Transitions: From Philly to Auburn

This post has been long overdue for at least two months. I’ve avoided it because I wasn’t quite sure how to say what I wanted to say… and I still don’t. On the one hand, it’s pretty straightforward: Cassie, Isla, and I will be moving to Auburn, AL, this Friday, August 1st where I’ll soon begin working as Alabama Rural Ministry’s Director of Ministry Operations.

We’re so excited to be moving back to AL – to AUBURN – and I, personally, am beyond excited to be working with ARM – a ministry that has had such a big impact on my life and sense of calling thus far. For those of you who may not know, ARM extends the love of Christ in order to end sub-standard housing in rural Alabama through home repair and children’s ministries. I served on ARM’s summer staff as a construction site coordinator in Sumter Count back in 2005. While my new role will have me at ARM’s main office in Opelika, AL, I’ll also have plenty of opportunity to seek God’s kingdom back home in Sumter County. It’ll be challenging work for me in a number of ways but I’m so grateful to Lisa Pierce, ARM’s founder and executive director, for her vision and the opportunity to work alongside her.

We’re also excited to be back down south, close to our families, and a bit further from the “big city” 😉 On the other hand, it’s just not that simple.

I guess you could say we’re “moving back home” since we’ll be moving from PA back to AL (Cassie is from TN but… close enough). But saying that might imply that we’re not at home here, in Wynnewood/Ardmore, PA… and that would be wrong. We are home here. We didn’t expect it, but it happened. All we can say in hindsight is that God is so good.

We’ll be saying goodbye to so many people and places we’ve come to love: Six:Eight Community Church, our community group, all our friends at Linwood Park, our awesome neighbors, our friends from seminary, our co-workers… Leaving Wynnewood/Ardmore will not be easy at all.

All our excitement for what’s next can’t cover up the feelings of loss and grief that come from letting go of our life here in PA. We cannot thank God enough for all the people who have welcomed us into their lives. We southerners talk a big talk about hospitality, but I now know that hospitality doesn’t end when you cross the Mason-Dixon line. Cassie and I have been given such a gift in the friendships we’ve made here. In some mysterious way, we know that all those people, those relationships, will go with us as we move. We’re just not the same people as we were when we moved here 3 years ago. We’ve been changed by the people and the place we’ve come to know; and we can’t escape that – nor would we want to.

In a very real, yet mysterious way, I think Cassie and I have had an authentic experience, a foretaste, of God’s coming kingdom during our time here in Wynnewood/Ardmore – several experiences actually. Some have been at church, others at our community group, and still others at Linwood Park. God’s kingdom has been made real and tangible for us… and I’m in awe as I reflect back on its goodness.

So, transitions… we’re on the move once again, following the Spirit as little children who Jesus said would be the ones who welcome and enter the abundant life of God’s new creation. We hope to stay put for awhile in the Auburn/Opelika/Lee-Macon county area. We hope to be able to plant ourselves in a community in the way our church has planted itself in Ardmore/Wynnewood. We walk by faith – not by sight.

What can we say? Thank God and thank you – all of you.

And now, may “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Amen.

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Genesis 40: Don’t Forget – You’re Not Forgotten

Slide1

[My sermon this morning at 6:8 Community Church continuing the story of Joseph. My thoughts on being forgotten, God’s hesed, and remembering others.]

We’re forgetful people: our keys, wallets, purses, phones (and wedding rings if you’re my wife). We forget all kinds of things. But the worst is when we forget another person… kind of like this: [show Home Alone “Kevin’s Not Here” clip].

Slide2

I used to think that clip was ridiculous. How could you forget your son?!?! After 8 months of Isla, I totally understand how it could happen. My memory gets worse every day. For Kevin, being forgotten turned out ok. He even enjoyed being alone. And, sure, he had to face some challenges but he made it. Of course, we know it’s a movie, and a comedy at that.

Slide3Reality is far less humorous. Being forgotten is a deadening experience – emotionally, spiritually, even physically. When we’re forgotten by those we know and love, we begin to lose our sense of belonging and purpose and, eventually, hope. When I forget someone, it means that, in some way, there wasn’t space for that person in my life. This happens to all of us in all kinds of way. We’re forgotten by our friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, even our church.

Slide4But we find ourselves on the flip side too; we often forget those we know and love. And then once we consider those outside our everyday social networks, our memory problems only get worse. Do we remember the poor? The hungry, the homeless, the widows and orphans – the prisoners, the immigrants and refugees, those caught in violent conflict or abusive situations? What about the elderly, the home-bound, the sick, and the intellectually and physically disabled? Or even single parents, the long-term unemployed, or those caught in depression? Remembering those who live in these kinds of difficult, painful, and sometimes even oppressive situations can be especially hard. It feels easier to forget. Even if that person is us; sometimes we’d rather even forget about ourselves. What does it mean for us to remember when remembering is so hard?

I’ve met a handful of people who are all too easy for me to forget. I want to tell you about one of them. About 7 years ago on a mission trip to Liberia, West Africa, I met a shy little girl on a beach. I noticed her staring blankly at us white folks, watching in the distance as we played joyfully with other Liberian kids. I could tell she wanted to play too so I stopped to talk with her. I found out that, like many in Liberia’s capital city, she was a fisherman and was out selling her catch; probably 8 or 9 years old. It’s hard to stop and play when you know what not selling those fish could mean for you and your family. She told me her name… but I forgot.

Slide5I conveniently forget about this little girl because her life holds up a mirror to my own. In it I see God’s unquenchable desire for justice, righteousness, and comprehensive peace for all people. I see my complicity in sinful social structures that desecrate her life and deny the abundant life that Jesus desires for her. I see that she is my neighbor and, whether I realize it or not, I need her just as much as she needs me. My story is incomplete without hers. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….”

Slide6When I forget that little girl’s story, I forget myself. Whenever we forget about others – rich or poor, strangers or loved ones – we all end up a little more forgotten, a little more lost, a little more alone, a little farther from God’s dream of justice lived out in diverse communities. No one should be forgotten. But we’re sinful people, wounded people: we all forget and, in differing ways, we’re all forgotten.

So let’s take a few minutes to remember Joseph’s story. At this point, Joseph reminds me of the lyrics of that Chumbawamba song circa 1997: “I get knocked down! But I get up again!”

Slide7He’s a natural born leader who gets sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous brothers. But he gets back up and becomes the head of Potiphar’s household! He gets knocked down again when Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of raping her and he gets thrown into prison. But he gets back up: he’s appointed as the head prisoner. Joseph seems to keep landing on his feet… for now. Follow along as I read from Genesis 40 about what happens next to Joseph in the prison:

Some time later, both the wine steward and the baker for Egypt’s king offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officers… [and] put them under arrest with the commander of the royal guard in the same jail where Joseph was imprisoned. The commander of the royal guard assigned Joseph to assist them. After they had been under arrest for some time, both of them… had dreams one night, and each man’s dream had its own meaning. When Joseph met them in the morning, he saw that they were upset. He asked [them], “Why do you look so distressed today?”

They answered, “We’ve both had dreams, but there’s no one to interpret them.” Joseph said to them, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? Describe your dreams to me.”

The chief wine steward described his dream to Joseph: “In my dream there was a vine right in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. When it budded, its blossoms appeared, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, so I took the grapes, crushed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and put the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”

Joseph said to him, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three branches are three days. After three days, Pharaoh will give you an audience and return you to your position. You will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just the way things were before when you were his wine steward. But please, remember me when you are doing well and be loyal to me. Put in a good word for me to Pharaoh, so he sets me free from this prison. I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews, and here too I’ve done nothing to be thrown into this dungeon.”

When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “It was the same for me. In my dream, there were three baskets of white bread on my head. In the basket on top there were baked goods for Pharaoh’s food, but birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.”

Joseph responded, “This is the dream’s interpretation: The three baskets are three days. After three days, Pharaoh will give you an audience and will hang you from a tree where birds will peck your flesh from you.”

The third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a party for all of his servants. Before all of his servants, he gave an audience to the chief wine steward and the chief baker. He returned the chief wine steward to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But the chief baker he hanged, just as Joseph had said would happen when he interpreted their dreams for them. But the chief wine steward didn’t remember Joseph; he forgot all about him.

Joseph doesn’t land on his feet this time; he’s face first. How do we know?

