Sunday, December 17, 2017

Be Satisfied: Isaiah 55:1-11

I think most of you know that I go backpacking once a year. Melissa and I split up the prep work for the trip, but the planning that involves pouring over hiking books and trail maps is something I enjoy doing, so Melissa leaves that task up to me. I look at trail maps and trail books and seek to find the trip that will best fit our needs. Among the many, many things I check for, is where we are going to get our water. Having enough water is an important part of our backpacking trip and we cannot simply carry the amount of water need with us. It would be too bulky and definitely too heavy for us to bring along. As I am tracing our route, I am finding the places we will stop and camp for the night, as well as our entrance and exit points to the trail. I am also carefully going over where all the streams, springs and other water sources can be found. I know how far it is between water sources, so that when we are hiking, Melissa and I know how long we need to make our water last.
Water is important to survival, if we run out of water, we run the risk of dehydration, and a dehydrated person runs the risk of making poor decisions, of losing focus and wandering of trail, of becoming disoriented or even lost. Having enough water is one of the most vital aspects of our trip. So we ration our water when the distance between sources is great. When we come to our water sources we are sure to drink extra before we fill our bottles and continue on our way.
In many ways, water is life. We cannot live without water. It is vital to our existence. Without it, we die. Most of us who live in warm houses, full of all the “good” things with which we fill them. We do not think much about the water that flows so freely from our taps. Sure we pay for it. A bill arrives in the mail each month, which most months we pay without question. Perhaps we lament that this month's bill is higher than the previous, but that is far as it goes. My guess is that few of us think of the dollars and cents that are being spent each time we turn the faucet and allow that water to flow. And I am sure many of us let more, than we would admit, to just go down the drain, without thinking of its worth or value. It may not be free, but it is cheap enough that it is common enough practice to allow the water run while we are brushing our teeth, or washing our hands, that we remind people not to. So although water remains vital to life, it is not costly. And I admit, the only time I think much at all, about where my water comes from is on the trail.
The value of food is a little more evident. We all have weekly or monthly food budgets. All of us know that we have to go to the store and purchase the items needed to make the foods we eat each day. When the cost of something goes up too high, we are likely to stop purchasing it, or purchase it less frequently, or perhaps we even take the extra effort to go to a different store, where it can be found, cheaper.
I only buy berries in the summer when they are cheap, and there is a price over which I will not buy an avocado. We all make our own food choices each time we go to the store based on how much we have to spend and how much we are willing to spend on any particular item. But the cost of these items is rarely something that is not a factor when we make these purchases.
So although the entirety of the impact the offer God is making to the people of Israel in this passage is somewhat lost on us, we can understand the value of what it is God saying to them. “Come to the waters; and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” God uses an invitation for everyone to enjoy the things needed to survive, as well as the good things of life, wine and milk, as a way to speak to the people. God calls for them, to acquire these things without money or the exchange of goods or services, but to instead, to just have them - freely. God invites the people to enjoy the needed things, the good things, the great things of life; to be filled; to be satisfied.
We crave satisfaction. We move through this life longing to feel full, to sense that we have enough, to be satisfied. But this feeling, this sense this being, is not really about food or water or any of the other things of which we partake. We want to feel full and satisfied in everything we do. So we work hard. We seek to accomplish something. We strive toward that goal; to make something that will fill us. We seek to create something to which we can point and say, “I did that.” And in that moment know the satisfaction we long for. The feeling of being satisfied in our actions; that we have done something that is right and good; that it matters, has value and worth in this world. Perhaps what we have done has even changed the world even just a tiny bit. But when we have finished doing what is done, when what we have made stand before us, it is not enough. The world is still the same, nobody noticed, or even if they did, it did not matter, not in the way we had hoped. That which we created is flawed or broken, it is not good enough, it fades or dies, is destroyed. And we are once again empty longing to be filled.
We know that we cannot find that satisfaction in our selves. So we look to the world around us, to others. We do not feel good about who we are, what we have done, the work of our hands, our accomplishments, without the approval of those around us. We seek that approval in all aspects of our lives. Because somehow in that approval; in the nod of a superior, the pat on the back of a peer or the thanks of a subordinate, we will feel satisfied with ourselves, in who we are or what we have done. We seek the approval of those around us; of our boss, of our co-workers, the people in our neighborhood, even the strangers who pass through our lives each day. We want to be liked, to be wanted, to be needed by our friends and our neighbors. So we strive to do something, create something, say something, to be someone who is noticed. We want our boss to turn to us and, “Say good job.” We want our co-workers to acknowledge the work we have done among them.  We want our neighbors to see us as worthy, our friends to desire to spend time with us, for the stranger who passes through our lives to acknowledge our existence, to see that we were there and to perhaps remember us. We are even willing to put the hard work in, to build relationships with some of these people, in hope that we will find meaning in ourselves in and through that relationship. We hope that the recognition found there, the companionship, the bond that is formed will satisfy, will fill us. But each evening when we lay between the covers, we lay there alone in the dark, continuing to feel empty. We continue to find no satisfaction.
Each day we work, we struggle, we strive, we create things, we take them apart, we build fortunes, and houses, amass wealth and fill up all the spaces of our lives with these things, in an attempt to feel full, satisfied. But no matter how much we work, no matter how many things we build or tear down, no matter how much we own, no matter how full the spaces of our lives are with the work of our hands or the stuff we buy, we are never full, we are never satisfied. Our houses are filled with the things we cling to, that we stuff into the void we know so well. Our lives are full of the things we do, that we accumulate just as surely as anything else, in an attempt to find satisfaction in these things, hoping that eventually there will be enough. There is never enough and in so many ways, enough is never, and will never be enough.
It is into this void in our lives, in to the fullness of this emptiness that God speaks this morning, saying, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for which does not satisfy?” We will never be full with the things which we labor to fill our lives. We will never find the satisfaction we crave. We are indeed laboring for that which will never satisfy.
We are in the middle of what the consumer culture all around us calls “The Holiday Season.” A season that begins the day after Thanksgiving, on a day called Black Friday and ends with Christmas. This is the “most holy” of seasons, for this culture of want and need. They begin preparing for it as early as September. They begin to remind us that it is approaching as we near Halloween, and as Thanksgiving draws near, they begin to call us to their sacred halls of malls and stores, where we will purchase the offerings that are made through the practice of “gift giving.”
This practice of “gift giving” as a practice, in itself, is not a problem. What is the problem, is what the gods of our culture promise in this practice. They promise that we will find our satisfaction in the giving and receiving that surrounds this season. They promise that we can be filled with the joy of gift giving, with the pleasure of gift receiving, but what they are actually saying is that we can fill the void, we know so well, by buying, by purchasing, by spending our money on the things they have to offer. And this season, this “holiday season” is the climax of this consumer culture, it is the frenzied moment toward which its ecstatic experiences are moving all year long. They promise, fulfillment, satisfaction, joy even, knowing that come January 1st, we will once again wake up from our stupors finding our lives meaningless and empty once again. And they do this knowing, for the purpose of creating just this situation, so that we can begin the journey through our year searching for what is missing, seeking what we feel is loss. So that they encourage us to fill it with the things they have to offer, for the price they know we will pay.
God calls us to NOT spend our money or our labor on that which can never satisfy. Instead God offers to us, food that is good and richness that will satisfy. God shows up in the middle of this season and calls to us like a preacher on a soap box on the corner, like a vender at a carnival, like a counter cultural commercial, offering to fill us, to satisfy without money or cost, without labor or effort. God holds out a holy hand and says, “Here take it, eat it, it will do what you want it to do, take this it will fill you, it does satisfy.”
No amount of work or effort, no amount of stuff or things, no food can fill you, nothing in this world can make you full, nothing can bring satisfaction. Stop trying; stop struggling; stop striving. Close your ears to the siren call that surrounds you, and listen, hear only what God has to say.” We long to be filled, because being filled is obtainable. We long for satisfaction because we can get satisfaction. We seek to find ourselves in relationships, because it is in relationship that we will find ourselves. But it is only in relationship with God. It is only in taking what God has to offer, eating the food of salvation and drinking the living water of sanctification that we will ever be satisfied.
The joy our world promises will not be found in anything this culture has to offer. No amount of work, no labor will be will hard enough or long enough. We can never be filled with anything that can be given or received. We will never be satisfied with anything we can make or break in this world. We will only ever be filled in covenant relationship with the one and only living God. We will only be satisfied when we turn to God with in our great need, with all our longing, in all our brokenness and allow God to make us whole, to fill us to over flowing. Only in God can we close our eyes at night, knowing the peace that we seek each day. True joy is not found in gift giving, or receiving. It is only in the fullness that is found in the Messiah for whom we wait during this season, we call Advent. Wholeness is only known in the baby, we will celebrate on Christmas Eve, in just one week's time. The joy we long for is only found in the one whom we praise when together next Sunday we will sing, “Joy to the world the Lord is come.”

