Sunday, December 4, 2016

“...Wrath to Come?”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 3: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Advent A-1,  December 4th, 2016 

Not too long ago we had to get a new washing machine.  At the time I had an online subscription to Consumer Reports, so I read the ratings and reviews to find the best for the money.  Like most of you, we live on a budget, so we try to purchase wisely.  Like Goldilocks in the children's story, I tried to find one that was “just right”---not too expensive and not too cheap, but just right.

Did you hear me say that I tried?  Like Goldilocks, the Bears came home just when I thought I got it right.  The washing machine we bought works, but not as good as our old Kenmore.  The new one not only takes longer to wash, it takes more maintenance too.  The problem: Since most washing machines today run quieter, they have no agitator, and do not seem to clean or rinse as well as the older ones did.  When they took out the agitator, they also removed some of the cleaning power.  When we asked about trading it for a machine with an agitator, they told us that, unfortunately, they don't carry them anymore.

BEAR FRUIT WORTHY OF REPENTANCE. (Matt. 3:8 NRS)
Even though you can't find an ‘agitator’ when you need one, we do find one in the Bible, right next to Christmas in today's advent text.  John the Baptist is quite an agitator, when it comes to getting us ready for the truth about Christmas. He makes all kinds of noise, moves, and motions about what people are supposed to do and believe.

 So think about this: If we want to know what God is up to, and what wants to do in our lives too; or if we want to find what gets us ready for God to visit and bless our lives, then we must let the words of this moral cleaning machine, John the Baptist, wash and agitate in our lives. 

Even at Christmastime, this ‘most wonderful time of the year’, as the song goes,  we can become soiled from daily living or stained from the dirty deals of life and we can be pull down below the brightest and best intentions God has planned for our lives.  But to get clean, or to come clean, we must allow John to agitate us. 

This ‘moral’ cleaning machine gets cranked up with three very powerful, but also negative sounding words in today's text: repent (v. 8),  wrath (v. 7), and fire (v. 10).   Such powerful words used to put the fear of God in people, but now, they just make people angry, upset, or mad, sort of like that powerful picture we saw last spring of two school administrators paddling a 5 and one half year old kindergartener.   While paddling is still legal in some states, the whole scenario filmed by the mother, allowed the nation to watch two school administrators trying to force a small child to receive the paddle.  The shocking video left us all feeling more repulsed that the child was being spanked than feeling the how incorrigible or undisciplined the child had become.  One wise news reporter admitted that it looked bad; that perhaps the child needed other methods, but then she admitted: “There was probably more to this story than was being shown.”  Perhaps there was, but the point we need to grasp is that in our extremely political charged world, there seems to be much more concern about “being right” than surrendering to what is right. (http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2016/04/15/school-administrator-paddles-5-year-old-mom-speaks-out/).

We see the same kind of difficult behavior surfacing in road rage incidents around our country.   Just before that child resisted a spanking in Georgia, in New Orleans, ex-star football player, Will Smith, was shot and killed in, what seemed to be, a road rage incident.  Surveillance videos showed his car tapping the other, then Smith being pursued until words were exchanged, then gunshots were heard.  Evidently, if it was like most incidents, both assumed they were in the right, and neither could be convinced they were wrong.   It took a gun for one man to prove himself to be the most powerful in the moment.  But no matter how ‘powerful’ and ‘right’ be proved himself to be, the shooter, 29 year old Cardell Hayes, was later charged and arrested, and if proven guilty, must pay for his crime.   Proving that he was ‘in the right’ will now become the unfortunate theme of the rest of his life (http://www.fox8live.com/story/31727969/football-stars-slaying-plays-out-in-court-of-public-opinion).  

Wouldn’t it be better to go through the pain of being in the wrong now, than having to face it after it is when you can no longer correct anything at all?   This is exactly the reason John is trying to agitate his listeners straight on.  With his prophetic words, strong language, and strange dress and diet, John the Baptist is still trying to get our attention before we would cross that fateful bridge that would lead us into a land of regret and no return.  “You don't want to go there,” John is saying.  If you don't turn your life around now, you can get to a place you can't come back from.  So, John is saying in other words: Turn around!   Be forewarned!  Don’t get burned?    This is the hard, harsh, but necessary strong language of John’s advent rant.   John’s stands in the middle of a god-forsaken wilderness, agitating, jumping up and down,  waving his arms, trying to get our attention, to get us to turn from this ‘nowhere’ to get to that ‘ somewhere’ God wants his people to go.

But you don't get to where you ‘should’ be going, without going in the ‘right’ direction.  You don't start going in this right direction until you get your bearings.   And you can't get your bearings, dear friends, until you see exactly where you are headed and admit how you could be wrong, no matter how right you think you are.  Who would want to do that?  Who would want to admit they could be wrong?  And how can anyone like a preacher named John, declare they know which way is right?   Think back to that experiment of illusion they used us, as an example teach in school.  You cut out a pattern, and each time use the new piece you just cut out, and without realizing it, with each new piece you get further and further from the original cut.  So, as that school lesson taught: if you want to stay on course, make only one pattern and use and stay true to that one over and over if you want remain close to the original plan. 

John is saying, the Lord has come to turn us back to the original plan: “Prepare the Way! Make His Paths straight!  (3:3).   You ‘make his paths straight’ because you are standing in the way.  God comes to us because we’ve gotten off base, or moved out of the lines that have been drawn.   If we will ‘prepare the way’ and ‘make straight paths’ for him, it will cause us to find our ‘rightful’ place.  But if we don't turn back (repent), John warns, nothing works out and our lives can become useless, worthless, and too wrong to be corrected.  By allowing your life to be agitated by the truth  is to find a ‘path’ more important than your own.  When you find this ‘place’ you will return to a more refreshing, renewed, and fruitful life.   But John’s warning is that you must turn now, you must not wait, or delay, or you can reach the point that is an even harsher place.  This is the place we might still call the point of no return.

…FLEE FROM THE WRATH TO COME (Matt. 3:7 NRS)
Where exactly is that---this place we call the point of no return?   Can we name it? 

Now, if there is a more unpopular word in the world than repent, it’s John’s next word of agitation: wrath (v. 7).   Well, actually in the text this word came first, but we are considering it second, because it’s just too overwhelming to start with.   What does John mean when he calls out these religious leaders as ‘snakes and vipers’ asking ‘who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!’   The picture is of poisonous vipers, without warning, being forced out of their dens by a forest fire (NIB).  This powerful word ‘wrath’ carries the meaning of indignation and extreme anger.   But why would anyone want to promote the idea of a God who still has ‘temper tantrums’?  Is this the kind of God we really need to promote at Christmas?   It just doesn't sound fitting, does it?  There is already too much anger, rage, vexation and violence in our world, right?  It’s time to sing, “Joy to the World”, and “Peace on Earth and Good Will” Isn’t our God supposed to be ‘nice’?

