Monday, September 29, 2014

God Builds a Nation

The Story: Chapter 2

As we go through these key, foundational stories in the Old Testament
one thing I want you to keep in mind, is that we are not going to find perfect people in these stories. 

You may have noticed that some Sunday School curriculum has been written so that Old Testament characters kind up get built up as Bible Heroes and as a result they make the mistake of taking the story and just turning it into a moral lesson.

As in, “Here’s the hero of the story, now you should be like that hero.”
“Have faith, like Abraham.  Have patience like Job.
Have courage, like David fighting Goliath.”
But is the Old Testament, just a book of virtues?  Where the teacher says, “Here’s the lesson, now go and be like the hero?”

I hope you don’t see God’s stories in the Old Testament like that.
In the Bible, God’s people are often faithful, but also flawed.
Just like you and me. 

How many of you came from a perfect family?
            What, nobody?
Seriously, that’s good.
It’s good to be honest and not try to fake it.
We’re not here to pretend to be something we’re not.

We’re here today, and each Sunday, to confess our sins, and receive the gift of forgiveness.
We’re here to sing God’s praises and be strengthened through God’s Word, and by his Spirit,
to live by the Spirit.
And as God works in us, to trust God each day.  To live by Faith! 

That’s the story of Abraham, the story of learning to trust God.  Sometimes in fits and starts, but ultimately to trust God and God’s promises.

So this morning let’s start with the Lower Story.
The Lower story is the very human story of each character we meet in the Bible.
It’s the part of the story that sometimes shocks us, because we wonder how some of these stories even made it into the Bible.
The Lower Story is the story of the mistakes we make,
the times we resist God,  and try to take life into our own hands.
We saw that last week in the story of Adam and Eve, rebelling and trying to take the place of God.  And then God entering their story, calling out to them in the Garden, when they were hiding and calling them back into relationship.

Today’s Lower story, begins with Abraham in place called Harran, a place beyond the Euphrates River, way up north, in what is modern day Turkey.

And in the book of Joshua, it tells us that Abraham and his relatives worshipped pagan gods.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that some of the ways they lived, including having servants or slaves,  
don’t line up with what we expect of God’s people.

But here is where God’s story, what we call the Upper Story, meets the lower story.
God calls out to Abram, and says, “Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you.
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

And so Abraham obeys.   Abraham trusts God.
He didn’t know where he was going, but he chose to walk in faith.
Abraham chose to stand on God’s promises.

But as the story progresses, we see a few detours along the way.
Again and again, we see that though Abraham and Sarah are faithful, they are also flawed.
They are very human.
They trusted God, but at the same time, they doubted.  They looked at how old they were and doubted whether God could provide them with children.

I like how the summary in The Story, put it:
“One problem remained that even the Almighty seemed unable to solve.  It was Abraham’s greatest worry and the main topic of his dialogues with God.”

So let me ask you, this question;
“As you think about your own story, have you ever felt that you were dealing with a problem that even God seemed unable to solve?”
“Have you ever had a great worry that became the main topic of your dialogues with
God, day after day, and night after night?”

We don’t come from perfect families.
We don’t live in perfect families.
Sometimes we mess up, or members of our family mess up, in ways that have lasting consequences.  We hurt people and we get into situations we don’t know how to get out of.

My grandma Sylvia, came from a family like that.
The web of dysfunction and hurt in that family was deep.
Alcoholism was one part of it.  Sibling rivalries were another part.
But honestly, I can’t fully explain to you everything that was involved.

I just know that as I was growing up, two of my aunts, went many years without speaking to one another.  And both of these aunts, were a constant source of pain for my grandma.
It was a worry for my Grandma, and I’m sure at times, she felt it was a problem too big for even God to solve.

Have you ever had one of those problems?
Have you ever given up hope that God can make a difference
and you’ve turned in other directions,  and tried to take matters into your own hands?

That’s what Abraham and Sarah did.
When they were in Egypt, when Abraham was afraid of the Pharaoh
instead of trusting God to protect his wife, he told her to lie, and say that she was his sister.

Have you ever told a lie, to try to get yourself out of trouble?

Abraham and Sarah also tried to take matters into their own hands
when Abraham tried to produce an heir with Hagar.
They thought God needed a little help.
So instead of trusting God they carried out their own plan.

But that plan didn’t work out so well.

