Sunday, February 28, 2010

February 28, 2010 - "Smoking Pot with God"

Genesis 15:1-17

Have you ever stopped off at a soft ice cream store … a yogurt store?
Sure you have … come on now, fess up!
You can have vanilla, of course, or chocolate, or one of several dozen other flavors … and if you want, if you’re really daring, you can swirl the flavors, both at the same time, into your cone, or into your dish.

Reading Genesis is a swirl of flavors … sweet and bitter, hopeful and disappointed … faithful and desperate …
Page after page of this remarkable book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse:
Life is up, life is down …
Life is good, life is sad …
Off track, on track …
Going somewhere, going nowhere at all.

Has anyone ever said that life was easy?

Our story this morning about Abram begins like this:
After these things,

After WHAT things?

Genesis 12 to 14 are a tangled mess of ups and downs.
Shining moments and wretched lies.
Family problems and hard decisions.
Wars and rumors of war.
Life is complicated.

After these things.
God speaks.

Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.

But nothing is easy!
Abram talks back to God.

God, I’ve heard all of your promises, but where are they?
I’m childless, so how can you talk about a future?
To whom shall I give my estate?

Where, O where are the promises?
Who hasn’t thought that now and then?

God takes Abram outside the tent.
It’s nighttime - the sky is clear.
Look up Abram … look up!
See the stars?
Can you count them?
That’s how many descendants you’re going to have.
And there’s going to be land for you and your descendents, lots of land.
There’s going to be many good things.
But not yet.
Some things have to wait.
It’s complicated!

Abram believed! That’s how the Bible puts it!

But Bible translation is tricky.

The New Revised Standard Version from which we read, puts it this way:
The LORD reckoned it [Abram’s faith] as righteousness.
The NIV is even bolder:
The LORD credited it to Abram as righteousness.
In other words, Abram did it right!
And God gives Abram an A+.
Abram passed the test!

But we have a problem here.
Is God in the business of giving out grades?
Does God tell us what to do?
And if we do it right, do we then go to heaven?
And if we do it poorly, then what?
And how do we know?
If life is a test, how do we know if we’re passing or failing?

I think we have a problem here.

How many people have gone crazy wondering if they were good enough to gain the approval of God?
And when things go bad, the questions burn deep in our souls.
If I had enough faith, this wouldn’t be happening to me.
I must be doing something wrong.
Is God punishing me?

And it only gets worse:
My child would be healed if I had enough faith.
My prayers would be answered if I could say the right words.
My life would be better if I had more faith.

That’s a problem, isn’t it!
As if the world of God depended on the quality and power of our faith.

A big problem in our culture.
Not that folks think a whole lot about God these days.
They don’t.
What folks DO think about is getting ahead, being successful, happy, and prosperous …  making it through the economic downturn.
And there’s plenty of advice to go around.

A friend went into a book store the other day and asked the clerk, Where’s the self-help section?”
The clerk said, Find it yourself!

Lots of people believe that life is all about self-help.
That we’re alone in our journey.
That life depends on how we manage it, how we live it, the techniques we follow:
Say the right things.
Wear the right clothes.
Find the right partner.
Drive the right car.
Choose the right school.
Follow the right diet.
Vacation here.
Build there.
Own this, sell that.

The worst kinds of legalism.
Have you ever thought about it that way?
Worse than the worst tinpot preacher thundering away with hellfire and damnation.
If ya’ drink and cuss and play cards, ya’ go to hell.
So get right with God.
Fall on your knees.
Confess your sins.
And you’ll go to heaven.

