Joseph-the Dilemma of Doubt

We are using the SkitGuys Christmas series entitled “Christmas Dilemma.”  Sunday, December 9 2018 we focused on Joseph and his struggle with doubt.  

Matthew 1:18-25

Last week we looked at Mary and her dilemma of saying yes.  Saying yes to God is not always easy, nor convenient.  Her reputation with her church, family and future husband were on the line.  How do you explain away an unexpected pregnancy? Yet she took God at His word and believed the angel Gabriel.  Remember the name Gabriel means “Warrior of God.”  God was declaring war against sin and death through the birth of His Son, through God’s entrance into our world as a baby.  Unbelievable?  Yes!  But believe it.  God was on the move!  God is still on the move!

Today we are considering Joseph and his dilemma of doubt.  Doubt in two senses.  First of all he doubted what we call the virgin birth.  Wouldn’t you?!  

“Mary, that is a great story.  You are pregnant.  It is not my child.  And, sure, you say it is a miracle—a God thing!  Right!  An angel told you it is the child of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Mary, I love you, but this is crazy.  Sorry.  I cannot do this. I cannot trust you anymore.”

Joseph was a kind, gentle man.  He didn’t want to embarrass Mary, so he determined to quietly dissolve their marriage contract—and yes betrothal meant married—just not a sexually consummated relationship yet.  

But—and this is a big but—he wrestled with what to do!  He tossed and turned.  He talked to himself.  He shouted at God.  And finally decided to “absorb the problem himself.  Absolve Mary.  Let her keep the dowry and promissory money, but not marry her nor publicly disgrace her.  After he decided this he was able to finally lie down and get some shut eye.  Now that he had reached his decision he sleeps.  

And as he sleeps an angel of the Lord appears to him with an incredible message that changes his mind.  

Have you ever had that happen.  You wrestle with something for hours, trying to sleep but cannot because your thoughts are spinning and turning in your mind.  You toss and turn.  Then when you are finally able to sleep your subconscious mind continues to process your problem and — wallah! A solution pops into your brain.  You wake up and you have a workable solution to your nightmare problem.  

This was not Joseph’s subconscious mind at work however.  It was God.  God on the move.  God through an angelic messenger telling Joseph the exact same thing Mary had told him.  The child is not another man’s child.  The child is God’s Child—God’s Son, conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Nothing is impossible with God.

Joseph doubted the virgin birth.  Those among us who doubt the virgin birth should feel some comfort here.  You are in good company.  Yet, think of this.  Joseph came to believe the virgin birth as God’s intervention, a God thing caused by God’s Spirit.  We may not have a direct messenger from God convincing us, but we have Joseph’s account, and plenty of scriptures supporting the concept of the Incarnation—God coming to us in human flesh through the miracle of conception by the Holy Spirit.  

Once Joseph is able to overcome the doubt of Mary’s pregnancy, he then has to struggle with his doubt about how worthy he is to raise God’s Son.  How do you do that?  How does a simple carpenter raise a king?  How do you raise God’s Son?  Joseph felt inadequate, unworthy.  

I doubted my ability to raise my two sons.  Still do.  Yet God entrusted Joseph with His Son.  And I believe he did a great job.  None of us are perfect parents.  We do the best we can, and pray for God’s grace and help in the process.  And, accept His forgiveness when we fall short.  But we never stop parenting or loving.  

God’s plans for us is not easy. We bungle it enough times.  We make mistakes. We are human.  Yet God does not quit on us.  God doesn’t let us quit.  God entrusts the message of salvation to us.  God, through the Holy Spirit and through His Son Jesus lives in us and through us.  

God says, “I know the plans I have for you…” Jeremiah 29:11.  God is able to use us to help other find and experience the love and grace of God.  God used Joseph and Mary.  God even spoke through a donkey once in the Old Testament.  God can speak through us too.  And remember, actions speak louder than words.  Be kind.  Be patient.  Be forgiving.  Point to Jesus and what He did for us through His coming to us as a babe who lived and died for us in our place, and rose again so that we could live the new life.  

I am glad Mary said yes to God.  I am glad Joseph overcame his doubt and took his part in God’s pan also.  You and I can follow suit.  We can live as forgiven believers pointing to Jesus, God’s Son, Savior of the world.  God give us courage and grace to do so.  Amen.

Stand Up! Speak Up! Sit Down!

text:  Jeremiah 1:4-10 & 7:1-11

summary statement:  

The purpose of the church is not the church itself, but the world.  We are the body of Christ for the sake of the world.  God calls us to be actively engaged in living our faith out loud, caring for the world, especially those most vulnerable.  