And so we wait remembering that the Word of the Lord has come and is coming, and knowing that the Word, Jesus Christ will not go out from God without accomplishing his purpose, and that he will succeed in that for which he was sent. That we will not remain empty because Christ has come, is coming to fill us, to make us whole to set us free from our labors, to release us from the ternary of our consumer culture, which beacons to us, to spend our money on all it has to offer. God promises to give us relationship with God's-self through Jesus Christ without cost or labor, without money. It is free, it is ours if only we will reach out and take it, because it is only in THIS one relationship that we will ever be full, ever be satisfied, ever find the joy for which we so long. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Ezekiel 37:1-14: Can These Bones Live?

We were alive once. We ran beneath the Sun. Danced in the moonlight. We hugged our children goodnight and kissed our wives goodbye. We knew laugh, and happiness. We knew sorrow and pain. The air was fresh and clean in the Spring. The Sun was dry and hot in the Summer. The cold winter wind stung our faces and froze in our lungs. But Spring always followed winter and so life when on, one season after another, each one filled with joy or pain, but always full. Our lives were rich and full and free. We were alive . . . once.

That is the story they told me, as I walked around the valley that evening. When God asked me, “Can this bone live?” I did not know the answer, but I did know they could talk. As God led me through that battlefield (because that is what it was, I knew what it was the moment we set foot there) they spoke to me. They told me about their sons and daughters, their wives and sweethearts. They told me of their livihoods, of their childhood homes. They told me about catching butterflies on warm summer days, just to stare mesmerized by their wings, as they slowly waved up and down, and of catching fireflies in the cool of the evenings. Holding them carefully between two cupped hand and looking in through the hole created where two thumbs touched to watch their light off and on and off again.

Each one telling its own story. Each one having lived just like the next. But these bones; these bones in this valley, just as all bones, that can be seen are, were dead. It is the very nature of just being bones, no matter what you once were, or who you might have been, when you are nothing but bones, you are dead. This was the valley of death and instead of assuring that there was no evil to fear here, God asked me,

“Can these bones live?” I know a trap when I see one, a trick question when I hear one, “God, only you know the answer to that.”

So then God tells me to preach to the bones, “Oh, bones! Hear the word of the Lord.” I am so glad no one was there that day. They thought I was insane when I laid on my side for over a year. They just about committed me to and institution when I told them, God instructed me to cook my meals over a fire made with the dung of cows. If they saw me now, preaching to a valley of dry dead bones, that would be it; they would not merely think that the words I spoke were nothing but that of a raving mad man, they would know it.

So I preached to the dry bones, and it must have been one powerful sermon, unlike any I had ever preached before, or will ever been preached by man or woman 'til the death of the earth itself. The sermon I preached that day, were not merely words of life taken into the ears, to be done with, as what's between two ears will do with words. Perhaps it was because bones do not have ears, nor what is traditionally held between two ears, because until the audiences that usually hear my sermons, those bones got up immediately and did something about what I was saying.

They got up right then and there, the bones came together and formed muscle and sinew and flesh. And before I knew it I was no longer standing in the valley of the dry bones, I was standing in the valley of the undead army. I say, “undead,” because I know not, how else to describe them. They were flesh and bone, they stood there just as you or I might, but they did not yet live. There was no breath within them, they stood, but they were not alive.

But God was not yet done. Apparently, I had not said all that needed to be said to them. So, I gave them another sermon, I preached to them a second time. This time the wind of creation filled their lungs, they were filled with breath and they lived. The dry bones of that valley lived!

The people of Israel at this time were in exile. Everything they once held dear was gone. Life as they had known it had passed away. The little shop into which they had invested their life's savings, and their life's work was nothing but a hallow burnt out shell, hundreds of miles from where they now were. The last time they had seen the cities of their birth, they the smoke was rising over the rumble of what has once been. Their lives felt as empty, hallow and dead, as the bones in that valley that day. All they had once known was dead. All their hopes and dreams were as long gone as the army that lay strewn on the valley floor. They were the walking dead, performing tasks, eking out a livelihood, but not truly living. Their lives were dead, their homes were dead, and everything they once held dear was dead. And it was into the wreckage and into the bones of what once was the lives of these people into which God spoke new life, it was into the lifeless forms that were once the people Israel that God breathed life, new life!

Sometimes we find ourselves standing over the dry bones of what once was. Look around and we see nothing but death and destruction. We feel the pain and the sting of loss. We see the graves of hopes and our dreams, shattered and strewn around us. It seems as if our lives are filled with nothing but death, nothing but loneliness. The landscape of our lives is foreign, nothing is familiar. It is as if we woke up one day and found ourselves living lives that are unrecognizable. The fertile fields of all we once thought would be have been burned and salted and there is no going back. We are dead, our hopes are dead, and our dreams are dead. And even if that is an exaggeration of the circumstances it feels as if it is true.

Sometimes we find ourselves in a place like that of Israel, wonder where God could be when we are living in a place that seems so far from the hand of God. We look up to the sky and we cannot see God there. We look at the pain through which we are walking and it seems there is no way God could be in any of this. The loneliness we feel is so palpable that we know that God is not in it and it so solidly forms a wall around everything in our lives that surely there is no way God could penetrate it. We will live forever in this darkness. We will continue to exist in this place that seems to be beyond the reach of even the God who created all places. We are in Sheol, the Pit, where God is not, the land of the waking dead. Where we do nothing but exist, because as surely as we know anything, we know this; this that we are doing each day, is not living.

It is into the death that we know, into the destruction that we have seen, into the brokenness of the bones of our lives that God speaks this morning. As we stand over this valley in our lives, God comes to us this morning and says, “Can these bones live?” I am sure we want to say, “Yes, yes of course God.” But most of us are more like Ezekiel, most of us see the state of affairs our lives are in now and the most faith we can muster is, “Only you know God.” “I mean, if you say they can, I am sure they can,” while thinking to ourselves, “Dead is dead. Once a mirror has fallen to the floor and shattered there is no way it can be whole again. I don’t know how I can ever know peace, full healing, or wholeness again.”

