Sunday, September 18, 2016

WE NEED GOD To Be All We Can Be.

A sermon based upon Exodus 20: 2-3;  Deuteronomy 6: 4-9; 11: 1-7
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin,  Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C:  Proper 20,  18th Sunday After Pentecost,  September 18th, 2016


The unforgettable movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy” is an South African comedy film about a happy, contented tribal culture who believes the gods have blessed them with everything they need.  But that BEGINS to change when they encounter A RATHER SMALL AIRCRAFT FLYING over their remote village deep into the African continent.  The pilot is drinking out of one those old-fashioned green Coca Cola bottles. When he is finished with the beverage, he throws the bottle out of the airplane and it lands near some native tribal leaders below.  THEY PICK IT UP and ARE GREATLY INTRIGUE. It is shaped far differently from anything they have ever seen.  Until now, these secluded tribal people have known nothing of the modern world. 

Because this strange item has come to them from the heavens above, THEY BELIEVE IT TO BE a god, or a gift from the gods.  So they naturally begin to ASSEMBLE A NEW Way of life around it.  They develop songs about it and say prayers to it.  But as the story unfolds, envy, jealousy, and disputes arise like the simple, harmonious tribe has never known before.  It’s all because of the bottle. 

In an attempt to bring peace back into their lives, some of the leaders leave the village, in an attempt to take the ‘bottle’ back.   But it’s too late.  Now their simple lives have been altered and made much more complicated by the not-so-simple, often very negative, “new world” this bottle has invited them to encounter.   As there seems to be no way to stop the flood of trouble,  a tribal leader takes the bottle up to the top of a mountain to throw it back into ‘the window of the gods’.   What we all know too well, is that once the simple innocent world has been invaded, there is no way of going back.

WE WILL WORSHIP SOMETHING
There are many spiritual and cultural truths from this film, but most basic is its portrayal of the instinctive need for HUMANS to WORSHIP something--whether it is coke bottles, pop stars,  or the most destructive desire for wealth or power.  Humans NATURALLY BEGIN TO WORSHIP what or who we prize the most.   In order to find purpose or meaning in our short, insignificant LIVES, whether we are part of an ancient tribe or people in this complicated, modernize world, we still must give ourselves to  SOMETHING bigger than ourselves.

Several years ago, before there was Oprah, THERE WAS PHIL DONAHUE.  He was known for a radical, groundbreaking approach to TV talk shows.  On one of his shows, way back in the 1970’s was the first time I heard someone say that we, as a nation, are fast becoming a nation of addicts.  The point was that in the western world, ADDICTION WAS ON THE RISE, as more and more are hopelessly addicted to drugs, to alcohol, to sex, to food, and to a host of other things.  As humans beings, who must give ourselves to something, we can just as easily give ourselves to the wrong thing---to something that enslaves rather than frees.  TO BE ADDICTED TO SOMETHING means you HAVE GIVEN THE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE OVER TO SOME LESSER GOD THAT WEAKENS YOU, AND without some form of intervention, WILL EVENTUALLY DESTROY YOU.   To give yourselves to wrong attractions, the wrong powers or to the wrong desires, will eventually destroy your freedom.  It will also destroy your God-given potential.  It can destroy your personality, and worse of all, IT WILL DESTROY YOUR ABILITY TO GIVE AND RECEIVE LOVE. 

 Is it not true, that the more  simple trust in GOD has been removed from the center OF OUR LIVES, the more we ALLOW “OTHER GODS” or “powers” TO TAKE OVER?  Could our struggle with some many impossible to overcome ADDICTIONS reflect the “emptiness” that is at the very center of our modern, mostly secular lives today?  Have we lost the delight for our own lives because we too have replaced the hunger and thirst for the true God with our own lust for “other gods”---which are lesser gods and very destructive powers that don't have our best interests at heart?

This very first commandment reminds us that we are created to worship.  YOU WILL BOW DOWN To Something.   But BEWARE.  Beware when you give yourself over to something or someone.   EVERYTHING YOU WORSHIP AND GIVE YOURSELF TO WILL NOT CARE ABOUT YOU.   Other gods don’t die to set you free, but they live off enslaving you and off taking life from you.  It is, however, the desire of the TRUE GOD to FREE You from  bondage.  It is the desire of the true God to give you true freedom.  BUT FALSE GODS WILL PUT YOU INTO BONDAGE and do set your free to find life.   THESE LESSER GODS ARE LIKE A BOA CONSTRICTOR that will wrap its self around its prey, drawing in slowly and more tightly, each time you breathe in, until your breath GETS SHALLOWER AND SHALLOWER with no life left.

THIS IS THE GREAT DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WORSHIPING WHAT IS TRUE OR WHAT IS FALSE.  It is not an imaginary difference, but it a difference that makes all the difference in the world.  IN ONE OF JAMES MICHENER''S GEOGRAPHIC NOVELS about some exotic part of the world, GEOLOGISTS WERE DIGGING UP THE RUINS of a civilization from an era long gone and long ago.  As they uncover the relics of that ancient society, they begin to DISCOVER THE INFLUENCE OF THE GODS that ancient people worshiped and HOW IT SHAPED THEIR IDENTITY AS A PEOPLE. One geologist is heard to say, "If  THEY’D HAD A DIFFERENT GOD, THEY COULD HAVE BEEN A VERY DIFFERENT PEOPLE."    People reflect, if not BECOME LIKE THE GOD or GODS they WORSHIP.

This is WHY WE MUST ONLY WORSHIP THE ONE TRUE GOD--the God whose character is holy and righteous, as well as, gracious and merciful.  But how do we know or worship a ‘true’ God in a secular world, in which people more generally assume it that we have no need for God?   Since we are not ancient Israelites having just be delivered from slavery in Egypt, how can we expect moderns who think they have everything they want or need, to worship this one, true God, who is unfathomable to some, and has become unbelievable to most?

 YOU MUST CHOOSE TO WORSHIP THE TRUE GOD.
In our kind of world, a non-enchanted, secular, high-tech world centered upon self and fulfilling human desire, worship of the one true God is NOT AUTOMATIC.  If you look closely that this first commandment,  you understand that worshiping the one, true God wasn’t automatic in the ancient world either.  It was into a world of many options then too, that God said to his people,  “You SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS before me.” It was exactly BECAUSE THERE WERE, and STILL ARE, ALL KINDS OF GODS AND POWERS IN THIS WORLD to choose from that God demands our utmost allegiance to Him.   

 How many could have done SOMETHING much DIFFERENT WITH YOUR TIME today?  You could have done something more pleasurable or something more exciting, instead of BEING HERE to GIVE YOUR HEART TO THE one TRUE GOD. It is YOUR CHOICE that makes all the difference.  True worship of the living God is a choice BORN OUT OF YOUR FREEDOM which chooses NOT to DO OTHERWISE.

 GOD WANTS US CHOOSE HIM FULLY, BUT ALSO FREELY.   THE Reason  WE HAVE TEN COMMANDMENTS is not because God wants to CONTROL OR FORCE us to comply, but these 10 commands ARE INCREDIBLE WORDS THAT CALL US TO COVENANT and freely RELATE TO this GOD who calls US TO CHOOSE THE POWERS OF LIFE, not death.   WHEN GOD SAYS “no other gods” we are IMMEDIATELY CONFRONTED both with our freedom to choose rightly and our Freedom To Choose Wrongly.  JOHN MORLEY, a member of the British House of Commons during the 19th century, once TRAVELED FROM ENGLAND TO CANADA to address the graduating class of a university. He began his speech by saying, "I have traveled 4,000 miles to TELL YOU THAT THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RIGHT AND WRONG."   CHOOSING WHAT IS RIGHT is what worship is about. To live, to breathe, and to step into the next moment of our life is always a CHOICE IN ONE OF TWO DIRECTIONS: WE ARE EITHER CHOOSING TO WALK  TOWARD THE ONE WHO CREATED US or we are choosing to WALK AWAY FROM HIM.   EVERY DAY WE MAKE A CHOICE.  To be human is to decide and to choose.   You cannot be alive and not choose.