But strangely enough, even in the biblical story, when Israel’s God ‘makes his goodness pass before’ Moses, and even will God is portrayed as the God ‘who will be gracious’ and ‘show mercy’  still,  Moses cannot see God’s face and live (33: 19).   God is good, but he is not ‘safe’, C.S. Lewis said.   Nowhere, in the biblical revelation, is God ever portrayed as a God of nursery rhymes who is: ‘sugar and spice and everything nice’ or ‘snips and snails and puppy dog tales’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Are_Little_Boys_Made_Of%3F).    When you speak of Israel’s God, right with stories of grace, mercy and goodness, there are also stories of how terrible, consuming and capable of unleashing his wrath, this God of Israel can be. 

Here’s a case and point:  One of the most intimate, personal, and descriptive biblical portraits we have of God’s personality comes early in Genesis, in God’s relationship with Abraham, whom Scripture, both Old and New, amazingly names as God’s friend (2 Chron. 20.7; James 2:23).   In this unusually candid exchange, God has decided not to ‘hide from Abraham’ the ‘thing’ he is ‘about to do’ against the ‘grave…sin’ in cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18: 16-21).   But as Abraham begins that is God is preparing to release great wrath and destruction upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah,  Abraham feels the need to intercede in behalf of those good people who might still be living there.  Friend to friend, Abraham asks, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are there?  Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked…..Shall not the judge of the earth do what is right?”  (Gen. 18: 22-25).  

Hearing this, God answers Abraham’s request, saying that ‘if he finds fifty righteous’ left in the city, ‘he will forgive the whole place for their sake.’  But Abraham keeps asking, “What about for forty-five?....What about forty?...What about thirty?...What about twenty?...Or ‘what about ten?’  Each time, God says,  and even if there are only ‘ten’ righteous people left, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it” (18:22-33). 

We must be careful when we ‘interpret’ a story like this from the Bible.  It is ‘not’ a story you can take at ‘face value’ because if you do, it seems to make Abraham the one who is ‘teaching’ God how to be God, rather than God teaching Abraham.   As Jewish interpreters remind us,  this story is about growing human moral ‘insight’ into God’s righteous heart.  God only destroys these cities because there was ‘no righteousness’ left in them.   Thus,   it is Abraham who ends up doing the learning, not God  (See The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, NY, 1981, pp. 126-127)

But no matter how you ‘slice’ this story, it still doesn’t make God look nice.   Especially, when you turn the page in your Bible and watch as God commands Lot and his family to ‘flee for their lives; do not look back or stop anywhere…flee to the hills or else you will be consumed….” (19:17).    “Then…” the text says, “the LORD rained down sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven… he overthrew those cities… Lot’s wife…looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (19: 24-26).  Next, we come to the next scene.  Its early morning and Abraham ‘stood’ in the very same spot where he had most recently talked with the LORD.  Now, Abraham looks down where those cities were… and sees ‘the smoke going up… like the smoke of a furnace’ (19:27-28).  It all may be ‘right’, but it still doesn’t look very ‘nice’.

Who needs a God like this?  Who needs a God who is ‘gracious’ and ‘merciful’ upon WHOM HE WILL BE gracious and merciful, but sometimes appears as a threat, a terror, someone to fear or respect, even by those he calls and loves.   With a friend like this…who needs enemies?  Who needs a God, whom the prophets declare will hold people accountable, will hold cities accountable, will hold nations accountable, and will even hold his this whole world accountable when the ‘outcry’ of ‘sin’ (18:21) becomes so great it ‘reaches his throne’ (Gen. Rev 8.3).   Do we want to stop, pause, and contemplate, with John the Baptist, and especially at Christmas, a God who can and does get ‘angry,’ threatening his ‘wrath to come’ upon those who refuse to do his ‘will’?   

Sometimes, there are those both inside and outside the Christian faith who say, this is not the kind of God we serve.   This is the God of the Old Testament, but it’s not Jesus.   This angry, forceful, demanding, angery God sounds like Allah, who orders his faithful to murder all infidels, but it’s not the true God.   And since there is so much religious anger, rage, and confusion in the world, let’s just get rid of this image altogether, of a holy God who threatens ‘wrath to come’.  Let’s just move on to this nice, warm, Christmas message of ‘peace on earth’ and ‘goodwill’ to all, and forget God’s wrath altogether.   Doesn’t that sound like a ‘plan’?

Well, maybe there is too much anger and rage in this world, or maybe there’s not enough of it, at least not in the right way when we or the world needs it.  

During the past very strange political season we just finished, presidential Donald Trump made a major political point out of being angry.   Even if you didn't appreciate his rough, critical, or outrageous style,  he said, and many agreed, that he had some very good reasons to be ‘angry’ at what goes on in our own country and world.  “Of course I'm angry,” he said. “Things are not right and somebody needs to be angry enough to fix them.” 

While we may not agree with his tactics, and surely, ‘two wrongs can’t make a right’, Donald Trump runs up against something ‘deep’ within us, when he says that some things are worth getting angry about.   What if the world had gotten angrier at Hitler earlier?  What if the world forgets to be angry at what a Hilter or Stalin did to people?

 Oddly, as it may sound, there can be some good things about a God who cares enough about what happens to us, or what we do, that he gets angry, unleashes his wrath when wrong goes on too long.   The Scripture does remind us that even as it is the LORD’S nature, to be ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, …forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”  we also read, in the very next line, that this gracious, loving, forgiving God “by no means clears the guilty, but visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34: 6-7).  The point is not a capricious, impulsive, unpredictable anger, but God’s wrath is a very ‘predictable’ (to come), righteous, controlled, and specific anger toward sin, injustice, rebellion and unrighteousness that has gone on far too long and has gone on too long.   Most importantly, John’s warning points out that God’s wrath revealed as, controlled, because it is still ‘to come’ and is still negotiable, avoidable, and could be prevented.   John also points out that God’s wrath is very specific, being aimed at the ‘brood of vipers’, the religious leaders, ‘Pharisees and Sadducees,’ who were threatening, challenging, and corrupting the very ‘way’ and ‘truth’ of God  (vs. 7).   What we must keep in mind, is that God’s anger not specifically aimed at normal human failure or mistakes (God is slow to anger), but God’s wrath is aimed at the failure of humans to acknowledge and obey the ‘truth’ of God, in such a way that they threaten God’s rule and righteousness.    For you see, God’s wrath, is not anger for the sake of anger, but it is anger for the specific, holy, purpose that must be turned against those whose own version of rightness becomes so corrupting and destructive, that it threatens the foundations of justice and righteousness God intends for the world.

Part of the message of Advent, and Christmas, is that God will only allow injustice, greed, hate, and the rebellion of this world to go ‘so far’.  God has limits.  In Jesus Christ, God has revealed his desire to save, but this Jesus is also sent into the world to become the world’s final judge, not judging the world from the heavenly position of a throne, but judging the world from the lowly, most humble place of a cross.   In Jesus, ‘the wrath to come’ has not changed, but ‘the wrath to come’ has been revealed, as a judgment based upon God’s love, that will be the foundation of God’s final judgment on the world, and each human soul (Roms. 2:16).