Slide15First, we notice the repetition of the word “dream.” It appears 65 times in the Old Testament. 22 of those are in Joseph’s story and 10 are in this chapter! Ten repetitions in the same story mean that dreams are a big deal! Up until this point in the story, dreams have been dangerous. Remember what happened when Joseph told his family about his dreams? His brothers wanted to kill him! His dreams have gotten him into this mess. When we hear “dreams” 10 times in Genesis 40, all our warning lights should be flashing red. We know what happened last time. Trouble is coming.

Slide16Second, we hear Joseph’s desperation as he pleads for help from the wine steward and laments his situation. He’s been stolen, kidnapped – a victim of human trafficking, a slave with no rights. And he’s a Hebrew in the land of Egypt – a foreigner, a stranger, one who doesn’t belong.

Slide17And one who’s easily forgotten. Joseph begs the wine steward to remember him, to be loyal to him. But when the wine steward is restored to his position in pharaoh’s court – just as Joseph said – he forgets to tell pharaoh about Joseph. Joseph gets knocked down, and he’ll spend two more years in prison before he gets up again.

Slide18The wine steward forgets. Joseph is desperate and forgotten. What’s God doing in all of this? At first glance, nothing! Joseph mentions God but we don’t hear God’s voice. But God is present and working for Joseph’s well-being. We can see it in v. 8 as Joseph boldly declares that interpretations belong to God.

Slide19Then Joseph takes a risk on this truth by offering himself as God’s dream interpreter. And guess what? God is faithful. Joseph’s interpretations are right on the money. This proves the intimacy of Joseph’s relationship with God. It also gives Joseph a reputation as an expert dream interpreter with a person who is very close to pharaoh.

What’s God doing? God’s remembering Joseph. In Genesis 39:20-21, just a few verses before our story in Genesis 40, right after Joseph is thrown into prison, we read that “the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him” in prison. God’s loyal, steadfast presence enabled Joseph to be in a position of caretaker where he was given this opportunity to interpret dreams. God is loyal once again by giving Joseph these interpretations. God has not forgotten Joseph.

But Joseph is still rotting in prison! What gives God?! Joseph is doing everything right, but nothing changes. And all because the dang wine steward has a bad memory? Gimme a break God! Haven’t You forgotten Joseph too?

Slide20Let’s slow down. Remember when Joseph pleads for the wine steward’s help? He uses a very important word. Joseph begs the wine steward to “be loyal to me.” It’s the Hebrew word hesed. And, it’s the same word that appeared in Genesis 39:21, the verse we just read, to describe God’s “loyalty” to Joseph. God shows Joseph hesed in the prison and now Joseph asks the wine steward to shown him hesed. Why am I telling you this? Because this word hesed is the key to understanding how God is at work in Joseph’s life and in our own.

Slide21Let’s zoom out for just a bit to talk about hesed. It’s translated in a number of ways in the Old Testament: “mercy,” “kindness,” “steadfast love,” “goodness,” “faithfulness,” and “loyalty.” Basically, it’s God’s unrelenting love for God’s people which brings them back into right relationship. It’s the love that keeps God pursuing after us even as we continually reject God and run the other way. God is not distant from us – God created us because of God’s overflowing hesed for us; God continues to be with us because God is full of hesedfor us!1Hesed is God standing in solidarity with us through all our sin and suffering, refusing to leave us, always pursuing us, and always making a way for us to return home to God’s love. Hesed means that God NEVER forgets us.

So, let’s zoom back in to Joseph. God has shown Joseph hesed by empowering him to interpret dreams. In doing so, Joseph is given a potential way out of prison. BUT… Joseph can’t go anywhere unless the wine steward reciprocates God’s hesed. Without the wine steward’s willingness to identify himself with a Hebrew slave in front of the king of Egypt, Joseph is stuck. God remembers, but the wine steward forgets. God shows hesed; but the wine steward refuses to stand with Joseph. This leads us to hesed’s second dimension.

Slide22It’s not just about God’s relationship with us: it describes the way God intends our relationships to be with others – faithful love, mercy, kindness, solidary. It’s the heart of our community. God’s hesed for us empowers us and is made complete when we reciprocate it through our hesed for others. We see this dimension in none other than Micah 6:8, “[God] has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”2Do you hear it: “embrace faithful love” or “love mercy”? That’s hesed. It’s inseparable from doing justice and walking humbly with God and others. As God stands with us and for us, we are called to be partners in God’s hesed and to stand with and for others as a community that tangibly, visibly embodies and enacts God’s hesed.

Slide23Now we can answer the question: if God doesn’t forget Joseph, why is he still locked in prison? Because the wine steward didn’t share in God’s hesed. He therefore failed to bring God’s desire for Joseph’s freedom and justice to fruition. The wine steward could’ve participated in God’s hesed by standing with Joseph and giving him an audience with pharaoh. But he forgot. God is full of hesed for Joseph but this hesed must be extended and shared in a mutual relationship between Joseph and the wine steward. It’s incomplete because it’s unreciprocated.

Slide24As we turn now from Joseph’s story back to our own, I want to be sensitive to the fact that some of us here this morning may feel a lot like Joseph: desperate and forgotten. Even if no one here feels that way, we know that our world today is full people who do. We actually don’t even have to think outside our own city limits to find desperate, forgotten people. Others of us may be more like the wine steward. Life is no piece of cake, but we probably wouldn’t describe ourselves as forgotten. And we may even admit how we struggle to remember others. In reality, I think we’re all a mix of both Joseph and the wine steward – both forgotten and forgetting others.

Slide25What is God saying to us today? First and foremost, we are not forgotten; you are not forgotten. No matter what kind of prison our lives have become – nothing separates us from the faithful love of God. Does this mean that the doors to our prisons will suddenly swing open? I don’t think so. What I think it does mean is the same thing it meant for Joseph: God’s hesed is providing a way out for us but we have a role to play too. Like Joseph, we need faith to take a risk on who we know God to be. Joseph knew God as the giver of dream interpretations and he took a concrete step of faith based on that truth. Who is God to you today? Is there a step of faith you can take with God?

But notice also that Joseph would’ve never been in a position to interpret those dreams had he not cared for the wine steward and baker first. He noticed they were upset and asked what was wrong. Could it be that the way out of our prison actually begins with caring for others? How might God be empowering you to care for someone else? Maybe the healing for our forgotteness begins when we remember others?

In any case, what we trust and believe is that God’s hesed– God’s faithful, steadfast remembrance of us – always come first and isn’t dependent on our actions. It’s a gift of grace: God has not forgotten you.

Slide26For the wine stewards, what does it mean for us to remember others, especially those we find it convenient to forget? When the wine steward is restored to his position of authority in pharaoh’s court, he’s given the opportunity to influence pharaoh – the most powerful man in the world. At this point, we might think that Joseph needs the wine steward to be his “voice” before pharaoh. You know a “voice for the voiceless.” We hear that a lot when discussing how to help forgotten people living in desperate situations. But that’s not it. Joseph has a voice! The man interprets dreams! He’s not voiceless. Let him speak for himself! The wine steward didn’t need to be Joseph’s voice. He needed to use his own voice to get Joseph an audience with the pharaoh. See the difference? Why stand in someone else’s place when they can stand for themselves?! Open the door for them and stand beside them! Don’t be their voice… be their audience!

This is what it means for us to remember others: we make space for them beside us. We become an audience, ones who listen, a people who show hospitality, whose hearts are open to the pain and suffering of others, and share that burden with them. This morning, you might just be a “wine steward” to someone else. You may be the person positioned to partner with God’s hesed to bring someone else one step closer to the redemption, healing, and wholeness God desires for them. Who are we forgetting? Who in our lives needs an audience? Who is God calling us to remember?

I want to end by saying that we, as a church, are already doing this. We remember and partner in God’s hesed every time we collect items for the Ardmore Food Pantry as part of our communion celebration. We remember as we serve with organizations like Chore Connection who put us in relationship with the elderly and home-bound, people like our friend Owen. With each game of bingo at PALM and every day of work with Six:Eight Cares, we remember. Every time we gather with our neighbors at Linwood Park, who knows – maybe we’re listening to a Joseph who feels desperate and forgotten? When we take the opportunity to remember, we make space for the kingdom of God to break in; for God’s hesed to be made tangible and visible.

