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

Monday, October 5, 2009

living to connect

Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." 19 So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken." 24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

This is hard to admit, but I’m fascinated by reality TV. And what fascinates me is the audacity of the claim – reality TV. Not compelling TV or lively TV or even provocative TV – no, they have the audacity to claim that this show is a window into reality. No need for a script – “lights, camera, action,” we’re here to teach you how reality works. So if you want to meet the woman of your dreams, we all know how the courting process really works, just watch the Bachelor. You go out with 25 beautiful women who already want to marry you, sometimes with two women at once to save time, plan an exotic vacation with your top 3, meet their family, weigh your options, and give a rose to your favorite one – just like God intended. Or let’s say its meaningful friendships you want to learn how to build? Oh, well that happens when seven pre-selected strangers with personalities destined to clash are haphazardly thrown together in a super trendy downtown loft. Right – isn’t that how the “real world” works?

Now, on the one hand, these shows understand something important about reality. Relationship – or being connected – is what reality is all about. Or perhaps to put it differently, relationship is at the center of the universe. But on the other hand, you watch these shows, and you get this sense that people aren’t connecting with one another at all. They’re trying to achieve something at the other’s expense. In other words, they’re competing – for a rose, for a job with Donald Trump, for money, to be the Sole Survivor, to win the amazing race – they’re competing. But they’re not connected.

Not connected. This is the phrase I’d like to use to describe the dilemma we’re in today. I say dilemma because ours is the world where it’s entirely possible to have a thousand contacts and not a genuine friend; to have a wife or a husband, but not a partner; to send a thousand text messages or emails in any given week and yet to go months without giving or receiving a hug. That’s what I mean by not connected.

In today’s reading from Genesis, Adam and God are hanging out in the Garden of Eden, way before the Fall. There’s no sin, no disobedience, nothing that damages Adam’s relationship with God, and Genesis tells us that everything that God has created is good. This is the constant refrain that’s occurred throughout the first chapter. God created the heavens and the earth, and God saw that it was – Good. God created light – good. The ocean – good. All types of plants – good. But in today’s reading, God looks at the man He’s created and for the first time God says – “not good.” “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Why? It’s not because God likes women better. The reason God looks at Adam and says “not good” is because Adam is “alone.” Or if you’d like a more accurate translation of the Hebrew Bible, because Adam is disconnected. Remember, God made Adam to connect at a deep, deep level. The only problem is there’s nothing for Adam to connect with. And according to God, Adam’s situation, being disconnected – “not good.”

Well, the story then takes a comedic twist, and we often miss this, but tonight’s reading from Genesis uses humor to communicate truth. Because if you read the story carefully, which no one ever does, God becomes Adam’s wingman. His boy Adam is lonely and God wants to set him up. So what does God do? He makes a bunch of animals and parades them in front of Adam hoping that Adam will connect with one of them. So here’s Adam, alone in Eden, and God brings to him animal after animal --- horse, buffalo, cat, lizard, rat, cheetah – and God’s like, “Adam, take your pick. Give a rose to your favorite one.” This is like the Bible’s version of the Bachelor. But as the story goes, “for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.” Adam’s situation stays the same. He’s still not connected with another person. “Not good.”

Now this scenario, with Adam and the animals – it’s obviously absurd. And there’s a reason for that. It’s meant to be absurd. It’s absurd to think that people like us – people that God created to connect with other people – could connect deeply with an animal or with anything else for that matter. I had a bible study leader in high school, and he loved to tell us we had a God-shaped hole in our heart that only God can fill. And for the record, I think that’s true. But today’s reading from Genesis seems to suggest that we all have a human-shaped hole that God won’t fill. I mean, think about it – Adam was in the immediate presence of God, but because God made him to connect deeply with people, God wasn’t enough. Adam was with God and Genesis still says that he was alone. Adam had a human-shaped hole. And no substitute could fill that hole.

And no substitute can fill ours either. No substitute can fill our need to connect deeply with other people. Not money. Not busyness. Not business. Not casual sex. Not casual conversation. Not looks. Not books. Not brains. Not achievement. Not alcohol. Not even our daily private time with Jesus. Adam was in a state of sinless perfection, and yet Genesis tells us that he was “alone.” Disconnected. And according to God, that’s “not good.”