 It is BECAUSE WE HUMANS ARE FREE that GOD THUNDERS this first commandment as a warning from Sinai: "You must not have any other gods except me." GOD IS AFFIRMING HIS PRIORITY as the CREATOR OF LIFE.   He is calling us to worship and only choose Him, not only because HE DESERVES TO HAVE FIRST PLACE, BUT BECAUSE HE IS the only, true GOD.  ALL OTHER GODS SHOULD BE SPELLED WITH A LITTLE "g"  because they are REALLY NOT THE LIFT GIVING GOD AT ALL, ONLY PALE SUBSTITUTES.   Psalm 115:4-7 says, "… Their idols are silver and gold, the work of  human hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak. They have eyes, but they cannot see. They have ears, but they cannot hear. They have noses, but they cannot smell. They have hands, but they cannot feel. They have feet, but they cannot walk. They cannot make a sound with their throat."(NASB) In other words, false gods are COUNTERFEITS. They might have LIMITED POWERS, but eventually they can only ENSLAVE OR DESTROY, because they DON’T HAVE THE POWER OF LIFE TO SAVE, which means they are not God at all.

 THE GOD WHO IS THE ONE TRUE GOD.
YOU MAY BE THINKING, "I DON’T WORSHIP GODS OF STONE--- IDOLS set up in some pagan temple. I am a SOPHISTICATED PERSON."   But to be tempted to worship ‘other gods’, doesn’t necessarily mean you might run out into the woods at night and worship a rock.  BUT THERE ARE GODS BESIDE IDOLS OF STONE. ANYTHING CAN BE A GOD, if it takes the place of the true God.   So, if you want discover who, or what you worship, ASK YOURSELF these THREE SIMPLE QUESTIONS, to determine who or what is “God” in your life:

 (1) ON WHAT DO YOU SET YOUR AFFECTIONS?  When your heart takes a break from the complexities of daily living, WHERE DOES IT COME TO REST?  Like a COMPASS NEEDLE, though spun around will always come to rest by pointing north, WHERE DOES YOUR HEART POINT WHEN IT COMES TO REST?  WHAT IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO YOU?  There are many concerns and loves, but what is ultimate love guides all other desires or loves?  Is it your JOB? A PROMOTION? Perhaps your HOME? Your CAR? Maybe another PERSON? Or MONEY? MATERIAL things?  On what do you set your affections?  Do you set your greatest affection on God? WE ARE TOLD IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, TO SET OUR AFFECTIONS ON THINGS ABOVE.,
(2)  This is proven by answering the second question: WHOM ARE YOU TRYING TO IMPRESS? We work, we buy, we plan, we push ourselves, we study, and we achieve, but why? Who or whom are we trying to impress? Some may say they DO IT ALL FOR THEMSELVES.   There are some who are guided by purely SELF-CENTERED MOTIVES OR AMBITIONS. We work for ourselves. We accumulate for ourselves. We  achieve only for ourselves.  SOME WILL say they LIVE FOR OTHERS, for their family, or for some other person or persons.  In other words, it’s not “your” own opinion that matters, but OTHER PEOPLE’S OPINIONS ARE IMPORTANT TOO.  Perhaps we might even become PEOPLE-PLEASERS. Perhaps we strive to look good in the eyes of others.   Giving ourselves to others can be good, but alone, it might go wrong too.   You can give, and give, and give, and not have anything left of yourself.    This is why this first commandment points us in an even higher motive than SELF, or OTHERS:  it EXHORTS US TO BE GOD-PLEASERS. The person we should seek to impress most is God. We should seek TO BE A DELIGHT TO HIM.   ONLY when we have our hearts on God do we know how much or what is necessary for others or for ourselves.
(3)  The final question is most obvious: WHAT ARE YOU LIVING FOR THAT YOU WANT TO GIVE YOU LIFE, RIGHT NOW?  What are our GOALS? What are OUR ASPIRATIONS? What are OUR OBJECTIVES?   IF YOU WERE TO LIST YOUR GOALS ON A SHEET OF PAPER would ‘Spiritual’ goals, you place for God be at the top? Would your main priorities be your walk with God, and your service to Him, or is God only a leftover, afterthought, or a postscript?   ARE YOUR GOALS ONLY CENTERED AROUND PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENT, job, home, family, money and the like?  You can live for all of these, but you must also ask yourself: WHO GIVES YOU YOUR LIFE AND THE POWER OF LIFE?  These kind of questions WILL HELP YOU EVALUATE WHAT YOU PUT FIRST.  As Jesus instructed: seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and ALL THESE WILL BE ADDED.  ONLY SEEKING YOUR OWN KINGDOM or your own rightness, and you NOT ONLY LOOSE YOUR KINGDOM, YOU’LL EVENTUALLY LOOSE YOURSELF TOO?    

 Choosing God means YOU ARE NO longer the center of YOUR world.  Realizing that Life is bigger than you, and is a gift, is also how your best chance for life happens too.   I once  read of A MAN IN A CATHOLIC PARISH who had a life-THREATENING ILLNESS.  The priest was called to his hospital bed.  The man was on first name basis with the Priest: “Ed, in a real crazy way, I AM GRATEFUL THAT THIS IS HAPPENING TO ME.” The Priest asked, “Why?”  The sick man answered, “Because THE WORD THAT KEEPS COMING UP IN MY MIND is the word, ‘give’… give, give.   I have some sense that NOW I AM CALLED TO GIVE MYSELF IN A WAY I’VE NEVER GIVEN BEFORE.” I have come to realize, as death threatens, and the end will come, to take myself out of the ‘center’ and to give is the only true way to live.

 We choose the one true God by the IDENTITY WE CHOOSE FOR OURSELVES. We are either people who CHOOSE TO LIVE FOR Ourselves, TO TAKE and keep on taking… OR, on the OTHER HAND, We ARE PEOPLE WHO CHOOSE TO BE INSTRUMENTS and to GIVE THEMSELVES FULLY INTO GOD’S HANDS.

 Saint Francis of Assisi SAW HIMSELF AS AN INSTRUMENT of the one,  true God and IT TURNED HIS LIFE AROUND and GAVE HIS LIFE MEANING.  Francis expressed it in a WONDERFUL PRAYER: “LORD, MAKE ME AN INSTRUMENT OF YOUR PEACE. Where there is HATRED, let me SOW LOVE, where there is INJURY, PARDON; where there is DISCORD, UNION; where there is DOUBT, FAITH; where there is DESPAIR, HOPE; where there is SADNESS, JOY.  GRANT THAT WE MAY NOT SO MUCH SEEK TO BE CONSOLED AS TO CONSOLE, to be UNDERSTOOD AS TO UNDERSTAND, to be loved as to love, for it is in GIVING THAT WE RECEIVE; it is in forgiving that we are forgiven, and it is in dying that we are born into eternal life.”

 Isn’t it amazing how EVERYTHING CHANGES WHEN WE CHOOSE TO PUT OUR LIVES INTO THE HANDS OF GOD as his instrument?  WE WORSHIP GOD, not just with words, with lips, or with a few scattered  SUNDAY ‘nods to God’, but we WORSHIP GOD ONLY WHEN CHOOSE TO WORSHIP HIM DAILY with all our lives and we put nothing in HIS PLACE AND WE HOLD NOTHING BACK.

