Sunday, August 19, 2007

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

Am I a God at hand, saith Jehovah, and not a God afar off?

I just finished reading the book ďWickedĒ by Gregory Maguire. This book tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, from the story ďThe Wizard of OzĒ from her point of view. The story looks at her life from her birth through her death and shows us that not everything is as it seems. Of course, the books are fiction, so the writers are able to do whatever the please. Gregory Maguire, who wrote his version of the story ninety-six years after L. Frank Baum, but he followed fairly close to the storyline found in the original. He described some of the people, places and events that L. Frank Baum only briefly mentioned and gave them more life.

In the story, we see the Wicked Witch of the West in a more human and humane perspective. She is a person dealing with a difficult childhood, the suffering she faced against bullies both real and imagined. She became political, willing to sacrifice for the sake of others. She never believed in faith or a soul or an afterlife and thus saw no consequences to her extreme behavior. In the end the horror she tried to inflict on her nemesis Dorothy fell back on herself and she perished. As we read the story from the Wicked Witchís point of view, we see that she was trying to do what was right but she lost her way because her passion for one side overpowered her concern for the other. She willingly accepted suffering for the sake of her cause but she also made others suffer.

We look at the world from our own perspective. We see problems from our own point of view. When we are discussing the troubles of this world, our opinions are based on our own life experiences and that will differ from those of our neighbor. It can even be true among family members. How many of us have been to family reunions where topics of discussion were severely limited for the sake of family unity? In movies with newly engaged couples first meeting family and friends, one partner often makes a lengthy list of things that they should never say. You see the couple discussing family members and all their problems. ďNever bring up the Civil War.Ē ďThe conversation will never end if you start talking about your sore muscles.Ē ďIn this house, we do not talk about politics!Ē For every family there is a topic that just creates problems.

It is easy for us to see how families might be destroyed over inheritance or the division of earthly possessions. I have known too many families in which siblings stopped talking to one another because one child received a special item that another wanted for themselves. Court cases over wills are rampant as family members fight over the wealth of their family members. But the peace of a family is not always destroyed by Ďstuffí. How many of us have experienced broken relationships because of words? How often have we dismissed a family member or a friend because their opinion is different than ours? Politics and religion are often put away for the sake of family unity, because we know that those two subjects are met with passion. It is not easy to agree to disagree, and those discussions can lead to a lifetime of dispute.

It is hard for us to hear Jesus say that He has come to bring fire upon the earth, because we think of Him as having come to bring peace. However, the peace Jesus brings is not necessary a lack of conflict between families. Faith in Jesus will cause division, it will bring tension. Those who are passionate about their faith, about Jesus, will stand up for their beliefs at all costs Ė including relationships with family and friends. When we live with this kind of conflict in our lives it is understandable that we wonder when we will know the peace that God has promised. Yet, we misunderstand the peace that God intends. The life of faith is not a life without conflict; it is a life of joy in Godís kingdom. It is allowing the fire that dwells within us to burn brightly to light the world in which we live. It is a life that might mean division between family members as those who believe are separated from those who do not.

Think about the faithful who are listed in the epistle lesson for this week. They are men and women who went against the expectation of their world to stand up for the things they believed. They stood firm in their faith in God, to do what is right according to His word, even when it meant working against the expectations of their culture and community. The people crossed the Red Sea even though they knew it was a dangerous thing to do. The people marched around Jericho seven times even though they looked ridiculous to the people within the city. Rahab gave comfort and protection to the spies of the enemy. We can find similar ways that Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets went against expectations to follow Godís will in their lives. We are amazed by their faith and often overcome with doubt and uncertainty about our own because we can never live up to such high standards.

Yet, we are reminded that in each of these stories the hero has a failure Ė or many failures. Even after Abram was given the promise over and over again, he still went to Hagar for a child. Rahab was of questionable morality. Gideon repeatedly demanded proof from God. Barak demanded things to be done his own way rather than according to Godís will. Samson fell to the temptress. Jephthah made a deal with God which meant the death of his beloved daughter. Davidís indiscretion brought the death of a husband and a child. Samuel and the prophets failed in their own ways. The people who crossed the Red Sea and those who saw the fall of Jericho did not remain faithful to God.

As we listen to the writer of Hebrews, we are almost shocked at the way Godís people have been treated. They were tortured and ďothers 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.Ē Yet, in these sufferings they bore witness to Godís grace through faith.

We, looking at the witness of this ďgreat a cloud of witnessesĒ are called to live a similar life of faith, a life of patience and trust in Godís grace. It seems impossible that we could have suffering and yet joy, trouble and yet peace. Yet that is what life in Christ is all about. The people in Jesusí day missed it. They wanted a different kind of peace. They were looking for a different kind of joy. They wanted a life free of suffering, free of pain. God doesnít promise such a life. He promises something that is beyond our reach in this world Ė eternal life. This is the reward, the prize of the life lived in faith.

