God as Puppeteer or Quarterback?

An important question about the nature of God was raised in a Bible study I am in last night. We are studying Exodus 2 and came to the scene where Moses kills an Egyptian who is abusing one of the Hebrew slaves. The question raised was, “Did God want Moses to kill that Egyptian?” Some argued yes, because it was necessary for the rest of Moses’ preparation to be a leader. Others said there are numerous stories in the Hebrew Scriptures where God tells people to kill someone. (Note: those stories were all written by the victors/killers who were interpreting God’s will from their perspective and likely to justify their actions. Jesus preached and lived a very different Gospel.)

I reject the puppeteer model of God’s control of our lives, and I do not believe it was God’s intention for Moses or anyone to kill another human being – sort of goes against the 6th commandment don’t you think? Rather I think God is more like a quarterback who has to call audibles and change the play a lot when circumstances require it. God takes our mistakes and makes the best of them, using them to teach us. In Moses’ case his homicidal outburst was the vehicle God used to get him out into the wilderness where God could work on him and get him ready for the work ahead.

Leslie Weatherhead’s great little book, The Will of God (based on a series of sermons he preached in London during World War II) is one of the best discussions of this topic ever. Weatherhead describes three dimensions of God’s will – God’s intentional will – what God really wants to happen; God’s circumstantial will – what God makes of the situation when human free will changes the game plan; and God’s ultimate will – what the eventual outcome is. In Moses’ case God’s intentional will would be a peaceful resolution of the conflict Moses witnessed and liberation of the enslaved Hebrews; God’s circumstantial will or Plan B was to use Moses’ escape into the wilderness as a time of spiritual formation and preparation, and God’s ultimate will was to empower Moses once he was ready to lead the liberation of God’s people. The ultimate result is the same as the original intention; it just took a different path and about 40 years to happen.

It took that long because Moses wasn’t ready. I heard Rev. James Forbes preach on the Exodus many years ago and still appreciate his insight into that issue. Forbes said we know Moses’ wasn’t ready for leadership when he killed the Egyptian. He had the motivation; he was angry about the suffering of his people, but he let his anger consume him. What God needed was the compassion for those who suffer, the passion for liberation, the fire in the belly, but the maturity not to let that passion consume him. Forbes said that’s part of the significance of burning bush story in Exodus 3 where Moses finally hears God’s call. The bush was burning but it was not consumed.

When that happens, our will is in harmony with God’s playbook, and God’s ultimate will is done. No one knew that better than Jesus who prayed the prayer we all must pray, “Not my will but thy will be done.” Amen.

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“Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real,” I Kings 19:1-15

I have a few moments in life that are free of fear and worry – I call them moments of sheer panic. But with God’s help, there’s another name for such moments – we call them “peace.”

Travelers insurance ran a series of TV commercials a few years ago about fear. One of my favorites showed a bunch of cute bunnies who are confronted by a very large menacing rattle snake. We see the panic in their little rabbit eyes. But then something strange happens. The rabbits all start laughing hysterically, and as the camera pans around to show a full view of the snake, we see why. Instead of a real rattle, this snake has a pink baby rattle duct taped to his tail. And the announcer says, “Let Travelers take the scary out of life.”

With all due respect to any of you who are in the insurance industry – we can’t really take the scary out of life thru any kind of financial instruments. We even call our investments “securities.” But as we know from the recent roller coaster recession, they aren’t always. I hasten to add that we all need insurance because insurance can take some of the pain out of accidents and life events. When Hurricane Ike took half the roof off our house a couple of years ago we were very glad to have coverage that paid most of the cost of putting a roof back over our heads. But any time we get high winds and ominous skies and the tornado sirens are wailing, it’s still scary.

I even read in the Columbus Dispatch recently that you can now buy divorce insurance. Honest, I’m not making that up. What a great wedding gift for the couple that has everything? Sort of seems like betting against your own team, doesn’t it? I’ll check with Pete Rose about that next time I see him.

The problem is that it’s not insurance we need, its assurance. We all know money can’t buy happiness (even though we keep trying). Well, you can’t buy peace of mind either. That’s putting trust in things that “thieves can steal and rust and moths can consume,” – to quote Jesus in Matthew 6. Nothing that’s finite and material can give us peace because none of that stuff will last forever.

