Skip to content

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.    http://www.wingclips.com/movie-clips/evan-almighty/pray-for-the-opportunity

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 (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/Abraham)!  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?

 

Relentless: Jacob’s Story, Part 4

Relentless: Jacob’s Story, Part 4

July 23, 2017

I have been doing a little research on termites this week.  And I have come to the conclusion that termites have been given a bum rap.  True, they aren’t particularly good for the homes we live in.  But they are actually a very important part of the ecosystem. They turn dead and decaying trees into new dirt.  Plus, their tunnels help aerate the soil. In addition, they are very community oriented.  They spend a lot of time grooming each other – which helps protect their colony from parasites and harmful bacteria.  And they co-parent!  In bee colonies, men bees die shortly after having babies.  But men termites stick around, helping to feed the kids with pre-digested food.  Yummy! (www.thoughtco.com/fascinating-facts-about-termites-1968587)

Why the moment from National Geographic?  Well, because we have had a termite infestation at church this week.  I was able to grab a screenshot.  It’s pretty shocking!  If you have a weak stomach you might want to look away.  This is Tina the Termite.  Tina came by this week to let us know that God is for you!  If you were at VBS you would know the proper response to that is to shout – WOW GOD!  So let’s try that again – just to give a little taste.  God is for us!  WOW GOD!  When we have something hard to do.  Or it seems like the world is against you.  Or life just seems rough.  Remember that a mighty God is on your side.  Romans 8:31 says – if God is for us, who can ever be against us!

I share that with you because we have been reading through the story of Jacob.  Pastor Craig started us three weeks ago with the birth of Jacob and his fraternal twin Esau.  And how God gives grace to the unlikely.  Two weeks ago we looked at Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac and how God’s grace is greater than our imperfections.  Last week we reflected on Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel.  And how God’s grace comes along the way.  Today we continue with Jacob’s marriage to Leah and Rachel.  And how God’s grace is active even when we don’t see it.  So take your Bibles and turn with me to Genesis 29. We will start reading at verse 15.

One of the things that we will notice about our text, is that it is clearly written from a male perspective.  For example, while Jacob’s love is referenced and described multiple times, there is no mention of any feelings or emotions on the part of the women.  On top of that, Rachel and Leah are evaluated by their physical appearance.  Rachel to her figure.  Leah to her eyes.  And they are treated like property secured as a part of a business deal.  Not to mention one strange honeymoon.  Which is only about Jacob and his experience.  This is only half the story.  It’s important to acknowledge this. Particularly to young women and young men who are learning to read the Bible.  

Now, the last time we saw him, Jacob was on the run.  His brother wants to kill him.  His father has kicked him out.  So he heads to his uncle’s house.  Along the way, he has this dream of a giant staircase reaching from earth to heaven.  And standing at the top is God who promises to be with Jacob and bless Jacob.  Eventually, Jacob reaches Harran.  At the village well, he meets his cousin Rachel as she shepherds her father’s flock.  She runs and tells her father.  Laban invites Jacob in.  And the two quickly realize they go together – like peas and carrots.  Let’s pick up the story in verse 15.  

After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month, 15 Laban said to him, “Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.”  16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah had weak[a] eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful. 18 Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”  19 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.  21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”  22 So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. 23 But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her. 24 And Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter as her attendant.  25 When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?”  26 Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. 27 Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.”  28 And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. 29 Laban gave his servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her attendant. 30 Jacob made love to Rachel also, and his love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years.

In 1995, singer Alanis Morissette released her hit single – ironic.  It’s like rain on your wedding day.  It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid.  It’s good advice that you just didn’t take.   The only problem is that everything Morissette sings about isn’t ironic.  As Morissette herself allegedly said, “the irony of ‘Ironic’ is that it’s not an ironic song at all.

According to the source of all knowledge – Google – irony is a state of affairs or event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects (www.rd.com/funny-stuff/funny-examples-of-irony/).  For example, Monster’s Inc. is a corporation run by monsters. Their job is to scare children.  When in reality they are scared of children.  It’s ironic. Every year ABC adds more commercials to its holiday special – A Charlie Brown’s Christmas.  Which of course, is about the over commercialization of Christmas!  Isn’t that ironic?

In our text today, Jacob is deceived by his father-in-law.  This is the same Jacob who dressed up in his brother’s clothes and put animal skins on his arms and neck so that his father would think he was his brother.  He is a con man.  Ironically, he becomes the victim of a con!  In that culture, by virtue of his birth order the first born son was given certain privileges and opportunities.  Not to mention a double portion of the estate. Jacob, a second born, secures the birthright and blessing that were the right of his older brother.  Only to have the birth order of Rachel and Leah ironically used against him. Jacob comes out of the womb grabbing onto his brother’s heel.  And from that moment on their relationship is marked by competition.  It takes years but Jacob finally breaks free of his dysfunctional family.  Only to be immersed in another dysfunctional family. Ironically he trades a feud between brothers for a feud between wives.  God promised that Jacob’s descendants would be like the dust of the earth.  And that Jacob’s influence would expand to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.  All peoples on earth will be blessed through him.  And yet, seven long years of hard work later, all Jacob has to show for it is a wife that he didn’t ask for or want.  Over and over again, Jacob’s life seems to head in the opposite direction one expects it too.

Have you ever felt like you were headed the wrong way?  Have you ever wondered if God had turned away from you?  Ever struggled to believe that God’s promise of a future would ever come true?  The truth is, life doesn’t always turn out the way we expect it. Sooner or later we find ourselves in the gap between God has said and what we see in our lives.  Eventually we all wake up to Leah even though we have chosen Rachel.  It’s then that we have to make a decision.  Will we trust that there is more happening than meets the eye?  Will we choose to believe that God is at work in ways we cannot see or understand?

In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes about the times in his life when things didn’t turn out the way he envisioned they would.  He uses the analogy of Autumn.  And how Autumn is a time of decline.  In Autumn, the days grow shorter and light grows less direct.  And things move towards the decay and dormancy of winter. Palmer argues that in the Autumn times of life it is easy to become fixated on surface appearances.  On the decline of a relationship or the death of a dream.  And yet, if we were to look more deeply, we would see a myriad of possibilities being planted so as to bear fruit in the season to come.  He goes on to say that in retrospect he can now see that the job he lost helped him find work he needed to do.  How the “road closed” sign turned him toward terrain he needed to travel.  How losses that felt irredeemable forced him to discern new meanings he needed to know.  He says, on the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, Josey-Bass 2000, pages 98 – 99).

In so many words, God’s grace was active even though it could not be seen until later. God’s power and God’s love and God’s Will were still at work even though it wasn’t apparent at the time.  David in Psalm 23 puts it this way – surely goodness and mercy WILL FOLLOW me all the days of my life.  David does not say that only good things will happen all the days of his life.  But that God His shepherd would bring good out of all things.  Even the struggles.  Even the disappointments.  Even the brokenness.

In Jacob’s case, the fulfillment of God’s promise would come through Leah.  Jacob longed for Rachel.  She was the desire of his heart.  He had to be tricked into marrying Leah.  Yet it was through Leah’s offspring that the Jesus Christ the Messiah would come.  In the end, God had not abandoned Jacob.  God had not forgotten His promise.  The seeds of its fulfillment were being sown even though it did not look like it.  Jacob doesn’t realize it until the end of his life.  On his deathbed he prophesizes over Leah’s son Judah.  “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs comes and the obedience of the nations is his…” Genesis 49:10  

I ask you this morning.  What are you struggling with?  Where is the gap between what you see and the life God has promised?  Do you trust that God has not forgotten you?  Do you believe that His grace is active even though you cannot see it?  Remember Tina the Termite.  God is for you!  Our Mighty God is on your side.  You are not an orphan.  You are a child of the Most-High God.  “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for[f] a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  Luke 11:11-13

So my challenge this week is to acknowledge those places where you need help.  To name those areas of your life where you do not see God’s hand at work.  And to ask for the faith you need to trust in God.  For by grace you have been saved THROUGH FAITH. Faith is the vehicle that delivers God’s saving grace.

