Believe It or Not, God Answers Prayer

1 Samuel 1:9-11 New Revised Standard Version

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

1 Samuel 1:19-20 New Revised Standard Version

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

1 Samuel 2:1-10 New Revised Standard Version

2 Hannah prayed and said,

“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

2  “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.

3  Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

4  The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

5  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

6  The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

7  The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

8  He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.

9  “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.

10  The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king,     and exalt the power of his anointed.” 

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Have you ever played Monopoly?  We did, my brother and sister and I.  I don’t know how old we were when we received the game, probably for Christmas.  We choose playing pieces, threw dice and tried to accumulate properties.  The best part of the game was passing “Go” and collecting $200.  I was seldom able to buy property, let alone put on a house or a hotel.  

The original game was invented by Lizzie Magie in 1903 as a way to demonstrate that an economy which rewards wealth creation is better than one where monopolists work under few constraints. It makes me wonder what Mrs. Magie would think of our government’s current sweetheart deals with corporations.  

The system that the board game illustrates is a closed system.  Once the money is gone, it’s gone. There is not enough for everyone; some players end up with piles of pastel-colored money and some end up bankrupt. 

Hannah lived in a closed system.  The only way to be a real woman, to be a good wife, to have someone to take care of you when you lost your marbles was to have children. Hannah sadly had a closed womb in a closed system.  

In some ways she was blessed; her husband loved her and he had been able to have children through his other wife, so he had, metaphorically, passed Go, and collected the $200, that is, he had children who would care for him in his old age and who would carry on his name. But Hannah was not part of that.  She was without property and sentenced to the jail of barrenness and abandonment.

Have you ever been closed off from a system, from people, from happiness, through no fault of your own?  Have you ever been prevented from reaching your goals, from using your talents to the best of your ability? 

That prompts three more questions

Did you turn to God in prayer?

How has God saved you, helped you, encouraged you?

And—how have you thanked God?

Hannah turned to God in prayer.  She gave birth to Samuel. And, in thanksgiving, she turned Samuel back to God, so that Samuel could grow up to serve God in full devotion. Samuel did, in fact, serve God his whole life, as one of the prophets who led the Israelites into the greatest years of their nation. Samuel anointed the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.  David became the ancestor, the great, great ad infinitum grandfather of our own Savior, Jesus.

God answers prayer. The answer is not always apparent to us. Hannah probably died before Israel became a monarchy. She did not know that a Messiah would someday arrive, directly descended from her womb.  

God answers prayer by making us the bearers of Good News.  

We do not always know how God uses us. Sometimes we can reflect on our lives and see where we touched someone with kindness, when we inspired someone, how we changed someone through what we thought was simply doing the right thing. Give God some credit. Just as God opened Hannah’s womb, God opens our hearts to make  God’s Kingdom present in the lives of our communities. Sometimes we serve within our own communities, with a helping hand, with a friendly conversation.  We never know how much good we do. A helping hand can allow the good deed to be paid forward. A friendly conversation can lift a person out of despair and banish their loneliness. Sometimes we serve beyond our communities, by our personal choices, such as choosing leaders who build God’s kingdom rather than their own, by making decisions that protect God’s creation or God’s people. 

As the recipients of God’s greatest gift, God’s Son, Jesus Christ, we are freed from the bonds of sin to stretch our abilities and talents and even our timid inclinations to bring others into the Kingdom. 

Let me reiterate: Hannah turned to God in prayer.  I don’t know how prayer works.  I don’t know why God doesn’t answer every prayer the way we thing it should be answered. But I know that God answers prayer in such a way that God’s Kingdom is established here and now, where it is most needed. The Kingdom isn’t needed in heaven—-everything is perfect there already. The Kingdom is needed here and now, the blessings of the Kingdom, the gifts of the Kingdom are needed in our own time, in our own place. The hungry need to be fed NOW.  The oppressed need to be freed NOW. The homeless need to be sheltered NOW. The hopeless need to be inspired NOW. The ugly, the disgusting, the losers need to be loved NOW.  That is what the Kingdom looks like.  Our forefathers wrote the Declaration of Independence with a kind of kingdom in mind. The second sentence reads : 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Happiness can not be pursued like a goal. Happiness is established not by the individual, but by the community. That is how we Christians operate: in community. We call that community the Kingdom. 

Hannah had only one earthly resource to help her achieve happiness, her husband, Elkanah.  He did not have the ability to give her the much wanted child, Samuel. God did.  Hannah turned to God in prayer. God answered not only Hannah’s prayer, but the prayer of salvation for all God’s people. 

Let us turn to God in prayer, not to ask for what we think we need but for what God needs. Let us ask God to make us instruments of peace and plenty.

I learned this lesson from my father.  Everyday he would rise early, get dressed, go out the back door and face east.  Everyday, he prayed, “God, what do you have for me to do today?”

That is how the Kingdom is established, by each of us praying, daily, in our own way to be the workers in the Kingdom that God is building. That Kingdom is possible because sin and death have been vanquished by the greatest answer to prayer ever, the death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation of God on earth, we have the privilege and the power to establish God’s Kingdom on earth. How? Take it to the Lord in prayer. Amen.  

Come, Ye Thankful People, Come

There are several hymns that remind me of my Dad, but perhaps “Come Ye Thankful People, Come” portrays him and his faith most completely.  It is traditionally sung at Thanksgiving time, just as the harvest is being completed.  Some years, the men went back to the field after the Thanksgiving feast, but most years, it was complete, a relief, a time to rest and reflect on the miracle of Creation. 

“Come, ye thankful people, come”.  We always knew to Whom thanks should be given.  Never a doubt, especially as the clunky gold ears tumbled into the elevator from the wagon.

“All is safely gathered in”—safely, as in no one was injured and safely as in the crop was stored securely for the winter.

“All the world is God’s own field.” “Come to God’s own temple come”—that all of creation was God’s temple was embedded in us from the first time we breathed farm air. 

“First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn shall appear”  a part of creation that seldom failed, not to be taken for granted, but to be praised and cherished.  A kernel was never put in the ground but that it was expected to sprout, grow, yield.  

“Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be…

all offenses purges away…forever purified…”  a prayer for ourselves…

“Even so, Lord, quickly come, to thy final harvest home.”  On how many lips is that bravely whispered in this time of pandemic? To know that we will be gathered up, “in thy garner to abide” gives us Christians great comfort when we fear for the winter, when we fear for lack of whatever we need.  

The singing of this hymn brings also a harvest of memories, of generations of saints gathered around a table.  Whenever I hosted the big family Thanksgiving dinner, every person was forced to gather around the piano.  I passed out the hymnals, accompanied by a few groans from the younger ones and a few tears from the older ones. The hymnals were an assortment of Lutheran, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian, so the words didn’t always match, but we sang all the verses and in that moment, everyone knew a depth of thankfulness that transcended whatever lists had once been written in grade school classrooms and prayed in the most formal of worship services. 

We won’t be singing together this year.  But the hymn is still easy to find on Youtube.  May you be moved to a thankfulness that covers more than a roof over your head and an absence of illness.  May you be moved to be thankful for all of Creation, from every grain of granite to every breathing baby, from every slimy cell to every wrinkled face, from the familiar to the weird. May you find peace in a thankfulness reserved for special occasions.  

A New Covenant

Jeremiah 36:1-8 New Revised Standard Version

36 In the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today. It may be that when the house of Judah hears of all the disasters that I intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.

Then Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him. And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, “I am prevented from entering the house of the Lord; so you go yourself, and on a fast day in the hearing of the people in the Lord’s house you shall read the words of the Lord from the scroll that you have written at my dictation. You shall read them also in the hearing of all the people of Judah who come up from their towns. It may be that their plea will come before the Lord, and that all of them will turn from their evil ways, for great is the anger and wrath that the Lord has pronounced against this people.” And Baruch son of Neriah did all that the prophet Jeremiah ordered him about reading from the scroll the words of the Lord in the Lord’s house.

Jeremiah 36:21-23 New Revised Standard Version

21 Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. 22 Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. 23 As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier.

Jeremiah 36:27-28 New Revised Standard Version

27 Now, after the king had burned the scroll with the words that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 28 Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which King Jehoiakim of Judah has burned.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 New Revised Standard Version

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

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God and Jeremiah were on speaking terms.  I don’t know if they were on first name terms.

Did you know God has a first name?  I learned it from a hymn: Andy walks with me and he talks with me….. (And he walks with me and he talks with me -“In the Garden.”)

God had been speaking to Jeremiah for at least twenty-three years, the length of the reign of King Jehoiakim. 

Let’s review the story.

God had spent the last twenty-some years warning the people that they  were not acting in a manner that reflected their faithfulness to God. God’s messenger during this time had been Jeremiah.  In today’s text, God takes advantage of a religious holiday. The people will be the temple to observe the holiday so this was a good time to remind them—once more—of what God expected from them.  Jeremiah dictated to his scribe, Baruch, all the warnings, all the pleas, all the reminders God had spoken thorough Jeremiah. This writing was not a list of pleasant reminiscences. Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today.  All the words AGAINST Israel and Judah. All the charges. All the misdemeanors. All the treachery. Al the infidelity. 

Baruch took the scroll to the temple and read it, very publicly very deliberately. To get the whole picture, you should really read the entire chapter. Let me fill you in.  When the scribes in the temple listened to Baruch’s reading, they understood how dangerous the words were, so they met with Bruch in private to hear the words again. They realized the king had to hear these words.  But first, they warned Jeremiah and Baruch to go in to hiding, which they did.

So, picture King Jehoiakim sitting comfortably in front of his fireplace.  One of his staff now had the scroll.  Let’s pretend it’s a book.  Jehudi, perhaps Jehoiakim’s Chief of Staff, read from the book.  Every so often, Jehoiakim asked for the book, tore out the pages Jehudi had read, and threw them in the fireplace.  Jehoiakim’s disdain for God was apparent and impudent.

Fortunately, Jeremiah was able to dictate the contents of the burned scroll to Baruch one more time and that is the basis for the book of Jeremiah we read today.

Whenever I read a text, I wonder if history has repeated itself.  Of course, my American citizen mind went right to government politics.  I picture President Trump sitting in front of one of the beautiful White House fireplaces, burning the Constitution.  Ridiculous, of course. But then, in a rare flash of humility, I realized that I am not any better than King Jehoiakim. 

I may not rip pages out of the Bible and throw them in my gas fireplace.  But I certainly act in ways that show my own disdain for God’s word. 

God’s word for me, for you, reveals, all above all else, God’s love for us and God’s longing for a relationship with me. Too often, my action’s reveal conforming to the world, buying into the disharmony, joining in voices that destroy rather than build up.  

God sent those words to the people of Judah so that they would repent.  How often have I argued with God that my sins are justified, that God should give me a break.  Instead, I am called to repent.

Will this repentance result in punishment?  No. God made a covenant with the people of Judah.

31: 31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

That new covenant is Jesus.  That new covenant has redeemed us from punishment and received us in love. 

In this last Sunday of the Christian year, let us reflect and repent. For my own part, I need to examine my motives and my agenda, why I act and speak in the ways that I do.  May God give me the clarity of mind to understand what is in my heart, to repent, and to accept the forgiveness of the New Covenant established  for me through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Amen.

In THAT Year Isaiah 6:1-13

6 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 

9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’

10  Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”

11  Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is utterly desolate;

12  until the Lord sends everyone far away,
    and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.

13  Even if a tenth part remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
    whose stump remains standing
    when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.

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In the year that King Uzziah died, 

In the year that John Kennedy was shot,

In the year that Donald Trump was elected,

In the year that…….

Notice that the writer of Isaiah begins the chapter not with a statement about a person, place or thing, but with a chronological marker: In the year—that unique year—-that King Uzziah died.  

We are living in a unique year, are we not?

If 2020 were a potato chip, it would be flavored with orange juice and toothpaste.

If 2020 were a cereal, it would be bunch of cigarette butts floating in milk. 

If 2020 were an ice cream truck, it would be selling liver and onions. 

If 2020 were a drink, it would be a colonoscopy prep.

