Sunday, Sunday, July 29, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 17
Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]
Luke 11:1-13

I have been blessed by an incredible opportunity. I am flying to San Diego in the morning for a few days. The Natural History Museum in Balboa Park is hosting an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which I will visit while I am there. Instead of posting a specially written MIDWEEK OASIS, I will include the daily devotions from A WORD FOR TODAY for the texts from this week. My apologies to those who already receive A WORD FOR TODAY and to those who enjoy the more developed thoughts of MIDWEEK OASIS.

Thank you for your patience and your prayers during my absence.

Genesis 18:20-32

Last week’s Old Testament text began to tell the story of this encounter between God and Abraham. In that story, the LORD appeared to Abraham at his tent and Abraham welcome the LORD with hospitality. Abraham was a friend of God’s and the references to him throughout the Bible point to a righteousness that comes from faith. He was a righteous man because he believed and because he believed God blessed him with His presence. I made note of the difference between God’s appearance and Abraham’s seeing, offering some of the suggestions that have been made about the three men that appeared at Abraham’s tent. As the story progresses, however, the two men are identified as angels. It is definitely worthwhile reading the entire story when studying a text.

Something I noticed as I was looking at the passage for this week is that different versions give translations that are different enough to bring about questions. In the American Standard Version, posted above, the first verse says, “Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great…” This sounds as if the cry is being made by the cities themselves. Since their sin is great, we are led to see that the cry is against God – in words and in deeds. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah did not care for the needs of others. They were selfish and self-centered, wicked in every sense of the word. That wickedness even manifested in the cry of judgment against God who was going to see if they should be judged. He went to Sodom and Gomorrah to see if the people were really crying out against God.

Other versions, like the New Revised Standard, say, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah…” In this case, the outcry comes from the neighbors of the wicked people. Their selfishness and self-centeredness has caused conflict and suffering in the other nations. Sin against other people is sin against God. In this case, God is seeking to know if the sin of the people on the plain was as great as the outcry made it out to be. The neighbors interceded with God, crying out in righteous indignation, asking Him for justice against the wicked. God heard their plea and He answered.

God also heard the plea of Abraham. We might be shocked at Abraham’s boldness in dealing with this situation with God. Yet, we have seen in this story that God is a friend to Abraham and that God has invited Abraham into this situation. God seeks Abraham’s council. Abraham is not trying to make a deal with God, or test the waters, or brazenly diminish the need for justice. He wants to understand the boundaries of God’s justice and the limits of His mercy. “Will you spare the cities for fifty? For forty? For thirty?” God agrees that if there can be found even ten righteous men in the city, He will not destroy it.

However, ten are not found to be righteous. Only Lot, Lot’s wife and his daughters were found righteous. Even the sons-in-law, those promised to his daughters, thought that Lot was kidding when he predicted the destruction of the cities. He tried to get them to repent, to respond to God’s cry for justice. They refused and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were lost. However, God is forever merciful. Though He could not save the cities for the sake of the few, He did save the few before He destroyed the cities. God’s justice prevailed, but so did His mercy.

Abraham was invited to intercede with God for the sake of the cities. While we might not have the opportunity or need to pray for the deliverance of cities, God calls us into a relationship with Himself, inviting us to intercede for those whom His mercy is the only salvation. We can boldly approach God with the question of where to draw the line between justice and mercy. We will discover that God knew all along the state of those for whom justice has been promised. It might seem shocking that justice would include the destruction of two cities and all the people within – including children, animals and other apparently innocent people. Yet, we do not know what God knows or see all that God sees. Sometimes mercy means ending the self –destruction of wickedness.

Psalm 138

Several months ago I took an online class called “Words and The Word.” The class was meant to help us see images of God and concepts of faith in stories that are not explicitly designed to be Christian. We read several short stories, some of which were far from being religious in nature. Yet, as we read the stories with God in mind, we found themes that we might have missed if we had simply read the words on the page. Some things were easy to recognize such as the differences between good and evil. Yet, we often saw examples of redemption, justice, mercy, grace, hope, peace and joy in more than worldly terms. We saw these things in the biblical sense and identified how God’s hand may have been involved.

