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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Say What? Series: Hearing God Speak Through Worship (Psalm 150, Acts 2:42-47)


Praise the Lord!

Praise God in his sanctuary!
    Praise God in his fortress, the sky!
Praise God in his mighty acts!
    Praise God as suits his incredible greatness!
Praise God with the blast of the ram’s horn!
    Praise God with lute and lyre!
Praise God with drum and dance!
    Praise God with strings and pipe!
Praise God with loud cymbals!
    Praise God with clashing cymbals!
Let every living thing praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord!

 

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

 

Over the last several weeks, we’ve been in a series of messages looking at the not-so-obvious ways we hear from God.  We begin the premise that God is still speaking, right now, to ordinary people, like us, but that our ears and hearts need to be tuned in so we don’t miss out on hearing from God. 

 

Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen how God speaks to us in silence, through other people, through dreams, through donkeys, and through wrestling.  If you’ve missed those messages and want to hear more in detail, we have video of all our previous sermons on the church’s website.

 

Today, we’re wrapping up the series by exploring how we can hear from God through worship.  Now, maybe you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, I thought you said we were looking at the not-so-obvious places we hear from God, and now you’re ready to talk about hearing from God in worship.  Shouldn’t worship be one of the obvious places?”

 

It should.  But often it’s not.  I say that because what I’ve observed is that much of what we focus on in worship itself and in our conversations about worship are much more about us than about God.

 

I’m keeping it real simple and straight-forward today.  Worship is about God.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is not about you.  Worship is about God.

 

In fact, repeat that after me:

·        Worship is about God.

·        Worship is not about me.

·        Worship is not about you.

·        Worship is about God.

 

If you remember nothing else from today’s message than that worship is about God, then it will have been a good day!

 

That’s hard to remember, because so much of what we talk about in relation to worship has to do with our tastes, our preferences.  We come to worship with expectations about what we want to hear, see, and experience.  What is the right way to worship?  The right words?  The right songs?  The right instruments?  The right time?  Guitars or organ?  Choir or band?

 

Personal tastes and preferences are not a bad thing, so long as they are not the main thing.  We, or more to the point, me is not the main thing in worship; God is.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is not about you.  Worship is about God.

 

If you’ve followed the worship wars that characterized much of American Christianity over the last 30 years or so, you’ll notice that sort of heart was sorely lacking from the debates.  We think of these divisions as being primarily about traditional worship vs. contemporary, but the issues are bigger than that.  In reality, Christians have been bickering with each other about worship since the very beginning, and we forget that many things we take for granted were divisive and controversial in their day, and many of the hallmarks of what we consider “traditional” were cutting-edge contemporary when they were introduced.

 

Things like air-conditioning in churches across the South, evidence that we were getting too soft and worldly.  Hymns were controversial, people finding their tunes to be vulgar and more appropriate to the tavern than to the church.  Services being conducted in the native language rather than Latin was a sore spot for many.  Choirs were too showy.  The organ was considered more appropriate for carnivals and street fairs, stained glass was too decadent, and even having seats in the worship space – be they chairs or pews – were incredibly controversial to people who wanted to preserve the tradition of standing through three-hour Latin masses with no instruments, the Psalms only chanted and no hymns sung, in dark, gloomy sanctuaries, crowded in summer heat pressed up against strangers who only bathed once a year whether they needed to or not.

 

Things we take for granted were controversial enough in their own day.

 

There were fights – battles in the worship wars – over each one of these innovations.  We can look back on these things and think to ourselves, “How silly,” but at the same time, I suspect Christians in 100 or 500 years will look back on us and our fights between contemporary and traditional forms of worship – which will all be traditional, by then – and think the same thing about us.

 

Where we make worship about us instead of about God is when we allow our individual tastes and preferences to take priority over God.  We worship the instrument, the style, the format, or whatever else instead of worshipping God with and through those things.  That is just one more way we make worship about us instead of God.

 

It’s silly and sad and destructive to see people dividing churches over personal preferences, and choosing sides based on matters of style, fighting against each other and failing to realize, in the grand scheme of things, that we’re all on the same team.

 

Worship invites us to put aside our preferences and consider God’s preferences.  The most important instrument in the worship of God is a heart tuned for praise.  A heart more oriented toward pleasing God than pleasing self.

 

The Psalm we read a few minutes ago, Psalm 150, is a classic psalm of praise, a blueprint for worship, if you will.  Let everything worship God.  In the Hebrew, it is not so much granting permission for everything to praise and worship God so much as issuing an imperative.  “All that has life and breath, come now with praises before him” – or to employ local idiom, “Worship, y’all.”  It is the final psalm, an exclamation point of praise at the end of the Bible’s hymn book, one thunderous Doxology that wraps up the whole thing.