Isaiah lived in a year that made history—-the year King Uzziah died.  Uzziah had been king for 45 years. The transition to a new ruler after 45 years is cause for political instability. In the case of Israel, it is also mixed up with religious stability.  At this time in Israelite history, there was no separation of church and state. The king was the leader not only of the government but was also responsible for the relationship between the people and God.  As far as God was concerned, the relationship was nearly broken.

As always, God does not abandon God’s people. God found a helper in Isaiah.

Verses 1-8 of this chapter are beautiful, colorful, imaginative and famous. They inspired a hymn by Dan Schulte, “Here I Am,” that has become a favorite among thousands of Christians.  The text assigned for today stops at Verse 8, but to understand the gravity of the call, we must read to the end of the chapter.

And he said, “Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’

10  Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”

Imagine trying to deliver a message when no one will listen.  Imagine telling your child, “Listen to me, but do what you want.” Imagine teaching math without expecting anyone to be able to multiply 2 x 2.   Imagine being given the task to make people ignore you, even as you implore them to wear masks, wash their hands, and stay home. That was the kind of life Isaiah signed up for.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 

Here I am; send me!  I have no doubt that anytime anyone sings this hymn, their hearts are full of commitment and love and they are ready to sign up for the building of the Kingdom. We are steeped in the language of devotion. Love God, love your neighbor.  Follow. Serve. In moments of worship, it is easy to be caught up in the glory of God. With God, all things are possible, right?

But when the rubber hits the road, when the rock hits the window, when the virus fells the healthy, “Here I am” becomes “Where can I hide?”

Try to share Isaiah’s vision in your own mind:

the hem of [God’s] robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.[of incense?]

Imagine your senses being overwhelmed—the sound of heavenly music, the sight of all those wings, the fragrance of incense. 

Notice that Isaiah’s first response is one of confession.  Not fear. Not praise. Not confusion.  Confession.  

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips;

God responds by purifying him.

your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

God has done the same for us, not by placing a burning coal on our lips, but by sacrificing Godself in the form of Jesus.

So, we don’t have the excuse that we aren’t good enough to serve God. In the year of 2020, in this time of fear and confusion, God’s love remains the same. God’s expectations of us remain the same.  That does not mean we are wrong to be afraid or angry or confused in this year of pandemic and politics.  Perhaps our greatest sin is turning to human “common sense” and putting Jesus in the Sunday parlor that’s only used for company, saving Him for special visits when we’re dressed in our best and we’ve prepared a tempting dessert of hymns and prayers.  

Jesus won’t hide in a safe place. Jesus walks among the wounded, among the ill, among the bitter. Jesus walks among the insane—those insane with grief, insane with anger, insane with loss, insane with betrayal. And Jesus doesn’t walk alone—-listen to our first hymn today—Will You Come and Follow Me?—and find the answer in your heart.  Jesus doesn’t lead us into temptation; Jesus leads us into danger, into chaos, into conflict.

Sometimes  Christians like to quote Ephesians 6: 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. That sounds like military action, like we’re looking for a fight.  Before you slide your ammunition into the chamber, read the next few verses: 

14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Am I exaggerating?  Do some Christians really want a fight, followed by blood and bandages?  I’ll let you answer that.

The point is we are armed not with bullet-proof kevlar vests, but with truth, peace, faith, salvation, and the Word. How do we use those “weapons?” We know.  Or do we?

One of the tragedies of our political climate is the loss of friendships. One of the tragedies of the pandemic is the loss of community.  How do we use truth peace, faith, salvation, the Word to restore what is lost?  Love.  The kind of love we admire in 1 Corinthians: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.

Here I am.  Here I am, God, ready to speak your Word, ready to build your Kingdom, walking not ahead of You, but following You. Let me imagine what you are trying to do every time I try to heal, to love, to bring peace.  Let me see myself in your image, rather than seeing you in the image of what I want. Here I am, loving as much as I humanly can, nurtured in your great Love.  Amen.

Repent.

 Jonah 1:1-17, 3:1-10 (4:1-11) New Revised Standard Version

 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

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First of all, here is a link to a really, really, really good sermon on this text: https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/nineveh-that-hole-place/  The author is Melissa Bane Sevier; she wrote this sermon in 2018.

I suggest you read it before you read mine. 

We each have a little bit of Jonah in us. We all can think of a time when we resisted doing what was necessary, what was right or kind or moral.  As imperfect humans, we are easily tempted to do what is easiest or what appeals to our selfish nature or what makes us accepted by our friends and family.

I was known to be a contrary child. If I was told to do one thing, I naturally did the other. Truth be told, I can’t remember any specific incidents where I was contrary, but I do know that my mother wasn’t the only one who applied that label to me. 

That’s part of being a child, though, isn’t it? Discovering the power of “No!” Once toddlers learn the power of that word, they find numerous ways to wield that power. Put away your toys. No!  Take your nap. No! Eat your potatoes.  No!  Hug your grandma.  No!  Share with your sister. No!  

Which Biblical character is better known than Jonah for saying “No!”?  Fortunately for toddlers, the consequences do not include being swallowed by a giant fish.  (How many baths would that kid need before they smelled normal again?)  We know that this is a parable, that Jonah was not literally swallowed by a fish, but something, something tremendous, happened that made him change his mind.

Let us review.

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn the people of the city to repent.

Jonah refused because, in Jonah’s opinion, Nineveh did not deserve God’s grace.

Jonah ran away.

Jonah was forced to rethink his position.

Jonah repented.

Jonah followed orders, went to undeserving Nineveh and preached.

Contrary to Jonah’s expectations, the people of Nineveh repented.

Nineveh was saved.

Have you ever wanted someone to fail?  Didn’t we all want someone to fail when we voted for someone to succeed? Have we ever wanted a sports team to fail?  Every game, every match.  Have we ever wanted someone to fail on the job or in a relationship? Hard to believe, isn’t it? And yet….

