Sermon prompts for 10/26

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Your investment now enables others to live their destiny in the future.

God used Moses in amazing ways, doing miraculous things in and through him. Yet the people Moses called and led eventually went on without him. We are always preparing others to carry on without us. Will they be ready?

Fruitful Vines – God wants to work through you

Sermon notes 10/5/14; Isaiah 5:1-7Psalm 80:7-15Philippians 3:4b-14

God wants to work through you.

God has planted the people of faith to bear fruit in the world –
personally and collectively.
God desires and requires that we do our part,
that we allow ourselves to be fruitful.

Questions to ask ourselves:

  • In what ways have we been fruitful? A vine provides food for others that is sweet and good. A wild vine represents sourness, bitterness and lack of good fruit.
  • In what ways have we been like a wild vine and wild grapes? How have we not produced as much good fruit as we could?
  • What good is in our past that we do well to remember and celebrate?
  • What greatness lies in our future that compels to not be held by the past?

God wants to work through you.

You came to this place, to this day, because God wants to be a part of your life, and because God wants to work through you. One of the images that scripture uses for this idea is fruitfulness. Jesus talks about fruitfulness in the gospels. We see the fig tree in Mark 11 and the parallel passages – it has no figs on it so Jesus places a curse on it and it withers. Jesus has work to do – a gospel message so share, people to redeem and set free, a kingdom of righteousness and peace to build here in the world, in the very midst of all the chaos and heartache that surrounds us. To do this, He needs plants that will be fruitful.

And he doesn’t want just any fruit – he wants good fruit. 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Mt 7 sermon on the mount) The good fruit is sweet, refreshing, a delight to the soul. When you bite into a great Texas peach, and the juice drips down your chin and over your hands, a wide grin spreads across your face. You can’t help yourself. When you buy one that looks, smells and feels wonderful, but bite into Styrofoam or cardboard, you feel utter disappointment. Better to not eat peaches at all than to eat bad peaches. A friend of mine just moved back from central California and was bemoaning the loss of good strawberries. People who have only ever known subpar fruit are surprised when a juicy, fresh from the field, vineyard or orchard piece is handed to them. They just don’t know any better.

Paul talks about the need for us to bear fruit and grow (Rom 7:4; Eph 5:9; Col 1:10). Our faith may be an inward experience of the head and the heart. Even so, it is meant to produce outwardly so that others can see, experience, and be blessed. When we taste good grapes we don’t thank the vine, we thank the one who created the vine. In the same way our fruit, our good works, are meant to point back to the one who created us and made those good works possible. They point to God in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Jesus puts it this way:

1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (Jn 15)

God wants to work through you.

None of this is surprising, given the way Isaiah uses this image. And he is not alone. We find the theme repeated in in Jeremiah 2, almost verbatim. Similar passages are found in Jeremiah 8 and Ezekiel 19. God formed a people, Israel, for relationship and partnership in ministry to the world. Israel’s purpose was to proclaim, represent and demonstrate God’s faithful love. Instead, they became self-absorbed and so concerned with their own power and preservation that they utterly failed to fulfill their calling. Even so, God always kept a remnant from which to raise up a new generation. God never wants to give up on us. God always wants to redeem and restore, but can only work with us when we are willing to show up, stand up, and be filled up with God’s love and mercy.

Hear how Zechariah describes God’s intentions: Zechariah 8: 11 But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, says the Lord of hosts. 12 For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. 13 Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.

“You shall be a blessing” –  God wants to work through you!

We find a similar message in Psalm 92: 12 The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; 13 planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. 14 They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, 15 proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”

One of the things that got Israel into trouble was spending too much time looking backward. They tried to live as though things were still like the days of David, the days of glory. Each group with any authority tried to claim a royal or priestly heritage that gave them the right to rule. Israel certainly had days of glory, and God wanted the people to remember that God had made those things possible. It is God who gives us the ability to grow and be productive. God gives us the power to effect positive change in the world for His glory.

What the Israelites forgot is the reason why God has chosen David in the beginning – because he was humble, had a servant’s heart, was compassionate and just. David ruled through his righteousness, and Solomon through his wisdom. But each generation must live with righteousness and wisdom for themselves, not simply harken back to the days of their ancestors, or even their own previous accomplishments.

Our past matters, because it shapes our present. But our past does not define our present, nor determine our future. Our failures and sins need not separate us from receiving God’s goodness and blessings. Our past accomplishments cannot put food on the table tomorrow. Last year’s harvest is already gone. If we do not plant and tend a new harvest this year, everyone will go hungry. The grapes picked last year have already been put up in barrels. Unless we tend the vineyard continually, we will not have good wine in years to come.