THROWN INTO THE FIRE.  (Matt. 3:10 NRS)
This threat of the final ‘wrath to come’ should be at work in us now, to challenge and change us for our own sake and for goodness sake, but don't let you guard down, just yet.  Don’t start to ring your ‘jingle bell’ until you let John's words agitate you once more.   

The final word we must hear from John is the strongest of all.  He tells his own people, those who are coming to change, and those who are refusing to change: “The ax is lying at the root of the trees’ and every tree that does not fear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (3:10). 

Here we come to the word no one wants to acknowledge, that the one who no longer bears the right kind of spiritual fruit, who is no longer willing, or able to bear the fruit of change, turning, responding, repentance,  which is the  ‘good’ fruit of flexibility and sensitivity to God’s rule and truth, which God’s moral reality requires in us,  that when this can no longer be found in us,  this ‘tree’ will be ‘cut down and thrown into the fire.’   

Of course, who wants to talk about our moral responsibility or our limit as human beings.  And who wants to talk about the fact that if sin, rebellion, or evil has corrupted us, that we become a threat to God’s goodness in the world.   And of course, the only kind of ‘fire’ we want to think about at Christmas is the warm fire we sing about where we can ‘roast’ our sentimental chestnuts’.  Who wants to be threatened with the reality of God’s cleansing, purifying, fire  of justice and judgment?   No one wants to hear about this, except for the people who are ‘the last, the least and the lost.  Those who already find themselves at the bottom of the heap, or who really care about them,  they are the ones who want to hear about John’s threat of justice and judgment,  because they  are suffering, praying, and hoping that somehow, somewhere, someone, will do something to answer the great injustice that is being done to them.  These folks who are humbled and hurt, want the fire of judgment, truth, and righteousness to come.  They are hoping for nothing else, because God’s coming judgment is their only true hope.

The hope of the coming ‘fire’ of judgment is sort of like the story of the lady, they put on the twenty dollar bill this year, Harriet Tubman.   She was an abolitionist, who was called the new “Moses” who helped thousands of slaves find freedom from their unjust conditions.  Much of the story of what she did on the eastern shore, has been hidden away, collecting dust in some library,  forgotten by adults, only being told as a story for children, until recently the United States Treasury decided to put her face on a Twenty,  replacing the honored place of the Southern Slave owner, Andrew Jackson.  Now, a lot of people still don’t like to see “Truth coming marching” like this, just like most slave owners did not want to have the ‘fire’ of judgment come down.   But if we mistreat, misuse, abuse, and go against God’s love for every person and every life, God’s fire of justice, righteous, and judgment will come down.

But here, right in the middle of the ‘fire’ John threatens, we see something else.  Notice that is not only a fire that burns and destroys, but it is also a fire that burns and purifies.  “I baptize you with water for repentance…but one who is more powerful…is coming.”  (3:11).  I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes.  “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  “…He will gather the wheat…but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  (3:12).

When we were living in Greensboro, Teresa wanted to plant a decorative tree beside the house, where we removed some pines.  I was away at the church office, and suddenly she told me to come home.  She was crying, almost hysterically, saying something about ‘blowing up’ the whole neighborhood.  I hung up and drive home.  When I got there she was O.K.  The firemen were there.  They were digging up the natural gas line, she had struck with the shovel.  The gas pressure sent her flying backwards.  Fortunately there was no fire.  There was, however, a terrible smell of ‘rotten eggs’, the smell that add to odorless natural gas to warn of its explosive dangers.    Instead of being the require 18 inches, this line was only buried 4 inches, due to the roots of the pine tree that was once there when the line was run.

Now, this is not all the story.  Just a year before, right near where that ‘gas line’ ran, there had been a yellow jacket nest, in a hole in our yard.   The yellow jackets threatened me when I was mowing, so I decided to pour gasoline down into the hole.  In order to make sure I had killed them I, I wanted a while, then I threw a match down into the hole.  BOOM!  It looked like a cartoon where the grass raised up on the ground.  Now, when she hit that gas line, I suddenly realized just how close I had been to really blowing up the whole neighborhood.  FIRE!

What I want us to learn from John, is that there is a fine line between the kind of ‘judgment’ that gives you a second chance to learn your lesson, and the kind of ‘judgment’ that comes and you have no second chance.   I also want to you realize that the determining factor, between the kind of judgment that purifies you, and the kind of judgment that destroys you is your willingness to rightly respond to God’s truth, when it is being revealed.  John says to us, this Advent, like most every Advent:  Now, you are alive.  You have your chance.  Take it.  Turn, don’t get burned.  Don’t let life ‘burn’ you, but let the fire of God’s truth, whatever he reveals, burn into your soul right now, so that you will not ‘blow up’ the true ‘joy’, the real ‘peace’ and the lasting ‘hope’ God has come to give us, through the goodness, grace, and judgment revealed in our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.



Sunday, November 27, 2016

“YOUR LORD IS COMING”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 24: 36-44
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Advent A-1,  November 27, 2016 

Today we begin the final turn on the home stretch.

It's hard to believe, but Christmas is only four Sundays away.  Christmas, of course, is that wonderful time of year when at least, the story of Jesus is heard.  But strangely enough,  some pastors still struggle with what to preach, especially on this first Sunday of Advent. 

On this day the church asks preachers to preach on the apocalyptic texts proclaiming the second coming of Christ.  Such texts excite some, but they still frighten and confuse others.  This is because too many read too much into these passages, or worst, have ignored them altogether.  This has created a vacuum of ignorance for many to be misled or misinform.

What did Jesus really mean when he told his disciples what the end could be like?   
And what was he saying then, that could still be applied to us now, if anything?  
Was this really a message of gloom and doom intended to frighten his disciples out of their wits.  Or, could this have been a message to bring, as the Christmas Carol promises:
God rest ye merry Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. 
Remember Christ our Savior, was born on Christmas Day. 
To save us all from Satan’s power, when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy.   O tidings of comfort and joy?’

So, how could you not “dismay” or find “comfort and joy” with such horridious, cataclysmic, world-ending events on the way?  Where is the salvation from Satan’s power?

SO WILL BE THE COMING…  (37)
In the beginning of this chapter, Jesus points to the temple, telling his disciples that someday, someway, the temple will be gone.  ‘Not one stone will be left’ (24:2), he says.   

If you’ve been to Jerusalem and gone to the “Wailing Wall”, you will see that though there are a couple of stones left on top of each other, the temple is gone.  You may also see Orthodox Jews facing that Wall rocking back and forth in prayer, praying for the temple’s return.   It was only a few years later, in that very “generation” (24:34), that Jews began a war against Rome, their occupiers, which caused the Roman general Titus to invade, win the war, destroying the temple, killing many Jews and forcing the rest to scattered across the earth in what is called ‘the diaspora’ (literally, the scattered, see James 1:1). 

For that ‘generation’, their world ended.  And in the centuries to follow, life changed dramatically for the Jews, as they were forced to live out their life and faith without a homeland, among other cultures, living in small enclaves called Ghettos.   Things were never again as before. 

