Sunday, January 6, 2019

Encountering God at the Not-Burning Bush

Read: Exodus 3:1-4:17 (NRSV)      
           I Corinthians 6:9-11 (NRSV)

There are only a few people who have actually had a direct encounter
with God. Adam and Eve walked and talked with God. Noah had some sort of conversation with God. Moses had this encounter with God. Hagar had a brief encounter with God in the wilderness when she had just about given up on life. 

We’ve just finished the Christmas season that reminds us about the encounter with God that Mary had! Not only did she raise the Son of God! She also (along with her husband and cousin) had an encounter with one of God’s angels. Paul encountered God on the road to Damascus. The list of people who have actually had a direct encounter with God is an extremely short list! And every one of those people had one significant thing in common. After they encountered God…They were never the same again!

Monday, December 31, 2018

Behold, "This” Day Has Arrived

This is the Christmas story as told to us by Luke. But once you get past Luke setting 
the stage for the main event, the entire Christmas story really comes to us pretty 
succinctly in verse seven:

“She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a
manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.”

All the fanfare about CHRISTMAS! And yet, this is all we really have about the 
main event. One short verse. I would expect much more! After all, this is God
is coming into the world! I would expect at least a healthy paragraph or two 
describing what it was like for God to take in breath for the first time. Perhaps giving
us some details about what the Father was doing as His son opened His eyes on 
this earth for the very first time.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Sign of Jonah

One thing I have come to appreciate while living Texas is the fascination Texans have with “things big”. It’s always “bigger and better” in Texas, isn’t it? At least, that’s what advertisers seems to play upon to sell their merchandise around here. There is actually a company named “Bigger in Texas Apparel”. The famous Amarillo 72-ounce steak You can go to a fast food restaurant here and buy a “Texas-sized burger.” You can go to a car lot in town and see advertisements like: “A truck big enough for Texas.” Texans are fascinated with things big! Guys buy big hats. Girls wear big bows. We all drive big cars; did you know that the only two states that can sell Suburbans are Texas and Oklahoma. The fact is: We like big! But, we are not the only ones enamored by the spectacular.

I guess different regions of the world are intrigued by different forms of the spectacular. In Texas, we like big! In New York, they like the lights! In Mexico, they like the dazzling colors! Humans, I believe, have an innate desire to be impressed. We are attracted to the spectacular. We get bored by the routines of life. But over time, even the most amazing things become commonplace and ordinary and unimpressive. The fact is, when we get used to the big, we want bigger!

Did you know that Jesus once ran into a crowd who longed for something more spectacular than the Son of God?

READ LUKE 11:29-32 (CEB)

I have one question for the crowd who was increasing around Jesus: “What is it that you are waiting for?”

Let’s backtrack a few moments and take a glimpse at what this man Jesus had done thus far. Since Jesus began His ministry, according to Luke’s gospel. Witnesses saw a strange site at Jesus’ baptism. He goes into the water and comes out: nothing new here. But how many of your baptisms were accompanied by a voice from heaven? When the clouds start saying things like: “You are My Son whom I love; with You I am well pleased.” When that happens, people pay attention. And they did! And the people were amazed!

While Jesus was at Capernaum, He was seen driving out an evil spirit from a man who was in the synagogue. When He did this, the demons said before everyone, “I know who you are; the holy One of God.” Luke says the people were amazed, and the news of Jesus spread. Still later, Jesus is seen healing people. Then, when He is in a tiny village called Nain, he raises a little boy from the dead! While His disciples get caught in a storm, then they realize even the winds and waves obey this guy!

A few of them see Jesus transfigured before their eyes and see him sit down with Elijah and Moses! Not everyone was there. But tell me honestly that you believe Peter, James, and John kept that a secret!

Now, most recently, He was seen driving out a demon from a mute man. Here is a guy who could never talk before. Jesus comes in contact with him. And he opens his mouth and begins speaking! Luke says the people were amazed! And who wouldn’t be? But still, this group, a few weeks later, says, “Give us a sign!” And to these people, I repeat my question: “What is it that you are waiting for?” Jesus has just cast out a demon!!!  And they say, “Oh yeah, what else do you got? We’ve seen that trick; do something bigger and better! If you can’t do it, maybe you’re not that great after all!” Luke says they were waiting for a sign.

Jesus tells these people very plainly that they will not be given any sign, except that which has already been given them. The “Sign of Jonah” Maybe you are like me and that phrase really doesn’t do much for you. What is the “sign of Jonah”? Some of us want to jump to Matthew’s gospel here. There a comparison is made between Jonah’s three days in the belly of the great fish and Jesus’ three days in the grave. The idea being: the Ninevites saw that miracle. You will see a greater miracle when Jesus comes out of the grave. They believed because of that sign, and so should you!

But Luke doesn’t mention those three days in his gospel. I believe Luke wants us to see something else about Jesus’ ministry. One of the most spectacular things about Jesus has nothing to do with raising someone from the dead, even if it is His own body! One of the most spectacular things about Jesus’ ministry is His message! I believe the “sign of Jonah” Jesus’ is referring to here in Luke’s gospel is the content of His preaching.

