Sunday, November 29, 2020

What Can Change Your Life in Unbelievably Powerful Ways? This Prayer Can, and Here's How.

Oh my gosh, do you realize what time it is?  Christmas is coming.   Granted, this Christmas will definitely be different than any Christmas that any of us have experienced, our first pandemic one.  But it’s coming.  Yet, you know. Christians have kind of a weird way of getting ready. 

Out there in the world, people are putting up their Christmas trees, buying stuff to put under them, setting up lights around the house, stuff like that.   And of course, Christians do that stuff.   That’s part of the fun of the holiday.  But none of this stuff is likely going to change your life, in any permanent way, not even the gifts under the tree.  Maybe someone got a gift at Christmas and it inspired them to be a photographer or writer or whatever.  But as much as I loved the gifts I got at Christmas, especially as a kid, none of them changed my life.  

But here, in this worship season, that’s how we get ready.  That’s how we get ready for Christmas.  In this season we call Advent, Christians look for what needs to change in us.  We look for changes that will last, that will grow, long after lights get put away and presents gather dust.  That type of change doesn’t come easy.   But when it does, it changes everything. 

And over the coming weeks, we’re going to look at four prayers that God gives that bring about change, that open us to new ways to see ourselves, to see our world and our place in it.   And if you take these prayers seriously, they will change you.  Not only will they change you, but bit by bit as they work in you they will change your world. 

And today, we start by looking at one of the toughest changes anyone can make, getting honest about what’s happening in your own head.   The preacher, Bill Coffin once said.  Hell is truth seen too late.  To face that hell, you don’t have to die, though you may want to.   And if you’re at all like me, almost always you see the truth too late, not because someone was lying to you.   No, you see it too late because you were lying to yourself.  But by the time you faced that truth, well, the damage had been done, to you, to others, damage you couldn’t really undo.  So, how do you see the truth before it’s too late, before it crushes you or others?  How do you see the truth instead in ways that free you, that change you, that enable you to become the person you yearn to be?    In this prayer, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.  

Psalm 139:23-24 - 

Search me, O God, and know my heart
Test me and know my thoughts
See if there is any hurtful way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting

In this simple prayer, one that you could memorize pretty easily (in fact, do that – it’s powerful to carry this prayer in your mind), God is giving you one of the things that everyone needs more of.   In fact, the more you have the focus of this prayer, the freer and more fulfilled your life becomes.   And what is the focus?  Knowing You.   In this prayer, God is telling you, the more you know you, the more you’ll know me. 

But before you can go deep in knowing you, you need to understand why knowing you is so hard.   The prophet Jeremiah was telling it true when he said these words.  “The heart is devious above all else: it is perverse – who can understand it.”  And come on, you know that’s true.   Have you ever zipped by a highway exit you knew you needed to take, and didn’t even realize it for like miles?  What were you thinking?   Or have you ever said to yourself?  “I gotta remember to pick that up.”  And then five minutes later you forgot completely. 

Then of course, later when you do remember, usually too late, you say to yourself.  “What was I thinking?”    And that’s the point.  You don’t really know what you were thinking.  Heck, the folk singer, Christine Lavin, has been singing a hilarious song with that title for decades.  And she has to change the song constantly.  Why?   She’s always discovering new ways her mind deceives her into doing stupid stuff.  Now, if your mind just messed up a highway exit or forgot a few things, it probably wouldn’t be all that terrible.

But our minds fool us in deeper, more devastating ways than that.  So how do you get free of that?  This prayer points you to the first step.  For, if you say this prayer, do you see what you’re saying?  You’re saying.  I need help.  I can’t do this alone.   And that’s what everyone needs to realize.   As much as we’d like to think differently, too much of our own thinking, we can’t even see until we have someone or even something that helps us see.  What do I mean?

For years, researchers recommended all these techniques for people to lose weight, exercise, strict diets, regular counseling, changing their routines.  Guess what?  None of it, in the end, worked.  But in 2009 the National Institutes of Health discovered what did.  They asked 1600 seriously overweight folks to do just one thing, and only do it one day a week.  Just one day, they asked them.  Write everything you ate that day.  Now it took a little bit of time, but folks started doing it.   Before long, a lot of them were doing it every day.  And as they did, they saw patterns, times they were likely to snack.  Knowing that, they put an apple on their desk around that time. That way, they’d eat that instead of something not so healthy.  Some began planning their meals ahead of time.   And at the end of the study, those who had kept the food logs had lost twice as much weight as those who hadn’t (cited in The Power of Habit.   That’s a 100% difference!   But do you see how it happened?

