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Grateful, Part 1

October 8, 2017

Exodus 17:1-7

So, this past June, I took some time away from the office to do some planning and to map out my sermon topics for the rest of 2017.  So, I rented a room at the Life Enrichment Center which is across the street from the Warren Willis youth camp in Leesburg, FL. During the day, I would study and I would plan.  And at night I walk over and enjoy the worship at the youth camp.  One night, the praise band there, sang a contemporary version of the hymn we just sang, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”.  I think it was by Mumford and Sons.  “Come Thou Fount of every blessing, tune thy heart to sing thy grace.  Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.”

The hymn was originally written in 1757 by Robert Robinson.  Robert’s father died when he was 8.  His mother indentured him off to a barber in London when he was 14.  Within a year, he had become a member of notorious gang, feared for its violence.  And then one evening, he and his friends decided to go to a meeting of Methodists and make fun of them.  The preacher that night was George Whitfield.  And in like many of the preachers of that era, Whitfield was preaching on the Wrath to Come.  Through the message the Holy Spirit convicted Robert.  For three years he wrestled with God’s call.  Until at the age of 20, he professed faith in Christ and was appointed by John Wesley as the lay preacher at the Methodist chapel in Suffolk.  Two years later, he wrote Come Thou Fount out of gratitude for his salvation in Christ. (

So, I heard the hymn at the worship service.  I knew that I wanted to preach a sermon series on gratitude and being grateful to God for the blessings in our lives.  According to a recent article in Psychology Today, studies show that gratitude improves our physical and mental health, it helps us sleep better, improves our self-esteem and opens the door to new relationships.  Furthermore, gratitude makes us more optimistic, reduces materialism and makes us more likeable.  (

The Bible, as we know, is full of verses about giving thanks.  1 Thessalonians 5:18 – Give thanks in all circumstances.  This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and give thanks in it – Psalm 118:24.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him – Colossians 3:17.  Clearly, gratitude is good for us.  And gratitude is to be a part of our lives as a follower of Jesus.

So, I had this idea that I would preach this series on gratitude and I would use the hymn as the framework for the series.  It’s a powerful hymn.  And it has some unique phrases that we don’t hear very often.  Phrases like, goodness like a fetter.  Praise the mount.  And raise my Ebenezer. What’s an Ebenezer?  My thought was to take a different one each week and unpack its meaning.  And in doing so create an association that would trigger gratitude each time we sing the song.  Sort of like a modern-day way of hiding God’s word in our heart.  My plan was to start with the title itself – “Come thou fount of every blessing”.  Thou being God.  And fount being a spring or fountain.

But then there was this storm called Harvey that left tens of thousands of victims suffering in his wake. Two weeks later Hurricane Irma, now considered to be the costliest hurricane in US history.  That’s not even talking about the islands like Barbuda which were destroyed.  Nine days later, hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rica.  Our brothers and sisters are still fighting for survival there.  And then just last week the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas.  All in six weeks.  It’s overwhelming to think about.  I confess that I struggle to not feel numb towards it all.

So here is the challenge.  How do we find gratitude in a season of devastation?  How do as followers of Jesus practice gratitude in light of the pain and suffering of the last six weeks?  That’s our challenge today.  So, take your Bibles and turn with me to the Old Testament book of Exodus.  Chapter 17.  We will be reading verses 1 – 7.

This is one of those passages of scripture where knowing its context is particularly important for understanding its message.  In this case, the Israelites are 38 days into their wilderness camping trip.  Just 5 weeks before, God’s Spirit had passed over the land of Egypt and claimed the life of every firstborn who was not protected by the blood of a lamb on the doorpost.  Pharaoh had changed his mind.  And as they left, their former neighbors had filled the Israelites’ pockets with their gold and their jewelry.  When Pharaoh came after his former slaves with chariots, God parted the seas and allowed his people to escape on dry ground.  When they were hungry, God provided bread like dew every morning.  And when they tired of manna, God rained down quail for them.  All this happens 5 weeks before our passage this morning.  This is the context.  With that in mind, let’s read Exodus 17:1-17.

The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”  Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”  But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”  Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”  The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So, Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah[a] and Meribah[b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  Exodus 17:1-7

So, scholars are not exactly sure where the desert of sin is.  Its name doesn’t provide any clues.  Sin does not refer to sinfulness.  Rather it is a Hebrew word that translates something like moon.  Most bible scholars suspect that was located in the along the Red Sea in the southwest corner of the Sinai Peninsula.  But all they really know is that it was in the vicinity of Mount Sinai.

Regardless of its exact location, the thirst of the Israelites is understandable.  There is limited water in the desert.  Put 2.4 million men, women and children in a desert and there are going to be some very thirsty people.  Consequently, their fear is understandable.  In the harsh conditions of the desert, it only takes hours to die not weeks.  In their fear, they begin to grumble.  And then to argue.  And blame.  And finally, they wonder if God even cares at all or even with them.  All those mighty acts of deliverance is a distant memory.  The Passover, the plundering of Egypt, the parting of the sea, the manna and the quail – forgotten.  Two days is forever when you have nothing to drink, let alone 5 weeks.

Which makes Israel’s presence in the wilderness all that more poignant.  They are not there by chance.  They are there because they have been led there.  They have literally followed God into the desert. Verse 1 says – the whole community of Israel left the desert of sin, moved from place to place as the Lord commanded it.  Turns out, that wandering in the desert is a part of God’s plan all along.

As students of the Bible we know that the desert is one of those places where the children of God wind up sooner or later.  Abraham spent time in the desert.  God called him to pack up the tent, load up the camel and leave for a land God would show him.  That land God would show him was on the other side of the desert.  And Elijah spent time in the desert.  Running for his life he hides in a cave in the face of cliff.  Only to encounter God in the quietness after a storm.  We read in Galatians that after his encounter with Christ, Paul goes into the desert of Arabia for three years.  We don’t know why.  We are just told he does.  Of course, Jesus spent time in the desert.  It was the very first place he went after being baptized, he was led into the wilderness to be tempted. Evidently, the desert is one of those places where the children of God find themselves sooner or later.

And that means we will spend time in the desert too. By that I don’t mean the sand and the sun kind of desert.  But a place where you begin to wonder if God has left you.  Or if God has forgotten you.  It could be a time in your life when you are really afraid.  Or a time of resounding anger.  Or time when you get really sad.  Or time when you worry.  Maybe your friend will be hurtful to you.  Or your partner will want a divorce.  Or you or someone you love will become very ill.  Or you will lose your job.  These are all places where we all wind up.  Each and every one of us goes through difficult things in life – sooner or later we all find ourselves in the desert.  I ask you this morning – when was the last time you wondered if God was with you?  When was the last time you worried that God had forgotten you?

My first take away from our passage is that we all spend time in the desert.  My second is that God does some of His best work in the desert. In the desert, God restores. In the desert God redeems.  Verse 6,  I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.”

When Joni Eareckson Tada was 17, she severed her spine in a diving accident.  She misjudged the shallowness of the water in Chesapeake Bay and consequently was paralyzed from the shoulders down.  In the years that followed she experienced anger, depression, suicidal thoughts and questions about God.  But then she learned to paint with a brush between her teeth.  And she began selling her artwork.  Then she learned to write.  And to date she has written over 50 books.  She has been inducted into the Christian Bookseller’s hall of honor.  She has recorded several albums, given inspirational talks, starred in a movie and advocated for the disabled.

, Joni Erickson Tada reflects on how we tend to worry that the cares, troubles, and afflictions of life will wear us down, dulling our joy, diluting our hope, and robbing us of the radiance we once experienced as believers.  Instead she said she found the opposite to be true.  That it is the careless ease, empty pride and earthly preoccupations that put layers of film over our souls.  And not the trials and tribulations.

In one of those books, A Place of Healing, she shares about a visit she made to Notre Dame Cathedral while in Paris. It was a place she always wanted to go.  A place she always dreamed of.  She found a way to get to the Cathedral and she was surprised to find it so dirty.  Hundreds of years of soot, dust and smoke had covered it in a layer of black grime.  She could barely make out the carvings and details on the outside and she was so disappointed.  But then the cathedral underwent a year-long renovation.  During which the entire exterior was sandblasted.  When it was finished the ancient stones gleamed.  Carving details that hadn’t been seen for decades were now visible.  It was like a new cathedral.

She goes on to draw a comparison of the Cathedral’s renovation to God’s renovation of our lives in the desert.  How God uses our troubles to sandblast away the layers of veneer that we cover ourselves in.  She says that there is nothing like real hardships to strip off the veneer we cloak ourselves in.  Heartache has a way of stripping away years of accumulated indifference and neglect.  Affliction has a way of loosening our grip on everything we hold tightly.  And stripping us down to the basics. So, God can fill us up again.  This is the work that God does in the desert.  This is what he’s doing in those dry places.   Joni Eareckson Tada, A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God’s Sovereignty (David Cook, 2010), pp. 86-87; submitted by Van Morris, Mount Washington, Kentucky

Maybe you are new to this faith thing.   Maybe you are just learning about what it means to follow Christ.  And it surprises you to learn that God’s people can wind up in the desert even when they are doing what God says.  Don’t be put off from your quest.  Remember that God never abandons His children.  Especially in the wilderness.  God is right there with them.  In the case of the Israelites, He sets up a portable camper, a tabernacle, and lives right there in the middle of God’s people.  So, he loves there among the people where he guides and directs and heals and provides.  So that they are able to overcome anything that they encounter.  Or perhaps you are fairly new in your commitment to Jesus.  At first it was exciting.  At first there was this energy and it was awesome.  But lately, if you tell the truth, it’s been kind of dry. You’re in a spiritually dry place and you’re discouraged.  Take courage. Do not give up. Do not give up because God does his very best work in the desert.  As Christians, we don’t always want to hear that.  We tend to focus on the scriptures about freedom and rest for our souls and green pastures (The Dusty Ones, Swoboda, p. 70).  We are very interested in following Christ to an upgraded version of our current life.  One that is smoother, easier and improved.  But that is not God’s plan.  He doesn’t want to just tinker with our old lives.  He doesn’t want to keep us in our situation in Egypt.  He calls us to a completely new life.  You were taught, in regards to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires, to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on your new self, created to be like Him in true righteousness and holiness Ephesians 4:22-23.

