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Sunday, February 19, 2012

“Out of Darkness”

A Sermon based upon 2 Corinthians 4: 1-15
By Charles J. Tomlin,  DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Transfiguration Sunday, Feb. 19th, 2012

Delos Miles tells of the darkest moment of his life.  He was in the army during the Korean Conflict and the North Koreans had suddenly attacked and overrun his unit.   He was lying there in a foxhole, alive but frozen in fear.  Most all his buddies around him were dead.  The enemy soldiers were walking around shooting any they thought alive.  He lay as still as he could, as the enemy soldiers came toward him.  He played dead and prayed to God: “If you spare my life, I’ll serve you the rest of my life”.  

The soldier passed by and did not shoot.  Delos had to lie there for 18 hours, in the dark, with the enemy all around.   But the next day, when light came, he escaped.  Needless to say, young Delos kept his vow.  He became a minister of the gospel, and eventually became a well-respected professor of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Seminary.   Dr. Miles preached my graduation ceremony.  He preached from Hebrews 12, and he challenged us: “Lay aside all that hinders you.  Run the race with Jesus.”

The picture of young Delos Miles lying in that trench with darkness all around him, making his vow to serve God no matter what, is the kind of image we have in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.   Paul is also surrounded by darkness and death.  This letter was written as a defense of his ministry some were trying to discredit.  Some believed he was not a true apostle.  If his ministry were true, they argued, should it not instantly succeed?  Instead of immediate success, Paul was facing defeat after defeat, opposition after opposition.   He writes: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in our body the death of Jesus…. (4: 8-10a).   How could God be in the darkness and constant defeat and difficulty that surrounded Paul and his ministry?

The darkness surrounds us too.   In fact, the Bible claims that when God created the world the earth was “covered by darkness” (Gen. 1?1-2).   It was out of “darkness” that God said, “Let there be light”.   The light did not get rid of the darkness, but the darkness was overwhelmed by the light.  When the light shone brightly, the darkness fled.  But when and if the light does not shine, darkness returns.

The threat of spiritual darkness is as real as the return of physical darkness we experience at the end of each day.   Only light holds the darkness back.  Spiritual darkness returns too, when the spiritual illumination of God’s truth is hidden in our world.  Recently, an NPR Broadcast interviewed Charles Murray, author of a shocking report on Working Class, White America.   Murray claims that in the 1960’s, a divergent line of separation began to take shape between lower class and upper class, white Americans.  In his controversial book, Coming Apart, Murray believes that when working class white America became obsessed with affluence and prosperity started losing its spiritual soul.  He cites statistics to show that while the upper class remains stable in its virtues, the American working class is losing the 4 most basic “founding virtues” of marital morality, honesty, industriousness, and religious faith.  Murray insists that the US constitution was written with assumptions that are no longer true: that America is made of people who are faithful in our marriages, honest in our daily lives, hard-working, and true to our belief in God.  Now that these virtues are practiced by less than 12 to 15 percent of the white working class, he fears, we are headed into great socio-political, spiritual and moral darkness in this country. Is there any wonder the social fabric of our country is ripping at the seams? (

There will be debate about Murray’s conclusions; but there is no debate about the uneasiness, confusion, divisiveness, and increasing moral darkness growing in our land.   Diana Butler Bass believes that we in the church will not escape this coming moral and social darkness.  As a Church historian, she believes that Church, as we have known it, is on the way out.  Christianity will survive, and some churches will survive, she says, but in a few years, it’s going to look very different.  Quoting a recent Times Magazine, she spoke of the decline and fall of institution after institution in our world, especially those of established religious expression.   It’s a dark thought, and we know from history, that when the great institutions are not upheld, things come apart.  If the lights of our institutions go out, we will be left in the dark. 

Most of us don’t want to take the warning signs seriously.  When it comes to facing reality, most of us are like those who were attending the Sugarland concert in Indiana last year.  The forecasts were calling for bad storms and winds, but the event organizers decided to go on with the show, without making any changes at all.  Then, when the winds came, the stage collapsed, and many people were killed or injured.   It was a tragic event that could have averted.   People were not injured because of the storms and the wind, but because they ignored the warnings and did not make plans, make changes, or adjustments.

The word of hope found in our text today is that the darkness comes, but it does not have to destroy us.  We can avoid the worst, even if the dark comes.  If we will learn how to respond to the challenges together, by accepting our failures together rather than placing blame and attacking each other, as people were attacking Paul, then we can keep the lights on, even in the dark.  Listen again to Paul’s words from our text in verse 8:  We can be afflicted, but not crushed.  We can be perplexed, but not driven to despair. We can be stuck down, but not destroyed.   In other words, we do get hurt, but we can survive.  However, to survive the dark we must also develop a different level of faith and commitment.   We must be ready to, as Paul says, “carry in our body the dying of the Lord Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be made visible in our bodies” (4.10).

Paul is declaring his readiness to deal with the darkness by staying in the true light.   Paul recognizes that his “ministry” is “by the mercy of God” and depends upon God, not upon himself.   None of us have the energy or skill to keep things going and keep things alive when the world is changing around us.  But God does.  When we stay alive in God, God keeps things alive in us too.   Just as Paul decided not to join the dark, hidden, shameful dark ways of ministry, he keeps the darkness out of his own soul.  Paul’s front-line of defense against darkness is that he will continue to work “by the open statement of the truth” and he will continue to “commend himself to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2).  Paul will not run, Paul will not hide, and Paul will not give in to darkness surrounding him.  Like Delos Miles, it is in the midst of the surrounding darkness he makes and keeps his promise to God.   We must do this do.