Look down at verse 32 if you are unconvinced. Why did the Ninevites repent? What was so amazing? What was the “sign” Jonah gave to them? “For they repented at the preaching of Jonah.” Jonah spoke to the Ninevites, and they believed. Solomon spoke to the Queen of the South, and she believed. Now someone greater than either Jonah or Solomon speaks to the people of Israel, but for them this is not good enough. Jesus’ point here is this: Even the pagans heard the wisdom from God and believed, but now my own people want something more.

Why is it so often the case that those farthest from God see & are amazed and for some reason those of us who spend our entire lives basking in the love of the Father demand something bigger & better?

You and I live in a world where people are not easily impressed. If you don’t believe me, do something for me this afternoon. Go dig in the box in your closet and pull out your old music. For some of you, that box will be filled with: CDs, Tapes. Others of you: records, 8 Tracks. Take out that big box, and then take your children and grandchildren, and “force” them to listen. I say “force,” because that is exactly what many of you will be doing! The generation today is not impressed by records or 8 tracks. They have iTunes! Music today is not simply vocals and instruments. It’s computerized & synthesized, it’s bigger and louder and some would say, better!

If you don’t like the music analogy, compare your teenage entertainment to the teenage entertainment for today. I grew up in the “Nintendo age.” Not Xbox, Xbox 1, but Nintendo. The first Super Mario Brothers. Duck Hunt with the little plastic gun. Just before me was the “Atari age”. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Q-bert. Compare those games to the games our teenagers play today. The games today look like TV or even real life! The graphics are unbelievable! Some of you say, “None of that makes sense to me. We didn’t have video games at all when I was younger.” Well, doesn’t that prove my point even more? Our world is rapidly changing. Things that were “impressive” a generation ago are not impressive today! The big is getting bigger! The spectacular is becoming more spectacular! We live in an age where people are not easily impressed!

And most of you can see where I’m going with this, these same patterns have carried over into the church.

For some of us, the simple message of God is not enough anymore unless it is wrapped in a golden ribbon and delivered to our doorstep. Our consumer-driven world has led to consumer-driven churches. I saw once an advertisement that a church on Easter Sunday would drop 10,000 Easter eggs from a helicopter! There is a church in Lubbock that used to advertise itself on the radio. They could say anything they wanted about themselves in 30 seconds. They chose to let people know you could wear jeans on Sunday! We live in the “me-culture,” and sometimes, church is no exception.

Have you ever noticed the pattern? This congregation gets a new preacher, people flock. This congregation gets a new worship leader, people flock. This congregation gets a new program, people flock. But wait a minute, this congregation has a glitzier worship, people flock. This congregation is just using songbooks!  People leave. This congregation doesn’t have a dynamic children’s worship! People leave. This congregation doesn’t have the bells and whistles to my liking!  People leave.

I have to admit, sometimes I look around at us, and I ask the question: “What is it that we are waiting for?” Are we waiting for the “perfect” congregation? Where everyone is perfect? Where every last one of your needs is met, regardless of how anyone else feels? Where evangelism takes place naturally? Where new members flock to your doors? Where everyone is happy & no one ever fights! Are we waiting for God to come down from heaven to confirm our actions?

Perhaps on one Sunday, Jesus will just appear. He’ll say, “You’re doing it right here! I know no one else gets it, but you do!” Are we, like those ancient people of Israel waiting for some sign from heaven that what we do here is really from God?

Church, let me be honest. There is nothing wrong with staying with the times. I think this screen is great. I think our youth ministry should try to seek ways to make God relevant for this generation. I think our children’s ministry should try to incorporate technology and media into their lessons. We’ve always done this! Songbooks were a novelty at one time—cutting edge technology! At one time four-part harmony was unheard of—people sang in unison chants. There’s nothing wrong with staying with the times, BUT let us not ever allow the message of Christ to get lost in our desire for bigger & better.

A congregation’s ability or desire to meet your personal needs is only secondary to preaching and teaching the message of Jesus Christ. If we ever let these secondary items dictate our personal allegiance to God. If we ever allow these secondary items to dictate our allegiance to this family. Let us repent now, because, we are no better than those people of Israel. Who saw Jesus do so many mighty things. Who heard the pure message of the Father. And who still demanded something bigger and better.

Jesus said that those who look for a sign are a wicked generation. Church, in a world that hunts for the bigger and better, let us be the harbingers of God. Let us be the ones who stand up in this wicked generation and hold up the pure, unadulterated message of Jesus Christ. That message is simple. God loved us so much that He refused to leave us in squalor. He loved us so much that He came to redeem us. From the struggles of this life. Even from the defeat of death. Our world is amazed by the spectacular, yet right before our very eyes is the greatest, most spectacular and life-changing story ever told!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Honoring Our Fathers

What must it have been like in those days after the Exodus? Or, what about the night of the Exodus? Children, have you ever heard this story about the Exodus and wondered what it must have been like to have been a child getting ready to leave Egypt? Young Zacharias was only 8 years old when the Exodus took place. Everything he knew was Egyptian. He ate Egyptian food. He slept in an Egyptian bed. Even though he was only 8 years old, he worked all day in the hot, Egyptian sun. He was so young, he didn’t really understand all of the things that were happening around him. But the last few days, according to anyone’s estimation, were wild!