But God speaks, over the brokenness in our lives, God speaks over our lost dreams, over our shattered hopes and our brokenness, over our loneliness, over the destruction, the pain and the loss and even the death and says, “Live!” And when the breath of God lost dreams they are found and made new. When God speaks over shattered hopes and brokenness they are made whole again. When the spirit of God fills our loneliness, it is filled and we are not alone. When the wind of God blows over the destruction, the pain, the loss and yes even the death in our lives, it is healed and life can truly be LIVED once again. What was dead can be alive. This is the message God gives to us today, in the places where we are, waiting.

I do want to point out something that sometimes we forget. It did not happen all at once. We like our miracles, our healing, our wholeness to come like our frozen meals, now. Pop it in the microwave, wait 30 seconds and it is done. We are so use getting the things we want immediately. We can have our money right now, anytime of the day or night, by going to a machine. Put in a card, and a four digit pin and money just appears. There are 24 hour McDonald’s, we can go to the drive thru (we don’t have to even get out of the car) and have our nuggets or hot fudge Sunday right now, even at 2am. Amazon is even working on a system of drones that can deliver packages to your door within hours of ordering, instead of the unendurably long two days we have to wait now (I still remember when you had to wait four to six weeks for something ordered out of a catalog – almost long enough to have forgotten you had ordered it).

We want our healing today, right now, this very instant. And sometimes it happens that way. But most of the time it happens little by little, first the bones come together, and then the muscles and sinews form and eventually flesh covers it all over and then finally the Spirit of God fills our lives once again. It takes a long time for us to find the fullness of life we once knew. Sometimes it is an imperceptibly slow process, where bit by bit, God takes the shattered pieces of our lives and one by one mends them, until finally we are whole once again. It takes a long time and it seems like the process will never be done. But it is happening, healing is occurring, our loneliness is being filled, we are being healed, we are being made whole again. God is working a miracle in our lives, even when it does not seem to be the case. Even when it takes too long (in our estimation) it is happening. God is making the bone lives. They can live they will live. We might not see it today. We might not be able to feel it tomorrow. It may not even be next week or next year, but one day we will wake up and the breath of God will fill us and we will be alive once again.

We are like Israel waiting for the messiah. He did not come the first year they were in exile. He did not come the last year they were in exile. Jesus did not even come the year they returned to the houses and their lands. And so they waited.

And today we continue to wait for the fullness of salvation, for the wholeness that will come from the redemption of all creation, which will only come when Christ comes again and all the earth is restored to its creation glory and we are made truly alive again.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Shepherd, Sorting King and Holy Sheep - Matthew 25:31-46

What is a king?  What does it mean to have a king?  Who is a king?  In this land of democracy, which was built throwing off our ties to a king and breaking out on our own without the fetters of a dieing feudal system and its monarchy, what does it mean to say that Christ is king?  England still has a queen and will someday in my lifetime have a King. But the monarchy there is little more than a living parade, a living heirloom of by gone days of England’s past. But many countries still have kings in far off places of this world.
Every year at District Pastor's Retreat, a group of us go to eat at a Thai restaurant. They have three pictures of this very regal looking couple on three of the walls. One year I asked the waitress who this couple was. She told us that they were the king and queen of Thailand. From what I understand, the king and queen of Thailand are held in great affection by the Thai people. The waitress told us quite a bit about how wonderful this couple is and how much they are revered and respected by Thai people everywhere. The owners of this restaurant live here in the states, but they still honor and revere the king of their native land.
A good king is respected and honored by his people. A good king is kind and just and is loved by all those whom he rules. But a king does not have to be these things in order to be king. A king is a king by birth, by having been born in the right family at the right time, or by coo, by over throwing the current king and taking over his throne and establishing his line and his lineage as the new succession to the throne. A king is king by power of the law but ironically in many ways is above the law and not required to adhere to the very law which makes him king. A king can still be king due to this power he wields even if he is cruel and tyrannical. A king can still be king even if he squanders the people’s money and mistreats them at every turn. As long as he can hold onto his power the king. History shows us that a king can be good or bad; kind and just, or tyrannical and bent on nothing but his own gain.
So there are kings who are revered and honored, kings who deserve to be praised for their kindness, generosity and the just way they rule their people. When we look to God, we, as Christians would expect that Jesus, as king, would be the later. This passage presents to us Jesus, as a king who divides people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The sheep he allows into his kingdom and the goats are thrown out, not allowed to enter.
In every place I have ever heard of there being a King, the King does not get to choose who his people are. He is born to be king of a particular kingdom and all the people in the kingdom are his people. A king just accepts the people he is given. Just as he was born to be king, everyone else, who was born within the borders of his kingdom, are born to be his subjects. But Christ the king is picky. He does not simply want subjects, he wants a certain kind of subjects. He wants subjects who live and act in ways which he deems worthy, just. He only wants subjects who are righteous, for it is those whom he calls righteous he decides are the sheep and accepts, it is those who do not live in righteous ways whom he calls goats and casts out.
Jesus is not only our king but he is choosy about those who will be in his kingdom. Jesus, the Son of Man will sit on the throne of Heaven and divide up those who are in his kingdom and those who are not. On his left he puts the goats, saying to them that he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison and they did not feed him, give him something to drink, welcome him, cloth him, take care of him or visit him. To the right he puts the sheep and he says to them, I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison and when you saw me you fed me, gave me a drink, welcomed me, clothed me, took care of me, and visited me. To those on his right, he praises them and welcomes them into his eternal kingdom, to those on his left he will cast out of his kingdom where they are punished.
And all the good protestant Christians, who know that the grace of God and the gift of eternal life are freely given to those who have believed and have and know that entrance into God’s kingdom cannot be earned by merit or by good works, scratch their head and begin to wonder, “when was it that the world turned upside down and how is it that everything we believed to be true about how these things work can proved to be false?” 
What is Jesus saying?  It sounds like he is saying that in order to be accepted into Christ’s kingdom we have to do certain things. Earning our way into God’s eternal kingdom is done by giving to those who are less fortunate. That can’t be right, can it?  It goes against everything that I have ever been taught, when it comes to how the grace, and forgiveness of God works.
But that is what Jesus says there. I just read it, “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'. . .‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'. . .‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
It says it right there if you give food the hungry, water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, take care of the sick and visit the imprisoned we will be called righteous and welcomed into eternal life. Jesus says it, so it must be true.
It is true, in that, those who love Christ and seek to live as Christ lived and be the people Christ calls them to do these things do these things. It is not true that these are the things that gain entrance into Jesus’ kingdom. Yet it is true, in that because faith and belief came first; faith comes before the actions. In fact faith is the reason for the actions. Those who live the love of God in their lives, those who accept the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and have faith in him for eternal life, will visit the sick, cloth the naked, welcome the stranger, give water to the thirsty and feed the hungry. They will do all these things because their faith compels them to, because the love they have from Jesus will not allow them to not.
Faith is a strange kind of belief. Faith is a belief that is lived, it is a belief which can only exist in action. You can believe that a force called gravity keeps us firmly stuck to the ground. You can believe that the world is made up of tiny electrically charged particles whose properties dictate how our world works but those kind of beliefs require nothing of us. We either believe that these unseen forces are at work in our world or we don’t. There is nothing that believing or not believing in electrons requires of us, but faith in Jesus Christ, requires something of us. It moves us, it changes us and spurs us into action.
Once you know the truth of the gospel, once you come to and understanding of the God of the universe and that God’s love for each and every one of us, that love, that truth changes who we are, it changes how we live. It compels us to move in our world in loving ways. The love of God is a love that requires us to then in turn love those around us. If we truly understand that God loves us and calls for us to love the world around us, we cannot see one who is hungry and desire to feed, see one who is thirty and desire to quench that thirst, we cannot see one whom God loves and cherishes in pain or in need and not desire to reach out with the love that God had given to us and share that love by soothing that pain or meeting that need.
If we truly believe that God loves us. If we truly believe that Jesus Christ showed that love in his life, teachings, death and resurrection and that love calls us into relationship with the God of the universe and then we cannot help but be filled with that love, that love fills us, lives in us and is worked out in our actions and interactions in this world. The love we have for Christ is manifested in our love for those around us.
Christ, the king of heaven, knows that if we truly love him, then that love will be lived out in how we treat those around us. When we love Jesus we will treat each and everyone we meet as if that person were Jesus. As Christians we should see Jesus in everyone we meet, in everyone with whom we interact. We should treat our boss, our siblings, our parents, the stranger we pass on the street with the love, the dignity and the respect with which we would treat them if we truly believed them to be Jesus Christ himself.
Although it might be easy to get the cart before the horse, so to speak, and think that Jesus is telling us that it is the doing of these things which gets us into Heaven. But in fact this passage is not putting forth this kind of works related righteousness. Jesus is not telling us how to earn our way to heaven, instead he is describing what a life lived in love with God, a life living out that love will look like. They are the mark of one who is sanctified. They are the outward signs of Christian perfection. This is what holy living looks like when lived out by God’s people. 
This is not a prescription of how to get to Heaven, feed three hungry people, take a cup of cold water to one who is thirsty and call me in the morning. This is a description of what a life lived completely and totally given over to God will look like; if you love Jesus. This is what a holy life looks like. When the people of God are living out God’s holiness in this world then, the hungry will be fed the thirsty will be quenched, the stranger will be welcomed, the naked will be clothed, the sick will be taken care of and the prisoner will be visited. Those who are in need around you will be provided for. You will live a life of compassion. You will love each and every person as if they themselves were God. You will speak to each person you meet as if they were Jesus Christ. Everyone you meet will be treated with the kindness, the respect, the love you would give if they were Jesus. You will honor everyone as if they were you king. When you love God, you will love your neighbor. When you love Jesus Christ you will love the outcast and the lonely. The love of God will be the hallmark of your life. When people encounter you they will encounter the love of God in you, because you are loving them as if they are God. This is what it means to be holy, to live out God’s holiness in your day to day life.
We love because God loves. We love because we believe. We love because our faith compels us to. We cannot love Jesus without loving those around us. We cannot be people of faith unless we are feeding the hungry, quenching the thirst of the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, taking care of the sick and visiting those in prison, because that is what a life of faith will look like to one who is observing it from the outside. It will be a life marked by action, a life marked by love moving; a life marked by someone who cannot stand by and to allow those around them to suffer.
Our faith moves us in ways that will not allow suffering to continue to go on around us in this world. A true believer in Jesus Christ will not go unmoved when another is suffering. A true adherent to the faith cannot but help but be torn apart when someone around them is hurting. We, as follows of Christ will be forced into action by our faith and by our love for Jesus to mend the broken, and be balm to those who are hurting. The love of Christ compels us, moves us and transforms us in ways so that we are ruled by an over powering, outreaching love that will not stop until we have loved all those we touch and are moving to right the wrongs that Jesus himself came to this world to right. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fish in a sea of Justice - Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24