These folks just started noticing what was actually happening inside them, inside their minds when it came to food.  And just doing that led to change, huge change.  As someone who uses a food log, let me tell you. It works.   But do you see the point?  They couldn’t do it alone.  They needed that notebook to bring their thinking out, to bring the truth out where they could see it.  

Now imagine if just a notebook could do that, what this prayer could do?  Almost all the words of the psalm before these verses talk about how intimately God knows you.  But how do you get a hold of that knowledge God has?  Is there a God notebook you can look at?  Kind of.

Hundreds of years ago, a Spanish Christian, Ignatius of Loyola, created a sort of God notebook.  He called it the Examen.  The religious order he began, the Jesuits, uses the practice to this day. But anyone can use it.  It’s super simple.  All you do is review your day and ask two questions.   What today gave me life?  What today took life away?   Just asking those two simple questions works like that notebook.  It brings out the truth where you can see it.  

When I started doing this, I can’t tell you the number of times I was doing something that I thought gave me life.  Then reviewing my day, I realized.  No, not at all.  It took life away.  And I realized.  I’ve gotta stop doing that.  But doing that review is what enabled God to help me see.  

I love the way the writer Pete Greig describes it.   He calls it the Four Rs – Review, Rejoice (that was awesome), Repent (oh, that wasn’t awesome at all) and then Reboot (how can I do it differently tomorrow).   And as you do it, those four Rs change you.  God helps you search and know your heart.  And God leads you to discover more deeply the hurtful ways within you.

Last Sunday, I talked about the dark days I faced a month or so ago.  But I didn’t tell you what led to them, what made those days dark.  What was it?   I faced the loss of my false gods.  What do I mean?  You don’t know in your life what your false gods are until you face losing them.  Because when you do, that’s how you know.  Their loss freaks you out, leads you to dark days.

So, what were my false gods?  Well, I had become way too invested in having my son’s love.  Now, sure I want my son’s love.  But if I want that love too much, it places a burden on him he can’t bear.   And with him so far away, I feared the loss of that love so much, it started to wreck me.  But I didn’t carry just that false god.  This pandemic has put strain on our church, strain we’ll get through, but a month ago I was a bit scared we might not.  And I realized.  That failure, remote as it was, it scared me way too much.  It had become a false god.      

Those gods were hurting me.  I had to let them go.  But until those dark days tested me, I didn’t even realize I had them.  I had those hurtful ways inside me and didn’t even know it.   But do you know what else I discovered in those dark days.   I rediscovered what was real, what was true.  I discovered in a deeper way than before just how much God loved me. 

Centuries ago, a Christian thinker named John Calvin, made a stunning observation. He observed.  The more you know yourself, the more you know God and vice versa.  The more you know God, the more you know yourself too.  Now what he meant by that doesn’t sound all that awesome at first.  Basically, Calvin meant that the more you know God, the more you see all the lies you tell yourself.  And when you see all those lies, well, you want to know God more to help you come to the truth.   Then as you know God more, well, God helps you discover more lies.  Then you go, gosh, I gotta know God even more.  And this just keeps going on and on.  After all, remember what Jeremiah said. That heart is devious.  It’s tricky.   Who can understand it?

Well, God can.  But here’s the deeper point. God sees all the lies, all the lies we tell ourselves, how they mess us up and yet God loves us still.  In fact, God yearns for you to see the lies, so that you can know that truth; so, you can know more deeply that God does truly, infinitely, unconditionally love you.  Not believing that is the lie that lies behind every lie we tell ourselves.  We fear God doesn’t love us like that.  So, we look elsewhere for the comfort, for the security, for the love that only God can provide.  We look for love in all the wrong places.   But as God shows you how wrong those places are, the lies you tell yourself, God brings you closer to the truth, to how completely, how totally, how unshakably God is for you, how much he loves you.  And the cross shows you that truth like nothing else, a God who even as you kill him prays for you.   And as you come to know that beautiful truth, God is leading you further into the way everlasting.  In fact, that way everlasting points to the description of heaven I love the most. 

 It comes from a brilliant Christian named Gregory of Nyssa.  Gregory said that God’s love is so infinite that heaven will simply be a never-ending journey deeper into that love, into experiencing it, rejoicing in it, living in it, an everlasting way.  And that journey can begin right now in this prayer.  So, pray it and see what God will do.  “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any hurtful way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”   


Sunday, November 22, 2020

In These Dark Times, What Stunning Truth Can Help You Stand Strong No Matter What? This Truth Can.