 ISRAEL’S GOD AS THE ONE, TRUE, GOD
WORSHIPING the ONE, TRUE, GOD, means FINALLY THAT WE COME HOME to WHO WE ARE CREATED BY SO WE CAN BECOME WHO WE ARE CREATED TO BE.   Clinging to things that cannot last only leads us from one pain to another in life. Only God lasts.  We have no scientific proof that there is a God and we have no scientific proof that there is not a God. All we have is the low, clear voice within saying always, “THERE MUST BE MORE to this than this.” And that is all the proof we need.
(From: Chittister, Joan (2012-08-01). The Ten Commandments:  Laws of the Heart (p. 21). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

 BECAUSE THERE IS MORE, This FIRST COMMANDMENT ASSUMES that you WILL WORSHIP something.  It also assumes that YOU MUST CHOOSE TO WORSHIP THE ‘TRUE’ GOD and it assumes that this ‘true’ God MUST BE THE “ONE” AND ONLY GOD in your life.  All this is implied in ‘having no other gods before you.’   

 STILL, A FINAL, MOST pressing, UNANSWERED QUESTION MAY prevent THESE Ten Commands from GIVING LIFE today.   These commandments were once given to BE THE FOUNDATION FOR THE SPIRITUAL AND SOCIAL LIFE OF A COMMUNITY who INTENTIONALLY CENTERED THEMSELVES together in COVENANT WITH THE “ONE” “TRUE GOD” God who once called ISRAEL INTO BEING, but how CAN WE ‘ASSUME’ these laws are also MEANT FOR US?   IN A WORLD WHERE ‘TRUTH’ AND ‘LAW’ MEAN SO MANY THINGS to MANY DIFFERENT PEOPLE, how can we know THAT THE ONE TRUE GOD’ OF ISRAEL is also the ‘one, TRUE, GOD’ FOR US and IS LORD of the UNIVERSE?

 Well, TO BE QUITE FRANK, the truth is that we CAN’T ASSUME THIS ANYMORE, as we once thought we could.  Maybe WHEN WE ARE ALL LIVING IN OUR HAPPY LITTLE SINGULAR WHITE, EUROPEAN, American RELIGIOUS TRIBES made of DIFFERENT “JUDEO-CHRISTIAN” Flavors” we assumed it, but we don’t live there anymore.  LIKE THOSE ‘TRIBAL LEADERS’ IN THAT MOVIE, “The god’s must be crazy”,  WE TOO CAN’T JUST THROW THE COKE BOTTLE BACK up into the sky and go back to the way things once were.  LIFE HAS BECOME MORE COMPLICATED and you CAN’T JUST ASSUME WHAT WAS ONCE GOOD FOR ISRAEL is good for us.   Even Israel, modern Israel that is, DOESN’T PUT THAT MUCH STOCK IN THESE 10 COMMANDMENTS anymore.   Today, even Israel is less Israel,  or as the Apostle Paul once put it,  All that is called “ISRAEL IS NOT ISRAEL  (Roms 9-11).  

 It is PRECISELY BECAUSE life is much different than it was before, that the 10 commandments BELONG TO MORE than a “NEUTRAL” government building,  and must belong to MUCH MORE than in a “PUBLIC” school book, and MUST BE EVEN BECOME MUCH MORE than a NICE “MORAL” Tale told to children.   No, the 10 Commandments, if they are to GIVE THE LIFE THEY WERE INTENDED TO GIVE, must BE GET INTO OUR SOULS with the whole HEART, SOUL, MIND AND STRENGTH.  How can this happen?

 There is a GREAT Biblical EXAMPLE OF Someone quietly and fully putting the true God at the center of their lives.  DO YOU REMEMBER THE STORY OF MARY AND MARTHA IN LUKE’S GOSPEL  (10: 38ff)?  When Jesus came to visit, they both loved Jesus, BUT THEY HAD DIFFERENT WAYS OF RESPONDING TO JESUS.   MARTHA, responded to Jesus WITH HER BUSINESS.  Mary, on the other hand, RESPONDED TO JESUS BY GETTING CLOSER to him by HANGING ON to EVERY SINGLE WORD.   THE TEXT TELLS US THAT WHILE MARTHA WAS “DISTRACTED” by her many tasks, Mary WAS SITTING AT JESUS’ FEET, listening, and taking everything in.  

 When Martha observed Mary there, she protested, saying, “Lord, do you not care that MY SISTER HAS LEFT ME TO DO ALL THE WORK by myself?  Tell her to help me?   We can understand Martha’s difficulty, for we TOO ARE OFTEN PRESSED UPON BY THE WORRIES and cares of this world.  WE TOO ARE IN A HURRY to make sure THINGS GET DONE RIGHT BECAUSE WE LIVE TO MAKE EVERYONE HAPPY.  But there is more.  There is MUCH MORE THAN OUR HURRIED, WORRIED LIVES.  Listen to Jesus’ response:  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  There is need of only one thing.”  MARY HAS CHOSEN THE BETTER PART, which will not be taken away from her. 

THAT “ONE THING which is the ‘better part” is to INVITE YOURSELF, to CHOOSE, TO KNOW THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD OF LORDS, and King of Kings, WHO HAS COME CLOSE TO US IN JESUS CHRIST.   DO YOU KNOW  HOW DO YOU “SERVE” WHEN WE A KING COMES TO YOUR HOUSE?   If you think like Martha, you ‘do things’ for him.   But think about this another way: “HOW DO YOU SERVE A KING OR this GOD, who comes to us, to call us to be his own ISRAEL, as the GOD WHO HAS AND IS EVERYTHING?   HOW DO YOU SERVE A KING WHO HAS COME TO YOU BECAUSE YOU CAN”T GET CLOSE TO HIM?   YOU certainly don’t BEGIN AS MARTHA DID, but YOU MUST DO WHAT MARY DID.  YOU Acknowledge that the KING has found you and you SIT DOWN TO LET HIM SERVE YOU FIRST.

 “Be still, and know that I am God…” This is WHERE ALL THE COMMANDMENTS Begin and End.   There was nothing wrong with what Martha was doing, but there is something BADLY WRONG WITH WHAT MARTHA WAS MISSING.  She is MISSING THE BEST PART….the LISTENING… The LEARNING… the GROWING… THE WONDERING… AND THE WORSHIP… What she was missing, most of all, was the LOVE God had to give her first.

 We will also come to worship the one, true God when we let him find us, first.   And WHEN HE COMES TO US, we need to MOVE IN CLOSE WITH ALL OUR HEARTS until we come to fully understand that what he come to give us, FIRST OF ALL…AND MOST OF ALL IS….HIMSELF.   Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

WE NEED GOD to Keep Up Our Image

A sermon based upon Exodus 20: 4-6; 32:1-29; Acts 17: 16-31
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, D.Min.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C: Proper 19, 17th Sunday After Pentecost, September 11th, 2016

A little boy drawing a picture was asked, what are you drawing?   
        His quick reply: “God”. 
The teacher answers, “But no one knows what God looks like.”  To which the 
          little boy answers, “They will when I get through with my picture.”

How do you visualize God?  What lens or filter do you look through?    The Second commandment; “You must not make carved or graven images of God” (Ex. 20:7), intends to make us realize that any of our ‘images’ of God, either mental or religious, are not really God.

You do realize that you don’t actually see or hear God on your own terms, don’t you?   Some in Broughton Mental Hospital would claim they’ve heard God talking to them directly, but a healthy mind would only acknowledge knowing God through the mind or heart.   Recent science even suggests that we have “God spots” in our brains.   Using physical, cultural and spiritual filters, our minds seem ‘wired’ with a capacity to focus less on self and more on God and others.  But we do this indirectly, not directly; approximately, not exactly, intuitively, not always analytically.   For example, we can see this limitation is how many of us, because of our forefathers in faith, understand God through Baptist filters, through Methodist filters, Quaker, Presbyterian, Catholic, and so on.   Humans are spiritually ‘programed’ with a built-in need to transcend our self-centeredness, but our spiritual beliefs and religious traditions are particular to our own ways of seeing, based upon our specific needs, experiences, and our own ability to understand through differing cultural and religious viewpoints.   (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/20/god-spot-in-brain-is-not-_n_1440518.html)

Scripture says “No one may (actually) see (God) and live” (Ex. 33:20).  This means the ‘living God” who is the ‘true God,’ will remain hidden, beyond all our individual viewpoints and the mental images in our minds, or he ceases to be God.  As J.B. Philips suggested many years ago, unless you always allow for your own limitations, even in how you interpret the God who has revealed himself to us through the Word, Jesus Christ, “Your God (Could) Be Too Small.” 

