Sunday, October 21, 2012

Why are you so afraid? [The Bible's Greatest Questions]

18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 A scribe then approached and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." 20 And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." 21 Another of his disciples said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." 22 But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead." 23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves...
If you've ever stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as I have, you will notice that it is a very small "Sea"…only 13 miles from north to south and 8 miles from east to west.  At 680 feet below sea level it has a warm and pleasant climate, and yet what is described in Matthew 8: 18-27 is actually very typical.  The lake is bordered by hills and valleys from the west which act like funnels, compressing the wind and causing very sudden and violent storms in less than half an hour.  It's not that the Galilean storm was all that unusual, it's that Jesus' response was...
But [Jesus] was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" 26 And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, you of little faith?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27 They were amazed, saying, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?" 
I can’t read this story without thinking of a time in college when I was rowing on Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara with my team from UC San Diego.  On the morning of the regatta, it was cloudy and calm, but as soon as the race began, the wind whipped up the lake as eight boats, including our own, started the race.  As we rowed into the wind, we could see white caps developing, and very soon water began sloshing over the sides into the sixty foot, eight man shell.  We were determined to keep going, so we continued to pull against our oars in stubborn denial.  Within five minutes, however, we were swamped, and not our shell alone but every other boat in the race.  Well, almost every other.  In those days conversion from wood to the new carbon-based materials was just beginning.  There was one boat with a water-sealed bow and stern compartment; and that boat floated!  As for the rest of us with our inferior equipment, we could only laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of our situation.  Our Brittish coxswain, James Bernstein recently contacted me with this memory, "I was also laughing; especially as the weight of my water sodden clothes kept pulling me under the water."  Needless to say, we were not just up a creek without a paddle...we were under it.  Imagine it…more than 72 people out in the middle of a lake and only two chase boats to get us all out.  Should we try to swim ashore, pulling our 60 foot shells behind us or wait for a little help?  I'll get back to this story in a moment...

Fear can come on us suddenly like that storm, without warning, without time to prepare…fear of illness, fear of losing control, fear of financial problems, fear of not being popular, fear of failure, fear of shots, fear of the dark, fear of fear! We all have times when we are afraid.  Fear is a storm-tossed feeling (it rises and falls with the waves of life).  It can come on suddenly like that storm.  But Jesus’ question invites us to ask ourselves “Why do we continue to be afraid?” And better, “How can we move from storm tossed fear…to unsinkable faith?”  Our passage teaches us several important lessons about life’s storms….

The first is this: Following Jesus does not mean a storm-free life.  “And when [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves.” (23-24)  Jesus had been preaching beside the Sea of Galilee to huge crowds.  According to Mark 4:1, the crowds were so big that he had to speak to the people along the shore while sitting in a fishing boat!  

After a long day, Jesus' disciples follow him into the boat and head for the other side of the lake. Here is a beautiful description of what disciples do: disciples follow Jesus wherever he goes.  But notice where they’re going?  Into a storm!  The Greek word Matthew uses here for “storm” is seismos or the common word for “earthquake.”  It occurs three times in his gospel.  Here on the Sea of Galilee, again at the moment of Jesus’ death when there is an earthquake and the temple curtain is split in two (Matt. 27: 51), and again on Easter when the power of God rolls back the stone from Jesus' tomb (Matt. 28: 2).  it seems that Jesus’ entire ministry, his life, his death, and his resurrection is marked by earthquakes!   

With this in mind, let's go back briefly to the events just prior to Jesus' departure in the boat. A man says to him, “Jesus, I’ll follow you anywhere” to which Jesus responds, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words…I am not offering people a one way ticket out of this world and its troubles, but a round trip ticket right back into this world…troubles and all.  In fact, that is why I came. I’m on a mission to this storm-tossed world, and I’m inviting you to face those storms with me, to heal this world with me, to bless this world with me…so if you still want to follow me, climb on board.

Again, there will be times when it feels like Jesus is not aware or does not care, but we will be mistaken. “But [Jesus] was asleep.” (24b)We read that while this tempest is raging, Jesus is actually snoozing.  He was probably back in the stern compartment of this fishing vessel, with his head on a sand bag…used as ballast.  Mark’s gospel records that when the disciples find Jesus sleeping, they ask, “Lord don’t you care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38)

I wonder how many of us haven’t asked Jesus the same question, “Lord don’t you care?  Do you see what I’m going through right now?"  At times, it may feel like Jesus does not care or is not aware of our troubles…but we will be mistaken. I remember a particular plane ride from California to New York.  I was a young man and feeling pretty vulnerable, having just become an insulin dependent diabetic in seminary, and wondering about God’s plan for me.  The bubble of invulnerability had just recently been broken.  Some of you know what I'm talking about.  It was winter, and we were diverted to St. Louis to let off passengers because Chicago had was shut down by a snow storm.  By now the storm was chasing us as well...and by the time we were scheduled to fly out of St. Louis the airport was shutting down.  We were blessed to be the last plane to leave the airport (I think I would have been fine with a comfy bed at the Hilton Hotel).  After the plane was being de-iced (always an encouraging site), we  took off...and immediately encountered significant turbulence.  At one point the plane dropped so suddenly I grabbed the seat in front of me.  There was a collective which I added my own.  Anxious thoughts passed through my mind as I began to pray. "Lord, am I expendable?" I wondered to myself.  That’s when I turned to my left and noticed a seasoned business flyer beside me. He was reading the Wall Street Journal, calmly turning the pages …completely unaffected!  Were we on the same plane?! I decided to get my Bible out and start turning the pages too!  In the end, his peace was a sign to me of God’s presence!