How we make our promise to God is very important.   The greatest “darkness” in this world is not the darkness “out there” somewhere, but it is the darkness that can be in us, in our hearts, even among the community of faith, blinding our own spiritual eyes.  Paul declares that spiritual blindness is the worst darkness of all.  He writes: “Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ….” (4.3-4).  

At the very center of the gospel story of Jesus was the blindness of many to Jesus’ own teaching, preaching and miracles.   When Jesus faced this growing blindness to his message of healing, hopeful love, he warned his opposition of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12.31); which the prophet Isaiah named specifically as “calling good, evil and calling evil, good” (Isa. 5.20).  This is the kind of spiritual blindness that not only darkens the land, but worse, darkens the human heart in ways that it can never recover.   Think of some of the worse forms of evil in western human history; the crucifixion of Jesus; the inquisitions of the Catholic Church; the institution of human slavery, Stalin’s Communism, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the Holocaust,  and today, the Rise of Islamic Terrorism.  Right in the center of every single worst form of evil imaginable in this world is the spiritual blindness within human hearts.

Where does such spiritual blindness begin?  Not where we might think.  The “Unbelievers” Paul mentions are not just out there in the world.   At times, we can be “unbelievers” too.    I came across an Interview the late Peter Jennings, ABC News Anchor had with John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard Church Movement, which gave birth to a spiritual movement a few years back.  In the interview, Wimber described the first time he ever went to church.  He said: “I went to church and expected something dramatic, but nothing happened.  I went to the pastor and I asked him, “When will we start the exciting stuff?”  
“What do you mean, the pastor asked him.
“When will we get to turn water into wine, multiply the loaves and fishes, feed the hungry, and give sight to the blind?  Don’t you still believe in this kind of stuff?
The preacher responded, “Oh, yes we believe it, we just don’t do it.”
Remember the Wendy’s commercial, Where’s the beef?  That’s what John Wimber was wondering.  Jesus himself said that his disciples would do “greater works”.   So, where’s the beef?   Is there any more subtle place for darkness to begin than among those who say they believe in God, but cease to live their beliefs?

According to Paul, preventing the darkness from getting blinding our hearts demands this twofold response:  (1) The main focus is not on “me”, “We do not proclaim ourselves”, Paul says.   We do not have all the answers.  (2)  Secondly, “we preach Jesus Christ as Lord and make ourselves your slaves for Jesus sake.”   The focus is on proclaiming Jesus and meeting the needs of others.  Paul’s logic for keeping his own heart in the light is confirmed later in John’s letter: “But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1Jo 1:7 NRS).  Spiritual blindness has no chance in us when we prove our faith in Jesus by serving each other.  In other words, we can’t just say we believe, we must “be-live it”.   We must actually be “slaves” to each other “for Jesus sake.

Finally, we all know that you can’t get rid of darkness.   Fortunately, Paul does not tell us that we have to get rid of all the darkness.  What we must do is determine to live and walk in the light.    When people live and walk in the light, the darkness does not have a chance.  This is spiritually true, just as it is physically true, because, as Paul reminds us from the original creation story, “For it is the God who said, Let light shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light….” (4.6).  These Biblical words, “Let there be light” are not just words about God and the world, they are words are empowered to say against the dark.

How are we empowered to say no against the darkness?   Think about something Len Sweet recently told:  We have just celebrated Valentine’s Day.   People often celebrate the warmth and softness of love with something cold and hard---a diamond.   Diamonds are forever, the advertisement reminds us. That’s why they cost so much.  Diamonds are expensive because they are rare, elusive, and found only in tiny bits and pieces. Yet if you could travel 50 light years away from Earth, to star BPM 37093, located in the Centaurus constellation, you would arrive at “Lucy” — a burned out sun, a “white dwarf,” whose entire central core is a planet-sized chunk of crystallized carbon — a diamond.  That burned out star is valued at 10 billion-trillion-trillion carats worth of a diamond.  This “space diamond” was named “Lucy” after the Beatle’s hit, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” By comparison, the largest earth-diamond, the Golden Jubilee Diamond, is 545 carats — by comparison only a sandal toe full of diamond “sand” from one of Lucy’s many dunes.

Diamonds are cherished because they give off a sparkle and glow and they ignite with a kind of inner fire when the light hits them.  However, that star named “Lucy,” even with her solid diamond core is unremarkable and unassuming as any other stone, without a source of light.  You could take a drawer full of exquisite diamond gemstones and dump them in a drawer and — without the gift of reflective light—-you wouldn’t know you had anything different than a box of rocks.

We too, are unremarkable people, nothing much more than a bunch of dull rocks on the ground, unless we let the light of Jesus Christ shine through us.   It is the miracle of the divine light which “transforms” and “transfigures” us into brilliance and purity, as we reflect HIS true light.   In the dark, a diamond is nothing, just another stone, but give that “stone” some light to reflect and it is miraculously transformed  (From a sermon by Leonard Sweet, “Let Your Diamond Light Shine”).