We all spend time in the desert.  God does some of His best work there.  Look for God’s grace at work.

In our passage this morning, God shows up in a comical way.  He has Moses tap a rock.  And somehow, Moses just happens to hit it at the right spot.  Where water is just beneath the surface.  And up comes the bubbling liquid.  Like Moses is some sort of ancient Jed Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies.  Oil that is.  Black gold.  Texas tea.  You know that when water comes out of a rock in the dry desert that God is at work.

With storms, it’s different.  Of course, God doesn’t cause hurricanes.  But He isn’t absent from them either.  You can look for his work of grace. You see it in the courage of the first responders in the rescue of the trapped.  In the sharing of resources between neighbors.  In the shelter and food and water given to its victims.  You see it in the sharing of resources among neighbors.  And certainly, God is not the source of mass shootings.  But God is in the midst of the chaos and destruction.  You see his grace in the comfort shown to a stranger.  In the hands of the doctors and nurses who repair the broken bodies.  In the outpouring of blood donations for those who need it.  God is in the storm! The key is to look for it.  You want to know how we hold gratitude and suffering together?  We intentionally and persistently look for the grace of God at work.

I saw a story this week about Bert and John Jacobs – the two brothers who cofounded the Life is Good t-shirt company.  They grew up the youngest of six children in a lower middle-class family in Boston.  When they were in elementary school, their parents were nearly killed in a car accident.  Their mother fully recovered.  Their father lost the use of his right hand.  And the stress and frustration caused him to develop a harsh temper.  John writes, that after that, there were difficult things happening around the house.  But their mom still believed life was good.  So, every night as they sat around the dinner table, she would ask her six kids to tell her something good that happened that day.  And as simple as that was, it changed the energy in the room.  The boys said that before they knew it, they were all riffing on the best, funniest and most bizarre part of their day.


This week I challenge you to identify two things each day where you see God’s grace at work.  And then to give thanks for it.  It might involve sharing around the dinner table about the best part of your day like the Jacobs family.  Or write in a journal all the good things that come across your life.  I read one story about a guy who said a prayer of thanks for God’s blessing every time he came across a wayward penny on the ground.  Over 40 years he wound up collecting $5,136.14.  The point is to develop a trigger that will bring about an awareness of God’s grace.  To put in place a system that prod you to look around for God’s presence.  To have this way of remembering and giving thanks to God who is the fount of every blessing.

It will improve your health.  It will help you sleep better.  It will make you more likeable.  Gratitude is a critical part of the life of a disciple.  This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. So, I am going to look for God’s grace at work and I’m going to give him thanks even in the desert.

How about you?  How about you?


Come to the Table

Panua Sunday

October 1, 2017

Matthew 26: 17-30

When I traveled to Kenya this summer, I had the opportunity to take along several of my colleagues in ministry so that their churches could also see and experience this wonderful ministry of hope. As well as to go with several members of this church, particularly Carol Smith and Larry Brown who have been instrumental in the development of this. Even a bigger treat is we were able to take several young ladies from our church family.  One of these ladies was Katie Cornelius.  I was quickly impressed with her love for the people, her gentle spirit, and her strength in leading others.  I am very excited that she is coming today to share with you her perspective of Panua.  (Katie speaks)

 (Back to David):  So, on my trip to England last year, to learn more about the history of our denomination, while I was there, I was able to do something pretty cool!  I got to drink out of a 300-year-old cup!  Well, it was at least 300 years old.  For all I know, it’s been around even longer.  Which means it was actually in use before the Revolutionary War!  How many things do we have in America that are still in use from 30 years ago, much less 300 years ago?  A few churches, a couple of hospitals and universities have been around since the Revolutionary War.  But not much else.

Would it sound more exciting if I told you that the 300-year-old cup was a chalice?  And that I got to drink out of it for Holy Communion?  Drinking the blood of Christ from a 300-year-old chalice takes on a whole new level of profound that you just can’t get from those little plastic cups!  Even better, the chalice was the chalice Samuel Wesley used as a pastor in his church in Epworth, England (pic 1).  Samuel Wesley was John Wesley’s father.  And John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist movement.  He was born in Epworth.  Called it his favorite place in the world.  In other words, I drank out of the same communion cup as John Wesley!  That’s like a hockey player hoisting the Stanley cup!  Or a NASCAR fan driving Jimmy Johnson’s race car!  We are talking Methodist pastor holy grail!

When you drink out of Samuel Wesley’s 300-year-old chalice, you can’t help but reflect on the thousands of Christian brothers and sisters who have done that very same thing with that very same cup on that very same spot.  The tens of thousands of Jesus followers who used a similar cup to take the same meal through the ages. There is something profound about it. To take the same cup as Peter and Andrew, James and John, Paul and Augustine, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa.  To participate in the same meal as a great cloud of witnesses was both humbling and moving.  Like I said, I got to do something really cool when I went to England last summer.

Now, even though we don’t have Wesley’s chalice with us today, they wouldn’t let me keep it, that won’t keep us from participating in the profound.  We can still experience the significance and the anticipation.  Because today is World Communion Sunday.  Today we come to the table with millions upon millions of brothers and sisters in Christ.  Today we share in the same meal as the great saints that have gone before and the great saints that are to come.

But before we do, I want to look at the very first communion.  So, if you’ll take your Bibles and turn to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 26.  We will start reading at verse 17.  Jesus has gathered his disciples for the Passover Seder.  If you have ever had the opportunity to participate in a Passover Seder – you know that it is basically a meal arranged around the story of God delivering His people from slavery in Egypt.  And in particular, that first Passover when the Spirt of God passed over the land and claimed the lives of every first-born son – except for those who had put the blood of a lamb upon the doorposts of their home.  At the Passover Seder, among other things, participants drink wine and eat unleavened bread and reflect upon the lamb that was slain that that they may live.  In the same way, as we partake in Holy Communion we eat the bread and we drink the cup in recognition that we have been set free because of the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross.  In 1 Corinthians 5:7 it says – Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed.  With that in mind, let’s read Matthew 26:17-30.

26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”  27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the[b] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”  30 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

So, two words that really jump out at me from our passage this morning.  And the first is that word TAKE.  26 …and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “TAKE and eat; this is my body.” 

When we TAKE something, we lay hold of it.  We grab it.  We don’t give it.  We receive it.  TAKE means that God is the giver and we are the recipients.  So that the focus at the Table of Christ is not on what we bring.  And it is not upon what we do.  Likewise, the heart of communion does not lie within our worthiness or how prepared we are.  Or how worthy we are.  Or even how well we understand or our faithfulness. The heart of communion lies on what God gives.  And what God gives is the very presence of Christ.  He re-presents the presence of Christ.  Now the bread and the cup represent Christ but they re-present His grace.  His love, healing and power to us.  That is why we as United Methodists we talk about communion to be a means of grace!  We say that the Lord’s Supper is a vehicle that God uses to impart His grace to us!  So that this morning as we take the bread and dip it into the cup we will remember the amazing love of God that led His Son to the cross and beyond the grave.  And we anticipate the future of Christ and when we’ll break bread with him in the future kingdom and most of all, we’ll take into ourselves, we’ll receive into ourselves God’s grace.  The very thing that saves us, the very thing that sustains us, the love, the power, the healing that comes from His presence.  I ask you this morning, when you come to the communion table, what do you expect to receive?  Will you take what God gives?  Are you hungry for his saving grace?

In 1997, journalist Jon Krakauer released his best-selling book, “Into Thin Air” (pic 2).  In it he documented his climb to the summit of Mt Everest on May 10th, 1996.  And how, on that fateful day, eight people died from a blizzard that moved in and brought 70 mile-an hour winds and blinding snow to the highest place on earth.  Jon was one of 34 climbers.  Because of the large number, they needed to head down off the mountain by 2 pm in order to make it safely down to base camp.    They had been delayed for hours as the Sherpa’s fixed the ropes.  And the sheer number of climbers had slowed everything down to a crawl, creating something of a traffic jam at 29,000 feet.  So, at 3 pm, there were still two dozen climbers waiting to reach the summit.  As a result, many of them stayed too long and were caught by the storm.  One of them was a climbing guide by the name of Andy Harris.  He remained behind to help other climbers down off the summit and he stayed too long.  Finally, as he began to descend he ran out of oxygen. Disoriented and confused, he became convinced that portable oxygen canisters left by other climbers were empty.  When in fact they were not.  Consequently, he walked away from the very thing that would save his life.  He was last seen heading back towards the summit.

So, I reread the article and it occurred to me that God’s grace is like oxygen to our souls.  Without it, we cannot sustain ourselves spiritually.  Without it we grow dazed and confused about the reality of God’s presence in our lives and we turn away from the very thing that saves us.  What I am trying to say is, Come to the Table today.  Take what God gives you as if your very faith depends on it.

The second word that stands out is ALL.   27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, ALL of you. 28 This is my blood of the[b] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Some churches have what is called a closed communion table.  That means that only members of that church can participate.  Others have what is known as a close communion table.  Meaning other members of the denomination may participate.  Both churches that have a closed and a close communion table are focused upon the status of the one that takes communion making sure the person at the altar rail understands and embraces the significance of what they are doing.  God is holy.  It’s not in God’s nature to be in unholy. So, the one who comes must be joined to Christ and made holy, in the sight of God, through Christ’s sacrifice.  Some churches limit those they invite, those they believe are in Christ.

