Tuesday, September 23, 2014

the Church Has Left the Building: Loving the Seeker

Love the World:  Loving the Seeker                                   9/21/14
Genesis 12:1-4, John 3:1-21, Romans 4:18-25

Last year, we participated in a program entitled “The Church Has Left the Building”.  We had a series of sermons that equipped us to go out on a Sunday and worship as we worked.  We had 33 participants, which was fantastic.  We ended the evening in worship at Flemington Presbyterian with a few hundred other brothers and sisters from various congregations.  My hope is that we will participate again this year in the Church has Left the Building program.

Why?  Because it is good to take a step of faith once in a while, to challenge ourselves, and to love our neighbor practically and without any thing given back to us.

This year’s theme is Love the World.   It is a command to be godly, to love the world that God loves, so much love that he gave us Jesus Christ, that whoever would believe will have everlasting life.  This fall, we will consider different types of people that God loves, and that we are called to love.  These include, the seeker, the rejected, discouraged, outcast, the invisible and dejected.  Today, we consider loving the Seeker.

The word seeker is word that the modern church has used to describe someone who is serious enough about establishing a relationship with God, or becoming spiritual, but not so serious that they are ready to commit to a local congregation as a member, or to the path of discipleship as a believer.  Admittedly, this is an unusual choice for the word from both a biblical perspective and plain definition of the word.  The definition of seek is to go in search of, to look for, to try to discover.  In the Bible, to seek is to display faith, not to wonder about entering faith. Jesus taught his disciples, Seek and Ye Shall Find, which echoes the Hebrew Scripture, where young Solomon is directed “If you seek God, he will be found by you”.  The Psalms teach us that to seek God leads to rejoicing, seeking is something done always, with all our heart. (105:3, 4, 110:2).  In fact, those who seek the Lord lack no good thing (34:10).  The Prophet Amos says “Seek the LORD and live”, and Hosea corals the sheep by saying “It is time to seek the Lord”.   Jesus says to seek first the kingdom of God.  

And so from the Biblical perspective, seeker is almost another name for Christian:  We are Christians, worshippers, seekers.  It isn’t about that person coming in close enough to see what Christ is all about before saying yes to God.  It is the person who sees what Christ is all about, and increases their devotion more and more because deep down they know.

Yet, there is this word, Seeker, and modern church sociologists have given it a certain nuance, to mean someone who is looking, who is searching and who is restless. It implies that the search has been long, and at times difficult.  Perhaps hurt and failure have weighed down that weary soul.  Perhaps harsh experiences and social rejection have caused a little wariness before jumping in with all one’s heart. 

And if that is the case, our job is simple; To love that person.  To love the seeker.  We are not to make demands upon them, or question why they don’t just believe more, or do better at seeking, or pick a church and stay there.  We love them.  That is the best gift.  That is the gift God gave all of us in Jesus Christ.

Our morning Scripture focus on two different people, who sought.  They were seekers in the classic meaning of the word:  They were people on a search.  They were willing to risk comfort to find meaning.  They saw the light of God and wanted more of it.  They tried to discover.  Neither were perfect in their seeking.  But both displayed a faith worth remembering, and imitating.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee who was a member of the ruling council.  This wasn’t a mere outsider.  He was without a doubt part of the inner circle of the jewish faith and power.  He was a representative of the largest party within the faith, the Pharisees, who strictly adhered to the Law, and the holiness of observing the law.  They were separatist when it came to a world that might tolerate Judaism as one of many options.  But their orders and devotion belonged to One much higher.   Now Jesus challenged the Pharisees.  So much so that a surface reading of the Bible it would be difficult to not have a negative image of the Pharisees.

And yet, there was Nicodemus.  He had heard Jesus teach, including the challenges to his party.  And while he might have carried the membership card, he was more interested in the beauty and holiness and truth and grace of Jesus.  Not yet ready to declare allegiance, he at least wants to meet with Jesus.  And so he goes at night to see him.  Jesus, you must be from God, because you couldn’t do what you are doing without being from God.”

To which Jesus replied to him, you can’t see God’s kingdom unless you are born again.  To a member of the Ruling Council of the largest party within Judaism, going back to birth must have seemed so foreign, perhaps even initially insulting.  He was grown and established.  Even if I could, why would I enter the womb a second time?

