Monday, February 23, 2015

Rebuilding the Walls

Week 21: The Story
I’m always looking for connections:
  • between the Old Testament and the New Testament
  • between our Sunday Scripture readings and our daily lives
  • and between things that happen in the news and things that happen in the Bible
Well, this week I've found all three and I’m excited to share them with you.
So here we go.

The key word that ties together all three of these connections is the word:  Rebuilding
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were often involved in a rebuilding project.
Archaeologists in the Middle East have discovered ancient hills or mounds full of historical artifacts.  And they can see by all the layers how many generations have been living and rebuilding on the same spot.

But for the people of Israel the two biggest rebuilding projects were temple and the walls of Jerusalem. And as we discover in this week’s chapter of The Story God was using both of these rebuilding projects to prepare them for the most important rebuilding project of all:
God’s plan to redeem and restore all people,  all nations, everything in creation- to a life of wholeness, shalom, salvation.

This Sunday, as we come to the end of 21 weeks of God’s story from Genesis to Malachi.
we've seen God’s Hesed – God’s steadfast love, God’s never-ending patient love for His people.

While there is certainly darkness in the Old Testament, just like there is darkness in our world today, the overarching message from Genesis to Malachi, is God’s desire to live in communion with His creation.

We've been on a journey these last 21 weeks –
we've seen the highs:
God’s glorious creation, His covenant promises, the Exodus, and the promised Land,
the giving of the Law to Moses, spirit-filled Judges, prophets, and courageous leaders.

And we've seen the lows:
the constant rebellion and turning away from God
wicked kings, and faithless people.

And today we stand together with all the exiles who have returned to Jerusalem.
They've hit their rock bottom.
Maybe they were feeling what we feel on Ash Wednesday when we hear the call from the prophet Joel… “Return to the Lord your God” and we come before God in humble repentance.

The exiles are ready to hear a redemption story.
They have their temple, they have new walls built around their city – but it’s not enough.  

Like we know it’s not enough just to have material things.
We have our homes. 
We have this beautiful sanctuary but it’s not enough.
Our souls hunger for more.

And so did the exiles in Jerusalem.

So they initiate an event that is not Nehemiah’s idea, not even Ezra the priest’s idea.
It is the people’s idea.

They all gather together at the Water Gate –thousands of them – men, women, and children.
They tell Ezra to bring out the book of Moses.

Now get this, it had been 140 years since they had heard God’s Word read to them.
So let’s think about how long 140 years is.
My dad was born in 1937 and his dad about 30 years before that
and my great grandfather, about 30 years before that.
That’s almost 140 years ago.

Imagine this morning, if no one here today, and no one for two or three generations before that, had heard God’s Word read to them.
You and I would be spiritually famished. We would be hungry for God’s Word.

That’s what was happening with the exiles.
They had hit their rock bottom, they had been humbled,
and now they were eager to hear God speak to them.

Imagine how spiritually sensitive they were
hanging on every word that came from the mouth of God.

Ezra intends to read the entire Book of the Law, the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible,
to help them begin the most important rebuilding project in their lives
the redemption of their souls
the work God does in and through us to bring us shalom – lasting peace and salvation.

So Ezra begins reading for several hours, daybreak until noon
but something quite unexpected happens.
As Ezra reads God’s Word to them, 
they hear God’s laws,  God’s good and loving boundaries for their lives, and they begin to weep and mourn. And the more Ezra reads, the louder their wailing.

They hear God’s boundaries, boundaries created out of love,
boundaries they have broken, and they experience a Godly sorrow, they are heartbroken over their failure to love God and obey.

It wasn't like a tent meeting with a fire and brimstone preacher
convicting them with loud and angry preaching.

Rather, their hearts were open and spiritually sensitive
and as they heard God’s Word read them,
and as the Levites circulated among the people and explained the sense and the meaning of what Ezra had read, they were overwhelmed with a spirit of repentance.

Nehemiah who was standing next to Ezra, sees the tears forming in their eyes, he sees their grief and then he does something unexpected.

Instead of allowing them to continue in their grief
he tells them this is not the time  for mourning, but for a celebration.

Did that confuse you at first, when you read this?
You would think their godly sorrow was a good thing, right?

They had finally reached the point they were open to hearing God’s Word,
and it was affecting them deeply.

Why do you think Nehemiah, tells them this is not a time for mourning?

Let me ask it this way, “Did God want them to stay in sack cloth and ashes?”
“Is that where God wants us to stay?”