Sometimes we think we know better than God. We think that He canít possibly understand our problems because He is not here in this world with us. Just as the people in Jesusí day thought God dwelt in the Temple, we think God is limited by the walls of our churches. We are more than happy to go there each Sunday, and sometimes on other days, to worship Him and fellowship with other believers. Then we are more than happy to leave Him there while we go out into our modern world to live according to the expectations of our jobs, families and communities.

However, in Jeremiah we hear, ďAm I a God at hand, saith Jehovah, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places so that I shall not see him?Ē God is not penned up in our buildings. He dwells in Heaven so He can see the bigger picture. We canít hide from Him. We canít go about our own way expecting that God will ignore it. Those faithful in the passage from Hebrews knew God and He knew them. He knew their hearts and He knew their failures. He knew their sins and He loved them because they had faith. Though they failed to be perfect, they trusted in God.

Throughout the generations, people have treated the gods as local entities, not much more than extra human beings that can do things that normal humans canít do. Because we think they are somehow greater, we look to them for help and salvation. It is convenient, however, that they are just local gods because then we can ignore them if we think we are outside their jurisdiction. We do not need to deal with the rain god if the weather is just right. We do not need to honor some god of the fields if our fields are producing well.

The Lord God Almighty is greater than human beings, but we often give Him the same limited characteristics of those local gods. We think that we can ignore Him when we do not need anything or hide from Him when we are doing something wrong. However, God is not just a god who is near by, like those local gods of the ancients. He is also not a god who is just far away. He is not some disconnected being that set the world in motion and then disappeared. He is actively involved in the lives of His people.

When we discount the Lord God Almighty and make Him less than He is, we easily fall prey to those who would use and abuse His power for their own benefit. In Jeremiahís days there were prophets on every corner, prophets who claim to know Godís mind and His intensions. They cried, ďI had a dreamĒ and interpreted the dream to their advantage. By claiming to have received their message directly from God, they sought to gain power and influence over people. Yet, their message was lacking. It led people astray. It brought people to the altar of false gods and made people forget the Creator and Redeemer God.

Thatís what had happened to Godís people by the time Jesus came. They were following the interpretations of Godís Word given to them by generations of priests who did not understand. When Jesus came, they did not recognize the One who had been promised. They still waited, knowing that God would be faithful to His promise, but they missed it because they were looking for the wrong things. They were looking for a false Messiah so they did not see the real one.

How do we tell the difference? 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, ďGod told me.Ē While it is important to hear what they have to say, we are to always remember that Godís Word does not contradict itself. In this passage God asks, ďWhat is the straw to the wheat?Ē Straw is part of the wheat, it is the stem that is left after the wheat kernels are taken. Straw has value Ė it can be used for bedding, for warmth, for building. Yet, straw is limited. Wheat, on the other hand, is life giving. The kernels can be used for food or they can be planted to grow more wheat. Godís word as compared to that of the false prophets is life giving. It is forgiving. It is filled with grace and hope and peace. Godís word might be demanding. It might be powerful, like the hammer that breaks the rock into pieces, but it is healing and it is transforming. Most of all, Godís Word reveals His faithfulness.

God isnít hiding somewhere that He canít see us. He isnít so close that we can keep Him under our control. He isnít so far away that He doesnít know every hair on our head. God is with us. He is in our hearts and in our lives. We can know the difference between the false prophets and those who are faithfully speaking Godís message to the world. We can know because Godís word brings life and growth and hope. Unfortunately, power corrupts and Godís leaders had taken hold of the power that they thought was theirs. Their message became corrupted and Godís purpose was lost in their lives.

Even today we can see that power corrupts and that many of the leaders in the world abuse their position. It is natural for us to want a leader to guide us and take care of our needs. The trouble is that mankind is sinful by nature and we try to take control of those things that should not be in our hands. We forget that the Lord God Almighty is the true King and that He is the one who has absolute power. We take advantage of those who weak. We ignore mercy and justice. We might seem like gods when we are in power, but the words of this psalmist are important to remember.

We will die. The power we have at this moment is fleeting. God is still in control even when we think we have the power to do anything we want. We must remember that the power which we are given is given for a purpose, and we should always use it for the glory of God. When we are in leadership, whether it is in our home, neighborhood, school or church, let us always remember that God is the ultimate judge and He will be here long after we have passed from life into death. When we are in power, with the opportunity to make a difference in this world, let us hold even more securely to the promises of God and stay on the path He has ordained. It is too easy for us to be wicked with our power and fall to the temptations of this world that would call us gods when we are nothing but men.

For God is the only God, the one in power to whom the glory and the honor belongs. Through Jesus Christ we have faith in Godís amazing grace and in Him we can trust. He is true to His promises. We might face suffering and troubles. We might fail at our tasks. We might face the evil one who does not desire Godís will to be done in the world. Yet, we have God. He loves His people and His plan is one that always leads to redemption and salvation. Eternal life is ours. Be patient and know that He is God.

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