What's God to Do? Become Personal

Posted 2/25/2018

Scripture: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

During Lent we are looking at covenants God made in the Old Testament. We are tracing God’s relationship with humanity in this way. As we looked at the covenant story of Noah last week we saw how God promised that grace, not judgment, would be the last word. In this promise we see the beginnings of the gospel — the good news of God’s grace given to us.

Yet the covenant with Noah is, in truth, “vague.” Yes, God promises grace. Yet how is God’s grace shown? Where will/do we see God’s grace? As we continue to trace the covenants God has made over the remaining weeks of Lent we will see how God “fills out” this first promise — the promise of grace.

This week we once again come into a story that started long before the passage we are reading. When Abraham was 75 years old (some 24 years ago), God has told him to move to a land God would show him. And Abraham did. Throughout the following 24 years God continued to guide Abraham and speak to him. In this relationship we see something beginning as God chooses Abraham. We see God’s grace starting to “become personal” as God develops a unique relationship with Abraham. 

Our passage for today harks back to the fact that from the beginning of this relationship God promised Abraham descendants. Yet throughout all these years Abraham and Sarah remained childless. Now, in this passage as God renews the promise of a son, God does something more. God makes a covenant “to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” In other words, God not only chooses to be in a relationship with Abraham, he chooses to be in a relationship with all Abraham’s family — forever.

Prior to this covenant, God has been gracious to humanity. As Jesus would note in Matthew 5:45, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Christians sometimes call this goodness of God extended to all creation “general providence,” because it is the care and provision — the grace — God extends to all creation and all humanity.

Prior to this covenant we are also told about certain people who had a close relationship with God — a relationship that is described as “walking with God” or “calling upon God.” These individuals are oriented to God in a way that the world around them is not. 

In this covenant with Abraham, however, God chooses to relate in a very specific way with certain people — Abraham and his descendants. And that specific way is a very personal way. God promises to relate to them as their God. This is sometimes called “special providence”. 

In this kind of providence we see God choosing a people with whom he will have a special relationship. In the earlier descriptions of those who were oriented to God in a way that the world around them wasn’t it is implied that they are the ones who choose to worship God. Here, however, it is not Abraham who chooses God, but God who chooses Abraham. It is not Abraham who chooses God to be his God; but God who chooses to be Abraham’s God. The relationship is one God, not Abraham, establishes.

Furthermore, unlike these earlier descriptions of individuals who are oriented toward God, God establishes this relationship not just with Abraham, but also with ALL his descendants. Here we see the real wonder of God’s choosing to be personal: God’s choice is not based on what those He chooses do. As we continue through the Old Testament we discover that while some of Abraham’s descendants were faithful to God, many were not. What counts in this relationship, above everything else, is simply that God has chosen them.

Prior to this story, God has been in a relationship with individuals who have chosen to “walk with God.” Here however, God chooses not just an individual — Abraham — but a people — Israel — and promises to be in the unique relationship of being their God. Of claiming them as His own — no matter what they do or don’t do. 

As Christians we see this covenant worked out in our own lives. As Paul says, all who are in Christ are “children of Abraham.” God has chosen to be in a personal relationship with us. A personal relationship that is uniquely defined by our relationship to Jesus Christ, but also by our relationship with one another. To be a Christian is to enter into a family — God’s family. It is to become part of God’s people. 

The good news of God’s grace is that God chooses to become personal. Yet in that choice to become personal, God places us in relationship with others. God becomes not just my God, but our God. Starting with Abraham and extending to all his descendants, including you and I, God promises to be our God and promises that we will be his people. 

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What's God to Do? Become the Protector

Posted 2/18/2018

Scripture: Genesis 9:8-17

The story begins something like a year before our reading from Genesis for today. Yet it really begins much, much earlier. It begins with a world filled with peace, righteousness, right relationships and love — the perfect creation God made. But soon that perfect world is marred — changed forever — by sin. And by the time we get to Noah we are told in Genesis 6 “the wickedness of humankind was great upon the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” And God’s heart is “grieved.” And God was “sorry he had made humanity.”

What’s God to do? The world he had created has degenerated into a world of violence and sin — a world that doesn’t remotely resemble the world God created and the world God’s heart longed for. Humanity has become so twisted by sin that God grieves — his heart breaks over what is knowing what could have been. Like any parent who sees their child’s potential wasted by alcohol or drug use or any other destructive habit, God grieves. 