Slide27These intentional practices of remembrance over the past five years have rooted us in this community. We’re tied to this place by the bonds of hesed. Through our roots of remembrance here in Ardmore, God is now preparing a way for us to link ourselves with communities on the other side of the globe. As Jason mentioned this morning, we’re now exploring a partnership with Vineyard churches and ministries in Indonesia – a place that we probably don’t remember very often. It’s the most populous Muslim country in the world, plagued by political and social upheaval, struggling against various forms of poverty; a place where Christian communities face real suffering for their faith. Part of the work we’re being invited into is to listen, to be an audience, to stand with our Christian sisters and brothers, remembering them with arms linked together for the journey into God’s global kingdom.

Even though we forget each other, the God of Joseph has not forgotten us! We’re invited as a faith community to be partners in God’s faithful, saving love, to stand in solidarity with one another and all those who are forgotten so that all people – in Wynnewood, Ardmore, Havertown, and Indonesia! – would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are remembered, that they belong, and that God loves them more than they can know. So now may God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

1 See Psalm 136, Exo. 34:6, and Jer. 9:24 for examples of the centrality of hesed in Old Testament theology.

2 See also Hosea 6:6 and Ruth 1:16-17.

Amos, Over-Realized Eschatology, and the “Here and Now”

This morning at church we introduced a new worship song to be our “anthem” for the coming year. It’s called “Here and Now” and it was written by Eddie Kirkland out of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA. It’s a great anthem song… just take a listen:

It’s got that “Let’s go change the world” kind of vibe right? If there’s one word I would choose to describe this song, I think it would be: confident… possibly too confident. Just read the chorus:

Let Your mercy rise
Let Your hope resound
Let Your love in our hearts be found

Let Your grace run free
Let Your name bring peace
Heaven come in the here and now

That’s a bold claim: heaven come… right now! If that line sounds familiar, it’s because Kirkland borrowed it from Jesus’ instruction to the disciples about how to pray. In Matthew’s version of the “Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus tells his disciples to pray “Our Father in heaven,hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). When Kirkland sings “heaven,” he’s using a shorthand version of “[God’s] kingdom come, [God’s] will be done.”

But, what do we usually think of we think of the word “heaven”? Most Christian folk would probably think of angels, clouds, harps, no tears, perfect peace, life with God, etc, etc… They might also think of the “opposite” of heaven, ie hell, fire, brimstone, judgement, eternal punishment, and all the rest. When we ask about heaven and hell, we’re asking about what happens when we die;  will we exist throughout eternity and what will that look like? Basically, we’re asking this: “what’s the end game here? when I come to my end (ie death), what happens next?”

In the wide and wonderful world of theology, these are questions about eschatology; personal eschatology to be precise. So, how do we make sense of these personally eschatological questions about heaven and hell in light of this song? It seems like the song has a different understanding of “heaven” since the lyrics are asking God to bring “heaven… in the here and now” – not when we die. For those who sing this song, “heaven” seems to be a reality that is experienced in normal, everyday life. God’s mercy and hope, grace and peace, God’s love is here – right now! Why wait till your dead to start living right!?!?!

The theological perspective behind this song is what most theologians would call a “realized” eschatology. Instead of thinking that eternal life with God will only be real some time in the future, after death, eternal life can be “realized” today, here and now. We can see it and touch it and feel it; life with God can be “real”-ized, ie become real. Personally, I think this is a great approach. Eternal life begins now. Nowhere is this clearer to me in Scripture than in Jesus’ “mission statement” in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Now, there’s a lot of great stuff in this verse, but I want to focus on that last phrase: “the year of the Lord’s favor.” One important thing to note is that Jesus is quoting from the prophet Isaiah; mostly Isaiah 61:1-2 and some other phrases pulled from other parts of Isaiah 40-66. Isaiah was an Old Testament prophet and who was writing to God’s people as they were exiled in Babylon. In chapters 40-66, Isaiah is proclaiming a hopeful vision; God will bring Israel home; a new end was in sight for Israel, a new day was dawning – the “day of the Lord.” You could say that Isaiah 40-66 is all about eschatology. Israel’s future is at stake and they need hope. When Jesus quotes this passage, he’s saying that the “day of the Lord” has arrived, the “year of the Lord’s favor” has come, Israel’s hope was to be “realized” in him! This passage is a cornerstone for those who espouse a “realized eschatology.” You can see strong influences of this passage in the lyrics of “Here and Now.”

So, this is all great stuff but what’s the point? Realized eschatology is cool and all – “Heaven come! Now!” – but it can go too far. We Christians can sometimes get so fired up about how powerful and loving and just God is that we get a bit over confident. Our eschatology becomes over-realized. In our zeal for “the day of the Lord” to come, we forget how God became vulnerable, emptied himself, and overturned all the expectations of God’s people for a quick, catastrophic overthrow of the Roman empire and a triumphal return of Israel and its king. We forget that Jesus was murdered on a Roman cross.

I mention Amos in the title of this post. I think this prophet has a good word for us to remember as we long for “the day of the Lord”

Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
 It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

Amos wrote these words to a group of people who had lost sight of what it meant to live as God’s people. Even though they “worshiped” the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, injustice had become the norm in their society; the poor were trampled and sold for a pair of shoes. For this people, Amos says the “day of the Lord” – the day when justice rolls down like a mighty river and righteousness like a rushing stream – will be a day of reckoning, a day of emptying, of crucifixion. These folks just didn’t realize that God actually despised their worship.

As I sing this song at my church over the next few weeks, the words of Amos will be looming large in my mind. Can I really sing it with authenticity? Do I really understand the cost of following Jesus into the “day of the Lord”? If “heaven” does come, will it be “as though [I] fled from a lion only to meet a bear”? The world I live in is very much like the world of Amos; violence, injustice, and suffering seem to rule the day while I live in relative comfort and security. In other words, I have a lot to lose. Realized eschatology is great, and I’ll still sing this song, but I must remember and begin to live as if I really believe that God’s grace, this experience of eternal life that I can see, feel, and touch right now, is not cheap: “[Grace] is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).

May God continue to lead me, to lead us, on the downward way of Christ. May I decrease, so that Christ may increase. May God’s light shine into the darkness of my heart and my world to expose the ways I bring “hell” to myself and others all while praying for “heaven” to come.

Welcoming Hope [Romans 15:13]

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

As I meditated on this verse, one phrase kept jumping out at me: “as you trust in Him.” I thought about it a bit more and it seemed to beg the question: “for what? What is the goal, the end, the vision that Paul is wanting the church at Rome to trust in God for?”

I started thinking about the whole letter of Romans to put this verse into context. Among the many theological nuances and levels of thought weaved into this letter, Paul is, on the whole, addressing a situation of deep disunity and distrust among Jews and Gentiles trying to be God’s people in Rome. The first 9 chapters lay the theological foundation for the new community in Christ that he envisions in chapters 12-15. However, this is not just any community but the “body of Christ”:

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

Romans 12:4-5

This is the vision Paul has been developing when we arrive at Romans 15. In this chapter, Paul is really driving his message home loud and clear. Verses 5-7 really capture, for me, the main reason he has written this letter:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.[Welcome] one another, then, just as Christ [welcomed] you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15:5-7

So, what is Paul instructing the church at Rome to “trust in God” for? Becoming one mind and one voice, having the same attitude of Christ towards each other, knowing and experiencing God’s gracious welcome and then welcoming others in the same way. This, I think, is what Paul is asking us to trust God for: unity that is experienced in community, the specific, unique – even holy – community of the body of Christ.

So, we’re trusting God for community in Christ, but how is that related to hope? It’s interesting to me how Paul asks “the God of hope” to fill his readers with joy and peace – not with hope. Paul wants them to overflow with hope, but he doesn’t ask for hope directly. Why not? Why ask for joy and peace if he wants the church at Rome to be filled with hope?

As Christians, what is the source and ground of our hope? The simple answer, for me, is Easter: the empty tomb, the risen, resurrected, reigning King, the Lord, Jesus Christ. When Paul asks for joy and peace, I think he’s trying to remind his readers of their only real source of hope in the one who has defeated death and overcome evil. Jesus is alive and Jesus is our hope. But here’s the key: Jesus isn’t just up in heaven somewhere. Jesus is alive and well yesterday, today, and tomorrow. How? Through God’s people, “the BODY of Christ,” the community of men, women, and children that welcomes one another as Christ has welcomed them. This community is – by and only by the power of the Holy Spirit – the resurrected body of Christ!

We welcome hope when we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. Our hope is found in the community enlivened by the Spirit to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ to us. Our hope is real because we know it by name, we can touch it, be hugged by it, and hear its voice.