The sun is shining through the artistically colored windows. The worship team is at its prime. The people are all dressed in their Sunday best, poised and ready for worship. They are standing tall, faces up lifted toward the sky as the music is about to begin. There is a quiet reverence in the sanctuary. It seems as if nobody is shuffling, nobody is restless, and everyone is focused on the song they are all about to sing. Even the dust gently drifting in the luminously colored beams of light filling the sanctuary seems Holy. The voices raise, the chorus begins, but God can not hear the words of the song because of the chaotic din. The man on the third row is wondering if he can nonchalantly slip his cell phone out of his pocket. He is positive that the service started a few minutes late, will that mean it will run a little late, will he be able to make it downtown in time if the service is 5-10 minutes over. Why did he sit on the third row? He can’t sneak out toward the end, everyone will see him. He stands looking up at the screen singing the words. His face looks focused; by all appearances he is engrossed in worship. There a woman toward the back on the right. She is smartly dressed; her hair is neatly pulled back. She is the picture of modesty and propriety, but as she sings she begins to wonder if she can get away with cutting Amelia’s pay, she just can not afford to pay that woman as much as she is getting paid. Perhaps, she can tell Amelia that the work she did this last time around was just not up to par. Sure she knows that Amelia works herself to the bone and really does a fine job, but sometimes you just have to pay someone a little bit less. She can tell Amelia that the seams were just not right that she was just not as happy and then simply give her 20% less than the agreed upon price for the garment. It will be OK, Amelia will find a way to make up for it somehow, I bet she over charges some of her customers anyway.
As the song proceeds the din grows louder and louder. God looks down on the people, hands over ears waiting, waiting for the noise to stop, waiting for the din to die down, but the service seems to go on. And on the raucous get louder and louder and finally something has to be done. It is at this point that Amos (the tree farmer and sheep herder) shakes his head once again wondering why God can’t give him something pleasant to say to these people, he steps out of his anonymous place in the pew into the aisle and raises his voice above the melodious strains of pious worship and says, “This is what the Lord God has said to me, ‘I hate, I despise. . .’”
God cannot hear the worship. The worship is pointless, the worship is useless, the worship is not worship, when over laid with the din of un-worshipful attitudes which fill the sanctuary. God wants to mourn, God wants to wail, this is an outrage this is deplorable. God will turn their empty songs in to wailing, their hollow praise into mourning. If they want the festive worship over so they can get on with business, God will put a stop to the festivities.
God is a little more than fed up with the people of Israel at this point. When it comes time for the festive observances which God had set up for them; they are not grateful for the break from the routine, they are not joyful in the celebration of how God had provided for them once again; they are not enraptured and engrossed in worship of their God who lovingly and faithful takes care of them in season and out of season. Instead they can’t wait to get back to business.
They can’t wait to get back to their shops and to their markets they cannot wait to get back to work. Not because they need the money and every moment they are spending away from their labors is resulting in not being able to earn the money they need to survive, but because they want to get back to business practices which are just a little on the “shady side” to say the least. They are selling their harvests with bushel baskets which are too small. They are doing business with falsely weighted scales which are in their favor.
Not only are they dishonest in their practices but they are cheating the poor and robbing the needy of their due. God had set up a system by which no one in Israel would go hungry and in their practices they are sweeping up every last grain so they can sell it with their dishonest weights and their small bushel baskets, but they were forbidden by God to sell the sweepings. They were not allowed to go back through the field and harvest what they missed. They were not allowed to take a broom to the threshing floor and pick up every last grain. They were to leave this to those who had fallen on hard times. They were to leave the leftovers for the poor and they needy, so they could come and pick up the scraps which were over looked. But they were not doing this; they were picking every last head of grain and picking up every last wheat berry so that they could turn the most profit, while the most vulnerable in their nation starved to death on their doorsteps, searching for the food which was rightfully theirs by law. They are not respecting each other and in doing so they are not respecting God.
In chapter two is says they are selling the righteous for silver and the needy for sandals. In the ancient near east slavery was a product of extreme economic hardships. These people are being sold in to slavery not because they cannot pay off a great amount of debt, but over small amounts, a single silver piece or the cost of half a pair of sandals, not the cost of both, but just one. They are heartless and greedy and are not doing their best to raise the status of those around them. But instead they are taking advantage of their situation and being cruel in the process. In their practices they are crushing the heads of the poor and pushing the afflicted, those whose physical ailments are lifelong hardships, the blind and the lame; they are pushing these people aside, so they can simply walk past. They have no lack of imagination when it comes to ways in which they can use the misfortunes of others to help better themselves and their situation in life.
The people are doing all the right things in the sanctuary. They are worshiping God in all the right ways, with all the right actions and all the right words, with nary a word about any of those false gods. They know better than that, they know the first commandment. They are gathering for worship, they are participating in a proper Sabbath, they are honoring all the designated festivals, attending all the allotted assemblies with just the right amount of dignity and solemnity which each occasion requires. They burn their burnt offerings, they give gracious amounts of grain offerings, they find the prettiest lambs, the strongest bulls and the goatiest goats and offer each one at the right times. But it is not what is going inside the sanctuary that God is upset about. It is precisely all the things they are doing when they are NOT in the temple that has God all riled up at this point in time.
The thing is, God does not ask for much. God simply asks for them love good and to seek it in all things and to establish justice at the gates. God wants them to love good, to seek what is good. Not just good for me but good for all, good for those around me, good for my family, good for my friend, good for my neighbor, as well as good for the stranger and even for my enemy. Seek good, do good. Seek always in all things to do what is right.
God is saying that good and right practice should be the general rule of life. The people buying and selling things should be fair in the ways in which they do so. The people giving loans should not take advantage of the needy and the poor. Those who are doing evil and unrighteousness as a part of their common business practices should cease. Evil is never best business practice. Unrighteousness is not just a by product of how things get done in the world. God's call on our lives in this passage is simple, don't do evil, instead seek to do good. Do not cheat the poor. Do not take advantage of the down trodden. Do not do further harm to those who are already struggling in their day to day lives.
The first step is to not do these things, to not participate in the evil and unrighteousness that is all around. But if you are already not actively participating in actively harming those around you, your work is not done. You are responsible for yourself and your actions. You are to love good and hate evil; to despise unrighteousness and seek good in all you do, but your responsibility does not stop there. Once you, yourself are doing and seeking good in how you act, then the next step is to open your eyes look around, and see where injustice still occurs, see where and how people are being misused and abused and work to put an end to it wherever it takes place. It is not good enough to simply behave properly ourselves, we are also expected to establish justice. To work to assure that the world in which everyone lives is defined by fair and just practices. We are to work to end the mistreatment and misuse of human beings in our society and the world. We are called to love good and hate evil, but we are also called to work to bring righteousness and goodness to all parts of our world. We are not to not simply stand by and allow the people in the world around us to be mistreated. WE are called to speak up, to work in whatever way we can with our actions and with our votes, to establish justice in all corners of our society.
At the end of the passage God tells us that we are to, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream.” I make special note of this because this is a rich and amazing metaphor. The words for water and ever-flowing stream are words that indicate water in abundance; water that is always there, always flowing, always moving.
Water was not abundant in the ancient near east. In the spring water would run in streams but for most the year the stream beds were dry. God calls for righteousness to be an ever-flowing stream; a stream that does not ever run dry. This is a picture of water that stays, that does not come and go with the seasons, but water that is always there, cool and life giving at all times.
God does not want us to seek justice that trickles through the land like a tiny water driblet, or righteousness that is like the dew fresh and clean in the morning but gone by the afternoon. God wants justice to be a lake we can swim in and righteousness to be a waterfall we can stand under. There is enough for all, more than enough for all. It is flowing down and over flowing the river beds and flooding the lives of everyone around. This is extravagant justice, exorbitant righteousness. It is enough for everyone to drink and be filled. Enough for us all to jump in and swim around, so much justice that is it unseemly, so much righteousness that it quite frankly wasteful.
The world as God wish it is an luxuriously apportioned mansion of the insanely rich. If justice were gold, the whole thing would be guilt. If righteousness were marble, not only would all the floors be made of it but the walls and the ceilings as well. Some might say that is too much or too far, but God says when it comes to righteousness and justice there is never too much, there is no such thing as going over board.
It is easy to think that the second of these two things God is calling for is the lesser of the two. Surely being responsible for my own actions and my own deeds is the primary call in this passage. Although we begin with ourselves, our actions, our attitudes, the ways in which we act and interact on a daily basis; although it begins with loving and seeking good in all we do, and in every part of our own lives, it does not end there. The second part is just as important if not more so than the first. Not only are we to assure our own actions are good and righteous, that we ourselves are not taking advantage of others, but we are to make sure that we do not allow, or stand by while others in the world around us are continually mistreated by others, by the systems, by the common practices that are just apart of “how our world works.” We are to work to stop that being the way things work, to end the injustices in our society and our world. To break down those systems and repair the broken parts of our society. We are to break down the damns that hold it back and let it flow, let justice go rushing into the the lives of everyone in our society. And let us be the ones who work every day of our lives to break that damn and to allow it to flood our world, so that it is literally the water in which we live. Let us all be fish swimming in a sea of justice and righteousness. Let it be the waters in which we live and the very air which we ALL breath and let us not stop, let us not rest until it is so.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