 

That the Psalms end with praise is a theologically significant point – a solid reminder that whatever else we go through in life – the ups and downs, the joy and tears, the dancing and mourning, the lamenting and loneliness, the thrill of victories and the agonies of defeat – all of it, in God’s time and according to God’s purpose, wraps itself up in praise and worship.

 

Now, it takes 150 psalms to get there.  We don’t get there because we worshipped in the right way.  If you’ll notice the details in Psalm 150, it describes worship that transcends the divisions of style and preference that so often characterize our worship debates.  God could care less about how we worship, so long as God remains the singular focus of our worship.  Indeed, authentic worship includes the blast of the trumpet.  It includes the lute and lyre – that’s a guitar and a harp.  It includes drum and dance – not the devil’s work, folks, but part of God’s orchestra.  It includes strings and pipes – cello and organ, maybe?  Authentic worship includes all things that breathe praising God in their own unique and beautiful way, coming together into a chaotic cacophony of praise that is bigger than a style, bigger than a preference, bigger than individual taste – friends, bigger than you or me.

 

One way to tell if we’re doing that is to check our pronouns when we talk about worship.  See if you use a lot of “I” statements – “I like,” “I prefer,” “I want” – when we do that, we may as well be singing, “Me, me, me,” and folks, “Me, me, me” is hardly an appropriate warm-up for the worship of God.  Worship is not about you.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is about God.

 

The life of faith must be bigger than our differences of opinion and preferences and matters of personal style.  God’s desire for the Christian community is one of unity in the Spirit – Jesus prayed as much in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night in which he gave himself for us, as recorded in John 17, and we see a glimpse of that community in the 2nd chapter of Acts.

 

Devotion to the apostles’ teaching, prayers, meals shared, fellowship built.  A sense of awe, a sense of unity and purpose, connections across lines of personal property and individual ownership.  A community marked by simplicity and generosity, joy and gladness, love and grace that was so tangible it drew people in each and every day – and it lasted exactly five verses.

 

Unity in the body of Christ is hard work, but friends, it is essential work.  We are all strong-willed, opinionated people with our own preferences, tastes, and styles.  But in the body of Christ, we must be vigilant to keep the me out of we, and if we manage to do that, to keep it from becoming us vs. them, for we are all on the same team.  It’s not about you.  It’s not about me.  It’s not about us.  It’s not about them.  It’s about God.

 

Worship is the first and last place we discover that.  Now, yes, we have a vitally-important role to play in worship.  We offer our best to God in worship.  We sing.  We pray.  We listen.  We build up.  We encourage.  We inspire.  We challenge. But anything we do is in response to God.  Worship is first a gift from God, and then quickly turns into a response of praise back toward God.

 

We can make worship about all sorts of things, but to what end?

 

I think of the lady who got up and walked out when the youth praise team led us one Sunday morning.  When I called her later in the week to ask about it, she fumed about the guitars and said, “I come to church to hear pure music,” which, when I pressed her on what that meant, was apparently anything written between 1700 and 1850 by a white, European man, and played on the organ.

 

I couldn’t help but wonder how her life might have been different if she had come to church to worship rather than to hear “pure music.”  She’s gone on to her reward, now, and I wonder how the music in heaven has since expanded her understanding of what is appropriate in worship.

 

I think of the couple who sat about halfway back on my right side.  Every Sunday, she talked, loudly, through the entire service, when she wasn’t looking around to see who was there and make sure they saw her, or working on her to-do list for the coming week.  Her husband would return to his seat from his ushering duties, sit down in the pew, and turn off his hearing aid just before the sermon began.

 

I couldn’t help but wonder how their lives might have been different if they had come to worship with the expectation that God might have something to say to them, that God might speak to them, somehow, through what happened in worship.  What was even sadder was that they had no sense of expectation that God might have something to say to anyone else sitting near them, either, based on the constant distraction they provided.  Sadder still, no one in that church loved them enough to tap them on the shoulder and simply say, “Shhhh.  There’s a worship service going on right now.  Pay attention, God might have something God wants to say to you.”

 

These instances beg the question from each of us, “Why are you here?  What do you expect to happen in worship?  What are you looking for?  What do you hope will take place?”

 

I’m a firm believer that our expectations set the stage for what we experience.  The invitation today is fairly straight-forward.  Today, I invite you to step into worship with a sense of expectation that you are entering into an encounter with God.  Every time you worship, you are expecting to meet with God, to hear from God, to offer your best back to God, and to be changed in the process.

 

Today, I invite you to never again approach worship as a critic, or a consumer, or a connoisseur.   Do you see how much more likely it is that we will hear from God in worship when we lay those other expectations aside?  How much more likely that we will encounter God in worship when we expect to do so?  How much more likely that we will hear from God about what God wants, when we’ve stopped obsessing over what we want?