You see, Jesus’ slumber was not a symptom of his indifference; it was a sign of his serenity. The gospel message is not, “How could Jesus be sleeping at a time like this?!”  But, “Hey, look at Jesus, sleeping at a time like this!  Maybe we should relax a little too!”  Jesus is our mentor and our model in stormy times.

Thirdly, Jesus’ disciples know that it’s OK to be needy out loud. “And they went and woke him up.  ‘Lord, save us!  We are perishing!’” (25)  Matthew records three short Greek words here: “Lord!  Save!  Dying!”  The most important rock climbing term that I learned was “Falling!”  That’s what you say just before you slip, and the belayer has time to break your fall.  The first time I tried rock climbing in the Minaret Wilderness I fell seven times... “Falling, falling, falling, falling, falling, falling, falling!”  That's because you don’t want to wait until you’ve hit the ground to ask for help!   

Now I don’t have the freedom to tell you all the stories of those who have called or written our church and basically said, “Falling!”  It takes courage and faith to write down a prayer request and put it in the offering plate…but know that those prayers are heard and that your church family is lifting you up before God when you express that need.  It’s OK to be needy out loud.  In fact, it’s critical if we’re going to be there for each other.

I met a guy yesterday who works as a material scientist.  He’s brilliant in overdrive, and he was talking to me about how he is designing these micro filaments that are thinner than a human hair but much much stronger…so fine that they may one day be used to rewire broken neural connections in the brain.  He was telling me all this while we were volunteering at this church by USC, helping the poor at a free health screening and legal aid clinic. Why was he here? He was very straightforward about it, “Honestly, I live a pretty solitary life.  I work all day in a clean room with a mask around my face, and rarely see the light of day. I miss and need that human interaction.”   In other words, he works all week designing a material that may one day help reconnect damaged neurons, but the need he recognizes in himself is reconnecting with other human beings. I wonder how many of us feel like we live our lives in a clean room, alone and isolated much of the time like this guy… maybe you’re here today because you’ve recognized that need.  Jesus disciples know it’s OK to be needy out loud, to say, “I can’t do this alone.  I need help!”

Finally, let’s remember that Jesus himself is the best reason of all not to be afraid.“ ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’  Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm.  They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” Feelings of fear are inevitable…and come to every human being; but how we respond to them is what counts.  Our Lord wants us to make the courageous decision to trust him.  Faith is a kind of bravery…and Jesus wants us to exercise that bravery as his followers…but knowing this, we must also say this…that Jesus loves us and helps us even when our faith is little and weak! 

In Mark’s account of this event, when Jesus stands and speaks to the wind and waves, he says, “Quiet!  Be still!”  And there was a dead calm.  “Who is this,” the disciples ask, “that even the wind and waves obey him?”  No answer is given because none is needed… He’s the One who does what only God can do.  Listen to Psalm 107: 28-30, "Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven."  Jesus does the same things that God does.  I kind of shake my head at the weather casters who say things like, “Tomorrow we’re going to bring you a perfect 74 degree day…and we’ll keep it that way for you into next week," as if they had any power over the weather.  Do you notice that when the forcast is bad…they always blame “mother nature”!  On the other hand, I do believe that the Master of storms, sunsets, and solar flares does intend for us to exercise authority over the things that terrify us in his name...

I met a guy yesterday who told me he had been a methamphetamine addict, but was now clean and attending the same church where this free health screening and legal aid clinic was being held.  He told me that before he met Christ, he had been sleeping for an hour a day for more than a year, high on meth. Incredibly, he was a taxi and limo driver, and was working while doing drugs.  Then one day, while driving a woman in his limo, she asked him a question.  “Are you on something?”  He admitted the he was.  “May I pray for you?” she asked.  “Yes, I need help.  I’m afraid of what this is doing to my life.” So the woman started to pray that God would deliver him from this addiction at replace that addiction with his Holy Spirit.  He told me that 24 hours later, the next time he was offered some drugs, he said, “I don’t want you to bring this here again.”  He told me that he had lost all desire for it… and that he has been clean for four years now.  Jesus calmed the storm in his life, he told me.

Matthew tells us that the disciples were in awe.  Actually, the word is stronger than "awe."  It actually says that they were afraid.  Matthew uses the Greek word phobos here!  But this was a different kind of fear than the fear they had of the storm.  This was the fear and awe and reverence that is due God himself.  And that’s a good thing, because when we fear the Lord, we don’t have to be afraid of anything else.  How long has it been since you felt a healthy fear of the Lord…since Jesus’ presence made your jaw drop and your knees buckle?!  The bigger our Jesus is, the smaller our fears will be! 