We cannot shine brilliantly by shinning our own light.  We have no light by ourselves.  The reason the darkness sometimes overtakes us is because we forget this. It is not our light, but the light of Jesus that we must shine, we must show and we must continue to reflect.  Without the light of Christ we are in darkness, but if we shine and reflect his light, even into this darkening world, we might be amazed what we can overcome.  Remember I told you how Diana Butler Bass told of the end of church as we know it.  She speaks of how things as they used to be are ending, but she has not given up on the church.  She says that in this day of looming darkness, the church has new potential and possibilities to shine.   But if we want to shine, we can’t hide our light under a bushel basket or in a church building.   As she ended conversation on the website, DayOne, she told of a Bishop in Chicago, who recently visited a pastor of a large inner city church, where the building was practically empty of worshippers.  It was Ash Wednesday.  This is a time most mainline churches reflect on their mortality and display an act of repentance before God by having ashes placed on their forehead.  It’s a time to make a vow, a promise to serve God in a dark world.  The problem was that nobody was going to come into that church to repent and to have ashes placed on their forehead.   So what did they do?   Instead of offering a service in the church, they went out on the street in front of the church and stood there, fully robbed with ashes in hand.   At once, a Taxi driver crossed three lanes of traffic to stop and receive the ashes.  Then another passerby came up, saying “I haven’t received the ashes in years, thank you.”  Before you knew it, all kinds of people were stopping to receive the ashes to confess their sins, to repent and to renew their faith in God.   Not a single one of them would dare go in a church, but they all were ready when the church came to them ( day1_ conversations_with_peter_wallace From a Video on  

So finally, we are all in that spiritual foxhole with Delos Miles.  We are surrounded by darkness around us and even the threat of darkness within us.   To overcome this spiritual darkness, we must promise to reflect the light--we must shine the light, and we must take the light to those living in the dark.   What we cannot do is keep the light hiding in a church building, or the world will keep growing darker.   But if we reflect the light and “do not lose heart” the same God who said “let there be light” can say through us: “let light shine out of darkness”.   The promise of God is that everywhere the light shines, the darkness will flee.   “The light shined in darkness,” says the gospel, “but the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1.5).   His light can shine brightest even in a dark world, and he will shine even through broken, cracked, “clay jars”.   But the light cannot shine, if we hide it.   We must find ways to openly “proclaim Jesus” and “not ourselves”.   He is our only true source of light.  Amen.

© 2012 All rights reserved Dr. Charles J. "Joey" Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

No Short Cuts or Quick Fixes

A Sermon based upon  2 Kings 5: 1-15  
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany,  Feb. 12th, 2012

Once I had a deacon come to me with a special request he brought from another church member.    It is important to note that it was a member I had never seen in church.  

The deacon said, “Pastor, a friend of mind, would like for you to come and tell his son that he’s a sinner and he’s going to hell if he doesn’t get right with God.  Would you be willing to go and tell this son he needs to get his life straight?"  

I thought for a moment.  I grieved for the difficult “family” situation and  I prayed for God to give me the right words to say.   Then I responded,  “Go and give this message to your friend.  Tell him I am very sorry for all he’s going through.  Tell him that if he is willing to come and talk with me about his own sins first, then I will be willing go and talk with his son.” That father never came.           

Most everyone wants a God of the quick fix.   We want God to heal, exactly the way we want to be healed.   We want God to answer our prayers on our own conditions.   We want the "My WAY" God to always be the right way.  But there is one problem:  The true God we worship, or should I say that we should worship, is not a God of short cuts, the God of an easy way, nor the God that can be shaped by our way of thinking.  No, it is God's way that often makes people angry, as it did Naaman, Simon Peter, and as it does you and me.  It's that the true God is the God of the long way, the God of a very difficult way, the God of the narrow way - the way of the cross which is the only way that leads to healing and life.   

Our Old Testament text for today is a case and point.    In this story we are told about a powerful Syrian commander-general by the name of Naaman who was in big trouble.   He was a powerful and proud man, but he was in a situation that he couldn’t fix.  He needed healing.  He had leprosy.   It was a dreaded disease of the primitive world that slowly and painfully ate away the hands, feet, then the arms and legs, crippling its victim, until finally infections brought about an agonizing death.  To get leprosy was even worse than a death sentence.   It not only brought you great pain, it caused so much fear in others that they would often abandon you.   In Israel, if you had leprosy, you were made an outcast were ostracized as “unclean”.    

But in the story we see that the general’s servant girl knew of a “prophet” in Israel who had powers to heal.  That prophet lived in Samaria, in the hill country.   Again here comes the complication.  Israel and Syria were seldom on good terms with each other.   As many ancient lands in those days, they were constantly in competition for control.    However, this did not deter Naaman.  Like most people who discover they have an incurable disease, Naaman was willing to go anywhere, try anything, and trust himself to anyone for help.  He was desperate and would resort to any means, right?   Well, not so fast.   It still gets complicated.