Like last week I have put a post-it note in your bulletin.  In just a minute you will be invited to take it out and write on it.  It can be a word.  It can be a sentence.  Whatever speaks to you about that area of your life where you long to see more of God’s grace. Where are you tempted to take matters into your own hands?  In what area of life are you lacking faith?  Jesus said ask and you will receive.  The first part of asking is to name it.  Be sure and make it anonymous.  Like last week we are going to put them up on the wall where others can see them.  Maybe through your words they will come to recognize the presence of God’s hand in their own lives.  In the coming weeks we are going to use them to create a visual statement about the places and ways that God’s grace comes to us and sustains us.

In Isaiah 30:18 it says – Therefore will the Lord wait, that He may be gracious unto you.  We often talk about waiting on God.  But Isaiah speaks of God waiting on us.  Why? Andrew Murray says it’s because God is a wise gardener who waits for the autumn and spring rains.  God knows that He cannot gather the fruit until it’s ripe.  And He knows precisely when we are spiritually ready to receive blessings for our gain and His glory.  It took thousands of years, but when the time had fully come, God sent His Son – Galatians 4:4 (Streams in the Desert, Zondervan, 1977, p. 283).

The truth is life doesn’t always work out the way we envisioned. True, sometimes we find ourselves with Leah but longing for Rachel. But God’s grace is at work even when we cannot see it. So I am going to trust that God is for us. How about you?  How about you?

Relentless: Jacob’s Story, Part 3

Genesis 28:10-22

July 16, 2017

I saw a video this week about the six different generations in our society today.  It described the demographics and the unique characteristics of each.  As well as the specific events that have influenced each generation.  Whether you are a builder, a silent, a boomer, a buster, a millennial or a Gen Z, there were significant historical events that occurred while you were growing up that shaped your understanding of the world in which we live.

(www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfYjGxI6AJ8&feature=em-share_video_user).

For example, do you remember where you were at 11:39 in the morning on January 28th, 1986?  I do.  I was in a political science class.  About half way through the lecture a commotion started in the hallways.  Someone had brought out a television set – this was before everyone had laptops – and people had gathered around.  The Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded 73 seconds into its flight – killing all 7 crew members.  Yes, I am a Gen X-er.  Which surprises some folks!  Don’t let my white hair fool you.  I dye it to look wise.

Or how about 8:45 am on September 11, 2001?  For most of us that is a no brainer.  I was driving to a clergy retreat in Leesburg when Robyn called and told us to turn on the news.  9/11 brought terrorism home to us on level that we had ever experienced before.  And yet, there is an entire generation that has come along since then.  Two of my children were nothing but a gleam in their momma’s eye.  Life in America changed on 9/11.  But Generation Z’s have never known otherwise.

One more.  For the more experienced in our congregation.  How about 12:30 pm on November 22, 1963?  The assassination of JFK.  Our 35th president was riding in a motorcade in Dallas when three shots rang out from the Texas School Book Depository.  Do you remember where were you on that morning?  If you are a Baby Boomer, chances are you do.  Regardless of what generation we belong to – there have been specific moments that have shaped your perspective of the world.

I share that with you because this morning we are going to think about those defining moments that have formed our faith.  Those events in our personal history that have changed the way we understand God, God’s love for us and God’s call upon our lives.  So take your Bibles and turn with me to Genesis, chapter 28.  We will begin reading at verse 10.  We have been reading about Jacob.  Pastor Craig started two weeks ago with Jacob’s birth.  And the birth of his fraternal twin Esau.  He shared how God gives grace to the unlikely.  Last week we read about Jacob’s deception of Isaac.  How he tricked his father into thinking he was Esau so that he could get his father’s blessing.  And how God’s grace is greater than our imperfections.  Today we are going to read of Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel.  Let’s see what happens as we read Genesis 28:10 – 21.

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it[c] stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.[d] 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”  18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel,[e] though the city used to be called Luz.  20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord[f] will be my God 22 and[g] this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”

So as I was preparing this week, I discovered something very interesting.  In our translation verse 12 reads – He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  But in the original Hebrew, verse 12 goes something like this.  He had a dream and BEHOLD a ladder was set on earth with its top reaching to heaven.  And BEHOLD the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  The same thing happens in verse 13 which begins – and BEHOLD the Lord stood above it.  And again in verse 15 which says – BEHOLD I am with you.   The Hebrew word for BEHOLD is hinneh.  It means look at this!  Don’t miss this!  Be sure to see this!  So that four different times in four verses the original text says pay attention!

Which tells me that Jacob’s encounter with God wasn’t expected.  It was a surprise!  Remember what Jacob says when he wakes up?  Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it (verse 16)!  And so this morning, I want to share with you three things you need to know when it comes to experiencing God’s grace.  So that we will not miss it!  And the first is that God’s grace is found in the ordinary places of life.  11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

Jacob is on the run.  His brother Esau has vowed to kill him.  His father Isaiah has sent him away.  He’s burned his bridges.  As the sun sets he finds a place to lie down.  It’s not anything special.  Just a place to rest and get his bearings.  And yet it’s in that ordinary place that God appears to Jacob.  If I were God, I would pick a location with a little more pizzazz to set my stairway.  Something the majestic features of the Grand Canyon.  Or the vibrant colors and warm breezes like the Florida Keys at sunset.  Instead, God chooses a field on the outskirts of nowhere to pour out His grace.

If the story of Jacob tells us anything, it tells us that we don’t have to trek to a holy site to find God.  We don’t have to make a pilgrimage to the side of a mountain.  We don’t have to sequester ourselves in a monastery.  We can encounter God’s grace in our car.  In the office.  At the ball field and in the living room.  God turns the everyday into the meeting place between heaven and earth!  He makes the ordinary sacred.

My first awareness of God’s grace occurred in a cement block classroom with the little wooden chairs and a flannel board.  My Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Thompson, was talking about having a relationship with Jesus.  I don’t remember everything she said.  I don’t remember anything she said really.  I just remember wanting to know Jesus. The way Mrs. Thompson talked about it sounded wonderful.  And so early the next morning, I went into my parent’s room and asked them how I could know Jesus.

I ask you this morning – are you looking for God’s grace?  Are you eager for His presence?  Don’t look on the mountain.  Look in the ordinary everyday.

Second, God’s grace doesn’t come from something we do.  12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

I was reading recently about the tower of Babel.  That strange story in Genesis chapter 11 about human beings coming together to build a city with a tower that reached the heavens?  So that they could make a name for themselves and not be scattered across the earth.  And how God confuses their language so that they do not understand each other.  And therefore are unable to attain security and significance through their own efforts.

Did you know that Babel is the Hebrew word for Babylon?  It comes from the Akkadian word meaning the gate of God.  Babylon was known for its ziggurat temples that stair-stepped to the sky (pic 4).  See the connection?  Scholars argue that Bethel was God’s answer to Babel.  Bethel means house of God.  It was the meeting place between heaven and earth.  Where angels ascended and descended a giant staircase shaped much like the tower in Genesis 11.

When I was a child we used to sing a song about climbing Jacob’s ladder.  It is an old spiritual sung by slaves about overcoming oppression.  In our passage today, the translators have changed the word to staircase.  Which is theologically correct.  Because a ladder implies climbing.  And we don’t climb our way to heaven.  Our significance and our security is found in Jesus Christ who came down to earth.  In so many words, Jesus is the ultimate staircase to heaven. Titus 3:5 says – He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

I ask you this morning – when did you first realized that your security and significance came from God?  Where were you when you first understood that God’s presence isn’t dependent upon the things we do?  Where is your Bethel?

Finally, God’s grace comes along the way.  20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord[f] will be my God

While we were in Kenya this past month, we visited the David Sheldrick Elephant orphanage in Nairobi.  It’s this sanctuary for baby elephants who are found alone in the bush.  Either their parents were killed by ivory poachers or they have fallen into a dried river bed and broken a leg and have been left to die.  The Sheldricks worked for years to perfect the right formula to feed the elephants.  Through trial and error, they developed a very specific technique to overcome the elephant’s trauma of being orphaned.  It’s extensive.  The baby elephants are adopted by a human family of keepers who are with them 24 hours a day – even sleeping with them.  Slowly they teach the young elephants to feed themselves – first weaning them from the bottle and then slowly introducing vegetation.  They encourage play time by providing a large number of toys. And take the elephants on long walks so that they learn to explore and grow comfortable being in the bush.  Eventually, the elephants are released back into the bush where in time they are adopted by a new herd.  But it takes years of constant nurture and encouragement for them to reach that maturity.

