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Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Real Jesus

A Sermon based upon John 12: 20-36
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
5th Sunday in Lent,  March 25, 2012

Len Sweet tells how Tom Lind, a salesman from Montana, was making his rounds, traveling his regular route along the southern Oregon coast.  As usual he was in his older model pickup, piggybacked with his small camper.

Looking to continue his route in an eastern direction, Lind made a spur-of-the-moment decision.   He opted to take the scenic route.   Only a few miles on this blue highway, however, the elevation rose rapidly and good ol' Oregon drizzle transformed into swirling snowflakes. Tom was in his big pickup, so he kept going. But the snow kept coming.  Soon Tom found himself in the middle of a blizzard whiteout.

Forced to pull over, Tom stopped for the rest of the day.  By nightfall his pickup was a slightly discernible lump of white in a vast landscape of snow.   Still Tom wasn't terribly worried.   He was in his big pickup.  Surely, the road-clearing crews would be along soon.

What Tom didn't realize was that the scenic route he had chosen was closed for the winter.  He had come in the back way and did not see the signs that were posted.    This means that the Forest Service didn't maintain that road. They would not be coming his way until after the spring thaw.

But Tom didn't know that.   Convinced that someone would be along as soon as there was a break in the weather, Tom determined to do the smart thing: stay in his big truck.    As he waited and failed to arrive at his next sales appointment, family and friends, state and local police forces began searching for Tom. No one thought to venture up the completely snow-blocked route Tom had chosen.   So as the weather cleared and blue skies and sun shone down on Tom's trapped vehicle, he thought he was being smart and safe: he stayed with his big truck.

It seems impossible to understand now, but Tom stayed with that big truck for over eight weeks.  He kept a journal of his thoughts, his hopes, his fears, his considered options.    But still he sat in that big truck.   Eventually he grew too weak to have any real options anymore.    By Christmas he couldn't have walked out if he had wanted.   

At the end of January a group of back-country skiers inadvertently came across Tom and his safe haven big pickup truck.  Tom's journal revealed he had finally died sometime around January 15.   His shrunken, dehydrated body was still in his truck.   In trying to minimize his risks, Tom thought he was opting to stay safe.   It turned out, by playing it safe, Tom was opting out of life.

We all want life, but what does it take to have a life?   Life can be risky business.  Think about all those armed forces in Afghanistan risking their lives for freedom.   Think about people who do dangerous jobs every day, just to make a living; tree climbers, utility repairmen, salesmen, truck drivers, bridge builders, construction workers and many others.   Most all of us are in harm’s way every day.    Like Tom and his big pickup truck, however, we may believe that seat belts, FDA regulations, security alerts, and smoke detectors can keep us safe.  But the truth is we're fragile, fallible, fractured creatures whose lives are always hanging in the balance.  Every one of us is only one breath away from eternity. Five seconds is all that separates us from forever.

Recently, I was laughing at a documentary about the Amish.  Please understand me, I wasn’t laughing at the Amish, but I was laughing at the person who was trying to understand the Amish.  The Amish live so close to the real world that they accept its dangers without fear.  They are willing to take risks, in order to follow the way of their faith and to keep their lives very simple and close to the land.   How they live in this high tech world may sound strange to us, but it is the norm for them.   Anyway, in this interview the person threatening to fine the Amish man because he wouldn’t put a Smoke Detector in the house he was building.  The Amish man said, “When the Lord is ready, he can take me.  I don’t have to have something that protects me, when I have the Lord protecting me.” 

While I would not agree completely with that Amish’s man’s approach to faith, I do believe that that Amish man understood something about life we often forget.  We are all at risk.  Life itself is risky business. The basic truth of creation is that all of us stand in harm's way every day of our lives.  We may no longer think of ourselves as part of the food chain, where animals are out to get us as they are out to get each other, but the mere fact we're breathing right now, puts us on the list to someday NOT be breathing.   To be alive is to be at risk.  To try to be alive tomorrow, to enjoy and maintain you life, means you have to take some amount of risk.   Every time I get on my bicycle, I understand that I could be killed.  I wear an identification bracelet to identify myself if someone finds me lying along the road.   To exercise as I do, means I have to assume a risk, and sometimes, I find it this risk refreshing as it is exhilarating.

In our text today, some Greek people take risks too.   They were Greek religious seekers attending the Jewish Passover festival in Jerusalem who have heard that Jesus has come to town.   They must have heard about Jesus somehow.   They should have also known that even though Jesus is still popular with some, he’s the enemy of others, especially those who are in power.   The Herodians, the Scribes, the Pharisees, and maybe even the Zealots are out to get him.  To associate with Jesus at this time and at this place in Israel’s historical moment, when some people were gunning for him, means these Greeks were willing to take a great risk.   Some disciples have already separated themselves from Jesus.   Jesus even wondered whether his own disciples would desert him.   But these Greeks guys are going against the grain and ignore which way the world is going and are willing to take the risk.   They approach one of Jesus’ disciples with a Greek name called Philip to make this famous request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’   

How much are you willing to risk to be seen with Jesus?   Is that not also a good question for us?   Do you realize how risky it is to be with Jesus---even today?   Did they tell you that when you were baptized?   I wonder what they’ve been telling the Christians in Iraq, Iran, in Egypt or in Syria these days.   Do they tell them how risky it is?   What about here in this country?   How risky is it to follow or associate with Jesus here?     I know this may sound strange, but think about this for a moment.   We are privileged to live in a free country.   We can worship as we please, go to church as we please, live as we please, and this also means that we are free to associate with Jesus as we please.  That can be a good thing, unless, we have choose the wrong Jesus.    

