Sunday, October 28, 2018

Living Faithfully in the Promise: Seeking Wisdom

Grace and peace to you from God, our Liberator, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

In last week’s reading, we heard the story about King David. About his sin against Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah. And about how David was confronted by the prophet, Naaman, over his sin. David recognized how deeply he had sinned against God. He repented. And God forgave him. Yet, as I mentioned last week, even though God forgave David for his sin, David did not escape the consequences of his sin and off how he had allowed himself to be corrupted by power. His same dysfunction eventually spread throughout his family. After losing the child he had fathered with Bathsheba, David also witnessed one of his sons sexually assault a daughter, a second son killing the first because of it, and a third son, who attempted to overthrow David and lose his life in the process. 

Today, we hear a story about King Solomon, the second son of David and Bathsheba. By the time we reach our story today, David has died. After a great deal of political turmoil, Solomon has taken the reigns of the kingdom, likely as a young teenager. It is here where we pick up the story, reading from 1 Kings, chapter 4. (1 Kings 4:3-15)

Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”

Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream. He came to Jerusalem where he stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. He offered up burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, and provided a feast for all his servants. 1 Kings 3:3-15 (NRSV)

There are many tales throughout history of some supernatural power that offers a certain someone a wish. Or two. Or three. Who remembers “I Dream of Jeannie,” from the 70’s? Or how about Aladdin and his magic lamp? Or did you hear the story about the married couple? Both of them were 60 years old and celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. During their party, they were given a gift. As they opened it, they found a lamp. And out came a genie. He congratulated them on their anniversary and then offered to grant each of them one wish.  The wife wanted to travel around the world. The genie waved his wand and “poof,” the wife had tickets in her hand for a world cruise. Next, the genie asked the husband what he wanted. He said, “I wish I had a wife 30 years younger than me.” So the genie picked up his wand and “poof,” the husband was immediately 90 years old.

Now God isn’t a magic genie. Even though sometimes we might like to think so. But, in our story, God comes to Solomon - this new, young, teenage king. And God says - actually, God commands Solomon to ask. “Ask for anything you want. And I’ll give it to you.”

I wonder if, as a teenager, I would have had the presence of mind to ask for what Solomon did. “A discerning mind” is what he wanted. Literally, in the Hebrew, it is translated a “listening heart.” In biblical understanding, the heart is not the place of feelings or emotions. It is the center of understanding and will. It is the heart that determines what one’s spiritual direction will be. The place where God influences and determines who we will be. So, to be in line with God’s advice and God’s will, we have to listen to God in our heart. In asking for a “listening heart,” Solomon is asking that there would be unity between himself and God. And that this this unity would determine his actions - how he would reign as king.

It was an impressive request coming from one so young. It impressed God. And pleased God. And so, God not only blessed Solomon with wisdom, but also with things that he didn’t ask for. Wealth. And fame. And a promise that, if Solomon would walk in God’s ways and obey God’s commands, he would live a long life just like his father David.

Immediately, Solomon’s “listening heart” was put to the test. We continue reading at chapter 4, verse 16. (1 Kings 4:16-28)

Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.” But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king.

Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; while the other says, ‘Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” So the king said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.” But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—“Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.” All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice. 1 Kings 3:16-28 (NRSV)

Two prostitutes came before Solomon. Before, we explore this story, it’s important for us to understand a few things. Being a prostitute in ancient Israel didn’t carry with it the same moral judgment that it does in our time. It likely meant that both of these women were widowed, with no family, and no means of support. They lived together. Each with a baby. We might wonder why Solomon’s first test concerns women, who were single parents and prostitutes. Perhaps the storyteller is intentionally giving us this image of the person of the highest social standing listening to those with the lowest standing. Because it is a wise leader and a wise person who will attend to the humanity and the rights even of those whom others consider of no great importance.

Whatever the storyteller’s intent, Solomon hears their matter. These women lived in the same house, and each had a baby. During the night, one had accidentally smothered her child. She then switched her dead infant for the living one. Now, each woman claimed the remaining living child as her own. 

In a stroke of inspired genius, Solomon suggests they cut the baby in half, giving half to one mother, half to the other. Of course, the true mother would willingly give up her child, rather than see it killed. Which is exactly what happened. And which identified for Solomon who the true mother was. This was the wise judgment of this young king. Knowledge of him spread throughout all Israel.  And respect for Solomon grew, too, because the people of Israel knew that God’s wisdom had been given to Solomon.

But it was the other things God had given to Solomon that would become his downfall. He would not be able to govern himself or to control his own desires. Although he was wise and discerning with others, he wasn’t with his own appetite for power and women and food. He became known for his extravagant wealth and his consumption, for his number of wives - over 700, and for worshipping at the places of his pagan wives. All of this would eventually lead the kingdom to the edge of bankruptcy and, after his death, to divide and eventually be exiled. All because Solomon could not control his own desires. 

Solomon was known for such amazing things and, yet, he was a profoundly flawed human being. Like so many others we have heard about over these past few weeks. How is it that someone can be so profoundly a sinner and, yet, so profoundly used by God? This is the great paradox of the Reformation. What Martin Luther called, in the Latin, simul justus et peccator. Simultaneously saint and sinner. It’s what Solomon was. What David was. What we are. 

So often, though, we don’t think of ourselves as saints. We may not be particularly bad, we think, but, certainly, we’re not like the super-holy people we call saints. Yet, being a saint isn’t about what we do or don’t do. It is about who we are in relationship with God. That’s also true of being a sinner. The Lutheran confessions define sin as the “self-centered failure to trust God.” Solomon’s problem - and ours - is not that we break God’s rules. It’s that we desire to be “like God.” To rely upon our own judgment instead of trusting God’s word. To rely upon our own knowledge instead of having faith in God’s wisdom.

It is why we come here. Because, it is here, in community with each other, where we weekly come face-to-face with our sinner side. With our inability to trust. And where we are forgiven each time. It’s where we become “saints” - or as Luther would define it, we become forgiven sinners. Because it’s not that we change into something different. It’s because our relationship with God changes as a result of God’s grace. What matters most is not what we do or decide, but that Jesus died for us. It is because of this that, when we look in the mirror and see ourselves as sinners, God looks at us and, through Christ, sees saints. 

