Thursday, April 9, 2020

Sermon Sketches: Mark 16:1-8 - Exchanging Fear for Trust


I. Where are we going?
Christ is Risen! Hallelujah!

That is the message of Easter. This is what we proclaim and sing and read and pray today.

But, what does this really mean for us? As we look at the Scripture this morning, let us open our hearts and minds to what God has for us.
 II. Scripture – Mark 16:1-8
 III. Connections—Afraid?
We have many places we can go in this rather brief, abrupt passage. We can certainly talk about the fact that the women are the first to come to the tomb…and, in turn, become the very proclaimers of the Good News. We can talk about the empty tomb—Christ has risen! We can ask some questions about why this Gospel ends so abruptly or discuss who (or what) the ‘young man’ is in the tomb.
I’m not going there. I’m going with the final verse:
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (NIV)
Because they were afraid. So, the question is, afraid of what? What left these women ‘trembling,’ ‘bewildered,’ and ‘afraid? To be clear, the Scripture does not say what has done this to the women, so we are left to speculate, imagine.
Perhaps they were unsettled by the sight of this young man, presumably not known to them. Luke tells this is an angel (two of them in Luke’s telling of the story.) Was there something about the young fellow that would have frightened them?
Perhaps the possibility that Jesus might actually be alive…but as what? A man or a ghost? Or…?
Perhaps they are afraid that no one will believe their story. I mean, who would? A man back to life and on his way to Galilee?
Perhaps something as simple and profound as not finding what they expected has unsettled them. They expected to do this deed of preparing the body and then going home. Now, something has shattered their plans, and they don’t know what to do with the unexpected.

IV. Not Too Far From Home…
Fear is not foreign to us. 
We live in a time of fear--fear of the virus, economic uncertainties, illnesses (self and others)...and that life-long fear too many carry--fear of rejection.

We have seen this lived out the soaring gun sales in our nation--over 2 million guns bought in the month of March alone...in a country where we already owned over 389 million guns.

And, we even have fear when we experience something of the risen Lord. Some who for the first time experience the love or grace or forgiveness or healing of Jesus feel fear at the same time.
Some are afraid to say anything about their Christian experience because, then, ‘what if I stumble?’ No one wants to look the fool.
Some are afraid that their experience with God may not have been ‘real’—people second-guess themselves and their experiences.
Some are afraid of seeming ‘old-school’ or ‘un-cool’ in this hi-tech, scientific age. People fear looking ‘old fashioned’ or unscientific.
Some are afraid to admit that they can’t figure out life, afraid to admit they need ‘religion.’ People fear seeming weak.
Besides these, we face a thousand other things that leave us 'trembling,' 'bewildered,' and 'afraid.' We face job loss, pandemics, relationship problems, decisions, family decisions, and more. We understand that these women and we ourselves can be afraid.
Mark ends his Gospel with this line about the women begin afraid and saying nothing, but we know that the story doesn’t end there. We know it doesn’t end because Matthew, Luke, and John provide more details to the story. We know the story doesn’t end there because contemporary historians and writers talk about this newly born Christian movement also. That means the ‘fear’ did not have the final word in these women’s lives.

V. And What Is Fear, Anyway?
Psychologists and psychiatrists will tell us that we have primary and secondary emotions. While there is some disagreement as to what these emotions are or how they are named, in the end, we have two emotions that tend lie underneath all others. And one of those is ‘fear.’ Out of fear grow anger, hatred, worry, jealousy, and others. (And, if it makes you angry or worried that I’m saying this, you must be afraid of something! 😊 )
The opposite of fear is not bravery (that’s a secondary emotion). The opposite is ‘trust.’ Out of trust grow love, confidence, bravery, hope, and others.
So, somewhere between verse 8 of Mark 16 and later that day, these women were able to move from fear to trust. Somewhere, somehow, for some reason, they moved from the silence of fear to the proclamation of trust.
They determined to trust the young man. They decided to trust Jesus’ being alive. They trusted that someone would believe their story. They found the strength to trust that their upside-down world was going to be okay.
And, when they trusted and told their story, history forever changed. History literally and measurably changed.

This change--this move from fear to trust--happened not only as a part of the resurrection story; it happened because of the resurrection story. And this change can happen in our lives as well. This change from fear to trust can be our today...and every day.

