Sunday, December 13, 2009

what then should we do?

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Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

A couple days ago I saw one of those commercial reminding me that people are starving and that for a $1 a day I can buy them some rice. And at the time I was drinking a $5 cappuccino. And I had one of those moments – those moments when I knew that our world was broken and that I needed to rethink my life. And whenever I have these moments I ask myself – “what should I do?”

A couple weeks ago I was stuck at a light and I saw a one-legged homeless woman hopping around with a sign that said “need money, on my last leg.” And I had another moment – a moment when I knew that our world was broken and that I needed to rethink my life. And so I asked myself – what should I do?”

A couple years ago I was in Africa and visited a straw hut to go be with an infant that was dying of aids. The mother was weeping, the child was weeping. We all knew there was nothing we could do, that this child was going to die. And for me, this was a moment – a moment when I knew that our world was broken and that I needed to rethink my life. And I so I walked away with a broken heart, praying – “God, what should I do?”

Now, I’m willing to bet that you’ve had one of those moments that bothered you so much, that troubled you so much, that you were forced to ask yourself – “what am I supposed to do?”

In today’s Gospel the crowds see John the Baptist and they all have a “what should I do” moment. You see John was a powerful prophet. He didn’t play social games and, to my knowledge, he didn’t have any friends. Because John told people the absolute truth about God and the absolute truth about themselves, and there’s something about the truth that bothers us, that troubles us, that makes us rethink our lives and ask ourselves – “What then should we do?”

That is the question the crowds bring to John and before John says anything he tells the crowds what not to do – and that’s be complacent. “Do not say to yourself we have Abraham as our father. For I tell you that from these stones God can raise up more children to Abraham.” John’s audience, you see, was Jewish and they prided themselves on being God’s chosen people. But over time, they grew complacent, thinking that they alone had the golden ticket to heaven. Taking pride in being insiders, John warned them that they were outsiders. You see, the crowds in today’s Gospel forgot they were chosen for a purpose – to be a blessing to the world. And so John warns them. “If you think being chosen is enough, then maybe you’re not chosen after all. Being Jewish just isn’t enough.” John said, “God wants more. Don’t be complacent.”

Complacency is the enemy of the Gospel. By definition, to be complacent is to be unbothered and untroubled. But if we take seriously the idea that Jesus will return, it should bother us. It should trouble us. To be complacent is to think that we’re doing just fine on our own. But if we take seriously the idea that God died on a cross, we come to see pretty quickly that maybe – just maybe – we’re not doing just fine after all. And so it’s not enough to say, “I’m a Christian.” For our God can take a bunch of stones and raise up more Christians. Going to church or saying we “accept” Jesus just isn’t enough. Because I think God wants more. And so we can’t be complacent, either.

And so back to our question. “What then should we do?” Well, John the Baptist put it like this. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” The word repent literally means to rethink, and so what John is telling the people is rethink your life so that it bears good fruit. If the Kingdom of God is coming, rethink your life so that your actions reflect the values of God’s Kingdom. That’s what he means when he says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

I know we all still have that question – what then should we do? After all, what John told the tax collectors in today’s Gospel is different than what he told the soldiers. Each of us is different and the way that God deals with us is different. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions. He told Zacchaeus to sell half. He told Nicodemus to sell nothing. And so Jesus may ask you to quit drinking coffee and to use that money to buy rice for starving children, or he may tell you to start drinking coffee so that you can get up a little bit earlier and spend some time in His presence. I can’t tell you what you should do. Only God can speak to what you need to do to prepare for Jesus’ arrival. But I will leave you some advice to help you figure it out.

First, be proactive about rethinking your life. Don’t rely on a “what should I do” moment to come to you. Instead, live a “what should I do” life. Make rethinking your life a daily practice. Look at your life and identify where complacency has set in, where you’re just going through the motions. And then ask yourself – are they the right motions? Rethink what you do and ask yourself why you do it. For example, “Am I being polite to this person because I really value kindness or because I depend on their approval? Am I going to med school because that’s what I really want, or because that’s what my parents really want? The truth is, you’ll never know unless you think about it. And so be a proactive thinker.

Second, pray. Ask God the question, “what should I do to prepare for the Kingdom of God?” And the thing about prayer – it works both ways. God speaks and God listens. We speak and we listen. God does both. We do both. And so on the one hand we have to ask God what to do, but on the other hand we have to listen – to Scripture, to that still small voice, to the advice of godly people we respect, to dreams, to the circumstances we encounter day in and day out. And if we’re living a proactive “what should I do” life, prayer for us will be a daily discipline. Because prayer is not a natural skill. It’s learned behavior. And that’s why praying only when we have a “what should I do” moment doesn’t work. That would be like trying to speak Japanese without ever taking a class. Understanding Japanese is something we have to be intentional about learning. Understanding God is the exact same way. And so be intentional about praying.

Finally, obey. If God tells you to do something, do it. If you’re scared and don’t want to do it, do it anyway. And here’s why. Because God is a loving Father and He only wants what is best for us. To quote the book of Jeremiah, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” God’s commandments aren’t meant to rob us of our joy. And that’s something we need to understand or we’ll just take the fruit like Adam and Eve did. No, God’s commandments are man to bring us joy. And so if you think God’s telling you to do something, do it.

I have to say, I love the way that tonight’s Gospel lesson ends. “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” This whole time John wasn’t raking us over the coals; he was proclaiming the good news – the good news that Jesus is coming to fix our broken world. Once again, John’s message is that through Jesus, our world will be fixed. And what that means is that people won’t starve anymore, that everyone will have a home and two legs, that babies will not die, and that we’ll all walk in the truth. The biblical word for this reality that Christ brings is salvation. Every aspect of our personality that loves God’s salvation – that yearns for God’s salvation – will thrive and be healed when the Kingdom of God comes. But anything that doesn’t love God’s salvation – whether it’s a person or an attitude or a value or a line of work or an economic system – is chaff and will be burned.

To quote John the Baptist, “one who is more powerful than I is coming, and He’s going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to gather the wheat into his granary.” And so the question I leave us with is this – what then should we do?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

waiting for the marriage

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

A few days ago I stumbled upon this weird talk radio show in my car. And it was one of those shows featuring a love guru that fields questions from America’s most pathetic people and then offers them advice in the ways of love. And so I stumbled upon this show, which really means I tune in every Tuesday at 5. Just kidding. Anyway, this anxious woman calls the love guru because she really wants to marry this guy. And according to her, this guy promised they’d get married one day. But here’s her problem. There’s no wedding date – just a promise. And God bless this anxious woman, she is sick of waiting. And so she called the love guru with a question – “I want this wedding to happen. I want it to happen soon. How can I speed up the process and make him marry me now?” Well the love guru, in her infinite wisdom, gave some pretty good advice, and so tonight I thought I’d pass it on. Are you ready for the words of the great love guru? “I don’t think you’re ready to get married yet. You will be when the time comes, but you need to wait. Be patient. He promised you a wedding. And you love this person. You trust this person. There will be a wedding. And so be patient. And wait.”

Now, with that in mind, think of tonight’s reading from 1 Thessalonians. The Thessalonians are kind of like that anxious woman and Paul – well, he’s the love guru. You see, the Thessalonians are anxious because they too are waiting for good to be made on a promise. A promise that Jesus will return, for that day when Jesus restores his fallen earth and makes right all that’s gone wrong. And as they wait, the church gets impatient and anxious as a question arises in their midst. Why do we still have to wait?

Now, before moving on, we need to understand something about how the bible talks about Jesus’ return. According to the Bible, when Jesus comes back, it’s going to be like a wedding – the celebration of a marriage. Jesus is the husband, or the bridegroom and we, the ones who wait for Jesus, are the anxious bride to be.

For example, consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians. “I promised you in marriage to one husband so that on the day of the Lord I can present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor 1:2). Or consider John the Baptist, who tells his students that Jesus is like a bridegroom that is searching for his bride (John 3:29). Or the book of Revelation, which envisions Jesus’ return by saying, “Let us rejoice, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” And of course, as college students, I know you’re all huge fans of Jesus’ first miracle – the transformation of eighty gallons of water into eighty gallons of booze. But does anyone remember where that happens? At a wedding.

Now, with that in mind, let’s go back to Paul, who writes 1 Thessalonians as advice to the anxious woman we call the church. And historically speaking, the church Paul writes to seems racked by the following question. “We know that Jesus is coming back. We know that, because we believe, Jesus’ return is good news. What we don’t know is why the delay? We want this wedding to happen and we want it to happen now. Why do we still have to wait?” And here’s how Paul responds to their anxiety. “May the Lord make you increase in your love for each other and may your heart be strengthened in holiness so that when Jesus returns you may be blameless.” In other words, Paul tells them that God has a purpose in making them wait. To foster love for one another. To create holiness in their lives. To refine their character to such an extent that they become blameless before God.

Now, we don’t like to wait. We live in a horn honking, express-lane shopping, high-speed Internet kind of world that, to be honest, doesn’t teach us a whole lot about patience. All else being equal, we’ve been conditioned to believe that not waiting is better than waiting and let’s be honest – we don’t like to wait. For anything.

And so when it comes to God, and to the mystery of life, we naturally wonder – why do we have to do it? Why doesn’t God just fix things now? And if God is here, why doesn’t he just show himself? And if God truly desires to abolish sickness and death, why doesn’t He just cure cancer now or end violence now? In other words, if we really believe that Jesus is coming, and that when He does He’ll fix what is broken and will right what is wrong, why not do it now? Why do we have to wait?

