One Monday I heard both of these claims:
- First, someone shared the exciting news of a special ministry event in which he had participated. What made it so exciting, he said, was that “Satan was trying to stop us at every turn.” He went on to describe a long strings of challenges and threats to the success of the event. The team, with God’s help, overcame all the challenges, and had a wonderful, blessed time!
- Then, less than 2 hours later, another man shared that he had been learning the lesson of discernment from this fabulous Christian book. To sum it up, one can discern one is on track to follow God’s will as obstacles are overcome through seeking counsel, logic, wisdom, and God. The lowering of obstacles is a sure sign of God’s will!
So, which is it? Do you know you are on the right track when Satan is throwing obstacles in your way, or when God is providing an obstacle-free path to follow.
Call me cynical, but the answer is obvious. We discern we are following God’s will, or the right way, when we do what we have determined we will do. If obstacles arise, we ask God to overcome Satan. If obstacles don’t arise, we assume, I suppose, God has already overcome Satan.
The Christian tendency is to turn to “Biblical Principles” to direct discernment. You know as well as I do that given enough time and practice at ‘spin,’ almost anything can be made to sound like a “Biblical Principle.” Let’s face it: for years, slavery was accepted as a “Biblical Principle”!
What has your experience been in your quest for discernment? Have you moved beyond finding the proper steps to under gird your own will? If so, how?
Have you ever gotten the sense that God was looking for you?
Not that God doesn’t always know where you are. That’s a different discussion. Sometimes it feels like, maybe, well, if it were a commercial, “God is looking for a few good men!” If it were a poster at the post office, made, “God wants YOU to join the (heavenly) army.”
Have you ever just had this really strong feeling that God was around, and that God was interested in YOU?
Some of us get the feeling that God is looking for us whenever we do something wrong. When we give into temptation; tell that lie (however small a lie), steal the money – or time, or pirate a movie or song, or spend time on parts of the internet that mean no one any good.
But this morning I invite you to consider that God looks for you not to punish or condemn, but to love.
After all, Jesus himself said he “came to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
This is the God, after all, of whom David wrote:
Lord, you have examined me.
You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.
Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
the light will become night around me,”
even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
Nighttime would shine bright as day,
because darkness is the same as light to you!
and those are just the first 10 verses of the 139th Psalm!
Maybe you have felt, at least from time to time, like God was looking for you – out of love, not out of vengeance.
Maybe you haven’t
I want to assure you with all I know and believe, that God – the God who we know best in Jesus – loves you, as the bible says, “I have loved you with a love that lasts forever. And so with unfailing love, I have drawn you to myself,” (Jeremiah 31:3) and is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” (Exodus, Numbers, Psalms, Nehemiah, Joel)> As Exodus 34:6 specifically says, “God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness.”
This is the God who is looking for you, and who came, in Jesus, “to seek and save the lost.”
At least in some since, you’ve been found! You are here, among others, with others – some you know, some you don’t, because, some way or another, God has found you.
God has found you! Did you even know God was looking – looking just for you?
If God has indeed found us: found you, and found me, what do we do with that?
Do we believe God has found us? Do we follow? Do we have to believe to follow? Do we have to follow to believe?
Would it surprise you if I told you Jesus never walked up to anyone and said, “believe in me,” but he did – regularly, it seems – invite people to follow him.
We the people of Euless First UMC are trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday. Do we all believe? Well, I’d have to say the answer to that question is probably yes and no. For each of us.
Let’s face it; even the most seemingly faithful among us do not live lives that portray Jesus every day, with every breath that passes from us. Some, I’m sure, struggle to believe some of the stories of the Bible. Some struggle to believe that God is present every day; that God cares every day.
But I believe this is the really good news for us, and for everyone, whether or not we can believe it all, hook, line, and sinker, we can all follow.
And Jesus’ way sure seems to me to be a healthy, wise, insightful, caring, loving way to live.
Jesus’ way is exactly the way God would live if God were human. Because Jesus is, we believe, God incarnate in humanity.
Now we are back to believing! It’s hard to get your mind around God in humanity. That’s a good sign. If you and I could understand it – could really get our minds all the way around it, we really wouldn’t be talking about much of a God, would we?
We’ve all got our challenges, right? I remind you that there is still nothing new under the sun. No matter the technology, no matter the political situation, no matter the year the calendar marks, Solomon’s wisdom stands: there is nothing new under the sun. We all have our challenges.