There is some back and forth, but essentially, Jesus teaches that we are born physically, but that we must be born spiritually.  And spiritual birth is the work of the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus teaches the teacher, calling upon an old story from the time of Moses…the people had complained to God one too many times, and God sent some snakes to bite the people. The people realize they had pushed too far, and ask Moses to intervene.  God gives Moses a command to put a bronze snake on a tall pole. If the people looked up, literally, they would live.  They had to look up, they had to have faith.  There was no other way.

Jesus then shares that he is like the bronze serpent.  People will need to look to him, to be rescued from the poison of their complaining and the vanity of their life.  But do not worry, God had sent Jesus for this reason, that if you believe, you will not perish, but have everlasting life.

Nicodemus did believe.  He did receive eternal life.  Perhaps not that night, we don’t know.  Maybe he had to go home and chew on Jesus’ words a little.  Maybe it took him a couple of months of wrestling, or maybe over a year of vainly trying to fit Jesus’ teaching into his preconceived notions of the world.  But in John 20, after Jesus had died on the cross, it is Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who risked everything to go to Pilate, and ask for the body of Jesus, and to give Jesus a reverent and proper burial.  Their devotion is remembered in Holy Scripture.   In the darkest moment in history, Nicodemus had remembered a dark night when he had encountered the light of the Savior.  His seeking a few years earlier equipped him to serve the Lord even if it meant the most powerful empire of the world would come after him, or even if life as he had known it, would not ever be the same.

The second individual from our morning readings is Abraham.  He is far more familiar, one of the great characters of Scripture.   

Abraham is perhaps the ultimate seeker.  Both in literal distance traveled and time allotted before he saw God’s promise to him.  In our story, Abram is 75 years old when he starts part two of the journey.

Part two?

Well, yes, part two.  In the last verses of Genesis chapter 11, we learn some details of the life of Terah, Abraham’s father.  Terah has three sons, Abram, Nahor and Haran.  Haran has a son, his name is Lot.  But Haran dies.  He dies in what is modern day Iraq in a city named Ur.  It was quite an important and successful ancient city, with lots of archeological evidence of a thriving place in the time of Abraham.  Terah suffered the death of his son while in this place.  His other two sons go on to marry, Abram to Sarai and Nahor to Milcah.  Nahor and Milcah have children.  Abram and Sarai do not.

The Bible says that Terah, the father, Abram, Sarai and Lot set out from Ur to go to Canaan.  To go to Canaan was the plan all along.  But when they came to Haran, they settled there.  Yes, the name of the city where they settled was the same name as Terah’s deceased son. (though it should be noted that some scholars believe the name of the city is actually Haranu, or Charran).  The name means road, because it was crossroad city for trade routes.  But if nothing else, it is interesting that the traveling family cannot get past Haran.  They settle there.

Terah lives the rest of his life in Haran.  Apparently, he becomes quite successful, if he hadn’t already been successful in Ur.  But after his death, Abram receives that call from God, leave here, and go the land I will show you.  Go to the promised land.

There I will make you a great nation and bless you. 
There I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.
I’ll bless those who bless you.
I’ll curse those who curse you.
All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.

So at 75, when I’m sure Abram had at least a slight level of personal satisfaction and contentment, He went.  He went with Sarai and Lot, and “all the possessions they had accumulated” and “the people they had acquired in Haran”.  One might have a mental image of Abraham and Sarah, riding a camel alone through the desert.  But that was not the case.  It was a large caravan, after a successful way of life at the crossroad city of Haran.

The Scripture says that they did arrive in Canaan.  The journey, though long, and including an extended, multi-year unplanned stay, was complete.  The seekers arrived.  And from that place, there are many other opportunities for Abram to seek.  The most obvious opportunity was for that hole in Abram and Sarai’s heart for a child.  But they were too old for that, weren’t they?

In the Book of Romans, Paul gives insight into Abraham, the great seeker of God.  The one who believed God, and that belief was credited to him as righteousness in God’s presence.

