Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Holiness We Need


Leviticus 19: 1-19
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Disciple Series: 7 of 15;   September 30th, 2012

What does a Christian do with the book of Leviticus?   

A.J. Jacobs wrote a recent and popular book entitled the “The Year of Living Biblically” where he attempted, with great difficulty, to live the Bible exactly as the Bible commands.  When you read his book you will quickly see that most of Bible difficulty came out of Leviticus--- a book which most of us Christians pay little attention, and for good reason.  
·         When was the last time you offered the Lord one of your livestock as a burnt offering (1.3)?
·         When did you last present a grain offering of choice flour (2.1ff).
·         Have you ever slaughtered a lamb with blemish (3.1ff)?
·         And whenever have you offered a sin sacrifice for accidently sinning (4.1ff)?   Did you even realize that you could sin by unintentionally by accident?
·         Also did you know that if you want to do what all that the Lord God has commanded, that you shouldn’t eat pork (11.7), shellfish (11.9), ostrich (11.16), or duck (11.18)?’

Closer to and within our Bible text from Leviticus, there are even more “strange” requirements such as “not eating meat with the blood still in it” (17.2), not “sacrificing your children to Molech (18.2), “not crossbreeding cattle”,  “not planting one field with hybrid seeds” or “not mixing two kinds of cloth material into one garment” (19:19).   These demands were being placed on God’s people so that they would “be holy as God is holy” (19:1).  When one reads such commands, one can’t help but wonder:  Is this the kind of holiness we still need?   Most people read such a text, will laugh a moment, and then not find any sense or meaning for faith at all.   A strange few will try to live it as it is written. 

When I first moved back into this area, a man saw me working on the house, having a big scrape pile in the driveway.  He stopped and asked what I was going to do with it.  During our conversation, he told me he went to a church that slaughtered and ate a lamb for their Passover.  It was Easter time, and he invited me to come to their service where they would actually kill the lamb, cleaned it, and then cooked and eat it together.  This was their way having a “holy” worship service to God.   I told him thanks, but of course I had to work on Sunday.  But I was amazed that right our area, there are still people who not only talk about following the Bible, but who actually follow these “laws” as if they were written for them.

Now, come back to our opening question, what does a Christian do with these very strange commands from Leviticus?  We could discard them altogether, saying they are do not matter for our lives today?   Or we could, as most Christians do, write them off as “fulfilled” (Matthew 5.17), since through Jesus God has given us “grace through faith” (Ephesians 2.8-9) instead of salvation through the “law” (Romans 3.28).    Or, there is this strange possibility of taking these levitical rules and codes as literal commands for our own lives today?   Though there is some truth in each way of following the law for today, I would like to suggest another approach.   Instead of rushing into what these “laws” do or don’t mean, I would like for us reflect about what laws about “holiness” meant then.   Instead of treating the matter of law or legalism flippantly (without any concern) or literally (with too much concern), I want us to take this matter of holiness very seriously in its own right.  What does the Bible means by “be holy”?     

BEING HOLY MEANS BEING LIKE THE GOD WHO SAVES
The main reason we should try to understand Leviticus is the very important command that stands right at the beginning of our text, where Moses spoke God’s words to God’s people saying: “'You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. (Lev 19:2 NAS). Even though the New Testament does put an end to the legalistic, ritual, and ceremonial demands for holiness we find in the Old Testament, the word and the need “holiness” does carry over to us.   We still need to know, understand and relate to this “holy” God who calls his people to be “holy.”  Or does he?  Let’s go back to square one and try to grasp just what it meant then and what it means now to be a holy people and let’s try to answer just what kind of holiness we may or may not need.

Instead of defining the word “holy,” let’s go back in the Bible to the very first time when the word “holy” began to be used to describe God.   The first time the word “holy” is used is when God appears to Moses in the Burning Bush.  It was there that God told Moses, “Take your shoes off.  You are standing on holy ground” (Exodus 3.5).  This is the first, but not the last time we encounter this word.  In fact, it is in the book of Exodus and Leviticus that this word ‘holy’ enters the Bible’s vocabulary and is used with great frequency. 

Most of the time, when people think of the word ‘holy’, they come up with mental word pictures of “holier than thou,” images of rigidness or inflexibility, or even ideas of distance and distance.’   I came across an article about a couple that was invited to have lunch with the king and queen of Sweden.  Their invitation made it very clear that they were to be in the royal dining hall and seated fifteen minutes before the king and queen were to arrive.  Furthermore, the invitation informed couple how they were to conduct themselves during the meal.  Among other things, the husband and wife were told not to put out their hand to the royal couple, unless the king or queen first extended their hand. And they were told not to start up a conversation with the king or queen.  Instead, they were only to speak if spoken to  (Quoted in “On Being Wholly Holy” by Ed Bowen, at www.sermons.com).   

When I read about this invitation, I could not help but recall the controversy stirred up in April 2009, when on their first trip to England, First lady Michelle Obama hugged the queen.  Woops!  Americans are just not used to such understanding the concept of “your highness” and she was excused.   Most of us know that with human royalty a certain kind of behavior is expected.   But what does it mean when we apply this term of “highness” or “holiness” to God?    What is most important to grasp about this word “holy” is that it was not used about God by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Joseph.  This doesn’t mean that God wasn’t “holy” then, but it does means something very important. 

If you have trouble putting God’s saving power and God’s holy presence together, just use your concordance to do a word study on how the word “holy” is most often used after the Exodus.  It was after God’s saving action that God came to the wilderness to reveal himself as holy so that Israel could keep living out that salvation in their future existence.   When God told Moses he was on ‘holy ground,’ he was preparing Moses for his saving mission to set God’s people free (Ex. 3.5).  When God made Israel his ‘holy assembly’, he wanted them to make his holy, sacred and saving presence as the main power source for their lives (Ex. 12.6).   When God called them to be “priests and a holy nation,” God wanted Israel to join this saving mission in the world
(Ex. 19:19).  Now, when God calls his people to “be holy, as he is holy”, God wants “all” his people to become a “community” of “holiness” who continue to grow, develop, and experience God’s blessings and purposes which can continue to bless them and make them a blessing in the world.

BE HOLY MEANS OVERCOMING THE DESTESTABLE
But if being “holy as God is holy” is part of God’s saving action in our lives, what does this it mean for us to be holy now?   Maybe this is what people like A.J. Jacobs are trying to figure out.  Are we, who desire and need God’s saving power today, expected to carry out these same commands or can those commands interpreted differently for us, than it was for them?

Interpreting the Old Testament is exactly what we find Jesus doing in the Sermon on the Mount.  When Jesus came saying “He came to fulfill the law, but not to abolish it” (Matt. 5.17), Jesus is not changing the law, but challenging how it should be read for his own time.  In Jesus’ day, the Old Testament law was being read superficially, but less seriously and not taken to heart.  Jesus commanded a deeper reading of the law, when he said, “You heard it said, ‘Do not murder”, but I say to you do not even “hate” your brother.”   Jesus reads the law with new light when he goes on to say things like, “You’ve heard it said, don’t commit adultery, but I say to you, don’t lust--- don’t even think about it!   The new interpretation is not less, it is more.   Jesus reads the Mosaic law with less literalism, but he takes the law much more seriously.  Again, Jesus said, ‘You heard it said to handle the evil doer eye for eye or tooth for tooth, but I say to you don’t resist them at all, “offer them the other cheek”, “give them the clothes off your back”, or ‘go the extra distance” with them (My translation, read for yourself Matthew 5:2—48).  Jesus does not take the law for granted, but neither does he simply take the law for what it says, but Jesus applies the law for the salvation of his people now.  He follows, not the “letter”, but the “spirit”.  Could we learn to read God’s law like this?   