The stories took on whole new meanings when we looked at them through the eyes of faith. Perhaps these ideas were not as the authors intended – several of the authors would have never called themselves religious. Yet, once we put something on paper like a story or a poem, it is given to the reader to experience and understand from their point of view. We identify with certain characters and find purpose in the words that help us with our own situations. It was interesting how differently the students in the class saw the stories – some finding grace in the most unusual places and hope where there seemed to be none.

Over the years I have seen that happen with this daily devotional. I have been amazed many times when I have heard from a reader who has found some message in the midst of the writing that I never intended or saw for myself. Some pastors have shared that it has happened to them when they have preached. It probably happens to journalists, movie makers and even musicians.

There are a number of songs that I love that when I listen to them I have an incredible sense of the divine. The words themselves, when typed on a page or explained by the composer, seem to have nothing special about them. Yet, when I hear the songs, and sing along with them, I feel like the words are meant to be understood in a deeper, fuller way. I feel like the hand of God is in the midst of those secular pieces of music even though it was never intended to be that way. As a matter of fact, I’ve had people explain the intended meaning of songs to which I’ve put a spiritual meaning, but it doesn’t matter. I hear God’s voice in the music.

I think today’s Psalm touches on the reason for this – when we look toward God, we are more likely to hear His voice and recognize with great joy the touch of His hand. It doesn’t matter what it is – a sunset, a blooming rose, a screaming toddler, a timely coincidence, a song or story or poem. If we keep our eyes on God, we’ll see Him in the most mundane and non-divine aspects of our world. The Psalmist recognizes the incredible grace of God in this world and he or she begins this hymn with praise. It is a promise to keep looking toward God because God is love and truth. Even when we are far from the place that we identify with being God’s dwelling place, it does not matter for God is not limited by our constraints. The world provides means of distraction in story, song and poem, but when we face toward God we will see that He is found in the most unlikely places, even in our suffering.

Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]

Victoria and I were lucky enough to take a behind the scenes tour during our recent visit to Walt Disney World. I don’t want to give away too many secrets, because it is really all about the magic. However, I think the most amazing thing about Walt Disney World – particularly the Magic Kingdom – is how large it appears to be but how truly small it really is. As we enjoyed the tour, our guide told us to be aware of how far we were walking. The distance from one place to another was large. Then he took us behind the scenes, stood us behind one of the stores and showed us how close we were to both ends of that walk. One building was nearly right behind the other building, and yet we’d walked a long time to get from the front door of one to the front door of another.

Disney does not allow many pictures of the park from above because you can see how much space is required to create the experiences that happen inside the park. Unfortunately for Disney, Google Earth has made it easy for anyone to see what it is like. Our tour guide showed us a picture and pointed out a few of the more interesting things you can see. Take, for example, the ride called “The Haunted Mansion.” This ride appears to be in a normal sized mansion on a hill. When you walk up into the front door, there is no reason for you to believe that there is anything behind. Yet, inside it is an entirely different experience. It is hard to understand how they were able to fit so much into that tiny building.

When you look at the picture from the sky, however, you can see that hidden behind the façade of the ride is a large building that looks like a warehouse. It is through that building that you are taken for the ride. You can’t see it from inside the park. There is a parking lot directly behind some of the Main Street shops. From inside you would never know that the parking lot is just a few feet away. From the Google Earth map, you can see that Walt Disney World is far bigger than you can ever imagine. Just a few miles away is a complex of buildings and parking lots that is as big as the area you can actually see when you visit. From your perspective, the Magic Kingdom is huge. The reality is that though the park does seem big, it is tiny compared to how big it really is.