First of all, a couple of quotes.

“All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”  – Abraham Lincoln

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” When you know something is wrong, but you don’t speak up, you become part of the problem.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln 

God is calling Jeremiah to “stand up and speak up.” Today we all need to stand up and be counted, to speak out. Just as true, we need to learn when to “shut up,”  when to sit down and give it a rest.  

Speaking up for God?  Who does that these days!  

Too many of us presume to speak on God’s behalf, yet in the process are merely spouting our own ideas. Rather than speaking for God, we are trumpeting our own views.  The result is we recreate God in our image, as if God were in complete agreement with us and our thoughts.  

How do we avoid that trap? By slowing down and listening; by being humble students of Scripture; by approaching God’s Word with prayer and asking for guidance.  By examining and challenging our assumptions and being willing to adjust and change as we listen and learn.  

This reading from Jeremiah has two focuses.  The first is God’s call to Jeremiah when he was still young and inexperienced. Jeremiah felt inadequate.  He felt intimidated.  Like other prophets, and us, he was hoping God would call on someone else to speak up for God.  Second, God tells Jeremiah to confront the people with their hypocrisy.  They need to examine their lives and live their faith out loud—caring for others in their midst; caring for the weak and vulnerable. 

God’s opening comment to Jeremiah is about God knowing him even before birth, even before conception. This is not talking about what some call “pre-existance” — the idea that we were hanging around somewhere in heaven or space waiting to be given a human body.  

Another concept that this touches on is “predestination.”  Does God predestine us in such a way that we have no will, no choice of our own?  That our lives are all planned out and predetermined in advance—like fatalism?  

God has a plan for each and every one of us.  Jeremiah was called by God, even before birth.  Jeremiah’s life purpose was God ordained.  Yet Jeremiah had choices and freedom in how he responded.   God is not a puppeteer, controlling and manipulating us according to some mysterious plan.  That is an inaccurate picture of the loving God of the Bible we have come to know through Jesus.  

A hermeneutical principle (hermeneutics is the science of interpreting and understanding the Bible) is that our interpretation must be understood within the context of Scripture. When we read the Bible we need to always keep the bigger picture in view and not let the confusing smaller pieces throw us off.  

God’s plan is not as specific as some might try to understand it.  Who to marry, where to live, where to go to school, what type of job to pursue, etc.  God gives us a fair amount of latitude in life and life’s choices.  

But God does get quite specific in how we live, how we care for ourselves and for each other.  The Ten Commandments is quite tangible in showing us how to live a life of love in our relationship with God and with ourselves. 

God’s plan does not just mean living a good and moral life.  None of us can do that adequately.  None of us can live and love well enough on our own.  We need help.  We need mercy and grace.  God’s plan centers on Jesus.  We need Jesus who is God-come-to-us in human flesh for the sake of saving and changing us, and for the sake of reaching all people.

God had us in mind even before the creation of the world.  The Apostle Paul tells us that God’s plan for saving us through Jesus was put into place even before the world was created. 

“Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be His through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before Him.”(Ephesians 1:4)

God had each of us in mind when Jesus died on the cross and rose again.  God intends for all “to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). 

God’s plan for each of us centers on Jesus.  And, God’s plan for us includes how we live out our faith in the context of our lives and the world, how we live with each other.

So, what does God tell Jeremiah to say to the God’s people?  Look at chapter 7:3, “amend your ways and your doings, and let Me dwell with you in this place.  Do not trust in these deceptive words:  “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

The temple is not an end in itself. The purpose of the Temple is for people to draw close to God together in worship.  To nurture and care for their relationship with God and with each other.  The purpose of the Temple was to help the worshippers love God and love people—to live their faith. 

The purpose of the church is not the church.  We do not exist for the sake of ourselves.  God has placed us here for the sake of caring for the world, for all people.  To love God and to love people.  Walk our talk.  Live our faith out loud.  Don’t just claim to be religious, put our faith into action.  Faith is not just a set of doctrines and beliefs that we adhere to. Our faith must make a difference in how we live and conduct ourselves.

God’s plan is that we connect with His heart, connect with God’s care for all people.  That we make our worship and daily lives be in sync.  To not only talk the talk, but to walk the walk. To live our faith out loud.  

God’s call to Jeremiah is to speak God’s Word faithfully and consistently, not being afraid of those he speaks to, not altering or changing the message in order to appease his audience. 

