New Beginnings: Isaac & His Family

New Beginnings: Isaac & His Family

Gen 21 – 35

“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” – Habakkuk 3.2

The Bible is a scrapbook! So much of Scripture is storytelling, isn’t it? I like to describe the stories with scrapbook images. Because the stories are so vivid I can just imagine the snapshots of family history taped into binders that hold all the memories of glory sightings. Glory sightings might not be a phrase you are familiar with. It generally means the places in your everyday walking around life where you see God at work. There are a lot of glory sightings in the story of Isaac & his family. But every good historical account of a family begins with the patriarch, Abraham. God made a promise to Father Abraham years ago that he would have a family tree as indescribable as dust in the wind and sand on the seashore. That’s pretty significant! Yet, it all started with one son, Abraham’s only son with his wife Sarah. God’s Covenant with Abraham was a promise that he would have descendants across the many generations to follow (Gen. 12.1-4, 13.14-16, 15.4-5, 17, 18.17-19, 22.15-18). And, so the story begins with a promise of a son, an heir – Isaac.

Time lapsed photography would should definite changes to both Abraham and Sarah as they waited for the promise of a family tree the size of the cosmos. It seems that Abraham was on a very lengthy journey prior to his having his son. And, during that time Abraham wandered the land in which his child would one day inherit. Abraham was preparing for the next generation to inhabit the land of promise with wells for watering flocks and family in addition to altars for worship. Abraham was learning people skills, and how to negotiate with others who were living in the land of promise. Abraham was discovering how to run his household by faith instead of fear by sending people away like his nephew Lot and his concubine Hagar who were not a part of the core family nucleus. God had his eye of Abraham and Sarah for 25 years prior to the conception and birth of their only son, Isaac. That’s a long time to wait for a child… 25 years! In fact they had grown old in the season of waiting. So much so that laughter became the conduit of the mystery of their faith.

Laughter is the sound of a new beginning! Our scrapbooking story begins with the announcement of a beloved son, Isaac, by none less than angels (Gen. 18.1-15). From conception to birth to circumcision to the weaning celebration all the details along the way were filled with laughter. From the promise of a son Abraham fell face down and lay on the ground with what I can only imagine is heart-warming belly laughter. I can only imagine Sarah feeling the rush of embarrassment with girly giggles when she hears the news of a soon coming child. Sarah had been barren for 90 years before she conceived (Gen. 21.2). She was certainly past the age of childbearing, and anything that smacked of youthful behavior. Yet, we hear the announcement and birth of Isaac is shrouded in laughter (Gen. 21.1-5). Sarah declares, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me” (Gen. 21.6). In fact Isaac’s name means “he laughs” (Gen. 21.6-7). His father laughed at the impossibility of his wife conceiving in her old age. His mother laughed at the possibility of she and Abraham becoming parents middle age. Then Ismael laughed at his brother (Gen. 21.8-13) mocking his young life at the weaning festivities. So much laughter with so many different nuances to it… When was the last time you had a hearty laugh? Laughter is the biblical way of expressing a newness that cannot be explained. The newness is a gift from God that is unmerited. The sound of joyous laughter brings grief and sorrow to an end (Mt 5.4, Lk 6.21, Jn 16.20-24).  Laughter speaks to barrenness, hopelessness, and death and says “beat it.” Laughter is the sound of surprise when the impossible becomes possible. But laughter can also be the sound of mocking when someone experiences fearfulness of their future much like young Ishmael. Laughter can turn our mourning into dancing, or set our hearts in fear and embarrassment.

Our laughter can turn quickly to disbelief when our faith in God is challenged. A significant challenge happens when God asks us point blank to give up our choices, our preferences on how our life stories will turn out. Have you been asked to surrender your most valuable possession? Has God invited you to live differently than you ever imagined? Just as Isaac approaches adulthood when he too will take the role of the head of the household, God asks Abraham to submit to the same cultural behavior as the Canaanite worshipers. At that time in history many communities in the Fertile Crescent worshiped child sacrifice. In the midst of a promise fulfilled God requires Abraham to let go of the fulfillment. Abraham take your hands off the wheel! Put your hands up and back away!

Arresting our fears and exercising our faith is key to walking with God. When we enter the second part of our story – the sacrifice of Isaac, our initial expectation would be that Abraham would negotiate with God. Based on Abraham’s cross-country record, having wondered across the promise land and settling conflict in very peculiar ways, one would assume that being tested by God would end miserably in failure. He is a smooth operator with skills at negotiating with kings and kinsmen. We might give him the very generous title of peacemaker or diplomat.

When we read about Abraham’s son Isaac, we really have to take in account the whole family system. We must wrestle with his parents -Abraham and Sarah- with their personality quarks and misbehaviors. What strikes me about Abraham is his ability to manage his life situations. Abraham knew how to handle strife in his life situations then making every effort to strategize to save his future. He was quick to eliminate conflict around him. To be sure Abraham’s personality was centered around manipulating his circumstances to avoid conflicts. As we observe the other leaders around Abraham, we could deduce that the Abraham was faced with domineering communities such as Egypt (Gen. 12.10-20). They were conquerors. And, it stands to reason why Abraham would want to avoid conflict with those kinds of people for fear of being enslaved by them. Abraham was also faced with leaders who seemed to intimidate him like Abimelek, and we see the embarrassed reaction of Abimelek when he returns Abraham’s wife (Gen. 20.8-18).

To illustrate the various kinds of personality quarks, we are going to play a game together. It’s called “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” We are going to do this together… Ready. Set. Go. What did you choose? For the sake of this sermon you are now going to reflect on which game piece you chose. Rock dominates (rules with an iron fist). Paper manipulates (triangulates others). Scissors intimidate (cut-people down).  Ouch!  It is amazing how we can take a simple children’s game and make it applicable to our adult relationships. Pastor Craig Green defines this analogy of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” in his book entitled “Conquering the Game of Control: Nurturing the Nature of God.” Just when we think our faith is stronger than our fears, this game reminds us that we still may be struggling with our own insecurities in life.

When you think about leadership, are you most familiar with throwing rocks at others, cutting people down, or smoothing relationship issues with negativity. Each style of leadership is reactionary based in our fears. As we assess these behaviors in Isaac’s family tree, we can better assess ourselves. At any given moment, we might be tempted to manipulate, intimidate, or dominate others to get what we want all in the context of fear. However, we must also remember that there are times we might attempt those same behaviors of manipulation, intimidation, and domination with God himself. As we read the story of how God required Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, can you imagine how Abraham’s behaviors might have been different if he had walked in fear instead of faith?

I have often wondered when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his child, the only son who could be eligible to fulfill the promise of God, if God wasn’t after something deep in Abraham’s heart. Perhaps he was testing Abraham to see whether his fear would conquer his faith. It is our good fortune that Abraham is able to conquer his personal preferences for his faithful commitment. Again, I can really identify with this situation. If I were asked to relinquish my children after having been given them as a gift from God, it would be devastating. To imagine God having given a gift only to take it away is a challenge for all of us. It makes us question: God are you just going to snatch my life away without reason or cause? It causes me to pay attention to my fears and my faithfulness.

Faith leads God’s people to acts of prayer, meditation, and blessing. Isaac found himself in the shadow of his father, the man we revere as the Father of our Faith. Being raised as the heir to his father’s household, Isaac would have observed and practiced the faith of his father. Isaac grows into a man who will grieved deeply at his mother’s death (Gen. 24.67). His father took time in his old age after Sarah’s death to arrange a marriage for Isaac. Abraham was very intentional about what kind of marriage was suitable for Isaac (Gen. 24.1-4). There would be no Canaanite women in the lineage.

Prayer will guide and guard Abraham’s servant as he seeks a wife for Isaac. The marriage to Rebekah was swathed in prayer (Gen. 24.12, 15, 45) and wrapped in blessing (Gen. 24.60). If there is included in this story a sworn oath, three recorded prayers, and a blessing how much more praying must have been done in the heart of those involved! It was while Isaac is meditating that his bride-to-be Rebekah would dismount and cover herself with a veil (Gen. 24.62-67). Moments of waiting on God would reveal the future and often leads to times of deep pondering and meditation.

Abraham died and bequeathed all his belongings to Isaac as the head of the household who would continue the lineage (Gen. 25). In the Hebrew tradition the head of the household was bequeathed a double blessing to ensure that the family name would continue. Abraham cared for the other children, but he paid special attention to Isaac as the one who would secure the family tree and the promise from God. As Isaac and Rebekah formed their family bond, Rebekah would be childless. It was through Isaac’s prayer that Rebekah would conceive and bear twins: Esau and Jacob.

After Isaac’s sons were born, the Lord revealed to Isaac the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham through his children (Gen. 26.2-6). God spoke the same commitment, “I will make you descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 26.4).  Isaac followed in Abraham’s footsteps. Where he dug a well for fresh water in the land, Isaac would experience God. Where Isaac experienced God, there he would establish an altar to worship the Lord and pitch his tent (Gen. 26.15, 22, 25). Isaac experienced God; he was called by God to continue the covenant promise given to Abraham (Gen. 26.18, 25, 32-33). After a long life, Rebekah and Isaac would die and be buried (Gen. 35.29). Yet, the promise remains for us today!

The fulfillment of God’s promise is often scandalous. Having grown up in an environment of fear, I was very disappointed to discover infertility issues due to disease complications. I desired to have an emotionally healthy family. But not long after Doug and I were married, I discovered that I had a disease called endometriosis which caused severe pain as well as ruptured cysts in my abdomen cavity. At age 23 I would undergo my first surgery for ruptured cysts and the removal of scar tissue in my abdomen. At the age of 24, 10 months later, I would have the same surgery again to remove more ruptured cysts and scar tissue. At the age of 25, I began chemical therapy to undergo menopause for a year. During that time, I began a master of divinity at A.T.S., I initiated the process of prayer ministry focusing on my inner-healing and deliverance from sin issues in my family tree. Through the process of prayer counseling, I found deep healing from the abusive environment of my community setting. Through it all, Doug and I were seeking to have children with no success. I had tried surgeries, chemical therapies, and infertility specialists to assist our conception. Then initiated adoption services through Catholic Charities.