Do you understand what I’m getting at?   To be able to worship as we please might mean we are worshipping the Jesus that pleases us, rather than worshipping the Jesus who calls us to live to please God.   What would happen if I suggested that many people in America today, who live in this wonderful, free, country, are doing just that---worshipping as we please without any real thought as to what it means to please God in our worship.   Could it be that the Jesus we are worshipping is not the “real” Jesus?   Could it be that the worship that pleases us may not necessarily be pleasing to God because we have not yet seen the real Jesus?  

You and I know that in this diverse, pluralistic, multifaceted world, we have many different ways of understanding God and trying to know Jesus.    How can we know that the Jesus we worship, who we have given our hearts to, and whom we claim to follow, is, in fact, “the real Jesus?”   Can we know?

Many years ago, in Seminary, one of my professors, Dr. Ben Philbeck, made a lot of preachers mad when he suggested that  most often our faith comes to us through our own perception of the truth rather than  through the truth itself.   We all define truth through our own filters, he told us.   Those preachers, who were looking for the kind of uninterrupted truth they could pound on the head of their members felt there preaching was threatened.   They didn’t like Dr. Philbeck’s teaching that truth is perceived as much as received.   But he went on to assure us that if we get are open to work for the truth (if we ask, seek and knock as Jesus commended, we will find).  But he also cautioned us to handle any truth claim with care and take time to search is out.  Truth is never automatic.   Things are not always as they appear.  How we perceive something tints everything we think, see and say.   

Perception is important in many things in life, isn’t it?  If I come to your farm and perceive a certain cow as a threat, then I’m going to feel threatened by the cow and the cow is going to sense my fear.   That could get me in a lot of trouble in the pasture or the barnyard.  But if I make sure the cow perceives that I’m in control, that I’m not afraid, then most likely that cow is going to keep their distance.  You who are farmers know what the power of perception can mean; perception can be more powerful  than reality.  As Jesus said, Faith can move mountains.  That half-ton piece of flesh called a cow could easily crush me or you, but if that cow perceives that I or you are the one in control, then you are more likely to be able to tell that cow where to go and it will go.   It is not reality, but perception that is most important. 

Perception is not only important on the farm, but it’s also important when it comes to Jesus.  The most important question about “seeing Jesus today” is “which kind of Jesus do you want to see?  Do you want to see the Jesus that pleases you, or do you want to see the Jesus who pleases God who has called us to live lives that please him?   Sir, ma’am, which kind of Jesus do you really want to see?   That’s the word from this text put to us:  Do we want to see the real Jesus, or just the Jesus we want to see?   Do we want to see the Jesus we want, who makes us feel good, warm, safe and sound, or do we want the Jesus who will make a great difference in our world, in our salvation and our daily walk of faith?  Do we want the Jesus we and the world needs to see?  If we still want to see the real Jesus, we must first ask what kind of Jesus do we care to see?   Is this the real Jesus we should worship, follow and serve, or is it the Jesus who pleases us?   

There are all kinds of biblical, historical and scholarly opinion about “the real Jesus”.  You can even find a book by that title which will try to tell you who Jesus really was.   What I can tell you in this short sermon,  is that among all the attitudes, opinions, ideas and theories about Jesus, none of them come close to getting as “real” and “personal” as the Jesus we find revealed here in the Bible.   Even the best scholars out there must admit, there is only one Jesus in the Bible.  They must tell you that there is no other Jesus to find, to discover, nor to see than the Jesus the Bible reveals to us, especially as revealed in this text found in the gospel of John.  Are you ready to see the “real” Jesus?  Brace yourselves.  

Why do I know that John paints a true picture of the real Jesus?    I know this because the real Jesus, who does the talking in John’s gospel, does not want to be seen, does not want to be popular, does not want to win, but he is willing to die and he wants to be followed in this death.   Do you hear his words, when these Greeks want to find and see him?  The real Jesus is not running a popularity contest.  The real Jesus does not do or say what is politically correct.   They real Jesus does not turn and make these men feel good about coming to him.   The real Jesus does not paint those Greeks, nor you or me a pretty picture of  success or wealth  that you’ll have if you become a Christian.  No, the “real” Jesus turns to those Greeks and to us and says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….”   And what kind of Glory does Jesus seek?  “Very truly, I say to you, that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bear much fruit.”   The real Jesus speaks, not of worldly power, nor of earthly riches, nor even heavenly glory, but the real Jesus speaks about the glory of the cross, the good of the sacrifice, the suffering of the cost of doing the right thing.  He tells us what it means to please God not to have God please you.    The great Westminster Confession says that the great purpose of human life is to “glorify and please God with this life we have been given.   Our life is never ours to do with as we please, but life is a gift that we are given so we will live to please God.  In his very next words Jesus tells those who would want to see the “real” Jesus, what it will mean if they really see him:  “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.”

A lot of Christians have spent a lot of ink and a lot of energy trying to get around these words which are so counter everything we want out of life.   It may surpise you, but you and are not supposed to get anything out of life---we are suppose to give everything to God.   This is how he gives us eternal life---when we give everything to him.   But instead of believing what the real Jesus says, we often try to figure out how to this is not what Jesus really said or meant. 

