Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Story of Scripture: Where is God?

Where is God? 2/20/11
Esther 2:12-17, Job 6:1-16, Matthew 5:43-48

How do we possibly answer the question: Where is God?

On the one side of the spectrum is our feelings. On the other side of the spectrum is the reality of God. In between is the murky, muddy land of “perception”.

Our feelings are real: we feel them. They are part of who we are. They don’t have to be accurate to be real. They are real precisely because we feel them.

God is real. If every human being stood together and screamed at the top of their lungs: God is not real. It wouldn’t make one iota difference. God is real, whether we choose to believe it or not.

So in between is the murk and mud. The problem is perception. Sometimes our perception is right, and sometimes it is not. It is said perception is reality, but even that statement is not entirely accurate. If everyone said my robe was orange, that wouldn’t make it orange.

Sometimes our perceptions are connected to reality, and sometimes they are not.

We feel our feelings, we are sometimes accurate in our assessment of reality, and God continues to exist. But sometimes, we still ask: Where is God?

Story of Scripture:
God’s destiny for humankind: promise, permission, prohibition.
Creation & Fall
Israel created to produce a Messiah.
Enslaved in Egypt, called out through God’s saving event: the Exodus.
Through wilderness, a law is given by God and people enter the promised land. Do not forget God, they are warned.
Prophets come when the people fall astray. And Israel wants to be like the other nations, having a king.
There are good kings and bad, and after a series of bad kings, Israel is taken out of its land, by the Babylonian Empire. For 70 years, the people live in Exile. Last week, we see that Persian overtakes Babylon, and some people make their way back. But at this point, not everyone returns to the promised land.

Including two key figures: Mordecai, and his cousin Esther. They stay and struggle and thrive in the Persian capital of Susa. And before them arises the greatest potential harm that they could imagine: annihilation.

Where is God?

Today’s theme in the story of Scripture highlights two different books that seek to answer the same question. Where is God?

In our reading from the Book of Esther, the central idea that arises is this:”Who knows, perhaps for this reason you are here”

Have you ever wondered that about yourself? You look around you, you see the circumstances, the evidence, the opportunities, and you try to figure out how you related to what you see, and the answer that you dig deep and find for yourself is: Maybe that is why I am here.

Maybe I am supposed to listen to that person who wants my time.
Maybe I am supposed to offer my talents to that community group.
Maybe I am to tell that person I am praying for them.
Maybe I am supposed to fix this problem that is weighing us down.
Maybe I am supposed to share that idea that came to me.
Maybe I am part of the solution.

Let us look at the story of Esther to see how this question came into being.

One word missing in the book: God.
Where is God? Not in story of Esther. At least, not by name in Esther. But God is there, orchestrating justice and deliverance out of a very dark and harsh circumstance.

King Xerxes makes alliances with a man named Haman. When Haman is announced in the King’s presence, everyone bows. Everyone that is, except for one man: Mordecai. He was a Jew living in the capital, and Haman is furious that Mordecai does not show respect. A plan is put into place by Haman that Mordecai’s people must be eliminated. A day is determined by the casting of lots, announced, somehow tolerated and endorsed by the King, and sent out into the kingdom, which extended from Southern Egypt to India.

This announcement causes understandable panic among the Jews, and brings Mordecai to prayer and tears. But Mordecai has one hope: His cousin Esther. Mordecai had raised her after Esther’s parents had died, and in a series of providential events, Esther had become one of the favored Queens of King Xerxes. So Mordecai talks to Esther, by way of messengers. A Jew in sackcloth would not have been invited into the presence of royalty.

Esther’s first hesitation is that no one, not even the Queen may enter the King’s presence unannounced. The penalty would be death.

But the time is getting short. The day of extermination tolerated by the King is approaching. So Mordecai urges Esther to think bigger.

“You will not survive the King’s edict” Your family and you will perish. It won’t matter that you live in a palace. You will not escape this plan of genocide.”

Silence is not an option. Mordecai predicts that one way or another, that deliverance will come. But Esther, because of you, it doesn’t have to be ‘another’. You are the way. You are here. It is time for you to stand up and act boldly. In fact, perhaps that is exactly why you were made queen in the first place. Who knows?

When life was harsh, and darkness threatened survival, and the squirming for a solution produced little hope, people surely wondered: Where is God?