We not only can learn to read the law this way, we must.   The law of God does not change, but times do, needs do, issues do, and the world does.  In First Peter, the author is writing to his readers about the Christian life.   Peter addresses these readers as “those who reside as immigrants, scattered throughout… (many lands), but who are also still “chosen” by God the Father for the “sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit”.   In the original language of the Bible, the word “sanctify” is a form of the word “holy.”  It could be read “holify” if we had a word like that in English.  We don’t, but you get the message.  As we move on in his letter, the concept of “holiness” is introduced as the “outcome of faith” (1.9 NRSV) and the “salvation of your souls” (1.9), and ways of holiness are dramatically introduced as the kind of “things into which angels long to look” (1.12).  We can’t look into everything being addressed here, but we can only look beyond Peter’s call for “preparing minds for action” “to discipline oneself” and “setting you mind on your hope in Jesus” and notice especially what Peter says in verse 14: “Like obedient children, DO NOT CONFORM TO THE DESIRES THAT YOU FORMERLY HAD IN IGNORANCE….instead, as he who called you is holy, BE HOLY YOURSELVES IN ALL YOUR CONDUCT.”  With this Peter quotes from Leviticus 19: 2, “You shall be holy, for I am holy”.  

If you follow Peter’s logic, he is not only saying that holiness means to be different, but he is also saying that holiness means to act and live differently.   Peter and Leviticus both are saying one essential thing about holiness.  Holiness means: Don’t be like everyone else; Don’t be like you have been; and especially, Don’t keep doing those things that were destroying you in the past or are destroying people in the present.”  Do things differently.  More specifically, back in Leviticus we find some of these “former things” people were “not doing” now being implied by the things people should be doing, as Leviticus (19: 3-19) says things like: Respect your parents…. Honor the Sabbath… Don’t fall for idols… Take God’s rules seriously…  Don’t rape the land and damage it…  Give some for the poor… Don’t steal.. Don’t be dishonest… Tell the truth… Help the helpless.… Don’t slander people….Have respect for life’s diversity and so on… (Leviticus 19: 3-19).   When you consider these things God asked his people to do, we can immediately understand that God’s call to holiness was a set of action that would save people from their own self-centered “desires” which ruined individuals, families, and communities.   When God called his people to be “holy”, he was not trying to make life hard on them, but he was trying to give Israel a way of life that “saved” them from destructive behavior.   

A few words that occur over and over in Leviticus are words like “to defile” or to “make unclean” or to become “impure”.    The conclusion of Leviticus 18, just before our text, makes it very clear that to be “holy” was to be a different people with a different outcome.  God explains that before Israel came to the land “the land was “defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants…”(18.25). But now God challenges his own people; “But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled.  And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you…. Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the LORD your God. '(Lev 18:25-30 NIV).   

What we must see here is that the holiness which God requires of his people is for their preservation, and the preservation of God’s own community.  To act like a holy people was the way to continue being a people.  God’s demands, commands and rules were given to give them “life” and “hope” for the future.  It was to change their desires from their lower nature that could destroy them and point them to their best nature in God, which could keep them alive, well, and flourishing in the new land.

HOLY MEANS LOVING YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF
Can we specially say what kind of behavior preserves a people?  I think we can.   At the center of this holy way of life was not simply a desire for self-preservation, but it was a greater, holy way of living that could bring God’s saving purposes to all people.   We can know what this behavior is, because right in the middle of this text we find a command that was at the core of Jesus’ own interpretation what makes people holy.   Here is the passage Jesus quotes, the second of the greatest commandment (Mark 12: 33): “But you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD (Lev 19:18 NRS).

The message of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” is written all over the levitical laws.  For instance, right here in this passage we find all kinds of concern for “neighbor”.  We find the command to not to reap the “edges of the field” (vs. 9), but to leave it for the “poor” and the “alien” (vs. 10).  We also see a law about not “defrauding your neighbor” or “withholding wages” (v.13).  The concern for the hurting and helpless appears as God’s people are not to “revile the deaf” or put a “stumbling block before the blind” (v. 14).  Other “neighbor” concerns are listed in the most practical ways, as serving “justice” to both “poor” and “great” (vs. 15) and not “slanderering” nor “profiting” upon the pain of your neighbor, not taking “vengeance” or “bearing a grudge”.   With this very word, the law reminds us again: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  To make this more serious the law adds God’s own signature; “I am the LORD.” (19:18).   

How can we translate these words of love for “neighbor” into our own world today?   How is holy love for neighbor realized in our lives and right here in our community of faith?    We can see it in a story Fred Craddock told about a congregation he once served where people did not love their neighbor and the alien among them.  This little church was like us, out in the country, where it is very easy to become cliquish and clannish.  The area was experiencing a population boom because of the start-up of the Atomic Energy Commission.  Seemingly overnight, the village became a city.  Suddenly there were tents and house trailers everywhere you looked.  Construction workers began arriving from most every state in the union.  Fred Craddock’s church was pretty small and just seated about eighty people.  It had hand-carved pews and a little organ over in a corner that you had to pump.  A beautiful little building – and very aristocratic! 

Dr. Craddock called his board together and told them what a great evangelistic opportunity they had, to reach out and evangelize all these thousands of folks who had recently moved in.  He wanted to make them welcome and new neighbors and bring them into the church.  But the board chairman said:  “No way!”  “Why?”  “They’re not our kind.”  “What do you mean, they’re not our kind?  And the board chairman said:  “Well, they’re just living in tents and trailers and everything.  They’re laborers.  They follow construction.  No roots.  They’re not our kind!  They wouldn’t fit in!”  Pastor Craddock and the board chairman debated this back and forth and finally they called for a meeting after church the very next Sunday.  There was a motion immediately on the floor.  “I move that anybody seeking membership in this church must own property in this county.”  “Second,” someone said quickly.  The board chairman reminded Fred Craddock that since he was the minister, he didn’t have a vote.  So it was voted and passed unanimously:  Nobody can be a member of this church unless they own property in the county.

 Years later, Fred Craddock and his wife returned to that area.  They actually had a hard time finding the church because of a new interstate highway.  But finally they found the little road that led up to his former church and suddenly there it was sitting in the pine trees, beautiful and pristine.  As they drove up in the
church parking lot, the place was crowded with trucks and cars everywhere.  Fred Craddock said, “My goodness, they must be having a revival or something.”  Then he saw it, a sign stuck on the front of the church which said:  “Bar-B-Q, All You Can Eat $4.99.”

They went inside and the place was full of folks.  The pews had been pushed back against the walls, Formica tables and chairs were set up, the little organ was still there over in the corner, but it had dishes stacked on it.  Suddenly, it dawned on Fred Craddock what had happened.  The church had died, closed down, sold out, and had become a restaurant.  As Fred Craddock recalls the story, he says: 
“There were some of the most gosh-awful looking people in there that you’ve ever seem.  Motorcycles out front and pickup trucks…..you’ve never seen such a crowd.  Blue-collar workers, white-collar workers.  People of all ages and colors and backgrounds.” 