God of the Silence - 1 Kings 19:1-16

Things never went very well for Elijah. It seemed the people never listened to God. When they did not, Elijah was always asked, by God, to go back to them, and give them the opportunity to change and turn back to God, or suffer the consequences of their unfaithfulness. The pesky thing about always being right is, no one ever listens. Time and time again the people chose to do their own thing and not heed the warning from God, Elijah brought to them. Then, when God's protective hand was removed from them, and terrible things happened, it was always Elijah's fault. God said, “Repent, change your ways,” the people refused and there was a famine and a drought for three years. It was Elijah's fault, so he was forced to hide in the wilderness being taken care of by birds.
Even when it seemed he had won, he lost. One of the huge problems at this time in Israel's history was that the King had married a woman who worshiped Ba'al. She had imported idols and priests and prophets of Ba'al from her homeland. Because of her influence many people had turned away from God to worship Ba'al. Others, in an attempt to keep all parties happy, were worshiping both, which was not at all better in God's eyes. (See the first commandment)
All the prophets of Ba'al had set up a giant reality contest, “Whose God is real, anyway?”  They would get as many people as possible to come to this grand event.  The premise was: all the prophets of Ba'al (450 of them) would build an alter to Ba'al, on one side, and Elijah would build and alter to the Lord God, on the other. They would each place an offering on their alter. Then right there in front of everyone, they would each call out to their god to reign down fire. The god who managed to set the offering upon their alter on fire, was the one true god.
The prophets of Ba'al made a royal ruckus, singing and yellin' and prayin' at their top of their lungs to make sure Ba'al hear them. Nothing. Maybe he was asleep and they needed to make some noise to wake him. When that did not work they began jumpin' and dancin' all around the alter to get Ba'al's attention. Nada. Perhaps, he was binge watching Netflix and was too distracted to notice them.
Finally they started cutting themselves and bleeding all over the place. Perhaps Ba'al was 1/10 shark and would smell the blood in the air and come running with great bombs of fire. Nope, nothing. Ba'al was in the shower, singing, “rubber ducky you’re the one” at the top of his lungs and could not, hear, notice or smell anything that was going on down on that mountain that day.
At this point Elijah, being a good sport about things, started taunting them mercilessly. “Nanni-nanni-boo-boo my God's gonna do what yours can't do.”
Then to show what a really a good guy he was about this whole affair, he dug a three foot wide trench all around his alter. Then he had jug, after jug, after jug of water poured all over his alter. So much water that it poured down over the offering, over the wood for the offering, over the sides of the alter, filling the entire trench that surrounded it. And then Elijah began to pray, and immediately fire came down from the heavens. Fire came licking down over the alter, consuming the offering, the wood, and all of the water, nothing was left, not even one drop of water.
Elijah had won; God is the one true God of the universe. God one, Ba'al ZERO. And the crowd goes wild. Elijah is hero of the day. God is God and Ba'al is not. But like I said, even when Elijah wins, he loses, because this whole thing angers Jezebel, the queen, something fierce and she put a hit out on Elijah. Before Elijah can really revel in his moment of victory, he is running for his life from a band of royally sanctioned hit-men. He leaves his servant in a safe place, because he does not want his servant to die too if they are found together. Out into the wilderness he goes, again. He knows that Jezebel's hired guns are too chicken to follow him, or too dumb to find there.
So here Elijah is, out in the wilderness, the henchmen of Jezebel after him.  He is on the run, but even a man on the run gets hot and tired. So he finds a solitary broom tree way out in the middle of nowhere, a day’s walk everywhere. He looks to his right there is no one, he looks to his left, no one. He is safe, there is no one can be seen in any direction. He sits down there in the shade of the tree and he feels absolutely, completely and utterly ALL ALONE.
When evening comes, he lies down and stares up at the sky; it is mostly void, and partly starry. He stares up into the nothingness and asks God if he might die. He thinks about his life and the lives of all the prophets who have come before him. Where are they now? They are nothing but dust and bones and he says to God, “Enough is enough; I am ready die, for I am no better than my ancestors.” And then he lay down and fell asleep, hoping God would grant his request.
He must have been pretty disappointed when God woke him and told him to eat and drink. So he ate and drank, but miraculous food and drink was not enough to impress him. After eating and drinking food that appeared out of nowhere, he laid down once again hoping to die. But again, God disappoints him, and wakes him up again, telling him to eat and drink and so he does.
This time, God does not allow him to go back to sleep but instead encourages him to keep moving. He travels all the way to mount Horeb, which is also known as Sinai, the very mountain on which Moses met God all those years ago. He climbs the mountain and finds a cave and settles down in the cave.
And God says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And Elijah says, “God I am always doing what you tell me to do. I am a good prophet. I tell the people what you tell me to tell them, I do what you tell me do, and nobody ever listens. Nothing I do ever makes a difference. Every time I do the right thing, it comes crashing back down at me. It like a reverse Midas touch, instead of it all turning to gold, everything I touch turns to ash. It is all ruined. I am all alone, and everyone wants to kill me, and I kind wish they would.”
How many of us have felt like this? Nothing we do seems to go right. Everything seems to be torn to pieces the moment we touch it. The world around us has crashed and burned and there are no pieces to pick up. We are going through a rough time. Our heart aches, within us. Our body is one giant nerve in pain. And we look around and there is no one. We are all alone. Nobody could possibly understand how we feel. Nobody is really there for us. Everyone we love is dead. Everyone who could help us, is gone, or nowhere to be seen. We look to the left, we look to the right and there is no one there. On one hand we are relieved. Sometimes it feels good to be alone in our pain, in our grief, in our sorrow, in our hurt. But then again we are all alone, absolutely, positively alone. There is no one here with us in our hurt, in our grief in our pain. And perhaps, on one of our really bad days (or on two or three) we have thought, death would be easier than continuing to deal with than this. That is exactly how Elijah felt that day.