You see, there’s a reason that being “disconnected” isn’t good. And the reason is this – relationship is at the center of the universe. Think about it. God is at the center of the universe, and God – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is perfect relationship. I mean, can you imagine any competition, any bickering, or any jealousy that ruins the “perfect connection” the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit share? Of course not! And so from the beginning of time, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have been giving themselves to each other in “ceaseless, joy-filled, mutually submissive, generous, creative, self-giving” love. That’s what it means to say that God is perfect relationship, and that perfect relationship is at the center of the universe. At the center of our world is this perfect connection we call God, which means that you and I, who are made in God’s image, need to be connected too. To God. To each other. To things that matter. To things that will last. To things that are real.

Three summers ago I worked as a hospital chaplain in South Carolina, which means I had the privilege of being at the side of many people as they prepared to die. This may sound simplistic, but I remember two types of people. First, I met people who had measured their success by what they achieved – people who, in the eyes of the word, accomplished great things, but who never connected; people that had a stockpile of wealth and power and social status, but who, like Adam before he met Eve, were alone. And every single one of them died with bitter regrets. But I also met people who I’ll call connectors – people who measured their success by the relationships they’d fostered. And these connectors had a stockpile of friends. They were devoted to their family. They had learned a lot about the art of giving and receiving love. And not one of them regretted having lived for people – for their friends, their neighbors, their children, their family, their church. Not one.

And so take an honest, prayerful inventory of your life, and ask yourself – what am I living for? Am I living to achieve? Or am I living to connect? Achieving isn’t a bad thing, but it’s no substitute for connecting. It’s no substitute for people.

I think I know why I’m fascinated by reality TV. They stole Jesus’ claim. Jesus was the first person that ever had the audacity to claim that his ministry was a window into reality. That’s what he said. “I’m here to teach you how reality works. Reality is about loving God and loving people. That’s what the law and the prophets are all about. Connect with God. Connect with people. Connect with others in a way that mirrors the perfect connection I have with my Father in heaven.” Jesus’ words, not mine. You and I are not created to be alone, to find meaning by what we achieve at someone else’s expense. We're created to connect. To God. To each other. To things that matter. To things that will last. To things that are real.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

god’s hero (a stuttering murderer)


What did Moses use to part the red sea?
A sea saw.

We’re made for ____ (community) but, by nature, we’re community _____ (crashers). But that’s okay because God had a plan. He called Abraham and made a (it’s another C) _____ (covenant). And that covenant is to bless the entire world through him and his descendants.
Good – today we’re going to do something a little different. Less teaching, more story. But as you listen to this story, I want you to ask yourself a few questions. First, is any situation too hopeless for God? And two, does God only use great people to accomplish great things?

And so here we go – fast forward about five hundred years. Abraham’s descendants – the Hebrews or the Israelites – have been slaves in Egypt for more than four hundred years. And maybe a few of these slaves have heard about God’s promise to Abraham. But I doubt they believe it. After all, God had promised Abraham that He’d bless his descendants and give them a wonderful land of their own – and yet all they’ve known their entire life is slavery. Imagine being born in a prison cell and being told a story that your great, great, great, great, great grandfather was made a promise in 1509 by God that one day you’d live in a palace. Would you believe it? Would that story make you a hopeful person? I seriously doubt it. And so as the book of Exodus opens, the situation looks pretty hopeless. And at least from the Hebrew perspective, all hope was lost.

Now, I know that sounds bad – but things get even worst. A new pharaoh comes into power and he fears the Israelites because when God commanded them to be “fruitful and multiply,” they listened – these people have a lot of babies. And pharaoh doesn’t want to be outnumbered – after all, that could be bad for national security – and so he makes an imperial decree – all Hebrew male infants will be killed and thrown into the Nile River. In other words, all baby boys must be killed.

Now, I want you to pause and think what a precious gift a new baby is to a father and a mother. And now imagine some Egyptian police officer – storming into house after house – rounding up baby boy after baby boy – and throwing them into the Nile River – all because Pharaoh was paranoid. Every day you look at the Nile and see dead babies floating away. We’re talking about mass genocide. The situation seems hopeless. Fortunately, our God thrives in hopeless situations.

