Part of God’s Symphony

For three years now, I have preached a summer series using a children’s book as a second reading in our worship service. We read the book in whole and talk about it specifically in the children’s sermon, and then it is referenced to varying degrees in the main sermon which closely follows the theme of the book.

This week’s story is Playing from the Heart, by Peter Reynolds.

 

Romans 12:1–8

Part of God’s Symphony

Today’s sermon may end up being more of a homily or illustration than what you may think of as a full-fledged sermon. It’s been a busy week with Vacation Bible School, high school camp, and other goings-on. It’s also been a busy (albeit pretty awesome) service so far today. But if–perchance–someone thinks this morning that they don’t get their money’s worth (so to speak), I’d be happy to provide additional sermonization over some coffee or other beverage later in the week. Just give me a call, and we’ll make it happen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being the Body of Christ, about conforming and being transformed. And maybe it’s because of the children’s book this morning, but I’ve been thinking about those things through the image of music.

As you all have seen this morning, I play guitar–perhaps not well, but I do enjoy playing it. I grew up in a family that played and sang a lot of bluegrass and gospel music together. And my best friend these days is a pretty amazing blues guitarist (at least in my assessment). So those are all things I piddle around with when I’ve got my guitar–which I should probably grab right now.

But the guitar is quite a different instrument than the trumpet, saxophone, flute, or even violin. Every instrument needs to be tuned–that means to adjust the pitch of the notes so every instrument has a common anchor. But for all those other instruments I named, there is a single “right” way to tune them. There is only one right way to tune a clarinet, or a bassoon, or a trombone. The guitar (however) is different: there are several variations based on the type of music and other factors.

Dropping the pitch of the low string from E to D brings your guitar into the aptly named “Dropped D” tuning, which gets used in classical guitar and heavy metal music (what a combo!)

In blues or folk music, many musicians use the various open tunings (of which they are many).

Furthermore, there are variations common to regional folk music–like Celtic music (DADGAD) or Scottish music (DADDAD).

And there seem to be a nearly infinite number of tunings created by musicians for specific songs. I tried to count how many guitar tunings were described on the appropriate Wikipedia page, but I stopped counting at 50, having only worked a fraction of the way through the page.

(Are you bored yet? I know not all of you geek out on music stuff the way I can, but try to stick with me.)

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about. If I’m going to play guitar, I need to tune my guitar to the appropriate tuning in order for the song to sound correctly. I need my guitar to be conformed to the tune (and perhaps the other musicians) or no amount of technical ability will salvage things.

When we are in tune with God, the music flows.

[play “Talk on the Corner”]

But what happens if we become conformed to the world? What happens if we follow a different tuning than the one our Maker and Conductor sets for us? Let’s find out! I’ll “conform” my guitar to open G tuning, and play the same thing.

[tune guitar to D-G-d-g-b-D (strum all strings open for G chord)]

Here we go.

[play “talk on the corner” in disjointed open G]

(That’s not as easy as it looks.)

What do you think? It didn’t sound right, did it? I played all the same strings at all the same times, but my guitar was in the wrong tuning. It was conformed to the wrong pitches.

This is what it’s like when we become conformed to the world. We can “play all the right strings at the right times”–we can do all the right things in life, but if we’re not tuned to God it JUST. WON’T. WORK. We must be tuned to God or else all of our efforts, all of our ideas, all of our everything will fail to turn into the beautiful music we are trying to live out.

[put away guitar]

“I Belong to the Band”

Now all this is troublesome enough as solo artists. But the Bible is emphatic that Christians are not solo artists. We are part of the Body of Christeach one of us with different functions–different gifts–that the body might be whole, complete, and healthy. To continue my music metaphor this morning, we are part of a band–or maybe we should imagine an enormous symphony.

We all need to be in tune with God–our Conductor–who gives us the correct pitch that we might all be one. It is important to realize that when we are in tune with God, we will also be in tune with each other. But even once we are in tune, we need to continually watch and follow our Conductor–each one playing a unique part in the cosmic symphony that God is leading.

It will not be God’s symphony if the trumpets are playing a John Phillips Sousa march while the violins are playing a Rachmaninoff concerto.

It will not be God’s symphony if the tuba is trying to play the part of the flute.

Each one must play their own part–unique and different from the others as it is.

Each one must value the parts played by others–even if they seem inconsequential in our view.