This season of Lent, is a season of repentance.
And during this season God does call us to return, to humble ourselves
and yes, express a godly sorrow over our sin.

But like a parent, who sees the tears welling up in a child’s eyes,
when the child knows they have done something wrong –
a good and loving parent doesn't say, “see, I told you so, now go to your room and cry some more.”

Like a good and loving parents, God sees our sorrow, 
God sees that we are heartbroken over our sin, and God calls into a new day.
And that’s what Nehemiah did.

He called out to the people and said,
“Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks,
 and send some to those who have nothing prepared.
This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”[1]

There is a time to mourn, and a time dance.
This is a holy day because God has seen your sorrow,
and Godly sorrow leads to repentance
and repentance leads right back to God – not a stern, unforgiving God…  
but God, whose heart is full of mercy, and compassion, and unconditional forgiveness.

The Lord of the Dance is about to bring a new day.

Death and sin will no longer have the last word.
Crying and mourning, and pain will be no more.
Horrible things that we read about in the news, like the ISIS killings will be no more.
The evil one, will no longer bring suffering to this world.

Today, as we stand at the bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament,
between the Old Covenant, that was given through Moses, and the New Covenant established by Jesus, we begin to see a new day coming.

The last person to speak before the Old Testament comes to a close is Malachi.
He tells us that the next prophet who is going to speak for God
will introduce us to the One we have been waiting for.
He will introduce us to the Mes­siah.

Do you remember the name of this new messenger?
When we open the New Testament, we see he is talking about John the Baptist.
Matthew tells us, "In those days John the Baptist came,
preaching in the wilderness and saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'
This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah."  

Isaiah foretold the role of John the Baptist, and now Malachi restates it.
Malachi foretells that the next time God speaks— which will be four hundred years later —

God will speak through John the Baptist, the one preparing the way for the Lord.

And the kingdom of heaven, did come near.
The King of Heaven, Jesus, God’s son, the Messiah, came near
and began a rebuilding project like none other – one that Jesus begins in you and me.
This is how Malachi describes that day:

“On the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty,
“they will be my treasured possession.

“I will spare them, just as a loving father has compassion and spares his son who serves him.
And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked,
between those who serve God and those who do not.”

And then Malachi closes with these beautiful and poetic words – a day of judgment is coming,

“but for you who revere my name,
the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.”

May the healing, and wholeness and salvation
we find in Jesus the Messiah, be yours today and every day.  Amen.

[1] Nehemiah 8:10

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Queen of Beauty and Courage

Week 20: The Story

In my email to you this week I mentioned one thing about the book of Esther that gets a lot of attention. You’d expect books in the Bible to speak about God, but curiously, the story of Esther never explicitly mentions God. 

Yet God’s fingerprints are all over this story.
Evidence of God's presence, power, and protection are everywhere.

Have you ever looked at certain events in your life, and wondered what God was doing at those times, or if God was working behind the scenes at all? 

Well the story of Esther is a story of amazing courage –the courage of a person who risked everything trusting that God is indeed working behind the scenes.
Esther put all her chips in, betting on God.
It was win or lose and for Esther that meant risking her life

The setting for this story is the fifth century B.C.  
The city was Susa, the capital city of the Persian Empire.  
The southern kingdom of Judah had been carried into exile, a move orchestrated by God
as loving discipline because of their repeated unfaithfulness.

According to God's plan, after 70 years the Jews finally had an opportunity to return home
About 50,000 of them did. The rest acclimated and became integrated into the Persian culture.
So this explains the dynamics going on in our Lower Story, the story of the Jewish people in Persia.

In this story we meet Esther.
Aside from her beauty, Esther didn't have a lot going for her.
She was an orphan, she was raised by her cousin, Mordecai.
And while most of God's people had returned to Jerusalem, she and Mordecai remained behind in the city of Susa. Living as a Jew in the heart of the Persian Empire wasn't particularly easy and carried with it risks of prejudice, even death.

The king at the time, Xerxes, was considered the most powerful man in the world. He was known for his extravagance and recklessness.

During the third year of his reign, Xerxes threw a huge party and showcased his vast wealth to all the mili­tary and civic leaders from his kingdom, which stretched from India to the Mediterranean Sea.

After seven days of partying, and far too much alcohol, Xerxes sends for his wife, Queen
Vashti, to show off her beauty to his guests.  The implication here, is that she was being made an object for these drunken men to lust after.
But she takes a stand and refuses to go.
Furious, the king consults with his legal experts to determine what he should do about this perceived slight.  They advise him to issue an irrevocable decree to banish her from the palace and find a new queen.
That was the end of Vashti.

