Recognizing God’s Provision

Exodus 16:2-15

A Joke

There’s an old joke. It’s not very good. It’s also not very timely, given the hurricanes and flooding that have killed and affected so many in the last weeks. But I’m going to tell it anyway.

A man lived on a hilly spot in his neighborhood, which was situated (as are many) in a floodplain. He was watching the weather. The weatherperson warned: “There’s a lot of rain coming. If we get too much, it could damage the levee and cause catastrophic flooding. The man thought to himself: I’ve got nothing to worry about. God will protect me.

Well, as the children’s song says, “the rains came down and the floods came up.” A report came across the TV issuing an evacuation order for the neighborhood the man lived in. After a few hours, there was a knock on his door. It was a policeman, warning of the impending flood. “The levee’s about to break; you’ve got to get out now.” But the man refused: “I’m not worried. God will take care of me.”

The levee began to fail, and the waters began to rise in the man’s neighborhood. Soon the street and many yards were flooded. Someone in a fishing boat came to the house, urging the man to join them as they fled the rising floods. “No thanks,” the man insisted. “God will save me.”

Well, the levee broke, the waters rose quickly, and the man’s house became swamped. He was forced to take refuge on the roof. Around this time a helicopter flew overhead and swooped low. Once again, the man refused to evacuate, shouting over the chopper’s rotor wash: “I believe in God and God will save me.”

Sadly, the man did not survive. And when he saw God, he was more than a little put out. “Why didn’t you save me, God? I trusted you!!”

To which God replied: “What more could I have done? I sent you a weather forecast, a TV evacuation order, a policeman, a boat, and even a helicopter?”

This is the part where you laugh.

 

Sometimes—even in the most obvious of circumstances—we have trouble identifying the good/gracious/loving way that God is acting toward us. Sometimes, we have trouble recognizing God’s provision.

Exodus

The story of our scripture lesson illustrates this for us. Let’s just recap things for a moment; let’s look at what they’ve seen God do since the beginning of this Exodus story:

Moses’ staff becomes a snake and then a staff again (Exod 7:1-13)

Then there are the ten plagues:

1.   The water of the Nile river became like blood (Plague 1; Exod 7:14-24)

2.   The Plague of Frogs (Exod 7:25-8:15)

3.   The Plague of Lice (Exod 8:16-19)

4.   The Plague of Flies aka “swarms” (Exod 8:20-32)

5.   The Plague of Diseased Livestock (Exod 9:1-7)

6.   The Plague of Boils (Exod 9:8-12)

7.   Thunderstorms of Hail (Exod 9:13-35)

8.   Locusts (Exod 10:1-20)

9.   Darkness for Three Days (Exod 10:21-29)

10. Death of the Firstborn (Exod 11:1-12:36)

Then there’s the parting of the Reed Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in Exod 14 (that we examined last week)

Three days after that, they arrive at Marah, where God miraculously purifies water for them to drink (Exod 15:22-25)

And just mere verses before our scripture lesson, God assures the Hebrews that he is on their side, stating that “I am the Eternal, your Healer” (Exod 15:26 VOICE).

 

But they are already complaining again to Moses:

We’re hungry.
The sun’s hot.
Are we there yet?
This is all YOUR fault.
It’s too far; let’s go back.

So God—in God’s endless graciousness—does something amazing: God basically rains down food six days a week for them: unexplainably large coveys of quail every evening, and some sort of bread every morning. “Manna” we call it, based on the initial reaction of the Hebrews. They didn’t recognize it for what it was and asked “Ma nah?……[Hebrew for] What is it?”

God provides for them—and does so miraculously—through this provision of daily manna and quail. But even having seen all they have seen—even witnessing such remarkable acts by their God—they still have trouble recognizing God’s provision when it comes.

Lost the Plot

The same thing happens to so many of us, so often.

Sometimes—no matter how much awareness we have for what God has done for us, no matter how miraculously God has intervened in our life, no matter how pious or religious or faithful other people think we are—we’re just not watching when God provides. Maybe we’ve conformed to our culture and so only look to ourselves for solutions. Maybe we are so blinded by our need that we can’t see what’s right before us. But for whatever reason we’re just not watching. And so we walk right past the manna of God and into the arms of pain and hurt and enslavement.

Other times we may be looking for God to act, but—like the man in the terrible, terrible joke with which I began—we have a clear expectation concerning how God will act. We are watching for God to intervene in a particular way, and our vision is so focused that we cannot see what God is actually doing. There’s manna all around us on the ground, but we won’t turn our eyes from the heavens because we are expecting a giant hand to reach down to us or some such thing.

Jesus

It was the same way with Jesus. So many of our NT texts talk about how Jesus came among his own people—the very people who should have best been able to recognize the Messiah, but “his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV).

Instead of seeing God’s goodness incarnate in Jesus, they said “Ma nah? What is this? This fellow doesn’t keep the Sabbath!”

Instead of recognizing God’s gracious forgiveness manifest in Christ, they said, “Ma nah? What is this? No good comes from Nazareth!”