After many prayer counseling sessions, I was invited to attend a prayer retreat. Many of my friends were involved and knew the prayer team. That weekend I had the privilege of God’s people praying for me, and God spoke clearly that I would conceive a child. About 6 weeks later I had a planned meeting with my physician for a hysterectomy at the age of 27. At that appointment, which happened to be my husband’s birthday, I discovered that I was pregnant with our first child.

When Doug and I first married, we used to visit his grandmother in the nursing home. I remember the moment we shared the news of our delivery date with Doug’s grandmother at the nursing home. She was quick to inform me that she already knew I was pregnant. She had prayed for us to have a child, and God let her know that her prayer would be answered. My fondest memory in seminary is being in Dr. Mercer’s homiletics class – eight months pregnant – and preaching from Mary’s Song in Luke’s Gospel quite unexpectedly as the passages were chosen by alphabetical order. I have it video-taped, and watch it from time to time.

My daughter’s delivery was dramatic as we had our largest snow storm in 100 years with almost two-feet of snow on the ground in Lexington. The day of her delivery date was indeed the day of her arrival. The Sunday night before the Friday delivery date, I felt my water break and we went to the hospital. They would send me home not understanding that my water had been leaking for some time, and my daughter would have a dry birth.

That night I heard from the Lord in my prayers this text from Job, “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, Or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of distress, For the day of war and battle?…” (Job 38.21-23). I had a vision of the storehouses and it began to snow on our way home from the hospital. It snowed off and on for a week until we reached the snowfall record. We were snowed in the morning that I went into labor. Doug couldn’t shovel our car out of the driveway. Our neighbor, whose name happened to be Angel, took us to the hospital. Because of the weather, only one doctor was able to make it into the hospital at the time of delivery. There was only one nurse who had to work two shifts to cover our delivery crisis. We were the only family in the hospital delivering that night!

Louisville Remembers 1998 Snow Storm: http://fox41blogs.typepad.com/wdrb_weather/2013/02/february-1998-the-forgotten-snowstorm.html

Lexington Reports 1998 Snow Fall: https://www.weather.gov/media/lmk/pdf/posters/feb98.pdf

When I shared the due date with my aunt, she burst into tears. She had been praying for us to conceive, and my due date was her birthday! Our child’s birthday also coincides with the birthday of my prayer counselor, which makes her birth all the more special! My husband named her Skylar Renee which means “scholar, born again.” There’s just something special about how her name is exactly who she is!  

Then we were later surprised with another unexpected pregnancy, our son. I love that God cares so much for our family that both our children strongly favor each of us as an act of redemption to be sure. And, my husband happens to be the last male heir on both sides of his family tree. Grayson is the last male heir for the Johnson-Bailey family. 

The glorious stories of God hang in the balance relying on families with the birth of their children! God’s promises begin with children and end with children. Children carry the birthright and the blessing forward into the next generation. Childrearing and parenting skills are required in old-age, and it is all a part of God’s plan. The story of our inheritance is wrapped in both history and mystery. The problem we struggle with here in Isaac’s story is the way God’s promise is fulfilled. We are challenged with the problem of faith: believing the unbelievable. The difference between God’s plan and our plan is who is in charge of the fulfillment. We feel a sense of entitlement to plan our own destiny in life. God’s plan is a gift, our plans are plotted by our own wants and desires. God’s plan is unique, because it is not based in impure motives and unproductive power struggles. When we think about how God fulfills his promise through the family system and especially children, we are left with no other recourse that to follow what God has ordained through the word of Jesus. Jesus once said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt. 19.14).

This week I had the privilege of speaking to Maysville Police Chief. As we discussed the local community concerns, I asked him what was his biggest concern that our church might invest in for the sake of improving the community-at-large. His response was that we would have “more compassion” toward our neighbors. I also asked him what people group would he like for us to focus on to help bring about change in our community. His response was “the young children who are still impressionable, teachable, and desire to be in right relationship with authority in the community.” I added to his list my own response, and that is prayer for our community and her leaders. So in three words my focus for the next six months of ministry will be on Hospitality (Agape Love), Children (the least of these), and Prayer.

When we seek to understand the Old Testament stories, we can find the connecting answers in the New Testament. Paul explains that when we walk by faith like Abraham then we too are walking as heirs to the promise of God. “So Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you. So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.’ … He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Galatians 3.5-14). Paul’s writing in Galatians teaches us that when we welcome Christ into our hearts, we accept the gift of the promise – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3.29).

God’s promise remains that Abraham will have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky, sand on the beach, and dust in the wind. May God bless our children who will one day follow in the shadow of Abraham and walk by faith and not in fear. May our children have a life devoted to God in prayer,  meditation and blessings. May laughter always be upon their lips in the face of their oppositions. Amen.

 

New Beginnings: Abraham & Sarah

New Beginnings: Abraham & Sarah

Gen 12-25

Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life’s tempestuous sea; unknown waves before me roll, hiding rock and treacherous shoal. Chart and compass came from thee; Jesus, Savior, pilot me. – UMH509

Let’s begin with reading about Abram in Genesis 12.1-9. “Father Abraham” is a familiar children’s song that teaches us about the promise of God to a create a nation built on faith in God’s Word. Faith is culturally defined by New Oxford American Dictionary as “trust, belief, confidence, conviction, optimism, hopefulness, and hope” and “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” Faith in itself requires consistent behavior that happens over a long period of time. Our whole lives are devoted to the cause of Christianity and that makes us faithful. True Christianity is not a moment of surrender with no follow through. True Christianity requires longevity, and we see that in the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis.

We can read about Abraham and all the patriarchs who walked by faith in what I like to call the “New Testament Faith Hall of Fame.” This “hall of fame” is recorded in the Letter called Hebrews (Heb. 11). I love how Paul writes about Christian faith in Hebrews, saying, “But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” (Heb. 10.39-11.1). And, this faith is what is required of us who are Christians today.

Let’s read Hebrews 11.

God calls Abram to abandon everything and follow God to a new life by faith. Abram’s radical obedience becomes the model of faith in the Old Testament and for Christians everywhere (Gal. 3.6).

Abram’s faith provides the answer to the problem of sin and prideful rebellion that has escalated since the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3) and culminated in the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11). The opening words of our passage today draw us away from the Abram’s family tree to one historical figure of our faith-heritage, Abram, who will soon be renamed Abraham.

Before we dig into Abraham’s conversion, call, and commission. I want to take a broad sweep of his lifestory, and then we will narrow our focus to our passage today. To fully grasp Abraham’s character we really have to read across the pages of Genesis from Genesis 11 through chapter 25. Jewish tradition would hold that Abraham knew Noah and grew up hearing the stories of creation and the flood. His life spanned 175 years. Which gave him many years to live into this faithfulness. What we know most about is Abraham’s life from age 75 to 100. The details that are written down in the bible help us to understand how God spoke to Abraham and guided him through this critical season until the fulfillment of God’s covenant with him.

After Abraham’s conversion, call, and commission in Genesis 12.1-9, Abraham is challenged with various crises: famines, quarreling with his Nephew Lot, cultural immorality at Sodom & Gomorrah, War between 9 kings, and the enslavement of Lot. He gave up his land to Lot, and gave his wife away twice. He attempted to fulfill God’s promise through a concubine Hagar who would bear his son Ismael. Troubles were part of the package of following God into this new land of promise. Abraham was not promised an easy life!

Through all the trials and troubles, Abraham walked the land of promise traveling from place to place and making peace treaties with the people of the land. He pitched his tent and built altars to God at Shechem, Bethel, Hebron, and Beer-sheba calling on the name of the Almighty and Everlasting God. He was titled a prophet by God himself, and revered among the people of the land.

Abraham heard God’s voice and followed. He beheld visions and visitations from God and his angels. He had dreams from God. To be sure Abraham had a rich life of spiritual encounters with Yahweh. But perhaps the most significant aspect of his story is the promise of a nation. Three times God promises Abraham that he would have descendants like the “dust of the earth” (Gen. 13.16), the “stars in the sky” (Gen. 15.5), and the “sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22.17). What a promise! This promise would extend all the way to Jesus the Christ. Abraham is Jesus’ great-great-great (42 times) -grandfather! And, he is our grandfather, too!

Let’s dig a little deeper into the story!

God Speaks. God first spoke to Abram in Genesis 12.1-3. The first sign of personal relationship between Abram and God begins here. Here is the new beginning for Abram, and it begins with a personal relationship with God speaking to directly to him! The Hebrew language “the Lord said” means that God is speaking directly to Abram and these are the words that God said to him. The word “said” ראָמַ amar here never appears without words of speech and generally means a direct quote. These are the words attributed to God directly and we could translate this text: “with these words God addressed Abram…”

God has spoken before. The first time we heard God speaking was at the beginning of all creation. God’s voice was the catalyst for new beginnings. The whole world created (sun, moon, stars, plants, and animals) designed for human beings to have dominion over.

Remember these words from the creation story in Genesis 1.26-31: 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a]and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”  27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

God still speaks today. Henry Blackaby in his bible study entitled “Experiencing God” helps us to understand how God speaks to us today. According to Blackaby, there are seven realities in our experience of God. God is at work around us. God desires a relationship with us. God invites us to become involved with his work. God speaks to us in various ways to reveal himself and his purpose to us. When God calls us to respond to his great love for us through faith and action, it leads us to a crisis of belief. When we say yes to God, it requires us to make adjustments to our lifestyle. As we obey God, we experience God.

To be sure God is always speaking. We Wesleyans call that prevenient grace. God is always with us wooing us into an ongoing relationship. We experience God many ways before we know him personally through nature and other people. I am amazed at when people encounter God, they are able to articulate who God is.

In Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek, the king of Salem referred to God as “God Most High” or “El Elyon” (Gen. 14.17-22). When Hagar experienced God for the first time, she called his name “El Roi” or the “God who sees me” (Gen. 16.11-14). When God confirms his covenant with Abraham, God calls himself “El Shaddai” or “God of the Mountains” (Gen. 17.1-3, 35.11, 48.3, 49.25).