Fred Craddock turned to his wife and said, “It’s a good thing this place is a restaurant because if it were still the kind of church it used to be, some of these folks sure wouldn’t fit in!”  That day of discovery broke the heart of that former pastor.  Isn’t that sad?  And what could be more ironic than for people who would once be denied the Bread of Life in that place being invited later to come and have “all the Bar-B-Q you can eat!”

When I share a story like this, I’m reminded again of what Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, but it’s the part I do understand.”  There are lots of ancient practices of holiness in the book of Leviticus that are still hard to understand.  But what we do understand, especially when it comes to holiness, is that holiness means some very specific things.   It means being like the God who saves us.  It means leaving detestable things behind.   It means loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.  These are not at all things that are hard to understand, but they are still very hard to do in real life.   But if we don’t do these kinds of things, the witness of Leviticus is this: that the new territory we’ve all come to experience God’s goodness and blessing will be the place we are no more.  Being holy, as God is holy is not an option. it is a matter of life and death.  Amen.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fulfilled, but Not Forgotten


Exodus 20: 1-18
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
September 23, 2012, Disciple Series: Sermon 6 of 15.

When I became a missionary and moved to Germany, I first lived in the western part of Germany where we attended language school.   One day we were out “barefooting”, which is missionary lingo for going on the street to test out our newly acquired language skills on that day.   In the middle of our city, I noticed a Woolworth’s store.  I hadn’t been in one since I was a kid.  So I turned right into the front door to take a look.  Right there in front of the store was a large life-size image of a Luther Pastor dressed in a black robe, with his figure pointed right at me with the subtitle: “Du sollst nicht stehlen.”  I understood the German immediately.  “Thou shalt not steal.”  What I couldn’t understand is they were using religion to enforce morality in a country where 95 percent of the people didn’t even go to church. 

We might think we live in a time of goodness, grace, and anything goes, but that paper preacher with his finger pointing is a reminder that law is still needed and cannot be forgotten.  Jesus himself said he came to fulfill the law and not to abolish it (Matt. 5:17).  But for many people today, the law, especially the 10 commandments, don’t seem to get off on the right foot.  People don’t like to hear the word “no”.   Contemporary society often treats the word “no” like our parents treated the word “sex.”  The problem is, that when you don’t teach your child about no it’s not very long until your child teaches you what “no” means, but on their terms.  (Not a good idea). 

A closer examination of these “thou shalt nots” in the Ten Commandments might help us better understand why God gave his people these “no” words.  These “ten words” (the original language does not call them commandments, this was coined later, see Deut 4.13) are not like any other words in the Bible.   Other words were given indirectly through Moses, but these ten “words” were spoken directly from the lips of God.  

 THESE WORDS ARE TIED TO HUMAN FREEDOM
We need to examine closely how these “words” of law begin:  “I am the LORD God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:1).  

The law is a “word” of life.   We need to “hear” these “words” of law, not as “binding” words, but as “freeing” words.    They are words that are spoken to a people who have been set free, liberated and who need to stay free and liberated.   God spoke these words after the people escaped from Egypt.  They were words to keep them free, not to restrain or restrict them from the goodness of life and liberty.

They were spoken to Israel in the same way Paul spoke to the Galatians, when he said, “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.  Do not be entangled again to the yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).  While the circumstances surrounding God’s law changes from the Hebrew Bible (OT) to the Christian Bible (NT), the intent of God’s law does not change.   The law’s intent is not to enslave, restrain nor restrict God’s people, but it is word given to enable them to live out their God given freedom from oppression, slavery, and sin.

Listen to how Moses expresses this intention of the law when he calls Israel to renew their commitment to God’s law in Deuteronomy, 8.1:  This entire commandment that I command you today you must diligently observe, SO THAT YOU MAY LIVE AND INCREASE, and go in and occupy the land that the LORD promised on oath to your ancestors (Deu 8:1 NRS).  Again, it should be clear, that the law is not given as a restriction, but it is given as a referendum on freedom and hope.  The law must be understood as a word for life.

Secondly, the law must also be understood as a “word” of grace.   Normally, we put juxtapose law and grace, but this is not the original intent of the God of the Bible.  The intent of God was not to give us grace over the law, but the law is to be understood as a word of grace itself.   Even though the law should not be understood a word “for” salvation, the law is part of the work “of” salvation; it is part of the same word that saves us initially and it is a part of the word of God’s grace given to keep us working out our salvation intentionally, in every part of life.  Several times in his discussion of the law, Paul says that the grace of Jesus comes to us “by the law of faith” (Romans. 3.27) and that “we do not overthrow the law” (Romans 3.31) because, “what the law requires is written on (our) hearts” (Romans. 2.15).  The law of God must not be misunderstood as a set of rules we must follow, but the law is the description of a transformed life we want to follow because of our change of heart.  When grace has entered our life by faith, the law of God is no longer something we have to do, but the law becomes the heart-shaped pattern of our grace-filled and faith-full lives.  This is why in the salvation story of Israel, the law comes after salvation.  The law does not save, but God keeps us working out our salvation through his life-giving words.

If you recall, several years ago there was a sort of “culture war” over the Ten Commandments, when Roy Moore, the now-removed chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court waged and lost a stubborn fight to keep the Ten Commandments monument in his courthouse.   What was most ironic about the whole ordeal, says Tom Long, was how much the monument weighed: 5,280 pounds, which is over 500 pounds per commandment.  Judge Moore lugged that hefty monster of a monument all over the state trying to get support to keep it as a public display.  He could not even get it on and off his flatbed truck without a yellow I-beam crane.  Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Joshua Green wrote: “I know that Jesus once scolded the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but somehow this I-beam-bending version of the Decalogue seems way out of proportion.”  (http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3333).

This picture of a “heavy weight” is exactly what the law must not be understood to be.  It is not a burden, a weight or heavy obligation placed on life.   Neither is the law to be perceived as a two and one-half ton rock to publically put around the neck of a rebellious society, so it weakens us like a heavy yoke placed upon a strong animal.   The law is given as “breathtaking announcement of freedom” for the redeemed people of God as our text opens: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." (Ex. 20:2).   Because the LORD is our God we are free not to need any other gods nor do we have carry around all those burdensome idols.   We are free not to work ourselves to death, but to rest on the Sabbath day.  We are free from murdering each other, from stealing from each other, and from wanting all those things that will choke the very life out of us.  These laws are to spell out the shape of freedom, not the placing of heavy religious or relational burdens on our backs.

THESE WORDS ANTICIPATE GOD’S PRESENCE
Notice also how the ten words begin: “I am the LORD your God”.   The first word and the first 4 words of these commands concern our relationship with God.  What keeps Israel alive in the wilderness after Egypt was not a set of rules to live by, but a life-giving, life-saving, life-freeing, relationship with each other, which is lived in the presence of the true God.    “I brought you out”.    It is their relationship with God, not with rules, that will keep them alive.  

Robert Wuthnow  speaks of how we transmit our ethics through stories of relationships.   He goes on to tell the story of Jack Casey, a volunteer fireman and ambulance attendant who, as a child, had to have some of his teeth extracted under general anesthesia. Jack was terrified, but a nurse standing nearby said to him, "Don’t worry, I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens." When he woke up from the surgery, she had kept her word and was still standing beside him.