I mentioned the prophet Elijah in my Ash Wednesday post on “Transfiguration” a few weeks ago, and his story is worth a deeper look for what it can teach us. I Kings 19 tells how Elijah learned up close and personal how scary and uncertain life can be. Remember the job description for a ‘prophet’ in the Bible is not a fortune teller, but someone who speaks God’s truth to powerful people who need to hear it, and who usually don’t want to. It’s not a job for sissies. To understand Elijah’s fear, we need the back story that precedes chapter 19. In those chapters Elijah gets engaged in a super bowl contest with the prophets of Baal, one of the pagan gods in Israel. The odds are not good in this contest. 450 prophets of Baal vs. only 1 prophet for Yahweh, and that prophet is Elijah. The contest is pretty simple. Each team calls upon their god to send fire down from heaven and ignite a big bonfire they have built around an altar. The 450 prophets of Baal go first and try everything they can think of to implore Baal to show his power. Nothing happens.

When it’s Elijah’s turn, he decides to up the ante. He pours gallons and gallons of water on the wood piled around the altar. If any of you have ever been camping and tried to build a fire with wet wood, you know how difficult that is. But Elijah calls on Yahweh, and the altar is consumed in flames. And then the story takes an ugly turn. Elijah gets a little carried away with himself and his victory. It’s sort of like football players celebrating too much after a touchdown, only much, much worse. Elijah killed all of the prophets of Baal. I’m guessing he was still a little afraid of a rematch in a BCS bowl game; so he wasn’t taking any chances. But very seriously, we need a footnote and reminder that whenever we read these kinds of Hebrew scriptures that seem to glorify vengeance we need to read them thru the filter of Jesus’ commands that we love our enemies and turn the other cheek. Violence and revenge only perpetuate more of the same until someone says “enough, this is just not working.”

And speaking of vengeance – that’s exactly where we pick up the story in I Kings 19. Verse one says, “Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done.” Oops – now, Elijah is in deep do do. Ahab and Jezebel were king and queen of Israel and big fans of the false god Baal and his prophets. And Jezebel hasn’t heard Jesus’ message about loving enemies. She’s from the eye for an eye school, and when she threatens to kill Elijah he knows she means business. Let’s just say Jezebel was never in the running for Miss Congeniality.

So Elijah, quite understandably, is afraid. His flight or fight mechanism kicks in, and knowing he has no chance to win a power struggle with the wicked queen, he gets out of Dodge post haste. He goes a day’s journey into the wilderness and leaves his servant behind so he can be as alone as he feels. He is so scared and discouraged that he simply plops himself down under a solitary broom tree and asks that he might just die and get it over with.

Ever had times in your life when you are just ready to give up – when all hope is lost? Elijah is overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty. Life is coming at him fast in the form of Jezebel’s hit men, and he sees no way out. He has forgotten about the God of Moses and Ruth and Abraham and Sarah who can make a way out of no way.

There are several lessons we can learn from Elijah about coping with uncertainty in our lives:

Lesson 1: God provides for our needs.

Elijah has forgotten God, but God hasn’t forgotten Elijah. God sends room service – an angel touches him, not once but twice, and says “get up and eat or the journey will be too much for you.” And that angel is not just talking about Elijah’s trip from point A to B. He’s talking about the journey of life. When we are lost and lonely and grieving, we frequently lose our appetite or literally forget to eat. But God provides for our needs—both physical and spiritual– when we’re ready to receive them–and frequently in most unexpected ways.

Elijah eats the food provided by God, and it must have been really good food. The text tells us that “on the strength of that food Elijah went on for 40 days and nights,” Why 40? The same reason Lent is a 40-day period of preparation for Easter. 40 is a Biblical number that is used often to show us how long God provides for us; and the answer is for as long as it takes. Noah’s flood lasted 40 days and nights. The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. And Elijah travels for 40 days. All of that means God is with us for the long haul. The 40’s are not necessarily literal numbers but a way to remind us that God provides for us for as long as it takes, no matter how long that is.

And please note where Elijah’s journey takes him – to Mt. Horeb, the mount of God. Horeb is another Hebrew name for a mountain we know better as Mt. Sinai, the very place that Moses ascends during the Exodus to receive the 10 commandments. Just as we call that big mountain in Alaska “Denali” or “McKinley” because it was named by different tribes of people at different times, so the Hebrews had two names for this Holy place where God’s presence was found.

Elijah thought he was running away from evil, but he was really running to God. He doesn’t know it, apparently, just as we are often surprised when we stumble into God when we least expect to, because there is no place we can go that God is not already there.

Lesson 2: We are never separated from God.