 

Thank God, God is bigger than any of our personal preferences.  Our worship of God needs to be, as well.  Regardless of the format, the style, the instruments, the music, worship is about God.  When we stop focusing on those other issues, we can experience worship for what it is and was always meant to be.

 

Today, I simply invite you to remember that worship is not about you.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is about God.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Say What? Series: Wreslting with Hearing from God (Genesis 32:24-31)


Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.


Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."


Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.


 

Can you think of a turning point in your life?  Some moment, or experience, or series of events that altered the course of your life in a measurable and noticeable way?  Perhaps it was a circumstance or a relationship, some risk you took or pivotal decision you made.  Once you were headed down this road, and then something happened, and your course was changed?

 

Our lives are full of turning points.  Indeed, most of us can look back at the course of our lives and realize, probably not only one, but several places where some experience caused us to change course.  The older you are, the likelier it is that you can see several back there behind you.  And that’s the thing about turning points – they are best recognized in hindsight.  Rarely, at the time, do we recognize that we are at some major crossroads.  A turning point does not announce itself ahead of time – “Warning: Turning point ahead.”  Only after we’ve gone through it do we begin to recognize it for what it was.

 

Today’s Scripture records a turning point in the life of Jacob.  From the day of his birth, he was grabbing and scrambling – his name literally means, “cheat, trickster.”  Jacob is always playing the angles and calculating the odds to outsmart and outmaneuver his slightly-older brother Esau – indeed, cutting a deal to swindle him out of his rightful inheritance – then later jockeying for economic advantage with his equally devious father-in-law, Laban. Jacob is one who’s always looking out for number one, cheating and swindling everyone he meets to his own advantage.  But – as is always the case – the day of reckoning was coming. After long absence, Jacob is returning home, preparing to face his estranged brother Esau, whom he had defrauded. And it is under these circumstances that he meets God.

 

God does not come to him as some sweet, forgiving presence. Rather, under the cloak of darkness, God comes as a mysterious adversary, appearing from nowhere to accost Jacob in a wrestling match. The struggle is lengthy and inconclusive, but Jacob hangs on for dear life, refuses to let go without receiving a blessing. And the blessing he receives includes a new name: Israel – the one who strives, who grapples, who wrestles, with God.

 

I wrestled with this sermon all week.  No, the irony is not lost on me that I wrestled with a sermon about Jacob wrestling with God.  I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about wrestling.  Upon meeting me, more than one person has asked if I played sports in school, which I did, but many times they size me up and figure I must have played defensive back or been on the wrestling team, which, no – I was on the golf team.

 

I don’t know a lot about wrestling, other than what I’ve seen on tv, but I know enough to know that whatever wrestling actually is, it probably isn’t that.  Growing up, I had several friends who were into WWF wrestling – I think it’s WWE, now.  They had all these dolls – I mean, action figures – and sometimes I’d be over at their houses and they’d pull out their dolls – I mean, action figures – and ask if I wanted to play wrestling.  No, I did not.  For one thing, I couldn’t tell a Hulk Hogan from a MachoMan Randy Savage from a Rowdy Roddy Piper – I had to Google all those names – but I didn’t want to expose my own ignorance, and so in my overly-diplomatic eight-year-old way, I’d say, “Ummm, wrestling is stupid.  Everyone knows it’s fake.”

 

How many times do we see that scenario continue to play out in our lives?  We encounter something new, something different, something we don’t understand, and we immediately pass judgment – “Ummm, that’s stupid.  I don’t know a thing about it, but I know I don’t like it.  And since I don’t like it, I’m against it.  And since I’m against it, you should be against it, too.”

 

That’s the stuff of American politics!  Elections are won in this country because of that sort of fear-based mindset.

 

Thankfully, we’ve never seen that attitude expressed in the church!  People passing judgment or making up their mind about something when they know very little about it – nope, never seen anything like that!

 

It’s tempting to desire all the answers, to want to see the whole picture, to know the who, what, when, where, why and how of it all.  It’s human nature to want to have as much information and see things as brightly and clearly as we can.  That’s a very reasonable and rational approach – so reasonable and rational, in fact, that it crowds faith right out.

 

Faith, as it turns out, always has an element of mystery and the unknown to it.  Too often we want to fully understand something before we’ll put our faith in it, but the problem with that is that once we fully understand it, faith is no longer required.  The Scriptures tell us, “faith is assurance of things hoped for, and the confidence in things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1).

 

Back in the story, Jacob doesn’t encounter God in the bright of day.  Jacob is still very much in the dark when he encounters God, very much in the dark about what’s happening and what it all means.  It’s while he’s still in the dark that Jacob wrestles with God.