Before Naaman could go into enemy territory, he had to get the King’s permission.   The King of Aram (or Syria) not only gives Naaman his personal permission, but sends a large sum of money as a gift to the King of Israel, requesting, if not demanding that Israel “cure him of his leprosy.”   When the King of Israel reads the request, he does not see it as humanitarian, but as a possible “declaration of war”.   The King of Israel responds: “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?   Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me” (7).   The King of Israel must have felt like I did, when that deacon requested that I “change” or cure that man’s son.  Did he want me to play God and “fix” his problem, or was he seeking my prayers and support?   If I let him “use” me, what happens, when I’m no longer of use to him?  The King of Israel must have wondered that too. 

As the king faces his fears, we read how the prophet Elisha sends a message.  He informs the worried King of Israel that he can send Naaman on to him, “so that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel”  (v8).    Elisha views this situation not as a crisis, but as an opportunity.  It’s an opportunity for witness, for learning, and for the advancement of God’s kingdom.  

So, with Elisha’s blessing, Naaman came riding into the hill country.   He came in full military splendor as the general of a national army, “with his horses and chariots” (v9) and then he stopped at this preacher’s house.   What comedy and irony?  Do you see it?  Now that would be similar to the President, who came through our area a while back having sent over Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton to get a little advice from a  local preacher.   Now that’s funny but the story once again gets complicated.

The drama gets more intense when the general pulls up in his nice, fancy chariot, because we read that the preacher Elisha does not go out to welcome or meet him.   Instead, Elisha sends “a messenger to him”, (v10) with some specific instructions.   How insulting was this to this general who is used to having people wait on him?   Why doesn’t this “preacher” have time for him?   Naaman, like most of us, believe in a God who will heal us as we want.  But Naaman is being introduced to a God who only heals on God’s terms, not on ours.  We can’t get the healing and help we need from God until we give God what he commands from us?  Healing, help and salvation follow faith and obedience.   God does not wait on us, we must wait on God.   Now, that doesn’t sound like a very nice God, does it?   And when the preacher represents a God who does not serve you, but requires that you must serve him first, that can make you pretty mad too.

But the complicated part of this story is not only that that the prophet won’t give Naaman exactly what he wants, but Elisha tells Naaman there is a very “humbling” condition for true healing.  The instruction is clear and precise: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean”(10).  Sound’s easy, but to Naaman, who insists on being the commanding general of his own life, this is not  simple at all, it’s gets very complicated.  Namaan is furious and walks away from the prophet’s house and away from his personal healing too.  It seems Naaman would rather die of this illness, than do what the preacher has instructed.   He digs in his heels, makes up excuses, blames someome else and emands to be healed on his own terms.    

We can even read what was on Namaan’s mind, when got angry at the preacher’s instructions.  In verse eleven he says: “I thought he would surely come out, stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure me” (11)!   Naaman wants what a lot of people want.  They want’s the “holy man” to wave his arms, say “Shazam!” and to make everything better.    They want the preacher or the doctor to fix everything, without taking any responsibility themselves.   So Naaman walks away.   He keeps thinking to himself that his way is better: “Are not the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?   Could I not wash in them, and be clean” (12)?   He’s thinking:” Why can’t I get healed, saved, clean and cured the way I want to be?   Who does this prophet think he is?  

What we need to understand from this story, that there’s much  more to this story than just the sickness of Naaman in Israel of the 9th century B.C.   There is something of the “sickness” of sin in all of us that appears in this very graphic story.  There is something of the complicated situation we find ourselves in, when we need God's healing, but only want healing on our own terms.    We too can desire the God of the instant miracle and the God of the self-prescribed cure.  Instead of the true God who says, you can be healed, but it will also require something from you, we want to quick fix and the short cut.  

When Reynolds’s Price, the writer and professor of English at Duke was stricken with cancer that was eating up his spine, he wrote, in his book, “Man in the Fire” that he had a dream where he was floating in the ocean and Jesus appeared to him.   As Jesus came close to him, he announced: “Your sins are forgiven”.   Hearing this Price asked, “Hey, what about my healing?”  Then, Jesus answered in an almost non-interested way: “O.K. then, that too.”   When Price came through that ordeal, his life was spared, his cancer was cured, but it left him paralyzed, in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, but also with a new life in Christ and faith.   Humbled,  and unwilling participant in his own healing, but now humbled and also healed.

Getting healed and becoming clean will not only be more complicated,  your healing and mine, will require us to do the very “unimpressive”, the most humbling thing we would like to avoid.
On the news the other day, there was a shocking report.  It said basically this in the most direct fashion: experts are saying that it’s not school lunches that are making kids struggle with childhood obesity (just like it’s not the teachers making kids dumb).   The responsibility for what the child eats falls upon the parents, not the schools and their lunches.   Of course, there will certainly be some debate about this, but one thing for sure is that the hardest place most of have to look for the solution to any problem is right where we are.   
In another report this week, it showed how parents in France could get their children to behave in public situations.  They were not overly strict, but they drew boundaries, lines, the children could not cross and they made sure, consistently and firmly, that the children did not cross them.   Inside the lines the children were given great freedom, so when the child learned the boundaries, then they were manageable, instead of the child managing the parent.    The reports added, America parents need to take a look what the French are doing to see what we are not doing.  