And that’s another important lesson for us to learn from this story – we can run, but we can’t hide from God. God comes to Elijah in the cave where he is hiding and asks a haunting question that we all need to hear. God says, “what are you doing here Elijah?’ And Elijah takes the question, as we often do, too literally. He goes into this long sob story about how awful his life is and why he needs to hide, and how he’s the only faithful person left on the face of the earth. But the question for Elijah and for us is not so literal – it’s a life purpose and mission question – what are we doing here? What is our life purpose as individual Christians, as a church, as citizens of a troubled nation and world? What are we doing to make a difference? Hiding because we’re afraid, because life is coming at us too fast? Saving up for a rainy day instead of trusting God’s abundance and providence to meet our needs? Snarfing up all the manna from heaven we can find in case God reneges on his promise and fails to provide daily bread for us tomorrow or next week? Because we trust God to provide for us every day, the Lord’s prayer doesn’t ask for food to last us until spring or until the economy recovers – we simply pray “give us this day our DAILY bread.”

What are we doing here? Shaking in our boots, making excuses, complaining about how awful those politicians or CEO’s or terrorists, relatives, bosses, kids, spouses, teachers, coaches, preachers… are making our lives? Or are we drawing on the resources of our faith and our mighty God and living lives of faithfulness–confronting our fears and turning them over to the only one who can ever really take the scary out of life.

Lesson 3: Most Fear = False Evidence Appearing Real

Most fears are false evidence appearing real, but the only way to know that is to face them. You can’t defeat an imaginary foe. Our granddaughter once told her little brother that there were vampires living in the closet in his room. For weeks he was afraid to go into his room alone because he believed his sister’s false evidence was real. Elijah was afraid because he believed he was totally alone, doomed, abandoned by God and everyone else. He believed that he was dead meat, and as we will see, he was dead wrong on all counts. His fear was fed by false evidence appearing real.

Lesson 4: We all need time alone with God ….

The next lesson here is that Elijah needs rest – time alone with God. And we all need that. Turn off the “smart” phone and computer and Ipod and tv and telephone, and take time, regularly to relax, re-create our bodies, minds and souls. We all need vacations, sabbaticals, retreats – even Jesus did, and if he did, what makes us think we don’t? We need time to listen for God’s still small voice. As Elijah learns, God doesn’t always speak to us in earthquakes or wind or fire, but in what one translation calls “the sound of sheer silence.” In other words, if we want to hear what God is telling us, we need to shut up and listen. And that includes when we pray. Don’t just spend all your prayer time telling God things God already knows! Take time to listen.

Lesson 5: We need time alone with God… But, we can’t stay there permanently.

Next lesson, yes, we do regularly need retreats – time alone, but we can’t stay there permanently. In the Gospel accounts, when Jesus takes Peter and James and John with him for a mountain top experience and Elijah and Moses appear to them, the disciples first reaction is to homestead there. They want to build houses for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but Jesus says, no. He knows they have much work to do down in Jerusalem and can’t stay on the mountain forever.

My church’s mission statement says “We share God’s love by words and action.” We need to walk our talk. God’s question is what are we doing here? The letter of James says “faith without works is dead.” We can’t work our way into heaven, but we also know that faith inspires lives that bear good fruit. Of course it is important to be assured of our personal and individual salvation – but that’s only half the gospel. Remember that when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus didn’t stop with one. He said we need to love God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, but then he says the second is equally important — love your neighbor as yourself.

OK, I can hear what many of you are thinking. It’s the “yes, but” moment in the sermon. You’re thinking, “that’s good, Steve. We believe it, but we’ve got too much to do. There are too many problems in the world. We can’t possibly fix them all. We’d like to help and we do what we can, but we feel so alone.” When the “yes, buts” raise their ugly heads, we need to get off our buts and trust God—because …

Lesson 6: We are NEVER in this Alone!

Perhaps the most important lesson of this Elijah story is that we are never alone, even though it often feels like we are. Elijah is never alone. He is suffering, but we all suffer. It’s part of the human condition. There are two parts to this lesson – we are obviously never away from God (see point #1 above). But sometimes we feel like little Johnny who was afraid of a storm and unable to go to sleep one night. His mother went in to comfort him and reminded him that he had learned in Sunday School that God and Jesus were always with him, that he wasn’t alone. And Johnny said, “Yes, Mommy, I know, but sometimes I need somebody with skin on them.”

We all do, and the Elijah story reminds us that we never without human partners if we’re willing to see them and accept the fact that our partners in mission don’t always look the way we expect them to look. God says to Elijah later chapter 19 – “Go on your way and as you go anoint Elisha to be a prophet in your place and anoint Jehu as new king of Israel, and by the way, there are still 700 faithful people out there who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” We are never alone if we are doing God’s work.

