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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

"Hillside Faithfulness" (Judges 7)

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Sunday, January 26, 2020

            If you weren’t with us last Sunday, we talked about Gideon.  An ancient Israelite, God called him to liberate God’s people from a growing threat.  A coalition of Midianites, Amorites, and other eastern tribes had assembled an enormous army with iron chariots and this force harassed the Israelites just as they were settling the land God had promised to their ancestor Abraham. 
            So, God called Gideon to be the one to lead the people against the Midianite coalition.  Gideon wanted no part of this, but he built an altar and the angel of the Lord engulfed that altar in flames.  That sign, though, wasn’t enough for the man who informed the Lord that he was from the most insignificant clan in his tribe and he was the least in his clan.  He asked for signs and God gave them.
            He asked that the fleece be soaked with dew overnight and the ground around it remain dry.  God did this.  He asked that the miracle be reversed – wet ground and dry fleece.  God did that.  Finally, out of dodges and delays, Gideon accepted God’s assignment.
I originally titled today’s message “Hillside Faith,” but the more I read and reread, the more I realized Gideon had little faith.  The bigger and better story is God’s faithfulness.  God said He would deliver His people and he would do it through Gideon no matter how thin Gideon’s faith. 
In Judges 6, Gideon negotiated with God, demanding signs and proofs.  In chapter 7, the time had come to put together the Israelite army.  Judges says there were so many Midianites they were like a cloud of locusts (6:5), over 120,000 warriors (8:10).  Meanwhile Gideon had 32,000 soldiers (7:3).  It was a fool’s errand, destined for bloody failure. 
“Too many!”  God said, “You, have too many.”
I imagine Gideon thinking, “Too many, right.  … Wait, what?  We have too many?”
God didn’t stutter.  “The troops you have are too many.  Israel will only take credit away from me” when they win (7:2).  In our lives do we take credit for gains when what we should do is thank God for His grace?
Following God’s lead, Gideon tells his soldiers, “Anyone who is afraid can go home.”  Actually, he says anyone who is trembling with fear may go, and 22,000 do just that.  Gideon should have gone with them.  With all the signs and confirmations God gave him, he was self-centered and terrified throughout the episode.  This sifting out of the fearful happened at the stream of Harod, which in Hebrew means “the spring of trembling” (7:1, 3).
Now Gideon has to face 120,000 bloodthirsty Midianite Commandos and their iron chariots with 10,000 men.  Still too many, says God.  God will do the sifting this time.  Every soldier is to go the “Stream of Trembling,” and God tells Gideon to watch how they drink.  Everyone who cups his hands and brings the water up is moved to one side.  They’re cut.  They won’t be in the army that will route the Midianites and deliver God’s people.  Those who lay down, put their faces to the water, and lap it up like dogs will be the ones who make up God’s army.  Of the 10,000 left, 300 drink in this fashion.  Three hundred! 
Remember the movie called 300!  that came out a few years ago?  Leonidas was the king of the Greek city-state Sparta when they faced the Persian invasion in the battle of Thermopylae in the early 5th century BC.  Three hundred brave Spartans faced a vast onslaught.  All were killed as they heroically defended their homeland. 
Their feats of heroism have been told over and over.  The Hollywood film version lauds the sensual masculinity and dauntless resolve of the outmanned Spartans.  They fought with savage courage. 
We find a much different “300!” story when we read about Gideon’s troops in Judges 7.  Like Leonidas, Gideon had to face a well-armed enemy of 10’s of 1000’s of veteran soldiers.  The comparisons end there. 
God told Gideon, “If you are scared, do a reconnaissance and take along your servant Purah” (v.10).  In chapter 6, Gideon’s idolatrous father Joash stood between him a murderous mob.  Here in 7, Gideon’s servant Purah holds his hand while God leads him to not only surreptitiously reconnoiter the Midianites, but to do so at the perfect spot.  Among 100,000 Midianites, Gideon happens to overhear one tell another of a dream of crumbling barley bread that topples the tent of Midian.  His comrade says, “This is …  the sword of Gideon; … into his hand God has given Midian and the entire army” (7:14)!
At every turn, God reassures his faithless servant.  Gideon and his troops divide into three groups of 100 and come out of the hills above the Midianite valley encampment.  Each Israelite smashes the jar he’s carrying, and then each blows a trumpet.  In all the noise, the Lord throws the Midianites into such a confused, chaotic panic; they begin turning their swords on each other (7:22).  The Israelites don’t even have to fight.  They just pursue the shell-shocked enemy.
