Sunday, September 11, 2016

Men of God: The Embodied Message of God

In the American frontier days, there was a settlement in the West whose citizens were engaged in the lumber business. The town felt they wanted a church. They built a building and called a minister. The preacher moved in and initially was well received.

Then one afternoon he happened to see some of his parishioners away from the church building. They were dragging some logs, which had been floated down the river from another village upstream. Each log was marked with the owner's stamp on one end. The minister saw his members pulling in the logs and sawing off the end where the stamp appeared. They were stealing the logs!

The following Sunday he preached a strong sermon on the commandment "Thou shall not steal." At the close of the service, his people lined up and offered enthusiastic congratulations. "Wonderful message, Preacher." "Mighty fine preaching." "Keep up the good work." It wasn't the response he expected or even desired! He went home to prepare his sermon for the following Sunday. He preached on the same text, the same commandment, but gave it a different ending. This time, he said, "Yes, thou shall not steal. And thou shall not cut off the end of thy neighbor's logs." When he got through, that congregation ran him out of town.

Well, I’ve never been run out of town, but I do have some empathy for this frontier preacher. I have experienced the angst that comes with having to tell the difficult-to-hear truth. There have been times when I just knew I had to say something in this pulpit. I might know a particular sermon is coming weeks in advance. And as that Sunday gets closer, I get that uneasy feeling in my stomach. Many times, I’ve thought, it would be a lot easier not to say this. Speaking words from God is a tremendous blessing at times, and at other times, a real challenge, or even a burden.

But I will tell you this, I’ve never feared for my life. But there are some preachers who fear for their lives when they step into their pulpit. History is filled with men and women of God who have been killed for saying the right things to the wrong people! And even if those men and women were not killed, even if they were not run out of town, here is one thing every person who has ever spoken words of God has experienced. You speak Truth, you hold nothing back, and still you know, they are not listening! It appears that women and men of God have been experiencing that feeling for millennia. And God has witnessed every one of those moments. Listen to what God’s Word says about this:
The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent word to them [Israel] through His messengers again and again, because He had pity on His people and on His dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against His people and there was no remedy. (II Chronicles 36:15–16)
These are some of the final words of II Chronicles. I know, few of us can even find II Chronicles, but it is a very important book for the history of Israel! This book was written while Israel was in Exile, or perhaps just after they returned home, and the entire nation was trying to make sense of their situation. They were God’s chosen people, after all! But it sure didn’t feel like it. Living in captivity how could something like this to happen to them? That question was on everyone’s mind! These books, I and II Chronicles, were written for the express purpose of explaining how things had gone wrong.

To answer this question: Why were God’s people in Exile? And here is the answer: Because they failed to listen. God sent messengers again and again and again. And through those messengers, those prophets, God reminded them of His great love for them. Of the Exodus, of the Promised Land, of the blessing that always came when they loved God in return! God called them to repentance. But still, they did not listen. And so right here at the end of II Chronicles, we have the conclusion of it all. God sent messengers again and again, but they did not listen, so, finally, God’s wrath was poured out on Israel.
They ridiculed God’s prophets to such an extent that there was no hope of warding off the Lord’s anger against His people. (II Chronicles 36:16 CEB)
We tend to spend a great deal of time when we read passages like this one honing in on God’s judgment. And there was certainly judgment! But as I read this text again this week, my eyes were drawn to that part of the story that we rarely notice. Yes, God sent His prophets again and again. And yes, the people ignored His prophets again and again. And yes, because of their refusal to listen, there was judgment, and a lot of it! But I wonder, have you ever wondered, why did God warn them so many times? Why did God not just tell them once what to do and be done with it? Why did God send so many prophets over so many centuries? Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. Why did God warn them so many times? This text tells us, look again:
Because He had pity on His people. . . (II Chronicles 36:15)
Other translations say: “Because He had compassion on His people.” God sent messengers again and again, because He hoped that one day, His people would repent. But they never did, so God finally sent them into Exile. There is a wonderful verse in the New Testament book of Hebrews. In fact, this passage introduces the book.
In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways. In these final days, though, He spoke to us through a Son. (Hebrews 1:1 CEB)
We may not typically think of it this way, but, Jesus embodied the entire message of the prophets. God spoke His message to us through the words of the prophets. But God modeled that same message to us through the life of His Son. All of those things the prophets told Israel to do, Jesus came and lived them out. Is it any wonder that that at the heart of this message was compassion?
When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them…they were like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)
When Jesus saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion towards them. . . (Matthew 14:14)
Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately, they received their sight. . . (Matthew 20:34)
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion. He ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)
Compassion is at the center of God’s message, it always has been. The people of Israel failed to hear that message. But now, we’ve seen it lived out through Jesus. The only question for us: Are we listening?

There is a song that I loved when I was in college. A song written and performed by Steven Curtis Chapman: “Still Listening.” The song speaks of prayer. And the message is pretty simple: The reason I continue to pray, God, is because I have faith that You are still listening. I pray because I believe God is listening to my prayers. The question that is more difficult to answer, I think: Are we still listening to God? It is easy for us to read these stories in the Old Testament about Israel’s failures.
If I had lived then, I would have listened!
How could they be so deaf for so long?
If we had lived in the days of Elijah, we would have listened.
Really? Because that same message is still here. Except now, “in these last days, God has spoken to us through His Son.” Are we listening? Let’s face it: The reason Israel didn’t listen to God was because some things are just really difficult to hear. I don’t think the words of the prophets surprised anyone. Do you? I’m sure they knew God wanted them to care about justice. I’m sure they knew God didn’t want them to exploit the poor. I’m sure they knew God wanted their undivided loyalty. But sometimes, even the things we know all too well, they are just so difficult to put into practice. That was true for Israel then, and it is true for us now.

This is a tough text for me to read, if I’m really honest with myself. Because I can hear God, and I’ve seen God’s message lived out. I know what God wants me to do. I know God wants me to put Him first. But it is so much easier to let other things take first seat in my life. My job, even as a minister. My family, my sports (now I’m meddling)! I can hear God, but am I actually embodying that message? I know God wants me to sacrifice my comfort for the sake of those around me. But it is so much easier to sit in my nice, air-conditioned home, it is so much easier to criticize the government for not helping more, it is so much easier to join the masses in saying, “Those folks just need to quit being lazy and get a job.” I can hear God, but am I actually embodying that message?

I know God wants me to be compassionate. But sometimes it is not easy to be compassionate to my children. Sometimes, let’s face it, it is not easy to show compassion to our spouses. And even more often, it is so difficult to show compassion to strangers or even enemies. I can hear God, but am I actually embodying that message? If there is any doubt in your mind about what the message of God is, look no further than the life of Jesus. Because “in these last days, He has spoken His message to us through His Son.” That means we must:
  • Care about what Jesus cared about.
  • Go where Jesus went.
  • Show compassion to the people to whom Jesus showed compassion. 
God give us not only ears to hear, but also courage to put our faith into action!

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