Because one day a Hebrew boy is born by the name of Moses and his mother can’t bear to lose him. And so she hides him for three months, and when she can’t hide him anymore, she makes a little waterproof basket and sets Moses down to float along the Nile hoping that someone will rescue him. Well, in an ironic twist, Pharaoh’s own daughter finds Moses and decides to keep him, which means, that Moses – the Hebrew – is now the adopted grandson of Pharaoh himself.

Well, as Moses grows up, he finds himself living in two different worlds. You see, on the one hand, he’s concerned for his own people – after all, he’s a Hebrew. But on the other hand, Moses is educated, trained, and raised – not only as an Egyptian – but as Egyptian royalty. Remember, he’s the adopted grandson of Pharaoh. We can assume he lives in a palace. He has nice food, nice clothes – I’m sure he has a few slaves of his own. But, he’s not an Egyptian. He’s a Hebrew – an Israelite. Talk about a hopeless situation – Moses’ own biological family members are all slaves in his own Kingdom.

When Moses had grown up, he went out to visit his people, the Israelites, and he saw how hard they were forced to work. During his visit, he saw an Egyptian beating one of the Hebrew slaves. 12 After looking around to make sure no one was watching, Moses killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. – Exodus 2:11-12

Now, some preachers will often give Moses’ act a positive spin, but this Bible passage just doesn’t support such a position – Moses murdered this guy in cold blood. He looks around to make sure no one is watching, but as we all know, he still gets caught. The murder makes the front page of the Egyptian Post the following morning, and to make matters worse, Pharaoh – his own grandfather – puts a price on his head. And so Moses – the convicted murderer – runs for his life and flees to the land of the Midianites, where he begins a brand new life.

And so to use a modern analogy, Moses is in the witness protection program. He’s got a new wife – a cute little thing by the name of Zipporah. He’s got a new career – deciding to enter the Midian shepherd training program. And finally, he has a son. Is there a hole in his heart? Yea, but at same time, Moses knows that in time he’ll learn to love his new life in Midian. And so Moses gets what some would call a “second chance at life.”

Now, back in Egypt, Pharaoh – Moses’ grandfather – dies and the replacement pharaoh is even worse. And as for the Israelites – they’re still hopeless and miserable slaves. And according to Exodus 2:24, “God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham.” Now, as a quick side note – this is an important Bible verse because it tells us a lot about the awesome character of God. In essence, what God is saying is this – “I love my people. I long for their good. I want to deliver them. I’ve seen, I’ve noticed, I care, I’m coming, I want to bring my salvation.”

And so what does God do? Well, let’s go back to Moses who’s living an ordinary and uneventful life – some might even say a boring life – in the witness protection program. And he’s been in Midian for about forty years tending his sheep until one day everything changes.

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." – Exodus 3:1-3

To quote Moses, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.” In reading Exodus, we get the sense that everything hinges on Moses’ willingness to “turn aside.” Because he doesn’t have to – after all, the bush is a little out of his way. Moses could have said, “I’m a busy man, I’ve got things to do, I don’t have time to turn aside.” He could have kept on walking. And he would have missed his calling. Moses would have missed the Exodus. He would have missed the entire reason for which he was born. And so a quick question: how are you doing at turning aside these days – at paying attention for burning bushes that may just be lurking around the corner. The only reason I ask is because God seeks to meet each and every one of us. After all, that is God’s desire. And yet we can go an entire lifetime and never meet God. Isn’t that amazing? Some people live an entire life and never turn aside.

Well, thankfully Moses does turn aside and listen to what God says.

Then the LORD told him, "You can be sure I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries for deliverance from their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. 8 So I have come to rescue them from the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt into their own good and spacious land. Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You will lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."

“Go – I am sending you to pharaoh.” What do you think Moses said – what would you say? For example, let’s say you’re a Jewish refugee living in Manhattan and the year is 1944. And God comes to you and says “Go – I’m sending you to Hitler. Your ship leaves tomorrow.” What would you say?

Well, Moses launches into a series of five objections. You see, he’s a lot like us. Moses believes in God’s power, he’s just not so sure about himself. In other words, he doesn’t feel worthy of the calling. He wrongly assumes that you have to be great to be great. And so let’s look at Moses’ five objections.

Objection #1
Moses’ first question is, “Who am I?” In other words, I’m just an inadequate shepherd, not to mention a murderer. Who am I? I’m not great. And God’s answer is simple: “I will be with you.” In other words, God says – you’re no one. But I AM. And I plan on working through you.