Nineveh is in Assyria. Assyria is the enemy; Assyria has crushed Israel. If Assyria were a candidate, it’s the person you’d never, ever vote for. You don’t want Nineveh/Biden/Trump to win. You don’t want to give Nineveh/Biden/Trump a chance to have any thing good happen to them. You don’t want to give Nineveh/Biden/Trump credit for anything good.  You can’t imagine anything good about Nineveh/Biden/Trump. There is no hope for Nineveh/Biden/Trump to change their evil ways. Nineveh/Biden/Trump deserve no mercy.

And yet God had mercy on Nineveh and God will have mercy on Donald Trump and Joe Biden and all the people who voted for them.

We all have our Ninevehs. We all know people or issues or places we can’t abide. The very mention of the person or issue or place provokes rancor in our hearts.  So?  So, we all need to repent.

We like to throw around the semantical Christian flag of “Love your neighbor” as if it were the easiest thing in the world to love everybody. But it’s hard to love your neighbor when you are afraid of your neighbor, when you see your neighbor as misinformed, as bullheaded, as clueless, as poisoned.  

Jesus also said, “Repent.”

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)

I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)

Jesus even used Jonah and Nineveh as an example!

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:41)

This election is different. After most elections, haven’t we all settled down and pretty much ignored our elected officials?  This election is different.

I want to share with you what I wrote to a friend last night. I had finished watching the speeches, the fireworks, the commentary on television.  My heart was troubled, so I wrote: 

My friends are celebrating, excited.  Me, not so much.  There is so much to not celebrate.  My friends and family who supported Trump et al certainly are not celebrating. They are stunned, they are grieving.  I cannot celebrate in front of them.  My heart grieves for them, just as it would have grieved for my Biden-supporting friends if he had lost. I wonder if my Trump friends would have grieved for me or if they would have gloated and thrown Trump’s victory in my face. Never have the reactions to a presidential election been more divided, more polarized, more exaggerated.

So, the only result of this election is sustained division and deep grief.  And to my mind this celebration is superficial, in-your-face anti-Trump as much as it is pro-Biden.  

Maybe in a week, a month, a year, we’ll learn what we truly have to celebrate. Right now, it seems inappropriate. Right now, the flag wavers are celebrating their own status: being connected to the person with the most votes.  I hope in the months to come we have more important things to celebrate, like rights restored, the environment protected, racism and pandemic addressed in ways that build up rather than tear down.

One fear: will the Biden term be like the Weimar Republic—an attempt to repair a nation that failed in the wake of economic and nationalistic odds?

So, while while half of us are celebrating out of a sense of relief as much as victory, how will our Trumpist brothers and sisters recalculate their lives, their emotions, their relationships?  How will they adjust to a sea change that goes against what they have been celebrating for the last four years?  

I hope we realize that this is not about conservative vs. liberal, Republican vs. Democrat. This is about fear vs. fear. We are divided not by what we believe or support, but by what we fear.  I fear for the refugee, for the impoverished,  for the powerless; others fear the loss of privilege, the loss of ownership, the loss of independence, the loss of pride.

Perhaps our newly elected Republicans  and Democrats will work toward reconciliation; on the other hand, they may seek to strengthen their own positions by playing to the division that helped to elect them. May our prayers for fairness be heard and implemented. 

  I know you that you expect me to “keep politics out of the pulpit.” Politics is people, how people make decisions, how people decide who thinks like they do, how people choose the people who will elevate their wishes, who will demand what is most prudent for the general population.

Politics is people and Jesus cares only about people. Jesus cares about how and where and why people live. Jesus cares about the well-being of people. Jesus is not some ghostly inspiration that floats in and out. Jesus was incarnated in the form of a human being so that he could experience what we feel, what we fight, what we need.  Jesus was physical.  Jesus ate food; and he understood the importance of food. The feeding of the five thousand is not just a nice miracle. It shows how clearly Jesus understood the importance of a full belly. Nobody is going to listen if they’re thinking about food. Jesus cared about health—how many people did he heal? Jesus knows we are not at our best when we hurt, when we burn, when we itch.

Jesus wants us to be at our best. Why? He loves us. Additionally, Jesus gave us the task of building his Kingdom. It’s hard to work up to your potential when you are hungry, when you are hurting, when a nagging headache or heartache fills your mind and slows you down. 

God vs. Jonah.  God wanted to save the people of Nineveh. Jonah wanted the people of Nineveh to be destroyed.  Jonah said, No!  God said, Yes! After some soul-searching, Jonah repented.  Nineveh repented. Nineveh was saved.

I challenge you to name your Nineveh and start walking. Your Nineveh is not the people who tick you off, not the people who appall you, not the people who oppose you. Your Nineveh is in your heart. God knows your heart, we like to say.  So, God knows what you must do. Repent.  Walk toward your Nineveh, repent of your own impulse to separate yourself from those who think differently, act differently from you. Walk toward your own Nineveh and open your heart to the mercy of God. Amen.

Who is Good Enough?

I Kings 17: 1-24

17 And then this happened: Elijah the Tishbite, from among the settlers of Gilead, confronted Ahab: “As surely as God lives, the God of Israel before whom I stand in obedient service, the next years are going to see a total drought—not a drop of dew or rain unless I say otherwise.”

2-4 God then told Elijah, “Get out of here, and fast. Head east and hide out at the Kerith Ravine on the other side of the Jordan River. You can drink fresh water from the brook; I’ve ordered the ravens to feed you.”

5-6 Elijah obeyed God’s orders. He went and camped in the Kerith canyon on the other side of the Jordan. And sure enough, ravens brought him his meals, both breakfast and supper, and he drank from the brook.

7-9 Eventually the brook dried up because of the drought. Then God spoke to him: “Get up and go to Zarephath in Sidon and live there. I’ve instructed a woman who lives there, a widow, to feed you.”

10-11 So he got up and went to Zarephath. As he came to the entrance of the village he met a woman, a widow, gathering firewood. He asked her, “Please, would you bring me a little water in a jug? I need a drink.” As she went to get it, he called out, “And while you’re at it, would you bring me something to eat?”

12 She said, “I swear, as surely as your God lives, I don’t have so much as a biscuit. I have a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a bottle; you found me scratching together just enough firewood to make a last meal for my son and me. After we eat it, we’ll die.”