But we are no longer a religious nation.
It’s no longer God demanding perfection of us, and threatening us with damnation if we mess up.
Our culture does this to us now.
Purveyors of advice have replaced the angry God of earlier generations.
The pulpits of the land are no longer in churches.
The pulpits of the land are found in advertising – just like the preachers of old – threat and the promise:
If you buy our cosmetics, you’ll look young … and if you don’t, you’ll look old! And who wants to look old?
If you follow this diet, you can be thin and sexy, and if you don’t, you’ll be fat and frumpy, and, of course, that would be wrong, wouldn’t it?
If you take our medicine, you’ll live longer, and you better talk to your doctor about it right away, and if you don’t, you’ll get sick, and you’ll die, and who wants do that?
If you buy my book, I’ll tell you my secrets and you’ll be successful, and if you don’t buy my book, you’re just another dummy, and shame on you!
We don’t have an angry God threatening us any more.
We’re doing it to ourselves, and we’re doing it better than ever.
And we are edgy, and we are angry.

I think some clarity here about the Bible can help.
Let’s get back to the text.
If one translation puts the burden to be good on Abram, another translation puts the burden on God!

God is the one who has to be good!
God is the one who seeks our approval!
God wants to win our heart!

God cannot command loyalty.
God cannot command love.
Anymore than you and I can do this to one another.
God can only WIN our loyalty.
God can only WIN our love.
And it’s not so easy for God to win our love.
What with all the sorrow and hardship and war and disappointment and earthquakes and tears.
Abram is sad and disappointed, so Abram questions God’s reliability.
We’ve done it, too, haven’t we?

Is God reliable?
That’s the question, isn’t it?
Abram says to God, I can’t live on promises alone; I need to know that I’m betting on the right horse!

With that, God asks Abram to prepare a ritual.
Animals cut in half.
Two birds.
Lay them down … a little pathway between.

The sun sets … things grow dark.
Abram falls into a deep sleep.
God says:
Abram, life isn’t easy.
There are no shortcuts, no tricks, no secrets!
No quick and simple pathways to anything.
There is hardship and danger for you.
But I, the LORD your God, am faithful.
I am righteous.
I stand by you.
I get you through.
I’m here for the long haul.

And then something even stranger:
A smoking pot – an incense burner.
A smoking pot and a flaming torch pass through the animals.

Sounds like a horror movie, right?
“Friday the 13th” or “Scream” …
What in the world is going on?

God puts God’s life on the line.
God says to Abram:

May I be cut in half if I fail to live up to my promises.
May I be dead like these animals if I fail to deliver!
This is how serious I am.
By day or by night, the smoking pot and the flaming torch!

God’s life on the line.
Cross my heart and hope to die.
This is how much I love you.

Dear friends,
Life is complicated!
It was so for Abram.
It’s been that way forever, I don’t suppose it’s going to really change until the end of the age.
Until then,
When things get hard … as things tend to do.
When life gets tough … as it often does.
Let’s have a long talk with Father Abram!
We’ll step out of our tent.
Look up to the stars.
And remember a strange ritual:
The smoking pot and the flaming torch.
God’s life on the line:

And then one strange day in Jerusalem,
On a hill called Calvary,
Christ on the cross!

This is how much I love you!
Don’t be afraid.
I am your shield.
And your reward will be great.

Amen and Amen! 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Audio posted for Jan 31, Feb 7 and Feb 21, 2010

Click HERE for Jan 31: "The Headwaters of Life"

Click HERE for Feb. 7: "Into the Deep"

Click HERE for Feb. 21: "The Test" - Lent 1

Sunday, February 21, 2010

February 21, 2010, "The Test"

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus said, I have come that you might have life, life abundant.

Good life … life worth living … life that counts … life that makes a difference … life that is true and right.

To look back and be satisfied that we have fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith [2 Timothy 4:7].

What is the abundant life that Jesus speaks about?

Big question …
The kind of question that drives the Season Lent.
40 days to think deep and hard about our life in Christ.

Welcome to the Season of Lent!

The word “Lent” comes from an Old English word, “lencten,” which means “spring” … and refers to the “lengthening of the days” … you can hear the similarity: “Lent” and “lencten” – the lengthening of the days, spring-time …

Lent has been a time of abstinence … doing without some things … which is always a good idea for any of us, whose lives are so caught up in things.
Lent begins with Fat Tuesday, when folks ate up the larder, cleaned out the refrigerator – because the next 40 days would be a fast …
Lent gets serious with Ash Wednesday, and then 40 days of preparation and thought … 40 days to ponder the life of Christ … 40 days to examine our soul and ask the best questions!
40 days to get ready for Easter.