But I beg to differ.  This call to live to please God and nor to please ourselves is exactly what the “real” Jesus said and this is what the “real” Jesus meant to say, because, this is “who” the real Jesus is.   The real Jesus is the one who calls us to follow him, even when it hurts; because he follows God when it hurts.   He is the one who calls us to serve God, even when it is hard, because he is the one who follows God, even when it is hard.   Why would the real Jesus want us to do something that hurts and is hard?   Because Jesus believe we are created for a greater life that most of us settle for.   We are constantly called by God to rise above our human survival instincts?   Does this mean Jesus is sadistic?  Is Jesus a life-stealer—a joy-kill?   Let me say, loud and clear:   No way!   On the contrary, the “real” Jesus is not trying to take our lives from us, but he is trying to give our lives back to us.   He calls us to bear his cross with him and take the right kind of risks for doing the right thing.   Listen again to what the real Jesus says:  “Those who love their life, will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will KEEP IT FOR ETERNAL LIFE.”  The “real” Jesus wants us to keep our lives for eternity, but to do this, we can’t hold on to our lives and live them just for ourselves, only to save just ourselves, but we must learn to live our lives for others and even to lose our lives, fully and completely in God.     Only the “real” Jesus can dare talk to us like this.

This is how the real Jesus speaks and how the real Jesus looks, but do we want to see him?  It’s a lot easier to see Jesus as a nice, innocent guy who was killed on a cross, rather than the one who calls us to take up a cross.  It’s a lot easier to see Jesus as a prophet who lived and spoke God’s truth in ancient times, and even was killed for it, but not to see Jesus as the truth who sees our lives as they really are and calls us to crucify our own ambitions and lay them at the foot of the cross.   Do we see a Jesus who makes demands that we must follow, or calls us to get into the area of life and live and serve in ways that pleases God, or do we follow a Jesus who is only a nice guy who pleases us---pleases us because he offers us a ringside seat in heaven where we will do nothing in eternity there, because we did nothing for him here?  Which kind of Jesus do you see?

There is no doubt that then, as now, Jesus was and is the kind of Messiah nobody expected.  He was a Messiah who died and called upon his followers to take up their cross and follow him.  Few did.  Few were saved.  That’s how it happened and that’s how is still happens.  That’s why many are called, but few are chosen.   Few, too few are willing to seek, to see and to follow the real Jesus.   It’s just as hard now, as it was then.   But remember this word of hope: with God “all things are possible”.   Your life and your salvation depends upon which Jesus you want to see.   Will you get out of your big old pickup and take a risk?  Will you take the risk to see and live for the real Jesus?    Amen.

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

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Snake Story

A sermon based upon Numbers 21: 4-9
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
4th Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2012

Not long ago, I rescued a dog.  It was only a couple of weeks later that the dog rescued me.

Most of us don’t like snakes, but we love snake stories.  My snake story involves this young, 10 month old, high-energy, hyperactive, boxer-mixed dog named Zari.  One morning last summer I went out to feed her and her head was swollen up like a balloon.  Immediately I knew it had to be a snake bite and saw the marks just above her left eye.  Upon finding her in this condition, I went to the Internet to find what was recommended for treatment.  I ended up giving her the proper dosage of Aspirin and the swelling started to decrease and was gone in just a few days. 

I helped to save the dog from suffering, but consider how the also dog saved me.   The dog was acting suspicious near the steps of our back porch, right where I traveled daily to the garden.   But instead of me discovering the snake and perhaps stepping on it, Zari found the snake.   As a result of her discovery, I kept my eyes open.  A couple of weeks later, when I picked up the cat’s water bowl, I found a young copperhead  hiding under the bowl.   That was the end of the snake, but not the story.

Snake stories are interesting because they often involve drama.  Today’s Bible text focuses upon a very dramatic snake story from Israel’s journey through the Sinai wilderness.  This is a very strange story and it gets ugly.   When people find themselves in a wilderness, be it physical or spiritual, tragic things can happen.

Do you know the story of Christopher McCandless?  His story is told in a 1996 non-fiction book written by Jon Krakauer entitled Into the Wild, which was made into a 2007 movie starring Sean Penn.  Chris McCandless grew up in suburban Annandale, Virginia, located on the Washington Beltway.   Chris graduated from Emory University in 1990 with high grades, but he stopped communicating with his family, he gave away the remainder of his college fund to an anti-poverty organization, and then, after abandoning his car, he began traveling the country on foot.  His journey sounds romantic, adventurous, perhaps even spiritual, but it turns tragic.  In 1992, McCandless hitchhiked to the Stampede Trail in Alaska.  There, he headed down this snow-covered wilderness trail to begin an odyssey with only 10 pounds of rice, a .22 caliber rifle, several boxes of rifle rounds, a camera, and some reading material, including a field guide to the region’s edible plants.   

Later, Chris McCandless’ backpack was found containing his wallet, multiple forms of identification, his social security card, $300 dollars cash, and library cards.  A map of the wilderness area was also found in his backpack.  A journal of his final days tells how he declined someone’s offer to buy him warmer clothing and better supplies.  When he tried to cross the river to get back to civilization, due to snow melt, the rushing river was too high.  He did not realize that a tram for crossing the river was just a short distance upstream.   Some say McCandless’ weakening and starving was due to a mold growing on the plants and seeds he was eating.  After surviving more about 119 days, his body and journal were found in his abandoned-bus shelter.  His final entry: “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT. SEED…  Christopher McCandless died tragically, sometime around August 18, 1992, as a result of his desire to live in a self-imposed wilderness.   

