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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Jesus Is More Than Able

A Sermon based upon Hebrews 7:22-28
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
October 28, 2012, Lectionary:  Proper 25

When I was a child in church, we often sang a popular children’s song: 
He's able, He's able, I know He's able,
I know my Lord is able to carry me thru.
He healed the broken hearted and set the captive free,
He made the lame to walk again and caused the blind to see;
He's able, He's able, I know He's able,
I know my Lord is able to carry me thru.   (By Paul E. Paino)

Cute song, but how do we know?   How can we know and trust that Jesus is able to “carry us thru”?   The most important question of all our lives is simple as that.  

After lunch, some of you will go hiking, but you may hike into unknown territory or on walk on untraveled paths.  How do you keep from getting yourself lost?   You will have to follow a well-marked path that someone has prepared.  But can you trust them?  How do you know they are marked correctly?  How do you know someone hasn’t come at night and changed the signs?   The same question of trust comes when you are getting on an airplane.  When you enter the plane, sometimes the captain is standing there at the door and you can look him in the eye.   But what if you don’t like what you see?  How can you know to trust that he is a good pilot?  What do you do if you feel like turning around?   What about your doctor?  You’re getting ready to undergo surgery.  Can you trust the surgeon’s training or steady hand?  “Doc,  did you rest well last night, I heard one of you ask recently?”  How can you know and sing with confidence, “He’s able”?  Is he?  

When we are children, it’s not so hard trust the people around us.  But when we get older, when we have experienced broken promises, when we know human failures, or when we have known one too many charlatans, one too many swindlers,  it can become more and more difficult to trust   How can we still sing through life with confidence: “He’s able!”  In a world that has so much potential for trust, where we have been told that God is all powerful and caring, how can we still sing songs of trust when difficult, terrible moments come which make us wonder, is God able?

The Hebrews were asking themselves the same questions.   They were hoping to renew their trust to sing:  "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you." And again, "I will put my trust in him." (Heb 2:12-13 NRS).  Did you catch that last adverbial phrase, “And Again….”?  The Hebrews were wondering whether or not to trust God “again”.   They had suffered wave after wave of persecution for their faith.  They were doing good things, believing good things, even suffering for all the right reasons, but it was becoming too much to bear.  They felt vulnerable, defenseless, and alone.   When it seemed God was not there for them, they wondered whether they should stay with God.   The book of Hebrews was written as a sermon to encourage them to stand resolute in their commitment.   Over and over, the major theme of the book of Hebrews resounds and re-sings, “He’s able.  He’s able, I know He’s able.”  You may not be able, but God is able.   But how can we know and how can we tell?

Jesus Is Forever—He Is Always There
One of the mountain top texts of Hebrews in found in chapter seven, where there is a discussion going on about the need for a greater and more sufficient priesthood.  

The passage opens with a discussion of one of the most mysterious priest-kings of the Bible; Melchizedek, King of Salem.  He was a priest who visited Abraham long before there was ever an Israel or a priesthood in Israel  (Heb 7:1 NRS).   No one knows exactly where Melchizedek comes from or where he goes, but he remains forever in the mind and hearts of people (Psalm 110:4).  He was forever in their minds because he was the first and foremost King and priest at the beginning of their history.   When others Kings fought against Abraham, King Melchizedek choose to bless.  Even more importantly, he chooses also to bless the name of the “most high God” (Genesis 14: 18-20).  The writer of Hebrews makes the point that this Melchizedek resembles none other than “the Son of God” (Hebrews 7.3) and comes from a “superior” priesthood outside of the whole earthly ancestry of Israel  (7: 6-7).  Thus, this mysterious Melchizedek is said to belong to a “forever” priesthood and to a whole different ‘order’ of kings or priests (7.11).  Although Israel’s priest came and went with great fanfare and failure, the order of Melchizedek remained in the background, but never failed to marvel or mystify their hearts and minds---all hoping that someway, somehow, he might just show up again to bless.

Of course this idea of priesthood is foreign to most of us and in our culture.  If we have a problem, a struggle, a crisis, we go to a counselor, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, many may call a ‘shrink’.   At least that’s what’s often projected and rejected in the popular media.   Who needs an intercessor?   Who needs a ‘counsel’?   But in the ancient world, when people felt guilty, alone, forsaken or burdened with life, they went to a priest.   They would take their burdens, their sins, or their problems to a priest in the form of an “offering” and the priest would make intercession and sacrifice in their behalf in order to make things “right” again.   We have almost nothing like that today.   Even the priesthoods we do know about, are no better and perhaps worst, and bring us more bad news than good.   So what do we do?  Either we keep our burdens, our pains, our guilt and all our stuff to ourselves, or we deny them, or we think nothing can be done at all.   Too many live lives of “quiet desperation”, as the Thoreau once said.  We’d rather live broken lives and die hard than face the pain of truth that brings healing, health and hope. 

But in Jesus, there is something “better” we can do.   This is what Hebrews is about.  We can take our burdens, our pains, our hurts, and our sins to God, not through a priest, but on our own and by ourselves.  This is exactly where Hebrews is going.    While other priests come and go, live and die, Jesus “holds his priesthood permanently” (7.24) and “continues forever”.  Jesus belongs to a whole different order of priests, like Melchizedek.    Jesus still lives in our hearts and always continues in his “office” (7.23).   Because Jesus is a forever priest, he “able for all time to save” any who “approach God through him”.  Residing at the very seat of divine power Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for us (7.25). 

Of course, all this is religious language is very nice, but how is it true?  How is Jesus “forever” for you and for me?    In the business world, where people pretend to need capital and ideas, not offerings or prayers, one might get a clearer understanding of why people still need Jesus as a “forever priest”.  In business, it is said that the most critical feature of a leader’s success is their longevity.   Great companies are almost always led by long-term leaders who stay.  Leaders who come and go and lead through a revolving door, seldom establish community or bring solid success.   It is for this very reason that Jesus is also able to heal, help and save us, exactly because he stays with us as we stay with him.   The prophet Jeremiah found comfort precisely because God “knew him in his mother’s womb” (Jeremiah 1.5).   People who have known Jesus their whole lives and stay with Jesus every day, all day long, are better able to deal with whatever comes, what they must bear, or what burden is placed on them.  If we know God in our childhood, and in our school days; even in all our silly mistakes and in all our false starts, and if we know him in our adulthood as we establish and maintain our careers and work, we too will have a much better chance of longevity, stability and success.  The Christ made known to us throughout our whole life history reminds us in his permanence that he is always able to save.

Jesus Is Our Forgiver---He Offered Himself
In the old Levitical code among the Jews, before a priest could offer a sacrifice for someone’s sins, he would first offer a sacrifice for his own sins.   He would begin by washing his hands, his feet, and then he would clothe himself in a spotless, white linen.  The other attendants would bring him a bull the priest had purchased himself.  Placing his hands on the animal’s head, he would thereby transfer his own sins with a word of confession:  “Ah, Lord God, I have committed iniquity; I have transgressed; I have sinned, I and my house O Lord, I beseech thee, cover over the sins and transgressions which I have committed, transgressed and sinned before thee, I and my house.”  (See William Barclay’s Daily Bible Study Commentary, The Letter to the Hebrews, 1975).