The church rightly understands the importance of preparation … getting ready to hear the Easter message!

Easter is the summation of our faith – Easter is the culmination of all our hopes and fears … when that heavy stone is rolled away, and the tomb is found to be empty!
A glorious message of hope and peace!
The false gods of empire and religion are exposed for what they are – power-hungry, greedy and jealous! Dealers of death!
They threw the worst at Jesus, and they killed him.
But death has met its match in the matchless grace of Christ our LORD!

But we’re not there yet.
We need to take our time.
Walk slowly.
It’s Lent!

Lots of important things take time.
I’ve been reading a Cajun cook book by Paul Prudhomme … amazed at the amount of prep time needed before the actually cooking sbegin … slicing and dicing and measuring … in some recipes, even a couple of days before turning on the stove!
Lots of important things take time.
How about a wedding?
Or writing a book?
Or a trip to China?
Important things require prep time.

Easter needs prep time … slicing and dicing and measuring, before we turn on the stove.
Before we get to the Empty Tomb, we have some work to do.

We journey with Jesus:
From Galilee to Judea.
From the Mount of Olives into David’s City.
Parables and confrontations.
Teaching and healing.
The rich and the poor.
The lost and the blind.
We journey with Jesus:
From over-turned tables in the temple to the table in the Upper Room.
From Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, to Pilate washing his hands.
Along the streets of crowded Jerusalem to a hill called Golgotha.
Eager crowds, edgy soldiers.
A cross and its nails, and a crown of thorns.
Pain and thirst, agony and death … and a hasty burial in a rock-hewn tomb.
We journey with Jesus of Galilee … the Lamb of God, says John, who takes away the sin of the world.

Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit, the Bible tells us.
Up from the waters of his baptism.
At the hand of John the Baptist.
The Jordan River … just north of the Dead Sea.
The beginning.
The start of it all.
Fresh and new.

It was all new for Jesus that day.
He was full of the Holy Spirit.
Ready to go!
Ready to save the world.

But not yet!
Something had to happen first.
A test!

The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness.
I’ve been there, in that Judean wilderness.
A real wilderness it is.
One of the most barren places on the face of the earth.
West and south of the Jordan and the Dead Sea.
Rocky and hot.
Tan and brown.
Narrow, twisty, canyons and high cliffs.
Blinding light and dark shadows.
No place for man nor beast!

The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into that wilderness.
40 days of fasting.
40 days of temptation.
40 days to figure it out.
40 days to lay the foundation.
40 days to make decisions.

When Jesus is really hungry, the devil comes to him, and says eagerly, Hey, if you’re the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.
Jesus answers wearily: It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”

The devil leads him now, says the Bible.
Strange that the Son of God should give himself to the devil’s hand, but how else to know the sting of temptation, the temptations we all face …
The devil shows him now the power and glamour of the world.
Gleaming cities and marching armies.
Ships plying the seas and merchants selling their wares.
The devil says, I can give all of it to you, because it’s been given to me. Just bow down to me and it’ll be yours. Easy as pie.
Jesus answers: It is written, “Worship the LORD your God, and serve only him.”

The devil then takes Jesus to Jerusalem, the center of Israel’s religion, and they stand on the pinnacle of the temple …
The devil says, Hey, if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, show off a little, you can be a celebrity - and God’s angels will guard you … you won’t even stub a toe!
Jesus answers, It is said, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test.”

And with that, the devil leaves him … until an opportune time … as the devil leaves, I have the “Terminator” moment in mind, I’ll be back!

Can we learn from Jesus?

Jesus might well have said,
I’m hungry, and my appetite is raging right now … how can I take care of anyone else if I don’t take of me? So many stones – could be a lot of bread! I could feed the world. I’m gonna go with my hunger! It’s me that counts! If I don’t take care of me, who else will?
He might have said that … but he didn’t!