Just to let you know, I did survive that near drowning in Lake Cachuma, and so did everyone else. I know you were worried!  A yacht finally pulled up to us and a guy leaned over the railing and yelled, “Do you guys need some help?”  We had to think about that for a minute...all 72 of us.   As it turned out he, and some other private boats, dragged our shell to shore where we carefully emptied the water, and then rowed to the finish line.   Jesus and his disciples reached their destination too.  They didn’t turn back after He came to their rescue, they kept rowing to the other side where he had a mission for them to accomplish.  That's because Jesus wants to unshackle us from fear and free us up to be about his kingdom work.  Fear may be a storm-tossed feeling, but faith is an unsinkable decision to trust in the One who cannot fail us.  In that spirit of courageous faith I want to sum up some biblical principles under the word PEACEFUL that I and my wife Lisa (a Marriage & Family Therapist) have found helpful for addressing fear (with thanks to Max Lucado's book, Fearless, which we expanded upon here):

1. Pray first.  Instead of panicking first, ask “Lord, what are you inviting me to learn, practice, or see in this situation?” (1 Peter 5:7)
2. Easy, now. Invite your body to slow down, take some deep breaths, take a walk, release the anxiety (Psalm 37: 7, 1 Timothy 4:8).
3. Act on it.  Take one small first step to address the problem.  Consult an expert.  Don’t wonder, ask.  Be a doer, not a stewer.  (Matt. 25: 14-28)
4. Compile a gratitude journal. What are you grateful for? In times of anxiety and worry it helps to recount our blessings (Psalm 103: 1-5)
5. Envision something beautiful, uplifting, or praiseworthy! (Phil.4:8-9).  Paul challenges us to intentionally “think about” what lifts up and builds up.
6. Focus on today.  Instead of living in the past or in the future, “Be here now!” God meets daily needs. (Matt.6:34; Heb. 4:16)
7. Unleash God’s worry army.  Share your feelings with a few loved ones or a Christian counselor. Ask for their prayers and help (1 Thess. 5:25)
8. Let Jesus be your Shepherd (Psalm 23; Phil. 4: 6-7). This he promises to be!

Let Jesus be your Shepherd through every dark valley and dark hallway…let Jesus be your Shepherd in every anxious waiting room, and classroom.  Let Jesus be your Shepherd through every failure and financial meltdown.  Let Jesus be your Shepherd  as you await a new baby, pray for a new kidney, or move to a new city.  Let Jesus be your Shepherd from storm-tossed fear to unsinkable faith; from birth to death and on to eternal life…for He loved you with his own life, and as you trust in Him, no one will be able to snatch you out of his hand.

King Jesus, I confess my many fears: the fear of life’s storms, the fear of failure, the fear of not having enough, the fear of losing control, the fear of looking foolish, the fear of not being popular, the fear that my secrets will be exposed, the fear of sickness and death, the fear of punishment for my many sins. I have heard the promise of your transforming love, a love which is stronger than my fears. Thank you that while fear is a feeling, faith is a decision: a decision to walk through the storms hand in hand with your people; a decision to trust You even when you seem distant; a decision to ask for help; a decision to live in gratitude for every blessing, beginning with the blessing of knowing You. Therefore I invite you, Risen Lord, to cast out my sin and fear, and to occupy my heart with your invincible, loving presence. Fill me now with your Holy Spirit so that I may serve you faithfully, in fellowship with your other disciples, forever!  Amen

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What is our place in the cosmos? [The Bible's Greatest Questions]

There are times in life when we stop to ask ourselves, “What is my place?” “What is the purpose of my life?” We may ask that question as we’re about to graduate from high school, or while facing a big birthday, or gazing into the night sky, as Lisa and I did this summer together at a mountain retreat center…the same place I used to gaze with awe into the starry sky as a teenager and pray.  Psalm 8 expresses the timeless question of every human heart: “What is my place in the cosmos?” It’s a question, as we will see, that can only be answered by the majesty of God, and the magnificent purpose for which God made us.

(i) Let’s begin at the very center of Psalm 8 where King David gives voice to "The mystery of you and me and the universe" (3-4) “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them” (3-4)?  
In his book, Prayer: Does it Make a Difference? Philip Yancey quips: 

"If the Milky Way galaxy were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup.... (An astrophysicist I know at a major university assures me he's right.) Even now, two Voyager spacecraft are hurtling toward the edge of the solar system at a rate of 100,000 miles per hour. For 35 years now they have been speeding away from Earth, now soon to pass the boundaries of our solar system after traveling 11.1 billion miles. When engineers beam a command to the spacecraft at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), it typically takes 16 hours to arrive! Yet this vast neighborhood of our sun - the size of a coffee cup sitting somewhere near the edge of N. America—is only one among several hundred billion other solar systems in the Milky Way. And, the Milky Way is only one of perhaps 400 billion other such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take more than 16 hours…it would take 15 billion years."
David must confess that he feels very small… “What is a human being in all of this?” Some have answered that question like Carl Sagan: “As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” That is certainly one possible response…but is there another? Are there reasons and is there revelation that could point us to a different answer? And to that, David would offer a resounding, YES!” There is a God who is mindful of us, who cares for us, and who has a special place for us in this awe-inspiring universe.

