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Sunday, January 29, 2012

That's NOT in the Bible! "Everything happens for a reason" (Romans 8:28, Genesis 50:20)

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.

Congratulations! You have made it to the midway point of this sermon series. Today is week four of seven in this particular series, so if we liken the seven-part series to a week, today is sorta like Wednesday. In fact, keep your comments PG-rated, but turn to the person next to you and wish them a “Happy Hump Day.”

This series is called “That’s NOT in the Bible,” and each week, we’ve looked at a phrase or saying that might sound like it comes from the Bible, gets quoted like it’s from the Bible, and some people might actually think does come from the Bible that’s not actually in there. However, it really is true that if you torture the Bible long enough, you can get it to say just about anything!

Trey Warren asked me earlier this week which myth we were going to bust today. And you know, Myth Busters might have been a more accurate title for this series, but we’re into it now and it’s already been published. Besides, the name “Myth Busters” belongs to some other group, and I don’t have the budget for pyrotechnics they do.

Most of these sayings are little morsels of worldly wisdom, passing themselves off as Godly wisdom. Many of them are sorta true, to a point, in the right light, in the right context, but as we’ve seen, they just don’t quite cut it, because God offers us so much more. My hope is that through this series, we’ll all get plenty of food for thought and see how God works far beyond and far more than just what the world offers. Take out your sermon notes as we look at and beyond today’s phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.” May we pray.

Thursday night is date night in our home. This week, it happened to coincide with Charlotte Restaurant Week, making an exciting list of possibilities for us. We decided well in advance that we would go to the Melting Pot in Huntersville, and Ashley would make the reservations. However, as happens to so many of us, my beloved wife got distracted by the cares of the world, and forgot. And so, we did not go to the Melting Pot for dinner on Thursday night.

However, on Thursday afternoon, two friends of ours called. They had tickets for that night’s performance of Madama Butterfly, but he had gotten ill and they wouldn’t be able to use the tickets. Did we want them? We said sure, and enjoyed our date night at the opera instead of the Melting Pot and just between us, I got off cheap this week!

Now, you could easily say, “God must have intended for you to go to the opera instead of the Melting Pot.” Depending on what you think about an evening at the opera, you could even say that was our punishment for forgetting to make the reservations! Still, think about the implications of what that’s really saying.

For one thing, God must have screwed with Ashley’s memory so she would forget to call and make the reservation. Then, God must have caused our friend to get ill and start vomiting. Apparently, God cared so much about making sure that we got to the opera that night that God made our friend get sick, just so we could go. And so, if everything happens for a reason, that’s great for us, but from our friend’s perspective, God is sortof a jerk, and honestly, Ashley would prefer to have her memory instead of stumbling into this good fortune!

Further, saying “everything happens for a reason” is the wrong moral of the story - it places God in the story in the wrong spot. The real story here is not about how everything works out, it’s that we have some amazingly kind and generous friends who were thinking of others even when their day wasn’t going so great. They said, “OK, clearly our day is not going to go as planned. We are not going to get to enjoy the fun thing we have planned. But, these seats shouldn’t go to waste. Even though we can’t enjoy them, someone else still can.”

So no - the evening didn’t go exactly as planned, either for us or for our friends. Even so, God is not found in the orchestrating of events that cause Ashley to be forgetful and someone to get sick all for the purpose of sending us to the opera. Rather, God is found in bonds of friendship and an act of generosity, and in redeeming good out the jaws of brokenness.

When you think about it, redeeming good out of the jaws of brokenness is something God’s been doing all along. We worship a God who brings resurrection from crucifixion, who defeats death with new life, who overcomes sin with eternal life. It is not that God wills calamity or death or destruction - no, in fact, God desires just the opposite. And yet, even though God is not the author of these evils, God is at work in those hard places for good purposes.

That’s what happens in the story of Joseph. Joseph, not the father of Jesus, but the Old Testament character whose story is told over the last 15 chapters of the book of Genesis. It’s a great story - go home and read it this afternoon! In a nutshell, Joseph is the favored of 12 sons of Jacob, who spoils him and causes the other brothers to resent him. The other brothers sell him as a slave to some passing merchants, who in turn sell him to the captain of the guard in Egypt. Through an interesting turn of events that include an encounter with a married woman with a raging libido - a cougar, perhaps, time in prison, and some dream interpretation, Joseph ends up in charge of the affairs of the nation of Egypt - sort of how we might understand a governor in our day. Because of what he saw in the king’s dream, predicting seven years of bumper crops followed by seven years of famine, Joseph devises a plan to store away the excess grain in the good years so it will last through the lean years. He ends up providing an invaluable service not only to the people of Egypt but to neighboring countries as well, ensuring that everyone has the food they need.

Hearing there is food in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers travel there, and that’s where they have an ironic family reunion, realizing that the brother they hated so much they sold him into slavery is now the one who will literally decide where their next meal will come from. However, Joseph’s disposition toward his brothers is summed up in the verse we read earlier from the 50th chapter of Genesis: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20a).