After the Jews were enslaved by Pharaoh, with God’s help through Moses, they returned.   After the Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Babylonians, one day, in about 40 years, the exiles were allowed to return.  But this time,  after the Romans came and ransacked and burned the city to ashes in 70 AD, less than 40 years after Jesus predicted, it was, as he said,  ‘the end of the age’ (24:3).   Only recently, in 1949, has an official Jewish State been allowed to return, but this is not the same world.   There is no temple, and for the majority of Jews living in Israel today, religion or faith has much less meaning than race or cultural identity.  Almost 70% of Jews today are secular, non-believers living without a living, vital faith.  Today you don’t have to believe in God to be a Jew.   That ‘world’ is gone.

I’m giving you a lot of history and political statistics to make this point:  Many want to immediately take these apocalyptic texts and make something else out of them, applying them to what we think is happening in our time.   But before interpret them for now you’d better first know what Jesus was really saying then.   Jesus made that most clear when he said, “Truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass away until ALL these things have taken place (24:34).  If you miss that THESE THINGS have ALREADY TAKEN PLACE then you miss its truth.

Unfortunately, many inside and outside of the church have been mistaken these predictions to be meant directly for us.  It’s an honest mistake, though.    In the book of Acts,  Luke tells us that as Jesus ascended into heaven,  angels told his disciples that Jesus ‘would return just as watched  him go…(Acts  1:11).   Just as Jesus disappears, one day he will reappear.   

For this reason, in the early church early church there arose an irresistible expectation that soon, Jesus will return.    The book of Revelation concludes with these powerful words from John’s vision of Jesus speaking to the churches suffering persecution:  “Surely, I am coming soon”.  The Church answers in chorus to this literary statement: “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!”  (Rev. 22:20).  The apostle Paul also expected that this ‘coming’ or ‘reappearing’ would be soon, which believers should ‘wait’ for (1 Thess 1:10).   In fact most of the church came to believe the ‘end of all things’ was ‘near’ (1 Pet. 1:7), and ever since, it has been part of orthodox Christian teaching to expect that one day, some day, the Lord Jesus will return (2 Pet. 3:4,  1 Jude 1:14;  1 Jn. 2:28, Heb. 10:37).

But of course, it has not been as ‘soon’ as the early Church expected.    And through the centuries, 20 of them, the church has been waiting, expecting, and believing in the second coming of the Lord Jesus, which each generation, believing it may the last, ‘terminal’ generation.   Through the years, the Christian anticipation of the Second Coming has captured the imagination of many who would exploit the simple minded, and the less fortunate, using the book of Daniel, the Book of Revelation, and many other texts, including this one, to try to make a road map to the end of the world.  My father, the most humble, sincere, committed Christian and Bible teachers, earnestly believed that soon, in his life-time, these texts would be fulfilled in a certain way, that he himself would escape death and the earth’s final troubles, through a catching away of the church, through what many still call “The Rapture”.

The trouble with all these expectations, prognostications, or prophetic predictions and diagrams, is exactly what Jesus warned about in this text when he said,  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (36).   Jesus even takes it further by concluding,  “For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (v.44).   Here’s the point:  They don’t know.  We don’t know.  My Father didn’t know.  So called Bible Prophecy Teachers don’t know.  The angels don’t know.  Even, Jesus didn’t know.  Nobody knows, but God the Father.  And maybe, just maybe, as the letter of Peter seems to suggest, God even hasn’t decided himself about both ‘when’ or ‘how’ because he is ‘longsuffering’ and ‘not willing that any should perish’ (2 Pet. 3:9).

THEY KNEW NOTHING UNTIL (39)
And if it’s hard to deprogram your own mind from all the ‘prophetic nonsense’ still being preached in some places,  and you need an illustration of ‘just’ how little anybody knows when nobody knows, just read on and pay close attention to what Jesus says next.   Jesus says that ‘the coming of the Son of Man’ (v. 37) will be like it was ‘the days of Noah (v.38 ff).   Do you know how it was in the ‘days of Noah?’  Read on what Jesus says in verse 38:  “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark… (Matt. 24:38 NRS).  

When I heard that verse interpreted during my youth days, most often I heard preachers that all those people were just partying and not paying attention.   But if you read carefully, you will see that that is exactly what is ‘not’ being said.   The point here is that people are doing ‘normal’ things.  People were going on with life, doing the things of everyday life and not realizing at all what was about to come upon them.  

And even though it is believed in ‘popular’ religion that Noah ‘preached’ and warned about the coming flood, but this is never asserted in the story, other than a very late New Testament text implying that Noah was a ‘preacher of righteousness’ (2 Pet. 2:5) because he was given  grace and saved, not because he actually warned anyone.   Of course, it’s hard for us to imagine God bringing catastrophe without warning anyone.   Of course, that’s just ‘wishful thinking’ because we know all to well that almost never have there been warnings to the worst catastrophe’s; volcanoes, floods, earthquakes, Tornadoes, or plane crashes, etc.  Most of the time, it is only ‘after the fact’ that we people are left thinking: “I just can’t believe what just happened!”.   The truth of the Noah story is just what Jesus says, Noah and his family were the only ones who ‘knew’ what was about to happen (Gen. 6.22).  Everyone else ‘knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away’ (Matt. 24:39).

The point I’m making is simply this: They knew nothing.  We know nothing.   And there is really only one thing we can know and should know: It will be ‘unexpected’  (44).   Even these additional pictures Jesus gives point to this unexpected, random and unpredictable reality concerning the end:  “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left”…”Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”   The picture here is right out of Jesus own experience of occupying armies who invade and pick people at random without rhyme or reason.  They sweep in like a ‘flood’ and randomly ‘select’ some to be ‘taken’ for their own reasons---making slaves out of whomever they please.  But of course the point not that we will know exactly ‘what’ will happen, but that we will know ‘how’ random and unpredictable the end can come.   They only guarantee Jesus makes:  “You won’t see it coming!”  Like a car getting broadsided at an intersection; you are going through a ‘green light’ and suddenly you are broadsided.    You didn’t see it until it was too late.   It will be unexpected.  It will be unexplainable.  It will be unavoidable.   This is how quickly ‘the end’ can come upon you, ‘like a thief in the night’ (24:43).  

Edmund Steimle once pointed to the statue of the Angel Gabriel atop the roof of Riverside Church in New York City.  There, on top of the church,  the angel is poised, horn to his lips, ready to break forth with a mighty blast in announcement of Christ’s return.  Through ice and sleet, heat and cold, summer rain and winter storm, there Gabriel is perched ready to sound the call.  As Steimle continued, "... but there is no mighty blast.  Not even a tentative toot."  from a sermon, "The God of Hope" in Disturbed by Joy, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1967, p. 14.) 

“This is how world ends… This is how the world ends… This is how the world ends… Not with a bang, but with a whimper!”  When the end comes, it’s as if no one sees it coming.  There is no further warning.  There is no real ‘trumpet’.  There is just ‘the end’.  But it will come. (Quote From T.S. Elliot’s Poem, “Hollow Men”: http://allpoetry.com/The-Hollow-Men).