(ii) David invites us first to consider "The majesty and humility of God" (1-2)  How is it that we can come to know God with confidence? What is this God like, and how can we know his will for our lives? David begins, “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”

David does not begin by giving us logical proofs for the existence of God. Instead, he introduces us to the God who has revealed himself to humankind by name, personally and historically. In Hebrew the name signifies character and essence. God is “the LORD” (The name that means something like “I am…the One who will be there for you as I am”) This LORD, is truly our adonai, our “sovereign” or “governor.” This is the One who has been in charge all along, despite the long succession of earthly emperors, kings, czars, premiers, governors, prime ministers and presidents. This November, our Lord’s name will not be on the ballot…and yet it is the Holy One who is truly in charge.

So God has made himself known to us personally…in salvation history but he has also revealed himself cosmically through the things that have been made. For David said, “You have set your glory above the heavens.” And Paul writes in Rom. 1:20 that “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature…have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” In what ways does the universe point us to God’s existence. Here are just four ways…

1. We live in a dependent universe. From our own lives, to the planet, sun, moon and stars…we learn in our science classrooms that everything is dependent or contingent upon something else for its existence. Indeed all the matter and energy of the universe was, if scientists are correct, concentrated in a space no bigger than the period made by a pencil at the moment of creation. This naturally raises the question: upon what or who does this universe, and all possible universes, depend?

2. We live in a universe that is amazingly fine-tuned for life. Our universe had to have just the right molecules, and just the right number of atoms, nucleons, electrons and protons for life to exist. Let’s take the ratio of electrons to the number of protons in our universe. They must be equivalent in number to an accuracy of one part in 1037 or better. If our universe did not have such a fine tuned ratio, galaxies, stars, and planets would never have formed. Here’s an analogy from astrophysicist Hugh Ross: "Cover the entire North American continent with dimes all the way up to the moon, a height of 239,000 miles. Next, pile dimes from here to the moon on a billion other continents the same size as North America. Paint one dime red and mix it into the billion piles of dimes. Blindfold a friend and ask him to pick out one dime. The odds that he will pick the red dime are one in 1037 -- and this is only one of the parameters that is so delicately balanced to allow life to form" (Hugh Ross, The Creator & the Cosmos).  Michael Turner, the widely quoted astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, describes the fine-tuning of the cosmos this way: "The precision is as if one could throw a dart across the entire universe and hit a bulls eye one millimeter in diameter on the other side!" 

3. You and I live in an indescribably beautiful universe… at every level of magnification, from the DNA molecule to the gigantic nebula and star clusters, to the cry of “babes and infants” – we feel bathed in the exquisite beauty of the universe. At the same time, the destructive power of the universe humbles us, and – like its extreme beauty -- causes us to seek answers which the universe cannot supply. World-renowned geneticist Francis Collins was led to Christ through the questions of a suffering patient that he couldn’t answer…then by the brilliance of Christian writer C.S. Lewis…but the final turning point came as he was hiking through the Cascades: “the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.” 

4. Finally, as amazing as our universe is, we live in an unsatisfying universe. On Monday, Felix Baumgartner will attempt to jump from a high altitude balloon 120k miles up. Jumping from a capsule in his special pressurized space suit at 5:00am he will travel 700 miles per hour, becoming the first free-falling human to break the sound barrier. Now, he’s already jumped an altitude of 71k and 96k. How come he isn’t satisfied? Why risk his life? It seems that nothing can satisfy his thirst to do more and experience more. Plato once said we are like “leaky jars.”  It’s as though you and I were containers into which things are always being poured but which never get filled! The fact that there is nothing in this universe that can satisfy those desires suggests that we were made for another world, that we have desires for meaning and purpose that only a relationship with God can satisfy.

And so, without the knowledge of the Creator, our sense of purpose and meaning is truly lost. In fact we ourselves are “lost” as Carl Sagan once said, “lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of the universe.” But where reason falls short, God’s revelation sets us free; for the Holy One made the biggest free-fall in the history of time and space when he descended from heaven to earth in Christ that he might raise us up again with Him to the magnificence for which we were created.

(iii) "The recovery of our magnificent purpose" (5-9)  As we look into the night sky we see something extraordinary…we see a vast something that was once an infinitely small nothing. We see order and beauty where there was once…chaos. This is a clue to our magnificent purpose. For David says that “you have made [us] a little lower than God, and crowned [us] with glory and honor. You have given [us] dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under [our] feet….” 
It is a sign of our brokenness as human beings that some of us act like we are “a little higher than God” while others of us think we are “a little lower than the beasts of the field”! Neither is the truth…for Scripture says we are “a little lower than God” – that is, God has given us the divine qualities of purposefulness, creativity, intelligence, and the capacity to rule and especially to love sacrificially. Just as God has brought order and beauty out of chaos, so we are to have “dominion over the works of [God’s] hands” (6), carrying out this responsibility with him as co-agents (Genesis 1.28; 2.15). This was God’s plan, but as we mistrusted God and distanced ourselves from him, our rule was corrupted. Now the reason God sent his Son to this world was to restore us to our royal position as sons and daughters of the King, “crowned with glory and honor.” He came to show us and to empower us to have dominion, to bring order where there is chaos, beauty where there is ugliness, life where there is only death. Did you know that each of you has been called in this life to special areas of authority and dominion? 