19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Today we think about seekers.  And we think about Nicodemus, seeking Christ in the darkness, and we think about Abraham, seeking the LORD throughout a long journey.  What should we do with these stories for our life and time?

First, we should love our neighbor as we would love ourselves.  This might include opportunities to walk alongside, or welcome, or converse with a seeker.  We should welcome people who stop in for a spiritual glass of water in their desert wanderings.  We might not see them again.  Or they might stay for just a short time.  Our job is to be respectful enough to meet that person where they are, and be confident enough to invite them to meet the one who will transform their life.

Second, as a congregation, if we have settled in Haran, and are really supposed to be in Canaan, then we should get up and seek God’s call upon us.  We may have even stayed in Haran long enough to be comfortable, perhaps successful, but where is God calling us:  that is the place we want to be.

Finally, let us be seekers, in the classic and biblical sense of the word.  Let us go in search of the Lord, let us go to look for Jesus in the darkness of our experience, let us try to discover once again, that love of our Lord.  For, if the Bible is true,
if we seek, then we shall find.

Monday, September 15, 2014

If I Were A Puzzle to be released next month

Well, my favorite pondering is not as a pastor, but as a parent.  I enjoy considering what comes out of our children's mouths, much like Mary treasured all the things said about her son.

While away on vacation, our eldest daughter and I worked on a puzzle.  She turned to me and asked, "Dad, what if you were a puzzle?"  She laughed, but an idea was born. 

I've written four manuscripts, with ideas for 13 other children's books.  But the first step, is that this October, my first children's book, "If I Were a Puzzle" is set to be released.

You can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and soon enough, in a box or two in my living room :)

Before God

Before God                                                                            9/14/14
Exodus 14:19-31, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Next week, we will endeavor down our fall sermon series, tied to The Church Has Left the Building.  The theme this year is Love the World, based upon the classic Biblical proclamation:  God loved the world so much that he sent Jesus Christ that whoever would believe in him would have eternal life.

This week, a transitional week from a sermon sense, will call upon the lectionary passages.  Sometimes my first glance at the passages in the lectionary make me go, “huh”.  But they are worth the effort to piece together and see why they were put together.

Simply put, the three passages guide us to consider yesterday, today and tomorrow.  And we look at time in light of who God is.  We live before God. 

The word ‘before’ is a preposition which most of the time means “in advance, or ahead”.  You need to eat your vegetables before you get to eat ice cream.  But there are other uses of the word.  For example, it can mean ‘under the jurisdiction or consideration of’ (the case before the court).  Also, in a higher position than, (quality before quantity).  Also, it means ‘in the presence of’.  Life before God. 

These secondary definitions are very helpful in explaining our relationship with God.  We are before God, in God’s presence.  We serve God, who has jurisdiction over our lives.  We acknowledge God is in the highest position, before our loved ones, families, friends and neighbors.  Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah, “As surely as I live says the Lord, every knee will bow before me.”

The Exodus story roots us in yesterday.  The Gospel Parable becomes our story today.  The Romans teaching guides us into tomorrow.

The story of the Exodus is a universal and true story.  It happened to Israel, but it is attractive to us because we all have felt trapped, and wondered how we will be rescued, and at some point in all our stories, only God can rescue us. 

The Israelites were slave in Egypt for some 400 hundred years.  Just for context, The United States will turn 400 in the year 2176.  Throughout this story of slavery, they had heard that God would someday rescue the people, and bring them to a promised land.  The people held onto that promise and passed it along from generation to generation.  As the day hastened, there were stories of Moses returning with his brother Aaron to demand that Pharaoh let the people go.  There were miracles and plagues.  Something was happening. 

But then one night, it really did happen.  Pharaoh was fed up, and wanted the life that he had known before all types of struggle had come to him, and he tells the people to get out of the land.  Citizens give gold to the Israelites as they leave.  The people literally pay the Israelites to leave.  But as they travel, Pharaoh comes to his senses.  And he sends the world’s greatest army after the Israelites. 

Think about the emotions.  Imagine you are one of the people.  You had been slaves their whole life.  You had worked hard and were tired.  And then one night, you pack up your stuff and get your family in order and start walking.  Where would you go? Where are we going right now?  What was the next chapter?  Who cares…were leaving Egypt!  God’s promise had come true!  And then in the distance, you see the armies coming after you.  Terror strikes.  And before you is water.  How can you possible get across?