Kids, how many of you like frogs? Well, young Zacharias saw more frogs than anyone could possibly imagine! That may sound fun to some of you, but there frogs EVERYWHERE! In the beds. In the kitchen. On their dinner plates!

And then one afternoon, there was a hail storm. Some of you may have seen a hail storm. Most of the hail we see is only about the size of a dime. But imagine hail as big as a softball,  or a basketball!
Zacharias remembered seeing all of these things, and then one night it happened. His mom and dad ran into his room and got him and his brothers and sisters dressed really quickly! They said, “Don’t ask questions...we don’t have time!” Before he knew it, he was out of the house and headed for the desert! Has your mom or dad every woken you up early in the morning to go on a long trip?

Well, that’s what Zacharias’ parents did on the night of the great Exodus. He went to bed a slave. He woke up a member of a mighty and privileged nation! He knew he was privileged, because of what he saw the morning after the great Exodus. The people of Egypt were not too happy about losing all of their slaves. So, they sent their army after Zacharias and his entire family. And that army chased them into the desert, right to the edge of a huge sea. There was nowhere to go!

They couldn’t go back because of the army. They couldn’t go forward because of the water. Zacharias thought he was going to die! But all of the sudden, the water just in front of his feet began to move away from him. And he realized that the water wasn’t just moving away from him in one direction. It was moving away from him on this side and that side. In fact, that water split right down the middle. Zacharias and all of his family walked right across that sea on dry ground! Dry ground! No mud at all!

That was the day Zacharias learned about God. That was the day Zacharias realized that he had someone watching over him. That was the day Zacharias, for the very first time, realized that God was more powerful than anything else.  Well, eight-year-old Zacharias grew up and became a man. But he never forgot that day. A day did not go by when he failed to remember the frogs or the hail or the dry (non-muddy) ground. And when he had children of his own, he told them the story too. Every time he told that story, he said the same thing to his children. “Sons and daughters, this happened not only to me. This happened also to you.” Church, this is our story as well.

READ EXODUS 12:31-42 (CEB)

What a night that must have been! I am particularly struck by the last sentence of this text.
Because the LORD kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt, on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil to honor the LORD for the generations to come.
The reason I am struck by this sentence is that it seems so counterintuitive to the way in which we live our lives. We all have defining stories. As Americans, we have those defining moments in our history, like the American Revolution. As the people of God, we have those defining moments in our history, like the Exodus or the Resurrection. And because we come to a place like this on a weekly basis, we are (in a sense) forced to recall those parts of our story together. But other than those communal remembrances, our society does not do a great job of remembering our past. Or, more specifically, we do not do a great job of remembering those who came before us.

Certainly, the story I told a few moments ago about Zacharias was a fictional one…but only to a point. The text tells us that there were thousands of people who left Egypt. It tells us that those people were commanded to relive those moments on an annual basis. So, every year, when the family gathered at Passover, they would hear the story again. I imagine that Zacharias’ great-grandchildren included the part about their great-grandfather crossing the Red Sea. The people we read about in this book had a way of honoring and celebrating those who came before them.

There are still some civilizations even today that do a good job of honoring those who came before them. Many Oriental cultures show great reverence for grandmothers and grandfathers. In those cultures, when a meal is served, they go about it quite differently than many Americans do. You know what I’m talking about. When the potluck starts here, the children rush to the front of the line. The parents of small children rush to the front to fill the plates for their small children. When you visit the house of a friend in our culture, the children are often served first.

Not so in the East. In China and Japan and Korea, they do things in the opposite way. Children are always served last. The great-grandmother and great-grandfather, they move to the front of the line. There are many things I love about our American, Western culture. But the way in which we fail to revere those who deserve the most honor saddens me. And one of the places where we see this failure is, sadly, in the God’s church.

The fact is, we have many older Christians today in God’s church that feel ignored, unwanted, or forgotten. Now, before you go too far down that road, I need to tell you—this is not a discussion about worship. I know that different generations in God’s church have different preferences in worship. That has always been the case. I imagine that will always be the case.

What I’m talking about is this. There are many people in this room that have spent their lives in God’s church. Some of you helped build this building. Some of you helped establish the Christian Homes and Family Services. Some of you were around with PATH started. To put it plainly, there are many people in this room who have looked after God’s church much longer than I have. I wish we would do a better job of honouring you. Of remembering what you’ve done through the power of God’s Spirit for generations. Of celebrating the ways in which you’ve allowed God to use you for God’s kingdom work.