Today, on this first Sunday of Advent, we are reminded that waiting is at the heart of the Christian story. Think of Abraham, who was promised a son and had to wait twenty-four years for that son to be born. Or the Hebrew people, who waited four hundred years to be freed from Egyptian slavery, not to mention the additional forty years of waiting in the desert that would follow. For centuries Israel waited for her Messiah to arrive, but even with Jesus the waiting did not end. The church was told to wait for the promised Holy Spirit. In fact, in the eighth chapter of Romans Paul himself writes, We ourselves groan inwardly while we wait for adoption,” which is his way of saying that he’s waiting for the wedding – for that day when Jesus comes back and restores all things. To be a Christian is to actively wait for God. And there is a reason God makes us do it. To make us loving. To make us holy. To make us blameless. To get us ready for the marriage.

And so here’s the question I leave us with. Have we learned to actively wait on God? Are we soaking ourselves in the Scriptures and allowing God’s living word to comfort us and disturb us and change us and renew us? Are we taking the time – every single day – to place ourselves before Jesus in the hope that he’ll make us loving, that he’ll make us holy, that he’ll make us blameless.

You see, every time we pray or read scripture or sit in contemplative silence, we wait on God. Every time we feed the poor, befriend the friendless, or greet the stranger, we wait on God. Every time we refrain from judging, show others mercy, or have the courage to share our faith, we wait on God. And we do these things, not as an end in themselves, but to give the Spirit room to purify our hearts, to refine our character, to make us ready for the marriage.

You see, at the end of the day, we really don’t know when we’ll meet Jesus – maybe tomorrow, maybe when we die, maybe at the end of the age. But what we do know is that we will, and that all of creation is moving and pointing and groaning to that glorious day when the bridegroom finally returns to claim his bride. And it will be a glorious day for Christ’s church – a day of intimacy and fulfillment and restoration.

But for whatever reason, I’m not sure we’re ready. In God’s sovereign wisdom, the bridegroom is delayed and the creation continues to groan. And so today we’re reminded that as a church our call is to wait – not passively but actively. And as we soak ourselves in the scriptures, and in prayer, and in being intentional about loving the people that God places in our lives, we find ourselves preparing. We find Jesus moving, slowly but surely, into every aspect of our world and into every aspect of our lives. As we wait, we find ourselves preparing – our hearts and our world – for the marriage of heaven and earth, of God and humanity, of Christ and His Church.

For a lot of us, I know the question is still there. If God intends to put an end to death, injustice, and cruelty – why not just do it now? I don’t have a great answer to that question. But I do know that God does. And that it’s a good answer. And I know that it matters greatly how we live as wait for that answer.

You see, we might not know the wedding date. But we do have a promise. And so wait. Be patient. Jesus promised us a wedding. And we love Jesus. We trust Jesus. And so be patient. And wait.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

a revolutionary king

John 18: 33-37
"My Kingdom is not from this world"

I think we all have an image of the historical Jesus – a picture of what we think Jesus must have been like. For example, as a small child, I imagined a nice, quiet, gentle guy with like fourteen kids piled in his lap. But then in middle school Jesus started wearing a long white robe and got a little too attached to his pet sheep, which he always carried under his right arm. In high school I actually lost the ability to picture the historical Jesus at all because everyone kept telling me he wanted to live in my heart. But in college I joined a fraternity and Jesus came back as the great teacher whose greatest interest was condemning everything I thought was fun.

But my image of Jesus has changed. When I picture Jesus now I see a revolutionary – a revolutionary that was crucified as a threat to an empire and above whose cross was an inscription: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Now, as many of you know today is Christ the King Sunday – a day the church sets aside to focus on Jesus as our King. And we’re going to do that but first we have to understand how kings functioned in Jesus’ world. Because kings and queens in today’s world are limited in power. They can express their wishes. They can pressure politicians. They have great symbolic value. But a king today isn’t really an absolute monarch. But in Jesus’ world, kings had absolute power and there was only one way to the throne – revolution.

And that’s what Pilate was scared of – that Jesus was leading a revolution that threatened his empire – which ironic if we consider the circumstances of John’s Gospel. You see, standing before Pilate is a peasant from a podunk town with a few followers that have all run away. And so in Pilate’s mind Jesus can’t be a king. It just doesn’t add up, but to be safe, Pilate asks him anyway – are you the King of the Jews – and this is what Jesus says. “My kingdom is not from this world.” And if I had to bet, these are the words that made Pilate wonder, and that make me wonder, what kind of king is Jesus? And what kind of revolution is he leading?

Our reading today comes from the Gospel of John, but it’s not like “Christ the King” is a big theme for most of John’s Gospel. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Christ is present from the beginning as a king. We recall Jesus’ first words in each of these Gospels. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” And as we read Matthew, Mark and Luke, we see that Jesus’ every miracle and parable and exorcism bear witness to a new Kingdom that Jesus is bringing, and because of that, to Jesus – our new king.

But the Gospel of John is different. Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry talking about the Kingdom of God. Instead, he begins by saying things like, “my hour has not yet come.” “I lay down my life for the sheep.” “When I’m lifted up, I’m going to draw the entire world to myself.” There’s not really a whole lot of talk about kings and kingdoms in the first seventeen chapter of John. But then we get to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion – and the words king and kingdom explode! And so if we’re going to understand John’s kingly image of Jesus we have to look at what follows today’s Gospel. And if we keep reading here’s what we find.

First, like all kings, Jesus receives royal garments: a robe and a crown. A purple robe is put on Jesus to mock him and a crown of thorns is then placed on his head. This is where John’s kingly image of Jesus begins – mockery and pain.

Second, Jesus receives royal homage and is presented to his subjects. Through a mixture of shouting and laughter, of spitting and striking, we hear the sarcastic refrain of the crowd – “Hail, King of the Jews.” John’s kingly image of Jesus continues: ridicule and injustice.

Third, Jesus embarks on a royal procession before taking his throne. And as he walks the road to Golgotha, the onlookers shout and clamor and mock him as they notice that this king is carrying his own throne upon his back. John’s kingly image heightens: loneliness and struggle.

Finally, Jesus is enthroned – not on a chair but on a cross. His glorious hour has finally come. The sheep will be spared and the King will be lifted up for the entire world to see. And displayed above this king’s throne in three different languages is a title. “King of the Jews.” John’s kingly image of Jesus is now complete: surrender and death.

Like I said, we all have an image of Jesus, which includes an image of what we think it means for Jesus to be our King. And like all kings, Christ is all-powerful. But how do we understand that power? You see, John may link Jesus’ kingship to his crucifixion, but John doesn’t portray Jesus as a victim. No, John gives us the image of a sovereign King – of a king that’s crucified because he chooses to be crucified.

Which means that Pilate was right. Jesus was a threat to the empire – just like he’s a threat to all the mini-kingdoms that you and I build and base our lives on. But as Christians, we believe that Christ’s kingship is good news as we proclaim that God’s kingdom will one day come on earth as it is in heaven – which means that violence and hate and death and arrogance and anything else that opposes God’s kingdom will one day come to an end because our crucified King will finally be running the show.

But in the meantime the cross-shaped revolution continues and today we’re reminded of the king that invites us to take up our cross. And here’s the image we’re given, the image I pray is shaping our lives – the image of a king that endures the shame of his own subjects and saves his sheep by dying for them; a King whose crown is of thorns and whose throne is a cross; a King that enters Jerusalem not on a chariot but on a donkey; not with an army but with a handful of fishermen; a King whose power is revealed not in the breaking of bones but in the breaking of bread. This we believe is the sovereign, all-powerful King of the universe.

And so blessed be God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and blessed be God's Kingdom now and forever. AMEN.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

pain (when your life is in the crapper)


I have to say, I’m really glad to be in Texas right now. Because that means I’m not in northern Virginia, which is where I lived for three years before taking this job. Now don’t get me wrong seminary was a good experience. Virginia is a great place to be. In September. But after October 15th or so – its freaking cold. And I don’t mean “wear a jacket” cold. I mean wrap your body in the skin of a dead bear cold. In other words, it’s a pretty harsh winter.

Do me a favor – raise your hand if you like the winter? Thank you, now I know who the liars in the room are. No one likes winter. People like being inside when winter comes - sitting by a warm fire, with a cup of warm coco, having their hearts warmed by the Clay Aiken Christmas album – because when they hear the word winter, that’s what comes to mind. But not me – when I hear the word winter, I think of my cold seminary dorm room, the freezing cold, ice, hypothermia, snow, dead batteries, thermal underwear, depression, recreational eating to cure my depression, and of course, the Clay Aiken Christmas album.

People say that they like the winter. But tell me this – how many people spend their working career in Miami and then retire in Minneapolis? That’s right, no one. Of course, there’s always the argument “God made winter and so it must be good.” To which I reply, did He? There’s no mention of winter in the Bible before the fall. We hear a whole lot about trees and flowers and rivers and fruit and people running around naked. But only after Genesis 3 – only after the Fall – do we read about snow and cold and of course, the Clay Aiken Christmas album. And so I don’t know where the Garden of Eden was. But I can tell you this – its not Northern Virginia in the middle of January.

Now, if you really like Winter, that’s okay. But regardless of how you feel when winter breaks into your life, we all have trouble with spiritual winter – when winter breaks into our souls.

For example, you may lose a job or lose a parent or lose your sense of purpose or get sick or move to a different city or just find yourself depressed. And all of these things, as bad as they are, aren’t what I’m talking about when I say spiritual winter. Spiritual winter is when God seems gone. When you pray and all you hear is silence. When you cry and no one wipes your tears. Spiritual winter is when God seems gone. Spiritual winter is when you feel like you’ve been forgotten, when you feel like God’s hiding, like God’s let go of you – which means that you and I, we need a way of holding on to God when it feels like God has let go of us. And so we turn to the book of Job.