After their rescue from Egyptian slavery, the people of Israel also find themselves wandering in the wilderness.   We are told in Scripture that theirs is also a self-imposed wilderness journey.  Instead of traveling directly to the Promised Land, we are told that because of their stubbornness, their lack of will to march ahead, their focus upon their past in Egypt, and most of all, because of their constant blaming and complaining about Moses’ leadership, God caused them the to wander in the wilderness for over forty years (Numbers 14).   
As we come to today’s text it seems like déjà vu all over again.  Israel has forgotten what got their parents in trouble many years before.  This new generation is still in the same wilderness.  They are doing the same things their parents did.  They are still blaming and complaining.  They are unable to move forward.  They are attacking their leader and blaming him for the wilderness wanderings they have brought upon themselves.  They complain to Moses:  "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." (Num 21:5 NRS).   They are so full of complaints that they could care less for God’s supply of manna he’s been sending them every day.  Instead of sharing the responsibility for their future and instead of doing the things that can prepare them to move ahead, they blame their leader who can only lead them where they “want” to go.  It’s always easier to place blame on someone else and to find a scape-goat, than it is to do the hard work of “working out our own salvation in fear and trembling”.

Working out our salvation is not easy.  Being in the wilderness waiting on God is not fun.   Finding constructive ways to deal with the frustrations of our spiritual journey is more difficult than complaining and becoming negative.   It takes much more effort and energy to do something constructive.  I once heard someone say it takes at least 10 positive words to counter the impact of only one negative word.  Fredrick Buchener hits the mark when he writes, “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun.  To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back -- in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.  The skeleton at the feast is you.” (From The ABC’s of Faith).

Being angry and negative can be energizing, but it can also come back to bite us.  This is where the snakes come in.   The Israelites were taking a deadly path they been taking for an entire generation.   They were constantly repeating bad habits.  Somehow, the lesson from their parents was not passed down.  No one was learning from past failures and when you don’t learn from the past, you are doomed to repeat it.  

What happened to Israel can also happen to us.  We too can decide to wander in a spiritual wilderness.  It is always easier, in a fallen world, to choose to be negative with each other rather than positive; to be destructive, rather than constructive.  It is easy for us to forget what always gets us into trouble; the selfishness, the impatience, the backbiting, the positioning for power, the negative attitudes, and most of all, the unwillingness to do what God requires of us; to love, even when we feel the need to complain.   

What I like about this Bible text is that focuses more on the on the cure that God sends, rather than the snakes.  That’s what I want us to focus on too.   And what is perhaps most peculiar and strange about this part of the story is that the same God who sent the “poisonous snakes” for these stiff necked, hard-hearted and hard-headed people, also offers a cure to heal them.   Why did God do that?  Why did the same God who sent the snakes, also give the anti-venom?

Recently, in the nearby Brushy Mountains, a camp director was leading a group of children from Charlotte on a hiking experience.  As they walk together in the wilderness area, they come upon a rattlesnake who was lying on the trail.   Without thinking, perhaps with adrenaline rushing through his veins because of all the children in his care, the camp director reached down and picked up the rattlesnake to simply pitch it out of the way.   Whatever caused his lack of reason, you and I know that you don’t just simply pick up a rattlesnake and pitch it out of the way.  As a result of this lack of judgment, the rattlesnake bit him and he nearly died. 
Any of us can forget that snakes will bite.   I don’t know why the people of Israel are still in the wilderness.  I don’t know why they keep on making the choices to remain there.  We see that Moses was a great and good leader.  He led the people away from Pharaoh; out of Egypt, through the saving Exodus, but for some reason God did not allow him to lead them immediately out of their wilderness wanderings.   Maybe it was exactly for that reason: IT WAS ‘THEIR’ OWN SELF IMPOSED WILDERNESS.  And of course, the people did not like it in the wilderness.  Moses didn’t either.  He even got angry once and struck the rock.   We all know that Moses is never allowed to lead them out of the wilderness.  The people will keep complaining, but Moses cannot lead until God is ready.  It is not until the right leaders rise up among the people and they are spiritually prepared to stop complaining and start challenging and conquering the giants around them that Israel was able to emerge and move forward into the land of promise.  

What I find it most interesting is that even in this story, while God does send the snakes he does not make the snakes bite the people.  Snakes don’t normally bite you unless you get into their territory.  Snakes are not normally aggressive, but they are defensive.  Don’t blame the snakes, a herpetologist might tell us.  We all know that we humans play a very important part in why the snakes bite us.   All these snakes crawling around in the in the wilderness reflect what first happened in the Garden of Eden.  If you remember, there was a “talking snake” there.  His talk was big and he had no bite until Adam and Eve gave into the temptation to challenge the work and will of God.  When people willfully challenge and go contrary to God’s will--this is when the snakes start to bite.  

But since God creates a world where people can be bitten, whether it is due to freedom, due to ignorance and stupidity (like “Fear Factor”) or due to sin and stubbornness (as we learn the hard way).  Whatever the exact reason, in a world where God holds us accountable, it should not be as surprising to read that this same God who loves us also provides the cure to save.   Even God’s judgment falls under his jealous love and his desire for our salvation.  God will provide the cure for the bite of sin and for the hurts of life.  This is good side of this story, but there is still a catch.  There is no catch to God’s goodness and grace, but there is a catch for us to claim this cure for ourselves.