Paul’s prayer in Romans 15:13 reminds the Romans that they need God’s joy because community is can sometimes be discouraging. It can be confusing and even upsetting, so we need God’s peace. As we trust in God for this provision, we experience the Holy Spirit’s power to “stay at the table” with each other and welcome one another even in the midst of our pain, confusion, and imperfect attempts to love one another. Then, I think, one day, we’ll be able to step back and say, “Here is my hope. In these people, in this place, as we come together and trust in God to fill us with joy and peace by the power of the Spirit; I have hope because I’ve known Jesus, I’ve felt his touch and heard his voice. He’s alive.”

Of course, this hope is experienced incompletely, inadequately and in ways we can’t plan or control. These experiences and moments of hope may be fleeting. The phrase “trial and error” comes to mind. “Community” does not “equal” hope and not just any “community” can claim to be “the body of Christ.” So, we move forward humbly always taking time to discern the Spirit – because, without the Spirit, we’re as good as dead.

I AM Peace… and Baal is Not

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Watch the video first… (war eagle!)

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Now, I realize we probably don’t have many Auburn fans in the room this morning, but, after watching that video, I have one question for you: do you think going to an Auburn football game – being in the stands, watching this video on a massive HD display, surrounded by 87k fans screaming in unison, flags, banners, cheerleaders, the band, an eagle circling the stadium, maybe fireworks, smoke machines – is this worship? Would you describe going to the Super Bowl to watch your favorite team compete as an experience that’s similar to what we’re doing here this morning in the “worship service”?

Slide2 How about this? Not trying to make any political statements here, but is attending a presidential inauguration an act of worship? They follow a strict ritual, play music, great speeches from world-renowned leaders are heard, all the most important, powerful people are there, and thousands of others brave the rain and cold just to catch a glimpse. Is this worship?

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 How do you know you’re worshiping? Does it depend on the place? If you’re at church, does that mean you’re worshiping? Can we worship at home? So, there’s a place everyone in this room has been before, but you’ve never gone there to “worship.” I’m going to read something now that describes this particular place, but the description intentionally blurs the location. So, as you listen, close your eyes, see the place in your mind’s eye, and try to figure out where you are:

One might say that this religious building has a winding labyrinth for contemplation, alongside of which are innumerable chapels devoted to various saints. As we wander the labyrinth in contemplation, preparing to enter one of the chapels, we’ll be struck by the rich iconography that lines the walls and interior spaces. Unlike the flattened depictions of saints one might find in stained-glass windows, here is an array of three-dimensional icons adorned in garb… As we pause to reflect on some of the icons on the outside of one of the chapels, we are thereby invited to consider what’s happening within the chapel – invited to enter into the act of worship more properly, invited to taste and see. We are greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms… after time spent focused and searching in what the faithful call “the racks,” with our newfound holy object in hand, we proceed to the altar, which is the consummation of worship. While acolytes and other worship assistants have helped us navigate our experience, behind the altar is the priest who presides over the consummating transaction… We don’t leave this transformative experience with just good feelings or pious generalities, but rather with something concrete and tangible, with newly minted relics… And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season. Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel… to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel.[1]

Any guesses? What’s being described here? Where are you “worshiping”? Need some hints? Those garbed, 3D “icons” you contemplated? They’re called manikins. That “chapel”? It was J. Crew. Your “relic”? Skinny jeans. The “priest” was your cashier who received your credit card “sacrifice” at the checkout “altar” where digital signals flowed like pleasing incense through the wires to fill the nostrils of the great “gods” of Visa. You’re at the mall and you’re worshiping. Did you realize it?

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It’s all worship: football games, presidential inaugurations, shopping. The list of “worshipful” activities and “places of worship” is infinitely long because we’re always worshiping – all day, every day.

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Why all this talk about worship? Last week we looked at the first episode in the story of Gideon found in the book of Judges. We saw how Israel, God’s chosen people, was in this state of transition, of twilight, an in-between time. They were stuck in this cycle of unfaithfulness to the promise they had made to God and God was raising up judge after judge to save them from their enemies. Gideon was one of these judges – a deliverer – who God was calling to save Israel. God had to take special measure to get through to Gideon and eventually Gideon got the message loud and clear. How did Gideon respond? WORSHIP. He built an altar and named it “The Lord is Peace.” Last week we learned that the first step, the foundational step towards the all-encompassing, comprehensive peace that the Israelites called shalom is to worship the God is who Peace. If we long for peaceful community – well-being, justice, security, wholeness, healing – we begin by worshiping the God-who-is-Peace.

We left Gideon in Judges 6:24, so let’s pick up where we left off and read just a bit more in the story:

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The message I want to bear witness to this morning from the life of Gideon is simple:

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Let’s go back to the text and break this down a little.

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Worshiping the God-who-is-Peace is costly. When Gideon finally realized that he was talking to God, he had to come to terms with the fact that GOD had just commissioned HIM to be a judge, a deliverer of Israel. Now, we may be excited if God called us to do that, right? Don’t we all want that sense of God-given purpose and mission in life? And wouldn’t we love the assurance of this kind of personal encounter? Maybe so. I know I wouldn’t mind. But I’m not so sure Gideon was as excited about his commissioning as you and I might be because, as it turns out, Gideon and his family are… a bit pre-occupied. They’re Israelites but they’re kinda “on a break” from Yahweh, the God of Israel, and have started seeing another god. His name is Baal and he has a cool friend named Asherah. The text is pretty clear: Gideon’s family OWNS the altar to Baal, who is basically the most well-known pagan god in the Old Testament. When Israel rebels from God and turns to idolatry, it seems like they always turn to Baal.

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 So, when Gideon hears this call from Yahweh, the true God of Israel, and then builds this altar and names it “The Lord is Peace,” he’s actually making a pretty significant decision because he’s changing his allegiance away from Baal back to Yahweh, the God of Israel. He recognizes that if Yahweh is the God-who-is-Peace, then every other “god” is a false god of chaos, violence, confusion, destruction, and death.

But, as significant as that decision was for Gideon, it was only the first step. It’s one thing to build an altar to Yahweh, but it looks kinda silly when that altar is actually just down the street from the Baal altar, you know, the one you and your family OWN. The first step of worshiping God leads Gideon to a second step: tearing down the Baal altar. What does this mean for Gideon? It means confronting his father. He not only has to dismantle the Baal altar and chop down the Asherah pole, but he also has to build a new altar to Yahweh on top of the ruins of the Baal altar and then sacrifice his father’s prized bull using the wood from the Asherah pole as fuel for the flames. Destroying the Baal altar is going to have serious consequences: as the text goes on to tell, this is not just a personal family shrine – it’s being used by the whole community. Gideon is deconstructing the community’s source of security, comfort, and hope. But it’s not just the community’s idol, or his family’s idol – it’s his idol too.

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For Gideon, the cost of worshiping the one, true God-who-is-Peace is experienced in a confrontation with false gods that is simultaneously personal and social, public and private.

But Gideon goes through with it; he’s afraid but he does it anyway. As he feared, the townspeople are super-pissed. They want Gideon dead, but he survives and he even gets some unexpected help from his father. What happens next? Well, in brief summary form, Gideon delivers Israel from the Midianites, this people that were oppressing Israel because of their idolatry. So, Gideon worships the true God, tears down the idols, defeats the enemies, and delivers Israel. Sounds good right? What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s skip ahead and pick up the story in Judges 8:22-28. This is just after Gideon has returned from his successful military conquest of the Midianites:

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There’s tons of irony here. One detail about Gideon’s conquest over Midian that I didn’t mention before is that God made a very specific, very intentional effort to ensure that there would be no way the Israelites could miss the fact that it was God who was delivering them – not Gideon. But what do the people tell Gideon? “for YOU have delivered us from out of the hand of Midian.” Not surprisingly, they miss the point.  This episode is already off to a bad start. But Gideon sets ‘em straight: “Nope, there is no king but God. Sorry folks.” Unfortunately, he keeps talking… Earlier we said that our worship of the one, true God-who-is-Peace is costly because it’s continuously challenged by our appetite for easy, cheap, imitation gods who make promises of peace that don’t last; that actually lead us, and all creation, towards death. We talked about the costly part already. Let’s look at part 2: the continuous challenge we face from our appetite for the easy gods, the “Baals,” that lead us toward death.