Out of curiosity, how many of you have read Job? Job experienced the 2nd hardest spiritual winter in the history of humanity. The Bible describes Job as blameless, upright, and as one who feared God and turned away from evil. In other words, he’s a good guy. And he’s also a blessed man. He’s rich, has seven sons and three daughters, a lot of servants, a beautiful wife, thousands of cattle and livestock. Job is a blessed and blameless man. He’s got it all. That is, until one day …

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. 7 The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." 8 The LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil." 9 Then Satan answered the LORD, "Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face." 12 The LORD said to Satan, "Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!" So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.

And if we keep reading, here’ s what happens: Job’s wealth is stolen. His servants are murdered. His livestock die. His children die. And then the kicker, Job gets sores all over his body. And so Job is covered from head to toe in open, gaping, infested, painful wounds.

In order to understand what’s happening in this book, we need to think of a play with two stages: an upper stage, and a lower stage. Because this is crucial to understanding the Book of Job. We know what’s going on in both settings, but Job doesn’t. Job only sees the lower stage – that is, what’s happening on earth. All Job knows is that he’s lost his livestock, his wealth, his servants, his children, and to some extent, his body. And his wife isn’t all too supportive …

Then his wife said to him, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die." 10 But he said to her, "You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips. Now when Job's three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, they met together to go and console and comfort him. 12 When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 13 They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. 

Ok, and so here’s our question tonight: can Job hold on to God in the face of his suffering? Can we hold onto God in the face of ours?

Like many of us when we suffer, Job doesn’t know what to do and so the Bible tells us he goes to sit on an ash heap at the town dump. His wife’s advice – “curse God and die,” isn’t what I’d call encouraging. But thankfully, Job doesn’t listen, and notice his question: shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad? Job is struggling to understand God here. Is God really good? In chapter 1 we’re told that “Job did not sin” but now there’s a qualifier: “Job did not sin in what he said.” In his heart, Job is starting to struggle. Spiritual winter has invaded his soul. And Job cannot escape. It feels like God has let go of him and Job is starting to question God’s goodness.

Job’s friends then come to visit him and they don’t even recognize Job. And so they begin to weep and they sit with him for seven days and don’t say a word. For seven days. Not one word. Now, a brief side note:

In his letter to the Romans Paul says to “weep with those who weep.” This is a great example of what Paul meant. When spiritual winter invades the life of your friends, weep with them. Sit in silence with them. We don’t have to pretend that we know why they’re suffering. It’s okay to just be with them. Silence can be a real gift.

Well, after seven days of silence Job speaks and does anyone remember what he says? May the day of my birth be cursed. That’s the ancient way of saying I wish I had never been born. And for the next 30 chapters or so, Job expresses a level of bitterness, confusion, sorrow, and anger toward God that is staggering. Job questions God – and here is Job’s question. Why, God? Why have you forsaken me?

Well, Job’s friends tell him it’s his fault – that he’s suffering because of his sins and that he needs to repent. A little advice – don’t do that. Job’s friends were wrong. Remember, there’s an upper stage. And like Job, Job’s friends can’t see what’s happening on the upper stage. And so they have to make something up to explain what’s happening on the lower one. And the answer they came up with wasn’t very good. They should have remained silent.

But then again, Job’s question is the universal question, right? Why? Why am I suffering? We’ll come back to the question of why. But first, we need to look at two other questions. The question of what, and the question of where – what do we do with the pain? And where is God in the pain?

1. What do we do with the pain?

A couple years ago a survey was conducted that asked thousands of people what one thing had the greatest impact on their spiritual growth. The number one answer - Pain. While it’s true that pain is not a part of God’s Kingdom, that doesn’t mean that God can’t use it. That God can’t redeem pain. You see, in spiritual summer – when life is going well, when we feel God’s warmth, when school and faith and relationships are thriving – it’s really easy to think that we’re the ones in control. But spiritual winter reminds us that we’re not in control at all. Someone once said that the biggest difference between us and God is that God doesn’t think He’s us. In the presence of pain, we get very clear about not being God. It’s not that pain is good. But dependence on God, humility, prostrating ourselves as helpless before God – these things are good. These things do bring us closer to God. And depending on our heart and how we respond, pain can make us dependent. Pain can humble us. More so than anything else, pain can bring us to our knees before God. And that’s why pain can have such an amazing impact on our spiritual growth.

And so when it comes to the question of what – what do we do with our pain – my first answer is trust. Trust that God can use it for good. It’s like Paul says, “in the end all things work for the good of those who love God.” “All things” includes our pain – whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual.

But second, when it comes to our pain there’s something else we’re supposed to do: we’re supposed to complain to God. Or to use a fancy theological word, we’re supposed to lament. Consider the following psalm: “Wake up, O Lord! Why are you sleeping? Wake up! Stop rejecting us! Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? How long, O Lord, How long?”

I don’t know who wrote this psalm, but I do know this – they’re in a whole lot of pain. And this is their prayer – “wake up. Please do something. This sucks. I feel like you’ve rejected me.” There’s a name for honest prayers like this – they’re called prayers of lament. And the Bible is full of them. And while all religions of the world prayed to God, no other religion – except that of the people of Israel – prayed these prayers of complaint, of lament, of raw honesty. And the reason they prayed these prayers was because they trusted in God’s love enough to be honest, and because they expected God to do something about their pain. And so when it comes to your pain, be honest with God. Don’t indulge in self-pity but genuinely open yourself up to God – because when you do that, what you’re really asking God to do is to created the kind of condition in your heart that will make resting in His presence possible again. Pray raw prayers of honesty. Trust me – God can take.

2. Where is God in the pain? (In other words, what is God’s answer to our complaint?)

At the end of the book, God answers Job in a storm. Out of the storm, God answers Job’s complaint. And what’s interesting, and to some people frustrating, God never answers Job’s question of why. Job never learns about that upper stage. The upper stage will always be a mystery to Job, and to us. God never tells Job why. In fact, God doesn’t even answer any of Job’s questions – in fact, He does the opposite. God starts questioning Job!

Now, why does God do this? Well, on the one hand, God is reminding Job that he has a finite mind and a limited point of view – that some things he just can’t understand because he’s human. In other words, God humbles Job. But that’s actually not the main point behind God’s questions.

And so to remind everyone, we’re at the end of the book. Job is in a lot of pain. He’s spent the last 30 chapters lamenting – Job has been questioning God. And now its God’s turn to question Job. What do you think God asks? Because time is limited, I’ll give one an example:

“Who waters a desert with no one in it, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass?”

And so let’s say you’re Job, and you’re like “God, this sucks, why am I suffering?” Instead of answering your question, God decides to ask in return – “who sends rain to the dessert?” What? At first glance, that’s a really weird answer. But not for people in Job’s day. You see the reader in Job’s day knew that life depended on rain. Water = life. No water = death. And because of that, no one would ever waste water. And so imagine God appearing to Job and saying, “I would. I waste water all the time. I have no problem sending rain to a desert where no one lives.” And so here’s our question – what does this say about God?

That he is uncontrollably generous. That the way he loves is irrational. That he is good for no reason at all. That he gives even when it makes no sense. That he is uncontrollably generous. You see, the point behind God’s questions is to answer the question Job is really wrestling with – is God good? And God’s answer is simple – I AM. I AM uncontrollably generous. I AM irrational in how I love. I AM good for no reason at all.

The reason suffering is difficult is because we don’t see the upper stage. Like Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “we know only in part.” But we do know a lot more than Job did. And what we do know is wonderful and should give us a lot of hope. I mentioned earlier that in the history of the world, Job experienced the 2nd hardest spiritual winter. The heart of our Christian faith lies in the belief that Jesus experienced the hardest spiritual winter in the history of the world. That the Son of God actually left the upper stage to dwell with us on the lower one. That Job’s question – my God, my God why have you forsaken me – became Jesus’ cry on the cross. That in a way that is so mysterious and beautiful and strange that we can’t fully comprehend, that God – who is uncontrollably generous – became human in Jesus of Nazareth to deal with spiritual winter forever. And so when it comes to the question of where – where is God in our pain? I point you to Jesus on the cross and say – “with us.” That’s where …

I know we all have the question – why? Why the suffering, why the pain? It’s a good question. In fact, we talked a little bit about the question of why when we looked at Genesis 3 earlier this semester. The only problem with the question of why is this – there’s an upper stage we just don’t see.

But here’s the deeper question. Is God really good? Is God really good?

At times, it may feel like God’s let go of us. But know this – he hasn’t. He can’t. He loves us too much. He’s sacrificed too much. He is much too good to ever let us go.

And so as you go about your lives, please know, there will be tough times. Spiritual winter will come. But when it does, just remember that God became human to experience the worst spiritual winter could do to any one man. That he rose from the dead to defeat it forever. That in the meantime, God can use our pain for good. That he loves us enough to hear and answer of prayers of lament. That God can be expected to do something about our pain. That in Jesus, God has done something about our pain. And that because of what God has done in Jesus, spiritual winter will one day come to an end forever.

Monday, November 9, 2009

not guilty

“But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

A couple years ago I was invited by a judge into his courtroom for the final days of a high-profile criminal trial. The defendant – a young man named John – was on trial for murder. And I don’t remember the specifics of the case, but I’ll never forget the outcome. The trial ended, a verdict was reached, and the defendant was asked to rise. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” We have replied the foreman. “On murder in the first degree, how do you find?” Guilty.

John was guilty, and he didn’t really seem too surprised. In fact, he just stood there: speechless, emotionless, lifeless – completely and utterly alone. Alienated is the word that best describes what I saw in John. I have to say, the scene haunts me – John being escorted in chains to a cell where he’d just wait to be sentenced, which in the state of Texas is usually death by lethal injection. A verdict had been reached, a verdict that would not be overturned. Guilty. The verdict was guilty.

Somewhere along the line John’s life had gone wrong. I wondered, was he mentally ill? Did he make bad choices, or just have bad luck? I don’t know, and to be honest the court didn’t care. The fact is, John was guilty, and justice demanded that John pay for his crimes. The rule that governs life in our world is actually pretty simple – you get what you give. If we do the crime, we must do the time. If we owe, then we must pay. And if we murder, then we must die.