And so God told him to hang out there on the mountain for a little while and left him alone. As he stood there, completely and absolutely abandoned, the wind picked up. It howled in the trees and made a hollow moaning sound in the mouth of the cave. It whipped up over the rock face and whistle against the stone. It was blowing so hard, Elijah had to cling to the rock to not be carried away by it. But even in all its grandeur and force, Elijah knew that God was not in the wind.
As soon as the wind died down, the earth began to quake, it became as mobile as the sea. The mountain, on which he stood, bobbed up and down like a toy boat in a child's bath. The rocks rolled like waves. But even with all its power, Elijah knew God was not in the quake.
As soon as the ground became sturdy again, fire rolled across the mountain. It blazed with a fierceness and with a fury the likes of which Elijah had never seen, but just as with the wind and the quake, even with all its glory, Elijah knew God was not in the fire.
When the blaze died down, Elijah looked across the mountain, across the valley, across all the world that could be seen from his vantage point. He looked around and saw in the barren world around him a stillness that could not be explained. And he heard nothing, absolutely nothing. The world was filled with the sound of sheer silence and in that stillness, in that silence Elijah knew, just as he knew he had ten fingers and ten toes, two eyes and one nose, God was there in the silence, closer than God had ever been before.
When we are struggling, when we are hurting, when life seems too much to handle, we want God to come to us in a thunder cloud, like a bolt of lightning. We want God to be all smoke and lights, to “razzle dazzle” us. We want the God with the booming voice. But when we are hurting the world is muffled. It is almost as if volume of everything around us is turned down. It is as if we are trapped in a jar, able to watch the world go by unable to sense it, to feel it, to hear it. Or perhaps the volume is turned way too high, we feel everything to eleven, feathers are sharp razors and even the dim glow of a firefly on a summer night is too bright. Either way, in these times, we could look in the wind, in the fire, or in the shaking of the earth but we will not find God there. It is not that God cannot be in the cloud, in the smoke or in the fire, in the thunder or in the rain. God has proved at other times that sometimes God can be found in those places. But, when we are hurting, that is not the time for loud booming voices, for burning bushes or pillars of fire, it is not the time to fill everything with smoke or to shake our world to get our attention. When we are soft and vulnerable, when we are hurting and raw, God comes to us in the silence that we feel all around us.
When we are hurting, when the world is all razor blades and blinding lights, or when we are so deep in our sorrow that the world is wrapped in a deep blanket of wool, so far away that it cannot be felt or heard, we know the silence that surrounds us. It is a thing we can touch, it can be felt, it is as sharp as any knife and as soft as a kitten. It is a thick blanket of snow on a frosty winter morn. It is a thing that is there. It is a thing that is known. This silence in which we live, it keeps us company. In these times when the silence around us becomes a living breathing thing which surrounds us, we find that it is God that is there in that ever deafening silence; surrounding us, filling our lives with the very presence of God. The presence of God, encasing us, so that nothing but God can be felt there; can be heard there. When we feel nothing, when we see nothing, when we hear nothing, God is there in the silence, embracing us, holding us. Even when we are hurting too much to feel God; even when we are blinded so badly by the circumstance that surround us that we cannot see God; even when we are sobbing too loudly to hear God, God is there in the silence, in the pain. Even when we wish we are dead, God comes to us and fills our lives so that we can see nothing else, feel nothing else, hear nothing else but the silence that is God in our lives in our hurt and our pain.
And then God picks us up and reminds us that we are not alone, God is there with us. And even when we think that there is no one left for us, God takes us to people. God reminds us that we do not live for ourselves we live for those who come after us.
Elijah declared to God that he was no better than his ancestors. He was no better than the prophets who had gone before him. And he was right; God showed him that he was right. His ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David had all struggled in their lifetimes, with hurt, with disappointment in God. The prophets who had gone before him Moses, Eli, and Samuel, he was also no better than they. They had done what God had called for them to do, and things did not always go well for them.  All of them struggled with how they felt God had left them, abandoned them, and also with their own failings but through it all they had sought God, even in when they failed they called out to God and found God was there. They hurt and struggled, just as Elijah is doing. And their lives are a testament to the ever present nature of God.
Elijah was no better or worse than his ancestors, not in the way he thought, being nothing but dust and bones, but in that they had lived and struggled and found God to be faithful. And God, like God had done with all those before him, assured him that that God was faithful in his life as well. And then encouraged him to be like his ancestors and move forward in such a way that would assure that he like his ancestors before him would live his life in such a way that there would be others who would follow after him. Elijah went and found Elisha and spent the rest of his life assuring that there would be a faithful prophet to come after him so that he could follow in the path of his ancestors, making sure that others would forever come after.
When we are hurting it is good to look back through history and know that others have hurt like we have hurt. It is assuring to see that others have struggled as we have struggled; that others have found God to be faithful and know that we too can find that God is faithful. There is peace and comfort we get from the long line of ancestors we can find along the path behind us. If we look we can always find someone who is “just like” us who struggled in similar ways we do, who hurt in similar ways that we do. We can find God faithful just as they did. But we can also see in them who we want to be, who we aspire to be, people who lead others in the path as well. God does not ask for us to go find whole boat loads of people. God just asks for us to go find one. God sent Elijah to find Elisha. Go find the one Elisha, the one who will carry on the legacy of faith that was begun through all those who came before us. The way we assure that there is a legacy of faith that comes after us, is if we continually have just one person we are working with, loving into the kingdom, training in the faith, living as an example before. Just one. You are Elijah, who is your Elisha?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Presence of God - 1 Kings 8:1-13