God tells Jeremiah he will speak to an international populace.  People from multiple nations and kingdoms.  God “touches” Jeremiah’s mouth and says, “now I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9).  When we try to make it easier for ourselves by narrowing the scope of what it means to love our neighbor, Jesus teaches us in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 11 that all people are our neighbors.  Who do we accept help from?  Who do we help?  Hopefully, not just those like us, those with whom we feel safe or agree with.  But all people, even those very different from us. 

God’s call to Jeremiah was to stand up and speak up.  No hiding. No avoiding.  No shirking of duty.  Stand up and seize the day.  Stand up and take the initiative.  Don’t wait for convenience or the golden opportunity.  Stand up and speak up.  But, then do not belabor your speaking.  Don’t argue or push.  Let God be God.  Sit down and trust the process of God working.

In Jesus’ name. Amen!

A Declaration of Dependence!

text:  Isaiah 36 & 37

San Francisco has its cable cars. Seattle has its Space Needle. And Longview, WA has its squirrel bridge called The Nutty Narrows Bridge. Spanning Olympia Way, is a local landmark.

The Nutty Narrows Bridge was built in 1963 by a local builder, the late Amos Peters, to give squirrels a way to cross the busy thoroughfare without getting flattened by cars. Before the bridge was built, squirrels had to dodge traffic to and from the Park Plaza building where office staff put out a nutty feast for the squirrels. Many times, workers near Park Plaza witnessed squirrels being run over. It didn’t take long before squirrels started using the bridge. They even escort their young across, teaching them the ropes. In addition to the Nutty Narrows Bridge, four additional bridges have since been built, the most recent bridge was installed in May of 2015. The sixth bridge is in the works.

This safe squirrel-highway reminds us that God daily and richly provides for all we need, even when we forget to ask; even when we fail to say thanks.  This safe squirrel-highway was a complete gift to the squirrels.  Provided because the builder saw the need and responded with kindness beyond measure.  

That reminds me of God and God’s presence, provision and protection for us.  Even when things go wrong.  Even when disaster strikes as in our reading from Isaiah.   

Most all of us can recall times in our lives when we were absolutely desperate, with crises and bad news confronting us and now where to turn.  In our text Hezekiah has just such a situation!

Sennacherib, the king of Assyria had defeated nation after nation and has now come up against Judah.  Sennacherib’s army has already captured a number of cities in Judah and he now turns his attention to the capital city of Jerusalem.  He is powerful.  He confident and his boasts are not without warrant.  His army has had victory after victory and Judah’s capital city would be nothing for him to capture!

Sennacherib sends an emissary to Jerusalem.  He speaks the language of the Jews and addresses King Hezekiah in the Hebrew language so all the residents of Jerusalem can hear and understand him.  Hezekiah’s officials meet with him at the water gate.  The emissary is clever and wants to dishearten and discourage the Jews of Jerusalem.  He wants to undermine King Hezekiah and cause a revolt against him by his own people.  

The emissary openly questions Hezekiah’s leadership.  “Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war!”  Who do you rely on?  Egypt is useless!  Will you trust God?  God sent me here to destroy and capture you!  You have failed God.  God has sent me to punish and destroy you!  

The emissary continues in verse 13, do not let Hezekiah fool you.  Do not let him make you trust God.  Do not listen to him!  

Make your peace with me instead.  I will take care of you and you will be okay.  I will let you stay in your own homes until I come to take you away to a land like your land.  Besides none of the god’s of the other nations have been able to deliver them from me.  How can your God deliver you!  Give up.  Give in.  It’s no use to fight me!

Can you imagine how Hezekiah must be feeling in this story?  Isaiah 37 shows he is desperate.  I can think of a series of “d” words for his situation.  Desperate.  Demoralized.    Depressed.  Distressed. Despondent.  

Was he wrong for trusting God?  What if God had sent Sennacherib to punish him?  Hezekiah was a good king and followed God, but his predecessors had not been faithful.  What if Hezekiah had not “earned God’s approval?”  What if they were doomed?  

Hezekiah sends his officials to the prophet Isaiah dressed in mourning and repentance and gives them the message in Isaiah 37:3-4:

“this is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the birth (by this he must mean distressed women have miscarried or given birth prematurely), and there is no strength to bring them forth.  It may be that the Lord your God heard the words of Rabshakeh, whom his master, the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.”