BE READY (44)
So, if Jesus is trying to teach his disciples about the ‘unexpected’,  ‘unexplainable’, and ‘unavoidable’ threats of everyday life,  what is the meaning of all this for us?  

This is exactly the point Jesus is getting to, when he concludes:  “But understand this….” (24:43).
What we can ‘understand’ about all this, should be clear, if we will just get rid of all the ‘clutter’ of everything people have tried to claim about such strange, sobering, or scary apocalyptic passages.  These ‘texts’ all point to one important two-pronged message:  “Be Ready” (v.44) and “Stay awake” (v 43).   Jesus said, “If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed away and would not have let his house be broken into….” (v. 43).    

Did you catch the words of ‘prevention’: “He would not have let his house be broken into…”? Jesus is, of course, implying the impossible: How can you prepare for the unexpected, unexplained and unavoidable ‘thief’, who is coming to steal away everything that is precious too you?    The point is that you can’t keep that ‘thief’ from ‘coming’, just like you can’t keep the end from coming, but what you can do is keep him from ‘stealing’.  To do this is to make sure that can’t break into your own ‘house’ (v. 43).   And like your heart, you must fortify it.

The final message here is not to compare exactly the ‘coming of Jesus’ to a ‘coming of a thief in the night’.  That doesn’t sound like a good comparison, because Jesus does not come to ‘steal’ or to ‘destroy’.   Where this illustration is headed, demands careful consideration or you will get lost.  What Jesus is saying here is that the coming of the ‘end’ can steal your life and all that is precious to you, unless you prepare yourself.   

And the only way to prepare yourself the end, and for Christ’s return---whenever, however, or whatever it means---is to realize that it can happen in many different, unexpected, unexplainable, and unavoidable ways.   What my Father finally realized is that the ‘rapture’ wasn’t coming, but he could be ‘ready’ for Christ to receive him in death.   What all who have died in hope should have realized is not that their lives were taken from them, but that their lives have been a wonderful gift, given by the creator.  What all of us need to fully and finally realize is that ‘the end’ is always ‘coming’, but even then, Jesus is also ‘coming’ and is never far away from any of us.  Jesus is with us, God with us, in both our beginnings, and our endings.  HE is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning, and the End.  He is the First and the Last.   He is forevermore!  And when we trust him, we trust in His future too.   He is the only ‘promise’ and the only ‘future’ we can have.

William Willimon tells the story of a funeral he attended when he was serving a small congregation in rural Georgia.  One of his members' relatives died, so Willimon and his wife attended the funeral held in an off-brand, country church.  He writes: "I had never seen anything like it. The preacher began to preach. He shouted; he flailed his arms. 'It's too late for Joe. He's dead. But it ain't too late for you. People drop dead every day.  Why wait? Now is the day for decision. Give your life to Jesus.' "

Willimon goes on to suggest that this was the worst thing he had ever seen.  He fumed and fussed at his wife Patsy, complaining that the preacher had done the worst thing possible for a grieving family - manipulating them with guilt and shame. Patsy agreed.  But then she said: "Of course the worst part of it all is that what he said is true.”  (As told by Susan Andrews: “Swept Away” From Sermons on the Gospel Readings, Year A, CSS, Press, 2004).

To get ‘ready’ is to ‘give your life to Jesus and to ‘trust’ him to be the one who comes near, no matter what happens or when it happens.   We don’t have to have road maps, when he is the way.   We don’t have to know any ‘truth’ about the end, because he is the truth.  And we don’t have to worry about losing our lives, because he is our life.   Even the one who ‘loses his life for the sake of the gospel’ and for the sake of living for Jesus, can only die in order to save his or her life.   

This is what it means to be ‘ready’:  It is to come to know, trust, and to follow, the only one who has ‘overcome the world’ and has ever ‘conquered’ death itself.   The end is coming.  But Jesus is also coming.  He’s always coming.  The question is not: ARE YOUR READY, but are you READY FOR HIM?   Just like he came, he’s coming again and will again, and for each one, until that final day, when finally and fully his kingdom will also come.   This is not something to dread, unless you are unprepared.  But for those who know him, this ‘coming’ of the most blessed Son is our most ‘blessed hope’ (Titus 2:13).   He’s ‘coming at an unexpected hour’ (v.44).   But in that ‘unknown’ and ‘unexpected’ how, who you can know and recognize is HIM.   Are you ready?  Be Ready.  Get Ready.  Know Him. Amen.





Sunday, November 20, 2016

“No Less Days to Sing God’s Praise

A Sermon Based Upon Revelation 7: 9-17
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
November 20th,  2016  (Series: 7/7, Amazing Grace)

This final message on the wonderful, beloved song, “Amazing Grace,” brings us to the final verse.  But this verse, as it appears in our Hymnals today, is not a verse Newton wrote.  
This much beloved verse, was adapted by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s in her famous novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Though the verse still reflects John Newton’s original ending, which spoke of ‘a life of joy’ beyond the ‘veil’ of this life, and of God being with ‘forever’ his, these words came straight out of some of the worst oppression America has ever known and now speaking to the hope of all God’s people of a better world still to come.  (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/47/New_Britain_Southern_Harmony_Amazing_Grace.jpg).

When we sing “When we’ve been there, ten thousand days, bright shining as the sun,”  we sing of the hope every human has for both ‘light’ and ‘life’.   Such an image springs straight up out of the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, which is not as much a book about the end of this world, as it is a book revealing the never ending hope of God’s grace, which comes to the world through Jesus Christ and but also takes us beyond the life we now know.  

As we well know, the book of Revelation concludes with images God being the ‘light’ where God’s people will rule with him ‘forever and ever’ (Rev. 22:5).   In the text we have read, this image of hope is first revealed, as ‘one hundred forty-four thousand’, who were ‘sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel’ (7:4) joining with ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation….standing before the Lamb, robed in white…”  saying: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (7:9-10).   All these are sealed and saved multitudes are joined by ‘the angels around the throne’ along with ‘the elders and the four living creatues…”  All together they form a mighty, never-ceasing chorus, singing,  “Amen, Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!  Amen” (7: 11-12). 

What John saw in his ‘heavenly vision’ and what appears, through much blood, sweat, and tears in this final verse of “Amazing Grace,” points us, from the human point of view, to the divine point of view, that has found a divine grace that has no limit, no boundary, no stopping place and no stopping point.   God’s grace is a grace that is as ‘forever’ as our God who is ‘forever and ever, Amen.’

GRACE UNCOUNTABLE
Of course, interpreters of the book of Revelation have come to interpret this hope of ‘eternal grace’ in many various ways.   Some, in fact, see the sealing of the 144 thousands a ‘select’ ‘chosen’ or ‘special’ group of people--which is, of course, correct.  But what is often overlooked in this picture, is that this 144 thousand are forbearers and representatives of the ‘great multitude’ that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.   The ‘chosenness’ of a few, just like the chosenness of the Jew, was not to supersede nor prevent others, but it was to point to the saving of this ‘great multitude no one could count’ and still ‘cannot count’.    Never has the God of Israel, been a God to play favorites, for the sake of having favorites, but God plays favorites for the sake of bringing ‘grace’ to all. 