Jesus never had to offer this kind of sacrifice.   He was the sacrifice.  He was a priest “unlike the other High Priests” (7.27a) in that “he offered himself” (7.27b).   He was both the priest who offered a sacrifice for all sin and he is the sacrifice; the blameless, spotless,  perfect, flawless sacrificial lamb who laid down his life for all sin, for all time, one sacrifice offered once and for all for every person, every sin, and for every situation and  condition.   Jesus does this kind of forgiving in God’s behalf and on our behalf, which God has “exalted” as and “intercession” (7:25) and forgiveness above all and for all time (7.26).    

A woman once visited a plastic surgeon about her husband. She told the doctor the tragic story of his injury while attempting to save his parents from a burning house.  He couldn’t get to them and they both were killed. He suffered terrible burns and disfigurement. He had given up on life and gone into hiding. He would not let anyone see him—not even his wife.    The doctor assured the woman that he would be able to reconstruct her husband’s face. She explained that was not her request.  Her husband would not agree to the surgery.  He believed that God had disfigured him for not saving his parents. SHE HAD COME TO ASK THE DOCTOR TO DISFIGURE HER FACE.  She thought that if she could share his pain then he might allow her back into his life. While deeply moved by the woman’s willingness to sacrifice her physical appearance the doctor refused her offer but gained her permission to talk to her husband.

When the surgeon visited the couple’s home, he knocked loudly on the husband’s door, explained who he was, and what he intended to do. The husband did not respond. The surgeon called out again but again his plea met silence. The doctor paused and then said, "Your wife wants me to disfigure her face, to make her face like yours in hope that you will let her back into your life. That’s how much she loves you. That’s how much she wants to help you."   After a brief pause, footsteps were heard and then the doorknob slowly turned. The husband opened the door. His wife’s offering set him free from the prison of his soul and his room   (From Maxie Dunnam in “This Is Christianity”, pp 60-61, as told in by John Pavelko).

Jesus Is Our Future ---He Guarantees A Better Promise.
“Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him” (Heb 7:25 NRS)---so says this text, because, as our passage asserts at the very beginning, “Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant” (Heb 7:22 NRS).  When we say that Jesus is with us forever and will always forgive, these are indeed things we want to say, need to say, and desperately try to believe, but what is the guarantee?  Forever is a long, long time, isn’t it?   It is hard for us even to fathom forever, just as it is nearly impossible feel or grant forgiveness?  How can we still say that Jesus is able to give the guarantee of the best promise for our lives?  

The meaning of the phrase “to save” or “salvation” points the way we can know. In the book of Hebrews, “salvation” a most important word because of the pressing question, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Hebrew 2.3).   It also gives the definitive answer declaring Jesus to be “the pioneer” of salvation, whom God made “perfect” through his suffering (Hebrews 2.10).   In this way, Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (5.9).   The meaning of salvation in the New Testament is more than going to heaven when we die (which we mean we say “I am saved”), but New Testament salvation also includes the rescue from evil, the healing from diseases, and the deliverance from any and all things that threaten life here and now.   Whenever we are faced with a crisis situation beyond our ability to save ourselves, we must turn to someone, and ultimately to God, as the “source” that is greater than ourselves.  But again, the question comes: How can we know that “He is able to save?”  

Few astrophysicists did more to popularize stargazing than Carl Sagan.  He was a classical, "show me" scientist. Unless a concept, idea, or thought could be proven through established scientific inquiry, he would not accept the possibility of it being true. However, during the last year of his life he had to depend on the presence of something intangible and unprovable—the love of his family.  Yet, even that love could not convince him of an eternal love or eternal life.  After he died, his widow reflected on their life together, "we were wonderfully happy for over 20 years together but for Carl, there was no doubt that when we said goodbye it was for all eternity (,2003).

We can know that Jesus is able to give us a future because there is no one else.  Carl Sagan was right about that.   Without Jesus there is no forever, no forgiveness and no future.   Through scientific wisdom, there is a dead end.  But Hebrews tells us that the God who “puts eternity in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3.11, NIV), “guarantees” eternity though Jesus Christ.   It is for this reason, most of all, that we can know that Jesus is able.  We can know Jesus is able, because no was else is able.  To give us hope, there is either no hope, or there is Jesus---THERE IS NO ONE ELSE.    Jesus is always here.  Jesus offers himself.  Jesus is our only hope. The truth is as simple as that.  He is able.  He's able.  I know he's more than able.  I know my LORD is able to carry me (and you) through.  Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Jesus Is My Candidate

A Sermon based upon 2 Samuel 7: 1-16
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
October 21th, 2012, Disciple Series #9 of 17

This is a moment of high tension in U.S. politics.  We are just a couple of weeks away from a very big election; some say a most historic election.   Many people believe the differences and divisions in this election are greater than ever before.  Both candidates and their parties say they have the only right answer for our nation’s future.  As we all know, making big, big promises is how politics work in this country---or should I dare say, doesn't always work.  

Several weeks ago, I got a letter from the IRS warning me as a pastor that I had better not endorse any political candidate in the pulpit or I could be endanger this church of losing its privilege non-profit tax status.  Right after that, I got another letter of protest inviting me to stand with other pastor’s across the nation for freedom of the pulpit so I could preach whatever I wanted to preach, say whatever I wanted to say, endorse whomever I wanted to enforce.  That was October 7th.  Instead of preaching on politics, I preached on Job.    Preaching on Job, pain and God forsakenness was probably closer to real-life politics than one might think.

Today, more than ever, I am hesitant about mixing politics and religion.  Tony Campolo says that mixing church and state, or religion and politics, is like ‘mixing ice cream with cow manure’.  The manure does fine, but it’s the ice cream that always gets messed up (As quoted from Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, p 20).   We need both, politics and religious faith, but when we start mixing them together, the worst characteristic gains the most influence and messes up the best.     

In spite of that danger, today I want to talk about politics and religion.  But I’m not talking about just any kind of politic or any kind of religion, I’m going to talk about God’s politic.  This text from 2 Samuel, chapter seven, contains one of the most crucial statements in the entire Old Testament.  It also brings up very relevant issues about what politics should mean for the people of God.  At the very center are questions about kingdom, rule, and the politics of God which should take us beyond how things seem to be to show us, to teach us, and remind us of how things really are---always are—and will always be, until God finally and fully sets on throne of the human affairs of this earth.  

This passage starts out with good human intentions.  David’s conscience is bothering him for the right reasons.  Now that he has established his kingdom’ in Jerusalem, David is feeling a little guilty.  He calls in his pastor-prophet counselor in for a heart-to-heart talk.  Something doesn’t feel right, he confesses to Nathan.  Growing up Jewish, under the high ideals of the Law, meant that people should sacrifice their best to God first, and then and only then, did they start to use the rest to take care of themselves.  In other words, God comes first.  This was the proper order of things.  This kept life right side up.  This made sure God was “for us” and “not against us”.  Because David fought the battle, not just for himself, but for the Lord, David was not only, as the Bible says, a man after God’s own heart, but David was a man who had a heart for God.  He was trying to keep his priorities right.  This, he believed, is what enabled him to rise to the top and achieve so much.  Because he did not forget God, God has not forsaken him. 