Wow, did you hear the news?  Now we have not one but two vaccines!   And they are both looking great.  Oooh, but hold on a second…let me look at the small print.   Oh, I see…I see.   Well, yes we have them but we probably won’t get a chance to get one until April.   Oh well.

But hold on a minute, April?  Really?  We need it now.  Our nation has more cases than ever, more than during those bad days in New York.  The virus is spreading everywhere, even in places you’d never think, like the Dakotas.  

And I wish I could tell you that our leaders in Washington are going to help.  But it looks like no one there is thinking about that much at all.  Right now, Washington can’t agree on anything.   Washington can’t even agree on who got elected President.   And as bad as that is, it gets worse.

We have folks out there who still can’t agree that there’s a virus.  This week, I read a heart- breaking tweet from a nurse in South Dakota, Jodi Doering.   She shared how so many of her patients even as they are desperately sick, say things like: “’This can’t be happening.  This virus is not real.’”  And they keep saying that until the breathing tube goes down their throat.  Then they realize how terrifyingly real it is.    She ended her tweet with these sad words; “The South Dakota I love seems far away right now.”    

You might feel similar words as you look at how our nation is struggling, how our entire world is.  So, in all that how do you have hope?   How do you trust that we’ll get through, that God is working to that end?  You hold onto the words we’re about to hear.  Here God shares a truth so stunning, so breathtaking that thousands of years later, we still have yet to grasp it.   But the more you grasp it, the more it opens you to hope, to a bold confidence of better days to come.   What is that truth?  In these words, God points the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

Isaiah 49:8-16

These days can be discouraging.   But in these words, words written to folks going through far worse than what we face, God gives you such a wondrously beautiful, totally jaw-dropping insight into who God is that thousands of years later we still struggle to believe it.  Yet, if you believe it, if you trust it, it gives a foundation for your life that nothing can shake.  For here, God tells you not just who God is.  God tells you who you are right now in God’s eyes.  

And we all need to hear that because, well, we’re not terribly good at seeing who we are.   We tend to focus on the worst in ourselves rather than the best.    What do I mean?  Let’s say.   Someone you know gives you a great compliment, but a few minutes later you’re driving in your car.   And a random stranger in another car screams at you, calls you an idiot, and then finishes it off with an obscene gesture.   Let me ask you.  What will you be thinking about, even believing more, the nice compliment or the verbal attack? If you’re like most, it’ll be the attack. 

If someone says something really cruel to us, those words haunt us for years.   Yet at the same time, sometimes share something positive and kind, and you can forget it almost immediately.  We believe the worst rather than the best. 

And here that is happening not just for an individual but a whole nation.  You see.  We are jumping right into the middle of a huge pep talk that God is giving the nation of Israel.   God is talking about how God is going to deliver them; how awesome it’s going to be.   God is laying it on thick.  But then, what does Israel say.  All they say in response to God’s exuberant vision of the future is simply this. “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.”  The people of Israel can’t see past their setbacks, their mistakes, their misery.   No matter what God says, they can’t see it.  

You see, Israel has lost everything.  Babylon has conquered them, sent them into exile. And they can’t see any way back, any way back to anything better, much less this beautiful vision God gives.  Have you ever been there?   Have you ever been in such a dark place?  

A few weeks ago, I found myself there.  As Halloween approached, I felt more deeply than ever the separation from my wife and son.   Here at the church things were improving but still not enough to ease my worries and fears.   And of course, the news wasn’t helping either. Now, I knew in my head that things would get better, but my heart didn’t feel that at all.  And, honestly, I had it a lot better than those folks in Israel.   No one had conquered my country or carried me away into exile.  So, I can’t imagine how dark it must have been for them.  

So, what do you do, when you find yourself in a dark place like that, a place that you struggle to find hope?   You do what God does here.   You stop and listen but then you argue.   Now the stopping and listening, you may not see so much here, but it happens.  For right after Israel’s dejected response, God’s tone, even his words change radically.   And why?  God had stopped and listened.  

You see, when you find yourself in a dark place, you can’t ignore it.  You can’t ignore the pain of your heart.  You can’t deny it.    If you do, it’ll wreck you.   That pain is real, and you ignore at your peril.    You can know that because you know how it feels when others ignore it. 