We live in a world where bad things happen, but we are certain God didn’t do them because of who we know God to be. In a variety of ways, the Scriptures tell us over and over again that God is Love. In fact. if you remember nothing else today, just go home with the knowledge that God is Love. That’s the starting point - the reality that God is Love is the trump card in our understanding of God. Love is the framework from which God operates. It would make no sense for God to visit calamity upon God’s children “for a reason” because God is love. If something isn’t rooted in love, then we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it didn’t come from God. God is Love. Period. God is ALWAYS Love. Period.

Yes, we live in a world where bad stuff happens. In the enduring words of Forrest Gump, “It happens.” And when it does, God’s heart breaks for the evil this world - and we who live in it - are capable of committing. Just because something bad is taking place doesn’t mean that it’s happening for a reason, and it especially doesn’t mean that God did it. No, like a good and loving parent, God is weeping right along with us, grieving as we are grieving, hurt by the very things that cause pain to us. Look around - and you don’t have to look far - to places where people are hurting, and you’ll discover that God is also hurting in those places. God is not a masochist, deriving pleasure from inflicting pain on God’s self, nor is God a sadist, getting a kick out of the pain of others. God is Love, and God’s will is ever-directed to his children’s good.

Honestly, I don’t know why we say things like “Everything happens for a reason.” Perhaps it numbs us to the pain that is present in the lives of so many. Perhaps it helps us find meaning in the midst of difficulty. Perhaps it gives us the illusion that we understand and are in control of things our feeble human minds will never understand. But - and here’s the dangerous part - it too easily allows us our minds to make God the author of suffering and the perpetrator of evil.

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” leads us to a place of mistaken identity about who God is. As we blame God for things God hasn’t done, we may get mad at God or turn away from God, when we need to be saying, “God, I am in a real mess, and I need you more now than ever, and I need you to take this difficulty and redeem it for good. I give it to you, and if there’s anything good to come out of this, please find it.” Saying “everything happens for a reason” keeps us from this honest, raw, and healing place with God.

Looking back, Joseph realized that the horrible, painful, and inexplicable things he experienced, not least of which was being sold into slavery by his own brothers, were not done by God. That’s not the role God plays in the story. Rather, God says, “Given these circumstances, what you’ve had to endure, the things that have been done to you, the atrocities you faced that were so far outside my will, outside my desire for you - in light all of these things, what would be best for you?” Even as our circumstances may change moment-by-moment, God’s will is always for whatever is best for us. Do you see how different that is than simply saying “Everything happens for a reason”? One view makes God a monster. The other is rooted in the reality that God is Love, an all-powerful healer whose will is ever-directed toward our good.

I close with some thoughts on this subject from Dr. Ben Witherington, the Amos Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY. He wrote the following earlier this week, just two weeks after his 32-year-old daughter die, completely unexpectedly, of a pulmonary embolism. He writes:

>> I was determined from Day One to be open to whatever positive thing there might be to glean from this. I cling by my fingernails to the promise of Romans 8:28 that “God works all things together for good for those who love him….”

The first point that was immediately confirmed in my heart was theological: God did not do this to my baby. God is not the author of evil. God does not terminate sweet children’s lives with pulmonary embolisms. Pulmonary embolisms are a result of human fallenness and the bent nature of this world.

One of the primary reasons I am not a Calvinist and do not believe in such predestinings from the hand of God is (1) because I find it impossible to believe that I am more merciful or compassionate than God. Also, (2) the Biblical portrait of God is that God is pure light and holy love; in him there is no darkness, nothing other than light and love. (3) The words “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away,” from the lips of Job, are not good theology. They’re bad theology. According to Job 1, it was not God, but the Devil who took away Job’s children, health and wealth. God allowed it to happen, but when Job said these words, as the rest of the story shows, he was not yet enlightened about the true nature of where his calamity came from and what God’s will actually was for his life — which was for good, and not for harm.

So, for me, the beginning of good grief starts with the premise of a good God. Otherwise, all bets are off. If God is almighty and malevolent, then there is no solace to be found in God. If God is the author of sin, evil, suffering, the fall, and death, then the Bible makes no sense when it tells us that (1) God tempts no one, that (2) God’s will is that none should perish but have everlasting life, and that (3) death is the very enemy of God and humankind that Jesus, who is life, came to abolish and destroy.

“He came that we might have life and have abundantly.” If there are promises I cling to, as I weep for my sweet Christy, it is this promise, not the sorry solace and cold comfort of “God did this but we do not know why.” No. A thousand times, no! God and his will are always and only for what is good, and true, and beautiful, and loving, and holy.

As I stared at my baby in the casket — who did not even resemble herself at that juncture — I was so thankful that the God of the resurrection had a better plan for her than that cold comfort that “It’s all God’s will.” I believe in a God whose Yes to life is louder than death’s No — not because God likes to hold [contradictions] like life and death together in some sort of mysterious unity, but because God is in the trenches with us, fighting the very same evils we fight in this world, like disease, decay, death, suffering, sorrow and sin.