In case you’re wondering, John was not this man’s real name. John is my name, but I could have used your name, or anyone’s name for that matter. After all, something has gone seriously wrong in all of our lives. Now granted – I’ve never murdered someone before, but Jesus had this funny notion that we all have murder in our hearts. If all it took to please God was simply not to murder, I can honestly say – I’d be fine. And so would you. But I think that deep down, we all know that God requires so much more from us. Because the truth is, we murder one another all of the time: with our anger, with our insults, with our contempt and our indifference. We murder each other with hate-filled words and hate-filled thoughts, with poisonous gossip and rage-filled lies. I’m not saying we all yell or scream or pitch fits or lose our temper. We have too much dignity for that. After all, isn’t withdrawing so much easier? How many of us kill with our silence, our indifference, our coldness of heart? Sometimes the best weapon is withdrawing our support, our encouragement, our generosity or our favor in order to prove a point or to get our way. Ignoring others is the best weapon many of us have in our arsenal. But regardless of how we murder one another, alienation is always the result. And so we have a lot more in common with John than we’d like to admit. In our relationships with one another, not one of us is innocent. John isn’t the only one on trial for murder. We all are, and deep down we all know the verdict.

Of course, the real problem is not our relationship with one another, but our relationship with God. The only reason we have a hard time loving others is because we have a hard time loving God. As spiritual beings, God created us to find meaning, peace, intimacy, and security with God, in God, and through God. But how often does our life become a frantic search for living water in the midst of empty wells? Money, sex, power, reputation, popularity, and prestige are just a few of the gods we’re prone to worship. And here’s what’s so amazing – we know that these gods alienate us from the one, true God, but we worship them anyway – even when they leave us feeling hollow, unfulfilled, and disoriented. Now, if this is a fair description of our world, and at times our lives, there’s only one question left to ask. Is this world our cell and are we waiting to be sentenced like John? If we are in fact guilty before God, is death what awaits us?

A Christian is a person who stares these questions in the face, who takes these questions seriously, and who joyfully answers these questions of ultimate concern with an emphatic NO. As Christians we understand that God hasn’t sentenced us to death – he’s elected us to life. As the author of Hebrews writes, “Jesus has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Our world is characterized by alienation. But God’s world is characterized by reconciliation. And that is the good news of the Christian Gospel that tonight’s reading from Hebrews is trying to capture – that through no merit of our own, we have been placed at the center of God’s world. Regardless of whatever alienation we may feel, God has declared that in Christ we are reconciled to God. Regardless of whatever guilt we may bear, God has declared that in Christ we are forgiven. Regardless of whatever sin we may struggle with, God has declared that in Christ, the stain of sin has forever been removed.

We have been reconciled to God. In Christ, we have peace with God. And so whatever went wrong in our relationship with God has been radically put right. But here’s what’s so amazing – there’s still work to be done, and we, who follow Jesus, are the ones God invites to do His reconciling work. To quote the apostle Paul, the same God “who reconciled us to Himself through Christ … has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Paul even says that we are ambassadors of God’s reconciliation. An ambassador is a person sent by one country to another as a visiting representative. And that’s exactly how the bible describes us – as people from another country, as people from a heavenly country, who have a mission here on earth. We may live in a world of alienation, but we represent a God of reconciliation. And so as citizens in God’s Kingdom, committing murder is no longer acceptable. As citizens in God’s Kingdom, assaulting others is no longer acceptable. As citizens in God’s Kingdom, ignoring others is no longer acceptable. God has embraced us. As God’s ambassadors, the time has come for us to embrace one another. You see – reconciliation isn’t just a big piece of the Gospel. Reconciliation is the Gospel.

Tonight’s sermon began in a courtroom, and so the courtroom is where we shall end. After all, tonight’s reading is crystal clear that we’re all going to face judgment. But there’s a catch. The rule that governs life in our world – you get what you give, you pay what you owe – is different than the rule that governs life in God’s world. And this is what grace is all about. You see, there is only One who can judge us, and he was judged for us. There is only One who can condemn us, and he was condemned for us. There is only One who can sentence us to death, and we are the ones for whom he died. A verdict has been reached, a verdict that will not be overturned. Not Guilty. The verdict is Not Guilty.

Friday, October 30, 2009

being honest (finding a truth-teller)


I’d like to begin tonight by stating a paradox that describes community crashers like us. Are you ready, the paradox is this: First, we really want to know the truth about ourselves. Second, we really don’t want to know the truth about ourselves. And so when it comes to who we really are, we both seek the truth and we resist it. Exhibit A. I hold in my hand a pair of shoes that I purchased at a very reasonable price. Are they a little trendy? Maybe. A tad shiny? Perhaps. But I was captivated by these shoes; I purchased them and then proceeded to wear these shoes for 13 consecutive weeks. And I’m not going to lie – I was under the impression that everyone loved my shoes – that if any rumors were circulating, that the rumors were focused on how impressive my sense of style was. But one day the truth came out. The Lord sent a prophet, Storey Zimmerman, to tell me the truth. And her exact words will forever be etched in my mind, and I quote – “Oh my God! You’re wearing bowling shoes! Look how shiny they are. Where on earth did you buy those? I didn’t know Austin had a clown store.” End quote. Now, did I want to know the truth about these shoes? Yes and no. On the one hand, no one wants to be laughed at for wearing clown shoes. But on the other hand, the truth hurts (Storey). Now, if hearing that our sense of style needs some work is hard, how much tougher is it to hear that our character needs some work? Remember, to be a community crasher is to have serious, serious flaws – and no one likes having their flaws pointed out. Think about going to a department store and trying on clothes. Let me ask you this – do you think dressing rooms have normal mirrors? Of course not. Those stores make the lighting really dim so that you can’t see all your blemishes. They also use a “skinny mirror” – a mirror that makes you look thinner and taller than you really are. Now, do we want to see ourselves through these bogus mirrors? On the one hand, no – but at the same time, it’s flattering to think we’re in better shape than we really are. It’s nice to look at ourselves and to not see blemishes.

OK, a quick review. You and I are made for ____ (community). But by nature we are community ____ (crashers). And because we’re community crashers – because we have serious, serious flaws – that’s why we need community. And the reason we need community is because we need an accurate mirror – we need people that love us enough to tell us what they see. Because the truth is, our ability to live in denial is astounding. It’s really easy for us to see the flaws in someone else. To see their temper, or how insecure they are, or to see how much they gossip. But seeing these things in ourselves? Not as easy. It’s like we’re standing in front of that skinny mirror in a dark room. Spiritually speaking, we assume that we’re in a lot better shape than we really are.

And so before we start talking about King David, I’d like to introduce a term. And that term is “truth-teller.” The reason we need community, the reason we need each other, is because God calls us to be “truth-tellers” for one another. To quote Ephesians 4:15, our call is to “speak the truth in love.” You see, we all have blind spots, weak spots, and blemishes that we can’t see on our own. And we need each other to see them. We need other people to remind us of our deepest aspirations and values and to warn us when we’re getting off track. We need people who love us enough to question our motives and to ask us hard questions. In other words, we all need a few truth-tellers in our lives. Now, in the context of our story, the Israelites have entered the Promised Land and they are now a united nation of people – in other words, they’re no longer a ragtag group of nomadic, desert-dwelling, run-away slaves – they are a people. A nation. And like all nations, they have a king. And so tonight we hear about David – Israel’s 2nd king – and the Bible describes David as a man after God’s own heart. And to give you some background info, David is a good looking guy. He’s powerful. He’s an acclaimed warrior, a musician, and a poet. In other words, David’s got the goods. He can have any woman that he wants. And he knows it. In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David dispatched Joab and his fighting men of Israel in full force to destroy the Ammonites for good. David stayed in Jerusalem. One late afternoon, David got up from taking his nap and was strolling on the roof of the palace. From his vantage point on the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was stunningly beautiful. David sent to ask about her, and was told, "Isn't this Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah the Hittite?" David sent his agents to get her. After she arrived, he went to bed with her. Then she returned home. Before long she realized she was pregnant. Later she sent word to David: "I'm pregnant." (2 Sam 11: 1-5) Ok, and so we’re told that one year fighting season rolls around – apparently, it’s just that time of the year when armies fight and when kings go off to war. And this year, we’re told that David decides to stay home. Back in the day, Kings use to fight with their people. But this year, David starts thinking to himself – “I don’t really want to fight with my men this year. I’d rather hang out here in the palace, eat pizza and play video games. And so I think I’ll stay home.” Now, something weird is going on here. David has been the king for a while now, he’s getting older, women don’t look at him quite like they used to. There’s a good chance David is going through a mid-life crises.

Well, one day David wakes up from a nap – he’s restless and lonely and probably a little bored. And he sees this woman bathing from his roof. And David thinks she’s kind of hot. To quote our reading, she is “stunningly beautiful.” And so David sends someone to do a background check, and actually gets a little push back. “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” In other words, what the servant is saying to David is this: David, this is someone’s daughter, and someone’s wife. You need to be careful here.” Now, if David were in a good place with God right now, this statement would have stopped him in his tracks. But David isn’t too interested in hearing the truth right now. And so what does David do? Remember, he’s the most powerful man in Israel. He sends for her, sleeps with her, and then kicks her out of the palace. A real gentleman, that David. Anyway, a little time passes, David forgets about Bathsheba, but then one day the doorbell rings. It’s Bathsheba and she’s holding a pregnancy test – 2 pink lines. “David,” she says, “I’m pregnant.” David’s in a bit of a pickle here, right? He knocks up Bathsheba while her husband – Uriah – is off fighting to keep David safe in his palace. What does David do – does he …

A)Confess his sins to the people and ask God for forgiveness
B)Confess his sins to Uriah and ask Bathsheba for forgiveness
C)Both A and B
D)Send Uriah to the front lines of the war to make sure that he gets killed

The answer is D. And after Uriah is dead he marries Bathsheba and nine months later they have a little baby boy.