Now, David wants these good intentions to serve God, and to become even greater. He reveals his troubled heart to Nathan, saying: “The Lord has given him rest from his enemies all around” (7:1) and  “I am living in a (nice) house of cedar, but the ark of God (still) stays in a tent” (7.2).  His intentions to build a kingdom for God have been honorable, decent, and obedient, but he hasn’t done enough.  He believes that if he has a nice house, God needs an even nicer house.    

Doesn’t David’s dilemma reflect the starting point for all valid, honorable, politics in our nation today?   Like David, people with very good and honorable intentions want to do the ‘right thing’.   We want our nation to be great.  We want what our Declaration of Independence declares, the opportunity for ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.  We want what our Pledge of Allegiance pledges as “liberty and justice for all”.  We want what our constitution intends to establish: “We the People” want “a more perfect Union”.  We want “to establish Justice”, to “insure domestic Tranquility” (or homeland security), and to “provide for the common defense”.  We want to “promote the general welfare” of everyone around us, and we want “to secure the Blessings of liberty” for both for ourselves, and for our children.  These are the kinds of things all honorable, honest, caring, compassionate, and concerned people want.  These are the good intentions of good politics in this country.

The problem comes in, when we start to discuss, or argue exactly how to we can best “secure these Blessings of liberty”, doesn’t it?   The devil is in the details.  Do we best secure them with “liberal democratic politics” or do we secure them with “conservative republican politics”?  Or do we even dare try to secure them with a new kind of “Independent” style of politics?  The question put before us in every election cycle is which “politic” is best to help us achieve this goal in our own historical moment.  Would Jesus vote republican, or would Jesus vote democrat? 

When entering voting booths across this nation, some people will say God can only live in one kind of house.  Others will say that God had better be in both kinds of houses or either of them, and all of us are sunk—both politically and spiritually.  Remember the incident that happened this summer in the political conventions?  There was a little controversy going on as one party openly addressed God on its convention floor, while the other, at least at first, intentionally tried not to invoke God.   

In defense of the convention which intended not to invoke God, some defended the decision by saying they were intentionally not using “God as a pet”. Using God only for political advantage, greed and gain could be more dangerous than keeping a neutral face.  Remember, Ananias and Sappharia did get immediately struck down for trying to use God for personal gain (Acts 5:1ff)?  This is a good reason not to invoke God in our political opinions.   But the other party also rightly understood that if people and politics fail to consult God in shaping our human values and platforms, especially for the sake of the righteousness, we are in danger of forgetting and forsaking very faith and values that have gotten us this far.   As Scripture says, when there is no “knowledge of God in the land” (Hos 4.1) everything morals decline.  The people of a nation can be “destroyed for a lack of knowledge” of God (Hosea 4.6). Either using God or forgetting God can be very precarious positions for political discourse.     

No matter which position we take, which party we espouse, the question of God and politics can become difficult to decipher.  It is not because of who God is that things become muddled and messy, but it because of who people are and what we might become.  When we begin to think that God only resides in a certain house we have built we may have very good intentions, but those intentions can get lost in the realities of life and God.  Respecting God enough not make God a “pet” for political gain can be respectful position to take.  Remembering to pray for God’s help and to keep God’s truth ever before our hearts and minds is also a good position to take.  But even good "positions” can go dreadfully wrong when we say that God can only live in our own kind of house.  Such narrow-mindedness leads to the very kind of political quagmire and gridlock we are now experiencing in our complicated and convoluted political world. 

This is exactly why here in this church, especially during a hot, highly debated, political season, we need to remind ourselves of what God specifically tells David next.  It is more than a little bit shocking that when David contemplates building a “house for God”, God interrupts him through the prophet Nathan to ask: “Are you going to build me a house to live in?” (7:4) “I have not lived in a house….” (7:6).   “I have been moving about in a tent” since the beginning (7.6b)”.  “Did I ever speak a word with any (one) about a house (7.7)?  In every way possible, God is telling David, thanks, but no thanks; I don’t want to live in your “house”.

What is this all about?  Didn't God command the people to build an ark and a tabernacle to represent his presence?   Hasn't God been moving around in this tent like tabernacle?  This is true, but God is not ready to settle down.  It appears that God does not want to be restricted to any human structure or assembly. God wants to be always beyond us and always bigger than we can fully understand or comprehend?   Since we do know that, I think we all can understand somewhat, where this is all going.  Isn’t it almost silly to think that God who created both the “heavens and the earth” needs a particular house to live in?  We may need a particular place to focus our mind on God, but God does not need a particular house or place to focus on us.  

Probably, most of us can understand this concept of God’s greatness theologically, but can we dare understand what this means politically?  Can we dare understand this when we walk into that election booth in a couple of weeks?  What does it mean to say that God is bigger than any of the earthly houses, platforms, positions or political viewpoints we can build for him, whether they be sacred or secular?   What does this mean in the partisan and divided politics of today’s world?

I started this message talking about the danger of mixing church and state; politics and religion.  But let me tell you what one church in Texas told its members a couple of weeks back on October 7th, that day when many pastors were going to stand up and protest for “freedom of the pulpit”; the freedom to stand up in their own pulpits and say whatever they felt God was leading them to say---whether it was to support a certain candidate or not---they were crying out for freedom.    The church was Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas.  It is one of those great big mega churches, where the Christian author, Max Lacado is pastor, but now shares the pulpit with a younger, co-pastor named Randy Frazee.  It was pastor Frazee who stood up to preach on this particular Sunday.   He said that he was not going to avoid the “elephant that was in the room.”  Both pastors had decided that the coming election on November 6th, 2012 was too important to avoid speaking about any longer.  They said that this election is, “a big one” and that “with the state of the economy, the state of world affairs, with the state of ongoing wars, there just seems to be a lot at stake right now.”  Whether this election unites or further divides America, things seem to be more “polarized” than ever before.    

So, how did those pastors tell their congregation to vote?  They did not tell them which of the presidential candidates would make the better president, nor did they tell them to vote Obama or Romney for president.  What they did tell their congregations was to “cast their vote for Jesus.”  They did not tell them to write Jesus’ name on the ballot, nor to vote for Jesus as the U.S. president, but they told them to make Jesus the “president” and Lord of their lives, and then go into those ballot boxes and vote according to the values and vision of Jesus that they understood in their own heart.” 
(See: news/texas-pastor-tells-church-to-vote-for-jesus-but-not-as-us-president-79612).
Now, I know this maybe sounds sillier to some than trying to build a house for God to live in.  How can you go to the polls and vote for Jesus to be your president when we have too other candidates?   I first want to try to answer this in biblical terms---to address what is exactly going on in this most important political text of the Bible.  When God tells David that he does not want him to build a house for him, God is not rejecting David’s desire to build God’s house, but God wants to do something even greater, bigger, and even more glorious than to live in a certain house or temple in Jerusalem.  God shocks the socks off of David by saying, “I don’t want you to build a house for me, but I’m going to build a house for you (v. 11).  “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up you offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body and I will establish his kingdom (12)…he shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever….(13)  “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. (2Sa 7:16 NRS).   Of course, when we read this we immediately think about David’s son, Solomon, who did build the first temple.  But this not about Solomon, whose kingdom also came and went, but it’s about God’s son--the Son of David, whose kingdom is still coming.  This text is one of the first hints that through Jesus, God is going to build a house that only God can build, on built not by law, but built upon unconditional grace.  It is both a “house” and a “kingdom” that is “made sure” forever” because God stands behind it.