VI. What Now?
How different would your story be if you moved from fear and all it entails--worry, jealousy, anger, hatred--to trust and all it brings--hope, love, confidence, bravery? How would your life be different?

While these are emotions, they are also habits--it may not be easy to change, but we can change. We can make the choice to be people of fear...or people of trust. We can make that choice because ... Christ is Risen!

Part of the meaning of Easter is the transforming power of trust--
     trust in a God who loves us
     trust in the Scriptures that tell us the Story
     trust in our risen Lord
Jesus is risen to bring us life. Will you exchange fear for trust? It will change your story...and it might even change history.

Trust.

Christ is Risen!
Amen



Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Suffering in a Time of COVID-19


This is an abridged copy of a paper posted originally here: https://www.academia.edu/s/f00fb94bd8?source=link 

Suffering in a Time of COVID-19: A New Reading of Job in the 21st Century – Part I

            This was going to be part of a book, and perhaps it will be one still someday. However, with the advent of COVID-19 and the havoc it has wreaked on the world, I felt that the message here could not wait for publishers…nor for my tedious proofing process. Rather, we need some answers now. So, here are some thoughts that I hope will help people see this pandemic and this virus for what it is. Here in Job,  we find a way to understand suffering and evil and pain and loss in a way that is theologically consistent with Scripture and Christian message—but this is a different reading from what the reader may have encountered before.
            This essay (and those that follow) grew out of a sermon series I preached back in 2016. But, don’t read this as a sermon. I’ve reworked these words more into a more conversational format for ease of reading. The message, however, has not changed since 2016…and I would argue that the message has not changed since these words were first penned in ancient Hebrew 2,500 years ago. However, our understanding of the words has changed. And, my hope is that after readers have considered these words that they will never read Job the same again.
            May this pandemic pass soon. May we survive these unprecedented times. May the God of Job be with us…and may we trust in that God, our good and gracious God, to carry us through and into better days.
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Beginning at the End 
Job 1:1-22
            Today, we begin a journey. Perhaps this is a new direction for you, a new destination, a first-time visit to this ancient place; perhaps you are returning yet again to a well visited landmark in your life of faith. We travel back in time to the Old Testament to one of the most read books: the Book of Job.
            Job the man has himself drawn us in for centuries. We talk about ‘the patience of Job,’ but do we know where that idea really comes from? Is this truly a story that tells us about Job’s patience?
Many may know that the book has to do with suffering—something common to all of us. This theme of ‘suffering’ draws us in. We all want to understand suffering...and learn how deal with suffering, how to understand why we have suffering in our lives.
We suffer emotionally, physically, spiritually, psychologically. We suffer illness, depression, ‘faith-fatigue’…if not we ourselves, our loved ones suffer. Wired as we are, we want answers—why?
With this in mind, let us begin the journey now into this ancient world to see what this book teaches us about Job. And, since we Christians hold that God inspired the writing of our Biblical texts, let us then see what this book teaches us about God . . . and about ourselves.

Getting Started
1In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. 2He had seven sons and three daughters, 3and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.
4His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.
6One day the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Adversary—Satan—also came with them. 7The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
8Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
9“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10“Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
12The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
13One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 14a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, 15and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
16While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
17While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
18While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 19when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
20At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”
22In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.
                                                                                    Job 1:1-22 (NIV)
 When I first preached this sermon, we read the passage above just after our youth praise band, Living Stones, had sung, “How He Loves Us”—that then popular contemporary Christian song made famous by the Dave Crowder Band:
And oh
How He loves us oh
Oh how He loves us
how He loves us oh
 What a contrast between that song and the text of this passage! “How He Loves Us”…and then the words of the Book of Job—words of loss, destruction, and suffering? Are we talking about the same God here? What a seeming contrast between the God in song who loves us so, so dearly and this seemingly capricious God of the Word who wills or allows the worst to happen! What is going on? Well, that is exactly what we’re here to find out.