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Gideon says one thing – “I won’t be your king. Only God is king!” – but then he does another. His actions speak louder than his words. He passes the offering plate and asks for gold and then makes an ephod. Now, what on earth is an ephod? It’s this apron-like garment that was to be worn only by the high priest. It was highly symbolic of God’s presence. It was worn only in a ritual, sacrificial context and it was considered to be one of the holiest objects that the priest wore. Where there’s an ephod, you should find a priest.

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Now, the text doesn’t come out and say why Gideon made the ephod, but it does tell us the result: “all Israel prostituted themselves  [to the ephod]” and “IT became a snare to Gideon and his family.”   Judges chapter 2 uses this same imagery – prostitution and a “snare” – to describe Israel’s cyclical abandonment of God and return to idolatry. The connection is clear and its confirmed by what happens a few verses later: “As soon as Gideon died, the Israelites relapsed and prostituted themselves with the Baals.”[3] When Gideon makes this ephod, it’s like he’s saying, “I won’t be your king but I’m gonna be my own priest.” He refuses to be a leader but then takes a leadership role that brings Israel right back to worshiping false gods.

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Gideon may have pulled Israel out from under the oppressive hand of Midian but he couldn’t break the hold of Baal on their hearts. He couldn’t break Baal’s hold on his own heart.

Idols don’t just go away. You have to dismantle them and then build a new altar to God on top of it. But even then, they return.

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It’s like whack-a-mole… Gideon was, once again, oblivious to his own appetite, and the appetite of his community, for worshiping these cheap, easy, imitation gods that make false promises of peace that really just lead to death.

And, when I say “death,” I really mean that in a literal sense. This week marked the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII.

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Nearly 140,000 lives in Hiroshima and another 70,000 in Nagasaki were lost in an instant. A Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, wrote that “Baal persists in human history… [history is] the story of the confrontation between Yahweh and Baal.”[4] The destructive power of idolatry, on both sides of the war, was burned into his memory. We’d do well not to forget.

Like Gideon, we are a people who declare that God – the God of Israel, of Jesus Christ – is the one true God-who-is-Peace.

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But our worship of God – our annunciation – rings hollow without corresponding denunciation. When we build an altar to worship God, God calls us to complete our act of worship by tearing down our altars to Baal, by denounce our false gods. This is a painful process. It is costly because we too often build our lives on these easy, false promises. We don’t like tearing down idols; we usually get really upset just by being told that we have idols! But we do.

I began this sermon talking about football, presidential inaugurations, and shopping for a reason. These “rituals” embody our idols: entertainment, national might, and consumerism.

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Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, calls them money, sex, and power. Brennan Manning, another great author who wrote The Ragamuffin Gospel, describes them as security, pleasure, and power.

These idols, and probably others too, manifest themselves differently in all of our lives. We experience them in different ways. They present unique obstacles to our exclusive worship of the one true God-who-is-Peace. They lead us, by different paths, into brokenness that disrupts our relationships and disorders our community. These false gods are buried deep inside our hearts, competing for our love, enticing us with images of the “good life” that don’t last. They’re hard to detect and even harder to remove; like Gideon, they keep popping up and leading us away from God. Are you aware of your idols? What are the altars in our hearts?

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We’re always worshiping. The question Gideon’s story calls us to answer is “who?” Not just between the hours of 10a and noon on Sunday morning; everyday, all day. If we say “Yahweh, the God of Israel, of Jesus Christ,” then we have one more step to take: tearing down our idols so that, in everything we do, in all our relationships, throughout our community and in the deepest places of our hearts, God is worshiped and peace, the shalom of God’s kingdom, breaks in.

Now, is money, or sex, or power always an idol? No. Is Auburn football inherently idolatrous? Possibly – and Cam Newton is most likely divine. These are our blind spots; the major weaknesses of our day where we are most prone to idolatry. But again, maybe you struggle with a different set of idols. The point is that we all have idols and we have more of them in common than we are sometimes willing to admit.

In spite of our unfaithfulness, we still have hope. The last verse we read says “the land had rest for forty years in the days of Gideon.” Even in spite of Gideon’s flaws, his struggle with his idols, God still used him to deliver Israel and bring rest to the land. One commentator I read sums up the matter well, so I’ll close with this: “The repeated cycle of deliverances in the book of Judges portrays a God whose essential will is to forgive and give life… Such grace is indeed free, but… it is not cheap. It demanded of Israel, and it demands of us, our souls, our lives, our all – in short, it demands that we worship and serve God alone.”[5]


[1] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 21-22.

[2] Judges 6:25-27.

[3] Judges 8:33.

[4] Kosuke Koyama, Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai (1984), 38-39, 215.

[5] J. Clinton McCann, Judges (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002), 25.

I AM Peace

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Over the past several weeks we’ve been exploring the lives of some major “peeps” in God’s story: Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. We’ve seen a lot and hopefully we’ve learned a few things too, but there is still so much to see, so much we’ve had to skip over for another day.

This morning we’re taking a little leap forward in the story; over the Exodus, through the journey in the wilderness, and just past the entrance into the promised land. We come to an in between time, like twilight, a time of transition that looks more like a stalemate, like a truck stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels but not moving forward, no traction, sinking deeper. A time of “is this what it’s supposed to be like God because I thought I heard something about a promised land, milk and honey, wide, spacious, freedom, security? Are we back in Egypt? Did we go the wrong way?” This is the “period of the judges”: after Moses, after Joshua, and now Israel is asking: “Who’s our leader? Where’s God? Are the promises still true?”

Enter the judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah & Barak, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jepthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and – last, but certainly not least – Samson. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Today we only have time for one: Gideon. Actually, we only have time for the first episode in Gideon’s story, but we’ll hear a little more about him next week. For now, let’s listen to God’s “recruitment” of Gideon:

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 On Thursday I got a very excited email from pastor Jason. It was a message forwarded from the Vineyard Church USA office with 6:8’s OFFICIAL, signed letter of adoption into the Vineyard Church USA! We’re now “Vineyard” approved and you can even find our church on the Vineyard USA online church locator! While we’ve been a Vineyard church for a while now, it feels good to be official. One of the Vineyard’s core values, and ours as well, is living in light of of God’s Kingdom: “a dynamic reality that is the future reign of God breaking into the present through the life and ministry of Jesus [in the power of the Holy Spirit].”[2]

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We say that the Kingdom is “now-but-not-yet”; it has arrived but it’s still arriving. You might even say it’s an in between time, like twilight, a time of transition from the “now” to the “not yet” that looks more like a stalemate. The “not-yet” of the Kingdom seems to be much louder and more real than the “now.” It’s easier to imagine God’s Kingdom way off in the future, up in the clouds, but right now, in this mess? When we look around at our lives and our world, it seems like we’re in a truck stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels but not moving forward, no traction, sinking deeper.

Watch the news and you’ll probably hear about Syria: 100k dead, 4.2 million internally displaced, 1.7 million refugees. You heard about the royal baby, but probably didn’t hear of the 13 children born that same day, and every day since, to Syrian refugees in a Jordanian camp where over 120k people eke out a life in the desert. The future doesn’t seem much brighter; I saw an article on Friday about the expected 50% increase in global violence due to climate change. It hit home for me because I have friends in Liberia who suffered through 14yrs of civil war where the rising price of rice bred anxiety, fear, and manipulation; leading them to war. When food prices spike due to shortages caused by irregular climates or the need for more “bio-fuel”, i.e. corn ethanol, to “combat” climate change, my friends in Liberia are once again put at risk.

But all of that’s on the other side of the world, right? Surely things are better back home? The AP released a study this week reporting that 4/5 – 80% – of American adults “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.”[3] Last week I heard that the Philadelphia public schools re-hired 290 of the nearly 4000 employees they laid off at the beginning of the summer due to hundreds of millions of dollars in budget shortfalls.

And that’s just what makes the news. We all know there’s more. This “not yet” of the Kingdom hits even closer to home; it’s right here in the seats this morning. It’s here because we brought it here, it’s inside us; we can’t avoid it. The turmoil we see outside is just a mirror of the pain, fear, uncertainty, bitterness, and anger that we feel inside. Maybe you feel it, maybe you’re ignoring it, or hiding from it, or just completely oblivious. At some point though we all experience the not-yet: the incompleteness and inadequacy; the lack and the lies. Where are we going? Where is the Promised Land, the Kingdom? Where are we?