Instead of identifying God’s love through the sending of God’s “only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV), they said, “Ma nah? What is this? This man claims to be God and must die.”

These are the people who didn’t recognize God’s provision in the incarnation:

the very people who were best versed in the bible,
the very people who were most faithful,
the very people who had every chance to get it right.

They were looking the other way and missed it entirely.

But you know who did recognize God’s provision?

Those who were hurting.
Those who were poor.
Those who were sick.
Those that no one cared for.
Those without the ability to provide for themselves.
Those the government didn’t care about.
Those the religious people wouldn’t associate with.

Conclusion

In Mark 2:17, Jesus says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (ESV).

There are times in life when God shows up, but it seems so out of left field we have trouble recognizing the good/gracious/loving way God is acting toward us. But I think we’ve got a much better chance of recognizing God’s provision if we are able to diagnose just how sick we are.

But are we humble enough to admit it to ourselves?

Are we honest enough to do away with the pretense of perfection?

In commenting on their newest album, the frontman for the band “Loney, Dear” offered this thought: “I’ve learned to make my inner darkness more visible to people, because I don’t want them to see me lighter than I am.” —(Emil Svanängen, quoted on “All Songs Considered Podcast,” 9/12/17).

That, I am finding, is a challenge for all of us to rise to.

 

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Working against God

 

Exodus 14:19-31

 

Bum bum buuuuuummmmm….

This is where the story gets exciting.

God has been engaged in a chess game of sorts with Pharaoh, and each move involves higher stakes than the last. There’s a checkmate moment at the tenth plague where we think God has won, but somehow then Pharaoh changes the game entirely. What happens next is not life-or-death for a percentage of the population. It is life-or-death for everyone.

Will the Hebrews manage to outmaneuver the advancing Egyptians?
Will the Egyptians catch up and slaughter them all?
Will this end in liberation and life, or slavery and death?

Tune in next week for the startling conclusion to this week’s broadcast.

Just kidding. But I can’t help think that this is the point of your TV show or radio program where you’re biting your nails or hiding behind the couch in anticipation of what comes next—only to have “what comes next” delayed by a week.

The fact is that here we are the climax of this story. Here, things have reached their highest intensity, and we (the readers and hearers) can’t help but sit on the edge of our seats—whether this is the first time we have heard the story, or whether know it as well as our own name.

God Withdraws

And while we experience palpitations when we encounter this story from the safety of our own couches and pews, the Hebrews in the story have no such security. This is real. Impending danger advances from behind, while the water before them hems them in, making them claustrophobic with worry and fear.

And it is precisely at this time—when their anxiety is the highest—that the visible manifestation of God that they have been following seems to leave them. For days (at least), this strange cloud and fire has led them. But it is in front of them no longer.

God withdraws……and goes to protect their back (“God’s got their back,” literally). But I wonder if they realized what was happening at the time. Sometimes, when we are in these hemmed-in places, it feels like God has withdrawn from us—abandoned us even—yet like the Hebrews, we discover in time that God was covering us in ways we couldn’t perceive as readily.

But looking at this story from another perspective, I also suspect there are other times—times where we feel beset by enemies, times when we are fighting for what we think is right, times when we need God but God can’t be found—times when we identify with the Israelites here……when in fact we are actually the Egyptians.

Stay with me here.

The Egyptians

The Egyptians didn’t ask for this. All the violence and subjugation into slavery——that happened years ago—before their time. Most of the Egyptians probably had nothing to do with those Hebrews that lived on the wrong side of the Nile. The Egyptians were busy with their own, quiet lives. They practiced their faith. They paid their taxes. And now “these people” have upset the apple cart.

While the biblical text isn’t explicit about specifics, the average Egyptian has been saturated for generations by political propaganda from their leaders. In Exodus 1:9, this “New Pharaoh” begins scapegoating the Hebrews:

He argues that this minority in their midst is a threat to their security, saying: “lest…if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us.”

He insists that systems need built that keep them down, claiming: “let us deal shrewdly with them”).

And he asserts that they need to be aggressively controlled, implementing a policy “to afflict them with heavy burdens” and limit their access to safe reproductive care, “lest they multiply.”

This doesn’t just happen once, or for the span of a presidency. This toxic spin cycle lasts decades—perhaps even a century or more. After all, there seems to be a span of several years or even a decade between the ascension of this leader and the birth of Moses. And if we are to be literal about Moses’ age in this story, another 80 years has now passed (since Exod 7:7 says Moses was 80 when he spoke to Pharaoh).

We’re talking about a span of years longer than the average folk in our nation and world have owned automobiles, or had electricity in their homes (or even running water!). Explicitly or implicitly (and probably both), for nearly (or beyond) a hundred years, the Egyptians had been taught that these Hebrews were dumb, lazy, violent leeches who were responsible for their economic, criminal, and political problems.

And now these uppity-up, unpatriotic foreigners want to sabotage everything the average person has worked for generations to achieve.