Today is Father’s Day. A day when we as a culture honor our fathers. A great day. I’m partial to a day like this! But should we not also honor our spiritual Fathers and Mothers? I want to say this morning. Thank you for being a steward of God’s family for so long. Just as young Zacharias’s children and grandchildren told the story of the way he was a part of God’s great Exodus. I pray that your story will be told and retold inside and outside of these walls. My prayer is that we would all be as faithful as you have been.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Who Is My Neighbor?

I apologize to certain ones of you up front for what I am about to say. A physician, an engineer, and an attorney were discussing whose profession was the oldest. The physician said, “Remember, on the sixth day God took a rib from Adam and fashioned Eve, making him the first surgeon. Therefore, medicine is the oldest profession.” The engineer replied, “But, before that, God created the heavens and earth from chaos and confusion, and thus he was the first engineer. Therefore, engineering is an older profession than medicine.” Then, the lawyer spoke up. “Yes,” he said. “But who do you think created all of the chaos and confusion?” Like I said, I apologize to our legal scholars in the room. Lawyers have always been on the wrong side of a good joke. I admit, there are some wonderful lawyers in this world—too many to count. But there are also some who, reality seems so simple. But some lawyers have a knack for making things more difficult than they really are.

Jesus met one of those lawyers one time…

READ LUKE 10:25-28 (CEB)

I want to stop right here before we get into the parable. This section of Luke’s gospel is very familiar to most of us, but for some reason, we often skip this prelude in order to get to the story of the Good Samaritan sooner. But these four verses contain some interesting information! The first thing to realize about this conversation between Jesus and this lawyer is that this question to Jesus is not unique. In fact, in just a few chapters a rich young ruler is going to ask Jesus this same question.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is not a new question to our heritage is it? We usually turn to Acts 2:38 for our answer, but realize we were not the first to ask this question! First, a lawyer asked it. Then, a rich young ruler asked it. But what I wonder is why these two men asked the question at all. You see, according to Jewish thought, there was no “eternal life” in heaven. When the good die, they go to Sheol—the place of the dead. When the bad die, they also go to Sheol. For most of their history, Jewish people had no concept of reward and punishment in the afterlife. But shortly before the time of Jesus, they began to develop a new thought. If we were to turn over to Daniel 12, we’d see that there is a curious passage there. Especially if you were an Exilic Jew!
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. -Daniel 12:2
When we read these words, they roll off the tongue, nothing new here! But to those ancient Israelites, these words posed some serious problems. What do you mean “everlasting life?” What is it? Who gets it? This passage in Daniel caused several generations to stay up late at night. No one really understood it. So, people took various positions on it. Two different schools of thought were formed around two different positions. This group said “You’re wrong." That group said, “No, you’re wrong.” This group said, “Well then, I’m just going to start a new church.” Well, maybe not. But you get the picture!

This was a hot topic by the time Jesus arrived on the scene! And there is a good chance that this lawyer had this passage in mind when he asked Jesus that question. He wanted to know where the new, young, popular rabbi stood on “the” big issue! So, Jesus utilized a great teaching technique. He answered his question with another question. The lawyer wanted Jesus to choose sides, but Jesus refused. He pointed this man back to the basics, “What does the law say?” This question really had nothing to do with this ancient debate at all. This man wanted to hear about Sheol. He wanted to hear about everlasting life and eternal torment. But Jesus refused to engage that debate and simply pointed him back to the basics. The basics that this man, as well as every other person in the crowd, knew like the back of their hand. This first part; “Love the Lord with all your heart.” The Shema. Recited twice every day by faithful Jews. The second part was a significant aspect of the Jewish holiness code.

Do you see what is happening here? This lawyer wants a debate! Where do you stand? Which side do you support? But all Jesus would do was talk about loving God and the other! Don’t you just hate it when that happens? You’re ready for a fight. But all that person across from you wants to do is talk about loving God and the other!

Well, the lawyer couldn’t trap Jesus with the first question, so he tries another one. “Well then, Jesus, who is my neighbor?” To a Jew this question was simple, your neighbor is your fellow Jew! That’s what Leviticus 19 means; go read it! Moses didn’t call these people to love Moabites and Philistines. He called them to love their neighbor, their fellow Jews. But this lawyer was no idiot. He’d watched Jesus’ ministry thus far. He knew Jesus had been associating with people outside the tribe! In samaritan villages talking about “loving enemies." I believe this man asked the second question thinking: Well, the first one didn’t get him into trouble. But he’ll never get out of this one! But little did he know…

READ LUKE 10:29-37 (CEB)

What this lawyer meant as a trap proved to be a defining moment in Jesus’ ministry. “Who is my neighbor?” Well, everyone there that day thought they knew the answer to that one. But, once again, Jesus went down the other path! We’ve all heard this sermon before, haven’t we? I dread preaching sermons on texts like this that are so common. I think we became desensitized to the revolutionary quality of the text sometimes. Jesus’ main point here is that we need to quit thinking in terms of who is in and who is out. Our neighbors are not defined by race, gender, or belief. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from, you just love them!