Beginning at the End
            In order to understand the opening chapters of this book, we need to know the whole story. Without knowing the whole story, we cannot make sense of the beginning.
            Have you ever watched one of your favorite television shows, and in the opening scene, the door of the apartment is just slightly ajar and the main character—the hero or star—is standing there over a dead body with a bloody knife in his hand with a stunned, shocked look on his face? You know there has to be more than meets the eye, there has to be some explanation for what you have just seen. There is no way—NO WAY—your favorite star or actor could have killed someone with the knife in hand, or at least there must be some terrific explanation. After the commercial break, the show resumes with “12 hours earlier...” at the bottom of the screen. You have to watch the whole show in order to make sense of the first five minutes.
            The same is true of the Book of Job—we can’t read only chapter 1 and say, “Ah! Wow! I’ve  got it!” If we do, we presume a very simplistic, Western plot-line. We’re reading Ancient Near Eastern literature—something written long before the genre of ‘short-story’ or ‘novel’ were even a thing. We cannot make the same presumptions about the narrative here we might make if we were reading a generic novel published in 2019. So, how do we read the Book of Job? We read this book, all of it, with the end in mind. So, let’s get a preview of the story so we can come back to the beginning.
            Job begins—as we have already seen—as a story of loss, pain and destruction. And, it gets worse! After Job loses almost everything—his health included—his three ‘friends’ come to bring him counsel, to help him through this all. Their worldview is one of “cause and effect,” or as it often rendered with respect to the Ancient Near Eastern peoples, the “Retribution Principle” or karma: A general belief that doing good resulted in good, prosperity; doing bad resulted in bad, harm, illness.[1]
Since this is how they see the world, the good friends spend chapters of the book trying to get Job to admit he has some sin in his life—“You had to have done something bad, Job, or things would be going good for you.” For them, nothing else serves to explain Job’s losses, his suffering. Job gets frustrated with them, and they with him. Finally, in Chapter 38, God steps into the picture and shows Job that he—Job—really has no clue as to what is going on in the world, that his understanding of things is so shallow, so limited. In the end, God restores all of Job’s fortunes and more besides…gives him a new family…and thus ends the book.
            The very important thing to see in this story is that in the beginning, Job has such a limited view of things, a shallow understanding of realaity, that…well, Job is wrong. He is wrong about God. He is wrong about how the world works. He is wrong about himself. He is not evil or demonic or anti-God; he is simply wrong, mistaken…something any of us could be at any time.
Really, this should not be a surprise to us. Most stories—even the ancient ones—begin with the main character in one place—geographically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually—and then he or she embarks on a journey of experiences and thoughts that leave the character in a new place, with a new and greater understanding. Just read the story of Moses, or Ulysses, or other ancient narratives.
Where is Moses at the beginning of his story? Unsure, untrusting, hesitant. Where is Moses at the end? Certain, faithful, bold.
Where is Peter at the beginning of his story in the Gospels? He walks around braggadocios, usually with one if not both of his feet in his mouth. Where is Peter at Pentecost? A changed man with a new humility and greater understanding.
In the same way, Job at the beginning of this story is simply wrong (perhaps ‘ignorant’ would be a kinder description.) Now that we know Job is just plain wrong, we can come back to the beginning and deal with what we find there. Let us find out what Job is wrong about.