And so Xerxes sends his aides throughout the entire kingdom to find a replacement.
Whoever was selected had no choice in the matter.
They were simply carted off.

And as it turns out, Esther is chosen as one of the candidates and taken to the palace.
Her protective cousin, Mordecai, warns her not to reveal to any­one that she is a Jew,
and he hangs out near the palace gates every day to try to find out how she is doing.

After twelve months of pampering, it is time for the candidates to go before the king so he can choose his new queen.  And the instant Xerxes sees Esther—he immediately selects her to be his queen, places the royal crown on her head,  throws another huge party,
and proclaims the day a holiday throughout his kingdom.

So far all we have is another Lower Story event –
a king using his power to get whatever he wants.
But the story is about to take a decidedly Upper Story turn.

Esther was in the right place at the right time for a reason
and that reason is God’s plan to bring salvation through His chosen people, a plan which extends all the way to you and me.

In the Lower Story, coincidences and random events occur almost daily.
But in the Upper Story, there are no coincidences.

It is no accident that a Jew­ish girl in exile finds herself wearing the queen's crown.
Shortly after Esther's coronation, Xerxes promotes one of his officials, Haman,
to a position of prominence.  And Haman had a Napolean complex, so he required everyone at the king's gate to kneel before him.

But Mordecai, who still visits the palace each
day to check on Esther, was a faithful Jew and would not bow to anyone except for God, and so he refuses to kneel to Haman.

The other offi­cials notice and urge him to comply, but Mordecai refuses, telling them he is a Jew.  When the aides report this back to Haman, he decides it wouldn't be enough to just kill Mordecai — he asks and receives permission from the king to kill every Jew in Persia.

Every Jew in the 127 provinces of Persia is targeted to be killed, but it has to be on one specific day. To determine the date when Haman and his forces will go after the Jews, they roll the dice and land on Adar 13 (equivalent to our February or March), a day roughly eleven months away.

So a decree goes out, naming the date for the execution of every single Jew in Persia,
in essence placing every Jew on death row for eleven months, because once the king's seal is stamped on a decree, nothing can repeal it.

When Mordecai sees the decree, he is so distressed that he pub­licly mourns in front of the palace.
Day in and day out, he marches in front of the palace wearing sackcloth and ashes, the symbol of grief, to mourn the approaching day of annihilation.

When Queen Esther's attendants tell her about her cousin, she sends them to him to find out why he is in such distress.

Mordecai sees his opportunity.
Only he knows that the queen is a Jew. He tells her about Haman's plot to kill every Jew in the kingdom and begs her to approach the king and beg for mercy for her people.
Remember Vashti?   Esther did.

As much as she wanted to go to bat for her people, she feared it would be hopeless.
Approach the king without being summoned, and you mysteriously vanish.
That's when Mordecai must have gotten a glimpse of the Upper Story.

  • Why had they stayed behind in Babylon when all their Jew­ish friends returned to Jerusalem?
  • Why did Vashti refuse to go to her king when she was summoned?
  • Why was Esther among those chosen to become candidates for Xerxes's new queen?
  • And why did Haman have to have it in for the Jews?
Mordecai's reply to Queen Esther reveals, through a question, why all of these random events occurred:  "Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?"

What would you do if you had to risk everything to accomplish the one reason you were placed on this earth?

Esther weighs Mordecai's sobering question and replies,

"Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law.
And if I perish, I perish."'

After three days, she approaches the king.
What should have been certain death is greeted with yet another "coincidence"
as the king tells her she can request anything — up to half his kingdom — and it will be hers.

What luck! Or should we say, “what providence!”

She requests a dinner that very evening with the king and Haman, a dinner at which she simply asks the king if he and Haman will join her for another dinner the next night.
At that dinner she exposes Haman's plan to destroy her and her people, revealing for the first time that she is a Jew.

The king is so upset that he storms out of the room,
but Haman remains behind to beg for Esther's mercy.

And in yet another case of bad luck, Haman stumbles and falls on Esther’s couch, right on top of Esther, just as the king walks back into the room.
He sees his beloved queen on the couch under Haman and orders him put to death.
He also appoints Mordecai to Haman's vacated position, sign that God is working behind the scenes.

Remember, the king's decree to kill every Jew cannot, by law, be revoked.
But Mordecai now has the power to be granted a request of the king,
so he asks Xerxes to give the Jews permission to at least defend themselves.

On Adar 13, non-Jewish people from all 127 provinces attacked the Jews.
But the Jewish people were ready, and they defeated their attackers.