Jesus might well have said,
All the kingdoms of the world? So easy? … Ya mean I don’t have to call disciples and die on a cross? … there’s a shortcut? … just a small compromise: bow down to someone other than God? What could be wrong with that? Think of all the good I could do, if I had all that power and all that wealth. I’m gonna go for it. No fear! I wanna be on top of the heap! And I promise, I’ll do good with it!
He might have said that … but he didn’t!

Jesus might well have said,
If I throw myself down from the pinnacle of the temple – what a stunt! I’d be a celebrity. I’d be on YouTube in 15 minutes. Folks would want my autograph. I could influence them and tell them important things. I’d be on TV; I’d have my own reality show. I could write a book; I could get an agent, and he’d get me endorsement contracts. I’d be rich and famous. And I promise, I’ll do good with it!
He might have said that … but he didn’t!

Jesus says no to the lies, and yes to the truth.
And that’s why we call him the way, the truth and the life!

Can we learn from Jesus?
Can we learn from this story?
It’s our story, too, isn’t it?

Jesus was tempted to be full of himself.
To center on his appetites and his needs.
To be number 1.

But Jesus fights the good fight.
It’s not about me.
It’s not about my needs.
It’s not about my appetites and my comfort.
There is something bigger and better to life than the world according to Garp, or Tom, or Jim, or Mary, or Susie.
There is something bigger and better to life than the world according to Wall Street or Main Street or My Street.
The world according to God.

Jim Wallis has written a new book, and I recommend it to all of you …
Rediscovering Values On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street: a Moral Compass for the New Economy.

Wallis sees our economic ills as a moral crisis … Wallis is adamant: we’ve been asking the wrong questions, and it doesn’t make any difference how well we answer the wrong questions – wrong questions always lead us to wrong places!

Wallis writes:
For some time now, we’ve been asking the wrong questions. Television, magazines, and our popular culture, in ad after ad, have asked us: What’s the fastest way to make money? How do you beat your coworker for the next promotion? Is your house bigger than your neighbor’s? Are you keeping up with the Joneses? What do you need to buy next that will truly make you happy? What is wrong with you and how could you change that? What should you protect yourself from?

Wallis goes on:
Advertising has preyed upon two of our deepest human emotions, greed and fear – what do you want and what are you afraid of? Sometimes the ads answered questions we hadn’t even thought to ask, about the whiteness of our teeth and the style of our clothes, but once we saw the answers they gave us, we began asking the same questions [pp. 2 – 3].

I challenge you during the season of Lent - pay careful attention to advertising … be thoughtful, critical, look for lies … the lies are abundant! Lies thrown at us by the devil … lies that play upon our appetites, our desire for power, our fascination with fame and fortune.
If I have one message for you today, it’s this … be the church of Jesus Christ! Learn from him in the wilderness …
Read this story a couple of times this week, read it throughout Lent … work with it, pray your way through it … learn to say No to the lies, and a giant Yes to Christ!
To live an abundant life, rich in the things of God, and balanced and true in the world of things.

Welcome to Lent!
40 days to figure it out!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

February 7 , 2010 - "Into the Deep"