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We’ve arrived at “the period of the judges.” Much like us, the nation of Israel is in a tough place. Judges 2 spells out the situation clearly: God delivered Israel from Egypt and gave them the Promised Land, God was faithful to the covenant and expected the same from Israel. Israel was unfaithful, they abandoned God, worshipped the gods of people living in the Promised Land, and so God gave them over to be ruled by these foreigners. When Israel cried out to God, a judge – a deliverer, a savior, a mini-Moses – was raised up and God would be with the judge, who would set the people free and bring peace and rest to the land. Then the judge would die and the people would abandon God once more… and the cycle would begin all over again. Stuck in the mud, wheels spinning.

But each time the cycle repeated, things got a little worse. The first judge, Othniel, turns out ok; the last judge, Samson, is another story. He’s driven by lust and demands to be married to a foreigner, an idol-worshiper. He goes down in a flame of glory fighting a personal battle that does little for the people of Israel. Then the story gets even worse. The last few chapters of Judges end with a civil war between the tribes of Israel; anarchy takes over. The last verse of the book sums it up: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”[4] It sounds eerily similar to Adam and Eve in the garden, with the serpent whispering, “Did God really say… What seems right to you Eve? Adam?”

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This is the story we jump into when we find Gideon hiding in the wine press threshing out wheat in Judges 6. Israel has turned from God once again and has done “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” – idolatry of some sort.[5] As a result, God gives them over to the Midianites who plunder their land. “Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian” reads verse 6 and so they cry out to God. God hears and sends a prophet to chastise them for their unfaithfulness. In verse 10, God speaks an ominous word through the prophet: “But you [Israel] have not given heed to my voice.” You’re not listening, you’re deaf.

Enter Gideon! Things have gotten so bad that God needs to send a special messenger – an angel – in addition to a prophet just to get through to these people. So the angel appears to Gideon and says “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior”! Gideon looks up, rolls his eyes, “puh-lease… have you been living in a wine press? Don’t you see what’s happening? And you say God is with us?” Now, when most people in the Bible encounter an angel, they have a different reaction: shock, awe, silence. Gideon, he’s totally oblivious. Just like the prophet said, he’s deaf to God’s voice. He responds in bitterness, arrogance even: “What has God done for us lately? You’re wrong dude – God’s not here. It’s us and the Midianites. We’re on our own.”

Now, I’m pretty sure you can be forgiven for not realizing that you’re speaking to an angel… but look at what happens in verse 14: “Then THE LORD turned to him and said…”[6] This is God speaking directly to Gideon, completely ignoring his “Why is all this happening?”, and telling him “Go! Deliver Israel. I’m sending you. Vamoose!” Surely Gideon catches on, right? Wrong. He just has more questions, more excuses, more doubts. Gideon has ignored God’s voice through the prophet; otherwise he would know why Israel was facing so much distress.  Gideon doesn’t hear God’s voice through the angel either; he can’t imagine how God could be with him. Gideon doesn’t even hear God; he’d rather hide out in a wine press than get involved in some rescue mission with this strange man who just showed up out of the blue.

First, Gideon responds in arrogance and bitterness. Then, he gives excuses and doubts. The fact that God is still in the conversation at this point is testament enough to God’s patience and grace. In verse 16, God responds: “But I will be with you.” It’s a direct quote of Exodus 3:12, when God re-assured Moses at the burning bush. It triggers something in Gideon’s memory, the ice is beginning to melt in his brain. He’s curious now because this person – he still doesn’t realize who he’s talking to – also just assured him of total victory over Midian. He’s interested, so he asks: “How bout you give me a sign to back up this claim you’re making?” He’s timid, cautious, taking it slow, playing it safe. He politely tells God: “Hey bro, wait right here just a sec while I go cook something up for us. Just chill.” The Creator of the universe says, perhaps biting his tongue, “Ok, sure Gideon, I’ll wait.”

Preparing a meal for a stranger was an expected act of hospitality that Gideon follows in hopes that he can maybe get a little more info on the identity of this person who claims that God is with him and that he’ll defeat Midian. Of course, God hasn’t come to chit chat. As ridiculous and slightly humorous the situation may be at this point, it’s no laughing matter to be deaf to God’s voice. Israel, God’s chosen, beloved people are “greatly impoverished” and crying out for relief from the calamity they’ve brought on themselves. God is longing to bring them peace, but Gideon wants to have an interview. When the food is brought out, the angel takes over. No more wasting time. He immediately instructs Gideon to place the food on a rock and pour out the broth. Gideon says, “Well, wait just a minute. I prepared this fine meal for us to enjoy together and don’t you know food is kinda tight right now so why would I just waste it?” Gideon doesn’t say that, although that’s what we would expect from him at this point. He doesn’t question, doesn’t doubt, no excuses – he just follows direction. Then, as we like to say, God SHOWS UP.

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Gideon got the sign he was looking for and a little extra too. All of a sudden the mighty warrior is on his knees, crying out to God: Oh LORD GOD, help me, have mercy, spare my life. God hasn’t come to kill Gideon; He’s come to bring peace: “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.”[7] When Gideon finally sees, when he finally hears God’s voice, what does he do? He worships: “Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord, and called it, The Lord is peace.” The Lord is peace. Finally, some good news.

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God answers Gideon’s “why?” with “Go!” It’s not that God doesn’t care – why would God still be involved with a guy like Gideon if God didn’t care deeply? God does care about our “why’s”; God hears; God listens. God didn’t answer Gideon’s question, but I think God does something even better: God calls Gideon out of hiding to join God in the work of peace. Gideon wants justice but God calls him to be a judge. Not the answer we expect.

God answers Gideon’s “but how?” with “I AM”! Gideon protests, “How can I save Israel?” God says, “YOU CAN’T! But I can and I will. You’re asking the wrong questions Gideon. This isn’t just about you and your family and your personal peace. It’s about me and my people, my promise, my Kingdom. You’re included but the victory is mine.” Apparently, Gideon knew of how God delivered Israel from Egypt through Moses, but he obviously forgot the song Moses sang after that deliverance: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”[8] Gideon wants the credentials, the status, the power but all God can offer is God’s self. Isn’t that enough?

God answers Gideon’s uncertainty and ambivalence with “I’ll wait.” God is willing to wait with us through our bitterness, our arrogance, and our anger. God is willing to bear our insecurity and our doubts, all the times we fail to hear God’s voice, even when we’re talking face to face. God waits because God “cannot help but be gracious.”[9] There’s a time for waiting, but there’s also a time for action.  Gideon wants to interrogate but God interrupts. Is it time for us to be quiet so God can move us towards peace?

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God answers Gideon’s fear with “Peace.” This word that’s translated as “peace” is the Hebrew word shalom. It’s not the kind of I-got-a-peaceful-easy-feeling kind of peace. It’s so much bigger, deeper, and longer lasting than that. Shalom is the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with every created thing. It is what community looks like when God is at the center of every heart, every relationship, and every system. It’s what God desires for all people and all creation from the very center of our broken hearts to the broken schools in Philadelphia, throughout the broken homes in our country, and straight across our aching world groaning in the pains of childbirth for its renewal. Gideon wants this peace and God says “I AM PEACE.” Will we join in Gideon’s worship?

Gideon had to encounter and submit himself to, and worship the God who is Peace before he could join God’s work for Israel’s peace, for his own peace. I think, down deep, we all want this peace, this community of love being worked out in justice, healed hearts, shalom – the “now” of the Kingdom. But we’re all a little like Gideon; hard of hearing, wanting to be cautious and have all our questions answered so we don’t have to take any risks. But God is the same today as God was with Gideon. God can wait with us, can take our questions, our complaints, our anger, and then tell us the same thing Gideon heard: “Shalom to you.” What will we do? We want peace but are we willing to worship the God who is peace with our whole selves, not just this morning, but every day, in every moment?

Now you may say, “Well, God came to Gideon and spoke to him and showed him a miraculous sign. I’d worship God too if God would do that for me! Gideon had it easy.” You’re right. As far as I know, God hasn’t called out fire from any rocks around here… not yet at least. I haven’t heard of any angels coming down lately either. Of course, why would God send an angel when God has already come to us as a living, breathing human being who walked and talked, who died and rose again? Why would God call fire from a rock when God descended like tongues of fire as the Holy Spirit was poured out over all flesh? God has come. God is here.

And, you know, God realizes we’re forgetful, so Jesus gave us a sign, a way to remember what God is up to.