What is the catch in cure?   It’s two fold: The first catch is that cure for the bite of the snake looks a lot like the snake itself.   There is great spiritual wisdom in the fact that the cure of snake bite is another type of snake, namely a very different snake on a pole.  When the people are being bitten, God instructs Moses their leader, to prepare another bronze, healing snake, to put on a pole and lift it up among the people.  In the same way, in the New Testament, we are told that Jesus referred to himself as a “snake on a pole” who can heal, save, and cure the world of its sin:  “Just as Moses lifted of the snake in the wilderness,’ Jesus says, ‘If I, If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to me.” 

The point here is that the cure Jesus offers us also has a bite to it.  But it is a “bite” that heals.  It is a painful bite to admit our wrongs to each other, to humble ourselves, to face our mistakes, our sins, our weaknesses, and to share in the burden and responsibility and the pain of sin.  Before the healing from the snake bite can come, there has to be a mutual submission to the pain of honesty, to the hurt of humility, to the cry of confession, and to the resistance of repentance.  Before we can experience the way of hope and trust in God’s healing and saving power, we have to let God’s healing snake crawl into our hearts.   Again, the snake that heals also has a bite, it could be called the “bite” of repentance.  It stings too, but will also be healing, if we share the pain and sting of sin together. 

The second “catch” in the cure is the greatest message of all in this text.  When Moses lifted up the bronze snake in the story, he called upon the people “to look up and live”.   It is only the hopeful, upward look that can bring healing.  If the people persist on looking down, on being destructive, on ending things instead of mending things, and if we fail to trust God for our help and healing, then even God’s people can die in a tragic, God forsaken wilderness. 

Can we determine to “look up and live” even in our desperate situation?  It’s not easy for any of us.  But this is what Moses called the people to do.  They were bitten, but this can also lead to healing.  Sometimes we might even NEED snakes to teach make us do what we are supposed to be doing all along.  There is a story of three men who live on a ranch out West, the father John, the sons, Jake and Joe. They never had any use for the church until one day Jake is bitten by a rattlesnake. The doctor is summoned, but the prognosis is not good. Jake is going to die. The younger son is sent to bring the preacher. When he arrives, the parson is asked to offer a prayer for Jake: "O Father God, we give you thanks that you have sent this snake to bite Jake. It has brought him to seek you. We ask, Lord, that you would send another snake to bite Joe and a really big one to bite the old man, so that they, too, might come to seek you. We thank you for your providence and ask that you send among us bigger and better rattlesnakes. Amen."

Some years ago, an insightful watcher of the church by the name of Mike Yaconelli, wrote an article called "The Tyranny of Trivia." Some of his observations remind me of our ancient desert wanderers as well as our own situation. Listen to Mike’s words which have come to me through David Lenninger:

“There is something wrong with the organized church. You know it. I know it. We all see that something is wrong -- drastically wrong. Just one semi-close look at the organized church - with its waning influence, its corruption, and its cultural impotence -- tells us that something has gone awry. But, the question is, what has gone awry? What IS wrong? I think I know.  

The problem with the church is not corruption. It is not institutionalism. No, the problem is far more serious than something like the minister running away with the organist. The problem is pettiness. Blatant pettiness.
Visit any local church board meeting, and you will be immediately shocked by the sheer abundance of pettiness. The flower committee chairman has decided to quit because someone didn't check with her before they put flowers on the altar last Sunday. The Chairman of the Board is angry because a meeting was held without his knowledge. One of the elders is upset with the youth director because the youth director wants to take the church youth group to a secular Rock concert. The Women's Kitchen committee is up in arms because, at the last youth group meeting (which has mushroomed from 15 kids to 90 kids in six months), the kids took some sugar from the kitchen. The janitor is threatening to quit because the youth group played a game on the grass over the weekend, and now the lawn needs extra work.

I can understand each and every one of the gripes mentioned above. I also understand that the same general argument is always made for each one of these gripes: "If you don't have order, you have chaos. It sounds like a little thing, but if everyone was allowed to do such and such and so in so'...,' think what that would mean."

Ah, yes, think what it would mean. What WOULD it mean? Probably nothing.  And yet, in every church in this country, boards, ministers, and church members -- in the name of "what would this mean?" -- are running around trying to answer that very question.  In other words, churches are so preoccupied with the petty, they can't spend the time required to do what does matter.

So, I would like to say what people in church leadership are apparently having a difficult time saying today: there is no excuse for pettiness in the church.  Pettiness should have no place at all in any church for any reason.  Petty people have lost their vision. They are people who have turned their eyes away from what matters and focused, instead, on what doesn't matter...

Isn’t it time for the church to get the focus back. “To Look and Live.” And to remember how contagious that sort of thing is: look up, and everyone else wants to look up with you.  What a witness! "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."

Do you know what is the main thing?  Do you know what it means to look up and live?  It’s not as complicated as many would like to make it.  Consider this story:

A wealthy entrepreneur was consternated to find a fisherman sitting lazily beside his boat. "Why aren't you out there fishing?" he asked.
"Because I've caught enough fish for today," said the fisherman.
"Why not catch more than you need?" the rich man asked.
"What would I do with them?"
"You could earn more money," came the impatient reply, "and buy a bigger boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish. You could purchase nylon nets, catch even more fish, and make more money. Soon you'd have a fleet of boats and be rich like me."
"Then what would I do?" the fisherman asked.
"You could sit down and enjoy life," said the tycoon.
"What do you think I'm doing right now?" the fisherman replied as he looked contentedly at the sea.

