Saturday, June 6, 2015

Come Gather at Our Table

Come Gather at Our Table                                                      6/7/15
First sermon in Praise the Lord with Symbols series
Genesis 18:1-15, Luke 24:28-35

There is a wooden sign that we have above our dining room table that says “Come Gather at Our Table”.  The saying perfectly embodies the beauty and design of what a table and meal should be.  A meal gathers people together.  It gathers loved ones together.  The meal is an invitation to eat of goodness and life and beauty.  The table is a place where stories are told, memories are fostered and God’s grace and goodness become desired and appreciated.  The table is a place where thanksgiving ascends, counsel is offered, correction is administered and God is celebrated.  Meals accompany all the seasons of life, and all the emotions we find ourselves feeling.  Most of us have never really been hungry, or hungry for sustained periods of time.  Our tables have been full of blessing.  All praise to God for his goodness.

This summer, the 3 Shared Staff partner churches will be reviewing symbols in the Bible.  We will praise the Lord with symbols, a pun on the psalmist’s command to praise the Lord with loud cymbals, alongside other instruments.  We all are to give praise to the Lord.  We join all creation in giving praise.   We also join with all the visible signs that speak to something greater than themselves.   In this sense, bread and wine, the sanctuary, the flags, the colors of the church season give praise to God, and we come alongside of them with our praise.

Webster’s defines the word symbol in this way:
A token of identity verified by comparing its other half
The word’s origin is To throw together, compare
A symbol is a visible sign of something invisible

Today, we look at our first symbol:  Bread and wine.  They are visible signs that speak of something invisible:  the presence of Jesus Christ, as well as the promise of the Lord’s presence.

Bread is sustenance.  Bread is one of the few things in this world that is absolutely essential for survival.  Yet Scripture proclaims:  Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  Bread is essential, but not as essential as the word of God.

Wine, or for many modern protestants, juice, is the fruit of the vine.  The vine produces grapes because it is connected with the branch.  We live because of the Christ.

The bread and the wine bear witness to the body and blood of Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God and God’s sacrifice for the sins of the world.  Jesus gave his body and blood, and used his last meal on earth to remind his disciples that they should always remember him.

We have two amazing stories today that revolve around eating, and what comes when people eat together.  We have Abraham, Sarah and the three visitors, with the language of the story playing between “they” and “the LORD”.    The second story is of two disciples eating with Jesus after his resurrection.  The disciples didn’t quite understand the depth of the moment, but after coming to their senses, bear witness to Jesus Christ, the bread of life.

But first, let us go back to the great trees of Mamre.  Oaks that were mighty in height, wide and strong branches, providing shade and shelter.  In this case, Mamre is a person, so we could say “Mamre’s trees”.  He is in alliance with Abraham.  But the trees outlive Mamre, and the person becomes a place over time.  Imagine putting home base under the great oaks (just a quick side note, there are 320 references to trees and forests in the Bible—that fact challenges our perception that the Bible only takes place in a desert).

You are the leader of your tribe, which includes a large amount of servants, for your life has been blessed, you have become wealthy and have much material prosperity.  But the one thing you don’t have is a child.  Some 24 years before, God had come to you and told you that you and your wife would have a child, a child from Sarah’s womb.  You were old some 24 years ago, but now it seems that God’s promise was misunderstood.

You waited eleven years after you had received that promise, but nothing came.  And so you took matters into your own hands, and, as was allowed by the custom of the day, had relations with a maid servant, who conceived and gave birth.  All of the people living under your tents understood the culturally accepted law that Ishmael was now your son.  But this wasn’t what God had meant.  A child will come from you and Sarah. 

In your 99th year, God comes to you again.  He is ready to validate the covenant with a sign.  Circumcision is that sign for you, Ishmael and all males in your tents, and all of those who will come from you.  Yes, all the children that will descend from you.  At this point, God tells you these words:
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. (Genesis 17:15-19).