They don’t call him the Great Physician for nothing. He too took the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.” >>

What does all this mean? Listen carefully. If something happens that causes harm, or distress, or disease, or decay, or death, if something happens that leads someone into a future that has no hope, if something happens that is not fundamentally rooted in love, then it is not from God. Period. End of story.

Yet even though God didn’t do it, God can still work in it, and use it, and if there is any good to be found, God will find it. No matter how bleak the situation, God can and will work to bring good out of it. God is not inflicting pain on God’s children, God is not tempting us, God is not testing us. Even in the worst we might go through, no matter how much we hurt, God is there with us, loving us with the calm assurance that in life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. God is with us!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

That's NOT in the Bible! "When God shuts a door, he opens a window" (Romans 8:35,38,39)

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today, we are continuing in our series of messages, “That’s NOT in the Bible!” We’re looking at popular sayings and phrases that people commonly attribute to Scripture that can’t actually be found anywhere in the Bible. There are all sorts of people giving the Bible credit for things it doesn’t actually say, and we want to make sure that we’re not among them!

Many of these sayings come to us sounding like very wise proverbs that serve as signposts along life’s journey – markers to help us make sense of what we’re going through and experiencing. Over the last several weeks, as we’ve looked at these phrases, I can’t tell you how many of you have said, “Hey, I say that one all the time – now I’m going to have to think of it differently and probably won’t be able to use it in quite the same way. Thanks a lot!”

You’re welcome! That’s sort of the goal every time we come to church: for some aspect of our faith to be refreshed, whether that’s an insight, an understanding, a more direct connection with God, a spiritual practice, or whatever it is. And so, today, we are looking at another one of those phrases that’s not in the Bible, and my hope is that we’ll all leave with a fresher understanding of it than when we came in. Turn to your sermon notes as we look together at the phrase, “When God shuts a door, he opens a window.” May we pray.

Growing up, our family took a lot of road trips. With four kids on my dad’s pastor’s salary, the whole family almost never flew anywhere. We would pile into the Suburban, which was always parked a mile away from the entrance to whatever amusement park, museum, battlefield, or historic site we happened to have visited for the day, I swear it was always about 116 degrees outside, and inside the car, it was even hotter.

We would cram into the Suburban, all of us, sweat pouring down our faces, second-degree burns from the seatbelts, trying not to touch the sibling on either side, and as soon as the ignition turned over, we’d reach for the window buttons to let the hot air escape.

This always led to the same discussion. Dad would say, “Put those windows up! I’ve got the air conditioning on!” Whichever sibling’s turn it was or whoever was feeling a little mouthy – usually me – would say, “But Dad, it’s hot back here!” – resulting in a rehearsed debate about how air conditioning works. Parents made the argument about air conditioning working best when the environment was shut, meaning windows remained closed, kids making arguments that the air conditioning hadn’t “kicked in” yet, and it would work better if we could get all the super hot air out first. Dad usually made some comment about “not letting all the bought air out,” and by then, the air conditioning was starting to work and it was cooling down inside anyway, so it didn’t really matter.

Still, I couldn’t help but thinking, “If God opens a window when he shuts a door, why can’t we when we get in the car?”

Later in life, as a seminary student in my first grown-up home – a shared apartment with poorly-sealed windows and the minimum insulation required by code when the place was built in the early 70s – all of a sudden I was responsible for partial payment of the utility bills. During one particularly cold snap, I came across the phrase we’re looking at today – “When God shuts a door, he opens a window” – and thinking “Wow, I never realized heaven must be such a drafty place!” and, sounding more and more like my dad with each passing day, “Sounds like God’s letting all the bought air out!”

Let’s start where we’ve started for the last few weeks. We know this isn’t a Biblical quote, but it had to come from somewhere. So, who said it? I’m going to give you four options; once we’ve gone through all four, just for fun, I’ll invite you to vote for the person you think said it.

Option A - Oscar Hammerstein (1895-1960): the American librettist and theatrical producer who is best-known for his collaborative work with Richard Rogers.

Option B – King Ethelred the Unready (968-1016): The English king who ascended the throne at 10 when his half brother, King Edward, was murdered. He had no official court advisors, hence his title, “Unready,” which, more accurately translated from the Old English, should be “Un-counseled.”

Option C – Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922): the Scottish-born inventor and scientist, best known as the inventor of the first practical telephone.

Option D – Helen Keller (1880-1968): the American educator who was born blind and deaf, and her story of overcoming adversity continues to be an inspiration to many.

So who was it? The answer was E – “all of the above.” So, if you participated, then you win! If the person sitting near you voted, take a moment and congratulate them for getting it right! Hammerstein inserted a version of the saying into The Sound of Music, when Maria quotes the Reverend Mother. King Ethelred coined a different saying with the same face value: “’Tis a lesson you should heed; try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Alexander Graham Bell kept God out of it, saying, “When one door closes, another opens.” Helen Keller said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long as the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.”

