Sunday, August 15, 2004

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 20
Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith.

When I wrote about these scriptures six years ago, my daughter was just entering high school. Now, six years later, she is thriving at college and my son is about to begin his senior year of high school. Time is passing, perhaps too fast. My kids are a heartbeat away from no longer needing a mother to take care of them and deal with their problems. There comes a day when there is nothing more we can do. They are going to make choices that are different than we want. We can’t choose their career or their spouse. We can’t force them to live under our noses. What father wants his daughter to move to the other side of the country to attend college? What mother wants her son to join the army and go to war? Are any daughter-in-laws good enough for a mother’s son? Sometimes their choices seem to be in direct opposition to our hope for their lives.

If it happens to us, imagine how God must feel about the choices we make! He has given us life and guaranteed eternal life, and yet we continue to make decisions that are less than God expects. We ignore His calls to service and follow paths that meet our own wants. We chase after the things we think we need rather than accept that which God knows we need. We do our own thing without considering how it will affect others. But there are plenty of reasons why we make the choices we make.

I know a lot of pastors who love what they do, but I know very few who have no complaints about the job. It is not an easy vocation to pursue. Pastors are often underappreciated, underpaid and over worked. They are expected to be perfect and their mistakes have a much harder impact on their communities. Recent conversations have included grumblings about the unrealistic expectations of some faith communities and the lack of help from the lay members of that community. Some pastors tell me that they are expected to do everything, including janitorial duties. Other pastors tell me that the congregants make unworkable demands concerning preaching and teaching of God’s Word and the practice of the Sacraments.

It isn’t a path many people choose to take, and this is obvious in many of the denominations. I’ve heard stories of congregations that have waited years for a pastor. Sometimes the reason is because there is no one to send. But often the reason is selfish or self-centered on the part of the congregation or the pastor. God has created a perfect machine, and He has called each Christian to play their part, but we don’t always want to do what He wants us to do. Would you move away from the people you know and love to go thousands of miles to a congregation in a community that is totally different than what you know? Would you be comfortable working to meld with a people who have different dreams?

We have good reasons for making the decisions we make. The pastor who says “No” to a congregation that has unrealistic expectations knows what he or she can handle and knows his or her gifts. But what if that is truly the place God is sending the pastor? What if that experience was meant to grow and mature the pastor for something else that is to come? He or she missed the opportunity to learn from a difficult experience because he or she wanted to take an easier path.

And what about the congregation that refuses to call the pastor that is passionate about change and is ready to come in and rock every boat? They reject that person because they are afraid of the change, but that change might just be exactly what they need to be the people God has created and redeemed them to be. I’ve seen this story from both ends, and I know the blame can’t always be put on one side. We all have a tendency toward self-preservation and we make our choices from that point of view. It is no wonder that the call of God is a difficult path to choose.

The big problem we face is: how do we know? So many voices in the world claim to be speaking for God, and we have trouble knowing which ones to believe. I thought it was funny a few years ago when the movie “The Passion of Christ” came out, the book on which it was based was accepted as a prophetic word about Jesus’ last moments. “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ” was that was based on the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich in the mid-19th century. At the same time, another book was popular among the prophetic charismatic denominations (I don’t recall the name) which gave a completely different and even contradictory depiction of the last days of Jesus.

I had a conversation with a friend about the movie and gave her a copy of Emmerich’s story and when she finished she was absolutely amazed. She was prepared to accept that book as gospel, as inspired by God. “It must be true,” she said. That’s not the impact I thought the book should make, and I showed her information about the other book. She asked, “How do we know which one is true?” I’m not sure I have the answer to that. I’m confused by the many voices that scream at me on a daily basis about what I am supposed to do and what I am supposed to believe. Too many of our churches are divided today because we have contradicting voices telling us God’s “truth.”

I used to belong to a mailing list that sent out “words” from God, statements made by “prophets” who have heard God’s voice and have been compelled to share them with the world. I was cynical, although at times the “words” made sense. Then one day I received a mailing that described the interpretation of a previous vision that was never reported until the obvious fulfillment. Unfortunately, they sent out the email a little bit too early, and it turned out to be completely wrong. See, the vision had something to do with the destruction of a place of sin. The interpretation was made that it was in reference to New Orleans and the mail was sent as a major hurricane (long before Katrina) was headed right for the city. The “prophet” suggested that New Orleans was about to be destroyed as God punished the people for their sin. At the last moment, the hurricane changed course and hit the gulf coast far from the city. New Orleans was spared (at least that time). Was the prophecy meant for another place? I don’t think we’ll ever know because the prophecy disappeared off the website as soon as it was proven untrue.