 

Faith is not having all the answers, a firm set of beliefs, seeing things clearly, a life in which blessings fall to earth as quickly as our prayers ascend to heaven – Jacob gives us a different idea.  Faith may simply be the willingness to wrestle and struggle with God and the things of God – even while we’re mostly in the dark about where it leads and how it will all work out.

 

We’re told to have faith like a child – often interpreted to mean having a wide-eyed, innocent, wonder, a blind trust about the whole thing.  Those of you who have children, however, know that it doesn’t work this way.  Children don’t take anything blindly, but will question every directive with a question of their own, “Why?”  Have faith like a child – feel free to ask, “Why?”  That questioning, that pushing, is how children develop and grow.  It’s how their little minds think deep thoughts and dream big dreams.

 

Faith like a child may include temper tantrums and meltdowns and questioning everything that comes along.  Faith like a child may include wrestling and grappling with issues that are less than polite and make the adults in the room blush with nervous embarrassment.  Indeed, childlike faith includes questions and pushback, but those things only make us uncomfortable; God isn’t threatened by any of it.

 

I’m sure we’ve all heard in some context or another that we should never question God.  Too often we treat God as some fragile and delicate stained-glass creation who might shatter if we push back against him.  Yet, this story from Jacob’s life shows us a God who isn’t afraid to get down in the mud beside the river and join us in our struggles, a God who is sturdy enough to handle us and anything we throw God’s way.

 

When we have fears and questions and doubts, God doesn’t say, “Away from me with all your uncertainty,” no, God plants his feet and says, “Bring it on.”

 

What amazes me is that God allows us to wrestle, when God could end the match at any time.  God could put us in a full nelson or a sleeper hold – whatever those are – and pin us down any time God wanted to.  It’s like when I was a kid and wrestled with Dad or Papa on the living room floor – and by mere strength and size they could have won the match at any time, but they let me wrestle, learn, stretch, and grow.

 

So, too, God could slam us down on the floor, make us believe, make us obey.  God could do all that in the blink of an eye, because God is God and we are not, and there’s nothing we could do about it.

 

But, God doesn’t wrestle that way. God chooses not to wrestle that way.  What would we learn?  We’d learn not to tangle with God, and every opportunity we have for our faith to be stretched and challenged and grow would be lost.

 

God chooses to let us wrestle and grapple in the ark, but the good news is we’re never alone.  God is there, wrestling with us.

 

Like Jacob, I can look back at those places of struggle and darkness and fear and doubt, and recognize them as turning points in my life – unpleasant and uncertain to go through, certainly, but the places where my faith was stretched and caused to grow the most.  Like a child, I can see that the places where I was allowed to question and push back were the places of my deepest spiritual awakenings.  What I found is that faith is not the absence of questions or doubt, but simply the willingness to wrestle and grapple with things that are beyond me, with a God who is beyond me.

 

Whatever we can dish out, God can take it – so feel free to bring your questions, your fears, your doubts, and wrestle God with them all night long, if necessary, and rest assured that God will wrestle you back, as long as it takes for the dawn to break and the light to shine into the darkness and lift the fog.

 

Friends, faith is formed in the struggle.  Frederick Douglass said, “Without struggle, there is no progress.”

 

Sometimes, it’s only after we’ve wrestled through the darkness that we’re ready to receive the blessing.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Say What? Series: Hearing God Speak Through . . . a Donkey? (Numbers 22:22b-31)


While [Balaam] was riding on his donkey accompanied by his two servants, the Lord’s messenger stood in the road as his adversary. 23 The donkey saw the Lord’s messenger standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand, so the donkey turned from the road and went into the field. Balaam struck the donkey in order to turn him back onto the road. 24 Then the Lord’s messenger stood in the narrow path between vineyards with a stone wall on each side. 25 When the donkey saw the Lord’s messenger, it leaned against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he continued to beat it. 26 The Lord’s messenger persisted and crossed over and stood in a narrow place, where it wasn’t possible to turn either right or left. 27 The donkey saw the Lord’s messenger and lay down underneath Balaam. Balaam became angry and beat the donkey with the rod. 28 Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you’ve beaten me these three times?”

29 Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you’ve tormented me. If I had a sword in my hand, I’d kill you now.”

30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on whom you’ve often ridden to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”

Balaam said, “No.”

31 Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and Balaam saw the Lord’s messenger standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand. Then he bowed low and worshipped.

 

Martin Luther is undoubtedly best-known as the father of the Protestant Reformation.  He protested against what he perceived to be the excesses and missteps of the Catholic Church of his day, and his work eventually caused the division we still see today between Catholic and Protestant Christians, though, thankfully, relations between the two are warmer today than they were in his day.