What got the children of Israel in trouble is that they became impatient with Moses and with God.  They lost an important direction in their lives.  They were always looking ahead.  They were still looking back and they knew how to look down, but they forgot how to look around.  Like the wealthy entrepreneur, they couldn’t look around and see what they had right now, and find joy in it.  Perhaps they couldn’t find joy because they hadn’t found the main thing.

And what is the main thing?  Not only did Jesus tell you, but every preacher and Sunday School teacher and Youth leader you ever knew told you: in the language of the beautiful King James Bible that we all memorized, "For God so loved the world..." - say it with me - "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

What’s Your Faith Posture?

A sermon based upon Psalm 22: 1-5; 19-24
By Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Second Sunday in Lent, March 4th, 2011

Last year I had some neck problems.   Actually, the pain was in my shoulder and back, but it was coming from my neck.  After taking anti-inflammatory medicine for a month without success, the doctor prescribed some treatments of physical therapy.  When I went in for the first therapy session, the therapist told me to turn my head to the side so he could check my posture. 
“Yep,” he said.  “I see part of your problem.  You do not have proper posture.  You are leaning too far forward.  We’ve got to work on that.”  
After a couple of months of therapy and learning some really great neck exercises, he had helped me to improve my posture.   This helped to relieve my problems coming from either a pinched nerve or a bone spur.   The therapist gave me his final word of advice: “Any time you get that pain in your neck, stop what you are doing and do your exercises to improve your posture.  This should relieve the pain and the tension and promote healing.”  

Proper posture promotes health and healing.  It’s one of those first lessons of life we easily forget, especially among those of us who use computers.    Promoting good posture in our spiritual life is also necessary for promoting the health of the soul and the human spirit.   Have you ever thought much about your “faith” posture, that is—the way you show and express your faith to God and to other in everyday life?     Our text today invites us to do just that.

This Psalm should grab our attention quickly, as it opens with a line which Jesus quoted as one of his last words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”   It was such an important word to early Christians that they authenticated Jesus’ words by leaving it in the original Aramaic language which Jesus spoke in everyday life.   Eloi, Eloi, lama  sabachthani? (Mar 15:34 KJV).

When I was given exercises to straighten and correct my posture, it seemed difficult and awkward, at first.   It may also shock us to realize that asking God “why” can also be a part of the proper posture of faith?   Most of us would consider this questioning God as doubt and a lack of faith.  But when we put these words in the mouth of Jesus and consider that this was also a very important spiritual song of the ancient Hebrews, this should both shock and bring change to our perspective of what good faith “posture” should be.   People of faith are not always people who are living on a “high” of spiritual experience.  People of faith are people who live, by faith, in the real world where faith is tested and sometimes God seems like an absentee landlord.

Most of the songs in our Hymnals are positive and optimistic.   That’s a good thing.  When we worship our primary purpose is to strengthen our faith.   Think of some of those songs: “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story”, or “I Stand Amazed in the Presence”, and other songs like, “Redeemed, How I love to Proclaim it.”   Our singing is normally directed toward the celebration of faith and the positive life experiences which come to us because we dare to “believe” and “trust” our way through life.  It is right to sing “hopeful” songs as a testimony to both the substance and value of our faith in daily life. 

But what we don’t have much of in our hymn books, and desperately need at times, are songs which reflect all the postures of faith, including songs which express the negative moments, which also come to us.   Sometimes we feel like we “Stand Amazed in God’s Presence”, but other times, we, like Jesus on the cross, can feel like God’s presence is very far away.   Sometimes in life we go through moments when we walk and talk with Jesus through the Garden, singing “He walks with me and talks with me, but there are also times with we walk with Jesus and wonder: “My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me”.  

The very next line tells a deep feeling that can also come to the faithful: “Why are you so far from helping me?”  These words are just too gloomy for most publishers to put in a modern day song book.   Publishing companies just don’t risk putting songs like this, except for a few funeral dirges or a couple that speak of Christ’s suffering at the cross like “Where You There When they Crucified My Lord”.  The “politically” correct or “theologically favorable” are most preferred.  Too much reality could cause churches to refuse to buy the book.   It’s hard to put “real life” Bible-like experiences in a hymn book. 

However, I saw an exception to this approach in the hymnbook I had in my German Baptist congregation.  There were songs in that book like I had never seen before in American hymnbooks.  Many of those songs were inspired by German Christians during the 30 year war (1618-1648), a life-long struggle of faith between the Lutherans and Catholics.  Can you imagine how the faith of normal people was threatened when two Christian churches were fighting and killing each other?  Can you imagine the feelings and doubts that went through people’s minds when they realized what atrocities they were doing “in the name of Jesus”, the very Jesus who taught them to “love their enemy”?    Most of us would want to forget such feelings, but many of these songs, written and sung out of great pain, suffering and doubt, show a posture of faith that is strange, but also strangely real to us.  

Listen to how a few of those songs begin:  “Shake you mountains, fall down hills, break in two, o rocks and stones!   Let the world become all rubble, but God’s grace will still remain. “(My translation from German text by Benjamin Schmolck, 1723).   Another remarkably honest song in the German Baptist hymnbook comes from Martin Luther which begins: “Out of deep pain, I cry to you.  Lord, hear my calls.  Bend your hear to me.  Be open to my prayer.  See what sin and injustice takes place.  O Lord, who can stand before you!  ....No one can get comfortable with you O God.   Everyone must live in fear and hope for your grace….” (Translated from M. Luther’s text based on Psalm 130) 1524).     