It is so important to face our fears because fear motivates retreat. Fear shrink wraps the Gospel when it makes us afraid of being prophetic, of challenging bigotry and judgmental thinking. That kind of fear is the spark for burning flags and Korans instead of promoting dialogue and tolerance for different perspectives. Fear is what wants to throw the baby out with the bath instead of finding the good in any situation or relationship or failure or political system. Living in assurance means building on those 700 faithful ones instead of letting one evil queen or king silence the truth. Fear keeps us from getting to know others who appear so different from a distance but have the same needs for love and grace all humans have. It is so much easier to judge or fear a stereotype than someone we know as a fellow human being.

Faith is the only antidote to fear that works – it allows us to laugh at our own foolishness, just as the rabbits crack up in the Travelers’ commercial. We love and laugh at our fears because we know that God alone can take the scary out of life. How do we know that? We know the cross of Calvary and the tomb on Easter are empty. We know that in the game of life, the powers of evil and hatred and fear have a big goose egg on the scoreboard, and God’s eternal, life-giving love is off the charts. It’s a worse mismatch than OSU vs. Eastern Michigan. No contest.

Paul says it best in Romans 8 – “If God is for us, who is against us. For we know that nothing – hear that, nothing in all creation, not fear, worry, death, powers or principalities, nothing in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I leave you with a great question: If you knew you could accomplish anything God wants you to do and were guaranteed that you could not fail – what would you do with your life? Well guess what? The good news of the resurrected living Christ that we model our lives after is that we can’t fail if we have God on our side. In Christ, God has already taken the scary out of life and death once and for all.

That means we have no excuse to run and hide when life comes at us fast. God says, hey Steve, hey church, I have already conquered the world – so what are you doing here?

Transfiguration, Matthew 17:1-8

The transfiguration story is one of my favorite Gospel scriptures, but that was not always the case. For a long time this story of Jesus talking to two dead guys seemed a little weird to me. What are we sophisticated, rational, scientific 21st century people supposed to do with this ghost story?

The breakthrough for me and this text came when I was able to suspend my literal questions of what and how and look at this story instead through theological lenses. That ah hah moment happened for me when, after preaching for several years, it finally dawned on me that this transfiguration story in one of the Gospels shows up every year in the same place in the church lectionary. And it is always on the Sunday before Lent begins at a major turning point in the Christian year. We have just come through the joy and light of Christmas and Epiphany and now stand on the brink of the somber dark purples and blacks of Lent. The transfiguration story, this mountain top experience, stands right in the middle of all that, between Bethlehem and Calvary

Matthew 17 begins with the phrase “six days later.” What does that mean? When we hear things like that inquiring minds immediately ask, “What happened six days earlier?” If you read Matthew 16 you find that what happened six days earlier was a “come to Jesus” meeting where Jesus asks the disciples some important questions about what people were thinking and saying about who Jesus is. The final and most important question Jesus put to the disciples (and therefore to us) was, “Who do you say that I am?” Good old Peter of course is eager to answer. “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” he proudly blurts out. And he’s right of course. Like us, he knows the right answer on this test, but as the ensuing verses of chapter 16 show, he and the other disciples really don’t know it means. He knows who Jesus is, but he doesn’t REALLY know.

So in the transfiguration story and the verses just before it Jesus addresses that problem. He is preparing his disciples for what is to come in Jerusalem and beyond, just as Lent is a time of spiritual growth and preparation for us as well. In chapter 16 Jesus has tried to tell them about his coming death and resurrection, and they don’t get it. Peter answers the question correctly about who Jesus is, but he doesn’t really understand or accept the cost of discipleship.

So six days later Jesus tries again. He and his three key disciples have a mountain top experience. Like all mountain top experiences, this one is short-lived. There’s no video, no crowds or witnesses – just three scared fishermen and Jesus in a powerful encounter with God.

At first Peter, James and John love it up there. The view is fantastic, it’s peaceful and quiet – they have a moving experience, probably feeling closer to God than ever before in their lives. So quite naturally they want that glorious moment to last as long as possible. They want to stay on the mountain and live the good life away from all the problems and clamoring crowds in the valley below.

John Ortberg in his book and DVD series, “It All Goes back in the Box,” describes the most dangerous object in our homes. It’s not the power tools or the kitchen knives. He says the most dangerous item in our houses is the EZ chair. We even call them La-Z Boys! They seduce us into object lessons of inertia, don’t they? You remember, “An object at rest tends to stay at rest?” That’s not to say we don’t need moments of rest and relaxation. Many of us are so busy “doing” all the time that we don’t make time to simply “be.” We need time in the EZ chair; we just can’t make that our permanent residence.

When the disciples lobby for homesteading on the mountain, Jesus sees a teaching moment. He knows his purpose is not fame and fortune or a comfortable retirement. His is not a theology of glory, but a theology of the cross. God never promised Jesus or us a rose garden – just the garden of Gethsemane. We know that. We’ve seen this movie before, and we know what’s coming next. But every year, isn’t there just a part of us that still would like to think Jesus was wrong. Maybe this year scholars will discover an EZ chair version of this story? One that gets us to Easter without Good Friday.