This is a tricky little saying that’s a little harder to pin down than some of the phrases we’ve already looked at in this series. For one thing, there are so many different versions of the phrase! For another thing, it’s used in widely variant ways - sometimes in ways that are helpful and hopeful to help us remember that there are always options and different ways of looking at a problem, and other times in less helpful ways that might lead us to shy away from a challenge instead of jumping into it.

What is most problematic about the phrase “When God shuts a door, he opens a window” is the implied role God is believed to play in the unfolding of these events. We have to ask ourselves, “Is this really consistent with what we know about the character of God?” Let’s turn to the Scriptures and see what light they have to shed on this.

The Bible passage we read a few moments ago said this: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35,38,39).

This text is a beautiful, poetic, and powerful statement that serves as a crystal-clear snapshot of the character, disposition, and priority of God. And what does the snapshot reveal? That God is unwavering in God’s pursuit of us, that God is constantly seeking after us, that God is interested in moving toward us even when we are not particularly interested in moving toward God, that God uses every available opportunity to become accessible to us, that no barrier, whether human made or other-worldly, is significant enough to stand between God and us.

Wow! What a huge statement about the open and unconditional love and grace of God toward us! You could easily make this the refrain of God’s love song toward us - “Baby, there ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from gettin’ you, babe!”

God sings that refrain to us over and over and over again. In fact, the entirety of Scripture echos that refrain, showing us time and time again the lengths and extraordinary efforts to which God is willing to go just to get to us. That’s what the Bible is - a story of a relationship between God and God’s people, chronicle-ing the ups and downs of that relationship, yet the overarching theme that runs through the entire Bible is that God is continually reaching toward us. Time and time again, when we turned away, when our love failed, God’s love remained steadfast. God continued to make good on God’s promises, covenanting to be our sovereign God, speaking to us through messengers who all pointed the way to Jesus, that the loving reconciliation God desires with all the world might finally be realized.

And so, we take this Biblical understanding of the character of God, and we weigh today’s phrase against it. Is the phrase “When God shuts a door, he opens a window” consistent with the character of God revealed in the Scriptures? We have to realize that no, it’s not! God does not construct barriers; God destroys barriers. God doesn’t build obstacles, God overcomes obstacles. Plain and simple, it is not consistent with the character of God to go around shutting, and locking, and slamming doors in the face of God’s children. Honestly, if that’s who God is, no thanks!

Now, that’s not to say that we’re still not going to come across locked doors in our lives. Truth is we’re all going to run into our share of doors that have been shut and locked and bricked over. We are all going to bump into limits and boundaries and wander down halls that are dead ends.

However, the reality of those occurrences - those frustrations, those difficulties, those challenges - the reality of those things still does not mean that God was the one who shut the door. Yes, there are lots of shut doors in life, but God is not the one shutting them. We shut doors. Other people shut doors. Powers and principalities shut doors. Hardship and distress, persecution and famine, nakedness and peril and sword - those things shut doors, but not God.

“When God shuts a door, he opens a window” - it’s just a nugget of worldly wisdom. It’s the best the world has to offer us, it’s what the world is trying to teach us about who God is and what God is doing. But friends, God offers us so much more.

This is true with the second part of this phrase, too! The worldly wisdom says, “God opens a window.” As I think about it, there are only two instances in which someone would even care about an open window if the doors were shut. The first would be an escape. The second would be to either sneak in or sneak out, say if we’re coming in after curfew, our parents have locked the door and gone to bed, we forgot our key, and we don’t want to wake them, which, of course, is something I NEVER did as a teenager. Actually, I just never got caught. My sister, however, was once greeted by my dad in his underwear with a shotgun as she tried to sneak in the kitchen window.

But back to the phrase - do we really think God is opening windows with the intent that we go sneaking in and out of them? Do we really think God is opening windows as some sort of an escape route? Do we really want to put such limits on the power and the imagination of God to deal with the locked doors we encounter in life?

I think of one of the places in Scripture where it specifically tells us how God deals with a locked door. Just after the death and resurrection of Jesus, he appeared to his disciples, and two times the Scriptures tell us they were in a locked room when he did. “When it was evening, . . . and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked . . . Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19). “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them, although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:26).

While a door that has been shut and locked may seem like a barrier to us, in the power of Christ’s resurrection, it is no barrier to God. A shut door is of no concern to God! We need not worry so much about finding our way to God for God is always seeking to find a way to us, even when the doors of our heart are locked and the windows to our soul are painted shut. Even when we’ve hit another dead end, run into another locked door, even when we feel trapped and hopeless and don’t know where to turn, the risen Christ overcomes the barrier that seems impenetrable to us and speaks peace into whatever predicament we find ourselves. God is unceasingly faithful in getting to us, especially when we feel alone, especially when we feel cut off, especially when we feel no hope. It is God’s prerogative to just keep faithfully coming after us, and that’s what God does because that’s how much you matter to God.