We could easily overlook the fact that it is not Pharaoh who first feels regret about freeing the slaves—rather, he responds to a grassroots initiative to re-enslave the Hebrews. With the Hebrews gone, who’s going to do the dirty work of baking bricks? Who’s going to perform the menial labor that is needed? Who’s going to scrub toilets or pick strawberries or work the slaughterhouses or whatever other hard and disgusting jobs were imposed on this lowest and unregulated rung of the work force?

And maybe more to the point—if you take them away, the middle class of society becomes the bottom. Who are we going to look down on? Who are we going to be able to tell ourselves we’re better than?

This may seem harsh, but these are all perspectives that are documented in the last century of our nation as individuals and organziations spoke out against various immigrant populations (such as the Irish or Chinese), or in favor of Jim Crow and segregation.

This emotional and social distance between the Egyptians and Hebrews shows strong parallels to the slavery in our own country’s history—and to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s—and even to the ongoing struggle for equality today. All parallels that are simply too strong to ignore.

Dr. Martin King

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most iconic writings. It may well be his most famous composition aside from the immortal “I Have a Dream” speech that took place during the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963.

Like the “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King casts a vision in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that inspires us to do better for our fellow human beings. But it also continues to roast us with the scathing heat of truth, setting aflame the edifices of religion and culture that we have built out of the chaff of fear and difference. In one such passage, Dr. King offers this insight, saying:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advised the Negro to wait until ‘a more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will” (in Essential Writings, p.295).

 

While not a part of this particular quote, the Exodus imagery was used powerfully by faith leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil War was just then 100 years past. Many were descendants of slaves. The unjust laws of Jim Crow had for decades sought to undermine the result of the Civil War, reinstating the supremacy of the white against the black. In many areas, particularly among the states that formerly made up the Confederacy, there was an effort to whitewash the Civil War, erecting monuments that told a false tale and so vandalizing and dishonoring the sacrifice the nearly-million soldiers who suffered and died in that War.

In this world of separate-and-unequal—a world where the color of your skin meant your kids could not try on clothes at the store or the white folk wouldn’t buy them—this story of liberation was powerful. It testified to a loving God who sees them, who hears their cries for justice, and who will come down and deliver them.

In the framework of the Exodus story, however, it was easy to tell who was a Hebrew and who was an Egyptian. It wasn’t a matter of the color of one’s skin, though. It had to do with which thing you valued more: order or justice. In the Dr. King quote I offered earlier, the most frustrating and dangerous of the “Egyptians” was the so-called “white moderate.” From the surrounding context in the letter, King defines “white moderate” as the ordinary, non-radicalized people (of faith) in society at large. People like you and me, for instance. People who are not white supremacists. People who are not burning crosses in people’s yards. People who shun hate speech. People who “know” folks with different skin colors.

But is our allegiance to order or to justice?

Privilege

The thing about people like you and me though is that the whole system is built around us. We’re “normal.” In schools, teachers aim at the middle of the class in teaching. Our church programming aims at the average church member. The average world caters to the average. 

That doesn’t mean it’s all easy with rainbows and endless sunshine for us. But it does mean we have a tremendous advantage in society over those who are not “average” or “normal.” It also means we are usually completely ignorant of this privilege we experience. And it means we tend more than any others in society to protect systems and order by preventing change.

In ways we don’t even know, we sometimes work to preserve “order” instead of practice “justice.”

In ways we don’t even know, we end up counted among the Egyptians instead of the Hebrews.

In ways we don’t even know, we find ourselves working against God.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I want to suggest that we are most often deceived into working against God when our status quo is challenged—when our “normal” is being threatened.

Working against God

There’s a lot going on our our nation and our world right now. Whatever comes to pass, it is clear that the world most of us have inhabited for our entire lives is changing. The rules of life, of consideration, of business, of success, of relationship, and even of faith—they are all changing……

Actually, that is incorrect: they have already changed, we just don’t know what the new world will be. No matter who we are or what we have experienced, the status quo (as we knew it) is no more.

A lot of us—in the face of such monumental change—fight it tooth and nail. We cling tightly to whatever we once possessed, be it power or privilege, money or piety. In doing so, we close our eyes to a world in need of redemption in order to live in a faulty illusion of the past. We close our lives and doors to the people Jesus wants to save so we can live in a fantasy world of our own comfort. We become Egyptians, working against God.

When we do this, we forget that the God we serve—Yahweh; the Creator of the heavens and earth; the God who journeyed with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who brought the Hebrews out of Egypt with a mighty hand; the God who entered the world incarnate as Jesus the Christ, who loved enough to sacrifice himself; the very God who raised Jesus from the dead and will raise us to new life as well—we forget that this God is a transforming God.

Our God is a God who wants and requires change. From the initial moments of creation, God was bringing about change. The bible is pretty clear about what God intends for creation and for us, and that looks very different from the way we look now. God’s got a lot of transforming work to accomplish to bring this vision to fruition. That means a lot of status quo’s have to be challenged. That means a lot of chaff in our lives and our religion has to be burned away. That means we—as the ongoing presence of the Body of Christ in the world—we need to be flexible and adaptive and plugged into the Spirit, so we can move with God……so we can change with God and be transformed by God.