The psalmist says that our dominion was to extend over “all things.” Some of you were brought into this world to rise up and have dominion over the epidemic of fragmented family life…still others over the destructive cycle of child abuse. Others of you are called to have dominion over dishonesty and a lack of integrity in business. Still others are called to have dominion over diseases like cancer, or poverty or injustice… others over the destruction and degradation of the natural world. And all of us are called to be vessels through which Christ is extending his rule and reign over the human spirit, bringing his grace, and peace and the gift of eternal life. 

We began with a question, “What is our place in the cosmos?” We’ve seen that it is a question that can only be answered by the majesty of God and the magnificent purpose for which we were created. Science and unaided human reason cannot answer this question. It is a knowledge that comes from outside ourselves… from the One who made us and is calling us to follow him…the voice we hear in the brilliant light of a billion stars, or the sound of a thundering waterfall, or the miracle of a tiny baby…and the voice of the crucified and risen Christ who gave his life for us and says, “Come, follow me!”  He invites you to do today what Francis Collins did, as he was hiking through the Cascades… to kneel down in the grass with the sunrise and surrender your heart, soul, mind and strength to Him. Knowing that “God so loved this seemingly insignificant, lost, and forgotten world, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  

Eternal God, how full of glory and majesty you are.  For it was You who formed the inconceivable vastness of our universe, made possible the splendor of an ocean sunset, the magnificence of a thundering waterfall, the awesome complexity of our own bodies, so finely tuned, and the wondrous beauty of a child.  In all these ways and more, we recognize Your infinite brilliance and generosity, and the immeasurable gift of our lives.  Yet even more wonderful, is the knowledge that You are not remote or unfeeling, but drew near to us in Christ, revealing your mind and heart in flesh and blood. You emptied yourself of glory in order to show us the way to abundant and eternal life, defeating the power of sin, death, and hell on the cross, and rising from death on the Third Day.  From this day forth, may we know our place in the longer insignificant, lost, or forgotten, but welcomed into the bright presence of the Creator, and now members of your forever family...through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

For further reading:
Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a PostModern World
Francis Collins, The Language of God
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in the Age of Science
Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Is God Among Us or Not? [The Bible's Greatest Questions]

Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) is a mild mannered news-beat reporter facing a midlife meltdown. In one afternoon, the anchor desk position he deserved goes to his arrogant rival, Evan.  Then Bruce makes a fool of himself during a live on-the-air news report, and is fired. His car is vandalized, and when he attempts to save a vagrant from harassment, the gang turns on him and beats him up.  Finally, Bruce returns to his apartment and recounts the events of the day to his girlfriend, Grace. He is angry with his boss, his life, the injustice of the world, and most of all Bruce is angry with God!
    GRACE (gently): “Well, thank God you’re all right.”
    BRUCE (snorting): “God…yeah, let’s thank God, shall we? From whom blessings are raining down upon me!”
    GRACE: Later… “Stop being a martyr Bruce…” 
    BRUC: “I am not being a martyr. I am a victim. God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass, and I am the ant. God could have fixed my life in 5 minutes if he wanted to, but he’d rather burn off my feelers and watch me squirm.”
    GRACE (empathically): “Sweetheart, I know you’re mad. It’s understandable. What Evan did is slimy and wrong, but this day could’ve been so much worse. I’m just glad you’re okay.
    BRUCE (interrupting): “Okay? News flash! I’m not okay. I’m not okay with a mediocre job! I’m not okay with a mediocre apartment! I’m not okay with a mediocre life!”
    GRACE (hurt): “So is that what you think we have? A mediocre life?”
    BRUCE: “Perfect. Perfect…I’ll have the worst day of my life with a side order of guilt, please!” 

When bad things happen, we may be tempted to question God’s existence, or God’s goodness.  As Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt he not only had to face his own reservations about such a monumental undertaking, he had to face the skepticism of his fellow Israelites.  As they faced hunger and thirst, they questioned the goodness of God’s plan, asking Moses, “Is God among us or not?”  In Exodus 17:1-14, the response of the LORD to this situation reveals how we can overcome our own doubts, and the disbelief of those around us…

(i) Ask God for help.  So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” – Exodus 17: 4.  In the pages of Scripture, we find that God is very honest with us…that God expresses his love for us, his will for our lives, his disappointment and sadness when we disregard him, his joy when even one runaway son or daughter returns to him. 
Not only that, but God seems to appreciate our honesty as well. Moses has some of the most honest exchanges with God in the Bible.  When the LORD sends him to Pharoah, his first response is, “Why me Lord?  Please pick someone else!”  Elijah asks God to take away his life in the face of his adversaries (1 Kings 19: 4); and the Psalmist cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Psalm 22:1).  We can come to God with our deepest questions and complaints.  

Yet when Moses says to God, “What shall I do with this people?” he seems more burdened by the doubts of others than his own.  We live in a culture that does not always affirm our deepest convictions.  I know that there were times as a student in which I felt surrounded by skepticism and doubt. The point is that whether the doubts and questions come from within, or whether we feel surrounded and even attacked by the skepticism of others, we can go to God and ask as Moses did: “What should I do?”  I have found that when I’ve asked God for help in the face of doubts, he has always helped me…and what that help looks like is what we’re talking about today.

