The Thresholds of Faith

A sermon based on Deuteronomy 11:18-21 and Ephesians 6:1-9 preached on August 27th, 2017

Sermon audio

As we’ve slowly made our way through Ephesians—passage by passage, instruction by instruction—we’ve seen how serious Paul is about getting the life of God—the large, eternal, infinite life of God—inside of us. The letter to the Ephesians is Paul’s attempt to get us to notice all the ways that God is inviting us through Christ to participate in resurrection living.

Throughout our summer’s exploration of Ephesians, we’ve heard one message said a dozen different ways: practice Jesus. In everything you do, in every place you find yourself—practice Jesus. His is the only life large enough for us. Everywhere else is cramped space. We have been invited into the resurrection life of Christ, and it’s a wide-open space. Only in Christ is there enough room for us to grow into the people God has created us and wishes for us to be.

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These are big ideas from a big God. We can easily be overwhelmed by it all.

The first few chapters of Ephesians contains multitudes. They’re here to wow us. To get us interested in becoming a part of something big and beyond us. Paul speaks in Ephesians chapter 1 of a divine mystery—something given to us by God that not one of us will ever be able to comprehend or conjure up for ourselves, on our own. But in order to get in on this divine mystery, in order to begin this vast resurrection life that Christ invites us into, we must give up our own ways of going about life in general, we need to sacrifice life on our terms. The Christian way is first and foremost life on God’s terms. Our ways need changing. The particulars of our lives, especially our relationships, take on new form. Jesus-form, servant-form, cross-form. That’s why halfway through Ephesians, Paul shifts his perspective from telescopic to microscopic, as if to say,

Now that you know about the infinite holiness of this God, this is how the mundane particulars of your minutes and hours and days, and every one of your relationships will be different.

Think eternally; act locally. Start practicing resurrection right where you are! Once we got to Chapter 3, we take the big vision we glance at through our telescopes, and we let it inform and shape what we see when we look into our microscopes.

In every next chapter of Ephesians, Paul has us focusing on ever smaller layers of our lives. First, Paul makes sure we know that we Gentiles have been incorporated into the covenant of God. We are part of the ancient promise given to Abraham and Sarah. The circle of salvation grows to include all of us. Then, Paul takes us to church—talks about the body of Christ, tells us how to live out the eternal promises of our infinite God as we gather together inside of these four walls.

Then, turning the dials on the microscope even closer, he gives us instructions for how to behave and treat one another—what our lives will look like as we practice Christ together. Then, when he’s done addressing life in church community, he focuses in even closer. Now, Paul wants us to pay attention to what happens at home. How spouses are to regard one another. No longer with an attitude of dismissiveness as if we own each other, but with reverence. No longer is it okay for women to be talked down to. Now we are to look at one another in equal measure, and search for Christ inside of each other.

I love this! I love this because this movement from eternal to specific confronts us every time. We have an increasing tendency to think of God in ethereal, new-agey ways. Those who call themselves spiritual but not religious love to talk about how spending time with other human beings inside of religious community is unnecessary when they can just get up every morning and see God in the sunrise, or in the birds soaring through the sky, in the crisp cool air, or the quiet sound of wind rustling through the leaves. They say these things as if no one else witnesses God in these ways—like they’re in on something new. But Paul will have none of that. The farther we go in his letter to the Ephesians, the more Paul insists that God is found in and by those who gather together in sacred community with others on a regular basis. God becomes flesh and blood this way—something more than some transcendent idea, Someone real and present, calling us to say no to all the ways our culture is disconnecting from what’s real and personal. All of scripture, and Jesus Himself, points to a God who insists on being found in flesh and blood relationships with our fellow human beings.

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Place these words inside your hearts. Get them deep inside you.

Those are the first words from our passage in Deuteronomy for this morning. Deuteronomy is all about the particulars. It’s Moses’ last sermon before he passes away, and after he’s gone, he needs the Israelite people to remember how God has changed their life. And just like Paul does in Ephesians, Moses drills down to the specifics in Deuteronomy. And the most specific layer of our lives—the closest our microscopes can focus down upon, is what happens at home.

Inscribe these words…on the doorposts of your houses. Teach them to your children. Do all of this on the soil that God has promised to give you. Get all this deep inside of you.

God is not happy being left outside of anything. It’s not enough to find Him in sunrises and sunsets or in crisp, cool mountain breezes, in the sound of crashing waves, or the soaring of seagulls. God wants into our houses! Our kitchens and bedrooms. Our living and dining rooms. This is ground zero for our faith: what happens at home. It turns out that the biggest thresholds of our faith are the ones we step through every morning and evening as we leave and return home. Home is where it all begins, where faith is formed and then matures.

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When my parents first told my brother and I they had decided to sell the house we grew up in, I found myself surprised that I wasn’t at all sad. There was no grief there. The only thing I questioned was why I wasn’t grieving it. I talked to my brother about this, and I found out that he wasn’t grieving either. This made me feel better.

As the days went on after this news from my parents, as the house went on the market, memories of life in that house began to surface. The front yard of this home was the one my brother and I and all the neighborhood kids tore up playing baseball. Ghost man on first and third. And what about the pile of unused bricks—the ones that sat in the same place in the backyard for 30 years? The ones we used to build forts with or hide behind whenever we played outside. And then there was the panel of unfinished drywall in the garage with pencil etchings all up and down it, where my parents measured our height every few months with the dates scrawled next to each marker. What would happen to that?

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Our lives are lived, and we are formed, in-house. Nowhere else is it more important to live out our faith than in the space behind our front door. Everything begins at home, and everything about who we are and how we are, mirrors home. I am who I am, and you are who you are, because of what home is like.

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As your Pastor, I can lose my voice and my breath teaching Christ to you. I could take crowds of kids to places like Montreat and Bluestone. I could run around all week long, and still I wouldn’t have as much an impact over your child’s or grandchild’s faith, your family’s faith, as you do. Study after study proves this: the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of children and adolescents is their parents. This sanctuary is not the space within which faith is formed. It is merely the place in which it is celebrated. As it turns out, our faith is born, instilled, grown, and brought to maturity in the same space we are born, grow, and brought to maturity—in our kitchens and dining rooms, in our living rooms and bedrooms. The primary responsibility of fostering Christ in our children resides with you, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.

Parents, you are painting a portrait of God for your children. What does that picture look like? What happens at home?

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Fathers and mothers, take your children by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.

The thresholds around the front doors, side doors, back doors of your homes—they’re also the thresholds of faith. This shouldn’t be surprising. Jesus did most of His earthly ministry around tables—the ones inside of other people’s homes—sharing food and drink with friends and enemies, outcasts and the well-connected.