Each one must be playing the music God directs us to play–or we are not part of what God is doing. And that is that.

A “Christian” Problem

I don’t have to tell you: The Christian church has some real challenges in communicating the message of Jesus these days. But a big part of that challenge is self-inflicted. For decades, we have systematically undermined ourselves by insisting on playing according to the world’s tunings instead of being in tune with God. Like many of the Jews of Jesus’ day, we want to make God’s kingdom come–so we work to take over governments and try to advance the world toward some sort of Armageddon to force Christ to return. We manipulate and deceive, wielding fear and inflaming hate toward those different than us.

I have heard many Christians over the years express anger about the way Christians are portrayed by the media. But I don’t believe we have a media-bias problem. At least, not nearly so much as I think we have a Christian problem.

When Christians are willing to abandon convictions to get someone elected, it tells the world we don’t really believe in that stuff.

When Christians ignore the hundreds (if not thousands!) of passages that instruct us to care for the less fortunate in order to advance a political agenda, it tells the world we don’t really believe the Bible we keep quoting at them.

When Christians emphasize policies over people, it tells the world we are only out for ourselves.

Christians–or at least those calling themselves Christians–have been undermining the cause of Christ for decades. We have “sold the needy for a pair of sandals,” to quote Amos 2:6. We might think we are coming out ahead, but at what cost? When we “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” (Amos 2:7) in order to advance our political agenda, we have revealed our true lord–and it is not Jesus the Christ.

We have been playing out of tune for years.

We have been playing the wrong music altogether.

Sisters and brothers, we’ve got to get back in tune with God. We can’t know God’s desires unless we are plugged into them. We cannot advance what God is trying to do if we are conforming to the world by using the world’s ways and the world’s tools. We cannot advance the cause of light by using the weapons of darkness.

We have to listen. We have to be in tune with our Conductor, following only God’s direction. We have to practice and honor the diversity in the Body of Christ, if we will be able to hear the whole movement of God’s work.

Otherwise, we end up being a “noisy gong or clanging cymbal” (1Cor 13:1). We just create a lot of noise that makes what God is doing sound a lot less beautiful and lovely. And the more noise we make, the less anyone is going to want to listen to the symphony of love that God is trying to conduct.

“I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”

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A Flattering Imitation

For three years now, I have preached a summer series using a children’s book as a second reading in our worship service. We read the book in whole and talk about it specifically in the children’s sermon, and then it is referenced to varying degrees in the main sermon which closely follows the theme of the book.

Today’s book is Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown.

Matthew 5:13-16

Light

Within our brief (and familiar) scripture lesson this morning, we discover a series of illustrations that have a common thread. They all aim to illustrate how we are able to influence othersparticularly those (followers of Jesus or not) who are not “walking in the light of the Lord,” as Isaiah describes it in 2:5 of his oracle.

To continue the metaphor of light that Jesus begins in these verses, one of the ways we are able to influence others in faith is by letting God’s light shine brightly in and through us. In doing so, others are drawn to the light of God’s love in the same way that we are drawn around a campfire at night.

A Faulty Imitation

But most of the time, when we talk about discipleship and evangelism, we’re not talking about salt and light—about seasoning the world with grace and expanding the visibility of God’s love. Especially with discipleship, we tend to focus on imitation: You imitate me, and I imitate my pastor, and so on down the line—with the end goal of everybody becoming the same so we can all get along.

This is not actually very far off of the model of discipleship that was common in Jesus’ day, to be fair. In the ancient world, to be someone’s disciple meant you learned to be a carbon copy of your master. You got up when they got up; you went to bed when they went to bed; and you didn’t just eat when they ate, you ate what they ate too. You learned to talk and teach like they did, and you (in many ways) tried to become them, so that their person was overwritten on top of your own person. If everything went correctly—over years and years of disciple-making—you would even be mistaken for your master when a stranger encountered you: you became indistinguishable.

Jesus’s Brand of Discipleship

But I think from the get go, Jesus intends something a little different for the disciples that will follow after him. Jesus doesn’t call impressionable teenagers from prominent religious families. He calls grown-ups: misfits and outsiders and people who haven’t been raised and already taught for years how to be a disciple. At a time when a rabbi’s disciples were expected to learn to read and interpret finicky pieces of scripture and theology, Jesus’s own disciples may not have all been literate.