Other churches have an open communion table.  That means they invite all Christians to participate.  In the United Methodist Church, we have open communion table.  In fact, we go even farther and say that you don’t have to be a Christian to come to the communion table. That all are welcome.  We say that in part because we know salvation is a gift and not something we earn or deserve.  Not by works of righteousness by what we have done, but in according to his mercy he saved us, Romans 6:23.  In part because we know God wants all people to come to him.  1 Peter 3:9 says that God is not slow as some say, but is patient, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to return to repentance.  But most of all, we have this open table where all are welcome because we know the point of communion is receiving the gift of God’s grace.  It doesn’t matter your gender.  It doesn’t matter your age.  It doesn’t matter your sexuality.  It doesn’t matter your religion.  It doesn’t matter your nationality.  It doesn’t matter your economic status.  It’s not how worth you are.  It’s not how much you understand of it.  It’s not even how faithful you are.  You are welcome, there are no barriers between you and God’s grace.  To paraphrase the author Jan Richardson, a friend of ours who lives here:  The table is wide.  The welcome is wide, and open wide are the arms that will gather us in.

Perhaps the symbol that sticks out the most, the image that speaks to me this morning is this cup (show cup).  This cup is less than three years old.  Not three hundred years old like Wesley’s chalice. It’s not made out of medal but made out of wood.  But it’s just as significant.  Like the cup I drank out of in England, it’s not from around here.  You have to take a 17-hour plane ride to find one of these.  It’s made of mahogany wood and carved with beautiful images of God’s creation.  It was given to us by our brothers and sisters at Trinity United Methodist Church in Naivasha, Kenya (pic 3).  They wanted to express their love and appreciation for us.  And to acknowledge the common bond we have in Christ Jesus.  I can hardly think of a more powerful way to do it.  Today as we come to the table, they too will be coming to the very same table – just way down towards the other end.  Our communion table is wide.  It has seats for all the saints who have gone before.  And its long – more than 8000 miles long!

I don’t know about you, but that gives me hope in a world that is increasingly fragmented.  In a world that is increasingly focused on self-interests and self-fulfillment.  I am encouraged to be a part of something greater, bigger, and more profound than just me.  To have very grace of God as close as a communion table gives me strength.  So I am going to come and I am going to take.  How about you?  How about you?

Being a People of The Book, Part 5

Teaching the Bible to Children

September 24, 2017

Deuteronomy 11:  18-21

In 2009 Ugly Kid Joe released his remake of the hit song “Cats in the Cradle”.  In case you are not a fan, Ugly Kid Joe is a heavy metal band from California (Pic 1).  It has toured with Ozzy Osbourne and Def Leppard.  Not the first band that comes to mind when remaking folk rock.  The original “Cats in the Cradle” was written in 1974 by Harry Chapin (Pic 2).   It’s a song about a father who is too busy with work to spend time with his son.  And though the son keeps asking his dad to spend time together, the father always responds with a vague promise of doing something later.  Chapin said the song was about his relationship with his own son Josh at that frankly, it scared him to death.  Recognize this (play the chorus)?  And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon.  Little boy blue and the man in the moon!  When you coming home, dad don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son – you know we’ll have a good time then.  Do you remember how the song ends?  The son grows up and moves away.  And the father calls him and says I’d love to see you.  And the son says – I’d love to dad if I could find the time.  The new job’s a hassle and the kids got the flu.  But it sure nice talking to you.  And as the father hangs up the phone it occurs to him that his son has grown up just like him.

I share that with you because today we are going to talk about one of those areas in life where we can have a profound influence on our children and grandchildren.  Whether we do it intentionally or not, the way we value and approach the Word of God deeply affects the way our children and grandchildren value and approach the Word of God.  Several weeks ago, we started this series on being a people of the book.  We had a little interruption for Irma.  But today we are going to return to the series for one last time and look at the Bible and children.

But before we begin – two things.  First, I offer these comments with a good bit of trepidation.  There’s an old story about an expert in child psychology who traveled around giving a lecture called “Ten Commandments for Parents.”  Then he got married and became a father.  And he changed the title of the lecture to “Ten Suggestions for Parents.”  When a second child arrived, the lecture became ‘Some Hints for Parents.”  After the third child was born, the man stopped lecturing altogether.  Clearly, I am not an expert.  Just ask my children.

Second, my message isn’t just for parents, or for grandparents.  It’s for everyone.  We all have children and young people in our lives.  They are members of our family and our extended family.  They live in our neighborhoods.  We coach them in sports, lead them in scouts, teach them in school and serve them in community organizations.  We’ve all been given children in our lives.  And that’s ESPECIALLY true if you are a part of the church!  There will be hundreds of children and youth on our campus today.  Between 9 and 11 you will see them in the breezeway, in the courtyard, in the parking lot and in the Wesley Sunday school building.  As followers of Jesus we have been charged by God to care for hundreds of spiritual children and grandchildren – physically, emotionally and spiritually!

So, take your Bibles and turn with me to the old testament book of Deuteronomy chapter 11.  We will begin reading in verse 18.  Charlton Heston and the Israelites have come to the end of their 40-year camping trip.  They have crossed the Wilderness and gathered to the edge of the Promised Land.  And Moses stands to address the people.   He recognizes that most of those before him were born after they left Egypt.  Most of them did not know what it was like to be a slave.  Very few had witnessed God’s deliverance through the Sea.  And he knows he is not going with them.  So, he wants to impart some hard-earned advice.  And in some of the last words he is to share, he reminds them to be faithful to God.  He calls on them to obey God’s commands.  And to follow other gods.  He wants them to experience the fullness of God’s blessing.  This is the context for what we are going to read.  Deuteronomy 11:18-21.

18 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.

So, as I was preparing this week, I learned about mezuzahs.  Anybody here know what a mezuzah is?  A mezuzah is basically a little box of scripture (Pic 3).  There is a piece of parchment with a Bible verse on it – usually the Great Shema or prayer from Deuteronomy 11:13. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”  And there is its decorative case which is nailed to the doorpost of your home.  Evidently, mezuzahs developed out of the exodus – when the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt.  And in particular, from the 10th plague, when the angel of the Lord passed over the land of Egypt and claimed the life every firstborn son.  Except for those families who had marked their doorposts or mezuzahs with the blood of a lamb (

Because of their history, devout Jews believe that mezuzahs bring protection to those who touch them as they enter and leave their home (Pic 4).  For them, God’s Word is life.  God’s word is power.  God’s Word is healing.  So, to keep God’s Word before you is to be connected to God’s life and power and healing.  In addition, Orthodox Jews have Mezuzahs attached to their doorpost to remind them that Judaism is not confined to the synagogue.  True faith is portable.  So, Jews use the mezuzah on the doorpost to remind them that God’s Word goes with them wherever they go.  This is an important opportunity to reflect, and think, and remember.

As Christians, we have similar practices we wear bracelets on our wrists with the initials WWJD.  “What Would Jesus Do.”  Others wear a cross on a chain around their neck.  Still others put up a Scripture verse in their home.  I heard a story this week Garrison Keillor tells the story about the time when he first received permission to take his date in the family car, alone!  He discovered (upon parking) that his mother had taped Bible verses at key places throughout the car, including Romans 6:23 – “For the wages of sin is death”!  (

Now I am guessing that most of us don’t put a Mezuzah outside our door and I haven’t seen a lot of WWJD bracelets lately. But that’s okay.  Because there are other ways we hold up God’s Scripture in front of us.  Other ways we show God is a priority in our life.  For example, we demonstrate the importance of God’s Word in the amount of time and energy we spend in it individually and in community.  When I was growing up, my father spent hours each week teaching me how to play soccer.  In the beginning, it was rolling the ball to me over and over until I learned to kick it with strength and accuracy.  Then it was tossing the ball high up in the air – again and again.  So, I that I learned to direct the ball.  First with my feet.  And then with my chest.  And then with my head.  In the early years, we would head to back yard every night after dinner to play.  As I got older, he became one of the coaches of my soccer team.  If we weren’t going to practice or a game, we would watch a match on TV or take in a game at Soldier Field.  By the time high school rolled around he became my personal chauffer and drove me all over creation and back so I could play soccer.  Just from the time and energy he invested it was pretty clear that soccer was important to him and a priority.

Since, then I have come to appreciate what my father did.  I’ve repeated some of that history.  It’s a rite of passage for us as parents or grandparents to pass down a love of sport or of music or of art to our children.  We want them to experience the joy and experience and comradery, the confidence we were able to enjoy.  Which begs the question – how are we passing on a passion for God’s Word?

When I was growing up, each morning I would come down the stairs and find my father in his living room chair reading his Bible.  He wasn’t flashy about it.  He didn’t do it to be noticed.  It was the way he began his day.  It was clearly a priority for him.  I knew it was important to him.  My parents were always in a small group that studied the Bible and prayed together.  Bible study night became a part of our family calendar.  It was a greater priority for my parents than almost anything else.  They wanted us to know that.  One of the reasons we at FUMC are continually inviting you to become a part of a small community group is we want our children to be blessed.  Certainly, it is one of the best tools to help us grow in the likeness of Christ.  Absolutely, it is invaluable in finding others to share the journey with.  But being in a small community group is also speaks volumes of the value of God’s Word to children.  There will be spiritual children and grandchildren you will interact with through your small community group.  The children and grandchildren of friends and neighbors that you will pray for.  Children and young people who will see that the word of God is a priority.

I ask you this morning – How important is God’s Word to you?  How frequently do people see it in your life? How much of it do your children or grandchildren see in your life?  If others were asked about your priorities – would it be included?  Where does it rank compared to sports, entertainment or hobbies?

My challenge this week is to identify your mezuzah.  By that I don’t mean something to hang on your wall.  Picking that practice, that will make scripture more of a priority.  It might be committing to going to Sunday school as a family.  It could be watching through the Bible series together and discussing it.  It might be memorizing a Bible verse a week and sharing it.  And rewarding children who also memorize it.  It might be reading the Bible together several nights a week.  It might be volunteering to help teach a children’s or youth small community group or helping out at the preschool or helping out at VBS.  The truth is we all have one or two adults that introduced the Scriptures to us.  Or frankly we wouldn’t be here.  I would guess that most of us could point out one or two adults outside of our immediate family who influenced us Spiritually.  One or two adults who brought the scripture alive to us or we wouldn’t be here.  A teacher, a youth worker, a coach, a pastor, a baby-sitter, a neighbor, a family friend who demonstrated the importance of God’s Word to them.  Are you passing it on?  Are you continuing the chain, helping others realize the beauty of God’s word?