This is the gift of our Lutheran heritage. A heritage that points to what God has done and to how graciously God has loved and forgiven us, even when we, like Solomon, fall so short. This love and forgiveness is what we can rely upon in a world that has become so filled with hate. Hate that we have seen so vividly this week - in the sending of IED’s to public leaders, in the local shooting at Kroger, in the massacre of several of our ancestors in faith yesterday at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. 

Our world so desperately needs this message of grace and love - the gift of God and our Lutheran heritage. May we claim this heritage and may God give us, like Solomon, “listening hearts”  - hearts that are united with God’s will so that we might share God’s grace and love with all the world. Amen.

Preached October 28, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Reformation Sunday
Readings: Matthew 6:9-10, 1 Kings 3:4-28.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Living Faithfully in the Promise: Confronting Sin

So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When Nathan arrived he said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich, one poor. The rich man had a lot of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing—just one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised that lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat from his food and drink from his cup—even sleep in his arms! It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to visit the rich man, but he wasn’t willing to take anything from his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had arrived. Instead, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the visitor.”

David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the one who did this is demonic! He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and because he had no compassion.”

“You are that man!” Nathan told David. “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul’s power. I gave your master’s house to you, and gave his wives into your embrace. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. If that was too little, I would have given even more. Why have you despised the Lord’s word by doing what is evil in his eyes? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taken his wife as your own. You used the Ammonites to kill him. 2 Samuel 12:1-9 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Liberator, and from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Second Samuel. This is where this week’s story is from. Samuel is an exciting book in the Bible. It’s split into two parts because of its large size. The book of First Samuel focuses on the characters Samuel, Saul, and David and their roles in shaping God’s growing nation of Israel. Second Samuel focuses almost entirely on David. 

Today, I’m going to ask for your help in preaching this sermon. After I give you some background to bring us from last week to today, I’m going to jog your memories. And find out from you what you remember about David. 

So, last week, we heard Joshua recount for Israel all that God had done for them during the exodus from Egypt. We also heard Joshua renew the Sinai covenant with them - the agreement that  Moses and Israel made with God at Mount Sinai. That Israel would be God’s people and that God would protect and bless them, making them into God’s chosen people. 

At the end of the reading, Joshua dispersed the 12 tribes of Israel to their respective areas. In between the book of Joshua and Samuel in the Old Testament (or Hebrew scriptures) is the book of Judges. This book tells a story we’ve heard before. A story of Israel’s total failure after the death of Joshua. 

The judges in this book were tribal chieftains. Their story is very disturbing. It serves as a tragic tale of how Israel’s leaders become increasingly corrupt. No better than the Canaanite tribes they had overthrown. Yet, as we so often see, this story of the judges, though it is sad, is still a story of hope for the future. It shows us the vicious cycle of apostasy. (That’s a big word. Does anyone know what it means? In our context, it’s when one person or a group of people abandon or renounce their religious beliefs.) What we see in Judges is what we’ve heard before in previous readings from the Old Testament. A person or a group of people abandon God, become oppressors, and then, on repentance, are once again delivered by God.

The book of Judges ends with the apostasy of Israel with these words in Joshua 21:25, “In those days, Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” It is here where the book of Samuel picks up. First Samuel opens with Hannah, a woman who - similar to other women we’ve heard about - Hannah is barren. She prays to God. God answers her anguished prayers for a son, whom she dedicates to God’s service. This son is Samuel. 

He grow wise. And becomes Israel’s judge and leading prophet. A neighboring people - the Philistines - become a challenge for Israel. Israel insists that Samuel give them a king, like the other nations. Although this does not please Samuel, he asks God. And God gives Israel their first king. King Saul. And, once again, Saul becomes proud and disobeys God, who eventually tears Israel away from him and gives it to someone else. Saul slowly descends into madness and eventually dies.

But, it is under the reign of Saul, where we first hear of David. And, so, now it’s your turn to help me. What do you remember about David? [Son of Jesse, anointed by Samuel under Saul’s reign when he was a young shepherd. Defeats Goliath and becomes Saul’s assistant. Eventually becomes Saul’s enemy when Saul finds out David has been anointed as the next king. Hunted by Saul. Eventually becomes king of Judah and then of Israel (combined kingdom). Captures Jerusalem and makes it Israel’s capital. Desires to build God a house, instead God promises David an eternal royal house that will come from his descendants (Davidic covenant). Commits terrible sins (Bathsheba, Uriah). But damage is done: a future of family strife embroiled in politics, rebellion and death begins.]

The story of David and Bathsheba is in Second Samuel, Chapter 11. It’s the chapter just before today’s reading. Up until this point, David has been a good king. And a successful king. First of Judah, and then of Israel. David has restored the kingdom of Israel that had become divided under King Saul. He has also been a successful warrior, leading his soldiers in battle again neighboring tribes. And restoring Jerusalem, which had been captured under his predecessor. In one of the most important acts in his reign, David had restored the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. This had made his reign and his control over Israel complete.

But, as we know, power tends to corrupt. And, in the famous 19th century words of Lord Acton, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It corrupts because it creates a sense of entitlement. It happens frequently. And it’s what happened to David.

One day, as David’s soldiers are at the front fighting the Ammonites, which is where he should have been, David remains at the palace in Jerusalem. Now, it’s important to understand that the palace was situated on the highest place in the city. And, so, as David would walk on the palace balcony, he would have a bird’s eye view of many of the balconies in the city. Wealthy people in the ancient world used their roofs to cool off in the summer. The roofs were usually flat and festooned with makeshift tents to shield from the sun. When it was hot, people ate on their balconies and also slept there, too. And, as we know from the story of David and Bathsheba, they bathed on them, as well.

So, on that day, as David is strolling his balcony, he sees a beautiful woman bathing. A woman named Bathsheba. David sent someone to inquire about her and found out that she was the wife of Uriah. David, then, Scripture reads, “sent messengers to take her.”

Now there has been much written about Bathsheba. And about how she deliberately did this to entice David. And, yet, the Bible is silent on her motivation. It is not, however, silent on David’s motivation. And I could begin a diatribe here related to the #metoo movement, but I think you get the drift of how women have been treated under patriarchal systems. Scripture says that David sent messengers to “take her.” Who was she to refuse the demands of the king? Especially the demands of a king as powerful as David?