 

What many people don’t know is that Martin Luther also had a sense of humor that was, perhaps, bawdier than what you might expect from a great church leader.  In particular, he had a great affinity for jokes and one-liners about flatulence, making him just as suited to be a middle school boys’ youth pastor as a great theologian.

 

Even in his own day, many people thought him vulgar and inappropriate, but Luther was quick to respond, “God once spoke through the mouth of an ass,” and the implication was clear: God could also speak through one like him.

 

What we have just read is one of the stranger and more peculiar stories found in Scripture.  To even begin understanding it, we desperately need some context.

 

The people of Israel have been on the move, and they are now encamped across from the kingdom of Moab.  The king of Moab is threatened by their presence, fearful that his kingdom will be overtaken.  He is looking for any advantage he can gain over them, and he decides to enlist the services of Balaam, the man we just read about.

 

Balaam is an entrepreneur of sorts, and what he sells are blessings and curses.  He’s not particularly religious himself, but is apparently well-studied and good at his job, because his blessings and curses seem to work whenever he invokes them.  The king of Moab, looking for some supernatural help, summons for Balaam to come and curse the people of Israel so they won’t overtake his kingdom, and offers a high price for Balaam’s service.

 

Initially, Balaam declines the contract, because God has appeared to him and told him not to go and curse the people of Israel.  But the king of Moab is persistent, he sends another delegation with a higher offer, and the deal is apparently too sweet for Balaam to resist – after all, business is business, money talks and his donkey walks, as it were – and so off he goes.

 

En route, an angel from God appears on the road with a sword drawn, visible only to the donkey.  Not once, but three times the donkey tries to change course – veering first into the field, then into a stone wall, crushing Balaam’s foot, and then finally, when there was nowhere else to go, lays down on the road and refuses to go further.

 

Each time, the donkey is rewarded with a beating from Balaam.  The donkey has had enough, and opens his mouth to speak.  I apologize in advance for not having a good Eddie Murphy impression so you could hear the voice of the donkey in its original form, so please forgive me.  The donkey says, “Dude!  (It doesn’t say, “Dude,” in the English, but it’s pretty close in the Hebrew)  Why do you keep beating me?  Have I not carried you for years?  Have I ever done this sort of thing before – no, I haven’t – and so maybe there’s a reason I keep changing course, and it might do you some good to find out why!”

 

Friends, that is one smart ass.

 

I used that word in a sermon in my last church, talking about Jesus riding that animal into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  One lady was quite perturbed by my use of that particular word, even when I told her that that word’s meaning is determined by the context in which it is used, and she just said, “Well, that word refers to a beast of burden and NOT to a particular part of the body!” and I just smiled and said, “You bet your beast of burden it does!”

 

Let’s go ahead and name the donkey in the room.  In our culture, the word, “donkey,” is often used as a euphemism for that other term that’s a little less polite.  There is no way to know if the word, “donkey,” had the same connotations as it does for us today, but there seems a certain fitness that sometimes it takes a donkey for us to realize what we’re doing, especially when we’re on the wrong path and need to change course.

 

When we are doggedly pursuing a project, and something comes along that is an interruption, an annoyance, a detour, or a roadblock altogether, we aren’t that pleased, either.  We will likely experience anything or anyone that stands in the way or delays our progress as a pain in the proverbial.

 

But I wonder how often we, like Balaam, find ourselves on a road we shouldn’t be on in the first place, and what seems like an interruption or a distraction or a detour is actually there for our benefit. 

 

I am a person who loves to find backroads and shortcuts.  I love to be on the road less travelled – perhaps to find a way that’s just a bit quicker than the beaten path, perhaps to feel like I have some sort of inside knowledge, I’m not sure.  When I lived in Boone, someone told me about an old road that led outside of town to the area where I lived.  I knew roughly where both ends of the road were, and decided I was going to try to find it one day.  I turned off the main road, and then off the side road, and then onto a windy, one-lane mud path.

 

I was sure I had found it – the secret, hidden road no one else travelled!  Today was the day I was going to conquer it!  I soon discovered why no one else travelled this particular road.  I pushed my Pontiac Vibe up the side of this mountain until I came to a place where a rockslide had covered the road, making it impassible, and I had a particular, colorful thought as I thought about what a pain that was!

 

I got out of the car and climbed over the rocks and walked a little further up the road, and as I went around a curve that started steeply back down, I saw down at the bottom of the slick, muddy incline that the road was washed away completely.  I realized, had the rocks not been there, I wouldn’t have stopped back there, and would have come around this curve and started down that muddy hill with probably no way to stop before I got to the spot where the road was washed out, and would have careened several hundred feet to the bottom of the mountain below.