What Jesus seems to expect is that his disciples will become vessels that contain and embody the Spirit of God (and this is something that becomes more and more clear as we read into the story of the early church). Jesus desires that his followers—(his disciples)—will be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led as is Jesus himself, yet at the same time retain their unique selves.

Diversity

Scripture tells us this, in 1Cor 12 and other places: that God has created each of us as a unique person and gifted us each in a unique way. Like Paul in 1Corinthians, Peter urges the church (that’s you) to “use whatever gift you have received to serve others,” and he recognizes further that our varying giftedness allows us to be what Peter calls “faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various (VARIOUS!!) forms” (1Peter 4:10 NIV11).

Whether we’re talking about Paul’s image of the Body of Christ, or Jesus’s parable of the vine and the branches, or whatever in between, we just can’t get around the expectation that when we are living the Christian life as it is meant to be lived, we will look……and sound……and act……and be very different than one another.

 

This is one of the things I love about being an American Baptist. Just a year or two ago our denomination was again determined to be one of the most diverse Christian denominations in the USA. I’ve been a part of other Baptist denominations in the past, and nothing came close to the diversity I’ve found in the ABC. Every time I’m at one of our national gatherings (such as the one in Portland last month), I look around and can’t help think: This is what the Kingdom of God is going to be like—people from all nationalities, ethnicities, native languages, economic and social situations—the diversity is astounding.

But for all that we are different, we are one in Christ. We recognize with Paul in Galatians that if you add anything to the Gospel, it just isn’t the gospel anymore. So we work to keep the important things important and try to keep everything else pretty far down the list of priorities.

I think our American Baptist life together is an imperfect fulfillment of Jesus’ hope expressed in John 17. In that chapter, Jesus prays for you. And for me. And for all of us. He prays (as he says in v.20) not for his immediate disciples only, “but also for those who will believe in me through their word…”

Do you know what comes next? Do you remember what Jesus prays to be the case within us and among us? He prays:

“…that they may all be one, just as you, Father are in me, and I in you, that they may be one even as we are one” (ESV).

Unity. That’s what Jesus desires for and of us.

But remember: the Son is not the Father. Jesus is not Yahweh. They are as distinct from one another as any two can be. Yet they are indivisibly one—and they are one in a way that we can hardly begin to comprehend.

Three persons yet one God.

Christ has two natures but they cannot be divided.

It’s all enough to make my head spin. But it illustrates the point, I hope: What is expected of us is that we are quite different from one another—yet are one in Christ.

So as the first disciples of Jesus learn and grow in Christ—as they develop, as they are filled with the Spirit at Pentecost and afterward, as they grow and are transformed more into the image of Jesus, they provide us with a better and better template for how Jesus would have us to live….how we can be fully ourselves (more and more the unique persons God created us to be), and at the same time more and more like Christ.

Imitation, part deux.

If I’m right about all this, it means we’re probably not reading those texts on imitation very well. Eleven times in the NT, a biblical author instructs their audience to imitate someone. But taking the whole context of scripture into consideration, it is clear that imitation is not about impersonation, but about inspiration.

Let’s look back to Paul—it seems there’s almost always a good illustration or two to be found among his writings. Even though Paul advocates for “imitation” eight times in his writings, he makes it quite clear in the very same letters that imitation is not about making everyone look and act and think like him.

An example: in 1Cor 4, Paul speaks of himself as the Corinthian church’s father and then says, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (ESV). Yet by this time in the letter, Paul has not once but twice pointed out that he’s not trying to get himself followers; he’s not trying to get others to make their lives look like his own. In the first chapter he strongly criticizes them for saying “‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,'” and so on.

Paul doesn’t want anyone following him. He wants to inspire them to live as God intends them to live: diverse people unified in their commitment to the Spirit-filled life.

The way Paul does that is to be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, and a lamp set high on a stand. Paul is trying to model a Spirit-filled life for them. He doesn’t want superficial impersonators posturing as Pauline puppets; he wants to see them drawn into a deeper embodiment of the Holy Spirit as revealed through Jesus Christ.

“Don’t you know,” Paul asks in 1Cor 3:16, “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (ESV).

Don’t you know? The best way to inspire a Spirit-filled life in those around you is to “let your light shine before [them], that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Mr. Tiger & Conclusion

In a more earthy, Genesis 2-3 kind of sense, this is exactly what Mr. Tiger does in his community. He has tried so hard to be good, to keep his nose clean and earn the respect of everyone around him. But he also realizes that there are parts of who he was made to be that are being stifled. That there was something unique in his very creation that he was smothering to death.