How will you show the importance of Scripture to children?  What will be your mezuzah?  The Bible says that when we put God’s Word on our doorposts so to speak, where we put it out and touch it – we will be blessed!  20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 SO THAT your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the of heavens are above the earth.  18:52

Unfortunately, many of us are afraid to ever take that step.  Many of us are afraid to put scripture out here in our lives. Usually because we don’t want to be asked something we can’t answer.  In our culture, we have this thing about being an expert.  Which is great in business but is a terrible thing to model when it comes to God’s Word.  Because if I have to have a handle on things and be a master of the scripture before I talk about the Bible.  Either I am more concerned with my comfort level than I am about my own learning.  Or that God can’t work in spite of me.  Frankly, my God is way too small if He can’t handle a little confusion and questioning.

The good news is that there are a lot of helpful tools out there.  There are more web sites than ever.  There are multiple groups to participate in.  One I want to mention is a four-week class in January on Learning to Read the Bible.  It’s a great opportunity to not only learn but to bring someone with you.  It will create multiple opportunities for you to have conversation and talk about the importance of God’s word to you.  And there are more translations of the Bible than ever before.  Find one that you find readable.  One that paid huge dividends for our children was the Lego Bible.  Sounds funny but my boys know more Bible stories because they read and re-read them in a format they were interested in.  Find a bible that is readable to you.  The point is to take some concrete steps to put the scripture here at the door post of your life.  Do it for your own life.  Do it for the life of your children or your grandchildren.  Because as wise Ugly Kidd Joe said in the cats in the cradle – our children grow up to be just like us.

The truth is, God has no grandchildren.  He only has children.  Each one of us has to decide for ourselves to welcome His love and grace into our lives.  Each and every one of us must decide if we’re going to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  Each and every one of us must decide how valuable the scripture is to us.  Even our children.  But here’s the thing – our children – and by that, I mean the children and youth of our community – won’t know unless someone shows them.  So, I am going to put the scripture here in my life. I’m going to post it on the door posts and the gates of my world.  So, that my days and the days of our children will be many in the life that God has promised for us.

How about you?  How about you?

When you Find Yourself in Babylon

September 17, 2017

This week as I was preparing I came across the story of a man named Charlie Plumb.  Plumb was a fighter pilot in Vietnam.  He flew 74 successful combat missions and made over 100 aircraft carrier landings.  And then, five days before he was to return home, his F-4 jet was hit by a surface-to-air missile.  He ejected over Hanoi and was immediately captured.  He spent the next six years as a POW in an 8 X 8-foot cell.  Where he was subjected to torture and isolation.


As the story goes, years after returning home, Charlie and his wife were sitting in a restaurant one day.  When suddenly, a man from another table jumped up and came over.  The man said, “You’re Charlie Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam off the USS Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!”  Shocked, Plumb asked – “How in the world did you know that?”  To which the man said, “I packed your parachute.”  In response, Charlie jumped to his feet and grabbed the man in gratitude.  He told him – “If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.”


That night Charlie couldn’t sleep.  He kept thinking about that man – wondering what he might have looked like in a Navy uniform.  He thought about the many times he might have passed the man on ship without so much as a ‘Good morning,’ or ‘How are you?’  And he thought of the many hours the sailor had spent at a long wooden table in the bowels of the ship carefully weaving the shrouds and folding the silks, each time holding in his hands the fate of someone he didn’t know.


These days, Plumb has a whole new understanding and deep appreciation of our dependence upon one another.  Wherever he goes, he expresses his support and gratitude for those around him.  And whenever he meets someone he asks, “Who’s packing your parachute?  Who is providing what you need to make it through the day?”


I share that with you because we have just been reminded, in a very powerful way, that we are dependent upon others.  Hurricane Irma might not have disrupted our lives as greatly as the war did for Charlie Plumb.  Still, Irma had a way of reminding us there are situations in life where we are not in control.  And that we need others to “pack” our parachute – so to speak.  For example, what’s the one thing you asked every person you met this week?  Do you have power?  Our family went four days without it and it nearly put us over the edge!  By Thursday we were calling the power company every hour upon the hour and making outrageous claims.  The battery on my artificial lung is failing and I need power to breath.  Our dog is chewing on the downed lines in the street.  There’s a tree branch hanging off the back line and a small child could grab it.  I am amazed at how much I needed the men and women of the power company to help me make it through the day.  And that’s just one example.


With that in mind, we are going to look at a story in the Bible this morning about an uncontrollable situation.  And in it find two critical responses that we can use to make it through any storm.  So, take your Bible and turn with me to the Old Testament book of Daniel, chapter 1.  That’s different than where we need to go today.  We’ve been in this series on “Being People of the Book”.  We’re going to touch on that briefly but take a detour today because of the storm and get back to our schedule next week. We will start reading in verse 8.  Now our story takes place in 605 BC.  In 605 BC, the Egyptians invade Babylon.  Only to be defeated and routed by the Babylonians all the way back to through Palestine.  On his way to Egypt, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon stops long enough to lay siege to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is an ally of Egypt at the time.  And when he conquers it, Nebuchadnezzar exiles the best and brightest of Jerusalem’s young men and exiles them to Babylon.  Among them Daniel and three of his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah – soon to be renamed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  They were entered into a program of indoctrination where they would be taught the language and culture of the Babylonians.  And at the end of three years be assigned to serve in the King’s court.  Let’s pick up the story in verse 8.  It goes like this.

8 But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself.  9 Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master. 10 The palace master said to Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king.” 11 Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: 12 “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.” 14 So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations. 16 So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.  17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams. 18 At the end of the time that the king had set for them to be brought in, the palace master brought them into the presence of Nebuchadnezzar, 19 and the king spoke with them. And among them all, no one was found to compare with Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; therefore they were stationed in the king’s court. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. 21 And Daniel continued there until the first year of King Cyrus.

So, the story of Daniel is a story of heartache and sorrow.  In Jerusalem, Daniel’s future would have been secure.  He would have gone to the best schools.  Landed in the corner office.  Lived in an enviable neighborhood.  And occupied a prominent place in the Temple.  But now he was a slave in Babylon.  Now he would grow old and die in a foreign land.  He would give his energy, his intelligence, his life’s work in the service of an enemy king.  He lost his family.  He lost his home.  He lost his way of life.  And even his name.  The loss of his name was especially significant because it had a reference to God in it.  The EL in Daniel referred to ELOHIM.  So, that his name was a daily reminder that he belonged to God.  Daniel means – God will be my judge.  Or God will set things right.  Only now he was no longer known as Daniel.  The story of Daniel is a story of sorrow and heartache.


But the story of Daniel is also a story of perseverance and triumph.  Daniel would go on to become a member of the king’s court.  He would be trusted above others to counsel the most powerful man in the world.  Ultimately, he would be given authority and power over much.  Turns out – through it all God is faithful! God is with Daniel.  God blesses Daniel and through Daniel, many others.  We must not lose sight of this.  Because sooner or later we all find ourselves in Babylon.  Sooner or later we each find ourselves dealing with heartache and loss.  A relationship turns hurtful and dies.  A career so carefully invested in crumbles.  And illness or disease hobbles and drains us.  A storm roars through and destroys our property, and our sense of security.


It’s in those times, when we find ourselves far from a life we dreamed of, that we need to do two things.  They come right from Daniel’s story.  And the first is to live in community.  Daniel lived in community.  Everything you read about Daniel is in the context of his three other friends.  He was in the original small group.  Verse 19 – And among them all, no one was found to compare with Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. (HA NAE NeYAH)


The truth is, community is a major part of God’s plan for us.  In his book, Everybody’s Normal till You Get To Know Them, John Ortberg writes about the Alameda County Study.  One of the most thorough research projects on relationships, the Alameda County Study tracked the lives of 7,000 people over 9 years.  And what researchers found was that the most isolated people were four times more likely to die than those with strong connections relationally.  In fact, it found that people who had bad habits such as smoking, eating poorly or drinking excessively but had strong social ties lived significantly longer than people who had great health habits but were isolated.  In so many words, that it is better to eat Twinkies with good friends than it is to eat broccoli alone.


Ortberg goes on to quote another study, which was originally reported in the Journal of American Medical Association.  In it 276 volunteers were infected with a virus that produces the common cold.  The study found that people with strong emotional connections did four times better fighting off the illness than those who were more isolated.  They were less susceptible to colds, had less virus, and produced significantly less mucous than those who were relationally isolated.  Proving once and for all that unfriendly people are snottier than friendly people.  There is something powerful about community.  It’s part of God’s plan for our lives.


This past Monday morning, after the winds had died down, our family ventured outside to see what had Irma had done.  We wound up gathering with a group of our neighbors at the corner.  There were folks I knew and people I hadn’t seen before and others I had only waved at.  And all we stood around with our kids and our dogs and chatted.  Then we walked the block together to see how others were doing.  Knowing that others were facing the same challenges, that those who lived around us had downed trees and lacked power as we did, strengthened us emotionally in a way that would never have come if we had stayed in our home.  Helping each other in the yard, sharing generators and wall units, and sending texts to check in on each other created this sense of comradery that brought resilience in the face of life after a storm.  I was stronger physically, stronger emotionally, and stronger spiritually because of being connected.  And we were not alone.  In fact, a number of folks have mentioned to me that the best thing that came out of Irma was this sense of connectedness.


I ask you this morning – are you weary and worn down?  Are in need of strength?  Do you wish to thrive – not just survive in Babylon?  Then do what Daniel did!  Live your life in a community of like-minded, committed friends.  For it is in community that we find the resilience we need to overcome storms of life.