This experience of being cared for by the nurse stayed with him, and nearly 20 years later his ambulance crew was called to the scene of an accident. The driver was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and Jack crawled inside to try to get him out of the wreckage. Gasoline was dripping onto both Jack and the driver, and there was a serious danger of fire because power tools were being used to free the driver.   The whole time, the driver was crying out about how scared of dying he was, and Jack kept saying to him, recalling what the nurse had said so many years before, "Look, don’t worry, I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere."  Later, after the truck driver had been safely rescued, he was incredulous. "You were an idiot "he said to Jack.  "You know that the thing could have exploded and we’d have both been burned up!"  In reply, Jack simply said he felt he just couldn’t leave him.  He had to be there for that guy or the rest of his life would have been worth nothing.

This is what the commandments are.  They are more than laws and rules, they are God’s words.  And because they are spoken from the very lips of God they more than just words from God, they anticipate God’s presence with us as we live these words in our life.   I bought you out… is the context of all these commands which say, “Have no other gods before me,  don’t make an idol, don’t use God’s name flippantly, and honor the Sabbath.  At these center of all these command more than “don’t do this” or “do this”, but these are the boundaries of a relationship with the God has not left us and now asks that we stay with him.  This is how all the commandments work.  First comes the experience of being cared for, the experience of being set free, then we are enabled to live our lives ethically because we know we are not alone in life.  That nurse saying "I’ll be right here beside you" became more than just spoken words, but those words also became the action of a man risking his life for a stranger because he knows in his bones that he just can’t leave him.   In the same way, God words of command are God’s promise that he is with us.   "I am the Lord your God, who brought you . . . out of the house of slavery" prompts us to live lives shaped by the freedom created the God who frees us and stays with us through his words.  (From same article, Dancing with the Decalogue, by Tom Long,  http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3333).

THESE WORDS FORM A COMMUNITY OF GOD AROUND OBEDIENCE
The final 6 commands are “words” about our relations with each other.   There is no true relationship with God that does not affect our relationships with each other.   All these words; Honor your parents, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t witness falsely against your neighbor, and don’t covet what your neighbor has, are all words that find their ultimate fulfillment in the New Testament word that says: “How can you love God, whom you haven’t seen, if you don’t love your brothers and sisters, whom you have seen?” 

Again, we can see once and for all, in these rules about human relationships, they are not really “hard”, but they are necessary and very “easy” rules.  These commands do not get into specifics about much of anything, but they remain broad, general, and possible for us all to follow, so that community among us can actually happen.  The truth is, you are not just a sinner go against such words of life, but you are, in all actuality, humanly stupid and sick too.  To bite the hand that feed you, by dishonoring your parents is not only stupid, it is sick.  To commit murder is more than mean, but it’s also stupid because you will also destroy yourself just as Cain did.  To steal, to lie against someone, or to want to take what others have, will lead to all kinds of other stupid, sick, behavior.   Living a moral, ethical life is normal, healthy, and constructive which is what the commandments are about.   These are God’s words to give shape to freedom, help us know God’s presence, which creates a people in community who obey God’s voice.   

The delightful children’s movie, Dolphin Tale, is a story about a young boy named Sawyer, who seems lost without his Father who left home and has no contact with him.  His only male role model is his older cousin Kyle, who is a swimming champion and newly enlisted in the service.   Sawyer’s life receives needed inspiration and purpose when he befriends an injured Dolphin named Winter and participates in the Dolphin’s healing and rehabilitation.  However, while helping the Dolphin recover from its disabilities, his cousin Kyle is seriously injured in an accident is crippled for life.  When Sawyer visits his cousin, Kyle is full of self-pity and does not want to talk to Sawyer or anyone.  Kyle tells us his younger cousin, “Just go away, and leave me alone!”   Feeling hurt, Sawyer starts to walk away, but then turns to his cousin and complains: “You think you are the only one hurting here!  This is not just about you, Kyle.  Other people are hurting too!”

Perhaps this moment, dramatizes in a powerful way the greatest purpose of God’s law.  The words of God are not simply words or laws to help me ‘get by act together’, or for just for you ‘to get your act together’, but these laws are to bring us together as a community, keep us together so that we can create a people who obey God so that we can live together and tackle the world’s problems and challenges together.  The old folk song, based on John Donne words, “No Man is Island” speaks to the high purpose of the law:
No man is an island, no man stands alone
Each man's joy is joy to me
Each man's grief is my own
We need one another, so I will defend
Each man as my brother
Each man as my friend.
The words of this moving and emotional song remind us of the liberating, revealing, and community building purpose of God’s law.  Without respect for the most basic rules of life, we lose respect for others in the most basic ways and relationship of our lives.   This is why Jesus, commenting on the law himself, said to his followers, “I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat 5:20 CEB). 

What was this “greater righteousness” Jesus desired? You can find it expressed most clearly at the very end of his sermon, in the concluding verses, which begin in Matthew 4: 43:  "You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.   If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don't even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don't even the Gentiles do the same?  Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Mat 5:43-1 CEB).

Showing Love and respect for God and having love and respect for others is what the law is about.  Love is what liberates, reveals God’s presence, and builds community.  I didn’t invent this.  Jesus did (Matthew 22.40).  And this same Jesus said that he did not come to “abolish” the law, but to fulfill it.  Jesus fulfilled the law so that we could keep benefiting from God’s life-giving law: "Therefore, brothers and sisters, know this: Through Jesus we proclaim forgiveness of sins to you. From all those sins from which you couldn't be put in right relationship with God through Moses' Law (Act 13:38 CEB).  Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rescued Down Under


A sermon based upon Exodus 2: 23- 3: 15
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Disciple Series, 5 of 15, September 9, 2012

When my daughter was small, like most children, she loved “Disney” animated films.  Because we were living in Germany during her preschool years, to watch something together “American” was always a treat.  One movie we often watched together was entitled “The Rescuers Down Under”.  It was a cartoon based on the rescue of a little Australian boy by his eagle friend.   This movie came out after the Crocodile Dundee film had such great success as America’s new Tarzan hero.  This new Australian craze and curiosity enabled not only the making of this Disney animation, but also the success of a well-known restaurant, Outback Steakhouse, and even the design of a new Japanese-American car by that name.    

Critics will tell you the film nicked-named “Rescuers” had a mediocre storyline, but that it redeemed itself with its marvelous graphical images of the eagle in flight who rescued him from an evil poacher.  But who says that a story about rescue is ever mediocre, even if it’s a child’s story?  If you are the one needing rescue, the storyline of a “rescuer” could be the most important storyline for your life.

In the book of Exodus we encounter the most famous storyline of rescue from the ancient world.  The rescue of Israel from Egypt is not only the most elaborate story of rescue ever described, it is a story still remembered and reenacted today by both Jews and Christians, when they celebrate “Passover” or partake in “Holy Communion”.  But that’s getting ahead the story. Our text today begins at the very beginning this great story of rescue. 

The story opens with Israel down under, both geographically and politically, suffering and crying out to God because they were being oppressed and enslaved by their Egyptian landlords.   As we enter their story of pain and protest, the King in Egypt has died, but the situation is no better.   Israel still suffers underneath the burden of slavery, crying out to their God for help.    This time, something different happens.   Now we read how “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exodus 2: 24-25).  There’s a lot being said about God as rescuer in these few words: God heard, God remembered, God looked and God took notice.  This means that story of protest, pain and suffering under oppression in Egypt is about to change into a new story of deliverance, liberation and salvation.