When you go through a terrible loss, you don’t need to hear cliches.  You don’t need to hear.  Well, God needed another angel or if God closes a door, he’ll open a window.  No, hold on a second.  Maybe that cliché could help, but you don’t need to hear that first.  No, you first need to know someone hears you, senses your pain, your loss, your hurt.  And in this shift of tone here God is doing just that.  God is feeling the loss, the heartbreak of those he dearly loves.   But God doesn’t stop there.  Why?

You don’t just need someone to listen to your heart.  You also need someone to argue with it, even if that person is you.    When my heart felt so dark, so bereft, I listened yes.  But I knew too.  My heart wasn’t seeing things clearly.   I had to argue with it too.  And that’s what God does here.  God argues with Israel’s heart, and as God does, God tells them as never before just how deeply God loves them, how deeply God loves you. 

Do you see how God describes her love?  I use her on purpose, because God portrays herself as just that a “her”, to be more specific, a nursing mom.   Now why does God choose that image?   God could have described himself as a passionate lover or a faithful father.  So, why here a nursing mother?  It’s because God is sharing something stunning.

If you love somebody but they betray you or do you wrong, you can walk away.  Now, certainly, you have moms that walk away too.  God acknowledges that. God says.  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  But that walking away does not come naturally.  In fact, nature literally stands in the way.   Take a nursing mom.  Until a nursing mom releases that milk, until she can feed her child, she is in pain.  She hurts.  But more than that when a mother releases the milk, heck, even before that, all through pregnancy, her body releases huge amounts of oxytocin, what scientists call the love hormone.   When you feel in love with someone, that’s what courses through your body.  A mom’s very nature, her literal body compels her to love her kids.  When my son falls and hurts himself, yeah, I feel for him.  But my wife, sheesh, she feels it in a way I can’t.  That’s the oxytocin.  

Do you see what God is telling you about her very nature?  God is saying. “Don’t you get it? I can’t help myself.  I have no choice but to love you.  I’m that mom and infinitely more.   I cannot stop myself from loving you.  That’s my very nature.   As the preacher, Tim Keller puts it, God is saying “If I ceased loving you, I’d cease being me.”

That’s crucial to know because too often we live in this default position of a God who is going against his nature to love us.  But God says here. “No, it’s the opposite.”   I can do nothing else but love you.  That’s who I am.   

But God doesn’t stop there.  God says.  “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”   God doesn’t say tattooed or written.  God is saying. I have done what you see out there on those stones in the Memorial Garden.  I have chiseled you into my very body like an artist chisels a sculpture out of stone.   Why that word? 

Because in that word, God is telling you two things.  God is saying. It’s permanent.  Nothing will take your names off my hands.  But more than that, engraving means artistry.   God doesn’t only see you.   God looks at you and is ravished by you, by your beauty.  Do you see how this connects to the mother image?   A mother looks at her child and she is ravished like that, the smell, the feel of the skin, the eyes.  Her child captivates her.   And God says that’s me.  I look at you, and you captivate me. You take my breath away.  And if God sees you like that, then by definition that’s who you are.  It doesn’t matter what your friends say or your family or even yourself or your mirror.  God’s word is definitive.   It’s the first word and the last. 

But it doesn’t stop there.  Where does God engrave your name?  He engraves it on the palm.  When someone says hands up, you know it doesn’t mean this.   It mean’s this, your palms out front.  Palms out means no weapon.  How do you shake a hand?  You shake it palm to palm.  When your palms are open, you are vulnerable, utterly so.  And that’s where God engraves your name.

But how do you do that?  How do you carve into someone’s palm?   Now we know.  For thousands of years later, Jesus said to his disciple Thomas in his moment of darkness and doubt.  Here are my hands and my feet.  This is how real my love is, how intense, how complete.

And in that love, you can know, even at your worst, even at the world’s worst God never walks away.  And even at your worst, God sees you in the full beauty of not only who you are, but who, by God’s grace, you will be.   

In the very last sentence, God says to Israel these puzzling words.  “Your walls are continually before me.”  That doesn’t make any sense.  Israel walls are broken.  They’re nothing but rubble, but not to God.  No, God see beyond the rubble.  God sees when that city, when each of us will be all God has destined us to be, that Jesus died for us to be. 

And if God sees you that way, then see yourself that way.  See yourself as the masterpiece you are by God’s grace.  See those around you that way.   See this world not only for what it is now, but what it is even now becoming, a world healed and restored, transformed by the unstoppable power of God’s love.   Let that love fill you with confidence and peace.  Let it quiet your doubts and fears.  For that love has the last word, not this virus or any other ugly thing in our world.   

So, live in that love.

Invite and welcome others into that love.