By the way, this is one of the reasons we will be asking you over the next several weeks to join a small community group.  It will not only strengthen you for the demands that come with following Jesus.  But it will also help you live up to your best intentions in following His Word.  There is a reason athletes work out together.  And mountain climbers climb in tandem.  There is a reason that organizations like Weight Watchers and A.A. are structured like they are.  There is power in community.  The same principle applies for us as disciples of Jesus.  God has designed us this way.  That we pack each other’s parachute.  We have a better chance of living out our calling and our faith in Christ together.  Because God uses others to pack our parachutes – spiritually.  So live in community.


Second, live out your faith.  8 But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.


Up until verse 8 the Babylonians are driving the bus.  Its Nebuchadnezzar who conquers Jerusalem.  Nebuchadnezzar who carts off most of its citizens.  Nebuchadnezzar who enrolls Daniel and his friends in training for the court.  It’s Nebuchadnezzar who is responsible for their new names and new diets and new identities.  But in verse 8, Daniel takes action.  It would have been easy to play the victim.  It would have been safer to hang back and tend to his wounds.  It certainly would have been understandable if he had focused on self-preservation.  But Daniel asserts himself.  But God did not call Daniel to do that. And Daniel’s faith was not about that.  He decides not to defile himself with the food that was being served.  Maybe the food he was offered violated the Jewish ceremonial laws.  Maybe it was offered to idols.  We don’t really know.  What is clear is that Daniel feels the need to live out his faith.  And so, he goes to the dean of the school and discusses the menu.


In the same way, it would be so easy to take the experience of this past week and play the victim.  To turn inward and tend to our wounds.  Though we didn’t suffer like many did in this storm.  And our losses were not nearly as great.  It would be easy to focus on self-preservation.  And yet, that is not who we are called to be as Christian disciples.  That is not what our faith is about.  We profess to follow the one that gave his life to save many.  We profess to follow Jesus who came to serve and not to be served. As followers of Jesus we are striving to be like Him.  And Christ gave himself away in the service of others.


So, my challenge this week is to identify one way you can live out your faith and serve someone in need.  It might be helping a neighbor clean up their yard.  It might be providing a generator for those still without power.  It might be providing food for the local foodbank – many of their food stocks have been depleted by the storm.  It might be contributing to hurricane relief. It might be giving to UMCOR or joining a mission trip to compile flood buckets.  By the way these are all things that our church collectively has been doing since the storm and will continue to do.  But what about us as individuals?  How will you continue to live out your faith this week? What will we do to help another?


I was talking with a member of our church family this past week.  He had gone through Hurricane Charley.  It tore off part of the roof of his house.  Several windows were blown out.  Water poured into the dining room through the ceiling.  And yet, he said, he never doubted he would be okay.  He knew he had resources.  Starting with his Christian faith, including places to go, friends who loved him, insurance coverage and money in the bank.  My friend would be the first to tell you he is blessed.  And so are we.


And yet there are many who do not enjoy such reserves.  I am thinking about the migrant workers who are paid by the pound for the fruit they pick.  Fruit which has been destroyed by the winds.  Or the retiree living on a fixed income.  For whom money was already limited.  Hurricanes are expensive especially when things are tight. Or the many who work by the hour in restaurants and gas stations, in hotels and stores.  Places of business that were forced to closed for days after Irma.  And consequently, they had to go without paychecks.  People like Gwen Bush.  Maybe you saw an article about her in the media this week.  Gwen lives here in Orlando.  Her home like several hundred others was flooded.  Gwen is a security worker at the Amway center.  As Irma approached concerts and other events cancelled.  Which meant she didn’t get paid.  She was down to her last $10 before the storm.  How can we pack a parachute for Gwen Bush?   (


In Daniel’s case, it’s the living out of his faith in God that provides the pathway for God’s blessing.  Not only in Daniel’s life.  But in the lives of others.  The Bible says in verse 9 that when he acted – God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master.  In the same way, when we live out what we believe in the service of others, God’s blessings flow.  That’s the way God has chosen to work.  It’s why St Teresa of Avila once said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.”


In the Gospel of Matthew, it says that at the end time, all the world will be gathered before the throne of Christ.  And there will be those who have found life abundant and eternal.  And there will be those who have not.  And the difference will be whether or not they acted on their faith.  Giving a cup of water to the thirsty.  Feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.  Visiting the sick and imprisoned.  It’s those that do that, that enter into the reward of God.  Because you see we are all dependent upon each other.  We need others to help us make it through the day.  So live in community and live out your faith.


The truth is there will be another storm.  But I am not going to wait.  I am going to pack some parachutes.  How about you?  How about you?

Being a People of the Book, Part 2

2 Peter 1: 16-21

August 27, 2017

In 1997, DreamWorks Pictures released a movie about mutiny aboard a slave ship in 1839 off the coast of Cuba.  Based on a true story, it follows the struggle of the African slaves as they are captured by the US Navy and brought to America in chains.  There, unable to speak a word of English, they find themselves trapped in a legal battle.  Until ultimately, the case is resolved by the Supreme Court and they are freed (  The movie was directed and produced by Steven Spielberg, and movie starred Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins among others.  It was called – Amistad.  In our clip, today, two of the Africans are in prison awaiting trial when they are given a Bible.

The men don’t read or speak English.  They are not familiar with the history or culture of 1st century Palestine.  And the illustrations are clearly not African.  Yet, they are able to perceive the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Such is the power of the Gospel!

I share that with you because we have begun a new sermon series on being a people of the Book.  Over the course of six weeks we will be looking at the nature and authority of the Bible, at how to get the most out of it and how to teach it to our children and grandchildren.  I chose the series because I believe that our view of the Bible lies at the root of some of the most significant challenges we face as Christians today.  Our understanding of the nature and authority of the Scripture shapes how we live out our daily lives, how we get along with each other, and who we seek to include within the church family.

We began last week with inspiration.  And we started the assumption that the Bible is not God.  God is greater than any book.  And God is more profound than any writing.  And God is not limited to printed letters on a page.  Otherwise, God would not be God.  And we said there was no such thing as an interpretation free reading of the Bible.  Jesus interpreted the Scriptures, the Gospel writers interpreted the Scriptures and we interpret the Scriptures.  I am guessing that you did not greet others with a holy kiss when you came in this morning.  That you are most likely not wearing two kinds of fabric sewn together.  And you don’t have tassels sewn on the corners of your garment.  These are all things commanded in the Bible.  We all interpret the Bible.  And yet, the Bible is greater than anything we bring to it.  It is inspired.  It is God breathed.  And it is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness.

Today we are going to continue with inerrancy.  Specifically, is the Bible inerrant?  What does inerrant mean?  How important is it?  Take your Bibles and turn with me to our text this morning.  It’s found in the New Testament letter of 2 Peter.  We are going to read  chapter 1 verses 16-21.

Now as I mentioned last week, I come with Bible baggage.  In the church, I grew up in, the Bible was supreme.  It sat front and center of the sanctuary.  It was the focus of the worship service.  And it was not to be doubted.  Those who did were branded not Christian.  A long list that included Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Catholics and Methodists.  I’m not clear how the Lutherans escaped.  Any way as result of my upbringing, I preach on the inerrancy of the Bible with a good bit of trepidation.  And a deep relief my parents are not in church today.  Mom and dad – if you are listening to this on the website – walk away!

What about you?  What is the significance of the Bible to you?  Was this book a part of your upbringing?  Or have you encountered it only recently?  Were you taught that it is to be at the center of your faith?  Or that it was supposed to be pulled out in times of emergency?  Is it God’s perfect instruction for every aspect of our lives?  Or is it more of a guidebook for spiritual things?  Let’s see what Peter has to say as we read 2 Peter 1:16-21.

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.  We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

So a couple of observations from my research on 2 Peter.  And the first is that there is a bit of controversy over when it was written.  The controversy comes from a comment Peter makes about letters written by the apostle Paul.  In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter refers to these letters as scripture.  He is the only writer in the New Testament to do so.  Every other time someone in the New Testament refers to Scripture, it is referring to the Hebrew Scriptures – our Old Testament.  So why is this an issue?  The answer is – timing.  Paul wrote his letters 30 years after Christ – at the earliest.  Plus, it took some time for them to be accepted as Scripture.  When Paul’s letters arrived, folks didn’t open the mail and say – oh here’s the latest addition to the Bible!  For there to be enough time for Paul’s letters to be referred to as scripture, 2 Peter would have to be written as late as 80 or 90 or even 100 A.D.  Some scholars argue it was written as late as 160 A.D.  One of the last letters to be included in the canon of the Bible. And yet, we know from historical records that Peter was martyred by Nero in 68 AD.  So, there is a debate on that.

Second, one of the main issues that Peter seeks to address in his letter is the teaching of false prophets.  And in particular, their teaching about the return of Christ.  Jesus had promised that some of his disciples would not pass away before he came back.  But the years went on.  And more and more of those early disciples died.  And Christ had not returned.  And some false prophets began to claim that Jesus’ promise was not true.  And in response Peter gives two reasons to trust in the prophecy of Christ’s return.  First, he says he has personally witnessed the Transfiguration.  Jesus leads Peter, James and John up the side of high mountain.  Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear.  And Jesus’ face begins to shine like the sun.  And God says – this is my Son, whom I love.  With him I am pleased.  Peter saw the divinity of Christ with his own eyes.  Verse 16 – For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  

The second reason to trust in the prophecy of Christ’s return, says Peter, is that no prophecy ever came about by one’s own interpretation of things.  In our Bibles this morning, it says that no prophecy of scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things.  But in the Greek, verse 19 actually reads – But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.  In other words, while the authors of the NIV translation decided Peter was talking about the prophet’s interpretation, the original Greek leans towards the reader’s interpretation.  Combined with 2 Peter 3:16 which talks about twisting the teachings of the Scripture to suit one’s own purposes, Peter is clear.  All prophecy is from God!  And not a matter of our own creation.