There is a more here, which we can’t unpack in a single sermon, but I will tell you this much: Long before the people wanted a King like David, God wanted to be the King of the people.  As 1 Samuel 8 tells us, it was when the people of God “rejected God” as their king that they wanted to get involved in the work and ways of dirty, earthly politics.  “Give us a king to govern us”, they cried out to Samuel (1 Sam. 8.6).  The people wanted to be like other nations, but to get this they had to reject, or at least partly reject the LORD from being their king. They wanted to enjoy the promises of worldly politics, but they forgot what it would cost.  To achieve political wins in this world, they had to take spiritual loses in the next. 

Here is the danger of building a particular political house and saying God lives it: Part of what makes politics happen in this world, is the rejection of God.  There is just no way around this.  “You can’t give yourself God and mammon”, said Jesus.  “You can’t serve two masters---you will serve one or the other, but you can’t serve both”.  When you give yourself completely to a certain party or platform, it will take away some of your allegiance from God.  I remember how my Dad used to deal with living in two worlds, both secular and sacred. He used to tell me, when I asked him which party he belonged to, “I don’t vote the party, but I vote for the person.”   It was his way of reminding himself that all political systems of this world are limited and broken.  He knew he had to rise above and live beyond making earthly politics the ultimate truth.  But how do we, who still live in an increasingly politicized and divided world, involve ourselves in one kingdom, without rejecting the very presence of God in the kingdom that is still coming?  How can we vote for Jesus in this upcoming election?

When I read this story of how God decided to build an everlasting kingdom for David, for me the contrast is clear: David could only build a ‘temporary’ house for God, but if God built the house, it could be “established” and “made sure” forever (vs. 13 7 16).  This does not mean God is against David’s idea or his good intentions to build him a house.  Neither is God against political parties, political viewpoints and platforms, just as God isn’t against tabernacles, temples or churches.  But God won’t allow himself to be “closed in”, “locked up”, or hemmed in certain positions, places or points of view.  Because God is God, he will not stay in one place, but he is in every place and still very much a God who is on the move.  While God may be with one party on one issue, he will be with another party on another, or he will be with both parties when they are in tune with his will and he is with neither when they go against his holy purpose.  God will be God, even when we end up liars.   

For you see, it is toward his eternal, heavenly kingdom, toward which God is moving.  God wants to move us all toward the the coming Kingdom where God is big enough to be the God of everyone, or he can’t be the God for anyone; where God is all in all, or it he is not God at all.  Isn’t that the point Abraham Lincoln made when someone approached him before one of the last major battles of the Civil War asking Lincoln to come and pray that God would be on the side of the north so they could win the war.  At this point that Lincoln sounded like a humble, but determined president of all the people when he answered, “No, let us not pray that God is on our side, but let us rather pray that we are on God’s side.”   This is also where God wants to take David’s kingdom.  God wants to start his kingdom in Jerusalem, but he also wants to be King in Judea, in Samaria and in the “uttermost parts of the earth.”  To cover the whole world with God’s justice and good news means that we must get bigger in our viewpoints, not smaller.  When we vote for God’s Kingdom to come a closer, we must vote for the needs that line up with God’s point of view for all, not just for one political house.   

Recently I visited the university campus where I graduated years ago.  Once it was a small Baptist college with only a 5 or 6 major buildings standing in a circle complex.  How that campus has grown.  There are better buildings, remodeled buildings, many new buildings and most recently, a new student center where I was seated in preaching conference.  As I look around at the beautiful design of the building and all its amenities, I had to wonder to myself:  Do you think the students who attend this school with all these wonderful facilities will have a better education than I had some 30 years ago?  I hope they will, but then it hit me: They won’t have a better education because of the buildings.  Buildings don’t educate.  They can aid in education, but the education still has to come from dedicated teachers, professors and from real flesh and blood people and from a desire to learn.

I can say the same thing about where God is going with David and us.  The kingdom God wants to build is not some general politic or earthly reality, but God wants to bring about a particular kingdom of redeemed, transformed people, who are so sold out to a peculiar holy God they are ready to challenge every earthly kingdom, every personal persuasion and every particular person from the inside out.   We may come with to God with different opinions, parties or approaches, but in the end, God’s people will want the same thing.  We want God, and we know that people need God more than anything.  But to have God, we all must change how we see and do everything just as radically as David had to do. 

In the book, Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw write about how God’s kingdom comes into this world in radical, challenging, life-changing, but also life-saving ways, they many call “the third way”.  They speak doing Jesus deeds along with saying Jesus creeds.  Chris tells about leading a college mission team to Belize in Central America, where his group of students went to work among the poor. The people there were mostly farmers, who worked hard, had very little, but with humility and faith were ready to practice the kingdom as fully revealed in Jesus Christ.  One day, Chris tells about riding a horse that was given to him by the farmers.  The horse was stubborn, spirited, and very difficult to ride.  Chris asked the farmers why they gave him this horse.  Realizing it was on purpose, they all laugh together as they told Chris their other horse had been stolen.  This new horse was young, new and not yet fully broken. 

Then Chris wondered and asked: “Who was it that stole the horse”?  “Well, actually we found the horse,” and we also discovered who the thieves were, but we then we did the Christian thing?”  What do you mean, you did the Christian thing?  “Oh, don’t you remember”, they answered, “how David once caught King Saul and could have killed him, but he let him go.  We’ll we found the horse, realized who the thieves were, but we only cut off the hair from the horse’s tale and mane to let them know we caught them.  Then, of course, we did the Christian thing again?  What do you mean you did the Christians thing again?   You keep telling me, as a Christian from America, about these Christian things are doing, but we know so little about them.   You mean you still don’t know?  O.K., we’ll tell you.  We gave them the horse, just like Jesus said to give your shirt, your coat, and to walk with them a second mile.  We overcame the evil by doing the good.  Now we no longer know them as enemies and thieves, because they have become our friends (Jesus for President, Zondervan Press, 2008, p. 267).

God help us, in a nation that claims to still have so many Christians, but knows less and less how to love a brother or sister, let alone how to make an enemy into a friend.  Can we dare even remember, as we vote in this upcoming election, how to do “the Christian thing?”   Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


A sermon based upon Judges 4: 1-24
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Disciple Series # 8 of 17, October 14, 2012

Eleven people were being recused from a flood.  They were all hanging on a rope under a helicopter, 10 men and one woman.  The rope was not strong enough to carry them all, so they decided that one had to leave, because otherwise they were all going to fall. They weren’t able to name that person, until the woman gave a very touching speech.  She said that she would voluntarily let go of the rope, because, as a woman, she was used to giving up everything for her husband and kids, or for men in general, and was used to always making sacrifices with little in return. As soon as she finished her speech, all the men started clapping ....  The woman was still holding on.