I mean, like at this morning’s story from Luke’s gospel. Jesus and his disciples are heading for Jerusalem. Someone approaches and does something no one else had done.
He says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Now, Peter says something very much like this, but Peter had already been following Jesus when he said this.
This guy, in Luke 9:57, cold calls Jesus. It’s like he thinks he is making Jesus an offer he can’t refuse.
When we think we might be doing God, or Jesus, or someone else a favor, and this is what motivates us to follow Jesus, Jesus has these words for us: “Foxes have dens and birds in the sky have nests, but God incarnate in humanity has no place to lay his head.”
Jesus never promised you a rose garden; much less a McMansion or a pension, or even a lazyboy.
Following Jesus is hard, challenging stuff; but it is more rewarding than anything else you’ll ever try. And I don’t just mean eternal rewards. I specifically and especially do not mean merely “getting to go to heaven when you die.”
Christians: we have got to stop trying to sell Christianity as a way out of this life and into a heavenly afterlife. We lose people when we do so. Some of the ones we lose are among us: there are people among us who are long-time followers of Jesus who still worry day to day whether or not they’ve done enough, or done good enough, to “get to go to heaven when they die.”
Jesus is NOT about you or me doing ENOUGH to get to go to heaven when we do. Jesus is ALL about you and me following him here and now; and experience what Jesus called eternal life – knowing God – here and now.
Let me add, parenthetically, that if there is anything about Christianity that has stood the test of time it is this: Jesus came to take from our shoulders the weight of feeling like we have to “earn” eternal life or heaven.
So, I don’t know if you got your sense that you have to earn it from overbearing parents or just from capitalist dogma. I don’t know if your earliest, deepest-buried memories of getting love from your parents depended upon your crying loud enough to be heard or looking sorry enough to be forgiven, but our God isn’t like that. I don’t know if you have read a market-economy understanding onto salvation, but the salvation God offers cannot be bought – or sold – and is not subject to the law of supply and demand. Rather, God’s love and grace and offer of salvation is there, available for any who would come and follow: Paul wrote it this way in Romans 5:
6 While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people.7 It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. 8 But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 9 So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. 10 If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? 11 And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God.
It is not on you to earn it, to deserve it, to keep up a certain level of behavior to acquire or hold what God offers in Jesus. It is on you to follow.
So, this first man offers to follow Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t turn him away, but challenges him that it won’t be easy and the rewards offered might not be those he is looking for.
Then, immediately, Luke takes us to door #2. Behind door #2 is a man to whom Jesus extends the usual, “follow me.”
This man had other ideas. His plate was full and he had many other things to do. Could following Jesus fit well within his already established list of priorities? He made it about family – “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” – God cares about family, right?
Well, yes. God cares about family, but Jesus’ reply was “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”
By law, family was responsible for proper, respectful burial of family. Does the law stand in the way of following Jesus?
When Jesus calls to you, “follow me,” throwing the law back at Jesus will hardly win the argument. When Jesus calls to you, “follow me,” whatever reason or excuse that comes to mind, remember this: Jesus, God incarnate as a human is calling, and God is calling now. Everything else – EVERYTHING ELSE – moves down a level on the priority chart.
Then, door #3. The only other person in the gospels to cold-call Jesus: “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”
So, uh, Jesus, can we talk about this later? I’m kinda busy right now.
You may be too busy to follow Jesus. But consider this: the One who made you, who “created your innermost parts; who knit you together while you were still in your mother’s womb;” The One by whom you were “marvelously set apart, or, as an older translation put it, “fearfully and wonderfully made; the One who formed you from dust and breathed life into you; that One is calling, “follow me.”
If Jesus is calling, and you can hear it, then now is the time to follow.
Some, having believed, follow. Some, having begun to follow, find they have come to believe.
I think marriage is a good metaphor for it, and one that scripture uses throughout.
Did you really know what you were doing when you got married?
Thinking you could know someone well enough to make a fully informed decision on marriage is like waiting to have kids “till you’ve got enough money.” There is NOT enough money to raise kids. And there isn’t knowing someone well enough to make a fully informed decision.
This is because the kind of love that marriage calls for is the kind of love that is at least as much of the will as of the mind. It isn’t just about the dates or the data but the determination.
You don’t know someone well enough to marry them. You don’t love someone enough to marry them. You decide to marry them based on what you know, the love you feel, and your willingness to make a commitment.