We believe in a God who was born into a family. In a stable that was adjacent to a house. That is to say, we have an incarnational faith. A home-faith. A flesh and blood faith. A God-in-house faith. In the opening words of the Gospel according to John, in Jesus Christ, God has pitched a tent and moved into our neighborhood. God is born and still resides with us! In house. Teach your children well.

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The invitation and challenge we’re given as we enter the last chapter of Ephesians is to live a specific faith in a specific space. Speak no more flighty, five syllable words! No more floaty theological conjectures will do! God is not some concept or notion. God is a person who longs to take up residence among us.

So, what happens at home? I urge you to keep asking yourself that question.

As it turns out, faith is shaped inside of the havens of our homes. As it turns out, it’s the soil in which we have been planted that we grow—grow strong and mature in body, in mind, in heart…in Christ.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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Living God’s Image

A sermon based on Jeremiah 7:1-11 and Ephesians 5:3-20 preached on August 6th, 2017

Sermon audio

I’ve owned several cars in my life, but none will be as memorable as the second one—the one I drove around town when I first got my driver license: a 1986 Ford Mustang LX.

My first car was a 1980 Mazda RX-7 in black. The one with the headlights that flipped up out of the hood. It was a 2-seater. I owned it for a few months, but I only drove it on the road once. It looked terrible. The rear quarter panels on both sides had rust holes in them big enough to stick your fists into. The black paint job was worn down to the metal all over that car. But as old as it was, it ran like like a dream. The engine was as solid as the body was rusty.

Looking back now, I wish my father and I had stuck with the RX-7, but when my 16-year-old eyes met that ’86 Mustang. It was love at first sight! It was bright cherry red. It gleamed in the sunlight. The stereo in the dash was missing, but that was okay because I had plans to upgrade whatever was in there anyway.

I drove that Mustang around for a little over two years. By then, my Dad and I had well figured out that we had overpaid for it. We had been taken in, fooled, by its brand new paint job. That stunning red paint covered a multitude of problems. In the ensuing months and years, I had to put that car in Park or Neutral every time I came to a stop, or the thing would stall out. I carried a 5-quart container of motor oil in my back seat, because sometimes I had to jump out while waiting at a red light to refill the oil that constantly leaked out. It turns out that you can polish junk and pass it off as something it isn’t. Window dress the insubstantial and make it look meaningful and purposeful.

At the beginning, I couldn’t wait to make that Mustang my own; at the end, I couldn’t wait to get rid of it.

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In the life of faith, paint jobs don’t matter. God knows how we run underneath. All the window dressing in the world can’t hide, and will not cover up, the problems inside. And we don’t get by well—or for long—on how impressive things look on the outside, on the surface of things. In the end, we only get by—find our energy and vitality, our worth and worthiness—because of the quality of what’s hiding underneath our gleaming paint jobs. What matters most is what’s in our guts, our hearts, our minds. And it doesn’t take long for others to see past whatever shiny coat of paint we put on our exterior. We are only as healthy as what’s going on in the parts of us that are hidden away—much deeper.

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We carry on in the back half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in pursuit of some vision of what the spiritually mature Christian life is like. Paul continues with the down to earth examples of how to go on living in right relationship

Paul continues with the down to earth examples of how to go on living in right relationship to God’s love and grace and majesty. Our right response is to live well, to pursue those things that only God can give us, to live in search of peace and wholeness and love so that we might better reflect who Jesus is to all those around us.

There are people all around us who know how to look past our nice looking exteriors and see what’s really going on. Who can see past the fleeting light of our smiles and peer into our very character. Just as Paul says, sometimes what we keep hidden away in the dark gets exposed to the light. Here, we are invited to live in such a way that our insides match our outsides. And we do that by continuously making choices that are consistent with our faith. Our faith, Paul writes, is not window dressing. Our faith is never only lived on the outside.

Sometimes we try to get away with throwing on a shiny coat of faith on the outside in an attempt to hide something from God and others. We throw something like glimmering red paint on some shame-filled part of ourselves that we want at all cost to keep under wraps—in the dark. But we are called by Christ to be Children of Light, and our lives will be barren pursuits if we’re unwilling to let God inside and examine us. Sometimes we don’t let God in because we presume that God will judge us harshly. If God sees how shameful or dark it really is inside, He’ll get angry and there won’t be any relationship left at all.

But there’s something wrong with that: scripture, over and over again, tells the story of a good and gentle God whose love for us is infinitely wider and deeper and higher than any love we could ever ask for or imagine. It’s a love that heals and repairs every part of ourselves that’s dark and broken. The invitation here is to trust this. To trust that if we hand over every bit of who we are to God, bring it out into the light, God will get to work in us, through us, for us. And through His grace, God will carefully and lovingly piece us together into the whole beings that He wants to make of us.

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Why do we resist this? Why is it such a daunting thought to open ourselves up this way? Perhaps one reason is that we often fear that if we look too closely at our lives, we’ll see too much that has to be fixed. We might say to ourselves that we’re getting down the road okay just as we are, so why bother opening up the hood—peering deeper into what’s going on beneath the surface of things. Wouldn’t that work be too hard, too much to confront or pay attention to? Too painful to visit or sort through? Some cars aren’t worth repairing, but there’s not one life that isn’t worth redeeming—bringing back to life, getting elbow deep into repairing, making whole, complete.

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Paul tells us to steer clear of a few things: religious smooth talk, useless work, the barren pursuits of darkness—sexual promiscuity, filthy practices, bullying greed, drunkenness. He warns us of the many useless ways we can speak—our mouths filling the air with empty words, gossip.

On the surface of things, this appears to be a list of requirements, things we have to either accomplish or effortfully avoid in order to make ourselves shiny and good-looking to God. We can see this entire passage as a word of admonition, a bunch of must-do’s—moral obligations we must fulfill—in order to prove our goodness to God, to live up to His love for us.

There’s nothing wrong with living a moral life, in fact, I encourage it, but ignoring any of these instructions described here doesn’t only result in bad or immoral behavior, it also cheapens us. If we live our lives in any of these ways—sexual promiscuity, filthy practices, bullying greed, get taken in by religious smooth talk, live carelessly, unthinkingly—we ignore our value as people made in the image of a loving God. We cheapen ourselves. We live beneath our worth. The image of God that lives deep inside of us must be nurtured to the surface through the right use of our bodies, our words, and our lives. Living our lives away from these dark actions and in the light of God’s love and life is the way we become full and whole human beings. They are the way in which God makes more of us.