We know that won’t work, and Lent is time for us to ponder our relationship to that reality. How much are we like the disciples arguing over who gets the EZ chairs next to Jesus in heaven? Can’t we just homestead on the mountain, build little booths for Elijah and Moses and Jesus, and avoid the pain of the valley below. But the full abundant life is not real in isolation. We need regular retreats but not escapes. More than ever before we need regular times to turn off all our electronic gadgets and background noise and be with God. We need times of solitude to renew a right spirit within us, to get a proper perspective so we can see where God is calling us to go next. We just can’t stay there on the mountain top.

We and the disciples aren’t the only ones that want the EZ chair life. The scriptures are full of tales of those who try to run away from God’s call: Jonah called to go preach to the heathens in Nineveh instead boards a ship (hopefully not one of Carnival’s) heading to Tarshish, 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Elijah runs for his life from Queen Jezebel to Mt. Horeb (aka Sinai). These two great stories show us that even if we go to the depths of the sea or to the highest mountain, God will find us and ask what he asked Elijah, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” That’s a great question to ask ourselves every day during this season of Lent: “what are we doing here?” Is it what God is calling us to do or what we want to do?

If you remember the Elijah story from I Kings 19, Elijah doesn’t get to stay on the mountain either – he is called back down into the valley to share God’s word with those desperately needing to hear it and save them from worshiping false gods. But Elijah doesn’t go down alone – God appoints Elisha to partner with him and carry on after Elijah’s death. Jesus can’t go down the mountain alone either. He needs us to carry on God’s work in his stead. Do you hear that call – “This is my son – listen to him,” says the voice of God? Listen, and then follow him, back down into the valley where those who suffer need comfort, where corruption needs to be confronted and corrected–back into the world where Jesus teaches us that the poor will be with us always.

It is not a journey for sissies. Jesus knows it leads to that other mountain he can see in the distance; not one of glory with two saints – but one with crosses and two crooks. None of us like to suffer – it’s scary. No matter how strong our faith, death fills us with some level of anxiety and dread. As comedian Woody Allen so aptly put it, “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t’ want to be there when it happens.”

In the presence of God’s power we all tremble, and the disciples do too. Matthew tells us when they heard the voice of God they fell on their faces – ouch, and not a good position to do much from either. And then listen what happens – Jesus came and touched them and their fear is gone. They are transfigured, changed, and “when they looked up they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

Jesus alone is all we need to see us through the dark valleys. If we let him he provides us with the courage to overcome our fears – to come out of hiding, off our mountains of pride and comfort and live in the real world. Jesus speaks to us calmly about real life – joy, suffering, death and resurrection, and because he’s been there and done that – we know we can too.

Lent and especially Ash Wednesday calls us to affirm all of life – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – to embrace not only the joy of Easter but the passion of the journey that takes us there. That journey begins again tonight, and in the transfiguration story we get a glimpse of the glory of God that is revealed in its fullness on Easter morning.

I would encourage you to seek mountain top moments this Lent –times when you feel especially close to God. Those moments won’t happen unless we put ourselves in position to witness God’s glory. We don’t have mountain top life-changing experiences unless we take time to climb the mountain. The good news is we don’t need to physically climb a mountain or even a hill. We get close to God through prayer, study, service, fasting or whatever spiritual disciplines work for you.

When we do and take time to listen, God teaches us not to seek only the mountains of glory, but to accept our Calvaries too, our failure, our sin, our mortality – not fearfully and anxiously, but obediently and trusting in the will and redemptive power of God

God’s promise is that on both mountains – the mountain of glory and mountain of the cross–and in the valleys in between – Jesus journeys with us, not just for 40 days plus 6 Sundays. Jesus is with us for the long haul and walks with us “even to the end of the age.”

(Preached Ash Wednesday 2013 at Jerome UMC, Plain City, Ohio)

“HEARING THE HEAVENS AND DOING THE WORD,” PS. 19:1-14

The heavens are telling the glory of God – without words – can you hear it?   Early morning bird song, gentle waves lapping at the sides of a canoe adrift on a lake at sunrise or sunset (if you aren’t a morning person!).    Most of us have felt the indescribable presence of God in nature at some time in our lives – as Robert Browning describes it in his famous poem, “Pippa’s Song:”

 “The year’s at the spring, and day’s at the morn,

Morning’s at seven; the hillside is dew-pearled;

The lark is on the wing; the snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world!”