Because you never really know what you’re doing when you get married. You not only don’t know your partner well enough; you don’t know yourself well enough! Let’s face it; what 20 year old, or 30 year old, or 50 year old knows himself or herself well enough to make a commitment forever?
You don’t know what tomorrow holds, let alone 10 or 30 or 60 years from now.
But you step in and you step up and you walk together. You follow the paths before you by parents, grandparents, and friends – by people who have walked the path of marriage before you.
Sometimes this works better than others. We learn along the way when to follow whom.
Jesus invites you to follow, and it is much like this, except you can ALWAYS count on Jesus to be worth following.
We say that we are “trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday,” and we mean it. If we aren’t following better, then, we have to admit, we aren’t really following. Actually following Jesus means getting better at following Jesus. This is the most beautiful part of it! Actually following Jesus means getting better at following Jesus.
I also think that part of following Jesus is inviting others to follow – follow Jesus, and follow you. After all, if you are following Jesus, and invite someone to follow you, you are inviting them to follow Jesus. We are tempted to say, “Don’t follow me, follow Jesus,” but this implies, and is too often lived out, as saying we aren’t really following Jesus.
Next Sunday I want to talk more about the directions I think our following Jesus together are taking us. Many of you have been part of this conversation for quite some time, but not everyone has. This is exciting stuff! We are trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday, and, as Jesus promised in John 15, it has been bearing fruit.
So, in closing, I want to invite you to follow Jesus. Jesus is calling you. Whatever else is going on around you, whatever other noise is in your ears or in your head, if you are here, or if you can hear this, Jesus is saying, “follow me,” inviting you to follow him.
Will you listen? Will you respond? Will you accept Jesus’ invitation?
Here’s my sermon from Sunday, July 26th. This opens the “Got Questions?” series. In the video, which will be available later in the week, we will include questions taken and answered during the sermon. This is only the part I prepared ahead of time.
Enjoy!Let’s start our “Got Questions” series with one of the few questions I’ve received. I’ll offer something of an answer, then share some thoughts, then invite you to ask questions as well.
Ready? Here’s the first question for the series. It starts at the very beginning; which, I’ve heard, is a very good place to start:
Did God make man on the sixth day (Genesis 1:27) or after the seventh day (Genesis 2:7)?
Well, now. That’s a question! In case some of you had not noticed, Genesis seems to tell of God’s creating humans two different times. In Genesis 1, male and female are created together on the 6th day. In Ch. 2, though, we get the longer version of the story: where first the man is created, and then woman is created out of Adam while he sleeps.
So, my answer to the question is: “yes.” God created man and woman on the sixth day AND afterwards. Although, actually, the second story seems to indicate that the first human was created on the first day of creation.
If you read further into the second chapter of Genesis, you notice that only one human is created, and that human is created before the animals.
This might leave some of you wondering, “well, which one is right?”
Which is a great place to start this message, and, for that matter, a whole sermon series called “Got Questions?”
I am attempting to divide the questions over these three sermons in this way: biblical, theological, and social. There is lots of overlap; that’s ok. This week, we look only at, or at least primarily at, biblical questions. In a few minutes, I intend to give you the opportunity to ask some yourself.
Back to the “which one is right?” question.
Asking the question, “which one is right?” between two bible verses says a lot about the kind of people we are.
We are, or tend to be, people who want straightforward, clear-cut answers. We want no interpretation necessary.
The Bible does not offer straightforward, clear-cut answers. In fact, I would go so far as to say the Bible REFUSES to offer straightforward, clear-cut answers.
It starts that way. Two different stories of creation in the first two chapters! The first is about God being the author of order, the second about God being our Creator
Before I pursue that any further, here’s what our church, the United Methodist Church, says about the Bible:
Article IV (EUB) We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.
This is NOT a “B I B L E stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” understanding of the Bible.
I don’t see how the Bible is an instruction book. This takes us back to the way the world we live in works; the age we live in thinks: We want instructions. Even better than instructions, just google your “how to” question and watch any of 17 to 70,000 videos on Youtube for “how to” do whatever you want to learn how to do!
The Bible, in fact, is not a book at all. It is a collection – a library if you will – of 66 books written over the course of more than a millennium.
Or, if it is a book, it is a book that “reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true guide for faith and practice.”