As Christians, we are not anarchists, but nor is our allegiance to nation and law—instead, we follow Christ our King.

As Christians, our task is not to preserve order and the status quo for ourselves, but to challenge it as we practice compassion and justice for those who need it the most.

As Christians, we need to be found among the Hebrews in this story……not among the Egyptians.

We need to remember these things, because this story offers another caution: If you are working against God, you are going to get bogged down. You are going to get hemmed in. And you are going to lose.

Amen.

 

Pre-Membering

 

 

Exodus 12:1-14

Setting the Stage

This is a sermon about faith. I want to say that right away, so we all can keep on the right track this morning. But it’s a lot less “this is how faith works” and a lot more “have you ever noticed?…”

Our text today is comes near the end of the story of the Hebrews’ slavery in Egypt, and near the end of the story of their liberation through the astounding miracles and plagues God wrought through Moses. These verses contain the instructions that establish the Passover sacrifice, which later became an intrinsic part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (cf. Jewish Study Bible, p.126). The modern Passover seder (the meal) has evolved significantly since these instructions–and even since Jesus’ day–and so it looks quite different than what happened a few thousand years ago. Symbols–of course–need to evolve if they will continue to evoke the reality they represent.

At this point in the story, God is working on liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, but Pharaoh is having none of it. God keeps instructing Moses on how to perform these remarkable signs or predict the coming of terrible plagues. But Pharaoh keeps doubling down. These plagues escalate from mere inconvenience to the deaths of thousands before Pharaoh will finally tell them to leave. And in that moment–on the eve of this final, terrible plague–between life and death, between slavery and freedom, between let go and leaving–that is when God offers these symbols and these rituals to commemorate what is to come.

Symbols

Everything has meaning:

The young sheep or goat must be “without blemish” (v.5), which is consistent with the sacrificial code they have not yet received–that’ll happen in Lev 22:17-25; Deut 15:21; 17:1; usw. Such valuable animals are offered to God to remind us that God is due our best, not our leftovers. In addition, the animal is to be roasted over the fire, an anticipation of the kind of cooking they will be performing in their wilderness journeying.

Bitter herbs are the type that shepherds would eat in the wilderness–where the Hebrews are about to spend the next few decades, though they don’t yet know that. In modern Seder celebrations, the bitter herbs recall the bitterness of the slavery they endured in Egypt (cf. Jewish Study Bible, p.126 and here).

Alongside these foods, they are to eat bread made without yeast–unleavened bread. Such bread was actually a fairly common type to use, not altogether different than the various flat breads baked even still in that area of the world. But here the unleavened bread–the matzah–acquires new meaning: it is unleavened because the Hebrews will be quickly leaving Egypt; they do not have time for yeast breads to rise (Exod 12:39). As this meal evolved, rabbis eventually dictated that matzah may only be made of flour and water, which in turn represent the only two “ingredients” necessary for faith: humility and submission to God (see here).

Notice too that even what they wear and how they eat matters. Verses 11 and following tell us that they need to eat it with their traveling clothes and shoes on–even holding on to their walking sticks! They need to scarf it down quickly. All of this refers to the urgency of their departure–an urgency that they don’t yet know about, an urgency that comes about because (in Exodus 14) Pharaoh will regret his decision to let his cheap labor leave, and he will chase them down with chariots and the weapons of war.

“Pre-membering”

In all of these cases, the symbols God prescribes commemorate events that haven’t yet happened.

The Israelites haven’t yet been forced to gather wild greens to survive the wilderness.

They haven’t yet been limited to roasting meat over an open fire.

They haven’t yet realized the urgency of their departure.

They haven’t yet heard the instructions about offering God your best.

When instructing them to ritualize these symbols. God is inviting them to remember events that haven’t happened yet: pre-remembering—-or pre-membering, as I’m calling it.

 

This is particularly fascinating to me because this isn’t how faith usually works in the OT. “As the OT understands it, faith is always [humanity’s] reaction to God’s primary action” (Artur Weiser, TDNT VI:182). For Jews, “faith in God is not just general trust. It is grounded in what God has done in the past” (TDNT, VI:198).

Yet here, in one of the most significant stories of the OT, God invites faith on account of what God will do, instead of merely on account of what God has done.

Perhaps we think God just expects them to  shut up, obey, and take what comes…… Yet that is at odds with virtually every depiction of God in the bible.

Perhaps we think God expects the escalation of plagues was sufficient to prove to the Hebrews that God can do more…… Yet they can’t even begin to understand the meaning of these symbols until a future time when they’re living them out for real.

Perhaps we think God knows that it doesn’t take much faith for big things to happen…… Yet for all of us who have searched, we know how difficult it is to muster up even a mustard seed’s worth.

I wonder if we should see something else. I wonder if God is planting seeds of God’s own–seeds of hope that will sprout and grow and produce fruit in the most difficult times they have ahead.

