The Temple of the Lord – 2017/10/22

Psalm 105:1-6
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Jeremiah 7:1-11

Sermon:

I’m going to start with a blanket statement that I hope makes sense.  It’s easy to be critical of biblical characters for not following the voice of God in their own lives; yet we so easily fail to listen to the voice of God in our own lives.  If we give it a half-second’s thought, we would realize that, most of the time, we don’t just hear a message and then immediately put in into practice.  We have to hear it over, and over, and over again.  It’s why people come to church more than once in their lives.  It’s part of the reason, I think, that preachers tend to have only a few favorite topics that everything else ties back to:  we need to hear certain messages more than once.

I would include, by the way, that I need to sometimes preach certain messages more than once before they finally sink in, even for me as the person speaking.  Yet, at the same time, we have a belief that people in the Bible should’ve somehow “known better.”  We get the sense that, if God were talking right to us, we’d be better at listening.  But here’s the thing:  how many times has God tried to get our attention, and we’ve failed to listen?  And how many more times have we heard, understood, and simply failed to act?

This is what makes the initial chapter of Jeremiah so interesting, I think.  It begins with God talking to Jeremiah about how God has known Jeremiah from before he was even born.  It’s an inspiring message for all of us, actually:  God knew us from before we were even formed in the womb.  Yet, when God tells Jeremiah these facts, Jeremiah objects.  “I don’t know what to say, God, for I’m only a boy!” Jeremiah says to the Creator of the universe.

“No excuses,” replies God.  “I’m putting my words in your mouth, and those words will have power to do remarkable things; power enough to change the world.”

So, let’s talk about Jeremiah a bit.  Jeremiah was a prophet.  When we think of the word “prophet” today, we most often think of someone predicting the future.  Really, though, that’s not the job of a prophet in the Bible.  His or her job is not about the future; it’s about the present.  Sometimes, that means reading the signs of what’s going on in the present that will determine the future; we actually see that in one of today’s readings.  But even more often, it’s about what’s happening rightnow.  It’s like being a religious news service, providing commentary on what God sees going on in the world.

Because we have this association of prophecy with telling the future, we most often think of prophets having a special connection with God that gives them these insights.  That’s actually a really good way of looking at it; though, again, it’s not that God is giving them knowledge about the future.  Rather, God is allowing the prophet to see with God’s eyes, rather than with the prophet’s own eyes.

Well, Jeremiah lived in an interesting historical period.  The Kingdom of Israel was, as we discussed last week, divided.  Israel was in the north with its capital in Samaria, and Judah (with its capital in Jerusalem) was in the south.  Jeremiah lived in Judah, which was prosperous.  Israel, on the other hand, was not so lucky.

Over a hundred years earlier (think about this:  as distant as we are to the Civil War, basically) the Assyrian Empire came through and attacked Israel.  The Assyrians won.  Then, they headed south to Judah.  The Judeans, though, in spite of their smaller army, defeated the mighty Assyrians, then the most powerful nation in the region.  The Judeans took this to mean that, 200 years earlier, they had made the right decision by sticking with the king from the line of David and keeping their worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, unlike the Israelites who wandered away.  They figured, as long as they had a Davidic king and the Temple, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, Jeremiah was appointed the prophet to begin challenging that assumption.  Jeremiah’s calling was, as we learned in chapter one, “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”  In other words, Jeremiah’s prophecies were going to have a profound impact on the world, and people would be wise to listen to him.

People know that a war is likely coming, because this time, it’s the Babylonians, and they intend to succeed where the Assyrians failed.  There are a bunch of people out there who are saying, “Don’t worry so much about it; we have the Temple of the Lord!  What could happen?”  Jeremiah mocks this position by caricaturing them as saying, “The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord!”  Jeremiah knows, though, that know building can save you.

There’s a great quote out there that God’s message is meant to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  In other words, if you’re having a hard time, a true Gospel message will pick you up; if you’re having too easy a time of life, the true message of God is going to shake up your world!  In the case of the Judeans in Jeremiah’s time, they were far too comfortable.  They got so comfortable, in fact, that they stopped worrying about following God’s laws – like, at all.

We actually see Christians today who often have similar attitudes.  There was just a group last month that claimed the world was going to end in September.  It’s a great out, that belief that God is going to fix it all in a neat little bow, isn’t it?  I mean, it means that our actions don’t have to be focused on the world at all.  We only have to worry about our relationship to God.  Don’t get me wrong – our relationship to God is what’s most important.  But God asks for a part of that relationship to include our treatment of our fellow humans.  We’re not allowed to just say, “Well, it’s all gonna end soon anyway, so who cares?”  That’s not a Christian response; the Christian response is to say, “I don’t know when it’s all going to end, but until it does, I’m going to do all I can to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love my neighbor as myself.”

Jeremiah sense this same streak in people:  “Our actions don’t matter, because, hey, God’s going to protect us.”  Yeah… well, here’s the deal.  Jeremiah accuses the Judeans of “oppress(ing) the alien, the orphan, and the widow,” and “shed(ding) innocent blood . . . [and] go(ing) after other gods.”  Those are big charges.  In other words, they have not protected the most vulnerable, they have hurt people without a second thought, and they have ignored God in favor of other gods.  They have forsaken their essential goodness.  And then, according to Jeremiah, they have the audacity to retreat to “The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord!” for safe-haven.

Jeremiah cries foul.  It’s what his ministry is about, at this juncture.  This is his time to afflict the comfortable.  He is there to show them that being a believer in God is about more than empty words and actions; it’s about making time in your life to listen to what God is telling you to do.  As it turns out, the people of Judah aren’t going to amend their ways.  The Babylonians come in and ransack Jerusalem.  They cart away the wealthiest people from Jerusalem and forcibly relocate them.  They remove the king from power, so there was no more promised king from the line of David.  And, as a final show of power, the Temple that Solomon had built nearly three hundred years earlier, the Temple built so God would dwell there, the symbol of peace and God’s blessing and righteous worship – in short, the “Temple of the Lord” they were so comforted by –was destroyed completely, leaving only a pile of rubble.  There was now no Temple to save them.

It would be so easy to read this passage and say, “Those stupid Judeans.  They should’ve just listened.”  But, as I’ve been saying throughout this Old Testament sermon series, the Old Testament is not the story of “them;” it’s not someone else’s story.  It’s our story.  When we hear this story, we have to think, not of where someone else went wrong, but of where we continue to go wrong.  If we are the Judeans, what are the messages God is sending us?  What are we failing to hear?  What are we hearing, but not responding to?

Jeremiah’s unique ministry is one in which people are asked to see what their lives have become, and to amend their ways.  Unsurprisingly, they are not able (or perhaps willing) to do so.  If we’re being honest, that has a lot more to do with our lives than we’d like to admit.  How many, “I’ll get around to that later”s do we have in our faith lives?  How many times have we made God an afterthought?  How often have we committed in our hearts and our minds to doing something as we sit in the pew, only to waver once we feel the comfort of our couch?

Jeremiah delivers a message that’s uncomfortable.  It’s the message, “We are sinners.  We’ve screwed this whole thing up.”  He gives steps to escape that cycle of sin, but the people of his own time respond just the way we do when we hear about our own sin:  it’s just plain easier to keep pedaling along the same way we were going.  Changing direction is what’s hard.

In his preaching, Jeremiah asks people to act justly, and says that God will save them from the coming war.  I don’t know exactly how effective that strategy can be; I figure, when a war comes, it comes.  And maybe completely changing their actions could’ve changed the outcome; maybe faithfulness and obedience to God would’ve somehow altogether prevented the Babylonian army from entering Jerusalem.  Maybe, with the right show of faith, God would’ve come down and  stopped the approaching army.  But instead, I like to think that Jeremiah is offering the Judeans a different type of salvation:  the type wherein you learn to live God’s way, whatever the world around you is doing.  You can experience a little slice of God’s salvation right here on earth, simply by refusing to be part of the systems that prop up evil, even if it’s easier to just go along with the thing that’s popular.  If they had managed to live as God told them to, maybe they wouldn’t have had their city, their country, their Temple destroyed; but even if they did, they would know that they were going to be okay, because God would guide them through it.  They would know that, whatever comes, they were living in a way that would make God take notice.

Jeremiah talks about protecting the most vulnerable; he says that the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant have been forgotten, when God has explicitly asked for those specific groups to be protected.  In our own culture, we take economic advantage of groups that can’t fight for or protect themselves.  Jeremiah asks people to avoid the taking of vengeance and the sin of putting idols before God.  Frequently, in our culture, we confuse “justice” with “revenge,” and we believe that “getting even” is our right, forgetting Jesus’ words about forgiveness.  We also regularly put our own comfort, our own pleasure, our own economic pursuits, first in our lives, rather than putting God’s will first.  There’s nothing wrong with comfort, pleasure, or economic security – but those things are, so often, our very own version of the refrain “the Temple of the Lord! the Temple of the Lord!” They are things that promise safety and security, but ultimately can’t deliver.

So let us truly hear the words of Jeremiah for us today.  Let us honor God, not just with our lips, but with how we conduct ourselves every day, and thereby experience a little bit of salvation right here on earth, and learning to trust in God, who knew us before we were even born.  We have been called, like Jeremiah, to share words that pluck up and pull down, that destroy and overthrow, that build and plant.  Let us use those words, let us use this calling on our lives, to afflict the comfortable, even when it’s us; to comfort the afflicted, even when it’s our enemy; and ever and always to speak the truth of God.  Amen.

Chosen & Flawed – 2017/10/08

Psalm 149
2 Samuel 11:1-6, 14-17, 26-27
2 Samuel 12:1-19

Sermon:

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the founding of Protestantism – that is, the churches of which the Presbyterian Church is a part.  We will celebrate and talk more about that in the final Sunday of October (known as Reformation Sunday), but for now, I’ve been thinking about it.  One of the central figures of the Reformation, Martin Luther, contributed one of the most helpful pieces of Christian theology in a short statement.

In Latin, Luther said that all Christians are simul justus et peccator.  In English, that means, “simultaneously saint and sinner.”  That is to say, every single Christian is, in his or her own way, a saint.  We have been inspired by God, we attempt to do the work of God, and in our best moments, we let Christ shine in our lives.  That makes us saints.  At the same time, we are still human beings; we are just as fallible as anyone else, and we continue to sin.  We seek to be justified in God’s eyes by doing right, yet we find that we always fall short and continue to be imperfect.

