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June 25 - Where Are You?

Some months ago, I was considering some topics that I might use for a sermon.  One of the topics I considered started out with this question, “If you could ask God one question and receive a direct and immediate reply what would you ask Him?” 

I spent some time jotting down some questions and thought about them.  I noticed the questions I came up with were self-centered.  In some cases, the questions dealt with my desire for God to explain other people’s behavior.  Some questions dealt with wanting to know about my future and that of my family.  Perhaps you have thought about a question you want God to answer.  I know from the counseling setting; the most pressing question people want God to answer is “Why?”  Significant circumstances in our lives makes us want to get questions answered.  Most often our questions come from our own anxiousness and worries. 

I came to realize doing this exercise that I had started in the wrong place.  Questions I wanted to ask God did not deal with coming to understand my life through faith.  I realized that even if God answered my questions, I would not know God any better nor would I obtain a better and deeper understanding of God’s call on my life.  To know God better and know the direction of my life requires me to answer questions from God; instead of asking questions of Him.

So what questions then might God ask me or you to help us grow in faith?  How would we respond to those questions when asked?  Then I thought, what would be the purpose in God asking questions?  Since knows everything; why does God even need to ask a question?

As it turns out, God does ask questions.  In fact, we read the first recorded question from God in our Old Testament reading today.  We read that the man and woman ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and realized they were naked.  In verse 8, “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’”

There is it.  The first recorded question from God, “Where are you?”  It seems like an easy question.  But does it make sense that God who created the heavens, earth, sky, oceans, land, animals, plants, and fish suddenly cannot find the man He created?  Should we read this question, “Where are you?” as God needing the man’s help to find the man?  Seems a little bit silly that God needs the man’s help.  So, why then does God ask the question, “Where are you?”  I think we need to consider that God did not ask this question to obtain information.  Instead God asked this question to give the man an opportunity to consider what had happened.  As we recall, the man and woman had disobeyed God and ate from the tree from which God told them not to eat.  Then God came into that same garden, the man and woman hid.  God asked, “Where are you?”  God was really asking, “What are you going to do now?  How are you going to handle the reality you have chosen?  Are you going to stay hidden; is that your whole plan? Why not step out into the open and face the truth?”  We get this deeper sense of the question, “Where are you?” because the man does not say, “I’m over here.”  Instead, in response to God’s question, the man said, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so, I hid.”  There we have the man’s complete plan.  He was afraid of the truth so he just hid.  How often do we do the same when confronted with the reality of our own situations?

I read that behavioral psychologists believe that all human relationships exist in tension.  The tension comes from two forces: the need to separate and the need to be close.  The scene in the garden showed us the tension of God seeking the man to be close to him and behavior of the man showed the tension to separate from God.  When the man heard the Lord moving through the garden seeking the man [closeness], the man became fearful and hid.  He separated himself from God.  Many people do the same thing in their relationship with God.  They know that there are things in their past or in their present that is not pleasing to God; so, they avoid Him.  Some people hide in their work making their career the focus of their life.  Other people hide in their leisure playing sports or working on hobbies as the focus of their life.  A few people hide in the comforts of life. Still others avoid God by sleeping in or just staying home in an environment that is free from the reminders of God’s presence.

Here is the key point: When we look away, when we hide, from the one who seeks us, then we have also turned away from the one who can help us, love us, and in the case of God, who can forgive us.  When the man hid from God, he rejected the very source of the healing he needed.  God sought to create tension in the relationship with the man that the man might come out of hiding and once again come closer to God.  We should never seek to separate ourselves from God.  It is a tough question when God asks us, “Where are you?  Why have you separated yourself from me?”

There is another story that helps us look at separation and closeness with God.  Please turn with me to our New Testament reading from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 17, verses 11 through 19. 

Luke wrote, “On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.”  The region of Galilee was home to Jesus and very much a Jewish territory.  The region of Samaria was an area Jews avoided because the Jews and the Samaritans had a long history of mutual hatred.  Yet Jesus chose to travel in that region as well.  Verse 12, “As he [Jesus] entered a village, ten lepers approached him.”  Leprosy in Biblical writing refers to a skin disease which disfigured the person and required that the person stay outside the community to avoid spreading the disease to others.  Here we have ten people with this illness found together.  Their illness creates the tension of separation from community and the tension of seeking out Jesus for healing.  Luke said, the ten came close enough for Jesus to know their condition but not so close as to violate any separation rules of the community.  “Keeping their distance, they [the lepers] called out, saying, “’Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’”  These lepers were showing faith and a desire for God’s grace and restoration of hope.  They heard about Jesus’ power to heal and now they have the good fortunate to see Jesus and they call out, “Have mercy on us.”  Trying circumstances brought on by serious illness, difficult circumstances, and hopelessness, creates significant tension in our life and often for believers and non-believers there is an overwhelming desire to seek God.  We have all heard the expression, “There are no atheists in foxholes;” meaning when a soldier is under fire from the enemy and things seem hopeless, often a prayer is offered, “God, if you exist, get me out of this and I will believe.”  I am also here to tell you there are also no atheists in the intensive care unit of the hospital or any other setting where the next day seems hopeless.  These lepers outside the city were at that point, life was hopeless, they were dying a little each day from the disease and from separation from the community.

Verse 14, Jesus responded to a request for mercy.  “When he [Jesus] saw them [the lepers], he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’”  In those days, only a priest could declare a person clean of leprosy and allow the person to become a close member of the community again.  Luke wrote, “And as they went, they were made clean.”  The leprosy these ten suffered with was gone and their bodies restored.  What a joy for these people and what a powerful story about the Jesus’ capacity for mercy and healing.  This story could have ended here as other stories about healings by Jesus.  However, there was something more to this story.  There was something more we need to see, hear, and experience.

Verse 15, “Then one of them [the lepers], when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself [he bowed down] at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And this person was a Samaritan; not a Jew.”  We learn in this part of the story that in crisis we are alike.  Everyone in a hopeless situation, here Jew and Samaritan, seeks mercy from God.  There are no atheists in foxholes and no enemies of God among lepers.  Secondly, we learn that the Samaritan, the person trained his whole life to resent the Jews was the only one to return to give thanks for the healing.  The implication is the other nine were Jews who did not return.  The return of the Samaritan tells us that God does not draw a distinction between people.  He is more than willing to enter the life of anyone who seeks Him.  This is a key point that we could easily miss.  Our identity may concern us, it may even concern others, but it does not concern God.  Scripture tells us, “Now, in Christ, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or free, male or female. You are all the same in Christ Jesus.”  That is our identity.  We may think of ourselves as a successful person or a failure; but when we turn to Jesus, God see neither success nor failure in us.  We may think of ourselves as having much to offer or having nothing to offer; but when we turn to Jesus and ask for mercy, God sees us all the same, a child seeking his or her father.  We may think of ourselves as unworthy to be in God’s presence and we would be right if we did so on our own.  But when we turn to Jesus, God sees the righteousness of Christ in us.  God chooses to see the cleanliness of Christ in us.  When we accept Christ, we accept His identity before God.  When we see ourselves in Christ, then we want to praise and worship God.  The lepers turned to Jesus, asked for mercy, received healing, but only the Samaritan returned to praise God.  The Samaritan saw his identity in Christ.