If the Bible were an instruction book, I expect Jesus would have answered questions differently! Matthew 13, for example, is full of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. To explain the Kingdom, instead of a set of marching orders to political dominance and enforcement of proper social behaviors, Jesus tells them
A farmer went out to scatter seed…
The Kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. while people were sleeping, an enemy came in and planted weeds among the wheat…
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field…
… is like merchant of fine pearls…
… is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish…
The vast majority of the Bible is narrative, or story. But, then, if the Bible reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true guide for faith and practice, it makes sense that it is story; we LIVE IN STORY.
Think, for a minute, about what Jesus’ bible was. Do you know what Bible Jesus read? Not only did Jesus NOT have an iphone or a tablet computer to carry around to look up scriptures, but he didn’t even have a book – a bound version – to carry around. It is, in fact, very likely that Jesus did not own a copy of the Hebrew Bible – what we call the Old Testament, but in a different order.
It is most likely that Jesus learned what he learned about the Bible in school and from listening to adults talk about it.
The Bible, and what it says and what it means belongs to the community of the people who claim the Bible as their book; as authoritative in their lives. We read it, collectively and individually, because we believe it reveals the Word of God as far as is necessary for our salvation.
And we must remember that reading it together is as important as reading it apart. Each of the 66 books of the Bible was written more than 1000 years before the printing press, so there was no expectation of personal daily reading.
Our modern expectation of personal daily reading has sometimes replaced reading and wrestling with the scriptures together as God’s people.
Jewish culture in Jesus’ day, as now, I’m told, was full of discussion and debate about the stories that make up the scriptures. Here is a parable that expresses this value:
Two rabbis are arguing over a verse in the Torah, an argument that has gone on for over twenty years. In the parable God gets so annoyed by the endless discussion that he comes down and he tells them that he will reveal what it really means. However, right at this moment they respond by saying, “What right do you have to tell us what it means? You gave us the words, now leave us in peace to wrestle with them.”
So, Jesus learned from the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. The Jewish faith also has the mishnah, writings of oral traditions from Rabbis interpreting the Hebrew Bible, as well as the Talmud, a written compendium of all of this. The Talmud is 6200 pages long, and it is all about what the Bible means.
We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. But we don’t always use it that way!
Here is something else I feel it is important to say, then I’ll answer two more questions, then we’ll take some questions from you. There is no plain meaning, obvious, interpretation-free way to read the text. Some preachers will tell you there is. In fact, isn’t it convenient that the one person who gets to stand in front and hog the microphone claims there is one meaning to a scripture.
That one true, plain, obvious meaning is, of course, mine. The one I’m telling you.
Except the Bible doesn’t work that way!
For example: Some still (amazingly to me!) throw out Paul’s “Let your women keep silent in the church” verse which seems, right(?), to have a pretty obvious meaning. Except that Paul also writes that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)
Which is it? Well, I suppose that depends on what you intend the scripture to do. If you intend to weaponize the bible, to use it “at” someone else to put them in their place or prove yourself right and them wrong, then you have to decide which it is.
If you are reading the Bible as revealing the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation,” then I suppose you’ll get a different answer to that question.
Do you ever read the Bible ‘at’ other people? Have you ever had the Bible read ‘at’ you?
The other question is this: “Is homosexuality immoral from a biblical standpoint?
Scripture interprets scripture.” Here is my answer: It seems that way to most people. However, even this, I am convinced, brings up more challenges than we want it to. First off, as I’ve pointed out before, the bible NOWHERE mentions homosexuality as an orientation. It does, in as many as 6 different places, refer to some forms of homosexual behavior.
Which leads me to this: Who is asking if “homosexuality is immoral from a biblical standpoint?” Now, I know who asked the question, but that’s not what I mean.
Typically, it seems, confirmed, even adamantly heterosexual individuals ask if homosexuality is immoral. Sometimes they are curious, sometimes they intend to weaponize the scriptures.
Maybe more heterosexual folk ought to spend more time wondering if gossip is immoral than if homosexuality is immoral.
Most of us are probably following Jesus better if we question our own behaviors and motivations and attitudes than those of others.
The final question, before I take yours, is Christ said “my body GIVEN for you”, but in your serving of Communion you say “Jesus’ body BROKEN for you”. Why do you do this?
Great question! The first time I was asked this, I admit, I got a bit defensive. I mean, I absolutely understood the question. Isaiah and John both make it a point to say that the Savior’s atoning death would occur without the breaking of a bone. Why, then, did I say, “Christ’s body, which is broken for you.”?
When I was first asked, I didn’t know why I do this. It didn’t take me long, though, to find out.
