All God wants

Micah 6:1-8
For Sunday, January 29, 2017
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

All God wants is that we open our hearts to the amazing love he lavishes upon us.  Micah 6:1-8 is an invitation to do just this.

 

from-shittim-to-gilgal

From Shittim to Gilgal was when Israel actually entered the Promised Land (http://www.israel-a-history-of.com/battle-of-jericho.html)

I have a special love for this passage because Micah 6:8 is my favorite verse of the Bible.  In fact this verse is largely responsible for inspiring my wife Heather and me to become missionaries in Irkutsk, Siberia for 10 years from 1994 through 2003.  I distinctly remember when we first arrived at the Irkutsk airport.  We had 10 big duffle bags (9 too many, but we didn’t know any better).  We weren’t even sure if anyone was going to meet us at the airport.  But we were there.  God had done amazing things to get us there: he provided colleagues, funds, and training in Russian culture and language.  Yet what a thrill to put our own two feet on the ground so long promised and hoped for.

This must have been how Israel felt when they crossed the Jordan river.  Yet how soon we all forget and fall back into saying, “God, what have you done for me lately?”

Our passage alludes to this whole dynamic with the simple phrase, “and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal” (v. 5).  In the Expositor’s Bible Commentary Thomas McComiskey, who was a Professor of Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School during my years there, does a wonderful job explaining just what happened.  In this small stretch of what was a much longer and larger journey God defeated the Midianites (with whom Israel had been illicitly sleeping), stopped the flow of the Jordan so Israel could cross it on dry land, and then worked for them to bring down one of the great fortress cities of all time, Jericho.

A God who would do such things, even when we are sleeping with the enemy, is a God who really loves us!  As McComiskey goes on to say, the context of the passage is God asking his people, “What have I done to weary you of wanting to love me?” (v. 3).  The answer is nothing.  The mountains and hills which have witnessed all things from the beginning of time (v. 2) know this to be true.  They are the jury here.

Now if you were a people who had been rescued from slavery, rescued from a far-away foreign country (Egypt), given great leadership (in Moses, Aaron, and Miriam) (v. 4) – note that last one is a woman – if you were a people who had all of these blessings, how could you not fail to follow faithfully?  What a bunch of dumbbells!  Well, hello pot, meet kettle, whom you have just called black.  This is us.  We blow it persistently.  We are broken but God is still unfailingly committed to blessing us.

In our honest moments, we will find ourselves saying, “Well, yes, God is indeed good, but how could I possibly thank him enough?  Why even my firstborn son wouldn’t be sufficient thanksgiving!” (v. 7).

Here then is the kicker.  God says, “Look, I don’t want your firstborn son.  I don’t even really want your offerings.  All I want is your heart.  All I want is that you make an attempt each day to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with me (v. 8).

This invitation is so welcoming and so freeing, it’s remarkable.  We can do this!  In most situations, do we know what the right thing to do is?  Yes, of course!  Do we know what it would mean to be kind?  Well, give us a minute, but sure!  Do we know what it means to walk humbly?   We certainly know it when we see it, and we can emulate what we’ve seen.  So yes again.

“That’s it?” you say?  “That’s all God wants?”  That’s all God wants.   So how do we give God our hearts.  Here are three simple suggestions:

  • Make your highest priority each day a personal appointment with your boss (the spiritual one – God):
    • Read his Word.  The lectionary is a great way to make this a habit.
    • Journal.  What’s happening in my life?  What is God saying to me about it?
    • Pray.  The first step in humility is recognizing we can’t figure it out on our own.
  • Create a daily reminder on your smart phone that says simply, “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly”.  This alone will transform your life.
  • Ask God to give you one random act of kindness to extend each day. It’s a blast.

Your Turn

God not only extends his heart to us corporately through his word, but he does it personally with each of us?  Where and how has God done this for you?

 

A call for expository preaching

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Baptism of Christ“, mid 12th century Cappella Palatina di Palermo, Palermo, Italy.