They most haunting verse is 30.  “That day, the LORD saved Israel from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore”.   The Israelites had been freed, the promise had been fulfilled.  They saw God act.  Oppressive Egypt was judged.  It must have been a sight that did not easily escape their minds.  But it happened.  The Israelites, whatever happened in their future, would always be able to remember the day that God saved them.

In the Bible, the exodus is Israel’s story.  The story for us is of Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose to rescue us from spiritual slavery.  We look at his actions, and remember the sacrifice involved.  We live today, remembering that salvation act.  Or we live today, forgetting what God did in the past.

Jesus changed the story, he took care of the problem of human sin and the alienation it caused people before God.  Jesus’ work shouldn’t be kept under ‘yesterday’s file.  The story is real for today.  God’s saving forgiveness comes to us.  And Jesus taught that we should share it with others.

Reading the news, the numbers boggle the mind.  The nation’s debt spiraling into the trillions.  State budgets billions of dollars short.  How does this happen?  The Bible alludes that these types of insurmountable debt are no stranger to other generations.  He tells a story of a man who owed 10 thousand talents, that is millions of dollars.  A millionaire in Jesus time must have been like a billionaire today.  Imagine being forgiven a billion dollars in personal debt, only to be enraged at someone who had borrowed $5 from you.  Jesus invites us to forgive, as we have been forgiven.  In fact, don’t forgive someone 7 times (which was significantly more than Hebrew Law had commanded), forgive seventy times that!  Keep on forgiving.

Yesterday is the story of God’s work in Jesus Christ.  Today, we live before God.  We have been forgiven in Christ, we too are to forgive.  We are like the servant forgiven 10 thousand talents.  Will we now imprison that person who took a cup of coffee from us?
Doing so isn’t how Jesus desires us to live.

So what is the way?  What is the next step?  What type of life are we to build toward tomorrow?  The Apostle Paul invites us into strength and a strong faith. 

One of the biggest issues facing the early church was food.  It comes up in Acts and most of Paul’s letters.  Essentially, the Hebrew Scripture contained dietary and strict food laws.  Were people supposed to follow those in light of what Jesus had done?  Were people free because of Jesus, or were people suppose to build their faith in Christ in addition to the laws already taught? 

In addition, the world around the people of faith often ate and drank in honor of idols.  So if you were a Christian, and you were invited to eat dinner at someone’s house, and they offered a prayer to a false god before eating.  Did eating symbolize your acceptance of the idol?   It was a big teaching that confronted the church.  Ultimately, Paul says that idols are really nothing, that is, they ultimately do not exist.  God exists, therefore, honor God by faith.

In Romans 14, the position is that those able to eat foods because of their faith should not condemn those who are weak.  And those who viewed everyday as sacred should not condemn those who kept the Jewish feasts.  His stance is surprising, we might think that the stronger person was the one who didn’t eat meat, or that kept the feasts of Israel.  Paul’s main point is now that we are in Christ, don’t judge someone who is weaker, but run after strength.  If someone can’t eat the meat, fine, but you should seek what is good and true.   Speaking of the Apostle Paul, and his views of what was essential for the Christian faith, Charles Hodge writes, “Paul would concede everything, and become all things to all people where principle was not at stake; but when it was, he would concede nothing for a moment.”  This is a good reminder for us, that it is all about Jesus.  We live before God, that is, in the presence of God.

Paul teaches us how to build for tomorrow:

--God has accepted us in Christ, not because of how we handle
   issues of diverse opinion.
--We all serve God, and our first priority is our relationship with
   God.  We don’t live other’s relationship with God for them.
--The Lord is able to make us strong and able to make us stand.
--What we do, say, eat, pursue, should be for the Lord.
--We don’t live just for ourselves, we live and die belonging to
--We should devote energies to the day that we will stand before
   God to give account of ; the life that God has given us.

Yesterday reminds us of the God who works in our world  God has rescued us, both collectively and individually. 

Today is the chance to show how God has worked to others.

Tomorrow is what we build for, seeking God and a strong faith in God, and all of our life before God.