The outcome was never in doubt because this story began before Gideon was ever born.  This story began in Genesis 12 when God called a shepherd named Abram, changed his name to Abraham, and promised him that his descendants would live in this land as God’s people.
The sins and the mistakes of God’s people did not negate the promise.  God would work through his people flawed as they were.  Likewise, God works for his purposes in this community through us, his church. 
I want our church to grow.  I hope everyone here grows in Christ, matures spiritually, and comes into a deeper knowledge of God.  I hope our church as a body grows in a sense of our connectedness to Christians all over the world.  I hope we experience an expanding vision of God’s call on us as a group. 
            I also hope more people come to our church because they decide to turn to Christ after hearing the gospel here.  Most Sunday mornings, less than 90 people are in the building.  I’d like to get that to a range of 90-100 people.  And if that happens, then, I hope we grow to 120 weekly and then grow from there and so on.  I hope the growth is a sign that people here are turning to Jesus.  I hope a lot of baptisms accompany the growth.
            Having said that, hear me clearly.  Growth is not our goal.  Our design when we come together is to glorify God in Jesus Christ.  We want to follow Jesus, love others, and share hope in a safe, welcoming environment.  We pray growth will come out of following, loving, sharing, and welcoming. 
If growth were our goal, it would become an idol.  Idols command our worship, but our worship belongs to God.  When we worship an idol, we have robbed God of what’s his, and forfeited that opportunity to connect with God in a relationship of welcome and trust.  So, growth, we hope will be a byproduct of us living faithfully as a worshipping community.  Growth cannot be our ultimate goal.  Our one ultimate goal is to glorify God in Christ. 
I’ve been thinking about Gideon’s story since last year when a lot of people left our church.  People left when we made significant decisions they found to be too conservative.  Many of you did not like those decisions, but you stayed.  Others left because they thought other decisions we made were too liberal.  Many of you agree, but you’re here.  You stayed.  Some left our church because they were exhausted and disillusioned regardless of how the conversation turned out.  Many of you were every bit as discouraged, but you stayed with your church family, and committed to the future God has for us. 
I was discouraged by all the leaving.  But, each Sunday, when I saw those of you who kept coming back, I thanked God.  And I thought about Gideon.
My original thought in titling the message “Hillside Faith” conveys the idea that Gideon demonstrated amazing faith in the face of impossible odds and that we need to do the same.  We – the people of a small church facing institutional challenges as well as each of us personal challenges in our individual lives – need the faith of Gideon to face what’s before us.  Except the story is not Gideon’s faith, but God’s patience.  The God who dealt with Gideon as he was and delivered Israel through Him is the star of Judges 6 and 7.
That same God is the star of Hillside Church’s story.  God has planted this church in this community to bear witness to the salvation we have in Jesus Christ.  God’s purposes are served and God’s goals are accomplished, sometimes with our cooperation, sometimes in spite of our shortcomings.
When I was uncertain about our church’s future, I wrote a note that I’ve kept in my prayer journal since then.  It says “Gideon’s 300.”  If we were to more forward as a smaller group of people, we would do it in faith, and without worry or anxiety.  Studying Gideon’s story, I realized it is actually God’s story.  The focus is not on the three hundred or on our 70-80 Sunday morning worshipers.  The focus is on our God who is always faithful.
Before bed every night, Candy and I write down blessings in a notebook.  We’ve done it throughout our marriage.  The other night we looked back 2 years, the last Sunday of January 2018.  There were 140 people in worship at HillSong Church that Sunday morning.  I don’t know the first time Hillside will have that many people.  But it doesn’t matter.
What’s our goal?  To glorify God because He is always faithful.  However strong or weak our faith is, God loves us, and God works out his purpose in this community through us. 
I have been blessed to see God at work here.  Our faithful God goes before us.  We need not fear.  We step into the future humbly and boldly seeking his path, and sharing the good news of new life in Jesus Christ – new life available to all who come. 
Whatever you might be dealing with, God knows and God sees you.  God’s got you.  He will walk you through the valley, whatever valley you’re in.  He is faithful and we are his. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Hillside Refuge (Judges 6)