GOD RESCUES THROUGH HEARING OUR PRAYERS
There are many parts of the story that could engage our thinking, but the first part of this rescue story is reminds of the God who hears.    “Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.   God heard their groaning.”   This is where the biblical story of rescue and salvation begins: People cry out and God hears.  

The story of rescue opens with a “cry for help”.   Most of us would not think of God at all if we didn’t have hurts.   I don’t understand the mystery of pain and suffering, but I do understand what it can do to us and how it can make us ‘cry out’ in ways we never thought possible for us. 
I heard a military man say once that there are no “atheists” in foxholes.   That may or may not be true, but in the moment of pain, suffering, fear or uncertainty, most people will pray—or at least respect those who do.

No matter how well you have it now, one day you will cry.  Even if you are a very tough person and not given to crocodile tears, if you have a heart, something will one day take hold of your heart and you will cry out from within.   My Father was a very tough man in many ways.  His Father died when my Dad was just 12 years old.  There were 7 children in his family.  The oldest was only 16 when my grandfather died of an infection after appendicitis.  No long afterward, my Father had and his other brothers had to go off to war either in Europe or in the Pacific.  They all came back home, but life was hard without their Father. 

Dad did not tell me much about the war, as few did, but he worked hard and I never saw him complain or cry, until his mother died.   Even then, he fought the tears back, but they still came.   No matter how tough we are, someday we will all “cry out to God”.  It is part of the human condition to eventually face our human limits and discover our own need for God.  Someday,  no matter how good you have it now, life will not go your way and you will feel like you are ‘down under’ a load you cannot lift.   Life comes at you fast.   It will be a ‘load’ you don’t want to bear.  Life happens.  Life hurts.  We will groan and we will cry out.

When one of my seminary teachers was a solider in the Korean War, trying to hold the front line, one night the North Koreans overran their camp and he laid in a foxhole begging God not to let him be killed.  Delos Miles laid in the Foxhole where all of his buddies were lying dead.  The enemy walked by him shooting all those who moved.  He pretended to be dead, but his prayer life was very much alive.  “God, if you get me out of here, I’ll go wherever you call and do whatever you say.”  This was his prayer over and over for 18 hours lying still in that trench.  This was his moment to cry out to God in ways like never before.

 “God hears”.   Somehow, God heard Delos Miles and he got out of that trench alive.   Somehow, Israel believed that God would heard their own cries of distress.   The answer is about to be realized in a story still captures our imagination, but remains as mysterious as it is miraculous.   As we read how God heard, remember, looked and took notice of them, we are confronted with the question of how God hears, remembers, looks upon or notices us.   The miracle for some of us is that God has rescued us too.  The mystery is that sometimes we have cried out God’s answer came too slow or not at all.  Israel is about the see a miracle of dramatic rescue, but sometimes we have to deal with the mystery of unanswered prayers.  

The common response of many believers, who have trusted God when their prayers were not answered, is that God sometimes must answer with a no, but he still answers.   We also know that Israel had to wait for their answer for a long time.  I’m sure that many prayed for years to return to their homeland, but died without any inclination of rescue.   As the book of Hebrews declares, many lived toward the promise, but never attained that promise.   Some had to suffer without the promise being realized.  Some had to die without the promise ever being fulfilled.   But all had to wait for God to hear, to remember, to look and take notice of them.   Waiting is also part of the mystery of prayer they faced and we still face.    As in our text, we believe in faith that God’s answer will come, but for now we can only know that God hears, God remembers, God looks and God takes notice.   We wait and we still hope.  Such waiting can be the hardest work faith ever knows.

GOD RESCUES THROUGH HIS HOLY PRESENCE
Perhaps most critical to having faith in God as our helper and rescuer, is to gain the kind of knowledge of God, which only God can give.   Moses was “keeping the flock of his father-in-law” while “beyond the wilderness” and was not looking for this knowledge when it came.  It came unexpectedly.   It was uncalculated.  It was completely unforeseen. 

We read in our text that when Moses came “to Horeb, the mountain of God, the “the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush.”  But this wasn’t just any ole bush that was burning, but it was “bush that was blazing, yet was not consumed.”   The whole spectacle caused Moses to stop and look and try to figure out why “the bush is not burned up.”   It was then that he heard a voice calling,  “Moses, Moses”.   But just as Moses moves in to get close, he suddenly hears the voice give warning, “Come no closer!  Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”   

There is something about this story which should cause us all to stop and consider.  Before we can know that God takes notice of us, we must take notice of God.  Of course, we want rescue.  We want to be heard.  We want to have access to the all the promises and the purposes of this rescuing God, but there is no right approach to God’s saving promise in our world without gaining an awareness of God’s holy presence in our lives.  Without a true revelation and knowledge of who God is, there can be no saving, no answer, and no promise to prayer.   For the God who rescues is as miraculous and mysterious as the rescue itself.   We must become aware that he is near, but we can’t get too close.   We must become knowledgeable of his name, but it must remain unspeakable on our lips.   Before God helps us know he hears, we must first confront his holy presence, feel his burning fire and hear his unspeakable name.     

Some of you may have heard the name Blaise Pascal.  He was a French great mathematician of the 17th century, who gave us one of the first forms of a calculator.  He was brilliant in mind and in spirit.   Right after Pascal died, they found some secret words pinned inside his jacket.  The words have now become world famous, helping us appreciate his soul as much as we have his mind.  Those words were short and brief, known as "The Memorial". 

The year of grace 1654.  Monday, 23 November, feast of Saint Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the Martyrology.  Eve of Saint Chrysogonus, Martyr and others.
From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.
Fire
'God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,' not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
'Thy God shall be my God.' The world forgotten, and everything except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels. Greatness of the human soul.
'O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.' Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. …Sweet and total renunciation.  Total submission to Jesus Christ…
…. I will not forget thy word. Amen.

Pascal’s fire is also Moses’ fire.  It is fire that still burns.  It is the fire of God’s holy presence   which can’t be extinguished, explained, or analyzed, but must be adored, worshipped, revered, and venerated.   We cannot know what he will do until we encounter who God is.  God rescues through, not around his holy person and his holy presence.  This is the heart of his healing fire.

GOD RESCUES THROUGH HIS HOLY PEOPLE
Finally, God hears our prayers and reveals his holy presence to rescue, with our help, not without it.   The miracle that is about to give this people rescue, freedom and hope, will not come until the people accept the mission of becoming rescuers themselves.   Later, at this same mountain,   the LORD will speak to Moses and give some of the most important words in all the Bible:   We read them in Exodus 19: 3…. "This is what you should say to Jacob's household and declare to the Israelites:  You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles' wings and brought you to me.  So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me. You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation. These are the words you should say to the Israelites" (Exo 19:3-6 CEB).

The miracle of the Red Sea crossing was only a one time, unrepeatable miracle.  But the miracle of the creation of a new people called to be a ‘kingdom of priests (for God)’ is a miracle of the mission given to God’s people to bring his rescue to the whole world.   This is the mission that was given to Israel, and it is now the mission also given to us, Christ’s church.   Isn’t this what Peter meant in his first epistle when he wrote: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God's own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light.   Once you weren't a people, but now you are God's people. Once you hadn't received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1Pe 2:9-10 CEB)

When People look back at great miracle of Israel’s deliverance, the big splash was the water.  But that water is the water we all go through, which we call baptism.  But the miracle of our Baptism is what we are baptized “for” not “how” we are baptized.   Just like Israel, we are baptized into the mission to be a new people, who are to bring God’s rescue mission into the world.  God hears prayers, but most often he answers those prayers through his people.