I wonder if–as the Hebrews mobilized and moved out of Egypt–if some of them didn’t think: Gee, we wouldn’t have made the wagon train if we had tried to make yeast bread.

And I wonder if–as they crossed the Reed Sea with Pharaoh’s chariots chasing in hot pursuit–if some of them realized that leaving as rapidly as they did allowed them to get to the other side of the sea instead of being overcome by the Egyptians before they got there.

Did they remember the pre-membering God gave them?

I wonder: as they traveled in the wilderness or sat encamped at Sinai, eating what they could gather form the barren landscape around them, did they remember their pre-membering about the bitter herbs? As they roasted the God-gifted quail each day to eat, did they remember their pre-membering about the roasted lamb?

You get my point, I hope. It seems to me that these symbols came into meaning at the precise times when the Hebrews would have needed assurance the most.

Without their realizing it, God planted seeds of grace in them–seeds that would bear fruit at the appropriate time, whether or not they understood.

Last Supper

I think the Last Supper–itself connected to the Passover meal prescribed in Exodus 12–is another biblical example of this pre-membering.

In Matthew 26, Jesus and his disciples are observing the Passover meal–a ritual rich with symbolism and meaning about events long past. Yet Jesus takes these symbols and gives them new meaning. Just as does God in Exodus 12, Jesus makes these symbols about a future event–his suffering and death–events that will soon take place. The disciples at that time pre-member:

Jesus’ body is broken,
Jesus’ blood is shed,
a new covenant is established that ensures the forgiveness of sins.

Were these, too, seeds of grace, planted to bear fruit when grace was needed the most?

Did the disciples remember–when Jesus’ body was being whipped and torn and pierced–did they remember how Jesus broke the bread and said “this is my body”?

Did the disciples remember–when his blood flowed from his pierced head, his flayed back, and eventually his pierced side–did they remember when Jesus said “this is my blood”?

 

I wonder.

But I also hope. I hope because of all the times I have discovered such seeds of grace bearing fruit in my own life–all the times that I finally realized I needed God’s grace, only to discover that such grace was already given and present.

Such is truly the way of our loving God and friend Jesus. In the very moment we are broken apart, we discover God has already been there, quietly and fastidiously endeavoring about the work of healing, protection, hope, peace, provision, and love.

Praise be to God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom all things were made and find their being,
and in whom we discover life abundant.

Amen.

 

How God Works

Exodus 3:1-15

 

“How God Works”

I love this story. It is one that has echoed deep within my soul since I was young. It is one that has shaped how I understand my own calling. It has affected my spiritual practices. It was chosen by the preacher at my ordination as the primary scripture reading. It is a story I return to again and again, and for many different purposes.

I think one of the reasons it is such a powerful story is that it reveals to us so much about God—and it does so in a way that is consistent with the rest of scripture. Since we are human and God is God, we can never fully comprehend God and God’s ways—Job and many others in scripture learned that lesson well. But like the Psalmist and others, that hasn’t stopped us from working to understand all we can about who God is and how God works.

In our scripture text, God speaks for God’s-self. And in vv.7-8, God describes God’s actions and reasoning through a series of verbs—action words. These don’t give us a strict sequence of events, but they reveal what God is going to do and how God came to that decision. And that, in a nutshell, is going to be the story of redemption over and over again—throughout the Bible, and throughout our lives.

So what are these verbs? What are these actions? Well these verses tell us that:

God sees…
God hears…
God knows… (the NIV translates this “is concerned”)
God comes down…
And God does all of this in order to bring up.

God Sees

First: God sees.

Frequently in scripture—especially in the Psalms—being “seen” by God is an important part of deliverance. In fact, there are quite a few places where it is assumed that if God sees you in your pain, God will help. Psalm 119:153 provides one such example, with the Psalmist crying out: “Look on my affliction and deliver me” (ESV).

When I was a kid, I remember being taught that God saw everything we did, everywhere we went, and even everything we thought. This was offered as a threat. I better do the right things, act the right way, and think the right things or else God was going to get me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that’s not God, that’s Santa Claus:

He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows if you’re awake,
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!

Now it is true that persons in the Bible occasionally ask God to “look away” because they can’t bear the scrutiny that God’s all-knowing gaze brings. But even in these situations, God’s gaze (on or away from us) is understood to be a means of grace.

Here in Exodus, being seen by God is tied up in the grace that leads to deliverance. But this only makes sense to us today if we have experienced being invisible.

The Hebrew people were driven by economic hardship to journey into Egypt. Categories of legal and illegal immigration did not exist in the ancient world; there were only people who were born locally and people who came from other places. The immigrant Hebrews became part of Egypt because of a terrible famine—a lack of food. Within Egypt they lived peacefully for some time, contributing to the overall well-being of the their new country. But then there was a shift in the government that demonized immigrants and outsiders, blaming them for all the troubles that Egypt was experiencing. The tide of popular opinion was turned, and immigrants like the Hebrews were treated as a lower class of humans. In fact, they came to be seen as slaves with no more rights than the animals used for food and agriculture. This slippery-slope of prejudice and domination and power became such that Hebrew children were being killed for threats they did not pose to the authorities, and even access to safe reproductive health was dismantled when Pharaoh authorizes only two midwives to oversee the births of every Hebrew woman within all of Egypt.