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            “All the Midianites and Amalakites and the people of the east came together, and crossing the Jordan River, they encamped in the Valley of Jezreel” (Judges 6:33). Don’t worry if you’re don’t who the Midianites, Amalakites, or people of the east are and if you have no clue where the Valley of Jezreel is.  I’m going to tell the story.
            It starts with some bad news.  The Israelites had been in the process of settling the land God promised to Abraham.  As they traveled from slavery in Egypt through the wilderness of Sinai, God gave the law by which they were to live.  That story is told in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  The story of settling the land starts in the book of Joshua and picks up here in Judges.
            God’s chosen people, the Israelites, are to live in this land and worship God.  The problem comes when they decide to worship other, false gods and live by the morality of other nations instead of worshiping the one true God and obeying him.  God withdraws his protection and other peoples – Midianites and Amalakites – move into the area and harass the Israelites. 
            As we hear this story, ponder this.  If you worship and follow Jesus, you are counted among the people of God.  Who or what in your life makes it difficult to trust God, to follow God, and stay true to His vision for you?  It could be people or institutions.  It could be temptations or addictions or bad habits or bad relationship.  Anything that seduces you into turning away from God is an enemy.  What enemy weakens your faith?
            The desperate Israelites cried out.  An unnamed prophet from God tells them, you’ve been unfaithful to the call of God (6:7-10).  But, God does more than just send a condemning word through the prophet.  In spite of all our sins, God still hears us when we pray.  Even when we are guilty of hurting others, debasing people, and breaking several of the ten commandments – even when we know that God knows we’re totally busted – even then, we can pray and God hear us and answer.
            After God sent the prophet, God’s angel came to Gideon.  The angel says, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior” (6:12).  What is Gideon the mighty warrior doing when this angel shows up?
            “Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites” (6:11).  Mighty warrior?  Gideon has to be thinking, you’ve got the wrong guy!  Gideon starts questioning.  Where are all God’s wonderful deeds that our ancestors talked about?  If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?  The Lord has cast us off” (v.12-13).  The angel called him mighty warrior, but Gideon spoke like a mighty complainer. 
            He was terrified of the Midianite warriors.  They dominated the valley.  He along with the other Israelites hid in the hills.  It’s hard to do any farming while hiding.  You end up beating wheat in a wine press, hoping the big bad Midianites won’t find you.  Mighty warrior?  Gideon was a coward.  But the angel of the Lord told him, “In this might of yours, go and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian.  I hereby commission you” (v.14).
            It’s amazing that the Midianites made Gideon tremble with fear, but he had no trouble talking back to the angel of the Lord.  You don’t get it, Angel of God, he explains. “My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (v. 15).  With God, that doesn’t matter.  Spoiler alert!  That’s the moral of the story.  The angel, speaking for God, says, “I will be with you and you will strike down the Midianites, every one of them” (v.16.).
            Again, knock-kneed Gideon, yellow with fright before Midian, boldly negotiates with the angel.  If this is truly the Lord, Gideon needs proof.  He tells the angel to wait right there.  I mean, who tells God, ‘hold on, I’ll be with you in a second.’  He runs and gets a goat and prepares an offering.  The angel consumes the offering in fire and then vanishes (v.19).
            Of course at this point Gideon totally freaks out!  “Help me, Lord God!  For I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face” (v.22).    “Shalom,” God says, “you shall not die.”  God calms the man and Gideon then does what Old Testament people do.  He gives God a new name.  He calls God “Shalom;” peace.
            Then the man goes into town and boldly rips down the poles offered to the false god Baal.  They’re called Asherah poles.  Gideon defies the false god tearing down his blasphemous altar. 