These aren’t a bunch of soulless rules. Together they paint a picture of what living in right relationship with God, ourselves, and others looks like—the great value we have because each and every one of us has been bought at a price and rescued in a priceless way: through the cross of Christ. And living our lives in the way of the Cross means in part steering clear of any action or behavior that makes less of you and I and others, that minimizes who you and I and others are in the loving sight of God. We are worth more than we know.

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It’s easy to live in cheap ways, to make choices that end up dehumanizing us. We give ourselves away to lesser things all the time. We chase after shadows and things that glitter, and we lose ourselves in these things. We think they matter, but all they do is distract us, pull us away from true life. When we do this, we suffocate the breath of God’s Holy Spirit inside of us. These things and these ways, they cheapen our worth as the expensive and invaluable Children of God, and that is exactly what we are.

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Sleepers awake!  Climb out of these coffins, these too-tiny ways of bestowing upon ourselves empty forms of meaning, purpose, self-worth! Christ is the Light who will show you the light! Now that’s a Call to Worship! A wake-up call to worship!! A call to enter into the deep life of God, to get out of ourselves and into God—to walk away from the superficial life, get taken in by shiny paint jobs, those life pursuits that do nothing to give real value or purpose to who we are, that do nothing to draw us closer into the meaningful and purposeful holy life that God invites us to live in Jesus Christ. The Jesus life is a life that calls us to more life. One that both on the surface and from deep inside will grow us into people who reflect the glorious and holy image of God, so that others may see.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Birthmarks

A sermon based on 1 Peter 1:3-10 and John 20:19-29 preached on April 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s Easter evening. The disciples are huddled together in a room too small for them. They’re sweating because the air is stagnant. They’re fearful for lack of courage or purpose. Three days ago, their courage and purpose had been crucified on a cross just outside Jerusalem. His name was Jesus.

Yes, there were rumors about. Earlier that morning, the two Marys had run back to the locked room they were huddled in. Out of breath from running, but also from whatever it is that happens to us when fear mixes with joy, they told the disciples that Jesus was alive. Walking, talking, breathing. Having conversations with them. But, for those first disciples, rumors and stories, conjecture and hearsay were good for nothing. How can anyone believe that Jesus is alive without first having seen Him? That’s the deep Easter question we have, isn’t it, friends?

Sometimes faith is easy. There are moments, perhaps many of them, when believing in that which we have not seen with our own two eyes comes effortlessly. But there are also moments when our faith lacks the strength to carry us very far—out of our own locked rooms.

There they were—Jesus’ disciples, who knows how many of them—certainly more than 11—hiding behind locked doors, whispering to each other out of fear of being discovered, certain that if they made too much noise or emerged out of the cubbyhole of a room they were in, they’d end up on a cross just like their Master had.

It’s a wonder that the Jesus movement was birthed at all. For their faith to take on life, those first disciples had to emerge from the grave of that small, locked room. In a sense, they had already buried themselves inside those 4 walls. They had barred the door shut—it was locked from the inside—that door was like a tombstone they had rolled in front of their own grave. All indications would lead us to think that they were calling it quits.

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Whenever we read this passage in worship or in Sunday School class, or a bible study, the word doubt inevitably becomes a part of our conversation.

But there’s something much more sinister at play here. Doubt we can handle. We can live with doubt. In fact, it’s hard for us not to. But hope. Hope is something that none of us can survive without. If all we see wherever we look are walls, barriers, locked doors that keep us in, that hold us prisoner—especially when those doors are locked from the inside—then we’ve given up hope. And what else is there if we do not have hope?

Whenever fear takes up more space in our lives than hope, death wins. Life grows smaller. The walls around us get thicker, they move in closer. And there we are, cramped with fear. As good as dead. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in place; it feels like dying—or at least a sort of smaller death.

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It is right in the middle of this cramped space, this room filled with fear and death and hopelessness, that we hear a voice we recognize:

Peace be with you!

Jesus says. Heads turn. Mouths fall open. The women were right! Jesus is standing among them. He speaks real words from His real mouth. Looking at the disciples through His real eyes. There He is standing among them in the middle of that cubbyhole of a room. And whether it actually happened or it just felt like it, the walls of that room retreated. The space inside grew bigger, fuller. And suddenly, the disciples could breathe again. In that tiny space, life quickly replaced death.

Peace be with you!

And after saying those words, Jesus breathed on them, inflating their lungs again, reviving their hopelessness, giving new energy—God-energy to their bodies worn down and failing, bringing new birth to their dying spirits. In that moment, everything seemed to expand. Walls. Eyes. Lungs.

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Let’s dive a little deeper.

Did you ever notice how many times Jesus’ hands and side are mentioned in this passage? Three. Three times in 11 short verses. This should get our attention.

The first and last time, it’s Jesus who brings up these scars of His. The second time Jesus’ scars are mentioned, it’s Thomas who brushes aside the witness of his fellow disciples. They have told him that they had seen the Lord, and in his stubbornness, the first thing that Thomas brings up is that he needs to see those scars—the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, the lash marks in his side. That’s a curious thing! Have we ever thought about that? What’s so important about Jesus’ marks—these scars He had—that they’re the first thing Thomas says he needs to see, the first thing Jesus shows to His disciples, and the first thing that Jesus shows to Thomas a week later?

There seems to be no question about it: Jesus’ disciples were waiting to see the marks. It’s the most important detail of Jesus’ identity now—that His body now has scars. If we ever had the notion that the body of the resurrected Jesus would be blemish-free—glowing in radiance, white with light, healed by God, then we are assuming too much. In fact, we’d be assuming the opposite of what those first disciples assumed. The resurrected Jesus—the One high and lifted up—the One who is with us now in the power of the Holy Spirit—is perfect, but even in His perfection, He has scars. And these scars aren’t just something left over from His life on earth; these marks He has make Him our Lord and our God.

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Our bodies bear witness to the brutalities of this all-too-human life of ours. They’re marked up all over. Our skin tells our stories for us. Our bodies are our best diaries. Written upon them is every bit of our past. Over the landscape of our own bodies we encounter the countless moments of our lives. Our bodies are living signposts marking where we have been and what we have accomplished. They remember where we have stumbled, but they insist on getting back up onto our feet to try again—which in a way is its own tiny resurrection, or if that’s too much, it’s at least resilience, our hope becoming stronger than our fear. Our bodies are living testaments to the God-filled conviction that says: no matter what this world throws at us, we have within us completely resilient spirits. Our marks—physical, spiritual, emotional—do not make us less than human; they are the very things that show forth God’s power to bring us to new birth.