The same is true for us spiritually.  Our growth into God’s will for our lives does not happen all at once.  Rather it occurs over years as God’s Spirit works within us.  Just as we grow from infant to toddler to child to youth to young adult to adult physically so we grow from infant to toddler to child to teen to young adult to adult spiritually.  Paul in 1 Corinthians says – I could not give you solid food.  Because you are still spiritual babies.

Even after his encounter with God’s grace Jacob had a lot of growing up to do.  He prayed – If you will be with ME.  And you watch over ME.  And provide ME with food and clothing.  And make sure I get home to MY house, then will you can be my God.  Clearly Jacob was not yet done.  It would take over 20 years before he reaches peace with God and lives into God’s gracious will.

The good news is that God’s grace keeps coming.  Like waves on a beach, it continues to roll into our world.  Philippians 1:6 says – being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.  God’s grace doesn’t come at the finish line.  It comes along the way.

So my challenge this morning is to identify your Bethel.  That everyday ordinary place.  That place along the way.  Not of your own doing where you met God.  Your Bethel might be a specific location.  It might be a transformative event that changed your perspective.  Something like 9/11 or the explosion of the challenger did for entire generations.  It might even be a phase or period in your life that you went through.  I ask you this morning do you know where you were when you first became aware of God’s grace?  I challenge you this morning to pay attention to it.

To help with this we have placed a post-it note in your bulletin.  And we have made sure there are pencils in the pews.  We ask you to write down a word or phrase identifying your house of God.  And then we ask that you take that post-it note and put it up on one of the walls.  We ask you to do this as an encouragement for others.  Since God’s grace is unexpected we have a tendency to overlook it.  We can help our brothers and sisters by lifting up the many places we have encountered God.  To make this an even more powerful tool of awareness we are going to be collecting the notes over the next couple of weeks and creating a visual statement in our courtyard out of them.  So please, after the offering plate has gone by and through the closing hymn, write down the location of your Bethel and put it on the wall.

If you struggle to identify your Bethel, know that you are not alone.  Personally, I have never seen a ladder reaching to heaven.  I’ve never been visited by an angel – that I am aware of.  I have never heard the audible voice of God.  I don’t know a lot of folks who have.  So, how do you know if you have ever encountered God up close and personal?

I would argue that the fact that you are here is evidence that God has entered into your world.  Ephesians 2:4 – Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead through our trespasses…  The Bible says that God reaches out to us first.  Any step we take toward God is a response to His grace.  We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).  As United Methodists we use the term PREVENIENT Grace to describe this action of God taking the initiative.  Pre – meaning before.  And Venieo – meaning that which goes.  Prevenient grace is the loving favor of God that goes before.  If you are here this morning, it’s because God has first reached into your world and showered you with His grace.  You just might not be aware of it yet.  What did Jacob say?  Surely, the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!

The truth is God has rested a stairway on earth, with its top reaching heaven.  Jesus Christ is the ultimate stairway, we find our significance and security in him.  Through His Spirit we receive grace upon grace.  So I am going to look and pay attention….   How about you? How about you?

Relentless: Jacob’s Story, Part 2

Genesis 27:  14-29

July 9, 2017

As I was preparing this week, I came across a story on the Comrades marathon in South Africa.  It’s actually more of an ultra-marathon.  One of the oldest and toughest events of its kind.  56.1 miles along the rugged coast of the Indian Ocean.  According to race rules, if you don’t finish within 12 hours you are forcibly put on rescue vehicles and taken to the end of the course.  Your race is done.  The fastest runners, the finishers, complete it in under 6 hours.  Which is nuts.  But what is even crazier is that every year 23,000 masochists decide it’s a good idea to run it.

Now, according to the story, the 8th place finisher at Comrades in 1999 was a young man named Sergio Motsoeneng.  Sergio grew up in an impoverished village in central eastern South Africa.  In an interview at the finish line, he shared that he was going to donate his top ten finisher gold medal and his $1000 prize money to his father and the people back in their village.  Which understandably got all kinds of attention!  But then a local newspaper published some photos from the race.  They showed that at some point in the race, Sergio switched his watch from his left wrist to his right wrist.  And somehow grew a scar on his left shin.  Turns out Sergio wasn’t one but two people.  About 45 minutes into the race, Sergio ducked into a port a potty where his twin brother Fika was waiting.  Sergio removed his shirt, hat, racer’s bib and even shoes and gave them to his brother who then continued the race.  They did this several times throughout the race in essence making it a relay.  They were consequently disqualified, stripped of his rewards, and banned from racing for 10 years.  Sergio would return 11 years later and place 3rd in the Comrades marathon.  Only to test positive for a banned substance.

It’s kind of a crazy story.  It speaks to me about the amazing lengths we will go to achieve recognition and affirmation, importance, and influence.  Maybe not by running 56 miles.  But maybe through selling our souls to build our career.  Or by accumulating outrageous possessions.  Even our charity work can become a badge that we wear to draw attention.  The truth is we all want to be successful.  We all want to be acknowledged.  We all want to make sure we are taken care of.  It’s part of our human nature.

I share that with you because today we are going to read about a man who went to extraordinary lengths to secure for himself the means and the power he felt he needed to get ahead.  I’m talking of course, about Jacob.  We started his story last week.  Pastor Craig led us in reflection on his birth and the birth of his fraternal twin Esau.  And how God gives His grace to the unworthy.  And that God’s relentless grace rolls into our lives and refreshes us each morning like waves on the beach.  Today we are going to look at Jacob’s attempt to obtain his father’s blessing.  So, take your Bibles and turn with me to Genesis chapter 27.  We are going to read verses 14-29.

As our story begins, Jacob’s father, Isaac has grown old and he’s not sure how long he’s going to be around.  He feels old and ready to give his blessing to his eldest and favorite son Esau.  So, one day he calls Esau in and tells him to go hunting.  And to prepare some of Isaac’s favorite food with the kill and bring it back so Isaac can bless him.  Unbeknownst to Isaac, his wife Rebekah overhears me and quickly devises a plan to ensure that her youngest and favorite son Jacob will receive the blessing.  Basically, she comes up with this scheme to make Jacob smell and feel like Esau.  It will take a lot more than switching racing bibs and running shoes in a port a potty.  And at first Jacob is hesitant.  But with a little reassurance from his mother, he jumps right in.  Let’s pick up the story in verse 14 of Genesis 27.

14 So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it. 15 Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. 16 She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins. 17 Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made. 18 He went to his father and said, “My father.”  “Yes, my son,” he answered. “Who is it?”  19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”  20 Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?”  “The Lord your God gave me success,” he replied.  21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.”  22 Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he proceeded to bless him. 24 “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked.  “I am,” he replied.  25 Then he said, “My son, bring me some of your game to eat, so that I may give you my blessing.”  Jacob brought it to him and he ate; and he brought some wine and he drank. 26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come here, my son, and kiss me.”  27 So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.  28 May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness—an abundance of grain and new wine.  29 May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you.  Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.  May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.”

So, a little bit of background.  In that time and culture, being the first-born son came with a number of rights and privileges.  For one, by virtue of his birth order, the eldest son would possess the birthright.  This entitled him to a double share of the inheritance.  And it meant that one day he would assume the position as head of the household.  All authority and privileges of that role would be his.  And the rest of the family would follow his leadership.  Think Queen Elizabeth.  It is believed that Queen Elizabeth will never abdicate the throne of England because of her sense of duty over self.  But if she did, Prince Charles as the firstborn, would then be crowned king and take on the authority, the responsibilities and the rewards of the position.  If Charles abdicated, Prince William would be next in line as his firstborn.  And so on.  The birthright in the Old Testament was a somewhat similar arrangement.  Right down to the fact that it also could be relinquished.  And we know that this is what Esau did when he sold it to Jacob for a pot of stew.

Besides the birthright, there was also the father’s blessing.  During the time of the Patriarchs the father’s blessing acted as sort of a last will and testament.  Like Joseph, it wasn’t reserved just for firstborns, the firstborn son did receive the larger, more significant blessing.  This was particularly true in Isaac’s case, where the blessing included not only greater material wealth, but also the fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham that he would become the father of a great nation.  The one who received it would become an agent of God’s blessing of the world.  In other words, it carried great significance, recognition, and security.