(ii) Stay on course.  We read in v. 1 that the Israelites are encamped at Rephedim, which is the last stop before their destination:  Mount Sinai (also known Horeb where the Torah is given, see also Num.33:15).  In other words, they were almost there, but doubts and disbelief once again threatened to delay them or derail them. In response to Moses’ question, “What should I do?” God says, “Go on ahead of the people….I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb…” – Exodus 17: 5, 6.  “Go on ahead of the people….”  Go where?  Toward the “Rock at Horeb” which is synonymous with the Sinai area.  The point is that the LORD was telling Moses to advance toward Sinai, not retreat; to continue according to plan (see Ex. 3: 12) with one variation…they would see the LORD standing on a Rock.

Here is a principle to live by: When you are filled with doubts or questions, unsure of which way to go, continue doing the last thing that God told you to do.  Moses knew that he was to advance toward Sinai, which is what he continued to do by faith.  In the same way, don’t rush ahead, wait on him, stay in relationship to Him, and know that as always he goes before you, that he is your Solid Rock when it feels like you’re on shifting sand. There are 20 references to God as our Rock in the Hebrew Scriptures alone.  In Psalm 18:2 we read, The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.  And Paul writes that this Rock at Horeb was a foreshadowing of Christ himself who would feed us with the Bread of Life and the Living Water.  For They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” – 1 Cor. 10:1-4. When you’re not sure what to do…stay on course, continue walking according to his word, remain faithful to him, and know that he goes before you just as Jesus said to Mary, “Go tell my disciples that I am going before them to Galilee, there they will see me.” 

(iii) Consult the wise and experiencedNotice that Moses is not to go alone as he battles the skepticism of his people and perhaps some of his own reservations. “…Take some of the elders of Israel with you” says the LORD  - Exodus 17: 5 Who do you take with you when you’re in trouble?  When you’re going to the hospital?  When you need help studying for an exam? When you’re going to the altar on your wedding day?   When you’re doubting or afraid?  When you’re grieving or lonely or need a friend who will listen? Moses took some of the elders…and Jesus took three of his disciples on the night of his arrest to pray. 

Do you have a short list…of trusted friends with whom you can confide…do you have someone you can take with you, to encourage you, to listen to you, to pray for you?  That’s one of the reasons God has placed us together in his Body, the Church…so that we don’t have to go it alone! My Lifegroup is a small group of pastors that I have known for more than 30 years now.  We meet twice a year.  We all became pastors around the same time.  When we need advice or prayer, we know we can call one another and ask for that.  Just this last week I had the opportunity to help one of my dearest friends and a brother in Christ…and it was an honor, and honor to be asked to journey with him, just as he has helped me on so many occasions as well.  Prov. 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another!”  Believe it.

(iv) Fourth, Put yourself in the place where faith is possibleWhen we’re struggling with doubt we sometimes pray, “Lord give me more faith, and I will serve you.”  “Lord, take away my doubts, and then I will be able to obey you.”  But in order for God to answer this prayer we must put ourselves in "the situation where faith is possible" (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, New York: MacMillan, 1963, p. 72) the place where faith is expressed in action, and only the power of God’s command is enough to sustain us!  God told Moses, “Take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go…Strike the rock and water will come out of it!” – Exodus 17: 5, 6 God was telling Moses to put himself in the place where faith is possible…the place where he had to trust in what only God could do!   

You see, we want to “trust God more,” but we don’t want to have to “risk anything more” either.  There’s a powerful story where the disciples are in a fishing boat in the middle of a storm.  That’s when they see Jesus walking toward them on the water.  Peter, always the first to open his mouth says, “Lord if it is you, bid me to come out on the water with you.”  Jesus says, “Come!” We can imagine Peter’s next thought, “Now you’ve done it, Peter.  Why did you have to open your big mouth again.”  Peter did not know what would happen when he placed his foot on the water…but he could guess based on past experience as a fisherman.  That was the place for Peter where faith was really necessary.  It was not faith in his own faith, but faith in Jesus’ empowering command…he stepped out and walked toward his Lord through the waves. Do we really want a deeper assurance that God is among us, and near us?  Then we must put ourselves in the place where faith is possible.  Trust God as he gives us an assignment that only he can accomplish.   

Just the other day I was dealing with a situation that was truly testing my faith… I was losing hope.  It was a God-sized problem that only the Lord could solve.  But I saw a miracle where I wasn’t expecting one, I saw healing where I didn’t think healing was possible, and I saw the Peace of Christ rest upon a situation which was full of contention and strife and conflict.  Praise the Lord…for his miracles which daily increase my faith.

(v) Tell your story to the next generation.  “[Moses] called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” – Exodus 17: 7. We might be tempted to skip over this last verse…as a kind of minor epilogue to the story.  Moses names the place where water came from the rock.  No big deal.  The real story was the miracle itself, right?  Well yes…and no.  The naming of that place was a way of impressing it forever upon Israel’s consciousness, a reminder that this was where Israel’s doubts and questions were answered, “Is God among us or not?”  Answer: “Yes!”  It’s so easy to plead with God for some situation, and then when it is fixed to our satisfaction…to move on as if it never happened.  When the crisis is over, and we don’t need God anymore, we go on our merry way. Who would treat a friend like that?  A friend that we only call upon in a crisis and then ignore the moment the crisis is over.  Friends, when God speaks or acts, we need to write it down and share it with others…whether God has worked a mighty miracle, or given us his unshakeable word to guide us.