Slide12

He took bread, gave thanks, and broke it. He took wine, gave thanks, and poured it. He said, “This is my body. This is my blood. DO THIS IN REMEMBERANCE OF ME.” Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez describes the celebration of communion as “a memorial of Christ which presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of his life – a total giving to others. It is a thanksgiving for the love of God which is revealed in these events.”[10] In this sign, we see, and feel, and taste the truth of Paul’s words in Ephesians:

Slide13

You may be asking God “Why?” this morning? Maybe you’re not even on speaking terms. You may be giving God excuses, delay tactics, avoidance measures. You may have all kinds of questions about who God is and who you are and what God is doing in the world and in you. You may just be completely oblivious. I don’t have all the answers for your questions or all the solutions to bring shalom to the world. But, if I’ve learned anything from Gideon this morning, it’s this: the first step, the foundational step towards shalom is to worship the God is who Shalom. I can’t answer you’re why, but I can answer you’re where: right here in front of you in this broken bread and this poured out juice, in the God you meet here, the God who has set this table and welcomed us all; right here in the community that gathers around this table. God has called us beloved children, has offered all of God’s self, can we be quiet and hear God’s voice today? Can we be still and worship the God who is Peace?


[1] Judges 6:11-24, NRSV.

[4] Judges 21:25.

[5] Judges 6:1.

[6] Judges 6:14.

[7] Judges 6:23.

[8] Exodus 15:2.

[9] J. Clinton McCann, Interpretation: Judges (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002), 63.

[10] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 148.

[11] Ephesians 2:13-20.

Simple or Simplistic? Ecclesiastes 12:9-14

[CLICK HERE FOR THE AUDIO]

Morning yall. I’m Joe Davis and I’ve been serving as the pastoral intern here at 6:8 since September. So, as I begin, I’d like to start off with a confession. It’s just something I’ve noticed around 6:8 that has really bothered me. I don’t want to sound mean, but I think it’s my duty to say this. So, here goes: I’m sorry Jason and 6:8 but you just can’t call yourself a real church if you don’t have one of those customizable, changeable letter, marquee church signs! How are supposed to tell Ardmore about Jesus without a weird, corny, simplistic slogan that we change every week??? Just imagine how effective our church would be with a sign like this:

[“Hang out with Jesus. He hung for you”]

Or, how about this one?

[“Jesus will make you happy, happy, happy”]

Still not convinced? I saved the best for last.

[“Life scrambled? Jesus specializes in omelets”]

You know, we’ve been exploring the teaching of Koheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes for the past 11 weeks. Each week we’ve learned something new about what it means to be a wise person. IF we would have had an awesome church sign, we could have put up what we learned each week to remind ourselves, but since we don’t have one, I guess we can just review everything we’ve learned so far.

So, who is the wise person for Koheleth? It’s the one who…

  • surprises us in hopeless situations with the kind of strength that endures, yet is often forgotten
  • embraces all of life and lives in hope
  • has a good name formed in the crucible of life joys and pains
  • invests their resources in the kingdom of God
  • puts limits on desire to find healthy balance
  • lives by promise, not explanation
  • values, sacrifices for & invests in people
  • walks in reliance & faith through life’s seasons
  • understands wisdom as that which makes sense in light of eternity
  • chooses to be happy & does good
  • is not cynical, but hopeful
  • is boldly respectful, full of integrity & obedient to the voice of God

It all seems so simple. Don’t you think? It’s perfect material for a church sign! But, you know, now that I think about, putting this simple wisdom up on a church sign would probably make is seem simplistic, right? But, what’s the difference? What separates simple from simplistic? Good question.

We say something is “simple” when it’s plain, ordinary, easy to understand, clear, or profound. Truth is simple. We say something is “simplistic” when an idea is dumbed down, or an issue is trivialized, when the core of a problem is being avoided. A simplistic response gives the appearance of simplicity by ignoring the complex reality of the situation.

Church signs are almost always simplistic. Compare those signs we saw to the words of “Amazing Grace”: “twas Grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved… twas grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.” Simple, profound, beautiful, truth. I don’t think this needs much explanation. The difference between simple and simplistic seems pretty clear.

Leonardo da Vinci described simplicity as “the ultimate sophistication.” Walt Whitman called it “the glory of expression.” Jesus calls us to have the simple faith of a child (Luke 17:18). Simple; not simplistic. I think we’re pretty good at detecting the difference most of the time. But what about this wisdom from Ecclesiastes? Is it simplistic? Or simple? That’s our question this morning.

Our text today is found at the very end of Ecclesiastes. Listen and follow along as I read Ecclesiastes 12:9-14: “Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly. The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

This passage is known as the epilogue to Ecclesiastes. It refers to Koheleth in the third person, while the rest of the book – except for the very first verse – refers to him in first person. That lets us know that these verses were not written by Koheleth, but by a later author – maybe even two different authors. We’re gonna look at this passage in two sections: verses 9-11 and then verses 12-14. To begin, we’ll take a brief look at the first section, v9-11, and then focus a little more on the second part, v12-14.

In verses 9-11, Koheleth is affirmed and endorsed as a trusted, wise sage. The author says that his wisdom is the real stuff; both pleasing and truthful, artistic and good for instruction. He uses images from animal husbandry to let the reader know that wisdom stings. It mentions a “goad,” which is like a cattle prod, and the reference to “nails” is probably talking about a stick with nails at the end for herding animals. Not exactly a fun image.

In verses 12-14, it gets really interesting. It’s basically saying, “Well, here’s all you need to know about Koheleth and his wisdom in a nice bite-sized, bumper sticker-church sign slogan!” We’ve spent 11 weeks talking on and on about this stuff and it all boils down to these 6 words: “Fear God and keep his commandments.” Really? If I were the Jewish student who just sat through weeks (months?) of learning all of Koheleth’s strange, grumpy teachings, I’m gonna be a little frustrated when I come to this verse. “This is Judaism 101! Of course we fear God and keep his commandments! What else is new! Why didn’t you tell me it was gonna to end this way!?!”

It’s so simple. Or, is it simplistic? Most commentators point out that this teaching does not sound like something that Koheleth would say. At no point in Ecclesiastes does Koheleth link the fear of God to the keeping of God’s commandments. You know, Koheleth was a unique guy. One commentator I read described him as one who had “pitched his tent at the far edges of the camp,” meaning that Koheleth’s message was “on the extreme edges of ordinary biblical teachings.” Koheleth says some weird stuff unlike anything else found in the Bible. In light of the radical nature of Koheleth’s teaching, the thinking goes that verses 12-14 were added to intentionally smooth off those uncomfortable, “unauthorized” edges of Koheleth’s hard-to-swallow wisdom. Not that these verses contradict or undermine his teaching; they just reign it in and anchor it in the stream of traditional Old Testament thought. It tightens the ropes on Koheleth’s tent pegs to make sure he stays within the mainstream camp, even if he’s still on the edge a bit. So, is this summary teaching – “Fear God and keep his commandments” – just a simplistic gloss, that tidies up all of Koheleth’s complex, uncomfortable, untraditional, sometimes jarring questions so we can ignore them and move on? Or is it a simple, clear-eyed, profound distillation of Koheleth’s wisdom that should guide us on our own journeys?

The answer? Well, I think it depends. Let’s go back to verses 9-10. They say, “Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.” These verses are a ringing endorsement of Koheleth’s wisdom and teaching. But there is something implied here we must be careful not to miss, here it is: this wisdom did not fall from the sky, it was not written in a day, and it’s not a bunch of easy, shallow answers to life’s tough questions. Rather, it is wisdom forged in the fire of intellectual struggle, through repeated crises of faith. It is the end result of a quest for truth, for making sense of the world, a lifelong process of observing, wrestling, and questioning. This guy did the work, he put in the hours, and he found pleasing, truthful words.

What we need to know about Koheleth is that he is “the most real of the realist” of Biblical authors. He is the one “least comfortable with conventional wisdom, and the most willing to challenge its unexamined assumptions.”[1] Let that sink in. Koheleth is a sage; he writes wisdom. Wisdom literature in the Bible is not necessarily about God in the proper sense. It’s more about a human response to the words and acts of God and God’s creation. The books of Job and Proverbs and some Psalms fit into this category. Wisdom writers tried to make sense of life based on observation and practical experience in order to guide human beings into the path of successful living. Sages were about right being and doing – not just about right thinking.