Many of us have been in tough situations in our lives when we struggled.  Is God punishing me?  Has God neglected me or forgotten me?  Is there any hope?  I cannot image how people in concentration camps have felt, or Jews being persecuted by Hitler’s reign of terror, or how the Syrian refugees and other war refugees must feel, or the refugees that are part of the so called “immigrant train” from Central America—who left because of terror and violence in hopes of finding help and safety—I cannot image nor picture the desperation they must feel.  

It is hard to find answers to these troubled times.  Yet I cling to Isaiah’s words to Hezekiah.  

“Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard…”  

Over and over again the Bible quotes God through prophets and angels telling us to “not be afraid.”  Don’t give in to fear.  Sometimes it is nearly impossible to not be afraid—to trust God through all the storms and disasters of life.  

What are times in your life when you have felt—desperate—doomed—hopeless?  God delivered Hezekiah from a powerful and dangerous foe.  A foe that taunted and insulted him, and undermined him before his people.  A foe that mocked and insulted God.  

What if this Thanksgiving you make a declaration to yourself and to our Lord that you need Him?  When we celebrate the national day of Thanksgiving, that, in effect, is what we do.  Lord, we are grateful for Your provision of all our needs.  And we express our utter dependence upon You for daily life and all the provision necessary for this life.  We need God’s provision, God’s protection, God’s mercy and grace, God’s presence and leading in our lives.   

Today we give thanks for Jesus.  We give thanks for grace, for heaven, for all that God does and continues to do for us.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Faith Alive! Live Your Faith Out Loud

Micah 5:2-5a & 6:6-8 (also check out 4:3-5)

Our journey through God’s Story this morning continues with the small book of Micah, close to the back end of the Old Testament.  The Narrative Lectionary is designed for us to encounter God’s Story through both Testaments in such a way that God’s Story and ours intersect and change us, forming Christ within us and empowering us to live our faith out loud.

Micah!  There are twelve minor prophets in the Old Testament.  Micah is toward the end of those twelve.  They are referred to as minor because their ministries were shorter in terms of years, thus their books smaller.  They are certainly not minor in their messages.  

Micah prophesied in Judah during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (about 750–700 b.c.), at about the same time as Isaiah. Jotham and Hezekiah were good kings.  Ahaz was very evil.  

It was a time of prosperity, and Micah denounced the wealthy, who were oppressing the poor, and warned of impending judgment. The northern kingdom actually fell during Micah’s ministry, in 722, and Judah almost fell in 701 (2 Kings 18–20). The book contains three sections, which alternate between words of warning and messages of hope. 

The fourth chapter of Micah talks about a “future time” when the mountain of the house of the Lord would be the largest of all hills and mountains and that people from all nations would fl flow to it.  That is metaphoric language for the church—the holy Christian Church and it is being fulfilled today.  

A part of the prophecy connected to this futuristic chapter is the peace theme—

vv 3-5

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore;

but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,

and no one shall make them afraid,

for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

For all the peoples walk

each in the name of its god,

but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God

forever and ever.

Micah’s message fits in well with our Veteran’s Day remembrance and the 100th anniversary of Armistice agreement ending World War I.  Our world is certainly not experiencing peace, nor our swords made into plowshares!  Yet this passage  reminds us of the power of God’s love in Christ to bring peace, even amid conflict and war.  It takes eyes of faith to see the higher reality of God’s Kingdom—the reign of grace—having its impact in and through us as believers throughout the world.  God is on the move!  Keep your eyes open and you will see glimpses of God working!

Pre-Millennialists (those who believe in “the tribulation, the rapture and the thousand year reign of Christ) see this as speaking of the physical reign of Christ from Jerusalem.  We as Lutherans understand it as speaking of the Kingdom of Christ, the collective body of believers who live the law of love as exemplified by the beatitudes and Christ-like living.  As such we see it in process, not complete, but by all means still happening.  It will be complete when Jesus comes again and brings heaven and earth together.  That is the message of Revelation (cf. Revelation 20-21).  Those who make literal what was intended to be understood figuratively offer confusing points of speculation and theological opinion that is not consistent with the rest of Scripture.  We understand the New Jerusalem of Revelation, the Bride of Christ and the mountain of the house of the Lord as picturing the body of Christ.  We also understand the thousand year reign of Christ again as metaphorical, picturing the reign of Christ here on earth before Jesus’ Second Coming.  Many of these passages were never intended to be interpreted and applied literally.  They picture in metaphorical and poetic imagery what the reign of Christ looks like.  