13-14 Elijah said to her, “Don’t worry about a thing. Go ahead and do what you’ve said. But first make a small biscuit for me and bring it back here. Then go ahead and make a meal from what’s left for you and your son. This is the word of the God of Israel: ‘The jar of flour will not run out and the bottle of oil will not become empty before God sends rain on the land and ends this drought.’”

15-16 And she went right off and did it, did just as Elijah asked. And it turned out as he said—daily food for her and her family. The jar of meal didn’t run out and the bottle of oil didn’t become empty: God’s promise fulfilled to the letter, exactly as Elijah had delivered it!

17 Later on the woman’s son became sick. The sickness took a turn for the worse—and then he stopped breathing.

18 The woman said to Elijah, “Why did you ever show up here in the first place—a holy man barging in, exposing my sins, and killing my son?”

19-20 Elijah said, “Hand me your son.”

He then took him from her bosom, carried him up to the loft where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. Then he prayed, “O God, my God, why have you brought this terrible thing on this widow who has opened her home to me? Why have you killed her son?”

21-23 Three times he stretched himself out full-length on the boy, praying with all his might, “God, my God, put breath back into this boy’s body!” God listened to Elijah’s prayer and put breath back into his body—he was alive! Elijah picked the boy up, carried him downstairs from the loft, and gave him to his mother. “Here’s your son,” said Elijah, “alive!”

24 The woman said to Elijah, “I see it all now—you are a holy man. When you speak, God speaks—a true word!”

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Today’s text encompasses three stories about the amazing life of Elijah.

First, God sent a drought in response to King Ahab’s misguided worship practices.  He had married Jezebel, who worshiped Baal.  Through her influence and the weakness of the integrity of the Israelites, God had been neglected and no amount of warning from Elijah could right this wrong. God protected Elijah from Ahab’s retaliation by sending him into hiding. He was fed by ravens who brought him morsels of bread.

Next, God sent Elijah out of town, out of country, to Sidon, and to an unlikely rescuer: a widow.  Widows were by definition poor, so the new location didn’t seem very promising as far as survival went.

The third story is the death and recovery of the widow’s son.

Rather than choosing one of those three stories for our focus, I want you to think about this widow.

She has so many strikes against her. She is poor, reduced to starving.  She has a child for whom she can’t provide.  She is a woman, with no means to support herself.  And, politically, she is a foreigner—to Elijah.  

So God has chosen to save Elijah’s life by sending him to a starving, female, foreign person.  It makes no sense.  

How many times have we stumbled in our faith because it makes no sense? 

Paul wrote to the Corinthians about our weakness to cling to “common sense.”

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Perhaps this is why there is division among Christians—because we like to pit our own wisdom against God’s wisdom. We use our own experience, our own sinful nature, to shield ourselves from God.  We weigh the wisdom of the world against the wisdom of God and choose according to what makes us comfortable.  We look around us and see not God but humans and we follow like sheep because we put our trust in what we can see.

Elijah must have questioned God any number of times. God did not give Elijah an easy life. His first assignment was to tell King Ahab to prepare for a drought.  Kings don’t like to hear bad news. As soon is the news was delivered, Elijah went into hiding, per God’s instructions.  For awhile, that hiding spot, near a stream of fresh water, was fine. Then the stream dried up.  What next?

Surely, Elijah was surprised when God sent him to a starving, female foreigner.  To put it in today’s vernacular, she was a loser. She had nothing to offer Elijah, nothing to suggest that she would save his life.  

Yet, she did.

The lesson I want us to consider today is that no one is beyond being a life saver, no one is beyond being a hero, no one is beyond providing what is most needed, even in the worst of times.

The widow was marginalized from her culture, her community and in the eyes of Elijah.

Whom do we marginalize?  Whom do we see as useless to the community?  That is a harsh question, but in your heart, you have surely sorted people into groups…by income level, by how they keep up their yard, by how their kids behave, by where they live, by how they vote, by how they dress, by what they do for fun.

The widow had been sorted out—for being female, for being widowed, for being poor. She did not choose to be female or widowed or poor. When you tell someone to make “better choices,” you belie an arrogance that ignores the lack of choices for that person. Yes, there are times when one has the luxury of a good choice over a bad, but often all the choices are harmful.

So, this woman was not a candidate for helping anyone, not even her own son. Yet, she saved Elijah’s life.  

As a teacher, I served all kinds of students.  It was easy for us to predict who among our students would succeed in the eyes of the world and who would not be worth much in a society that craved money and power. Time after time, I have been surprised. Time after time, students have risen far, far above my expectations. They have educated me about their careers, their interests, their families, and they have shared their perspective on a myriad of topics.  

This brings to mind another memory.  When I was serving as organist at a church, we decided to have a beef supper.  Because we were a small congregation, we needed help from everyone.  One gentleman in our congregation was rather rough and I was a little afraid of him.  I needed to assign someone to wash dishes, so I asked Dan if he would do that humble job.  I braced for some kind of negative feedback; instead, I got a grateful thank you.  He was delighted to be asked to participate.  It seems that in other congregations, he was ignored—as if he had nothing to contribute. That is one of the most important lessons of my life.  I learned that one, people want to be included, even when they don’t act like it, and two, I shouldn’t prejudge who wants to be included.  

Everyone has value.  One of my gripes is that people complain about immigrants but still want fresh fruits and vegetables in the grocery store every day of the week.  In my research, I discovered that when the jobs immigrants do, like cutting up pork chops, pulling onions, picking oranges, are offered to the local citizens, the locals either refuse to apply for the job or they don’t last more than a day.  Yet we want to close the borders. You might as well close the grocery store while you’re at it.  

Everyone has value. Even a widow with an empty cupboard. Even an old man who scares people.  Even a brown-skinned person who doesn’t belong here.  Even a student who never completes an assignment.  

I think we could all give examples of being surprised by the worth of someone.  I pray that we can stop being surprised and see the worth in everyone.  I pray that we can ask other people to be part of what ever good things we try to do.  I could go on and on.  But I’ll let you go on and on. I’ll let you look for help in unlikely places. I pray that you find joy in your discovery.

Amen.