When Abraham made a treaty with Abimelek, Abraham called on the name of Lord, “the Eternal God” or “El Olam” (Gen. 21.33). And, when Abraham took Isaac to the mountaintop for the sacrifice, Abraham called on the name of the Lord God “Jehovah-Jirah” or “The Lord will Provide” (Gen. 22.13). We see over and over in the Scriptures that when God speaks… when God shows up… people respond with more knowledge about who God is! God invests in personally revealing himself to his people.

God Invites. God invited Abram to “go” and “walk” the length and breathe of the land. The command to Abram from God is for him to “go” הָלַךְ halak to leave country, people, and household. God called Abram to let go of all the familiarity of his homeland, his people, and his father’s home in order to enter into the promises of God. I love how John Wesley measured Abram’s call. In Wesley’s words Abram had to “trust God farther than he saw him” (Notes, 12.1.2.2). Abram was called to walk the land רָאָה ra’ah that God would show him. Perhaps a better translation would be “walk this land that I want you to become acquainted with…”

God Blesses. When God invited Abram into this ongoing relationship, God extended a promise to Abram. These promises are actuated upon his obedience to “go” and “walk.” The promise revealed God’s plan to bless בָּרַךְ barak the whole world through one man named Abram. You will become a great nation, a great name, a great blessing to those who bless you, and all people of earth will be blessed by you. The word blessing in the Hebrew means to be endued with power for success, prosperity, and fertility. There is a consequence to this great blessing: those who curse Abram will find themselves cursed. Not only is God blessing Abram, he is also defending his honor. If you talk bad about Abram, you will find yourself in a sticky situation with God turning his back on you!

Abram Believed. What is Abram’s response to God’s invitation? Check out Genesis 12.4, So Abram went… Abram simply obeyed. He didn’t procrastinate or dream up some other reason for delaying his departure. He obeyed. Abram left the Mesopotamia Region to follow God into unknown territory. Abram

So Abram went as God instructed him… Abram and Sarai left the Tigris and Euphrates River basin which is consider the very cradle of civilization to discover a new rugged terrain populated with challenging people groups they had never before encountered. A new land with lots of new people would prove perplexing for Abram with famines and wars, questionable immorality and puzzling family dynamics.

So Abram went into this new land when he was 75 years old… Just went you think God has a great plan, then we discover that he has chosen not a youngling but someone who has some age and life experience. God chose someone who wasn’t a “spring chicken” as my grandmother would say. In God’s economy age is not a factor in your calling to be a blessing to the land and its people. So Abram went… he went as God instructed… and he went when faithfully in spite of his age.

Walk by Faith. Faith comes by way of crisis, adjustment, and obedience to God’s direction for our lives. God’s promises aren’t fulfilled overnight!! Abram is faced with many obstacles along the journey of his faithful obedience. The stories in Abram’s journey teach us so much about God’s call and blessing. We can witness the significant problems that Abram faces, and yet, God continues to assist Abram. Abram remains faithful to God in spite of the difficulties he faced.

Oswald Chambers writes, “Every man is made to reach out beyond his grasp.” The real heresy we face today is whether we live by faith in God for our own interest or for God’s interests. Modernity has left us with gigantic egos of self-importance rather than God-importance.

We fail to understand God’s economy when we place one person’s vision above the whole Body of Christ. The whole Body of Christ by consensus must move forward together, but that does not mean we won’t have disagreements about it. Consensus does not mean everyone will be onboard with the God’s direction for our lives.

Sometimes God’s people can be confused about God’s plan just like Abram. Abram was given his word from God to help ground him on the journey. Abram left Ur of the Chaldeans and followed God into the unknown land of promise. He had no idea where he was going! Calling was the key for Abram’s faithfulness in the journey.

The Lord appeared to Abram and promised him an offspring and land. Abram built an altar and called on the name of the Lord. Abram revisited the altar and called on the name of the Lord. God promises offspring, land, and descendants. God spoke and Abram listened. God visited and Abram welcomed. God gave visions and Abram believed. Abram walked the land, built altars for sacrificial giving at Bethel (12.8, 13.3-4) and Hebron (13.18), and called on the Name of the Lord (12.8, 13.4).

Then God speaks to us in a deeper, more profound way which Wesley would call the means of grace. Wesley understood that God could speak to us through communion, prayer, the reading of Scripture, fasting, and holy conferencing (meetings). The first place that we witness communion in the Scripture is here in Abram story with the King of Salem Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God. Here in Abram’s story bread and wine are offered and Abram provides the first tithe to Melchizedek (Gen. 14.18-20). Communion has always been considered a means of grace in the Body of Christ, although various denominations understand communion differently. Jesus Christ instituted communion at the Last Supper and the church has practiced this remembrance since inception.

Tithing became an essential part of worship for God’s covenant people. The prophet Malachi invites God’s people to return to their faithful giving, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it” (Mal. 3.10).

What I love most about Blackaby’s understanding about experiencing God is what he describes as a crisis of belief and adjustment. The crisis of belief always requires faith and action, and that means adjustments to our lifestyle. To describe this crisis in a more modern context I want to share a story with you about a 15 year old young man named Charles.

A New Beginning. I first met Charles in the Emergency Room as he and the flight team came barreling through the hospital facility. Charles had been flown in from an outlying community where he had been riding an all-terrain vehicle with his buddy. The driver had over corrected on gravel and turned the vehicle over on its side catching Charles’ leg underneath. Charles was overwhelmed with pain as the staff worked to save his leg.

Charles went into surgery that night uncertain as to whether his leg would be amputated. The doctor made every effort to restore his leg, and the recovery process was grueling. In the early days of his recovery Charles had several reconstructive surgeries and with each one his life was held in balance between life and death. Infection had set in and the medications were failing to do their job. In a desperate plea for God’s intervention Charles called for the chaplain. As I walked into the hospital room that day, my mind went back over all the moments I had been present with Charles.

I knew that Charles had been raised in church and his family members were faithful people. When I first met Charles in the Emergency Room, all he could do was to call out for his mom to forgive him. She had instructed him not to go ATV riding that day.

He repeated over and over, If I die, make sure mom knows that I am sorry for not listening to her and doing what she said. He said, Tell her I got right with God and I’m going to be okay. I have never in my life seen such an openly repentant heart that desired nothing but goodness. Charles realized he had to make peace with God and his mother. Charles was secure in his peace of mind that God was with him.

But his final cry was what caught my attention, Oh, God! Will I be able to play baseball this year? You see he loved baseball; it had been his whole life. He truly understood that his life was forever changed by this decision he had made. And, my calling as a chaplain was to help Charles imagine the possibilities of his uncertain future.

On that day as I walked into the room the smell of the infection was overwhelming, and I knew Charles was close to the veil between life and death. The presence of God was strong and I could just imagine the holy angels of God around his bed ministering to him, his family, and his teammates who had come to visit.

As I entered the room Charles called to me, Chaplain, I’m glad you are here. I know when you pray God hears you. I have felt your prayers before. I feel like I am dying, and I want you to pray for me. I apologized to my mom, and she has forgiven me. If God takes my life, pray that my family and teammates will be okay. But I want to live, and play baseball again. The doctor says I don’t have much of a chance. Will you pray? And, so we prayed. In our prayer time with family and friends around his bed, God touched his heart with the fire of the Holy Spirit and Charles saw Jesus in a vision. Charles cried out, I feel God healing me! I sensed the power of God healing him, too. Charles had been suffering from a blood infection, and from that moment forward Charles began to heal.

It took weeks of recovery, but Charles would eventually leave the hospital to go to a rehabilitation facility. At the rehabilitation facility his courage was astounding. No one expected him to walk again – except Charles.

The very first day that he walked on his very own two feet actually happened while I was visiting. He told me, God has given me the strength to walk. Thank you for believing in me! He was such a humble soul. He just needed someone to be his encourager from God’s perspective. When his doctors were telling him he would never walk, Charles needed someone to believe he could be “whole” in a new way. When the doctors were taking away his old life, Charles needed someone to give him hope for a new life.

After many weeks of rehabilitation, Charles returned to the hospital for another procedure. He called and asked me to stop by his room. I shared with Charles my own injury story of how I had played softball and sprained both my legs breaking out of the batters box to run for first. The loose sand had given way under my feet, and the injury had put me up for 6-weeks. After that incident, I gave up on my love for sports because I was afraid of reinjuring myself. I explained that living with regret is an awful feeling. If I had to do it over again, I would have kept up my love for sports but in a new way. And, I gave him my old softball glove. On my glove I wrote all the heroes of the Bible that inspired me with their Scripture references. I told him to never live with regret but to become all that he could be in this newly healed body, and I said good-bye.

A year passed by before I saw Charles again. He came in for his check up with the doctors, and then he came to see me. He couldn’t wait to show me that he was walking on crutches and by spring the doctors said he could play baseball again. He had been training with his teammates and keeping his arm warmed up during the off season. As he finished reliving the last several months that we had been apart, he arrived at the real reason for his visit.

Charles told me how he and his grandmother sat down together and read the stories of the bible that I had shared with him on my old softball glove. Then he asked me if it was okay for him to use my glove when he took the field in the spring. He had came to ask me if it was okay for him to keep the glove and use it.

From time to time I still carry a baseball around in my car or my purse to remember Charles’ amazing courage, his love for his family, and his awareness of God. When I look back over his story what lays hold of my heart the most is his understanding of his need for forgiveness, his repentant heart, and his desire to honor his mother. His heart attitude gave God room to move for the healing that needed to take place in his body.

Charles has an extraordinary story, but his story is not unlike any one of our own extraordinary stories. We have hurts in our lives that begin in our hearts that need to be healed with the deep reconciliation that we can only find in and through Christ’s example to us on the cross. May the peace that passes all understanding free your heart today to forgive and to be forgiven just as Charles did! Go in peace.

 

New Beginnings: Noah & Family

New Beginnings: Noah & Family

Gen. 6.17-18, 7.4, 8.15-21, 9.8-17

Last week God hovered over our mess, informed us of our goodness, and sought us out in our hiding place to cloth us with righteousness. This week God requires of us to see the unseen reality, to be washed up on a mountain of hope, and rest in the promises of a Covenant God.