And, so, she went. And, you know the rest of the story. When Bathsheba become pregnant, David cold-bloodedly arranged to have Uriah, her husband, placed at the front of the battle, all but ensuring that he would be killed. And he was. 

This happens frequently. One sin leads to another sin. And then a more serious sin. And, on it goes. It’s one of the reasons there are two commandments about coveting. Because God knows that the simple and seemingly innocent act of coveting can lead to more and more serious sin. Just as with David in chapter 11. A chapter that ends with these words, “But what David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes.”

And, so, God sent Nathan to David. Now Nathan was a prophet and an adviser to King David. One can only wonder what Nathan was thinking the night before he went to confront David. Was he reluctant? Did Nathan argue with God? Did he argue,“God, if I speak plainly to David, he’ll kill me. I’ll never get away with it.”  And, yet, Nathan came up with a brilliant plan. To tell David a story. The story of a certain man - a poor man - who had a lamb that he cherished. The he cared for in his own house. And that he treated as his own child. There was another man, a wealthy man, who had many livestock. When a visitor came to the wealthy man, rather than part with his own property, he stole the poor man’s lamb, slaughtered it, and made a feast.

It was a brilliant move by Nathan. He knew that, when David heard this, it would make him angry. Which is exactly what happened. It was then that Nathan said to David, “YOU are that wealthy man.” Immediately, David recognized the truth. How his power had corrupted him. And how he had sinned. Not only against Bathsheba and Uriah. But, in David’s own words, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been learning how we are to live faithfully in God’s promise. One of the most important aspects of that living faithfully is being here in community with each other. Because it is here, in this place, where week after week we are confronted by each other and by God with our sin. And where, like David, we ask for forgiveness in words like or similar to those written by him in Psalm 51. It is here, each week, that we come face to face with our sin and our brokenness. 

But, it doesn’t end with our confession. It didn’t with David either. And even though he did not escape the consequences of his sins, God forgave him. And, then, made a covenant with David that from his line would come an eternal king. A king who would free all people. And us. From our sin. Jesus Christ. Our Savior and Lord.

Because that’s who God is. Always turning that vicious cycle of apostasy upside down. To bring deliverance. 

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Preached October 21, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 22
Readings: Matt. 21:33-41; 2 Samuel 12:1-19; Psalm 51:1-10

Monday, October 15, 2018

Living Faithfully in the Promise: Choosing Faithfulness

Grace and peace to you from God, our Liberator, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Before we hear our lesson today, I’d like to catch you up to everything that has happened between last week’s story and today’s from Joshua. We ended last week with Israel at Mt. Sinai. It was here that they received God’s ten commandments. The Ten Words of hope - the hope of what a realized kingdom of God was to look like. It was at the mountain where they entered into a covenant with God - that if they would remain faithful to God, God would give them a land and make them into a chosen people.

That hope Israel had coming off the mountain quickly turned to despair. They began to lose faith. To doubt. To complain. And to break the covenant. The result, if you remember the history of Israel, was that they were punished by God. Made to wander for 40 years in the wilderness until their generation had passed away, never getting to enter the Promised Land. Even Moses was unable to enter before he died.

And so, our story today is from Joshua. Joshua was Moses’ successor. A new spiritual and military leader for Israel. The one who would bring them, with God’s help and guidance, into the Promised Land. In the chapters before today’s reading, Joshua has led Israel across the Jordan River into Canaan - that Promised Land. There have been a series of military conquests, including the famous Battle of Jericho. The land has been divided among the twelve tribes of Israel. It is at this point, before the people depart to their inherited lands - to their legacy - that Joshua calls them together at Shechem. It is at this point, where our story opens.

I read today from Joshua, chapter 24.

Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders of Israel, its leaders, judges, and officers. They presented themselves before God. Then Joshua said to the entire people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Long ago your ancestors lived on the other side of the Euphrates. They served other gods. Among them was Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor. I took Abraham your ancestor from the other side of the Euphrates. I led him around through the whole land of Canaan. I added to his descendants and gave him Isaac. To Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Mount Seir to Esau to take over. But Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron. I plagued Egypt with what I did to them. After that I brought you out. I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, and you came to the sea. The Egyptians chased your ancestors with chariots and horses to the Reed Sea. Then they cried for help to the Lord. So he set darkness between you and the Egyptians. He brought the sea down on them, and it covered them. With your own eyes you saw what I did to the Egyptians. You lived in the desert for a long time.

“Then I brought you into the land of the Amorites who lived on the other side of the Jordan. They attacked you, but I gave them into your power, and you took over their land. I wiped them out before you. Then Moab’s King Balak, Zippor’s son, set out to attack Israel. He summoned Balaam, Beor’s son, to curse you. But I wasn’t willing to listen to Balaam, so he actually blessed you. I rescued you from his power. Then you crossed over the Jordan. You came to Jericho, and the citizens of Jericho attacked you. They were Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites. But I gave them into your power. I sent the hornet before you. It drove them out before you and did the same to the two kings of the Amorites. It wasn’t your sword or bow that did this. I gave you land on which you hadn’t toiled and cities that you hadn’t built. You settled in them and are enjoying produce from vineyards and olive groves that you didn’t plant.

“So now, revere the Lord. Serve him honestly and faithfully. Put aside the gods that your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if it seems wrong in your opinion to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:1-15 (CEB)

"What has God done for you lately?" This is really the question that Joshua is asking. Speaking in the first person as God, Joshua recounts what God has done. Every statement begins with “I” and is followed by a verb. “I took. I led. I added. I gave. I sent. I plagued. I brought. I did.”

In his recounting, Joshua is helping this new generation of Israelites remember what God has done. How God has acted to save them. How God has fulfilled God’s promises to them. How God has remained faithful to them.

And so, with Israel knowing this history, Joshua asks them this question,"Whom will you serve? Will you serve the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Will you serve the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you now live?" God has freed Israel from captivity. God has safely brought them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. "Choose," Joshua tells them. "Choose today whom you will serve." 