So after Samuel anointed him king, the boy David grew up, as boys are want to do. And after some things happened and then some more violent things, he did indeed eventually become king. He had some wives, and one who was someone else's, and some children. He fought in many wars, and through those wars. And some small amount of diplomacy established Israel as a nation among her neighbors.
When his wars had settled down and he began the work of setting up Jerusalem as the seat of his government. He built a palace there and wanted to build a house for God there as well. But God told him that this task was not for him. David was just a little bit disappointed, but he was wise enough to not attempt to build something God specifically told him not to and that was the end of that.
So after some time, David died, as boys are want to do, when they are old men. His son Solomon became king after him, after a few not so minor disputes, involving swords, and a small amount of bloodshed. Something that is want to happen, when a country has not yet established a clear process concerning the passing of power from person to another. After this many more things happened, many of them deemed to be very wise, because Solomon was known for his wisdom. Some of them were not so wise, but of even the wisest among us do some very unwise things. Anyway, Solomon decides it is time to do the one thing his father had wanted to do, but was forbidden to do, build the temple. God had always said that God did not need a dwelling place made of wood and stone, but since it was something that seemed to be important to David and to Solomon, God would choose to abide in a temple if he were to build one. So after seven years and no small amount of forced labor (again sometimes wise men do some very unwise things), the temple is finished. And it has come time to dedicate it.
On that day, they brought everything up out of the tabernacle. That is the mobile tent, in which they had worshiped since their long journey through the wilderness, when God brought them up out of slavery in Egypt into the land in which they now resided. After they had brought up all the implements of worship, they brought up the Ark of the Covenant, which was basically a very elaborate box, on which sat two carved cherubim. Inside are two tablets onto which were written the covenant God had made with the people and the people with God. It was often the preferred meeting place for God and Moses throughout the wilderness wanderings. The bringing up of the Ark, symbolized God coming into the temple. From now on God would meet the people here in the temple Solomon had built.
The Ark is taken into the temple and put in the inner most room, the most holy room, the room set aside for God. It was placed there, set between two great cherubim, underneath their outstretched wings. It was there in that space, above the cherubim atop the Ark and underneath the wings of those that towered above, in that dark, innermost, windowless room, God would “reside.” Once they had it all set up, it was perfect. The room neatly contained the Ark and even the long poles which had been used to carry it all those years. It all fit beautifully in the room. You could just see the poles, but all that was considered most holy was contained in that one little room.
During the days of their travels, God had led them with a pillar of cloud. It was said that the very presence of God was in the cloud, that it was the physical manifestation of God, leading them, guiding them to the land God was giving to them. That cloud of the presence of God had always been with them, until they had settled and taken up residence in the land which God had promised to them and to their ancestors.
When the priests had finished putting everything in its place and the priests had just come out of the room. Then with all the priests and the elders gathered there something happened, something unexpected, something, just a bit frightening. The presence of God filled that place. Here, on the day of the dedication of the temple, as soon as they had finished putting the Ark of the Covenant, the meeting place of God, into the inner most, holiest part of the temple, that same cloud filled the temple. God filled the temple. And everyone left. The scripture says, “a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud.”
God came into the temple. God had come into that most holy of places, just as they had desired. But God did not stay there. They had built the room perfectly, it was just big enough to hold the cherubim and the ark and even the poles of the ark, but the room was simply not big enough to hold God. God came into that room and came pouring out filling the entire place. They had built a room to contain God but it was just not big enough.
They had wanted God to come. They had invited God to come. I mean they had built the whole place for God, but they are surprised, frightened even, when God actually shows up. And they are surprised when God does not stay where they put God. They are surprised when God does not fit in the room they had provided. They are frightened when God is bigger than they expected. They are frightened when they realized that God cannot be contained by anything which they have built.
They wanted God to show up but are chased out of the temple when the presence of God actually arrives. I want you to hear me, Church. God is bigger than anything we build. God is bigger than our sanctuaries. God is bigger than our buildings. God is bigger than anything we can imagine. Our God is bigger. Whatever it is, God is bigger.
We are probably not surprised that the God of the universe; the God who hovered over the deep, at pre-creation; the God who spoke the world into existence, who created light itself and the dark as well; who flung the stars into the sky and who reached into the dust of creation and formed humanity, breathing into us, giving us life; that God cannot be contained by anything we have built. No tent, no house, no temple ever devised by the human brain and then built with human hands could ever hold God. I can think of little else that makes as much sense as that.
The largest failing of religion, is that through religion we attempt to understand God. We think that by building walls of theology, doors of dogma, rooms out of articles of faith, roofs with manuals. We think that if we search enough, discuss enough, explain enough, think hard enough, we can place God right where God belongs in our holy of holies; that we, by understanding God, that God can be contained in our understanding. We think that God can be seen and held, that by wrapping God up with thoughts, ideas and words, with theses, and creeds and articulations of our faith, that we can build a place where God can safely reside. But God cannot. One of these days we, as the people of God will see, that all these doctrines, creeds, and articles are good pursuits, but that expecting God to reside within the walls of our understanding is a vain pursuit. As soon as we set up the walls, the perimeters, no matter how holy our pursuit, when God comes in, God is bigger, so much bigger.
The temple was a great idea, setting up a place most holy was a great idea, it is a fair and honest endeavor to provide a place where the people of God can come to meet God, to give the people a place where they can come to seek to understand God. But we should never be surprised when God is bigger than that. At some point in our seeking, in our understanding, we must realize that we can never wholly understand God. We although seeking God is a holy and blessed endeavor, God cannot be found, in any hiding place. We can never call out, “Olly, Olly, ox and free” and expect God to come out in all God's glory so that we can see God in God's entirely and know God completely. Our God can be sought, but can never truly be found.
We seek God so that we might know God, so that we might catch a glimpse of this one who we worship; this great and mighty God of the universe, who chooses to draw near to us, who chooses in some small, yet great way to reside among us. We hope to know so that we might understand the one who desires to be in relationship with us. But in knowing we must come to see that in seeking we do not find, in knowing we never truly understand. But yet the endeavor is never worthless, it might be our complete undoing, but what an undoing! To be undone by the one and only most holy God of the universe. The God is bigger than us, bigger than anything we can build or imagine. The God who is simply bigger.