Let’s begin with this very critical text, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually… Now the earth was corrupted in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence.” – Genesis 6.5, 11

To be sure there is an unseen reality in the text. There are times when we read the word of God that much of the story is left to our imagination. When we read the story of Noah and his family, we are not given all the details of community problems, Noah’s life or his relationship with God. We can only infer what Noah’s relationship with God was like in the midst of this cultural crisis. And, we are given glimpses of God’s character and his love to through his actions. The Scripture doesn’t go into grand details about God’s character either. The reader is left to surmise and infer what God is like. The text doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty details of what was going on in the world. We are given but a few details to try to grasp the situation. This text requires our holy imagination.

I believe we often stop short of discovering God’s word because we stop at the surface of the story, and we fail to dig into the text to glean the fullness therein. So I ask you today… are you willing to dig a little deeper beyond the obvious to search out the relationship of God and the people of earth? Can we get beyond the children’s story of a boat, flooding rains, and rainbows to discover where it all began?

I believe the story began with a man and his God. Noah and God walked together and talked together. It began with the voice of God speaking and a man listening…even when obedience to the voice of God made no sense, seemed to have no purpose, nor personal gain of any kind.

I believe it all began with a family: a spouse, children, and the extended family. The whole extended family was required to follow God. But the family members were following God without ever actually hearing what God was saying to Noah. They follow out of blind obedience to God’s call on the father who has all the ear-marks of a prophet. I can’t say that I have ever heard anyone preach on Noah being a prophet, but in every way Noah lived the life of a prophet – radical obedience to the voice of God, calling the people of earth to repentance, and living a transformed life.

I believe the task required obedience. When we think about God’s covenants in the bible, Noah’s flood story is top of the list for most of us. The reason it is top of the list is because we see the rainbow in the sky on stormy days. Noah’s flood is often cited as a VBS story. We all know about Noah’s experience is that God destroyed the surface of the earth, and almost everything in. The only thing that survived was the works that Noah offered in the way of obedience to God’s plan.

I can only imagine that the task required great humility. Noah built an ark in the summer when never a drop of rain had ever been experienced. Do you realize the humiliation he must have suffered in his walk with God? Noah obeyed God when it seemed purposeless. Noah gave all his prayers, time, talents, tithes/offerings, and witness. The work of obedience required everything, consumed all of himself. Noah was willing to play the fool and devote all of himself for the sake of obedience to God’s plan to save the world. Noah had to put aside his preconceived ideas about what his life would be like. Noah didn’t get to say to God, “Well, I’m retiring at 67 so this whole flood thing needs to be finished before then. I’d like to spend my old-age doing what I want to do.”  Noah’s experience didn’t leave room for personal comfort or lazy pleasure.

Surely the process began with the surrender of Noah’s will to God’s chosen provision. Noah’s bucket list had only one thing in it: obedience to God’s plan. Noah discovered the truth about what it means when people say, “You can’t take it with you.” Noah’s journey required that he leave all his friends, acquaintances, business colleagues behind to die. Noah had to leave behind all the special places that meant something dear to him like a place of prayer where he would meet God in the cool of the evening under the old oak tree so to speak.

Noah would have needed to reach down within himself to release his emotional needs and wants into the hands of God’s transforming work. Noah had to follow God to the absolute letter of God’s plan. There could be no deviation. Noah’s wife wasn’t commissioned to decorate the ark to make it look all pretty with wallpaper and knick-knacks. There was no time for indoor plumbing essentials. There was no room for Noah’s pleasures, wants or needs to be satisfied. God’s plan was completely primitive, outside the box stripped down from any and all pomp and circumstance. We might even say it was organic at its very core.

The decision to follow God necessitated a relentless pursuit to live beyond the cultural norms. Beth Moore has a great book called “Get Out of that Pit.” Many years ago I watched her via her first satellite bible study. She offered a wonderful observation in this book that has constantly been my reminder every day of my life. I have to get up every day and make sure that I am not living in a pit! When was the last time that you evaluated your life in such a way that you were willing for God to show you whether or not you are living in a pit? Many of us do not realize we have fallen into a pit, and we camp out in our problems rather than doing something about them.

Imagine with me… One beautiful morning you wake up, have your breakfast and your devotions, and get yourself ready to leave the house for a great day. In your devotion you ask God to encourage your heart so that you can have a blessed day. In your prayers you pray for the people and the situations you feel are important to you. As you leave your home you begin to think about all the things that are important to you… some negative and some positive, some bad and some really exciting to you. In all your coming and going this morning did it ever occur to you to ask God what God would like for you pray? What God yearns for in this world? What God needs you to do and to be?

Let’s go even deeper into the text. 

The world has betrayed its original intent. Rebellion has refused God’s design and order. Atheists, Agnostics, and Angel worship and idolatry has consumed the people. All historic memory of God was lost to the people. Sinfulness became an avalanche that fully disrupted humanity. Punishment for sin increased until it diminished all of humanity came in a flood of God’s tears. A new world emerged in the newly re-created world. God’s long-suffering love (hesed) poured out in culminating blessings until he has no other loving act to do! Through the floodwaters, the past became a compost pile for all future civilizations.

The Adam and Eve original covenant is “refreshed” with the new covenant of promises. The story of Cain and Abel set us up for what is to come in human history. There was sin, murder, disobedience, and overall widespread depravity. Noah’s role in this situation is to save enough of God’s created order to “refresh” the earth, and reintroduce the origin design. Noah’s name means “rest” and that is what he will surely provide for creation… rest (Gen. 5.29). To be sure we have only a few chapters between Adam & Eve and the story of Noah. However, for the world to have climaxed in its degradation hundreds of years would have passed. It certainly takes time for a civilization to develop, deteriorate, and decay. We can hear in the scripture that it was every intent, every thought was only evil continually. To be sure the floodwaters left behind a mark of vibrant colors across stormy skies.

It is critical for us to understand that Noah lived in a real time… a real place… with real people… We see in the archeological history that there were several great flood stories that support the biblical account of Noah. The difference between the biblical account and the historical records is the cause of the flood. The cultural historical records of the era blame the problem on God, but in the biblical account God points the finger at humanities sinfulness. Both cultural and biblical accounts point to a great division in the world’s history from this point forward. The flood changed everything. And, it all began with the realization that there is wickedness in this world.

There are times in our lives when we find ourselves in a place where sin has gotten a stronghold. And, I want to be real honest with you folks, sin happens in the lives of churched folks, too. Churched folks are the ones who know they need salvation, and they come to church with the hope of something better. To be sure Jesus teaches us that the world continues to move toward the same sinful attitudes that Noah experienced in his day!

Here these words from Jesus, “For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be.” – Matthew 24.37-39

I know from my own life experiences that sinfulness is alive and well in our midsts. There are many young adults who suffer from prescription drug dependency and illegal drug addiction. Many children grow up in harmful environments of emotional, sexual and physical neglect and abuse. There are youth who struggle with sexual identity issues, suicide, gaming, and pornography addictions. We just can’t afford to bury our heads in our hands any longer. Our communities need our support!

Let us pray our commitment together from John Wesley’s own words!

A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven.  Amen.

New Beginnings: Adam & Eve

New Beginnings: Adam & Eve

Gen. 1.1-2, 2.4-25, 3.8-9, 21

I want to begin our time together in Genesis. According to Merriam-Webster Genesis means the origin” or “coming into being of something.” The very definition of the word has meaning for us today. Today marks the coming into being of something new but we’re not sure what that might mean for either of us – as a preacher or as a congregation. We are all quietly, or vocally, wondering what this new appointment season will look like. Some of you have never had a lady preacher, and you are high in curiosity of what it will be like to be led by a female pastor. I have to be honest with you. I’ve never had a woman minister as the elder in my church either. But together we will discover what it means for us to be in Christian fellowship and community together as we listen to God in prayerful reflection.

As we begin our first sermon series together I want to help you to anticipate what we are about to discover together. We are embarking on a month-long sermon series. I like to do series that span about a month in length. During this sermon series, we will look at several different texts in Genesis. We will begin with Adam & Eve (Gen 1-3) then move through the various stories of the early development of faith history with Noah & his family (Gen 4-11), Abraham & Sarah (Gen 12-20), Isaac & Rebekah (Gen 21-26), Jacob & Esau, Leah & Rachel (Gen 27-36), and completing the journey with Joseph and his Brothers (Gen 37-50). 

When you ponder a text long and hard, you often stumble upon an enlightening realization that feeds the soul. That happened to me over the last several months as I have been pining away in Genesis looking for an overarching theme that would ignite a spark of renewal for me. I longed to move past the rote memorization of the stories of Genesis and see the text with fresh eyes. I have been hungry for this foundational piece of my faith heritage to take on new meaning for the culture that we live in today. As I gazed at the text with so many preconceived notions about the meaning of the stories, I stopped my yearning long enough to read from Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis. As I dug my heels into his reflections I discovered that God had been guiding my every step. Brueggemann suggested that the whole of the text is centered around calling.

As someone who has wrestled with the whole idea of God’s voice calling each one of us into life long witnessing, his whole idea of calling intrigued me. So I read on and pondered more. And, as I awoke this morning the texts became so clear to me: we have a homing beacon in our very DNA calling us to become all that our Creator had fashioned us to become. You’ve heard that Christmas story, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause.” Well, in the Genesis stories we hear suggest, “Yes, Beloved, there is a Creator, and you are called to follow his designed purpose for your life.” Let’s take this journey together!