At what point (do you think) did the Hebrews begin to believe the xenophobia and racism that was slandered against them?

At what point did they begin to feel themselves less than human…… or transparent…… in the eyes of others?

At what point did they begin to think even God couldn’t or wouldn’t look on them anymore?

There are times in my life I have felt invisible. It is crushing. Disabling. And I know I have experienced but a fraction of what countless others in our nation and world experience every single day.

When you feel invisible, the one thing you want more than anything else is being seen. By anybody. For any reason.

That God sees us matters. Especially when we are forced to the margins. Especially when the world is set against us. Especially when those we considered our neighbors seem to turn and gloat over the corpses of our dying lives.

In those times we cry with the Psalmist: “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?” (Psalms 44:23 ESV)

In those times we pray that what is hidden will come to light (cf. Mk 4:22; Lk 8:17).

We need to be seen. But seeing alone is not enough; we need deliverance, as Psalm 35:17 expresses: “How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their destruction, my precious life from the lions!” (ESV).

God Hears

The second thing God does in this passage: God hears.

Hearing is a lot like seeing. When we are not heard, we feel invisible. We feel we have nothing that others value. We feel that no one cares.

One of my personal pet peeves is not being acknowledged. If I am talking to you, please make eye contact or at least respond verbally that you heard and understood what I said. Not just for me, either, but for all conversations in which you engage. If someone speaks to us and we do not acknowledge, they have no idea whether we heard, or cared, or agreed, or disagreed, or anything. Not responding communicates—in terms of manners and consideration—that they are insignificant to us.

And just like with seeing, a person whose voice is never acknowledged will do anything to get heard.

We need to be heard. We need to be acknowledged and valued.

God has not only looked upon and seen the plight of the Hebrews in Egypt; God does not only know what it looks like—God has also heard their experience given voice. God has heard their stories, their lamentations, their grief, and their pain. God has listened to them because God values them, and because God needs to hear their experience if God is to be a force of love and deliverance in their lives.

There’s a lesson there for us……

God Is Moved

God has seen… God has heard… and the third thing we come to is “God knows“—or what the NIV translates as “God is concerned.”

Now I could spend the next ten minutes talking about what these words actually mean and why the translations differ so much on what they express, but I don’t have time for that this morning, and neither do you.

However translated, the point is that God is moved by what God has seen and heard. The text says that on account of God’s experience of seeing the violence and hearing the experiences of the Hebrews, something changes in God that prompts God toward compassionate response. God identifies so fully with them that their experience becomes God’s own experience—the violence done to them is a wound that God feels acutely.

God Comes Down

God’s response to this is to “come down.” That’s the fourth verb.

Psychologists and behaviorists talk about “fight or flight.” It is a biological instinct within us that affects how we feel when we are threatened: we either double down to “fight” or we turn to run in “flight.”

As we have all watched and read the reports of the destruction Hurricane Harvey has wrought in Texas, we have heard stories of genuine heroes whose responses were not defined by “fight or flight.” Knowing they were taking on great risk to themselves, they turned toward the most dangerous situations with hearts of love and compassion for people they did not know. In at least one case—that of Sgt. Steve Perez of the Houston Police Department—that sense of responsibility for our fellow human beings led to his own death in the floodwaters.

These beautifully human beings are responsible for countless lives being saved, and they remind me of God in this passage. When everything is going wrong with the Hebrews, God’s response is not “fight or flight” but rather presence. God is going to come down—to be present—with people who are hurting, who feel invisible, who don’t feel heard, and who need deliverance. Whether it seems like a lot or a little, whether it appears to make a difference in the grand scheme of things or not, God is going to be with them.

God Lifts Them Out

The purpose of all these actions on God’s part is of course revealed in the middle of verse 8: “to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

At risk of being cliché, God’s purpose is not to give them a “handout” that gets them through the moment, but to give them a “hand up” so they might even thrive in wholeness and wellbeing.

In the midst of their desperate situation—when they feel so forgotten, ignored, and unheard—God lifts them up and sets them in a place where they can have a new start—where they can learn to live (and live well) all over again.

The story of these Hebrews and the deliverance their God brings about becomes for them their most significant story, as time moves on. These events are the ones that shape their identity and understanding of God from this point forward.

From the valley of deep darkness to the fertile plain, as Psalm 23 relates.

From the death of Passover to abundant life in the Promised Land.

In Christ: God Sees, Hears, Knows, Comes Down, Lifts Us Up

God sees… God hears… God is moved to compassion… God comes down…
And God does all of this in order to bring them up.

This is how God works.

Most every story of redemption and deliverance that is recorded in the Bible follows this basic pattern, including the story that is closest to our hearts: the story of Jesus Christ and the good news of God’s love.