We cherish such moments of communion with nature and the God who created it all – in part because it is extra-ordinary.  Such beauty transcends the mundane and ugly parts of life that are too much with us.  Partly because we don’t take time to seek out those special times and place, partly because it is increasingly hard to find such places in our hectic, crowded lives, polluted by noise and light and smog that tarnish our view of the heavens.  Yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch ran a story about air pollution being so bad in Beijing that they scored in the 700’s on a scale that is only supposed to go to 500!  A month after the Newtown massacre we know all too well that life is anything but peaceful and serene for far too many of God’s children.

Who was this Psalmist and what planet did he live on?  Would he or she have written such glowing idyllic words if he lived in the 21st century?  In our century of suicide bombers and devastation from storms caused by undeniable global warming and climate change?  What about the stagnant economy and congressional gridlock or senseless slaughter in Syria, starving kids in Darfur and Detroit?   The heavens may be telling the glory of God, but heaven is a long way from our troubled planet – and some skeptics say you can’t get there from here!!!

Given all that doom and gloom, even when we gaze at the vast expanse of the universe on a clear night and pray to our God in heaven, don’t we sometimes find ourselves feeling insignificant and lonely and asking what God’s done for us lately?

I know I do.  I can throw a great pity party – and then some friend on God’s behalf  reminds me that suffering is written large in every chapter of human history – from the crusades to the black  plague, from Roman imperialism to Nazi Germany and the Russian gulag, from the dark ages to modern day war lords, slavery and genocide.  And they also remind me that in every one of those generations a faithful remnant has heard and seen the cosmic goodness of God’s creation and refused to surrender to the forces of darkness.  Voices like Browning and our Psalmist have dared to affirm the goodness of creation and life, not because of turmoil and trouble, but in spite of it.  Luther, Augustine, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Paul of tarsus, Jesus of Nazareth – just to name a few – too many voices of hope that have made too great an impact on the world to write them off as unrealistic optimists.

And that doesn’t even begin to address biblical history.  Like many parts of the Bible, we don’t know for sure who wrote this Psalm or when, but knowing what we know about the history of Israel, it doesn’t really matter.  To get a picture of Israel’s political and economic history – imagine a place like Ohio being an independent country and all of our neighbors – Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, even Canada and that state up north, all take turns overrunning the Buckeye state and taking over our government and economy.  At one point we Ohioans are driven by a famine to Kentucky in search for food, and end up being slaves there for several hundred years to the pharaoh of Lexington.   When we finally escape and cross the Ohio River again, other people have taken over our homeland, and we have to fight a bitter guerilla war to reclaim it.  A then a few centuries later Michigan invades Ohio and our leaders are carried off to exile in Ann. Arbor.

Pretty ugly, right?  Well that’s Israel’s history – Israel isn’t a great agricultural country – they don’t have lots of natural resources or wealth; but what they had, especially in Bible times was location, location, location.   Remember your geography and Israel’s location in that narrow strip of arable land along the Mediterranean coast.  It’s called the Fertile Crescent because everything for hundreds of miles to the west is desert.  So that narrow strip of land was the only trade route between the great political and economic super powers of the day.  The only safe way between Greece, Assyria, Babylon and Rome on the north and Egypt on the south went right through Israel; so everyone wanted to control it, and took turns doing so.  My point is that no matter when this 19th Psalm was written, it could not have been describing some utopian era when “all was right with the world” because no such time to this day has ever existed in Israeli history.  The Jews are fully acquainted with grief – to the point where Tevye in that great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” at one point asks God, “couldn’t you choose someone else once in awhile?”

And yet in this Psalm and throughout the calamities of slavery, exile, wars and rumors of wars, God’s people appreciate and witness to the glory of God.  They heard the heavens proclaiming the glory of God – do we?

Maybe the Hebrews were closer to the earth and creation than we are in our urbanized technological world, but that’s no excuse.  God is still speaking and the cosmos is as magnificent and awesome as ever if we take time to listen to its power and assurance.  As the epistle James (1:17) puts it, “Every generous act is from above, from God, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”   God and the universe don’t change, no matter how badly we humans mess things up – that’s the good news.

The temptation for some, even many of us, may be to withdraw into the beauty of nature and tune out the cacophony of human conflict.  When I hear the shouting matches going on in federal and local legislatures over fiscal reform or hear the litany of senseless violence and tragedy on the nightly news, I can see value in high tailing it to Walden Pond or a remote mountain somewhere and communing with nature forever.  But we know better.   It’s not enough to hear the heavens proclaim the glory of God; we are expected to put that heavenly assurance into action.  From Micah’s admonition to “do justice” (6:8) to James urging us to “be doers of God’s word, and not hearers only” (1:22), the biblical message is clear.  We need faith and hope and strength from God in any form we can get it – but it’s not there to hoard for a rainy day.  Love is only love if you give it away, or as James puts it even more forcefully later in this letter – “faith without works is dead” (2:26).