Read on…

Genesis 1.1-2. Before it all began in the formless, dark moments of time and space, God’s Spirit was hovering! God was on the move! God was stirring up the atmosphere. God’s breath was alive upon the deep. God’s presence was poised on the doorstep of the time-space continuum, expectantly hovering in anticipation of the joy that would come. Joy to the World!  Then God spoke. God called forth light into the dark void of time-space, and the blaze of golden glow penetrated the dark, formless night. Time began as the light and the dark stood in stark contrast one to the other. Things began to take shape in this great voice of formless space. A foundation was laid. Land and sea and sky came forth with a calling uniquely their own. Life was set into motion. A vibrant landscape of colors emerged with all sorts of vegetation and trees, twinkling stars and flashing comets. After a season of development, God’s great creative handiwork, creatures of all shapes and sizes came forth – fish and birds, livestock and wild animals, insects and worms. All sorts of soil loving creatures.

I remember a time when I was very young. I was about three years old when my maternal grandfather died. I remember how my mother taught me to pray at that time. She explained God and Heaven. God hovered over me that night as I said my first prayer. You might recall your first prayer much like mine, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep…”

Genesis 2.4-25. Each part of God’s creation, this foundational work was declared “good” by God himself. And, on the sixth day of creation, God formed man and woman to inhabit and care for all of creation. “And, God saw that it was good” is one of the most frequent phrases in the Creation story. God has a habit of declaring blessings over his creation. God saw that the light was good, and then God experienced for the first time in all of creation the evening and the morning of the first day. I can only image the breath-taking sunset and sunrise on that first day. On the second day God created the land, water, and sea in all its division. I can only imagine the moment of the first walk on the beach as land and water meet with the sky looming only the horizon of the ocean view. And, it was good! I can just imagine the first walk across this vast world with all the variety of plains, rolling hills, valleys, mountains, and forests. And, God called out that it was good! I can only imagine the first night sky with the glorious northern lights and the various star clusters and planets dotting the midnight sky. And, it was good! Oh, how breath-taking the first moon rise with all the nocturnal animal active, and the first midday sun experiences with all the flowers, shrubs and trees in full bloom. And, it was good! All the creatures were called forth and Adam named each one of them. I can only imagine how he stretched out his hand to touch the first wild animals, livestock, and all the things that crawl upon the earth. And, God said it was good!

All of God’s creation was declared good! But wait! God declared humanity “very good!” By God’s very words God found humanity to be qualified as “very good.”

I remember a time when I was in my 2ndgrade Sunday School class. We had a substitute teacher that day, and she taught us “The Lord’s Prayer.” What a power time of learning that was for me as a 7-year-old! It was through the experience of learning “The Lord’s Prayer” that I came to understand good and evil. I came to the salvation through that teaching on “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Genesis 3.8-9, 21.

God spoke creation into existence, and it was so! God created goodness, and on the seventh day God finished all his work, rested, and blessed the day as holy. God was well-satisfied with all the good things he created. He called forth blessing for each one, rested from his work, and blessed the day as holy.

And, God settled humanity, which he called “very good,” into a land that was prepared for them. He gave them a vocation of caregiving for the creation. And, one of God’s creatures known as the serpent came along and challenged their understanding of right and wrong. There first temptation and test was met with defeat. Eve and then Adam found their decision-making ability faulty, and a grievous error was made. This decision cost them dearly, their very livelihood changed drastically.

It was by their own hands that they disobeyed, and it was by their own hands that they tried to cover themselves up with fig leaves. In the cool of the evening God walks in the garden as was his habit and he can’t find Adam and Eve. There’s no doubt that God knew every detail of the situation but the storyline helps us to understand that God was inviting Adam and Eve to come out of hiding. God is inviting them to humble themselves, overcome their shame and face the consequences of their lifestyle choices. They have imbibed, partaken, and been hood-winked the lies of the serpent. God calls them to restoration in their relationship. Notice in the text that the broken relationship is not initially between Adam and Eve, but between the couple and God himself. The curse that follows describes a broken fellowship between Adam and Eve. It also defines the nature of the cosmic conflict that we find ourselves living in. God is so gracious, and makes the couple suitable garments to wear. Then God placed a boundary between humanity and the privilege of an open relationship in the Garden of Eden.

When you read John Wesley’s sermons on Genesis, you gain a sense of humility on his part as he realized the great limitations we all have in understanding the vastness and wonder of God’s creation. Our reasoning is limited to be sure. Wesley noted that it is God that infuses creation with motion, movement, and activity as the Spirit hovers and moves upon the waters of the deep, formless chaos to bring forth the light. There are times in our lives when we feel ourselves to be totally without form, without a foundation. To be sure God’s Spirit is hovering over us to create something good out of our chaos. God calls forth light in our darkness, and separates by placing boundaries between the flood waters and the dry land. If not for God, there would be days that would surely overwhelm us.

God insists that his creation is “good,” even “very good.” There are times in our lives when we do not feel good about ourselves. But we have to recall that we are created in the image of God from conception. God has good plans for his people. Across the pages of Scripture, we read over and over how much God loves us. God loves. God is love. And, you are loved by God. Don’t ever doubt your worth in God’s eyes.

From the very beginning God called humankind to stand upright before him. God calls us to the posture of living upright, in the goodness of the image of God with which we were created. God called Adam & Eve, and they were afraid to respond! They heard. They ran. They hid. It was by the tender mercies of God that they were restored to relationship. God sought them out from their hiding place. God called them to repentance. God clothed them for life. Wesley understood that it was only when humanity became independent of God that humanity fell into apostasy. Humanity seeks to find happiness apart from God (apostasy) whereby we lose all sense of peace and true joy. Not only did humanity lose its relationship with God, humanity also caused all of creation to fall into disarray. For humanity was given the task of caring for creation, but instead sought its own way whereby injuring all of created order. Repentance requires humility. There are times in our lives when we have sought our own way. We find ourselves hiding from God. When we take our lives into our own hands, we set ourselves up for failure in our relationship with God and people.

I remember a time when I was high school and my paternal grandmother taught me to pray. We sat down together and we asked the Lord for a miracle for my father to get some farm land. We prayed every evening for a week for an hour at a time. I remember the presence of God so richly holding us together in prayer. The farm land sold at auction that Saturday, but not to my father.  My heart ached with disappointment, but I accepted God’s choice not to intervene. But what I didn’t know was that Sunday was coming! Early Sunday morning the neighbor who had bought the land at the auction, had out bid Daddy on the farm. The neighbor had an awful sleepless night. He knew he had not done the right things in buying the land. So he came to my paternal grandmother at 6am on Sunday morning, told her how sorry he was, and agreed to sell Daddy the property. God had brought the situation out of hiding, out of shame and fear, and restored all our relationships. What could have forever damaged our friendship with our neighbor became a place of great rejoicing!

Let me invite you to ponder a moment… When has God hovered over your mess and called forth something beautiful from the chaos? When have you heard God say to your spirit “you are very good?” Whether through a person’s affirmation or in your prayer time… When has God tenderly called you out of hiding, out of shame and fear and guided your feet to stand upright again?

In the Old Testament we are given life stories as parables to guide us to obedient surrender to God’s will for our lives as his creation. Now, in the New Testament Jesus has become the living model for us to emulate. We no longer have vague stories of Creator and Creation in conflict to learn from… we have Jesus and his Spirit to guide us inside. The New Testament writers remember Jesus saying… Come! Follow! (Matthew 4.19, Mark 1.7, John 10.27, 12.26, 21.19-22)

Are you ready to follow God’s voice?

So the invitation is to read along with me in Genesis over the next month. Remember the moments when God has hovered over your mess… Remember when God has helped you to know you are his beloved created in God’s own image… Remember when God has helped you stand upright before him after you have fallen into troubles and suffering. As we sing our closing song “This is the Day of New Beginnings” the altar is open for you to give thanks to God!

the Ascension

the Ascension

Acts 1.1-14, Matthew 28.16-20

Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus Christ unto his throne in Heaven where he now resides and leads a victory over his nemesis Satan until one day the victory is completed. But let me say… don’t be mistaken! He is King now. Jesus rises from this earth within full view of his disciples. The angel immediately commands their attention, draws them away from their “navel gazing” (excessive self-contemplation) and sends them on their way. To be sure their eyes were filled with amazement at the moment Christ left their side. Jesus departs this earth for the very last time until the consummation of his final victory.

When Jesus said good-bye, he blessed them,

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God” (Luke 24.50-53).

Jesus offered some basic instructions before leaving earth. When Jesus said good-bye, he instructed them as to what they will be doing in his absence. Jesus instructed the disciples, even when some doubted he still gave these instructions,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28.18-20).

Although Jesus was about to step away for over two millennia, he gave them instructions and he expected his disciples to follow those instructions even when some doubted the validity of Jesus’ resurrection. Mark’s Gospel reports Jesus’ last words this way,

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well” (Mark 16.15-20). 

The disciples would soon go out and preach everywhere. The Spirit of Jesus would travel with them and confirm the good news of the Gospel with signs and wonders. The only way that the disciples could accomplish the spread of the Gospel of Christ Jesus is in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ departure at the Ascension was a critical moment not only for the disciples’ spiritual journey, but for our spiritual lives as well.

No doubt they experienced what Henry Blackaby calls a crisis of belief. The disciples had no idea what lie ahead of them but God promised that he would be with them. Trusting God became a dynamic challenge for these fledgling disciples. Remember they had all fled from the cross just days before this good-bye event.

In the midst of their everyday walking around lives they must have wondered how they would survive to tell the story they were bound to share by their faith in God. It wasn’t a person who called them to make disciples – you see it was God himself who extended that invitation to go into the world. The same challenge remains for us today but we cannot disciple others lest we wait upon the Holy Spirit for empowerment. The disciples waited for their helper to support them in their new endeavor.

The Christian calendar provides a way for all of us to remember together the many good things that Christ has provided for us, the promises fulfilled. The Christian holiday of Ascension marks time for us. The disciples said good-bye to Jesus then a period of waiting for the Holy Spirit began (Acts 16.7, Phil. 1.9). During the interim period between the Ascension and Pentecost, the early church prayed.

When we read the Old Testament, it is easy to discern that God loves to mark time. God himself devises and outlines how to celebrate festivals throughout the year. When the Ascension of Jesus came, the disciples were called to become faithful followers in the midst of great change and adversity.