With this parable, Jesus redefines the “neighbor” of the Jewish holiness code. And this no doubt caused some heads to turn. The idea that a Samaritan was the good guy! That was impossible. The Jewish people were an exclusivistic people with an exclusivistic religion. Make no mistake. It was important for them to know who was in and who was out! It was very important for them to understand who was a neighbor and who was not. I hope I don’t have to point out the obvious. Church, we have often been guilty of this same thing. Only we don’t use the term “neighbor” much anymore.

We are more concerned with brothers and sisters now, aren’t we? “Who is my brother? Who is my sister?” I wonder how Jesus would answer that question, which seems to have plagued many of our churches over the years. I have a sneaking suspicion I know exactly how Jesus would answer that question. I really don’t want to dwell long on this point, but I will say this. Church, we must stop using the terms “brother” or “sister” as exclusivistic terms delineating who we will and will not stop along the road side to pick up.  God didn’t draw those boundaries, and neither should we!

What I want us to concentrate on with this text this morning is Jesus’ final words in each response. The lawyer asks two separate questions here: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus finally answers both questions the same way, “Go and do.” I believe there are so many messages for us in this text, but I finally had to choose one and this is it: I think we, as the people of God in America today, have a tendency to get so busy asking the questions that we forget to “Go and Do.”

This lawyer was so concerned first with having the right questions & then with providing the right answers. Don’t you get it? He was so concerned with what to think. He wanted to make sure Jesus was right in His thinking. Before long, you realize that religion to this man had simply become an intellectual enterprise. God is something you think about. Religion is something you try to figure out. Religion is only about belief. Religion is about thought, not action. You can almost hear the frustration of Jesus in this text when after each question, His admonition is clear: “Just go and do something!”

I believe Jesus might say the same thing to us today. Glenwood, let’s “Go and Do.” Let us not be like so many Christians of this age who are content to sit back and simply ask questions.

  • “Who is in?”
  • “Who is out?”
  • “What is off limits?”
  • “Who can we fellowship with?”
  • “Who can we not fellowship with?”
  • “What exactly does this particular word mean in the text?”
Maybe it’s time we start talking a little less and doing a little more.

You know, I can’t help but think Jesus had something else in mind when this lawyer asked the question about eternal life. Throughout His ministry, Jesus not only refers to life in the blue yonder as “eternal life.” He also suggests that eternal life takes place today. You and I have the ability to live the good life, eternal life, today. By helping our neighbors.  By praising God. By enjoying community with each other. Maybe our fascination with this age-old question really does have a simple answer.

How do we inherit eternal life? We could start by putting on our sandals. Following in the footsteps of Jesus. Going & doing. And finally, prayer.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Living on Fertile Ground

I did not grow up in the country. My family moved around a lot as I grew up. 13 different places before I graduated high school. But rarely did I live in the “country.”
  • Little Rock
  • New Orleans
  • Albuquerque
  • Atlanta
I spent more times in cities than in small towns. So, Stamford, TX shocked my system! There is a road that runs from Stamford to Abilene. I travelled that road a lot when I was in school at ACU. It is only about a 30-minute-drive, FM 600. One thing I learned is that cows always have the right away on FM 600. A few months after we arrived, I was driving, and a cow was sitting in the middle of that road. Either he or I was going to have to change our course. It didn’t take long to realize, he wasn’t going anywhere! I had to stop, redirect my car, and move on. After I left, he was still sitting in the middle of the road. For all I know, that cow is still sitting there!

I also had to get used to seeing those massive farming machines. I used to wonder how it would be physically possible to till so much land! But then I saw those massive machines! When the arms spread out, those machines can till an enormous amount of land. Technology has made the farmer’s job much easier! But, they haven’t always had these massive machines. I doubt anyone in this room ever had the pleasure of sowing an entire field with their bare hands. But there was a time when that was how it was done. Here is why I bring this up.

Jesus had a fascinating teaching technique. He expressed some of the most important doctrines of God by telling stories. But not just any stories. Stories that the people could relate to! For instance, these people who Jesus spoke to sowed entire fields with their bare hands. They knew something must of us don’t know. When you sow a field with seed, some seed doesn’t grow. There was little they could do about it. It frustrated them. But they had never thought about that problem theologically! But Jesus took this simple, commonplace frustration and turned it into a story about evangelism. And those same people who came to hear Jesus speak that day. The farmers who had sowed hundreds of miles in their lifetimes. I bet they never were able to sow another field without thinking of Jesus’ words.

READ LUKE 8:4-15 (CEB)

I wish so much that we could hear again for the first time. Many of us, however, have heard this story so many times, our minds immediately jump to Jesus’ interpretation. But remember, only the disciples heard the interpretation. The disciples left with life-changing instruction. The crowd left with a mundane, ordinary story about farming. Nothing new. They already knew everything Jesus said. And some of these people were probably wondering why a Jewish rabbi was discussing farming! But those who had ears to hear. The ones who stopped long enough to ask Jesus. Those people left Jesus’ presence with something new.