Micah, as all of the Old Testament, finds it fulfillment in Messiah Jesus.  Luther and other significant theologians understood the Old Testament as pointing to Jesus.  The Apostle Paul’s ministry was committed to helping Jews and Gentiles discover Jesus as the Promised One.  Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises for deliverance to us.  

Probably the two best known passages of this marvelous not-so-minor prophet are the two passages we have in front of us this morning, Micah 5:2, the birth place of Messiah is Bethlehem.  This is a popular Christmas reading.  So most of us are familiar with it. The second is Micah 6:8, which addresses what I refer to as the “living our faith out loud.”  What does God require of us?  Huge sacrifices to take away our sin and make ourselves acceptable to God?  None of that.  There is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor or approval.  We are forgiven and accepted as righteous because of what God has done for us in Christ.  Faith clings to that good news.  God, who has declared us righteous and forgiven-in-Christ demands—“requires”—that we live in such a way that we care for each other—do justice, love kindness (mercy) and that we walk humbly in our relationship with God.  

When you are reading the Bible, don’t get stuck with the little things.  Strive to see the big picture.  Always approach the Bible with prayer and respect.  Ask God to help you see and understand God’s presence with us and the power of His love among us through Christ to change the world.  

The living out of our faith as Christians is a bit like living in this country of ours that we call a  democracy.  It is never easy.  It is never completely finished.  We get discouraged when we think it should be easier that it is, or that we have achieved our goal.  That is Micah’s message to you and me.  Messiah has come.  Jesus has taken away our sins.  We have the gift of God’s Spirit within, and through God’s presence within us we have the power and the obligation to change the world—to do justice, love kindness and mercy and to live out our faith with humility.

God give us grace to live our faith out loud.  Amen!

Two Crowds

Luke 7:11-17

When something horrible happens, have you ever said, or heard it said, “It will be all right.  Don’t cry.”  “It will be okay.” Or “we offer you our prayers and condolences.”

I have heard children say that to a weeping parent.  We have heard it on TV shows in response to tragedy and misfortune.  The words may be well meaning and spoken from genuine concern.  But, are they realistic?  Is it helpful?

Sometimes we are at a loss for words—what to say, or how to respond to bad news when hearts are broken by tragedy.  Sometimes it is better to say nothing, and just be present and care, with a quiet look, a hand on the shoulder. 

In our text this morning we have two crowds of people.  Two completely opposite crowds.  One loud and celebrative!  Jesus has just healed a sick servant on the point of death.  He has been teaching and healing and proclaiming God’s Good News.  The crowd accompanying Him was ecstatic and excited.  They were unlike us quiet and reserved folk here.  They were laughing and talking and loud.  They were walking with the Lord of Life.  And all was good.  Until they come face to face with a funeral procession.

My imagination paints the picture of two freight trains colliding as these two completely opposite crowds come together.  One crowd celebrating life and healing and hope.  The other crowd mourning death and tragedy and despair.  Kind of like life in our present day.  We don’t want to be negative, but hardly have anything to be positive about.  Or at least that is what we think.  

When two polar opposites collide, which one wins?  The lessons I’ve learned from life often indicate that the evil side wins.  Only in the movies and in well written novels does good overcome evil.  Right?  

Wrong!

If you believe that, you still need to discover the good news of God in Christ!  

Consider this story in our Gospel reading.  I believe it is factual.  You can interpret it as metaphorical if you choose, but I see it as an accurate account of what happened that day.

I’ve already told you about the crowd accompanying Jesus.  They were happy.  They were positive.  They had good reason to be. 

The crowd coming out of this town called Nain was overcome with grief.  A woman was burying her only son.  And she was a widow.  Her life had turned upside down.  All hope was gone.  First her husband dies.  Yet she has a son who can support her.  Now he is dead.  There was no Social Security for her.  No welfare program or social safety net.  Her plight was one of hopeless desperation.  The whole town had come out to help her grieve.  Her friends, her neighbors, those who lived across town.  The synagogue—her church group—everyone came out.  And they were not quiet.  There was weeping and wailing and shouting that was nearly deafening.  

It must have been quiet a sight to have these two polar opposites collide at the city gates, one on its way out to the cemetery.  The other on its way into town.  

Then the amazing happens.  Jesus takes the whole situation into view and acts in an incredibly amazing way.

He tells the weeping widow who has lost her only son and lost all hope—don’t cry!  It will be okay!  