We, especially those of us in the evangelical tradition, should know better than most; that ours is a God who desires the ‘salvation’ of the world, bringing a message of grace through Jesus Christ to the whole world.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that WHOEVER BELIEVES….”   This is the desire of God in giving us grace---not just to save us, but to bring saving grace to all.   For if the gospel of Jesus is not for ‘all’ of us, treating us all as equal objects of God’s love, then the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a gospel for any of us, for when it refuses even one who seeks it, it will  cease to be good news for all of us.

Sometimes, especially when we can only see the differences among us, we try to isolate, insulate, or relegate grace to only a few of us, by thinking that they have gotten it wrong, because we know, that we have gotten the ‘truth’ just right.    When I was living in eastern Germany my world got smaller, as my vision of God’s grace became larger, when I encountered some very nice folks who were taking care of my dog while I was on vacation for two weeks in Greece. 

When I came back and found how well they had treated my dog,  I commented to the Kennel owners how wonderful they seemed, and I could not help ask, even in that pagan country, whether or not they were people of faith.  “We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses!”   Now, here in America it is my custom to disagree with Jehovah’s Witnesses, like it has been in my past to look down upon Mormans, Catholics, or just about any other Christian group that does not see and interpret it like I do.   Of course, this comes more out of my past, maybe even parents, churches and preachers, who were trying to teach me right.   But the older I get, and the more people I meet, life gets less complicated.  I agree more and more with C.S. Lewis’ word that there are really only two ‘types’ of people; those seeking God or those running from God.  Any other detail is no longer that important.  Since everything is about ‘grace’,  we  shouldn’t revert back into any kind of legalism, but only stay with the goodness, grace, and mercy of God.

GRACE UNSTOPPABLE?
That the gospel of grace is for ‘all’ is clearer to me, but it is still very much a mystery to try to answer ‘who’ will actually make up this ‘great multitude’ and who will not.   Some have even gone far enough to suggest that if God is love, and God’s love and grace is much more determined ours, so we can stop it, even if we wanted to.  This means, at least to some, that every soul will eventually be saved by God’s amazing grace.
Here, I’m reminded of the concepts of grace that got Pastor Rob Bell much criticism, when he suggested exactly this, that since God is love wins, (Love Wins) and his grace never fails, that
eventually, somewhere in eternity, ever person will be redeemed and not one person will be fully or finally lost.   I agree with others who would ‘wish’ that this could be true, even to say that you’d be ‘mad’ or ‘mean’ not to wish it --that somehow, someway, and some day--- God’s grace will win over all resistance, all evil, and all human rebellion.   We do have pictures in the Bible of Jesus preaching to the dead, and the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church maintains that purgatory is real.  This is the described ‘place’ where the soul awaits final purging and final saving, in that coming biblical moment when God ‘makes all things’ new.

While many have used biblical texts to affirm such good hope—a hope that finally in God’s grace, all people will be finally be saved,  there are also biblical texts that would warn and remind us just how important, if not definitive, our own earthly lives and decisions are, here and now.   This perspective (held by realists, both Christian and Secular) points out that not only is our God a God of love, grace, and mercy; but God is also a God of justice, truth, and grace that is true and responsible, costly, not cheap grace (D. Bonhoeffer).   The theme of our lives and life choices do have ‘eternal’ implications which cannot be taken lightly, and must be taken seriously, or else, nothing in this world matters.  We should not ‘bank’ or depend on ‘grace’ even saving grace to go against human will. 

 According to Jesus, who spoke more about Hell than Heaven (Billy Graham), grace comes to us now, exactly because we need it now.  To refuse the loving, forgiving, redeeming grace of God now, according to Scripture, anyway you interpret it, will have a lasting and eternal impact upon the rebellious soul that continues to turn against God’s revelation of redeeming love and grace.  And as C.S. Lewis once answered in his book The Great Divorce:  “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  All that are in Hell, choose it.  Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.  No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it”Those who seek find.  To those who knock it is opened.” (chap. 9, par. 4).  

I thought it was interesting, that on the website “Goodreads.com”, right after the quote, it read:  “None of Your Friends have “liked” this quote. “  It was meant that none of my own Facebook or Goodread friends have read it, but who would really like it, if they did?   But just as there are things in this world, I do not like, that hurt, kill, and destroy, I take them as pointers and reminders that the reality being revealed in life is real.  As we all know too well, and to our own dislike and discomfort, some people continue to choose against love.  And since God is true love—a love that is freely offered and does not force itself upon anyone--all reality on earth and in Scripture, soberly points us, not only to a ‘heavenly’ reality, but also to that ‘hellish’ reality that can also be very real.  Hell is real, but it is not God’s choice.  “The door to Hell is locked from the inside (C.S. Lewis, from the Complete C.S. Lewis, p. 626, Signature Classics). 
While grace is intended for us, it is also for everyone.  But even if it is intended for everyone, people can, do, and will refuse grace.  God’s grace is ‘unstoppable’ everywhere, except in the human heart, where it will not go, uninvited.  That’s because grace is unconditioned, but it never, and will never be forced.   Why would anyone refuse grace?  Ask Hitler.  Ask Stalin.  Or ask anyone you know, who is bound and determined to live their life, only on their ‘own’ terms.  When you encounter that person, you will find the only place ‘grace’ will not go.

GRACE THAT IS FOREVER
At the conclusion of this vision of people, singing eternal praise to God, an ‘elder’ asks John to identify ‘these people…robed in white, and then asks, ‘where have they come from’?  It’s a loaded, trick question, pointing to John’s own world of persecution and pain.   John throws the question back to the ‘elder’, who answers:  “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”   This is all ‘code’ language for the grace that Jesus has brought to all of us, in the ordeal that could be called ‘the great ordeal’ of any or all of our lives.  

What is most important, is not to identify which ‘ordeal’, but to discover who is this lamb who has saved them, and enabled them ‘to worship him day and night’ within the ‘temple’ being ‘sheltered’ by the ‘one who is seated on the throne’.   Because these have claimed this grace-filled lamb as their Lord,  they saved for an eternal, unending, and everlasting, existence, where there they ‘hunger no more’, they ‘thirst no more’; where ‘the sun does not strike them with scorching heat’, and where, the “Lamb” is their ‘shepherd’ who ‘guides them’ to eternal ‘springs of the water of life’  and ‘God’ himself…’will wipe away every tear from their eyes…” (7:13-17).


You can’t read these images of grace, without envisioning a grace that is ‘eternal’, ‘everlasting’ to join them in ‘giving thanks’ to this God whose grace also invites to ‘a world-without end, Amen!’  Because God is eternal, His grace is eternal.   An eternal God cannot give any kind of ‘grace’ in any other way.  His grace is a ‘forever’ grace that should make us ‘eternally grateful’ because we too, have been invited to envision, imagine, and of course, most of all, to receive and obtain such ‘amazing grace’.   As another old gospel song says, “After Ten Thousand Years, We’ve Just begun.”  Now, that’s grace.    Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

“The LORD Has Promised Good to Me!”