            Well, OK; Gideon sneaks out at night and does the deed under the cover of darkness and then runs home and hides in his dad’s house.  In the morning, when the people – Jewish people who aren’t supposed to worship false gods (#1 of the 10 commandments) – when they see their Asherah torn down and an altar to the Lord in its place, they aren’t happy.
            Who did this?  Gideon, son of Joash?  Bring him out here.  We’re going to kill him.  You’ve never heard of this Joash, hero of Judges chapter 6?  This is his finest moment.  He’s up to his neck in the same sins as the rest of the community.  He’s in trouble with God.  They all are.  But, when the community surrounds his house, intent on executing his son, he finds his courage.  He’s struck by a truth bomb and he drops that truth bomb on the heads of his idolatrous neighbors. 
            O, you want to fight for Baal, do you?  If this Baal is really a god as we have been saying he is, let him fight for himself.  They can’t really say anything to that.  The whole uproar dies down immediately, but there is one outcome we need to hear and heed.  Instead of killing Gideon, the people give him a new name, Jerubaal.  It means let Baal contend against him. 
            He was renamed Baal-fighter.  A lot of people in the community thought Baal was real and was a god of some sort.  They were calling Gideon god-fighter.  Earlier I asked, what relationship or institution or temptation or bad habit or addiction or mistake acts as an enemy to your faith?  Now, imagine you face that enemy and declare that it will not come between you and God.  Alcohol?  You will not ruin my walk with the Lord.  Past mistakes?  You will not come between Jesus and me.  Abusive family history?  You will not tell me I am worthless.  I am a child of God, made in the image of God.  Imagine you have mustered the courage to face your demons and turn to Jesus.  Those people in Gideon’s town would rename you “Satan-enemy” or “evil-fighter.”
            Sure, we want to be thought of as opposite the devil and we oppose all that is bad and evil and cruel.  But it’s also terrifying.  Here comes Satan to wreak havoc on the church!  What do we do?  Don’t worry!  We’ll all stand behind old “Satan-enemy” and he’ll take care of it.  They’re talking about you.
            Gideon hid high in the hills above the Midianite hoards with their swords and iron chariots.  He was safe in his hill side refuge.  We hide in a refuge to be safe from that which frightens us, to regroup, and catch our breath.  But, once we’ve recovered, we can’t stay in hiding forever.  God came to Gideon as he was hiding.  God met him in his refuge.  God called him as he was – lacking in confidence and cowardly. 
            The chapter ends with Gideon continuing to show his true colors.  In addition to his timidity, he was a negotiator.  OK, God, I’m going to do what you said, but I need proof that you’re with me (6:36).  God’s already said the only way this will work is I, God, will be with you.  Now Gideon wants proof! 
            Gideon’s going to lay some fleece out in the open night air.  If, the next morning, there’s dew on the fleece and the ground is dry, he’ll know God is with him.  God goes along with this farcical proposition.  The next morning the ground is dry.  The fleece is soaked with dew.  OK, Gideon, are we good to go? 
How about just one more little confirmation?  Gideon asks that the next night, the fleece be dry, but the ground wet.  The next morning, Gideon steps out of his tent and his socking feet squish as he steps one the wet, dew-soaked ground.  He dries his feet with the fleece that doesn’t have a drop on it.  Then he goes and rounds up an army.  He’s run out of tricks for God to perform.  It’s time to leave the hill side refuge and go face the mighty Midianites.  Next week, we’ll talk about that contest and how God can negotiate even better than Gideon.
For now, our time is up.  We must leave this Hillside refuge and step into the world.  We don’t go alone.  We are mighty warriors in the same way cowardly Gideon was because the God who went with him goes with us. 
What challenges await you in the week to come?  Are there people in your life make you turn mean? Or threats that shatter your confidence?  Or temptations that try to lure you away from God?  God’s got you.  God loves you and goes with you.  Even if you don’t feel His power, God’s love is more powerful than the evils we face. 
So, go from this refuge, you who are called Opponents of Satan, Enemies of Evil.  Go in the power of the Holy Spirit and face the world.  Share the good news of salvation.  Meet hatred with love.  And by the time the week is over and you’re tired and beaten up, then come right back here.  The Hillside refuge will be here and the God of Gideon will give you peace, shalom.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Hillside Mandate (Genesis 9:1-7)