“A brave dame,” according to Susan Issacs’ book, Brave Dames and Wimpettes, “is a dignified, three-dimensional hero who may care about men, home and hearth, but also cares---and acts passionately about something in the world beyond.”  Open your Bible at random and you will notice something striking: Female characters abound. And it’s not simply a lot of women, it’s a lot of strong women.   These women of the Bible are the antithesis of what we might expect from a patriarchal society.  They are not passive, timid, and submissive, but they are active, bold, fearless, assertive and brave. They are also not what we would expect in Near Eastern culture, where women generally are not known to play leading roles.

But look how different the Bible is.   In the Bible, the pattern of strong women begins with the first female character named Eve, who is much more active than her male counterpart.  In Genesis 3,  we read that Eve is one who “said,” “saw,” “took,” “ate” and “gave” (Genesis 3:2-6) — whereas Adam is the subject of only one verb: “he ate.” (Genesis 3:6, As quoted from Gary A. Rendsburg in, “Unlikely heroes: Women as Israel,” Bible Review,

When we move over to the story of Abraham, it is Abraham who does a lot lying to save his own neck and Sarai who takes all the risks has eventually has Abraham listening to “voice” of his wife (Gen 16.2) for further instructions.  Soon thereafter, God changes her name to Sarah, because she has proven to be a vital partner in both the blessing and the promise (17:15).   In the next generation it is the wife of Isaac, named Rebekah who is the first woman to hear God speak directly to her.  God tells her the plan (Gen. 25.23) and she takes the initiative to make sure it works out (Gen. 27.8) when her husband has chosen the wrong son (Gen. 27.4).    Finally, when we move over to Moses, it is women who save him when he is a baby, and it is wife who stands up to God and saves him again by taking charge to circumcise their son (Ex. 4: 24ff).  Besides this it is Moses and Aaron’s sister Miriam who was the first prophet to give the benediction of freedom on the other side of Egypt.  The Bible’s women were anything thing but wimpettes, they were brave, involved partners of faith.

In today’s text we come to another moment is Israel’s story of growth and faith.  Here again, when we least expect it, we find one of the very first leaders in Israel’s history to be a strong, brave, and determined woman.  Her name, Deborah, in Hebrew even means something like a busy “bee” or might it have even implied “a woman with a sting?”   However you size her up, Deborah was rare woman in the ancient Hebrew culture.  She was a strong, able and successful leader of God’s people even before there was a Gideon or a Samson.  In fact, the text itself appears to claim that she might seem stronger than either of them because she never had to “put out a fleece” nor did she “lose her strength” during any of her rule of over 40 years.  She also had a “hit” record, the first one since Moses.  Her song of victory is the first platinum of all great military victories.  

So what made Deborah such a strong, able leader?  What are the qualities of leadership found in her that we need in leaders today, both men and women? 

The story of Deborah begins in tough, difficult, immoral times.  Our text opens with the description that this was a time when “Israel did what was evil” (4.1).  Thus, here we already get an angle on what makes great leaders.   Great leaders are able to rise above the status quo, especially when times are hard and days are evil.   As the saying goes, “when times are tough, the tough get going”. 

More than clich├ęs, however, Deborah was a real wife and homemaker who became part of God’s answer to the cry of many people.   The book of Judges reveals cycles of wrong choices, great difficulty, overwhelming stress and exhausting anxiety.  We read how the people would fall into sin.  God would then allow their enemies to take over their territories as punishment.  Then, after a period of sustained pain that would bring the people to their knees, God would finally hear the cry of the people and lift up Judges to deliver them.  Deborah was one of the very first Judges God raised up to rescue God’s people.  Her story opens with the most graphic image of an enemy Canaanite general named Sisera, continually coming into Israel with “900 iron chariots” to do battle and keep them in subjection.  Who would have thought that God would raise up a woman to face such an enemy army head on?  But this is how the text begins, saying “At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel” (Judges 4.4)

Her story of leadership begins with a picture of how she had been leading.  “She used to sit under the palm…and the Israelites came up to her for judgment” (4.5).  Now, however, her approach is about to change.  Our text tells us how she moved from being a maintenance leader, doing the ordinary things a leader does, to taking charge to accomplish something extra-ordinary.   The real story starts when she “sent and summoned Barak” (4.6), Israel’s general, to take a whole new approach.   Here already, we can already look into the moral foundation and courage of a great leader.   The true nature of leadership is not to give up or give in, but face up, stand up and be strong.   Great leaders do not go down winning and wimping, but they stand up, face reality and prepare to take on the struggle or to do battle.  They are the kind of leaders, whether male or female, who don’t give in nor give up until the call is answered and job is accomplished.  They have a keen moral sense of what is right and what is wrong.  Because they carry within them an internal moral compass that already guides them in the mundane, small, and ordinary challenges of life, they are most prepared to lead from that same moral core when they face the extraordinary, unexpected or great moments.  

One of the most powerful depictions of a “strong woman” is Sally Fields in the movie made back in the 80’s entitled, “Not Without My Daughter”.  This was a story of an American woman who married an Arab man, who took her to live with his family in Iran and then begin to force her to conform to his culture and lose all her freedom without any consideration of her at all.   But this woman would not give into the abuse and exploitation, so instead of submitting to a forced-life of personal terror, and she kidnapped her own daughter and went through “hell and high-water” to make her way to the safety, and eventually return home.   She was a woman who knew what was right and what was wrong, and this inner moral sense would guide her so that nothing would deter her, no matter how bad things became.  That’s leadership---the kind of leadership that would enable a woman to speak up, stand up, and do what is right, even in a man’s world.

In this world that still loses its moral compass and sense of direction, we need leaders who can tap into the moral center of their lives and assume more leadership.  If we are going to be church in a world that has lost its moral bearings, we have to do work harder than ever to come to a positive consensus on what we believe, what we share, what we know is true, and what we believe must be done to make a difference in this world.  We must first life out our values in the small matters of life, before we can stand up to the bigger issues.  Developing and affirming our moral core is more important than any other trait for leaders today.  A leader’s honesty, sincerity, and integrity for doing what is right is a leaders most foundational asset.  This does not have to mean that a leader is perfect.   Leaders may not always get it right, and they may fall down at times, but when a leader stands up, they must know, and others must know they are doing their best to follow and live the truth as they can see it in that moment.  Like Deborah, great leaders always lead from their sense of what is right.  The image of Deborah is most powerful here.  You can “summon” your general to stand up and do the right thing, until you are already doing the right thing while you “sit” under the palm tree.

Another great trait of leadership of Deborah was how she spoke with authority.  “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you… (4.6a).   This is where the power commands begin, but they didn’t start there.   Deborah’s words of command were not spoken to be heard, to impress, or to see what she could accomplish.  No, Deborah spoke with great authority because she also had a quiet, obedient heart.  Deborah leads with authority because she was already listening to voice of God in her own heart.   In this text, we are not most impressed that Deborah is speaking, but it is God who is speaking through this woman who listens before she commands.