So why is this important?  Why am I sharing all this?  Well, because 2 Peter 1 is one of the scriptures passages that is used to support the inerrancy of the Scriptures.  Inerrant means without error.  Or as some would say – incapable of error.  The term itself is not found in the Bible.  Rather its concept is drawn from a number of scriptures.  In a nutshell, inerrantists believe that Peter’s argument about the nature of prophecy applies to all the Scriptures.  Specifically, that the truth of the Scriptures is not a matter of our own subjective interpretation.  Rather the Scriptures are the Word of God, delivered by the Holy Spirit.  And since God is perfect and true and incapable of error – His word is perfect and true and incapable of error.

Perhaps the most definitive statement on the matter is known as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  In 1978, three hundred theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, and laity met in Chicago and produced a statement which says in part that: Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives (Hamilton, Adam. Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today (p. 159). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition).

When I was a freshman at Wheaton College, my Old Testament professor was a strict creationist.  He believed that the world was created in seven 24 hour days.  It didn’t matter what the geological record revealed.  It didn’t matter what archeologists said.  The Bible was God’s Word.  One day it would all become clear.  In the meantime, he was content to trust God.  After class I would walk across the quad and go into the science building where I would study biology and chemistry and physics.  And what I learned there, did not line up with what I read in the Bible.  For example, in Genesis chapter 1 it says that the earth, its atmosphere, water, dry land and vegetation were all created by God in the first three days.  And that it was on the fourth day that God created the sun and the moon.  In my classes I learned that it’s the earth’s distance from the sun that makes it possible for the earth to sustain life.  Planet earth is in the habitable zone of our solar system.  Where there is just enough sun for plant growth.  And yet, according to Genesis 1 says that plants sprang up and grew without sun (Hamilton, Adam. Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today (pp. 163-164). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition).

Maybe the author of Genesis was re-telling the creation story as it was understood in his time.  Or maybe he was trying to make a theological statement, not a scientific one.  I’m not really sure.  What I do know is that as a post-modern, North American Christian with a degree in Biology, I live in this tension.  Between what I read in the Bible which I believe with all my heart is God’s word.  And what I see through scientific observation which I know in my mind is fact.

This type of tension has led some to believe in what is termed a limited inerrancy.  Which can sound a bit like an exact estimate or a definite maybe to some.  Is it possible for the Bible be without error if some of it is not without error?  Can the Bible be incapable of error if it was only without error at delivery?  For some limited inerrancy is untenable.  They wonder if a subjective interpretation of one part can lead to the subjective interpretation of all parts, which Peter clearly speaks against.  Others, like me, use neither inerrancy or limited inerrancy to identify our belief in the authority of the Scripture.  Rather we trust that the truths God wants humanity to know are preserved in the Bible.  That much like the men in our video clip this morning, we will be able to discern the truth of Christ through the images the Bible presents.  Such is the power of the Gospel.

I ask you this morning – does the Bible have to be inerrant to be the primary source of God’s truth in our lives?  If so, why?  If not – why not?

It’s clear that God uses less than perfect things to accomplish His will. Read the Bible even a little and you realize that most of the major characters are, shall we say, less than ideal.  Abraham passes his wife off as his sister – twice – in order to save his skin! Moses is a murderer. David sleeps around. Peter denies Jesus three times. Whatever their accomplishments, most of the “heroes of the faith” are complicated persons with feet of clay.  Some say that’s the point.

In his book, Making Sense of the Bible, Adam Hamilton takes it a step farther.  He points out that every Sunday millions of people around the world listen to pastors and priests speak on behalf of God.  Yet God does not guarantee that what they say is without error.  Clearly Hamilton is referring to other pastors.  I haven’t made any errors – since at least 7:45!  Clearly God uses fallible people.  Hamilton, Adam. Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today (p. 166). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

So, how can we trust it?  If it isn’t perfect – how do we know it is true?  Rob Bell asks, how do you trust your mom or your dad?  How do you trust your teacher or the anchorperson who gives you your news?  They aren’t infallible.  They make mistakes.  But we trust them.  We trust them for their integrity not their perfection.

So, my challenge this week is to reflect on the integrity of the Bible.  Specifically, to reflect upon its continuity and its circulation.  Ask yourself – what is the significance of the Scriptures being composed by 40 different authors in three different languages on three different continents over the span of 1600 years and yet has remarkable continuity?  And second, how important is that the Bible is the most published book in the world, one that’s been translated into 1200 languages, survived bans and burnings, and is reread over and over again by billions?  The point is to get a broader and higher perspective on the Bible.  This book isn’t our own private message from our personal Jesus.  This is the Word of God. It’s the inspired, true and trustworthy Word of God.  Even if I can’t reconcile every part of it.

In 2011, Simon and Schuster published a book about Steve Jobs.  Jobs as you know was the late founder of Apple.  He was also an innovator in the fields of animated movies, music and digital media.  The book was based upon 40 different interviews with Jobs over a period of two years.  As well as interviews with more than a 100 friends, family members and competitors.  The book is Jobs’ authorized biography.  Meaning it wasn’t written by Steve Jobs.  It was written by a guy named Walter Isaacson – a pretty impressive guy himself.  Isaacson was a former chairman of CNN and managing editor of TIME.  Jobs invited Isaacson to write it.  The two men talked for hours.  Steve Jobs is quoted directly in it.  And Isaacson did his best to faithfully represent what Jobs had told him.  And yet, at the end of the day, it was still a representation of Isaacson’s understanding of who Steve Jobs was.

In the same way, God chose human beings to write his Bible.  They spent hours with Him in prayer discerning His will and following His spirit.  If you want a book that leads you to God, there is none better. You can find the actual word of God on the pages. But in the end, it also includes some of their reflections of his writers and  how they understood God to be.  It’s God’s authorized biography (Hamilton, Adam. Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today (p. 152). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition).

The truth is, this is God breathed. It is the power of God’s salvation.  It’s various stories that connects us to the truth of Christ.  It’s true!  Not because we individually subject fully discern to be true, because it’s God.

I, for one, am going to read it.  I am going to lean into it and seek to live into it.  Even if I can’t reconcile every verse and every paragraph.

How about you?  How about you?


Being a People of the Book, Part 1

2 Timothy 3: 16-17

August 20, 2017

So, I was doing a little reading this week on the Gettysburg Address.  Delivered on November 19th, 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, it is considered one of the greatest speeches in American history.  Just four and a half months before, 47,000 men had been killed, wounded or captured in three days of battle in and around Gettysburg, PA.  Lincoln had come to dedicate the national cemetery there.

It turns out that President Lincoln wasn’t even the featured speaker of the day.  That honor fell to a former Senator named Edward Everett.  Everett spoke for two hours.  Lincoln in the early stages of battling smallpox spoke for a mere two minutes.  Just ten sentences.  And yet it is Lincoln’s words that we remember (slide 1).  “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  By referring to the Declaration of Independence Lincoln sought to reframe the sacrifice of those at Gettysburg.  He wanted people to understand that these men had given their lives as part of a great cause to preserve equality and democracy.  They died, said Lincoln, so that a government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

His words were powerful. They reshaped the meaning of the war for people, reenergize their commitment and they strengthened the resolve of the union to continue despite horrific losses.  One hundred years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr would stand on the steps the Lincoln memorial and pay tribute to the power of Lincoln’s words (slide 2).  He would begin by saying in his “I Have a Dream” speech – Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In his book, Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner writes that words are the power of creation.  We say things like – I love you.  And I hate you.  And I forgive you.  And when we do, something that lies hidden in the heart is irrevocably released into time and ripples out through history like the rings from a stone tossed in a pool.  This morning we are going to talk about the power of words!  Specifically, the power of the words in this book!  So take your Bible and turn with me to the New Testament letter of 2 Timothy, chapter 3.  We will begin reading at verse 14 – 17.

Paul is writing to his protégé Timothy.  And he is encouraging him to remain firm in his faith.  He points to the character of those who have raised him.  He reminds Timothy that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ.  And he speaks of the inspiration of the Scripture.  All Scripture, he says, is God-breathed!  As students of the Bible, we know that at the writing of Paul’s letter, the New Testament had not yet been gathered and canonized.  So that ALL scriptures, would refer to the Hebrew Scriptures.  We know them as the Old Testament.  With that in mind, lets read together 2 Timothy 3:14 – 17.

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  2 Timothy 3:14-17

So if you were asked to describe the Bible – what would you say?  Would you say it is the word of God, authoritative in all matters of life and faith?  Or would you be more likely to say that it is a powerful work of literature that points beyond ourselves to a life of love and service?  Would you say that this book is the work of the Holy Spirit who dictated it word for word?  Or that it is a collection of stories and teachings written by men as the Spirit of God stirred within them?  Would you argue that it is meant to be read literally?  Or that should one expect to dig through layers of context and culture, not to mention a little used foreign language, in order to discern God’s heart?  If you were to describe the Bible, this morning, what would you say?

The truth is, there are many different beliefs about this Book – even within our own church family!  We don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to the Bible.  Which is healthy!  One of my favorite Ted Talks is called the Danger of One Story!  It is given by a Nigerian author by the name of Chimamanda Adichie.  In it she describes coming to America to attend college and meeting her roommate.  And how her roommate was shocked that Chimamanda she could speak English so well – even though English is the official language in Nigeria.  And how when her roommate asked to hear her tribal music, she was greatly disappointed by Chimamanda’s tape of Mariah Carey.  The roommate had formed an opinion of Chimamanda even before she met her.  She had a single story of Africa and it is the wrong story.  My point is, when we rub elbows with those who have different beliefs it helps us develop and claim our own!  Especially if it is done with respect and a desire to learn.  It’s healthy!  If we keep only to ourselves and our own story we run the risk of being trapped by ignorance of one story.

With that in mind, we are going to spend the next six weeks reflecting on what it means to be a people of the Book.  Specifically, we are going to reflect about the nature and authority of the Bible.  We are going to look at how to get the most out of it.  And how to teach it to our children and grandchildren. The goal is to have nothing less than a life changing encounter with the written Word of God.

Now, this morning I want to begin by sharing two assumptions and one points.  Full disclosure:  I came from a church had a very fundamental persuasion. A place where scripture was sacred and not to be questioned.