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Friends, we belong to a Wounded Healer. Jesus’ scars—the ones in His hands and sides—are not incidental. They are the story He has to tell. They are God’s story.

Jesus isn’t our Lord without those wounds. What He endured for us on the cross shall not be erased. We do not forget his crucifixion, because without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Without the marks, we would not be here. Without the holes in His hands and sides, we would not be whole. The Church was birthed by those marks on Jesus’ resurrected body. And without them, the Church would have died before it ever came to life.

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Do you know what this means, friends? It means that our faith is birthed from Jesus’ marks. So, the only way to be Church—to live our lives authentically and in witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ—is to bear our marks. To go out from this place, and into all our places, and show the wounds in our hands and sides. By so doing, we show others that Jesus’ church is far from being a group of people who celebrate their own perfection or holiness. Instead, we are people who are willing to roll up our sleeves and show others the side of ourselves that’s filled with wounds—wounds of body, heart, spirit, and soul. They will know we are Christians by our marks. Our marks make us fully alive! God-alive, Jesus-alive, Easter-alive!

And if we do that—if we are willing to be as vulnerable as Jesus was when He entered into that room appearing to his people, wounds and all, then we will bring light to darkened hearts, hope to fear-filled souls, life to people living their lives half-dead, and maybe, hopefully, lead them to recognize Jesus in much the same way that Thomas did that evening.

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Thomas’ eyes were opened when he saw Jesus. And from his mouth came the most profound statement of faith that we have in any of the gospels:

My Lord and my God!

he said.

The Church was given birth that night with those words from Thomas. It is with that declaration of faith along with the breath that Jesus breathed into those disciples—both, bringing them to life—that the Church still has its life.

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Friends, we still have limited vision and blinding doubts. We’re often crippled by the same kind of fear that those first disciples had, and that fear causes us to do the same thing it did to them: to keep all held up inside, to keep our faith hidden by these four walls, to hesitate to take the Good News of Jesus-alive out with us—to share it and wear it. To live our days, hours, minutes in witness to our resurrected Lord. It is into our anxiety—that thing that tells us over and over again that our faith is a private thing—that Jesus speaks those same words He did to those first disciples:

Peace be with you.

Jesus says it over and over again. Three times in this passage, and many more times to us. And he’ll continue speaking peace to us until we finally understand what He’s trying to tell us. Christ’s peace is a whole lot more than something that calms our fears. This is Shalom. This is a peace that empowers us and drags us into maturity, wholeness, completeness. Jesus breathes this peace into us. With His breath, Jesus gives us life—He births the Church in the same way God brought creation to life when His Spirit swept over the waters and stirred the cosmos to life.

With this Shalom, we catch our breath and are made into new beings. This is the breath that marks us for second birth. And once we catch Jesus’ breath, once we’re birthed by the Holy Spirit—given our vitality and our mission—we go out from this place and bear witness to our Lord by bearing His marks in all we say, and in all we do.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Endings and Beginnings

A sermon based on Isaiah 61:10-62:3 and Luke 2:21-40 preached on January 1, 2017

Sermon audio

Simeon was a patient man. As patient as God has ever made them. He was observant, too. And faithful. He lived his years slowly, watching and waiting and learning. Above all, Simeon was a wise man. Even before his beard turned to grey, Simeon was wise. His eyes were deep. In that way, Simeon lived into his name. His name meant One who hears. Simeon’s ears had been covered by a mane of gray, wiry hair for most of his life, and a robe covered his head whenever he ventured out into the bright sunlight, but Simeon was always listening, observing, ears ready to hear, and always on the look-out.

It was hard for Simeon to explain it, but he was on a mission from God. Years ago, Simeon heard—or maybe felt—God speaking to him. It was impossible to explain, really, but somehow in some way, Simeon was met by God one memorable day, for one memorable moment, and he heard God whisper something into his ear. Something about a Son—a long-awaited message will be delivered to the world. An infant Messiah. And this Messiah would bring a new beginning. He would be a sign that God has started over. Begun again.

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Simeon looked around the temple. He was at the temple most days. He watched the people going in and out, day by day, year by year. He recognized most of them. Everyone was a regular at the Temple. By law, the Jewish people made routine visits where they made routine sacrifices. It was almost like the Temple had become a factory for forgiveness. People showed up in the same old way they always have, sacrificed the same old animals just like they had the year before.

It all seemed to Simeon like rote religion. Mindless. These Temple sacrifices had come to mean very little to the Jewish people. There was nothing worshipful about them. Simeon lamented this. This meaningless sense of duty. Isn’t God a person who wants most of all to be in relationship with His people?! All this business of Temple sacrifices was just that: business—a transaction made with an impersonal God. In comes a deposit of an animal sacrifice at the Temple; and for it, God withdrawals our sin. That’s not relationship. That’s a business deal—it’s dead religion. Simeon mourned that.

Simeon knew a different God, a God who speaks to His people. Who goes to endless lengths to make Himself known to us. Who has always and will forevermore pursue us. And as long as we listen, we can have a relationship with this living God. Simeon thought that religion was that smaller thing that people settle for because they didn’t have the time or the desire to listen up or look out for God. Religion, he thought, was that thing that too often replaces relationship with our living and breathing God. The Temple was a place that reminded Simeon of how hungry we all are for something more, but how difficult it is for us to name it—so instead, we settle for less. Less relationship. Less God.

Simeon feared that religion—all these mindless and repetitive activities done in an around the Temple—was a sign that the people’s story with God was coming to an end. The only hope He had was that whisper he heard years ago. He remembered it like it happened yesterday. It was certainly a Divine whisper. It spoke of a new beginning for God and His people. God was up to something new. But, Simeon knew not what. He didn’t dare to imagine what God might be up to, but Simeon couldn’t help but hope that God was coming to His people in a new way. That the long-awaited Messiah was on His way to His people in flesh and blood. That this Messiah would knock God’s people awake. No more rote religion, but a real relationship with a God-made-human-being who would lead the people out from their snow-blind, God-blind ways, and into a flesh-and-blood relationship.

Simeon knew God had promised him that all this would come about before he breathed his last breath. Simeon took God at his word, and every day, He hoped to see this long-awaited Messiah with his own eyes. Maybe he would even get a chance to hold this Christ. Stare into God’s eyes. One of these days. Whichever day that would be, it would be a strange and glorious one. It would be both an ending and a beginning of sorts. Simeon’s long life would come to an end the day He saw this Christ. God had told him so. But he also believed with every bit of who he was, that this Christ—this Messiah—was the beginning of new life. New life for the world. A Holy Spirit-infused beginning. God’s people could now rest in full relationship with their God. No more mechanical Temple religion. Through this Messiah, God was gonna chase after people’s hearts and lives. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. And, the way Simeon saw it, God’s exhausted people needed a new beginning.