Several times in Israel’s history, men and women set up memorial stones to remind them and all who passed by of God’s great provision.  In Gen. 35:14, Jacob set up a pillar where God had spoken and revealed himself to him and called the place Bethel (House of God).  In 1 Samuel 7:12, Samuel sets up a stone and called it, Ebenezer, or “Stone of Help” because it was there that the Lord helped his people again.  In Psalm 77: 11 we read,I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.  

How many of you have asked God for help, when you were surrounded by doubt and disbelief?  Who are those among us who knew that they had to stay on course…that they had to keep trusting in God though they couldn’t see what the future held, for He alone has the words of Eternal life?  Who here has taken some elders along for the journey, brothers and sisters wiser than you who could help you through a time of testing?   How many of you have been given a God-sized assignment that could only be accomplished with the Lord’s help…and found him faithful?  And how many of you have set up a Stone of Remembrance…have told your story of faith to the next generation and those around you.  If you trust in the LORD our Rock and our Savior today stand up today wherever you are reading this…stand on your feet today…give a testimony today to the next generation, and say together with me, “God is among us.  The Lord is among us indeed!”  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen!  

Mighty Savior, we confess today our doubts and fears and our anemic faith. Thank you for your patience with us in times of questioning and disbelief. For hearing us when we cry to you “Why Lord?” and “Where are you?” For giving us the Rock of your word to stand on and to direct our path when the way seems unclear. For sending us those who are wiser and more experienced than we are, who can help us to see you when things seem unclear. For giving us God-sized assignments in which we discover your presence and power again. Lord Jesus, our faith is not in our faith, our reason, or our goodness, but in You: the Alpha and the Omega, the Rock, the Wellspring of eternal life!  Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Am I my brother's keeper? [The Bible's Greatest Questions]

Why should we care about our brothers or sisters, let alone neighbors, co-workers or classmates?  Why not simply focus on our own needs and concerns and let others take care of themselves? In the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4: 1-16), God asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” to which Cain defensively replies, “How should I know; am I my brother’s keeper?” I sympathize with Cain in a way.  Am I supposed to be everyone’s baby-sitter?  Before we try to answer that question too quickly we need to know three things:

(i) We need to know who our brothers and sisters are… (4.1-2) The most obvious thing about these first few verses is that it is the story of a family.  That interrelatedness of the entire human family and its relatedness to God is a presupposition of the biblical story and it’s also the perspective of science.  We’ve known for decades now from DNA evidence that all human beings living on earth today are biologically related to a common ancestor (Eph. 3: 14-15). But Scripture is not just interested in our biological relatedness – it also says that we are spiritually related…because we have each been given the breath of life by God and created to reflect God’s image.

This is important to keep in mind, because though we may be biologically and spiritually related to every other person on this planet…our experience tells us that pride, resentment, and jealousy have often driven us apart.  Take Cain and Abel…When Eve gives birth to her first son she names him “Cain” which sounds like the word “acquire” or “get” in Hebrew as when Eve says, “I have “gotten” a man with the help of the Lord.”  The name may imply strength and self-reliance. Abel’s name, on the other hand, is related to a word meaning “nothingness,” or “frailty.”  We can’t say for sure, but it’s possible Cain represents the proud, self-reliant one who cared nothing about his “frail,” “nothing” of a younger brother.  My point is that sometimes we would be just as happy not to be related.  Something like what President Obama and former President George W. Bush must have been thinking when they discovered through the New England Genealogical Society that they were 10th cousins once removed!  But isn’t that just like God?!

So who is my brother or sister? You may be sharing a room or a cubicle at work, living across the street from them, sitting next to them in class, or saw him on the street asking for a handout.  He may have cleaned your teeth on Wed., given you too much homework on Friday, or fought you for a parking place on Sat.  And though you may wish some of your brothers and sisters were only 10th cousins… the fact that you’re related to them is a truth you can’t deny.  Why we should care about them, though, is what we need to understand!

(ii) We need to know why we should be their keeper… (4. 3-7) Because caring for others is an act of true worship.  Jesus told us that there are two great commandments, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  When Cain and Abel brought their offerings, they were coming together to worship God.  God is honored by our love for him…but he is equally honored by our love for each other.  When Cain demonstrated hatred for his brother, he was showing hatred for God as well.

Our actions often reveal the attitude of our hearts.  Abel brought the firstlings of his flock (There are many references to the offering of firstfruits to God in the Mosaic law.  See, for example, Exodus 23:19), but Cain appears to have brought an ordinary offering of the fruit of the ground.  Abel brought his best to God – a gift that cost him something – while Cain appears to have brought whatever he could find.  Did Cain show half-heartedness toward God with his offering?  We can’t say for sure, but what we can say is that he was heartless toward his brother and enslaved by anger; and if he was heartless toward his brother, he could not have been wholehearted toward God. Jesus once said that if we come to the altar with a gift, and remember that our brother has something against us, we should leave our gift at the altar and go and reconcile with our brother and then return to offer our gift (Matt. 5: 21-26).  In other words worship is dangerous…because being on God’s team is not just about singing songs, saying our prayers and listening to sermons…it’s also about being able to say to one another and to those who are not here, “I’ve got your back!”  I’m your defender and your team member for the sake of Christ!