And so no - when God encounters a door that’s been shut, God doesn’t just open a window; God busts through the door like it’s not even there. Why? Because God will stop at nothing to get to you. That’s how much you matter to God, and we are convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

That's NOT in the Bible! "This too shall pass" (Romans 5:1-5)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand: and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Today we are continuing in a series of messages called “That’s NOT in the Bible!” We began this series last week, and we’ll be continuing it over the next several weeks. Each week we’re looking at a different popular phrase or saying that is often attributed to Scripture that can’t actually be found anywhere in the Bible. Though we are in the middle of a series, each of these messages can pretty much stand on its own, so if you miss a week here or there, you can still show up the next week and be able to hang in pretty well with what we’re talking about.

We are working from the premise that the Bible is one of the most beloved books in America. It is also one of the most misquoted. The list of offenders is lengthy - there are many people - a wide variety of people - who are giving the Bible credit for things it doesn’t actually say.

Today, I invite you to turn to your sermon notes as we look at the phrase, “This too shall pass.” May we pray.

My first encounter with the phrase, “This too shall pass,” came from a saying my grandfather used frequently. Encountered with some unpleasant situation, he’d say, “Well, as I always say about kidney stones - this too shall pass.” No small thing, really, for a man who once passed a kidney stone the size of a pea!

OK, so we know the phrase, “This too shall pass” didn’t come from the Bible. Where did it come from? We’re gonna have some fun with it, sorta like we did last week. I’m gonna give you four options of people who may have said this phrase, and we’re going to take an informal poll as to who you think said it. We’ll go through all four options, and then I’ll ask you to vote for the person you believe originated the phrase.

Option A - Attar of Nishapur (1145-1221): The Persian Muslim poet, who had an abiding influence on Persian poety and the Sufi tradition within Islam.

Option B - Helen Steiner Rice (1900 - 1981): The American writer of religious and inspirational poetry who also campaigned for women’s rights and improved working conditions.

Option C - King Solomon (10th century BCE - c. 922 BCE): a king of Israel, son of King David, known in the Hebrew scriptures for his writings, wisdom, and wealth, but whose sin, particularly idolatry and turning away from God, led to the kingdom being torn in two during the reign of his son.

Option D - St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430): the theologian who most directly influenced the medieval worldview, as well as having a profound influence on the shape of Western Christianity, of which we are a part.

So the origins of the phrase are a little muddy, but on a close play at the plate, we’re going to give credit to Attar of Nishapur, because he was at least one of the first people to write it down. There are a few versions to the legend that gives rise to the phrase, but most of them go a little something like this:

There was an eastern king who was very wealthy, but very unhappy. He had everything money could buy, but the happiness those possessions brought him was fleeting at best. One night, he had a dream in which he saw a beautiful gold ring. The next day, he called together his top advisors and wisest men, and he said, “That ring in my dream will bring me happiness. I must have it, and you must go out into the world and find it for me.”

Well, the king’s advisors searched far and wide, and eventually found a ring whose quality and beauty was unparalleled, and so they bought it at a great price, and brought it to the king. The king was elated, and before he put the ring on his finger, he noticed an inscription on the inside that said, “This too shall pass.”

And finally, the king realized that all the things he had sought for his happiness would pass away, including this great ring, and that as long as he placed his happiness and security in physical things, he might experience temporary happiness, but would never know lasting joy. That day he stopped chasing after temporary pleasures, and so the ring not only brought him the happiness he sought, but the joy he needed.

Later, Jewish theologians got ahold of this legend and kept all the details of the story exactly the same, except they named the king as King Solomon, and the inscription inside the ring became the Hebrew phrase “Gam zeh ya’avor,” “this too shall pass.”

This legend teaches a great truth when we examine it from this particular perspective. The king had staked his happiness on the amassing of worldly possessions, and the phrase “This too shall pass” reminded him that all the things we surround ourselves with are only temporary. In our tradition, this teaching is designed to help us place our trust in God rather than the temporary things of this world, and throughout Scripture, we are reminded over and over again that all things shall, in due time, pass from existence. All things, that is, except God. God’s love and God’s presence shall endure forever.

The prophet Isaiah wrote “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8). Peter would echo this sentiment a thousand years later: “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25). We sing this in our songs – “Kings and kingdoms shall all pass away, but there’s something about that Name” and “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gains I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride,” and “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.”

When we tie the phrase “This too shall pass” to the context in which it was originally used in this legend, it is a powerful course forward for the people of faith. Where do we place our trust? Where do we place our allegiance? To what do we cling to for our identity and security? To God of course, and nothing else. After all, everything else will pass, but God will not. Even good things in our lives that bring us great joy and comfort, those things will pass too. We must realize they are only temporary. Only God is forever, and over and over again, we are called to place our trust in God and God alone.

The legend about the king rings so true for King Solomon because ultimately, he failed to place his trust in God alone, and that was his downfall. He placed his trust in his intellect, his wealth, his power, and his influence. He turned away from God and placed his trust in so many other things—idols, if you will—and that was his ultimate downfall. And so, for the people of faith, the phrase “This too shall pass” helps us keep our priorities properly aligned when we are tempted to place our trust and identity in anything other than God.