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We’re at an ending and a beginning, too. We’ve come to worship this New Year’s Day. Some of us, like Simeon, come with the weight of our years piled upon our shoulders. For however wise those years have made us, they have also made us tired, weary.

Or maybe you’ve come to worship this morning hopeful. Like Simeon, you have a confidence that God is up to something big in your life. Maybe you know what that is, or maybe like Simeon, you’re not quite sure what it all means, but somehow or another, you know that God is awake and alive and that He’s up to something new. Maybe you’re like Anna, the prophetess that is mentioned at the end of our story this morning. Maybe you’ve come to church hoping to see God move among you—to show up one of these days and speak and breathe new life into old things. Maybe, just like Anna, you’ve had your share of suffering and now you’re hoping for redemption—for God to sweep in and revive what’s tired, or renew what’s worn out.

Maybe you’ve come this New Year’s Day not expecting to see much at all. Maybe today’s just another Sunday to come to the Temple just like you always have, to do something you’ve always done. Maybe you’re here out of rote habit because it sounded right to go to church simply because it’s Sunday morning. I bet that Simeon and Anna both came to the Temple like that—not expecting to encounter anything at all. We all have those days where we just do what we do because we’ve always done it that way. And in a sense, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s power and meaning in the habits we create for ourselves. Most days Simeon and Anna spent all the daylight hours in and around the Temple in Jerusalem and saw and heard nothing. But they went anyway, because who knows, maybe this day would be the day they heard God’s voice speaking.

Maybe you’re one of those who expects much out of the New Year’s. It could be that once the calendar turns to 1-1 a whole new world of opportunity and chance opens up to you, and you’re ready and excited to live into it all. Maybe 2016 wasn’t so hot, so you’re gonna make effort to start 2017 off on the right foot.

We expect a lot out of endings and beginnings, don’t we? And it’s not because we’re superstitious. That’s not it, really. It’s more so because we’re hopeful. But no matter how it is you come this day or this year. No matter how it is you greet 2017, we all have something to learn from Simeon and Anna about how to live our days well. Simeon and Anna expected to encounter Jesus. They knew he was close. They knew that God would be born among them. That he was Emmanuel: God with us. So with ears and eyes peeled, they showed up expecting, anticipating something from God. And they got it.

If we go through our days expecting to see God at work, then we probably will. But we must have the patience, the tenacity, and the holy attention of Simeon. We must carry inside of us the hope that filled Anna—that kept her in that temple, hoping one day to find among all the busyness and business inside of it—that even in the middle of all that dead religion on display—that there was some small sign that God was still alive and among, still working in the world.

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Neither Simeon nor Anna lived long enough to see who this Jesus would grow up to become. Odds are, neither of them had a clue what kind of Messiah this Jesus would grow up to be.

But we, we stand here on the other side of history. We know the wonder and majesty of this baby. We know the strong and eternal hope that this weak and finite-looking infant would grow to become. And we too hope, even in the midst of our darkness and the darkness of the world all around us, that this Christ—this baby born into the world—is both ending and a beginning. An ending to the darkness and the beginning of a promise, that because of this Jesus, we have light and life and hope.

May we spend 2017 paying prayerful and holy attention to this Jesus, born among us to live and reign in our lives—in yours and mine—that we too, like Simeon and Anna, may keep our eyes peeled for, recognize and worship this Christ, hold onto and keep close to us this Christ, give ourselves over to, and put every bit of ourselves into devoting ourselves to finding and being in the presence of this Christ. And may we do so each and every one of our days.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Rich Imagination

A sermon based on Psalm 119:105-112 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 preached September 11th, 2016

Sermon audio

Whoever has ears, let them hear!

The first sentence of any story is the most important one of all. Every good storyteller knows this. A good first sentence either captivates and keeps us, or it bores and repulses us. A storyteller can lose her audience in a moment’s notice. We’re fickle that way. Bookstores are full of novels with half-bent covers because we open each one, and we turn to the first few pages and we decide what all the other pages hold based on that very first page. Forget judging books by their covers. We judge books by their first few paragraphs. The most enthralling novels there are have iconic first lines…

“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austin’s’ Pride and Prejudice

“I am an invisible man.” – Ralph Ellison

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” – George Orwell’s 1984

“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury’s, Fahrenheit 451

“Once upon a time…”

“In the beginning…”

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Last week we looked at God the Artist. The Divine Potter, taking hand to clay and shaping all that has been and will be made—including us—over and over again. So is it any wonder that when God made footprints upon the earth, across the sandy surfaces of Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem, He came not with the sort of wisdom one can glean from textbooks or instruction manuals? He came not with lectures fit for college classrooms. No, Jesus came telling stories. Jesus was a story painter, a yarn spinner. He couldn’t tell a straight story. Ask any of his disciples! Everything Jesus had to say came in sideways. In parables.

The parable of the Sower and the Seeds is Jesus’ very first parable. A crowd was gathered around him. So big actually, that Jesus had to climb into a boat a few feet off shore to address everyone. He sat down, just like any good storyteller would do, and he tells his first story. Everything that Jesus has to say, everything he did (and still does), every act of healing, every act of defiance, and every parable he told, shares one message. It was his main message: The Kingdom of God. Jesus’ parables were meant to captivate. To draw us in. To make us wonder about greater things, ask bigger questions, ponder larger truths. The first line of the story Jesus told:

The Kingdom of God is like…

Whenever we hear those 6 words we know a parable’s coming. And at once, we should gather around—sit on the floor Indian-style—and stare up at the One who says those words because if we listen close, we might just get a glimpse of God!

I have to imagine that if what the Kingdom of God is like or what God himself is like could be explained to us mathematically, scientifically, methodically, Jesus would have done so. He would have gathered his disciples around a chalkboard—a chart, a graph. He would have given them a formula or a few bullet points to memorize. But he did no such thing, because that’s not the way God works, that’s not the nature of God. An infinite God cannot be understood by finite minds like ours through the memorizing of facts and formulas, textbooks or explanations, maps or models. All of that is way too small! If we want to come anywhere close to understanding who our God is, we need to summon the poets and the artists among us.

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I’m reminded of the scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where Robin Williams’ character Professor Keating, begins his career teaching English by asking all of his students to rip out the entire introduction from their poetry textbooks. It was good only for the trashcan because it encouraged the measuring of poetry. Every poem, it said, could be plotted on a graph based upon its degree of perfection on the X axis and its degree of importance on the Y axis. And by that, one could evaluate the measure of its greatness.