And this is what Jacob wanted – badly.  So much so he was willing to outright lie and deceive to his own father to get it. He literally would indite God and include Him in his deception.  It didn’t matter that he already had the birthright.  It didn’t make any difference that Esau was the rightful recipient.  In his mind, if he had only been born 5 minutes earlier it would all be his anyway.  Jacob had a me-first attitude.  What I am trying to say is that Jacob was far from perfect.  One day, he would become the father of the 12 tribes of Israel.  But for now, he was deceitful, dishonest and self-centered.  He’s in the middle of God’s plan, but he certainly doesn’t act like it or sound like it.

And yet, as theologian David Ramos argues, THAT IS EXACTLY THE POINT.  If the story of Jacob tells us anything, it’s that God does not restrict his presence to perfect people.  And God does not limit his love to those who have their act together.  He does not withhold His grace from anyone – regardless of how self-centered, how me-first they are!  In fact, God’s grace is greater than our imperfections!

Take Isaac for example.  Isaac knew that God had promised to make his father Abraham the father of many nations.  He recognized that the fulfillment of God’s promise would come through his own self.  His experience of being spared upon the altar was seared into his memory.  And yet having two children wasn’t exactly progress on that promise – especially if your firstborn didn’t seem to have any interest in the matter.  And the Philistines still very much controlled the land promised to God’s people.  So, Isaac decides to take matters into his own hands.  He knows it’s wrong.  That’s why he is meeting Esau in secret.  The blessing of his oldest son should have been a family affair.  It should have taken place in the living room in front of everyone.  And not in the bedroom away from his spouse and second son.  But Isaac doesn’t want to wait for God any longer.  So, he works against God’s will.  He works outside of God’s plan.

And yet, God does not abandon Isaac.  God does not turn his back on him.  Isaac is not cut off.  He becomes a Patriarch of God’s people.  His offspring will become the 12 tribes of Israel.  He is even commended for his faithfulness in sticking to his guns and refusing to give Esau a second greater blessing!  In Hebrews 11:20 it says that by faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

And take Rebekah.  Before Esau and Jacob were born, God personally spoke to her and told her that the older son would serve the younger son (Genesis 25:23).  And then one day she overhears her husband talking to Esau.  Isaac is going to do something in secret.  Something she doesn’t agree with.  More importantly, something that didn’t fit with her understanding of God’s word.  Frustrated and sensing defeat, she moves and schemes and connives that will fulfill God’s proclamation.  In Rebekah’s mind – what else could she do?  And so she participates in the deception of her husband and deceives her son.  She too has her flaws.  She too is far from perfect.

And yet, God does not forget Rebekah.  Nor does God refuse her grace.  She is able to save Jacob’s life.  She makes sure that Jacob gets connected to the family of his future wives.  And she goes on to become the great-grandmother of hundreds.  The great-great-great grandmother of thousands of God’s children. Rebekah too is remembered with honor in the New Testament.  In Romans 9 Paul cements her role as a matriarch of God’s people.

In her book, A Stone for a Pillow, Madeleine L’Engle writes that the glorious point of Jacob’s story is that we do not need to be perfect for our Maker to love us.  Scripture asks us to look at Jacob as he really is, to look at ourselves as we really are, and then realize that this is who God loves.  She goes on to say that God did not love Jacob because of his resourcefulness, or his cheating or scheming.  But because he was Jacob.

I ask you this morning – are you certain of God’s love for you?  Are you focused on God’s grace rather than your flaws?  Do you trust that God will not turn away from you?  Or are you convinced that your imperfections render you somehow unworthy of His grace?  The truth is, God’s grace is greater than our imperfections.

Of course, this does not mean we won’t face consequences.  When you pull the old switch-a-roo with your twin while running a marathon you get disqualified and banned.  And when you deceive your father and steal from your brother what is rightfully his you have to leave home.  Esau eventually returns from his hunt.  He quickly realizes that Jacob has deceived their father and has received the blessing meant for him.   He flies into a rage and threatens to kill his brother.  Which is not good.  Remember Esau is a hunter.  He regularly handles guns.  Jacob likes to hang around the tents and cook.  He is good with kitchen utensils.  Remember rock, paper, scissors?  Rock beats scissors.  Guns beat kitchen utensils.  So, Jacob flees.  He won’t return for another 21 years.  He will never see his mother again.  Though Isaac has spoken words of material blessing he leaves with nothing more than the shirt on his back.  He achieved his objective of Isaac’s blessing.  But at what cost?  He may have won the battle.  But he lost the war.  His sin didn’t pay.

When I say that God’s grace is greater than our imperfections what I mean is this:  God can overcome and even use our imperfections to His good.  The image that comes to mind is that of Kintsugi.  I recently learned about this Japanese form of art (kintsugi pic 1).  Comes from a legend in 1400 Japan. Kintsugi comes from two words.  Kin meaning golden.  And Tsugi meaning joiner.  The story is told of an ancient Shogun of Japan.  Who in the late 14th century broke his favorite tea bowl.  He sent it to China for repair.  But upon its return was horrified by the ugly metal staples that were used to repair it.  He ordered his craftsmen to come up with a better solution.  What they came up with was a method that didn’t disguise the damage.  But made something artful out of it.  In kintsugi, one repairs broken items like pottery with a lacquer made from precious metals like gold, silver or platinum (kintsugi pic 2).  The precious metals fill in the cracks, and instead of hiding them, the process makes them stand out and makes it beautiful. The idea is to embrace brokenness as a part of an object’s history.  And thus, learn to treasure and love it for what it is.

In many ways, Jacob’s life is the story form of Kintsugi.  God didn’t want Jacob’s brokenness to be hidden.  Rather God chose to show the painful, the uncomfortable and the ugly parts of Jacob’s story.  And in doing so turned Jacob’s life into a thing of beauty.  And he does the same for us.  You see, God doesn’t love us because of the good we do.  Or how perfect we are.  He loves you because you are you.  Flaws and all.  We are going to talk more about this as we follow Jacob in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I challenge you to look at yourself as you really are.  And then to embrace that this is who God loves you for you.  Specifically, I challenge you to be willing to name your imperfections.  As Rick Warren says – revealing the feeling is the beginning of healing.  Is there something in your past that has continually burdened you?  An imperfection that you can’t seem to let go of?  Is there a habit, a character flaw, a history that makes you feel unlovable?  What gets in the way of knowing God’s love for you?  I invite you this morning to name it.  To remember Jacob, Isaac and Rebekah.  And then trust God to bless you and love you in spite of it.

In a moment, we are going to end with a time of directed prayer.  We are going to start with a short video that presents this image of God using our flaws and imperfections to bring His light to His world.  Then after a moment of silence we are going to lift up our shortcomings and reflect on how God’s grace is greater than our imperfections.  Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7 writes that we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us.  The truth is I don’t want to relay on my own craftiness.  I don’t want my life to be characterized by deceit.  Or for pulling off some stunt like switching racing bibs with our twin in the port a potty. I am loved by God, not by what I have done because who has made me to be.  So are you.  So, I am going to trust in a grace that is greater

How about you?  How about you?

 

Video

Let’s pray.

Holy Spirit we ask for your help in being honest with you and with ourselves.

God we acknowledge to you now the broken places in our lives.

God we lift up before you the fractured relationships in our lives.

God we acknowledge those character flaws we cannot seem to shake.

God we acknowledge past actions that have been destructive, hurtful, and sinful

God we ask for your help in claiming our imperfections.

And we name them to you without fear and hesitation, trusting in your grace.

Lord we release them to you claiming your love for us.

We call upon you to reveal your presence to us.

We ask for you to continually remind us that your love is not based upon how good we are or how successful we are.

Finally, we ask your light to shine now through us.

We picture the pottery restored and ask you to reveal to us the many ways your light can be seen through our imperfections.

And we beg for a deep awareness of your grace in us.

In Christ’s name.  Amen.

Holy Spirit, Part 4: Assurance

June 25, 2017

Romans 8: 14-17

In 1989 Universal Pictures released a movie about a farmer on a mission to build a ball field.  It was based on the book Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella.  And starred Kevin Costner – only with a lot more hair.  The name of the movie?  Field of Dreams.  In the movie, Ray is out walking his fields in Iowa when, across the rows of corn, a voice rings out.  Take a look (http://www.wingclips.com/movie-clips/field-of-dreams/hearing-voices).   Initially Ray looks around in confusion.  But eventually he comes to believe that the voice isn’t just in his head.  So, he plows his corn under.  His neighbors worry that he is cracking up from the financial pressures.  His brother in law urges him to sell the farm.  But Ray perseveres.  And eventually, baseball players begin to show up – including Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the players from the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.