Now, David thinks he’s got everything under control because he assumes that the great danger is that someone will find out. But he’s wrong. The great danger isn’t that someone will find out – it’s that no one will find out. How long does David live in hypocrisy? How long does he act like some righteous king – pretending to worship, leading the people – while inside he carries the secret guilt of murder and adultery? We don’t know exactly, but the Bible tells us that at least until his son was born. And so for at least nine months David lies to his own people and to Bathsheba about what really happened to her husband. And pretty soon he starts lying to himself. And every day David gets a little bit more used to the deception. Every day his heart gets a little harder, every day he moves a little further away from God. That’s the truth. But does David know the truth about himself? No.

Let’s be honest – David made some mistakes. Think about it – he stalked a woman while she was bathing. That’s creepy. He then leveraged his power to have sex with her, which never works out well for anyone. And then, when she gets pregnant, he has her husband killed so that no one finds out. But here’s what’s interesting – behind each of these sins was a temptation. And each time David tried to handle the temptation on his own. And what I want to say tonight is that this is the fatal mistake of community crashers like ourselves – not that we’re tempted, not that we sin, but that we try, by ourselves, to keep everything under control; that we try and cover our tracks so that no one finds out; that we’re too embarrassed or ashamed to tell another person that we’re struggling – as if being depressed or anxious or scared or horny or lonely or insecure or having doubts were something that no one else could relate to - like it’s such a weird thing to feel these emotions, that it’s so uncommon, that no one else can know. It is a fatal tendency of community crashers like ourselves to think that we can handle temptation on our own, and it’s been going on since the Garden of Eden. When the serpent tempted Eve, think about what she didn’t do – she didn’t talk about her temptation with Adam. And she definitely didn’t discuss it with God. And so when that snake started talking to her, she tried to tame it on her own and because she couldn’t she gave in. And when that snake started talking to David he tried to tame it on his own and because he couldn’t he gave in. Now, I know that snake talks to all of us – I know it. The question is – what do we do?

A pretty good sign that we’re in trouble with temptation is if we’re too scared to tell someone else. Because over time, we give in to that snake. And in giving in, we get comfortable. But to remain comfortable, we have to lie – not just to others, but to ourselves. We have to convince ourselves that we’re not really doing anything wrong. I promise you this – that’s what happened to David. When it came to his own blemishes and sins and the choices he made and how he dealt with the consequences of those choices, David got used to hiding the truth from others. But in living a lie, he forgot the truth about himself.

And so what does God do? He sends a truth-teller by the name of Nathan. You see, Nathan’s a prophet and so he knows what David did. And so Nathan tells David a story about a desperately poor man whose entire life revolves around this one, little sheep, which is the poor man’s treasured possession. But a rich, powerful man – who has a lot of sheep – steals the poor man’s sheep just for fun. And when David hears this story he is pissed off – he is indignant! “This man deserves to die” David says! “And as the king I’m going to order his execution.” Who is this man?

And so Nathan looks straight in the eyes of the most powerful man in the world and says – David, you are the man. Bathsheba was Uriah’s one little sheep and you killed him to take it. This is your story. This is your sin. This is the depth to which you have fallen. David, the truth is, you are the man.

Now thankfully, David repents. But I don’t think David would have done that if someone hadn’t told him the truth. And in my experience, this kind of truth-telling is rare. And the reason telling the truth is rare is because it takes enormous courage. Because if we speak the truth to someone we love, things will get messy. We might be rejected. We might get into a long, difficult discussion. There’s a good chance we’ll get accused of meddling in what’s not our business. It will cost us. But here’s the thing, if we don’t do this work – if we don’t speak the truth to the people we love – it’s going to cost us much more. It’s going to cost us community. If we don’t speak the truth in love to one another, we’ll have pseudo-community. And we’re not made for pseudo-community. We’re made for community.

And so here’s what I’m going to leave us with tonight.

First, all need a truth-teller. And so consider inviting someone to be your Nathan. Or consider forming an accountability group. This should be a close friend or group of friends, people you trust, people willing to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. For example, if you’re in a huge fight with your roommate, it’s a lot of fun buddying up with someone else and talking about all their flaws and how inconsiderate they are, but have you ever invited anyone to examine how you’ve contributed to the problem? Or to remind you of your deepest values as a Christian – that blessing those who curse us, that turning the other cheek, that repaying evil with good is Christianity 101? #1 – we all need a truth-teller.

Second, we all need to be truth-tellers. However, we can only tell the truth to someone if we’ve received that invitation, whether it’s a formal invitation or an informal one. And if you want to speak the truth in love to someone else, here are some prerequisites. You can’t be looking forward to it. It has to be because you love them. You have to sacrifice your own comfort for their well-being. In other words, telling the truth should cost you something.

And so tonight we end where we began. First, we really want to know the truth about ourselves. Second, we really don’t want to know the truth about ourselves. Our tendency is to both seek the truth and resist it. Which one will we choose?

living to give

Mark 10:46-52

Last weekend I was on the road to Dallas for the Red River Rivalry and saw a church sign in Waco that angered me: “introducing 30 minute worship.” What angered me was the marketing. You see, they had a product – 30 minute worship – and this church did a really good job of selling their product.

And it made me think – far too often we approach God – far too often we approach the church – as a product or a service or something that exists to meet our wants. 30 minute worship is a response – not to a genuine need – but to a want. The pastor of this church is smart – he knows the people of Waco are “shopping” for a church and he wants his product to sell. And so he asked around – What do you want me to do for you? And here’s what I imagine they said. “Well, we’re tired. We work too much, our life is out of balance, and we’re not getting enough sleep. What we want is an extra 30 minutes. We want twice the worship experience in half the time. What we want is a better product.” And so the pastor gave it to them– 30 minute worship.

“What do you want me to do for you?” That’s the question Jesus asked James and John last week, that’s the question he asks Bartimaeus this week, and that’s the question our Lord is asking each and every one of us this morning. What do you want me to do for you?

Well, we know what James and John said. “We want power. We want fame. We want front row seats in the Kingdom of God.” And we recall Jesus’ response. “You’re blind.” He said. “You cannot see that your “what can I get” approach is what’s keeping you from being fulfilled. If you’ve come to me primarily to receive, if you’re looking for a better product, then I cannot give you what you want. Because life in my Kingdom isn’t about what you can get. Life in my Kingdom is about what you can give.

Now that’s a hard pill to swallow. You and I have been conditioned by a world that thrives on giving us what we want. We want things to be faster and cheaper and smaller and to have less carbs – and guess what – we get it. In the Kingdom of the world, nothing we want is off limits. The customer is always right. Where there’s a want, there’s a way. To quote “the Burger King” – have it your way. This is how we’ve been conditioned to see. We’ve inherited a “what can I get” approach to life. And so before we look at blind Bartimaeus, I want to be clear about what I perceive to be our blindness – myself included. We live in a world that gives what we want. We follow a God that wants what we give. Life in our world is about what we can get. Life in God’s world is about what we can give. And so if we’re trying to understand the kingdom of God through the eyes of our world – we are blind – sitting by the roadside day after day unfulfilled, all because we want something that Jesus never came to give.

In today’s Gospel we hear the story of blind Bartimaeus, and his life revolves around what he can get. Day after day Bartimaeus sits there with his cloak, and since Jericho is far too hot to wear a cloak, this cloak would have been used to collect money. For the author of Mark’s Gospel, this cloak symbolizes a life of receiving. And so sitting by the roadside day after day Bartimaeus spreads that cloak on the ground and he thinks to himself, “I wonder what I can get.”

But is Bartimaeus fulfilled? Sure, his cloak fills up each day, but Bartimaeus wants so much more. And so when he hears that Jesus is coming his way, Bartimaeus cries out because he is sick of being blind. He is sick of sitting by the roadside. He is sick of living for what he can get. And so he cries out – not once but twice – for the Messiah to open his eyes.

And that’s exactly what happens. Bartimaeus hears the words that I know each of us are desperate for Jesus to speak to us – “Take heart. Get up. I am calling you.” What do we want Jesus to do for us? Isn’t this it? For Jesus Christ to see us, for him to notice us in this big, confusing world, to stop and to speak to us when we’re discouraged, to understand when we hurt, and then to speak those words of grace – “take heart John. Get up. I am calling you.”

Those words changed Bartimaeus’ life. In fact, the moment he heard them he threw off his cloak. Day after day Bartimaeus spread that cloak on the ground and thought to himself, “I wonder what I can get.” But the moment Jesus calls him, Bartimaeus springs up and leaves that cloak where it belongs – on the side of the road. And when Jesus asks him the ultimate question – What do you want me to do for you? – what does Bartimaeus say? “Let me see again.” No more sitting by the roadside for Bartimaeus, because when Jesus restores his sight, he does the most natural thing in the world. He follows Jesus to Jerusalem. Bartimaeus sees a cross in the distance, and he comes to know that there – and only there – will he find the salvation he’s wanted his entire life. Life for Bartimaeus will no longer be about what he can get. It’s now going to revolve around what he can give.

What do you want me to do for you? That’s the question our Lord is asking us this morning. But before we answer his question, we need to answer a better one – what does Jesus want to do for us? He wants to teach us how to give. Jesus wants to teach us how to give – what an amazing complement coming from the Creator of the Universe. To quote the Gospel of John, “Jesus came that we might have life, and that might have it more abundantly.” But to give us abundant life, Jesus first has to open our eyes so that we can see where abundant life is found. And I promise you this – it’s not in a better product – a better sermon or a better car or a better salary. After all, it’s no accident that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to give his life for the world when he notices Bartimaeus by the roadside. Jesus is going to the cross when he sees Bartimaeus clutching his cloak, living for what he can get, and Jesus says, “Bartimaeus get up! I’m going to the cross and I want you to come with me. And so give me your life, and if you do that Bartimaeus I promise you this – you’re going to find what you’ve wanted your entire life.