To this scene of praise, Luke adds some tough questions from Jesus; just as the Lord God had done with Adam in the garden.  Our reading says, “Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten [lepers] made clean? But the other nine, where are they?’”  God asked Adam, “Where are you?”  Jesus asked about the nine other lepers, “Where are they?”  Jesus was really asking, “Those who were so desperate for God in their life, what are they doing now?  What will they do in response to the reality of being healed by God?  Is their plan to separate themselves from God?”  The questions are striking and lay unanswered.  The questions cause those reading this account, including us, who have received the mercy of God to contemplate how should one respond to God’s grace.  It the right response to separate ourselves from God or is it to come closer to Him?

Jesus continued in our text today to ask one final question, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he [Jesus] said to him [the Samaritan], “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Our Scriptures today ask some tough questions; “Where are you?  Where are they?”  We have contemplated the significance of these two questions.  Having thought about questions from God the Father and God the Son, we are left with just one question for us today, “What shall we do then?”  Relationships involve two forces of tension; one causes us to separate and the other causes us to come together.  In our relationship with God, which force is stronger?  The force to separate or the force to come closer to Him.  I have concluded that the more we gather our identity from Christ, the stronger the force is for us to come closer to God.  The more we identify with the world, the more about our life we hold back from God, the more we seek to separate from God.

I want to encourage you this week to spend time with God.  Do not hide from Him.  Do not run away from Him.  Seek Him.  Turn to Him.  Find your identity in Him.  Then enjoy His presence and return to Him praising Him.  If you will do this, you will find that God will see in you the image of His Son.  Let us pray.

June 18 - Celebrate with Great Joy

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go to the Great Escape with some of the youth of this church.  It was Christian Family Day.  We had good time with a lot of fun and laughs.  There were many moments of happiness.  We, as a church, also had the opportunity to share that happiness with some families that are having a tough time.  We gave tickets to a homeless student and his mother so that they could have fun at the park.  We also gave tickets to a family forced to leave their home because of domestic violence.  Those families had some fun at the park as well.  The amusement park, the Great Escape, is well named because the park does gives its guests an opportunity to escape difficult real-life situations such as homelessness and domestic violence for a few minutes of happiness.  We see here a life lesson that happiness is based upon circumstances that bring us moments of pleasure: fun rides, waterslides, and amusement park pizza.  But when those circumstances are over, when they end, so too does the happiness.

Happiness it would seem can disappear very quickly.  In this setting, on Sunday, we might ask, “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?”  The answer might surprise some because the answer is “No.”  God is not about making you and me happy.  God has a much deeper desire for our lives.  God wants us to have great joy.  Now happiness and joy sound like different words that describe the same experience.  But there is a difference.  Happiness comes from pleasurable circumstances.  When those circumstances change, happiness leaves us.  Joy is with us through all circumstances; those that make us happy and even those that make us sad.  The joy of God once in our life does not leave us.  That’s the difference.

Let’s see how God’s joy comes into our life and how God’s joy shapes us and moves us beyond simple happiness.  Let’s begin by finishing our look at the Book of Nehemiah.  Please turn with me to Chapter 8, verse 1.  Nehemiah had come to the city of Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls and gates.  When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, the people were at risk to attack.  Fear of those outside the community divided the people.  Nehemiah discovered also that the lack of compassion for one another divided the people from within the community as well.  Hope was gone and living in Jerusalem was miserable.

Nehemiah arrived in the city, found out for himself what needed to be done, and told the people he was there to rebuild and restore the community beginning with the city’s walls and gates.  He said, “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.”  There was no immediate reaction recorded by the people to Nehemiah’s call.  Rebuilding the wall would be backbreaking work.  It would require moving tons of stone daily for weeks and the making of many exceptionally heavy wooden gates.  Life was already miserable in Jerusalem.  Adding this much work to the lives of the people would only make things seem much worse.  Nehemiah understood this feeling among the people.  He wrote in Chapter 1, “So, I told them [the people] that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me; and then they said, ‘Let us start building!’”  The people understood their lives were difficult.  Safe shelter did not exist.  There never was enough food.  They did not have money.  People were taking advantage of the weak.  And now this guy rides into town and says, “Let’s break our backs and move tons upon tons of stone.”  This is not an exciting and happy development but the peoplelet’s do it because they believed God was involved.

If you do not sense God involved in your life, then everything you do will seem like a boring chore to be done only when it can no longer be avoided.  If you do not sense God in your life, then you will continually seek out places or things that you believe bring you that temporary happiness.  The people of Jerusalem sensed God was involved in this great project and they willingly agreed to take on an enormous amount of work.  This was not a happy time but it was a time of joy.

We now come to our reading in Chapter 8.  The wall is done and the gates are in place.  The people had completed the backbreaking work.  Verse 1, “All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel.”  The book of the law are the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  In the Jewish traditions, these books are also called the Torah.  In a Jewish worship service, the main event is the public reading of the Torah.

Nehemiah continued in verse 2, “Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding.  He read from it [the Torah] facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday.”  The words Ezra sounded something like this, “ רֵ אשִׁ ית: b·rashith בָּ רָ א bra (barra) אֱ הִ ים aleim (Elohim) אֵ ת ath (u ath) הַ שָּׁ מַ יִ ם e·shmim (a shah-mim) וְ אֵ ת u·ath הָ אָ רֶ ץ e·artz (air-at-et).  We know these words as, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  God was involved in our entire world from the beginning.

Ezrah continued reading until he came to the end of the book of Deuteronomy where he read, “Surely it is you [God] who love the people; all the holy ones are in your hand.  At your feet they all bow down, and from you receive instruction.”  In verse 6, Nehemiah wrote, “Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” 

The people listened to the story of God and learned again of His love for the people; about His involvement in their lives.  They listened to God’s story and they found that their story was part of His.  Realizing that they were part of God’s story, filled the people with joy.  In their joy, they worshipped God.  This was a wonderful moment in the history of the Jewish people.  We then read in verse 10, that “Nehemiah, said to the people, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”  And in verse 12, “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”  When we understand that God loves us, then have great joy in our life.  In response to that inward joy, we want to celebrate.  We see here the people had a great party to express that joy but they wanted to involve others.  They included in that party everyone, including those who did not have the food or money to celebrate.  Joy is contagious.  We want to share it with others.

Do you know God loves you and is involved in your life?  Do you have joy in your life that does not disappear just because things get tough?  Are you contagious with joy?  Do you party and invite others to join you in understanding God’s love?  We, of course, are not part of the city of Jerusalem; yet we can have the same joy knowing that God loves us.  We know this because God sent Jesus, His Son, to walk with the people and to show them what God’s love looked like.  But men, powerful men, did not want to hear from God so they killed Jesus.  After three days in a rock tomb, Jesus arose, He was alive. 

We read from the New Testament today that Jesus looked for and found his disciples gathered in a house.  We read, “Jesus stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”  Scripture said, “In their joy [at seeing Jesus] they were disbelieving and still wondering.”  Just one week earlier, Jesus disciples had marched into Jerusalem singing and waving palms.  Those circumstances made them happy!  Then suddenly Jesus was arrested, killed in the most horrible manner, and buried inside a rock tomb.  Happiness left them and those circumstances made them sad.  But now they saw something extraordinary, Jesus alive from the dead.  He spoke to his disciples.  They were no longer sad.  They were not happy.  Instead, they had joy!  They knew in a way no one else ever had known that God loved them and showed that love to them.  Yet, they struggled with doubts.