Talk can be cheap, and we know actions speak louder than words.  So what does doing God’s word look like for us as Jesus followers today?  To be doers of the word we need to surrender control and allow the ways of Christ to inform every decision we make–about vocations and vacations, how we spend our time and money, how we share our resources and care for mother earth.  And beyond acts of charity and kindness, to prayerfully examine how doers of God’s word can make positive contributions to public policies that shape and influence the lives of everyone in society, not just our own.

We could say, “I have health care and my family is taken care of, so let’s leave the system the way it is, it works for me!!!”   Or, “there’s enough money in social security to last my life time, global warming won’t get serious till after I’m gone; so let someone else worry about those complicated issues.”

No, what the heavens proclaim from our cosmic God requires bigger thinking and responsibility from us, and by the grace of God we are capable of bold, creative action, even if fair and equitable solutions to health care and other social justice issues seem currently impossible to achieve.

Yes, the heavens proclaim God’s glory, but we still know that all is not right with the world; and guess whose job it is to fix it?  When we think about the beauty of God’s creation, we need to remind ourselves that the Bible doesn’t begin with Genesis chapter 3, which is where Adam and Eve get booted out of the garden.  The Bible begins with Genesis, chapter 1 – where humans are created in the very image of God and entrusted to be God’s agents and stewards in the world.

Let’s be very clear that to be God’s agents and doers of the word is not advocating for some kind of works righteousness.  We aren’t called to be doers of God’s word to earn brownie points with God.  None of us can do enough good deeds to earn our salvation – that’s a gift of grace for those who repent and surrender to God’s word.  Faith produces good works, not vice versa.  People of faith can’t not do acts of justice and compassion, because once we truly hear the heavenly voice of God we know we are connected to each other – we are brothers and sisters in Christ, including those who don’t yet know we’re all kin.

Above the clamor and racket of modern life, the heavens are still telling the glory of God today.  Stop, look and listen for it – hear the power and the majesty – the power and the majesty beyond words, beyond human comprehension, beyond human suffering and injustice!

Stop, listen, hear the heavenly voices, and then go from the places of cosmic beauty renewed, refreshed and inspired to be doers of justice and compassion and hope for those who most need to hear what the heavens are proclaiming.

HEARING AND BEING THE VOICE OF GOD: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

There’s a famous line in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” where a frustrated prison guard tells the prisoner, Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”  It’s a great line but not quite true.  The problem is not communication; Luke heard the message, he just chose to ignore what the prison guard wanted him to do.  I wonder if we have a similar communication problem with God.   The lectionary texts for January 8th are all about communication, in particular about the power of the voice of God.  Literally from Day One (Gen. 1:1-5) to the Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:4-11) to Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7), God speaks and big things happen.  And the Psalm for this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Psalm 29, speaks directly about the power of “Voice of the Lord” seven times in 11 verses and by implication several other times.

Communication scholars describe Speech-Act theory as the phenomenon by which language has the power to create or change reality.  Anyone who has ever stood before a clergy person or a justice of the peace and said two little words, “I do,” knows very well that their lives are forever changed from that moment forward.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a little ditty most of us learned at an early age.  The problem is it isn’t true.  Words have power to hurt and heal.  Most bullying begins with name calling and naming our political or personal enemies in ways that depersonalize and demonize them is the first step toward justifying abusive and unkind treatment that can ultimately lead to violence and death.

The words we use are a matter of life and death, of light and darkness.  Psalm 29 contains a whole litany of things that the voice of God can do: thunder, break cedars, fire, shake the wilderness, whirl oaks, strip forests and cause floods.  This must be where the insurance companies get their justification for excluding from coverage (read the fine print) natural disasters as “Acts of God.”

I am more interested in what these texts say about the power of God’s voice to transform human lives than I am the cause of natural disasters.  Genesis 1 tells us God spoke light into darkness, and that speech act is far more important symbolically than the on-going debate between creationism and evolution.  The darkness God expelled on day 1 of creation is wonderful, but a more relevant question is “what has God done for us lately?”  There are still far too many black holes of darkness in our world and our hearts today that need the light of God’s powerful voice of truth.

I love this parable by an anonymous author:

A pilgrim asks a wise one about the moment when we can tell darkness from the dawn.  “Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a goat?” she asks.  “No.”

“Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?”