Which leads me to this:  let me tell you one thing about a pastor.  You know you’re going to mess up, because you know you’re a person.  You know that you’re simultaneously saint and sinner, and yet people are always going to expect you to be the “saint,” and would rather you leave out the “sinner” part out of your life.  Every time you mess up, it feels like you should quit – after all, who can do it?  Who can live up to that standard?  The thing is, I know that being an elder in the church can feel the same way – burdened with the leadership of the church, feeling like you can’t ever make a mistake.  But church isn’t alone in this feeling.  Being married can feel this way.  Being a coach, a volunteer, a mentor, a politician, a boss, even a parent – any position where your choices affect someone else – when you mess up, it stings extra hard.

And so today, we arrive at the story of King David.  David, as you’ll recall, was a very special boy.  He was handsome, a good athlete (killing bears and saving sheep and whatnot), and played the harp beautifully.  The youngest of 8 boys, he was somehow always forgotten in his family – but never by God.  The prophet Samuel anointed him to become the next king after Saul, an inept ruler.  David killed the giant Goliath and earned the praise of the other Israelites, while at the same time causing Saul to hate David and try to kill him.  David’s best friend, Jonathan – the son of Saul – saved David’s life.  But eventually, Saul died and David did, in fact, become king.

He was a pretty stellar king, too.  He succeeded in battle, united all twelve tribes of Israel (Saul never managed that in his time as king), and he was beloved of the people.  David had it all.  Well, he thought he did.  Until one day, when he saw a beautiful woman bathing on a roof.  Her name was Bathsheba, and David had to have her.

Now, there have been interpretations through the years that she seduced him; that’s not in the text at all, so it doesn’t make sense to me; in fact, as we hear later from Nathan, it’s actually not a very good interpretation of this story at all.  Instead, David treats Bathsheba more like an object than a person.  He wants her, and he’s the king… so he takes her.  He even knows that she’s married to one of his soldiers, a man named Uriah.  As it turns out, their encounter together results in her becoming pregnant.  She tells David, because this is going to be particularly because her husband was off fighting in David’s name.

So David develops a plan; he tells Uriah’s commander to send the troops out into battle, with the order that when they get to a certain point, they’ll pull back.  Only, David tells the commander, Joab, not to tell Uriah about this.  They charge into battle; some of the men die; Uriah is one of them – no surprise there.  The whole thing was set up so that Uriah would die.  It was murder by proxy; David wanted Uriah dead, and he made sure that it happened.

This is a universally awful act.  First of all, one of the things Saul was criticized for as a king was that he often let his soldiers fight for him; he didn’t ride out into battle himself.  David was different.  Only now, having been king for a while, he was starting to rest on his laurels and just let things happen, just like Saul did.  So his actions are shameful as a king.

David was already married to two wives, and didn’t need another.  He had children, which kings are always under such pressure to produce.  And yet, he ends up impregnating a woman whom we’re not even sure had a choice in the matter, so his actions are shameful as a man.

And to top it all off, David commits murder to get away with his crime, now being able to take Bathsheba as his wife, letting her bear his child without anyone raising an eyebrow, and not having a problem with it.  So his actions are shameful as a human being.

All in all, it’s truly despicable.  And this is the man whom God has chosen as king!  Not only is he a king, he goes down as the best king (or one of the top-4, anyway) in the nearly 500 year history of Israel and Judah as a kingdom!  Not only is he special, even among kings, but he is the one king given a covenant by God.  A covenant is a promise; a covenant from God means that God makes a promise that can never be broken.  God’s promise to David is that there will always be someone from his line on the throne in Jerusalem.  So David is given an eternal legacy, just four chapters before this moment, and yet David still finds a way to screw up so much that it calls into question whether or not he was ever a righteous king in the first place.

David is the “chosen one,” God’s special servant – yet, he messes up.  And like all of us, he needs someone else’s help to see just how messed up he is.  Now, he is the king, so you have to come at him with a little bit of tact, and that’s just what Nathan, the prophet, does.  He tells a story about a wealthy man with everything who takes a beloved sheep from a poor man who has nothing else.  David’s first reaction is like what most of ours would be – get mad, want revenge.

But then Nathan says to him, in no uncertain terms, “You are that man; you have everything, and yet you felt the need to take the wife – and the life – of Uriah.”  Nathan takes the bold step of calling out the king for his actions.  That may not seem like a huge deal.  After all, we live in a country in which you can call or write to your representatives in the government and criticize them all you want, and they have no recourse against you; you’re allowed, even encouraged to do that.  In ancient days, though, such a thing could be sentencing yourself to death.

So David is stunned – not because he’s called out, but because he realizes that Nathan is right.  Some leaders – Saul, the king before David, for example – would dismiss someone who said something so bold to them.  But David, for his part, possesses more wisdom than that.

David realizes that Nathan is right.  He knows that he has done something wrong.  But what David learns here is not that you have to be perfect.  In fact, David immediately realizes that he must confess his sins to God.  These are great sins, grave sins.  The kinds of sins you’d think could never be gotten over.  I think, if we knew him in real life, most of us would be unable or unwilling to forgive David his sins.  How could we be asked to forgive something that big?

But that’s what’s convenient about our ultimate fate being in God’s hands.  Many, perhaps most, and potentially even all of us have done (or will yet do) something that would easy to think of as utterly unforgivable, even if we didn’t do something so extreme as David’s actions.  Yet, God is able to forgive.  And what good news that is for us!

We are never beyond God’s reach; neverNever, ever.  The story we know so well, the story at the heart of our faith, the story of the resurrection of Jesus, is a story about the place we are most separate from the world, most unreachable.  And yet, God can bring Jesus back.  Even in David’s state of depravity, God never gives up, God absolutely always looks for us, and calls us closer.  There is no boundary too big for God to cross – even death, even sin.  God can do it.

This is a story in which David, the saintly king, is revealed as a lowly sinner.  And as his sins are laid bare for everyone to see, he needs to hear a story to understand.  Brothers and sisters, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  we read the stories of the Old Testament because they are our stories.  They teach us about ourselves.  They are our Nathan the prophet.  These are the stories that we use to teach us about ourselves and our actions; they are the parables we need to hear.  Just as Jesus taught in parables, we need stories.  Yes, we have the stories of Jesus, and yes, these stories are different than those, but the point remains:  we hear this story because God needs us to hear it – and the stories like it.  Like David, we are sinners; like David, we need to hear it; like David, we are forgiven by God who, across even the border of sin, loves us:  unreasonably, irrationally, and infinitely.  Amen.

Best Friends – 2017/09/24

Psalm 26:1-7
1 Timothy 6:13-15
1 Samuel 18:1-16

Sermon:

When I was young, I used to play with my next door neighbor all the time. I don’t know quite how to explain just how often we were together.  I remember getting in trouble with his dad one time for calling their house… at 7:00 in the morning… on a Saturday.  Well, I knew he was up, so why should I have had to wait?  This friend and I were so in-sync that there was a time when I picked up the phone to call him, only he had already called me, and I lifted the phone before it even rang.  That’s how close we were – practically reading each other’s minds.  Now, there’s nothing weird at all about kids being best friends, being connected at the hip.  And it’s especially not weird for next-door neighbors to become friends.

The thing is, on the surface of it, we had basically nothing in common.  I mean, we both lived in really thoughtful, caring, churchgoing, two-parent families.  But he was the third of four children, I was an only.  He was three-and-a-half years older than me.  He was (and is) handsome and tall, and I’ve always been kind of short and dumpy.  He’s always been a gifted athlete – one of those kids who just takes to any sport he tries in seconds, and I had to try really, really hard to get to be “acceptable” at any sport.  He was so active that, when we were kids, he couldn’t sit through his favorite movie – all 88 minutes of The Little Mermaid.  We had to go outside and play basketball for an hour or so just so we could watch the second half of the movie.  Whereas, I’m more the kind of person who likes to make a nice, little, me-shaped divot in the couch.  Even today, this guy takes his vacations from his two full-time jobs (personal trainer and occupational therapist) to go mountain climbing – he does this like three times a year.  Even simple things were different between us when we were kids – he went to private school, and I went to public.

Of course, we both liked church, and since he had a religious education in school, we had a particular set of biblical characters we liked to compare ourselves to.  Those characters were David and Jonathan.  After all, my name is David, and his is, of course, Jonathan.  I remember laughing about that with him once as we sat in my basement talking about school.  Looking back, there was a lot of them in us:  best friends, even if it’s not likely.  Yet, devoted to one another in a way that time and distance can never diminish.

As we’ve grown up, I realized how important it was that when we were just pre-teens, we could see ourselves in characters in the Bible.  Part of the reason that I have spent the last few months preaching from the Old Testament is just this:  our faith, our engagement with the Bible, are strongest, not when it’s an old book with even older stories, but when we see it as something living, something that teaches us timeless truths, something that we can connect to.  The Bible is our window into God’s purposes for us; it’s our way of understanding who God is.  Without it, we are left with just our experiences.  Don’t get me wrong, our experiences of God are deeply meaningful, and cannot be neglected.  But my experiences and yours are different, whereas the story of the Scriptures is something we can all share.

The stories we hear in the Old Testament are not the same as the New Testament, which teaches us about Jesus.  But the stories of the Old Testament are just as important, as they are the stories that Jesus himself grew up hearing in worship.  The New Testament is the story of Jesus – a human being like us… but who is also God, and therefore profoundly unlike us.  The Old Testament, on the other hand, is the story of people exactly like us.  Living in a world with a lot less technology, sure, but otherwise, victims of the same types of tragedy, subject to the same sorts of flaws of character, in the same kinds of relationships as ours.  Therefore, we continue to read these stories – these things that can seem so disconnected from us.

These stories are not ‘history” meaning, “his story,” meaning “someone else’s story.”  They are “outstory.”  These are stories of people like us, and stories that we can learn from – learn both about God, and about one another.