Some people might not enjoy taking a behind the scenes tour of Walt Disney World because it would take away the magic. Somehow, knowing that the Haunted Mansion is a huge ugly warehouse might make it less impressive. We like to think that somehow the Disney imagineers fit that long ride into a tiny mansion on the hill. Yet, to me, seeing behind the scenes made me realize how amazing Walt Disney World really is. Instead of simply experiencing a small enclosed world, we stepped into an expansive complex designed for the happiness and comfort of the visitors. For most of the visitors all they need to

There are those who think that faith in the Christian God is a very limiting experience. They would rather have a much larger vision of the divine force in this world. They think that limiting the story of God to the flesh of Jesus Christ puts God in a very small box. I suppose for many Christians that is true. They have such a limited understanding of the God of our salvation that they do not realize how vast is His kingdom. Instead of being limited to some small, narrow experience of the divine, faith in Christ opens a whole new world to those who believe. Instead of being bound by our own sinfulness and flesh, we are given the freedom to live whole new lives. Entering into the Christian faith is not limiting, it is freeing. We are free to be everything God has designed us to be, to experience His grace and to share it with the world.

Luke 11:1-13

In today’s passage, Jesus teaches us about prayer. The prayer He gives to His disciples – the prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer” – is simple and yet it touches upon every aspect of our relationship with our Father in heaven. As we pray these words, we connect with God on every level – our praise, our needs, our sin and our thanksgiving. The words are honest and true. The prayer that He taught gives us the words to speak to the divine even when we do not think we have anything to say.

There are those who are bothered by the regular use of this prayer by Christians. Though it is a biblical example of prayer, given to us by Jesus, there are those who are concerned about how it has become rote and ritualistic to many. While it is true that there are Christians who are barely mindful of the words as they are spoken, perhaps at times all of us are that way; I do not think we should dismiss this prayer quite so easily. For Jesus, it is better to humbly pray the simple words of this prayer than to ramble on and on with words that are more show than prayer, indicating spiritual arrogance.

For some, the Lord’s Prayer is a heartless repetition of the same old thing. They feel it is better to pray from the heart, sharing with God the immediate needs and praise as they appear. It is good to be spontaneous with our prayer, like calling a friend out of the blue to wish them well or say a good word, those impulsive moments are wonderful opportunities to draw deeper into the heart of God. However, reciting a beloved prayer that is memorized from birth is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, how many times do we spontaneously confess our sinfulness to God and ask His mercy for our lives? Unfortunately, we are very good at asking God for everything that we need for our physical well-being and the well-being of others. We are even pretty good at praising God when things are going well for us. We fail in that we do not look to God to keep us from evil or ask His forgiveness when we fail.

The Lord’s Prayer brings us to our knees and reminds us every time we speak it that prayer is more than simply asking for stuff. We begin by praising God, but not just any God, a personal and intimate Father in heaven. We recognize that even God’s name is holy, as God is holy and that He deserves our worship. We are humbled by the fact that this God who is like a Father is also the Creator and Redeemer of the world. We ask that this world become all that God has created it to be, that His kingdom be visible and manifest in all that we do and say. We ask for the things that we need – food, shelter, clothing – but we are reminded that we only need things for this day, not for tomorrow. We confess that we are sinners in need of a Savior asking for the forgiveness that comes from Christ even while we recognize that we need God’s help in offering forgiveness to those who have sinned against us. We ask God to be with us, to guide us, to teach us the paths of righteousness.

In verses five through eight, Jesus tells us a story of persistence. Now, we can take this to mean that we should keep asking for God’s blessings, over and over again until He provides what we are asking. Yet, I wonder if we can look at this in a slightly different way. What if persistence means saying – reciting – the same prayer over and over again? Using the words of the prayer which Jesus taught, not only regularly but daily, God hears and answers. There are some things that we ask that God can not or will not give us – not because it is out of His ability to do so, but because it is out of line with what He knows we need. How many of us ask for things that are simply not good for us. God has something better. Though He does listen to our specific prayers and desires, sometimes He has a different answer than we would like to hear. Sometimes He says, “Wait.” Sometimes He says, “No.” But when He does not provide what we want, He provides more than we could ever imagine.

Even as the Lord’s Prayer seems to limit our prayers, the reality is that it opens us up to even bigger and better things. By seeking God’s will, rather than asking God to satisfy ours, we find a greater freedom and a bigger kingdom than we could ever imagine.

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