Share it joyfully and boldly, just how God loves you, how God loves me, how God loves this entire beautiful, broken world no matter what, and how that love wins over everything.    

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Fake News, Real News? What's The Difference? It's Not What You Think.

I notice it pretty much every day I drive home.  How can I miss it?  It’s huge.  It’s yellow. It has big bold type.   And the billboard begins with these words that I’ve heard a lot. It asks.  “Have you had enough of the fake news?”   What’s funny is right after that question, it gives you news that isn’t really news at all.  It’s a campaign advertisement.   And that advertisement doesn’t feel all that real.  To be honest, it feels a little fake. 

And that’s the point.  To some extent, all the political news out there or at least the way people view that, is kinda fake.  I’m not talking about its factual accuracy.  No.  I’m talking about how folks often act as if that news is the most real thing in the world.  I mean. It is real, sure, decisions leaders make have real consequences.  In this pandemic, they even have life and death ones. 

But life has far deeper realities than that news.   But we can miss it.  We can act as if this leader gets elected or this leader doesn’t, that calls for abject despair, weeping and gnashing of teeth. Life is over as we know it.  It’s almost a form of false worship.   And honestly, it’s a false worship I get caught up in.  

Yet, here’s the appalling truth.  Over the course of history, empires have risen and fell.  This nation we love so much, it won’t last forever.  It won’t.  No nation has.   Empire after empire once dominated the world, the Akkadians or the Kush or the Indus, and they are gone, long gone. And don’t feel bad if you have never heard of any of those.  I had to look them up on Wikipedia.  In other words, one day, our nation will be like theirs.  It won’t be fake news. It won’t even be old news.  It won’t even really be news at all.

But this news, this news never gets old.  And this news gives you the perspective you need, we all need, on the good and bad news days of these times.  In fact, once you know this news, you know a truth that can never be shaken, that stands no matter what struggles you face.  What is this news?  Here God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

Do you see what God is telling you in these words?  God is telling you what you desperately need, what everyone desperately needs.   God is giving you news, wondrous news, unexpected news, incredibly good news.   And when you understand that’s what God is bringing you, it frees you from getting stressed out about all the other news.   For you know this news trumps them all. 

Yet, you can miss it.  You can miss that’s what God is giving you.  God is giving you news.  In fact, that’s the essence, the heart of Christianity, that it’s news.   Do you understand what I mean by that?  

Thousands of years ago, the philosopher, Aristotle, created a helpful way of seeing things in the world.  He called it substance and accidents.   And what he meant by those words is that you need to see in life what is essential and what is incidental.  Let me explain with an idea I got from the preacher Tim Keller.  

Let’s say I have a ball of playdoh and a steel pole.  What if I asked you the core difference between these things, between play doh and steel?   And you responded.  Oh that’s simple, one is round and one is straight.   Now, come on would that be right?   No way.   That’s incidental.  That’s not a core difference.  No, the core difference goes to something deeper, something that cannot be changed, that makes these things different no matter what shape you find them in. 

So, what is that essence for Christianity?  After all, you’ll find all sorts of different varieties of Christianity, different worship experiences, different languages, even different beliefs about certain things.   That can’t be the essence.   Now, you might think.  Okay, it’s the good things Christians are called to do, loving others, giving, forgiving, stuff like that.  But you’ve got folks that don’t even believe in God, much less Jesus, and they do all that stuff, sometimes better than Christians.  Now, you might say, well, the difference has to be in the love, right?  We say it every week.   God loves you no matter what.   And that is getting closer but you’re not quite there yet.   So, what is missing?   Well, the arm is missing.   You don’t have the arm. 

You see, that’s what this passage is telling you.  It’s pointing you to the essence.  It’s pointing you to the arm.   You see it just a few verses into what we read.   God is letting Isaiah know of something startling, amazing, shocking that God is going to do.   And God tells you what that will be in two provocative questions.   “Who has believed what we have heard?  And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”  

When the Bible talks about the arm of the Lord, it is talking about something powerful God is doing.   The arm of the Lord delivers Israelites out of their slavery to the Egyptians.  And how did God do that?   God did stuff, powerful, history-making stuff.  

And God is saying, in this day, when this happens, God is going to do something powerful, something history-making, something big.  God is going to make news.  

You see.   Jesus didn’t come to tell you what to do, though certainly he did do that.  But that doesn’t get to the heart, to the essence of God’s mission.  Jesus didn’t come to tell you what to do.  Jesus came to do; to do a powerful, news making thing.  That’s what the word gospel means.  It means Good News.  The gospel isn’t advice.  It’s news. 