I am so glad Luke added those words: “In their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.”  It is so helpful to see the disciples as real people.  The disciples had joy in their lives even though they could not make complete sense out how it was that Jesus died but now was alive.  We all have some doubts and things about the way God works that we cannot fit together in our own minds.  We will struggle with aspects of the Bible and understanding God’s ways our entire life.  We struggle because we are not God.  But here is the thing the Luke gave us that is important.  Even though the disciples struggled with doubt they still had joy.  We do not need to understand everything about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, heaven, hell, before we can have joy in our lives.  What gave the disciples joy was knowing that Jesus dead and now was alive.  What gave the disciples joy was knowing that Jesus was the Son of God.  What gave the disciples joy was knowing that following Jesus would give them eternal life.  When we believe in these things, then we have joy.  When we believe in these things, then Jesus can begin the work to help us through our doubts, to help us through all circumstances of life, and to help us to become more like him.

We saw that unfold in the balance of the New Testament story.  In the disciples’ joy of knowing Jesus was alive, Jesus began to reveal the meaning of the Scripture to the disciples beginning with the law of Moses, the Torah.  Just as Ezra had done, Jesus began teaching the disciples from the original words of the Bible.  , “ רֵ אשִׁ ית: b·rashith בָּ רָ א bra (barra) אֱ הִ ים aleim (Elohim) אֵ ת ath (u ath) הַ שָּׁ מַ יִ ם e·shmim (a shah-mim) וְ אֵ ת u·ath הָ אָ רֶ ץ e·artz (air-at-et).  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  The foundation for joy is understanding God is the giver of life.  Luke wrote that once the disciples understood this point, Jesus explained that it was necessary for Him “to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance [the need to turn toward God] and forgiveness of sins [by God] is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  This is the joy of God; that when we turn toward Jesus, He will forgive all sin, all mistakes, all failures, and love us for all time.  Once we believe in Jesus and accept His forgiveness, we cannot lose that forgiveness no matter whether we are enjoying the pleasant things of life or going through the trials of life.  We read that when the disciples understood these words of Jesus, “they worshiped Jesus and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”

If you have Jesus in your life, then God has given you great joy.  Find that great joy within you.  Read about that great joy in the Bible.  Wear that great joy on your face.  Have a party to celebrate that great joy.  Let it rise from you and share it with others.

Perhaps you have not said to Jesus, “I want to be forgiven and I want great joy in my life.”  Perhaps you have not done so because you have some doubts or you are unsure of what it means to accept Jesus and how all of life’s questions and problems and issues all fit together.  Take a breath.  Start like Jesus’ disciples.  They accepted that Jesus was dead but now was alive.  They accepted that Jesus was the Son of God.  They accepted that believing in Jesus meant they were forgiven.  They accepted God loved them.  They accepted the great joy God wanted offered them.  They knew they would spend the rest of their lives coming to understand how all of life’s questions and problems and issues all fit together.  If you have never said before others, “I accept Jesus,” then I encourage you to do so today.  Come up front as we sing our final hymn or speak to me after service to tell me.  Do not listen to your doubts.  This is a day for great joy – let’s go from this place in celebration of the life God has given us.  Amen and Amen.

June 4 - A United Community

            Several years ago, my wife and I became friends with a couple that bought an extremely large older house, built in the late 1800’s.  I think the house had about 20 rooms.  The front door was an impressive set of French doors with fancy brass doorknobs.  I am sure when completed, the house was a beautiful work of art.  When we first saw the house, it needed repair.  I remember one time when I went to leave the house, I turned the doorknob to the front door only to have doorknob fall off into my hand.  The owner said, “Oh, yes, the screw holding the doorknob in place fell out some time ago.”  About a year later, I was at the house again.  When I went to leave the house, the doorknob was missing.  Little by little, the house was falling apart.  The amount of work necessary to restore the house was growing daily.

            This illustration is true of all things we create.  Little by little, things breakdown, wear out, and tarnish.  It can be discouraging to have things erode before our eyes.  This erosion process, the constant wearing down, can occur in relationships as well.  In the workplace, it is common to find bosses who berate and belittle the workforce; constantly wearing people down.  This process of one person eroding the self-esteem or self-worth of another happens in many other settings as well.

Our good friend Nehemiah was dealing with this very problem of erosion and breaking down in a couple of separate ways.  He was in Jerusalem to restore the wall and gates that protected the city and its inhabitants.  There was a lot of work to do to correct the destruction caused by men and the elements.  Nehemiah had inspired the people of the city to begin building the walls.  It was physically demanding work to lift into place the rocks and stone to make the wall and to build a dozen or more pairs of massive wooden gates.  The people were getting exhausted.  In addition physical exhaustion, people outside the community were berating and belittling the efforts of the people of Jerusalem.  Their names were Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem.  They would chant and laugh at the people saying, “That stone wall you are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!”  We all have had similar people in our lives seeking to break us down and make fun of our efforts whether the task is building a wall, raising a family, or completing an assignment from our teacher or boss.

            Nehemiah knew the work to rebuild the walls and gates would be hard.  He knew the city inhabitants would face people who were against them.  He expected that.  But then Nehemiah learned of a new and unexpected source of discouragement and belittling.  This source was more dangerous than the physical work and interference by others.  Please turn with me to Nehemiah, Chapter 5 to explore this source of danger and how it effects our lives today.

            Nehemiah wrote in Chapter 5, verse 1, “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin.”  Nehemiah wasted no time naming the source of discouragement; it was from within the family.  The discouragement the people faced had been from outside themselves.  Now the discouragement came from the insiders; fellow Jews.  This is like a cancer.  We read on, “For there were those who said, ‘With our sons and our daughters, we are many; we must get grain, so that we may eat and stay alive.’”  The first group were the poorest of the city.  They needed food and could not get any to stay alive.  In verse 3, “There were also those who said, ‘We are having to pledge our fields, our vineyards, and our houses in order to get grain during the famine.’”  The second group owned property but had to mortgage their property to get food.  In verse 4, “And there were those who said, ‘We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax.’”  The third group had food to eat but had to borrow money to pay taxes and they were going to lose their property to those who loaned them the money.

The borrowing of money for food and taxes was so bad all the people said in verse 5, “Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; [we are all Jews] our children are the same as their children; [our children and those of wealth are the same – they have dreams] and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others [to other Jews].’”  The Jews of the city, the poor and property owners, borrowed money from the wealthy Jews.  To pay the interest due on those loans, the poorer Jews were forced to give their children as slaves to wealthier Jews.

Nehemiah knew his fellow citizens of Jerusalem were discouraged because of the destruction by others of the city’s walls and gates.  He knew the physical work of rebuilding was exhausting.  Nehemiah knew the taunts of Sanballat and Tobiah were disheartening.  He knew these forces from outside the community made life difficult.  But now Nehemiah learned that community was under attack from within.  Instead of a community supporting one another, there were those within the community devouring others.  We can withstand a great deal of insult from those who we do not know; however, we can stand very little hurt from those who know.  When those we know hurt us we quickly lose hope.

Nehemiah responded in verse 8, “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints.”  Nehemiah was angry.  Too often we think that people of faith are not supposed to get angry.  The truth is people of faith exhibit self-control and withhold anger at others but do get angry at unjust situations.  Nehemiah learned about the unjust practices within the faith community and he became angry about it. “After thinking it over, I brought charges against the nobles and the officials; I said to them, “You are all taking interest from your own people.” And I called a great assembly to deal with them, and said to them, “As far as we were able, we have bought back our Jewish kindred who had been sold to other nations; but now you are selling your own kin, who must then be bought back by us!” They were silent, and could not find a word to say. So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good.”  Nehemiah did not believe in politically correct speech.  He called out the problem and the problem makers before a large assembly of people and accused them of enslaving their own people.  Nehemiah continued in verse 11, “’Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.’”  The wealthy members of the community promised to restore everything and Nehemiah shook out the folds from his garment as a symbol of God shaking out from His kingdom in judgment those who did not do as promised.  “And [then] all the assembly said, ‘Amen,’ and praised the Lord.”  The cancer within was removed.