I share that with you because we have been reflecting on the work of the Holy Spirit.  We started on Pentecost and the appearance of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire.  And Pastor Jayne talked about how the Holy Spirit empowers us to live out the reign of God in our lives.  Two weeks ago, Pastor Craig talked about the work of the Holy Spirit to build community.  And how the Holy Spirit is the antidote to our disconnection with one another.  Last week, I shared with you that the Holy Spirit is like Gandalf in Tolkien’s classic novel, The Hobbit.  That the Holy Spirit is the presence of God’s in-breaking grace who guides us on our hero’s journey.  So, that we eventually come to change the lives of those around us.  Today, I want to wrap up our series by thinking about what this in-breaking grace looks like.  Specifically, I want to look at how we can be sure that it is the Holy Spirit at work within us.

Does the Holy Spirit call to us like the voice in Field of Dreams?  Is the Spirit’s presence discerned through a quiver in our liver?  Or is the Holy Spirit more like the hologram that Obi Wan Kenobi had of Princess Leia in The Return of the Jedi?  So, all we need to hear from God is a good droid?  A. W. Tozer once wrote that to many Christians the Holy Spirit, “…is some nebulous wisp of smoke” which is present in churches and hovers over good people when they die.  What do you think?  What does it look like when the Holy Spirit is at work in you?

Take your Bibles and turn with me to the New Testament letter of Romans, chapter 8.  We will be reading verses 12 -17.  Jesus has risen from the dead.  He has appeared to the disciples.  And he has returned to heaven.  Just as promised, the Holy Spirit has come.  And filled with the Spirit’s power, the disciples have boldly proclaimed the Gospel.  And churches have sprung up across the known world.  Now, Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome.  Among other things, he wants them to be informed about the work of the Holy Spirit.  Because he says, the Holy Spirit bears witness to our identity.  In particular, the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.  As students of the Bible we know that in first century Palestine, for a testimony to be valid, two witnesses were needed.  Paul says that this is basically where the Holy Spirit comes in.  The Spirit confirms that what we sense in our own spirit is authentic.  And that the Spirit does this in two specific ways.  Let’s see if we can identify them as we read, Romans 8:12-17.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.  14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[f] And by him we cry, “Abba,[g] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

So, Paul says that there are two ways that the Spirit is at work in us.  Two ways that the Holy Spirit testifies we are the children of God.  And the first is that we develop a growing aversion to sin in our lives.  13If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.  14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

The key word here is FOR.  The word FOR connects verse 14 with the verse before it and explains it.  Verse 13 – If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.  FOR or BECAUSE those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.  In other words, being led by the Spirit is to put to death the misdeeds of the body.  It is to overcome sin through the help of God’s Spirit.  Or as John Piper puts it in his sermon on Romans 8, to be led by the Spirit is to fight against sinning by trusting Christ is superior to what sin offers.

Which makes sense.  God’s children will embrace the same values and priorities as their Heavenly Father.  They will seek that which pleases Him.  And work to avoid that which doesn’t.  And the Bible is clear.  God hates sin.  At times the Bible defines this as rebellion against God’s authority.  At other times, it describes sin as missing the mark of God’s design for our lives.  At still other times, it paints an image of sin being twisted and bent.  But in each case, it’s clear that God and sin do not mix.  Psalm 5:4 – For you are not a God who delights in wickedness.  No evil may dwell with you.  Sin is the antithesis of God’s nature.  It separates us from Him.  And therefore, blinds us from His truth.  So, the first sign that we are being led by the Spirit is a change of heart and mind toward the sin in our lives.

In Mark 1:9 Jesus says – “The time has come.  The Kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the Good News!”  Jesus has been baptized.  He has been tempted by Satan in the wilderness.  Now he begins his ministry.  And he begins with a call for repentance.  The Greek word for repent is meta – naw – A – O.  Meta meaning beyond.  And Nous which means mind.  So, that repent means to go beyond the mind that you have.  It means to think differently.  To see things in a new way.  (And Now I See, Robert Barron, p. 1).  Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 4:22 – You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

The image that speaks to me about this is the son in Jesus’ story who comes to his father one day and asks for his half of the inheritance.  And even though it is incredibly disrespectful – in essence saying I can’t wait around for you to die – his father gives it to him.  And the son takes the money and travels to a faraway land where he squanders it away partying.  Until there is nothing left.  And the rebellious son is forced to eat pig chow in order to survive.  And then one day, he has a change of heart.  Or more to the point, he has a change of mind.  The Scripture says he comes to his senses.  And he decides to return home and beg for another chance – this time as a servant.  Only to find upon his arrival the open arms of his father’s grace.  And his restoration as a son.

How do I know if the Holy Spirit is at work in me?  There will be a growing aversion to the presence of sin in my life.

The second way the Holy Spirit works within us is to increase our love for our Heavenly Father.  15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[f] And by him we cry, “Abba,[g] Father.”

I grew up in a large Evangelical church in Chicago.  On Sunday nights during the summer, the church would show movies out in the parking lot.  Being Chicago it wasn’t surface of the sun hot as it is here.  And folks would bring blankets and lawn chairs and have a picnic while a movie was projected up on the wall of the fellowship hall.  One movie that I particularly remember was called –  A Thief in the Night.  It was about the end times.  The main character was a woman who considered herself a Christian because she occasionally read the Bible and went to church.  She refused to believe the warnings of her friends and family that she would go through the Great Tribulation if she did not accept Jesus.  One morning she awakens to find that her family and millions of others have suddenly disappeared.  Gradually, she realizes that the rapture has occurred and she has been left behind.  And for the rest of the movie she struggles to avoid taking on the mark of the beast in order to keep from being persecuted (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Thief_in_the_Night_(film).  At 8 years old, the movie scared the snot right out of me.  For years, I had no snot in me.  And I had nightmares of being in a plane during the rapture and the pilot just disappearing.  If I came home from school and no one was around, there was this brief moment when I worried I had been left behind because my faith wasn’t authentic enough.

Over the years, I have come to understand that this was not the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit does not operate by increasing our fear.  When we encounter someone trying to scare us into following Jesus we can be confident that it is not the work of God’s Spirit.  Because the Holy Spirit bears witness of our being God’s children by removing our fear and growing our love for our Heavenly Father.  Paul says that the Holy Spirit literally leads us to cry out Abba!  Abba is the Aramaic name a child would use for their father.  It means daddy!  We find it only once in the Gospels.  Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed, Jesus prays that he might avoid the suffering that is about to take place.  Abba, father, he says, take this cup from me.  Yet, not what I will.  But what you will.  Jesus prays the intimate prayer of a child asking for his daddy to save him.

My point is this:  The testimony of the Spirit is not claiming a doctrine about God.  And it’s not an acknowledgement that God exists.  The Bible says that even the demons acknowledge that God exists.  Rather the testimony of the Spirit is a cry of affection.  It is a cry of love in our hearts that comes as the Holy Spirit helps us live into to our identity as the adopted children of God and joint heirs with Christ!  Did you catch Paul’s words?  Through the work of the Holy Spirit we have a new reality.  The very power and the very life and the very love that has been given to God’s Son Jesus has been offered to us.  The question is – are we claiming it?   Are we claiming our identity through the Holy Spirit?

There’s an old story of a chicken farmer who found an eagle’s egg.  He put it with his chickens and soon the egg hatched.  The young eagle grew up with all the other chickens and whatever they did, the eagle did too.  He thought he was a chicken, just like them.  Since the chickens could only fly for a short distance, the eagle also learnt to fly a short distance.  He thought that was what he was supposed to do. So, that was all that he thought he could do.  As a consequence, that was all he was able to do.  One day the eagle saw a bird flying high above him. He was very impressed. “Who is that?” he asked the hens around him.  “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” the hens told him. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth, we are just chickens.”  So, the eagle lived and died as a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.