Two weeks ago, I read to you and preached from the story of David and Goliath.  This week, I want to pick up right where we left off.  We finished at the end of chapter 17, the point at which David has become a hero.  This starts to irk Saul.  You may or may not remember, but Saul was the first king of Israel.  He was… well, just an okay king.  No one’s favorite, but definitely not the worst king Israel would ever have.  And like a lot of people, Saul was a really insecure guy.

Basically as soon as David starts getting treated like someone special, Saul starts getting jealous.  After all, he’s the king!  Why is anyone else getting attention?  Saul was so insecure because he knew how much he had to lose.  Of course, he had so much to lose because he had so much to begin with, but that’s how it often plays out.  David starts to get popular; Saul starts getting resentful.  This story, though, has a wrinkle, a twist.  And the name of that twist is Jonathan.

David and Jonathan are best friends; not just best friends, but something akin to blood brothers.  Jonathan is said to have “made covenant” with David; that is, he pledged to be David’s best friend.  And he did this in an era in which people’s word was their bond, and it would be unthinkable to go back on a word like that.  But in this passage, we see the roots of conflict.

In fact, Saul goes so far as to try a two-pronged approach to dealing with David.  On the one hand, he promises his eldest daughter to David.  This ensures that they will be allies.  We probably all know from history classes that marriages have been used by the powerful to ensure peace for a long time.  But Saul has another secret strategy, too.  He keeps David as a commander in the army, and sends him to the front lines.  That way, the Philistines can finish the job Goliath tried to start, and David will likely die in battle.  Unfortunately for Saul, this backfires big time.

David wins more and more battles, which only makes him more popular and makes Saul more insecure.  In the meantime, Saul marries off Merab, his eldest daughter, to someone else (David does end up marrying Michal, Saul’s second daughter).  Eventually, David realizes how dangerous it is for him to remain near Saul, so David flees.  Saul then begins a manhunt for David, trying to murder him.  And all the while, David has an ally right in Saul’s family – Saul’s only son, Jonathan.  Jonathan is often the one keeping David alive.  He’s the reason David knows to leave town in the first place; he tells David of Saul’s intentions and strategies.  He keeps his best friend alive, even though it directly flies in the face of what his father wants to do.

So many people assume that David kills Goliath, becomes king, and everything works out for him.  But in many ways, the hero of his story is Jonathan, the best friend who disobeys his family to help his friend.  So, as I’ve had to ask in just about every Old Testament story we’ve read this year, what is this passage supposed to be teaching us?  I mean, it’s an interesting story, but… so what?

Well, I think it’s mostly story about where God puts us in the world.  We’re put into all sorts of weird places and circumstances.  We can’t possibly know what those situations are going to yield.  We can try to make hard and fast rules, like we read in the Ten Commandments – “Honor your father and mother.”  But, in this story, Jonathan is the hero here for going against his family and disobeying that commandment.  Of course, that’s because his father is in a murderous rage and trying to kill an innocent kid.  If there’s a time to disobey your parents, that’s it.  But that’s the thing:  so often in life, the situations we’re placed in are not so easy to create rules for, because we can’t possibly plan for every eventuality.  For so many of us, the critical moments in our lives occur in places we’d never have imagined ourselves being, so how do you make rules for that?  Instead, we hear stories like this one, to inspire us to act correctly in the face of difficult situations.

Whenever we make a difficult decision, like Jonathan does where others will view us as being against our family, we’re likely to face judgment from others.  But sometimes, God is asking us to do just that.  In fact, our first allegiance is not to our family, not to our friends, not to our country, but to God and God alone.  The passage tells us explicitly that “the Lord was with” David.  Jonathan can see that he can’t help his dad – his dad has transgressed what he’s supposed to do as king and ruler, so he helps his friend, whom he can see is fulfilling the work of God.

Undoubtedly, we’ll be faced with difficult decisions in this life about whom we’re supposed to help and where we’re supposed to be in this life.  This is a passage that teaches us that, no matter how difficult those decisions, what’s important is following what God is doing in our lives.  Those things are hard on us, but we have to have courage, as Jonathan did.  When we make a decision, we do it prayerfully, and do our best to please God.  When we do what’s right, we see it borne out in the results.  We have to approach the hard parts of life with humility, prayer, and putting God first.  In this way we honor God – by putting God at the center, not just of our prayers, nor just our Sundays, but in our everyday relationships with everyone.  May we have the courage of Jonathan to make the hard choices and follow after God.  Amen.

Of Giants and Stones – 2017/09/10

1 Samuel 17:1-58

Sermon:

Chaminade.  Buster Douglas.  Texas Western.  Appalachian State.  David Tyree.  Rulon Gardner.  Maybe some of those names sounded familiar to you; maybe none of them did.  I realize not everyone will know these names, but for those who follow sports closely, most of those will have brought to mind a single moment, game, or event.

Chaminade, for example, is a tiny college of about 2000 people in Honolulu.  In December of 1982, they hosted a game against the University of Virginia, who were the undefeated and top-ranked team in college basketball.  The Virginia squad was led by Ralph Sampson, the National Player of the Year all three of his years as a varsity basketball player, and considered by many the greatest basketball player in college history.

Of course, you know the story – unlikely though it was, the tiny little college beat the superpower in one of the great upsets in the history of American sports.  Buster Douglas defeated the previously-unbeaten Mike Tyson in Japan to claim the heavyweight championship of the world, Texas Western was a small school that played Adolph Rupp’s famous Kentucky, and defeated them for the national championship when no one gave them a chance.  Appalachian State is a tiny school, at the time not even in major college football, who traveled to the University of Michigan and shocked them in one of the biggest college football upsets of all-time.  David Tyree made the phenomenal, one-handed, helmet-trap catch that kept the New York Giants’ season alive in the Super Bowl against the undefeated New England Patriots and eventually led to a Giants’ victory.  Rulon Gardner was a heavyweight wrestler who won Olympic gold in 1996 by defeating Aleksandr Karelin of Russia, who hadn’t lost a match in over 15 years of international competition.

Inevitably, stories like these are always compared to “David and Goliath.”  This one Bible story is so well-known that it crosses into the popular consciousness.  Many people who’ve never set foot in a church in their lives know the basic outline – little boy kills a giant.  You almost have to know it in order to understand such a common phrase.  So let’s talk about the story a little bit.

As most of you know by now, I’ve been preaching through the Old Testament this summer, beginning in creation.  Last week, we got all the way up to Ruth, which took place in the time of the Judges, who were special people called by God to lead Israel.  Well, eventually, the Israelites got sick of not having an official king.  I think when most of us read this, we can very smugly argue how silly it is of them; after all, they were following religious leaders who were very close to God.  Isn’t following God better than following a king?  Well, yes, it is.  Of course following God is better than following after human leaders.  However, it’s also understandable that when a foreign king wants to work out a treaty, or a trade deal, or you need to raise an army, having a king would be helpful.  So eventually the last of the Judges, Samuel, prays about it, and God agrees to help Samuel find a king.

He finds a young man named Saul.  Saul was tall, handsome, smart, and skilled at battle.  He seemed like a good choice, and Samuel anointed him king.  Israel was now in the “modern” world, just like everyone else.  Of course, as anyone who’s been around for a long time knows, being “modern” means having all the new problems that you never had to deal with before.  I mean, for example, new cars have a lot of fancy computer parts; so much so that some of them can park themselves, or slam the brakes for you when you’re in danger.  On the other hand, with each innovation comes something new that can (and will) break, and now it’s harder to fix than ever before.  Likewise, having a king meant new problems.  I don’t want to get into all of Saul’s issues right now – I’ll pick up with more of that in a couple weeks – but we need to know the situation.

Anyway, David, as some of you know, was the youngest of eight brothers.  His three oldest brothers were all old enough for war, but he was still at home working, tending the sheep.  He is, after all, a very famous shepherd – a job which will later prepare him to be the “shepherd” of all the Israelite people.  These older brothers serving in the army were bound to want a care package from home, so his father Jesse had an idea:  David should go take them some food.  And, while he’s at it, why not take some to King Saul, too?  So David did that.  He dropped the food off with the guy in charge of watching over everyone’s stuff, and he went to talk to his brothers.

But as he got there, he saw a giant of a man come out.  This was Goliath of Gath, one of the Philistines, with whom the Israelites fought.  I had a teacher in high school who first opened my eyes to the word “Philistine,” which can be pronounced as “PHIL-iss-teen” or a “PHIL-iss-tyne.”  That second pronunciation sounds an awful lot like “Palestine,” doesn’t it?  Well, that’s because the Israelites and the Palestinians have been fighting over the land of Israel for a long time.

Anyway, Goliath comes out, and David hears for the first time that Goliath is taunting the army.  With good reason, too; Goliath is listed as being six cubits and a span tall.  Those are ancient measurements, but they’re really easy to understand.  A cubit is the length from a man’s elbow to the tip of his middle finger; people estimate that to be about 18 inches.  A span is from the tip of a man’s thumb to the tip of his pinky, when he spreads his fingers apart; people estimate that to be about nine inches.  In other words, they estimate Goliath to have been 9’9”.  That means he was very nearly the height of a basketball hoop!  Well, it’s understandable why people were intimidated, isn’t it?  He has a whole bunch of armor on, all of it described as being very heavy.  He’s carrying weaponry basically as big as a man.  He is truly a giant.  And if you have a guy like that on your side, I guess it’s no surprise what the Philistine army does next.

They let Goliath taunt their opponents.  But not only that, they put the entire war on him.  The Israelites and Philistines were fighting over land that they each felt rightfully belonged to them, which is the same as now in the Holy Land, if you pay attention to that sort of news.  Anyway, the Philistines decide that the best and quickest way to get this over with is to have Goliath challenge anyone who will take him on in single combat.  This was actually a fairly common way of attempting to resolve warfare in the ancient world, as the thought is that it would cause a lot less bloodshed.  That sounds really good in theory; problem was, most of the time, the losing side didn’t take it so well, and the battle would happen anyway.

So David listens to these taunts from this giant, and he wonders why no one is accepting the challenge.  This is a really important part of the story, because I think it goes to show us something we can all learn from children.  Remember, David is just a boy.  He has four older brothers who are also too young for battle, and 15- or 16-year-olds would’ve probably been considered battle-ready.  Therefore, David must be early-elementary age.