Nehemiah came to understand that God’s called him to rebuild the walls and city gates to protect the community from outsiders.  This was the visible pain of the city; Nehemiah could see and visualize it.  But God had a deeper call for Nehemiah; it was a mission of healing and uniting a community from a dangerous condition within itself.  This was the invisible pain that God revealed to Nehemiah.  This is often the way God works.  He shows us with the visible pain of a situation and then brings us in the deeper pain people are experiencing.  The pain within, the pain of broken relationships, loneliness, and hopelessness is always deeper than physical pain and it is always the desire of God for us to minister to others in such pain.

We might ask, “How does this scene that deals with interest charging and enslaving others apply to my life today?  I neither loan money nor do I enslave the children of others.”  The broad issue for people of faith to recognize that we will face challenges and that God calls us always towards restoration.  Things we own will erode.  Doorknobs to the front door of our homes may indeed fall off.  People who are outside the faith community will not understand us and will indeed behave badly towards us.  People outside the faith do not understand God’s love and lack the capacity to show love to others.  What we must come to terms with as people of faith, people who claim Christ as their Savior and Lord, is God’s deeper call on our lives.  He calls us toward restoration of others.  He calls towards kindness to one another.  Holding grudges and abusing one another with power, with words, and actions are injustices just as severe as enslaving someone’s child.  Withhold love and concern for another because of their skin color, language, gender, or social standing is another form of anger producing injustice.  We are called to something much deeper.

Listen for a moment to a description of a community of Christians and see if you can detect any injustice.  “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”  Did you hear any injustice or complaints among the people?  I did not.  In this setting, the early Christians expressed a deep and very pure form of love for one another.  They believed in the good news that Jesus died for their sins and rose again from the dead.  The natural outcome of their belief was to live in a united community.

Was there anything in the description of their life together that helped them keep that unity?  I think there was one important phrase.  The passage from Scripture said, “they broke bread at home.”  Breaking bread did not simply mean eating dinner together.  It meant eating in the memory of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Breaking bread meant the people faithfully and often reminded themselves of what Jesus did for them.  They remembered that Jesus held nothing back from those He loved and He gave His body over to unjust men.  They remembered that Jesus bleed for those He loved that through His giving they who followed Him could enjoy fellowship with God and one another.  Jesus invited injustice and unfairness upon Himself and asked us to live the life that He lived.

The Apostle Paul understood the unfairness upon Christ so that he, Paul, could be saved.  Paul said, “For while I was still weak, at the right time Christ died for me, though I was ungodly.  God shows his love for me in that while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me.”  (Romans 5:6)  Do we understand that Christ did not treat us fairly?  He did not give good because he received good from us.  He did not give righteousness because we deserved it.  He gave us righteousness, He was good to us, at the very moment we were his enemies.  When he was being nailed to the cross, he begged God for the forgiveness of those holding the nails and swinging the hammer.  I cannot imagine my fate if God dealt fairly with me.  Who am I to withhold such a gift of grace from another.

We have an opportunity to break bread and unite as a community of believers through the Lord’s Table.  Today is the day to remember the unfair exchange we received from Christ.  In receiving the bread, leave any grudges at the table, and live in peace with one another.  In receiving the cup, let us ease one another’s burdens, one another loneliness, one another’s hopeless moments, and one another’s pain.  This is part of the call God has placed on our lives to remove the inward pain and restore the dignity of one another.  Come, let us be a united community.  Let us pray.

May 28 - A Time to Build

            Last Sunday, we spoke about a man named Nehemiah.  We learned that God placed on Nehemiah’s heart a call to rebuild the protective wall surrounding Jerusalem.  Nehemiah sat, wept, fasted, and prayed for God to lead and empower him to carrying out this task.

Today, I would like us to pick up the story with Nehemiah’s arrival in the city of Jerusalem.  We will find that in Nehemiah, Chapter 2, beginning at verse 11.  I would invite you to turn to that passage for a few minutes.  After we look at this passage, we will perhaps see how Nehemiah’s experience plays into our life today.

In Nehemiah, Chapter 2, with beginning at verse 11, Nehemiah wrote, “So I came to Jerusalem and was there for three days.  Then I got up during the night, I and a few men with me; I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. The only animal I took was the animal I rode.  I went out by night by the Valley Gate past the Dragon’s Spring and to the Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that had been broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire.”  In the quiet of the night, while others slept, Nehemiah reflected on the conditions of the city.  He did not ask others to tell him what they saw or to otherwise report their findings to him.  Nehemiah did the work to reflect on reality of the situation; walls were knocked down and the city gates were just charred remains of once mighty timber.

Nehemiah continued his journey, “Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool; but there was no place for the animal I was riding to continue.”  This area was a mess.  Those destroying the wall had scattered the debris so much that there was not even a pathway for an animal find its footing.  Nehemiah wrote, “So I went up by way of the valley by night and inspected the wall. Then I turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned.”  In the night, Nehemiah came to understand the extent of the problem; there was a broken protective wall, gates no longer able to let through what is good and necessary and keep out what is corrupt, and the debris of the past surrounding the city impeding the growth and life.  This passage reminds us that we come to understand things different at night than we do in the daylight.  Throughout the history of humankind, daylight is the principle time for gathering food, doing work, and engaging in physical activity.  We are so busy during the day there is little time to reflect on the big picture.  At nighttime, when our bodies come to rest, we are more able to think through the circumstances in which we find ourselves, the stressful situation we are wrestling with, and decisions we need to make to move forward.  In the quiet of the night, Nehemiah thought things through.

With the thoughts of the night completed, Nehemiah met with the leaders of the people.  In verse 17, Nehemiah wrote, “I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.’”  Nehemiah was direct with the people and he spoke plainly about the conditions.  I remember one time when I worked for the Federal government I was in Tennessee overseeing some work at facility that produced highly enriched uranium.  I commented to the security director of the facility that there was really some to this idea of southern hospitality.  I said the people of the south seem friendlier and more courteous than people of the north.  In response, he said, “Well, George, down here we would rather lie to you than hurt your feelings.  Now you guys from New York, you don’t care about people’s feelings; you just tell it like it is.”

When we face serious issues, we need to deal with the truth and not try to change the truth so that the situation seems somehow better.  Nehemiah was being a New Yorker here.  He said to the people of Jerusalem like it is; “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.”  But then Nehemiah added the other important truth to the situation, and it is the truth that makes all the difference because invokes hope.  In verse 18, Nehemiah wrote, “I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good.”  Nehemiah shared with the people the truth that even though the situation was difficult, God was involved and thus there was hope.  The situation of broken walls, burnt gates, and debris not only could all change but would all change because God was involved.  We all need to have hope.