And, then, Joshua speaks those famous words that we see embroidered on pillows or hanging on our walls. “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

You see Joshua knows. He knows that Israel will quickly adjust from the nomadic life they have been living these past 40 years. He knows they will quickly adjust to a life settled in this new land. He knows that Israel will quickly become distracted. By day-to-day life. By the gods of the people into whose land they are settling. Joshua knows that it will be a challenge for them to remain faithful. And so, he tells them to commit. To choose. "Choose today whom you will serve."

Whom (or what)  do you choose? As people who have been given a gift of complete freedom by God in Christ, whom do you choose to serve? Living as God’s faithful people involves choosing to turn away from the distractions in our world. And not simply to turn away, but then to live according to how God desires. 

You see, just like the Israelites, we are often surrounded by people and a culture that does not share the same values and view of the world as God. What are the things that compete in our lives for our attention? For our love? For our adoration? What does our society worship through its time and energy that compete for our attention? Maybe it’s money? Or our family? Or maybe it’s status? Or maybe its things that entertain us? Or our work or school? 

Do these things help us live life like God wants us to? With our focus on God? Or are they distractions for us? 

Our reading continues.

Then the people answered, “God forbid that we ever leave the Lord to serve other gods! The Lord is our God. He is the one who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. He has done these mighty signs in our sight. He has protected us the whole way we’ve gone and in all the nations through which we’ve passed. The Lord has driven out all the nations before us, including the Amorites who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

Then Joshua said to the people, “You can’t serve the Lord, because he is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He won’t forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you leave the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn around and do you harm and finish you off, in spite of having done you good in the past.”

Then the people said to Joshua, “No! The Lord is the one we will serve.”

So Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”

They said, “We are witnesses!”

“So now put aside the foreign gods that are among you. Focus your hearts on the Lord, the God of Israel.”

The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and will obey him.”

On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people and established just rule for them at Shechem. Joshua wrote these words in God’s Instruction scroll. Then he took a large stone and put it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. Joshua said to all the people, “This stone will serve here as a witness against us, because it has heard all the Lord’s words that he spoke to us. It will serve as a witness against you in case you aren’t true to your God.” Then Joshua sent the people away to each one’s legacy. Joshua 24:16-28 (CEB)

Israel chose God. Recognizing how faithful God had been to them, Israel chose God.

And Joshua’s response? He didn’t believe them. He’d seen too much with his own eyes. How Israel constantly rebelled against God. How Israel had worshipped other gods. How Israel had sinned against God. Joshua told them that God would not forgive them. That God would punish them and finish them off.

This is where Joshua was wrong. Because over and over as Israel had sinned in the wilderness, God had forgiven them. When they had turned back to God in repentance, God had always forgiven them.

Our story today includes an invitation for us to recommit ourselves to serving God. Because, just like Israel, we wander. Just like Israel, we rebel against God. We worship other gods. Just. Like. Israel. And over and over and over again, when we turn to God in repentance, God forgives us. This promise to forgive is embodied for us on the cross. In Jesus. A promise of God’s faithfulness to never turn away from us. Ever. And to always forgive.

Then, forgiven, we try one more time. To be more diligent in our study of scripture. To pray more. To be more committed to doing the work of God’s kingdom. And to be more regular in our worship attendance where we hear and remember God’s covenant with us in our baptisms. Where we hear and remember Jesus’ death and resurrection at the communion table. Where we hear and remember all of God’s previous acts. And then, we re-commit to serving God. Because the grace and the forgiveness we have received from God should not be cheapened by our unwillingness to even attempt to be God’s people. To be more focused. To focus our hearts on the LORD. Israel’s God. Our God. A God who deserves our faithfulness.

And so, my friends, I hope you choose God. I hope you choose faithfulness. That you choose to be faithful to God and to grow in your faith. To engage in practices that bring you closer to God. That deepen your relationship with God. And that help you turn away from the things of this world that distract you from God. 

But, know, that even when you fail - know that God will be there. When you turn back from the distractions of life to God, God will be there to forgive you. Once again. To forgive and to lift you up. And to set you back on the path of discipleship one more time. 

This is what it is to live as God’s faithful people. This is what it is to live faithfully in God’s promise. May God help us to do so. Amen.

Preached Saturday, October 13, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 21
Readings: Matt. 4:8-10, Joshua 24:1-28.

God's Promises Bring Hope: Hope in Ten Words

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him.

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Ex. 19:3-7, 20:1-17 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week, we heard how God saved Israel at the Sea of Reeds. To catch us up to our story today, we’re going to watch this closing scene from the Disney movie, “The Prince of Egypt,” which begins at the edge of the sea. 

“Look!” Miriam says to Moses after God has saved them from Pharaoh and his army of chariots. “Look at your people, Moses! They are free!” she says. God has freed them from the hand of their oppressor. From Pharaoh, their oppressor. God is their Liberator.

The movie ends in the wilderness at Mt. Sinai, which also known as Mt. Horeb in Scripture. It is here where our story picks up today. Yet, we know there were many other scenes in between. Israel traveled from the shore of the sea through the wilderness. It was in the wilderness where they began to be afraid--fearing the future. Not knowing the future, they began to lose trust in God and to complain. About the lack of food. About the lack of water. As in our story last week, they even cried once again to go back to Egypt. To slavery. To return to live under their oppressor. In each scene, God hears their cries. And God answers them.

Finally, they reach their destination. Now, we know that Canaan--the Promised Land--is their final goal. But, in looking back, it is the story here at Mt. Sinai that is the climax of the Exodus story. It is here where everything happens. Where God’s first promise to Moses at the burning bush is fulfilled. Where the first request of Moses to let Israel go into the desert and worship comes true. And where God’s promise to form and shape Israel into a chosen people, or as in today’s lesson, to be God’s most precious possession--a kingdom of priests, a holy nation--is begins to be fulfilled. It is here at Mt. Sinai, where this forming and shaping begins. With the giving of the Ten Commandments. Or the Ten Words, which is what they were called in ancient times.

So, why would God give Israel these Ten Words? (I just gave you one hint!) There are a couple of reasons.

This summer, when we spent four weeks studying these commandments, we noticed that there are a variety of ways that they are numbered. There are also differences with the first commandment. In our Lutheran tradition, as with most other Protestant traditions, we begin with “You shall have no other gods.” But, in the Jewish tradition, the first commandment is “I am the Lord your God” - the same words we read earlier - “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of slavery.” 