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Sunday, January 12, 2020

            God created the world.  He put his special mark on human beings, the animal created in God’s image.  Of all that God made, humans are God’s image-bearers.  Men and women were granted free will.  God brought us into existence and then allowed to choose to follow, worship, and love Him, or to choose not to.  From the beginning, humans sometimes chose not to. 
            God said do not eat from that tree.  Adam and Eve ate from that tree.  God created us to be in relationship and even warned Cain, “Sin is lurking at your door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).  Cain didn’t master it.  Instead of thriving in relationships with God, with his parents, and with his brother, Cain disrupted God’s created order.  He murdered his brother. 
            God creates.  People rebel and sin.  God punishes.  But, God also protects.  Adam and Eve had to leave the garden, but they didn’t die.  Cain was banished, but also marked with God’s protection (Gen. 4:15).  We traverse these opening chapters of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, until we come to chapter 6.  At that point, the world is filled with people who have repeated Adam and Eve’s rebellion, and Cain’s violence. 
            The first question to help me organize my thoughts around the story of the flood and Noah is what do we learn about God in the flood story?  We learn that God took to heart every single sin.  A world full of hundreds of thousands of people, or today, billions and billions of people; God feels a rip in his heart every time one of the billions turns away from his love and care and instead tries to live apart from him.  Genesis 6:5-6, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth … and the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”  We see God has feelings and how we act, what we say and think and do, affects God. 
God in the flesh, Jesus, wept as he rode into Jerusalem knowing crucifixion was ahead of him.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often I have [longed] to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  … If you this day, even you had only recognized the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Matthew 23:27; Luke 19:41-44).
Before the story of Noah’s ark is a story about a guy and two of every animal afloat in a flooded world, it is first a story about God heartbroken that the world he’s made has rejected him. 
What did God do?
He destroyed the world in a flood and started over with one family.  We pick the action up on a hillside – Mount Ararat.  When the waters receded, the ark came to rest there (Genesis 8:4).  Noah and his family and the animals exited the ark.  His first act on dry ground was to worship God (Genesis 8:20-21).  It is the most noble of all human activities.  Worship is our highest calling.  In the flood, the world was unmade, and through Noah’s family, God re-created the world.  Humans continued to be God’s image-bearers.  The flood didn’t change anything.  God made the world and saw that it was good.  After the flood, the world was still good and humans were still the unique ones in creation made in God’s image.  The first post-flood human act was worship.
Still, we linger on our questions:  who is the God in the flood story and what did this God do?
God is a personality that loves.  God feels the deep heart wounds that come with love.  God flooded the world.  God started things all over again.  Noah’s family began creation 2.0. 
Now look at what God did next, today’s reading.  What’s God first action?  Genesis 9:1: “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”  Noah and his family was to come off the mountain and go into the world, to the very farthest reaches on earth, filling the world with God’s people, God’s image bearers.  God’s creation design is fulfilled when His image bearers live in loving community with him, with one another, and with the earth. 
In Genesis 9:1-7, God makes it clear that on earth, human beings are in charge.  God has entrusted the management of His world to us.  The hillside mandate is that we fill the earth with communities that live God’s way.  How have we done?
Numerous animals are hunted to extinction, not because humans need those animals to die for our survival, but because rich people desire some aspect of those animals as a status symbol.  In some circles it is consider a sign of wealth to eat gorilla meat; ground up rhinoceros horns are said to cure hangovers and act as an aphrodisiac.  Whales are killed for their blubber and oil, even though other oils can be used.  These and many other magnificent creatures are dying just because we humans possess the ability to kill them, and lack the discipline to curb our cravings or meet those cravings in less destructive ways.
Genesis 9:2-3 is easy to understand.  God said, “The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal. … Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.”  Being a vegetarian is not particularly virtuous.  It might be healthier, but from a Biblical perspective eating meat is sanctioned by God. 
However, this passage also contains limitations.  Verses 4-6 forbid eating the blood of animals.  At first this appears to be a completely ritualistic prohibition related to the way ancient Israelites worshiped God through blood sacrifice.  But it seems to me there is something more significant going on.  God gave humans the earth, but not to do whatever they pleased.  Women and men are God’s partners; we are God’s agents on the earth. 
If we see that God made the world and saw that it was good, then we too must see that it is good.  We cannot destroy this good thing God made.  In Job chapters 38-41, God displays his holy majesty by expressing his care for the created world.  In Matthew 6:26, Jesus says birds live worry-free knowing that God feeds them.  God cares for the world and so must we.
Our destruction of the atmosphere through unchecked air pollution and carbon emissions is a rebellion against God and a lack of gratitude for what God has given.  Destroying natural habitats wide-scale is an affront to our creator.  Every time we eat meat or used the materials of the earth to make our lives tastier, more comfortable, and easier, we must raise a voice of thanks.  God has given us good things.  We need to work with Him to take care of his world.
All this that has been said about creation care and environmental sins could be repeated in terms of how we care for one another.  As humans kill each other and dehumanize one another in countless ways, we reject God’s command to love our neighbor.
We stand atop the mountain with God’s hand on us.  We’ve discovered who God is.  God is a loving creator who is emotionally invested in each and every one of us.  We’ve looked at what God did.  God started over with Noah and ultimately with Jesus.  With the flood, God uncreated in order to re-create His good world.
Now, God has set his mission before us.  Fill the earth with communities in which the people love and worship him, love and help and serve each other, and love and care for the earth.  That’s the mandate.  We can’t just stay on the hill.  Where do we go from here?
We respond to our creator by loving what He loves.  With God a simple act of love is to obey.  We go out.  We go into the world seeking to help people.  We go in kindness. We know the world is a place of chaos and pain.  God knew it the moment Noah set foot on dry ground.  He becomes passed-out drunk and his son Ham gawks at his slumbering naked body; this right after worship!  The world is a messed up, hurting place.  We go into the mess carrying the love of God and the message of salvation in Christ.  We obey by going.
We also imitate our creator.  “Just as I gave you the green plants,” God told Noah, “I give you everything” (9:3).  God gives out of God’s generosity and grace.  So, as we go, we project kindness and give grace generously.  Because we have been blessed, we strive to bless the people we meet.
And we keep this in mind.  Going and imitating, we at the same time stay connected to the God who created us, who in the sacrifice of Jesus saved us, and who now sends us.  God sees all that happens on earth.  We’re never out of God’s view.  And God’s doesn’t watch from a distance.  God comes into close relationship with every heart that opens to him in repentance and need. 
Obey God.  Imitate God’s loving heart.  Stay connected to God.  That’s how we fulfill His hillside mandate for us.