Listening is another trait of a great leadership.  Before great leaders give commands, orders, or instructions, they have done their homework, they have taken time to study, to meditate, to pray, even to consider other options, and then and only then, they begin to call for action to do what must be done.   In this way, great leaders don’t just lead from the head, they lead from the heart.  This is exactly how our text portrays Deborah.  She does not say, “I Deborah command you”, but she says, “The LORD, the God of Israel commands you…”  (4.6). Before she approached her general Barak with any kind of call to action, she had taken time to listen to God’s voice.  She had searched for the answer from within her heart before she uttered any word.  Like Joan of Arc, she heard the voice from above before she took any action down below.  Until that voice was clear, confirmed and unmistakable in her mind and heart, and she made no move.  

I realize that today, in our modern world, to claim to have a clear “command” from God could get you into the psych ward at Baptist hospital.   I also know that we don’t want our political leaders and especially not our military leaders, asserting that God has told them who to kill and how to do it.  One of the most troubling aspects of 911 was that it claimed to kill innocent people for “religious” reasons.   In our world, if any political or religious leader asserts commands in religious terms as Deborah did, we would and should be more than a little suspicious.  We all know how dangerous and ridiculous it sounds when a middle-eastern leader approves and even calls for protests against America in the name of their own political and religious viewpoints? 

So how do we grasp Deborah’s certainty of heart as a leader?  We can say that she listened.   She didn’t only listen to the voice of her God from within her own heart, but she listened the God who spoke through the people, who spoke in to real world, in real life situations, and to the common sense of justice what was right and wrong.   The claims of any special knowledge from God should be suspect, but claims to listen to most ultimate concerns for justice, righteousness, mercy and life is God’s greatest gift and his voice main plain through compassionate Word of Jesus and through the most reasonable, rational humans words we know.   Today, we don’t want a leader asserting themselves in the name of their own country, with a nationalism like Hitler’s, nor do we want a leader asserting the domination pledges of their own religion, like a Khomeini, but we still want people to listen to the voice of God from within that leads them beyond their own feelings, their own personal or political agendas, or their own cultural biases.  If there is any room for “God-language” in our personal, public and political speech, it must be the God big enough to love all of us, or he can’t be the true God of any of us.   When leaders lead from the heart, they hear the voice of the God that must be that big. 

In the same way, we don’t want a leader who leadsFor a leader, good listening skills are even more important than good speaking skills.  People don’t follow a leader who shoots from the hip, acts irrationally, does not hear other opinions, has not considered other options, or has not listened for the “word” of truth from within.  Leaders have done their “homework” and already have their “heart” in what they are doing.   Because they have first listened and heard, makes people want to follow their lead.  Great leaders “listen” and lead from the heart.

Along with “heart” and a “moral compass” comes the ability to be decisive and convincing.   The difference between skill and success often comes in how a leader approaches an issue or problem, not whether or not they have all the answers in that moment.   When Deborah knew the time had come to move, act and respond to the challenge, she sounded the command loud and clear.  There was no uncertain trumpet in the sound of her voice.  This created the atmosphere of seriousness and urgency which motivated others to follow.

Recently, Jane Pauley interviewed Michael Allen, who after many years of golf finally won the Senior Tour Golf Tournament.   After many years of underachieving, and even backing away from golf for several years, with the support of friends and family, Allen finally got his game back and accomplished more than ever before.     Talking about his decision to get back into the game, his wife advised him that if he was going to try once more, he needed to do something radically different.  He decided to consult a sport psychologist, who gave him one word of advice that he believes has made all the difference.  Since golf is as much a mental game as any other sport, the psychologist told him that it would be far better for him to be decisive than to always be right.   His decision to be deliberate has given him the edge he needed.   

Decisiveness, when the time is right, is one of the most important leadership qualities.   Leaders must be risk takers who put themselves into situations that demand their very best efforts when they have to move ahead, even without the ability to look back.  This is how it was for Deborah.  When the time was right, she made her move she acted, she commanded, and did not look back.  Such decisive action was part of what enabled her to succeed.
When Deborah did take the risk and make the move, she did not act alone.  She was no lone ranger leader.  Though she was powerful, capable, and very gifted, she not only knew who she was, she also knew who she wasn’t.  She recognized her role as a woman along with both her strengths and her weaknesses as a person.  She was no military leader.  She gathered those around her whom she could delegate to be her team to face the challenges and carry out the mission.  We do not see anywhere in this heroic story, where Deborah herself went on the battlefield.   She supported her general, Barak.  At his request she stayed close by.  But she trusted and allowed others to claim “ownership” and “partnership” in the battle, sharing both the work and the glory.  She was what all great leaders are; team players and team leaders.    Teamwork enabled her to have resources beyond her own mind and skill.  It was the kind of leadership which encouraged cooperation and gave mutual support so that the task would have the best chance of success.

Wayne Cordeiro, a pastor in Hawaii has a friend named Tom, who says, “If I have one good idea, and you have one good idea, how many ideas does each of us have?  The answer is “one”.  But if I share my idea with you and you share your idea with me, how many does each of us now have?  The answer is TWO.  “You see”, Tom says, if we share out ideas with each other, we have doubled our knowledge immediately!  We haven’t even lost our idea either, because by sharing it, we have increased our knowledge by 100 percent.”  Cordeiro goes on to comment on how Jesus once prayed that all of us in the church could be one, as he and the father were one (John 17:21), then he remarks, “We are always asking Jesus to answer our prayers, wouldn’t it be nice if once, we could answer one of Jesus’ prayers”.  That what teamwork does  (As told by Wayne Cordeiro, in Doing Church as a Team, p. 10).

Perhaps the most interesting of all Deborah’s leadership qualities is that the people on Deborah’s team were not only “insiders”, but she also included “outsiders”---people who shared similar goals, similar interests and similar needs.  Deborah formed strategic relationship with others and this paid off in the heart of the battle. 

In this final part of the story, it wasn’t an Israelite, but a Kenite woman from the clain of Heber, another woman named Jael, whose name means ‘mountain goat’.  She is the stranger, the outsider, and the ‘foreigner who finally brought Israel’s enemy general to his end.   Thus, the story of Deborah’s leadership does not end with her by herself, but concludes with another who helped her accomplish her goal.  Who would have thought that Israel would have been saved by two women, one called a bee and the other, called a mountain goat?   The opposing general Sisera thought he found safety in a woman’s tent, but when he stopped to rest, she is the one who drove a tent peg into his temple and nailed him, literally.

When you are a leader, you will need a lot of friends.  Some of the most important friends will not be the people you are leading, but it will often be others, outsiders, even new friends you challenge you and help you get to where you need to go.   An old story, about a rabbi in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century makes this point.  Disappointed by a lack of direction and purpose, the Rabbi wandered out into the chilly evening.  With his hands thrust deep into his pockets, he aimlessly walked through the empty streets questioning his faith and calling.  The only thing colder than the Russian air was the chill within his soul.  He walked, and walked, and mistakenly walked into a Russian military compound, which was off limits to civilians.   Just then, the silence of evening was shattered by the bark of a Russian soldier.
            “Halt!  “Who are you?  What are you doing here?” the guard yelled out.
            “Excuse me,” replied the rabbi.
            “I said, “Who are you and what are you doing here?
            After a brief moment, the rabbi in a gracious tone, so not to evoke the anger of the soldier responded with a question, “How much do you get paid every day?”
            “What does this have to do with you?” the soldier retorted.
            “It has everything to do with me,” the rabbi answered.  Like a man who just made a new discovery, the rabbi told the solider, “I will pay you the equal sum of your worker’s wage, if you will ask me those same to questions every day: “Who are you?  And “What are you doing here?”  (Also From Doing Church as a Team, by Wayne Cordeiro,  p. 33).