You laughed.  But there is one thing you didn’t do:  You didn’t tell Sarah what God had said to you.  Did it hurt too much?  Did you feel that God had said this to you before?  Why hadn’t it already happened?  Did you doubt?  Had time hardened you, or beat your confidence down until you were too afraid to talk with your wife?  Perhaps you were trying to protect her, and didn’t want her to be hurt. 
And one day, as you sat near the great trees of Mamre, the LORD appears.   Three men are at your tent, and you, a good man, show the kindest hospitality.  You are a perfect gentlemen, and your reputation is validated by this kindness to strangers.  As a man of faith, you understand that this story that has come before you is different.  It is holy. These visitors are holy. And you will pay attention.  Your awareness is shown because you make the table full of food, offering your best creations for your guests.   Out of this meal will come a promise.
The three visitors ask where Sarah is.  You tell them.  The LORD then says again what he told you when he made the covenant with you.  This time next year, you will have a son.  Only this time, Sarah is listening.  And she hears it with her own ears.
Sarah laughs.  You both had laughed.  We don’t know why.  My guess it was just too difficult to believe.  But the LORD speaks at that moment:
Is anything too hard for the LORD?

Is anything too hard for the LORD?

Walter Brueggemann writes:
Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness.  They are resigned to their closed future.  They have accepted that hopelessness as ‘normal’.  The gospel promise does not meet them in receptive hopefulness but in resistant hopelessness.
(Genesis, Intepretation Series, John Knox Press, 1982, pg 159)

The Lord’s promise didn’t come when everything was perfect.  It came in the midst of ordinary life, with all of its struggles, challenges, triumphs and beauty.  The Lord’s promise wasn’t and isn’t always received with open arms.  But the truth of the matter comes to us in a question:  Is anything too hard for the LORD?

In this moment of shared table, God speaks his answer to Abraham with his promise.  Grace is present.  We also see grace to Sarah in her response:  Out of embarrassment she lies to God.  But God cannot be lied to.  In fact, it is at the table before us, that we gladly acknowledge that we can’t lie to God.  God has come to us, just like he came to those saints of old.  The table invites us to acknowledge that God has visited us.  Like Sarah, if we are honest, and truthful, we can be right with God, ready to hear his will.

This honesty about reality is what happened to the two disciples who walked along the road with a hidden Jesus, shortly after his resurrection.  They talked, they talked about Jesus, the resurrection, all the Hebrew Scriptures that spoke about resurrection.  Then when it was dark, they went inside and talked some more.  They started to talk over a meal.  When the bread was broken, and thanks to God was given, the disciples understood they were in the Lord’s presence.  They had missed this reality of Christ’s presence several times throughout their day.  It was there before them all along.  After Jesus reveals himself, they understand that God was there all along.

And because of the meal, and the bread and the thanksgiving that took place, these two men go back to the disciples.  They get up and go and speak to the scared 11:  what you have heard is true.  Jesus is alive! 

Pilate asked “what is truth?”  The answer is simple:  Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life.  He is also the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

We have before us bread and fruit of the vine.  What are we to do with these symbols?  The key phrases from these two stories should be acknowledged and practiced by us:  hospitality, closeness, right relationship, promise, forgiveness, gratitude, testimony.  The table allows for all of these.  This table allows for them, and your table at home should also nurture them.

Going back to the Abraham and Sarah story, Brueggemann writes:
The word had been uttered.  Sarah and Abraham and the listening community can never again live pre-promise.  All their lives are now impacted by this promissory word which will find its own fulfillment.
(Genesis, 160)

This is a really powerful statement.  Once God speaks, you can’t pretend that he hasn’t.  You might have to wait (for the father and mother of many nations, the wait lasted a quarter of a century).  You might not yet fully understand what the promise means.  You might still be coming to grips with what God has said his will is for the creation, for the nations, for you and your neighbor.  But we can’t pretend it hasn’t been spoken. 

The bread and the cup speak to what God has said: 
Nothing is impossible with God.  (Luke 1:37)
I am with you always, even to the end of the age.  (Matthew 28:20) 
Where can I flee from God’s presence?  (Psalm 139)
In the shelter of your presence you hide them. (Psalm 21:30)
My presence will go with you.  (Exodus 33:14)
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy to the only God our Savior be glory , majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  (Jude 24)
This is my body, broken for you.
This is my blood, shed for you.

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