growing as children of God

Finding Our Place

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THIS MESSY LIFE: ADOLESCENCE - PART 1

FINDING OUR PLACE
Sunday, October 13, 2019
Ruth 1:1-17, Mark 3:33-35

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”

Ruth 1:16

“During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land” (Ruth 1:1). The days when the judges ruled are days repeatedly characterized by the common refrain, “In those days there was no king and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

This season in Israel’s life is what I am identifying as a shift into adolescence. They have learned the basics of what it means to be God’s people. They have been set free from slavery in Egypt. They received the law at Mt. Sinai. They struggled through the wilderness and eventually settled in the land God promised to them. Like a 5th grader who has navigated all of elementary school and feels like they are the king of the mountain, so Israel has now become a big fish in a small pond. They have conquered. They are in control. But for all they think they know, they are not very good at using their power and privilege responsibly. The book of Judges shows us time and time again how far Israel strays from the lessons they learned in their childhood. As they shift into adolescence, they are not yet a fully developed nation. There is no king and they struggle to fully recognize the authority of God as their king. Just like children at this age think they have outgrown their parents, so Israel thinks they are ready to handle things on their own. By the time we get to the end of Judges, it is clear, they haven’t learned much at all.

During this time, we read, there was a great famine in the land. The crisis had gotten so bad that families some families had to leave their inherited land behind and move to Moab, a pagan land that had often been at war with Israel. And yet it is here among foreigners that we find one woman who shows us what it truly means to live as a child in God’s household. She, her sister-in-law, and her mother-in-law are all left as widows. She has nothing left. Her sister-in-law Orpah makes the sensible decision to go back to her mother’s household but Ruth refuses to return home. In one of the greatest statements of family solidarity in scripture, Ruth declares to her mother-in-law Naomi that she will stay with her no matter what. “Your people will be my people,” she says, “and your God will be my God.”

There was no obligation on her part to make such a commitment and no guarantees that they would even survive, let alone thrive as a family of widows in the wilderness. Through this act of faith and loyalty, God not only redeems Naomi and Ruth, but through her, God raises up a son named Jesse and a grandson named David. The rest is history. When God’s children had gotten so low they were forced to abandon their land and find refuge among the foreigners, God raised up a foreigner to show them once again what it meant to be part of God’s family, and through her and the line of her grandson David, the doors of our Father’s household were opened to every tribe, tongue and nation for all time. We were all foreigners and strangers, gleaning and struggling to survive on the margins of God’s household, but God sent his firstborn son out into the fields like Boaz to invite us into a home we never knew.

Credit for the excerpt on Ruth goes to Dr. Sandra Richter. You can watch her extended video on Redemption here:

First Things First

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THIS MESSY LIFE: CHILDHOOD - PART 4

First Things First
Sunday, October 6, 2019
Deuteronomy 4:1-40, 5:1-21, 6:4-9, Mark 12:28-31

The Lord said: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Deuteronomy 5:6

It never ceases to amaze me how much attention the Ten Commandments get in the media today, particularly from Christians who are determined to have them posted in every public space they can, as if the mere presence of these ancient laws will somehow inspire to world to repent of their sins and live good moral lives. It is ironic that many who make such arguments about the importance of the Ten Commandments are also the same people who resist the passage of laws on issues like gun control because “criminals don’t obey the laws anyway.” I’m not making any political arguments here. Rather, I simply want to draw our attention to the inconsistency when on one hand we claim “laws don’t work because the problem is in the hearts of the people” but on the other hand we demand laws to be posted which enforce our particular religious and moral code.

It is true that the Ten Commandments form the basis for many of our nation’s laws and indeed many law codes around the world. Restrictions against murder, adultery, stealing, false witness and coveting are valuable in any society as a means of keeping order and minimizing violence and harm toward one another.

The first few commandments, however, are not quite so broad. They are specific to those who have been set free from slavery by God. Look at the prologue in Deuteronomy 5:6 (or Exodus 20:1).

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Apart from this act of unmerited grace on God’s part, the laws which follow have no weight. We cannot expect those who have not entered into a covenant with God to obey such commands anymore than we as American citizens could be expected to obey a British law about driving on the left hand side of the road. It just doesn’t make sense in our context. For someone who does not know God and has not been set free from the slavery of sin, laws against idolatry, using God’s name in vain, or even keeping the Sabbath make no sense.

These first several commands are primarily about establishing our identity as God’s chosen people. We get into trouble with this language when we view our “chosen status” or our “salvation” as a mark of privilege that somehow makes us better than those who do not follow God or those who may not even know God. God’s choosing of Israel and of the church does not elevate us above the world or make us judges of the world, but rather God called out a particular people in order to bless all nations by demonstrating the joy, peace and freedom of living in the ways God has modeled for us, not only in the commandments, but through the earthly life of Christ.

The next time we get angry about the challenge to some public display of ancient laws on a plaque, perhaps we should first ask ourselves if these laws actually make a difference in our lives.