For Israel, this first commandment is a reminder to them of who God is. And, in particular, it is intended to create a contrast between God and Pharaoh. Liberator vs. Oppressor. “I am the Lord your liberating God, who heard your cries--the cries of an oppressed people--and freed you from Pharaoh, your oppressor.”  Embedded in this first commandment is this memory of who God is. Israel’s Liberator.

The second purpose, which I hinted at before, is also connected to memory. To the memory of who they were in Egypt. Enslaved. Beaten down. Pharaoh’s oppressed people. With no identity apart from their captivity. God’s purpose in giving Israel these Ten Words, or these rules, or these boundaries is to begin to form and to shape them into a new people. A kingdom of priests. A holy nation. God’s most precious possession. This was to be their new identity. The Ten Words were that vision of who they were to become. A people in loving relationship with God. And a people in loving relationship with one another. The Ten Words were God’s covenant with Israel and a promise of what God’s kingdom would be. If Israel kept them.

We know that Israel didn’t. When Moses came down off the mountain, he saw the people worshipping the Golden Calf. He saw that they had quickly forgotten who God was. And this is the ongoing story of God’s relationship with Israel throughout the Hebrew scriptures. A story of God, Israel’s Liberator, seeking to bring Israel back into relationship over and over and over again.

What does this story mean for us? As New Testament people for whom the Law has already been fulfilled in Christ Jesus, what does this important story in Israel’s history have to do with us?

We are living in the midst of turbulent times. These past few weeks have been one more example of this. The institutions we have placed our faith in over centuries seem to be dismantling. Our government seems to be splitting in two. The rule of law seems irrelevant. Our churches are diminishing. Society seems to be crumbling. Everything that we have known - the systems and the institutions that we have built - seem to be breaking down. Dismantling. It is a frightening time. But, what if? What if God is at work in this? What if?

We like to think of ourselves as a free country. A nation where anyone might come and live freely. Much of this is true. And, yet, throughout our history, it can also be said that we have created our institutions to oppress. To do the work of oppression on our behalf. We only need to look at these photos to remind us of our history. A history of oppression. Not much different than Pharaoh in Israel’s time. Native Americans. African-Americans. Women. Japanese citizens. Gay and lesbian people. The poor. Immigrants. And more.

What if God is at work in this dismantling? What if God has heard the cries of the oppressed? What if God is saying, “No more, Pharaoh!” Let my people go! Let them go so that everyone--all humankind whom I have created in my image. Everyone. And all creation. Might. Live. Freely. Without oppression. In full relationship with me. And in full relationship with each other!”? 

Because this is what God’s kingdom looks like. A kingdom covenanted with Israel. Fulfilled in a new covenant for us in Christ. A kingdom where God is sovereign and not Pharaoh. A kingdom described by these Ten Commandments, that is envisioned by these Ten Words. A reality of shalom--of wholeness. Of whole and complete love. Love of God. Love of self. And love of others.

This is the hope these ten words gave Israel.  It’s the hope that they give us as we continue to move towards God’s promised kingdom--a kingdom of justice and peace. 

May God grant it. Amen.

Preached October 7, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 20
Readings: Matt. 5:17; Ex. 19:3-7, 20:1-17

Sunday, October 14, 2018

God's Promises Bring Hope: Grace and Freedom

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Before we begin our story today, I’d like to take a minute or so to set the stage. And to catch us up a little bit. Since the start of this series, each Sunday we’ve heard a story about one of Israel’s patriarchs. We began with Noah and that cosmic story of the flood and God’s attempt to re-create a world that had become completely evil. Along with God’s promise to never again destroy the earth and the sign of the rainbow. 

Then, we heard the story of Abraham and of God’s call to him to lead God’s chosen people. There was another promise by God in this story--that God would bless Abraham and Sarah with many generations who would grow into these chosen people and be given a land that would be their land. That they would be blessed so they could be a blessing.

Then, there was Joseph last week--great grandson to Abraham. We especially saw God’s hand at work in protecting Joseph in Egypt, even as he was falsely accused. 

Today, we hear the story of Moses. 

Between Joseph and Moses, there were many, many generations. By Moses’ time, the promise that God made to Abraham that Israel would be a large people had come true. The Israelites lived in Goshen - an area of Egypt. They had multiplied with a population, by some estimates, of over 2 million people. They had flourished in this land, even though it wasn’t the land that God promised them. 

But, then, things began to change. In the first chapter of the book of Exodus, verse 8, we read, “Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.”  This new king, or pharaoh, began to worry about how large Israel had become. He worried that, if a war would break out with Egypt’s enemies, the Israelites would join with those enemies, fight against Egypt, and escape.

So, he forced them into work gangs. He enslaved them, making their workload harsher and harsher. The second chapter of Exodus reads, “The Israelites were groaning because of their hard work. They cried out, and their cry to be rescued from the hard work rose up to God. God heard their cry of grief. And God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked at the Israelites, and God understood.”

It was at this point, that we hear of Moses, who is our focus today. 

God calls Moses, along with his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, to set God’s people free. God sends Moses to the pharaoh to tell him to set Israel free. But, the pharaoh won't listen. The Hebrew scripture tells us that he “hardened his heart.” He became stubborn. So, God sends a series of plagues. Ten of them. Who remembers what some of those plagues were (water into blood, invasion of frogs, Lice/insects, flies, livestock disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn)? By the end of the last plague, pharaoh had enough. He told Moses to lead Israel away. To go out of Egypt. 

So, they left. And, eventually, they reached the Sea of Reeds. And camped. It is here where today’s story picks up. We read from Exodus, chapter 14. 

When Egypt’s king was told that the people had run away, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about the people. They said, “What have we done, letting Israel go free from their slavery to us?” So he sent for his chariot and took his army with him. He took six hundred elite chariots and all of Egypt’s other chariots with captains on all of them.

As Pharaoh drew closer, the Israelites looked back and saw the Egyptians marching toward them. The Israelites were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the desert? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt like this? Didn’t we tell you the same thing in Egypt? ‘Leave us alone! Let us work for the Egyptians!’ It would have been better for us to work for the Egyptians than to die in the desert.”

But Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never ever see again. The Lord will fight for you. You just keep still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to get moving. As for you, lift your shepherd’s rod, stretch out your hand over the sea, and split it in two so that the Israelites can go into the sea on dry ground.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord pushed the sea back by a strong east wind all night, turning the sea into dry land. The waters were split into two. The Israelites walked into the sea on dry ground. The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians chased them and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and cavalry. As morning approached, the Lord looked down on the Egyptian camp from the column of lightning and cloud and threw the Egyptian camp into a panic. The Lord jammed their chariot wheels so that they wouldn’t turn easily. The Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites, because the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt!”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the water comes back and covers the Egyptians, their chariots, and their cavalry.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. At daybreak, the sea returned to its normal depth. The Egyptians were driving toward it, and the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the cavalry, Pharaoh’s entire army that had followed them into the sea. Not one of them remained. The Israelites, however, walked on dry ground through the sea. The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left.

Israel saw the amazing power of the Lord against the Egyptians. The people were in awe of the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses. Exodus 14:5-7, 10-16, 21-29, 31 (CEB).

Do you ever wonder how frightening it must have been for Israel as they turned back and saw the Pharaoh approaching with his army? Trapped there? Awaiting slaughter? Nowhere forward and certainly nowhere backward.

In his book Messengers of God, Elie Wiesel writes about this scene. Wiesel, who experienced the Holocaust, was a man who, like the Israelites, knew what it was like to live under a leader and a government that had become pure evil. Just like the pharaoh in Egypt. Wiesel writes this about Israel and their experience at the edge of the sea: "One could see people running. Running breathlessly. Without a glance backward. They were running toward the sea. And there they came to an abrupt halt. This was the end. Death was there, waiting. The leaders of the group, urged on by Moses, pushed forward: Don’t be afraid! Go! Into the water! Into the water! Yet, according to one commentator, Moses suddenly ordered everyone to a halt. Wait a moment! Think! Take a moment to reassess what you are doing. Enter the sea, not as frightened fugitives, but as free men and women!"

This Friday, after we had witnessed the spectacle in Washington, the appalling spectacle that we have allowed our country to become, my morning devotion featured appointed verses from the prophet Micah, which read, “The faithful have disappeared from the land, and there is no one left who is upright; they all lie in wait for blood, and they hunt each other with nets. The hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice...Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household. But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.”

As I read these words, it was a reminder for me once again, that our salvation comes not from principalities or powers. But, from God. From a God who, as Israel found out on that fearful day at the edge of the water--is faithful and who keeps promises.

We have this same God. Faithful. A promise-keeper. Who calls us to “Go, go into the water.” Into the waters of baptism, where we stand at the edge reassessing what we are doing. And realizing that we go into the water, not as frightened people, but as free women and men. Into the water, where, through God’s faithful and never-ending grace, we are washed in the blood of the Lamb, our Savior Jesus Christ. And freed.

Friends, I don’t know what will happen in our country. But, what I do know is that God hears our cries. And I know that God is working in our midst. To bring about a more just world. More just than the world we experienced this past week as we watched two families be destroyed. Somehow, God is working in the midst of this to turn our world around so that all may experience God’s saving grace. 

This is what Israel learned that day at the edge of the water. This is what we know in the water of our baptisms. That God is faithful. That God is just. And that, through God’s grace and only God’s grace, we are freed. It is in this knowledge and only this knowledge, that we place our hope and our future. Amen.

Preached Sunday, September 30, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 19
Readings: Matt. 2:13-15; Ex. 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-29, 31.

God's Promises Bring Hope: Presence and Possibilities

When Joseph had been taken down to Egypt, Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chief officer, the commander of the royal guard and an Egyptian, purchased him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man and served in his Egyptian master’s household. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made everything he did successful. Potiphar thought highly of Joseph, and Joseph became his assistant; he appointed Joseph head of his household and put everything he had under Joseph’s supervision. From the time he appointed Joseph head of his household and of everything he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s household because of Joseph. The Lord blessed everything he had, both in the household and in the field. So he handed over everything he had to Joseph and didn’t pay attention to anything except the food he ate.

Now Joseph was well-built and handsome.

Some time later, his master’s wife became attracted to Joseph and said, “Sleep with me.”

He refused and said to his master’s wife, “With me here, my master doesn’t pay attention to anything in his household; he’s put everything he has under my supervision. No one is greater than I am in this household, and he hasn’t denied me anything except you, since you are his wife. How could I do this terrible thing and sin against God?” Every single day she tried to convince him, but he wouldn’t agree to sleep with her or even to be with her.

One day when Joseph arrived at the house to do his work, none of the household’s men were there. She grabbed his garment, saying, “Lie down with me.” But he left his garment in her hands and ran outside. When she realized that he had left his garment in her hands and run outside, she summoned the men of her house and said to them, “Look, my husband brought us a Hebrew to ridicule us. He came to me to lie down with me, but I screamed. When he heard me raise my voice and scream, he left his garment with me and ran outside.” She kept his garment with her until Joseph’s master came home, and she told him the same thing: “The Hebrew slave whom you brought to us, to ridicule me, came to me; but when I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment with me and ran outside.”

When Joseph’s master heard the thing that his wife told him, “This is what your servant did to me,” he was incensed. Joseph’s master took him and threw him in jail, the place where the king’s prisoners were held. While he was in jail, the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. He caused the jail’s commander to think highly of Joseph. The jail’s commander put all of the prisoners in the jail under Joseph’s supervision, and he was the one who determined everything that happened there. The jail’s commander paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s supervision, because the Lord was with him and made everything he did successful. Gen. 39:1-23 CEB

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Over these past few weeks, as we’ve heard the stories of people from the Bible in worship, we’ve reflected upon our own stories. We’ve thought about how God might be at work in our own stories, just as God was at work in the biblical narrative. We’ve seen how God was with Noah and his family when the rest of the world had turned away from God. Last week, we walked with Abraham, as God promised him and Sarah generations of heirs and a new land. Today we hear a story about their great-grandson, Joseph. One of those heirs. It is a story of challenge and joy.

Now Joseph, if you remember, was the youngest of Jacob’s sons. The family line begins with Abraham. Then Isaac, then Jacob, finally Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons. If you remember the entire story of Joseph, you might recall that he was a little arrogant. Because of this and because Jacob doted on him more than his brothers, they hated him. In fact, they hated him so much that they sold him into slavery. 