He sees the giant, and his reaction isn’t fear, it isn’t distress, it isn’t worry about his older brothers.  His reaction is that God can obviously help win that fight.  Goliath is taunting the Israelites, which by extension means he’s making fun of God.  David won’t stand for that.  He asks what will happen to whoever beats Goliath, and he’s told that such a person would marry into the royal family, and be made rich, and the last thing probably means that they won’t have to pay taxes anymore, either.  So David is like, “What’s the catch?  We serve God, so we’ll obviously win – so why isn’t anyone going out there and doing something?”

Like I said, there’s something for us adults to learn from David.  He doesn’t see the size of the obstacle.  I mean, he sees it, but he doesn’t let it phase him.  He’s too young to know how hard things can really be.

Of course, David points out later that he has killed lions and bears.  Sure, but they’re not as smart as a human.  And besides, no one from Israel would want to put their whole army at risk of losing, just because they took on this giant.  So the armies just sit and look at each other while Goliath goes on taunting.  David doesn’t see those things, though; he has the faith of a child, the certainty that God will provide.  It’s a good thing to keep in mind.

So often, we let ourselves be limited by what we can imagine.  And let’s face it – our imaginations as adults are colored by experiences that limit our vision.  Children have nearly unlimited imagination, so they can see things clearly that we lose over time, including an understanding of what a big obstacle is.

David is reprimanded by his older brothers, who haven’t seen their food yet and think he’s there just to gawk at the war.  They think he’s being childish – and he is.  But in this case, it’s that childishness that’s going to save.  He decides that, if no one else will stand up for God, he has to do it.  So he decides to do volunteer to fight Goliath.  Saul, sensing that this will at least make something happen, lets him.  Again, if we want to talk about why Saul’s not a good king later, we can.  But sending an elementary-school-age kid to fight a giant is not a decision a good king makes, even though it happens to work out in this instance.

And again, Saul fails the test of seeing like a child, even when he agrees to let David go into battle.  He outfits him with heavy armor.  He does it because… well, Goliath’s in heavy armor, so David had better be, too, right?  But that’s silly; if someone’s going to hit you with a sledgehammer, you don’t notice the wooden handle and say, “Ooh, I’d better get a wooden handle, too.”  You need the tools that will help you do your best work.  I mean, obviously, David is never going to beat Goliath by fighting the way Goliath would choose to fight.

So David does what he knows, and uses the gifts God has given him.  God has given him an abundance of faith, so that’s his first weapon.  And let’s face it – faith is what’s carried the Israelites for so long – so it’s probably time to remember that, even if it’s hard to keep in mind.  But second, he’s gotten rid of lions and bears with his slingshot.  So he strips off the trappings that the world thinks he needs, and he uses what he knows.  He doesn’t need heavy armor that won’t fit and probably won’t protect him, anyway.

David outfits himself with no armor at all, because that’s what gives him the best chance of winning.  God gave him this ability with a slingshot; God gave him faith to slay giants.  So David uses those things.  We so often trust in ourselves and the things of this world, rather than trusting in God.  We trust in our money, in our families, in our standing in society; we trust in the people around us, we trust in what we’ve been taught.  We trust in so many things, but we don’t always look first to God.

The story of David is a story about how even the weakest, the smallest, the unlikeliest can succeed when they do God’s will, rather than believing in what the world sees.  David has confidence.  Some of that is self-confidence.  But note; there’s a difference between believing that he can do it, and believing that God can do it through him.  And it’s the latter that David believes.  For us adults, especially, we tend to see obstacles as being too big, and we tend to fall back on what’s worked in the past instead of finding our spiritual imagination.  For the kids out there today, as you get older, you’re going to have a tendency to forget what it’s like to be a kid and feel pressure to grow up.  But let’s be honest:  sometimes, grown-ups need to remember to think like you.  So always remember to have faith in God, no matter how old you are.  Let your imagination open up to believe that God can do remarkable things.  And let your faith be your guide.  Amen.

Where You Go, I Will Go – 2017/09/03

Psalm 85:8-13
Mark 3:33-35
Ruth 1:1-17

Sermon:

I’ve always felt like I grew up the best way there was to grow up.  I know not everyone likes being an only child, but I loved it.  But maybe the reason I loved it so much was that I was never alone.  I had five really good friends in my neighborhood, who were all about the same age as me.  We all liked playing sports, and we liked the same TV shows, and we liked the same kinds of games.  So life was good with friends.

My parents were around as much as they could be, but you know… parents work.  So in the summer especially, I didn’t see them all the time.  But I never had to go to day care or to a babysitter or anything, because we lived with my dad’s parents.  There are about a million stories I could tell you about growing up with my grandparents in the home, but it really taught me a lot.  I enjoyed it so much that I really have to believe that having grandparents in the home is just the best thing that can happen to a kid.

Now, my grandparents both lived under the Soviet regime in what was then the USSR, and they were both illegal Christians.  Their faith wasn’t permitted, but they practiced, anyway.  You don’t wish hardship on anyone, but at the same time their situation is enviable, because they clung to their faith like a lifeline, and they came to appreciate God’s presence in their lives so much more than many of us who are comfortable all the time, living with a faith that is not only legal, but the overwhelming majority faith of the country we live in.

Anyway, because they had so much appreciation for their faith, they also knew the stories of Scripture very well.  I remember one time, shortly after getting my third-grade Bible, talking to my grandma about wanting to read a whole book of the Bible.  The first one she told me to read was Jonah.  It’s short, fun, and relatively well-known.  I would recommend the same, by the way; if you want to just sit down and feel that sense of accomplishment of having read a whole book of the Bible, Jonah’s your place to start.  But if you want a second one after that, my recommendation would be a little more unorthodox – it would be the book from which we read today – Ruth.

Now, as you all know, we’ve been working our way through the Old Testament.  We just finished with Moses and the giving of the Ten Commandments last week, and we’re skipping to Ruth now.  So, what happens in the middle?  Well, Moses dies, just on the border of the Promised Land God had asked him to lead the people to.  His assistant, Joshua, takes over.  But after that, there’s a bit of a crisis of how the people are to be led.  Moses just kind of became the leader; no one elected him or anything.  Joshua was his natural successor.  But, after Joshua died, how exactly were things supposed to work now?

Well, a system arose called the Judges (as explained in the book of Judges) wherein the people would find someone who was shown by God to be a special leader, and they would sort of “elect” that person as leader, not through a formal vote, but more the way that if you think of your group of closest friends, there’s probably a “leader” of the group, even if you never voted on it.

Well, the story of Ruth takes place in the time of the Judges.  The nation of Israel is living in the Promised Land, and they are doing well.  They’re not quite a power in the region yet – we’ll get to that next week.  But they’re making it work.

Now, the story of Ruth starts, oddly, with her father-in-law Elimelech and her mother-in-law Naomi.  They settled in the land of Moab, east of Israel.  There, they had two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, who each married Moabite women; one marrying a woman named Orpah and the other named Ruth.  All three men die, though, and the women are left destitute.

Now, at the time, women were basically non-citizens.  They had no rights independent of their husbands or fathers.  If a woman’s husband died, she was supposed to marry his brother.  In fact, the brother was legally required to marry her.  Now, this may sound cruel or strange, but it’s actually an act of mercy; it means that no woman will go uncared for.  However, Elimelech was old and had no brothers.  And Orpah and Ruth were both Moabite women.  They had shunned their own people, and had no legal standing at home.  Naomi had no sons, and even if she were to have another, it would take years for them to grow into men, and what are Ruth and Orpah supposed to do in the meantime?  So Naomi tells them to go home to Moab, and try to make a life there.  They don’t want to, but Orpah gives in and gives it another try at home.  Ruth, however, steadfastly refuses.  She tells Naomi one of the best lines in all the Scriptures, in my opinion:  “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”  Ruth so loves her mother-in-law that she will follow.  Her mother-in-law has converted her to faith in God, and she won’t turn her back on that faith.

Now, that’s as much as we read, but there’s a lot more to the story.  Naomi, the mother-in-law gives in and lets Ruth stay with her.  They work their way to Bethlehem, and arrive right during harvest.  Of course, as you would expect, there was a lot of work to do during the harvest.  Naomi knows that her husband had a wealthy cousin named Boaz, so they head thataway to find work.  Ruth offers to work in the field, which will earn them some money.  She also points out that, hey – maybe she’ll find a single guy out there somewhere whom she can marry.

In fact, the fella who takes notice of her is none other than Boaz, her father-in-law’s cousin!  After noticing this hard-working woman, he asks about her background.  He finds out that she’s been taking care of her mother-in-law and scraping by with her, insisting on remaining with her, even though it made Ruth’s own life more difficult.

So Boaz does as he can as her employer, and protects her; he makes sure she is taken care of.  He ensures that she stays in the field with the other women, so the other men can’t harass her.  Eventually, she approaches him privately and indicates that she’s interested in him.  Now, because of the laws of the day, the sort of “twist” in the story is that it turns out Boaz doesn’t have the right to marry Ruth.  Boaz has to sit down with the actual man who is obligated to marry Ruth, and he has to sit down with the elders.  He has to request special permission to marry Ruth, meaning the man who’s supposed to marry Ruth to give up his right to do so.

He ends up sort of tricking the man to do so.  He says that Naomi, who has a parcel of land that had belonged to Elimelech.  He says that it’s this other guy’s to take, if he wants it, and the other guy says, “Yeah, sure.”  But then he says, “Of course, you’ll have to marry Ruth if you want.”

And this is where we get to a complication.  As it turns out, if a man marries the wife of a deceased person, any children she bears will not be considered his; they will be considered her husband’s children.  This guy seems to believe that there’s no point in marrying Ruth, potentially having children with her, and then being forced to care for land that won’t ever really be “his,” because the land would belong to any sons he’d bear with Ruth.  So he gives up his rights to the land, and to Ruth.  Thus, Boaz is able to keep the land and marry the woman he’d fallen in love with.

So, what is this all about?  Well, it’s about people doing their duty, for one thing.  More importantly, it’s about love and the families we create.  We have the family we’re born into, of course.  But just as important is the fact that God gives us love in our lives, and we have to embrace those relationships well.  Huge amounts of meaning in our lives come from the people around us, and God so often puts those people there.