And the same thing happens to us, when we decide to we’ve got a better idea than God.
God says, “vengeance is mine.” 
But sometimes when we’re hurt, we try to get even and hurt someone back.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you”
But many times we forget to pray. 
And instead, we end up stewing in our hatred, and holding bitter grudges.

That’s when our Lower story, resembles Abraham’s Lower story.
When our sinful nature, fails to trust God, and God’s promises.

But listen to how God breaks into this story, time and time again.
God meets Abraham, in the midst of his doubts,
God meets Abraham, in the midst of his schemes, and lack of trust.
God pursues him in love and speaks to him. 

            “Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”
But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?”

And Abram said, “You give me not children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.”

He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.”  Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the Lord, and God credited to him as righteousness.

“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations...”

God spoke and “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.”

Abraham had every reason, not to believe.
All he could see seemed to point in the other direction.

But God spoke and “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.”

So let's apply that to our lives today.
Do you believe God can speak into your life,
and give you hope,  even in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation?
I’m here to tell you, God can… and God will.

In the Bible, God speaks, and God acts.
And today, through the message of this Story, God still speaks, and God still acts.

In the story with Abraham and his son Isaac all evidence seemed to be pointing in a very bad direction.  We can’t help but wonder, with stories like the ones we’ve been hearing from the NFL, why God would ever seem to be advocating violence against a child.

But is that was taking place here?
On one level, it seems that way.
In fact in that culture, and at that time in history, child sacrifice was common.

I can’t say I understood this story, fully, until a few years ago, when I had the chance to travel with some members of the church I served in Iowa, to visit our sister congregation Tanzania.  

On night, I was visiting with my host family, by lamplight, and a group of children from neighboring homes, came by.
And after a while they began singing a song and they got to a part in the song where they began singing loudly and stamped their feet on the ground emphatically as they pointed up the mountain, above the village.

And so after the song, I asked for an interpretation, and my host told me that the song told the story about the time before missionaries had to their village.

In those days, the villagers were quite superstitious and fearful of offending the gods.
And so they would perform sacrifices to insure a good harvest, or other favors from the gods.

And they were so superstitious and fearful of the gods, that they would sacrifice valuable things, even to the point of sacrificing a human life.

In fact it was common for parents to take a baby, and place the child up high on a flat rock high above the village, and expose it to the elements, as a sacrifice to the gods,
and to appease the gods, they would leave the child there to die.

But when the children stamped their feet, they were singing, “No more!” “Never again.”

And the rest of the song, was a song of praise to God for bringing the Gospel to their village,
the Gospel which freed them from their fear and superstition.

God spoke, through the missionaries,
and God spoke through the Bible as it was preaching to them in their own language.

And they learned that God is a God of life, not of death.
God is a God of healing and forgiveness.
The time of sacrifices and burnt offerings is over.

In fact, God’s own Son, had already paid the price for our sin, once and for all.
Everything that was necessary to reconcile us to our Father in heaven has already been accomplished.  Through Jesus our relationship to God has been restored.

And that Good news changed that village forever.

In the same way, the story of Abraham and Isaac was God’s way of telling the people of Israel,
“No more!” “Never again.”
“God will provide.”

And it changed the culture of child sacrifice for the Israelites, and for all of their ancestors.

When I visited that remote mountain village in Tanzania, they still didn’t have electricity or modern conveniences. But they had something that money could never buy.
They had peace.  And they sang with more joy than I can even describe.
That’s the kind of peace and joy that God wants us to have.

God wants to restore relationships like he did between Jacob and Esau.
After twenty years, God brought these two brothers together, and they reconciled.

Jacob, the night before he reconciled with Esau, had that mysterious wrestling match with what could have been an angel and they wrestled until daybreak.
And Jacob would not let go.   

In fact, he said, “I will not let go until you bless me.” 
The man or the angel asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
That new name he received, “Israel” means, God strives for his undivided people.

And it was the next day, that Jacob met Esau.
Jacob was afraid that Esau would still be angry.
But instead Esau saw him and ran to him, and embraced him, and forgave him.

And after that Jacob said to his whole household,
“Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves.”
And he said, “Let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress,
and who has been with me wherever I have gone.”

And here is where Jacob’s story and Abraham’s story meets our story.

Did you know, the Bible calls us the new Israel?
that we are the inheritors of the covenant God made with Abraham?

We are God’s new creation, and God is still striving after us. God wants us to be his undivided people.  God wants us as his own.  
God wants us to turn away from other gods, and trust in His promises.