In his book, Knowing God, J.I. Packer says that we have been given the highest privilege that the gospel offers.  We have been adopted as God’s children.  Which is even better than God’s forgiveness of us.  Being forgiven, he says, is definitely necessary, and it definitely meets our deepest spiritual need.  But adoption is even greater, because of the rich relationship with God that it signifies. He goes on to say that just being forgiven by God would not necessarily mean that God loves us.  Simply being forgiven doesn’t imply any deep relationship or intimacy.  A judge can pardon you, but that doesn’t mean that he has to like you.  But that’s not what God does.  God justifies us.  He forgives all of our sins.  But then he does something unbelievable.  He brings us into his family.  He loves us, and he becomes our Father.  Our relationship becomes one of closeness, affection and generosity. “To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater” (Packer).

I ask you this morning, how significant is your identity as a child of God?  What does it mean to you to be an heir of the Most High God?  In what ways does it impact your everyday life?  Are you fully living into the love and care of our Heavenly daddy?  The Holy Spirit bears witness that we are children of God.  He does this by changing our heart and mind and making us increasingly dissatisfied with sin and brokenness in our lives.  And by driving out fear and increasing our love for God.

SO, my challenge this week is to be willing to be led by the Holy Spirit.  Again, we don’t control the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit moves and leads where the Spirit wills.  Jesus said to Nicodemus that the Spirit or breath of God blows where it wants.  And the Holy Spirit is not some tool or instrument we manipulate to get what we want.  The Holy Spirit is God.  We don’t create our identity as adopted children.  Rather we receive it as we open ourselves to the Spirit’s work.

With that in mind, I challenge you to pray a simple sentence each morning this week and reflect on it.  It goes like this.  I am no longer my own but thine O Lord.  Say that with me.  I am no longer my own but thine O Lord.  Once more with passion!  I am no longer my own but thine O Lord.  It’s the first line of a prayer written by John Wesley, who was the founding father of the Methodist movement.  It’s known as Wesley’s covenant prayer.  In it, Wesley renews his covenant with God and reaffirms his commitment to following God’s will.  The point of praying I am no longer my own but thine each morning is to develop a willingness for the Holy Spirit to in you.  And that in doing so, your identity as God’s child will be confirmed.  That the Spirit’s witness will bear witness with your Spirit.  That you are an heir with Christ.  I am no longer my own but thine O Lord.

It’s interesting to me, that like many forefathers and foremothers of our faith, Wesley struggled for a long time to feel assured of his salvation.  He was the poster child for good works, discipline and self-denial.  He threw himself into assisting the poor and the sick, visiting those in prison and doing whatever good he could.  And yet he could not, in his own words, find assurance of his acceptance of God.  It wasn’t until one evening at a worship service at a church on Aldersgate street in London that he experienced what he was longing for.  The priest was reading from Romans 3.  And the Spirit moved.  And Wesley knew in his heart that Christ had died for him.  He said I felt I did trust in Christ.  Christ alone for my salvation.  And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sin, even mine, and saved me.

That assurance doesn’t come from a voice telling us to build it and he will come.  And it isn’t a quiver in our liver.  We don’t find assurance in a wisp of smoke or hologram.  Rather it comes through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. So, I am going to make myself available. I am going to be willing to be led and in doing so, I am trying to live into my identity as a son of God. How about you? How about you?

Holy Spirit, Part 3: Empowered

June 18, 2017

Judges 6:33-40

Father’s Day

During my devotion time, I have been reading a book called Seeds of the Word by Robert Barron.  One of the things that Barron talks about is J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel, The Hobbit.  You know, the epic tale of Bilbo Baggins, the half-ling of Middle earth.  Who is hired to steal treasure, finds the one ring to rule them all, triumphs over trolls, goblins and giant spiders, escapes from elves and burglars a dragon.  It’s one of my favorite stories.  I read it when I was a kid.  I read it to my children.  And I read it a number of times in between.

Barron points out that The Hobbit is the story of a hero’s journey.  That it follows a classic hero pattern.  A man or woman is wrenched out of complacency and self-absorption and is called to great adventure.  During which he or she comes to maturity and vision.  In Moby Dick, for example, the young Ishmael leaves behind the damp, drizzly November in his soul and goes on a long and dangerous voyage of discovery.  In Star Wars, young Luke Skywalker is forced out of the quiet solitude of his aunt and uncle’s home and summoned to an intergalactic struggle where he comes of age.  In the Hobbit, we find Bilbo living in a hole in the ground – as hobbits do.  Not a nasty or un kept hole.  But rather one that is cozy, filled with fine furniture and a well-stocked kitchen.  From which Bilbo is summoned to adventure by a cadre of dwarves.

If you have read the novel, or seen the movie, you know that as time goes on Bilbo is called upon again and again to step outside of his comfort zone, battle evil and take the path of self-sacrifice.  Along the way, he has help.  Gandalf the Grey is a wizard and a figure of in breaking grace who guides and empowers Bilbo on his journey to maturity.  Until the end of the story which climaxes in Bilbo unexpectedly letting go of something of great worth in order to save others (Seeds of the Word, Robert Barron, 2015 Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, p.116).

I share this with you because this morning we are going to read another heroic journey.  One that also follows the classic pattern.  Where the main character is called out of self-absorption and into great adventure.  It’s found in the Old Testament book of Judges, chapter 6.  Take your Bibles and turn there with me now.  Judges 6.  We will read verses 33 to 40.

The book of Judges is named for the judges who led Israel just over 3000 years ago.  In that context Judge had a different meaning than it does today.  Back then, Israel was still a loose confederation of tribes.  It had no formal government.  And it had no King to turn to.  So when the Israelites got into trouble – such as when an enemy would invade – they would cry out to God.  And in response God would raise up someone to rescue them.  So that a judge was not a judicial authority but rather a military leader who was sent to save God’s people.  Today we are going read about Gideon, who was the 5th judge of Israel.

Ironically, his story begins in a winepress from ancient Israel.  Gideon is threshing wheat in it.  This is unusual.  Normally, wheat would be threshed at the top of a hill where the wind could blow the lighter chaff away as the kernels were tossed into the air.  There is no wind down in a winepress.  So why would Gideon be threshing wheat in a winepress?  Well, the Midianites have invaded Israel.  The Bible says they have descended on Israel like swarms of locust.  And that they are so numerous it was impossible to count them or their camels.  They ravage the land, destroy the all crops and do not spare a living animal.  So Gideon is hiding.  He doesn’t want to be seen.   He is caught up in his own story.

But he doesn’t stay there.  He is called to something greater.  An angel of the Lord comes to Gideon hiding in the winepress and says – “The Lord is with you Mighty Warrior” (Judges 6:12)!   To which Gideon replies – “the Lord has abandoned us!”  The angel says – “GO and save Israel – I am sending you!”  Gideon protests – “me?  I am the weakest member of the weakest clan in my tribe!”   But the Lord says – “I will be with you!  You will strike down all the Midianites.  And Peace.  Do not be afraid.  You will not die!”   So Gideon builds an altar to God and offers a sacrifice.  He names it the Lord is peace.  And begins his great adventure.  With this in mind, let’s read Judges 6:33-40.

Now all the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples joined forces and crossed over the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel. 34 Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. 35 He sent messengers throughout Manasseh, calling them to arms, and also into Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali, so that they too went up to meet them.  36 Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— 37 look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” 38 And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.  39 Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” 40 That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.

So, at first glance Gideon is anything but a hero.  Heroes are courageous.  Heroes sacrifice their own interests for the greater good.  They persevere despite their fear.  And they seek excellence in the face of difficulty.  Gideon, on the other hand is cowardly.  He is filled with doubt.  He challenges God’s presence.  He resists God’s call.  He lacks faith and demands a sign.  He worries and has a low self-esteem.  He is just not hero material.

And yet, Gideon has something that makes all the difference.  Like Bilbo, Gideon has a figure of in-breaking grace.  Verse 34 – Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him.

The Hebrew word for Spirit is Ruach.  It means ‘wind’ or ‘breath’.  So that the breath of God literally comes on Gideon.  As students of the Bible we recognize similar language in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came with the sound of a mighty rushing wind and rested on each of the disciples!  Jesus said – But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit COMES upon you – Acts 1:8!  And yet, the Spirit didn’t just rest on Gideon.  The scripture says the Spirit literally clothed himself with Gideon.  The Hebrew word used here is La – VASH.  It means to clothe.  Or to wear.   So that the passage better reads that the Spirit of the Lord put on Gideon like a garment.  In so many words, the Spirit of the Lord took full possession of Gideon.