The initial intent of this phrase is that we are to hold our possessions, our “things” lightly, and that’s a good and noble intention! However, the way we actually use it most of the time now is in the face of suffering. Instead of reminding us to seek our satisfaction and identity in God rather than in our stuff, it becomes this phrase we say whenever people are hurting, and those are two very different ways to appropriate this phrase!

Mike Ditka is one of the more famous examples in this alternate use of the phrase. The legendary NFL coach was giving a news conference the day after being fired as head coach of the Chicago Bears, and he decided to quote the Bible. A choked-up Ditka said, through his tears, “Scripture tells you that all things shall pass. This too shall pass.”

Aside from the fact that that saying is not in the Bible, Ditka used the phrase in the exact way it is intended 99% of the time it’s used, but when we use it this way, we just miss the whole point. Something bad happens, there is some rough patch we have to go through, there is some difficulty or trial, and we say, “This too shall pass” as an attempt to find solace in the fact that the situation is only temporary. We use the phrase as an attempt to gain control over suffering, or numb ourselves to suffering, or ignore suffering, or speak into the suffering of other people. Too often, the phrase “This too shall pass” serves as a band-aid to cover up suffering, which does a very effective job of hiding it, but doesn’t allow us to deal with it a way that might be most beneficial and faithful.

In the Scripture passage we read from Romans before the message, St. Paul gave us a different perspective on suffering. He said “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

His description doesn’t try to avoid suffering, or numb ourselves to it, or place a band-aid on it, or cover it up. Rather, he provides a perspective of what can happen when we place our suffering into the hands of God and trust God with it. He knows that God has not caused our suffering, that God is not the author of suffering, yet he trusts that God can still redeem it. He takes the suffering, the unpleasantness, the difficulty, the trial, and he places it in God’s hands. He says, “God, do SOMETHING with this! Don’t gloss over it, don’t numb me to it, but do SOMETHING with it through which you will be glorified and lifted up.”

Do you see how different that is than simply saying, “This too shall pass”? “This too shall pass” too often gives us a detour around difficulty – numbing us to our own problems, and excusing us from jumping into the problems of others. We miss an opportunity to invite God’s involvement, whether that is transforming something inside of us in our own suffering, or making our hands and feet available for God to use and enter into the suffering of another.

You know what I’m talking about here. Someone loses a job, someone is diagnosed with an incurable disease, someone loses their home, someone experiences the death of a loved one, or some other tragedy strikes, and someone else will inevitably, with the best of consoling intentions, say, “Don’t worry – this too shall pass.” I don’t doubt the accuracy of this statement or even the sincerity of the people who offer it, I just don’t know how helpful it is in the time tragedy strikes. To hold our possessions and the gifts we’ve been blessed with lightly is one thing; it’s something altogether different to hold someone lightly, particularly when their world is crumbling around them.

What we want to do instead is commend the person and the situation and the tragedy into the hands of a God who is no stranger to suffering, and who has willingly offered his very presence in the midst of the worst any of us will ever face, the God who willingly bears human suffering as God’s own, the God who knows how to take suffering and redeem it and transform it.

When tragedy strikes, rather than trying to come up with the right words, we want to come up with the right actions. No matter what we say, words will always fall short of fixing the situation. Our actions, however, can ease the pain just by sharing God’s love in the midst of a hard situation.

That’s why when someone dies, we take food to the family. Honestly, the last thing they probably need is yet another green bean casserole, but we take it anyway, not so much to fix the problem or even because they desperately need the food, but just to say, “Hey, you are going through a hard time, and I love you.” The practical reason we do this is pretty simple – in the midst of grief, they don’t need to be worrying about feeding themselves and their family. But we don’t provide food as a way of fixing the problem, we do so as a way of supporting and loving them and giving them room to grieve and actually deal with the pain they’re going through, and to let them know that whatever they face, they don’t face it alone.

Whatever the situation, the right thing to do is always to show love. That’s far more important than coming up with the right thing to say. Showing love in the midst of difficulty rather than coming up with the right thing to say – keeps us from choosing a detour around difficulty and opens us up to inviting God into the midst of it.

The statement, “This too shall pass” sorta closes the door on the conversation – though it is intended in comfort, it often sounds more like a pronouncement that things will get better. A far better response, particularly if we don’t know what to say, is to just be there – to give a hug, to lend a shoulder to cry on, to say, “I am so sorry you are going through this, and I have no idea what it must feel like. But as I pray for you and your situation, what do you need? How can I help, or how can I ask God to help?”

And that is precisely what St. Paul was getting at in our Scripture passage, knowing that suffering, when it is commended to God, can be transformed to become something altogether different. Suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.

Again, do you see how different that transformation is from simply saying, “There there – this too shall pass”? It keeps us from too readily speaking into the suffering of others, leaving sacred space for God to speak and transform. Really, only God can speak into the suffering of others, and when we leave the space open, the question marks in tact, the silence uninterrupted, when the whole is placed into God’s hands, God is free to speak and transform as only God can do.