The ability to lead comes from knowing daily, who we are and what we are doing?   To navigate the world we live in, will take a moral compass, listening skills, being decisive, teamwork, and it will take forming strategic relationships with people, even strangers, who help us keep our focus.  Deborah’s leadership story is the story of one “brave dame”.  We need more Deborah’s today, more honey bees and mountain goats, and we need whole lot less wimps and wimpetts.  Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

“Taking the Good with the Bad”

A sermon based upon Job 2: 1-10
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin,  Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Proper 22, October 7, 2012

Sometimes the Bible just “puts it out there” and we have to wrestle with it, whether we want to or not.

Today’s Bible text from Job puts a conversation out in front of us that none of us would ever want to overhear, but we must.  The discussion going on between “the LORD” and “Satan” is that they are talking about one of us…a human mortal named Job.  Job’s a good man.  He’s a righteous man.  The LORD even says, “There is none like him on the face of the earth.  He’s a blameless and upright man who fears God has done nothing wrong (2.3).  But Job is suffering great loss.  He’s lost everything.  He has nothing left but his good name.  This is where we find in in this text.  But Job still persists in his integrity, even though God has been trying to “do him in” for no reason at all (This is what the text actually says in 2.3 NRSV).  The only reason we are given for Job’s calamities is that Satan thought it would be a good idea to see how much Job could stand before he lost faith
I warned you that this was not a conversation you would want to hear.

Of course, up to this point, God has not yet laid a hand on Job, nor has Satan.  The Lord has taken away everything Job has--his children, his wealth, his home--everything!  But Job still holds on to his faith.   Now, however, Satan suggests that that the stakes should be made higher—that they should go after Job himself---to inflict him with great pain and suffering.   “Skin for Skin”(4.4), Satan suggests to the LORD, “touch his bone and his flesh and he will curse you to your face.”   With this proposal, we come to words I don’t want to read again, but I must.  The LORD gives in to Satan’s desire to hurt Job saying: “Very well, he is in your power, do with him what you will, but only spare his life” (4.6).  Do you see what is happening?  Satan has just convinced the LORD to bring all kinds of physical pain into Job’s life.   The LORD who loves Job and the LORD Job loves has left Job to suffer whatever hurt Satan’s desires, as long as Job is still breathing. 

Such a story in the Bible gives theologians and preachers a fit.  Most of us don’t like to preach this story (I wouldn't be preaching it either, except that it is the lectionary text for today).  But It helps to know, right up front, that the real point of this story is not that God actually submits to Satan’s destructive, devilish wishes, but point is it that life can appear this way.  Sometimes the pain and hurt of life can be so overwhelming that it actually feels like God or Satan, or both of them are out to get us.  Life is not always fair and it can seem like God is losing and the devil is winning.  Read the newspaper lately?  Have you gone through a difficulty or lost a loved one?   Sometimes situations of life put us between the devil and the deep blue sea and we can’t figure out why.  We haven’t done anything to deserve this.  There is no reason for it.  Things are the way they are without any explanation.  Like Job, all we can do in that moment is take our seat “among the ashes”.  Have you ever found yourself there?  Have you ever had your faith tested?  If you haven’t, you will.  The question is not “if” but “when” and the only question is will we pass the test?

Last year a television station did a feature on an Army officer, a quadruple amputee at Walter Reed. The story elaborated on his lifelong enthusiasm to serve his country, his extensive training, his men’s confidence in him, and his record of high achievement before a hidden bomb blew his arms and legs away in Afghanistan. He approaches his “rehabilitation” saying, “This is the story I have been given to live.”   What story have you been given?  We don’t always “choose” our story.  Sometimes we do.  Sometimes it gets chosen for us?  How do we try to make sense of our story when everything that we thought we had nailed down comes loose---when life has become like one of those airliners where the seats have worked loose and could be hurled around at us and others like missiles?  

The book of Job is one attempt to tell a story when no story makes sense, when there is no good reason to make a situation reasonable.  We can find some “bad” reasons things happen, but those are never enough.  We can’t live by “bread” or “bad news” alone.  Something in the human spirit desires to find some “good” reason even for the bad that takes place in the world.  During the Bubonic Plague of the 14 century, called Black Death, medieval Europeans wrestled with fact that so many were dying and how they died so quickly.  One person graphically described how many who died would have breakfast with their family in the morning, and had supper with their ancestors by evening.  Perhaps the greatest pandemic in human history, it was believed to have started in China, where it killed about 30% of the population, then traveled the Silk Road to Europe, where it killed up to 60% of the population.  But even though so many died and so many struggled, there was one thing none of them struggled with.   In the middle ages people knew “why” they people suffered and died.  The King of Sweden spoke the answer for such a horrible situation by saying, “God for the sins of men has struck this great punishment of sudden death.  By it most of our countrymen are dead” (As Quoted in “What Shall We Say”, by Tom Long, 2011, p. 6).   

Then, people knew what to say and what to do about suffering and pain.  If God had caused the Black Death, then only God could stop it.  Do you know what the medical therapy was for the plague?  In that medieval world people were told to do acts of penance, take religious pilgrimages, or find a way of propitiation by literally whipping and scouring their own flesh to take away sins.  Today, we don’t even know what penance is, we take vacations and not pilgrimages, and who can even define the meaning of the word propitiation?  If you have a bad case of the flu you would be very shocked to have your doctor advise you to “Take Tylenol every four hours, drink plenty of fluids and say your prayers of confession, since God has made you sick for your sins.” But this is exactly what people used to believe about pain and suffering.  People were once absolutely sure that if something bad happened, they had done something wrong and God was out to get them.        

Our text has the LORD and the Satan having a conversation about just how bad sick Job will become. God is not going to do the deed himself, but God puts the power directly into the hands of Satan.  Any way you look at it, it’s a very ugly and scary picture.  If we take this story as it stands, Satan is mastermind of evil and God goes along with the plan so Job’s faith will tested, and then, Job’s faith will either be destroyed or proven true.  Yet, this storyline of the Lord God and Satan making wagers about the fate of a human being has a coarseness, crudeness, and even cruelty to it.   It even sounds a little like one of those jokes about two guys hanging out in a bar.
“Hey, how about my Denver Broncos?” says one.  “Yeah, they’re great,” says the other, “Payton Manning’s great too, but take him out of the lineup and your team falls to pieces.”  “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks it doesn’t!”  “You’re on!”  God says: “Hey, how about my servant Job?” says the LORD, “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (2.6).  Sure he’s a virtuous man,” says Satan, “but virtue pays off for him and pays him very well. When the blessings stop coming his way and he is no longer under your protection he won’t be such a faithful churchgoer and all around great guy. He’ll spit in your face!”
“I’ll bet he doesn’t” God says.  “You’re on,” says the Satan.
Having Satan placing his bets against you and having the good LORD betting on you is not the way I want to envision my odds in this life.   While I do like the idea of having God on my side, if God allows Satan to make faithful, good people into punching bags, just to prove our faith, it doesn’t make me want to be close to God.  This scene reminds me what one person wrote to an editor of the New York Times, “If God exists, who needs enemies, I’ll take … Lady Luck.”  I don’t go that far, but reading these negotiations can make me want to run and hide, if there was any you could.   