I do this because the translation of 1 Corinthians 11:24 that I grew up with said “And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.” I say it this way because
- it’s in the Bible that way; and
- that’s the way I learned it when I was younger.
On this second point, I have a confession: I used to get really irritated when people would say, at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, WHO art in heaven….” Because the King James CLEARLY says “Our Father, WHICH art in heaven….”
Each of us read the Bible the way we have learned to read the Bible, and not exactly the same way as others read the Bible. But we are invited to wrestle, struggle together WITH the Bible because it reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation.
Josiah became King of Judah when he was 8 years old. At 26, he determined the Temple would be renovated. Part of the clean up of the Temple for this project was the discovery of the “Covenant Scroll” – the torah. When Josiah, the king heard it read, it broke his heart and he ripped his clothes – a cultural way of expressing deep sorrow, guilt, and grief.
The Word of God can have this effect on us. When we use it only, or even mostly, against others, though, we build walls around our own selves. When we weaponize God’s word against others, we dull ourselves to experience the power God’s word can have in us.
Contrast this with Jesus calling out the Pharisees with the way they use the Bible. They read some of it literally to the minutest detail, and then ignore other parts. More accurately, they use some of God’s word to rationalize why they don’t have to obey other parts of God’s word.
So, what are we to do? We all, like the pharisees, run the risk of using some parts of the Bible to trump others. In fact, John Wesley taught his followers to interpret the more difficult to understand parts of the Bible in light of the more straightforward. Or, perhaps, the more specific in terms of the broader.
For instance, how can Paul tell women to keep silent and also say that in Christ there is no male or female?
Because, clearly, one is more general, a broader, more universal reading, while the other is for some specific case.
We all interpret some parts of the Bible in terms of other parts.
It shows in the way we live. When we use the Bible against others, we find others assuming a defensive posture when we dare bring up the Bible or religion.
When we use the Bible to help us and others connect with the God who has this incredible long tradition of faithful love and commitment to people created in his own image, I suspect we find people more willing to listen.
What about you would make someone want to read the Bible the way you do?
I keep an old shoebox on the shelf in my closet. I take it down every once in a while and look through it. Usually, no more than once a year. But when I do, I cherish it!
This shoebox is where I keep letters and cards from Rachel from when we were dating. She lived in Fort Worth and I lived in McGregor. We talked most every day, but in this kind of relationship, there was always more to be said. So we wrote to each other. Rachel being more artistic than I also drew and painted on cards that she would send.
So, every so often I pull the box down and I read through them. It warms my heart and refreshes our relationship.
I feel like this is a pretty good image for what the Bible is or can be for us. Think of it as love letters to God’s people.
May you find the life and hope and forgiveness and faithful love in the Bible that the Bible is meant to offer. May you find it so clearly that you glow at the thought of it and that others see, and hear, and want to know more!
I made a quick stop in a Family Dollar store on my way to work this morning. I have had a hard time finding things in dollar stores in the past, so I asked the first employee I saw for help.
She told me they didn’t have what I was looking for, but that I should try the Dollar General across the street. For a second I thought I was on Miracle on 34th Street. I thanked her and moved on.
Sure enough, the Dollar General had what I was looking for (maybe Bono should try there). I told the clerk at Dollar General who helped me find it the story of Family Dollar referring me over there. She replied that they do this for each other.
I walked to my car thinking what a good business practice that was; that I would gladly stop at either of these stores again. I might, in fact, pass up some other store to bring my business to one of these.
Then God, I believe, invited me to consider the implications for my own line of work.
Would I be willing to recommend another church to someone who couldn’t find what they were looking for at mine?
I want to let something out about this series – regarding the subtitle “The Growing Divide Between Church and Life” specifically. The wording grew out of a few lines from a Steve Taylor song, “It’s a Personal Thing” that remains one of my favorites. Here is my ‘memorized’ version of the lyrics:
“I’m devout, I’m sincere, and I’m proud to say / that it’s had exactly no affect on who I am today. / I believe, for the benefit of all mankind / in the total separation of church and mind.”
Religion, or Church, or one’s relationship with God has become extremely personalized and privatized and individualized in recent years. I believe that much of the current “Rise of the ‘Nones’,” “I’m spiritual but not religious” and “I like Jesus but not the Church” categories result from this tendency, and are, perhaps, reasonable consequences to be expected.
How should we who (claim to) follow Jesus respond? Come and see!