Sovereignty ≠ Universal Cause
            One of the key doctrines or teachings of the Scripture and the Church is the “sovereignty of God.” We talk about our God as “omnipotent,” all-powerful. We claim this truth, and we rightfully find a great deal of assurance and security in such a statement. However, we then tend to make a great leap of logic—and when we do, we’re wrong.
Our great, erroneous leap of logic goes like this: If God is all-powerful, if God is omnipotent, then God must control (i.e.. cause) everything that happens in this world. That is, everything that happens is because our omnipotent, almighty, all-powerful God is making it happen. This, my friends, is not only a false and unbiblical assumption, it is a dangerous assumption. And, it is the assumption Job (and later his friends) makes here at the beginning of this narrative.
“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”
At best, Job is half right in this statement. Yet, I’ve heard Christians quote this bit of Job’s bad thinking so many times.
Unfortunately, one of my favorite contemporary Christian songs is anchored to this false assumption and based on this passage from the Book of Job—“You give and take away, You give and take away, My heart will learn to say, ‘Blessed be Your name...’”[2] The tune is catchy, and some of the lyrics are really good, but the underlying premise is that God does all of the giving and taking away in our lives—a seemingly capricious God brings good and evil, joy and suffering into our lives.
The contemporary song that perhaps most poignantly captures this worldview is “Thy Will” by Hillary Scott & the Scott Family. Ms. Scott’s voice is beautiful, enchanting…but the lyrics reveal this same mistaken view of reality, something contrary to a biblical worldview.
The lyrics include these lines:
I may never understand
That my broken heart is a part of your plan
And later in the song:
I know you're good
But this don't feel good right now
These lyrics claim that God has broken our hearts, that our good God brings ‘not good’ things our way but also bad, painful, hurtful things as well. God is omnipotent and all-causing in the lyrics of this song.
Perhaps some people find real consolation in ascribing everything to God. However, as Leslie Weatherhead points out in that wonderful little volume, The Will of God, if we console someone with a lie, in the end there is no real consolation.[3]
Perhaps somewhere along the way you, like me, have said these words—with the very best intentions—to those we’ve known, hoping to provide a bit of comfort to someone in a time of loss: “God is in control…the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” How many times I have stood with the loved ones at a funeral service or in the ‘receiving line’ at the funeral home and heard these kinds of words:
“God only takes the good ones.”
“I guess God needed her more than we do.”
“We all know, the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.”
Many people seek consolation in thoughts like this, finding some kind of peace in assigning even the most horrific things to God. In any other situation outside of a funeral, I would stop the person then and there and ask, “You think God gave this woman cancer?” “You think this young man was taken by God? I thought is was the fool driving drunk down the middle of the road!” (I would do it kindly, but—really—we must bring an end to this damaging way of thinking.)
As we go forward, we will unpack all the ways this kind of thinking, this kind of theology, is more than wrong; we will look at how it is harmful and destructive.
            So, let us get back to this issue of the ‘sovereignty of God.’ We like the idea of our omnipotent, all-powerful, all-in-control God directing all the happenings of our lives. But, there is a problem with that approach to life.
If God is so completely sovereign that everything happens at God’s bidding, will, and desire, how does that allow for or account for the existence of evil, the evil one, Satan, the Devil? If everything is from God, then “evil” has no need to exist, or evil is just a term we use for those acts of God we don’t like.
Surely, taking the Biblical text into account, that is not true. From the very beginning, in the Garden, evil and evil forces exist. In the New Testament, Jesus wrestles with the devil in the Gospels in his wilderness temptation. Paul writes about Satan and the devil...and about “powers of this dark world” and “spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). In our world, evil—contrary-to-God-forces—exist as Satan, the Devil, demons, illnesses, disasters…whatever stands in direct opposition to the goodness and grace of God. Add to that the reality of “free will”[4]—the human capacity to reject God’s will and ways—and we find that there is plenty that can go ‘wrong’ in this world.
So, if evil exists and impacts our lives, what about the sovereignty of God?
Some of my students and colleagues at a seminary where I teach who ascribe unswervingly to the absolute sovereignty of God would be quick to argue that “God simply ‘allows’—in God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and wisdom—the evil to reign briefly in order to teach or discipline us.”
For this situation in Job, in their understanding, God basically steps back and allows the Satan to abuse Job. But, would this be to teach Job or to discipline him? If we follow this line of thinking as we go to this text, we find—not suggested but stated—that God is doing neither…neither teaching nor disciplining Job; rather, God is allowing the Satan, the Accuser, to prove to himself if Job is truly faithful to God or if Job is only situationally faithful.
That seems rather capricious of God. (Some would hit the brakes here and ask, “Who are you to question God?” Well, in fact, I would be joining a host of biblical examples in questioning God, so I gladly join their ranks—Abraham, Moses, David…and most of the prophets!)
Or, perhaps something else is true. Maybe we’re not dealing with a capricious God. Instead, something else is going on in this text…and in our own reality. Perhaps God—all-powerful, omniscient—voluntarily limits God’s own sovereignty. God, the omni-everything, chooses NOT to be omni-everything (when One is omni-everything, One can certainly decide not to be omni-everything or decide not to play the omni-card.)
For argument’s sake, let’s presume for a few paragraphs that God steps back and allows another force to reign in Job’s reality, a force that is evil, hurtful, destructive. Let’s see how this plays out if we look at things from that perspective.
            Job the man is simply wrong in thinking that God is doing to him what he is experiencing. We need to read this passage again and see what is really going on here…to see who is doing the giving and who is doing the taking.