I want to be clear, neither the priests, nor the elders, not even Solomon called God to come, and then God came. I say this because my language and even the language of the text might lead us to believe this. Language is a funny thing; it is imprecise and often lacking. It does not often convey the very things we are attempting to convey, even when we speak of mundane, common things. But when we come to understand that God is bigger than anything we can create this also includes language. When we speak of these things our words are a small and confining as that room in which they attempted to house God. When we speak the things of God, the presence of God comes pouring out of the small words, and statements we use, breaking their meaning and confusing their meaning, leaving them but poor broken vessels unable to contain that which we are attempting to relay. Solomon did not build a house for God temple in which God could reside and then invite God to come. The elders did not bring God into the temple when they brought all the holy things up out the tabernacle. The priests did not bring God with them when they carried the ark into the holy place. God did not come trailing after them like an obedient child moving house because his parents have relocated. God did not go because God was instructed to go. God did not come because God was invited.
Every Sunday we gather every Sunday, here in this sanctuary, this place which has been built for us to come and see God; to stand, if but for a moment in the presence of God. At the beginning of the service I speak an invocation, a call to worship. But I am always very careful in my language, lest any of us think that God is summoned to be among us. I am very careful to not presume that it is I, or you, or us together who invites God in to this Sanctuary. No matter how our language through liturgy or through song might lead us to believe. It is not wrong to speak thusly, but we must speak or sing realizing that at some moments our language because it cannot contain God, fails to correctly convey the mysteries of God.
We ultimately believe that this is God’s sanctuary, God’s house. It is not God who meets us here; it is us who meet God here. We do not invoke God to join us; we do not call out to God and beg God to join us. We come, we gather, we worship, we pray, we praise, because God has invited US, God has gathered us, God has called us. We are the Church because God has made us the Church. We come, we go, we gather, we scattered because that is how God the Church to move. We come into the presence of God because God calls, and have heard that call today. God does not come because we have called; we come because God has called. God is not here because we have gathered, we have gathered because God has called.  
When God came to the temple God not only filled the temple to over flowing but the presence of God forced the priests and the elders outside into the streets where the people were. There is no indication that they were able to go back in so Solomon’s prayer which follows, the service of dedication, the worship that occurs throughout the rest of this chapter, happens out there on the streets among the people.
God’s presence forces them outside the walls of the temple. God’s presence forces them out into the streets. They could not minister there in the temple and were instead forced by the very presence of God to minister outside, in the streets among the people.
I want you to walk with me for a minute here this morning. Today is reformation Sunday. And although I am hesitant to celebrate the church divided, even if it is a side effect of much needed reform, I am going to mention it this morning, because one of the things Luther heralded in his 95 theses is the priesthood of all believers. The priesthood of all believers says that all the church, every one of us who claims Christ as Lord, can stand before God as priest. That means that because of Christ the division between God and God’s people has been broken down. Each of us can stand before God ourselves. We do not need anyone to stand for us. We can pray, we can worship, we can be in the presence of God in the ways that only priests of the Old Testament could before God.
You might notice in this passage that although all the people are gathered, that only the elders can take anything into the temple, and only the priest are allowed to carry the Ark in to the holy place and it is only the priest who had remained to be chased out. The priests stood between God and the people. The people are unable to stand in the presence of God. But in Christ we do not need anyone to stand between us and God. The presence of God resides with all God’s people, because we are called to be the Church and the Church is called to be a holy priesthood taking God to all the peoples of the earth. We are all priests, in that we can all stand in the presence of God. When we come into the sanctuary of God, when we gather to pray, to worship and minister, each of us are doing so, in the same way the priest of old did. We can stand here this morning because in Christ all of us, each of us, are priests of God, gathering, worshiping and praying together in the very presence of God. This is one truth that was made clear in through Luther in the reformation, and for that we are thankful.
As God’s priests we are called us to gather, we come into God’s presence to worship God, to come to understand God, to be the people God is calling us to be, to minister, but ultimately no matter how many times we are called in, no matter how often God gathers us, the presence of God sends us out once again, into the streets, among the people to minister. We are called to be a holy priesthood to the nations, to all the people of the earth bringing God to them. Carrying the symbols, the signs, the words (no matter how faltering) that will share the presence of God with them. But we cannot do so here, with in these four walls. Inside these walls we are contained, we are hidden, like the ark with its poles, within the holy place. We cannot stay here. We may come because we have been called, we may gather because God has gathered us in, but in coming we encounter, the great, the mighty, the frightening presence of God and it is the very presence who calls, who gather, who sends us out, who scatters us  in among the people of the world to minister. To BE priest, to show them the one whom we have encountered, to carry the invitation, God’s invitation to them, so that they might hear the call, so that they might know that they too may come. So that when we gather they too may come with us. The presence of God gathers, but it is also that same presence that scatters, it is God who calls us, but it is also God who sends.  

We do not come here each week simply for the purpose of coming. We are not called here simply to worship and pray. We are not gathered so that we can study and come to understand God. The Church is not created for itself. We are not here merely for our own edification. We are plants, God nurtures us, gives us all that we need, food, water, sunlight, so that we might grow. But we are not here simply that we might grow, we do not grow so that we might merely be bigger, taller, greater. We grow that we might mature, that we might produce fruit that others might also grow. That God’s Church might multiply and grow. Come here in the presence of God so that God’s presence might drive us out into the world into our common everyday task, into our jobs, into our schools, into our neighborhoods so that there we might minister among the people that next time we come we might bring one with us, that she too might come to know the God we know, that he too might become a priest alongside of us, that they might come to know the God we know, love the Christ we love. The presence of God came into the temple that day and the priests were driven out in to the streets by God’s presence to minister there. We have come here today, and encountered this God who is bigger than we, we have encountered this God who is greater than our imaginings and let us like the priests who have come before us also be driven out into our world to minister in God’s name!