In our world, from many angles, the same point keeps coming at us, people who are proud and think we are better than everybody else.  Do you see what that message is?   In order to find healing, we must submit to a reality that makes us just like everyone else.  In order to find help we must surrender to authority beyond ourselves.  Again, what Naaman must do for his own healing is simple, but it’s not simplistic.  It’s not simplistic because it’s also humiliating.  He’s the general of Syria where large city of Damascus lies.  Damasus  has its own beautiful, superior rivers, the Abana and Pharpar, which are much more impressive, much to be preferred than the pitiful, often dingy creek called the Jordan.  Why would a God who can “heal” make him repeat a washing “ritual” in a dinky little flow of water like that?  God's healing water means nothing to him.

Would we submit to God's healing waters?  Many people would like to see their life or their church do well, to have this growth, or that program or that ministry that develops into something that makes an impact in the community.  But the one thing most of us don’t want to do is the simple thing that can get very complicated   and can be very unimpressive: we must participate with God in making God’s healing  happen in our lives.  

Some time ago there was some pressure on me to become the “pied piper” preacher of a church, who would do some “magic” or “miracle” and make everything happen that the church needed.   Which church was it?   It’s happens just about everywhere.  It is part of the plot of human nature.   There are always those who want someone else to make their church the way they envision it, or make their world as they think it should be.    Theologians call this, “Leaving it to the snake”, dodging our own responsibility to God like Adam and Eve did, putting the blame on each other, and never taking responsibility for obeying God ourselves.    And you can even use religion or a particular religious viewpoint or experience, to see the splinter in someone else’s eye, but fail to see the log in our own.   We can desire a certain way of faith that “impresses us” and perhaps “impresses” others, but at the same time we still take no responsibility to do the “unimpressive”, repetitive little things we know we should do; like praying for each other, supporting each other, caring for each other and helping where we know we should help.   Dr. Bruce Metzger, whose video is helping us in our study of revelation, gave this warning from the seven churches of the Revelation: “The presence of Christ departs when well-intentioned people, zealous to find the “right” way, depart from the ultimate way, which is “love.” (From Breaking the Code, Understanding the Book of Revelation by Dr. Bruce Metzger, p. 32 ).  We need and want something good, but we miss what we need to do first.

There’s a little bit of Naaman in all of us.  It is so easy to want to go after the quick fixes, to get angry and demonize each other, instead of asking: what does God require of me for this healing?  I thought about some seven ways we  must “dip” ourselves in God’s healing river of grace:
(1)     We must first look into our own hearts,  get off of  our “high horse”, step out of our “chariot” and take God’s message seriously.
(2)    We must stop expecting somebody to “fix us”  and see the simple, earthy thing we must do now, being made plain. 
(3)    We must see the need to make God a priority in our life and follow God’s instructions we know might even “complicate” lives we have lined up under our own command rather than under God’s command.
(4)    We dip our lives in the unimpressive, mundane, waters of regular in worship, changing schedules to participate study and learning, making a daily effort to  follow Jesus, giving our tithe and offering to support this church, as we wait on God’s healing.
(5)    We must humbly repenting of our sins, rather than listing the sins of another;
(6)    We must participate in God’ work now.  Instead of saying I don’t have time, I am too old, I am not at all able or responsible and always expecting someone else to do it, we  need to part of the solution, not part of the problem.  
(7)     The number one thing we must do for our healing:  Don’t wait on someone to say to you “Shazam” and think if you having your way, that it’s going to be O.K.

What if Elisha told us all this morning that nothing is going to be O.K., if we persist on walking away and only being right “in our own eyes”? What if there will be no healing without the humbling of our own hearts before the Lord?   Incurable diseases like leprosy and like sin will not get better on its own; it will only get worse.  It will only get worse unless we humble ourselves to work together and with each other, and to accept God’s message in ways that are obvious, displaying a true change of our own heart. 

This week in the News, a Victoria Secret Angel winner; a beautiful young woman who beat out 10,000 other competitors to become a model for the Victoria Secret brand, heard her niece saying, “I want to grow up to be just like you?”  That prophetic message shook her to the core.   She felt the “conviction” of the Holy Spirit.  She humbled herself, and she “gave up her wings” because she realized that this was not the kind of lifestyle she should be modeling.   Such a surrender and submission of heart to God is becoming so rare these days that it makes “front page news”.

Until Naaman was willing to “wash” in the water God has chosen, he will not be made clean.  Our God is not a God who controls our fate, but our God is a God who surprisingly puts our future into our own hands.  God will only work his healing on God’s terms---the terms of righteousness and mercy, grace and goodness, repentance and humility of heart.    

Once I read that the great popular preacher, D.L. Moody, who preached across American and also preached in his home church in Chicago, now known as “The Moody Church”, once preached from John 3:16 as his text:  “For God so love the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believe in him will not perish.”  Then the next week, he took the same text.  Then he took it again, and again, and again.  For 8 weeks straight he had preached on this same text and in every message he preached on the love of God and who his people needed to respond to such saving love.   After the eight sermon was finished, one of his members came out the door and commented, Pastor Moody, when are you going to stop preaching on the Love of God.   Dr. Moody, looked straight into the eyes of that member and asked him in his “Elisha” voice; “When, then are you going to do it, live it, show it?”   Until I see it happening, I won’t stop preaching this text.