As our story opens today, we learn that Joseph is now in Egypt. He has been sold once again by his human traffickers to be a slave in the home of Potiphar. Potiphar is the chief officer to the pharaoh - a pharaoh is like a king. He is also the commander of the royal guard, the soldiers who protect the pharaoh. So, as you can imagine, Potiphar is trusted, and a pretty important person in Egypt. Probably the second-most important person after the pharaoh.

Our story tells us that Joseph quickly becomes important in Potiphar’s house. In verse 2, we read that “The Lord was with Joseph and he become a successful man and served in his Egyptian master’s household.” In fact, Joseph was so indispensable and trusted, that Potiphar handed everything over to Joseph. Potiphar didn’t pay attention to or worry about anything except the food he ate. Except for that food, Joseph handled everything else in Potiphar’s household. In verse 3, we hear that even Potiphar noticed right away that the “Lord was with Joseph,” because everything that he touched was successful. We also hear that the Lord blessed Potiphar’s household because of Joseph. 

Then, at the end of verse 6, we read this short, but intriguing, sentence. “Now Joseph was well-built and handsome.” It’s an interesting verse, isn’t it? A verse that cleverly sets up what is about to happen next. "Joseph was well-built and handsome.”

Our story continues that some time later, Potiphar’s wife (Do you notice that she is not even named in this story?)...some time later, she came to Joseph and tried to entice him. Joseph knew that this was wrong. He knew that to do what she wanted him to do would not only be disloyal to his master, her husband, Potiphar, but that it would also be disloyal--a sin--before God. And so, Joseph refused her. And he ran away. And she was left there. Holding onto his outer garment, which he had left behind in his haste to get out of the situation.

It is then that Potiphar’s wife reacted and acted in a way that I’m thinking every one of us has done. I know I have. When I’ve been rejected. Or someone has said “no” to something I wanted. So, whether out of embarrassment, or shame, or humiliation or for whatever reason, Potiphar’s wife gets angry. At Joseph. Then, out of spite, she accuses Joseph of assault. That it was Joseph who attacked her. 

But, it’s not only that she gets angry at him and accuses him. Did you hear her words? What she said in verse 14? What she spoke to the men of the house who she had summoned after Joseph left? Knowing that this would eventually get back to her husband. “Look,” she said to them. “Look, my husband brought us a Hebrew to ridicule me…” A Hebrew. Not “a man.” Not “a servant.” Not even “a slave.” But, this Hebrew. Going immediately to Joseph’s ethnicity. This Hebrew. This Jew. This Muslim. This African-American. This immigrant.

Potiphar’s wife knows this a sure way to rile her husband. To make him angry at Joseph. To punish Joseph. It’s what people in power frequently do. Using ethnicity or other slurs or epithets to rile people up against other people. And often not for reasons that are true. But for their own purposes. As a wedge to divide people. To rile people up against each other. Why? Because it works.

It works with us. It worked with Potiphar. When he heard the rumors and the lie his wife told him, he got angry. At Joseph. Even though he knew Joseph so well. Even though he trusted Joseph so much. He didn’t even hesitate. To take a step back and to look at the entire situation. Perhaps, even to step into Joseph’s shoes and understand what might have happened, from Joseph’s perspective.

I think I’ve mentioned to you before how much I love both the book and the movie, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” This week, I watched a program on PBS about Harper Lee, the woman who wrote this story. In 1960. In the midst of the civil rights movement. A woman from the deep South--from Alabama--who wrote a fictionalized story about a black man falsely accused by a white woman and about the attorney who defended him. Who, through her story, bravely held up a mirror to our society for us to see, to witness what we had become. 

There’s a scene in the movie that I especially like. And that has always stayed with me. It’s a scene between the attorney, Atticus Finch, and his young daughter, Scout, after her first day at school with a new teacher. Let’s watch.

“Climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Consider something from someone else’s point of view. Hear another side of the story. Get another perspective.

How often we fail to do this! Just like Potiphar. To step back and take a second look. To look at the situation from another perspective. To challenge our own perceptions. Or to see through something or someone and find the truth. How often we are just like Potiphar! 

Because, if he only had. If Potiphar had challenged his initial perception, perhaps he would have taken the time to hear the whole story. Both sides of the story. Perhaps he wouldn’t have become angry at Joseph or thrown him in jail. Wouldn’t have punished him. Perhaps, instead, he might have rewarded Joseph for his loyalty.

But, he didn’t. Yet, even after he threw Joseph into jail, our story reads, “The Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him.” Even when the rest of the world wasn’t. 

And, we know, by the end of the story, that Joseph, once again, had become successful and trusted. Even in prison.

That’s the message for us today. That, even when we have messed everything up. When we’ve falsely accused someone. Or when we’ve been on the other side and have been falsely accused ourselves. Or even when something bad just happens to us, we have this promise. That in the midst of the dark, and the blue places of our lives, God is present with us. Just as with Joseph. And that God is working there, in those places to create new, golden possibilities. Just as God did on that Easter morning so long ago. And as God does, each week, for us in the bread and the wine--the body and the blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Presence and possibility. This is God’s promise to us. God’s promise that brings us hope. Amen. 

Preached Sunday, September 23, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 18
Readings: Matt. 5:11-12; Gen. 39:1-23

God's Promises Bring Hope: Trust and Blessing

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Who here has seen the classic musical, The Sound of Music? Anyone remember how old they were when they saw it? I was seven years old. My great aunt Lottie took me to see it. She loved musicals and wanted to share her love of them with me.

Do you remember the opening scene? Well, in case you don’t or if you’ve never seen it, I have a treat today for you. Let's watch.

Now, why do you think I would play this opening scene to introduce today’s story? Anyone have an idea? 

Our story today about Abram is a turning point in the book of Genesis. Before this chapter, Chapter 9, we have all those familiar stories that make up what scholars call the “primeval history”--Creation, The Fall, Cain and Abel, and Noah and the Flood, which we heard last week. But, beginning this week, the focus narrows. Instead of stories about cosmic beginnings, we focus in on one couple, Abram and Sarai. So, just like the opening scene in The Sound of Music, where we begin way up high and have a wide-angled view of the Austrian Alps,  we see this tiny figure on top of one of the mountains, and then the camera pulls us in and zooms into this person who then fills the entire frame. With today’s story, we now have zoomed in on a closeup of Abram. And of Sarai, his wife. 