It’s not easy for us when we choose to be who God created us to be. People don’t like change—even distrusting when the changes we try to make are for our betterment. Like Mr. Tiger’s fellow citizens, those who know us sometimes find it easier to rip us out of their lives entirely than come to terms with the “new us.”

But when we live into who God created us to be, letting our light shine, we often find that we (like Mr. Tiger) are able to inspire others to live into who they are, to follow their own giftedness and passions, and as such, to find a more full and complete life.

But in order to inspire others in this way, it has to be true for us too—we must be spirit-filled as well. God’s light must fill us if others are to see it in us. God’s Spirit must be seasoning our life if we are to season the world. We will only find a full and complete life when we live a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit—and that is an inspired life—and an inspiring life—indeed.

Be Sure Your Sin Will Find You Out

For three years now, I have preached a summer series using a children’s book as a second reading in our worship service. We read the book in whole and talk about it specifically in the children’s sermon, and then it is referenced to varying degrees in the main sermon which closely follows the theme of the book.

Today’s book is This Is Not My Hat, by Jon Klaassen.

2Sam 12:1-7a

 

Be Sure Your Sins Will Find You Out

This episode from David’s life has to rank up there as one of the most dramatic moments in all of scripture. We, the readers, know what’s going on—we can see “behind the scenes,” so to speak.

But we also know David cannot see it coming. Were this a movie we were watching, I have no doubt some of us would be shouting at the screen to warn him: “No, David!! Watch out!! It’s a trap!!”

But David cannot hear us. And it is just as well. Because we also are too often deaf to those who would warn us of the harm they see heading our way.

This is a dramatic story because of the unveiling of David’s eyes and heart, but it also resonates with us because it is (in a sense) the story of all of us. We make mistakes. We fail. We sin against God, and against each other. And no matter how hard we try, no matter how sneaky our cover-up, no matter who we threaten or intimidate into never speaking, no matter how much it looks like we got away with it, an eternal truth rings out: “Be sure you sin will find you out.” That’s Numbers 32:23, but it’s also story after story in the Bible.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden break the rule that God instituted to keep them safe. They decide to be their own judges of right and wrong, and then try to hide out in the bushes thinking God won’t notice.

After killing his brother Abel, Cain seems to think he can pull the wool over God’s eyes with his “Am I my brother’s keeper?” line. But while he’s trying to play cool like he did nothing wrong, God has already seen through him. God has already heard Abel’s blood crying out from the ground, as Gen 4:10 tells us.

Abraham tries not once but twice to pass his wife Sarah off as his sister in order to save his own skin. Both times his deception is exposed and consequences come quickly.

Moses kills a man in anger and buries him in the sand, thinking no one has seen it. But just like the little thieving fish in the book, someone always sees. His sin is exposed, affecting his relationships and future ministry.

In Joshua 7, Achan hides plunder from a conquered city—which was forbidden—and it affects the whole community even before it is exposed.

And in what feels like a NT retelling of Achan’s story, Ananias and Sapphira lie about their contributions to the church in Acts 5. Their sin too is found out and consequences are severe.

The examples go on and on. Over and over we find stories that illustrate the truth of 1Cor 4:5: “[The Lord Christ] will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart” (NIV11).

David & Bathsheba

This is what we find in today’s story. Like the fish in the book, David was certain he’d gotten away with it. But sin always comes out sooner or later.

David has it all—money, power, respect; the adoration of his people, beautiful partners, a successful military record…… He is the picture of success and prosperity.

But something is clearly lacking in David’s life. And—as is true for all of us—we will never find fulfillment and purpose unless we find it in God.

 

This story really begins in 2Sam 11. There’s a war on, but David—the brave and brilliant military leader—is not risking his own neck; he is safely cloistered in Jerusalem. He strolls around the palace roof one evening as the air starts to cool, and he looks around—and down—on the city he rules over.

Somewhere down below, a woman innocently cleans and cools herself on her own rooftop. This is what one does, after all, in that day and time. There may well have even been others—male and female—on other rooftops at that very hour. But this woman is particularly beautiful, and David gives into the demons of lust, power, and control.

Using his privilege as king, he sends people to find out more about her. He learns her name, her parents’ names, and that she is married to one of David’s military officers—a man named Uriah.