And this changes everything.  Filled with supernatural power, Gideon leaves the wine press and blows a trumpet.  There is nothing subtle about sounding a horn.  If you want to remain unnoticed, you don’t let rip with a bugle call.  If you wish to remain hidden, you don’t rally the troops from near and far.  But the in-breaking presence of God’s Spirit has transformed the cowardly into the courageous.  And the self-absorbed into the self-sacrificing.  And as a result 32 thousand men show up and give Gideon their unquestioning obedience.

I ask you this morning.  Have you ever hungered for something greater?  Have you ever longed for a strength greater than your own? Ever desired be transformed?  Then make yourself available to the in-breaking presence of God’s Spirit.  Jesus said – but you shall receive POWER when the Holy Spirit comes on you.

Personally, on this Father’s Day, I want the Spirit of the Lord to take possession of me as I parent.  Being a father is one of the highest callings in my life.  It’s also one of my most challenging responsibilities.  There are times when it’s pretty clear that I have risen to the level of my incompetence.

One day, several years ago, I went to pick up our children from school.  It had been a very hectic day already.  At the last minute, I got caught up in a meeting at work and I forgot that school was letting out early.  So I was late even before I left.  I knew that the kids would be sitting out on the curb in the hot sun.  And they would not be pleased about it.  To make matters worse, traffic was horrible.  Even with channeling my inner Kevin Harvick, the best I could manage was to go from gridlock to gridlock.  By the time I arrived I was irritated, frustrated and not at all open to feedback.  Which, naturally, I received.  WHERE WERE YOU?  WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?  WHY DID YOU MAKE WAIT?  I am sure they didn’t sound quite like that.  But that is what I heard.  And I lost it.  I WAS AT WORK.  EARNING A LIVING SO YOU CAN ENJOY YOUR LIFE.  NEXT TIME YOU CAN TAKE THE BUS!  And it only went downhill from there.  Ever yelled at someone and in the middle of it realized that you could stop yelling – but you keep on going just because you can?  It wasn’t pretty.  And I am embarrassed to say, wasn’t an isolated incident.  The truth is I need a power greater than my own if I am going to live up to my calling to be a Godly father.

Now, you may not be a father.  You may not be a mother.  You may not want to be.  You may not be able to be.  But the truth is you are called to be a parent.  I am not talking biologically.  I’m talking spiritually.  One of the privileges of being a part of a large church like this is that we all have a number of Christian children.  Several times a month, we vow before God to live our lives in such a way that the children around us experience God’s grace.  Someone did that for us.  Thank God.  Or we wouldn’t be here.

I ask you this morning – who are you encouraging?  Who are you guiding?  Who are you mentoring?  Who – for lack of a better word – are you parenting?  Who are your spiritual children?  Who are you intentionally raising in the faith?

You see, like Gideon, you and I, we have been called to embark on a hero’s journey.  God has called us out of our complacency and into great adventure.  He has called us to work our way out of self-centeredness and into self-sacrifice.  And to help us along the way, He has given to us His in breaking grace through His Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:38 says “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Paul in his letter to the Christians in Corinth says this – “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”  I Corinthians 6:19. 

The Bible says that the same Holy Spirit that created the world, the same Holy Spirit that anointed Jesus and raised Christ from the dead, the same Holy Spirit that restores sight to the blind and sets the prisoner free is in you and in me.  And that through the Spirit’s presence, we are transformed!  That our lives are marked more and more by things like love and joy and peace.  For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

That doesn’t mean we won’t struggle.  God promised to be with Gideon.  The Holy Spirit clothed himself with Gideon.  Filled with supernatural power, Gideon climbed out of the winepress, declared war on the enemy and called for his fellow Israelites to rally around him.  And tens of thousands have responded.  And yet, Gideon second guesses.  God, IF you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised – prove it to me.  Make this piece of wool wet while the ground remains dry.  THEN I’ll know what you said is true.

Likewise, I have been reconciled to God.  Through the death and resurrection of His Son, I have been given His rich, abundant and eternal life.  God has given the gift of His Spirit to me.  Peace and restoration and freedom and healing and power are mine for the receiving!  But, what do I do?  I question.  I struggle to believe.  I insist on a sign.  I lay out a fleece.  There is a lot of Gideon in me!

The Good News is – God does not require us to have our act together before helping us!  And thankfully, God does not abandon us just because we doubt.  In fact, as I read the Bible, God has a soft spot in His heart for the unlikely, the timid, the doubting and the undeserving.  Abraham was a liar.  Jacob was insecure.  Samson was codependent.  Rahab was immoral.  David had family problems.  Jeremiah was depressed.  John the Baptist was eccentric to say the least.  Peter was impulsive and hot-tempered.  Martha worried a lot.  Paul had poor health.  Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:7 says – But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us!  That’s the story of Gideon.  And that is our story as well.

And so this week, my challenge is to ask for the Holy Spirit.  Ask for the breath of God to fill you.  And the Spirit of the Lord to clothe himself in you.  Luke 11:13 says – If you then who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more with your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.  We cannot control when and where the Spirit comes.  The Spirit blows where it wills says Jesus.  So we don’t dictate.  But Jesus says that when we ask, God will give us His Holy Spirit.  God knows we cannot complete the journey on our own power.  He knows we need a power greater than our own.  So he gives us the very best thing – His Spirit.  SO take time this week to ask.  Specifically, set aside 15 to 20 minutes each morning to be still.  Do this trusting that our heavenly Father is able to give us so much more than our earthly father.  Do this knowing you will need His presence for what lies ahead.  For God has called you to embark on a heroic journey.

At the end of the Hobbit.  Bilbo arrives at a place where he triumphs through giving.  He gives away the Arkenstone in order to bring peace and avert war.  On his epic journey, Gideon becomes a judge of Israel and is used by God to deliver the Israelites from the Midianites.  What about you?  Where is your great adventure headed?  Have you begun the journey?  Are you on the way from self-centeredness to self-sacrificial?  Or are you still turned in on yourself and complacent?

The truth is, God has called us on an heroic journey, he has not only called us, he has given us everything we need. So I am going to wait for his unbreaking grace for the power that comes from the presence of his spirit.

How about you?  How about you?

Generosity – How?

1 Corinthians 12:  1-11

May 28, 2017

As I was preparing this week, I came across a short story by Ray Bradbury, entitled “A Sound of Thunder”.  Written in 1952, it’s about a hunter named Eckels who pays $10,000 to travel back in time 65 million years, to the late Crustacean period, in order to hunt a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

To minimize the impact of the T-Rex’s death, scouts have been sent back in time to identify and tag one that would die within minutes anyway.  Any alteration to the past could snowball into catastrophic changes in the future.  For example, one mouse accidentally killed eliminates all the future families of that mouse.  And also the future, future families of that mouse.  Which in turn eliminates the foxes.  For want of ten mice a fox starves.  For want of ten foxes a lion starves.  For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, and a myriad of other life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction.  Bradbury writes, “Fifty-nine million years later, a cave man, one of a dozen in the entire world, goes hunting a wild boar for food.  But you, friend, have stepped on all the wild boars in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So, the cave man starves. And with the cave man, an entire future nation.  From his loins, would have sprung ten sons.  From their loins one hundred sons, and onward.  Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life.”

To keep the hunters from touching the world of the past, a levitating path is provided.  Leaving it is forbidden.  But when the T-Rex approaches, Eckels loses his nerve.  He jumps from the path and bolts into the forest – leaving the guide to kill the T-Rex.  Furious, the guide orders Eckels to collect the bullets from the dead T-Rex and return to the time machine.  Upon his return to 2055, Eckels immediately notices a number of differences.  A different man is President.  Words are spelled differently.  People even sound different.  Looking at the mud on his boots, Eckels notices a crushed butterfly from the woods in the past.  Its death has set in motion as series of subtle events that have changed the present.

Bradbury’s point?  Small actions have large consequences (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Sound_of_Thunder).  The accidental death of a butterfly can alter all of history.  Simple gestures on our part have a way of transforming the future.  We are going to talk about that this morning.  In particular, how our stewardship of God’s grace.  So, take your Bibles and turn with me to the New Testament letter of 1st Corinthians chapter 12.  We will read verse 1 – 11.