And this is exactly the problem we find, as we come to the end of this text, which continues into the next chapter.   Moses does not want to be part of the answer to prayers.  Moses does not want to be a man on mission.    Moses is making excuses, many excuses, as to why he cannot be a part of God’s rescue mission in the world.   We all know Moses’ excuses all to well, because they are our excuses too.   “Who am I to go…?” (11), he first tries to excuse himself   “What am I supposed to say to them…”(13), he continues.   This is where our text ends, with Moses questioning and making up excuses.  What if the story ended right there, just where some of our stories have ended?  What if Moses continued to make excuses and was not willing to be part of the miracle as a person who joined the mission?  What if?

In the next chapter, the excuses get even bigger.   “But what if they don’t believe me, or pay attention to me?” (4.1)…. “But Lord, I’ve never been able to speak well…I have a slow mouth and a thick tongue.” (4.10)….”Please my lord, just send someone else…How about my brother, Aaron” (4:13).   The excuses kept on coming, but God would not take no for an answer.  There would be no rescue, unless there was also a Moses along with Aaron.  Still today, there will be no rescue, unless the people of God become the “priests” and the “peculiar people” of God who “speak of his wonderful acts of the one who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2.9).    Unfortunately, many prayers are still not answered, many revelations of a holy God are not seen, and many missions of rescue are not carried out, because God’s people are still more about “excuses” than “action”, about maintenance, rather than mission, about chasing our own dreams, rather than answering the dream of God.

Excuses,” some wise sage once said, “are like armpits. Everyone has them and they usually all stink.”  Once a news article listed the most absurd excuses The Metropolitan Insurance Company had received from its customers reporting automobile accidents. Listen to some of these excuses; they were “real” excuses, if you call them “real”:
·         An invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my car, and vanished.
·         The other car collided with mine without warning me of its intention.
·         I had been driving my car for 40 years when I fell asleep at the wheel and had the accident.
·         As I reached an intersection, a hedge sprang up, obscuring my vision.
·         I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law, and headed over the embankment.
·         The pedestrian had no idea which direction to go, so I ran over him.
·         The telephone pole was approaching fast. I attempted to swerve out of its path when it struck my front end.
·         The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.
·         The indirect cause of this accident was a little guy in a small car with a big mouth.

We all make our excuses.   We makes excuses for the simple moments when we forgot something or wanted to get out of something, and we make our excuses trying to avoid something we were supposed to do, but didn’t.   But nowhere are the excuses more prominent and more precarious than when God needs us for his mission in the world, but we still make our excuses to the one who has already has heard it all.   “We’re too busy,” we say.  We don’t want to be bothered.” We’re too sorry and lazy:  We don’t even want to know and we don’t even want to learn how.  We’re sure smart and work hard in everything else, but “God’s work is just too hard!.”  We just can’t make this sacrifice, so still make u our excuses to the God who will not accept our “no” for an answer.   In fact, if we say “no”, then the answer to our prayer will be much the same: “no”.    In Moses’ case, and perhaps also is our case, there will be no great answer to prayer, without our own answer to God’s call and claim on our life.   But if we answer “yes”, God can use us, with and beyond our own abilities.

A pastor was leading a building campaign in his church and need to raise some additional funds. One day, the minister was checking the store room and he discovered several cases of bibles that had never been opened or distributed.  In his Sunday sermon, the pastor asked for three volunteers from the congregation who would be willing to go door-to-door selling these bibles for $10 each to raise money for the building fund.

Peter, Paul, and Louie all raised their hands to volunteer. The pastor knew that Peter and Paul both earned their living as salesmen and were quite capable of selling some bibles, but he had serious doubts about Louie.  Louie was not a salesman, but always tended to keep to himself because of his speech impediment.  Louie stuttered very badly.  But not wanting to be a discouragement to Louie, the pastor decided to let him give it a try.  The pastor stacked each man’s car with after the service, and sent them on their way with instructions to report back in a week’s time.

Next Sunday came, and the pastor was eager to find out how each man did. He asked Peter how many bibles he had sold. Peter proudly handed the pastor an envelope and said, “Pastor, I am proud to report I sold 20 bibles, and here is $200 for the building fund.”
     “You’re a fine salesman, Peter, and the church is indebted to you,” replied the Pastor.
Then the pastor turned to Paul. “How many bibles did you sell, Paul?” asked the pastor.
      Paul stuck out his chest proudly and responded, “Pastor, I’m a professional salesman, and I am pleased to offer my gifts to the church. I sold 28 bibles and here is $280 cash to go toward our new building.”
    “Wonderful,” the pastor said. “It is great to have such willing people serve the congregation.”
Finally, the pastor came to Louie. A bit apprehensively the pastor asked Louie how many bibles he had sold. Louie just handed him an envelope. The pastor opened the envelope and to his amazement there was $3,200.00 inside. “Louie,” the pastor exclaimed, “are you saying you sold 320 bibles?”  Louie just nodded.

Of course, Peter and Paul could not believe it. “We’re professional salesmen. Do you mean to stand there and tell us that you sold ten times as many bibles as we did?  How could you do that?” “Yes, Louie,” the pastor said. “That does seem a bit strange. Can you tell us how you managed that feat?” 
Louie just shrugged and said, “I-I-I-I re-re-really d-d-d-don’t know f-ffffor sh-sh-shure.”   Peter interrupted, “For crying out loud, Louie, just tell us what you said when these people answered the door.”   “A-a-a-a-all I-I-I-I s-s-said w-w-w-was,” Louie replied, “W-w-w-w-would y-y-y-you l-l-l-l-l-like t-t-t-to b-b-b-b-buy a b-b-b-b-b-bible f-f-for t-t-ten b-b-b-bucks o-o-o-or w-w-w-would y-y-y-you j-j-j-just l-l-l-like me to s-s-s-s-stand h-h-h-here and r-r-r-read it to y-y-y-y-y-you?”  (From a sermon by Lynn Malone; http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/there-are-no-excuses-with-god-lynn-malone-sermon-on-moses-82943.asp?page=4).
God enables those he calls because he calls us follow our heart and our passion. There really should be no excuses with God.  God wants to hear our prayers, he wants to reveal himself and he wants to use us.  Let me ask you, if you’ve heard the call of God in your life? God’s call comes in many ways.   He calls us to salvation.  He calls us to sanctification---to be like Jesus, and finally he calls us to service, to be on mission with God in the world.  But today, the sad truth is, as a Presbyterian pastor once said to me, “Many are called, but more than a few are still “frozen”---God’s frozen chosen.  W-w-w-w ould-y-o-u-u-u- like m-m-m-e-e- to pre-e-e-ch long-g-g-e-r-r or-w-w-w-ould yo-u-u-u join hi-s-s- re-cu-u-u-e t-eam-m-m to-to-to-day!  Amen.