Luke 5:1-11

1. Crowds pressing in, wanting more, eager to hear the message.
2. Jesus steps into a boat – “take me out a bit” and then sits down to teach the crowds.
a. Sea of Galilee – shores sweep up, like amphitheater.
b. When Jesus finishes, tells Peter to head out into deep water for some daytime fishing.
3. Jesus asks Peter to do something contrary to common wisdom …
a. Peter’s a professional fisherman.
b. Partners, boats – good-sized operation.
c. Out all night … not a fish to be had.
d. Now, it’s morning- washing the nets.
e. Linen nets – big nets – fish can’t see them at night, and swim into them.
f. You don’t fish during the day … it doesn’t work!
4. Then Peter says, “Master, if you say so.”
a. I don’t know exactly how he said that.
b. Might it have been said skeptically, “You’re da boss; you’re da man. Whatever you say Captain” … “Aye, aye!”?
c. Peter knows Jesus … important rabbi; famous … “look at the crowds, and he’s in MY boat right now” …
i. Peter doesn’t want to look bad.
ii. So he does what the rabbi wants.
iii. Into deep water they go.
iv. And the catch is huge.
d. More than a boat-load.
e. And these are good-sized boats – one was found buried in the mud, 1986, northwest shore of the Sea of Gallilee … 27 long; 7.5 feet wide – that’s a lot of fish!
5. What’s the point? What we know can mislead us!
a. Experience is a good teacher.
b. But experience becomes routine.
c. Routine becomes the rule.
d. “This is the way we’ve always done it” …
e. The picture is here … the sofa is there … we eat at the same three restaurants, cook the same 5 recipes, drive the same two ways to work … read the same books we’ve read for years.
f. Comfortable, but not very creative.
g. What we know can mislead us!
i. American auto industry, with exception of Ford.
ii. While GM and Chrysler were making cars, Ford was re-engineering itself for the future!
iii. Ford set aside common wisdom … huge risks … smaller profits for the time being, in order to re-make the company and how it made cars.
6. Stories of inventors … doctors … scientists … who lead the way because they see things differently!
7. Faith – sees things differently – faith flies in the face of common wisdom:
a. Love your enemies.
b. Forgive seven times seventy.
c. Go the extra mile.
d. The one who gains the world loses her soul.
e. Defend the cause of widows, orphans and aliens.
f. Sell what you have to buy the pearl of great price.
g. Go out into deep water … some daytime fishing.
8. But the story isn’t about fish, or profits, or inventions … the story goes deeper, into the deepest waters of all!
a. “Go away from me, Lord; I’m not a good man.”
i. Something hits Peter hard.
1. He’s not dancing for the fish.
2. He’s not calculating the profits.
ii. He’s on his knees, asking Jesus to go away!
b. Peter sees the black hole!
i. A crushing sense of unworthiness.
ii. “LORD, what would you want with me?
iii. A man said to me years ago, tears streaming, “Out here, I’m a success; I’ve got it all. But in here, nothing!”
1. Peter sees the dark hole!
2. “Leave me alone, LORD.”
3. Achievements, work, position in the community, the boats Peter owned, the men working for him … family, fame and fortune.
4. It was just Peter now … Peter and God!
9. “Go away, LORD. It’s too painful for me to see me – empty, defective, self-serving – you’ve stripped my cover; you see me for what I am, and I see it, too, Lord. Please, go away, leave me alone!”
10. John Calvin writes:
a. “God’s truth ordains for us to … seek a knowledge which draws us far from all presumption of our own power and strips us of all grounds for glory, to lead us to humility” [1541 edition, trans. Elsie McKee – Chapter 2, p. 47].
b. The “… one who takes a good look at himself according to the rule of God’s judgment will find nothing which can puff up his heart with confidence, and the more deeply he examines himself the more he is cast down until, completely deprived of all hope, he has nothing left by which he can rightly directly his life [p.48].
c. Peter had to see the black hole … we all do, if we want to get anywhere in our walk with Christ.
d. From self-reliance to God-reliance.
e. From hands full to hands empty.
f. From a heart stuffed with the things of this world, to a heart emptied, a heart ready for God!
11. The story ends well:
a. “Don’t be afraid, Peter.”
i. God always speaks to the humbled heart.
ii. To the person on her knees, Jesus comes tenderly.
iii. Don’t be afraid.
iv. I will fill the black hole with light.
v. From now on, you’re mine!
vi. But no longer a life of just fishing.
vii. Now, a life of discipleship.
b. “They left everything, “it says, “and followed him.”
c. The moment of surrender …
d. When we give our lives to Christ.
e. Dear friends, what else is there to do?
f. I ask you this morning, “What else is there to do with your life, but to give it to Christ!”
g. Are you with me on this?
h. I know that you.
i. To God be the glory.
j. Amen and Amen!