Paul is writing to 1st century Christians living in Asia Minor.  We know from studying Paul’s letter that the Corinthians are big into the Holy Spirit.  They prophesy.  They speak in tongues.  And yet their time together is also marked by conflict and pride.  And so Paul seeks to clarify what it means to have the Holy Spirit alive within us.  He wants the Corinthians to be able to recognize if God is at work in them, God’s spirit within them. Or if it’s just some bad pizza from the night before.  Let’s see what Paul has to say in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.  There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.  Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gift of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

So, two key teachings in Paul’s letter about the work of the Holy Spirit in us.  And the first is that the Holy Spirit always points to Christ.  Therefore, I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:3

One day the mother of James and John kneels before Jesus and asks for a favor.  Grant that my two sons may sit at your right and at your left hand in your kingdom.  To sit at the right and left hand of the king was to sit in a place of honor.  Such close proximity meant that the king trusted you.  It signaled that the king had given you authority.  Sitting there meant that you would be treated with respect and deference.  It’s a request that does not make James and John popular with the rest of the disciples.  In response, Jesus calls his disciples over and makes it clear that humility and self-sacrifice are musts for following him “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:26-28).” 

The founding father of the Methodist movement was John Wesley.  He argued that self-denial is a fundamental requirement of following Jesus.  That if we don’t deny our own desire, we cannot follow Jesus.  If we are not moving away from all those things that don’t come from God, we are not following Jesus.  He points to Christ’s own word in Luke 9:23 – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  But because ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, our will has run contrary to God’s will.  Consequently, we are faced with a choice.  We either have to deny God’s will and walk in our own.  Or deny our own will and walk in His (see Wesley’s sermon on self-denial).  We can’t do both.  A day we don’t pick up the cross or day without the opportunity to deny ourselves is a wasted day.  Because it is a fundamental requirement for following Jesus.

According to Paul, this is where the Holy Spirit comes in.  He says that it is the Holy Spirit that enables us to set aside our own will and follow God’s will.  That it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to remove ourselves from the center of our focus.  And to put Christ in the center.  In short, that it is the Holy Spirit who helps us to turn to Jesus as Lord instead of ourselves.  “and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 12:3

This means that when we encounter actions in ourselves and others that are focused upon self-promotion we can be confident that it is not the work of the Holy Spirit.  For example, in the church in Corinth certain gifts were thought to be more important than others.  And, evidently, this was resulting in pride in those who possessed them.  And disregard of those who didn’t.  Paul says that this clearly was not the work of the Holy Spirit.  Because the Holy Spirit always points to Jesus.  And not to ourselves.  Likewise, when we hear teaching that emphasizes self-fulfillment we can be sure that it is not from the Holy Spirit.  In our culture, there is for example, the idea that financial wealth is always God’s will for us.  Or the linking of a national agenda with God’s desire.  These are not the work of the Holy Spirit.  Because they place us at the center.  And God’s Spirit always puts Christ as the center not us.

Second, the Holy Spirit never ends with us.  Verse 7 –  Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

In 2010, Julia Roberts stared in the romantic comedy-drama Eat, Pray, Love (pic 3).  She plays Liz – a woman who has everything.  And yet, finds herself in a sort of a mid-life crisis.  Her marriage has lost its spark.  Her job is going nowhere.  And she is unsure of what she really wants in life.  So, she decides to set out on a journey of self-discovery.  Stepping out of her comfort zone, she heads to Italy where she discovers the true pleasure of indulging the senses.  Followed by time at an ashram in India, where she learns the power of prayer.  And finally, she heads to Indonesia where she encounters new and true love.

It’s the classic story of a spiritual quest.  But it is a quest that quickly wanders off the trail.  At least in terms of our Christian faith.  For one, Liz begins with self-indulgence.  And while our spiritual journey certainly involves our physical bodies, growth in spiritual maturity almost always starts with self-denial.  Jesus says, ‘deny yourself and follow me.”  St. Augustine for example, started where Liz did – lost and despairing.  But rather than making the fulfillment of his desires the point, he sought to let go of anything that had taken the place of God.  Things like money and pleasure and power.  So, that in time his desires were clarified and put in the right order (“Seeds of the Word”, by Robert Barron p. 22).  It was then that he was able to connect with God in a deeper way.  Liz begins in self-indulgence not self-denial.

After several months of chanting and meditation in India, Liz concludes that “God is in me, AS ME.”  She makes herself the focus.  She decides that she is at the center of life and crowns herself sovereign.  She chooses her own path.  She chooses her will over God’s will.  Which we have already said, is not the work of the Holy Spirit.  Ultimately, this sets her up for the end of the movie where she sails off into the sunset with her new love.  So, that her spiritual quest comes to an end with her.

Contrast that in 1 Peter 4:10 it says, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”  That is, the work of God’s Spirit is not designed to end with us.  God has given us gifts and graces and there is a purpose for that.  It is meant to be passed on and to strengthen them in faith and encourage them in Christ.  Thus, Paul writes in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.”  Romans 1:11-12

We are to be stewards of God’s grace.  We are to take the gifts and abilities that God has put within us.  And use them for our master’s purpose – which is the greater good.  Specifically, we are to use them to help others keep strong in the faith.  And to support and encourage each other through the storms of life.

So, my challenge this week is to identify your spiritual SHAPE for ministry (pic 4).  SHAPE is an acrostic that spells out all the different ways God has equipped to serve others.  As Paul says in verse 4 there while there is one Lord and one Spirit, there are different kinds of gifts, and different kinds of service.  It is important that we identify ours.

S stands for SPIRITUAL GIFTS.  Every single one of us has them.  Now to each one the revealing of the Spirit is given for the common good.  In our passage Paul mentions wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers and prophecy.  There are several other lists in the New Testament.  And there are a number of on-line tests you can take to identify yours.

H is for HEART.  It stands for our motivations, our interests, the things that light our fire.  What gets you excited?  What bores you to tears?  The Bible says in Proverbs 4:23 that it is out of our heart that our good works flow.

How about our ABILITIES?  Maybe you are really good at numbers.  Or maybe, like me, you want to throw up at the mere mention of Math.  Perhaps you are good with words, or good with people, or good with animals.  Some of us have athletic ABILITY and some of us are totally uncoordinated.  Some have musical abilities and some of us are prison singers – always behind a few bars and never with the right key.

P is for PERSONALITIES.  When you go swimming do you like to plunge right in?  Or do you like to test the waters first?  When playing a game do you play for high stakes or do you like to play for pennies?  Would you say you love to be organized or that organization cramps your style?   God has created us with unique PERSONALITIES.  Some of us with very unique personalities.  In I Corinthians 12:6 it says – “God works through different people in different ways.”

Finally, EXPERIENCES.  Vocational experiences – jobs we have had in the past.  Educational experiences – things we’ve learned through schools and seminars.  Spiritual experiences – things at church, camp, retreats, conferences, podcasts, and other people.  God even uses our painful experiences.  The truth is God never wastes a hurt and often builds our greatest ministry out of our tragedy, failure, and mistakes.  Take time this week to learn your spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personalities and experiences.  One of the unique ways God has shaped you.

There was a time when I thought being called by God involved a larger than life event.  That you would be walking down the street and out of the blue you would be zapped by God!  And if you survived, you were called! It turns out that the way God call our ministry is through our SHAPE.  Through those unique experiences, personalities, and abilities that God has given you. And I used to think that being called only happened to certain people like the apostle Paul or missionaries and nuns.  But what I have learned is that every Christian is called.  Paul says the spirit distributes to each as He wishes.  In fact, the Bible says that my call to salvation and my call to service are identical.  The moment I sign up and say – God, I recognize I have needs that I cannot fill myself.  And only you can address them.  I want you to be Lord of my life!  I am also in essence saying Lord; I am willing to serve you with all my being.  I am going to take these gifts and use them for your will.  Part and parcel of being a Christian is heeding the call to serve.  They are not two separate things.

I ask you, what spiritual gifts has God placed in your life? What abilities has God given you?  What experiences can you use to strengthen another in Christ? What would keep you from using your SHAPE? What would stop you from being a steward of God’s grace?  The Holy Spirit always calls us on to Christ.

Here is the Good News is small actions have large consequences – if the death of a butterfly can alter the future millions of years later.  How much more can our stewardship of grace transform the world we live in?  I am going to use my SHAPE, I am going to encourage others, I am going to be a good steward of God’s grace.

How about you?  How about you?