Sunday, September 9, 2012

Becoming People With Promise


A sermon based upon Genesis 12: 1-20
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Disciple Series, 4 of 15, September 9, 2012

The word ‘covenant’ means promise.  We rather use the word ‘promise’ because the old word covenant has either gotten too big or too old.  We might still know the definition of the word---an agreement God makes with humans, but it just doesn’t have the meaning and connection it once did.  Covenant has almost gone the way of dust like that old word in the marriage ceremony, “I pledge thee my troth”.  “You do what?”  Oh, you mean trust!  And if you don’t like pledging your troth, you might want to think about “plighting” your trust or truth?  Maybe its just better we change these old words for the new ones, like “agreement”, “contract”, or again, this word ‘promise’.    

But the word Covenant is an old word for a very good reason: it’s a very old idea.   Scripture says that whole idea of covenant started with God, not us humans.   Many of the contractual habits and legal standards of civilized life today can be traced all the way back to God’s very first covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David.   If God had not made and kept his promises, I doubt that anyone would have kept their.  Then also, there’s the new Covenant.  It is a covenant written in human blood, not just the blood of just any human, but it was written with the blood of Jesus the Christ, who said, “this is the blood of my covenant, which is pour out for the ransom of many” (Mark 14.24).

Even if we don’t make much of the word Covenant, the idea promise making and promising keeping is still big for us.   Not much of life can happen, and not much constructive will happen, without the covenantal practices of people who make and keep their promises to God and to each other.   The reason for this is that we not only make promises, but promises make us.   And the very same thing can be said about “breaking” a promise.  Breaking promises will also break us.  You can’t be much of a person or a people without being people of promise.

But who hasn’t made and also broken a promise?  Being a person of your word is one of the biggest human challenges of all.   Who hasn’t failed at it, at least once or twice, or more?   But we must keep trying, mustn’t we?  We know that God is the only one who can perfectly keep his promise.   And we don’t even know everything about how God’s promises will turn out until  life is over.   So, then, this begs a question: Is it even reasonable to make and keep our promises today, when so many of them have been broken, when we so often fail,  or when so many of our promises are left unfulfilled?  Is it still important?  What’s the big deal about the promise?  

Our text today, centers on this ‘second’ biblical promise of God.   The first biblical promise was made to Noah, when God promised never again the “flood” the whole earth and he sent the rainbow as the sign of keeping his promise.  But this second promise is even bigger.  It may even be more foundational than any of the promises yet to come.  For as the apostle Paul reminded us, the “blessing of Abraham” is the promise that fulfilled to us by having faith in Jesus (Gal. 3.14).  Abraham was the very first person of the promise, who own faith filled response to God’s promise still echoes in our own promising-making and promise-keeping between God, Jesus and us.   Abraham was the first, but not the last, person of promise.

ANSWER THE CALL  
The promise first came to Abraham as a “call” that Abram needed to answer.   In our text, the word says that “The Lord Said to Abram, leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for a land that I will show you.”

Let get right to the point.   Already we can see why so many do not experience the “blessing” in their own lives.   The problem is that they simply stay ‘home.’  You can’t experience the depth of the blessing without hearing and answering some unknown.   Sometimes you have to leave everything you know to take hold of that cannot be known until once you let go.  

I know this might sound strange to “homebodies” or the unadventurous type, but leaving is part of learning and experiencing the promises of God.  I’m not talking about “abandoning” your family; that is not what Abram was doing.  What Abram was doing was something like ‘standing up on his own two feet’ and “answering the call” to go out and to grow up from within his heart, but it was even more than that.  This wasn’t just any call.  It wasn’t a call to become a solider.  It wasn’t simply the call to be his ‘own’ person.  Nor was it a normal rite of passage, like leaving and cleaving his new wife.  All these things may have been included in the call, but the special call to Abraham was the “call” from his God; a call that he heard from the deepest part of his soul and had to be answered with his whole life.

The call of God is not always easy to decipher.  We don’t know what caused Abraham to answer the call.  Other texts, such as Hebrews suggest that Abraham answered to “go without knowing” (Hebrew 11.8) because he was “looking for a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11.10).   Perhaps Abraham was able to answer because there was something missing in his own world.   He was looking for more; a “city with foundations” which only God could build.  The call Abraham answered is also called the answer of faith.  It was not just “belief” that God could do more in his life which enabled his answer, but it was the gift of faith which God gave him.  It was not just a call from beyond, but the call from above.

Have you ever answered that kind of call?  Have you ever believed that God could do more with you and with your life than you can do for yourself?   To get to the level of faith Abraham had requires something few people are lucky enough to know anything about.  We can imagine that perhaps all the people in Ur heard the same spiritual call in their world, but that all of them stayed home, except Abraham.  They did not go looking for more.   They did not find more.   They did not receive the blessing, and they were unable to give it.  As the Scriptures say, “many are called, but few are chosen” and could also just as well say, “most have grown too cold and many are already deep frozen”.  Only the chosen and ‘unfrozen’ are able to hear or to answer.  

BE A BLESSING
Part of getting “unfrozen” and being “chosen” out of an empty life and getting off a dead-end street begins with a promise.  Answering the call for Abraham depended not just upon answering, but it also depended upon Abraham making and keeping a promise himself.  But of course, as we see in this text, God made the promise first.  He told Abraham: “I will make you of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great so you can be a blessing.” (Genesis 12.2). 

We must understand that the promise that stirs Abraham’s heart is not some romantic blessing of getting some 15 minutes of fame, getting his name up in lights, or making a mark in history.   The drive for Abraham’s answering the call comes at the very end of God’s promise, “….and I will make your name great so you can be a blessing.”  Whatever the core motivation of Abraham was, it was not just a desire to “get”, but it was also, foremost and finally, a desire to “give”.   Blessings are not something you can make.  Blessings are something you get.  And you don’t just “get” a blessing for the sake of getting it, but your get a blessing to pass it along.

Think of it like the in the Movie, Pay It Forward, where a young boy, who lacks a blessing in his own life, decides for his school project not to go out and make something for himself, but he makes a plan to give something to others, who also lack the blessing in their own lives, so they too, can have it and also pass it further along to others.  I don’t know the whole motivation behind that movie, but the idea sounds completely “familiar” and as Jewish, even deeper and more Jewish than the roots of Hollywood itself.  To get the blessing Abraham knew that it depended, not just on the promises of God, but it also depended upon his keeping his own promise and to “be a blessing” for the world around him.

I don’t know what kind of stuff we’ve been putting into our children’s head lately, but I worry that not enough of our children are being taught these “Abraham-size” dreams.   These are dreams for the world which are not just for ourselves, but are also blessings for the world.  I can remember a time, when very little in life was focused upon oneself, at least not in the public language, but the more proper focus was understood as finding a way to serve and bless those and the world around you.  But today’s focus is turned more toward the self and getting the blessing we so desperately feel ourselves to be missing.   We see it in families that have to have more and more.  We see it in churches that dwell on the church they want, rather than be the church they are.   We see it in individuals, where the focus is more on finding the next “best” thing for ourselves, still discontented, still dissatisfied with so much, always trying to feed our empty and hurting souls from without, rather than finding the blessing we most desperately crave which can only come from within, and which we can never, ever give as a gift to ourselves.   The blessing we seek always avoids, until we can give it.