While I’m on this subject of differing faith-postures, another “questioning” might shake us to our Christian core is from Friedrich August Tholuck.   He wrote a whole song in the form of a question put to his own heart.  It goes something like: “Each day, all day long my one worry and one question is, does the Lord truly rule my heart?  Do I have his grace?  Do I follow his will?  Do I go where he leads?    Do I only dream for an easy life and do nothing for the burden of his cross?   Is Jesus my truly my all and all, and do I strive to be like Jesus in every way? (Translated from selections from the text by F.A. Tholuck, 1839).  

We all have questions in life.  Some of these we want to ask God and others we don’t want to mention at all.   But the ability to ask questions is part of what makes us human.   The true posture of faith cannot deny honest doubt or the asking hard questions---even bringing our deepest questions and longings before God.   My point is this: A faith that only has answers does not have good posture.  It is not balanced.  It may feel good now, but finally it will, like leaning to far forward,  finally bring a strain to your Christian life.   As Jesus said, “Humans can’t live on bread alone!”   Sometimes we need must do without.   If we don’t stop and feel both the hunger and the thirst for justice and righteousness in our own lives, we will lose the ability to hunger and thirst for righteousness in this world.    None of us can afford that.

Before I move, take a moment and notice the differing “postures” of faith in the Psalmists opening words.  Faith form him is not static, or stationary and it is not stagnant.   His faith more like a journey that requires changing postures from time to time.  He begins with complaint in the opening of Psalm 22:1-2, then moves toward words of “trust” (Psalm 22: 3-5), and on to hope for rescue (Psalm 22: 6-8) and calls for all toe “commit your cause to the Lord” (Psalm 22:8).  Faith does not stand still in the Psalmist words.  He opens with questioning, but it is a questioning that moves toward stronger, greater, and deeper faith. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson from this Psalm is that you and I cannot fully celebrate and live our faith most fully, that is, assuming the best posture possible, until we have also lived through days of complaint, struggle, pain and hurt.   There is no such thing as a faith that is only can be called “a fair-weather faith.”   True faith can only grow through the storms and struggles of life.  A faith only has a “fair-weather” posture will finally breakdown, like a person who has developed pour posture, and ends up having no strength left at all.  

This is why I believe Psalm 22 was quoted by Jesus, and was also the posture of the faith of Job in the Hebrew Bible.   Jesus cried out asking God “why” just like the Psalmist and also when Job cried out to God, and many others have too and still will.   They cried out of their “real”, “honest” and “sincere” hearts, because only when one brings their “complaints” and “hurts” to God, do they also bring him their true hearts.    We should hide nothing in worship, from the God of which nothing can be hidden.  

Based upon the music of Psalm 22, perhaps we too need to design worship services, or at least make room in worship, for songs, words, and prayers that bring our broken and bleeding hearts to God.  This is of course, what most of us do at a funeral or a time of tragedy, but don’t we also need to realize that there are people who are going through troubles, problems, hurts and pains today.   We must never reduce worship to coming to church to put on a happy or triumphant face.  We must also have room in church for those who must put on a hurting face, a troubled face, and a struggling face.   Worship that only “works” to manipulate or manufacture some synthetic, human made “high” in God, will not find the true source of hope and celebration, which is God alone.  True worship finally expresses the truth that in this world, we will lose everything and everyone, and the only one we cannot lose is the true source of our salvation and strength.   You just can’t make this up; you must face that God is your only hope or you can’t fully worship at all.

I’ve told you about the Christian who lived in New York and could not go to worship immediately after 911.  That person told a fellowship worshipper, “I just can’t go in that church and pray that part which says, “Father forgive us, as we forgive those who sin against us”.  When his friend heard of his struggle and knew that this is when he needed God most, he said, “Please come with me to church anyway, and when we get to that point of the service where we pray the Lord’s prayer, you can be still and I will pray that part for you.   We all need to have room in our worship and in our churches for people who need to bring their protest and their complaint to God.   Faith that pretends to be a bed of roses has no real roses and has no true faith, without also learning how to navigate and deal with the thorns.  

You might call this Psalm that goes from complaint to celebration as a kind of bi-polar prayer.  It goes quickly from deep despair to the highest heights of praise, when it concludes that “those who seek the Lord shall praise the Lord” (22.26).   Once a psychiatrist told me about a book to read about the the life of child actress, Patty Duke.   Patty Duke wrote this book herself, entitled “A Brilliant Madness” and shares biographical stories about the many tremendous “heights” and the most depressive “lows” of the illness of bi-polar disorder and how it impacted her life as a child, a teenager and as an adult.   But what struck my attention is how she described her reluctance to take the medication which could help.   Even though the medicine did help control her high and lows, she said she did not like to take the medicine because when she was on it, she did not feel as much "alive."  The roller coaster shape of her life gave her mind and spirit a “brilliance” most people could never imagine nor experience.   After she had been on the mountain and in the valleys, a ‘normal’ life would never compare, even though both extremes challenged her sanity and cause great pain for others.  