Together

2 Samuel 7:1-17 New Revised Standard Version

God’s promise to David concerning his heir, who will be God’s Son and whose kingdom will endure forever

7 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” 

3 Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

4 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5 Go and tell my servant David: 

Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 

6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 

7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 

8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 

10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. 

Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 

12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 

13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 

14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. 

When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 

15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. 

17 In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.

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What can I pull out of today’s text that speaks to our situation?  According to my resources, this text is about God keeping promises.  That’s walking on thin ice in this time of COVID-19, civil unrest (real or conjured by the media), and approaching winter weather. What promises?  That’s pretty generic, even if it is a cornerstone of our faith.

In today’s text, God promises David that he will be the father, grandfather, great-grandfather, all the way to someone in the far distant future who will establish God’s kingdom forever. We know know, in hindsight, that God kept that promise in the incarnation of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. That is the most important promise ever made to any of us.  End of sermon?  No.

What caught my eye and my imagination was the idea of God not wanting a nice dwelling place. 

The other lesson for me is that we humans often make the mistake of thinking God is just like us.  We have to remind ourselves that although we are created in God’s image, God is not created in our image—-but we do try to give God the mindset of a human.  

We treat God as if God needs and wants what we need and want.  David assumed that God wanted a nice house like David’s house.  Was David trying to pay God back for his current situation as a powerful king living in a nice house? We humans usually assume that we owe each other for everything we receive.  I get groceries, I owe the grocer money.  My neighbor mows my yard while I”m sick, so I owe her a bouquet of flowers or a casserole.  Parents and children sometimes get caught in this dance; I raised you, therefore you owe me extra attention as I get too old to clean out my gutters.  

God does not operate like that. God gives and gives and gives and wants only our love in return.  Humans often expect something in return.  We have a hard time receiving gifts. “You shouldn’t have,” the host says when we show up at a birthday party with a box of chocolates. In some circles, entertaining was always reciprocal. When someone invited you to their home for supper or a party, you made sure to return the invitation by hosting them in your home for some occasion. So what does God do when we show up with a box of chocolates or an offer to build a nice condo especially for God?

God, in God’s wisdom reveals to Nathan in a dream that a permanent address is the last thing on God’s wish list. Nathan gives the message to David:

7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 

 This is the verse that reminds me of our situation.  We have built places for God to dwell in, but, for the time being, we can’t use them.  For how many hundreds of years have Christians counted on meeting God in a specific building, be it a stone cathedral, or a frame building with a steeple?  How many hundreds of years have we scheduled an appointment with God in a specific building at a specific time?  

At the same time, being the confused contradictory people that we are, we sing songs about Jesus living in our hearts, we say that we can worship God on the golf course on Sunday morning, we claim that Jesus walks with us everyday.  

Here we are, each in our own homes, as close to God as we’ve ever been or ever will be.  “I have moved about among the people,” God tells Nathan. 

We are still a congregation, we still have Jesus walking with us.  Our building is not for God, but for our convenience.  We worship more completely when we are together, praying together, singing together, meditating together. We have the confidence that numbers bring.  By ourselves, in our own spaces, we are prone to doubt or we simply forget about worshipping God. It seems awkward or unproductive to set aside our own worship space during the day when we are supposed to be busy.  But as a group we reassure each other that we should and can worship without fear of judgement, without fear of wasting time, without fear of not “doing it right.” 

Here we are, worshipping in our own homes. However, because we all read the same sermon, pray and sing the same words of the worship service, we are still in community. We are still a congregation. We have a building, but we don’t need it.  We have an altar, we have pews, we have a piano, an organ, but we don’t need them. They are gifts, but these gifts do not have to be used.

Remember the Christmas gift or the wedding present you received and had to use when Grandma or Aunt Lisa was around, so you could  show your appreciation? God doesn’t think like that. God gives out of generosity, not out of keeping the score even, not for fake appreciation. God doesn’t guess at what we need. God knows.  

A caveat: church buildings are not useless. We sing a lot better when we can sing with each other and with someone playing the piano or organ or guitar or ukulele to guide us.  We get more accomplished for our communities when we can meet to brainstorm how we can serve the Kingdom.  The building gives us the greatest advantage when it builds community.  Perhaps the greatest loss during this pandemic is the inability to build community through potlucks and fish fries and car shows.  It has certainly been the hardest part of the pandemic for most people. We are willing to risk our lives for the sake of community. Worse than wearing a mask is not spending time in person with the people who love us, the people who amuse us, the people who inspire us.

In conclusion, the Kingdom survives. We have not lost our membership in the Kingdom, even if the door to the church building is locked.  We are still God’s chidden, we still live in God’s Creation, we are still building the Kingdom. We are finding new ways to build community and we are learning that some necessities aren’t necessary at all. Likewise, we are learning that what we once took for granted is now precious and worth our attention.

In this time of pandemic, this time of sickness of body and soul, this time of fear, the Church still stands, even if the roof leaks, even if the windows are cracked, even if the organ is silenced, even if the pews are empty.  We are known for our building, but let us be known more for the work we do for the Kingdom.  Dixon, Toronto people know who you are and what you stand for. You stand for the Church.  We have an address but we are not limited to four walls. Love God, love every other.  May these words restore and renew your faith in our Triune God and may you through your faith find comfort and strength to keep walking and working, talking and building for the Kingdom. Amen.

What Kind of God?

Exodus 32:1-14

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 

2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 

3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 

4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 

6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. 

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” 

9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” 

11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 

12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? 

Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 

13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 

14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

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Whenever you read a passage in the Bible,  you should ask yourself, What does this passage tell me about who God is? 

The Israelites were asking a similar question. Who is God?  Where is God? They did not have Scripture to guide them. They had Moses.  But Moses was not able to satisfy their curiosity.  He was on a business trip, up on the mountain, talking to God.  He had been gone so long, that they feared he might not return.

When the Israelites could not complain directly to Moses, when they were tired of griping to each other, their bored, frustrated, frightened, ungrateful minds came up with a plan.  

Moses had been gone for so long that they had given up on seeing him. He had led them, against all odds, out of life-sucking slavery, saved them from a pursuing army, negotiated with God to make sure they had water to drink and food to eat and now…….now what?  