That’s the other really important thing here:  our institutions are valuable, but only when God blesses them.  Inherently, there are things in our world that we rely on, but the things in themselves cannot function.  For example, we all know people who have gotten into bad relationships, and even some who have chosen to marry.  Inevitably, those marriages fall apart.  But it’s not that the institution of marriage is broken; it’s that, sometimes, people make bad choices.  Sometimes people change, sometimes people can’t make it work, sometimes personalities are just too different.  “Marriage,” in and of itself, is not magical; it will not make a bad relationship work.

“Marriage” can’t fix or save anything, because while it is a serious institution that God gives us to increase our happiness, our actions, attitudes, and choices matter.  God won’t just magically let one thing fix everything for all-time.  The Presbyterian perspective on Baptism is similar:  it’s really important, and it’s a welcoming into the community, but it doesn’t guarantee salvation, nor does it guarantee faith, nor anything else.  Our institutions, our relationships, our ties to others – they are meant to bring us joy and make our lives better.  But in and of themselves, they have no power.  It’s our relationship with God, which makes these things flourish.  Our culture can’t write the checks; it can only cash the checks that God writes.

In this story, we see a lot of cultural trappings about who belongs in what role, and what people are supposed to do.  Sometimes, those things work out, and sometimes they don’t.  It’s not a comment on whether those things are good or bad.  Instead, this whole story is a comment on following where God leads you.  Ruth was led to Naomi, and she clung to her fiercely.  She wanted to be part of Naomi’s life and follow Naomi’s God, because she realized the truth of God.  Even though some parts of her life we more difficult, others were easier.  And, all things said and done, she made the right choice – sometimes by following the customs of her culture, sometimes by sidestepping them.

Our culture, by itself, is no more perfect than any individual person.  Following where God leads, on the other hand, is good.  And just to see where these things lead, almost as justification for this whole story, Ruth gives birth to a son (who is fathered by Boaz, but is technically considered her first husband’s son, as I mentioned earlier).  She names him Obed.  Obed later has a son, whom he names Jesse.  Jesse has sons of his own, and the youngest he names David, who becomes the king of all Israel, and an ancestor of Jesus.

Ruth is a foreigner who doesn’t fit in; she’s a woman in a man’s world; she’s a convert to faith in God rather than someone born into it; she’s outspoken when she should be quiet.  Ruth is not a typical hero.  Yet, it’s her name in the genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew’s Gospel.  She’s preserved there, the outsider who was mother to the men who led to Jesus.

God uses us, in all our brokenness, in all the ways we don’t fit.  God sees us, not as the world does, but with the sacred worth inherent to us by being God’s children.  It’s remarkable that this story would ever be told at all, since Jews in ancient days were often very skeptical of intermarriage with people of other tribes; yet Ruth is the great-grandmother of the greatest king Israel ever knew.

We may never “fit” exactly the way the world wants us to; but God has a special place for everyone.  When we feel a bit like Ruth, like someone out of their depth, God still calls us to something.  May you have the fortune of figuring out where God is leading you today!  Amen.

Giving of the Law – 2017/08/27

Psalm 17:1-7
Matthew 5:17
Exodus 20:1-17

Sermon:

As most of you know by now, I’ve been preaching through the Old Testament during this season of the Christian year called “Ordinary Time,” the time between Pentecost and the start of Advent.  When I sat down to plan which texts I was going to preach, I began by writing down a list of passages, then cross-checking those with some other lists of things in books and online, and then checking what I’ve already preached on.  I smooshed some together to see if I could cram two passages into one day, I made cuts, I added things back – all in all, it was a difficult process.  Not backbreaking labor, I’ll admit.  It was a challenge – though a fun one.

Anyway, many passages came and went, but there were a few that were on the tip of my pen when I started the initial list that survived every draft and revision.  As you might have been able to guess, this passage, from Exodus 20, was one of those passages.  It seems awfully hard to preach the Old Testament without preaching on the Ten Commandments, doesn’t it?  It’s a central passage, it’s something we all know about, and it’s representative of something more.

Now, the very first assignment in my preaching class in seminary was the Ten Commandments, so I’m no stranger to covering it.  In an ideal world, with unlimited Sundays and nothing else I wanted to accomplish, I might’ve actually split it up into discreet chunks, so we could spend a little more time in each commandment, or in groups of just a couple, because there is a challenge in trying to summarize all ten into one cohesive message.  That’s particularly difficult on a day like today, when I’m trying to communicate not only the words of Scripture, but also the context of the story of God’s people in which the Ten Commandments happen.  It’s really important to understanding God’s relationship with humanity that we know that part.

Thankfully, many of us here have seen The Ten Commandments.  I don’t mean a statue of them, or the physical words; I mean the movie, with Charlton Heston.  It’s a beautiful dramatization of God’s gift of these commandments.  But what I think is often hardest for us to accept is just the very fact that these commandments are supposed to be seen as a gift.

For so many of us as kids, rules are something meant to kill fun, or to stifle our ability to enjoy ourselves.  Rules are in place to make things worse, it seems, rather than better.  That’s often true as adults, too.  Lines are frustrating, so wouldn’t it be easier just to skip them?  Speed limits can be an irritant when we’re in a rush, so why not exceed them?  Of course, some rules are unjust and merit our disobedience.  Most of the time, though, rules are a minor annoyance that we’re willing to live with, sure.  Still most of us also don’t go around looking to add rules to life.

But think about it; that’s what the Ten Commandments passage is about.  As you’ll remember from the last couple weeks, we’ve been following Moses.  Moses was a boy who was very nearly killed by Pharaoh, only to be rescued by Pharaoh’s own daughter, raised in Pharaoh’s own house, who committed murder, who fled Egypt, who came back, who freed his people, and who led them out of their slavery in Egypt.  Before we even get to the Ten Commandments, Moses’ journey has been more exciting than most of our lives.  And even at this point already, we have about as much information about Moses’ life as we do about any other person in the Bible, including Jesus.  When you consider we’re only halfway through the first of four long books of the Bible devoted to the story of Moses, it really puts things in perspective.

Anyway, Moses has been leading the people, who are wandering toward the promised land.  It will, in the end, take them 40 years to get there.  Now, this has been made fun of in many comic strips and sermons.  Even walking, even with a lot to carry, this shouldn’t be more than a year’s journey.  So, presumably, every once in a while, the Hebrew people just set up long-term camp.

I like to imagine that this story takes place in one of those times of settlement.  The Hebrews are stopped on their journey, and Moses is called up the mountain by God for instruction.  Now, let’s think from the perspective of the people.  They had, previously, lived under Egypt and its laws.  Now, they were free – which sounds great.  But with that newfound freedom came, quite literally, lawlessness.  There weren’t any laws or rules to govern their behavior.  Without laws, and on a looooong road trip, tempers would flare up – it’s inevitable.  In spite of the inevitability of those tempers flaring up, the only law they had was common sense – and, as we all know, once people start fighting, common sense stops being common.

So God has called Moses up the mountain to give a gift.  Now, keep in mind that no one has done anything for God yet.  There isn’t a worship service to thank God, there hasn’t been a hymn written, there hasn’t been anything formal to this point.  God has freed the people from slavery, ended the Egyptian chase, saved their children and livestock, even when the Egyptians’ were killed.  God has given, and given, and given.  And after all that giving… God gives again.  Only this time, God doesn’t give a miracle or a political movement – instead, God gives rules.  God’s gift, in this instance, is order.  Rules bring order out of chaos. Parents create rules for kids, not to punish, but to give structure, to help, to save.  And God is always interested in saving us.

So, like a loving parent, God chooses to give these rules:  I alone am God, and you should honor me; don’t make up new gods to replace me in your hearts; use my name well; rest to protect yourselves and honor me; honor your father and mother; don’t murder; don’t break faith with your spouse; don’t steal; don’t tell lies; don’t desire what belongs to someone else.  There are many other laws that God gives, but these ten are a system.  They’re a lot easier to remember than the total 613 of them, and they cover the basics.

These ten are rules for behavior.  The Greatest Commandment, to love God and neighbor, is what’s most important; at the same time, though, it’s hardly a system of law for a people in a lawless state; it’s just not enough information for them.  And as Moses descends from the mountain 12 chapters later, he finds that lawless state.

Moses has gotten these rules, and comes down to find that the people have been breaking these laws Moses was just given.  The people have melted their gold jewelry to make a Golden Calf, an idol they could worship in place of the true and living God who saved them.  Now, on the one hand, they were breaking a law against idols, but on the other, they hadn’t heard that law yet.  And while I think history proves them wrong, to some extent, you can empathize with them.  It certainly seemed like God had abandoned them.  God called Moses up the mountain days ago, and nothing had been heard since.

Similarly for us today, we find our faith challenged when God is silent.  But even when God is silent, we make a mistake if we seek our meaning in other things.  The Hebrews make a mistake here; they aren’t finding God, so they decide to worship something else.  Only, God isn’t a set of car keys; you don’t just go grab the spare when you can’t find God.  God has gotten us through rough times before, and will again!  In fact, so often, like the Hebrews, we give up on God right when God is trying desperately to reach out to us.

Think about the story again.  Literally the moment God is giving the people a gift, they are turning their backs on God.  How often have we been guilty of the same?  We ask where God is, instead of being secure in the knowledge that God is with us, even if we can’t see it.  As followers of Jesus, we must remember that God is here with us, even when God far away.  Sometimes, the times we feel abandoned are the times God is closest to us, even though we may not realize it at the time.

Part of the reason that happens is that we don’t usually know what we need.  We usually think we need one thing, only to find that what we really needed was something else entirely.  In this story, the Hebrew people are sure that what they need is someone to worship whom they can see, so that a god can be part of their lives every day.  In fact, they need the God whom no one can see, because the true God alone is the one giving them the rules to live by; rules that do make God a part of their lives every day.

For me, this story resonates because we do need rules to govern us, even if we know that Christ forgives sins.  That conundrum of how to deal with forgiveness has been debated by Christians for millenia.  But I would say this:  knowing that we are forgiven also means knowing when we commit sin; only with the Law do we know that.  At the same time, the Law gives us something to shoot for.  While these Ten Commandments are just ten of the 613 Laws in the first five books of the Old Testament, in many ways, they stand for all the rest by being the foundation of so many others.