 

When I first encountered those rocks, I thought, “What a pain in the proverbial.”  But those rocks kept me from going any further down the road toward something that was infinitely more dangerous.  It was an additional pain in the proverbial to back the car several hundred yards down that windy road to a spot where it was wide enough for me to turn around and return from whence I had come, but I’d rather have that frustration than what would have awaited me had I been able to keep going.

 

When it comes to what we experience as donkey-like people and situations, maybe that circumstance or that person is there to help put us on a different path, or at least to slow us down enough to think through what we’re doing and whether or not it’s a project worth pursuing.  Maybe we’re on a path of our desire and have given little regard to what God might want.  Maybe we’re on a road that goes nowhere, or is a dead-end, maybe even a road that leads to destruction.

 

Other times, it takes a donkey in our lives, someone or some situation who is an absolute pain in the proverbial, for us to realize how much a donkey we are making of ourselves.  For Balaam, it took his now-famous talking beast for him to realize how stubborn he was being, how headstrong and intent he was on his own plans rather than God’s, pursuing profit for himself while ignoring the directive of God.  By the end of it, Balaam has come to realize that he, not the beast, is the bigger donkey in the story.

 

Yes, it’s annoying when someone or something comes along that interrupts our plans, but if we’re on the wrong road to begin with, then maybe that pain in the proverbial is actually a blessing in disguise.

 

Remember, blessings and curses were Balaam’s business, and business was good.  Being called in by the King of Moab was likely one of the biggest contracts he had ever landed.  After Balaam’s donkey starts talking to him and he, too, sees the angel of the Lord on the road, he has a change of heart about offering blessings and curses on the spot for the highest bidder.

 

If you read on, you’ll see that he continues on to meet the King of Moab, but does not agree to curse the people of Israel, agreeing instead to only say what God permits him to say.  The King of Moab takes him to the top of four different mountains and orders him to curse the Israelites below.  Four times, Balaam refuses, only speaking oracles about God’s favor and blessing on the people.  The king sends Balaam home, furious that he has blessed the people rather than cursed them.

 

How many times have we found ourselves cursing others, when God has called us to bless others? 

In reality, what does it profit us when we make decisions out of our own greed and ignore God’s interest in the good of all?  How many times have we tried to bend God’s ways to suit our ways, asking God to bless the road we’re already on and what we’ve already made up our minds to do?  How many times have we put the bottom line ahead of common decency, to the point that the term “business ethics” is treated like an oxymoron?

 

From time to time, we all find ourselves on a road we probably don’t need to be on, and the correcting word of a friend or stranger – even who seems like a pain in the proverbial – might be what we need to realize what a donkey’s hind end we are being ourselves, and get ourselves on a better path.

 

As Martin Luther said, “God once spoke through an ass,” and the implication is clear: God can use and speak through anything and anyone – including us.  That reality doesn’t give us license to act like jerks, but neither should we be surprised when God shows up in unexpected ways and people and places.  If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey, God can certainly speak through ones like you and like me.

 

Let us pray.

God, we can get way too caught up in ourselves sometimes.  We are so interested in our desires, our plans, our hopes, that we lose sight of what you want.  We experience every distraction and detour as a real pain in the behind, and are often blind to the ways we’re acting like big old donkeys ourselves.  We pursue profit rather than you.  We put our ways ahead of yours.  We stick to our own path rather than seeking out yours.  We curse others rather than bless them.  Put your messengers on the road we travel, help us to see where we are in error, so we can better turn toward you.  Thank you for your many blessings in disguise.  Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Say What? Series: Hearing God Speak Through Dreams (1 Samuel 3:1-10)


You all know the feeling.  It is halfway through the sermon – not one of mine, certainly – and your eyes are starting to get heavy, and your head is starting to droop, and your chin is bobbing against your chest.  You’re falling asleep in church.  Maybe you were up all night with kids or sickness or just couldn’t sleep.  Maybe you just came in from work.  Maybe it’s gotten a little too warm in here and your seat is just a little too comfy and the preacher – again, not me – is a little boring or dry or monotone, and it’s all you can do not to drift off completely.

 

There is a little game I like to play from up here as I look around and see people with heads bowed and eyes closed – the name of the game is “Who’s Praying, Who’s Sleeping?”  One little girl was once asked why we should be quiet in church, and she thought for a minute and said, “Because, people are sleeping!”

 

The next time the person next to you falls asleep in church, you may be tempted to throw an elbow or wake them up.  But think twice, before you do.  You see, God has a long-standing and well-documented history of speaking to people in their dreams.  God speaks to us in our waking and in our sleeping, in our going out and our lying down.  God speaks to people when they take a rest, in their sleep, in trances, and through their dreams.