And so tonight we’re reminded that giving is at the heart of the abundant life that all of us want – the Father giving His Son, the Son giving his life, the Spirit giving us the courage to get up, to throw off that cloak, and to give our lives to Jesus. And so for the record, my message today is not that God wants a portion of your money or a portion of your time. No, my message is much more challenging. God wants you. God wants it all – all of your heart, and all of your soul, and all of your mind, and all of your strength. And so here’s the question I’m going to leave us with.

In what aspect of your life are you sitting by the roadside? Where has your “what can I get” approach to life left you unfulfilled? In other words – what do want more of? Do you want more time? Then give more time to God. Read His Word, listen for His voice and let God teach you about what’s worth living for so that you take what’s not off your calendar. Do you want more love? Try giving more love. Go out of your way to bless the people in your life and I promise you that love will be given back tenfold. Do you want more money? If so, why – is it a better product you’re after, and if you get that money, will it really be enough? Try giving some more money away. And just see if you’re not a million times richer because of it.

In what aspect of your life are you sitting by the roadside? Because Jesus of Nazareth is about to pass by. He’s going to the cross to give his life for you. And so take heart. Get up. Throw off your cloak. He’s calling you to go with him.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Grasshopper syndrome (a tale of two generations)


We’re made for ____ (community) – but, by nature, we’re community _____ (crashers). But that’s okay because God chose Abraham and made a _____ (covenant). And at the heart of that covenant is God’s desire to ____ (bless the entire world). But, if God is going to transform the world, then first he must transform the messengers. And so in order to reveal the contents of his own heart, God gives Israel the ______ (law). Good job (A+ for everyone).

And so tonight we continue our story about a ragtag group of fugitive slaves, who happen to be at the very center of God’s purpose to save the world. They’ve left Egypt. They’ve received the law. And now, it’s time to move forward to the land of Canaan – or to the Promised Land as it’s commonly called. But here’s the question I left us with last week – do they have the faith required to move forward?

Well, Moses is a smart leader. He doesn’t want to take any chances and so he sends out twelve spies to survey the land of Canaan and after forty days they bring back a report. “I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” they say. The good news is that Canaan is freaking awesome. It’s a dreamland, a land of abundance, a land that flows with milk and honey. That’s the good news. But then they sober up, tell Israel to brace themselves, and give some really bad news. This is from Numbers 13:32-33.

They spread discouraging reports about the land among the Israelites: "The land we explored will swallow up any who go to live there. All the people we saw were huge. 33 We even saw giants there. We felt like grasshoppers next to them, and that's what we looked like to them!"

To paraphrase them, “going to Canaan is a suicide mission. Canaan is perfect, but frankly, we’re just outnumbered.” Now in all fairness, two of the spies – Joshua and Caleb – give a dissenting report. They remind the Israelites that it was for this very reason that God brought them out of Egypt in the first place, and that the same God who overthrew Pharaoh wouldn’t have the slightest problem with the giants of Canaan. But the Israelites don’t buy it. They get scared. Their fear takes over.

And so they’re in quite the pickle. They obviously can’t go back to Egypt, even if they wanted to. After all, do you really think that God would part the Red Sea a second time so that they could return to a life of slavery? Absolutely not. But on the other hand, they’re too scared to move forward. Canaan is too scary. And so does anyone remember what they do?

Nothing. They sit in the desert for forty years and do nothing until the entire generation dies. They refuse to believe that God will protect them. They refuse to enter the Promised Land. For forty years, they do absolutely nothing but grumble and weep in the desert. I can’t help but think that their lack of faith broke God’s heart.

You see, the people of Israel had a choice to make that day. It was either faith. Or it was fear. It was either a lifetime of boredom in the desert. Or it was the day by day faith-filled adventure of following a risky God into the unknown. And so to answer the question I left us with last time – did the Israelites have the faith required to move forward? The answer is no – the first generation did not – because they were too scared.

We often assume that the greatest enemy of faith is doubt. But that’s a bunch of nonsense. Everyone has doubts. The greatest enemy to faith is fear. And here’s the sentence that reveals the power of fear: “we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes.” And just to show how poisonous fear can be, we need to remember that this all began with just ten people and from there spread to all of Israel. That’s all it took – ten scared spies telling the rest of the people that they felt like grasshoppers in Canaan – and within moments every single one of them had a grasshopper complex. Apparently, the Israelites can’t seem to grasp the fact that they’re not slaves anymore – that the same God that set them free from Egypt would also protect them in Canaan. And because of that, they feel small, inadequate, and weak – like grasshoppers.

Now, a lot of people in our world live with a deep-seated grasshopper complex. They look in the mirror, and all they see is a grasshopper. “I’m not adequate. I’m not competent. I’m not strong enough. I’m not as smart, as tall, as skinny, as pretty, as funny, as successful – compared to so and so, I’m a grasshopper.” It’s a sad thing, but a lot of people deal with the daily pain of feeling deeply inferior. But here’s the thing – the question isn’t whether we are adequate or competent or strong enough. The question is always whether or not we’re willing to trust that God is adequate and competent and strong enough. And it’s sad, but the first generation just couldn’t do it. And so it might be worth asking ourselves – do we focus more on our inability or on God’s ability? Do we focus more on our weakness or on God’s strength?

Well, fortunately for us, God is patient – he doesn’t desert his people. For forty years, God waits with the Israelites in the desert. For forty years, God just hangs out and watches over his chosen people while a new generation of Israelites grows up – and so back to our question. Will this new generation have the faith required to move forward?

And so here’s what I need us to do – let’s fast-forward forty years and look at the new generation. Moses is dead, and Joshua – the son of Nun – is their new leader, and God tells Joshua that it’s time to move forward. And there’s only one thing that stands between the people of Israel and the outskirts of Canaan – and that one thing, the last barrier, the only obstacle – is the Jordan River. And so that’s where the book of Joshua picks up.

So Joshua told the Israelites, "Come and listen to what the LORD your God says. 10 Today you will know that the living God is among you. The Ark of the Covenant, … will lead you across the Jordan River! 12 Now choose twelve men, one from each tribe. 13 The priests will be carrying the Ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth. When their feet touch the water, the flow of water will be cut off upstream, and the river will pile up there in one heap." 14 Now it was the harvest season, and the Jordan was flooding. But as soon as the feet of the priests who were carrying the Ark touched the water at the river's edge, 16 the water [stopped] and … the riverbed was dry. Then all the people crossed over.

Ok, so we need to understand what’s going on in the story. A new generation stands on the banks of the Jordan, and God doesn’t want them to experience the pain of forty years in the desert like their parents did. Remember, the old generation died from a serious case of grasshopper syndrome, but now, their children – a completely new generation – are staring at the Jordan River and they start to wonder. Do we have the faith to do what our parents were too scared to do? In other words, what choice are we going to make – faith or fear?

And so this new generation has waited a long time for this very moment. In fact, a lot of these people were probably born in the desert. In other words, sitting around and doing nothing is all they’ve ever known. And yet here’s the dilemma – there’s no way they can cross the river without divine intervention. The bible tells us its flood season. Normally, the Jordan River isn’t all that treacherous but flood season is a different story altogether. And so we need to imagine a riverbed that’s 150 feet wide and up to 20 feet deep. But not only that, the water is moving really fast because the Jordan starts 7000 ft. above sea level and ends at 1,300 feet below sea level. In other words, Michael Phelps would have a hard time crossing the Jordan during flood season. And so imagine a caravan of people, raised in a desert, many of whom have never seen a body of water at all, being asked to step into this river. Do you see what’s going on? It’s a death sentence. In other words, God is asking this new generation to step into the Jordan during the most dangerous time of year with nothing but a promise – “you’ll be ok, I’m with you, step into the river.”

Do you see the catch? Do you remember how the Exodus worked? Moses parted the Red Sea, and then the people of Israel crossed. Not this time. This time, God reverses the order. God tells the new generation that first, they have to step into the water – and only after they take that step of faith will the waters dry up. Do you see how radical this is? Imagine jumping out of an airplane with a parachute. That’s hard enough. But what about jumping without one? What if God was like “jump. I’ll catch you. I promise.” But you don’t have a chute.

And that’s basically what God is saying to this new generation – I brought you out of Egypt. I’ve been with you for forty years. I’ve fed you, protected you, provided for you. But I think it’s about time that you grow in your faith, and so, I’m not going to part the waters before you step in. You have to take a step of faith. And then – then you’ll see my miraculous power.

And so if the old generation taught us about fear, what does this new generation – that did cross the Jordan – teach us about faith? Simply this – and we’ll call it the law of the first step. Are you ready? Sometimes God refuses to act until we begin to move in faith! Now, I’m not saying that we initiate a relationship with God. That is incorrect. God, out of his own goodness, draws us to himself initially. That being said, once God makes that first move, there inevitably comes a point in each of our lives where He wants us to grow in our faith – and faith is always about action. And so once again, the law of the first step: sometimes God refuses to act until we begin to move in faith.

And so God taught a really important lesson to that new generation before they crossed the Jordan River – and it’s a lesson that each and every one of us needs to internalize. And that lesson is this: when you face a huge obstacle that, if left alone, would crush you – God’s power is sufficient. He will make a way. He wants to deliver you. But, that same obstacle that we ask God to remove, that we always see as a problem, God usually sees as an opportunity to deepen our faith. Once again, what we see as a problem, God sees as an opportunity. And what that means is that more often than not, we have to take the first step. Step into the Jordan River first and only then will you see the waters dry up.