And then God seems to do what we would perhaps expect any god whose handiwork has gone so awry to do. God decides to “blot humanity out”…. And yet, “Noah found favor with God.” In the midst of God’s determination to destroy humankind, God’s deep grief is evident. Noah finds favor…and God’s grace is seen.

And so begins that story we all learned in Sunday School; the story of Noah and the ark and the animals. Of 40 days and nights of rain and a flood that covers the tallest mount peaks.

And eventually the flood waters recede, Noah and the animals come out of the ark… And God speaks to Noah….And God doesn’t just speak, God establishes a covenant. The first of many covenants God establishes in Scripture. It is this covenant that we have read today.

And in this covenant, the one whose heart was grieved, the one who determined to judge all humankind, promises grace beyond all we could or would dare to imagine… “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall a flood destroy the earth.” 

God’s grieved heart bears no illusions as he makes this covenant. The flood has not ended sin. Noah may be righteous, but Noah was not the only human on that ark. Noah’s entire family — his wife, his children, his children’s wives — are all there too. And we are not told they were righteous. They, it would seem, are like all the rest of humanity which God “blotted out” with the flood. 

No, this is no return to an ideal world, the world of God’s creation. Evil and violence were not washed away with the waters. In fact, just before these verses God gives to humanity for the first time the right to eat flesh, saying, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” (Gen 9:3). Not only has human violence not been removed, but God permits more “violence” as humanity is now given permission to kill and eat animals.

And yet, even if sin continues to mar God’s creation — even if the imaginations of humans hearts remains evil — in this covenant God promises that grace, not judgment, will have the final say. The promise of a future found in a few people in an ark, not the destructiveness of the flood, will define God’s relationship with humanity from now on. God covenants to show grace, even to sinful humanity.

And as a sign of that covenant, God provides the rainbow — God’s bow hung in the sky. No longer will God fire his arrows of devastating judgment at the earth, for he hangs up his bow….

But notice the strange thing Genesis says. All other signs of a covenant in Scripture are signs given to humanity that humanity might remember God’s covenant. But here we read that God says, “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember”! Here the sign is not for humanity, but for God. 

With the sign of the rainbow God’s grieved heart is reminded of the destruction he wrecked in the flood, but even more than that of the promise given of grace. God is reminded that in what for us seems to be a struggle between judgment and grace, grace will win in God’s heart. God’s grace will have the final word. 

And so God, the one who is the judge of all, the one who brought destruction on all living flesh, promises to become the protector of humanity. The one who withholds judgment. The one who offers grace. The one who is determined that the world he created and which his heart longs for willcome into existence — not by means of a purging judgment but by means of his grieving love. 

What is God to do when his good world goes totally haywire? When his good creation is filled with violence? When humanity’s thoughts turn only to evil? Unlike what we expect, God becomes the protector — the one who promises that even the worst we can do will not undo God’s plan. That God will not let evil have the final word — but not by floods or fires of judgment. No, by a covenant of loving protection. By Jesus' death on a cross. What’s God to do? What God does is become our protector against all the judgment due us.

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Facing Reality

Posted 2/14/2018

Scripture: Ps 51

Ash Wednesday — the beginning of the Lenten journey. It’s an odd day in some ways. After all, what could be odder than getting a bunch of ashes smeared on your forehead? What is stranger than going around wearing the visible symbol of a cross of ashes on your forehead? Frankly, Ash Wednesday is odd. Our world is more attuned with Mardis Gras and Fat Tuesday than with Ash Wednesday. So why in the world would anyone decide to stand out by wearing a cross of ashes on their forehead?

Maybe it’s because, at it’s heart, Ash Wednesday invites us to face reality. It invites us to face the reality, as gets said when the cross of ashes is place on us, that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. It invites us to face the reality that our lives are frail and uncertain. 

Yet the sign of the cross on our foreheads does even more than remind us of the reality of our frailty — of the inevitability of our death. For the cross of ashes is also a sign of penitence. And so, as a sign of penitence, the ashes that mark our foreheads are also the sign of the reality of our sin.