When we read God’s word, or preach and teach it, it’s important that we come to own what we’re reading, and that our hearers come to own it for themselves. We ought to meet people where they are, yes, but also lead them to where they need to be. Where we need to be is with Jesus and on his mission. As for preaching, I prefer the expository method because it still seems to be the best vehicle for accomplishing these ends.
Here is an expository sermon outline for one of next week’s Lectionary readings, Isaiah 42:1-9:
We are called to bring justice to the nations through Jesus.
4 aspects of Jesus’ ministry of justice:
As the servant of God the Father (v. 1)
  • Upheld (v. 1a)
  • Chosen (v. 1b)
  • The delight of his Father’s soul (v. 1c)
Working according to the Father’s heart (vv. 2-4)
  • Softly (v. 2)
  • Graciously (v. 3)
  • Resolutely (v. 4)
Leading God’s people
  • Called in righteousness (v. 6a)
  • As a light to the nations (v. 6b)
  • To heal and liberate (v. 7)

With the seal of divine authority

  • His name (v. 8a)
  • His exclusive glory (v. 8b)
  • His ability to foretell the future (v. 9)
If you were preaching or teaching this passage, what approach would you take, and why?
For me, it is incredibly encouraging as a New Year begins to realize that Jesus is and will bring justice to the nations. How we all need this, whether in the U.S, Russia, Syria, Israel, Iraq, or anywhere else. How amazing it is that we carry a message that actually is good news to EVERY people upon the earth, because one day, it’s all going to come together, in a way that affirms the best in all of us.  Where and when in your life have you already experienced glimpses of this future reality?
I’ll be visiting the U.N. and meeting some world leaders in February. This might be a very encouraging message to share with them.
Happy New Year!

Deserts yearn to bloom

Isaiah 35:1-10
For Sunday, December 11, 2016
Third Sunday of Advent, Year A

Deserts are dry, desolate, and parched.  Yet just a little water changes everything.  So it is with the gospel.

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Photo by Jordan Whitt via Unsplash.

My wife Heather and I were in Scottsdale Arizona this past April for the Pinnacle Forum National Conference.  The desert flowers were at their peak.  To see life spring forth from such apparent desolation is breathtaking.

How often is it that we live in quiet desolation not realizing that with just a little water everything could be transformed?  This is what the gospel does.

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.   Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy (Isaiah 35:1).  I’ve seen this in Scottsdale, I’ve seen it in Palm Springs, and I’ve seen it in Siberia.  That last one was a different kind of desert: a spiritual desert.  In our ten years serving leaders there, we learned quickly that we didn’t have the answers, but that Jesus and the gospel did.  We started something called the Wellspring Pastors’ Network (Источник).  We got the idea from John 4:14:

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The pastors I worked with were parched.  I was often parched.  The cities we lived in were parched.  But as we came together around the wellspring of the gospel everything began to change.  This doesn’t just apply to Siberian pastors.  It applies to personal addictions, to marriages, to families, to organizations, to communities, to countries, and yes, even to local churches.

Are you parched?  Have you thought about a glass of water?  That feeling we  get when we slake that thirst?  That’s a pointer to the gospel’s ability to slake our spiritual thirst.  Ultimately, all of our problems are spiritual at the core.  That’s why the gospel always works.

How have you seen the gospel pour into your life and bring a desert to life?  If you haven’t, what would it look like if it did?  Sometimes even starting to envision it, with prayer, can start the wellspring.

 

The Ultimate Contrarian

"Device to Root Out Evil", Dennis Oppenheim, 1938 - 2011, Vancouver, Canada.

“Device to Root Out Evil”, Dennis Oppenheim, 1938 – 2011, Vancouver, Canada.

Jeremiah 32:1-15
For Sunday, September 25, 2016
Year C, Proper 21

I’m back this week with my good friend Jeremiah.  I just can’t stay away from this guy.  Here he’s buying real estate in the face of a Babylonian invasion.  What we’ll discover is that God sometimes calls us to be the ultimate contrarians.

20 years ago I was reading this passage while traveling by train to Iasi (“Yash”), Romania.  My colleague asked what I was reading.  I said, “Jeremiah 32”.  He followed, “What are you getting out of it?”  I said, “It’s possible I’m supposed to buy an apartment where we live in Irkutsk, Siberia.  Buying an apartment in the risky Russian real estate market of the time was certainly contrarian.  But with the help of some generous donors buy it we did, and it became a wonderful gathering place for our growing Russian family of friends.  We named it “The Anathoth Hospitality House” after the property Jeremiah is buying here.

As we follow the Lord there will be times he asks us to be the ultimate contrarians.  We will do things that just don’t make sense outside of God’s economy.  What Jeremiah does here is truly astounding.  He is under house arrest for telling his King that fighting the Babylonians is pointless because God has already doomed Judah to defeat.  Then God tells him to buy a piece of property, one that the Babylonians have already overrun.  Yet Jeremiah receives confirmation when his cousin Hanamel makes the very same request that God did.  This is a wonderful example of prophetic confirmation.  When God tells us things he will often send someone to us to confirm that we have really heard from him.

Jeremiah buys the property, and says something very moving: “Take these deeds … and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.  For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:  Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

Jeremiah could see what no one else could.  As bad as things looked in the moment, there was hope just over the horizon.  Jeremiah turned out to be right.  After 70 years of The Babylonian Captivity, the people of Judah returned and houses and fields and vineyards were indeed bought again.