In other religions, it doesn’t really matter so much if the stories about the founders aren’t true.    The essence isn’t so much what the founder did.  It’s what the founder taught.   The founder gives you advice on life, gaining peace, meaning, enlightenment.   But in Jesus, God didn’t come to deliver advice.  God came to make news.  If the gospel was just advice, it wouldn’t even make any sense.

Think about it.  Take Christmas.   Jesus gets born in a manger.  What’s the moral of that story?   In the right circumstances, homeless childbirth can be kinda good.   Of course not. It has no moral.  It’s not even a story.  It’s news.  The arm of the Lord is being revealed.   God is doing something, something God has never done before. 

Or let’s go to the cross, the news to which this prophecy points.  Does that story make any sense, if it’s not news?   Now, you might say, well it’s inspirational. But is it?   I mean, what’s the point?  When evil comes, just give in and let them kill you?  If that’s the point, it’s pretty twisted.   

Or let’s think of it another way.  Let’s say you and I were visiting New York, and we went to the top of the Empire State Building.   And I said to you.  “I want to show you how much I love you.  Watch.”   Then I climb up on the ledge and I jump, plummeting to my death.   Are you going to say? “Wow, look at how that person loved me!”  No, you’re going to be thinking.  What’s wrong with that person?  What were they thinking?

But what if, I was doing something stupid up on the building, and as a result I was about to fall.  But you pulled me out of the way, you saved me, but as a result of saving me, you fell instead.

Here’s the essence of the Gospel.  Something happened in history, something so powerful, so earth shattering, it changed everything, it changed everything irrevocably and forever.  And if that’s not true, if it’s not news, well, then it not only doesn’t make any sense, it’s kinda messed up.

So, what did God come to do?  God came to save us from ourselves.  In this passage, Isaiah uses every word he can think of to describe human brokenness, infirmities, diseases, transgressions, iniquities.   But all the words point to one problem, the problem Isaiah lays out in verse 6.  “All we like sheep have gone astray; and we have all turned to our own way.”

I think my son must have been around three when this happened, and I gotta tell you, it was devastating.   We had gone to Target to get a birthday gift for a friend of his.  And my son was so excited.  He picked out a really cool toy.  As we went to check out, he was so happy.  But then he realized the awful truth.   He wasn’t getting this toy.  No, his friend was getting it.   And he broke into tears.  And he asked me.  “What about me?  What do I get?”   And when I explained to him, well, he got the joy of giving something nice to his friend, well, that didn’t seem all that great at all.  No, he wanted the toy.  

And why?  It’s because all of us want the toy.  All of us get trapped in ourselves, in what we want, what we need, what we’re scared that we’re not going to get.  It’s always me-first.   We’re all focused on our own way.   Last week, when I put the shutters on the church’s windows, I wanted pictures so we could post on Facebook and everyone could see what I was doing.  Why? It was about me not about the shutters. 

This past week, I was heading to work.  I saw a big turtle trapped on the side of the highway.  So, I doubled back, crossed the road, picked the turtle up and carried him someplace safe.  Then later that day, I realized.  I could have taken pictures and posted them, shown the world my good deed.   But I hadn’t.  I was so sad.  Then I realized.  I could use it here as an illustration.  Ka-ching!   It wasn’t about the turtle. It was about me.  

And like sheep, who when they wander off, always get into trouble, when we go our own way, it wrecks us.  It wrecks our world.   Every act of evil, every messed-up moment or action or word in our lives comes down to two words.  Me first.  Me first.          

And why do we go our own way?  Why is it me first?   It’s because deep down, we have a fear.  No one really cares about me, ultimately, except me.   If I don’t take care of me, no one will.   No one loves me like that.   And guess what, you’re right, at least, when it comes to people.  After all, all of us are trapped in me first.  We all can’t get out of our own way. 

But all that began, the Bible tells us, when we started to doubt the love of God, when we stopped believing that God really loves us.   So, we went our own way, like a sheep that wanders off from the shepherd.   And the more we wander, the most lost we become.  But with sheep, the shepherd comes.  He searches.  He saves.  Why?  The shepherd really does care about the sheep.

And that’s the news.  God came for us.  And God didn’t simply risk his life.   God gave it up to save you, to save me.   In our fearful, self-obsessed ways, we go, your life for mine.   But God goes.   Here’s what I do.  My life for yours.   In the book of Hebrews, it tells us that for the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame.   And what was the joy set before Jesus?  You were.  You were.    Because God loves you like that.  God does love you no matter what.   