In this case, Esther accepts the call to action. She had Mordecai and the people pray and fast for her. And when she offers herself to find a solution, one comes. Mordecai had been helpful in a stopping an assassination attempt on the King. Esther says to the king: Did you ever honor that person who helped save your life? The King answers no. Haman, the King says, go and honor the person who had saved my life. And so Haman, leads a parade for Mordecai, the very person who would not bow to him. Haman is so furious, he plays his cards incorrectly, and is exposed before the King. The threat is identified, and a proclamation goes out that allows the Jewish people to protect themselves.

In the darkest moment, it was asked “Where is God?” The Book of Esther shows us, sometimes we might ask that question, and sometimes we might not know the answer. But by faith, we use our resources, and find a solution. Along the way, God will show himself in the details of the story.

It reminds me of the old Portuguese proverb I have shared with you: In the end, it will all be ok, so if it isn’t ok, then it isn’t the end yet.

Our second story is very different from Esther, but seeks to answer the same question.

Job: Where is God?

For Job, the question of where is God stems from an almost unbearable amount of tragedy that comes upon his life.

The story of Job is much older book, with references to the times of the patriarchs, like Abraham. It is not in chronological order because of the type of literature it is: it is called wisdom literature. Job’s problems become symposium on the problem of evil and suffering, and how it relates to a God who is good and caring.

The background of the story is that Job is a highly successful man: in business, friendship and family. He is a pillar of the community and incredibly religious. He would offer sacrifices after the family parties for each of his children, in case they might have done something wrong.

The story switches to the heavenly scene, in which God is challenged by Satan. Satan suggests that Job is a holy man because everything is good for him. Satan is then allowed by God to test Job, which results in Job losing all his possessions, farm animals, family members and health. Job loses everything.

Where is God?

Maybe you and I haven’t lost everything, but there may be events or days or seasons where it seems like it. Where is God we ask, in the midst of our struggle and test.

There are some phrases in the early parts of Job that have become familiar to the people of faith and culture:
· The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.
· Are you still holding on to your integrity?
· Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?
· Job cursed the day of his birth.

Job seeks to entrust himself to God after his suffering, not seeking to curse the name of God, and therefore sin.

Job is visited by three of his friends, who upon coming to Job, see a suffering so great they do not say anything for a week, but sit alongside of Job.

The majority of the book is a series of conversations between Job and his friends. The friends eventually start digging deep to find the reason for Job’s suffering. In fact, they find reason to blame Job. The Book of Job is interesting to read, but we have to be careful. Job is not a book that you can pick out a verse here or there to quote. Much of the content of the book is not theologically accurate: it contains the words of friends who ultimately lack in their answers for the question Where is God? Why do you suffer?

Job also is working out his understanding of why this has come to him. It contains many authentic feelings, such as the passage that was read this morning. You and I might have the same feelings that Job feels:

Job says:
If only my anguish could be weighted and my misery be placed on scales: it would be heavier than the sand on the seashores.

We might say:
Our burdens are too heavy to handle.

Job says:
The arrows of God are in me, and my spirit has drunk their poison. We might

We might say:
God is out to get me.

Job says:
Grant what I hope for, that God would be willing to crush me to let loose his hand and cut me off!

We might say:
Just take me God, it is too much.

Job says:
What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient? Do I have any power to help myself now that success has been driven from me?

We might say:
What do I have to live for? What is the purpose? How can I make it back to what I once had?

Job says;
My brothers are as undependable as intermittent streams that overflow when darkened by thawing ice.

We might say:
I feel all alone.

All of these questions and cries point to a common question: Where is God?

The story of Job has its climax in Job having an encounter with God. All throughout the book, Job states his questions, and God never answers them. But at the end of the book, God questions Job, and Job cannot answer the questions. Job bows before God and acknowledges that God alone is the Holy and Almighty. And that yes, he was there.

Sometimes it is hard to see. But there are signs. Jesus said that God causes the sun to shine on the just and unjust. God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. God is present. Though we cannot see him, we can believe in him. And our questions and doubts can be asked by faith. If God is not there, then why do we talk and why do some wrestle?

Where is God? The Scripture affirms God’s presence. What are some of the Biblical answers to the question, Where is God?