Psalm 51 makes no bones about our sin. In just the first 2 verses, our sin is described as transgression (crossing the boundary), iniquity (rebellion), and sin (a missing of the mark). The Psalmist doesn’t have a mere minor misdeed or wrongdoing in view here. No, the Psalmist has something serious in view - something that is not only completely serious but also deadly serious. Something Christians call “sin.”

And just how completely serious the Psalmist is becomes clear when in Ps 51:5 we are told, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” Surely, we protest, innocent babies aren’t sinners — they are good!

Yet if we are to heed the call of this day, we must face the reality. And the reality is it is not just King David who, seeking to cover up his sin with Bathsheba, winds up weaving a web of deceit and and treachery. We too weave our webs of deceit as we seek to hid from the truth about us — that we truly are flawed people, people who do not live up to who we would be and who we were created to be. Our sin, our brokenness, our rebellion against God is too real for anything less than an honesty that says we cannot escape our brokenness and sin on our own. 

The truth is this brokenness, rebellion and sin is the reality of all humanity, not simply adulterers and murderers. We are all caught in this tangled web. Each of us facing the truth about ourselves must admit: I am caught in this tangled web.

And it is here that the oddness of Ash Wednesday and Lent really emerges. For it is in this admission that we are caught in the tangled web of sin and cannot free ourselves that the good news if found. For having acknowledged this truth, we can open ourselves to the cleansing power of God’s steadfast love. Having acknowledged this truth we can open ourselves to God’s abundant mercy which blots out our sin. 

Yet if what we needed were limited solely to a good bath and a dose of spot remover before going through the washer, there would be no need for the season of Lent. The truth is, we need more than just a cleansing. As the Psalmist says, we need God to create a clean heart in us. We need made anew — to be created again. Just as God blew his breath into the dust in the story of creation in Genesis, we need God to blow his breath into our hearts that we might be a new creation. We need our twisted, distorted spirits to be replaced by a “new and right spirit.”

Today, with the mark of ashes, we remember who we are. Creatures created from dust. We remember that we live by the gift of God’s breath blown into our dust. We also remember that our dust is recreated by the breath of God’s Spirit moving in us, creating new hearts and right spirits. With the mark of ashes, we acknowledge the truth of who we are, of our need for God’s salvation, and of our longing to be made new. With the odd sign of a cross of ashes we begin our journey of Lent, where we seek to open our lives to the newness God gives.

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The Experience of God

Posted 2/12/2018

Scriptures: Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Although the number of people claiming to be Christian or religious has been dropping for some years, many of those same people who say they are “not religious” do say they are “spiritual.” This “spiritual but not religious” category is growing rapidly, especially among young adults. One of the things they seem to be saying in calling themselves “spiritual” is that they have a real desire for a spiritual experience, for some kind of experience of God’s presence. 

The fact is, most of us want to experience God’s presence — whether we call ourselves “religious” or “spiritual.” We want to know God’s presence. We want to feel God with us. We want to experience God.

I think the issue isn’t so much whether we want to experience God’s presence as what we expect that experience to be like. I suspect for many of those who are “spiritual” they expect the experience to be a sort of “high” — a “mountaintop experience.” Or they expect a sense of a loving presence. Or that a calm peacefulness that will pervade their life in that moment. Or that they will have a sense of a congenial support. Yet it that what Scripture says is the human experience of God?

The Psalmist certainly doesn’t seem to think of God’s presence that way. He describes God’s coming as being like a devouring fire and a mighty tempest. Those are terms that are not really descriptive of a calm peacefulness or images we would use to describe a loving presence.  The Psalmist’s images and words are jarring. He says God comes not to provide us with a comfortable feeling, but with the discomfort of discovering ourselves to be judged. 

I think the reality is, when we really experience God’s presence this really is one aspect of that experience. God is holy — righteous and good beyond all our goodness and righteousness. For us to come in front of God — to experience God’s presence — is to become aware of our own sinfulness. It is to recognize our own unrighteousness. It is to realize our own frailty and brokenness and weakness and inability to be the people we want to be — and know we should be. To come into God’s presence is the experience of being held accountable for who we actually are and what we have actually done. 

Yet if that were all there was to the Christian experience of God, there would be precious little good news — precious little gospel. The good news is that, as Christians, we know the experience of God involves more than that. It is also the experience of light — the light of Jesus. 