This can offer us tremendous encouragement in this present cultural moment.  When Christians are being marginalized and labeled as racists and bigots we can see over the horizon to the day when Jesus consolidates the victory already won on the cross.  We can therefore be gracious even to our foes.  For like us, they are made in the image of God, and houses and field and vineyard will again be purchased in the land of our kingdom.

God and vengeance?

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“Desolation” by Thomas Cole

For Sunday, September 11, 2016
Year C, Proper 19
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

(Re-posted from Sept. 9, 2013)

What place could vengeance possibly have in the heart of a good and loving God? This week’s first reading, Jer. 4:11-12, 22-28, raises the question.

This is not a passage to which one turns for spiritual solace. “A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights …. not to winnow or cleanse – a wind too strong for that … For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children … They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good. The whole land shall be a desolation … I have not relented nor will I turn back.” This reminds me of the time I was so mad at my oldest son that I told him he could no longer live under my roof and was consigned to the garage until his conduct changed. I was an angry parent, and righteously so (for the most part). But can a truly good God really act in vengeance? Logically, we might want to argue know, but scripturally, the answer is clearly “yes”.

The fortunate thing is that the gospel story doesn’t end with judgment. As mad as God was in Jeremiah, he found a way to redeem the situation through the death of his own son Jesus. Fools continue to say in their hearts, “There is no God” (Psalm 14) but God is nevertheless intent on recovering his wandering sheep (Luke 15). While just vengeance indeed awaits those who refuse God’s purpose there is grace awaiting those who come to the realization that they formerly acted in ignorance (1 Tim 1).

It’s a mistake to think that God never gets angry or even vengeful. His love and righteousness demand as much in the face of rebellion, corruption, and oppression. Yet may each of us find grace for our time of need.

Who shapes the clay?

Jeremiah 18:1-11
For Sunday, September 4, 2016
Proper 18, Year C

Am I really a boy or a girl?  Amidst the massive transformation our culture is undergoing as regards gender, Jeremiah 18 provides both insight and hope.

Else Berg, "Potter"

Else Berg, “Potter”

One of my former co-workers underwent a gender change.  I met with him over coffee to seek understanding and offer friendship.  He appreciated this.  As I reflected back on that conversation I realized that a crying need in today’s culture is to find identity.  This may help explain the current interest in tattoos and the Burning Man Festival.

So is identity something we each have to choose for ourselves?  Jeremiah 18 provides a very different answer: our identity is shaped by God.   This applies not only to individuals but also to nations.  God says, “At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.

As clay, rather than trying to shape ourselves, the Bible invites us to pursue a relationship with our Potter.  The hard truth is that God is going to shape us whether we like it or not.  “Now, therefore,  therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

The good news is that God offers us the chance to turn back to him before he reshapes us.  Jesus did not come to condemn anyone.  He came “that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

What do you think about the current gender controversy swirling in our culture?  What insights would you point to from this passage or other parts of the Bible?

 

God’s incredulity

pablo

Jeremiah 2:4-13
For Sunday, August 28th
Proper 17

I think to understand Jeremiah 2 you have to be the parents of teenage boys.  One time a teenage boy I know well was trying to get into his home.  The doors were all locked and he didn’t have a key.  He decided to solve the problem by kicking in the back door to the garage.  Mind you, this was the very same door the boy’s father had just repaired a day earlier.  Arriving home from work, the father saw the broken door frame, and was incredulous.  “What in the world were you thinking?!”

This is how God is feeling about us in Jeremiah 2.  “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?!” (Jer. 2:5).  Reading through the rest of the passage there are a number of other statements underscoring God’s incredulity at his people’s rebellion:

  • “When you went your own way you didn’t even ask where I was!” (v. 6)
  • “You enter this amazing Promised Land and proceed to defile it!” (v. 7)
  • “Your leaders didn’t even ask for me!” (v. 8)
  • “Has there ever been another people who changed their god despite those gods being false?!” (v. 11)

God is so incredulous, and so alone in his incredulity, that he’s reduced to talking to the heavens.  “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord” (v. 12).  The two things God was most incredulous about were these:

  • “You have forsaken me, the fountain of living water” (v. 13a)
  • “You have dug cisterns for yourselves rather than relying on me (and they leak!)” (v. 13b)

Why are we so often so spiritually stupid?  It is because the spiritual synapses of our frontal lobes just haven’t connected.  They need to connect, NOW.  Let’s not waste another day, shall we?   Let’s stop kicking in the doors of God’s inheritance and start asking for his help!