At this point, Nehemiah had things well under control.  God called him to Jerusalem.  The king gave him gave him support to do the work.  Nehemiah accurately assessed the situation and now he had the people joining up and committed to the work.  What could go wrong?  Verse 19, tells us about some new trouble, “But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it [Nehemiah’s plan and the commitment of the people to rebuild the walls and gate], they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, “What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?”  Here is another New York truth.  Whenever you commit to do what is right or whenever you decide to follow God; someone, usually someone who knows your circumstances will ridicule you.  They will make fun of you.  They will call you names.  They may even threaten you.  People will do this because they are anxious.  They are anxious that you are doing something they are not capable of doing.  They are anxious because they fear losing control over you.  They are anxious because they see in you what they do not have.  They see in you hope, purpose, and meaning.  They are anxious because they have no real relationship with God and you do.

I saw, heard, and experienced this mocking of others first hand this week.  In a very public setting, an anxious and spiritually immature person began speaking loudly mocking others for going to church.  This person tore down and put down the other people in the belief the others would stop going to church; that they would feel ashamed or uncomfortable continuing to develop in the manner God wanted.  It was an ugly display.  The world is full of Sanballats, Tobiahs, and Genshems, all of whom are only too eager to move us from following God.  What then can we do about such people?  We might want to think about Nehemiah’s response, another “New Yorker” reply.  Verse 20, “Then I replied to them [the detractors], “The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building.”  Nehemiah affirmed God was central to his life no matter what others said.  Whatever success he experienced was due God and that Nehemiah and the others would work together to build the life God wanted for them.  Nehemiah showed us that we must not be distracted by the those who seek to pull us away from God.

Nehemiah’s story from about 445 BC is an interesting account but how do we apply it to our life today.  How do broken walls, burnt gates, and rubble relate to our lives?  Let explore the answer to that question through our New Testament reading with Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6.  I invite you to turn to that passage.

We saw earlier that when it was time to reflect on the situation in Jerusalem, Nehemiah sought understanding by separating himself from others.  We must do likewise when we want to understand what God’s will is for our life.  We must speak to God in the quiet.  In the New Testament passage, Jesus had these words for his followers, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  As Nehemiah did, Jesus encouraged us; separate yourself from others and spend time with God.  But once with God, Jesus said do not pray by repeating mindless phrases as though that matters.  And do not ask God for one thing after the other as though He is not aware of the needs of His own creation.  Jesus was encouraging us to do as Nehemiah did and plainly talk to God about the challenges of life; broken walls, burnt gates, and debris in our lives.

There are broken walls in our lives.  Walls give structure and definition.  But into everyone’s life, instead of structure and definition there comes brokenness.  Perhaps, the brokenness comes about because a person we loved and counted upon for love in return, who gave us wise counsel, and friendship is not there for us anymore.  In some cases, that brokenness comes because the person died.  In other cases, the person is still alive but have withdrawn from us.  They are no longer giving us the support they once did.  There is brokenness.  God wants to rebuild the brokenness in our life but He will not do unless we come to Him and commit to His rebuilding plan.  How do we know what His plan is to rebuild brokenness in our life?  We talk to God.  Nehemiah did.  Jesus did.  We must.

There are burnt gates in our lives.  For Nehemiah, city gates allowed for the control of good things to come into the life of the city’s inhabitants and the power to block dangerous things from coming in.  Many people today suffer because the gates to their lives are burnt away.  Anything and everything comes into their life.  When the gates to our hearts are burnt, we might listen to the Jesus words which are good and listen those of the neighborhood gossip, which are dangerous.  When the gates to our hearts are burnt, we might enjoy a Bible study on Wednesday, which is good and watch pornographic movie on Thursday, which is dangerous.  When the gates to our hearts are burnt, we take the elements of bread and grape juice at the communion table to remember Christ, which is good, and later in the week consume so much the world that we cannot even remember what it means to be a Christian apart from the world.  If we follow Christ, we must be apart from the world while remaining in the world.  We can only do this if we have strong gates that allow us to receive what is good and block what is dangerous.  How do we restore those gates?  We must turn to God.

There is debris in our lives.  There are things in our lives that keep us from walking with God.  There are worries about our earthly living over which we stumble.  Sometimes the failures of our past make it seem impossible to move forward.  We need to go to God ask Him to remove the debris from our lives.

Jesus said, “When you want to talk to God, when you want to invite Him to rebuild your life, replace those gates, and remove the debris, ‘Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed [holy] be your name.  May your kingdom come.  May your will be done, on earth as it [already] is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread. [Thank you and continue to give us those things that sustain our bodies.]  And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”  This is a simple prayer that we pray every Sunday. 

There are two noteworthy features I want us to see.  First, is forgiveness.  We say to God, “God forgive us for doing things our way.  Forgive us for the dumb mistakes, the careless words, and thoughtless acts.”  Wiping away all the wrongs of the past, the debris, is the first step in getting the pieces of our life back into order.  However, there is a cost for such forgiveness from God.  Some people do not want to pay it.  Jesus said the price is this, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  Forgiveness of others sin against us is central to God helping us to put the pieces of our life back in order.  If there is unforgiveness in our life, then the pieces of our own life will not fit back together.

Second, the pray asks God to intrude into our life with a new direction; God lead me and rescue me.  Build that protective wall around me and give me strong gates.  We are asking God to move us from the way we used to do things to the way He would have us do them.  This is not easy because others we say to us, “What is all this God stuff and church stuff?  Look at you.  I remember you when did…”  They will remind us of the worst of our past.  They will remind us whenever we make a mistake in the present.  They will tell us that nothing will change for the future.  We must forgive and make use of those strong gates to keep the dangerous thoughts and words of others out.

The process of rebuilding us into the person God wants us to be is never ending.  The process of becoming more like Jesus continues every day.  I want to encourage you to talk plainly to God and come into agreement with Him who needs your forgiveness.  Agree with Him about where there is brokenness, burnt gates, and debris that needs cleaning.  God’s message for each is plain: “It is the time to rebuild.”  Let’s us pray.

May 21 - What Breaks Your Heart

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to make a blood donation.  The process is the same for each person.  You begin with a stranger asking you series of questions about your travels to other countries, the medications you take, illnesses you may have had, the amount of time you may have spent in prison, and your sex life.  After completing the questions, the stranger then pokes your finger to gather some blood, takes your temperature, checks your pulse, and your blood pressure.  With questions and examinations from outside your body, the stranger is trying to look inside of you.  They want to answer two questions:  First, “Are you healthy enough to give blood?”  Second, “Is your blood healthy enough to give to someone else?” 

In a general sense, this is the process used throughout our life by strangers – they try to know us be examining us from the outside to the inside.  We see this examination process used throughout Scriptures.  When Israel wanted a king, the elders looked at a man named Saul.  Scripture said that Saul was “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.”  The people desired Saul because of his youth, is good looks, and his height.  Saul was a disaster as a king.  When God charged the prophet Samuel to find someone to replace Saul, Samuel, a prophet of God, saw a young man Eliab.  Samuel looked at this young man and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”  But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  God does not care what you or I look like.  Our height, weight, skin color, hair color, or any other visible characteristic is unimportant to God.  Unlike man, God looks from the inside to the outside.  The Lord looks at your heart and mine.