Then He does the completely inappropriate thing for a good Jew to do—He goes up to the stretcher (funeral pallet) and touches the dead man.  He is breaking one of the most important rules, the clean versus unclean law of the Old Testament.  To touch a dead person makes you unclean and then you have to go through a cleansing ritual.  Ah, but Jesus is no ordinary Jew.  He is no ordinary man.  He is God in human flesh.  He is the Lord of life.  Death has no power in His presence.  His Word triumphs over all the tragedy and death our world can throw at Him or us.

He touches the dead man and commands the dead man to wake up! Get up! Wake from the sleep of death!  Be alive!  And…the dead man obeys.  He wakes up, sits up on the funeral pallet and begins to talk!  

Talk about ruining a funeral.  Talk about a phenomenal change of events.  Death meets life and is subdued!  Grief cannot survive when the Author of Life speaks hope and comfort and life!

Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday.  November 1st is All Saints Day.  We remember that all believers—past, present and future are made saints—made holy and righteous through faith in the blood of Christ.  We are not saintly because of how good and noble we are.  We are not righteous because we have been able to overcome all our temptations and faults.  We are declared righteous by God because of Christ Jesus!  

And, today, we celebrate the promise and reality of heaven.  I’ve never been there.  So I cannot tell you what heaven is like.  But I believe on the basis of Scripture that it is real.  I don’t believe it nor hell are geographically defined.  You cannot go to heaven by flying to the moon and taking a left.  Heaven in my understanding is like a fifth dimension—just outside our physical world, yet just there.  Just a breath away.  Heaven is being in God’s presence.  And God just happens to be here this morning receiving our worship and praise.  And God’s angels are around us as well.  We don’t see them.  We don’t hear them.  We cannot always feel them.  But faith holds onto that promise and reality.

And today, on the basis of this text from Luke 7, we proclaim Jesus’ power over death and the grave.  Our loved ones who have gone before us are very much alive.  Their bodies have to wait for the Second Coming when Jesus will raise us up physically with all believers, but our souls are immortal.  When we die our souls, our spirits go to be with the Lord and are freed from the pain and misery of life on this side of heaven.  

I cannot prove that.  But, on the basis of Scripture, and the Spirit within, I believe it and claim it.  It changes me.  It empowers me to live with hope.  It gives me courage to stand up against evil and do the right thing even against all odds.  We are the body of Christ on this side of heaven and the way we live now makes a difference.  

So…what on earth are you doing for heaven’s sake?  Heaven is as real as Jesus—His life, death and resurrection.  Heaven is real as you and me and our faith to live in grace and love.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Unbounded Grace

Jeremiah 31:31-33 John 8:31-34

Have you ever been lost? Have you ever felt like you were wondering aimlessly in the wilderness of life?  With no meaning, no purpose, no direction?  Have you ever felt that the church was dying and loosing it’s meaning and purpose in the world?   

Many conversations I have had with many church going people and clergy have focused on the decline of the church in our world today.  Talk has focused on the large cathedrals in Europe that hold small congregations on Sunday mornings—places of worship that once housed large crowds and now are indicators of the lack of interest or commitment to worship.

Many mainline congregations are like ours today, more gray haired folk then families with children.  It can certainly be discouraging.  Even large mega-churches like Willow Creek in Illinois and others like it have come upon hard times.  And we wonder, will the holy Christian church as we know it survive?  Many millennials—people in their 20’s, 30’s and even 40’s consider themselves to be “nones.”  That is, no religious affiliation.  

Yet there is hope!  I believe the church is still relevant.  I believe the church is not dying out.  The holy Christian church is the body of Christ in the world today.  As such, it is God’s Church, the Kingdom of God on earth, God’s tool—God’s hands and feet in the world—for impacting and changing the world.  

As we remember and celebrate the Reformation today we call to mind the past mistakes the church has made.  We remember with humility the painful faults of “organized religion,” which has reflected more of our human sinfulness than God’s grace and truth.  

I am not sure what the church will look like in the future, but I do believe it is still relevant and important.  I do wish more of us were committed to worship—giving God His worth, taking time out of our busy lives and weeks and just saying, “thank You God!”  “Fill my heart and soul with Your Word and truth again today!”  “Let me live for You, Your honor and glory!”  “Let me make a difference in my family, community, and world by how I live out of my faith!”

So…this morning, let me say, “Thanks for being here! Thank you for making worship a priority in your life!”  

Secondly, I want to challenge us to look for evidences of grace, God’s work in and through us and our fellow humans anywhere and everywhere we can find it!  