The next day they celebrated, a tradition that continues to this day.
It's called the feast of Purim, from the word pur, which means “dice."

Jews celebrate Purim every year on March 10 as a reminder that life is not ruled by chance but by his sovereign power.  And God’s sovereign power is not limited to Jerusalem but reaches into Babylon and Persia and anywhere else his people live.

So let’s bring this story home to you and me.

What if your greatest fear, your heaviest burden, has been given to you "for such a time as this"?  What if God is working behind the scenes in your life right now?

What if God is calling you to take a faithful stand for a friend who is close to losing their marriage, or a friend whose son or daughter who is struggling with addiction
or a friend who keeps making bad decisions, because they are drifting through life and don’t know Jesus?

Esther could have told her cousin to mind his own business: "Leave me alone. It's comfortable in the palace.  Being a queen has its privileges.  Only a fool would risk all that I have."
And who would have blamed her?  Look what happened to the last queen who refused to obey the palace rules?

Thankfully, the risks we face are not matters of life and death,
but what if you took a stand for God this week?

What if the next time you are at school or work, or with some friends,
and they start bad-mouthing someone, and know what you are hearing is gossip, it’s harming the reputation of that person, and breaking the 8th commandment…
…what if instead of standing by silently, what if you spoke up and took a risk… 
and had the courage to say something kind about the person who is being attacked
and defended them
…or maybe even call the conversation what it is: gossip
and refuse to participate as a matter of principle.

The truth is, God is working behind the scenes every day:
  • to save a person’s good name and reputation
  • to save marriages
  • to save people from addiction
  • to save people who are lost and drifting through life
  • and in many places in this world to save people like Pastor Saeed, who face persecution for their faith.
Like Esther, I believe God still speaks to us in a quiet whisper, offering us the blessed privilege of "saving his people" through courageous acts of loving obedience.

Imagine all the ways we can reflect God's love.

Imagine what may happen in our families, neighborhoods, cities, nations, and world if we were more willing to take a stand for God.

Esther was willing to take her chances because she knew who controlled the dice.

King Solomon wrote in the book of Proverbs: "We may roll the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall."

Let us put our faith in God,
who is always working behind the scenes for your good and for mine.[1]   Amen.

[1] This sermon is indebted to the preaching of Pastor Randy Frazee

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Return Home

Week 19: The Story
Tuesday October 19, 2011 seemed like a typical day in Zanesville, Ohio.
The weather was seasonably cool.  It rained.
People went to work. Kids went to school.
But that afternoon the 911 dispatch started receiving reports from alarmed residents:
a wolf was spotted near the high school, a cougar on a rural road, a lion under a streetlight.
It all started when Terry Thompson, owner of a local private zoo, released his exotic animals.
The freed animals included tigers, grizzly bears, mountain lions, leopards, and wolves.
By nightfall Zanesville was in full emergency mode.
Residents were ordered indoors while local law enforcement scrambled to protect the public.
For one evening the wild invaded the civilized.
Ordinary life was turned upside down.

Author Drew Dyck has observed that this event reminded him of another unlikely encounter  --  not between a small town and wild animals but between humans and a Holy God.

Like the residents of Zanesville, we have heard reports of a foreign entity in our midst.
Unlike them, however, we often fail to appreciate the gravity of what that presence means.
Sometimes the Bible describes God in sobering terms.
In Deuteronomy God is described as a “consuming fire”
In Genesis, God is called, “The judge of all the earth.”

The truth is that while we were made in God’s image, God is radically different from us.
God is Holy and Righteous. 
It is not in God’s character to tolerate or ignore evil.

If we grasped the Righteousness of God, the Holiness of God, 
I wonder if we would respond more like the people
in Zanesville, Ohio, locking our doors and calling the police.

What is amazing to me in reading the Old Testament,
is how many times people see clearly God’s Holiness and God’s power,
and yet they keep on doing whatever they feel like.

Over and over again, we see the cycle of sin repeat itself.
Instead of fearing and loving God, they continue to treat God more like a house cat, than a lion.

They grow quite comfortable with sin until it becomes their ruin.
First the Northern Kingdom is captured and dragged off into exile in Assyria.
Then the Southern Kingdom is captured by the Babylonians.

God had pursued His people in love.
But they rejected Him.
And God in His Holiness and Righteousness could tolerate their sin no more.

During those long years in exile in Babylon,
God’s people began to wonder if God had abandoned them.
They called out to God.
They lamented how far they had fallen
and they began to wonder if God had turned His back on them forever.