1. Everywhere.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to heaven, you are there, and if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. --Psalm 139

2. In our neighbor
Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me --Matthew 25:40

3. In Jesus
For in Christ, all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form
--Colossians 2:9

4. In the midst of worshippers
When two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them. --Matthew 18:20

5. When we go out to into the world in mission
Baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.
--Matthew 28:20

6. In bread, juice and water.
Take and eat, and drink, this is my body --Matthew 26:26

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ --Galatians 3:28

At times people going through tragedy, or looking at the world, will have despair, Where is God? It is asked. Look around. Where is God? What a mess.

People of faith: it is the same question and same answer. We also ask, Where is God? We also answer: Look around. But the answer means something very different.

With eyes of faith, let us behold the glory of the Lord.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Rebuilding: The Story of Scripture

Nehemiah 2:11-20, Nehemiah 6:1-16, John 2:12-25

The worst destruction I’ve ever witnessed: Katrina
The saddest destruction I’ve ever watched: Thailand, Haiti, when what little people had is destroyed.

Out of the ashes, hope rises.
Out of the broken wood and crushed concrete, new buildings and villages and new life will emerge.

Powerful stories occur when community is formed for the task of rebuilding. For example, the Amish and barn-raising.

The Story of Scripture:
Exile & Return are part of the Story of Scripture:
Genesis: Humanity’s destiny is found in Promise, Permission, Prohibition
We see God choosing a people, who will birth the Messiah. Very human figures, with seasons of great faith are part of the story: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Elijah. We have God’s saving event: the exodus. Called out of slavery, through the waters, through the wilderness, to embrace promised land. But once the people enter the promised land, they must remember the Lord their God. And if they don’t, God will not keep them in the land. Hence, exile. God’s second chance is found in return.

Today, we read from Nehemiah, which is a story about a man who had a vision from God planted in his heart. He loved Jerusalem, the city of God. And when he heard it was in ruins, he planned to rebuild the gates, the walls and the city itself. He was a re-former. What had been formed was broken. Now it was time for re-forming.

The passages today remind us that Nehemiah did not have smooth sailing. The vision was from God and therefore, justified. But the path toward completion had resistance. This resistance reminds us of God’s faithfulness.

When God Puts Something In Your Heart…
When God puts something in your heart, it is not unlike a basic model of building something: you need a blue print, the power to stay the course when problems arise, and tools.

The Blue Print: Nehemiah 2
Nehemiah 1: He hears the news that Jerusalem was broken. He weeps for many days. There should be some staying power when it comes to what God puts in our heart. Jesus said it was a fool who started a project before calculating the cost. Nehemiah’s focus is kept on his goal: rebuilding the city of God.

Nehemiah 2: Nehemiah goes before his ‘boss’, or ‘employer’, the King. With trepidation, he asks what he wants, because he had earned trust. He has a specific plan in place, which the King and Queen can visualize.

And as soon as the man with the plan arrives, there are antagonists; Sanballat, Tobiah, “very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites”.

11—At first, He kept plans close to his heart.
13--He explored with his own eyes the situation.
17—He announces the plan to those around him.
18—He gives the theology and background
18—His plan is affirmed by those ready to work
19—ridicule arise from the antagonists, with a serious charge (are you rebelling against the king?)
20—He answers with theological reality (God will give us success), stated certainty (we will start rebuilding) and historical rational (you have no claim or historic right to this city)

Resistance and the Games It Plays:
Demolition threats: Nehemiah 6

1. Game: Meetings for distraction Sake (2)
“come let us meet in one of the villages, in the plain of Ono”

Strategy for overcome: Consistent answer for staying on focus (3-4)
‘I have work to do. Why should it be interrupted?’
4 times they sent the message, “and each time I gave them the same answer”

2. Game: The Unsealed Letter and its contents (5-7)
Unsealed: disrespectful at the time
“and Geshem says its true”, so it must be?
Lies and fabrications

Strategy: State the truth (8) “Nothing like what you have said is true”

3. Game: Intimidation: (9)
Strategy: But I prayed, Now strengthen my hands (9)

4. Game: The last ditch effort: We are concerned for you (10)
Sounds caring and supportive
Could sound intimidating manipulative
Either way, it was forced, as the man was hired.

Strategy: Stand up and own your work (11)
The attempt to discredit had no weight.

The end result:
The job gets done (in 52 days)
The resistance were afraid and lost their self-confidence
Why? This work had been done with the help of God.

