Thursday, January 28

Grace:Unexpected, Unappreciated, and Unused

 Dave Boon and his wife June and a 13-year-old boy, Gary Martinez were headed to a youth group ski trip when they were slammed over a guardrail by tons of snow avalanching down the hillside. It was tossed clear of the avalanche by a tree that the car struck and was left upside-down and pointed back up the hill. Freeing themselves, they were amazed there were no serious injuries.

In reflecting on the accident David said, “The signs say, 'Avalanche Area, No Stopping,' We've driven by their hundreds of times…. We have skied avalanche chutes, worn (emergency) beepers, always carried an avalanche shovel. We've seen avalanches. But in our wildest dreams, we never imagined getting hit in a car by one (O’Driscoll)."

Unexpected

Jesus comes as the unexpected one. His incarnation was debated, prayed for, and sought but as the warrior king who would displace Rome. N.T. Wright wrote,

"Christmas is not about the living God coming to tell us everything's all right. John's gospel isn't about Jesus speaking the truth and everyone saying: "Of course! Why didn't we realize it before?" It is about God shining his clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world, our lives, our hearts, our imaginations—and the darkness not comprehending it. It's about God, God as a little child, speaking words of truth, and nobody knowing what he's talking about (Wright)."

John 1:11 says it best, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” But do we receive Him? Not the Jesus we want Him but as who He is? America’s Four Gods is a 2010 book in which two Baylor professors attempt to define and describe our view of ‘moral authority’. Their novel study method was to extrapolate their answers by “our conception of God to determine whether and how our theological ideas matter for politics and culture (Anderson). Their multiple conception of god flows out of an 85% agreement that God is loving. From this comes a concept of god that is authoritative, benevolent, critical, or distant. None of them reflect the “only begotten son” of the gospels.

From the gospel, recall Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth in which his neighbors say “isn’t this Joseph’s boy” Lu 4:22. Jonah expected God’s to be gracious. That’s why he ran the opposite way the first time God called him. Look at the beginning of chapter 4,

“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord … “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? …for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” 4:1-2.

Unappreciated

 In Mark 6 Jesus returns to Nazareth and is rejected. Verses 3-4 reads, “And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” The people knew Jesus. Jesus was a known quantity. Everyone knew where Jesus was supposed to do and what He was expected to say. Before we shake our heads at their lack of faith let me ask, how much do we appreciate God’s grace?

Jonah knew God was gracious. Jonah never mentions repentance at all in his message. Yet “the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put-on sackcloth, from the greatest...to the least of them” 3:5. God’s graciousness seems to overflow when people repent.

Let me suggest you sit down this afternoon and read all of Jonah. It is only four chapters but, spoiler alert it is the most unsatisfying ending for a person chosen to preach God’s love. Like a three-year-old, Jonah is left pouting on a hillside because God saved Nineveh.

“Among the attributes of God, though they are all equal, mercy shines with even more brilliancy than justice (Cervantes).” But do we see that when the people who are saved, preserved, rescued, or made whole people we don’t like? They may well be people we don’t know. People who we are at odds with over politics, morality, or anything else.

What I’ve come across in the lives of many people, including myself, is an attitude that says, “God will forgive me since I asked. I know God wants me to change and I’d like to…but not really.” Repentance and Grace go together.

"When grace introduces us to repentance, the two of us become best friends. When anything else introduces us to repentance, it feels like the warden has come to lock us up. But when grace gets involved, the truths of repentance reveal a fabulous world of life-freeing beauty (Thrall, McNicol and Lynch 155)."

What I find even more bothersome is how easy it becomes to separate my faith from any lasting change in my life.

Underused

The Letter of James is not written to pagans but to followers of Christ. Yet in 4:2-3, He writes, “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” We have either heard or heard of preachers who will teach, that if we ask for it in the name of Jesus. For some people it seems that “in the name of Christ, Amen” is a spell to be cast that obligates God to be our puppet. Rick gave me a great mug that says, “I can do all things through a verse taken out of context”. That is so true.

When was the last time you asked for God’s grace? Before I started this sermon, I’d have been hard-pressed to answer that myself. We expect God’s grace. We rely on God’s grace. We assume God’s grace. But have we ever sought His grace or asked for His grace, or waited upon His grace?

One reason for my hesitancy to use God’s grace is that I’ll be expected to show grace to other people who I don’t really like. “But I say to you. You shall love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you so you may be children of your Father who is in heaven” Mt 5:44-45. A preacher friend had an image of a cross on his checks, yes that dates us. He had the bank remove them and he explained to me, “If I want to be butt to someone, I don’t want them to know I’m a Christian.”

I pray that God’s grace will surprise us in unexpected ways. I pray we might become appreciative of God’s loving-kindness that is ever-present through the Holy Spirit. I ask that we may not shy from seeking God’s grace daily. Let us pray.


Works Cited

Anderson, Matthew Lee. "America's Four Gods: What We Say about God--And What that Says about Us." ChristianityToday.com. 2010. Web. 23 Jan. 2021.