Also, when we read this story of Job, we cannot help but shudder at all the collateral damage we see lying all around.  If it is really a test that Satan plans and God approves, it sounds sadistic and heartless.   It’s not just one man suffering, but:  “Seven sons and three daughters dead….seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants slaughtered in cool blood.” (In this storyteller’s own imagination the servants aren’t even significant enough to count their losses!)   Should such a “dreadful” story be placed right here in the middle of our nice Bible?  But I will at least say this: It’s pretty brave for the Bible to dare tell a story that doesn’t make real any final sense of everything.   
“Are you a card player?” the doctor asks his patient. 
“Sometimes,” the patient answers, not sure where this conversation is going.
“Then you know what it’s like to be dealt a bad hand.”

This story about God and Satan placing their bets for and against Job leaves Job with a “bad hand” and us it also does not leave us with a very flattering portrait of God.  We can understand Satan’s role, but why does God allow the game to be played and the hand to be dealt in the first place?  This is something Job’s story simply does not tell us.  Why these things happen is unanswerable to Job and remains unanswered up to the very end when God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind: “Job, How dare you make everything darker with all your questions….Stand up, act like a man and let me question you!... Where were you when I made the world?  Could you understand it all, even if I told you?”  (Job 38: 1-3).

Although Job’s story begins with God betting on Job, but it doesn’t end there.  God’s tells Job there is no explanation about what God allows or about why bad things happen.  In fact, if you read on in the story, Job’s three friends get into really big trouble because they try to explain things.   The real point in Job’s story seems to be that nobody knows why.  Life can very much seem like the devil is out to destroy us, while God does nothing but stand back and bet on us.   But I hope you don’t settle for this kind of answer to evil because this is not the point.  Job’s story does not explain evil, but it questions how good people like Job and us will respond when trouble comes into our good lives, when trouble comes for no rhyme or reason and with no logic or sense.   The main focus of this story is not on what God does, but it’s on Job.  What will this human person named Job do when life falls apart and when he only feels the pain?  Even Job’s “foolish” wife is wondering.  She plays the fool for all of us when she asks Job what we all ask of ourselves:  "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die" (Job 2:9).  This is the question, not the answer, which the book of Job brings home to us as all human eyes are on this person of faith in pain to see what he will do next.

William Sloan Coffin was once a well-known preacher from New York City.  He grew up surrounded by the Christian faith.  His grandfather and uncle were preachers; a seminary president and a professor.  But Bill Coffin did not go along with this faith stuff when he was young.  He had money and wealth.  His father owned a company in New York.  He thought faith was for sissies, for weaklings, and for people who needed a crutch to get them through life.  Bill was an activist.  He was a man of action.  He had been in the CIA.  He lived a life of adventure and felt free from needing to have any kind of faith.  Then one day, one of Bill Coffin’s friends died.  Bill attended the funeral.  During the funeral message he heard the preacher quote this very testimony from the first chapter of Job, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”  Suddenly, Bill Coffin heard those words differently than ever before.  “O.K. Coffin”, a voice told him deep inside, you’d think it’s silly to worship a God who gives, but you could you worship a God who takes life away from you!   It was like God was saying, “Now, you have received the good up to this point, but can you now receive the bad?   It was then, Bill Coffin came to realize, “Hey, I’m the one who has been the sissie!”  “I’ve been the weakling!”  “I’m the foolish one to thinks that faith is just about “getting things from God!”  No, true faith is not just about getting, it’s also about losing and letting go  (As told by Will Willimon at Elevation Preaching Conference, Gardner-Webb University, September, 2012).

Life will always test our faith.  Faith is not just about worshiping the God who gives me what I want, but true faith is about worshiping the God who will allow everything to be taken away from me.  Faith is anything but for sissies.  It takes a lot of guts to worship a God like that.  The truth is, only a sovereign God who gives and who takes is worthy of worship.  In an honest reading of the story of Job, we are not given any answers, but Job's story keeps asking us:  What will we do?  How will we live?  How will we suffer?  Will we still have faith?  Will we pass the test?  Will we look around when it seems that God has abandoned us, but still obey and trust him to the very end of pain or life?  Can we answer life by living our own questions as Job did his, when he answered his wife in his faith: Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad" (2:10)?  This is Job’s testimony and it is the only witness true faith can have: “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord!” (1.21).

Since Job’s wife sounded foolish, let me end with a story about a woman who decided against being foolish.   She was nurse in a tuberculosis hospital.  She once resigned her JOB, or I mean job (play on words intended).  She resigned her job because she has fellows in her care with only one lung, half of one lung, or less; little bitty guys lying up in bed.  At night, sometimes with nothing on but pajamas and robes, these guys tie sheets together and sneak out through a window, door, or any way; go to a liquor store; get all liquored up; and come back in the chill of the night, wheezing and coughing.  She gets the oxygen, she nurses them, she goes over another eight-hour shift.  She’s a beautiful woman, but her legs have those big knotted veins from standing sixteen hours to bring this little frail fellow back to breathing again.  Finally it clears up.  He’s breathing again; she takes away the oxygen; and he ties the sheets together and goes out the window to the liquor store.
            And she quits.  Why should I care?  He doesn’t care!  Let him die.  The next morning, the day after she has resigned, she goes back to work (From Fred Craddock Stories, p. 41).

None of us can control what happens in life.  Neither can we control what people do.  But we can receive the bad as we have received the good.  We can let God be God, and we can and keep going on and working with what we have to work with.  Letting God be God can be good news, but it’s never easy news.  We must take the bad with the good, but faith says the good we receive is still worth the bad that can come.   Isn’t this why Job did not “sin with his lips”?  Isn’t this why Scripture says that Jesus’ “went around doing good” (Acts 10.38) no matter the price he had to pay for doing it?  “Isn’t it better to suffer for doing good, if suffering is God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” says Peter (1 Peter 3.17).  Paul also, claims to know something, which kept him going, when he said: “If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? (Rom 8:31-32).   What the likes of people of faith like Job, Peter, Paul, and most of all, Jesus can teach us is that when there is love and hope in God, life can be worth the difficult price humans must pay.  Even the broken heart has said in hard won wisdom, “It is better to have love and to have lost, than never to have loved at all.”  That’s part of what it means to keep the faith, like Job.  We can’t understand it.  We don’t have to answer anything with our lips.  We just have to take it as it comes and wait on God for “everything else”. 

Will we have faith when faith is all we have left to give?  Job answers the way faith must answer: "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?"… "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD"… In all this, Scripture says,  Job did not sin with his lips (2.10).  He did not “charge God with wrongdoing” (Job 2. 10, 22-22).   Job didn’t blame God.  Jesus didn’t either.  Jesus didn’t even blame us, or those who crucified him.  Remember his final words were  not, ‘God is going to get you for this, but, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The answer faith knows is that promise and hope comes from blessing not from blaming.  Faith’s final answer to suffering is this: “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Amen.