The first is that the Bible is not God.  God is greater than any book.  And God is more profound than any writing.  And God is not limited to printed letters on a page.  Otherwise, God would not be God.  Hopefully you are thinking – that’s it?  That’s the big assumption?  Thank you Captain Obvious!  Unfortunately, we can get so focused on the tangible book in front of us that we begin to equate it with the intangible God all around us.  Sometimes we confuse the Word of God with the WORD.   John 1:1 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 

In my reading this week, I was reminded that none of the historic creeds of the Church, those written in first 500 years after Christ, start with an affirmation of faith in the Scriptures.  They always start with an affirmation of faith in God.  We believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth.  And in Jesus Christ His Only Son our Lord!  (Hamilton, Adam. Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today (p. 140).  Which makes sense.  The New Testament wasn’t formally gathered together until 150 years after Christ.  And the Bible wasn’t really available to those outside the clergy for the first 1500 years of the Christian faith.  The vast majority of Christian disciples through history have relied on the work of the Holy Spirit instead of Scripture to discern God’s will.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you (John 14:26).  The Bible is not God.

My second assumption is that we all interpret the Bible.  That there is no such thing as an interpretation free reading of Scripture.  Everyone does some interpretation when they read the scriptures.  Jesus himself constantly interpreted the Scriptures.  It’s one of the reasons the religious leaders of the day were always getting mad at him.  He would say things like – you have heard it said – do not murder.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment (Matthew 5:21-22).  And you have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery.  But I say to you, if anyone looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:27-28).

The Gospel writers did the same thing.  John, at the end of his Gospel, says that Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book (John 21:25).  Which suggests that John chose which miracles to include or not include.  In so many words, he interpreted which signs were most important to write about.  Not only that he presented the events in such a way that they clearly conveyed a certain message.  For example, John alone records that Jesus died at the exact moment the Passover lambs were being slaughtered.  He wanted to underscore the image of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb.

And then there is the fact that we are influenced by our own story.  Where and when we were born.  The home we grew up in.  Our personality and even our successes and failures color the way we encounter God’s Word.  For example, the story of Noah.  You know, the flood and the boat and the animals two by two and the rainbow.  When I read that story I immediately kick into scientist mode.  I think of geography and how big the world is.  I think of how it took me 14 hours to FLY to Kenya – at 350 miles an hour.  It would take a LOT of rain to flood the earth!  And I think of geological records and scientific fact and the lack of a world-wide flood recorded in the earth’s layers.  I think of the size of a boat that would be required to house two of every known animal.  Not to mention how one puts lions on the same ship as antelope and zebras.  And I can’t even begin to think about how much food you would need to feed them all for a year.  Much less store it.  In short, I read the story through the glasses of a well-traveled, post enlightenment, post-modern North American with a degree in Biology.  And yet, at the time of its telling people didn’t travel like we do.  Most would not have traveled beyond a nearby village.  They didn’t have National Geographic.  Nor did they have CNN posting hour by hour coverage of the storm.  A flood in their corner of the world would be seen as a flood of all the world.  Two by two would have meant several dozen animals.  My point is that we bring our own story into the way we interpret the Scripture.  Even if we all agreed that the Scripture is the ultimate, inerrant truth of God, we would still struggle to agree on how it should be interpreted.

I ask you this morning.  How does your experience influence your reading of the Bible?  How do you protect such a thing happening? Should we protect against such a thing happening?

Now the Good News is – the Word of God is greater than anything we bring to it.  It is more powerful than even the most subjective interpretation.  Paul says that it is inspired (slide 3).  The Greek word that Paul uses here is theopneustos (thee-awe-new-stuss).  It’s found only once in all the Bible – right here in 2 Timothy 3.  And it’s made from joining two root words together.  Theo – which means God.  And pneo – which refers to breathing.  Like in our word pneumonia.  So that according to Paul all Scripture is God-breathed.

Remember how in Genesis God takes dust from the ground and creates Adam from it?  God takes the dust of the earth and He forms skin and bones and hair and brain.  And then He breathes life into the physical form of Adam and gives him life.  Life depends on breathing.  When we stop breathing we stop living.  We expire.  Which according to Google, literally means to expel breath from the lungs.  And if Google says it, then obviously, it’s true.  To expire is to breath out.  It means death.  On the other hand, to inspire is to breath in.  It’s to find life.   Paul says to be in the word of God is to be filled with the breath of God.  It’s to be given God’s life.

But it’s more than that.  To inspire is to create significance and meaning.  When God breathed into Adam He gave Adam a soul.  Adam already had the tangible body.  But God gives him and intangible spirit.  In short God gave meaning and significance beyond the physical.  Without the spirit our bodies are just a mass of matter.  In his book What is the Bible? – Rob Bell uses the example of a song.  He says that certain pieces of music move us.  They become significant for us and create memories for us.  They take on In so many words, they inspire us.  That is they become something greater than the tangible chords and notes and sounds and harmony.  When Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, his words took on a greater meaning and significance than letters and phrases on paper.  They brought life to our nation and shaped our understanding of history and inspired us. So when Paul says that Bible is inspired.  He is saying it literally fills us with the breath of God significant life.  Do you believe that? Do you believe the Bible is inspired?  What does that mean to you?  What does it mean for its role of your life?

My first point is scripture is inspired.  Second point is that Paul says that the Scripture is profitable or useful (slide 4).  Specifically, it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. 

One of my favorite passages of scripture is Psalm 51.  Psalm 51 is the prayer that David utters after he is confronted with his sin by Nathan the prophet.  In it David begs God to allow him to stay in God’s presence.  He pleads with God to leave God’s Spirit within him.  And he asks God to restore the joy of salvation in his soul.  There have been many times when I have prayed the very words of Psalm 51 as I felt distant and alienated from God.   When I wrestled with the brokenness of my life.  Several years I came across a commentary that defined the various terms David uses to describe his sin in Psalm 51.  Transgression means rebellion.  It is to oppose God’s will in our lives.  Iniquity means bent or twisted.  It is to wander from the road leading straight to God.  And for the first time I was able to verbalize, I could see the form and consequence of my sin.  Now, when I am tempted to say something or do something I shouldn’t or take something that doesn’t belong to me, I recognize that I am wandering from the road that leads to God. Now when I ignore that impression, that urge to share with another in need, I know that I am opposing God’s will for my life.  It gives me the opportunity to change my behavior.  I have found this scripture to be useful for life change.

D.L Moody once said that the Bible wasn’t given to increase our knowledge.  It was given to change our lives.  This Book is inspired.  This book is useful for changing our lives.

So, my challenge this week is to define your understanding of the Bible.  Take some time to prayerfully reflect on it and what the scriptures are all about.  And then write it down.  And then ask yourself what authority the Bible has.  We are going to talk about that next week.  The goal is to identify our motivation for reading it.  If we aren’t clear why we should study it.  And we don’t recognize its authority in our life, we won’t take it in and allow us to be changed by it.

In his book, God was in this Place and I, I did not Know It, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells the story of two Israelites crossing the dry bed of the Red Sea.  God has parted the water so that His people could escape the Egyptian army and slavery in Egypt.  As the story goes, Reuven and Shimon are walking across the floor of the Sea.  When they notice the bottom isn’t completely dry – like a beach at low tide.  Reuven says – what is all this muck?  Shimon scowls and says – there is mud all over the place!  To which Reuven replies – it’s just like the slime pits in Egypt.  Shimon responds – mud here, mud there, it’s all the same wherever you go.  And so it went for the two of them as they grumbled all the way across the bottom of the Sea.  And because they never once looked up, they didn’t understand why voices were singing in celebration, songs of praise on the distant shore.  For Reuven and Shimon the miracle never happened.  (Kushner, Lawrence.  God was in this place and I, I did not know it.  p. 27)  

The truth is, this Book is inspired. It’s the way to be filled with God’s breath.  It’s useful for change! It helps us look up!  You’ve got to look up! So, I am going to read it and study it.  I am going to look up.

How about you?  How about you?

Relentless: Jacob’s Story, Part 5

Genesis 29:31–30:13

July 30, 2017


In 2007, Universal Studios released a movie about a television news reporter who is elected to Congress and heads to D.C. eager to change the world!  But soon after his arrival strange things begin to happen.  Animals follow him for no apparent reason.  His beard reappears no matter how often he shaves it.  His alarm repeatedly goes off at 6:14 even when he doesn’t set it.  Evan soon realizes that the number stands for Genesis 6:14 – in which God instructs Noah to build an ark.  Within minutes God appears at Evan’s doorstep and tells him that he too is to build a large ship out of gopher wood.  The movie starred Steve Carell and Morgan Freeman and was called – Evan Almighty.

In the movie Evan’s wife Joan has had enough!  She thinks Evan is losing it.  She is worried for herself and scared for their children.  So she takes the boys and leaves.  But she doesn’t get very far before she finds a new perspective.

If someone prays for patience – do you think God gives them patience?  Or does He give them the opportunity to be patient?  If they pray for courage – does God give them courage?  Or does He give them the opportunity to be courageous?  If someone prays for a family to be closer – do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings?  Or does He give them opportunity to love each other?

I share that with you because we have been reflecting on God’s relentless grace.  We began with the birth of Jacob and his fraternal twin Esau.  And how God gives grace to the unlikely.  Three weeks ago we looked at Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac and how God’s grace is greater than our imperfections.  Two weeks ago we reflected on Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel.  And how God’s grace is not something WE DO.  Last week it was Jacob’s marriage to Leah and Rachel.  And how God’s grace is active even when we don’t see it.  Today we are going to look at the story of Leah and how God’s grace is greater that our disappointments.  So take your Bibles and turn with me to Genesis chapter 29, starting in verse 31.