A Sermon Based Upon Jeremiah 29: 1-14; John 10: 22-30
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
November ,  13th, 2016  (Series: 6/7, Amazing Grace)

We have come to our next to last message based upon John’s Newton’s song, “Amazing Grace”.   In these messages, we’ve covered many of the more familiar lines,  “How Sweet the Sound”;  “Was Lost, but Now I’m Found”, “Twas Blind, but Now I see”,  and in the most recent messages we spoke of “how” “Grace” teaches us and also ‘brings us’ safely home, through faith---a faith that trusts God’s grace in the particular details of our lives.

But today we come to more unfamiliar line, we often skip over, or stumble through when we  sing this in church.  Baptists are especially impatient people, not wanting the Methodist to beat us to the Restaurants after worship, so we want to quickly get to the the ‘final’ verse, so we skip this one.   Next week, WE WILL COME TO the final verse, but before we do, today we must consider this good word coming from verse 4.  It is a very we dare not overlook.

For emphasis, let’s begin by reading this verse, verse 4, together and slowly: “THE LORD HAS PROMISED GOOD to me, HIS WORD MY HOPE SECURES;  He will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.”    There’s a lot of grace in this line, but it is, just like in the Bible, a ‘grace’ that depends upon us having ‘faith’ in that grace.   This ‘good’ that the LORD has promised to us comes to us as we ‘secure’ our hope in God’s promises by establishing God’s Word in our hearts.  This means the promise is given to those who have a faith in God’s word in a way that is vital, growing and healthy.   To understand what a ‘living’ faith means, we need to discern how God’s grace is ‘promised’ to us, so that we surely can depend on it.

WHAT SECURES YOUR HOPE?
So, before we talk about the ‘word’ that secures ‘our hope’, let me ask you, right up front, “What secures your hope for the future?”  

In our text, we find the Lord speaking through Jeremiah, a prophet who was preaching to Judah, God’s remaining remnant of Israel, after that they had gone through a terrible catastrophe, they never believed would actually happen.    Some of you know that feeling personally.   You’ve listened to a doctor give your or your loved one a diagnosis, you never thought you’d hear.   You’ve watched the world you had planned for yourself, being ripped out from under you through a failing business, an ailing economy, or through no ‘fault’ of your own.   Or perhaps you been in war, lived through a catastrophe, or just simply had something tragic happen, you never dreamed of having happen to you.   Like my mother kept saying to herself, after she lost my father, who had been perfectly well, while she had ‘sick’ with a chronic disease most of her life.   She said,  “I thought I was going to go first.”

In the same way, Judah, did not believe that anything could happen to their nation, nor to the ‘the temple of the Lord’ (Jer. 7:4).   It was in this ‘land’ and it used to be in this ‘temple’ that they established their own lives, but now it was gone.  “What will we do, now?”   In a tentative world like ours, most of us have to answer this question, in one form or other, and from time to time.   Someday we too will wonder: Do I, or do we, really have a future?

Just the other day, I was realizing again,  just how less and less of a ‘future’ I have in this land, and on this earth.    I’m 59 years old, and by averages I have less than 20 years left.   Although I’m adopted, both of my parents did not live past 78 years.   Who knows how much of an impact they had on my own longevity?  Also, who really knows, in this unpredictable world, what ‘longevity’ really means?  When ‘accidents’ happen, all predictions and averages are ‘out the window’.  But for most you you, like me, our days left are ‘less’ likely.

We also live in a changing, increasingly more ‘dangerous’ and ‘confused’ world too.   Most of us would have never in our lifetime, have ‘dreamed’ or ’imagined’ the rapid, drastic, and dramatic ‘changes’ happening in our world and to our own nation.   I was listening to the Television News, just the other day, and hearing another prediction, or trend, of how China would soon have a “Hollywood” that topped our own “Hollywood”.   You may say,  “Well, they can have it!”  Yes, but this report is also a reminder that China is rising, while we are in decline.  They already has a civilian population growing in wealth that has the potential to be greater than ours.  The U.S. may still, for now, have the dominance in military technology, but one day, and in the not-to-distant future, China will supersede that too.  It may not mean the ‘end of the world’, but it will definitely mean the ‘end of the world’ as we have known it.    

But this is where life is always headed, isn’t it?  Isn’t life always going, as Star Trek’s series used to announce:  “To discover new and unknown worlds--- to go where no one has gone before.”   We’re are all headed toward a ‘future’ that will be unlike what we have known in the past.   Actually, it has been this way all our lives, though it has happened slowly, more positively, that most of us didn’t notice it.   Then one day we suddenly look at ourselves in the mirror, or we look at how our children have grown, or we see how everything around has changed, looking and feeling so very different, that we wake up to the fact that everything is, indeed, different.  And there is no way back.

For Israel, the problem was that their nation had been absolutely destroyed in war by the Babylonians.  The elite were now being exiled and taken off to “Babylon”.  But here in this text, Jeremiah surprisingly interrupts their depressing journey with a promise from God.   God says that even as they are being carried away, and even though everything has changed, and will continue to change around them; and even after they themselves living in this very ‘strange land’, ‘strange time’ or ‘strange reality’, where it will be difficult, very difficult, to ‘sing the Lord’s song”.   In spite of all this,  Jeremiah wants them to know that that the LORD they have known in the past,  they need to keep trusting for the future, because this God still has ‘plans’ for them and he will still ‘renew’ and ‘fulfill’ his ‘promise.’  Even as they are being marched like cattle toward Babylon, and even as they are walking through some of the ‘darkest’ moments of their lives,  he declares that their God, this God of glory and grace, is still working for their ‘welfare’ and not for ‘their harm’.  God still has a promise for a ‘future’ and he wants to secure their ‘future’ ‘with hope’.

When you are right the middle of feeling the loss of having your life ‘taken’ from you, it does not seem like the right time to be hearing about ‘who’ you can trust, or how you can find hope.   But this is exactly what Jeremiah is asking God’s people to do.   He wants them to look beyond their circumstances, beyond their current situation, their current experiences, their pain and their loses, and he wants them to put their ‘trust’ in this ‘invisible’, sometimes ‘indistinguishable’ and often, almost impossible to see ‘promise,’ and to find in it hope.   In a world filled with so much wealth and privilege, like ours, people will naturally have difficulty putting themselves into the shoes of this exiled, pilgrim people,  but we still must try.   We must try because one day, some way,  and somehow, we will be in similar ‘shoes’ too.   We will ‘carried away’ to places and situations we did not want nor did we ever anticipate.  

IS GOD YOUR ‘SHIELD’ AND ‘PORTION’ IN LIFE?
Some of us,  especially those of us who have been ‘builder’ and ‘stakeholders’ in the America that used to be, may already feel somewhat exiled, feeling like strangers, sojourners, or pilgrims who are just passing what is ‘no more’.   Have you ever felt like this? 