But as David gives in more and more to “his own evil desires” (as James 1:14 describes the birth of sin), what began as lust and evolved into stalking a woman grew into something even more sinister. He has her brought to him, and he “lay with her,” as the old KJV described it. The biblical authors did not have any conception of “consent,” as we recognize it today, but it is clear given the power dynamics at play that this woman—Bathsheba—did not have a say in the matter: one could not refuse the king.

Now while David appears infatuated with Bathsheba until they slept together, the bible says very little about his attentions toward her afterwards—at least until she realizes she is pregnant. This, too, testifies to the power dynamic involved and David’s sinful desire to “possess” something that he had no right to.

When David realizes this pregnancy threatens to expose what he has done, he falls back on the ancient practice of weaseling out of responsibility. This pregnancy means Uriah will find out, so David concocts a plan to keep his sin hidden.

He invites Uriah home from the battlefield under the guise of getting an update on the war, but in reality he’s trying to get Uriah to have relations with his wife. That way, when the baby is born, Uriah will assume it is his. Brilliant plan, right?

Except here’s the thing. Uriah proves himself more righteous than David. In solidarity with his fellow-soldiers, Uriah practices abstinence. David tries again and again, even purposely getting Uriah drunk—but to no avail.

His plan thwarted, David pivots towards a deadly game. He puts a secret letter in Uriah’s hand and sends him back to the battlefield. The letter, we learn, contains orders to assign Uriah to the front line—specifically to where the fighting is the fiercest and the casualties are the highest—effectively committing the murder of Uriah by the weapon of war.

But who will find out, right? Who is to know? What started as a lustful gaze escalated into stalking, rape, and now murder, but David seems to have tied up his loose ends at this point. No one will care about Bathsheba because Uriah is dead; and poor Uriah appears to be just another casualty of war.

And he would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that meddling prophet.

Our Exposing God

You see, scripture tells us that God knows our hearts. God knows us more intimately than we even know ourselves. There is nothing that happens that God does not see, and nothing in the dark that will not be brought to light. Jesus tells us in Luke 12:2–3:

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops. (ESV)

Be sure your sin will find you out.

But you know, church, (and this is important:) God is not in the sin-exposing business because God is a judgmental, hurtful, hateful God. Quite the opposite. “God is love,” as we read in 1John 4, and all this exposing of sin is a part of healing. A wound that is hidden away will not heal; in fact, if it is not brought to the light, cleaned (perhaps lanced), and medicated, it could cause the whole body to turn septic. In the same way, God participates in our sin being exposed in order that we might be healed and find greater wholeness than we have ever known.

God, we read in 2Peter 3:9, desires that none should perish, but that all come to the knowledge of God.

Isaiah likewise testifies in chapter 30 verse 18 that “the Lord waits [and why??] to be gracious to you; therefore God will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (NRSV).

So the same in 1Tim 2:4: “[God] desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (NRSV).

And in Ezekiel— (and I love this!!) in both chapters 18 and 33—God expresses regret that even the wicked miss the boat of God’s gracious love and expansive forgiveness, saying:

As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways (Ezek 33:11; cf. 18:23).

Surely it is God’s compassion and love that drive this medical mission of exposing and tending the deep wounds of sin within us.

Wrap Up

Let me try to wrap this up like a preacher, by offering some bullet points.

First. The testimony of scripture is consistent in its insistence that there is no way of covering up sin except with the blood of Jesus: no deception we can perpetrate, no boasting or bullying or gaslighting we can do, no pretending it never happened, and no burying of the skeletons in our closet. There are no plants so thick that we can hide our sin there, as tried Adam and Eve and the little fish. What we have done in darkness will come to light; the sin we have done will find us out.

Second. All of our hiding and machinations allow sin to become septic in us, isolating us from the healing balm that is freely available to us. It is not coincidental (I believe) that the term Jesus uses for us when we try to hide our sin is “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27). While we may look great on the outside, the inside is filled with filth and rotting corpses.

Third. There is a balm in Gilead. Our tender and compassionate God is eager to triage our lives: lancing where the pus of sin has built up, stitching where we have been torn apart by the world, binding the bones that are broken and limit us. We need not fear this exposing of ourselves and our wounds, for—though it is often painful and uncomfortable—it is necessary for us to experience healing.