God has been involved with us since our very creation. Yet the ways God had used to provide deliverance were not working. We kept failing to keep our covenant promises, even though God proved infinitely faithful to us. Over and over, God reached out in forgiveness and love, hoping to draw us into a welcome embrace forever. But it was not enough. Not yet.

God saw that we were taking the good gifts of God and twisting them. Things like the Law, which was given as a means of grace, became in our hands a means of self-righteousness and a weapon to do harm to others.

God heard the cries of all creation, groaning in desire for redemption from the darkness that plagued us.

And God was moved to compassion, taking on our grief and struggle.

So God did what God has always done—yet in a new way: a way that would open the doors of forgiveness and grace so wide that no evil force could ever cut them off again. God would come down……personally……incarnate-ly. The part of the Trinity we know as Jesus would choose—in the words of Philippians 2:6-8:

to “empty himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (ESV).

Out of compassion and love for us, God came down, becoming as fully human as you or I, experiencing the gamut of life—yet in it God would show us how to truly live: how to be kind, selfless, compassionate; and how to escape the cycles of violence that destroy us. God in Jesus comes down in order to lift us out of sin and despair. 

In no way is this demonstrated so fully as his willingness to go to the cross—to his death—with the hope of achieving what God has always wanted to achieve: to lift us up into new and full life.

We who follow Jesus know that he did not remain in the grave. The very God who loves us saw to that. In raising Jesus from the dead, God has overcome the greatest weapons the enemy held against us: death and fear. Through the resurrection, the final victory over the forces of evil has been ensured. And even now, the promise of Jesus assures us that God’s Spirit now remains with us for comfort, power, and advocacy. Jesus will come again—in the fullness of time—and everything will be made new again.

To be clear: I do not hold the keys to the gates of heaven. I’m not in charge of any eternal attendance roster. But I know that the grace of God is more expansive than we can ever imagine. I know that God’s love and forgiveness reaches to heights and depths that are beyond our comprehension.

I know this because God has loved me. Because God has forgiven me. Because God has offered me grace in abundance……and I have seen and known God’s mercy.

As we gather today as the Body of Christ, we rest in the knowledge of God’s expansive mercy. Of God’s boundless forgiveness. Of God’s endless love……a love (that scripture assures us) conquers all.

That, sisters and brothers, is how God works.

Tell Me Why

 

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

 

Deuteronomy 6:4–13, 20–25

 

Tell Me Why

“Start with why.” That’s the advice of business guru Simon Sinek in his book by the same name. He looks through history at leaders of corporations and social movements who were able to not just be successful, but built a movement among their followers, employees, and consumers. In a nutshell, he dissects what it is about great leaders that allow them to inspire so many to take action. And over and over again, he finds that the way they both think and communicate starts with a statement about why they do what they do.

This is the graphic Mr. Sinek uses to illustrate his point.

sinekgoldencirclee1378664887408

On the outside, we have WHAT: this is what we do. For a business it is their products or services; for a church it might be things like bible studies or missional activities.

Inside that is HOW. For a business, the HOW explains what makes their products different than the competition—be it design, efficiency, features, and so on. Think of it this way: WHAT explains what we might buy and HOW is what we would say to explain our choice. For a church, HOW might be things like the Golden Rule, or the Great Commission, or an understanding of the End Times—all of which would shape the actual ministry that is taking place in the WHAT circle.

The innermost circle is WHY. WHY is, quite simply, the purpose, cause, or belief that is the entire reason your company—or church—exists. It is the core identity from which everything else should come.

Mr. Sinek argues that most of the time, we begin our communication with WHAT we do, then move to HOW we do it, and we usually aren’t even aware of WHY we do it. But the most effective communicators, leaders, and companies work this the other way around—they start with WHY they exist, then move to HOW they live that out, and end with WHAT they do.

Or, put differently, “a WHY is just a belief, HOWs are the actions we take to realize that belief, and WHATs are the results of those actions” (Sinek, Start with Why, 85).

The Elevator Pitch

Now I realize this sounds complicated, but it really is quite simple. The easiest way to illustrate this is using the concept of the elevator pitch. The idea of an elevator pitch is that you should be able to make a pitch for your business in the time it takes you to travel a few floors in an elevator with a stranger. It is the answer to this question: In about a minute, why should someone attend First Baptist instead of one of the dozens of other churches in town?

If you haven’t ever considered what to say in a scenario like this, you’re going to be ill prepared when God directs someone your way.

So think about it right now. Imagine you are in conversation with a coworker, a family member, or even a stranger and the subject of faith and church comes up. Most of the time, our “elevator pitch” starts with WHAT. For this church, it might sound like this:

We meet on Sundays at 9:30 to worship God. There’s Sunday School for all ages. We have men’s and women’s groups that meet during the week, as well as an after school program and a youth group. We allow some community groups to share our space. I’ve been a part of the church for a long time now and it feels like a family to me.

That’s starting with WHAT. That’s beginning with the things we do.