Monday, February 1, 2010

January 31, 2010, "The Headwaters of Life"

Message – “Headwaters of Life”
January 31, 2010 – Jeremiah 1:4-10

1. God had big plans for Jeremiah …
a. As God does for all us …
b. We’re all a key to some part of God’s plan …
c. Maybe not as big as God’s plan for Jeremiah.
d. But big enough …
i. Like being a parent – that’s a big deal.
ii. Like keeping your head when others are losing theirs.
iii. Being a positive influence where you work.
iv. Staying ethical when others cut corners.
v. Steady in prayer and growing in faith.
2. In order for God to move Jeremiah forward, God had to take Jeremiah backward … to the headwaters of life.
a. Before anything else, I knew you.
b. Before you were conceived, I loved you.
c. Before you were born, I had a plan for you.
3. Bulletin cover … take a look … this is the Mighty Mississippi …
a. Small, isn’t it.
b. God can be really small sometimes.
c. Like a little cradle in Bethlehem.
d. Small, not to frighten us.
e. Father tells a story … little boy … Florida trip – going to the beach … a family pulls up in the car – Wisconsin license plates … the family dashes out to the beach … a little boy – stands by the ocean, for the first time, and wets his pants!
f. God doesn’t want us wetting our pants.
g. So God takes us to the headwaters, not to the ocean.
h. In time, the ocean.
i. But now, the headwaters – small and gentle.
j. Jesus is like that.
k. In time, Jesus takes us to the Father.
l. But for now, Jesus.
4. The headwaters …
5. So that Jeremiah would know – you can trust God no matter what, no matter where …
a. Jeremiah was going to face some really tough times.
b. God gives Jeremiah inner strength …
6. I got you here; I will get you through!
7. Don’t we all have to learn that?
8. Just how good God is.
9. Jeremiah learned how to defer to God!
a. Turn to God in prayer.
b. Turn to God in trust.
c. Turn to God for wisdom and courage.
d. Turn to God for patience and peace.
i. Psalm 46 says it well:
ii. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.
iii. Psalm 91: You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand but it will not come near you.
10. When we defer to God, something mighty important happens.
a. We get connected to God …
b. Not just using God, but connected to God!
c. Everyone wants to use God, but not everyone wants to be connected to God.
d. This is a serious issue with spirituality … using God, but preferring to stay at a distance from God …
e. Sort of like a job and like work – everyone wants a job, but not everyone wants to work.
f. Everyone wants to use God, but not everyone wants to be connected to God.
g. Jeremiah learns how to be connected to God!
h. Connected to God’s network …
i. Connectivity is the heart of faith, networking …
j. “No man is an island,” wrote the poet, John Donne.
k. But so many of us live as if we were … social relationships are at an all-time low … casual is the word … lonely is the result! And frustrated …
l. It does take a village to rear a child … it takes a village to get anything done … collaboration, teamwork … connectivity.
m. Connecting to God ...
i. We are no longer an island.
ii. No longer isolated.
iii. No longer our own!
iv. Now that’s a toughie for Americans.
v. We’re proud of being our own: self-made, self-governed, self-helped … but it kills a big part of our soul … pride in our individual prowess cheats us of the power of others.
vi. The heart and soul of faith: we are not our own …
n. Calvin understood this … not the Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes … but the Calvin of Geneva …
o. Calvin’s words – 1541 edition, Institutes … p.685
p. We are not our own; therefore let our reason and will not rule in our counsels and what we have to do. We are not our own; therefore let us not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient to us according to the flesh. We are not our own; therefore let us forget ourselves as much as possible, and all that is about us. Next, we belong to the LORD; let us live and die to Him. We belong to the LORD; let His will and wisdom preside in all our actions. We belong to the LORD; let all the parts of our life be referred to Him as their unique goal [Chapter 17, Institutes, 1541 edition; Elsie McKee trans.].
11. The key to spiritual strength … the heartbeat of faith.
12. Social networking on steroids …
13. Primal and powerful … the headwaters of life … where it all begins: unconditional, totally reliable, pure and good … like the mighty Mississippi flowing out of Lake Itasca … this is where it begins … the headwaters of life!
14. To God be the glory!