Looking for evidence and signs of GRACE—good news—in today’s world.

In the news this week is the story of Albert Lexie who made all of $10,000 per year as a shoe shine man at a hospital in Pittsburgh, PA.  He did this for almost 30 years.  His donated tips came to $202,000.  

Mr. Lexie said, “I wanted to see the kids get well, to see they got well and got better and things like that…I made myself happy.”

The hospital’s president is quoted as saying, Mr. Lexie was a “perfect example of how just small, incremental acts of kindness can have a really significant impact over time.”

Another unusual evidence of grace comes by way of a young person by the name of Anick.  Anick’s story is covered by BBC News.  Anick is 23 years old and was born “intersex,” meaning his genitals were neither female nor male.  The United Nations says 1.7% of the world’s population fit into Anick’s category.  Anick has been told all of “his” life that he is abnormal and has had hundred’s of operations trying to “fix him.”  I say “him” because Anick is trying to be male, and now through all the multiples surgeries he has had he has a “male penis.”  

I see this as evidence of grace because Anick is in the process of learning that he can celebrate who he is regardless of what others think or say.  Anick has discovered that his experience is not solitary.  There are others like him, yet not of their stories are identical.  But that’s okay.  

There is no mention of God in either story, but I see the strong evidence of God at work in behind the scenes!  

Discovering God.  Discovering grace.  Discovering God on the move.  That is Reformation talk for me.  

Luther used the phrase, “stand on your head for joy” when he discovered and experienced what it means to be accepted, loved, forgiven and welcomed home by a gracious loving God.

He had falsely learned that God was an angry demanding God who chastised and punished us for the perfection we failed to attain.  

You and I oftentimes live in our own dungeons, our own dark caves of gloom and depression, our own self-made prisons when we falsely belief we must somehow earn or deserve the acceptance and love of other people and of God.  The world teaches us that.  We don’t learn it accidentally.

But the world is wrong.

The freedom of the Gospel, the hope and promise of the good news of God in Christ sets the world’s false demand on its head.  Forgiveness is complete.  Not simply because God is a push over and forgives us and welcomes us back home like a jolly santa clause.  God’s love in Christ, the Christ who was born as one of us—a baby, lived for us under the law, and died in our place on a cursed tree—that love in Christ sets us free.  Christ who became human so that He could bring us back into the family as sons and daughters who belong to God.  Because of Him!  Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  God’s gift of forgiveness and life in Jesus is hard won.  Yet it is a gift.  It is free.  Are you ready to rest in it.  Claim it.  It’s yours and mine in Christ Jesus.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen!

Change!

Change and the choices we make, from the perspective of Joshua 24.

Everyday we are inundated with the demand to decide.  We are not always aware of the constant decisions we make because oftentimes they are imbedded into routine and the routine patterns of our lives help us to automatically decide what to do in given circumstances.

Do I get up in the morning?  Or ignore the alarm and go back to sleep?  Should I go through the routine of shaving and showering?  What should I wear?  Do I eat breakfast?  What should I have for breakfast?  Have coffee or orange juice?  Do I really need to put on deodorant?  Brush my teeth?  Comb my hair?  Look in the mirror?  

When you get in the car, do you choose to follow the normal laws of traffic, i.e. stay in your lane, use your turn signal and check before changing lanes?  How about traffic lights?  Do you stop for a yellow light or step on the gas to rush through as the light turns red.  What determines whether you go through a red light or not? 

Should I greet the members of my family with a growl? or a smile?  How about the people I encounter through the day?  

What do I choose to focus my thoughts on?  Do I focus my thoughts on positive things?  Or do I focus on and look for what is wrong with the day? with my spouse? with my fiends?  with my government or church or job? or me?

Do I list the tasks I need to accomplish in the day, or do I randomly go through the day and do whatever lies before me?  

We can become the victims of circumstance when we choose by default to let circumstances determine who we are, what we are and what we do.  In other words, when we do not make our own choices, but merely react to what is going on around us.  Then our environment chooses for us.  

Joshua, in our reading this morning, is an old man.  He has led Israel for many years.  He was cultured and schooled for leadership under Moses.  When Moses died God charged Joshua with the task of leading God’s people into the Promised Land.  