And when we doubt, or feel like giving up hope,
remember that God still speaks, and God still acts.  

Stand on God’s promises, and you will never be disappointed.  Amen

Monday, September 22, 2014

Creation: The Beginning of Life as We Know It

The Story: Chapter 2
Genesis 1:1-2:3, Hebrews 11:1-7

First of all I want to say thank you. Thank you for being here this morning.  I really appreciate your willingness to join this adventure through the Bible. 

Last Sunday, right at the end of the sermon, I closed by saying, “Will you join me in this adventure?” And at both services I could see in your eyes, you were ready. You were ready to read through these 31 foundational stories in the Bible.  And when I asked that question, “Will you join me?” I remember one man, who looked right at me, and nodded his head, and let me know without a doubt, that he was in.

And there’s nothing that makes a pastor more proud of a congregation,
than when people have a desire to read God’s Word together, and learn and grow together.  
God will bless you for that.

Today we start at the beginning.
God created the heavens and the earth.
Will you say that with me? “God created the heavens and the earth.”

In just seven words, we just confessed our faith in one of the foundational truths of the Bible.

Now some people have tried to divide Science and Faith.
But the truth is, some of the greatest scientists in world history,
and even today, are believers.

Just listen to Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, explain why he sees no contradiction between Science and Faith.

This is what he wrote for  
             -- I am a scientist and a believer, and I find no conflict between those world views.
As the director of the Human Genome Project, I have led a consortium of scientists to read out the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome, our own DNA instruction book.  As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God's language,   and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God's plan.
I did not always embrace these perspectives. As a graduate student in physical chemistry in the 1970s, I was an atheist, finding no reason to postulate the existence of any truths outside of mathematics, physics and chemistry. But then I went to medical school, and encountered life and death issues at the bedsides of my patients. Challenged by one of those patients, who asked "What do you believe, doctor?", I began searching for answers.
I had to admit that the science I loved so much was powerless to answer questions such as "What is the meaning of life?" "Why am I here?" "Why does mathematics work, anyway?" "If the universe had a beginning, who created it?" "Why are the physical constants in the universe so finely tuned to allow the possibility of complex life forms?" "Why do humans have a moral sense?" "What happens after we die?"
And he concludes:
I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith.  The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome.
God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory.
By investigating God's majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.

How about that for a witness to the power of God?  - the power to connect the grand story of Creation with the story of one man’s life

How about you?
How has God’s story connected with your life story?
If someone asked you what do you believe, or why do you believe, what would you say?

If you still have questions, that’s okay.  And if you don’t have all the answers, that’s okay too.
That’s why we’re here - to learn and grow together.
And to let God’s Word speak to us and bring us life.

Today we heard the story of God creating the world and everything in it.
So let’s find our place in that story.
How does that ancient story speak to our lives today?

We know that when God created the sky and seas, 
and the plants and the animals, and every living thing he said,  “And it was good.”
And then when he created Adam and Eve on the 6th day, he said, “And it was very good.”

You and I are made in the image of God.
Nothing else in all creation was made in God’s image. We are the crown of God’s Creation.

Do you believe that most days?
Do you believe that you are fearfully and wonderfully made?

Or do you get down on yourself, like so many people, and wish you
were smarter,  or more athletic,  or taller, or thinner, or you fill in the blank ____________.
Do you wish you could be more like someone else?
Do you wish you could take back some of the mistakes you've made?

As I was growing up, I was very blessed to have parents who built me up, and encouraged me.
The messages I have ringing in my ears, besides, “Marty clean up your room”
are things like my Dad telling me: “Son, I’m proud of you.”

Or my parents saying, “Son, you have gifts from God,
and God’s going to use those gifts some day.”

Now, I’m not going to lie, and say I didn't ever disappoint my parents.
But, even when I messed up,  they were gracious and forgave me.

Some people believe that there may be a higher power, a God who created this world billions of years ago, but now just watches us from a distance, and doesn't have anything to do with our day to day experiences. 

But that couldn't be further from the truth.

The Creation story does not end with the creation of the world, and everything in it.
The Creation story is the story of a God who created us for a purpose.
God created us to be good stewards of this world, and to live in relationship with our Creator.

Where was God when Adam and Eve bit into that apple?
God was not distant, from them.