When the day of Pentecost came for the disciples, a new community of faith would begin to emerge. In Acts the people formed a new community out of the disappointment of saying good-bye to Jesus and the challenges of saying hello to the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2.42 the church emerges, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.” This early church was grounded in two realities: good-bye and hello.

The “good” good-bye comes with a string of promises from the Old Testament, a sure foundation. Jesus was not saying an empty good-bye. No, he was expressing the faith of all the promises that God had made to his people. Jesus knew he was not leaving his disciples without the means of grace to sustain them. Jesus presumed that they would flourish after his departure. Jesus knew because he had read the law and the prophets and he believed that the Father would do what he said he would do! Because God’s promises stand forever!

Let’s review some of those promises. I have preached on two Old Testament prophets this year: Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Ezekiel (622-571 B.C.) was a contemporary of the young Prophet Jeremiah. Today I want to focus on the promises found in Ezekiel.

Ezekiel was captured and taken to Babylon about the age of 25 and there he would discover a call to the ministry about the age 30 (Ezek. 1-3). To be sure Ezekiel was in the place of prayer at the riverside when he heard from God. You can read his calling in the first three chapters of his writings. His calling got off to a rather difficult start with radical visions and a hard word from God that the people he would be sent to would be so hard-hearted that he might as well had his mouth duck-taped from the get-go.

Prayer became the great catalyst for Ezekiel to experience a move of God. God deals Ezekiel a tough hand when he asks him to carry the word to hard-hearted and deaf-eared people. Can you imagine with me how Ezekiel’s life was a prototype of Jesus’ prophetic ministry? When we look at the promises of God in Ezekiel’s message, we can see how Jesus would have rested in the blessed assurance that something wonderful was about to happen at his departure.

Ezekiel would behold the vision at the potter’s house when the clay would be reshaped into just what the potter desired for the clay to become (Ezek. 18). No doubt about it, we would prefer that Ezekiel not have had that vision. Who wants to be man-handled by God himself until we are conformed into a new design chosen by God? The ideal of that kind of reshaping does not fit easily in the western cultural mind-set that we live within.

Our bootstrap mentality kicks God’s interventions in our lives to the curb as disposable garbage. Our western mentality holds in high esteem the person who can outwit, outfox and otherwise beat any opponent – even God. This model of accomplishment serves us poorly as Christians.

Never the less the promise from God in Ezekiel 18 is that God himself will shape us into something useful of his own making. This idea of the potter shaping the clay highlights God’s approach at healing our misshapen fallen identity and our distorted sense of individuality.

Ezekiel would have fantastic visions of a glorious future once Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians (Ezek. 33-48). Who can fathom why a community must be destroyed before it can find new life in God, but Israel is always finding herself in this predicament! And, God would find ways to renew Israel and bring her home.

Ezekiel would speak to the nation and call its attention to the sins of its heart and life because the promises hinged on a right relationship with God. This difficult event set the stage for the most glorious promises from God. God reminds us through his prophets that we have been commissioned to keep our eyes upon God’s Word and our ears open to the fulfillment of his declarations. We know as Christians…

the promised land will be restored, the people will receive a new heart, the dead will rise to new life, and the healing flow of water will trickle down from the throne room of heaven for the healing of God’s people. And, all will be made right again.

God is the one who will make the future flourish for the community. It is not the prophet Ezekiel nor the people of Israel who will ensure the promises are fulfilled for a brighter future. To be sure humans do not initiate the future, it is God himself who invites us to participate in his plans.

The western model of ministry would suggest it is our humanistic decisions – our pride – that would lead ministerial activities. As God’s people we are called to relinquish the notion that we are self-sustaining. What makes us “good and faithful” servants is that we first know God. It is not by taking our own initiative that we are considered “good and faithful” servants.

Jesus knew when he left this earth that the helper was coming. He had done everything that the Father had asked of him. He was secure in his relationship with his Heavenly Father that he had peace. What seemed like a life cut short was truly the perfect will of the Father.

Jesus’ departure was on time, in time and in the perfect fullness of time. Every decision of the Father was precise, lacking nothing in its timing. What we might imagine as a less than perfect conclusion to his time upon this earth – just 33 years – the Father had designed before the beginning of time itself.

Jesus knew that the Father’s timing was baffling, leaving his followers with questions of uncertainty and distrust issues. We might ask: why would Jesus leave his friends like that? He could have stayed longer. John’s Gospel illuminates the reason: Pentecost was coming. On the last night Jesus lived on this earth prior to his resurrection, Jesus prayed that the Father would send the disciples a helper – the Holy Spirit (John 17).

I love how Jesus prayed for those he left behind in John 17. Jesus knew they were going to struggle. In fact all the disciples would fail in their friendship with him – betrayal, abandonment. But Jesus would pray and trust his Heavenly Father to care for those he left behind.

Jesus knew the Holy Spirit was the key to the discipleship of the world. Jesus couldn’t reach the world with the Good News in his flesh – he became a martyr – but the Holy Spirit of Jesus could! The Holy Spirit came to provide gifts for ministry particularly the proclamation of the prophetic fulfillment of the Messiah and the creative opportunity for a people to become a new community of faith. 

We are lead into a deeper understanding of what it means to practice the presence of God in our lives. We ought not think too highly of ourselves. Love should be shown without pretending about it. Love others, even strangers among you, like your very own family and honor one another. Be happy in service, hopeful in faithfulness, and stand your ground in times of trouble so that you will not fall away.

Pray always, contribute to the needs of others with a happy heart and welcome strangers in your own homes. Be nice to mean people and cry with those who are sad. Treat everyone as your equal. Jesus was a man with no reputation, associate with those who have no status.

To be sure all the laws are summed up in one new command – love… love your God (more than yourself) then your neighbor as yourself. Spend your gifts and talents for God’s purposes – not to build your own kingdom. Participate in life’s indulgences of food and rest with reservation so that you do not offend the weak-minded with your choices.

As this season of ministry together draws to a close I invite you to enter into a season of prayer. I invite you to use the prayer booklets from our “Stained Glass Windows Sermon Series” with texts from 1 Peter and prayer from those Scriptures for yourself, your church and your community. I invite you to read together the little brown book entitled “Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living” as well. These resources are available to you to encourage your heart during this season of change. God bless you, and God bless this community.

Stained Glass Windows: Praying through Scripture

Stained Glass Windows: Praying through Scripture

The Epistle of 1 Peter 

May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be blessed! On account of his vast mercy, he has given us new birth. You have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. You have a pure and enduring inheritance that cannot perish—an inheritance that is presently kept safe in heaven for you. Through his faithfulness, you are guarded by God’s power so that you can receive the salvation he is ready to reveal in the last time. – 1 Peter 1.3-5

Almighty God, thank you for giving me new birth and a hope of eternal life. With gratitude I receive the inheritance that does not perish or fade away but is kept safe. In faithfulness I receive the salvation of my soul. Amen.

You now rejoice in this hope, even if it’s necessary for you to be distressed for a short time by various trials. This is necessary so that your faith may be found genuine. (Your faith is more valuable than gold, which will be destroyed even though it is itself tested by fire.) Your genuine faith will result in praise, glory, and honor for you when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you’ve never seen him, you love him. Even though you don’t see him now, you trust him and so rejoice with a glorious joy that is too much for words. You are receiving the goal of your faith: your salvation. – 1 Peter 1.6-9

Faithful One, it is with joy that I celebrate the trials that are necessary to ensure that my faith is genuine.  May you receive all glory and honor that comes from my persecution. I love you, Lord, and I trust you. I receive my salvation by faith with joy. Amen.

Therefore, once you have your minds ready for action and you are thinking clearly, place your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed. Don’t be conformed to your former desires, those that shaped you when you were ignorant. But, as obedient children, you must be holy in every aspect of your lives, just as the one who called you is holy. It is written, You will be holy, because I am holy. – 1 Peter 1.13-16

Holy One, keep my mind ready for action and my thinking clear. In my ignorance keep me from being conformed to the earthly desires of my flesh. May every aspect of my life be holy. Amen.

Since you call upon a Father who judges all people according to their actions without favoritism, you should conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your dwelling in a strange land. Live in this way, knowing that you were not liberated by perishable things like silver or gold from the empty lifestyle you inherited from your ancestors. Instead, you were liberated by the precious blood of Christ, like that of a flawless, spotless lamb. Christ was chosen before the creation of the world, but was only revealed at the end of time. This was done for you, who through Christ are faithful to the God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory. So now, your faith and hope should rest in God. – 1 Peter 1.17-21

Father God, you show no favoritism. Help me live my life in reverence, not desiring perishable things or an empty lifestyle. You have liberated me by the precious blood of Jesus Christ, and have made me faithful. Amen.

As you set yourselves apart by your obedience to the truth so that you might have genuine affection for your fellow believers, love each other deeply and earnestly. Do this because you have been given new birth—not from the type of seed that decays but from seed that doesn’t. This seed is God’s life-giving and enduring word. – 1 Peter 1.22-23

Life-Giving God, I choose to set myself apart in obedience to your truth that I might possess genuine affection for my fellow believers. May my heart grow to love each person deeply and earnestly. Amen.

Therefore, get rid of all ill will and all deceit, pretense, envy, and slander. Instead, like a newborn baby, desire the pure milk of the word. Nourished by it, you will grow into salvation, since you have tasted that the Lord is good. – 1 Peter 2.1-3

Good Lord, I choose to rid myself of ill-will and deceit, pretense, envy, and slander. Wash my mind of all unhealthy responses to the world around me. Let me crave the Word as my primary nourishment. May I grow up in my salvation. Amen.

Now you are coming to him as to a living stone. Even though this stone was rejected by humans, from God’s perspective it is chosen, valuable. You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. You are being made into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 2.4-5

Living Stone, You were rejected by humans but the Chosen One of God Almighty to accomplish his work on earth.  Build me into a spiritual temple, a holy priest. May I offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to You in and through the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy. – 1 Peter 2.9-10

Merciful God, I thank you that I am chosen, royal, holy, and Your possession. I thank you that I have become Your people, and that you have called me out of darkness and into Your amazing light. I thank you that I have received your mercy. Amen.