I came across a remarkable story about a high school football game that was played in Grapevine, Texas.  The game to be played was between a Christian School, Grapevine Faith Academy and Gainesville State School, which is located within a maximum security correctional facility. Here is how some of the story goes:
“Gainesville State School has 14 players. They play every game on the  road. Their record was 0-8. They've only scored twice. Their 14 players are teenagers who have been convicted of crimes ranging from drugs to assault to robbery. Most had families who had disowned them.  They wore outdated, used shoulder pads and helmets. Faith Academy was 7-2. They had 70 players, 11 coaches, and the latest equipment.

Chris Hogan, the head coach at Faith Academy, knew the Gainesville team would have no fans and it would be no contest, so he thought, “What if half of our fans and half of our cheerleaders, for one night only, cheered for the other team?”  He sent out an email to the faithful asking them to do just that. “Here’s the message I want you to send,” Hogan wrote. “You’re just as valuable as any other person on the  planet.”
Some folks were confused and thought he was nuts. One player said,  “Coach, why are we doing this?” Hogan said, “Imagine you don’t have a home life, no one to love you, no one pulling for you. Imagine that everyone pretty much had given up on you. Now, imagine what it would feel like and mean to you for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.”

The idea took root. On the night of the game, imagine the surprise of those 14 players when they took the field and there was a banner the cheerleaders had made for them to crash through. The visitors’ stands were full. The cheerleaders were leading cheers for them. The fans were calling them by their names. Isaiah, the quarterback-middle linebacker said, “I never in my life thought I would hear parents cheering to tackle and hit their kid. Most of the time, when we come out, people are afraid of us. You can see it in their eyes, but these people are yelling for us. They knew our names.”  Faith Academy won the game, and after the game the teams gathered at the 50-yard  line to pray. That’s when Isaiah, the teenage convict-quarterback surprised everybody and asked if he could pray.   He prayed, ‘Lord, I  don’t know what just happened so I don’t know how or who to say thank  you to, but I never knew there were so many people in the world who cared about us.’”

            Football sure seems like a game of the flesh!  But this coach was on to something big.  Chris Hogan showed signs of the Spirit as he put the need to win aside (Yes, they did end up winning but that is not the point!) and gave priority of showing love to the unloved.  He showed that even in this fleshy game the Spirit is present when we work to keep God’s promise and to bless others in his name. (Story from Shelby Owen, http://www.trinitystaunton.org/Sermons/2011/02-13-2011SOO.htm).

This where the promise gets both its fuel and fire:  We make and keep promises to God and to each other because we know those promises we make and keep are the source of the blessings we need.   Again, notice what the text says next, “Abram went, as the LORD had told him.”  Abram’s life was now motivated by the promise of the blessing; and it was a blessing he got when his goal was to give it away.  That’s what God’s promise is about; receiving a blessing and then giving and being a blessing.  As Jesus is quoted to have said, “It is much more blessed to give, than it is to receive” (Acts 20.35). 

PASS THE TEST  
With the call and the promise of blessing, also comes the test.  For a while, due to “famine in the land” Abram had to “go down and reside in Egypt as an alien.” (12.10).  The “test” was also part of the deal, whether Abraham wanted it or not.  After Abram arrived in Canaan, pitched his tent and build his altar to God at Bethel, trouble comes.   As with Abram, also with us, life comes not just with a blessing, but also with its tests.  This is Abram’s first test of faith, but it’s not his last.  Besides this, Abram fails this “test” dreadfully. 

When Abram and his wife Sarai arrive in Egypt to reside during the famine, Abram deals his fears by planning a lie.  It’s just a little lie, and he hopes it will keep them out of trouble.  “I know you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Say you are my sister, so it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” (12.11-13).   It’s a good plan.  It is reasonable and understandableNo one should blame Abram for fearing for his life, for taking matters in his own hands.  Fear does all kinds of things to people.  And when things go just as Abram planned, he gets all kinds of gifts and merchandise for trading his so called “sister” to Pharaoh.  It all goes off so well.  All is well for Abram, but it is not going so well for the promise.  The promise was given, not just to Abram, but also to his wife and for the world.   Now it is only Abram who is trying to hold on to life, all based on living a lie, rather than on trust in the God of promise.  The promise demands trust and God’s power or it will not come.    It almost didn’t.   When Pharaoh finally realizes that Abram traded his wife rather than sister, Pharaoh is outraged.  It was the lie and lack of “faith” that nearly got Abram killed.  Now, it is only God’s promise which keeps him alive. 
Abram didn’t pass this test very well, but there were more to come.  And the biggest one came after Abraham’s son was born, and God put Abraham to the big test, the biggest “test” of his faith in the promise and his faith in the God of the promise (Genesis 22, Hebrews 11.7).  You and I remember that test as one of the most difficult in the Bible; as God asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son.  Perhaps it was the failure in the smaller test that got Abraham ready for the big one.  What we do know is that even as Abraham passed the test of faith, God would not make him go through with the sacrifice.   But amazingly, though what God stopped Abraham from doing, God himself did for us, by sending his own son, to be the “lamb” that got stuck in the thicket and couldn’t get away. 

I can’t say, nor can you, how the “test” will come to you or to me.  But the days of testing and trials do come.  “Let know one think that when he is tempted, he is tempted of God….for God tempts no one”, says the book of James (1.13).  That is a needed corrective to remind us that God does not send the “test” to watch us fail, but God allows the “tests of life” to show us too, how we can succeed and receive and give the blessing.   Even before the “day of testing” comes, says Paul, it is important that already, right now, we “Test ourselves.”   We should constantly “examine ourselves to see whether or not we are living the faith?”  “Do we not realize Jesus is in us?” He is in us, says Paul, “unless we fail the test.”  Paul is saying with call onfidence: Jesus will enable us to pass the test that comes (2 Cor. 13.5).   So, here, with the test, is the story of Abraham becomes most real, most like us, here, at the very moment of the test.   The promise will always be tested, but people of promise, keep living the promise.  It is the promise that gives them strength to pass the test.

LIVE THE JOURNEY
One final word, about Abraham, and about every life of faith.   Abraham’s life was always a journey.  His life was never about the destination, but it was always about the journey.   We can see the words of truth about his life written all over this text: “go from your country” (12.1); “So Abram went” (12:4); ‘and they set forth’ (12.5), “Abram passed through…” (12.6), And Abram journeyed on in stages….(12.9), and he also “went down to Egypt” (12.10), and he also, “went up from Egypt” (13:1), as if the story of the journey never ends.  
In the book of Hebrews, once more we read these powerful words, which speak of Abraham and of others how lived and died “by faith.”   “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.   If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.   But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:13-16 NRS).   Don’t miss those last, but most important words of commentary on the life of Abraham, which is also meant for the life of everyone who lives and died “without having received the promises”.   Because “they desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one, therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11: 16).  

Need I say more about what the Christian life, and the life of a disciple of Jesus is supposed to be?  The Christian life is about what life is about.   Life is not about “receiving all the promises” here and now, but it is about making and keeping our promises to God and to each other, and about letting God be our blessing now, and letting his promise find fulfillment later.  When you have the “blessing” and you give the “blessing”, the life you give to God becomes the promise itself.  Your life becomes more a journey than the destination.  Your life is more about who you journey with, rather than what you have.  Your life is more about where you are going, than where you have been.   Such are the blessings that keep pointing us toward the final fulfillment of all promises of God.  They are the kinds of promises the world cannot give.  They are blessings which every human craves.  They are blessings which find their source in answering, promising, passing the tests, and staying on course with God.   Amen.


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