When it comes to saying, “This too shall pass,” we want to apply that to all the things we trust rather than God. But we don’t want to apply that other people and their situations. Let’s hold our things, our possessions, our stuff – let’s hold all of that loosely. But people? Let’s hold them as close to God’s heart as we can.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

That's NOT in the Bible! "God helps those who help themselves" (Jeremiah 17:5-10)

Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

Today we are beginning a new series of messages called “That’s NOT in the Bible!” We’re taking a look at popular phrases that are frequently attributed to Scripture that aren’t actually anywhere to be found in the Bible. What I have come to realize is that the Bible is one of the most-beloved books in America. It is also one of the most misquoted. From preachers to presidents, motivational speakers to political pundits, coaches and athletes and celebrities, there are all sorts of people giving the Bible credit for things it doesn’t actually say.

Several years ago, research was conducted when people on the street were asked to identify which phrases, out of a list of 25, were taken from the Bible. The list included actual Biblical quotes as well as many other wise-sounding proverbial sayings that weren’t from the Bible.

Overwhelmingly, people chose the non-Biblical phrases more often than they chose the actual Biblical quotes. Many of those sayings are on the bookmark in your bulletin, and we’ll be looking at them over the next several weeks. They run the gamut – some are close to Biblical phrases, some are based on Biblical ideas, some are just silly, and others are actually antithetical to the Gospel message revealed to us in Jesus.

Certainly, for some, these phrases may serve as a guiding principle in life, a statement of their deeply-held values and beliefs. In a country where 75% of the population claims to be some version or other of Christian – that’s self-reported, by the way, I have serious doubts about whether 3 out of 4 people on I-77 are modeling their life after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – but if that much of the population claims to be Christian, then certainly the Bible still has a place of perceived authority for most people.

So it only makes sense that, upon encountering a phrase that matches one’s worldview, one would naturally associate the phrase with an authoritative source such as the Bible. After all, it is true that, though God made humankind in God’s image, we’ve been trying to return the favor ever since.

My hope throughout this series is to untangle these nuggets of popular worldly wisdom from what the Bible actually says about who God is, how the world works, and how those who claim to be followers of Christ are to live in the world. And so, turn to your sermon notes as we start today with one of those worldview-defining phrases that doesn’t come from the Bible: “God helps those who help themselves.” May we pray.

So the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” can’t be found anywhere in Scripture. Spoiler alert: neither can any of the other phrases on your bookmark! So it’s not from Scripture, but it had to come from somewhere, right? Let’s take an informal poll and see if you know. We’ll look at four choices, and once we’ve looked at all of them, I’ll ask you to vote for the person you think said it, ok?

Choice A – Ayn Rand (1905-1982), the Russian-American novelist, playwright, and philosopher, her best-known books are The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, developed a philosophical system: Objectivism.

Choice B – Ben Franklin (1706-1790), one of the more colorful of American founding fathers, he was an inventor, a politician, civic artist, and scientist whose theories were influential in the American Enlightenment.

Choice C – Aesop (620-564 BCE), the Greek philosopher and writer whose fables and stories are foundational to all types of literature, he made his home in Samos.

Choice D – Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the American essayist and poet who was seen as a champion for individualism and a consistent critic of social pressures and norms of philanthropy and charity.

The person who said, “God helps those who help themselves” is Ben Franklin. However, 2300 years earlier, Aesop said, “The gods help those who help themselves.” Truth be told, any of these four, as well as a host of others, even if they haven’t said this exact phrase have said and written things that are so close to it that they basically capture the same sentiment.

Just one small problem: it’s a nugget of worldly wisdom that is just that – worldly. You are welcome to keep right on believing that “God helps those who help themselves,” but for those who wish to follow Jesus and pattern their lives based on what the Bible actually says and not simply what we want it to say, let us realize that the Bible presents a radically different picture.

Over and over again, the Bible encourages us to move beyond reliance on ourselves and instead place our faith and trust in God. In the text we read a few moments ago from Jeremiah, God says, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength” . . . but “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.” In other words, placing your trust in people – even your own person – is a losing proposition. The author of Jeremiah compares such a person to a plant in the desert, cut off from the true source of its life and nourishment, and the result is that it withers and dies.

And over and over again, that's exactly where God continued to find God's people - parched and withering, thirsting for the living water of God, with no relief in sight. But God doesn't want us wasting away out in the desert, God wants us rooted in his life-giving water, which is precisely why Jesus came. It's what Jesus came to do - to bring water into the desert of our lives. This is the joy that St. Paul proclaims in his letter to the Romans: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). It doesn’t say, “Once we stopped sinning, once we deserved it, once we got our act together, once we had helped ourselves, God decided to help us.” No. While we sinners. While we were undeserving. Christ died for us, because we couldn't help ourselves.

It’s the reason a cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith. Every time we look at the cross, we are reminded that God reached out to offer us help in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – at precisely the time we deserved it the least and needed it the most. The cross is a reminder that God helps us when we can’t help ourselves, even though we were so rebellious and sinful against God that God may as well have counted us more God’s enemies than God’s children, God was still offering us grace because that’s just who God is.