Rather, God pursued them.
They tried to hide from God, just like we do when we sin, but God called out to them
and pursued them in love.  Just like he pursues us in love, when we break God’s commandments, or live our lives as if God didn't exist.

Even when we fall, God says,
“I’m not letting you go. I made you in my image, you are fearfully and wonderfully made.”

It’s true God said, “Do not eat of that tree in the middle of the garden.”

Because it represents that God is our Creator.
It was the part of Creation where we recognize that God is God, and we are not.
We are beloved sons and daughters of God,  but we are not God.

To eat of that tree, would be the same as trying to take God’s place, to set ourselves up as our own gods.  That was the Original sin.  
And that’s the sin that’s in all of us. The desire to take God’s place, and live according to our own selfish desires.
I heard a pastor once, give a great illustration to all the kids at Vacation Bible School.
He told them to take their right hand and raise it up in the air.
And he called this his “God hand”

I think we should all try this.  Raise your right hand, and say, “This is my God hand.”
And then he told them to take their left hand and raise it up,
and say, “This is my Me hand”    Say that with me.

And then he told them to join their hands together like this:  (fold hands together as in a prayer)
and bring them down.  And he told the VBS kids, “Look what happens when we pray. “You and God get really close together.”

That’s one of the best ways to find our place in God’s story.
That is God’s intent. That’s God’s plan as described in the first chapters of Genesis,
that we would be in a close relationship with God,

that God would be our Father, and we would be God’s children,
that we belong together.

(Pastor Marty puts his clasped hands up over his head again)

When Adam and Eve sinned, we call that the Fall  (Pastor Marty’s Me hand falls away from the other).

And sometimes we say, “I didn't fall, Adam and Eve fell.”
“It’s all their fault. Because of them, our world is messed up.”

But Hebrew word for Adam, when it’s translated literally into English, is mankind,  or humankind.  So whenever you hear the story of Adam and Eve, you are not just hearing the story of our first ancestors, rather the story is talking about us.

So when you hear the story of the Fall, it’s the story of our Fall.
When Adam and Eve fell, that’s us falling.
When Adam and Eve rebel, that’s us rebelling.
When they try to blame each other, that’s us blaming each other,
or trying to rationalize, or minimize our sin.

Whether we are sinners in big things, publicly visible things,
or things that are easier to hide, sin is sin.
And sin separates us from God.    
And no matter how many good things we do, we can’t close that divide.

Martin Luther said it this way, “I can’t by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, or come to him.”   On our own, we can’t find our way back to God.
But here’s the good news. 
The Creation story is not about two trees in a garden.

It’s the beginning of a story about a tree that was formed into a cross.
The tree on the hill called Calvary.
The tree where we see most clearly God’s love pursuing us in the person of His own Son,
in Jesus’ love even to the point of death on a cross.

It was on that tree that God reached into our story, the story of our fall, and declared to us,
that when we feel like a moral failure,
when we can’t lift our heads, because of the weight of our shame,
when we can’t find God,

God will find us.  And God has come down to forgive us, and bring us back to life.

We've fallen, but God won’t let us go.  He is pursuing you in love.

Today, he may be knocking on your door, will you let him in?     Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Welcome to The Story

Rally Sunday
2nd Timothy 3:14-17 and John 1:1-5

In just one more week we get to embark on a big adventure together.
From our pre-readers, all the way up to our seasoned readers, we will all be listening to, and reading the Bible together.

Can you think of anything more unifying for a congregation?
Can you think of anything more energizing?
Is there any better way for God to work in us and through us to help us grow spiritually?   
Can you imagine any better way for God to help us grow in our ability to follow Christ, and love others with the love of Christ?

When we read the Bible God always promises to meet us
and speak to us
and give us understanding
and sometimes convict us, and yet always God promises to give us life and hope and salvation.

Paul writes in Romans:
17 So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.[a]

So this morning, I’d like to share an invitation with you.
I would love it if every single member of this congregation, 
and not just our members,  but also friends and neighbors, and co-workers
would join us for this adventure that begins next week.

And to get the most out of this adventure I’d like to invite you to do three things:

First, I invite you to make a commitment to be faithful in your worship attendance.
Because the more faithful you are in coming to worship,
the more you will be able to hear the stories each week, and see the threads that tie
the stories together.

A lot of us have read a book of the Bible here, or many several different books of the Bible,
and we’ve heard a lot of sermons on short passages of Scripture.