We need to know when we do wrong.  We need to shoot for something to keep.  Even if we keep all ten of these, there are ways we let God down, with our thoughts, with our actions, with our treatment of others.  The point is not to be perfect; the point is that God wants us to have a target, and we should be shooting for that, correcting each other when we mess up, and thanking God for not giving up on us, even when we can’t be as faithful.

So this day, let us remember that God is here for us; sometimes by giving us rules that are hard (or even impossible) to follow; that even when we don’t like those rules, they are here to help us.  Let us remember that God is ever there for us; sometimes it seems God is silent, yet when things settle down, God is always right there to help us again.  Brothers and sisters, God is here for us.  We are God’s, and God loves us.  Amen.

The Rule of Love – 2017/08/06

Psalm 86:11-17
Exodus 12:1-13
Exodus 14:10-29

Sermon:

St. Augustine, who lived 1600 years ago and who yet may still be the greatest thinker our faith has ever had, said that the rule of understanding any passage of Scripture is love.  If a passage does not show love, you are not understanding it correctly.  You must change your understanding, because God is love, and therefore Scriptures that would cause a different understanding must be reinterpreted.

I begin that way today because this is the day we confront some of the most uncomfortable texts in the whole canon of Scripture.  As we’ve been reading through the Old Testament and have arrived at Moses, we now come to perhaps the central event of his time as one of God’s servants, but unfortunately that central event is not a pleasant one.

First, let’s reorient ourselves in the narrative of Scripture.  We’ve read from Creation to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and now Moses.  Last week, we heard about how Moses had a very special infancy and childhood, and then threw away the spoils of this world when he found out his people were being oppressed and he murdered a slave driver.  He ran away and became a humble farmer, and thought that was his reality until God called him out to go free his people from Pharaoh.

Now, as I’ve mentioned many times already during this series, I have to skip a lot of things in order to get a decent sense of the story of the Old Testament.  But some of the readings I’ve skipped have been important, so we need to talk about them, anyway.  Today is one of those times, because our Scripture readings for today only make sense in light of the things around them, so we’ll begin with some background.

First of all, Moses was not an easy customer to work with.  As we talked about last week, he fought this call from God.  He didn’t want to go, which might’ve had something to do with his being a wanted murderer.  Anyway, he uses the excuse that he’s not a very good public speaker, and God answers back, “Yeah, but your brother Aaron is, so let him do the talking.”

So, finally out of excuses, Moses and Aaron head to Pharaoh to ask for their people – God’s people – to be set free, with those immortal words, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go.’”  Pharaoh does not agree – after all, who gives up free labor willingly?  So, again (as we saw last week), Pharaoh doubles-down, and makes the Hebrews do even harder labor, to teach them about their insolence.  Unfortunately for Pharaoh, this is the start of a series of bad decisions he makes, each of which is more ruinous than the last.  And this one seems to work out for him, at least at first, because the Hebrew people turn, at least for a while, against Moses.

But God sends Moses back to Pharaoh, again and again.  And each time, Pharaoh refuses Moses’ request.  And this is where we get to something I didn’t want to read because it’s too long, but that we must talk about, and that’s the ten plagues.

After each time Pharaoh refuses Moses, something bad happens to the Egyptian people.  First, the Nile river was turned to blood for a week, killing plants, animals, crops, and harming people.  Second, frogs covered the land – the fields, the rivers, even the insides of houses.  Third, gnats came, covering and biting human and livestock alike.  Then came the flies.  Then the livestock of the Egyptians all grew ill.  Then boils – red, pus-filled sores – showed up on the skin of all the Egyptians.  Next, after Moses gave warning, thunder and hail rained down, killing human, animal, plant and tree of anyone who was unwilling to believe that it was coming.  The eighth plague was locusts, who swarmed the fields and ate what little food remained.  Ninth came the plague of darkness.  For three days, people couldn’t see their own hands, it was so dark.

After each of these, Pharaoh was given a chance to relent and let the Israelites go free, but each time, he hardened his heart and did not allow them to go worship God.  Sometimes, he would say he was going to let them go, but he would always change his mind.  So then came the tenth and final plague.  That is what we read part of from Exodus 12.  God asked all the Israelites to kill a lamb, roast and eat it, and mark their doors with its blood.  This would be a signal to the angel of the Lord to “pass over” these houses, and this is where the holiday that commemorates that event gets its name – Passover.

But why would the angel pass over those houses?  Because houses not marked with the blood of the lamb saw their firstborn killed.  The firstborn of every family, including livestock – who really didn’t do anything wrong, but bore just as much pain as the Egyptians themselves.  Exodus tells us, “there was not a house without someone dead.”  Finally, after this massacre, Pharaoh set the people free.

Only… he didn’t, not really.  Because yet again, he had second thoughts on letting go of free labor.  So our second passage, in Exodus 14, came to be.  Pharaoh comes for Moses, leading an army after the Israelites.  They complain to Moses, wishing even that he had never led them out of Egypt; after all, wouldn’t it have been better to live on their knees than die on their feet?  But that’s when God provides the miracle needed:  the sea is split in two, and the Israelites are able to walk through the middle, with water towering to either side of them.

Of course, the Egyptians follow them on the same dry ground.  But once there, God clogs their chariot wheels and they can’t follow.  As the Egyptians agree to flee from the Israelites, realizing that God is against them, Moses hears God’s message to stretch his hand out again and return the sea.  The Egyptians try to flee, but it’s too late; the sea closes around them, and the soldiers, their horses, chariots, and equipment are suddenly buried under water.

So, I have to say that these are such uncomfortable passages to read, for me, anyway.  Their about God’s special love of the Hebrew people, over and against the non-Jews around them… but of course, we’re not Jewish, so maybe it’s easier, in some way, to identify with the Egyptians.  And what’s happened to them in this passage?  Well, we’ve seen: their crops destroyed; their animals diseased and killed; they themselves sick, injured, or killed; and, of course, their army drowned.  And while Pharaoh was certainly guilty of being ungenerous to the Hebrews, most of the people affected by these people had nothing to do with those choices.

So we’re stuck in this passage, in a similar way that we were when we heard the story of Jacob.  In that story a couple of weeks ago, we heard about the sneak we were supposed to root for.  This time, Moses is a much more sympathetic protagonist.  Nonetheless, it really seems like, while the Egyptians were not great, they also weren’t outright evil.  Even if some of them were, some who weren’t were caught up in the pain, too.  And for me, that makes these stories uncomfortable texts to read; these stories become difficult to accept as God’s word.  Nonetheless, we have to find a way to deal with them.

And there are ways to talk about these passages.  In a draft of this sermon, I talked about a lot of them, but I really don’t know how useful that is.  Ultimately, we have a difficult story.  But if we’re going to take something from it, I think we take the same thing we so often take from stories like this.  We are loved by God, and that loves is fierce.  That means protecting us, even against impossible odds.  We will be defended, even when we don’t know how.  It shows us that we will be in bondage, and that we will yearn for freedom; when we receive that freedom, we may regret it.  But no matter which way we come at it, God is looking to break us out of the bondage we face, whether literal chains or simply the chains of sin that bind every one of us.  Our freedom is meant to be individual, as well as corporate.

I think, too, that this is just one of those stories we have to wrestle with a little.  To return to the Jacob story from a couple of weeks ago, there we saw a man who wrestled with God’s messenger all night.  When we read that story, I said that part of our lives on God’s journey was to continue to wrestle with God, and that means dealing with difficult things.  This is, for me, at least, one of those texts.  I don’t have an easy answer, but I do run back to St. Augustine’s “rule of love.”

That rule of love always causes me to ask where the love is here.  And what I see when I ask that question is an answer that, at least part way, gives me a way to deal with this story.  I see God as protector.  And I am also forced to think of Jesus Christ, as we do in church.

You probably know that Jews, even today, commemorate the Passover with a meal.  That is, in fact, the meal that Jesus was sharing with his disciples the night of the Last Supper, and that we continue to commemorate in Holy Communion, which we will receive later in this very service.  The Passover meal helps Jews to remember the blood of the lambs that helped save them from an awful fate.  Our meal of which we partake helps us to remember the blood of the Lamb, who gave his life for all.

Today, we remember a sacrifice that did not happen just to save the firstborn, not just for one night.  Yes, that was a miraculous moment of God’s that reminds us of how we are all saved, over and over again.  But for us as Christians, what’s more important is the knowledge that Jesus gave his life for all of us, not just the firstborn; and he did it not just for one night, but for eternity. Jesus covers our sins, just as the doors of the Israelites were covered.  So let us celebrate the Eucharistic meal today, remembering that, no matter how hard a text of Scripture is, we can have faith in the good work of Jesus Christ, in whose love we can be ever-sure.  Amen.

Supermoses – 2017/07/30

Psalm 65:9-13
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Exodus 3:1-15

Sermon:

Sorry, folks!  No video today.  Enjoy reading!

In a galaxy far away, a planet was dying.  There was no way to save them all and the ruler of the planet and his wife knew it.  There was no way to save their people – not all of them, anyway.  But more than being rulers, they were also parents.  And while they could not possibly save everyone, they could save the one they loved most.  So they sent their son across the stars.

His tiny ship flew through the dangers of space, but he just slumbered… until his ship crashed on a distant planet known as “earth” in a town called Smallville, Kansas.  Martha and Jonathan Kent discovered the boy, named him Clark and brought him up to be a great man, and great he was.  How many men do you know who are faster than a locomotive, who can leap tall buildings in a single bound?  As it turned out, he was more than just powerful, and he was more than just a leader – he was an inspiration.  And his inspiration was to more than just his fictions people; he became an inspiration to us in the real world, too.  And today, there’s hardly a person alive, even in the remotest parts of the world, who hasn’t heard of Superman.

So where did Superman come from, and why does it matter on a Sunday morning in church?  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were just two Jewish kids in 1938, a writer and an artist looking to capitalize on the popularity of comic strips, and perhaps even using the new medium of the comic book to achieve fame.  So, for $130, they sold their character and his story to a corporation who’s made billions out of perhaps the 20th centuries greatest icon in fiction or in reality.  And their idea for this character, the person possessed of special abilities, who would stand up for justice, who would defend the helpless, the orphan forced away from his home to protect a people he was somehow both part of and apart from – it is the story of Moses.