For this reason, the cross is central to our faith, just as it is central to this worship space. Any time we are tempted to make our faith or our church or our lives together about anything other than the grace-filled love of God which was reaching toward us before we asked for it or deserved it or had done a single thing, the silent witness of the cross continues to proclaim the message of God’s love and grace for sinners like you, and sinners like me. The Bible couldn’t be any clearer on this point: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

It's at that point where we admit we can't help ourselves - call that confession or repentance - where transformation begins to happen. It's one of the reasons I respect 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous so much. I'm so excited about the AA and NA groups that are now meeting here - they are an organization that exists to help people experience transformation in their lives and guess what, so are we! I can't think of a better partnership relationship between two organizations!

No doubt you are familiar with the 12 steps of recovery – even if you’ve never been to an AA meeting or don’t know the steps themselves, you’ve certainly heard of the 12 steps. What I love about their model is that it places everyone on equal footing before each other and before God. Just take a look at the first three steps:

Step 1: we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step 2: came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Step 3: made a decision to turn our lives & our wills over to the care of God as we understood Him.

When I see or read these three steps, I see a statement of grace that throws “God helps those who help themselves” right out the window. The playing field is immediately leveled, because everyone comes before their problem, before each other, and before God on the same terms. No one is better than anyone else, there is no ranking of whose sins are worse or better than anyone else’s – just a level playing field in which everyone approaches God equally.

The first thing you have to do is say, “I am done trying to help myself, because I’ve come to realize that I can’t help myself. I don’t have it within me to do as I should and become the person I should be. I don’t have the strength, I don’t have the ability, I’ve looked deep inside, and on my own, I don’t have what it takes. The only way I am going to make it is if I admit my reliance on a power that is bigger than me and then live my life in God’s life.”

Now, maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, that’s for alcoholics. I have my stuff together, my life is pretty good, I don’t have that problem, and I don’t need to do that because I’m better than that.” Here me carefully – none of us is better than that. Every single one of us stands in constant need of God’s grace – no matter where we are on our spiritual journey, we can’t do this discipleship thing on our own. On our own, we end up in parched desert places. For an alcoholic, the first step is admitting the root of the problem: that they can’t help themselves and try to continue to manage this thing on our own. Likewise, for those who follow Jesus, the first step is admitting the root of the problem: that we can’t help ourselves and try to continue to manage a godly life on our own, and then to place our trust in God, who was standing there offering the way to that transformed, godly life even before we knew that’s what we were looking for.

That’s called grace, and it’s the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel is not “God helps those who help themselves,” it’s “God helps all of us, even particularly those who can’t help themselves.” Trusting in God rather than ourselves, that’s the way to go every time. In our text from Jeremiah, such a person is compared to a tree planted right next to the water, where its roots can reach down deep and always find a constant source of life and nourishment, where it continues to grow healthy and strong.

The plant that is by the water – its leaves stay green, it continues to bear fruit, and even in the drought, it is not anxious. Likewise, the person who is rooted in God and has placed their trust in God’s divine life-giving presence is not anxious, even in the dry and parched places of life through which we all walk from time to time.

Friends, I look around our world right now, and I see a lot of anxiety and its close friend, fear. Moving into an election year, the rhetoric that already dominates the campaign, no matter what political party it comes from, is based in anxiety and fear. Listen to the news, and it’s just more anxiety and fear there, whether we’re talking about the economy, unemployment statistics, domestic or foreign policy about any number of issues.

Just look around; we live in the midst of an anxious people! I believe it’s because too many have bought into the fallacy that God only helps those who help themselves, and the consequence of such a worldview is that those who trust in themselves more than they trust in God are, as the Scripture says, like a shrub planted in the desert, rooted far from the true source of life and nourishment, and subject to anxiety and no longer able to bear fruit as it seems no relief is in sight.

Too many in our world have bought into the fallacy that God only helps those who help themselves, and that fallacy has failed because it falls far short of the Gospel. At best, you're in the small boat of people who might actually be able to help themselves, which means you live with the constant pressure of having to get it right in order to be blessed by God. At worst, you're nowhere near that boat - you're somewhere out in the desert and let's face it, you're S.O.L.! In either case, it's not the good news proclaimed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; Jesus promised that he came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

I don’t know about you, but I sure am glad that God is always there, whether I happen to acting particularly helpful to myself or others. Thank God that God’s help for me is not dependent on what I have or have not done to receive that help. Thank God that God can't help but to help us all, all the time, no matter what we do or don’t do.

All in all, the phrase "God helps those who help themselves" isn't so much incorrect as it is incomplete. Yes, God helps those who help themselves. But, God also helps those who don't help themselves, who can't, who don't even know they need help. God helps people who are confused, God helps people who don’t believe, God helps people who don’t know. God helps children and fools, God helps saints and sages. God helps those who trust God and God helps those who don’t. No matter where we are on life’s journey, God helps me, and God helps you. Thanks be to God!