Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Does God Play Hide and Seek?

My two-year-old daughter loves to play hide and seek.  Every so often we'll turn all but one of the lights off downstairs.  Hannah will count to ten (inevitably skipping the number seven as she always does when she counts) and I'll go hide in a closet or behind the bathroom door or halfway down the basement steps.  Then I listen for those little footsteps and wait for those little eyes to peek around the corner looking for me. There aren't many things that make Hannah jump, squeal, and giggle all at the same time like me jumping out and saying "Boo!" when she's found me.  These giggles are then immediately followed by "Again!" and we start the whole process over again or switch places.  

"Where is God?"  "Why can't I see him?"  Perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions of God is why he doesn't make himself more readily available to us.  If God is so loving and really wants to be in relationships with us, then why doesn't he come out in plain sight where we can all see him?  Even in the Psalm I am preaching from this week, there is all kinds of talk about seeking God as if God were hidden and difficult to find.   The Psalmist is commanded to seek God and the Psalmist says he will seek God but asks God not to hide his face.  Does God really hide himself from us?  Is this all just a game to God?

The games of hide and seek that we play with Hannah have sort of evolved over time.  It didn't take Hannah long to figure out that the fun part is the finding and being found.  She also knows that one of my most common hiding places is the closet in her playroom.  So, many times when she has gotten bored with a toy in her playroom she has stood up and said "Hide dada!" and usually before I can do anything she is already hiding in the closet.  She then proceeds to open the door and say "Boo!".  She'll do this over and over again, sometimes even pointing to the closet before she re-enters and saying "hide" just in case I hadn't yet picked up on the fact that she was hiding in the closet.  All the while it doesn't at all seem to bother her that her "hiding" doesn't really conceal her location from me.  For her, the only point in hiding is the joy of being found.  

It's not often that I compare God to a toddler.  Usually, in these kinds of analogies it is we who are the children and God who is the loving father.  But I have to wonder if God doesn't do much the same thing as my daughter.  To be sure, God is often not as tangible and immediately available as we might like for God to be.  You can't order up a little bit of God at the McPrayer drive-thru.  But neither does it take a Master of Divinity Detectives degree to track down God.  Instead, it seems that God hides behind the same doors over and over again.  This is because God doesn't hide so as to remain hidden.  God hides because He wants us to seek him.  He wants us to seek him in those places where we've found him over and over again; Scripture, Communion, the Church...

The Psalmist says "One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek:  That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple."  The Lord commands the Psalmist to seek Him but the Psalmist already knows where to look because he has found God there many times before.  God calls us to seek Him not because He is difficult to find but because He wants us to find Him. 

In fact, the final verse of this Psalm might be the most telling of all.  "Wait for the Lord.  Be strong and let your heart take courage.  Yes, wait for the Lord.'  After all this talk of seeking, now the Psalmist says "wait".  It's as if after having sought after God, the game of hide and seek has now been reversed and God is seeking us, which is, of course, also true.  Once we've searched and sought after God and finally find Him then we realize that He was actually seeking us all along.  

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dust to Dust

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Often, as a pastor, it my job to speak words of hope and comfort.  One of the joys of my calling is to lift others up with words of encouragement and to celebrate the joy and life that we share and anticipate in Jesus Christ.  But it is not my calling simply to make others happy or to tell them what they would like to hear.  I must also speak words of solemn truth, of sobering reality.

On this day, my role as a minister entails nothing less then reminding those in my congregation of their impending death.  I will tell them that they are moving, breathing bodies of dirt and that one day they will cease to be even that.  I will then remind them of this reality by smearing dirt on their faces in the shape of an ancient instrument of torture and execution.

Ash Wednesday reminds us of our death, our own mortality, because that it is the only way to truly understand life.  We must recognize that even as we are living we are dying.  The breath of air you just inhaled, while providing your body with oxygen and life, also signals that you are one breath closer to that inevitable last breath.  We are not immortal gods.  We are finite, fallen, limited human beings made of dust.  Every step of life we take is also a step toward death which should cause us to carefully consider how we want to spend those precious steps.  