THE PROBLEM WITH “IMAGE
Since, ‘our ways are not God’s ways, and our thoughts are not God’s thoughts’ (Is. 55:8), let me tell why this is so important;  why it is important for us to know that the true God and the ‘truth of God’ is always beyond us and can’t fully be ‘imagined’ by any of us.  I was on my first mission trip outside the U.S., on a mission trip to Brazil, where I was revival speaker for the Monte Horbe, Igelsia Baptista.   My sermon was being translated by a Brazilian lady who did everything she could to try to make my sermon work.  But it just wasn't working, at least it wasn’t working for me.  But it wasn’t the sermon material that was the problem; but it was the hammering going on overhead as I preached on that Sunday morning.  

While we were trying worship and I attempted to preach, several men were hammering away on the roof.  How could they do such a thing on Sunday?”  I thought to myself.  “Why did the people and the pastor let this go on, especially while I, a visitor, struggling to preach with a translator, was trying to preach?”   I just could not figure it out.  Was my preaching that bad?  Maybe.  Maybe they just took advantage of moment when the real pastor had a Sunday off, and they wouldn’t pay attention an American.  All this was whirling in my mind, so after the service concluded, I could not wait to ask the Brazilian pastor why those guys kept hammering while we were trying to worship.
      “Those are my deacons,” he answered trying not to laugh.
     “Your Deacons were hammering on Sunday during the worship service? 
    “Yes,” he said.  “We have a hole in our roof.   We are all poor people and cannot afford to take a day off to fix it, so with the only time they had free, they were fixing the roof.”
      “Doesn’t that disturb worship?”  I asked.
      “That hammering was worship”, he said. “They were all hammering away to the glory of God because they were fixing the roof.
His answer both humbled me, but also inspired me, to realize that God could ‘work’ in ways that I had never imagined before.

This is one of the first things you’ll notice when you visit different churches in different cultures.  They seldom do things exactly the same way we do.  We all pray, but we pray differently.  We go to church for worship, but we express our worship differently, we dress differently and we approach God differently.  Sometimes this happens out of habit or traditions established long before we can along.  Other times, differing worship arises out of particular experiences or necessities of a particular moment.   It is always important that we no mistake the ‘form’ for the truth of God that is always beyond our own traditions, rituals, or worship practices.

Whenever missionaries go to different cultures, one of the great temptations is to try to make “Americans” out of people, rather than calling them to become Christians within their own culture.   Because we all come with set of lenses that human culture gives us, the good news of God ought to be allowed to shape us within our own cultural filters.  While this is the normal and natural way to receive the gospel, it is also important that the gospel must not restricted by these cultural filters.   For example, when you put ‘native’ peoples into three piece suits and make them sing Bach, it might look cute and interesting, but the problem is that it may not be true worship for those people.   True worship must arise out of a particular culture and tradition.  Faith must not oppose culture because it also needs culture as a channel for responding to God.   In other words, it is through what happens around me, that I realize what my responsibilities should be. 

In the same way, you must try to understand culture when you preach, teach, or try to communicate the gospel, especially ‘cross-culturally’.  For example, when missionaries first preached to Chinese people and spoke of being ‘sinners’ it first sounded like the missionaries were calling them all “criminals” or ‘crooks’.  The traditional Chinese language had no actual word for sinner.  So, those missionaries had to develop a way of  clarifying that being a sinner did not make you a criminal, or bad person, but it being a ‘sinner’ means that we all ‘fall short’, as Scripture says, and we all have potential to commit ‘crimes’ against God and each other.  But, through Jesus, God has provided a way to forgive and help us overcome.  They had to help the Chinese, and other Asian cultures,  picture the ‘good news’ in ways that “fit” their own cultural understandings.

Why am I giving you this extended lesson in “Cross Cultural Communication?”   It all goes back to this second commandment.   If you are going know a truth as big as God, you must realize that you will always face limits.  The truth about God, if it remains God’s truth, must always remain bigger, larger, and greater than all “human” understandings and cultures.  God can’t be reduced to human ingenuity or imagination. God only remains God, precisely when we don’t try to force God to fit neatly into our finite minds.  Only when God remains above or beyond us, can the true God be in us.    

Don’t make any graven or carved image!” is the commandment that reminds that no cultural, human-made, or humanly imagined image of God you or I have in our minds, will ever be all there is to God.   If you stop and think about it, no command has had a greater ‘ripple effect’ in Bible or theological “pond’.   While defining what we mean by God has very important implications for what we believe, realizing that we ‘can’t’ fully grasp the whole ‘truth of God’ is just as important.  When you start to believe or think you know everything there is to know about God, or when you think you have ‘the corner-market’ on God, you have immediately begun to create a ‘false image’—a false image, which the Bible says can become your idol.  

Idolatry--- worshipping “Idols” is the big “no, no” of the Bible (1 Sam. 15:23).  The sin of Idolatry is how ancient peoples tried to approached or imagine God on their own terms.   This is not just a religious problem.   This is something that should concern you—whether you are religious or not.  When you imagine God, on your own terms, without allowing for your human limitations or without submitting to God’s revelation of Himself, it isn’t long until you begin to make ‘false’ images or idols, not only of God, but you can also start making ‘false images’ or ‘idols’ of yourself.   We must realize that this is not really a commandment about God wanting to protect his image, but it finally a commandment this who God who is trying to protect the ‘image’ of God stamped within each of us. 

Of course, we live world that uses the term ‘idol’ figuratively, but also flippantly--such as the once wildly popular show “American Idol”.    This popular usage of the word “Idol” reminds us just how much of our culture today is built around ‘image’?   Image sells.  Daily we are bombarded by stereotypes; including popular images of youth, images about money, about sex, and of course, in this political year, images of power that promises the ‘moon’.   Even churches have gotten into image making business, by marketing themselves in ways that may help present the gospel in a very image conscious world.   Make no mistake, even though our society has very few ‘ironsmiths’ fashioning  images of godlike ‘idols’ (Isaiah 44: 12ff), we still live in a world continues to promote ‘godlike’ images of what people want. 

On the TODAY SHOW once, there was a spot about how many thousands, even millions of dollars are spent by Americans each year so they can go on diets in order to project the ‘right image’.   In fact, for most American who diet, it is not about health at all, though it could be, but most dieting today is about ‘image’.   What was most interesting in the report, was scientific studies have proven that ‘fad’ diets really don’t do much to help us lose weight, nor recreate our image.   Heredity and genetics has much more to do with our body type and sometimes even our weight, as much as anything we try to do to obtain a certain look or shape.  Moderation and exercising are much healthier than going after an ideal weight that most people cannot, or should ever REACH.  And even and if we do reach it, we will most likely not be able to maintain it.   

Along with this concern for physical image, we also SEE THE SELLING of images all around us?  The image of having the right body, the right car, the right house, and the right job are all a part of the daily dreams of most Americans.  Some will sell their own souls, or the soul of their family, in order to obtain or maintain the perfect image some wish to see in themselves. 

Interestingly, the commandment of God is concerned about the kinds of “images” we promote.   But, in this second commandment,  as it is constantly communicated in the Bible, God has some very different reasons for being ‘image conscious’.   God is concerned that when we create ‘false images’ of God, or what we want to be ‘god’ for us,   we will also end up with false, self-destructive, life-robbing images of ourselves. 