The heart in the Bible is not simply the organ that sits in the middle of our chest to pump blood.  The heart in Scripture means the inner self that thinks, feels, and decides.  In the Bible, the heart experiences all emotions; love, hate, fear, sorrow, peace, and bitterness.  In the Bible, the heart thinks, it imagines, it remembers, it speaks to itself and it makes decisions.  In the Bible, the heart reflects someone’s personality, sincerity, hardness, maturity, and rebelliousness.  The Lord looks at your heart and mine because He is not a stranger who can only look at the outside.  God is always looking at the inner person.  We read these words about God’s relationship to each person here from Psalm 139: God…For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.  My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes saw my unformed body.”  God knows you and me from the inside.  He knows what we do before we do it.  God knows what we will say before we say it.  Note, however, God does not keep us from doing or saying things that displease Him even though He knows what we are going to do or say.  This is one of the mysteries of faith.  If God knows that someone is going to say something hurtful or do something that is evil, why then does it not silence that person or stop them?  If I am about to do or say something harmful, why doesn’t God just stop me?  Why does he let me choose?  The answer is fairly simple.  If God stopped us from speaking or acting, then our actions would no longer be free and voluntary.  If God forced me to speak and act in only one way and against my will, then I would not be free.  If God took away my freedom, then I could never experience love.  God understands that love cannot be forced; it must always be free and voluntary otherwise it is not love.  Love compels God to grant us freedom to love, the choice to love Him, and to love others through our words and actions.  Yet that freedom also gives us the choice to harm others through our words and actions.  God is always working within our hearts to move toward love.

   What is within our hearts is the focus of our Scripture readings today.  I would like us to explore for a few minutes our Old Testament reading from the Book of Nehemiah.  We read from Chapter 2, but I would like to begin briefly with a couple of verses from Chapter 1.

The setting of these words is about the year 445 B.C.  The political superpower of the day was King Artaxerxes of Persia; modern day Iran.  In the first chapter, we learn that Nehemiah, a Jewish man, is in Persia where he meets some men who recently came from Jerusalem.  There had been war in Jerusalem.  Nehemiah asks, “How are the Jewish people doing in Jerusalem?”  We pick up the response in Chapter 1, verse 3.  “They replied, ‘The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.’”  Nehemiah wrote, “When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”

            The conditions described by these men rested in the heart of Nehemiah.  The heart that sensing part of our humanness that contemplates, sifts, reflects, thinks, and reacts.  Nehemiah’s heart broke at this news and he wept.  He saw in the broken wall a people no longer able to defend themselves.  Other people, stronger people, could come and go from the city and do as they willed to these people.  The Jews of Jerusalem would not only lose their identity but also their freedom to worship God in the Temple.  Nehemiah’s first response when this news came into his heart was to go to God.  He gave up eating for a time and just prayed that God would redeem the people of Jerusalem.  When I read this passage, I began to ask myself, “When I hear news that distresses me or causes my heart to break, is my natural reaction to fast and pray?”  Honestly, my answer was “No.”  I am still far too prone to try to fix things in my own strength, on my own schedule, and in my own way more than I am prone to pause, to sit down, to weep, to fast, and to pray.  Taking the time to pause, sit, weep, fast, and pray allows God the time to work within us and become the central part of the answer.  Taking the time also reminds us of who we are in relationship to the problem.  Note in the final verse of Chapter 1, Nehemiah wrote, “At the time, I was the cupbearer to the king.”  Nehemiah’s job as cupbearer was to taste and serve wine to the king.  If Nehemiah lived or did not get sick then the king drank the wine.  Nehemiah, in his time of reflection before God, recognized the conditions in Jerusalem that broke his heart were far bigger than he as cupbearer to the king could fix.  In his own strength, on his own schedule, and in his own way, Nehemiah was not capable of healing the pain that broke his heart or helping the people of Jerusalem.  Only God could change both situations.  This is an important lesson because too often we face heart breaking circumstances and conclude we cannot fix such a large problem so we do nothing about it.  We are right in the respect we cannot fix it on our own but we are wrong in the respect to do nothing.  Nehemiah understood he could not fix the problem but he knew in his heart that he could be an instrument of God to help.

            In our reading today from Chapter 2 we see the heart of Nehemiah exposed as he was serving wine to King Artaxerxes.  At the end of verse 1 Nehemiah wrote, “Now, I had never been sad in his [the king’s] presence before.  So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’  Then I was very much afraid.  I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’”  Nehemiah could not shake the distress of his heart.  He could not let go of a burning desire within him that the situation in Jerusalem needed correction; God’s people were in danger.  This situation was so pressing on Nehemiah that the concern of his heart was now clear on his face.

“4 Then the king said to me [Nehemiah], ‘What do you request?’  So I prayed to the God of heaven.”  Here again we see that when Nehemiah needed understanding and direction for his life, his first thought was to pray to God for wisdom.  Nehemiah was willing to let God lead him.  Nehemiah prayed to God so that God could guide Nehemiah’s thoughts and so that God could work on the heart of the king.  I cannot say I ever recall having my boss ask me, “What is bother you today?” and me to at once go to prayer.  Nehemiah, however, understood God needed to help answer the king’s question, “What do you request?”

 We read in verses 5 through 8 that after Nehemiah prayed he asked the king to send him to Jerusalem to repair the walls and gates of the city.  He asked the king to give him letters granting him safe passage and letters for the timber he would need for the gates.  In turning over this situation to God, Nehemiah came to understand the beginning of God’s plan to fix the problem.  Nehemiah needed time off from work.  He needed permission to go to work on the problem.  He needed resources for the project.  He needed the authority of the king.  And then we read at the end of verse 8, “And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.”  God graciously intruded into the life of Nehemiah because Nehemiah chose to invite God.  God gave the initial call on Nehemiah’s heart but Nehemiah chose to ask God into his life even further.  God moved Nehemiah to tears for the people of Jerusalem.  God caused Nehemiah to be willing to forgo the comfort of his life in the palace of the king to live and work in city that lay in ruin from war.  Nehemiah understood the brokenness he felt in his own heart was God’s compassion for the people in Jerusalem.

What breaks your heart?  What is that God has laid on your heart that concerns you even to the point of tears?  In stillness and quiet, where has God said to you, “Do you see what is happening there?  Do you see that person who is in trouble over here?  Are you listening to what is happening in your own family?  Do you see those people who have no hope?  They are people I love; I want you show them My love.”  What breaks your heart?

Your heart and my heart, the place of compassion, care, and ministry is what Jesus came to reshape.  In our New Testament reading today, we read for the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus said to all those who would listen, 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  Jesus knew that our human desires would conflict with those God gives us.  Jesus encouraged us to examine carefully what we treasured.  When Nehemiah was confronted with the news about the situation in Jerusalem, he at once went to prayer with God.  Nehemiah lived a comfortable life.  He lived in the palace.  He drank the wines meant for the king.  The king and queen knew him personally; he lived among the treasurers of the earth.  Yet he was willing to give those things that rust and moths destroy for the work and will of God.  Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Where is your heart this morning?  Is there a conflict between your earthly treasurers of such things as money, comfort, peace and quiet and the treasurers of heaven – a close relationship with God, the ability to forgive, compassion to heal, hope in the future, wisdom for living, and salvation for your soul?  Jesus’ words call us to sort through those two types of treasure.  He calls us to see where our heart rests.  Nehemiah understood the need to sort through our heart but he knew that we must do that with God.  Nehemiah repeatedly prayed for God to make clear the better choice.  Then God being God, allowed Nehemiah the freedom to choose whether to follow God’s desires or his own desires. 

We have the same freedom and the same calls placed upon our hearts today.  Nehemiah chose God and began to serve those in need as God wanted.  We will talk about what happened next to Nehemiah because even though he decided to follow God not everyone was happy with his decision.  Verse 10, Nehemiah wrote, “When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.”  We can always expect when we follow God, even when we are reaching out to those in need, some people will be unhappy with us.  We will talk more about that another time.