And so here’s a question that I’m going to challenge each of us to wrestle with. What’s your Jordan River? Where is God asking you to take a step of faith? Because the truth is, we all find ourselves at the banks of the Jordan from time to time. We all know what it’s like to face barriers that scare us. And if we’re not careful, these barriers can paralyze us with fear. But if that happens, we’ll live boring lives in the desert – we’ll never become the risk-taking, faith-filled adventurers that God wants us to be.

In other words, these two generations, really, present us with two different choices – two different ways of living altogether. We can be like the old generation, all of whom died of grasshopper syndrome. And trust me, a lot of people in our world live that way. They refuse to cross the Jordan River out of fear and so they die in the desert. Or, we can be like the new generation – we can take that first step into the Jordan, watch the miracle happen, and move deeper and deeper into God’s plan to rescue the world.

Now, some of you might be thinking – I don’t have a Jordan River. Sure you do. And do you want to know how you can tell what your Jordan River is? It’s actually pretty easy. Your fear will tell you. Plain and simple. Think about what scares you. Think about the prayers you’ve prayed over life situations that just scare the crap out of you or that make you anxious. Maybe you’ve been on the banks of the Jordan praying for God to send a bridge for a while now, but God – He’s just waiting patiently for you to take the first step, to trust that He loves you and that never in a million years would he let you drown.

And so today we heard the tale of two generations, which are two different ways of living – which one will we choose? You see, believe it or not, as followers of Jesus we’re part of this same story. Like the Israelites, we happen to be at the very center of God’s purpose to save the world. And the more we live into this story – which is to say the more we grow in our faith – the more often we’ll run into things that scare us. But remember, what we see as a problem, God sees as an opportunity. Because if God is going to transform the world, then first he must transform the messengers – which means that He has to teach us trust Him, to become faithful people that love taking the first step.

If you’re not there now, at some point in your life, you’ll be standing at the banks of the Jordan. Will you have the faith required to move forward? No matter what, God’s going to stay with you – that’s His promise. But, just don’t forget that the same thing God said to the Israelites he says to you and to me: “you’ll be ok, I’m with you, step into the river.”


This OMEGA series “OT Greatest Hits” is inspired by a 32-week Christian Education program put out by Willow Creek called the “Old Testament Challenge.” Some Omega talks will rely on this resource more heavily than others. Some will not even be based on it at all. However, if you have specific questions please email me at For more info on the OT Challenge, see

Monday, October 12, 2009

one thing

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" 20 He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" 27 Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing.”

If you haven’t heard the news, “it’s over.” At least, that’s the word coming from America’s most respected and widely read current events periodical – US Weekly. I have to say, I was rooting for Justin and Jessica – thought they’d make it. Sad they didn’t. And I know what you’re thinking. Did he really buy that magazine? No, I did not. I stole it from a teenage girl. I was captivated by the cover. Can you see the headline? “A heartbroken Jessica Biel refuses to let go.”

This headline made me wonder. Is there anyone or anything that I need so badly that I should refuse to let it go? According to sources, “she refuses to accept it and pretends like nothing’s wrong because she needs him.” Now, I’m not trying to make light of whatever pain she feels. If Justin Timberlake and I ever become friends, make no mistake, that’s one bromance I’ll refuse to let go of too. But still – is there anyone or anything that we need so badly that we should refuse to let it go?

Letting go isn’t easy. Especially when it comes to whatever makes us feel secure. And when I use the word secure, I’m talking about whatever we’ve placed at the center of our life. I’m talking about whatever we deem so valuable that we refuse to let it go because without it we’d feel incomplete. We all have our Justin Timberlake. What’s your one thing? What’s that one thing you refuse to let go of?

In today’s Gospel, a man comes to Jesus and asks the ultimate question – what must I do to inherit eternal life? Now, a word or two about this encounter. First, he’s excited. He’s not some punk Pharisee out to do Jesus in. No, this guy’s pumped – he runs up and kneels at Jesus’ feet. Second, this is one faithful dude. To the best of his knowledge, he hasn’t broken one commandment since he was a kid. Third, Jesus likes this guy. Mark says that “looking at him,” Jesus loved him. Or perhaps a better translation, Jesus was “exceedingly fond of” this man, and Jesus’ desire was to be closer to this man. “Let go of everything and follow me.” That was Jesus’ invitation. The only problem was the “letting go” part. There was one thing this man refused to let go of.

This man had accumulated a lot of stuff and Jesus told him to get rid of it. Jesus looked inside this man’s heart and saw that one thing he placed at the center of his life, that one thing he deemed so valuable that he refused to let it go because without it he’d feel incomplete. His possessions. And you know what Jesus said? “That’s the one thing I want you to let go of.” And according to Mark, “he was shocked and went away grieving.” Can you see the headline? “A faithful man turns down the chance of a lifetime.”

I’m not going to lie, I hear this story and I cringe because I imagine Jesus is asking me to do the impossible – to let go of everything. And when I hear Jesus asking me to do the impossible – to let go of everything – I cringe. I refuse. Like the man in today’s Gospel, I am shocked and I walk away grieving. And do you know why? Because I’m not quite sure that I fully grasp that Jesus is exceedingly fond of me too – that Jesus’ desire is to be closer to me than I’m allowing him to be right now. I’m not sure I realize the depth of Jesus’ love – that his love for me is so great that he’s willing to look at me and to tell me the one thing I lack. You see, I forget that Jesus’ words are life, and not death – that they’re grace, and not judgment – and because I forget, I wrongly assume that Jesus is harsh – that he’s asking me to do the impossible. And so I refuse to let go.

But you know what’s so ironic about tonight’s Gospel? Jesus doesn’t give us one ounce of extra work to do. There’s no secret eleventh commandment being revealed tonight that says “sell all your possessions.” The great irony of tonight’s Gospel is that Jesus doesn’t give us a new commandment at all! All he does is remind us of the first – the first commandment that says, “I am the Lord your God, don’t have any other gods before me.” Jesus looks at this man and sees the one thing he’s placed at the center of his life, the one thing he deems so valuable that he refuses to let it go because without he’d feel incomplete. And it’s not God. It’s his stuff. And because Jesus knows him, and because Jesus loves him, Jesus tells this man the one thing he loves more than God. And that one thing – that’s what Jesus asks him to let go of.

And so the question I leave you with tonight is pretty simple – what’s your one thing? What have you placed at the center of your life? It doesn’t have to be material possessions. In fact, I’m willing to bet that for most of you it’s not – especially for those of you living in a glorified prison cell that the University likes to call a dorm. But then again, maybe it is. Or maybe your one thing is an intangible possession – like being popular or attractive or funny. Or maybe your one thing is making your parents proud, and you’re allowing that desire to shape how you live. Or maybe it’s a person. Maybe you’ve placed a person, or a group of people, at the center of your life, and even though your heart knows that’s a pretty unstable center, you can’t help it because you’d feel incomplete without that group. Or maybe it’s pleasure. Instant gratification is glorified in today’s world, and so how secure do you feel when you’re not having fun? Or the kicker – maybe its school. Maybe your one thing is academic achievement – and because of that you’ve made faith in Christ an extracurricular activity. What’s your one thing? What have you placed at the center of your life? Because that’s the one thing Jesus wants you to let go of.

Now for the record, I’m not suggesting that you drop out of school or break up with your boyfriend or stop telling jokes as a result of tonight’s sermon. But what I am asking you to do is this – be honest with yourself about your one thing, and have the courage to remove it from center of your life. I’m not here to you what your one thing is. Only Jesus can do that. Only Jesus knows you well enough, and frankly only Jesus loves you enough, to say those four little words: “You lack one thing.”

You see, not one of us would be here tonight if we weren’t wrestling with the ultimate question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? The man in tonight’s Gospel – he didn’t understand Jesus’ answer. He thought Jesus was asking him to do the impossible – to get rid of everything in order to be saved. So he refused. He walked away sad because he realized that there was nothing he could do to inherit eternal life. That it was literally impossible.

But let me ask you this – what if this man had realized that Jesus’ words were life, and not death – grace, and not judgment? And what if he had realized that the good news of the Christian Gospel was the very thing that made him so sad – that there was nothing he could do to inherit eternal life? That it was a free gift of grace? It’s sad – this guy left before Jesus could fully answer his question. What do I have to do to be saved? “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God, for God all things are possible?” What if this man understood that Jesus was exceedingly fond of him, that Jesus’ desire was to be closer to him, that Jesus alone knew him enough, and loved him enough, to tell him the one thing he lacked?

I guess we’ll never know. But I can’t help but think that he would have woken up to the fact that there was one thing he needed more than anything else in this world, one thing without which he’d be incomplete – and that it was Jesus. And upon hearing Jesus’ words “come, follow me,” I imagine he would have said yes. And after spending time in Jesus’ presence – if I had to guess – he’d refuse to let go.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

holiness and law (better standards than the FDA)


What is God’s favorite kind of cheese?
Swiss cheese. Because it’s hole-y.

We’re made for ____ (community) – but, by nature, we’re community _____ (crashers). But that’s okay because God chose Abraham and made a _____ (covenant). And at the heart of that covenant is God’s desire to use Abraham’s descendants to ____ the entire world (bless).

Well, as we all know, Abraham’s descendants became slaves in Egypt – that is until one day God handpicks a stuttering, runaway shepherd to set His people free. And that’s where our story picks up tonight – with Moses, the Israelites, and God together in the desert – and so the Israelites are free at last. Or, are they?