We all need  to hear “Elisha’s” strong boundary voice today.   Jesus had this same voice when he confronted the religious who refused the healing word of his day, saying: “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleanse, save Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 7.27).  We are told the response to Jesus was much the same as Naaman’s: “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage” (Luke 4.28).   To hear that we must participate in God’s healing can fill us with “rage” too, but we need to heed the voice that will not give in to the quick fix gods and short cut whiz kids of this world.   We need a voice that will not fall down before the “high ego” gods that like to impress but have no real healing or helping power at all.   And we need to hear that voice from the messenger who gives us the true message we must take to heart:   If we don’t bathe in the river, as God commands us all to bathe in, we will not get clean and we will not have God’s cure.   

Finally, listen to what the servants told Naaman after he walked away mad:  “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean?” (13).  The lowly humble servants saw what Naaman could not see from his high and mighty position.   Before God could do the “big” thing; he and we must be willing to do the most obvious: “Wash ourselves, and be clean!”  We can’t choose the healing waters; but we have to submit to the waters God has chosen.  We have to submit because only God has the power to heal, fully and completely.  

When Naaman did what the prophet commanded, he found his “healing”.   He also found the true God: “Now, I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”  With the true God there no short cuts.  There are no quick fixes.  There are no magic spells, no special prophets to take you by the hand.   To find God’s healing, we must humble ourselves and “dip” into the waters he’s chosen for us.  Will you wash?  Will you know that only Israel’s God can take your soul and this church, where it needs to go?  Only God can make us clean.  Only God can give us complete healing; but you and I have to “wash”.   God’s water of grace and healing a waits us.   Will you wash?  Amen.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

“Not Only For Eagles”

A sermon based on Isaiah 40: 21-31
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
5th Sunday After the Epiphany, February 5, 2010

British Philospher Anthony Flew, who is now a Christian philosopher, once elaborated on a famous story entitled The Parable of the Invisible Gardener.   Told in brief, the story is about two people, a believer and a skeptic, who are walking through the jungle and come upon what looks like a garden in a clearing.  Because the clearing has flowers, the believer believes in the existence of an invisible gardener; but because there are weeds, the skeptic does not believe in the existence of an invisible gardener. 

It should be noted that they are looking at the same reality.  Neither person’s mind is changed by the arguments of the other.  At the end of the story, the believer leaves the garden believing that the flowers are from God, the invisible gardener.   The skeptic leaves the garden not believing in anything but the aggravation of the weeds   (From Lectionary Homiletics, Vol 23, No. 2., Feb./March 2012.) 

Which way do you look at life?  Psychologists have a test to help us answer.  They put half a glass of water in front of you and  ask you the proverbial question: Do you see the glass as being half full or half empty?    Some of us can see the flowers growing and know the glass is always half full.  Others of us can’t see the flowers for the weeds.   Are any weeds growing life-garden?  Do the weeds which are growing along with the wheat (like in Jesus' parable) tend to negate all your confidence in life, in yourself, in others or in God?   Do you believe that God will finally work his purposes out of any situation?   The apostle Paul affirmed his faith in the God of Israel when he wrote to the Romans: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28 NRS)?   But such “optimism” is getting harder for many to grasp?

As you look at the “garden” we call life; life with all its ups and downs; its successes and failures; its booms of growth and maturity, as well as, its recessions and depression; do you see the hand of the “invisible” gardener?  There is always evidence both ways.  Some days it seems that God is on his throne and all it right with the world.  Other days, we wonder, at the very least why God does not answer our prayers and why is almost nothing the way it’s supposed to be.

It must have felt that way for the people of God we call Israel.  One day they had a King named David who was promised by God himself to have a Kingdom that would never end.  Then, another day, the throne was empty, vacant, and the much beloved kingdom was completely taken away with no obvious hope of return.   Isaiah the prophet names the doom and gloom of the mindset:  “the people are like grass, their constancy is like a flower in the field; the grass withers and the flower fades”.    In verse 24, it’s even more graphic with the pessimism of the times ringing out loud and clear:
“scarcely are they planted, scarcely re they sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth.  When the (it) blows on them, they wither and the rushing water carries them off like stubble.”
This skeptical view of life can come to anyone; believer and non-believer alike.  In Isaiah’s day, this was the overwhelming perspective of God’s people; nothing lasts, nothing good will happen in our life time; if there is a “gardener”, then he is not too good, because there are just too many weeds, too many pains, too many failures.   The attitude was this: what’s the use sowing seeds of righteousness when you know it will be eventually grow up in weeds and it will all wither away.

I heard this attitude from a pastor once.  He said he spent many years trying to teach his congregation to love the truth; to follow the hard way, not the easy way; to bear the cross and not be ashamed to walk with Jesus in the dark places of life.  But then, he said, that when God called him away from that another pastor came behind him who very easily led the people in a completely different direction that was all wrong.  It was like the Pied Piper of Hamlien.   He’s the one who played his “magic pipe” that could lead the rats away from the city.  When the people did not pay him for his services, he retaliated by playing his magic pipe and leading all their children to their doom.   That’s exactly what happened the church, he said.  When the Pastor with all the “magic answers”  and “magic words” came, they people stopped facing reality, didn’t want to bear the cross, and all the children were mesmerized by the sweet and easy sounds that lead them over the cliff.  They wanted the ease letting everything go and hearing the sounds that “tickled their ears”, even if meant a march to a death of truth. 