In Jesus we discover the one who is the “image of God.” In Jesus we discover the one who shows us God’s heart and God’s character. In Jesus we discover the one who judges us, yes, but also loves us. We discover the one who is holy beyond all measure, but also stoops down to remove our unrighteousness. In Jesus we discover the one who is the righteous judge, but also is our compassionate redeemer.

And, in Jesus we discover that the one who is compassionate redeemer is also the one who willingly undergoes rejection, suffering, death and resurrection for our sakes. How unlike our expectations of the experience of God! The one we expect to come in great power comes to us in weakness. The one we expect to be wise comes to us in the folly of a cross. The one who comes to give us life comes to die. Yet, the one who comes to die also comes to rise again.

The good news we have to share, especially with those are are “spiritual but not religious”, is that, yes, God loves us. But the God who loves us also redeems us. The God who loves us knows all about us — all our weaknesses, all our flaws, all our brokenness, all our less than the “best.” Knowing all about us, God not only still loves us, God acts to redeem us and open our lives up to a new way of living. A way that allows us to be more than we currently are. A way that enables us to be more like Jesus. God refuses to leave us as we are — if only we are willing to allow God to change our lives. 

The Psalmist is right — to experience God is to experience our own sinfulness - our own being less than we know we should be. It is to experience the uncomfortable reality of being accountable to God. But the good news of the experience of God is that the one we experience as judge is also the one who loves us beyond all measure. This is the Christian experience of God!

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God's Delight

Posted 2/5/2018

God’s Delight

Scripture: Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

Probably one of the things that has given me the most delight this past year was winning ribbons on my carvings at the county fair. Oh, I knew the one carving was good. But I’d never put any of my carvings into any kind of show where they were being judged. It felt good to know that not only was my carving good for my level of carving experience; but also that it was REALLY good, even when compared with those of others some of whom I am sure have been carving much longer than I have. I was delighted when I saw that “best in show” ribbon on my one carving — and I still delight every time I see the ribbon.

Delight. We can take delight in many things. We delight in the accomplishments of our children and grandchildren. We delight in a lovely picture or a beautiful piece of music. We delight in a magnificent sunset or the power of waves crashing on the shore. We delight in a wide variety of things.

Yet all those things tend to have something in common, especially if they are not simply a part of nature. They all reflect in one way or another human capability and power. We seldom, if ever, delight in signs of our weakness.

The reality is we seek power, we want power, we delight in power. This is perhaps seen most clearly in the lives of those who are “top dogs” in our world. Whether it is an elected official or a tyrant, a politician or a business tycoon, those in power delight in the power they hold — and they often show that delight in very visible ways. One place we see this fascination with power right now is in our current president’s fascination with “winners” — those who have the power to come out “on top” — and his disdain of “losers.”

But it isn’t just the powerful who delight in and are fascinated with power. Those of us “further down the ladder” also show our delight in power by our longing for and efforts to obtain power. We are driven to “get ahead” — that is, to have more power, usually economic power.

Given our fascination with power and given that God is, according to the psalmist “abundant in power”, we might expect God to also delight in power. We might expect him to delight in “winners” and at least ignore “losers.” How odd if seems, then, to hear the psalmist say God “delights not in the strength of a horse, nor does he take pleasure in the speed of a runner.” Instead, the psalmist says, God “takes delight in those who fear him, in those who put hope in his steadfast love.”

Despite what we might be inclined to think, God isn’t fascinated by nor does he delight in, power. Rather God delights in his creation — and God is particularly delighted when his creation relies upon God’s abundant provision. God delights not in a self-sufficient humanity, but in a humanity that recognizes its created-ness and dependence upon the one who is our Creator. God delights not in our power or swiftness or might, but in our willingness to lean upon God.

And the fact is, that seems odd to us. God doesn’t delight in the person who is independent, but in the one who is dependent — dependent upon God. God doesn’t delight in the person who has “pulled him/herself up by his/her bootstraps” but in the one who knows he has no hope in himself and so relies upon God. God doesn’t delight in the dependence upon military, economic, political or any other kind of power that allows us to get our own way, but in the humble trust in God by those who have no chance of getting their way.

As we gather today at the Table, remembering Jesus who died on a cross, we are reminded that it is humble trust in God which delights God. It is Jesus, who trusted in God even in the face of his death, of whom God said, “You are my Son, in you I delight.” And it is in our similar humble trust in God in which God delights. And so we come to the table, humbly, relying upon God in Christ.

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