HOW IMAGES BECOME IDOLS
In order to better understand humans still may become ‘idol’ makers, let’s go back to the first story of ‘idol’ making.   IN EXODUS 32, even while Moses was on the Mountain with God, receiving the Ten Commandments, the people of God became impatient and convinced Aaron to help them CREATE AN “IMAGE” representing their desire for gods’ on their own terms.   It is exactly this human tendency to be impatient with the truth of God, along with being so overbearingly “IMAGE CONSCIOUS” that this commandment was given to deter, saying:  "Do not make for yourselves a carved image, whether in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the water under the earth.  You are not to bow down to them and you are not to worship them."  (Ex. 20:4-5a).   GOD’S PROBLEM IS NOT SO MUCH WITH us needing to imagine God in our own minds, AS IT IS WITH TURNING our way of imagining God into self-serving “IDOLS”.   WHEN WE “IDOLIZE” the IMAGE---we confuse a human-made image we have created in our own limited, finite minds, with the unbounded, infinite, eternal truth of a living God, who cannot be contained or controlled by us.    
ONE OF THE GREATEST truths in the entire Hebrew Bible is how it was finally perceived that “idolatry” was the ‘sin’ which resulted in the DOWNFALL OF Israel  (Eze. 23:49).  But of course, we would never be so foolish today, would we?  IDOL WORSHIP SEEMS LIGHT YEARS AWAY FROM US, right?    Wrong!  Idolatry is still a major concern for truth faith.  Do you know why?   It’s simple:  God does not allow for substitutes; none.  This is the core problem of making our own images of God.  WHEN WE ‘IDOLIZE’ THE IMAGE, even perhaps a very good image of God which we may have in our own mind---if we are not careful,  even “good” images and ‘true’ understandings of God, when craved out or controlled by us, can END UP BEING SUBSTITUTES for the true God, who is beyond all human imagining and comprehension. 

Let’s get practical.  Think, for a moment about how we might idolize an image as a substitute for the true God.   Let’s go straight to the most important one for ‘biblical Christians’: BIBLIOLATRY---which is IDOLIZING THE BIBLE.  We Christians believe the Bible.  We Believe the Bible is true in what it intends to say, and we also believe that God’s truth is revealed in the Bible.  What we must be careful not to think or do, however, is to start treating the Bible as if it is “god-like”.  The Bible does become a worthy vehicle of the truth of God, but it must never become ‘godlike’.  Since the Bible has human authors, though guided by the Holy Spirit, we still have to carefully interpret its words with reverence.  The Bible is a trustworthy ‘channel’ for God’s Word, but only because it points us to the final WORD of God, who is Jesus Christ.   When we lose the living message of Jesus as the key that unlocks the truth of God written Word, we are liable to idolize the Bible.  Some people do this with a particular version of the Bible, because instead of following the Spirit of Jesus revealed in the Bible, they start getting stuck on Bible itself, and end up brow beating other people with their opinions about the Bible, rather than actually following Jesus.  Let’s face it folks, there’s been a lot of Bibliolatry among some Baptists.  Many have idolized a book, and have missed  obeying the truth of the God of the book.

The same kind of thing HAPPENNED WITH DENOMINATIONALISM, DIDN’T IT?  Some people used to think their denomination was the only true denomination and that all other denominations were going straight to hell.  Instead of being humble and realizing that we are all limited in our view of God and we all see God through our own experiences, SOME ELEVATED THEIR OWN VIEWPOINTS SO HIGH, that they MISSED OTHER ASPECTS OF GOD, which could be found in other denominations. 

If we are not careful, we too can get stuck in the very kind of MAN-MADE RELIGION Jesus came to free us from.   OUR FAITH IS NOT ABOUT RELIGION, IT IS ABOUT RELATIONSHIP.  This reflects the great problem with idols: It’s HARD TO RELATE TO AN IDOL.  You can talk to them, but they don’t talk back.  You can walk to them, but they can't walk with you.  You can hold them in your hand, but they can’t hold you.  That is the problem with substitutes.  They can be there when you want them, but THEY ARE NOT ALWAYS THERE WHEN YOU NEED THEM.  Idols are mere substitutes with no true substance.   They are dead replacements for a living, true God. 

We still need to be warned against the trap of creating Idols, even in a modern world.  WHEN WE PUT ANYTHING, anyone or any idea in the place of the living, untouchable, unspeakable, and undefinable God, we CREATE AN IMAGE THAT BECOMES AN IDOL.  God defines us, we don’t define him.   As the theologian Paul Tillich once put it: “The true God is the “God beyond God” we imagine, or he is not God at all.”   If we fail to forget that God we could and would know nothing of God, unless God had revealed himself.   AND EVEN WHAT has been revealed to us, we CAN’T HOLD TO TOO TIGHTLY, or MISS the Many WAYS GOD CAN still COME to us, in our world and into our hearts.  Remember Mary Magdalene in the Garden, as she met the resurrected Christ, and how she was still trying to hold on to the earthly Jesus.  Jesus spoke to her, saying, “Mary, don’t cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.”   Only when Mary ‘let go’ of the God she once knew, could she continue to walk with the living, life-giving, death-defying God of her own future.

WHO REALLY GETS HURT?
In THE FINAL PART OF THIS COMMANDMENT, God reminds Israel that HE IS A JEALOUS God who will NOT ALLOW HIS PEOPLE TO WORSHIP idols.  If they do, GOD says he WILL BRING JUDGMENT, “visiting the iniquity of the Fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation….”

SOUNDS A LITTLE HARSH, DOESN’T IT?   Why is God so concerned about idolatry?  Why is he so jealous?   Well, the answer is in the text itself.  IDOLATRY ENDS UP HURTING US more than it could ever HURT GOD.  When we substitute our false images for the true God, WE are the ones who SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES.  

The greatest tragedy of idolatry is that when we ‘create’ a god of our own, we create a god we can use, but we have left the very GOD can use us.   When we limit God, WE LESSEN OURSELVES.   When we create a false image of God, we demote and demoralize the image of God within us.  When we get fixated on the thing we want, we are likely to miss the very thing we need. 

Pastor John Killinger tells of a woman who once fell in love with a travel poster.    It was a dramatic photograph showing the whitewashed buildings and Byzantine domes of the Greek island of Santorni, with the shining blue sea behind them.   She asked the travel agent for a copy of the poster, and she took it home and put it up in her breakfast nook, where she would see it every morning.   Soon she began to dream of going to the Greek islands and seeing this ‘fabled’ view for herself.  

Each time she received a paycheck, she put away a few dollars toward the realization of her dream.   Eventually the day come when she flew off to Athens on the first leg of her journey.  Because her tour included several days in the city of Athens, she dutifully made the rounds of the sights, but she confessed to one lady that she was not very much interested in what she was seeing, for she had really come for only one purpose: to see the beautiful scene in Santorini that was captured o her travel poster.

When the tour group left Athens, it traveled by steamer to the ancient island of Mykonos, with its twisting, narrow streets, it unforgettable harbor, its picturesque windmills, and it whitewashed buildings and Byzantine domes.   Most of the people in the group oohed and ahhed at the glorious sights, and some even began to write poetry the evening they stood on the hill and watched the sun set like a fiery red wafer into the mauve and golden sea.  But the woman was unyielding; she had come to see the houses, domes of Santorni.
From Mykonos, the tour transported the group to the little island of Paros.  They stayed on the leeward side of the island in a hotel overlooking a beautiful bay where the fishermen brought in their catches every evening just before dinner.  In the daytime, many of the party lay indolently on the crescent beach that stretched around one end of the bay.  Others swam in the luminously clear waters, marveling at the beauty of their surroundings.  But the woman rarely left her hotel room.  She was dreaming of her special view in Santorini.