But the real strength of reading THE STORY is that it has arranged the Bible chronologically,  and without repetition, and with bridges that tie seemingly unrelated stories together.

Just a few weeks into this series you’re going to be able to start seeing the Bible in a whole new way.

The second invitation I have for you is just as important. Not only are you invited to come to worship and hear a message on the theme for each week, but I also want to invite you to take part in one of our discussion groups

So when you go from the worship service, and you still have questions, or you have things that you want to talk about,
I invite you to find a group where you can ask those questions and grow and learn together.

When Pastor Minor was serving this congregation he organized some groups he called, “An Experiment in Practical Christianity.” And I’ve heard many of you tell me how much being a part of a group like that meant to you.

  • One mom told me how important it was in helping her form deeper friendships with other members of this church.
  • Another person told me how these groups really helped build a bridge between what they were learning and hearing on Sundays, and how it related to the rest of their life,  Monday through Saturday.
And that’s my hope for the STORY groups that will be forming.

Instead of just having one big class that meets here in the sanctuary, we are going to have multiple tables set up

  • some on the patio,

  • one group meeting in the room next to kitchen,

  • some groups meeting in homes,   maybe some meeting in a break room                             
  • during a lunch hour at work,  or at a local restaurant.
And I will be preparing a discussion guide that will go along with the theme for the day
so that you will have a resource in addition to the discussion questions that you find in the back of the book.

So that’s my second invitation, the goal of meeting together and getting our whole congregation learning, and growing together.

My third invitation is similar to the second.

I would like to invite you, not only to come to worship, and be a part of a discussion group
but I would also like to invite you make reading the Bible a regular part of each day.
And not just reading it, but taking time for prayer, letting God’s Word speak to you personally,
and then sharing with someone else, what you are reading and learning.
Let me give you an example of how that might work.

My confirmation class will be reading the Teen edition of THE STORY.
and their parents will be reading the hardcover version. 

But instead of what often happens in our culture where teens have their music and their TV shows, and adults have their own music and their ownTV shows,
and even in the church we have a youth group for teens and adult classes for adults,
and sometimes we have a hard time finding things in common to talk about.

So instead of that, I believe that God is calling this congregation, to bridge those age barriers
and I am inviting my confirmation class and their parents to make it a practice to sit down together every Sunday and during the week,
and share with each other, what they are reading and learning.

And so I invite you to do the same thing, to share with a friend or call a family member, or visit around the dinner table, or have a conversation at bedtime as you read the children’s edition of THE STORY.   And let the Word of God dwell in you richly as you share what God is doing in your life, with the people God has placed in your life.

This morning I also feel called to speak about one of the challenges I think we are all going to face.

Now you might be thinking that our biggest challenge is the challenge of our culture that is always competing for our time.

It is true that Sunday morning is busier than it has ever been.
And it is also true that Sunday school attendance in every church that I know of has been in a steady decline for the last decade.

But the biggest challenge is not something external.
It’s not something out there.

Rather, it’s right here.
It’s the battle within each one of us, to be attentive to the Word of God.
To answer Jesus’ call to, “Seek first the kingdom of God”

Many who followed Jesus, found his call to discipleship too difficult.
And once when some of those who had been following Jesus turned away, Jesus asked his disciples:  “You don’t want to leave too, do you?”
And Peter answered, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

What did Peter mean when he said  “words of eternal life”?
In your heart of hearts, in the deepest place inside of you, I hope you have felt the unconditional love of Jesus.

I hope you have heard God speaking to you,
maybe at a time when you have especially felt the sting and shame of your sin. 
And you heard God assuring you that you are deeply loved

  • that Jesus has paid the price for you sin  and mine, once and for all.
  •  that God sent his own Son into this world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.
That’s the Gospel.

That’s the heart of God’s salvation story.

Which leads me to a question you might be wondering about.

Why do we have a Christmas manger up here by the altar in the middle of September?

This is why:
When you are feeling that inner battle,
when you are tempted by all those things that distract you and pull your time and attention away from God’s Word, I want you to remember this:

Martin Luther said,   “The Bible is the cradle that holds the Christ.”

The Bible certainly can show us our sin, that’s God speaking through the Law.
But ultimately “The Bible is the cradle that holds the Christ.”  The whole Bible drives toward the salvation story of Jesus.

And God will speak through the Bible, to bring you life and forgiveness and salvation.

It is the greatest Story that has ever been told.  

Will you join me on this adventure?    Amen