"Miguel De Cervantes Quotes." Quotes.net. STANDS4 LLC, 2021. Web. 22 Jan. 2021.

O'Driscoll, Patrick. "Avalanche Sends Travelers Tumbling". USA Today 2007: 3a. Web. 22 Jan. 2021.

Thrall, Bill, Bruce McNicol, and John Lynch. True Faced. Navpress, 2003. Print.

Wright, N.T. "What Is Our World." Christianity Today 2006: Print.

Sunday, January 17

God's Call

 

I started to add up the number of blocked calls on my cell phone but stopped at 140 because I still had to write a sermon. We block calls for a variety of reasons, but it calls down to this. ‘We don’t want to listen to them.’ Both passages this morning deal with God’s calling of us to be His people. These are positive examples of those who did ‘block’ God’s call but sought to understand them and do what God says.

Samuel is awakened 3 times by a voice. The third time Eli, Samuel’s mentor, tells him to answer the voice with “Speak, for your servant is listening” (9). In the Gospel of John two followers of The Baptizer, John points out to them ‘the lamb of God’ (36) so they follow and when confronted by a simple question asks, “Rabbi where are you staying” (38)? In the rest of the verses of John, you hear other calls to those who are gathered.

To what does God call us?

There are endless answers as to what or where God’s call leads. But His call will not go against Jesus’ description of His people as salt and light to the world. God’s call will not go against His teaching that says, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (MT 5:44-45). Nor does God’s will for our lives nullify Jesus’ command to love one another or His calling that we will be His witnesses to the whole world.

I believe that God’s calling brings about wholeness in the most perfect sense of that word—peace or Shalom. God’s message to Samuel is to restore faithfulness to the nation so that we read, “Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering’” (1Sm 3:14). In John, the wholeness produced is that of God’s call to a group of men to become witnesses to things that change one’s name, like Peter and changes one perception such as Nathaniel who will perceive the heavenly realm.

Our culture would love to see wholeness break forth in so many places. We long for the issue of race and the police, the politics of division, the cancel culture, and a sense of being lost during this ongoing pandemic all to become places of wholeness. And the good news says that in Christ.

How do we hear this call?

To perceive God’s call, you must hear it, listen to it, discern its application and act on it. Reading God’s word is a classical way of hearing and listening to God’s voice and call. But there are those still small voices that speak God’s call into one’s life as well as the words of a wise elder or even a 2-year-old pulling on one’s preaching robe.

The most difficult part in my opinion is to discern when God is speaking and when we’re telling ourselves what we want to hear God say. In 1995 Doug McClary and I were in Toronto and experienced firsthand what was being called the blessing. It was a time of personal healing and growth but the last night as we waited for prayer, I convinced myself what I wanted God to say through the person praying for me. It didn’t happen. The person came up, laid hands on me, and simply said, “Renew his ministry”. That was the whole thing.

We traveled from Toronto to Atlanta to attend the Pastor’s conference in the Georgia Dome. Hanging one side of the platform is a huge banner of 2 Timothy 1:6 “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.” It appears that God knows what I need better than I do.

Hearing God’s call is different than listening to God’s. Hearing is biological whereas listening is an active reflection on what is heard as well as weighing the messages within the hearing. We do this as we are still, seek and watch, pray, stand ready, and we also need to have a lot of humility that we are hearing God and not ourselves. And repent and confess when we share those things that did not come from God but just make sense to us.

Hearing God I transformative…

Eli is faithful to God’s call and tells Eli about God’s impending judgment upon his family. His obedience to God impacts how Samuel is seen by others,

“The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord” (1Sm 3:19-20).

 John’s gospel is full of conversion that brings about wholeness through the process of transformation. The disciples of John the Baptizer find the Messiah. Jesus transforms Simon by renaming him Cephas meaning rock (42). A day later Nathaniel is impressed that Jesus knew what he had been doing before Philip invited him to come and see Jesus.

 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”  He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending the ‘Son of Man’” (Jn 3: 50-51).

Why entertain God’s call?

The reason we seek God’s call is because of the title of Jesus, “Lamb of God”. Where does your mind go when you hear lamb? I was raised in a suburb. We didn't’ have lambs unless it was in a petting zoo but when John used the word lamb among Jews the first thought they’d had would have been food and sacrifice.  

Every morning and night a lamb was killed and offered to God as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. What makes Jesus different is that He is The Lamb of God. He not only belongs to God, but Jesus comes from God to fulfill His calling to be the sacrifice for our sins. No other religion I am aware of has God sacrificing their child for the sins of humanity.

Listen to the voices of our world and you will hear calls to be fair, loving, selfish, greedy, altruistic, and to take care of number one. Nowhere will you hear the answer to the eternal question, “what’s wrong with me and us?” It is this wrongness that Jesus corrects on the cross. Seek our Lord, to hear his call, and be His person that we may all receive His blessing. Let us pray.

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Friday, January 1

Now that you're here, where do you go?