I wish we could return once again to that day. Because I would be interested in seeing which ones of us would stick around and ask the follow-up question. No doubt, some of us would. Others of us would simply walk away unchanged. One thing you must understand about these stories, or “parables.” The power to change is often not found in the parable itself. But instead in the heart of the hearer. Some people are ready to hear and be changed. Others are so unprepared that when it finally arrives, they miss it completely!

This first parable of Jesus in Luke’s gospel is unique because Jesus uses it to discuss how parables work. He used parables to communicate most of what He had to say while He was on this planet. So, at the outset, he had to explain how they worked. Here is what Jesus has to say from the beginning: A person must be ready to hear a parable. They must come into the presence of God with open minds. Sincere hearts. Ready to learn. Ready to be changed! But in reality, not everyone is like that!

Some people who come into the presence of God could be compared to a seed that falls along the path. Jesus says this person: Hears the word, but the devil comes and snatches the word from their hearts. They never believe. In Jesus’ setting, this group is represented by the large crowd. They heard the words. They were in the crowd with Jesus. But they left Jesus with nothing more than a story about farming. They didn’t ask the follow-up question. They didn’t “have ears to hear.”

What this group is really guilty of is not changing, not wanting to change! There are some folks who simply do not want to change. They are content to just hear the story and move on. Guess what happens when you refuse to change? You become stagnant.

The story is told of a man who eagerly anticipated his 44-year high school reunion. For months he saved to take his wife back to the place and the people he'd left four decades before. The closer the time came for the reunion, the more excited he became. One night before he left he even pulled out his old yearbooks. Read the silly statements and the good wishes for the future that students write to each other. He even tried to guess what some of his friends would look like. What kind of jobs and families some of these special friends had. What had they made of their lives? Following this reunion, this was his assessment: “It was one of the saddest experiences of my life. It wasn't what happened but what didn't happen. It has been forty years, forty years, and they haven't changed. They had simply gained weight, changed clothes, gotten jobs, but they hadn't really changed. For reasons I can't fully understand, it seems as though some people choose not to change.”

It is a sad thing when people refuse to grow, especially in our faith. But before your faith can grow, you have to come to Jesus ready to be changed. You cannot be content to stay just the way you are.

Other people who come into the presence of God could be compared to the seed that falls on the rocks. Jesus describes this type of person as one who receives the word with joy when they hear it. But they have not rooted. They believe. But when tests arise, they fall away. This type of person has no foundation, much like the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy. Surely all of us have seen pictures of this 810-year-old landmark.

If you didn’t know before, know now. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is going to fall. Scientists travel yearly to measure the building's slow descent. They report that the 179-foot tower moves about one-twentieth of an inch a year. Presently, it is about 17 feet out of plumb. Quite significantly, the word "pisa" means "marshy land," which gives some clue as to why the tower began to lean even before it was completed. Also, its foundation is only 10 feet deep!

Sadly, some of us enter the presence of Jesus with this kind of shallow foundation. We are so excited at first. We even go beyond the stagnant group, and we change! But it doesn’t last long.

Church, there are many foundation-less Christians today. One way we see this is when we make “happiness” our idol. Christianity is not all about happiness. Some of us have been duped into thinking that as long as we are happy, our relationship with God is strong. That works great when life is free of anxiety. But what happens when difficult times arise? And they will! Your relationship with God should be deeper than your emotions. If your measurement of your spiritual depth is contingent upon your happiness. I’m afraid you are in for a rough ride.

An extremely important step in moving out of this category is building a strong foundation. Leaning into God’s Spirit. Spending time alone with God, allowing yourself to be challenged and changed. Spending time in God’s Word. Nurturing your relationships in a spiritual community.

Here is the truth: Without a foundation, you will fall down when the slightest hint of trouble arrives. Still, some people who come into the presence of God could be compared to the seed that falls among thorns. Jesus describes this type of person as one who hears the word. But as they go through life, they are choked by worries, riches, and pleasures. Consequently, they never mature.

Have you ever met someone who is just debilitated by fear or anxiety? They are always afraid of what’s just around the corner. They are constantly worried they will not have enough. They always think someone is out to get them. Or, they always feel like people around them have some “hidden” motive.

Let me be clear. Some folks do suffer from real, serious mental conditions that lead to anxiety. But there are others who, without any mental problem, are always worried and afraid and suspicious. I am not suggesting we go through life sugar-coating our problems away. But there is a difference in enduring life’s problems. And living in a constant state of catastrophe! The root problem of this kind of person—they lack faith in God. We talk a big game, but we rarely have faith that God is bigger than the troubles of this world. So, when life gets tough; we get angry. Or, afraid. Or, we might even leave. Jesus says some people like that.

But, some seed fell on good soil. Some people hear the word and produce a good crop. It’s possible to hear this story and get discouraged. Maybe you find yourself in one of the first three categories. Maybe you wouldn’t have heard Jesus’ words that day…

A few years ago, archaeologists began excavating the courtyard of a medieval monastery. They found seeds that had been dormant for more than 400 years! King Henry VIII had closed the monastery in 1539. Those seeds had been there ever since, left unattended. But something interesting happened when those archaeologist began to disturb the dirt around them, they sprouted to life.