And God didn’t just come and tell you that.  God came and did something.  And on that cross, in that agony, God broke the bondage, the twistedness that holds you forever.  God took on your brokenness and made you whole.  God took on your wrongness and made you right.  God changed everything in you forever.  And that happened.   It’s news, news God made for you.   And if you know God did that, you can know God will never walk away from you.  God will never stop loving you.  God’s love will not even stop at death for you.  And when you know that news, all the other news pales in comparison.  For all that news will pass, but this news will not.   No, this news lasts, beyond nations, and empires, and Presidents, and setbacks and triumphs, beyond even death itself.   So, believe the good news.  Let it live in you.  Let it change you as no other news can.   In the name of the God who loved you from the beginning, who gave up everything to bring you back into that love, and who can do more, even in the brokenness of these days than you could ever ask or imagine or dream.  Amen. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

In the Midst of a Divisive Election, What Do You Need to Know the Most? You Need to Know This.

Boy, I’m glad it doesn’t happen at the church I serve.   Now, don’t get me wrong.  Folks here definitely disagree about politics, sometimes strongly.  But none of that gets in the way of us loving each other or working together to love our community.  But boy, some folks really get hot under the collar out there.  

And I’ve got no doubt, once everything is certified, whoever officially wins this election and comes into office next year, you’ll have folks angry and upset about that outcome.   I get it.   If you care passionately about something going one way, and it doesn’t go that way, you’re going to be upset.  But how do you deal with that?  How do you even find a way to move past it?  More crucially, how do we as a country find a way to move past it?  How do we come together to respect our elected leaders even if we didn’t vote for them or may not even like them?   What if those leaders even do things that anger us? How do you not let the anger get out of hand or lead to actions or words that you regret?    In these words, God gives you a surprising answer, but one if you think about it, frees you, frees us all in ways that nothing else can.   What is that answer?  Here God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Isaiah 64:1-9, 65:17-18

How did it come to this?   That’s the title of the series of which this sermon is a part.   And you might be asking that question about this election and all the unrest surrounding it, the charges and countercharges, the suspicions and rage.   But hey, let’s look at the bright side.  At least, where I am, Florida isn’t at the center of this mess.   For once, I am glad that Florida is not one of those states that folks are fighting over. 

But once the dust settles, someone will be President, and how do we come together then?  How do we find a way forward?   In these words, God shows you the way.  How?  Well, God is giving you some great news.  God is telling you that this God, the one and true God is a God who gets really, really angry.  

Now, lots of folks today get bothered by an angry God.   In fact, growing up, in school I read the famous sermon by the great theologian Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.   Sheesh, that has to be one of the scariest sermon titles ever (and a sermon let's say that doesn't fully represent Edwards' thinking) .    Yet, we all need a God who gets angry.   Isaiah, the prophet, who wrote these words sure needed one.

Isaiah wasn’t even living in Israel when he wrote these words. No, the Babylonian empire had conquered them, had ripped family after family from their homes to take them to Babylon.  Why?  That way, the Babylonians could put their own people there, people who wouldn’t cause trouble or rebel.  Can you imagine losing your home, your homeland, to live as a virtual prisoner thousands of miles away.   So, what does Isaiah pray?  He prays for God to get angry, to make the mountains quake with the power of it, to rip open the heavens and come down.   

He knows.  He and his people don’t have the power to overcome this empire, but God does.   More than that, he believes, God will.   Why?  Well, has it ever happened to you?  A friend tells you of how someone did them wrong, and you get so mad.  Heck, you may get angrier than they do even.  But why?   No one did you wrong.  So why are you angry?   You get angry because you care.  You care about your friend.  You get angry on their behalf.   Your anger shows your love, your love for them.  And Isaiah knows God’s anger will come because Isaiah knows that God loves them like that.  And when you know God’s anger serves God’s love, it frees you.   

In the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Bosnian Civil War, Miroslav Volf, a theologian from that part of the world as he grieved the awful loss of so many friends and family in that brutal war wrote how God’s anger gave him comfort, how it even freed him from the desire for vengeance.   Why?   When you know God’s anger serve God’s love, you know that you don’t need to do the vengeance, as if that would even work.  You have a God whose love will bring justice on your behalf, who will work where you cannot work and do what you cannot or should not do.  