This is why David finally submits to God when he is confronted by Nathan and his parable. This king who is said to have a heart like God’s realizes the wounding in him and the wounding he has perpetuated. According to tradition, Psalm 51 records David’s prayerful response as he submits to the healing work of our God. It speaks of being washed, of the need for antiseptic, and even of the necessity for a “heart transplant,” to use today’s medical terminology.

 

I’d like to invite you to consider responding to God this morning by praying this prayer of confession and submission with me. Confronted as we are with the eternal truth that our sins will find us out, the only right response is that of David in our scripture today and in this psalm: we admit our sin, our brokenness and wounding, and we recognize that we cannot find wholeness again without God working in us.

If you, like David, want a fresh start this morning—in life and with God—will you join me in this prayer? The words are on the screen behind me; let us confess together:

Look on me with a heart of mercy, O God,
according to Your generous love.
According to Your great compassion,
wipe out every consequence of my shameful crimes.

Thoroughly wash me, inside and out, of all my crooked deeds.
Cleanse me from my sins.

For I am fully aware of all I have done wrong,
and my guilt is there, staring me in the face.

It was against You, only You, that I sinned,
for I have done what You say is wrong, right before Your eyes.
So when You speak, You are in the right.
When You judge, Your judgments are pure and true…

Cleanse me of my wickedness with hyssop, and I will be clean.
If You wash me, I will be whiter than snow.

Help me hear joy and happiness as my accompaniment,
so my bones, which You have broken, will dance in delight instead.

Cover Your face so You will not see my sins,
and erase my guilt from the record.

Create in me a clean heart, O God;
restore within me a sense of being brand new.

Do not throw me far away from Your presence,
and do not remove Your Holy Spirit from me.

Give back to me the deep delight of being saved by You;
let Your willing Spirit sustain me. (Ps 51:1-4, 7-12 VOICE)

Amen.

Stuck

For three years now, I have preached a summer series using a children’s book as a second reading in our worship service. We read the book in whole and talk about it specifically in the children’s sermon, and then it is referenced to varying degrees in the main sermon which closely follows the theme of the book.

This year’s books are:

Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers

This Is Not My Hat, by Jon Klaassen

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown

Playing from the Heart, by Peter Reynolds

Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessor, by William Joyce

 

Exodus 32:1-14

The Story

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Moses should have been back by now. If there is one thing that is clear, it is that. Moses has been on the mountain since chapter 24, when God called him up onto Mount Sinai. We–the readers–know it took seven days before God even spoke to Moses on the mountain (Exodus 24:16) and that Moses stayed up there “forty days and forty nights” (Exod 24:18)–that’s the way the ancients said “a really, really, really, long time.”

Again, we–the readers–can follow along through the next seven or so chapters, perhaps zoning out through the minutia of Tabernacle construction and the tailoring of religious garments.

But the Israelites are not so fortunate. Moses ascended the mountaintop that was itself clothed in cloud and mystery. Moses entered the presence of a powerful and dangerous God. And he has been gone too long.

Late/Lost

You ever lose something? The other day when I was in Portland for our American Baptist Mission Summit, I was talking to my spouse and I lost my phone. While she was telling me all about what she and the kids were doing at her parents’, I unpacked my bag three times, looked under my bed, checked in the drawers where I was staying, and generally started to lose my mind. I got upset enough looking for my phone that she could hear it in my voice, and asked me if everything was alright. It was at that moment–as I opened my mouth to tell her I’d lost my phone, that I remembered she was 2500 miles away and I was using it to talk to her at that very moment.

I know, I’m an idiot. But sometimes, we’re all idiots. It might be your keys, or your hat, an important paper, or where you parked your car, but we all become idiots when we lose something.

That’s what this story is about. The Israelites believe they have “lost” Moses. He went to do something dangerous, he’s running late, so they lose it and start running around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off.

You see, when something goes wrong, we tend to make it worse. We make little problems into big ones. We can’t find our keys, which snowballs into risking being late for work, which snowballs into a speeding ticket, which snowballs into anger and being even more late, which snowballs into a conflict at work, and so on and so on and so on.

We make little problems into big ones. 

We’ve lost our kite, and the next thing you know there’s a whale in the tree.

Moses is running late, so they build a new god and abandon everything they held dear.

Runaway Truck Lanes

Outside of Chattanooga, TN, Interstate 24 traverses Monteagle Mountain, a stretch of highway that is often referenced as one of the most dangerous stretches of interstate in the US. Like other stretches of road with significant gradients, the highway coming off Monteagle has what are called Runaway Truck Lanes. Many of you have seen these, I’m sure. I suspect some of our truck drivers might have even used one a time or two.