Daniel and his friends did not lose their faith,
but what about the many others who wondered if God had abandoned them.

Sometimes when we've been beaten down by the storms of life
or when we are facing the consequences of our sin, God can seem distant.
God’s holiness and judgment seem like an insurmountable barrier.

But just when our time in exile seems like it will never end
just when the gulf between us and God seems hopelessly wide
that’s when we hear God calling us to return home
to return to a place of blessing
to return to a place of rejoicing.

There is a movie that really brings home today’s theme.

In this movie, a teenage boy ran away from his suburban home, after having a terrible fight with his parents. He told his mother and father that he would never see them again,
and slammed the door behind him.

He moved into a rundown apartment, quickly spent the money he had,
and to make a long story short, experienced a life that he soon began to hate.

Months had passed by, and the boy wanted very much to return home,
but he could not bear to make that phone call to his parents.
He was so ashamed of what he had done, that he decided to write a letter, and in that letter he said,
“Mom, and Dad, I want to come home.  I really messed up,
and more than anything I wish I could come home.
But I understand if you will not allow it.
On Saturday night, I will come by the house.
If you want me to come home, just leave the porch light on.
If it is not on, I will not come in.  “I love you” Signed, “Your son.”

Saturday night came, and as he walked to the corner of his street,
he paused before he looked toward his house. 
He prayed he would see that little porch light on. 
As he turned the corner, he was almost blinded by light pouring out from his home. 
In addition to the porch light, every light in that house was shining brightly.
His Mom and Dad were standing on the porch with candles in their hands
waiting for their son.

In the Bible, God’s righteousness and holiness is only half the story.
when we turn our backs on God, and walk away. 
God won’t stop us.

God will not tolerate our sin, but does God ever give up on us?
That’s right, he doesn't.

After these long years in exile,  God fulfilled his promise spoken through Jeremiah
to bring his people home
to bring them back to Jerusalem
and to once again restore the temple.

As you know the task of building the temple met with resistance.
First the Samaritans and other neighbors were threatened and opposed this project… 
slowed the work down for 6 years,
and then stopped it completely for 10 years.

By that time, the Israelites began thinking maybe this wasn't the best time to rebuild the temple.  And so they began to focus on remodeling their own homes.
That’s what we heard about in our First Reading,
when God sent the prophet Haggai,  to remind the people what happens when turn in on ourselves.

We sow much but harvest little.
We eat but never have enough.
We drink but are never satisfied.
We earn wages, but our money just runs through our fingers.

So why did God need a temple anyway?
God is all powerful and can’t be contained in a temple.
Why not save the people the trouble and all the work?

But here’s what the temple symbolized and why it was important.
The temple is a physical place that reminds us that God wants to be with us.
God is Holy and transcendent.  God is beyond us.
And yet God is also near us and with us.

The cloud traveling before God’s people in the wilderness,
the tabernacle,  and then the temple… were all ways God was near.

Consider the location of the temple.
God did not tell the people to build it at the top of a mountain
or out in the wilderness,
but rather right in the middle of the most populated city in Israel

Every time people walked past the temple they were reminded that God wants to be right there with them.
God wants to be with His people.

But there’s one more thing, the temple symbolized.
It reminded people of their sin, because ordinary people could not enter the holiest place inside the temple — the place where God was present.
Only a priest could go there, and then only after a blood sacrifice was offered.

So for generations, the temple stood as a reminder that the only access we have to God,
 is through a priest, who offered a sacrifice on our behalf.

Today we can look back through the lens of Jesus and see what God was doing.
God was preparing His people for the day, when he would send his own Son
as a sacrifice once and for all, 
to free us from our sin.

God is not content to love us from a distance.
God is Holy and Righteous…
God is high and lifted up, and yet closer than our own breath.
God hates our sin, and yet always, always pursues us in love.

So  here’s our take away for today.
When our patterns of sin divide us from God
when we stumble and fall,  and feel cut off from God,
as if the gulf is too wide
as if God will never forgive us
God calls us to return home.
God comes and finds us and says to us, figuratively,
“I’m sending you back to Jerusalem.
 I’m not just ending you back to Jerusalem to live a safe domesticated life.
I’m sending you back to Jerusalem to live a redeemed life;
to be a different kind of person among a foreign people.
Through Christ, you are my body, 
you are a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Go, be my temple,
be my presence when you meet those who are hurting
be my presence when you meet those who are searching.
and be my living message of hope and peace, and joy.

And in everything you do, give thanks.       Amen.