“Excrement!” Professor Keating, declares, to the surprise of his students. Poetry can never be reduced to plots on a graph. Art can never be reduced to arithmetic. It’s too large for that. What is made for the heart cannot be understood by the intellect. It can only be destroyed or belittled by it. Art, poetry, craft, gospel—these are the sorts of things we cannot understand. We merely behold them. And we must be okay with that.

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So, here we stand with the disciples, beholding the very first of Jesus’ parables. It would be best if we simply let the story of the Sower softly rest in our hands. Parables don’t like being gripped in our tight fists. All the life will be squeezed out of it if try to grasp it like that. Remember, this isn’t science. There’s no code to be broken, no answer key to consult. This is an image to ponder, a first sentence to wow us, a picture that Jesus paints, and the only right response is wonder.

It’s when we look at it that way that we will begin to see that the Parable of the Sower is about reception. If Jesus is the Sower, he’s gracious enough—even wasteful in his graciousness—to scatter seed on both the receptive and the non-receptive. Both on pavement and on good soil. But it’s only the receptive, those who have their hearts and lives, ears and eyes open, who will make good use of what Jesus has for them.

Whoever has ears, let them hear!

This parable is about how we hear. What kind of ears do we have? Do we have pavement ears? Ears full of rocks? Shallow soil ears where no seed can sink its roots? Thorny ears? Or do we have good soil ears? Those are the kind of ears we need. How good is your soil—the soil of your ears?

Good soil ears have room inside of them for new things to grow. They’re open enough for something new. They accommodate new growth. The roots can then sink in deep. Jesus wants us to be good soil.

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Once in a while, whenever the disciples had a hard time understanding what Jesus was talking about inside one or another of his parables, He went out to find the closest child, and he brought the child to them, and he said

Be like this little one. Listen like a child listens. Encounter everything like a child encounters everything. With astonishment! Wonder like a 4-year-old does! Re-grow your child-like imagination. Whoever told you to grow out of it in the first place?

These stories about what the kingdom of God is like—these parables—would be much easier for us to understand if we came to them with a childlike wonder!

The reason why Jesus’ stories have a hard time sinking in is because we’ve become wonder-blind. We’ve lost our ability to become enchanted. We’re trying to measure poetry, and poetry, by its very nature, refuses to be measured. Instead, we should come to Jesus’ parables ready to enter into their world and lose ourselves there. Just like the disciples, we try to understand our faith from the neck up when all the while God is trying to speak into our hearts.

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Jesus begrudgingly explains the meaning of his parable to his disciples. Anytime we have to explain anything to others—a joke or an anecdote, the magic of it fades away. And until we truly know the difference between head-faith and heart-faith, until we irrigate our stony ears and begin perceiving the story of God with the rich imagination of a child—from the shoulders-down—we will never see the Kingdom of God in the way Jesus wants us to. These things are not for us to comprehend or understand. They’re for us to be amazed by—to simply behold with the bright eyes, and open ears, and rich imagination of a child. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus should always be prepared to be astonished!

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So, what kind of soil are you?

This week, we began our Christian Education year. We started with our Squares and Circle Bible studies, and earlier this morning, our Sunday School classes met for the first time.

There are a few ways we can understand Christian Education. Some understandings are better than others. Sunday School has gotten a bad rap throughout the decades—maybe even throughout the centuries—for being a place where teachers download biblical information into people’s heads. Surely, that mistake has been made many times by many teachers and many churches. Children went to Sunday School for the sole purpose of memorizing bible verses and many other pieces of information.

These days, I hope, we’re growing our kids in the faith in much more imaginative ways. In fact, calling Sunday School, “school,” makes me kind of uneasy. I’d much rather call what we do together from 10 to 11 on Sunday mornings, “faith-building.” What we’re really there to do is expand faith’s imagination. We come ready to rework the soil of our faith, so that the seeds that God is always scattering among us have a better chance of falling on good soil. And when the soil is ready for the seeds, there will be growth. Abundant growth. We all grow stronger together and something wonderful and nourishing builds and builds, and in the words of our passage for today, that’s when we start yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. I want to urge you to be a part of this growing. For, God does wonderful things inside of those who are ready and willing to behold, who are open and receptive to the scattered seeds of faith!

All praises to the One who spoke the first sentence of our story, and continues to speak our story—to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Faith, Untangled

A sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Luke 13:10-17 preached on August 21, 2016

Sermon audio

Journalist and author Philip Yancey starts his book about the grace of God by sharing the story of a prostitute. She came to one of Yancey’s friends in a bad shape. She was homeless and sick, addicted to drugs, unable to afford food for her 2-year old daughter. Yancey’s friend said he had no idea what to do for her, no idea what to say.

Have you ever thought of going to a church for help?

he said.

Church!

she cried.

Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!

A comment like that is a stunning indictment on the Church. When others look at us, they don’t see the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. They see a finger pointed and wagging at them in judgment. They see a bunch of people who couldn’t care less about the down and out, because we’re too busy convincing ourselves of how much God loves us. Instead of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable like Jesus did, there are far too many churches that further afflict the already afflicted, and further comfort the already comfortable.

It’s fair to look at the Church and ask, “Where has God’s grace gone?” Haven’t we overlooked it and focused more on improving our own efforts to live upright and moral lives? When did the Christian faith get so tangled up in rules? When did we start thinking that our own efforts and upright behavior bring us closer to God, and that grace is only the backup system we’ll use if our good behavior isn’t enough to get us there? All this is to say that there are many Christian who know of grace but do not know grace. Who do not want to rely upon it. As C.S. Lewis has written,

To some of us grace is only a word; a nice idea, the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, or news from a country we have not yet visited.

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Imagine what life was like for the woman in our story. For 18 years, she’s been hunched over, staring at the ground. Only able to look into the eyes of her son or daughter if they were kind enough to crouch down to her level or if she strained her neck upwards to meet their gaze. But most of the time she stared down at her own feet. Bent over—living on a lower level than anyone else around her. Everyone in her town knew of her, but because they never could see her eyes, what her face looked like, her smile, she quickly became invisible to them. And nobody ever looks in the direction of an invisible person.