These look like exits off the highway, but they don’t go anywhere. They quickly turn to gravel that gets deeper and deeper–up to 48 inches or more in some areas. Their purpose is to slow down a large truck quickly in the event its brakes begin failing. And on Monteagle alone, I am certain they have saved countless lives and prevented incalculable harm that would have resulted from crashing into other vehicles or careening off the mountain.

This morning, as we’re thinking about little problems quickly becoming big ones–as we’re reflecting on things getting out of control at Sinai (or Atchison), I think there’s a metaphor here. Remembering that all truth comes from God, I think there are lessons these Runaway Truck Lanes can teach us.

1. We’ve Got to Be Willing to Slow Down

For instance, we’ve got to be willing to slow down.

Sssssllllloooooooowwwwwwww dddddoooooooowwwwwwwnnnnnn. 

We live fast-paced lives in a fast-paced world. Whether we realize it or not, most of us derive our self-worth from the things we do and have–so we think the more we do and the more we have the more we are worth. We’re workaholics, shopaholics, chocoholics… We road rage, so we can get to work, and do more stuff, to buy more things, so our life is worth more. We gladly pay with our health, our future, and our present wellbeing for the faulty illusion of obtaining these things at the end of our life.

Sisters and brothers, I’m sorry to have to tell you, but if you want to be delivered from the rat race, you’ve got to be willing lose it.

Are we willing to slow down?

2. We’ve Got to Turn the Wheel

But deciding alone to slow down isn’t going to save us. We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to turn the wheel.

The Runaway Truck Lane isn’t in the middle of the road. You’re not going to accidentally be saved. You’ve got to grab the wheel. You’ve got to do something. The Runaway Truck Lanes are not going to slow us down if we don’t turn into them.

But you know…… These lifesaving pathways have been built close enough to the road that you don’t have to do much–you just have to turn the wheel a little bit–just a little bit! [motion]–to get yourself on the path of redemption and deliverance.

Now if you’re trapped inside 35 tons of runaway life, it seems like stopping safely is an impossibility. But you’ve only got to turn a little bit before other forces come into play. For a truck, friction and gravity and physics do the hard work. In our lives, we don’t have to turn very far towards God before God is able to do exponentially “more than we can ask or imagine,” to use the language of Ephesians 3:20.

We’ve got to be willing to slow down, and we’ve got to turn the wheel.

3. We’ve Got to Be Willing to Be Helped

You know what else we’ve got to do? We’ve got to be willing to be helped.

Runaway truck lanes work by getting you stuck. They are filled with gravel that pulls against the tires and mire you down. It’s bumpy, you lurch forward, and it feels like the very earth itself is pulling you underground. But when the ride is over, you will be safe–but stuck. The danger has passed, but you will be paralyzed to move. These lanes work by allowing a truck to get buried up to its axles; and you just don’t power out of that alone.

3.1 Waiting

So what do you do? You have to wait for someone else to come.

Waiting, hmmmmm. Waiting didn’t work so well for those Israelites. Waiting doesn’t usually turn out so well for me, either. Waiting runs against our rat race society, our obsession with consumption, and our unending need to prove our worth through doing.

And help rarely shows up immediately. There’s always some period of time where we’re looking around and waiting and wondering, like the psalmist in Psalm 121

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?”

As people of faith, I hope we can answer as does the psalmist in the next verse:

My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalms 121:1–2 NIV11)

But you know, even God can’t do everything all at once. Part of that is because God chooses to work through human beings like me and you, who get so wrapped up worshiping the false gods of busyness and productivity and consumption that it takes us a while for God to get through. God keeps calling us, but keeps hearing a busy signal. 

We’ve got to wait. We’ve got to stop and breathe. I love it where the psalmist says “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry” (Psalms 40:1 NIV11). But you know what makes me glad? You know what makes me joyful about God? It’s that God doesn’t require “patient waiting” as a condition of being helped. If God only “turned to me and heard my cry” when I “waited patiently,” I’d still be in the same hole I was in the beginning–if I hadn’t crashed and burned on the mountain long ago.

3.2 Being Helped

Help doesn’t always come right away, but when it does come, you have to allow them to help you out of your stuck place.