Tuesday, January 7, 2020

My New Year ... 2020

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‘Sigh,’ ‘yawn’ …

            What best describes you as you enter a new year, a new decade, 2020?
            I come to the new year with goals, which I won’t go into describing here.  I have some fitness goals.  I have some intellectual goals.  I am going to try something I haven’t done before, I think.  That last one doesn’t sound overly confident, but I think it’s OK to have concrete goals and aspirational goals, and I have both.  Goals can be motivating.
            I also enter 2020 with hope.  God has carried our church through some tough times in 2019, and we’ve come out on the other side with a clear sense of God’s vision for us.  Along with that, I feel like I know the place God has for me in my church, in my family, and in my community.  I pray that you can experience the hope God has given me.  It is joyful and energizing. 
If you don’t have this feeling of hope, the church is here for you.  We exist to help people grow in their relationship with God.  It begins with turning our lives completely over to Jesus.  We help each other know how to do that and then to get on with it.  So, if you’re aimless, without goals, and if you feel discouraged, without hope, allow the church to walk with you.  Come along as we lead you to Jesus.  He’ll provide the sense of purpose and direction.  It will be liberating empowering for you.
Finally, in addition to goals and hope, I feel called by God into a new year.  In 2020, at Hillside Church, we know God had planted us.  Chapel Hill-Carrboro is our home.  God wants us to love this community.  God wants the people here to meet him in our church.  Showing him to the world, sharing Jesus’ love with the world; this is our calling. 
Happy 2020!  God has set the path before us.  It’s time to step forward in faith.