 Apparently, 2020 was not strange enough to keep people from stealing baby Jesus from nativity scenes from community and church displays. From sorority sisters to the Walmart employee who posted a photo of himself with the stolen statue of Jesus on Facebook (Cooper) and (Kulze). But it is not a new phenomenon. December 1953, the year I was born. Detective Friday took on the case of “The Big Little Jesus” on Dragnet. In this case, Friday and Smith (this is before Harry Morgan was on the show) tell the priest they can’t find Jesus.

In the midst of the dialogue a young boy, Paco Mendoza, shows up with baby Jesus in a wagon. He had promised the Baby Jesus the first ride in his new wagon for which he’d prayed. Father Rojas explains that Paco’s family is poor to which Friday replies, “Are they Father (Snauffer)?” Case closed.

Jesus has been stolen as a prank or as an act of hatred. Paco fulfilled his promise of the first ride in his new wagon. Sadder is that Jesus is often just overlooked or ignored even during this season of His birth.

Disinterest

This disinterest is one of three responses to Jesus we see in Matthew 2. That’s the response of those scribes whom Herod tasked with researching Messiah and His birth. For them, it was a research problem to be answered even though, as descendants of Abraham, they had a vested interest in the coming of Messiah.

The very ones who should be watching for Messiah missed Him. The People of God missed God’s greatest gift of love and ends up being upstaged by pagan stargazers.

The excuses I hear are, “I tried the ‘Jesus thing’ when I was younger”. Or “I’m so busy keeping up with life I don’t have the (time, energy, attention, etc.) to put into religion.” Others aren’t willing to take a stand for Jesus because they know their world, friends, and even jobs, depend on distancing themselves from Christ

, In my opinion, the saddest is the response like Beni, a wishy-washy character, in the 1999 movie The Mummy. Confronted with the creature Beni,  presents various talismans from a necklace and prays or makes incantations to protect him. Finally, he holds out a “Star of David” and in Hebrews says, "'Do not fail to protect me’. The mummy pauses and in ancient Egyptian answers 'The language of the slaves...I may have use for you.' (Sommers).” Sadly, most people fall into the camp that doesn't seek God till they are threatened.

Hatred and Fear

More evident in this story is the fear and hatred of Herod. It is an understatement to say he was paranoid. He had a wife and at least two sons killed because he feared plots against him. This was so well known that a Caesar August joked it was preferable to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios). This is especially insulting since Herod was Jewish.

The coming of Messiah would strip Herod of all he had and his very identity as king. Messiah would disrupt the ‘peace’ between Rome and Israel. This hatred would lead Herod to order the death of children around Bethlehem.

Worship

The rarest response and the one we wish to see in our lives is that of the Magi—worship.

What we don’t know about the Magi is greater than what we do know. We don’t know their names. We don’t know what ‘star’ they saw which led them to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. We don’t know how many of them there were. We can only guess at the reasons for the gifts they bring. Matthew doesn’t answer any of these questions. The other gospel writers don’t mention them at all.

Here is what we do learn from these men. We are to keep an eye out for Christ and what God is busy doing in our world. Their learning lets them see the significance of the star or alignment. They knew it was more than important it was life-altering.

Do we realize this today? To what extent do we choose to live as if this truth was all that matters? Jesus repeatedly told us to be awake and keep watch as to the times. That isn’t just concerning the end times. Paul is aware of God’s shutting doors and leading him to Greece. What is God up to in your life? Have you asked Him? Have you prayed over the possibilities or, like some of us, made up your mind then asked God to make it work out?

Secondly, they took steps to honor God by seeking this king. The only reason Herod was involved with these travelers was they expected this king to be born in the palace. Where else would a King be born? After all, the son of the King is the next King, usually. I am assuming they must have been somewhat confused by this, knowing Herod was the king but had no idea about this child's birth.

Gaining the information they needed they continued their course, following this star. Once found they enter the house, worship the child, and give gifts to Him. Three to six weeks from Persia or elsewhere to welcome a new king and he is found a regular village house.

What it does say that they “worshipped” Him. They didn’t just honor Him. There is no sign they believed as we do but I must believe they saw something unique in this child. He was more than just the King of the Jews. He was more than the son of Herod. Warned of Herod’s duplicity, these men found another way home. But what about us.

Where are you standing—buried in your daily life and work; standing with Herod in Jerusalem; or entering into the house to worship Jesus? Where do you go from here?

Works Cited

Cooper, Wes. "Baby Jesus Stolen from a Local Church's Nativity Scene." wjbf.com. N.p., 2019. Web. 28 Dec. 2020.

Kulze, Elizabeth. "A Brief History of Stealing Baby Jesus." Vocativ. 2013. Web. 28 Dec. 2020.

"The Little Big Jesus" Dragnet. 24 December 1953 Jack

Parpola, Simo. "The Magi and The Star." Biblical Archaeological Society 2001. Web. 28 Dec. 2020.

Snauffer, Douglas (2006). Crime Television. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, (Greenwood Publishing Group).

Sommers, Stephen. The Mummy. USA Morocco: Universal Production, 1999. DVD.