Now listen to the difference when we start with WHY:

We believe that each person is someone God deeply loves, and that knowing Jesus is something that is freeing. The way we live that out is by practicing hospitality, learning to hear God and each other, and working toward the liberation of those who feel trapped and alone. We gather to worship God each Sunday at 9:30, we meet in small groups to discuss life and the Bible, and we partner with a lot of community groups who share our mission of breaking the cycles that hold people back.

It’s quite a difference in its impact—even though it communicates all of the same information as in the first presentation. Mr. Sinek argues that this second presentation will always be more impactful because it presents information in the way our brains naturally work. It inspires us instead of convinces us.

God Starts with Why

Starting with WHY as Christians and as the Church means we start with story instead of programming. It begins with “who we are” instead of “what we do.” And even though we have gotten this sooooo backwards over the last century or so, starting with WHY is really the example we see throughout the Bible.

When the first humans are created, God starts with why: “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish…and…the birds..and…the livestock…and over ever creeping thing” (Gen 1:26 ESV).

When God begins working through a specific family, God starts with why: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3 ESV).

When the angel appears to Joseph, encouraging him to still wed Mary (his pregnant fiancée, the message from God starts with why: “That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21 ESV).

The whole Bible is a story of WHY—and it is filled with stories of WHY. When we start with WHY—when we start with story—we are not selling something. We are instead inspiring people.

Another author (Chuck DeGroat) talks about why telling stories matters (Faith Storytelling Kit PDF). Using the perspective of our Christian faith and the backdrop of the Bible, he gives seven reasons why telling stories matter:

1. We are hardwired for story: Science has shown us that this is how our brains work—and that “we thrive when we listen and tell.”

2. We are meaning makers. Telling stories has been the way we have made sense of our experiences and world for thousands of years.

3. We are honest. In telling stories, we learn there is more shame in the kind of radical editing that makes us look good than in telling the simple truth of our struggles, our failures, and and our suffering.

4. We are wounded. All of us have been hurt. Psychologists have discovered that telling stories of hurt actually help us take control of our lives and find healing from those wounds.

5. We are storied beings. Our Christian faith is one that roots our own individual, 21st century lives in the 1st century life of our Savior. The path of discipleship that we walk together is of finding the story of Jesus told through our own lives.

6. We are liturgical. What this means is that our worship is corporate; it is something that we do together. And as we move through the year, our worship reenacts the stories of Jesus’ Advent, birth, and baptism; miracles and parables; entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, and the Garden of Gethsemane; his crucifixion and burial; the resurrection, and the ascension. The way we worship is driven by stories-told and stories-reenacted.

7. We are commanded. Over and over in scripture, we are commanded to remember and to tell the story.

Deuteronomy

Our scripture lesson is one such example. Here in Deuteronomy 4, the Israelites are in the midst of their wilderness wanderings—in between slavery in Egypt and nationhood in the Promised Land. Moses—following God’s lead (as always)—wants them to see that their willingness to tell the story of what God has done is directly connected to their ability to survive and thrive in the future. It’s a simple thing—storytelling—but if they don’t do it, they will not succeed. That’s why Moses is so emphatic:

Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deut 6:7-9 NIV).

Moses wants to make sure that the ancient Israelites are never far from a tangible reminder of the story of God’s liberation.

In v.20 of our reading, Moses even makes it clear that when asked about their practices and their worship and this constant remembering, their answer needs to start with WHY.

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the Lord sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors. The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the Lord our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness (vv.20-25 NIV)

Stories matter. The Bible—while a collection of stories—is itself one giant story of God’s loving and redemptive work. And the testimony we see in scripture is that storytelling is evangelism. Storytelling is how we communicate who we are, who God is, and that what we do matters.

That means it’s important to think about the story of your own life—and how to tell it. It’s not about making yourself look good—the bible stories we read each week do not paint sanitized pictures of flawless heroes; they depict deeply flawed, fully human beings. But it is important to start with WHY. If you’re talking about faith, or church, or anything else in this world that matters, I want you to tell me WHY it matters to you.

No, that’s wrong……it’s not about me. The world needs you to tell them why it matters. Everyone’s story matters, and the world needs to hear how God has redeemed you. And that is a story only you can tell.

Prayer

God,

We give you thanks for your Son,
our Savior, Jesus the Christ—
the Word of God who became flesh
and dwelt among us.

We give you thanks for his example and teachings,
and also for the path he marked for us:
a path that pursues peace, love, and hospitality
towards friend and stranger alike.

We give you thanks for the love you have for us,
a love that is self-sacrificing,
a love that is serving,
a love that is without strings attached,
and a love that survives—and even overcomes—death itself.

We give you thanks for the hope we have in you.
Hope that testifies that what was began in Jesus
will find completion in our own lives.
Hope that is certain our own brokenness,

and pain,
and hurt,
and death

can be resurrected,

resuscitated,
revived,
restored,
reconciled,
and renewed.

We love because you first loved us.

Give us the courage to tell of your love,
of your action in our lives—
be it provision or reconciliation,
liberation or welcome—
Help us to tell others why we need you.

Amen.

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.”

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.