Objection #2
Well, then Moses says, that’s great and all, but – “who are you?” Remember, it’s been like 500 years since God had that first DTR with Abraham. God isn’t well known or worshipped by Moses. And as for Moses, he grew up in Egypt and was raised to worship one God – and now he lives in Midian, and his people probably worship a different God. And so Moses has to know – what God are you? And God’s answer is brilliant. I AM WHO I AM. And so Moses is sent back to His own people with this message: “hey guys, it’s me Moses. I’m actually one of you, but I’ve actually never been a slave, per se. Funny thing, I grew up in Egypt and now I live in Midian. Anyway, God just appeared to me and says it’s time for you guys to pack up and leave Egypt.” Moses knows this is a little far-fetched and so he moves to …

Objection #3
What if they don’t believe me? It’s a fair question. And so God tells Moses to throw his staff on the ground and it turns into a snake. Personally, this would have been a deal-breaker for me. But then God tells Moses to pick the snake up by the tail – which is the most dangerous part FYI – and when he does, the snake turns back into a staff. And so God gives Moses a magic trick to prove to his people that God really sent him. But is that enough for Moses? No.

Objection #4
I think the fourth objection is by far my favorite – Moses says he’s a bad public speaker. He’s not very eloquent. “Don’t be ridiculous Moses,” God says, “I’ll give you the right words when you need them.” And then finally, …

Objection #5
(which isn’t really an objection at all) Moses is out of formal excuses and so he clears his throat and says his first recorded prayer in scripture: “God, just get someone else. Anyone but me.” And God essentially says “sorry. You’re my man. I’ll send Aaron with you. But you’re my guy.” And to paraphrase Moses’ response – “whatever, fine, I’ll go.” And Moses does – he goes to the most powerful man in the world with nothing but a staff and says “let _____” (my people go – famous phrase). And Pharaoh says? NO!!!

Not only does Pharaoh not believe Moses’ story, but as he states quite clearly, he doesn’t believe in Moses’ God. And plus, he’s not just going to get rid of his slaves – it’s his entire work force and would mean the collapse of the Egyptian economy. Let my people go? Not gonna happen Moses.

And so what God does is initiate a series of plagues. The first is to turn the Nile River into blood, which would have been very significant for the Israelites. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that the Nile had been filled with the blood of their infants and so this would have been meaningful for the Israelites – like God was bringing justice to the Egyptians. But Pharaoh isn’t impressed. And so God sends about a million frogs to torture the Egyptians. Why God makes the second plague the most severe I’ll never know. But, Pharaoh’s heart is still hardened. And so the plagues continue – gnats, flies, dying livestock, boils, hail, locusts, and even 24/7 darkness – and Pharaoh still refuses to let the Israelites go.

And so God responds with the tenth and final plague, which is the most devastating of all. The people who committed genocide against the Israelites will now lose their first born.

So Moses announced to Pharaoh, "This is what the LORD says: About midnight I will pass through Egypt. 5 All the firstborn sons will die in every family in Egypt, from the oldest son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the oldest son of his lowliest slave. Even the firstborn of the animals will die.

Imagine being in the home of one of the Israelites that night. God has told you that in the morning, you’re leaving Egypt. Remember DTR #1 – the call to leave what’s familiar and to go to a new place that I myself will show you? Well, this is DTR #1 for Abraham’s descents. They are to leave Egypt the following morning, this is their final night in the only land they’ve ever known, and not only that but they’ve been given instructions – “Sacrifice a lamb,” God says, “and put the blood of the lamb on the doors of your home, and I will pass-over your home. Death and judgment will pass over you and your family because you’re covered by the blood of the lamb.” So in obedience, you slaughter a lamb and have one final meal at home – and you put its blood on your doors. And then, you wait. It must have been one of the scariest nights in the history of the world. You wonder if it’s real – will your children really be spared? Is the blood of the lamb really enough to save you?

And of course the answer is yes – the following morning you leave Egypt for the first time in your entire life, which means that you experience freedom for the first time in your entire life, which also means that in the coming years you will have to learn how not to be a slave. You might not like slavery – but remember – it’s all you know.

And so you’ve responded to DTR #1 – the call to leave – which leaves us with a question. How well will you handle your freedom? That’s what we’ll be looking at next week.


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