I think it’s interesting that even though quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers are the ones who receive the most headlines in the NFL today, it’s actually the left tackles who grab the second highest paycheck. In Michael Lewis’ book, The Blind Side, he explains the importance of these anonymous, but essential, offensive linemen. He traces their emerging importance back to the injury of star quarterback Joe Theismann.  On a Monday Night in 1985 more than 17 million people watched as an incredibly athletic linebacker named Lawrence Taylor blindsided Theismann, breaking his leg and ending his career at age 36.  By the way, Theismann has never blamed Taylor for this injury.  But back to the left tackle.  Since most QB’s are right handed, the main role of the left tackle is to prevent his quarterback from being hit from behind, unseen. And it takes a special person to do it. Left tackles must weigh more than 300 pounds and have long arms to block, but they must also be quick on their feet. Today, teams are willing to pay for such a player.  Only starting quarterbacks earn more than the left tackle today. The role of the left tackle is literally to be his "brother's keeper."  So again, why should we be our brother’s keeper ?  Because that’s simply what being on God’s team means…to honor God by looking out for our team mates, watching their backs, honoring them and keeping them well.  But let’s try to be more specific, because beyond knowing who our brothers and sisters are and why we should be their keeper…

(iii) We need to know how to “keep” them well… (4. 8-16, 25-26) It’s certain that Cain is not our model for how to “keep” or “watch over” our brothers and sisters well.  But what would coming in the opposite spirit look like? 

First, it means that we value our brother or sister’s life!  In Hebrew thought, the life of a person is in the blood…so when Cain shed his brother’s blood he was not only disregarding his life, but taking something that belonged to God alone.  Jim Wallis was speaking to Christian students about the intersection of faith and politics one day when “A young woman stood and said “4,000 lives were lost today because of abortion. How can I vote on any other issue than that?” Another responded, “Fair enough, but 9,000 lives were lost because of HIV/AIDS. What about them? And a third said 30,000 children died today because of needless disease and poverty.”  All this is to say that we can be selective about what life or whose life we care about when as Christians we need to be consistently life affirming…I realize that can sound overwhelming.  This brings us back to the question I first posed at the beginning of this message: Does caring about every life mean I am called to be everyone’s babysitter…which is the way E. Peterson translates Cain’s sarcastic response to God’s question. I think we can say, “No” – unless of course we’re talking about an actual baby.  But then what is my responsibility?

I think that from Cain’s negative example, we can say that keeping our brother does not mean babysitting them, but empowering them to use their unique gifts and capacities as human beings.   As Christians we do this by (1) loving people where they are, (2) inviting them to follow Christ, (3) helping them see their God-given uniqueness, and (4) equipping them to use their gifts to God’s glory.  This is something Cain could not do…he was too filled with jealousy and resentment to value his brother’s extraordinary offering.   When we don’t appreciate the contributions of others…we’re really treating them like “nothings.” Now let’s be honest, it is hard sometimes to rejoice in the gifts that others have that we wish were our own…to celebrate the successes of others while we wait on the sidelines.  Yet God calls me to accept and cherish not only my own gifts, but the unique gifts and contributions of those around me.

While some of our students were on skid row yesterday sharing food and love with the homeless, I had the opportunity to sit in a Presbytery meeting.  On the way I was sure that being on skid row with those students was where I should have been.  I was surprised to find out that the meeting was actually focused on organizations that are addressing homelessness in our city.  One of these was Union Rescue Mission, directed by Andy Bales.  What a man of Christ-like compassion... This organization has nearly 400 guests on any given day…and almost half of these are children or teens.  Certainly they provide food and shelter, but they also offer sobriety and recovery classes, counseling for grief and loss, P.E. classes for the body and what Andy calls “Life Transformation Programs” where the focus is on making disciples of Jesus and productive members of society.  It’s a long, tough road, but one man was there to speak of that trans-formation. He said, “Jesus is the one who changed my life, but it is his people who helped me become a man.  Truly, God is a God of second chances.”  Andy and others recognized the value of his life, helped him to grow and take responsibility as a man, and to identify and use his gifts for the sake of Christ.

Is there someone whose unique gifts and special contributions God is calling you to honor rather than resent, whose life God is calling you to cherish and even protect, or who our Lord is calling you to invite into God’s family as your brother or sister in Christ?  God is challenging us to come in the opposite spirit of Cain (1) by recognizing who our brothers and sisters are (not only here, but out there), (2) by understanding that why we love them is that it’s the highest expression of our love for God; and that (3) how we do this is to encourage others to use their unique gifts to the glory of God. 

Gracious Lord, you have shown me that you care about where I am in relation to you; but also that you care about where my brothers and sisters are…and that you want me to share that concern.  Help me to turn from any attitude or action which is preventing me from caring about others in practical ways…whether chronic busyness, a self-centered focus, petty jealousies or bitter resentments. Help me to see in those around me the reflection of your sacred image – one you’ve called me to honor and care for without coddling, and who is potentially my brother or sister in your Forever Family. Now may this be the demonstration of my loyalty and devotion to you – that I love even those I once called “the least of these,” just as you have loved me.  Amen.