  The hand of the poor and needy, she did not hold.
We can learn from Israel’s mistake by asking God to help us see the needy in our midst – the spiritually needy, those who suffer from poverty of relationships, and the emotionally needy.  Whatever actions of love we show to help someone come from hearts that beat with love for God.  We have embraced His Gospel when it is said of us they held the hand of those who needed to be held. 
Open your arms in embrace.  Bend your knee in worship.  Live in God-love and neighbor-love.  Bear witness to the Kingdom God and the Lordship of Jesus by holding someone’s hand.