You see, when the people of Israel enter the desert, they quickly notice a problem. On the one hand, they know they were created to be in perfect community with God. But on the other hand, at least for the moment, they can’t have the communion for which they were created. They quickly learn that their community-crashing nature meshes with God’s perfect nature about as well as fire meshes with paper. And as we all know, when fully exposed to fire, the paper will be destroyed. And does God want the Israelites to be destroyed? Of course not – which is why time and time again God tells them the exact reason He’s brought them into the desert. And here’s the verse that’s repeated like 20 times in Exodus and Leviticus. “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Do you see what this verse implies? God is perfectly holy. We are not. God is Perfect Community. We are community crashers. The bible describes God as a Consuming Fire. We, in our current state, are paper. You may be wondering - why are you telling me this? Here’s why – because if we’re going to understand the law – which is our goal tonight – we have to understand the law in the context of this greater story we’ve been telling. Remember, God didn’t rescue the Israelites for their sake alone but for the sake of the entire world. In other words, God’s desire is to take these ex-slaves and to use them to change the entire world.

But do you know what God has to do first? He has to change the ex-slaves. If the world is going to be transformed, the messengers have to go first. The paper has to become like the fire. The community crashers have to learn about perfect community. The not so holy people have to become holy. And so as a means to this end, God gives Israel the law.

Now, it’s important that we understand that God really is holy, because if we don’t, the bible just won’t make any sense. And so to help us understand God’s holiness, I’m going to introduce a pretty loaded word into the mix – and that word is purity. By definition, something is pure if it’s totally free from anything that contaminates or pollutes it. And so to say that God is holy is to say that God is pure – that God is the standard for moral excellence – that there is nothing that contaminates or pollutes God’s character. And, in the same way, to say that we’re not holy isn’t to say that we’re not good or that we’re not valuable – it’s just to acknowledge the self-evident truth that certain things do contaminate or pollute our character. In other words, to say that we’re not holy is to say what we’ve all said at one point or another – that “no one’s perfect.”

And so we have to understand that God is pure or holy and we are not. But not only that, it’s also important that we understand that you and I desire purity. Our heart wants things to be pure. As an example, consider the Food and Drug Administration – the FDA. As a nation, we’ve assigned the FDA the task of making sure that our food is pure – that it’s not contaminated or polluted. And I have to say, the FDA’s standards for purity are so low that they’re frightening. For example, did you know – if you buy 15 grams of mushrooms, they’re OK as long as they have fewer than 20 maggots? 20 or more maggots and the mushrooms can’t go on the shelf – but 19 maggots? 19 maggots are good enough to meet the FDA’s standard for purity with regard to mushrooms. As a coffee addict, I have to say, it wasn’t very encouraging to discover that coffee beans are only withdrawn from the market if more than 10% of them are infected by insects. 9% insects – ship it to Starbucks. 10% or more, we have to send it back.

Here’s what I’m trying to say – when it comes to our food and beverages and just about everything else – we all want purity. But what about our own lives? We tend to give ourselves a lot more wiggle room. The standards we have for our own lives are about as frighteningly low as the FDA’s standards for mushrooms. After all, we have “maggots” of our own, and they contaminate and pollute our hearts – anger, gossip, greed, revenge, laziness, and apathy to name just a few. And I have to say, we’re really quick to downplay these character flaws. But here’s the problem – our idea of purity is a far cry from God’s definition. We might not think it’s a big deal. But God values us so much, and took such delight in creating us, that to God – it’s a huge deal. Our God is holy, and God wants his image-bearers to be holy as well.

Now let’s go back to our story of the desert slaves. We’re at the foot of Mount Sanai. And here we see a ragtag group of frightened, grumbling, fugitive slaves. They have no real sense of identity yet, and to be honest, no clear knowledge of God. And in reading Exodus we quickly see that they are thoroughly impure and unholy. But here’s what’s so amazing – God is banking his whole hope to redeem the world on these very people. Remember – God’s desire is to bring a world full of community crashers back into community with Himself. And so here’s the question – how can God possibly get them to appreciate how high the stakes are? What does God have to do to get them to see that their little lives matter so much?

Well, in an effort to help the Israelites see the magnitude of his plan, God speaks to Moses in Exodus 19: 3-6.

Then Moses climbed the mountain to appear before God. The LORD called out to him from the mountain and said, "Give these instructions to … the people of Israel: 4 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I brought you to myself and carried you on eagle's wings. 5 Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the nations of the earth; for all the earth belongs to me. 6 And you will be to me a kingdom of priests, my holy nation.' Give this message to the Israelites."

Imagine hearing these words. Imagine being told that God wants your community, of all people, as his own special treasure. Seriously, I want you to imagine being told that God wants to make you holy like himself as part of this greater plan to bless the entire world. Put yourself in the shoes of these ex-slaves – or perhaps put yourself in their sandals. Your leader, a stuttering runaway shepherd, tells you that you’re at the very center of God’s purposes. Would you believe it? Would you accept it? Would that scare you? Excite you? Confuse you? And if he gave you a law and told you that this law is the key to God’s plan – that this law will teach you about holiness – would you obey it?

And so with the time we have left, let’s talk about the law. Now, most people in our world think that the Ten Commandments, to use an example, are God’s list of do’s and don’ts – more like a list of rules that have to be followed to be “right” with God more than anything else. Let me be very clear – That is not what the law is. The law isn’t God’s list of do’s and don’ts – it’s not primarily a list of rules at all.

Now, I know this may not be what you learned as a child. Perhaps you’ve even heard something along these lines in a sermon – the Old Testament is about the law, the New Testament is about grace. In the Old Testament, people are saved by keeping the law. But in the New Testament, people are saved by faith. These people may have the best intentions in the world, but they’re dead wrong. The law – including the Ten Commandments – was never given to Israel so that they could earn God’s favor. “Earning” has never been God’s way of dealing with human problems. The idea that we can earn God’s favor by keeping the law makes about as much sense as the idea that we can become the president of the United States by paying our taxes. And so if the law wasn’t given to help us to earn God’s favor, why did God give Israel the law in the first place? In other words, how can the law – which doesn’t make us “right” with God – still be part of God’s plan to bless the world?

And in one word, the answer is covenant. The law is God’s way of entering into a covenant with Israel. You see, it was only after God saved Israel from the Egyptians that He gave them the law. God didn’t say “obey these rules and then I’ll save you.” But rather, “now that I’ve saved you, here is an expression of my heart – here is how you can be more like me. Here is a way of living that will burn out some of those impurities that contaminate and pollute your hearts – the anger, the gossip, the greed, the revenge, the laziness, the apathy. I the Lord your God am holy. And because I want to bless the world through you, it matters to me that you’re holy too. And so here – this is what holiness looks like.”

Do you see the difference? For example, let’s say you’re a father and your son spends all day drawing you a picture and then he gives it to you, somewhat scared, explaining that the reason he worked so hard is because he wanted the picture to be good enough for you to love him. Pretty sad, isn’t it? But now imagine a different scenario where your son feels so loved and so unconditionally embraced and so special that he spontaneously decides to draw the best picture that he can, just because he feels loved. There’s a huge difference.

Or perhaps an example for the ladies – suppose you’ve been dating this guy and things are getting pretty serious. How would you feel if one day he looked deep into your eyes and said something like this? “This is my final offer. Wash my clothes, cook my food, clean the house, and rub my feet and if you do these things well enough, assuming that I’m happy with your performance, then I will marry you.” What would you say? NO.

Right, because a healthy marriage begins with mutual love and care, and then the graceful actions on both sides flow out of this love. God’s covenant with Israel, and God’s covenant with us, is like that. It begins with grace. And this was as true for the people of Israel as it was for you and for me. The law is about grace – it’s about being saved from Egypt to travel to Canaan; about being saved from our lives as community crashers in order to learn a better way. Ultimately, the law is about the transformation of our hearts. It’s about God teaching his people how life was meant to be lived from the start.

Now, some of you might be thinking. I’ve read Leviticus and Deuteronomy and frankly, I don’t see it. Yes and no. Yes, because there were different types of laws. For example, there were civil laws that guided national policy. The civil laws of Israel are obviously no longer binging for 21st century Americans. All denominations, including the non-denominational denomination, would agree on this point. And then there were ritual and ceremonial laws – laws that dealt with worship and the sacrificial system. Well, as Christians we believe that the whole sacrificial and ritual system of the Old Testament was fulfilled in Christ, and so these ceremonial laws are no longer binding.

But what I’m talking about are the moral laws – the Ten Commandments, the commandment to love one another, and so forth – and these moral laws give us an image of what it means to be in a Covenant Relationship with our creator. And it’s really important to realize why we should obey them in the first place. And so remember – we never obey the law to get God’s favor. We obey the law because we already have God’s favor. We don’t draw our heavenly Father a picture hoping that he’ll love us. We draw him one because He already does.

And so in closing, I want you to imagine what life would be like if, even for one day, everyone had the law of God written on their hearts and followed it with joy because they knew that they were free. What if for one day no life was ended through random violence; there were no acts of terrorism; nobody was killed, struck, or even cursed at in anger; not a single lie was told; everyone spoke the truth to one another; every father and every mother were honored all day long, and the hearts of the parents were turned toward their children, and the hearts of the children were turned towards their parents; nothing was stolen; and not one greedy thought or action took place in all the earth?

What would it be like if God’s magnificent law were written on our hearts and we lived them out in our lives? What if we lived the kind of life Jesus did right in our home, our work place, our school, our church?

Well, we’d be right back in the garden running around naked with God.

But we’re not quite there yet. In fact, we have a long, long way to go. Because the story, at this point, isn’t about going back to Eden – it’s about moving forward to Canaan. But moving forward takes courage and it takes faith – it takes a willingness to trust that you’re at the very center of God’s purpose to save the world. Moving forward takes a lot of faith. Do the Israelites have the faith required to move forward? Do we? Come back next week and we shall see.


This OMEGA series “OT Greatest Hits” is inspired by a 32-week Christian Education program put out by Willow Creek called the “Old Testament Challenge.” Some Omega talks will rely on this resource more heavily than others. Some will not even be based on it at all. However, if you have specific questions please email me at For more info on the OT Challenge, see