For today, it is enough for us to ask ourselves, “What breaks my heart?  Who is God pointing out to me asking – Will you show them My love?”  We should do as Nehemiah; sit and pray for God’s guidance.  Let’s do that now as we pray together.

May 14 - The Nature of Church

Today, we take time as a nation to reflect and honor the moms in our life with the celebration of Mother’s Day.  The modern celebration of Mother’s Day began with a young Appalachian homemaker, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis.   During the American Civil War, Ms. Jarvis called for a "Mothers Friendship Day.”  She organized women throughout the Civil War to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides.  After the war, she began work to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors.  It was Jarvis' daughter, Anna Jarvis, who finally succeeded in introducing the concept of Mother's Day as a day to “honor mothers, living and dead."  Because of her efforts, the first Mother’s Day was observed on May 10, 1908, by a church service at the Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia.  At the outset, Mother’s Day was a time for Christians to celebrate motherhood.  Women who sought to nourish, care for, and educate all without distinction of side or strength started this day.  It was not about greeting cards, flower bouquets, candy, or dining out.  It was about Christians honoring mothers and celebrating the very best nature of motherhood.

What then might we say about Godly motherhood?  Proverbs tells us that, “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”  Godly mothers, therefore, bring discernment and understanding to life.  Godly mothers are teachers seeking to raise up those under her care.  They speak the truth in grace, even when the truth may be difficult to hear.  Godly mothers care deeply and love those under their care.  What does such wisdom, kindness, and care produce?  For the children of godly mothers, there is security, self-esteem, confidence, pride, and feelings of importance.  Godly mothers bring balance and completeness to the lives of her children.  They bring support even when others are critical of their children.  They bring comfort and even humor through their wisdom. 

How does a Godly mother do all of this and more?  She does this by placing God first.  Let me explain that statement a bit. One of the issues I discuss with every person I walk with through grief is an issue of identity.  In many ways, when we lose someone very close to us, we struggle with the question, “Who am I without this person in my life?”  That is a question of identity.  When we are grieving the loss of someone, we can come to believe that we are the grieving widow, widower, son, daughter, or friend.  Grief becomes our identity and we begin to conform our behavior to that identity and we act consistent with our own and other people’s expectations of grief.  Grief is not an identity for God’s people.  For God’s people, our identity, even in grief can be expressed this way, “I am a child of God, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords.  Jesus Christ lives within me.  God has promised to always be there.  He is with me right now, and, oh, by the way, I am grieving.”  Our identity is always defined by our standing with God, no matter what else may be going on in our life.  A Godly mother always understands that her identity does not come from her parents, husband, children, job, or anything else except for her relationship with God.  Most simply, a Godly mother puts God first.  From this identity, from this position of strength in her relationship with God, she can care and support her children.

A Godly mother is confident that she is a creation of God and loved by Him.  In her confidence with God, she is comfortable knowing that women and men were each made by God to complement one another.  She is confident and comfortable being a woman.  A Godly mother knows that as she and her husband each seek to get closer to God, they become closer as wife and husband.  A Godly mother understands the nature of service and sacrifice for others.  She understands the need to love God and others.  A Godly mother knows that she can be used of God as instrument to change the world.  This has been true throughout history and most true when we consider the motherhood of a young girl named Mary of Nazareth who when she learned she was to become the mother of Jesus said humbly, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38).

Now in Christian culture, the character of a Godly mother has been used to describe the nature of the Christian church.  How is a local Christian church like, or unlike, a Godly mother?  First, the local church is unlike a Godly mother because a mother is a single body and spirit and the local church is comprised of many people.  However, Christ calls the local church to act like one body and spirit.  In acting like one, Christ does call the local church to “open her mouth with wisdom, and [to have] the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”  I have been in some local churches where they describe themselves as “a friendly church,” where the people practice speaking with wisdom and kindness.  God is noticeable first in that church.  You ever notice that no church ever describes themselves as a self-serving, mean-spirited group?  Yet, I have also been in some churches that describe themselves as “a friendly church,” where that label of self-serving and mean-spiritedness could apply because wisdom and kindness, like that found in a Godly mother, are absent.  God is an afterthought in that church.  The feeling you get in those two different environments is easily noticeable whether you are a discerning Christian or a seeking non-believer because we know when God is first or God is missing.

In our reading today from the apostle Paul’s letter, he said to that church, be a Godly mother, be a Godly church and “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  The Greek word translated in our text to welcome does not mean to greet someone with a handshake or a nice smile alone.  The word used for welcome means to grant that person access to your own heart and take them into friendship.  The local church must be like the Godly mother and show heart for those who are under the care of the church.  Now we might think that Paul was speaking about only those people who came to organized worship services; I do not believe that to be true.  Paul was speaking about anyone and in any locale where the local church met people.  Geography did not matter; what mattered was that as the church met people.  This means for us we want to welcome everyone into this building but moreover we need to welcome those outside this building.  So, when we are in Troy serving a meal we must be welcoming others as a Godly mother.  For some people we meet there, we are the only idea of church they have ever known.  We are the church that meets their needs, eats with them, talks to them, and prays with them.  It is important to listen to Paul’s words, “Welcome them as Christ welcomed you.”  Extend to others what we ourselves have received.  Why did Christ do this and why should we follow him?  Paul said, “[It is done for] the glory of God.”  Like the Godly mother, the local church must see itself as God’s creation first.  Our identity is not, “We are a small church located in Latham, NY.”  Our identity is “We are children of God, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords.  Jesus Christ created us and lives within us.  God has promised to always be there and asks us to follow Him.  He is with us right now, and, oh, by the way, we are smaller than some churches in Latham.”  The local church is like the Godly mother who seeks to nurture, support, and love those placed in its care.

What then does that nurture, support, and love look like or feel like?  Paul continued in our reading today, “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised [the Jews] on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs [in the Old Testament], and in order that the Gentiles [everyone else in the world] might glorify God for his mercy.”  Paul’s point was that Christ welcomed you into fellowship with Him, with God, by being a servant.  We need some care here because we might simply see Paul’s words to say Jesus lived as a servant living each day at the beck-and-call of anyone.  This is not true of Christ.  Jesus was and is the King of Kings and Lord of Lord yet He step down from that position took on the role of servant to God.  He was obedient to God.  Jesus served the people as God wanted so that God through Jesus could show in a most personal way God’s love for them; for you and for me.  The nature of the Godly mother, the nature of the local church is to do likewise.  We are to make God first in the life of the church and then serve as He would have us serve that through our witness to others people would come to know the love God has for them.

A Godly mother loves her children to encourage them, that they may thrive in life, and to comfort them when things are difficult.  A Godly mother’s love gives rise to hope.  I saw the converse of this, the opposite case, with children who had been abused and neglected.  They had no spirit, no goals, no dreams; they could not make loving attachment to others because they had no hope.  Life had no purpose to it. 

Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “To live without hope is to cease to live.”  Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “Man cannot live without hope.”

The message Paul had for us in our reading today was that Jesus showed God’s mercy so that all might have hope.  God is the God of hope.  The message for the church then was and is, “Welcome people as Christ welcomed you so that through Christ you can display and bring hope to others.”  The Apostle Peter told his churches, “Always be ready to answer everyone who asks you to explain about the hope you have.”  Each person who has accepted Christ and is part of this church, has that some responsibility to welcome others in all locations and to explain the hope that you have. This is the role of a Godly mother and this is the role of the church.

Today, let’s honor our mothers.  This week, let’s reflect on our role in the church and see how we play a part in extending wisdom, teaching and showing grace, being truthful, being confident in God’s leadership, and understanding that God offers us an opportunity to change someone’s world with hope.  Paul concluded, on this day, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  Amen.