I was in a class in Raleigh recently, where “Millennials” were telling us older “Builders” and “Boomers” that they did not feel the same about the ‘established’ church as we have, but she added,  “We still love Jesus?”  One older ‘builder’ answered back,  “How do we know that you love Jesus, if you don’t love his church, which is body?”  Her answer:  “We are building his body in a new and more compassionate way.”    Yea, right?   You could just hear the skeptical ‘moans’ and sighs.  I thought to myself:  ‘Welcome to the Christian life, today?’  

I say ‘welcome’ because this experience of ‘exile’ is something we should already be used to, if we are truly ‘bearing a cross’ or ‘following the one who was crucified on a cross.’   At least some amount of exile and ‘strangeness’, even ‘hurt’ and ‘pain’ in this life,  is something we should all learn to anticipate, isn’t it?  Whether it is with wealth, health, or living the life of faith,  the world we know can and often is ‘pulled’ out form us, like a rug, from under our feet.  How can we stand?  How can we find ‘firm’ ground?   How can we continue to live in hope and faith, when it becomes hard for us to believe in people, in nations, in politics, or in religion? 
When you or I experience the ‘strangeness’ and ‘insecurity’ of life, which is always there, though we don’t always see, who are gonna call?   ….Ghost Busters?”  
Well, ‘who are you gonna call, when you become ‘exiled’ or ‘removed’ from your own life?   What John Newton experienced, and wrote about in this song,  is that the God who is our ‘portion’ can really be our ‘shield’ when the spiritual, emotional or physical ‘exiles’ happen to us in life.   And only because we have given our lives to God in the past, and each and every day in the present, are we able give our lives to God when ‘that day’ really does happen.   In order for the Lord to be our ‘shield’ in the difficulties, in the dangers, and in the disappointments of life, he must also be our ‘portion’ in the successes, in the joys‘, and God must be the true ‘delight’ of our life.   Is this Lord your ‘portion’?  Is he the ‘hunger’ of your heart?   How can you become confident in a hope you don’t actually live?

Here, I can’t help but think of an interesting experience we had during one of our ‘preaching’ services, when a couple came into sing in front of our church, and both of them, were also ‘packing’ fire arms, 357 magnums.  When we asked them, why they had them on, their only answer: “We’re Citizens of Yadkin County?”  “Are you deputized?”  “We’re citizens of Yadkin County?  No matter what we asked, this was the only explanation they gave.

Now, who am I to say who can or can’t carry ‘revealed’ or ‘concealed’ weapons?  The law of our land gives us the right to carry and to ‘bear arms.’   It is also true that we live in an increasingly ‘dangerous’ world and many are increasingly afraid.  Because ‘churches’ are public places, conducting public worship, the issue of safety can be a very important issue and churches do need to seriously consider ‘training’ and ‘changing’ in this regard.  But you know like I do, that this was a bit extreme, even for Yadkin County, wasn’t it?  It was even more astounding to watch and listen to a couple sing about God’s faithfulness, about God’s power, and about the wonderful refuge we have in God, and to be ‘topping’ off an example their own great ‘trust’ by ‘packing’ a 357 or 9 mm pistol, whichever it was. 

My point here, however, is not to criticize that couple,  because Lord knows,  in some very public places, even churches, people like them, could have stopped some terrible tragedies if they had had weapons to defend themselves and others.  Please don’t hear me ‘knocking’ guns, this couple, nor the right to bear arms.  But what you DO need to hear me saying is that you only get to have great ‘faith’ by ‘practicing’ great faith.   Of course, God does not call us to be overly vulnerable nor stupid, but sometimes, we could, at least, ‘have a little more faith’---and even more so,  remember that even in a ‘deadly world’ we are supposed to be about building communities with hearts full of faith, not communities that live in ‘constant’ fear.  

This is important, because of exactly what Jeremiah says:  “The Lord has plans for us, too.”   Life is not just about our plans, our protection, or our personal survival, but life is also about the LORD’s plans, which includes a better world and future for ALL people.  Notice how Jeremiah also told these exiles to settle down, ‘build houses’, ‘plant gardens’, get married and multiply, and most remarkably, ‘to seek the welfare’ of that pagan ‘city’, and to ‘pray on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’ (29: 5-7).   These words could be some of the most important words of ‘grace’ reminding us to be ‘grateful’ and ‘graceful’ people even when life does not go our way, and even when we find ourselves living in ‘opposition’ to others.  Today’s political climate needs people who are ‘grateful’,  even when we find ourselves in differing from others.   Only when we too, ‘seek the welfare’ of the whole city, and pray for the whole city, including ‘our enemies’ or ‘opposition’, can we continue to enjoy the ‘welfare’ that must include all of us together.   How can we move toward that kind of inviting, inclusive world unless those of us, who have faith and trust, are ‘brave’ enough, ‘hopeful’ enough, or ‘strong’ enough, to take the first steps---maybe even taking a ‘leap’ of faith?  Isn’t this what the New Testament means, when is describes Jesus as the ‘pioneer’ and ‘perfecter’ of our faith. (Hebrews 12:2).  By standing out, Jesus also stood up for the best that humanity can become when God is our ‘portion’ and our ‘shield’.

ONLY ‘THE LORD’ CAN PROMISE
We cannot find security or hope, until we begin to live toward the ‘promise’.    Only the LORD can give us a ‘promise’ within and beyond all the insecurities of our lives.  And we can only receive this promise, when we commit ourselves to living the promise, by trusting in God’s plans for us and by acting upon that good faith, by giving our lives to God’s goodness, right where we find ourselves, no matter how good, or how difficult, the moment might be.

By now, you should already know that the ‘good’ the LORD has promised, is that we can know and receive his goodness, his grace, and his mercy in any and every situation.   It is only God’s ‘dream’ and God’s goodness, we can depend upon, and this is what we call ‘grace’.   God’s plans for us in all and in every situation, is to find, encounter, recognize and come to fully experience God’s grace.   And there is no single way to know God’s grace, but the experience of God’s grace can be as large as the eternal God himself.  This God ‘has plans’ for us too, so that we also can find his grace, ‘when we seek HIM, with all OUR heart.”   “I will let you find me,” says the LORD.  “I will restore your fortunes.”  “I will gather you from all the nations…and from…all the places... I will bring you back” (13-14).


When our ninety-one year old neighbor was suffering from broken bones and pneumonia, and was being released from the hospital into the care of hospice, the family wanted to bring her back home for her final days, but that became impossible.    As the Social Worker inquired as to whether she knew her plight, the family, knowing her difficulty breathing and resulting anxiety, were uncertain about what to say.   What I was thinking, and what I have watched unfold time and time again, is that not only does God give us ‘living grace’, but God also gives what some call ‘dying grace’.  When we continue to trust in every moment,  we will come to know, what is best to say or do.   As it worked out, God’s grace was still there, as HE always is, allowing those who seek him to find him.   This is the promise that never fails, because although God’s promises us more, He never promises any less, than God himself.  Amen.