 

In fact, this was so well-known that people would go to the temple and intentionally fall asleep, in the hopes that God would speak to them in their dreams.  And so, when I look around and see you starting to nod off, I don’t take offense, I just assume that you are participating in a great Biblical tradition.  When the person next to you starts to nod off, let them sleep – God may have something to say to them as they dream.

 

We have already talked about how God speaks to us in silence – and how we need to intentionally turn off the noise and stop making noise so we can hear the still, small voice of God.  We have talked about how God speaks to us through other people – in the particularities of each and every voice, but always and consistently with the accent of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

 

Hearing from God requires a simultaneous tuning out and tuning in.  Tuning out other distractions, tuning in to what God.  Given that, it should be no surprise that God might speak to us in a dream.  Dreams happen in our subconscious, with our eyes closed and parts of our mind taking a rest, perhaps the perfect place for God to get our attention when we might not have been paying attention, otherwise.

 

The Old Testament prophet, Samuel, is one whom God first called in his sleep.  Turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Samuel 3:1-10:

 

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was.

The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.

Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.

Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”

(Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)

A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.

10 Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”

 

Samuel – Through dreams, God calls us to action

Samuel is a young boy, no more than 12.  He is drifting off to sleep, and a voice calls to him in the night: “Samuel!  Samuel!”  Obediently, if not somewhat begrudgingly, the boy jumps out of bed and says, “Here I am! You called me!” as he scurries into the room of Eli, the old, blind priest.  “Silly boy!  I didn’t call you!  Now quit bothering me and go back to bed!”

 

The scene is vaguely familiar to anyone with children in the home.  The adults are tired and the child won’t stay in bed.  In slapstick comic fashion, not once, not twice, but three times the child shows up in the adult’s room when he should be in bed.  But as the rusty gears in Eli’s brain finally engage, he remembers that the Lord sometimes does this sorta thing.  In verse 9, he says, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  Dottering old Eli’s eyes were almost dim, but not quite - there was still enough of a flicker of God’s Holy Spirit within him to help young Samuel hear the call of God.

 

When the word of the Lord is far too rare and where visions are not nearly widespread enough, it is not that God has ceased speaking, it’s that humans have stopped listening.  The absence of a word or vision from God has more to do with our human refusal to listen than with any divine reluctance to speak.  To hear from God, we, like Samuel, may need to lie down in the dark and be still, and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

 

That drowsy, quiet place might be what God needs to get our attention, to speak our name, to make God’s dream our dream.  As God did with Samuel, God may use that dream to call us into action to bring God’s dream to fruition.  God may use a dream to call us into action.

 

The tricky part is that in order to have the time and space to dream, we need to take a break from the action.  A story is told of Henry Ford, some years after he began assembly line production on the Model T, he hired an efficiency expert to help him run the operation better.  They made a few tweaks to the assembly line itself, and how the workers did their work.  Then they came to the administrative office.  The efficiency expert said, “There’s a man down the hall – every time I pass his office, his feet are on the desk, he’s kicked back in his chair, and his hands are folded behind his head.  He’s wasting space here – you need to fire him.”

 

Henry Ford said, “He came up with an idea that saves me millions of dollars a year.  If I remember right, his hands and feet were in the same position, then.”

 

Having the time to dream is important, but in response, we’re then called to action.  A God-given dream that is never acted upon is a wasted dream.  God will always call us to action.  God is not one to say, “Well, what I want YOU to do about it, is absolutely nothing.” God’s dream is not for us to be lazy, comfortable, and contented.  That may be our dream, but it certainly isn’t God’s dream for us!  If you think the message you’re getting from God is “sit this one out,” then check again, because that most certainly is not a dream from God.  God uses a dream to call us into action.

 

Joseph – Through dreams, God shows us a preferred future

God also uses a dream to call us to show us a preferred future.  A famous example of this is Joseph, who had several famous dreams of his own, and who famously interpreted the dreams of others, including the king, the Pharaoh himself.  Let me read the story from Genesis 41:

 

15 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I had a dream, but no one could interpret it. Then I heard that when you hear a dream, you can interpret it.”

16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It’s not me. God will give Pharaoh a favorable response.”

17 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile. 18 In front of me, seven fattened, stout cows climbed up out of the Nile and grazed on the reeds. 19 Just then, seven other cows, weak and frail and thin, climbed up after them. I’ve never seen such awful cows in all the land of Egypt. 20 Then the thin, frail cows devoured the first seven, fattened cows. 21 But after they swallowed them whole, no one would have known it. They looked just as bad as they had before. Then I woke up.