I don’t like having to be helped–Do you like having to be helped?–Nobody likes having to be helped. Of course not!

We all want to do it on our own. And why?–because having to be helped by you means I couldn’t do it on my own.

But you know what? God didn’t make us to do it on our own. God made us to be in relationship with God–and even that wasn’t enough. God saw we needed a partner to get through this, so God made us to be in relationship with each other too. We are not whole unless we are being helped by the other members of the Body of Christ.

Of course, we are not whole unless we’re helping them too, but that’s another sermon.

3.3 Paying for It

We have to wait……We have to let others help us……And another thing: being helped will cost you something. Of course, you’re all thinking about money here. And you’re right, that tow driver has got to eat and feed their family too. “The laborer deserves his wages,” as Jesus tells us in Luke 10:7. And there are plenty of other passages about unfair compensation and that condemn taking advantage of other’s labor for our own gain.

But when we submit to being helped by others, there is a cost of another kind. Being helped is harder than helping. It changes us.

Foot Washing

We take communion–as we will this morning–because Jesus instructs us to do so in order to remember what it’s all about. As protestants, we talk about communion as being an “ordinance” because it was “ordered” by Jesus: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19)

But there’s another practice–another ritual–that Jesus instructs even more directly and emphatically. In John 13, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and tells them: “You also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14). That’s not a ritual we baptists tend to do, even though it also was “ordered” by Jesus. Of course, our sisters and brothers in Christ among the other denominations aren’t rearing at the bit to do it either.

I used to think we didn’t obey this command of Jesus because people think feet are icky and they didn’t want to touch someone else’s feet. But I’ve been involved in enough foot washings to realize it is something else entirely: it’s not the washing but the being washed. Whether or not you’ve done it before, there’s something within us that is aware of the vulnerability of being washed by another person. There is a cost to it that we are unwilling to pay.

Being helped by someone else always comes at a cost. And sometimes, we’d rather be forever mired in the pull-off lanes  of life than risk being changed by the gentle touch of God and others.

God at Work

It was a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

You know what I mean–one of those where it feels like our lives and world are careening out of control, where the decisions of your life create an unhealthy momentum that threatens to hurl you off a cliff, where you come face to face–eye to eye–with danger and death and hurt and betrayal and violence and hatred and all those things we encounter in the trenches of life.

But you know what? God is already there. God has been busy, church. God has been real busy. God has been making sure there are these “runaway life” lanes–already in place!–to slow us down. God has been making sure there are tow-truck drivers–already in the area–ready to haul the carcass of our emotional wreckage out of the pits of despair.

God has been at this work a long, long time. There was a day that was particularly terrible, particularly horrible, particularly no good, and particularly very bad. On that day, the Son of God–Jesus the Christ, the Messiah–was hauled before courts, slandered, subjected to an unjust judicial verdict, abused by those purporting to keep the peace, and hung on a cross until he was dead.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. But even as bad as that day was, our transforming God was at work. God was in the trenches, doing the dirty work of redemption, even when the people of God had turned against God’s own Son, even when the disciples had lost faith and scattered, even when the darkness fell and the earth shook and it felt like all of creation was coming apart at the seams.

Deep in the valley of the shadow of death, God had been building roads. As Jesus descended into the grave, he found a special lane had been constructed on the steepest, most treacherous descent of the journey. This lane was deep and wide, and filled with enough gravel to stop even the most impossible of runaway lives. It can catch you no matter how fast you fall, no matter how much baggage and cargo you’re hauling, no matter what mistakes you’ve made that led you here.

Jesus has marked this lane for us, as have thousands upon millions of the faithful before our time.

But we must be willing to slow down.

We must turn the wheel toward Jesus.

And we have to allow God and others to help us out; We cannot do it on our own.

[Segue to closing hymn and invitation]

Our closing hymn speaks to these things: Be Still My Soul.

It reminds us to still ourselves. To trust God to be faithful. To turn toward God so God can provide and protect.

But it also reminds us not to lose sight of what God is working towards, too. We should be encouraged when we think of Christ’s return. The song talks about it being a time “when disappointment, grief and fear are gone, sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored…tears are past” and when we are “all safe.”

That’s a hopeful picture whether our life is stuck or careening out of control. It’s the reason the Gospel of Jesus is called the “Good News.” And it is why we are people of hope.

 

 

Thanks to author Judith Viorst for gifting the world with the language of a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”