When the pastor found this to be the way things go; he left the local church to never return.  He became an academic in the university; where at least they were not afraid to think the hard thoughts.   He said that he’d never take responsibility to lead a church ever again.

Has anything ever shaken your faith like that?   Have you had your faith so shaken that you ended up trusting no one and living on the edge of believing in nothing.  Something will happen that will test your faith.   I’ve seen it happen time and time again.  I saw it in a family when a teenager suddenly took her own life and the parents were devastated.  I saw in in a man whose young wife; the mother of two young sons, suddenly died a horrible death with cancer.  I saw it in a person whose husband drowned in a pond, thrown off the boat along with his son, who even though he had just come back from the marines, could not keep his father afloat.  I’ve seen people face failure in their business.  I’ve known people who had to face guns pointed at them in war time; lying in foxholes playing dead with the enemy all around.  I’ve known people who lost it all in the stock market.  I’ve known people whose marriage failed; a child rebelled; a baby died; or their own health fell apart.   The question is not will you get through this life unscathed, but the question is “when” and “how” will the moment of trouble come?   Isn’t this what Job realized: "humans are born of trouble and the sparks fly upward!”

It’s not the subject any of us want to consider; the day of the shaking and testing of our faith. But that day will come.  This day did come to Israel.  When the prophet Isaiah wrote these words “Comfort ye, Comfort, Ye, My people” (Isaiah 40:1ff.), the people were a thousand miles from home, taken into exile, with no prospect of return.  It was so easy for them to get depressed about everything, to become skeptical and fail to see the flowers still growing in the clearing of the jungle.  Because they couldn’t see the gardener, it was so easy just to focus upon the weeds. 

It was such a difficult day for the people that Isaiah wrote in our text that “even youths will faint and become weary” (40:30).   That’s certainly something that no society wants to hear.   But aren’t we hearing echoes of that same thing today; that the youth, or the young growing up today will not have it as good as their parents or grandparents; or that the average life span for youth today will not be as long as it has been for their parents?   The marriages, the families, the jobs, the careers and prospects for the future come crashing down upon the young, even before they get started.   Having to face a world, and realities many are not quite ready to face, having to bear a burdens even young backs and young minds are not yet strong enough to bear, Isaiah observes, that in the day of crisis: Even youth will faint and become weary.”  

Recently I heard a younger person say they were close to the breaking point in caring for a sick relative.   They had to ask another relative to come and take over for them.  They just could not handle it all.  It was simply too much.  They had a lot of brain power, but they had very little emotional power; especially too little capability to fulfill the responsibility they needed most to fulfill.  They just did not have the spiritual and emotional resources to do it.  When faced with the “normal” hardships, not really excessive ones; but in facing what were the normal, but not wanted challenges and responsibilities of life, love, devotion, caring and doing their duty for family; they “fainted” and “became weary” especially in well doing.

All of know something about what happened on that Italian “Cruise Ship” and it’s Captain who was supposed to be sworn to be the last man off that ship, and instead he was one of the first to abandon it; claiming that he just happened to fall into the life boat ahead of everyone else.   What we all know is that when the “difficult moment” came he just could not take it.   That’s at least how it appears.  He “swam” for his life and his faith fell apart.  He did not have the emotional resources or the intestinal fortitude to handle what had to be done.  “Even young men will faint and become weary.”

When the situation seems hopeless, is there any other option?  Isaiah believes that there is.   When the circumstances and evidence point to the contrary, he chooses to believe the invisible gardener is still present in his garden.  But how does he know?  What can he say to convince us when that dark and difficult moment comes?   The unbelieving skeptic has a voice comes shouting in our ear:  Isn’t the invisible gardener just a figment of your imagination….that’s why he’s always invisible, he’s just not real.    But the argument does not faze Isaiah at all.   He is not looking at whether you see the gardener, but he is realizing the benefits of “waiting” in his strengthening presence.  He is content to see and smell the flowers that still grow, even among the weeds.   Though some “young” do faint, and others become “weary”, he has noticed something else that makes make sense of it all: “those who wait on the Lord renew their strength”.  He offers a word of hope; not out of “proof” or sightings of the gardener, but out of his “faith” that empowers “those who wait upon the Lord.”

Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu who dared to believe in Jesus Christ, though he still had trouble embracing the Christianity of most Christians, once echoed Isaiah’s faith when he said: “I think it is wrong to expect certainties in this world….God is the only certainty, or we could not be certain of anything at all.”  Maybe this is exactly why so many “are fainting” and “growing weary”, because they have yet to learn, that God, the invisible, improvable, mysterious but very present God of Israel and Father of Jesus Christ, is life’s only certainty  (Also told by Annette N. Evans, Ibid) .   

Isaiah wants “wait” upon this God who can renew our strength, but he tells us even more than that.   Isaiah also wants us to know “waiting on the Lord” who gives us strength and hope, we have a God who himself, “does not faint” and “does not grow weary”.    Exactly because God is God and His “understandings are unsearchable” we gain strength.   God not only gives us the ability to get through difficult moments in life, he can empower us to overcome those moments, to grow stronger through those moments, and even to go far beyond getting our strength back; but he says that if we will allow God to “renew our strength” that God can teach us to soar above them.  You don’t have to hang down your head and limp through the pressures of life, but you can soar, you can run, and you can patiently walk through them, in the strength and power of God.