Finally, the tour arrived at Santorini.  The ship sailed into the rim of the enormous volcano on which the city is perched.  It was almost dusk, and the sky over the sea looked like a great bank of embers, slowly fading into the night.  Many people said it was the most beautiful sight they had ever seen.  But the woman rode silently up the hill to the hotel, clutching her dream of the view on the poster.  “Tomorrow morning, when the sun rises,” she thought to herself, “I will see it.”  She would have only a few hours in the city, but it would be worth it.  She would stand on the walls of the city and look down across those gorgeous housetops and domes pictured on the poster.  Her heart was pounding faster than she had ever known it to pound.  She didn’t know if she would be able to sleep.
During the night, a great storm off the coast of southern Italy moved into the Aegean Sea, bringing cooler temperatures to the region.  As the cold air met the warm sea water, thick vapors rose and spread their murky blanket over everything.  When the woman awoke and rushed out to her balcony to look out over the view she had longed to see, everything was shrouded in fog.  She could barely see the building immediately below her hotel.  Later in the day, her heart heavy with disappointment, she sailed with her group toward Crete, where they would catch a plane home.  She had missed everything; all the grandeur and beauty of an entire civilization, by focusing too exclusively on a single image. (See To My People With Love, Abingdon Press, 1988, pp. 36-38).

If you idolize God into a single fixed form; a god who only reflects your own views, your own self-made images, your own individualized politics, even your own culture or ‘home grown’ religion, you will end up carving out your image of God.  If you fix your sights only on this one image, you’ll end up missing everything else God is or is doing in this world.   The only way God can be seen, without shortchanging his image and without short changing our own lives, is by following Jesus. 

While we know that people can ‘use’ Jesus too, instead of actually following him, if we want to find the way to follow Jesus without falling into idolatry,  we need to remember the conversation Jesus once had with the Woman at the Well.  The topic of their discussion was about whether God should be worshiped in Jerusalem, or in Samaria.   The Samaritans had their own copy of the Bible, and considered themselves faithful Jews, even though they were not Jewish.  The Jews considered these Samaritans half-breeds, because they weren’t purely Jewish and used their copy of the Bible.  How did Jesus answer the argument over who had the true image of God?  Jesus answered, “one day” we will all “worship the Father in spirit and truth”.  One day, we will get beyond all the limiting ways humans get fixated and miss the ‘true God’ who is spirit—the spirit of love and compassion.    Paul explained the same hope to the Greeks in Athens when he said, “God doesn’t live in man-made temples… human hand can’t serve his needs, because he has need of nothing.  He himself gives life and breath to everything and satisfies every need there is.. (Acts 17: 22-31). 

So, how do we overcome idolatry, according to the Christian gospel?  There is only one way.  Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father.” (Jn. 14:9).  Do you know how WE CAN WORSHIP JESUS AN NOT IDOLIZE GOD?   Besides the fact that JESUS WAS GOD IN THE FLESH, there is yet another reason.   Jesus not only showed us God was at work in Christ Jesus, reconciling the world to God’s love, but Jesus ALSO SHOWED US HOW GOD CAN LIVE THROUGH any of us.   What Jesus came to do was to restore the “image of God” in us.   WE WERE CREATED IN GOD’S IMAGE, and through Jesus Christ, this image of God in us can be restored.  WHEN YOU CAN SEE GOD IN JESUS and you want to see God at work in your LIFE, AND when you also begin to SEE THE IMAGE OF GOD IN OTHERS, you don’t need an idol any more.   It is like Jacob told Esau, “Seeing your face, is like seeing the Face of God.”  WHO NEEDS AN IDOL, when we can LOVE EACH OTHER?  Who needs an idol, when the GOD WE CAN’T SEE IS REVEALED BEST BY LOVING the people we do see?  It is through loving, caring, and serving others that the God’s truth still tears down all the false idols in this world.   Amen. 



Sunday, September 4, 2016

WE NEED GOD to Maintain Self-Respect

A sermon based upon Exodus 20: 7; 3:11-15; Matthew 7: 21-23; Acts 8:14-24
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, D.Min.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C: Proper 18, 16th Sunday After Pentecost, September 4th, 2016

She was by any measurement, a ship of destiny. 

In the summer of 1945, the heavy cruiser, USS Indianapolis, carrying a crew of nearly 1200 men, was hit by six Japanese torpedoes and sunk into the fog covered waters of the Pacific in the Philippine Sea.   She sank in only 12 minutes.   About 300 men went down with the ship and 900 or more, some naked or in their underwear, managed to don life jackets and leap into the oil covered ocean. 

Others, including Captain Charles Butler McVay, found refuge on a handful of rubber rafts.   In the morning, they had no doubt they would be quickly rescued.  But the day passed.  Then a second day.  And a third.  Their kapok life jackets were designed to keep them afloat for 48 hours.  Now they had to keep their chins high to keep breathing.   Many died of exposure.  Sharks attacked others.  It was around noon the fourth day, that the survivors, barely a quarter of the crewB 317 were spotted by Navy plane and rescued in a major operation.

Why did this tragedy happen just before the end of the war?  Well the Navy blamed Captain McVay.  In fairly short order, they court-martialed McVay, finding him guilty of Ahazarding@ his ship while the nation was at war.  The question of why all those men were left helpless in the sea was not addressed.

Now, after 55 years, the truth about the disaster is finally coming out.  In 1996, a young 11-year-old movie goer, Hunter Scott, learned about the shark-infested disaster by watching the movie Jaws where it was mentioned briefly.  He began to do some research.  The truth he found is that the Captain had requested destroyer escorts but was refused. McVay was told that there was no threat of Japanese Subs in that area.  Young Scott also learned that three SOS=s went out from the ship, but that they were ignored.  Scott then found that a book entitled, Abandon Ship, gave a complete list of the survivors who were unanimous in saying a dreadful wrong had been perpetrated against their captain.  One of those survivors, Paul J. Murphy, testified in Washington, ATime is running out for those of us waiting...please help us restore our captain=s good name.@

Proverbs 22: 1, says that Aa good name is to be chosen over great riches, and being held in high-esteem is more than silver and gold.@  Anyone who has ever lost their credit rating, had their identity stolen, or had their integrity questioned, knows that a good name still has value.  But the third commandment strangely reveals that God is also concerned about his ‘good name’: “Do not misuse the name of the LORD your God.  The LORD will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name”  (Ex. 20:7).   When you first read this you might think that God has a P.R. problem or that he is a bit insecure.  The commandment says that God demands that his people respect his name, but what does this mean for God or for us?  If he’s God, why can’t he protect his own name all by himself? Don’t you find this a bit strange?



When you look at the Bible, especially the Old Testament, you will learn that throughout Scripture there is a great concern for taking God=s name seriously and respectfully.  Israel was constantly commanded to bless, have respect and taught to reverence the divine name.   This command had both negative and positive connotations: Negatively, Israel was not to profane God=s name, which meant they were not to use the divine name flippantly.  Positively, they are instructed through Psalm after Psalm to Abless the name of the Lord@ and sing praises to God=s name.  We still hear echoes of that call to reverence in our hymns and prayers when we sing and pray “in the name of Jesus” Christ. 