As we began worship today, we talked about the incredible trust in God that Abram must have had. I invited you to think about people in your lives that you trust, what it might feel like if you had no one you could trust, and, then, to wonder if someone asked you to pick up and move, whether you would. Like Abram.

I wonder how Abram felt. Perhaps a little scared? I wonder if he had hopes, too? One of the things we will hear today is how God’s promises bring hope to Abram. 

Do you have hopes in your life? Perhaps they’re hopes for the future. Or for your family. Or for something else. What are your hopes? 

Today, as we hear the story, we’re going to journey right along with Abram. We begin in Genesis, chapter 12. 

The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

3 I will bless those who bless you,
    those who curse you I will curse;
        all the families of the earth
            will be blessed because of you.”

4 Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran. 

Do you, first of all, notice that there doesn’t seem to be anything special about Abram? In last week’s story about Noah, we read that he was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. And that “Noah walked with God.” But, there’s nothing like this in the first verses of our story today about Abram. 

Hmmm...something for us to think about.

Back to our story, we’re on this journey today with Abram. What do you do when you’re preparing to go on a journey? You plan your trip. Pack your bags. What are some of the things that you pack when you go on a journey? Yes, you might take clothing, toiletries, shoes, maybe a book to read along the way. All of these are things that we might pack in our suitcase as we prepare to go on our journey. 

But what if the journey you were taking meant you were leaving everything behind that was familiar to you and never returning? We heard in the opening verse that God told Abram to leave behind his land, his family, and his father’s household, which also meant leaving behind his entire inheritance. Everything and everyone Abram knew--God asked him to leave it all behind.

What might that feel like? Leaving your entire, familiar life behind? Oh, and do you remember hearing that Abram was 75 years old when God called him? Any of you 75-year-olds out there ready to leave everything behind and follow God’s call? Just like Abraham?

We continue our reading at verse 5. Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and those who became members of their household in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. 

Now Abram had already moved once, from Ur to Haran. He had traveled there with his father Terah and his nephew, Lot, many years before. They had originally planned to travel all the way to Canaan. But, when they arrived in Haran, they decided to settle there. By the time of our story today, they’ve already been living in Haran for many, many years. But, Haran is where the journey with Abraham begins today. 

Pretend that you are taking your family members and others sitting around you. We’ll leave Haran and head south.  Okay, this is Canaan, land of milk and honey. Oh, but, we’re not staying here! 

Verse 6. When they arrived in Canaan, Abram traveled through the land as far as the sacred place at Shechem, at the oak of Moreh. The Canaanites lived in the land at that time. Abraham passed through the land of Canaan and kept going to Shechem, to the oak at Moreh. 

It is here, at the Oak of Moreh, that God appears to Abraham!  Verse 7. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I give this land to your descendants,” so Abram built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him. 

What do you think it would be like to have God appear to you? What would God look like? What would God sound like? What else might be happening if God appeared? Would the earth itself react, say, through the weather? Or what about the animals? How would they react? 

It was after God appeared that God then said to Abraham, “I give this land to your descendants.” In response, Abraham built an altar to God here in this place, knowing that the land would belong to his descendants. Now Abram’s altar was probably made of big rocks. 

Next Abraham and his family moved on to the hill country east of Bethel. Let’s read verse eight and see what happened here.  Verse 8. From there he traveled toward the mountains east of Bethel, and pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and worshipped in the Lord’s name. 

Abraham pitched his tent, so let’s plan to stay for awhile, too. In this place, then, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east, Abraham built another altar! And, then, after leaving everything familiar behind and moving to this new and unfamiliar place, Abraham worshipped God. 

And our story ends with verse 9:  Then Abram set out toward the arid southern plain, making and breaking camp as he went.

That was quite the journey. Let’s “unpack” it a little bit. 

In our story last week, we heard that this God of Israel was not like all of the other gods. Rather than destroying the entire world, this God chose to preserve life. But God is now on the hook. God needs to show that he truly isn’t like all the other gods. 

And so, God picks a man. Abram. No one special. Just someone who is pretty ordinary. Like you and I. God calls this man to pickup his family and move across an entire country. Leaving everything behind. Knowing that he will probably never see his father or the rest of his family ever again.

It takes some serious trust, doesn’t? For Abraham to do exactly what God calls him to do? I wonder if you and I would be like Abram. Trusting. Never questioning.

I belong to a few closed clergy groups on Facebook. A few days ago a pastor in San Antonio posted in the group. “Help!” she posted. “I’m trying to make a point in my sermon! Can you help me think of people who felt they weren’t worthy. Or aren’t capable of God’s call for them?” Within 30 minutes, there were 40 posts. The first several listed people in Scripture who had resisted God’s call: Amos, David, Mary, Paul, Samuel, Gideon, Isaiah, Jonah, Jacob, Jeremiah…. And, then, someone asked the question, “Did YOU immediately answer God’s call?” What followed then was post after post from pastors saying, “No, I didn’t.” 

How is your journey like Abraham’s? How are his travels similar to the path you have been on with God so far? Maybe they’re not the same. Maybe you’re still resisting. If you are, you’re not alone. But, God selects us in grace, as ordinary as we might be. As resistant as we might be. And God calls us onto a journey. In our baptism, God called and continues to call us. Onto a journey. A journey of trust. A journey of blessing.

Yes, blessing. Because we know this story of Abram. God made a promise with Abram and his barren wife, Sarai. A three-fold promise. Of descendants. Of land. And of blessing. That they would be blessed so that they might be a blessing to others. It was this promise--this covenant--from God that gave them hope.

Trust and blessing. That’s the story of God’s call to Abram and Sarai. Where is God calling you? No matter where, God promises to be with us. It is in those promises, fulfilled in Christ, where we find our hope.

Let us pray: God, thank you for giving each of us a journey and for guiding us on our way. Thank you for blessing us to be a blessing to others. Amen.

Preached Sunday, September 16, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 17
Readings: Matt. 28:19-20; Gen. 12:1-9