In the Mexican Sierra Madre Mountains, there is an Indian tribe called the Tarahumara.  They are incredible atheletes who seem as if they are created just to run, doing so with simple sandals made of rubber tires strapped to their feet.  Regularly they travel 60, 70, or more miles with tremendous ease.   Their whole society is built on running.  Christopher McDougal says, “The Tarahumara will party like this all night, running for fun.  Then, they will roust themselves late in the morning just to run in another race that would not just last one or two miles, but would last for days.”  Those are people “born to run” and not be weary.   Their whole life and society is built upon running.  But what is our society built upon? He wonders.  Once good roads came into our areas, and vehicles could be bought, we stopped walking and running.  Our society and our health went into decline because we stopped running and walking.   Maybe the simple key to gaining strength is to learn again to “run for our lives” rather than “running from our lives” and to slow our lives down so that we can learn to “walk” and “run” with strength, as the Taraumara do.   Apply our physical needs to our spiritual needs, the question arises: Have we stopped moving, growing, developing, and maturing spiritually, settling in to lives that are much too comforting, and that’s why we can’t seem to keep up the pace in our spirits?  It’s certainly something to think about. 

How can we keep from losing the power and passion for life?   How can we learn to “walk without fainting” or “run without becoming weary”?   Maybe his ultimate answer is in his first image of learning to “mount up with eagle’s wings” and learning to fly.   Sound a little ridiculous?  On a “literal” level it can.  What human can fly like an eagle?   But take this imagery on a figurative, metaphorical and spiritual level; and you can already begin to experience a “lift” in your life.    When Isaiah wrote these words he may well have been in a prison, far away from home, but suddenly he looks up and he sees an eagle in flight and knows that they only way of dealing with his depression is not what he can do with his body, but what he must do in his soul.   Only faith in the “Lord, who can renew his strength” can get him out of that prison of his heart and mind, and lift him beyond all that is happening.   He is now ready, in that prison, to learn what God can teach him, even in the worst of situations.  He can learn in his heart, soul and mind to soar in faith and hope above everything he sees.  

 A preacher, who is the descendant of an enslaved people in America, has this final lesson for people, who know freedom, but really don’t know how to soar and fly with that freedom.  The story he tells has been passed from mouth to ear somewhere along the palmetto dunes of South Carolina, a story passed down from West Africa to the North Atlantic. 

The story takes place in St. Johns Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, as Africans who had been mislabeled slaves are toiling in the hot sun. They are working so very hard to pick cotton. There is one young woman and beside her is her small boy, maybe six or seven. She’s working in the fields and she has such incredible dexterity that she is able to pick cotton with her right hand and caress the forehead of her child with the left. But eventually, exhausted by working so hard in the fields, she falls down from the weight and the pressure of being—in the words of Dubois—“problem and property.” Her boy attempts to wake her very quickly, knowing that if the slave drivers were to see her the punishment would be swift and hard.    He tries to shake his mother, and as he’s trying to shake her, an old man comes over to him. An old man that the Africans called Preacher and Prophet, but the slave drivers called Old Devil. He looks up at the old man and says, “Is it time? Is it time?”

The old man smiles and looks at the boy and says, “Yes!” And he bends down ands whispers into the ear of the woman who was now upon the ground and says these words: “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”   At that moment the woman gets up with such incredible dignity. She stands as a queen and looks down at her son, grasps his hand and begins to look toward heaven. All of a sudden they begin to fly. The slave drivers rush over to this area where she has stopped work and they see this act of human flight and are completely confused. They do not know what to do! And during their confusion, the old man rushes around to all the other Africans and begins to tell them, “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”

When they hear the word, they all begin to fly. Can you imagine? The dispossessed flying? Can you imagine the disempowered flying? Three fifths of a person flying? The diseased flying? The dislocated flying? They are all taking flight! And at that moment the slave drivers grab the old man and say, “Bring them back!”

They beat him, and with blood coming down his cheek, he just smiles at them. They say to him, “Please bring them back!”
And he says, “I can’t.”
They say, “Why not?”
He said, “Because the word is already in them and since the word is already in them, it cannot be taken from them.”
The old man had a word from West Africa, cooleebah, a word that means God. It had been placed into the heart of these displaced Africans and now they had dignity and they were flying.

Ah, is it not the job of the church and the preacher? No, we are not called to make people shout. No, we are not called to make people dance. No, we are not called to have our bank accounts fly.  No, we are called to make sure that the people of God fly! Fly from breakdown to break through.  Fly from hurt to healing.  Fly from heartache to being mended to a whole person.  We are called as a people to ensure that those who have been marginalized have a word in their spirit that allows them to fly.   And the question is: are we a part of a church, are we a part of a ministry that causes people to fly? (As told by Otis Moss III.,

Isaiah says it: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not get weary. They shall walk and not faint.”
Yes, when the word of God is in us, we can fly.   Will you let God’s Word live in you?  If you will, you can walk when you need to  walk, you can run when you need to run, but you will also be able to “fly” when your day comes to test and try your wings.  Amen