God is Challenged
            In the opening part of this chapter, the “sons of God” have come before the LORD, and “the Adversary” is there as well. (Who the “sons of God” are may be a fun question to pursue, but we can presume that these beings are probably on God’s side.) Rather than dive into a prolonged discussion as to whether the Adversary and Satan and the Devil are all the same person or being, perhaps we can simply agree that these beings—whether one in the same or different creatures—all of them run contrary to God and the things of God.
In this opening scene, the Adversary taunts God regarding Job, saying that Job is faithful only because God is protecting and blessing him, that if God’s protection and blessing were not there, Job would curse God. In short, this is akin to calling someone a “fair-weather friend,” or, in this case, fair-weather faithful—like that person who praises God, goes to church, serves on committees, and smiles...as long as all is well. Once some part of their life crashes, they disappear, they fall apart. They fall off the faith wagon. The Adversary is betting Job is fair-weather faithful.
            And, then what happens in Job’s story? Well, if God ignores or dismisses Satan and his accusations, it would be the same as admitting this is true—Job is faithful only because all is well with him. So, what does God do?
12The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
            First of all, going “out from the presence of the Lord” is never a good thing. It is to walk in darkness. It is to be in a way that God is not, to be where God is not. And, when we think of Satan, this is exactly what we expect—the Adversary, the Satan, is one who operates outside the will and reign of God.
            Then—and this is very important—we need to see who is doing what in the life of Job. “…Everything he has is in your power….”  Who is the cause of the Sabean raid? Who is the source of the devouring fire? (The servant says ‘fire of God,’ but he’s living in the same mistaken understanding as Job and his friends, thinking everything is from God!) Who is the source of the Chaldean attack? Who is the source of the desert winds? Not God. Satan is the one who brings all of these calamities to bear on Job.
            Therefore, a better, truer utterance on the part of Job in his situation would have been,                               The Lord gave and Satan (the Adversary) has taken away….
            Interestingly, this is not the only occasion in which God and Satan have this sort of conversation. Evidently, Satan is astounded again and again that people would actually love God and want to serve God. So, Satan seems to want to prove this to himself from time to time by testing God’s people.
            Look at Luke 22:31 in the New Testament. Jesus is speaking here to his disciples just before his crucifixion, just before they arrive at the garden for that agonizing time of prayer. Jesus says, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
            So, here again, Satan comes before God and asks to test the faith of God’s people.
            As I read this first chapter of Job again and as I read through this passage in Luke, I keep asking, Why? Why would God allow Satan to do this? What is going on? These don’t seem to be times in which God is somehow ‘disciplining’ the faithful for unfaithfulness or teaching an important lesson. So, what is going on?
Perhaps you saw it before I did. As I read and reread the words of Job 1 and Luke 22, it quite suddenly hit me. I am not talking about some idea that popped into my head; I am not talking about some clever re-reading or rewriting of Scripture to fit my own preconceptions. The truth is right there in black-and-white (or red, if you have a red-letter Bible) in those last words of Jesus on this topic in Luke 22: “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers….  Not “if” you turn back, but “when” you turn back. What does that mean?
            You see, we talk a lot about trusting in God, of having faith in God. One of the things the book of Job teaches us, and what Jesus shows us in Luke, is that God has faith in us. God was so confident—trusting, believing—in His servant Job that He could allow Satan to do his foolishness…and He was confident that Job’s faith would not fail—regardless of the circumstances of life. Jesus was so confident in his band of disciples that he could allow Satan to “sift them as wheat.” In the same way, God has faith in us—in you, in me.
            Let that sink in: God…has…FAITH…in…US!
            We’re not talking about a salvific faith, that God trusts us for God’s salvation…as if that could ever be. We see here a confidence that God has in God’s people. Even though Job was wrong in his understanding of God, he was confident in God. Even though his worldview was simplistic and incomplete, his simple faith in God—in the goodness, rightness, and trustworthiness of God—was true and sure.