They didn’t want to camp in the desert forever.  They were tired of promises that seemed groundless.  They didn’t know what to do, but they did know that God had been the solution to major obstacles so far.  So, they knew they need God, or a god, but they didn’t know what kind of God.  What were they asking Aaron to make for them?  Were they changing their allegiance to gods they knew from other times and places?  Did they just want a physical form of God they have been worshipping? Were they creating a new god out of desperation?  What kind of God did they want?

Aaron did the best he could, which was actually pretty awful, considering that he was Moses brother, vice-president in charge of worship and the camp priest. He knew what would make them happy: he would give them something they could see and touch.  To make it important, he asked each of them to contribute some of the gold they had smuggled out of Egypt.  Gold was logical, since it was valuable. Certainly, a god that was made to be worshipped should have some kind of material value.  A pile of rocks wouldn’t cut it.  The people really did want a god of some kind, a god who was, in some shape or form, valuable, impressive, important.

4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 

6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

They knew that gods expected to be worshipped. What else did they expect?  We don’t need to answer their questions.  

We need to answer our own questions:  What kind of God do we expect? What kind of God do we want?  What kind of God suits us best?

Preaching Professor Stan Mast (Calvin Theological Seminary) suggests that “people want gods they can see and handle and carry with them and, most of all, control.”

 It is ironic, is it not, that while we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), we twist that around to create God into an image that fits our limited human perception.  We act as if God is like us, not as if we are like God.  We take what we’ve learned about God and conflate it with what we want God to do. 

We make God into a Walmart, and present God with a shopping list of what we want.  We make God into a general and expect God to defeat or destroy whatever frightens or displeases us. We make God into a slavedriver and expect God to punish us for our sins. We make God into a social acquaintance and check in with God when we need some company.  We make God into a teddy bear, and snuggle up next to God when we’re lonesome. We treat God like the government, not wanting to pay any taxes, but expecting to have smooth roads and safe hospitals. We want God to be a magician and make hurricanes and wildfires and disease go away.

We forget that God created the earth and saw that it was good. Four times, we read in Genesis 1

10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.

 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 

25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

We forget that God created us to love us.1 John 4:10 (NRSV)In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 

We were not created as an experiment; we were created to be loved. God loved us so much that, first of all, God put us human beings in charge of a most excellent creation. God loved us so much that God did not give up on us and destroy us completely. God saved a remnant in the ark. How many times we read in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that God is ready to punish recalcitrant, disobedient people, and then changes God’s mind! Today’s text is just one of many examples.

9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses pleads with God to give them a break. God listened: 

14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

It is by no means easy to worship a God who is not available through touch or taste or sight or sound or smell. That’s one reason our worship services are filled with beautiful music and words, one reason we make our worship places works of art. In our weakness, in our mistrust of something we can’t see, we demand to see something—anything. 

lt is very easy to place our trust in something we can see—the stock market, a gun, a house. It is likewise easy to place our trust in numbers—the number of people who support our sports team or candidate, the number of people who claim to be successful, the number of people who tell us what we want to hear, the number of people who tell us what to fear. In other words, we follow the crowd.

On the other hand, God expects us to put all our trust in something that we can’t prove.  We are asked to be loyal to something that cannot be taxed or sold. We are asked to rearrange our entire lifestyle around something that has no address, no bank account, no television network, no army. Hebrews 11:1 puts it succinctly:Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

 What do we have?  We have a Book.  We don’t know who wrote it. We know who inspired it. We know it has been fact-checked century after century, not for historical accuracy, but for spiritual accuracy.  What does this Book tell us about God? 

When we read faithfully, continually, with curiosity, with determination, we learn what God gives us that nothing else can give: Love.  God loves us.

Our day-to-day expereince is controlled by what the world gives us. Sometimes it is wealth. Sometimes it is death.  But above, beyond, within, without, we are who we are created to be: the recipients of ultimate love.  1 Corinthians 15:57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen

Bug Out

12 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 

Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 

If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 

Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 

You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 

They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.

 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 

Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 

10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 

11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.

 It is the passover of the Lord.

 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 

13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. 

You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

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If we had been there, we would have felt the tension, the anticipation, the fear in the air.  

The Israelites had been slaves for too many generations. God had seen their plight, heard their cries and was preparing them to leave their homes.  They were leaving for good, escaping their landlords and employers, the Egyptians.  God had negotiated, through Moses and Aaron, with the Pharaoh.  Maybe negotiation is too mild a word; plagues, nine plagues had afflicted the Egyptians; the tenth would be the worst. 

The negations have failed.  There is no choice: go on strike. The only way to go on strike is to hit the road, the greatest exodus recorded in Israel’s history. 

God was preparing them to bug out.

 If you are not familiar with the term, “bug out,” here is how the dictionary explains it.

1 to retreat during a military action especially to flee in panic 2 to depart especially in a hurry I first heard the term from episodes of M.A.S.H. 

These instructions are for the last meal they will eat in this cruel place. 

After presenting the menu and how it will be prepared, God gave instructions on how to eat the meal:11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.

Gird up your loins. Be ready to flee.  Have any of you toyed with the idea of fleeing your home?  My friends joke about it, but in uncertain times, maybe a little preparation is a good thing.The other day I made a list of things I would put in a backpack for my grandsons in case they had to flee.  

There are plenty of people who are much more prepared than I am.  We call them “preppers” or “survivalists,” and it’s interesting to read the advice they give in their websites.  In one list of the 13 most important things to have ready, the item that surprised me was sandbags—-because they stop bullets.  Of course, that requires some sand, too. I assume that will be available at the campsite. 

What would you put in your “bug-out bag?”  In my grandsons’ bags I’d put the following:  baby aspirin, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, vitamins, allergy medicine, cough drops, lotion, Post-it notes, pens. rubber bands, little magnets, screws & nails, duct tape, athletic tape, bandaids, Neosporin, baking soda, vinegar, a hymnal, coloring books and colors, markers, matches, and a pocket knife. 

I wonder what the people in the Western states had in their bug out bags as they fled the fires?  I wonder what the people in the Southeast put in their bags as they flee hurricanes? A lovely lady, a friend of the family, Mrs. Brooks, had to the flee the Nazis with her family. I wonder what she packed. I wish I would have asked her. And the refugees at our border, what did they pack as they fled drug cartels and corrupt landlords?