Orthodox Jews today still treat the name of God with utmost respect.  In fact, Jewish traditions of the past kept God=s name so well hidden from those who might misuse it, that they actually lost it.  Among the ancients, the name of God was never fully written in Hebrew Scripture, but only appeared as consonants without vowels, as was all the ancient Hebrew Scripture.  While the oral tradition among Scribes and the literate knew the consonants in the language, the only person who knew the vowel’s that unlocked God’s true name was the High Priest.  He was the only one allowed to enter into the holy of holies, the inner most sanctuary, once a year on Yom Kippur to utter the name of God in prayer.  But after the temple was destroyed twice, and the Jews were scattered all over the place, the exact name of God was lost.  No one today knows for sure how God=s name should be spoken.  It’s kind of like, spelling G.D. without knowing whether it is A, (GAD), an E, (GED), an I (GID), an O (GOD), or a U (GUD).  Today the tradition puts in suggestive vowels to form the name, “Yahweh” in Hebrew, or “Jehovah” in English, but to be honest, all we really have is YHWH, which could be, Yohwih (hey, sounds like Joey, I go for that one), Yohwah, Yehwah, or many other possible combinations.  We just don’t know what God’s name originally was.

The closest we ever get to have the true name of God sounded out for us is in in Exodus 3.   You=ll recognize this moment as Moses standing before the burning bush.  Moses has just removed his shoes, because this, he was told, he was on ‘holy ground.’  AI am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,@  he is told.  God then proceeds to inform Moses, he is being called to lead the children of Israel out of their slavery.   But Moses is reluctant, even though this comes ‘directly’ from God.  Let’s pick up the conversation in Exodus, 3:11.
  AHow can you expect me to lead the Israelites out of Egypt?@  Moses questions.
  AI will be with you,@ God says. ATell them that the God of your ancestors is with you.@ 
  ABut what if they won=t believe me, and ask me >Which god are you talking about? 
  “What if they ask, ‘What=s his name?’@
   God then replied, AI AM WHO I AM”.  So say to the Israelites, AI AM has sent
   you....  This is my name forever; it has always been my name, and it will be used
   throughout all generations.@

If God=s name is AI AM, @ which in Hebrew reads literally, “I become who I become”, how do we treat such a strange name with respect? 

GOD WILL BE MORE THAN WE THINK
First let me say right at the first, that we do misuse God=s name when we claim to know more about God that we really do.  This is what this strange text in Exodus 3 reminds us. God=s name forever remains a mystery just like God himself will forever remain a mystery.  God must remain God, even when we can something about him.  The truth is, as one great theologian reminded us, we only know what God allows us to know.   We can’t really know anything, had God not revealed himself.  If we claim to know more than God has revealed, we misuse his name.  Religious teachers, preachers, professors, and very opinionated folks, beware, says James. AThose who teach will be judged with greater strictness@ (James 3:1).  They will be ‘judged’ because know of us can claim know everything about the mind of God. When God remains God, every person becomes a ‘liar’ (Rom. 3:4) when it comes to knowing all the truth there is to know, about God or about anything, for that matter.  Our truth must always be ‘the humbled truth’ or it will end up being no ‘truth’ at all.

In another great Bible passage, Exodus 33, Moses gets tired of following God ‘humbly’ as a mystery and wants to see God face to face. He wants to go beyond the mysterious name. APlease let me see your glorious presence,@ Moses says (Exodus 33:18).  The LORD responds by saying, O.K., Moses, since you’ve followed me faithfully all these years, AI will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will call out my name to you.... BUT you may (still) not look directly at my face, for no one may see me and live.@  If I understand any practical application here, it is that none of us will ever know everything we may want to know about God.  None of us have a piece of God in our back pocket that we can pull out and say this is everything God is or means.  As Isaiah said, AHis thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways@ (Isaiah 55).  If anyone claims to know exactly what God says, means or is, then they are misusing God=s name and they are not faithful to the true revelation.  In a faith that is faithful to the ‘true’ revelation of God,  God’s name will always be shrouded in mystery, just as the any kind of ‘absolute’ truth always is—subtle, hidden, out of our grasp, but a constantly struggle that humbles us and makes us a better and a ‘holy’ people.



I told that at the last Southern Baptist Convention I ever attended, which was in New Orleans, I found myself after a long day of business sessions, in the swimming pool talking to another pastor.  We were discussing whether a divorced person could ever be deacon or a pastor.  I told him we must take each case individually, with prayer and humility, asking and seeking God=s will.  But he already knew in his own mind that, since God is against divorce, he=s also against divorced people, including having divorced deacons or having divorced pastors.  I told him disqualifying people from grace or leadership should not be a blanket rule coming down from human authorities.  He disagreed and we argued for a long time.  I could not convince him otherwise.  Later, I wondered what this guy, who was also a big fan of Dr. Charles Stanley of Atlanta, would have answered after Stanley=s own divorce went through.  I worry that since he wasn’t thinking much then, he’s might not be thinking much more even now.

God’s name and His ‘truth’ demands our respect because of what we don’t know and will never know.  We just can’t have automatic, once-and-for all, uncaring, “pat” answers in advance, because God and Truth must forever remain bigger than our own perceptions and conceptions (That’s why we call them “God” and “Truth” with capitals). God must always be who God will be, and remain a ‘mystery’ to be ‘who he will be’.  As God told Moses, God remains “gracious upon whom God will be gracious” and he “gives mercy to whom He will give mercy” and he only makes his ‘goodness’ pass before Moses and us, because “goodness” and “graciousness” is whom God has revealed himself to be, as the Great “I AM”.  While the Bible points us to the “Truth” about God (and ourselves), and it takes us to the very core, it never reveals everything.  The New Testament tells us that the things that Jesus did and said are more in numerable the sands of the seashore.   The point for Moses is not that he ‘know’ everything, but that he ‘experience’ the grace of the God who is ‘everything’.  To suggest we know more than the ‘goodness’ or ‘grace’ we have ‘experienced’ is to misuse the name of God and refuse to honor the mystery of it all.

GOD MAY BE LESS THAN WE THINK
Another, but even stranger angle on how we may misuse God=s name is found in the story of Job.  It goes with forgetting the mystery, if we try to resolve or solve it with our own minds.  In other words, when we claim to know more than we know, God could actually be ‘less’ than what we think we know.  I don’t mean that God is ‘less’, but I mean that he may be ‘less’ or ‘different’ than what we think.  Let me explain.

In the story, Job was suffering because Satan wanted to prove that Job=s faith was dishonest.  In order to ‘test’ Job’s faith, Satan is allowed to bring all kinds of calamity upon Job.  But as bad as it was for Job, Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zopher, claim they know ‘exactly’ why these things have happenedC why Job is sick, why Job lost his moneyC why Job lost his children in a catastrophe.  These friends represent the kind of religion that does not bring hope, but only claims to know “why”.  It says that since ‘bad things are happening’, Job has done something wrongC so Job needs to confess his sin so he can be healed.  But Job refuses to confess some ‘great’ sin.  He says that he has nothing to confess.  Job is an upright man and the truth finally comes out that he, or his friends can ‘know’ why he suffers, or why anyone suffers, but we must learn to trust God when we don’t know ‘why’.
  
Who ever said that being a faithful person, or even being a Jew, a Christian, or any kind of ‘religious’ person, means you have everything ‘figured out’?  Job doesn’t have anything figured out, but he is determined to ‘trust’ God anyway, and not to trust his ‘know-it-all’ friends. In a most dramatic moment of distress and pain, God cries out ‘cursing’ the day of his pain, even cursing ‘the day he was born’ (Job 3:3), but he will not ‘curse’ or misuse the name of God.  Job will keep taking his ‘pain’ and his questions to God, but he will not ‘blame’ God, nor will he ‘blame’ himself.  Job is determined to know much ‘less’ than his friends, than his theology, than his culture, and he even allows himself to know less, as the book of Job ends with questions, not answers (we call this humility), and this is what helps bring Job hope.