For 18 years, her body has been tangled up and twisted in a knot—that’s at least what it felt like to her, and the words “crooked,” “crippled,” and “contorted” don’t just describe what her body felt like; they were also good words to describe how everybody else regarded her. And after almost 2 decades of that, it’s not hard to imagine how she began to regard herself the same way. As hard as it was to walk around in public this way, she braved the journey anyhow. It was the Sabbath, and she made her way slowly but surely to the Temple for worship. “Church!” We can imagine her crying, “Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!” But she went anyway. That day, she hobbled into the Temple just as she did thousands of times before. And as she made her way into the crowd gathered there on that Sabbath day, there was a man teaching whom she had never seen before. Little did she know, she had staggered her way into the very presence of God.

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In the BBC movie, The Mission, Robert De Niro’s character, a mercenary and slave-catcher named Rodrigo Mendoza, makes his living kidnapping natives of the Guarani and other tribes who live along the Amazon River in South America in the 1750’s. Mendoza takes those he’s kidnapped to Spain and sells them to plantation owners. Mendoza comes home from one of these trips to find a man in bed with his fiancée, and kills him. Although acquitted for the murder, during the time Mendoza spends in prison, all the weight of his murderous ways catches up to him and he spirals into a deep despair. The only way Mendoza can see his way out of the darkness of his past is by changing his ways. A priest, whose name is Father Gabriel, visits Mendoza in prison and challenges him to undertake a suitable penance—a punishment to atone for his past. Father Gabriel takes Mendoza out to the Guarani tribe, the very tribe whom he killed and maimed and captured his last slaves from. But this time Mendoza would go the them as a missionary—to live life with them, to share meals with them, to understand their culture.

As a part of his penance, Mendoza has to make the long journey by boat and by foot carrying all of his old armor, artillery, and swords. He carries them in a net he drags behind him, the weight of it tied around his waist. He drags it up the side of huge waterfalls, literally bearing the heaviness of his past behind him with each and every step upwards. Mendoza does this for the 100’s of miles of their journey through the Amazon rainforests.

In a poignant scene in the movie, as the missionary team make their way into the territory of the Guarani tribe. They had just climbed up the rocks of a waterfall, and they are met by some of the tribes’ elders. Mendoza slowly hoists his way up onto dry ground, his net full of his past hanging over the side behind him. He recognizes the very natives whose family members he had stolen away from them.

One of the elders of the tribe comes up to Mendoza, who’s curled up on the ground in exhaustion. He holds a machete up to Mendoza—but instead of cutting him with it, the elder takes the rope tied around Mendoza’s waist, and slices through it, freeing Mendoza once and for all from the weight and burden he had been lugging around for all these miles and all these years. And once freed from that heaviness, Mendoza begins to weep.

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Friends, that’s grace.

Both Rodrigo Mendoza and the woman in our story from Luke 13 would tell you that grace is that amazing gift of having all of the weight of our own past—all that we’ve been dragging behind us for years and years, for miles and miles—suddenly cut away from us, and dropped for good. They and thousands of others like them would tell you from their own experience that God’s grace is that straightening of all that once bent us over or dragged along with us, so that we can be freed to walk forward, loosed from bondage, made it a new person—no more burdens crippling our journey.

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I wonder what the woman saw once Jesus placed His hands upon her back. It was at that moment that she could straighten up. Consider how her entire perspective changed. What did her first few breaths feel like now that her lungs could fully expand in her chest? For the first time in almost two decades, she could look straight into the eyes of a friend. She could hug her husband and her children. Imagine her staring up into the sky, taking in the clouds. Feeling the rain fall upon her face. Untangled, finally, standing tall and facing the world directly, this woman took the world in and enjoy it!

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I wonder, though, who are the ones in bondage here? Whose sight was really obscured? Wasn’t it really the Pharisees who are the ones bent out of shape? Weren’t they the ones unable to recognize Jesus for who he is? The ones unable to see what’s happening right in front of them?

The Pharisees had no notion of grace. According to them, God’s favor was all tangled up with their own efforts to make good with God. The way they saw it, it was up to them to impress God. Climb your way up the waterfall all on your own and God will notice how great you are and will reward you in spades for all the back-breaking work you do! The Pharisees thought holiness is what happens when you put rules of purity and goodness at the center. Jesus’ idea of holiness is what happens when God’s mercy comes first.

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Lest we think it’s those other people, like the Pharisees, who don’t understand grace, we need to turn our gaze inward and pay attention to our own tendencies. We get tangled up in this, too.

Today, it’s something called moralism that trips us up. Moralism is the notion—all too pervasive these days—that good Christian faith can be reduced to improvements in our behavior. Moralism says that God will love us if we behave, act right, and shape up. It’s the rigid obedience to rules that says above all else, our faith is about moral instruction and moral obedience, and as long as way behave, follow all the rules, we stay on God’s good side. Straighten up, fly right, be nice, and God will love and reward you for it.

We find this message in churches, we hear it in political rhetoric, on the radio, in advice columns of our newspapers. Moralism is so pervasive today that most people who call themselves Christian are actually moralists. We’ve traded in our Gospel faith for a lesser model. The apostle Paul said to the Christians in Galatia that He was amazed that they were so quickly deserting the God who called you by the grace of Christ for a different and lesser gospel. Moralism is one of those different and lesser Gospels. We should know by now, through Gospel stories like this one, that rigid obedience to rules blind us to God’s reign in the world.

Moralism isn’t Gospel; it’s just a new sort of Pharisaism; just another tangled mess of our own making that has us convinced that God is happy with us when we do all the right things. And it makes a mockery of the grace-filled message of Jesus Christ. God loves us not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but because of who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ.

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It is only when we know—profoundly and deeply know—that the grace that God has brought to us is far more powerful than anything we could ever bring to God, that we can stand up straight in God’s presence, be unbound, untangled, and freed to celebrate all the extraordinary ways that Christ is moving in our midst and setting us free to live full lives!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen!

Orders to the Morning

A sermon based on Psalm 104:1-15 and Job 38:1-13, 16-21, and 24-33 preached on May 29th, 2016

Sermon audio

Job wants answers. And he wants them now.

At the very center of the book of Job stands a man who pleads for explanations for all his troubles, and answers for all his questions. Job’s family, his wealth, really his entire being, has been taken away from him. His land and livestock, his wife and kids have suddenly and unfairly been snatched away from him.

Job had assumed, and continues to assume throughout most of the book, that as long people are good, God will be good to them. Why then has any of this happened? Job’s entire life has been ripped away from him. All he worked so hard to achieve, all that he was proud of seemed to disappear all at once, and Job stands a broken and lonely man standing in a heap of dust and ashes and with a mound full of questions. And as the story moves along, Job seems increasingly hell-bent on confronting God. Job demands a response from God. Surely there must be a reason for this slew of terrible things that has happened to him, and surely God must be held accountable for them!