I stopped receiving the email immediately. I occasionally check out the site, to see what ridiculous things they are trying to convince people to believe, and I’ve noticed that most of their posts have taken on new focus: earning profit for the prophets. The website is filled with books for sale, invitations to expensive conferences to hear the “words” of the prophets and other opportunities to throw your money their way. You have to scroll past dozens of ads before you even come to the link to read the most recent prophecies. Even then, half the “words” are advertisements for something.

It isn’t easy to tell the difference between the words of God and the words people claim are from God. We are human, and we are easily deceived. This is a problem that God’s people have experienced since the beginning of time. There are many people today who claim to be prophets and who say that they have been given a special message from God. These messages often come in the form of dreams, but they also say, “God told me.” While it is important to hear what they have to say, we are to always remember that God’s Word does not contradict itself.

In the passage from Jeremiah God asks, “What is the straw to the wheat?” Straw is part of the wheat, it is the stem that is left after the wheat kernels are taken. Straw has value; it can be used for bedding, for warmth, for building. But wheat is life-giving. The kernels can be used for food or they can be planted to grow more wheat. God’s word as compared to that of the false prophets is life-giving. It is forgiving. It is filled with grace and hope and peace. God’s word might be demanding. It might be powerful, like the hammer that breaks the rock into pieces, but it is also healing and it is transforming. Most of all, God’s Word reveals His faithfulness.

That’s the best way to know whether someone is speaking for God or if they are speaking for themselves. How does that prophetic list glorify God? It seems, by their own advertisements, that God is glorified in their successes. One ad is for a conference where the speakers are going to lead the guests in prayers for prosperity. Is that the way to know that God’s Word is being revealed?

I’m not so sure. After all, if we read what the writer of Hebrews has to say, we’ll see that following God does not always lead us into a path of wealth and happiness. The passage of Hebrews gives a much different picture. “…others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: and others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were tempted, they were slain with the sword: they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves, and the holes of the earth.” This isn’t a life I would choose and it is not one in which I would expect to find peace. However, over the history of the Church, the stories of martyrs often include descriptions of faces filled with joy and peace as they were burnt or beheaded for their faith.

We’ll make mistakes. We’ll follow the wrong voice and follow the wrong path. We’ll choose that path that seems best to us even when another path might be even better. We are afraid. We doubt. We are uncertain about which voice is real. The promise of God is not peaches and cream. It is peace and joy.

What does it mean to have the peace of God? We might like to think that peace is a life without conflict. We might like to think that joy is a life without sadness. But that is not what God promises. Jesus was a man of peace, but the peace He brought was a peace that passes human understanding. It is a peace in the heart, a peace with God. It is a peace that is not dependent on human effort. The Christian’s life does not always appear peaceful or joyful, but there is something about their attitude that manifests before others. Those who live in the passion of Christ often have lives that look like His own passion, but they face those difficulties with thanksgiving and praise. They walk in faith, trusting that God is with them every step of the way.

You have to walk in faith to do the works of God. Think about how hard it must have been for Abraham to leave his homeland and wander to an unknown place. Or how hard it must have been for Rahab to help the spies escape. Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets all had burdens to carry and boundaries to break through. Yet, they went forward.

It isn’t that they were perfect; after all, each one has a black mark on their account along with the stories of their faith-filled journey. Rahab was a prostitute. Gideon tested God. Samson was easily deceived. David pursued Bathsheba. If we were to point out similar people in our world today, I doubt we would ever expect that they would be commended for their faith. And yet God accomplished great things through them because they believed in Him. We can accomplish great things, too, as long as we remember that it is God’s Will to be done, not ours.

It won’t be easy. We may have to step out of our comfort zone and allow God to do something incredible in our lives. We might have to accept the assignment that doesn’t fit our desires. We may have to trust voices that say what we know to be true even if they don’t say what we want them to say. But we do all this knowing that God is near, helping us through.

Our text today reminds us, however, that God is also far from us. He is not limited by our experiences or point of view, even if we would like to keep Him in our little box. Jeremiah writes that God “fills heaven and earth.” He is far and He is near. He is greater than we can imagine and more personal than we can expect. He has a purpose for us and a plan for His creation. He will be with those who have faith even when it seems like everyone else has abandoned us. And when we wander from His path (we all do, it has been that way since the beginning of time), He is there to calls us back. He forgives and loves us, drawing us back into His heart.

Let us live in faith, especially when it seems like there is no reason to be thankful. Let us live in the peace of God, even if it seems like there is good reason to be afraid and doubt. Let us trust in God, even though it appears to the world that we are being foolish. Let us praise God, even when the words He speaks to us are uncomfortable. For He is faithful; His promises are true. He knows what the world is throwing at us, just as He knows what we are trying to hide. He knows the realities of the world in which we live. But He also knows the rest of the story. He has provided for us the guarantee. The suffering of today will one day pass and heaven will be ours forever. Until that day we may have to experience the pain of conflict, but we can be at peace anyway, thanks to God’s grace.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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