At the end of Joshua’s life he is concerned for the children of Israel.  He is afraid for them, because he knows how dependent they have been on him and his leadership.  He kept them in line.  As long as he “called the shots” they were faithful to God.  What happens when they do not have a strong central leader?  The book of Judges shows us what happens then.  “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Like Shakespeare Joshua knew human nature well enough to know that trouble lie in the future.  The public—we are fickle and easily swayed by strong emotional appeal.  Leaders who appeal to discontentment, fear and a desire to bring back the illusion of the “golden era of the past” are have found they are able to manipulate and control the crowds through emotional appeals.  Mussolini and Hitler were both very successful in their leadership in that regard.

Joshua did not want the children of Israel to be vulnerable to merely following the crowd, to merely doing what came natural or instinctively.  His was a spiritual appeal, but also an appeal that said in effect, grow up.  Think through what you do and why you do it.  Be responsible adults.  Using Stephen Covey’s language, he challenges them to be proactive, not reactive.  

How so?  He wants them to know who they are and whose they are.  So he reviews their nation’s short history.  As we read through Joshua 24 you will note that he constantly speaks on God’s behalf telling the children of Israel what God has done for them.  For instance, note all the action verbs God uses.  

Long ago…I took your father Abraham from beyond the Jordan and led him…

I gave him Isaac…

and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau

I gave Esau the hill country…

Jacob and his family went to Egypt

I sent Moses and Aaron and I plagued Egypt…

I brought you out…

Your eyes saw what I did to Egypt…

I brought you to the land of the Amorites…

I destroyed them before you…

In verse 9 there is a reference to the story of King Balak and the prophet Balaam who together tried to curse the young Israelite nation.  God says “I would not listen to Balaam” and forced him to bless you… “I rescued you out of his hand.”

I gave you a land on which you had not labored and towns that you had not built, and you liven in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.  

All of this is God centered history.  A refresher course on God’s salvation—God’s activity on their behalf, leading up to verse 14:  

“Now therefore revere the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and faithfulness.”

And then the clincher:  PUT AWAY THE GODS THAT YOUR ANCESTOR’S SERVED BEYOND THE RIVER AND IN EGYPT AND SERVE THE LORD.

“Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my house we will serve the LORD.”

Joshua wisely confronts their unexamined assumptions, their bottom line loyalties, their un-thought out priorities and values.  And through Scripture, God, through Joshua challenges us also. 

Think through the decisions we make every day.  Oftentimes those decisions are made unconsciously, based on unexamined assumptions that we believe to be true.  But are they? 

Stephen Covey’s book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People challenges us to be thoughtful and to actively cultivate our wills, to work toward emotional and spiritual health by deliberately thinking in an orderly purposeful manner.  

Consider…

1.   BE PROACTIVE.  Know who and whose you are.  

Don’t let someone else determine that.  Not environment, not personal stories or histories of how hard you life has been.  You must choose who you are and whose you are.  Read God into your history like Joshua did.

2.   BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND.  Use your imagination and God given conscience to picture what that means for you, for your relationships and purpose in life.

3.   PUT FIRST THINGS FIRST.  Exercise your will.  Practice making little decisions.  Deliberately think through what you do and how you do it.  Pull out of the automatic mode.  Something that helps me is to intentionally pay attention to my breathing.  Breath thoughtfully.  Breath with awareness of yourself and your surroundings.  My nephew Lukas has suggested a book to me entitled, Just Breath by Daniel Brule.  

Little decisions impact larger decisions.  Intentionally get up at a predetermined time every day.  Practice habits of cleanliness and good grooming.  Choose to eat healthy food and drink healthy.  Practice saying no to some of your passions and desires.  Learn how to cultivate and nurture your decision making ability.  

People who let their environment and circumstances choose who they are and what they do never can discover the wonder and power of God’s grace in life.  Obedience to grace does not come automatically or naturally.  Paul deliberately tells us to “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit…” (Ephesians 5:18).  When Paul says be filled with the Spirit he is implying that we can do something to connect with God’s Spirit within us and learn how to let that Spirit influence us.  

God does not take over our wills.  God does not force us or coerce us to be obedient and to walk in the Spirit.  We have to learn how to live in harmony and in obedience to God’s leading.  We can do that by intentionally practicing little decisions, prayerfully going through our day, purposely doing things that are good and healthy.  Deliberately avoiding what is negative and unhealthy.  

These three steps Covey connects with what he calls internal or private victory.  

God through Joshua tells us that we can choose who we are.  We must choose who and what we serve.  Every day we can choose anew who we are.  Every day we can and must choose who we serve and how we will conduct ourselves.  We can learn how to walk in fellowship with God and each other.

God give us the courage and will to do so.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.