Now, you will remember that Leah has some kind of issue with her eyes.  In verse 17 of chapter 29 it says – Leah had weak eyes.  Scholars aren’t really sure what that means.  In fact, depending on which translation you are reading, you will find a number of different words.  Some say that Leah had tender eyes.  Others say she has affectionate eyes.  Some even say she has broken eyes.  Most scholars are pretty clear that it does not mean Leah has weak vision.  They argue that if that had been the case the author would have just said so.  Rather, they think that weak refers to the way her eyes look.  That she has some kind of eye disorder that affects their appearance.

And you will remember that this results in all kinds of brokenness.  For example, Leah’s eyes play into Laban’s deception of Jacob.  What father switches one daughter for another on her wedding night?  One that is afraid he can’t marry his other daughter off.  In that time and place, an unwed daughter was a future concern.  Not to mention lost wealth in the present.  It’s pretty clear Laban is thinking with his wallet.  Imagine the hurt and the betrayal Leah feels.

And Leah’s weak eyes only highlight her sister’s beauty.  Rachel could have been a supermodel.  With her around, Leah has zero chance of being noticed.  Can you imagine being married to the same husband?  Every day faced with the opportunity to compare, to compete, to judge, to bicker.  In chapter 30, the sibling rivalry becomes so intense that they wind of bargaining for the opportunity of being Jacob’s baby momma.

Not that Leah’s relationship with her husband is one to write home about.  Jacob sees Rachel once and is immediately smitten.  He is willing to work years just to be with her.  On the other hand, Jacob is married to Leah and barely even notices her.  In fact, the Hebrew Bible makes it clear that there is no love in Jacob’s heart for her (Genesis 29:31).  With that in mind, let’s pick up the story in Genesis 29:31-35.

When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless. 32 Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben,[b] for she said, “It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.”  33 She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” So she named him Simeon.[c]  34 Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” So he was named Levi.[d]  35 She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “This time I will praise the Lord.” So she named him Judah.[e] Then she stopped having children. 

So Leah has a physical deformity in her eyes.  She’s a victim of her father’s deceit.  She is locked in a jealous sibling rivalry with her sister.  And she is desperately seeking the love of a husband that doesn’t want her.  Leah is the patron saint of disappointment.  And yet, God has not abandoned Leah.  And God does not withhold His grace from her.  In fact, God is at work in Leah’s disappointment to reshape her heart.  Verse 31 – When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless.

In my devotion time this past week I came across a written reflection about Pebble Beach.  Evidently, people come from all over to see the colorful pebbles which have been left behind by the raging California surf.  They begin as small stones trapped by the waves and relentlessly tossed and rolled and rubbed together.  Day and night they grind against the sharp edges of the cliffs.  Until they become smooth and beautiful, their colors brought out by the turmoil they have endured.  On the other hand, if you head just a little farther up the coast, you will find a quiet cove sheltered from storms and protected from the roar of the surf.  The pebbles that are found there have escaped from the grinding and tossing of the waves.  Consequently, the pebbles are rough, unpolished and lacking color.  In other words – and I am paraphrasing here – beauty is released through difficulty.

When I read that, I thought of Leah.  At first, all Leah wants is to be loved by Jacob.  She even names her first born Reuben.  Reuben sounds like the Hebrew phrase – I’ve been seen!  Leah is convinced that because God has seen her misery and given her a child, Jacob will love her.  And why wouldn’t he?  Leah has given Jacob the first good assurance that God would keep His word!  Reuben is the firstborn son!  Logically, he would be the seed that would carry forth the promise of Abraham!  Surely now Jacob would appreciate her!  Only it didn’t work out that way.  We know because she named her second son – Simeon.  Simeon means – I’ve been heard.  Leah was convinced that God heard Jacob didn’t love her so God gave her another son.  She names her third son Levi.  Levi is derived from the Hebrew word for attached.  Finally, she reasons Jacob will become attached to me.  It’s not until her fourth son arrives that Leah lets go of being consumed with desire for Jacob’s love.  She will struggle with it again in the future.  But for this moment she is content to find her security in God.  Judah means praise.  This time, she says, I will praise the Lord.  In other words, Leah is being refined.  As God enables her to have each son, He creates the opportunity for her to be confronted with her all-consuming need for Jacob.  God uses Leah’s disappointments to reshape her heart.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  I am NOT saying that God causes the disappointments in our lives.  I am saying God uses our disappointments for our good.  Personally, one of the greatest disappointments of my life was going through a divorce.  I got married my senior year in college.  Six years later I found myself somewhere I never imagined being – in divorce court.  It was so painful for us and so hurtful to our families and friends.  It punctured every area of my life – including my ministry.  I was so deeply disappointed.  But not for a moment do I believe that God caused that brokenness!  But I have come to see that inspite of that brokenness God was able to use it as an opportunity to grow me!  To mature in my understanding of what it takes to be love someone.  To develop compassion for those who have gone through the brokenness of divorce.  And become more aware of the impact of broken relationships upon those around us.  I’ve experienced the way that God has used my disappointments to reshape my heart.

What about you?  Have you ever been let down by someone you love?  Ever had a dream fall apart?  Ever been betrayed?  Or left behind?  Have you ever lost something or someone dear to you?  In what ways have you been disappointed?  In what way has God used them to refine or reshape your heart? In James 1:3 it says – Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

My first point today is that God uses our disappointments to reshape our hearts. Second, God uses our disappointments to fulfill his word.  35 She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “This time I will praise the Lord.” So she named him Judah.[e]

According to the source of all knowledge, Google, God first appeared to Jacob’s grandfather in 1738 B.C.E.!  Give or take a decade or two (!  And God said to Abraham – I want you to grab Mrs. Abraham, pack up your stuff and head out to a land that I will show you.  And if you do this, I will bless you.  I will make you a great nation.  And all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.  So that’s what Abraham did.  He packed up the tent, loaded up the camels and set off for a land that God would show him.  Seventy-five years later, give or take a year or two, God came to Jacob’s father Isaac and said – I will be with you.  And I will bless you.  And I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.  And through your seed all the nations on the earth will be blessed!  And Isaac believes this – even though his wife Rebekah is unable to have children.  So Isaac prays in faith, God answered his prayer. Two weeks ago we read how Jacob encounters God at Bethel. He has this dream where he sees a giant staircase with its top reaching the heavens.  From the top God says to Jacob – I am with you.  And will be with you wherever you go.  I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth.  All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring!  When Jacob wakes up, he takes a stone that he used for a pillow and pours oil on it.  And he makes a vow to God. I will give you a tenth of everything I receive.

But here in chapter 29, years later and miles away from Bethel, God’s promise seems almost comical.  Jacob might as well be in another galaxy.  He is so far from home and so far removed from his past. He has obtained the birthright and stolen the blessing, but his deceit has cost him everything.  He has been kicked out by his father.  His brother has threatened to kill him.  His father in law, after 7 years of hard work, has tricked Jacob.  So that in the morning – behold!  There was Leah!  And yet, God has not forgotten His promise.  God will keep His word.  When God saw that Leah was not loved, he enables her to conceive. Not once, not twice, not three times, all told Jacob will have twelve sons. Twelve sons who become the seed for the twelve tribes of Israel. So he goes from one man, to a nation. One of them, Leah’s fourth, will be the forefather of the chosen one.  Jesus Christ will come from the line of Judah.  So that God’s promise to bless the entire world is blessed through Jacob and his offspring is fulfilled.

Now notice God does not remove the messiness from Jacob’s life in order to fulfill His Word.  Rather He works in the midst of it.  And God does not steer around the disappointments in order to keep His promises.  Rather, he takes the disappointments and he turns them, through his grace, into the instruments of his mercy. He uses the very disappointments to carry out and fulfill his will in Jacob’s life. For example:  what if Laban had not deceived Jacob?  What if Leah hadn’t switched places with her sister?  Would Rachel have had 12 sons?  Would Judah have been born at all?  Would the Messiah have come at just at the right time?  In the same way God uses the ups and downs, ins and outs, the celebrations and disappointments in our lives to fulfill His will in us.

I ask you this morning.  What disappointment are you carrying today?  Can you see God at work in it?  What promise could God be keeping in you through it?

My challenge this week is to identify, and you claim, one promise that you see God bringing to completion in your life right now. Maybe it’s His promise to give you hope and a good future (Jeremiah 29:11).  Perhaps it’s God’s promise to never leave you or forsake you (Hebrews 13:5).   Maybe it’s His promise to restore your soul (Psalm 23:3) or to forgive you (1 John 1:9) or to strengthen you (Isaiah 41:10) or to give you wisdom (James 1:5). What promise is God bringing to completion in your life today?

If you aren’t sure, I challenge you to commit time this week to studying the promises of God.  There are all kinds of lists on-line on the promises of God.  The point is to be familiar with what God has promised.  If we aren’t, how can we tell if they are being fulfilled in our lives?

Like the past two weeks I have put a post-it note in your bulletin.  Once again we are going to write on it and post it on the wall of the Sanctuary.  Again we are asking you to identify God’s grace in your life.  Specifically, where you see God carrying out his word in you today.  Again make it anonymous.  We will be using them to create a visual statement about God’s relentless grace.  Who knows?  Perhaps your written word will be the vehicle that God uses to bring His grace to another?

Someone once asked Abba Anthony what one must do to please God?  The first two responses of the desert father were expected – always be aware of God’s presence.  Always obey God’s word.  The third response surprised his listeners. The advice?  Wherever you find yourself – do not easily leave.  I ask you this morning.  If someone prays for patience – do you think God gives them patience?  Or does He give them the opportunity to be patient?  If they pray for courage – does God give them courage?  Or does He give them the opportunity to be courageous?  In the words of God in Evan Almighty:  If someone prays for a family to be closer – do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings?  Or does He give them opportunity to love each other?  Wherever you are – do not easily leave.  “The good man does not escape all troubles — he has them too.  But the Lord helps him in each and every one.”  Psalm 34:19 

The truth is God’s grace IS greater than our disappointments.  By His grace he uses our disappointments to reshape our hearts.  And to fulfill his promises.  So I am going to claim the promises of God. I am going to trust and lean into the power of his grace. How about you?  How about you?