“No,” says the elder. “When you can look into another’s eyes and say, ‘you are my brother, you are sister,’ that is the dawn.   Until then, there is only darkness.”

Both the Mark 1 text and Acts 19 deal with hearing God’s voice through the sacramental act of baptism.  Both texts tell us that John the Baptist preached and performed a baptism of repentance and belief in Jesus as the anointed one who came after John.  Mark doesn’t address the perplexing question of why Jesus needed a baptism of repentance because that’s not the point of that text, and not the full meaning of baptism.  Repentance is a critical first step in transformation, but only a prelude to what an anointed, spirit-led disciple can do.  When Paul asks the Christians in Ephesus “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul proceeds to fix that problem but in doing so creates a theological dilemma for us.  Paul baptizes those Ephesians a second time.  To this day rebaptism is a controversial issue among Christians of different persuasions, along with what kind of baptism counts, how it’s done, at what age, by whom, etc.

Our different opinions on such matters can sometime be humorous.  One person, when asked if he believed in infant baptism replied, “Believe in it!  I’ve seen it.”   Or when my children were young and we were visiting a Baptist church where my daughter was playing in a piano recital.  After the recital our son went up to explore the chancel area and came back to excitedly report, “Dad, they have a Jacuzzi up there!”

Let’s put the debates about sprinkling or pouring or immersing aside for now and focus on one key point of the Acts text and Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism– what the power of the Holy Spirit does to transform lives.  It’s not the water or how or when it’s applied that matters, it’s the voice of God and whether we hear it.    Jesus’ public ministry begins from the moment he hears the voice of God saying “You are my son….”   The question is have we heard God say, “you are my daughter, you are my son, and with you I am pleased?”

Gospel interpreters sometime wonder if Jesus was the only one who heard God’s voice there beside the Jordan. Given God’s propensity to speak in parables and metaphors and in “a still small voice” (I Kgs 19:12), I’d bet he was.  And so would Fred Craddock, I believe, who loves to say that when it came to his call to ministry it would have been so much easier if God had called him in a voice loud enough that his friends and relatives could have heard it too.

We liberal, sophisticated Christians are often afraid of the emotion associated with Pentecostal Christianity.  But we dare not let that fear make us miss the positive power of the voice, breath, and spirit of God to transform lives.    Jesus is transformed into the Messiah at his baptism and empowered by the voice of God to resist every temptation that Satan can throw at him in the wilderness.  God’s voice enables Jesus to find his voice to speak truth and salvation as God’s messenger.  We don’t know where Jesus was hanging out till he was 30, but we do know that at this pivotal moment Jesus emerges to “shout from the housetops what the Spirit has told him in a whisper” (Matt. 10:27).   By the power of God’s voice he is inspired to go public with his ministry with a passion that enabled him to set his face toward Jerusalem’s cross and never look back, even when his closest friends try their best to persuade him to renounce his calling and take an easier route.

And here’s the important point so don’t miss it– it’s not just Jesus who is transformed and empowered by the voice of God.  In the text from Acts 19 we see how the ordinary folks in Ephesus are also changed into God’s messengers. “The Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (19:7).   Those are loaded terms that may need clarification.  Speaking in tongues for many of us conjures up images of ecstatic nonsense speech that is unfamiliar and incomprehensible.  But what if we interpret tongues to mean that these people were on fire for God and spoke with passion about their faith in ways that people of many different cultures and ethnic groups could understand, as they did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2)?   Acts 19 also tells us these new baptizees “prophesied,” another term that can have negative connotations if we take prophesying to mean what psychics who advertise on late night TV do.  Biblical prophets are not fortune tellers or crystal ball gazers.  A biblical prophet is simply someone who speaks for God.  They are those who know God’s truth and are emboldened by God’s presence in their lives to proclaim good news to a world starving for some.

The world needs people in every walk of life who have heard the voice of God and are willing not only to talk that talk but to walk God’s walk.  To do that takes incredible courage and faith in a world where people of faith are often aliens in a strange land.  To have the courage of our convictions means that all of us, clergy and laity alike are called to witness to our faith by word and action, even when we know the dangers and risks involved in speaking an uncomfortable truth – in love.  The risks of that kind of truth are exemplified quite simply in the fact that the Greek word for “witness” is also the word for “martyr.”

All baptized Christians are called to be witnesses and prophets for God, and the enormity of that calling means we all need to be anointed by God’s spirit.  We cannot hope to fulfill the ministry we are baptized into without the power of God’s spirit to guide and direct us.  God knows we all need a baptism of repentance, but we also need the power of the Holy Spirit to move us from repentance and forgiveness to become proactive messengers who dare to become the voice of God that transforms lives and the world.