When I was sixteen, a neighbor lost his six year old child in a tragic death.  The child walked out in front of a car that failed to stop for a school bus.  The child lived until he reached the hospital, but due to great trauma, the little fellow never had a chance.  We did not have a pastor at the time, but an interim.  He was a good man, but he lacked a proper theological education and because of that, he made a tragic mistake which he could have avoided, if he had at least gone to school to realize what he didn’t know.  That preacher misused the name of God, and he took God=s name in vain, when he told that family, this broken Daddy and Mother, that what happen was ‘the will of God’.  He told them that it would take time, but they would one day come to accept this as ‘the will of God’.  If this still sounds cruel, you’re right.  “To call something the will or work of God when you don’t know that, is to dreadfully misuse the name of God.  Sometimes the ‘truth’ of God, or the truth about God, needs to be more than you know, but it can also be much less than you think you know.

In the New Testament God=s name is still taken with most respect and seriousness in the Lord’s prayers, as Jesus began the model prayer with : AOur Father, who is in heaven, hallowed, be you name. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.@ Jesus does not tell us to respect God’s name by ‘knowing’ God’s will, but by partnering to with God to ‘do’ what we already know to be ‘holy’ and ‘good’.  Jesus also tells us to pray in God=s name and that anything we ask in His name, he will do it.  Those are bold words.  They so boldly promise so much in God’s name, that God’s name could be misused for the sake of power and profit instead of for the sake of the grace and goodness. 

This ‘misuse’ of God’s name and power is what Acts 8 is about.  As mighty things were happening in ‘the name of Jesus’ during the time of early church, there were some who got the wrong idea.  One of those folks was a man named Simon.  He was a magician.  He was amazed at the power being released ‘in Jesus’ name’ and he wonders if he can get ‘it’ for himself.   We don=t need to judge Simon=s motives, here.  They may have even been good, but he was terribly mistaken. The problem was, that wanted the power for power’s sake.  Simon believes because of the display of God’s power being released and is baptized.  But when this Simon later meets Simon Peter and sees the apostles laying hands on folks and the miracles taking place, he pulls money out of his pocket and is ready to ‘buy’ this power himself: ALet me have this power, too@, he exclaimed, Aso that when I lay my hands on people, they will receive the Holy Spirit!@  This may have sounded like a worthy request.  Simon wanted to heal and to enable people to receive the Spirit.  Peter, however, sees through his request, responding with a direct warning: AMay your money perish with you for thinking that God=s gift can be bought!  You can have no part of this, for your heart is not right before God. A  Here, the ‘misuse’ of God’s name is not simply that Simon thinks that God=s power can be bought, but it’s also that his Aheart is not right before God@This is what the text tells us.   When you use God=s name and your heart is not right, because you are pretending to be something you’re not, then you, even by bearing God’s name, you can misuse God=s name.  Another passage shows us how dangerous it is (for us, not for God) to pretend have or be something we’re not.  In Matthew 7, 21-23, Jesus spoke about the difference between true disciples and false disciples: ANot all people who sound religious are really godly.  They may refer to me as >Lord,= but they still won=t enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The decisive issue, says Jesus, Ais whether they obey my Father in heaven.@  

When I was working on my Doctorate one summer, my Christian Education Professor, Israel Galindo, told us about his own philosophy of Christian Education.  He said that a ‘true’ Christian education is Aobedience education@.  Dr. Galindo says that people don=t really learn or come to know God until they want to obey God.  There=s a mental block against learning or doing the things of God until that happens.  People cover the same thing over and over and never get it, until the really want to get it and do it.  The issue is not knowledge, the issue is obedience.  Do they want to obey the God they claim to know?  This is the crucial test of the sincere, honest, respectful use of God=s name.  When we say ALord, Lord,@ Do we really intend to obey him as our Lord?  Jesus went on to say it does not matter what we’ve accomplish or don=t ever accomplish; it really matter if seen or performed miracles or cast out demons in God=s name.  What does matter is that ‘our names are written in heaven’.  They only way to get your name written in heaven, is to obey God, not just talk about God.  To use God=s name without obeying God’s name, is to misuse the only name that can save you.  When Heinrich Heine, the great German poet and writer was walking in front of one of the marvelous church cathedrals of France, a companion asked him, “Heinrich, why can’t we build magnificent cathedrals like that today.”  Heinrich answered: AToday we only have opinions, but they had commandments.@  God’s name is less about knowing everything about God and it is much more about obeying the God we already know about.  Can you get this?     

GOD MUST BE GOD
This brings me to a final word about honoring and respecting God=s name.  You might think it interesting that I have not yet mentioned ‘profanity’.  Of course, people do ‘take God’s name in vain’ without respect, by using God in false oaths or as a swear words.  Jesus encouraged his disciples not to make any vows using God=s name, but to use a simple Ayes@, or Ano.@  If they had to swear a vow in the name of God, make sure to keep your word, he said (Matthew 5:33-37).  There=s a lot that needs to be said about the loss of respect in the vulgarity of our language and speech these days.  But I honestly think that the problem goes deeper than our speech.  Jesus said that a Agood person produces good words from a good heart@ just like an Aevil person produces evil words from an evil heart.@  According to Jesus, we can only correct our speech by getting right in our hearts, because it’s what’s on the ‘inside’ that counts the most.  The misuse of God=s name is not a ‘mouth’ problem, it=s a much deeper, heart problem.  Our loss of respect in civil speech tells us who aren=t, way down deep.  

Finally, this is why this ‘commandment’ about God=s name is so important. It’s not about protecting God, but it’s about you and your own ‘self-respect. ’ If you’ve noticed, this commandment is the only one that comes a direct word about punishment or judgment.    God demands respect for his ‘name,’ not because God has a P.R. problem or is insecure.   God warns us not to misuse His name because God is our creator.  Because when you fail to respect your creator, God hasn’t lost, but you are losing the real “you”—the very image of God that was placed within you.  The final warning is that when you ‘forget’ or ‘misuse’ God’s name, God will let you ‘get lost’---by losing respect for Him, you finally lose self-respect. 

So, if you want to respect who you are, you must also respect ‘whose’ you are.  To ‘respect’ God’s name, means that we have respect for this God who is always more than we think, and can sometimes even be less than we think.  The point is simply this: the only way to fully respect ourselves, is to respect this God whom we must ‘let be whom-ever God will be.  The message of his respect for God’s name is found right in the very meaning of God’s name.  Only when let God be God, and respect Him as God, will we live lives or have speech that maintains humility, obedience, reverence and of course, contains ‘self-respect’.  But when we disregard or disrespect God’s name, it does not hurt God’s reputation, but we disconnect ourselves from the very source of human and hopeful life.

W.A. Criswell was once the pastor of the historic First Baptist Church in Dallas.  As a young pastor, I found more truth in his stories, than some of his theology.  One of those stories, I have never forgotten, was about when Criswell was a young pastor, just out of seminary, and he came in contact with a man who had a terrible, fowl, mouth.  That man used profanity in the worst kind of way and had no respect at all for anyone, including God. 

Criswell went to see the man a couple of times, but then realized it was hopeless and Awiped the dust off of his feet.@  But after several years went by, the pastor was informed that the man had a major stroke. Hearing this, Criswell thought that perhaps the man would have a change of heart.  He was taken to the man=s bedside, but the only the words the man could utter were slurred.  Gol Dang!   Gol Dang!  Criswell says that it appeared that the man frozen in a state of anger, disrespect and complete ‘disregard’ for God=s name.  He would not change.  He could not change.   His last words were words of stubborn, angry, with complete defiance toward God.  He was as frozen in his lips, as he had been in his heart, and the man died with these words on his lips:  Gol Dang!   Gol Dang!  

Remember, The LORD will not let you go unpunished when you misuse his name.”  The use of God’s name is  something we shouldn=t take lightly, because finally, it’s not about bringing insult to God, but it’s about bringing great, perhaps even, an eternal ‘insult’ upon ourselves.  If I would leave this commandment ringing in your ears today, I'd reduce it to a few words spoken in the imperative: Respect God. Respect Yourself! Disrespect God,…..!    Now, You finish this... and find respect.   Amen.