Of course, Ash Wednesday is also the beginning of the season of Lent.  This is the season in which we remember Christ's journey toward the cross.  And that journey teaches us another ironic truth; that every step toward death is also a step toward life.  Jesus' shows us that to truly live we must die.  It is only by dying to our own selfish desires and taking up our cross in service to others and obedience to God that we can really live.  This is why we engage in practices like fasting and repentance.  They are ways of dying to ourselves so that we might live for God.

On this day, we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Prosperity or Presence?

Passages of scripture like Psalm 91 make it easy to see how things like the "prosperity gospel" get started.  You know, the whole idea that if you pray hard enough then God will give you a luxury vehicle, perfect health, and a large house.  After all, the Psalmist says things like "no evil will befall you" and that God will command his angels so that you won't even strike your foot against a stone.  If Psalm 91 was the only part of the Bible we had, then we might conclude that those who are faithful to God never suffer any misfortune ever.

Of course, simple human experience teaches us that the faithful do indeed suffer and clearly Psalm 91 is not the only passage of scripture in the Bible.  Just like any other passage of scripture, we have to allow the words of Psalm 91 to be interpreted by the whole of scripture.  Are the words of Psalm 91 true?  Yes, I believe wholeheartedly that God is with and watches over those who make God their refuge.  I've seen too many instances of this in my own life and in the life of the Church to not believe it.  But Psalm 91 is not the whole picture.  We must understand the promises of Psalm 91 in light of everything else that is said in the Bible rather than creating out entire theology out of a single verse or passage.

In fact, anyone who isn't already convinced of this should consider the New Testament passage in which Psalm 91 is quoted.  In Luke 4:10-11, verses 11 and 12 of this Psalm are quoted by none other than the devil himself.  Satan is tempting Jesus to take short cuts in his messianic mission, a mission which Jesus knows will include suffering, and he uses scripture to do it.  If the devil can quote scripture to support his own evil purposes then surely we can recognize the fallibility of putting too much weight on any single verse or passage of scripture.

Even the words of Psalm 91 itself cause us to consider carefully the promises that are made there.  The final words of the Psalm read:
"He will call upon me and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble.  I will rescue him and honor him.  With a long life I will satisfy him and let him see my salvation."
The Psalmist assumes there will be trouble.  The promise is not that God will keep us from all trouble but that God will be with us in that trouble.  There is a promise that God will rescue and honor those who seek the Lord but perhaps for some the rescue will only come on the other side of death as it did for God's own Son.  The Bible and the Church's experience are filled with stories of God's protection and deliverance of his people but even as we re-tell those stories we must be ever mindful of the fact that God did not deliver his own Son from the pain and suffering of the cross.  But neither did the Father finally abandon Jesus.  He rescued Jesus when he seemed to be beyond the point of rescue; when he had already been laid in the tomb Jesus was raised to new life.  It is the resurrection which is the ultimate refuge that God provides.  It is not sheltering from every trouble or even from death itself but a promise that God will never abandon us and that death will not have the last word.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A New Moses and a New Exodus

In Luke 9:28-36, the passage normally referred to as the transfiguration (though Luke does not use that word as Matthew and Mark do), Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up on a mountain to pray. This should be our first clue that something important is about to happen since important things happen on mountains in the Bible. One especially important event in Israel's story took place on a mountain; the giving of the Law to Moses. Luke tells us that while Jesus was praying the appearance of his face became different and his clothing became white and gleaming. Moses, too, found that his face was radiant after he had received the ten commandments from God. Then we find out that Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, show up and begin speaking with Jesus. Furthermore, their conversation with one another centers around the exodus (many translations have the word "departure" in v. 31 but the Greek word is the same one used to refer to God's deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt) which Jesus is about to accomplish in Jerusalem. At this point, Peter, James, and John awaken from the sleep that had overcome them. Peter, stumbling over his own excitement at what he sees, wants to hang on to this moment so he suggests that they build three tabernacles (again, some translations simply say "shelters" but the word is the same one used to refer to the tent that represented God's presence with Israel while Moses was their leader). Finally, a cloud envelops them much as it enveloped Moses on Mount Sinai and a voice speaks from the cloud saying "This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!" These are similar to the words spoken from heaven at Jesus' baptism only now the command "Listen to Him!" is added, echoing the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 when he spoke of the prophet that God would raise up like him for the people of Israel.