  • Do we live as people who God has set free from the house of slavery?

  • Do we put God ahead of everything and everyone else in our lives?

  • Have we bowed down to the idols or even created idols of our own… money, politics, success, comfort, security, maybe even the Bible itself as the words on the page become more important than the living God whom the words point us to?

  • Do we honor the Sabbath, recognizing that God is enough and that we do not depend on our own efforts to provide manna for our families 7 days a week?

Let’s keep first things first. God brought us out of slavery and we didn’t do a think to deserve it.

How then shall we live in response to such amazing grace?

In Over Our Heads

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THIS MESSY LIFE: CHILDHOOD - PART 3

In Over Our Heads
Sunday, September 29, 2019
Exodus 1:8-14

Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph

Exodus 1:8

It’s easy to look at Israel’s slavery in Egypt and see ourselves through the eyes of their eyes as victims of oppression. We too are “God’s people” and so we have a long history of seeing ourselves as the oppressed rather than the oppressor. Societies and governments do not typically bend toward a “Christian worldview” and in most places throughout history, God’s people have found themselves in the minority.

Over the last century in America, however, we have been living in what Gil Rendle calls “an aberrant time” (Rendle, Quietly Courageous). This period of Christian prosperity was not typical in light of the overall history of God’s people. Though that time is rapidly ending, most people over the age of 30 at least have a strong memory of a time when what we considered “Christian moral values” ruled the day. God’s people were thriving, until they were not.

And so it was with the people of God in Joseph’s day. Joseph held the second highest office in the land and as a result, his brothers flourished under Pharaoh and increased in number as the twelve tribes of Israel expanded. By the time we get to Exodus, however, we find a new King in power who did not know Joseph.

“The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if ware breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.”

- Exodus 1:8-10

It seems from this introduction that the enslaved Israelites are not the only ones “in over their heads.” In fact, the only reason they were enslaved to begin with is because the Egyptians felt threatened by the presence of so many foreigners in their land. The new Pharaoh inherited what he considered to be a serious immigration problem. His solution, put them in slavery for Egypt’s benefit and discard (i.e. kill) those who are no longer useful to us. What empires may view as a sign of political strength, scripture interprets as Pharaoh’s weakness and eventual downfall. Egypt was in over their heads in how to deal with the Israelites, not because God’s people posed a genuine threat, but because they were overwhelmed by fear of “the other.”

Yes, we must always empathize with those who like Israel, find themselves oppressed and enslaved. We must always stand with Moses who, by God’s guidance and strength, leads the people out of slavery to a land of promise.

Yet we must also be very careful, for history has a way not only of repeating itself, but also turning things on their heads. The oppressed, if not careful, may themselves become the oppressors. Later in Israel’s history we will see how they build armies of chariots, marry for the sake of political alliances, worship idols, and even enslave others. They would become the very people they once despised, and the consequences would be detrimental.

No matter how much we may want to see ourselves as the victim in need of God’s salvation through a religious and political hero like Moses, perhaps we must first consider why we feel that we are in over our heads. Are we truly being oppressed, or are we perhaps more like Pharaoh, overwhelmed by how much everything is changing around us and afraid of those who are different? If this is the case, perhaps our call is not to vengeance and war, but to humility and peace, lest we too inflict harm against the “sheep of other flocks” (John 10:16) whom God loves and ourselves become enemies of the very God we claim to love.

May we not become so arrogant in identifying ourselves among God’s chosen that we forget God’s promise to Israel’s enemies… to Egypt and to Assyria:

On that Day, there will be a place of worship to God in the center of Egypt and a monument to God at its border. It will show how the God-of-the-Angel-Armies has helped the Egyptians. When they cry out in prayer to God because of oppressors, he’ll send them help, a savior who will keep them safe and take care of them. God will openly show himself to the Egyptians and they’ll get to know him on that Day. They’ll worship him seriously with sacrifices and burnt offerings. They’ll make vows and keep them. God will wound Egypt, first hit and then heal. Egypt will come back to God, and God will listen to their prayers and heal them, heal them from head to toe.

On that Day, there will be a highway all the way from Egypt to Assyria: Assyrians will have free range in Egypt and Egyptians in Assyria. No longer rivals, they’ll worship together, Egyptians and Assyrians!

On that Day, Israel will take its place alongside Egypt and Assyria, sharing the blessing from the center. God-of-the-Angel-Armies, who blessed Israel, will generously bless them all: “Blessed be Egypt, my people! . . . Blessed be Assyria, work of my hands! . . . Blessed be Israel, my heritage!”

Isaiah 19:19-25 (The Message)

When God Let's Us Win

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THIS MESSY LIFE: CHILDHOOD - PART 2

When God Let’s Us Win
Sunday, September 22, 2019
Genesis 32:22-30

Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”

Genesis 32:28

“You win some, you lose some.” That’s just the reality of life. Every one of us needs to learn how to be both a good loser and a good winner. Our ability to enjoy the game regardless of the outcome without crying or gloating all boils down to good sportsmanship.