May 7 - Life Changing Grace

            I read an interesting book the other day.  The book was written in 1961 about state of American churches.  The author noted that attendance among churches had never been higher in American history.  Tithes and offerings in the collection plate had never been so plentiful.  The rate of adding new church buildings across the nation had never been so great.  And the author concluded that the American churches had never been in so much trouble.  He saw that the individual commitment, involvement, and participation by members of those churches in the true mission of the Church was missing.  He concluded that absent a significant shift, a significant renewal in radical nature of God’s work through Jesus Christ, churches in America would begin to falter and attendance would decline.  The author said that to avoid the inevitable decline, the ministry of Christ, the message of Christ, must involve all places (not just in the church building); it must involve all times (not just Sunday morning); and it must involve all Christian persons, male and female, congregants and pastors, old and young.         The essence of the author’s observation was that the Church had failed to keep God’s mission in its sights and was, as they say, looking at the tree and missing the forest.  God mission throughout history is to redeem people, to bring them back from destruction, to teach loving ways, and to give them hope.  This should be why we come together on Sunday mornings, to experience the presence of God, to be renewed by the presence of God’s people, to be made ready to carryforward God’s message of peace and hope to others.  Our personal and continual renewal with God does not end here in this sanctuary, it begins again each time we meet.  Each person here today is being invited by God to become an agent of God’s creative work; to seek the lost, to feed the hungry, to make friends with those who are lonely, and to build an ever-larger community of people. 

Since this is so, it would be important then for us to spend time focusing on God’s mission and our response.  Let’s do that today as we explore our New Testament reading in Romans, Chapter 3.  The Book of Romans is more accurately viewed as a letter the Apostle Paul wrote in about 60 A.D. to the growing collection of churches in the city of Rome.  The people of those churches were mixed heritage.  Some, called Jews, grew up in Jewish households and had been part of a synagogue.  The Jews knew God’s law; what we think of as the Old Testament.  Those words, that law, shaped the Jews’ understanding of sin.  The other people in the churches of Rome, called Gentiles, grew up in households that believed in many gods and had small temples in their own homes or went to a temple in the city to worship their own gods.  The Gentiles knew little or nothing about the Jewish law.  However, together these people, the Jews and the Gentiles, heard the story of Jesus from Paul or others.  They heard about Jesus’ teachings.  But most importantly they heard about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the power of the resurrection to save people from eternal death and to bring people into God’s loving presence.

            Paul wrote these words to the people of the churches of Rome.  “19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.”  Paul’s point was simple: God’s word defines what is holy, what is acceptable; not man’s words.  So, the message was simple, “People trying to set standards of what is good need to stop talking and recognize that God has said what is God true, holy, and acceptable and everyone will accountable to God for what they think, say, and do.  Paul continued, “20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”  Paul’s point again was simple, God’s law is there to make clear to us what is sin.  Sin is a topic people today do not like to talk about unless it is about someone else’s sinful behavior.  Paul’s point was stop talking and recognize that you and I know from God what is sin.  Paul said, “And we cannot overcome the sin in our life and earn God’s favor by working hard to follow the law.”  In some ways, Paul sounds a little hopeless.  “God defined what is sin.  Sin keeps us from God.  We cannot fix the problem of sin in our lives.”  That does not sound too promising; but it is the reality.  We cannot fix the sin our lives.

            Paul then continues with these words, “21 But now apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  There is that all important word of Scripture – “but.”  Paul was saying separate from the law, separate from the does and don’ts, God was telling anyone who would listen that He had a way of making everyone right with Him.  He had people write down His plan in the Old Testament and he had other speak about out all through history.  God had you and me personally in mind when He created his plan to deal with our sin.

In verse 22, Paul made clear the remedy for sin and the source of hope. “22 This righteousness [this becoming right with God] is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  We need to take a minute or two to talk about these three verses.  First, Paul said we cannot earn or work our way out of our own sin and become right with God but God can make you right with Him by you having faith in Jesus.  Getting right with God then is gift.  And Paul made it clear whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, you are all in the same boat; you are all sinners and you are all able to be redeemed by God.  This is important.  It does not matter how you have lived your life in the past.  It does not matter whether people called you the good kid, the conscientious worker, and loyal friend or whether others labeled you as the troubled youth, the difficult neighbor, or any other name you want to add; we are all the same to God.  We are all sinners and separated from God and we cannot fix that.  The good news is that God grants us grace.  God sent Jesus to clean away the accumulation of sin, wipe the slate clean, to take us away from eternal life in hell, and set on a new path, to teach us a new way to live and love, and be with God always.  How?  Jesus gives the simple invitation and command.  He said, “Come, follow Me.”  This is God’s life changing grace.

I came to appreciate the meaning of God’s grace in an unusual setting.  Several years ago, I was working for the United States Government. In my job, I handled a lot of information the Government considered secret.  Some of that information dealt with people seeking to do harm to our country.  One time, I collected some information on an individual that was a concern.  He was involved in supporting people living in the United States who wanted to commit acts of terrorism.  In fact, he was the spiritual counselor to these would be terrorists.  I traveled to the city where this man lived so that I could meet him.  I met him in a small room with just a small table between us. I talked to this man about a lot of things.  We spoke about his family, how he spent his time and his money.  We spoke about where he worked.  I asked him about the people he met and their activities.  Most of what he said is still secret to the government.  However, one of his activities I can speak about involved his counseling people who were in difficult circumstances, including young men in prison.  He told me he made it clear to those men that they must be honest with him.  That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?  Be honest.  However, with him being honest carried a threat.  He said to these young men, “If you mislead me in anyway, just one time, just one slip of the truth, one lapse of judgment, (one sin against me) I will cut you off forever. You will be dead to me.”  His personal belief was this, “I shall not forgive your sin against me.”

In the middle of that interview, seated at that small table, I felt an overwhelming understanding of God’s grace.  I thought what if God would treat me this way; one mistake, one misleading statement, or one lie and I was dead to God?  What a hopeless existence!  Fortunately, God had a different plan and God is a God of grace.  In my profession of faith in Jesus Christ, God granted me grace and forgave me of my sins; not some of them but all of them.  God moved me from death to life; this is the good news of the gospel.  Then I thought, since God granted me grace, since God gave me peace, who then am I to withhold grace from another person?  Who am I that I would have an unforgiving nature toward another?  God’s plan was and is Jesus.  This is the good news of Jesus.  I should forgive others because God forgave me.  I should give grace to others because God gave grace to me.  But, more than that, since I received this good news, then I should share that good news with others.  God changed my life not because of anything I did but because of the grace He gave me.  There is no difference between Jew or Gentile, male or female, rich or poor, worker or unemployed, God will grant each person life changing grace through Christ.  This is what I came to realize about God’s grace during an interview of a man who sought to harm others.

How did God give me and you this life changing grace?  Paul wrote in verses 25 through 26 this is how God did it, “25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”  God applied my sins and your sins to the account of Jesus and through the cross, through the death of Christ, forgave and forgot them.

Jesus understood my sin and yours as well had a price and He was willing to pay that price through his body and blood.  Jesus understood that God’s grace would be poured out to all through his giving on the cross.  Jesus explained his part of the plan with the bread and cup.  The Apostle Paul said it this way, “23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.”

Today, we have an opportunity to come to the table and be reminded of the life changing grace of God.  Let us pray.