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.