Parents generally let their kids win at just about everything when they are young. It builds confidence and minimizes discouragement for children who do not yet have the emotional capacity to process failure. At a certain age, we start allowing them to lose. While building confidence is important, they must also learn to deal with the reality of defeat which will come far more often in life than any of us would like.

The same is true when it comes to behavior. When a child is simply learning what is right and wrong, mercy, understanding, and teaching should outweigh the consequences. At some point, however, they will “know better,” at which point consequences become more serious. We cannot and should not always protect them from the outcomes of their own poor decisions.

As God’s children, I believe we have a heavenly parent who trains us in much the same way. Jacob’s life is clearly filled with mistakes and poor choices, some out of immaturity and some out of blatant defiance. At some point Jacob’s struggle against the world and against his own nature turns into what seems like a physical wrestling match with God.

At this point we might think Jacob should know better. It’s time for Dad to put this spoiled kid in his place. He needs to learn that he can’t always manipulate others to get what he wants. For once in his life, Jacob needs to learn how to lose.

“Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”

- Genesis 32:28

What? After all Jacob has done, God let’s him win. Granted, not without a limp from his torn thigh, not to mention a severely bruised ego. Nevertheless, Jacob wrestles with God and his life is spared. God’s blessing is greater than God’s punishment.

Maybe Jacob needed a different lesson that day. What if it wasn’t about winning or losing at all? What if it was simply a reminder that God’s love toward him had nothing to do with winning or losing? Jacob didn’t have to manipulate or control others in order to gain favor. He didn’t have to “win” in life in order to receive God’s blessing.

Maybe the lesson we all need right now is more than simply how to win and lose, but to learn to see ourselves as truly loved and blessed by God regardless of how much we win or lose in life. God’s blessing does not depend on our actions or accomplishments, only on grace, undeserved.

Just Getting Started

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THIS MESSY LIFE: CHILDHOOD - PART 1

Just Getting Started
Sunday, September 15, 2019
Genesis 18:1-15

He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant.

Genesis 18:2-3

A pastor once shared with me that he found his particular rural community unsafe for door to door evangelism. Unlike suburban or urban neighborhoods where people gather regularly in public spaces, out in their yards or on the streets, people in this community kept to themselves, hidden among acres upon acres of farmland that separated them from one another. He recalled several incidents when he pulled into someone’s long gravel or dirt driveways, and assuming the gate was actually open, drove up to the house only to be met with the click of a shotgun.

From locked gates to “no trespassing” and “beware of dog” signs to the blatant motion of a double barrel directing him to turn around, the message was clear. “Private property. Keep out.” In other words, “You are not welcome here.”

They did not know he was a pastor, but it did not matter. In fairness, I have personally experienced similar “welcomes” in urban areas as well. Our first time in Brooklyn, NY we could tell everyone on the block was closely watching our unfamiliar car with Kentucky tags as we parked in front of our friend’s building. When we called, she told us she was down the road at the store but also warned us to stay in the car for a minute until she got back. Once she arrived and the neighbors saw her welcome us, they knew we were OK. Now we belonged. Walking around that neighborhood the rest of the week, we never once felt unsafe.

Though God has spoken to Abraham on several occasions, the story of God’s people essentially begins with a group of three strangers at the Oaks of Mamre, where Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. These strangers found Abraham, along with all the men of his household in a weakened state as they recovered from their circumcisions taken as a mark of their covenant with God. They were vulnerable and there is no early evidence as to the intentions of these three men.

Yet Abraham does something that would be unheard of in our modern culture of isolation and self-protective natures. He completely ignores his physical pain and the vulnerable state of his family and runs out to greet these strangers. He does not ask why they are there or question their motives. He does not call for help. He does not fear for his own safety. Instead, he invites them into his home as honored guests.

The writer goes out of his way to show the elaborate measures Abraham took to show hospitality to these strangers, and in this case, it turns out the strangers just happened to be the incarnate presence of the Triune God. At some point, Abraham clearly recognizes this truth, but there is no certain evidence that he knew this when they stood at a distance. The narrator, in hindsight, tells us that it was indeed the Lord who appeared to Abraham, but Abraham himself simply greets them as human beings. “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant.” Servant here is likely not a recognition of their divinity, but rather a submissive posture taken by one who desires to serve them by showing hospitality, as was the custom of his day. Nevertheless, Abraham’s hospitality extends far beyond what mere custom demands.

Throughout this fall season, we will journey with the people of God called “Israel” from this surprising beginning in the promise of a son and we will grow with them as they learn what it means to be God’s children, as they rebel in their adolescence, and as they mature by examining their lives as adults. We too must follow such a pattern of growth in our own life as God’s beloved children.

It all begins with one question: “How will we welcome the presence of the Lord, whether we recognize it or not?”

The Lord has a way of showing up when we least expect it, often when we are vulnerable, and often through strangers. If we are too busy or self-absorbed, it is quite possible our journey of faith may never really begin at all.