Siegel and Shuster took a character whose story resonated with them, and turned him into something modern.  That’s a stroke of genius.  But more importantly, they were able to use this story because it’s deeply ingrained in us, in a way that we don’t always know.  Even if you didn’t grow up watching The Ten Commandments, or perhaps The Prince of Egypt if you’re a little younger, this story is part of who we are as believers.

Moses is perhaps the most important single person in this entire Old Testament, and his story therefore the one we’ll be taking the most time to understand.  As we continue the journey through the Old Testament that I’ve been preaching for two months already (but with months still to go), we need to pick up the tale of God and God’s people, because this is how we understand who we are in relationship with God.

So, let’s pick up our story where we left it.  We’ve heard tell about creation, about Abraham, his son Isaac, and his son Jacob.  Jacob had 12 sons.  The eleventh of those twelve sons was named Joseph, and he had an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that Donny Osmond got to wear in the movie version.  But more importantly, Joseph was sold by his brothers into Egyptian slavery, but he rose through slavery and prison to become the right-hand man of the Pharaoh.  With Joseph elevated to such a position, Jews, who had been slaves, suddenly received much more favorable treatment in the Egyptian Kingdom.  But, of course, eventually Joseph died, and so did Pharaoh.  And after some time had passed, a new Pharaoh arose, who started to ask questions.

“Hey, uh, you notice there are a lot of Israelites around here?  Like, too many Israelites,” Pharaoh said.  So he tried to give them harder and harder tasks, but they just thrived more and more and more.  Eventually, Pharaoh tries to cut things off at the source.  He tells two midwives, who were responsible for delivering babies, that if the babies are male, they should be killed, but that the girls can live.  After all, the girls could serve as Egyptian wives.

So the midwives hatch a counterplan.  They still help in the deliveries of the males, and they let them live.  In this way, Shiphrah and Puah, two practically anonymous women, become true saviors of the Israelites, because they disobey Pharaoh.  When he asks why there are so many baby boys around, they throw some shade at the Egyptians – “Our women are so much heartier than your Egyptian women, that when our women give birth, they don’t even call us – they just do it themselves before we can even get there.”  Then, Pharaoh went a step further – he said that all males born now must be thrown in the Nile.

Moses’ mother gave birth to him.  And of course, she hid him for a time to get him to be big and strong.  But eventually, the time came when she could hide her son no longer, and she followed Pharaoh’s direction:  she put him in the Nile.  Only she didn’t put him in to die.  She put him in a basket and sent him off with a prayer, just desperately hoping that he would somehow survive the torrents of water and make it to safety.  And there he floated, like Superman through space, until he was found by an Egyptian girl.  And just like in the story of Superman, he was found by someone special.  You see, this wasn’t just any Egyptian girl – this was the daughter of Pharaoh.  She pulled him out of the river and insisted on raising him in her father’s home.  He would be her much younger brother, and he would have all the spoils of the wealthy, even though she assumed it was one of the Hebrew children.  Given that she knew the Hebrew children were being killed, she knew there would be a mother among them who would be ready to nurse him.  So she went to find a recent mother to help him eat and live for those first few months – and the recent mother she happened upon wound up being Moses’ own mother!  So Moses’ mother got to keep her son, for a time, anyway, and he was going to be safe.  Her bold action, crazy in a normal time, but her only hope in a period of desperation, had paid off better than she ever could’ve hoped – her son would be raised in the house of the Pharaoh!

At this point in the story, there are already so many sermons I want to preach.  I desperately want to tell you about the overlooked, and how God takes care of us, even when society doesn’t.  Women are considered nobodies, even property.  Yet, in this story, all our heroes so far have been women.  Pharaoh’s daughter who rescues baby Moses, Moses’ mother who tries whatever she can to save her son, the midwives Shiphrah and Puah who take their position and use it to save rather than to kill.  The women are truly the heroes of this story, and I think it bears mentioning.

But the women aren’t the only overlooked.  How often does our culture tell us that there are “too many” of “those people” in our midst?  We’re encourage all the time, through the media, through our upbringings, through our own experiences, to classify people.  And here in Egypt, unsurprisingly, we see this immigrant people, already low in status, being objects of fear and oppression; and when that doesn’t work to get rid of them, the Egyptian government chooses to oppress them more.  Yet, God stands by the side of those who are stepped upon.  God wants the success of the stranger in the strange land.  This is an invaluable lesson that we need to carry with us today, as well.  “Those people” are not bad; they are people, and God loves them.

But honestly, those are just some of the things we can pull out from just the first half of our Scripture reading.  Moses was taken care of his mother in his infancy, but really grew up at the palace.  He was, after all, now a part of the king’s family.  He grew up in the lap of luxury.  In Moses’ story, we see someone from the lower class brought up in the dominant class, and we actually see it turn south in a passage we didn’t read.  Eventually, Moses ends up seeing just how the people related to him are treated.  He sees some of his fellow Jews being beaten by a slave driver.  Incensed, Moses kills the man beating them.  Now a murderer, Moses is forced to flee the country, as well as to acknowledge that he’s grown up in a place of safety in spite of being no better than the people around him.

So Moses runs away.  That’s what he has to do.  Even though he has the protection of the Pharaoh, suddenly he’s drawing attention to his status as an outsider, and you can bet that didn’t sit well with people.  Moses runs away and gets married, and decides to live a quiet life.  But, honestly, what are the chances that a man who had this incredible story so far would get to fade into the background of history?  His whole life was set up for greatness, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he somehow finds himself back in an unusual position.

While keeping his father-in-law’s flocks, Moses sees a burning bush.  Kind of odd, right?  A bush, in the middle of nowhere, just burning.  So he goes to investigate, as the curious among us would.  As he examines further, he realizes that the bush isn’t even being burnt up – it’s still just sitting there, perpetually on fire, but never consumed.  And from the bush, God called him by name, “Moses, Moses!”  And Moses answered, “Here I am.”

“Here I am” is a loaded phrase in Hebrew.  It sometimes has a simple meaning, no more complicated than saying “hey” in response to someone calling your name.  But in a setting like this, the meaning is often closer to the phrase, “At your service.”  So God says to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and Moses realizes that this is no laughing matter.  Moses knows the stories of his ancestors, just as we must.  Heck, it’s the reason I’m preaching all these Old Testament texts – we need to know where we come from; we need to know the story we share with God.

And God says to Moses, “I’ve heard the cries of my people; you will go free them from Pharaoh.”  Imagine what this means for Moses.  He’s a wanted murderer, the boy who ran away from Pharaoh’s family, who abandoned his brother, who would (of course) become the next Pharaoh.  And God tells him, “You’re the man for the job.”  How do you respond to that?  How are you supposed to react if you’re just trying to keep your head down?

That’s not a hypothetical question by the way; by being here, in church; by being a Christian, you are tasked with sharing with others, both sharing what we know of Jesus and sharing the good things we have.  Generosity is meant to be a hallmark of what we do, both in the words we share and the actions we undertake.  And it’s really, really easy to say, “Who am I to tell anyone?”  “How can I be asked to share when I have so little?”  “Who am I to serve as a deacon or elder?”  Who am I to teach Sunday school?”  “Who am I to share what God has done in my life?”

And that’s when God gives the answer at the root of all answers; it’s not about you.  “I will be with you,” God says.  In other words, it is not that we are worthy, it’s that God is worthy, and God is asking us to do something about it.

But Moses is not going down without a fight, so pushes back again, “Who should I say sent me?  What is your name?”  And God gives the greatest response.

Unlike in the story of Jacob last week, when God’s mysterious wrestler wouldn’t give up his name, God is willing to tell Moses his name, usually pronounced as “Yahweh,” but translated “I AM WHO I AM.”  I’m going to be a nerd for a second, though, because the cool thing about Hebrew verb forms, though, is that they don’t have tense, particularly in the perfect form.  This means, “I am who I am,” or “I am who I was,” or “I am who I will be,” or “I was who I was,” or “I was who I am,” or “I was who I will be,” or “I will be who I was,” or “I will be who I am,” or “I will be who I will be.”  It means all of those things.  God is constant, faithful, and good, and those things do not change.  It’s in God’s very name.  In the story of Jacob, we heard of someone receiving a new name to reflect who he had become; in the story of Abraham, we heard of someone receiving a new name to reflect who he had become.  Ancient people believed strongly in the power of names, and here, God tells Moses his name.

The meaning of this name is important, because it tells us that God is trustworthy, even when we struggle, because God is constant.  It tells us that God is a riddle, and we will always struggle to understand.  But it also tells us that even Moses, the unworthy murderer who rejected luxury, who tried to hide from his life, who didn’t have any business being someone special, is God’s beloved child.  Over and over in these stories, we see people who are unlikely to be picked by God, because everyone is unlikely to be picked by God; yet at the same time, everyone is picked by God.  Not for the same tasks, no; but we are all God’s ambassadors.  Perhaps not to Pharaoh, perhaps not to set a nation free, but nonetheless to love with the same reckless abandon of God, to set free people caught in sin and oppression, to pray with ferocity and joy.

God has set a task before each and every one of us.  While the task may seem impossible some days, didn’t it to Moses?  While we may seem unworthy, wasn’t Moses?  Yet God wants you, loves you, and calls you to the burning bush to listen.  Now go, and heed God’s call.  Amen.

Wrestling – 2017/07/23

Psalm 145:8-13
Mark 14:32-36
Genesis 32:22-30

Sorry there was no sermon posted last week; the camera had no battery, and there was no manuscript to post.  But thanks for checking out this week’s sermon!

Sermon:

I’ve mentioned already this summer that, for the next few months, I’m mostly going to be preaching my way through the entire Old Testament.  This meant making some very specific choices.  In particular, it meant omitting certain things in order to make sure others were included.  The last two weeks I preached, I included texts from Genesis about Abraham, because he’s such a critical figure in the Old Testament.

As necessity requires to keep the story moving, though, I had a skip ahead a bit.  Today, we find ourselves in the story of Jacob.  Now, you may recall that, in Abraham’s story, we heard about Abraham’s son Isaac, whom he bound and considered sacrificing to God, only to be stopped by God.  Well, Isaac grew up and married Rebekah, whom he loved deeply.  And while the story of Isaac is interesting in its own right, it really hits its high-point with his father’s attempted sacrifice of him… at least until he himself becomes a father.