Koheleth doesn’t pull any punches. He’s got real questions and he doesn’t pretend like he has all the answers. In Ecclesiastes 11:5, he admits to feeling a great deal of mystery concerning God: “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.” Wow, what an image. Do you know how “the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb”? For Koheleth, knowing the works of God are even beyond that; God is mysterious, fearful for Koheleth. But, he keeps believing and keeps up his search for wisdom even with his uncertainty and his questions. He has a Hebrews 11 kind of faith; he was sure of what he hoped for and certain of things he did not see.

Koheleth doesn’t give up on God. Yes, what happens in this world may seem meaningless, but God holds us all responsible for following our hearts and eyes to find happiness. Throughout his teaching, we hear seven calls to enjoy life and rejoice in the good gifts God has given.[2] Yes, God is mysteriously sovereign, but God is also the giver of gifts that make life joyful. If Ecclesiastes were a song, Koheleth’s repeated cries of “Meaningless! Meaningless!” would be like the bass line, but the melody would be joy! And in any song, it’s the melody carries the theme – not the bass line. Verses 9-11 confirm that Koheleth perseveres through his trials and all his deep, vexing questions about life and God. He not only perseveres, he “counts it all joy” as James would say in the New Testament.[3]

So, back to our question on this teaching: “fear God and keep his commandments.” Is it a clear, profound, and simple teaching or a misleading, shallow, and simplistic slogan? Well, when we consider Koheleth’s life, we see that this teaching is not simplistic at all. He goes through the fire and his faith is refined. He didn’t back down on the hard questions. He wasn’t satisfied with any simplistic answers he was given. He didn’t gloss over the complexities of life. He faced them head on. He stayed the course. At the end of his journey, this is the simple wisdom that has sustained him: he feared God and kept his commandments and found that this path led to a fulfilled, joyful life. “Fear God and keep his commandments” is simply true and not simplistic because Koheleth lives it.

But that’s Koheleth. What about us? We’re obviously in a different situation; our journey is ongoing. We’re still in the thick of it. The ball is in our court. The jury is still out. Will “fear God and keep his commandments” be a bumper sticker for our lives? Just another simplistic slogan we memorize to make ourselves feel better? That’s one choice. I hope we don’t choose it.

Koheleth’s lifelong journey towards wisdom in Ecclesiastes shows us another way. When we live our faith like Koheleth, “Fear God and keep his commandments” can become the foundational, profound, simple truth of our lives as well. Will it be hard? Of course. We’ll be searching for deeper understanding and doing lots of practice, which means that we’ll probably get it wrong on a regular basis. Remember that image of the goad, the cattle prod? Wisdom is about guiding us, prodding us, out into the world where we experience all that it means to be human: joy, pain, sadness, grief, grace, love, forgiveness, and peace. In these experiences with God and each other, we inevitably run into some tough questions; some that may shake us to the core.

Have we really examined ourselves – as both good and sinful? What is the ground of our faith? Do we know why we’re here worshiping this morning? Who is this God we sing and pray to? Has our faith become simplistic? Are our eyes open to the reality of suffering and injustice or do we cover our ears and close our eyes to escape the pain? These are hard questions. I don’t mean to belittle anyone by asking them. These are questions I’m trying to ask myself, too. If these questions are new for you, that’s ok. If you’ve been ignoring them, that’s ok too. It is a scary process. We may come to different answers, we may get hurt a little along the way, but these are the kinds of questions we need to engage if we’re to follow Koheleth’s wise path.

Many of you probably know that today is Palm Sunday, which means Easter is next week, and we’d well to remember the story. This is the day we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The city is full of excitement for the Passover feast. Then, Jesus arrives – on a donkey! People say he’s the Messiah! The crowds gather and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people of Jerusalem – the disciples even! – thought they knew Jesus. They thought they knew what the Messiah would do. Everyone had their expectations; many felt sure that he would overthrow the Roman rule and liberate them. But, they were all very, very wrong. By the end of the week, their shouts of “Hosanna!” had turned into “Crucify!” How does this happen? What allows a person to shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday? I think at least one major component is an unexamined faith built on simplistic slogans that we “know” in our heads but do not live out, and test, and refine in the everyday experiences of our life together.

Fear God and keep his commandments. Is it simple? Or simplistic? That depends on our response. As we submit ourselves to the guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit, here’s a few things we should keep in mind about this teaching.

First, the word “and” doesn’t quite capture the depth of the connection between what it means “fear God” and “keep his commandments.” It makes it seem like you could have one without the other. However, the fear of God is evidenced by the doing of God’s commandments. But, can you really do God’s commandments without fearing God? Maybe you could for a while, but it probably wouldn’t last. The only person who can really do God’s commandments in a meaningful, sustained way is the person who fears God. You can’t separate the “doing” from the “being.” You can’t be a person who fears God without doing God’s commands and you can’t really do God’s commands without being a person who fears God. The “whole duty of everyone” is both “being” people who fear God and “doing” God’s commandments – all at the same time. We have to remember that our being and our doing are intimately connected; one necessarily affects the other.

As Westerners, we naturally focus on the “doing” part. We like “action steps.” So, we should probably begin with the “being” part. How do we begin to be people who “fear God”? Well, I mentioned earlier that this teaching was added in order to integrate Ecclesiastes into a more traditional, mainstream understanding of Old Testament faith. As it turns out, this teaching is almost literally straight out of Deuteronomy. When God rescued Israel from Egypt, God made a covenant, a deeply binding promise, with them. This covenant had laws attached to it that Israel agreed to abide by. They would be God-fearing people by “doing” the commandments contained in the covenant. In the context of a covenant relationship, “fear of God” is about loyalty to the covenant; it is the same as “love” and “service” and ultimately, it’s about worship. This is not the fear that creates distance, but the love that keeps us together in covenanted community. Of course, Israel didn’t live within the covenant. They failed again and again, but God remained faithful. Then, in Jesus Christ, God showed his great faithfulness once and for all. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God invites all people into a new covenant life through the power of the Holy Spirit. We have been included in a new promise.

Now, it’s important to remember that God’s promises were with a people – not with individuals. We are called to live today as the body of Christ; many members, but one body. So how do we become people who fear God? We start by living in covenant, in promise, with each other. We call this community. It happens as we look each other eye to eye and confess our need for one another, that we’re in this together, that God has chosen us to be his people, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.”[4]. We can’t become people who fear God on our own because loving, serving, and worshiping God is impossible outside of a covenanted promise with God and with other people. God has called us to be a people who make and keep promises to each other. Praise God! Our promises are not dependent on our own faithfulness, but on the power of our God who is always faithful. Will we break our promises? Sure, but God is ready to forgive us. We must be ready to forgive each other as well as we do God’s commands with “fear and trembling”[5] together in community. Is it simple? Yes. Is it easy? Nope.

I think the “doing” part is actually a little easier to wrap our heads around. When this teaching about doing God’s commandments was written, it would have referred to the Mosaic law found throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Since we unfortunately don’t have time to look through all those wonderful books of the Bible, we’ll just use one of Jesus’ statements. When someone asked him what the greatest commandment was, Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[6] Only a person who fears God would do this command. Is it simple? Yes. Easy? No, not at all.

As we come to close, we need to recognize that we’re all at different places in our journey with God and with each other. If you come out to the Ignite class after church on April 8th, Lindley will be teaching you a very helpful model for how to understand the spiritual journey. According to this model, some of us are just in awe of God right now and soaking it all in, others are wanting to learn all they can, still others are leaders and teachers. Then there are some who have left leadership behind for a more inward journey, a few may feel like they’ve hit a wall – I think Koheleth hit lots of walls – but there could be some, who, like Koheleth, have made it through the wall and have been made new, who feel God’s love like never before and only want to serve God and others with all that they are.

Wherever we are on this journey, Koheleth’s life gives us a sure sign to guide us: fear God and keep his commandments. Our personal responses will not be the same, but they should all be pointing in this same direction. Will this be the simple truth that under girds our life of active faith lived out as a community in Ardmore, Havertown, and beyond? This is our whole duty. In the power of Holy Spirit, let’s be it; let’s do it – together.


[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Old Testament Survey, “Ecclesiastes,” 249.

[2] Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:8-12:1.

[3] James Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for Our Time, 132-136.

[4] 1 Peter 2:9-10, NRSV.

[5] Philippians 2:12.

[6] Matthew 22:37-40.