Tools for building or tearing down walls: Jesus Clears the Temple
1. Passion
2. Purity
3. Purpose

1. Passion (vs 13-16)
The idea of righteous anger.

2. Purity (vs 17)
Zeal consumed him.

3. Purpose (vs 18-25)
Jesus told the people his ultimate purpose of resurrection.
Jesus kept doing what God had sent him to do.
Jesus’ self-understanding “he did not need man’s testimony”

Rebuilding? Have a plan.
Stay the Course.
Use Your Tools and work together.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Exiled & Returned

The Story of Scripture: Exiled & Returned 2/6/11
II Chronicles 36:11-23, Jeremiah 30:23-34, Matthew 5:13-20

The Story of Scripture is about home, and finding home again. And again implies that for a season, we were away: Being away might be by choice, wandering or in today’s story: having been kicked out. The theological word for that is “exile”.

Northern Tribe (Israel) exiled in 722BC by the Assyrians, whose practice was to take everyone out and put another conquered people in the land. This is done. The people who lived in the northern land after the people Israel are deported? The Samaritans. That explains a little bit of the jealousy and not getting along.

The Southern Tribe (Judah) exiled in 580’sBC by the Babylonians. There is a famous book by Edward Gibbons called, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Well here, we have the Decline and Fall of the Israelite kingdom. Why and how did it fall?

--political reasons: ironically, the kings of the day had made a political alliance with Egypt, which did not withstand the strength of the Babylonian Empire.

--moral reasons: Zedekiah did evil in the eyes of the Lord (12)
All of the leaders of the people became unfaithful,
following detestable practices of nations around them, defiling the temple. (14)

--spiritual reasons: Z. became stiff necked, and hardened his heart and
would not turn to the Lord (13). Stiff necked & repentance.

--choosing it: the Lord sends messengers again and again

The results of the fall include:

1. material loss (palaces destroyed)
2. aesthetic & historical loss (temple artifacts)
3. loss of life
4. taken away to a new land.

The Babylonian Captivity
--prophesied by Jeremiah
--most famous Babylonian ruler: Nebuchanezzar (Daniel)
--the land has its Sabbath rest.
--life not necessarily worse (Jeremiah had told people: settle down, make a living, raise your family, you ain’t going anywhere)

Persia supplants Babylon.
Cyrus king makes a proclamation
Ezra & Nehemiah: Israelite perspective on return
Persian perspective: Esther

Psalm 126

When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.

Then it was said among the nations: The LORD has done great things for them. The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negev desert.

Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. The one going out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.

After 70 years, home again.

But, while they were away, the vision of Jeremiah the prophet kept them strong, it was an agreement: A vision shared by God for the future

One quick point about this faithful servant: sleep had finally been pleasant for the prophet.

What does God’s vision look like?
23: God’s promise of AGAIN. The people will once again use these words
23: blessing & greeting: The Lord bless you.
24: people, towns, farmers, flocks will be at peace (shalom)
25: those who are hurting will be helped (the weary, the faint)
27: certain: “the days are coming”
28: the faithful God with the people through all their difficulty will be there for the building and planting

29: no more the sins of the fathers visiting their children
31: LOOK: a new agreement
33: God’s teaching on the mind and heart,
I will be their God and they will be my people
No more need for teachers, for all will know.
I will forgive them and remember their sins no more

13: Jesus was salt and light, and when we live for Jesus, we show salt and light to those around us.
17: Jesus fulfills the law: he is the only one who can do it perfectly.
18: living out God’s ways and preserving God’s path (not the smallest pen)
19: moving people toward the greatness of the kingdom of heaven
(Whoever practices these commands will be called great in the koh)
20: a new and demanding righteousness

Home: the search for home is a dominating story in our lives.
It is also our spiritual story.
Part of the story in Scripture was exile.
But part was return.
Through that process, God has made a new agreement.
For you and I, that agreement is found in Jesus Christ.

You are the light of the world. Because Jesus is the light of the world, and you, whether exiled or returned, belong to him.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Elijah & Elisha

The Story of Scripture: Elijah & Elisha 1/30/11
I Kings 19:9-18, Micah 6:1-8, Mark 9:2-13

Imagining the story:
What if you could experience the best accomplishment of your life, but the cost would be two months of rejection immediately following the accomplishment? Would you go for it?

Whether he would have chosen it or not, this is what happens to the prophet Elijah.