And in these days, the loving anger of this God reminds us of two things that we can forget.   First, as hard as these days might be.   No nation has torn us from our homes.  No war has killed our friends and family.   We live in a time of deep division, yes.  But we also live in a nation where we had the opportunity to vote, to do it safely, securely, peacefully, to worship here without fear of violence or arrest.  We can be grateful that we don’t need the anger of God that Isaiah did.    And God forbid, we ever do. 

But at the same time, we can know.  We have a God who will get angry on our behalf, if ever we need it.  We have a God who love us like that.  And that God will see us through this crisis as this God saw our nation through Civil War and World War and Depression.   And this God will bring justice as God did in defeating slavery and Jim Crow, the wrongs done to women and children and workers, who inspired all the movements that have made this nation a more perfect union.   And God will work here too. 

But hold on, God has more, more to tell us, and this we may not like as much.  Do you see how Isaiah’s prayer changes?   It does take a turn!   One minute he’s going.  Put a hurting on those Babylonians God!  Then he says.  Oh yeah, God, I know.  We brought this on ourselves.  We messed up.  Even our good deeds are nothing but filthy rags.

Years ago, I remember listening to this song by the band,Dire Straits.  I rarely remember the name of the song.  But I remember this line.  When you point your finger, you have three more fingers pointing back at you. The truth of that line hit me hard, first the literal truth of it.  Because it is true.  Point your finger and count!  You do have three fingers pointing back at you!    But I got the deeper truth.   We’ve all got stuff.  Even the best things we do, have self-interest in there somewhere.    And Isaiah realizes that here.  He knows.   He can’t lay this mess at the feet of the Babylonians alone.  He has to own his part.  

Our country is in a bit of a mess right now. And I’m pretty comfortable talking about the folks out there creating these problems, these divisions.  But I’m not all that comfortable talking about the divisions I create, the assumptions I make, especially about folks who might vote or think differently than me, or the sense of moral superiority that I can carry as if somehow God delivered the pure and spotless truth only to me.  

Don’t get me wrong.  If you’ve got a sense that something is wrong, stand up for what is right.  Isaiah prayed for God to bring justice to Israel, to right the wrongs done by Babylon.   But he didn’t stop there.  He faced up to his stuff, his failings, his faults, the faults of his nation. 

In these days, it’s easier to look only at the wrongs we think others have done, especially those with whom we disagree.  And you may even speak out about them.  But don’t do it without facing your own faults or your possible blindness.  Whenever you point a finger, remember you always have three fingers pointing back at you.   Even our best deeds are like a filthy rag.

So, let’s choose to believe that everyone who voted, or even those who didn’t, love this nation, believe in it, want the best for it.    But boy, did people vote.  More Americans voted in this election than have voted in any election in 120 years!  That is amazing, even wonderful news!

And speaking of news, God ends this passage with the best news of all.   God’s anger doesn’t last.   Do you see that last part of the prayer?  “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter.  We are all the work of your hand.  Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever.”  That is awesome news! 

My dad had a temper.  And boy, I irritated him. Sometimes, I even did it on purpose.   But no matter how angry he became, how disappointed at my behavior, his anger never lasted.   Why?   Even at his angriest, his love never left.  Heck, often he was angry because he did love me.  His anger served his love.   But his love always stayed, and his anger always left. 

And the potter, she might get frustrated with the clay, but she never gives up on it.  She keeps working it and working it until in her hands, she creates something beautiful, the loving work of her hands.    

This God never gives up on us, on any of us.   No, this God loves us so much, he overcame our misbegotten anger, our twisted-up rage, our blindness and brokenness with his love.  In Jesus, he died for the sake of that love, to save us from ourselves, from the justice due us.   Years ago, I first heard the hymn Here is Love.   And ever since it has remained one of the hymns l love the most.   Its words go like this:

Here is love, vast as the ocean, Loving-kindness as the flood,
When the Prince of Life, our Ransom, Shed for us His precious blood.
Who His love will not remember? Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten, Throughout heav’n’s eternal days.

On the mount of crucifixion, Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above,
And heav’n’s peace and perfect justice Kissed a guilty world in love.

That is the end of the story, not the anger but the love.  And in that love, God will heal everything, create a new heavens and a new earth.  In that love, the former things (our screw ups in other words) will not be remembered or come to mind.  For we, God’s people will be God’s delight.   So, trust in the loving anger of God, and let God work where you can’t or shouldn’t.  Don’t ever forget that all of us have fallen short, but God’s love has not and will not.  And remember that love holds us, holds our nation, holds our world, and that love will always be the end of our story, of every story  For God loves each of us, this entire world, no matter what.