For the sake of the Lord submit to every human institution. Do this whether it means submitting to the emperor as supreme ruler, or to governors as those sent by the emperor. They are sent to punish those doing evil and to praise those doing good. Submit to them because it’s God’s will that by doing good you will silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Do this as God’s slaves, and yet also as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Have respectful fear of God. Honor the emperor. – 1 Peter 2.13-17

Loving God, You have set up an order of leadership in this world we live in. Help me to honor those who are sent by You to do Your will here on earth. Help me to honor everyone, to love the family of believers, and to respectfully fear You. Amen.

Household slaves, submit by accepting the authority of your masters with all respect. Do this not only to good and kind masters but also to those who are harsh. Now, it is commendable if, because of one’s understanding of God, someone should endure pain through suffering unjustly. But what praise comes from enduring patiently when you have sinned and are beaten for it? But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God. You were called to this kind of endurance, because Christ suffered on your behalf. He left you an example so that you might follow in his footsteps. He committed no sin, nor did he ever speak in ways meant to deceive. – 1 Peter 2.18-22

Suffering God, assist me to respect the authority placed over me in life. Strengthen me to endure suffering unjustly. Help me to endure all things as Christ Jesus suffered and died for me. May His example that I follow with my every step. Keep me from all sin that I may never speak deceitfully. Amen.

When he was insulted, he did not reply with insults. When he suffered, he did not threaten revenge. Instead, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.  He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds you were healed. Though you were like straying sheep, you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your lives. – 1 Peter 2.23-25

Wounded Savior, teach me your ways that I might endure insults with mercy. Grant me the grace to suffer threats without taking revenge. I entrust my soul to the One who judges the matters of the heart justly. Thank you, Jesus, for enduring the cross, and taking my sins. Thank you that you were wounded for my misbehavior, and that you always seek to find me when I stray from the pathway.  Amen.

Wives, likewise, submit to your own husbands. Do this so that even if some of them refuse to believe the word, they may be won without a word by their wives’ way of life. After all, they will have observed the reverent and holy manner of your lives. Don’t try to make yourselves beautiful on the outside, with stylish hair or by wearing gold jewelry or fine clothes.  Instead, make yourselves beautiful on the inside, in your hearts, with the enduring quality of a gentle, peaceful spirit. This type of beauty is very precious in God’s eyes. For it was in this way that holy women who trusted in God used to make themselves beautiful, accepting the authority of their own husbands. For example, Sarah accepted Abraham’s authority when she called him master. You have become her children when you do good and don’t respond to threats with fear. Husbands, likewise, submit by living with your wife in ways that honor her, knowing that she is the weaker partner. Honor her all the more, as she is also a coheir of the gracious care of life. Do this so that your prayers won’t be hindered. – 1 Peter 3.1-7

Guardian of my Soul, guide my behaviors that I might become reverent and holy. Help me to be humble, gentle, and peaceful in spirit. May I submit to the needs of my spouse, doing good. Let us respect and honor one another with mutual authority. May my prayers be unhindered with a heart that is fully devoted to living a holy life. Amen.

Finally, all of you be of one mind, sympathetic, lovers of your fellow believers, compassionate, and modest in your opinion of yourselves. Don’t pay back evil for evil or insult for insult. Instead, give blessing in return. You were called to do this so that you might inherit a blessing.  For those who want to love life and see good days should keep their tongue from evil speaking and their lips from speaking lies. They should shun evil and do good; seek peace and chase after it. The Lord’s eyes are on the righteous and his ears are open to their prayers. But the Lord cannot tolerate those who do evil. – 1 Peter 3.8-12

Master, may I be united with one mind with the believers in Christ Jesus. Help me to be sympathetic, compassionate, and modest in my opinions. Assist me not to pay back evil or insults. Let me bless others always. Harness my speech that good may always come forth from my mouth. Let me seek and chase after peace. Amen.

Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil. – 1 Peter 3.13-17

Christ Jesus, guide my heart to be zealous in seeking after goodness with a holy heart always respectful, humble, and of a good conscience. May I always seek God’s will. Amen.  

Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. Baptism is like that. It saves you now—not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers. – 1 Peter 3.18-22

Resurrected One, thank You for taking my sins on the cross so that I may stand in the presence of God Almighty. I am grateful for the mark of baptism upon my conscience that secures my salvation. Blessed are You who reign at the right hand of God the Father in Heaven, ruling over angels, authorities, and powers for Your name sake. Amen.

Therefore, since Christ suffered as a human, you should also arm yourselves with his way of thinking. This is because whoever suffers is finished with sin. As a result, they don’t live the rest of their human lives in ways determined by human desires but in ways determined by God’s will. – 1 Peter 4.1-2

O God, thank You for humbling Yourself to become human. May my thoughts be the mind of Christ and my desires be the will of God. Amen.

You have wasted enough time doing what unbelievers desire—living in their unrestrained immorality and lust, their drunkenness and excessive feasting and wild parties, and their forbidden worship of idols. They think it’s strange that you don’t join in these activities with the same flood of unrestrained wickedness. So they slander you. They will have to reckon with the one who is ready to judge the living and the dead. Indeed, this is the reason the good news was also preached to the dead. This happened so that, although they were judged as humans according to human standards, they could live by the Spirit according to divine standards. – 1 Peter 4.3-6

Living God, help me to resist immorality, lust, drunkenness, over eating, partying, and idolatry. When it comes my time to be judged, may I be ready. May I live according to Your divine standards. Amen.

The end of everything has come. Therefore, be self-controlled and clear-headed so you can pray. Above all, show sincere love to each other, because love brings about the forgiveness of many sins. Open your homes to each other without complaining. And serve each other according to the gift each person has received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts.Whoever speaks should do so as those who speak God’s word. Whoever serves should do so from the strength that God furnishes. Do this so that in everything God may be honored through Jesus Christ. To him be honor and power forever and always. Amen. – 1 Peter 4.7-11

Spirit of God, strengthen me to be self-controlled, clear-headed, sincere, and filled with love for my neighbor’s sake. May I offer my personal property to others without complaint. May I seek to use my gifts and talents as a good steward of your blessings. To You I give all the honor and power that comes from the good done in my life. Amen.

Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed. If you are mocked because of Christ’s name, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory—indeed, the Spirit of God—rests on you. Now none of you should suffer as a murderer or thief or evildoer or rebel. But don’t be ashamed if you suffer as one who belongs to Christ. Rather, honor God as you bear Christ’s name. Give honor to God, because it’s time for judgment to begin with God’s own household. But if judgment starts with us, what will happen to those who refuse to believe God’s good news? If the righteous are barely rescued, what will happen to the godless and sinful? So then, those who suffer because they follow God’s will should commit their lives to a trustworthy creator by doing what is right. – Peter 4.12-19

Spirit of Glory, as I walk through the fiery trials and tests in my life assist me to remember that these things are not strange to the Body of Christ. Let me rejoice at the sufferings that come in this life. Rest on me when I am mocked because of Christ Jesus. May my suffering not be as someone who is evil, but as one who bears the name of Christ. I choose to commit my will to doing what is right. Amen.

Therefore, I have a request for the elders among you. (I ask this as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings, and as one who shares in the glory that is about to be revealed.) I urge the elders: Like shepherds, tend the flock of God among you. Watch over it. Don’t shepherd because you must, but do it voluntarily for God. Don’t shepherd greedily, but do it eagerly. Don’t shepherd by ruling over those entrusted to your care, but become examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive an unfading crown of glory. In the same way, I urge you who are younger: accept the authority of the elders. And everyone, clothe yourselves with humility toward each other. God stands against the proud, but he gives favor to the humble. – 1 Peter 5.1-5

Trusted Creator, let my heart be ruled by grace and mercy as I watch over those who are in my care. May my mind be guarded by humility. Amen.

Therefore, humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day.Throw all your anxiety onto him, because he cares about you. Be clear-headed. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you. To him be power forever and always. Amen. – 1 Peter 5.6-11

Good Shepherd, free me from anxiety. Keep me clear-headed and alert. When darkness prowls around and the accuser roars, help me to resist and stand firm in the faith. Restore me quickly with power and strength that I will be established and rooted always in truth. Amen.

The Scriptures excerpts are from the Common English Bible, Nashville: 2011. The prayers are my own.

Stained Glass Windows: Milestone Moments of Faith

Stained Glass Windows: Milestone Moments of Faith

1 Peter 3.20-22

Can you name some milestone moments this year? We can name various rites of passages such as growth spurts in our children, new jobs, a new home, birthdays, anniversaries, special accomplishments, “first time” moments are always special occasions… Can you think of some memorable milestones along your faith journey? Baptism, confirmation, profession of faith, joining a church, marriage celebration, or the passing of a loved one… There are times that we separate our everyday milestones with the sacred milestones, but with God all these things are in his great care. God can speak to us in both the everyday and the sacred as moments of encounter.

Across the pages of Scripture there are moments of covenant promises made between God and his people. I call them milestone moments of faith. A milestone is a symbolic rock set up beside a road to mark the distance in miles to a particular place. It could also be an action or event marking a significant change or stage in development. Joshua 4.1-24 reminds us of the significance of stones of remembrance as the Hebrew children crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land celebrating God’s miraculous help. The stones were reminders for generations to come of God’s goodness to the Hebrew people. In Joshua 24.25-28 at the end of Joshua’s life he makes a covenant by placing a very large stone under an oak tree that would remember all the words promised before God. In Luke 19.40 Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem at the Passover. He points out that the “stones will cry out” if the people did not proclaim him King.

When were the moments in your faith journey that you know without a shadow of a doubt that God was with and enabled you to do something beyond human reason? Perhaps there’s a moment along your timeline when you heard God’s still small voice speak very clearly to you about your future. As Christians baptism is one of the most significant milestone moments along the Christian journey of faith.

Our passage today comes from Peter’s letter to the scattered believers who needed encouragement during a season of persecution. Peter’s letter specifically guides the believers as their faith is shaped by the challenges in their communities. To be sure 1 Peter 1.3 clearly defines the content of the letter, “On account of his vast mercy, he has given us new birth. You have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Peter wants the believers to understand the meaning of their baptismal covenant and the promises of God. By the time we arrive at chapter 3 Peter is relaying to us that baptism is truly a mark of a good conscience toward God.