25 Joseph said to Pharaoh, “26 The seven healthy cows are seven years, 27 The seven thin and frail cows, climbing up after them, are seven years.

29 Seven years of great abundance are now coming throughout the entire land of Egypt. 30 After them, seven years of famine will appear, and all of the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. The famine will devastate the land. 31 No one will remember the abundance in the land because the famine that follows will be so very severe.

 

Because of Joseph’s interpretation of that dream, he was put in charge of all the affairs of the country.  Sure enough, there were seven years of abundance, followed by seven years of famine.  But during those years of surplus, Joseph had the extra stored away in barns so that when the seven years of famine hit, they had saved up enough food to make it through.

 

Friends, God can speak through our dreams to prepare us for a preferred future.

 

God’s dream necessarily has a future component to it, the hope of something that is yet-to-be-fulfilled, but by the grace of God, can and will be.  God’s dream is rooted in the past, a testimony to the unfailing faithfulness of God, a witness to who God always has been and what God has always desired, but God’s dream is never to simply reset the clock and go back to the past.

 

No, God uses our dreams to show us a preferred future, and then to prepare for that future.  It’s one of the things that really excites me about where we are as a church right now.  In so many of my conversations with you, you are dreaming about our future, and I believe that God is the one giving you those dreams.  There is some beautiful synergy in your dreams, and the more I see what you express lining up and layering over each other, the more our God-given preferred future is revealed.  You see, if I talked to you and your hopes and dreams for the future of the church were all over the map, those might be our personal dreams, but when all the dreams start to hit the same page, it tells me we are getting very close to God’s dream.

 

Friends, if God gives us a dream, God will also provide every resource we need to fulfill that dream.  It doesn’t mean God will spoon-feed us – we may still have to use our God-given abilities to think and plan and strategize – but whatever resources we need, be they money or people or ministries or relationships or facilities or land or whatever it is as we move into God’s preferred future, but if God gives us the dream, and we catch it and move toward it, I know our God will provide.  Amen?

 

Further, no one gets the whole of God’s dream.  We each get a piece.  The prophet Joel said that when God’s Spirit is poured out on all people, our sons and daughters will prophecy.  The old will dream dreams, and the young will see visions.  To this day, anywhere God’s Holy Spirit is found among God’s people, there will be dreams and visions.

 

So to back it up, let’s be sure we’re praying to receive the Holy Spirit.  Praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured on us.  We pray to feel God’s presence in unmistakable and life-changing ways.  And then, where the Spirit is, there will be dreams, and there will be visions.  Visions and dreams from everyone – old and young, sons and daughters, newcomer and long-established.  Catching God’s dream requires us to listen to each other.  We need each other!  The dream of God’s preferred future is given to all of us, and we realize the fullness of God’s dream when we listen to and learn from each other – each of us bringing what we see, what we hope, what we envision.

 

Another aspect of God’s dream is that God’s dream is big.  As a kid, I remember taking a large portion of food when the dishes came around, and sometimes, not very often, but sometimes, not being able to finish it.  My mom would look at my dad and say, “Looks like somebody’s eyes were bigger than his stomach.”

 

When it comes to God’s dream, of seeing and preparing for a preferred future, we may be tempted to keep the dream manageable and only bite off as much as we can chew.  That’s a very reasonable, rational approach, and if we follow it, we will completely short change what God wants.  God’s dream is big, God-sized.  God’s dream is so big it will require faith beyond our own abilities and what we ourselves can manage.  If we’re dreaming of something we can accomplish with relative ease on our own, then our dream isn’t big enough.  And so, as we discern and act on God’s dream, let’s make sure we’re pursuing a big, God-size dream.  A big God gives big dreams.  What’s the thing that we’re pursuing that we will desperately have to rely upon God to accomplish?  What’s the thing that if God doesn’t show up, it’s never gonna happen?  What is the thing that makes us a bit queasy and sick to our stomachs to think about attempting it, the thing that pushes us further outside of our comfort zone than we’ve ever imagined – because that’s the kind of dream that comes from God.

 

Dreaming is not just for the pastor or the leaders or just for the folks who’ve always been here or just for the young people.  What any of us wants to do needs to take its place in light of what God wants us to do.  Yes, we are all called to dream, to dream God’s dream.  God’s dream is the most important one around here, and it’s the one we’ll follow.

 

The word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread, until Samuel laid down and said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  It’s not lying down on the job.  It’s getting ourselves in a place to hear from God, to dream dreams and see visions.  It’s lying down, so we can do the job.

 

Remember, God has not called us to settle into cozy little cocoons of comfort and complacency.  That is not God’s dream.  God’s dream calls us to action, and it leads us into a preferred future.  God’s dream is God-sized.  Keep dreaming until yours is, too.

 

Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.