Wrapping-Up
            Perhaps some who are reading here have made that same leap that Job did, mistakenly believing that everything that happens is from God. Unfortunately, too many ministers and churches have propagated this false notion (though with the best intentions.)
            Job teaches us—better, reminds us!—that there is an ‘adversarial’ power (or powers) that/who wants to see us fall and fail. Satan is the one who takes, divides, destroys and kills. We see this evil, contrary-to-God power in the world around us robbing us health, happiness, and wholeness.
            As I write these words, the COVID-19 pandemic has most of the world locked in homes, many people out of work, and far too many frightened. I have already heard some say, “This is God punishing us for our sins.” Some have indicated that this is a “Chinese” thing—God punishing those “godless atheist, communists.” (Except China has a rapidly growing Christian community[5], and there are now more infected people in ‘Christian’ countries.)
            No. This is the power of evil robbing people of the gift of life that God has given. I may not go so far as to say that the virus is a demonic force, but I will say that this virus is possibly a result of powers and people living apart from or in opposition to the will of God.
As mentioned above, God—the sovereign, omnipotent, all-powerful God—has given us ‘free will’: the ability to make choices that are with or against that same God. So, the Adversary can act against us, we can act against God…and the results are NOT God’s will or God’s doing.
Another foundational doctrine and belief of the Christian faith is that God is exactly who we find in Jesus Christ—How He Loves Us! God is exactly as James describes Him—Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change (James 1:17)...that is, God is the source of all that is good and perfect.
            That same God—in whom we trust, in whom we place our faith, to whom we lift our prayers and praise — that God has faith in us, trusts us to trust in Him. How shall we now live knowing that the God of the universe, the Creator, has faith in us? The Creator has confidence in us!
            When we encounter the trials and pains and hurts of this life, let us not make the mistake of Job and think God is the cause of our suffering. In these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, let us not imagine that this from God. Let us claim the truths we find in Scripture that God is on our side, that He is the author of all goodness and blessing. And, let us hold fast to that promise we find in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.
                                                                                                            Romans 8:28 (NLT)
            Our good, loving, amazing God will bring good out of this.
            Amen.



[1] “Major Background Issues from the Ancient Near East,” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, Craig S. Keener and John H. Walton, eds., (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 2016), xxxv – xxxvii.

[2] Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name.” 2002.
[3] Weatherhead, Leslie D. The Will of God. Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1944.
[4] We will address this issue in detail in another essay. Stay tuned!


This is an abridged copy of a paper posted originally here: https://www.academia.edu/s/f00fb94bd8?source=link 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Sermon Sketches: Jeremiah 33:14-18 ~ A King & Priest for Us


Note: I usually post an initial sketch on Monday or Tuesday of each week; then, I come back with a revised piece on Fridays. I hope my thoughts nourish your thoughts, that something here helps you think in the right direction for the congregation you serve. Cheers!
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Advent! I’m one of those folks who waits with baited-breath for this season to roll around. I love…I LOVE…the season—the remembering, the anticipation, the decorations, the songs. Everything about Advent and Christmas seems to capture a huge part of what being a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, is all about.

Even so, I come to today’s reading with a bit of disappointment—I wanted to read Isaiah 9 or 11…to hear again the words about 'light in the darkness,' about a child who will lead the people. These are themes we are desperate to hear in these dark times. We crave words of light and hope from our leaders—as we hear words of division and derision. One of the great issues of our time is the changing climate of our planet—something that can potentially be catastrophic—and the one voice we do hear is that of a ‘child’—Greta Thunberg--leading the way.

Yet, I am convinced that our God still speaks clearly through the pages of Scripture, and I believe that the message in the passage from Jeremiah today is a message we need to hear, the Church needs to hear.

Jeremiah the man was a prophet that began his ministry during the reign of the Josiah—the same king we met last week who called the people back to faithfulness, back to the Book. While God promised not to destroy the kingdom during Josiah’s life, God did vow to bring judgment on the land, and Jeremiah served as one of the mouth-pieces of God proclaiming the coming destruction.

While much of Jeremiah’s prophecy is directed towards this coming destruction, words of hope are woven into this fabric of loss and mourning. Jerusalem is going down, the temple will fall…but there is hope.

We need those words of hope woven into the fabric of our own reality as we look around us. At this  time, we may feel that this journey of life is a dead end, but God says, ‘no!’ At times we may feel that the social fabric and democratic processes crumble—this is the end!, but the Word says, ‘no!’ At times we may feel that our relationships, work plans, and other facets of our lives head towards nothing or towards destruction…but God’s Word comes again and again with words of hope.

The people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time faced the same. They had heard about the growing kingdoms around them. They knew that Egypt’s economy was growing and their army, too. They were still telling stories of what had happened to the Northern Kingdom, Israel—how the Assyrian war-machine has swooped in and crushed the Israelites. They knew stories of the Babylonians to the east—a growing empire with a powerful army. They were surrounded by stories of dismay…and they craved words of hope. Of course, false hope is no hope at all. They needed to hear something from God’s appointed one. They needed to hear something from the prophet.