“Noah built an ark in which a few (that is eight) lives were rescued through water. Baptism is like that. It saves you now – not because it removes dirt from the body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers.” – 1 Peter 3.20-22

Here in the passage we have an unusual connection with Noah. As the waters of the flood separated Noah and his family from the old world, so baptism separates Christians from their old life. Baptism is more than a symbolic act, it is an outward sign of an inward grace. Baptism is the sign of transition between the old way of life to another that is marked by a new ethic. Accepting baptism, we affirm our willingness to share in the experience of all the baptized. We willingly accept the suffering and treatment of suspicion and hostility.

Some mark this passage in 1 Peter 3.21-22 as the key verse to the whole book with the understanding that this Epistle is instructional sermon for all Jewish converts. This passage indicates that the one being baptized is making a pledge or a contract. This baptismal agreement has conditions and demands. Perhaps the passage even implies a confession of faith, and a willingness to accept suffering as a believer. Baptism becomes the portrait of the resurrection of Christ and our own renewal as life, death and resurrection.

It is through the waters of baptism that we have entry into the Body of Christ. In baptism, we are initiated into the community of God’s covenant people. A covenant is a two-sided agreement involving promises and responsibilities of both sides. Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant. It is “through water and the Spirit” that we enter into new spiritual life in relationship to God in Christ.

John Wesley asserted in The Articles of Religion that, “Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is a sign of regeneration or the new birth. The baptism of young children is to be retained in the church.” Baptism of an infant portrays our dependence which all of us have on God. The sacrament is the sign of God’s promise of grace, forgiveness and transformation. We do not receive all of the benefits of baptism at once. At whatever age, baptism demonstrates our access to the grace that claims, sustains, and saves us.

The first vow reminds us to recognize and renounce evil in all its forms. We recognize evil as cosmic, systemic, and personal even when our culture denies the existence of evil. The second vow asserts that God enables us to be victorious over evil in all its forms, and obligates us to oppose sin in the social order in which we live. The third vow affirms our commitment to Christ.

As human beings we are born into a world in which evil is real, pervasive, and inescapable by our own efforts (original sin). The Christian Church is a community that has said “no” to sin and been freed to say “yes” to Christ. We acknowledge that the authentic Church of Christ is inclusive of all persons. When parents and sponsors of the one coming to be baptized, they speak for themselves, not on behalf of the one being baptized. As parents and sponsors stand with the one being baptized, they too reaffirm their faith.  

Baptized children must be shaped into Christians. As parents and sponsors, we take responsibility to teach and exemplify the Christian faith, to see that children stay within the nurture of the church, and to guide them toward personal commitment to Christian discipleship. This is why the baptism of infants and young children is to be practiced only when their parents or sponsors are believing Christians and when there is commitment that these children will be brought up with intentional Christian education and formation at church and in the home. I cannot stress this enough. Baptism obligates us to ensure for our children a Christian education at church and in the home.

Christianity is lived out not in isolation, but in community with other Christians. The congregation reaffirms its own faith and commitment, then promises to nurture, teach, and support those whose commitments are being affirmed and reaffirmed. As a church we are called to nurture new Christians in the faith. Sponsors are held to the obligation of discipleship alongside the parents. No matter how strong our commitment to Christ, we can greatly benefit from the guidance and example of mentors and companions.

Methodism has always allowed persons to choose sprinkling, pouring, or immersion as the mode of baptism. All three modes have been used since New Testament times. Laying on of hands is an ancient action of the Church indicating the receiving of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is recognized as the work of the Holy Spirit through which we are spiritually made new and commissioned into Christian service. “Remembering” our baptism is recalling and reclaiming the meaning of baptism and the divine grace that continues at work in our lives.

When baptized children are able to profess the Christian faith for themselves, they participate in the service of confirmation. They publicly take the vows. Confirmation has three parts: promise, profession and commitment. The words said by the pastor are the same as those following baptism, except for a change in the tense of the verb to indicate that spiritual rebirth has already taken place. The Apostles’ Creed is part of the oldest tradition of the Church, this Creed has been used in baptisms throughout the Christian centuries. When we proclaim our faith using the Apostles’ Creed, we are linked with Christians of every place and all time.

Let’s examine what a profession of Christian faith looks like in the Scriptures:

Surrendering. Declaring Jesus is Lord comes with a price for those who surrender and those who accept them into the community of faith. Bowing low in humility requires an act of the will to surrender to what seems out of the ordinary. When we look across the expanse of Jesus ministry we can see the disciples learning what it means to be humble – to bow low before a move of God. When people come to Jesus, it is not always the religious and proper way. When we hear the good confession of others, we must bow low before God and welcome those who have not yet come into the Kingdom of God.

Submission. The good confession is a tender time in the believer when the Holy Spirit is moving profoundly upon the heart. Aged believers do well to guide and encourage those who have been kindled in the move of the Holy Spirit. The good confession is required before a convert can be brought into the community of faith. When we call on the name of the Lord for the first time, we continue to call for all eternity. It is a one-time event, and it is an on-going experience. We acknowledge that God raised Jesus from the dead – Jesus did not raise Jesus from the dead. Jesus remained in total submission to the Father’s will. Submission is the agent by which Christ Jesus was exalted as the Messiah who could save his people. Utterly surrendering to the Father’s will is the way to salvation.

Heart. The good confession is a heart-felt commitment. It begins with an internal conviction that builds up by faith on the inside of a person. This inward belief we call faith leads us to an outward response. This response to God’s grace that Jesus died for our sins is not a pretentious act of hypocrisy. When someone boldly declares that Jesus is Lord you can bet that God’s Spirit is moving within that person to bring about dynamic change in their lives.

Verbal. The good confession leads each one of us to a verbal expression of faith. What begins in the heart makes its way past all our fears and doubts to become an expression upon our lips. Faith always expresses itself in declaration in a community. The good confession guides us to the fulfillment of making disciples and baptizing others in light of the Great Commission.

Community. The Christian faith was never designed to be lived in isolation within our own hearts. It was never designed to be lived among our own people – family and friends. It was designed to reach out to the world around us. When Jesus left his disciples and ascended to Heaven, he gave them the Great Commission which remains the guiding mission for every believer.

The mission statement of the Kentucky Annual Conference clearly states our mission is to “Discover, Develop and Send passionate spiritual leaders and resources to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Authority. The good confession happens when the eyes of our hearts are enlightened and we experience the hope of eternal life and the power of transformation that lies within the Christ Himself. Christ possesses all power and authority in heaven and earth. Christ is the ruler of all things in above and below. And, when we confession him as our Lord we are now seated with him in heavenly places. Christ bestows upon us the gift of his presence – the Holy Spirit. The good confession brings us into the perfect alignment under God’s authority. We are no longer living our lives unto ourselves and according to our own wants, but according to the Father’s will. We surrender in obedience to the one who made us in his image.

Name. The good confession is in the name of Jesus. When we make the good confession, we declare Jesus as Lord. There is no other name by which we are saved. In a society that celebrates pluralism where everyone can pray to their own view of God we need to know that our good confession of Christ Jesus is unique. There is no other God. And, there is no such thing as lip service. The Scriptures make no distinction between believing in Jesus and obeying the words of Jesus. When you and I declare that Jesus is Lord, we are also declaring that we will obey God’s word to the fullest. We no longer have a choice as to what we do or do not do. We have already chosen to obey God to the fullest.

Sent. The good confession happens in the context of the Christian community where disciples are sent to make disciples through the proclamation of what Christ has done for each one of us. Each one of us is sent forth on Sunday morning to proclaim our witness of God’s great love in the world. You do not have to school to proclaim Christ, it comes from your own testimony and witness as to what Christ has done in your life. When we look at Paul, we see a man of great talent in the Christian community. His whole Christian walk is founded on an encounter with Christ Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul preached because he discovered Christ Jesus was the real deal and he spent his life declaring that to others.

Good News. The good confession happens when we hear the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. People cannot come to a living experience of Jesus Christ unless someone proclaims the message of God’s great love to them. Each one of us is bound by the Great Commission to make disciples. It is in the witnessing to others that people can come to an understanding of their choices. The most profound impact you can make on others is to tell of the redemption that you yourself have experienced in Jesus. The good confession leads people to belief in the heart and a verbal calling on the name of Jesus. When the witnessing and the proclamation of Christ has been offered, each one of us comes to a living faith. It is not a dead faith that was yesterday’s news. It is new every morning. The good confession leads us to an on-going relationship with Jesus Christ that is vibrant and life giving.

Forgiven. The good confession leads us to accept Jesus as our high priest who takes away the sins of the world. When we imagine Jesus as our high priest, we can see him in his priestly garments of purple clothing befitting of his station as the one who hears our confession and takes away our sins. The good confession reaches the expanse of the Scriptures enveloping all the promises of God to his people. When Moses was called to lead his people, he requested a partner in ministry. And, that partner would be God himself. God would send his presence to go with Moses and to give him rest on the journey. That same presence is ours today.

Repeat. Throughout our lives, we need to participate in individual and corporate services of reaffirmation of our good confession. The sacrament of baptism never needs to be repeated because it is the covenantal sign of God’s gracious act. Once we have been claimed by God’s love, adopted by God’s grace, and initiated by God into the Body of Christ, God never fails to remain faithful to the divine side of the covenant. It is the human side of the covenant which is neglected, even broken.

Intentional. We need intentional opportunities to renew our trust in Christ and recommit ourselves to Christian discipleship. It is always the congregation’s responsibility to welcome new members inclusively, and pledge themselves to renew their faithful participation in the congregation. Baptism is a whole community recommitment to follow Jesus in faithful discipleship.

As we welcome a child among us today let us put aside our differences and welcome those who seek reconciliation through the baptismal waters of grace. As believers we are called to seek the well-being of all people not simply our own convictions. We stand ready to welcome at all times with all people in all places. Let our hearts and hands be open to receive the newly baptized and his family today.