When Isaac finally does become a father, he has twin boys – Jacob and Esau.  Esau comes out first, and is big and strong.  Jacob comes second, smaller and skinnier, but cleverer, too.  In fact, he came out holding his brother’s heel, which is where he gets his name (which means, “he grabs the heel”) – almost an omen that he would aspire for more than being the second-best.  The brothers grow up together, and their upbringings were as different as could be, since each of their parents had a clear favorite.  Isaac, as most fathers in his time would’ve, preferred Esau.  Esau was strong and a gifted hunter, and was the one to inherit as the firstborn.  He grew up at his father’s side doing the “men’s work.”  Jacob spent more time with his mother, and while he spent less time on the hunt, he was the craftier son, which had its own advantages.

The two boys lived as brothers do, until it was near the time that Esau would receive his birthright as firstborn son from their father.  Jacob had lain around the house all day, probably talking to his mother and helping her prepare the meals.  Esau came back from his hunt, and he was famished.  He asked for the soup his brother had, but Jacob told him that he’d only give him the food in exchange for Esau’s birthright – his rights of inheritance as the firstborn son.  This was a horribly uneven trade; it was also a really mean thing to do to someone who’s hungry.  But Jacob did, and Esau, hungry as he was, agreed, and sold his birthright to his brother.

Having already lost his inheritance as the eldest, Esau had only one thing left to receive from his father:  a blessing before he died.  And when the time came, Isaac, his father, asked Esau to go out and get the game that he liked to eat.  In the meantime, Rebekah overheard her husband and plotted with her son Jacob to steal the blessing, and steal it he did.  He tricked his father and got himself everything his brother was supposed to receive.

As you might guess, now with no inheritance and no blessing and nothing to keep him at home, Esau left.  Jacob was able to get everything he had taken from Esau.  But of course, as time went on, Jacob eventually needed to travel.  Years later, once both men were married adults, Jacob was moving his family to the borders of his brother’s lands.  So he went to the border, but he sent his family across the river, where they would be safe, and he prepared to enter the land alone.  That’s where we meet our story today.

Now, I know, with my descriptions, it’s probably hard to tell, but Jacob is supposed to be the hero of our story.  It’s easier to read him as the villain, and sometimes that’s probably the right thing.  But we’re supposed to remember that this man, despicable as he might be, is also God’s servant; he’s also here to teach us something about ourselves.  So I ask you this morning to think of Jacob as generously as you possibly can, before we continue in our story.

And as it happens, Jacob is standing, getting ready for the big meeting with the brother whom he’d wronged.  As he waits, all alone, we meet a man.  We’re told nothing about this man (at this point in the story, at least), except that he wrestles with Jacob all night.  Now, I don’t know how many of you have ever wrestled, but wrestling for even, like, two minutes is exceptionally exhausting.  It’s like giving everything your body has.  Only, in this story, it’s not two minutes – it’s a whole night.

So after a long, exhausting night of wrestling, this anonymous challenger strikes Jacob on the hip, dislodging it and hoping to end the fight.  Only, funny enough, it doesn’t.  Jacob holds on, but senses his competitor, who’s resorted to trying a new strategy, is weakening.  So Jacob says, “I won’t let go until you bless me.”  The mysterious stranger asks his name, he answers, “Jacob,” and indeed, a blessing he receives.

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed,” says the wrestler.  And this is one of those verses that has mystified commentators for as long as this text has been read.  Sure, there is all that stuff about renaming.  But most of us know how important names were in the ancient world.  What’s truly intriguing about this text is what this wrestler has said to Jacob.  This competitor says that Jacob has striven – has battled – with humans and with God, and has prevailed.

Well, finding a human Jacob has battled is not hard.  Jacob and Esau struggled in the womb, so there’s your human combatant.  But when did Jacob struggle against God?  Well, the answer would seem to be, “in this passage.”  This has led many to hypothesize that this “man” who is never identified as anything other than being a “man,” was truly some sort of angel or divine being.  This “man” fought on behalf of God, and yet, somehow, Jacob didn’t lost.

So he blesses Jacob by renaming him “Israel.”  The meaning of the name is twofold.  “Wrestles with God” is the traditional interpretation.  “God protects” is another.  Jacob, renamed “Israel” is given this twofold name.  He will be protected by God, and yet he is called to wrestle with God.  That’s to be his life from now on.  He has struggled with God, and he will again, but through it all, he will receive God’s protection.

It’s no coincidence that Jacob becomes the person who’s name God’s people take.  The whole nation is named “Israel,” not just because they were related to him, but also because that is what they were meant to do.

More importantly for us, it’s what we are meant to do today, too.  Wrestling doesn’t mean we’re in a fight with God wherein we’re trying to beat or kill God.  Wrestling is not like boxing, where the goal is to injure your opponent.  Sure, all sports have injuries, but only a sport like boxing or mixed martial arts is hurting your opponent the entire point of the exercise.  Wrestling is about figuring things out.  When you wrestle with a person, you’re trying to find the right places to put pressure, you’re trying to find your balance, and you’re trying to figure out where you belong.  You’re trying to subdue the other person, specifically without hurting them.  It’s the perfect metaphor here, because of course we’re not out to hurt God, but we do need to figure God out.  We do strive to understand.  We try to subdue God, not by beating God, but by wrestling out understanding, trying to find God’s will in difficult places.

In our relationship with God, things are rarely easy or straightforward.  Rarely are we given absolute clarity.  But it’s not our job to just to remain silent and to ignore the problems we see.  We’re called to embrace the call of Jacob, the call of Israel, to wrestle.  That’s not an easy thing, but it’s necessary for further understanding.

As I said, wrestling is the perfect analogy, because it’s not about beating God.  Jacob’s wrestling match with God is successful, not because he wins, but because he grows by it.  The idea of wrestling with God, of being forced to see who we are, face-to-face, is important.  It’s how we grow.  I wonder how many things went through Jacob’s mind that night.  Remember, he was never the physical one; that was Esau.  Yet, on that night, Jacob stood his ground.  Jacob was never really the hard worker – most of his good fortune was stolen.  Yet, on the night of the hardest test of his life, he found a way to work and work and work the whole night long, when giving up would’ve been far easier.  When we wrestle with God, not only do we confront the ugly sides of ourselves, but we actually can learn and grow.

God doesn’t ever ask us merely to submit.  Surely, we’re supposed to do the right thing, and much of the time in life, the right thing is easy.  But when the hard things come, we’re not supposed to just fall back on simple answers; we’re supposed to be inspired to climb to a mountaintop (literal in Jacob’s case, though maybe metaphorical in ours) and wrestle with God.  We’re allowed to try to understand and to figure it out.  We’re not supposed to take God for granted.  We’re supposed to make God a part of our lives, our decisions, and our understanding.

That’s another thing about wrestling.  It’s not really something you can do halfway.  If you only halfway wrestle, it tends not to go very well.  God would rather have you as an engaged wrestler than a disengaged follower.  Better to try to figure things out, sometimes by questioning or pushing back, than it is to simply be like a robot following simple commands.

And remember, Jacob’s wrestling doesn’t get him all the answers.  In fact, what he asks for is his combatant’s name… but he never gets it.  God is allowed to sometimes withhold from us, even once we’ve engaged.  God is infinite, and complex, and will sometimes, even after our best efforts, ultimately impossible to understand fully.

But the fact of the matter is, the engagement teaches Jacob, and it makes him better.  We grow by being engaged with God, even when we’re wrestling.  Our struggles with God are not meant to be a rejection or God, or a way of getting rid of God.  Rather, the times we wrestle are the times we’re most engaged, because they’re the times when we care about the outcome.  They’re the times when we get stronger through it.  They’re the times when we’re tried, tested, and come out the other side better than we were before.

So on that note, I don’t want to leave you hanging with the story of Jacob and Esau.  I told you that Jacob was on the border of his brother’s lands that night when he wrestled.  The next day, when he crossed into his brother’s lands, he did so literally bowing down to his brother.  With that show of humility, he was picked up, and literally welcomed with open arms as his brother hugged and kissed him.

It’s actually a very sweet reunion; we see Esau meet his nieces and nephews for the first time.  We see Jacob and Esau trying to shower one another with gifts.  We see a lifetime of wrongs attempting to be righted in a short space of time, and we see brothers reconnecting – or perhaps even connecting for the first time, because it’s hard to know how much they ever had before.

Through the nighttime wrestling match Jacob faced, God taught him a lesson – that it’s about the striving, it’s about seeking something better.  Jacob learned in his struggle with God that it wasn’t about winning, it wasn’t about the victory; it was about the blessing that comes from being in relationship with someone else.  That’s why we wrestle with God, and that’s what Jacob learns.  It’s what we see played out when Jacob decides to stop fighting with Esau and start working with him. Instead of trying to take advantage of his twin, Jacob rejoins his brother, as they were always meant to be.  He earns the true victory, by finding love, rather than by finding the biggest advantage for himself.

At the heart of our lives as Christians is the story of Jesus.  Jesus doesn’t have this same story of physical wrestling, but we see throughout his story someone who tries to see what God is doing.  Jesus isn’t sure if the crucifixion is the right thing, so he prays about it.  We often take for granted that we should get to follow God without struggle – but the reality is, the stories of faith we’re given in Scripture, including the ultimate story we’re given in Jesus, are full of struggle.  In Jesus’ moment of wrestling with what God wants him to do, he receives his greatest clarity.  He finally sees that what he thought he didn’t want was going to be necessary, and that it was the only way for things to get better.  Like Jacob, he sees God’s future only when he engages the problem head-on.  Similarly, the only way for us to grow in love of God is by actually engaging with God, and that includes doing so both in the bright sunlight of day with our heads bowed and our humility embraced, as well as in the long, dark night on a lonely mountaintop.

May we all have the courage to embrace what we’re struggling with today.  May we all look for what God is doing.  And may we all wrestle without fear, finding God in unexpected places, asking, questioning, finding our balance, and, ultimately, deepening our relationship with God.  Amen.