Monday, January 6, 2020

“Hillside Discipleship” (Matthew 5:1-12)

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Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, January 5, 2020

            Happy New Year!  Here we are at the start of our new venture.  December 15, we celebrated the launch of our new church with a new name: Hillside.  The service was beautiful and joy-filled.  I loved celebrating with you, my church family.
            Then we moved into Christmas.  Our Christmas Eve worship was holy – that’s the word for it.  We had guests, we had regular attendees and members, and together we glorified Jesus, our Savior.  I hope you had a happy celebration entering into the New Year! 
            This past Friday, we celebrated the life of one of our beloved church members.  God called Pat Antonevitch home.  We had her funeral with her family. She is at rest in Jesus, awaiting resurrection.
            Now we turn the page.  2020 has started.  Diets, resolutions, hopes and dreams – it’s a new year.  Are you with us?  Are you interested in climbing the hill?
            Note with tenacious attentiveness the opening to Matthew chapter 5.  Veteran Bible readers especially need to take care.  If you are unfamiliar with the Bible, you may have a great advantage as we move into Matthew.  Later this year, we’ll devote more concentrated attention to Matthew 5, 6, and 7.  This morning we simply take the opening verses as a call of God into the life He wants us to live.  We could step toward answering this call at any time of the year, but with it being January and us taking a new name, the timing is especially poignant.
            Matthew 5 opens what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most recognized and commented upon blocks of teaching from Jesus.  The Gospel of Matthew is organized around five discourses of Jesus, this being the first.  Veteran Bible readers might come into this supposing they know what it’s all about.  If that’s you, I don’t say you’re wrong.  Maybe you know this material very well.  Don’t allow that familiarity to get in the way of you hearing Jesus with fresh ears.  In this often-read passage, He has something new to say to us. 
            Are you ready for something new from God?  This applies to all who are hearing the Sermon on the Mount for the first time.  This applies for anyone who has read it a thousand times.  Are you ready this time to hear God’s new, fresh word for us?  Are you read to climb up the hill side?
            “When Jesus saw the crowds,” it begins, “he went up the mountain.”  The crowds had seen him.  We followed Matthew the story-teller out to the Jordan River where John the Baptist was baptizing.  When Jesus got baptized, the heavens opened up.  A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son.”  Crowds gathered around John saw this and heard it.  They stopped watching John and fixed their eyes on Jesus. 
            He then went out to the desert, way out in the deserted wastelands.  The crowds didn’t follow him out there.  That voice-from-heaven-at-the-baptism trick was cool but they wanted no part of the desert and fasting.  Fasting for 40 days?  No thank you.  Jesus did that on his own.  He faced Satan on his own. 
            But, when he came back and started preaching all around Galilee, and he was an awesome preacher, the crowds came back around.  They loved listening to great speakers and they especially loved it when the hot new guy challenged the religious establishment and the tongue-tied scribes and Pharisees had no answer.  Jesus went around Galilee healing people of leprosy and curing blindness.  He drove demons out of people and cured people of epilepsy (4:24). 
            Man, word spread!  The crowds around Jesus got bigger and bigger.  Miracles? We want to see that!  Great preaching?  We want to hear that!  Voices from heaven?  We have to be there for that!  Go out and fast for 40 days in the desert?  There are wild animals out there.  You have to search for water out there.  You have sleep on the ground and it gets really cold in the desert at night.  Yeah, the crowds were all for the miracles and captivating sermons and heavenly happenings.  The crowds said no thanks to the scary, uncomfortable, hard stuff. 
            Who wants to climb the hill?
            “When Jesus saw the crowds,” he separated from them.  Matthew says, “He went up the mountain.”  And he sat down.  He had already called the fishing brothers, Peter and Andrew, and the other fishing brothers, James and John (4:21).  They left their fishing business, their father – they left it all to follow Jesus.  When he climbed up on the hill, they followed.  When he sat down, he assumed the posture of a Jewish rabbi preparing to teach his followers.  Matthew writes that his disciples came to him (5:1b). 
            We don’t know who all that was.  We can assume Peter and Andrew.  We can assume James and John.  Matthew has already let us know they immediately left their nets and boats.  They traded the fishing life for the life of going wherever Jesus went.  They climbed up the hill with him.  But Matthew doesn’t limit the description to these four.  We know there were more.  There will be 12 disciples specified at the beginning of chapter 10.  Throughout the Gospel we will meet others positively disposed to following and obeying Jesus.
            Also, the crowd will continue to be present gawking at the miracles, laughing when Jesus embarrasses the religious leaders, and calling for his head, when they fear the Roman authorities.  The Sermon on the Mount begins in chapter 5 with Jesus walking away from the crowd to go up the mountain, the hill side. 
It ends at the end of chapter 7.  Matthew lets us know that in fact, crowds did, slowly but surely, make their way up the mountain to hear Jesus.  They were astounded by his teaching (7:28).  By the beginning of chapter 8, masses of people trailed after him for any variety of reasons.  Read Matthew.  Jesus didn’t make discipleship easy.  He was watching the crowd.  He wanted to see who would step out, off the easy path.  He wanted to see who give up everything to follow him.
That’s what we want to find out this year in our church.  Who wants to follow Jesus?  We say that at Hillside church, we follow Jesus, love others, and share hope.  We can only give love and share hope if it comes from the Holy Spirit at work in us, speaking through us.  We will only be filled with the Spirit if we abandon confidence in earthly systems and all notions of power and security we previously held.  We have to be absolutely God-dependent.  He has to be Lord of every aspect of our lives. 
The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described this separation from the crowd to discipleship, from a confidence in the world to dependence on God as the difference between cheap grace and costly grace.  Bonhoeffer writes,
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the Gospel [and the God] which must be [actively] sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which [we] must knock [and knock and knock.  Sometimes we have to climb a hill just to knock on the door.]
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it cost a man his life.  It is grace because it gives us the only true, eternal life.[i]