Elijah triumphs over the false prophets of Baal.
· Ahab and Jezebel conspire and swear to find and kill the prophet.
· “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life”
· He went a day’s journey into the wilderness…to pray that he might die.
· He falls asleep, awoken by an angel with food and comfort and courage.
· Travels for forty days, where he finds a cave to rest for the night.
· “And the word of the LORD came to him: What are you doing here Elijah?” I wonder if Elijah knew the answer to that question.

Have you ever wondered the answer to that question?

Elijah states the case, which seems to have been stewing for 40 days within him.
--I have been zealous
--These people have rejected you, torn down the alters and killed the prophets
--and now they are looking for me…I’m the only one left.

To which God says: Go out and stand on the mountain, because I am going to pass by.

God is not in the great and powerful wind: which tears the mountain apart and shatters the rocks.

God is not in an earthquake or a fire.

God is in a gentle whisper. Elijah hears it, and stands at the mouth of the cave, with his face covered by a cloak.

What are you doing here Elijah?

Go and anoint a new king for Syria, Israel and a new prophet to succeed you.

Oh yeah, and Elijah…

There are 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal.

Pressure, anxiety and heaviness make us look more closely, whether inward or around what we can see. But there is always more than meets the eye. There is always another part of the story. There is always others who serve the Lord of lords.

To another prophet, Micah, the Lord makes his case, wondering why the people have forgotten the faithfulness of God for his people. And when face to face with the history and case that God makes, Micah can only muster:
With what should I come before the Lord?

His litany of shortfalls includes a stunning awareness of his incapability to impress God.

At the end of the day, Micah understands the appropriate response to faith:
Do what is right (both in justice and in mercy) and walk humbly before God.

God owns everything. God is the all in all, the end all, the be all of the cosmos. And God doesn’t need from us. Yet we answer to God. We walk by faith and we show our faith by doing what is right and being humble.

When you are humble, and you stay close to Jesus, you can see great things.

The Transfiguration Story:

The three see Jesus in all his glory: clothed in dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And who was with Jesus, but Moses and Elijah. They were the 2 greatest heroes of the Israelite people: Moses was the law giver and Elijah the prophet. There before Jesus, the two greatest heroes talk.

Peter’s response is classic: We should stay here, hey, how about I build you guys a shelter.

And then the voice of God comes to the mountain: This is my son, whom I love, listen to him!

Peter, when thinking about this incident toward the end of his life, writes these words:
“I think it is right to refresh your memory, as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses to his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic glory saying, “this is my son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves hard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. And we have the world of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scriptures came about by the prophet’s own interpretation, For prophesy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

The story today reminds us of the humanity of Elijah: he felt lost and alone. He felt worthless. He considered and prayed to have his life taken. And yet God was using him to destroy idols and anoint kings. His work was worthy. Though he might not have felt it in those intense moments.

Elijah goes on to anoint Elisha. And the Bible never records Elijah’s death. It says a chariot came from heaven and took him away. And the Hebrew theologians felt that Elijah would return one day to announce the coming of the Messiah. He did, alongside Moses. And the work of his coming was also carried out through the ministry of John the Baptist, about whom Jesus said: If you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah that was to come.

The past two weeks, we talked about Kings, as part of our year long study of the story of Scripture. Kings can be seen and heard. We can record their doings, comings and goings. Their decisions have real affect upon their citizens, who can alter the lives of those they interact with. But God wanted to be Israel’s king, and so while he allows the kings to exist, despite his wishes, he keeps them accountable. He sends prophets to announce his will and to inform kings when they become wayward.

And so in the book of Kings, we read of many kings, and also of great prophets: like Elijah and Elisha. For all the idolatry in the land, God reserved 7000 who would not bow the knee and kiss the hand of anything or anyone less than God.

So, there are times when you will feel alone. You might even have some alone time to steam and hee and haw about what is bugging you. But pay attention: God is going to come, sometimes in the form of a gentle whisper.

And when God comes to us, we quickly and clearly see our place. There is only one response to God and his judgments: to do what is right and to walk humbly before God. Nothing else will do. Only faith and its responses will work.

And when you open yourself to it, and you spend enough time with Jesus, you’ll see his glory, you’ll recognize God’s affirmation of his beloved Son. You will see his glory, and you will end your days with a keen awareness that your days have been walked near and alongside God. And that is the best ending.

Live alongside the kings of this world. Listen to prophets when they speak the will of God. But most of all, love God. For he has shown us what his will is, and he is there to ask: What are you doing here?