14 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness. (Jeremiah 33)

The people had heard the promises of judgment. Jeremiah had spoken those words over and over. In Jeremiah 7 we find samples of those words of judgment: 

20 Therefore thus says the Lord God: My anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals, on the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched.

32 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. 33 The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. 34 And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.

 …And now, here in Jeremiah 33, some much needed words of promise, of grace. The people have floundered at times under not-so-great rulers, so these words about the “David’s line” bring comfort and hope.

We understand this when we pine for the leadership of the great presidents of the past. Almost without exception--regardless of political party--were we to ask Americans who the great presidents were, most folks would name Washington, Lincoln, or Kennedy. Not that these were without fault, without blemish. We admire these men for their overwhelming good work in spite of their humanity. Washington frees America from the tyranny of George the III, Lincoln overturns the evil institution of human slavery, and Kennedy—had he been given the chance—would have ushered in changes in civil rights.

David was seen the same way—the king who had united the tribes, conquered the enemies, and made Jerusalem the capital of it all. The thought of David was a dream of a united kingdom once again, a hope for safety, and a return to religious fealty. However, this ‘branch’ is not just about political power and unity.

17 The Lord proclaims: David will always have one of his descendants sit on the throne of the house of Israel. 18 And the levitical priests will always have someone in my presence to make entirely burned offerings and grain offerings, and to present sacrifices.

This branch will somehow serve as both king and priest—this descendant of David will be ruler of all part of the people’s lives…the social/political and the religious.

We don’t talk much about kings and queens…or even priests…in our western, protestant world. We’re far too democratic for such concepts. But, our Scriptures are filled with these images. Perhaps we should pause and take a look once more. Perhaps we’ll see that regardless of our democratic talk, we in fact always allow someone or something to rule as king in our lives…we just don’t call it that. But, is what reigns in our lives the king prophesied here in Jeremiah? And, perhaps our bumbling faith could use a priest—someone to guide and direct and help us into the presence of God, someone to show us how to live, to bring offerings, and to make right sacrifices?

In too many ways, we have divided lives much like the divided kingdom. We have abandoned the ways of God and done our own things. In a very real sense, we have embraced the ideals of self-reliance…and we have become our own kings and queens. If not ruling ourselves, we follow empty leaders, dead idols, insubstantial gods and goddesses. And, certainly, too many of us have little concept of ‘sacrifice.’ 

This season of Advent calls us back to new possibilities of wholeness and submission to a promised king—one who will rule and guide and counsel us, one who will care for us and champion our cause. That one will be called ‘King of the Jews’ and ‘a high priest…forever.’ That one will teach us about real sacrifice, about ‘laying down your life for your friend’ and ‘loving your neighbor as yourself.’

Are we ready to receive a king and priest anew in our lives? Do we really want the peace this one will bring? May this Advent season be a time of hope as we look forward to God’s words of promise becoming true in our lives. Amen.





Feel free to leave your own insights, questions, and words of encouragement below--perhaps they'll help us all as we strive to faithfully present this passage to our congregations. Blessings...

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Sermon Sketches: II Kings 22:1-20; 23:1-3 ~ Reading the Word Again…for the First Time

Note: I usually post an initial sketch on Monday or Tuesday of each week; then, I come back with a revised piece on Fridays. I hope my thoughts nourish your thoughts, that something here helps you think in the right direction for the congregation you serve. Cheers!
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Do you know where you come from? Can you imagine forgetting where you had come from? Can you imagine finding a book that tells you who you are and how to live? In a sense, the reading this week is an ‘everyman’ story—it tells us about how anyone can lose touch with the past, reconnect, and move forward.

I. Josiah
 Josiah—just eight years old when he becomes king—is now a young adult, 26-years-old, when he decides it’s time to repair the temple. As we read chapters 22 and 23, we realize that the Temple has simply fallen into disuse—it has been ignored and almost abandoned. This happens as a part of the disaster has befallen the kingdom David and Solomon, the division that Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, brings about. Today’s reading relates something that happened in the Southern Kingdom of that division, Judah.

Josiah decides—for some undeclared reason—to have the Temple repaired. He orders stone workers and carpenters to renovate. In the process of the renovations, a book is found…or, more likely, a scroll— ‘the Book of the Law.’ The priests bring the book, and when Josiah hears what the book says, he is convicted…and determines that he needs to lead Judah in a new direction.