            The essence of Bonhoeffer’s message is this.  Following Jesus requires a total life change and demands that we be all-in.  The crowds give a loud “whoop-whoop” when they see a miracle.  Yeah, you go Jesus.  The disciple stops what he or she is doing, climbs the hill, and sits to listen as long as Jesus teaches.  The crowd, flocks to Jesus when they think there’s something in it for them.  The disciple re-orients his life around the words of Jesus even when doing so requires a step of faith. 
            The first step is to climb the hill.  We stop the maddening flow of our lives, step out of the frenetic pace of the world around us., and don’t return until we are driven by the dictates of Jesus.  We will live in the world, but we’ll do it on his terms.  Only when we have surrendered  to him are we ready to come down from the hill, step into the world, and speak truth, give love, and spread hope.
            What follows in the Sermon on the Mount is “not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered around Jesus.”[ii]  Jesus does not replace the 10 commandments with the beatitudes.  His message in the Sermon is this: here’s what life in the new age – the age to come and the age now here – is like. 
            We will begin this year going throughout the Bible to find those places where God gives a special message, a life-forming word, on a mountain or on a hillside.  As a congregation, we will be formed by this life-giving hillside words.  Later in the year, we’ll go in depth in the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the other sermons he gives in Matthew.
            There was a definite separation, but the crowd wasn’t cut off from Jesus.  He went up the hill to see who would step out of the crowd, sit down, and listen to him; and then, stand up as his follower.  That’s our invitation to begin 2020.  Would you step out of the crowd, climb the hillside, and discover life as a follower of Jesus?

[i] D. Bonhoeffer (1995), The Cost of Discipleship, a Touchstone Book (New York), p.44-45.  Originally published in 1934.
[ii] Stanley Hauerwas (2006), Brazos Theological Commentary: Matthew, Brazos Press (Grand Rapids), p.61.