Growth can begin again in your life. You may just need someone or something to “disturb the earth” around you. Moving you out of your comfort zone. Helping you come clean about the sin in your life. Maybe it is time for you to enter into a time of confession and repentance! Sometimes that is the only thing keeping God’s seed from taking root and growing in our lives.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mother's Day 2018

Mary Bellus is the Senior Marketing Designer at the Aspen Group. She is married to her husband, Dan. They live in a suburb of Chicago. She is a Christian woman. She is not a mother. She writes:
My husband, Dan, and I have been married for about 13 years. A little over five years ago we moved into a very family-friendly neighborhood, complete with kids, dogs, parks, and even a jungle gym right in our backyard. We couldn't help but see that weather-beaten swing set as a sign of a family to come. But after a couple years of trying, nothing happened. So we kicked it up a notch with charting, temperature taking, and ovulation tests. Still nothing. After years of praying, stressing, and pure frustration, we've felt that we were hearing a clear "no." During this struggle, we haven't been to church at all on Mother's Day. When I look back to past Mother's Days when I did attend, I've been so disenchanted with the way the services have been handled. There always seemed to be an over the top celebration, with flowers and prizes and even brunch, that left me thinking, "Wow, this is IT. This is the pinnacle of a woman's success." Of course, I didn't really believe that, but it was hard not to wonder if that's what the church was thinking or trying to convey.
I'm starting to realize and trying to accept that motherhood is never going to happen for me. I've had such hope in the past that "something will happen," but I'm trying to come to a place of acceptance. But it's still hard. Every day I see countless baby announcements, sonograms, and newborn pictures on social media, and I try to smile and see the joy in a new, precious life (and I do). But right now, there are certain things that are too difficult for me, and going to church on Mother's Day is one of them.
That is how Margot Starbuck, author of Not Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God, puts it. After preaching nearly 20 Mother’s Day sermons now, I tend to agree. Those who had wonderful mothers: Women who are mothers and who love motherhood, they love today! Rightly so! They want to celebrate. They want to honor their mothers. They want to be honored as mothers! But, church, Mother’s Day is…tricky.

There are many women in churches today across our nation who do not get to wear a red rose on their lapels or stand to be recognized. Some women would love to be moms…but aren’t. Some women are unable to conceive. Some women have had abortions. Some women never married. Some moms are “invisible.” Some adoptive moms may offer prayers for the women they never met this morning. The women who gave birth to their children. There are also mothers in our pews who were shuttled away to homes for unwed mothers in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. They gave birth and returned home with empty arms. They were assured they would forget and move on, but these mothers never forgot. When mothers are asked to stand today, the child they’ll be thinking of, as their pew neighbors are clapping, will be the ones they never held.

Many women will stay home today because Mother’s Day—not matter how well we try to handle it in worship is…tricky. So, what should the church do on Mother’s Day? I think the most important thing we should do is be real. We should acknowledge the messiness of life on this planet. We should acknowledge that families, too, are messy! As much as we’d like to gloss over that messiness on Mother’s Day, or, on Father’s Day. I think the Gospel calls us to resist that temptation. The Gospel is the story of a God who came here to be near us because life on this planet is messy. The Gospel is the story of a God who came here to redeem us because there is no such thing as a perfect family. Praise God, the Bible does not gloss over those imperfections.

Consider Motherhood in the Bible. In Genesis 16-17, we find the troubling story of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar. Abram (who became Abraham) was married to Sarai (who became Sarah), but she could not have children. So, Sarai gave her husband permission to sleep with her slave girl, Hagar. Hagar bore Abram a son, who was named Ishmael. Now, does Genesis 16:4-5 surprise anyone?
He [Abram] slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. But when she realized that she was pregnant, she no longer respected her mistress. Sarai said to Abram, “This harassment is your fault! I allowed you to embrace my servant, but when she realized she was pregnant, I lost her respect. Let the LORD decide who is right, you or me.” -Genesis 16:4-5, CEB
Mother’s Day was invented until 1914, when Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. But suppose Mother’s Day existed in the days of Abram and Sarai and Hagar. Imagine what that Sunday morning would have looked like! But the familial dysfunction does not stop there. Two more women from this same family, Rebekah and Rachel, were also unable to have children initially. Once again, other women were brought into the picture to “make things right.” But in the end, they were not made right. They were only made more complicated and messy.

Another woman, Jochebed, was the mother of Moses. Interestingly, we do not even learn her name in the narrative! Her name appears twice in the Bible—both in a long genealogical list. For all that happened to her, the story doesn’t even mention her name! She gives birth to Moses, but quickly has to give him up. Pharaoh issued an edict to kill all male Hebrew children. She puts him in a basket, and places that basket in the river. Pharaoh’s daughter finds that basket and raises Moses as her own son. Jochebed was brought in to nurse Moses. Everyone around her thought she and this baby were perfect strangers to one another. Only she knew she was holding her son! What must that have been like day after day after day? Finally, when she had to leave him for the last time? You know, this was not the picture of a perfect mother/child relationship.