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The Book of Job is the oldest book of the bible. It’s the most ancient thing we have, and it tackles the most ancient, persistent, and irritating question human beings have inside of them: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Throughout the first 37 chapters, Job contends with God. He shouts at the emptiness and silence of the heavens above, and he demands that God respond! Job uses legal language in his complaints to God throughout the story, and like a trial lawyer, he wants to take God to court, to sue God for all of this. And Job is not going to shut up until he receives a satisfying verdict that convicts God of His wrongdoing.

God better give me a good reason for all this,

Job says in one way or another throughout this story.

And then there are Job’s friends who think they know why he has suffered such misfortune. Surely Job must have sinned against God. There must be a good reason why Job had been met with such heartbreaking tragedy. Clearly, God took his wife and children, and land, and all the rest away as some sort of punishment for past sins. That wasn’t the case at all, and Job stands firm throughout the story that he has done nothing at all to deserve such treatment from God. There is something in our minds that has us think this way, isn’t there?

A man who has never smoked a day in his life is diagnosed with lung cancer and says aloud to all who will listen that he must have done something wrong in his past to deserve this.

A mother who sits helpless next to her son as the blood in his little body is somehow poisoning him. All the mother can do is blame herself for what is happening. She starts thinking about all the “what-if-I-just-had’s” and all the “what-did-I-do-wrongs.”

And all who look upon those who suffer have the same kind of thoughts Job’s friends had:

What could he have done to ever cause him to get this sick?

Even if they just ask the question in the silent reaches of their minds. We human beings have minds that crave answers to the unanswerable, explanations for the inexplicable. We want to understand why, and we first reach for low-hanging fruit in our explorations: there must be something or someone to blame for this! The word for that sort of thinking is karma, and there’s nothing in our biblical faith that supports it. That there might not be a cause for suffering seems like the most haunting discovery of all!

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Job cannot escape his need to have good answers to all of his questions. He refuses to settle for God’s silence. But what happens at the end of the Book of Job is not what he or anyone else could have ever anticipated or prepared for. God finally speaks up 38 chapters in.

Those of us who are rational and analytic, who like our answers clear-cut and our explanations as plain as day, will be completely frustrated by God’s response to Job. We have a longing to know what is often unknowable. We love to be certain. Certainty is treated as some sort of virtue, and its corollary, doubt, has long been seen as a weakness–something to get rid of, to grow out of. Sometimes doubt is cast as a sign of an immature or a lapsed faith.

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Job levies every one of his charges against God like a prosecuting lawyer. He wants to throw the book at God! But God refuses to stand trial. Instead of answering Job’s lawyerly questions, God waxes poetic. For 4 entire chapters, God engages Job, but He refuses to do so on Job’s terms. Job doesn’t get to ask any more questions. Whenever God speaks, God will do so on His own terms.

God’s words stretch on, and take Job, and all the rest of us, on a journey. God doesn’t speak in these last few chapters of the book of Job to teach Job a lesson or shove anything down his throat. But with these words, God wants Job to realize how small he is, and how big God is. God dazzles Job with things far beyond his or any of our imaginings. God takes Job on a lightning tour of the inner workings and wonders of the entire cosmos. God speaks to Job and challenges Job’s nice and tidy worldview with visions and mysteries of the expansive and majestic cosmos—the one that works in all of its awe-inspiring ways because God makes it happen, God oversees and orchestrates it all. And with each and every new example we hear of how God is sovereign over every little detail of our constantly moving and ever-majestic world, we can imagine Job shrinking back down to human size, and suddenly Job’s beef with God doesn’t seem so big anymore.

It’s as if God says to Job,

I have the whole universe in my hand and under my control…Now, you said you had a question for me?

And in that moment, every self-righteous argument that Job had prepared as his defense melted down like wax into nothing but a puddle, and all he can do is stand there speechless, beholding God’s glorious presence with his jaw dropped open, and after a long silence, all Job can muster is a stuttering confession:

I surely have spoken of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. …My ears have heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You, therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

Job now knows his place. God lets Job know that there is only one God, and Job isn’t it. Job realizes how puny and inadequate and simplistic his understanding of the world is. This is the God who gives orders to the morning, who spins the whirling planets, and who set it all into place, who continues to create and uphold all of it. And nothing at all can ever prepare us for an encounter with such a holy and sovereign God.

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Throughout the Old Testament, God is that Presence who everyone must turn their eyes away from. That’s because we are all unprepared to witness the radiance and glory and power of our living God! Encountering God is not for the fainthearted!

Even God’s name, first told to Moses in the third chapter of Exodus, refuses category. God’s name is Yahweh, which is even hardly translatable into English. The closest we can come to it is, I Am Who I Am. God is being itself.

Every measurement, conception, idea we have about God will always be proven woefully inadequate. God refuses to be known as a noun. God is the most elusive verb there is!

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And what of this universe that God has created? It too refuses to be understood. It too refuses to be tied down by any of our own tiny notions of it or plans for it. We certainly have never been able to control it! God’s creation is just as complex as God is, and that means chaos will always a part of it.

Job is confronted by the chaos of the world and the immensity of God, and realizes that God doesn’t owe him a thing! Having control of these things is only a delusion we have. God is the only One in control.

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Over the years, I have practiced the art of letting go. I’ve grown to accept the phrase “let go and let God.” For so long I hated that phrase. I’m still not all that comfortable with it, but I think there’s more truth to it than I’d like to admit.

There’s something to the fact that many of Jesus’ teachings are about loosening our grasp on things, and letting go of the anxieties we have about tomorrow, and living instead for today. This means living with less answers and with more questions. It means less grasping and more gratitude. It means less why? and more wonder.

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Job’s questions never get answered. Not a one of them. Job never got the best of God. There is no way to force God’s hand and eek some sort of divine answer or explanation out of God. That cannot and will not do.

We can search scripture high and low and we won’t find such a thing. The bible doesn’t provide us with those answers. Scripture is astonishingly void of neat little tidy resolutions to all of our gnawing and troublesome questions and concerns. So, we continue to speak them to the skies with faith that they are heard by a God who understands us, who walks with us through our days, and comforts us through our inexplicable sorrows.

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They say that the longer we live and the more we see, the less we know. I think that’s true. It certainly is the truth is Job’s case. God takes all the neat little categories that we like to arrange our lives with, and says to us,

They’re all too small and inadequate.

But that God speaks into our lives at all—not with expected words that we want to hear, but with surprising words that we need to hear—is a great comfort in and of itself.

This God who gives orders to the morning also reaches out and speaks to us.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.