Sensing a theme here? Jesus is the new Moses and God is accomplishing a new exodus, a new great deliverance, and a new people. God had worked through Moses not only to deliver the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt but also to call them into covenant community by giving them the Law and teaching them how to live as God's holy people. Now God would do the same thing through Jesus. Only instead of delivering Israel from physical slavery through miraculous plagues and giving laws on stone tablets now God would deliver all people from their slavery to sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus and fill them with his Spirit so that they might live his life of holiness.

Of course, no single passage of scripture can exhaust all that there is to say about who Jesus is or who we are through him but this passage captures much of both. Jesus is the mighty deliverer who has the power to break the chains of our bondage to sin and death. We, the Church, are the new exodus community that has been and is being delivered so that we might be free to live the abundant life to which Jesus calls us and help deliver others from their bondage as well.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Just Good Enough?

You can hear Simon Peter's grudging reluctance in Luke 5:1-11 Peter and his fellow fishermen have already been working all night without any reward for their labor. They are tired and disappointed and want to go home to get some rest. But Jesus had started teaching while they were washing their nets and a crowd had gathered to hear him speak. It was such a crowd, in fact, that Jesus had commandeered a boat, Peter's boat, so that he could teach from a few feet off shore, providing enough space between himself and the crowd so that everyone could hear. Peter must have been eager for Jesus to finish speaking so that he could haul in his boat for the day and head home. Instead, when Jesus is finished speaking, he makes yet another request of Peter. Jesus asks Peter to put the boat out into deeper water and to cast his nets again. That must have been the last thing Peter wanted to do. "Lord, we worked had all night and caught nothing but I will do as you say and let down the nets." Maybe Peter felt obligated to do as Jesus said because Jesus had healed his mother in law. Maybe Peter was tired but obedient because he knew that Jesus could do the miraculous. Or maybe Peter thought Jesus should stick to his area of expertise, religious teaching, and leave Peter to his, catching fish. What could Jesus possibly know about these waters, that Peter, the professional fisherman, did not? Whatever was going through Peter's mind, he reluctantly forced his tired body to follow Jesus' command and the result was a catch of fish so large that it nearly broke his nets and sunk his boats.

Of course, the real catch here was not the fish but Peter himself. The real miracle was not a quantity of fish so large that it resulted in broken nets but that Peter recognized his own brokenness. Somehow a net full of fish caused Peter to say to Jesus "Go away from me Lord for I am sinful man, O Lord!" Somewhere in the midst of hauling in that once in a lifetime catch, Peter moved from reluctant recipient to genuine disciple. Any other day, I have to imagine Peter's first thought would have been to rush this massive catch of fish to market or to whoever his regular buyer was so that he could profit from this enormous good fortune. But Luke says "When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him". Peter left behind what must have been the largest, most profitable catch of his life as a fisherman, as well as all he had ever invested in, his nets and his boats, to follow Jesus.

We often have a tendency to think of life in terms of good or bad. We think that as long as we fill our lives with good things and avoid bad things then we are on the right track. But sometimes the biggest distractions in our lives aren't bad things but good things that we give too much importance. Peter's catch of fish was a good thing, a very good thing, probably the highlight of his career. But Peter could see enough to know that it wasn't the best thing in front of him. So Peter left everything and followed Jesus.