Hannah had a child named Samuel. It also had taken her many years to become pregnant. In desperation, she prayed to God. “If you will give me a son, I will give him back to you.” She had a son, and she gave him back. We tend to gloss over this story and move on to Samuel’s great legacy as Israel’s judge and priest. Like so many other times, the mother in this story is forgotten. The Bible tells us that as soon as Samuel was weened, he went to live with Eli the priest in Shiloh. What must life have been like for Hannah? Having to turn over her young son to live with a stranger. Seeing him only during the time of festival when she and her family traveled to Shiloh. If Mother’s Day had existed when Hannah was alive, I wonder what that Sunday would have been like for her.

We could go on and on. We haven’t even mentioned: Samson’s mother, who had to watch her child make mistake after mistake. Or, Naomi, who had to watch both of her sons die at a young age. Or Mary, the mother of Jesus! She became an unwed pregnant teenager. She also had to watch her own son die.

The Bible is clear: family dysfunction is normal. At least, it is normal in our fallen world. That is certainly not the way God intended for this to work.

In the beginning, God created a world where two individuals—male and female—would join together as husband and wife. In God’s design, those two would produce wonderful, obedient, healthy children. In God’s design, those families would stay together forever. But that is not the world we live in. I am thankful that the Bible bears witness to our fallenness.

God reveals to us, through the Bible, this truth: “I know life is not perfect. I know life is messy. I know family is difficult!” Thank you, God, for not painting this picture of perfection on the pages of the Bible! If that were the case, we would spend our lives wondering to ourselves: “Why is my family so different? Why can’t my family be like the ones God talks about in Scripture?” No, God was honest with us about fallenness. Because God blessed us with a picture of reality in the Bible. There is no reason for us sugarcoat the truth here on Mother’s Day.

So, there are many different experiences of women in the room this morning, and I’d like for you all to hear the good news from Jesus. Emily Pastor is a wife, mother, and disciple of Jesus. She recently was asked the question: “What do you need to hear in church on Mother’s Day? What would be a blessing to you?” Here is how she responded to that question:
I need to hear that my role as a mom to young children is hard, valuable, kingdom work. Remind me that my unseen sacrifices and struggles are seen and valued by the Lord. I often feel undervalued, misunderstood and looked over by a culture that applauds outward and visible contributions to society. So much of my work as a mother is hidden away in the unseen moments of grace with my children. As I bend over with my tremendously pregnant body to pick up the thousandth crayon, I receive no applause. When I respond patiently toward a tantrum throwing toddler, no one says "Way to keep your cool!" I sacrifice and struggle because of love, and loving others is kingdom work.
To Emily (and the many like her), some in this room. I want you to hear: You are seen. Your work is valued. In many ways your work as a mother is an act of worship to God. You are helping to form and mold your children more into the image of God with your gifts. And to borrow the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:
Your Father sees what you do in secret (when no one else is around) and He will reward you. -Matthew 6:4, CEB
To those who are not mothers, but who would like to be. I do not have words to say that will make your pain go away. The fallenness of the world manifests itself in all sorts of ways, and many of those ways are incredibly painful. But I want you to know that a woman’s worth is not wrapped up in being a mother or not being a mother. You are loved because you are God’s child. You were made in the image of God! God loves you just the way you are. God can use you just the way you are.

To those who had horrible experiences from their mother. Again, no words to take your pain away. But you do not have to let that painful past dictate your future. In fact, you may be able to use that pain to bless someone else. Though it may seem like it sometimes, you are not alone. There are others who have experienced the pain (and ironically) the shame that sometimes comes to us from an abusive parent. Perhaps God can use your experience to help someone else pick up the pieces of her life. There are some things you can offer that someone like me—who did not grow up in an abusive environment—can never offer.

I pray on this Mother’s Day (more than anything else) that God will bring you peace. I pray also that God will make you an instrument to bring peace to others who share parts of your story. God created families. When families work as they were designed to work, they are beautiful things—pictures of God’s nature in fact. But we live in a fallen world.

That is where the church comes in. We are a church that has as its mission to graciously help a fallen world stand up again. “Mothers” are not the only members of our families that are sometimes broken. So are fathers and children. Throughout the New Testament, the church is often referred to as the “family of God.” Hills Church of Christ in Nashville puts that metaphor on their sign: Woodmont Hills Family of God, a Church of Christ.

Two of the best moms I know of are here in this room—my mom and my wife. But both of them would tell you how glad they are that they did not have to raise their children alone. I had many spiritual mothers in my life. My children have many spiritual mothers in their lives.

  • Kim Hodges
  • Celeste Smith
  • Jacqueline Goode
Church, Mother’s Day is like any other day in the Kingdom of God. We are thankful for the blessings we have. We long for the day when those blessings will be made complete.