I don’t dare think Patty Duke is trying to glorify or glamorize the struggle millions of Americas have with Bi-Polar disorder.   But I do think she seeks to find some needed redemption in it.  She gives us all insight into the human experience we all have of living in a world where life is not always “up” nor is it always “down”.    Even if we wanted to always feel like we are on the mountain that would not finally be good for faith or life, just as it would not be good to be always down and never have a hopeful word or outlook.  We need to acknowledge both experiences of life to have a balanced faith.  We especially don’t need to rush to say a “good word” when everything around us is “bad”.  We need to have room to “express” both kinds of experiences in life and faith, and not force ourselves to “repress” them.   As good psychology and healthy spirituality teaches us, repressing our true feelings leads to more depression.   When we push our negative feelings down, or fail to express them, all that negative stuff builds up until our soul grows dark.  If we want healing and health, we have to find constructive ways to get the feelings out. 

In this Psalm, as a hymn of true worship, it is the expression of fear, doubt and worry that also leads to the fullest healing, celebration and hope.   Notice in verses 14-15 how the Psalmist lays all this fears and feeling on the altar of God, saying: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”    But immediately after this,  when God’s deliverance comes, the Psalmist is able to rejoice and celebrate in the highest fashion.  In verse 21, the transition comes sudden.   Immediately he moves from praying: “Save me from the mouth of the lion!” to proclaiming God’s “name…in the midst of the congregation” (22) saying:  “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me! (21)…. He did not abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard me(24)!   Now, that is the full expression of faith posture we all need.

As we conclude, we cannot overlook where we are on the journey of faith at this moment.  We must take note of our own spiritual posture and strengthen how we balance our lives in faith, hope and love.  Do you find yourself on the mountain celebrating God’s goodness, grace and rescue; or are you in the valley complaining to God that life is not the way it should be and you are filled with fear and pain?

      YOU ARE NOT ALONE   If you find yourself where the Psalmist was, where Job was, and where Jesus was, your hope and healing begins as you realize that you are not alone.   We all need redemption and God’s grace, or faith would not claim such truth.   We are not alone when we hurt.   We are not alone when we are in need.  We are not alone, because in this world of struggle and opportunity, even the “righteous” suffer in this life.   “If any of you suffers as a Christian,” Peter writes, “do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear his name” (1 Peter. 4.16).  He can say this because he say, “Christ also suffered….(1 Pet. 3.18).  We do not suffer alone.
          SEE THE BIGGER PICTURE   We can deal with our personal struggles and hurts in life because we can gain “the big picture” through honest and sincere worship.   We need to bring our true feelings and expressions of worry and fear to God because we need to see our struggles as part of the struggles we share with each other so we can be fully healed.  What does Paul write, but that we “comfort one another” with the very “comfort we have also received in our times of trouble”.  If we don’t express these differing postures of “faith” with each other, how can we see that we belong to each in both good and bad times?  We need to see bigger picture that “complaint” can lead to gaining “comfort”.  We must not walk away or hide form the pain others share with us in their times of need, but we need to hear them to help them.   We must learn to listen to pain as well as to the praise, because one day we will want someone to hear our complaint, so we can celebrate together when help comes.  
       WORK FOR THE SALVATION OF OTHERS   A third way that faith postures itself, even in pain, is that we learn how not just to focus on our own pain.  I like the fact that when help comes to the Psalmist, he learns to think more about the needs of others.   In verse 25, we read, “From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him…The poor shall eat and be satisfied… (26).   Only after being in dire straits himself, has he become fully aware of the difficulties of others.  If there is any answer to why suffering comes to us in this life, some of that answer must be for us to learn to feel the needs and hurts of others.  The fears, worries, struggles, hurts and pains we feel, will make us more empathetic to others, if we are open to God’s help and healing.   We only learn how to care, by being cared for, just as we only learn how to love, by being loved.   The greatest way to win over your worries is to learn to care for someone else.
         LIVE IN COMMUNITY WITH OTHERS   The final and most overlooked factor in the Psalmist’s healing from his hurt, is that he learns “praise in the great congregation” (25).   We cannot improve our faith posture alone.  Life is not a “lone-ranger” deal.   You can’t get through hurts, find help, find strength or gain hope without a community to give you the strength you need.   Jesus says: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mat 18:20 KJV).  Jesus does not say that he is where the church building is, but he is where the people come together to gain strength from his presence which abides within their midst.    The only way we can say with assurance, that God does not forsake us, is that we do not forsake each other.   I tell this to people all the time.  If we give up on each other, whether it is in a marriages, in a family, in a church, or in our community---if we give up on each other and forsake each other, each time we forsake someone we've been close to we lose something within ourselves.  You can't leave another without losing something in your heart, that can never return.  To forsake another leads to ending up forsaken yourself; but to remain with each other, in community of faith, is a way that to gain the strength from knowing we are never alone.

I find it most interesting, is that the final part of Psalm has the Psalmist saying things he knows nothing about.  How can you declare that “all who sleep in the earth bow down?” when you haven’t died?  How can you say, “future generations will be told about the Lord” when you can’t see the future yourself?   How does the Psalmist claim to know all this?  Is it not though the posture of faith, a faith that he has clung to in both good times and bad, that he has come to better know the Lord?  It’s amazing what you can know, what you can see, what you can get through, and what you can learn to believe when you “know” "walk" daily with the Lord.   Don’t miss this most important key to the Psalmist own redemption and hope that is found in the very way he brought his complaint to God in the first place: He didn’t say: “You God… Why?"  nor did he say, “Hey God, why?"  but he said right from the very first:  “MY God, MY God…Why?”   Because he knew the Lord as his “own” he also came to know the rescue he could later proclaimed.  Know this for sure: You can’t fully complain to God nor celebrate God's rescue until you “know” him as your own.  Do you know him?  Amen.

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