So, the Israelites were not the last to flee oppression or danger. There will be more. 

What is significant about this flight is that God sets up so that it’s significance will never be lost to the people. This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 

Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 

This event must be remembered, because it shows the people who God is.  By repeating the ritual of this final night in Egypt, the people will always be reminded of the Great Rescue from bondage.

It is no coincidence that the Greatest Rescue of all time happened on the day after the tenth day of the first month.  The last meal Jesus ate before his death was the Passover meal, celebrated in the same way that it had been for centuries by faithful Jews. This time, the event became a new ritual to celebrate a real release from bondage, the bondage of sin. Jesus said, Whenever you celebrate this meal, remember me.  Remember what I am doing for you.  The next day, Jesus was crucified—and on the third day, even after he was buried, he rose from the dead.  It was not a magic trick.  It was not to spite the Pharisees or the Sanhedrin or the Romans. It was to free every one of God’s children from the chains of sin. We call that act forgiveness.

Today, thousands of years later, we repeat that meal. Jesus took what was at hand: bread and wine. Today we take what is at hand: Gatorade and Oreos.  Grape juice and Triscuits. We take these elements, consecrate them  and eat and drink them to remember that God has freed us, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the chains of death.

Ritual is an important part of our lives.  Ritual helps us claim our faith in ways that are public and tactile.  See the platen and the chalice. Hear the Words of Institution. Taste the bread. Smell the wine. Feel the texture of the bread, the smoothness of the wine.  Remember.  Remember who loves you. Remember who sacrificed His life for your sake.  Remember who walks with you everyday. Remember who searches for you, who brings you back to the safety of the flock. Remember.

God created us to love one another as God loves us. One of the hardest parts of the Pandemic is being separated from each other.. Our Christian community is so important to us that today some of us have risked our health, our lives to be with each other to share this Meal.  

 We need rituals to help us remember to whom we belong. Not to what we belong.  To whom  we belong. To an outsider, our rituals may seem pointless, boring, empty.  For us, rituals are the threads that bind us to each other and to what God has done for us. Eat. Drink. Listen. See. Touch.  Be thankful. Amen.

God Used It for Good

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. 

17 The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.

+++years later+++

15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

+++

Amazing: a father treating one child better than his siblings. Amazing: a youngster teasing his older brothers. Amazing: brothers ostracizing their little brother.  Amazing: sons lying to their father.  If I were speaking to you instead of writing to you, you would hear my voice dripping with sarcasm.

 Family members don’t always treat each other with kindness or fairness or understanding. It’s not so amazing to have one sibling receive special treatment.  It’s not unusual for a child to tease his siblings. It’s not strange to have older siblings exclude younger siblings from activities. It’s no surprise that children lie to their parents.

Bad behavior does not surprise us.  That makes me sad. Bad behavior should upset us.  We shouldn’t take it for granted.  Yet how much of the evil around us is ignored or excused?  “Boys will boys.”  “Women are just that way.” “That’s the way the world is.” “What did you expect?”  “It’s none of my business.”  “It’s a free country.” “Who am I to judge?”

We have found more ways to ignore sin than kernels on a cob.

Two pastor friends were talking on the phone the other day. 

Charles: Walt, I think we need to start talking about sin again.

Walt: I never stopped. 

The confirmation class definition of sin is “missing the mark;” that smacks of sin being unintentional or accidental. The sin we see around us today is intentional, purposeful, and we are the targets.

The evening news, the morning news—we see example after example of meanness, cruelty, selfishness. My pastor colleagues talk of being assailed by demonic forces, even within their own congregations. Those demonic forces do not carry pitchforks and have forked tails. They have forked tongues; they see what is best for the church as what is best for them, personally. 

When we strive to use the church to serve the world, do we end up pleasing the world instead?  Do we provide a sense of security, a mindset that soothes us into believing God is love and that’s all we have to know?

Joseph was Jacob’s favorite, not because Joseph was extraordinarily cute or talented, but because he was the first child born to Rachel, Jacob’s true love. Jacob had fathered children with three other women by the time Joseph was born, but he did not love any of them. By the time Joseph was born he had ten older brothers, but none of them the sons of the beloved Rachel. Joseph was a child born out of love, so of course he was his father’s favorite. Joseph used that position to annoy his brothers to the point where they decided they didn’t need to put up with him any longer. The consensus was to kill him, but Reuben stepped up and Joseph lived.  He lived to save thousands of people from starvation and he lived long enough to forgive his brothers.

Anne Lamott tweeted yesterday:

In this excruciating time, don’t forget the story of Joseph in the Hebrew Bible, whose jealous brothers got him sold into slavery. Later he ends up saving multitudes from famine. When he is w them again, he says, “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.” 

She ends her Tweet by saying, “Maturity is hope.”

Let us put a twist on “God is love” and say “God is hope.”   

Have you reflected on the good that has come out of the pandemic? I have seen people step up to help other people in myriad ways. In my own personal experience, I have seen one hundred women volunteer their time, their skill, their talent to provide masks for people they will never meet.  They are the kingdom of God in living color, in 3-D action, blessing others with their work.  They will never know whose lives they saved, whose lives they protected, but they made something beautiful blossom out of the pandemic.

Joseph made something beautiful blossom out of hate. The hate his brothers had for him became not only his salvation but the salvation of a nation.

Theologians call what we believe about Jesus  “the theology of the cross.” Again, here is something excruciatingly ugly that becomes beautiful. The most humiliating form of punishment known to the forces of evil became the means to bring about forgiveness of all sins for all time.  The world is never without sin, but that sin is forgiven, over and over and over, through the death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Through forgiveness we become fresh, new beings created in the image of God—hold that though in your mind for a minute and think about how marvelous you are!  

God is love. God is hope.  Let’s add one more: God is power.  Evil has been conquered for all time through Jesus’ sacrifice, but evil continues to wage war on us. May the knowledge, the faith that we are on God’s side and God is on our side give us courage to use evil for good.  Amen.