II. Grandmother’s Stories
I guess I was a young teenager when I first heard the stories. My parents were missionaries, so we spent much our lives outside the US—far away from our family, from aunts, uncles, and grandparents. This was a time long before cell phones and computers. Letters would often take weeks. As a result, I didn’t really know my grandparents that well, but one summer on furlough in the US, I got to spend some weeks with my Grandmother Herrin—and I was forever changed.

Perhaps I had never had a reason to ask those sorts of questions, so when the answers came, my identity was shaped like never before. One afternoon, I began to ask Grandmother about her childhood, growing up in the mountains of north Georgia. Soon, she began to tell me the story of our family’s migration…beginning back in the 1740’s in Scotland. The story took us from Scotland to Pennsylvania down to North Carolina and finally into Georgia.

Suddenly, I had a past, a history, an identity! I went from being simply ‘Jon Herrin’ to being ‘one of the Herrins’—one in a long line of people who had traveled and lived through two-and-a-half centuries. My interest grew, and I went on compile the family history by pulling together all of the written pieces and oral pieces. An afternoon with my grandmother changed everything.

III. The Book of the Law
We have a sense that something similar to my family epiphany occurred that afternoon when Josiah heard the reading of Torah—the stories of Creation, the Fall, the call of Abraham, the sojourn in Egypt, and the journey of the people with Moses back to the land of Abraham. When the Book of the Law was found and read to the young king, he suddenly found his identity and that of his entire people. He also found a code to live by, a standard—a bar set a bit higher than he be handed by his family. In an instant, the king gained an understanding of who he was and how he was to live…and he realized he had not been living the life he should have been. He realized that he had ignorantly been living ‘other.’ Not only he, but he and his people had not been living as God had called them to live.

Josiah calls his people together—everyone—and shares with them what has been discovered, and it changes the way the people see themselves, understand themselves.

At first, we wonder how this could have happened—how could someone misplace ‘the Book of the Law’? But, when we realize that Josiah is living some 350-400 years after the construction of the Temple, when we think about all that has transpired with the division of the kingdom and the parade of different kings—some, or many, corrupt—before him, we realize that even things as precious as this book could have been lost, misplaced, laid aside.

IV. Again…for the First Time.
Of course, the book is not really new for the people of Judah—it has been around since the days of leaving Egypt and crossing the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. This book had once guided Moses, David, and Solomon. But it’s new for this generation.

I recall when I was a youngster that Kellogg’s aired a commercial for their Corn Flakes cereal that urged viewers to “try them again…for the first time.” Well, the fact that I recall the silly commercial some forty years later certainly speaks to the effectiveness of the advertising program. And, I have often applied the concept to my own life—getting back to things important but long forgotten. Judah is called back to ‘the Book of the Law’…something they as a nation, as a people, were hearing again, for the first time.

V. Bringing it All Together
In our own age of information, we are easily side-tracked by all of the materials available to us. Our phones and devices—though they often contain a Bible app—too often take us to other places and that Bible app gets lost in a sense. Too often we Christians have been enticed to read all of the many books written by other Christians about how to live better, how to be disciples, how to think…and we have forgotten to read ‘the Book’ itself.

In Jesus’ time, the Sadducees—some of the supposedly very committed students of ‘the Book of the Law’—were reprimanded by Jesus because “you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). If some of the very experts in these things didn’t know the Scriptures, isn’t it possible we might be missing something as well?

Today’s passage urges us to return to the Book, to reclaim the Book, to re-read the Book. We may have copies lying about the house…unopened. Why not commit this day to reading a Psalm each day, or a chapter of Proverbs each evening? If you have heard the story of Jesus but have never read his story, perhaps reading a chapter a day from the Gospel of Mark or Matthew is where to begin.


We may not shred our clothes like Josiah—after all, we’re not reading only ‘the Book of the Law’—Torah; we’re reading what has become a book of grace that includes the old and the new, the story of Israel and the story of the Church. We may discover that we have not been living into our true identity as children of God. We may discover that we have neglected important parts of this life of faith. We may realize that we, too, ‘do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.’ If nothing else, we may suddenly find our real identity as a part of God’s people…we may find our place in the Story…the story of God’s people that we’ve been following since September. If even that happens, our lives will be forever changed.



 Feel free to leave your own insights, questions, and words of encouragement below--perhaps they'll help us all as we strive to faithfully present this passage to our congregations. Blessings...