Paul understood this well. In Philippians 3 he makes clear that his past is difficult to beat, but is insufficient for securing his future. The only thing that matters, Paul says, is Christ living in me today. Neither yesterday’s sin or righteousness can determine my tomorrow. What I do today matters.

I have been fortunate to do some cool things in my life. I’ve traveled to Europe, Central America, Canada, Mexico and Hawaii. I started and ran a soup kitchen that fed over 200 people each time it opened. I taught at two colleges. I have memories from those things, but none of them matter much to you today. Sure, they’re interesting, but, as the saying goes, “What have you done for me lately?”

Imagine a marriage where one spouse says to the other on their 20th wedding anniversary, “You know, I don’t really feel loved anymore. You never hold me. You never spend time with me. You never look at me or talk to me. You never tell me that you love me.” The grief stricken and dumfounded reply comes after several long moments of silence…. “But, what about those first five years? I did all of those things faithfully every single day. I still remember each day of it. Don’t you? Isn’t that enough?” “Yes,” the first replies, “I do remember, and it was wonderful, but no, it is not enough. I need all of that still, today and tomorrow and every day.”

When we put it this way, it would sound absurd if it were not so painfully common. Perhaps not quite this stark, but nonetheless real. Our relationship with God is no different. God want’s us to show up today, to communicate today, to listen and share today. And God wants us to be fruitful, today.

God wants to work through you.

Paul says “forgetting what is behind, I press onward…” Now, of course he hasn’t forgotten, because he has just told us. And he understands that those things mattered then and still matter. He is being hyperbolic to make his point. “Knowing Christ matters so much that everything else pales in comparison.” Paul values his background as a Pharisee or he would not continually reference it. That history shaped him to be the vessel that Jesus needed to carry his message. You see that shift – what you were and what you did and what you experienced made you who you are today, and that’s what God wants to use now and in the future. God honors your past also, redeeming and making it holy by working through it today. God wants us to be fruitful, today.

During our time together in the coming months we will focus on three tasks:

Honor our past. Understand our present. Live faithfully into our future.

I’m looking forward to joining with you individually and in small groups to hear your stories and help you hear each other. We want to honor the history of this congregation, as well as our individual histories. One way we will do this is by meeting in homes over the next several months. Some of you love to provide hospitality, and I hope that you will open your homes for 8-12 people to meet for coffee and desert and sharing. These will be scheduled for mornings, afternoons and evenings, and even weekends, so that everyone has an opportunity to attend at least one. You probably have other great ideas for how we can get to know one another and hear our stories so that we can honor our past.

In the weeks ahead we will say more about the other two tasks. For now, I’m just excited to be among you and to learn from you.

I am confident that, as Jesus said at the Last Supper, “you will do even greater things that what you have already seen.” (John 14:12)

First sermon in 4 months

I know how to preach to the people beside whom I worship, pray, study and serve. The people God has called me to equip for ministry. I’m not sure I know to prepare a message for strangers who are also sisters and brothers in Christ. Obviously relying heavily on the guidance of the Holy Spirit (and the local pastor) in a way that is different from my past decades of preaching.

My last sermon was at Forest Grove Christian Church (DoC) on Feb 2, 2013, the final day of my 10.5 year ministry there. Now, exactly 4 months later, I will be preaching supply for Deb Chisolm @ Central Christian Church, Dallas. I’m grateful, excited, and nervous. I’ve not preached for a congregation where I was not also the pastor in almost 20 years. Also scheduled to preach @ Ridgelea Christian in Ft. Worth on July 21.

This has got me thinking about the responsibility and authority of a guest preacher, particularly when the home pastor is not present in worship for whatever reason. I have chosen to stick with the lectionary text for 6/2 (7/21 is TBD) as it takes some of the control out of my hands, rather like drawing lots or casting the Urim and Thummin. It also saves such a great deal of time wondering and wandering about the scriptures in search of the “right” text. This narrows it down to 4 (or in the case of this Sunday 9) upon which to meditate and pray and seek guidance.

For Sunday 6/2 I have selected 1 Kings 8:22-30;  Psalm 96Galatians 1:1-12& Luke 7:1-10. I know that Central has some big decisions ahead, so I am mindful of those and at the same time wary of stepping into a conversation that is not mine. These texts have some interesting things to say about where, why, who and how we worship.

What experience do you have with these texts that you want to share?

Bible & Sermon Study that embraces paradox

I’ve just discovered a new conversation partner in Ken Howard over at with the tagline “Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them.” He has a several part series on Midrash: Ancient Bible Study for a Post-Modern World. In the first part (The Need for A Deeper Method of Bible Study) he points out how both Hebrew and Greek resist our attempts at precision in our translation by their alphabetic, linguistic and grammatic structures. Helpful is his observation that both neoconservativism in its drive toward infallibility of the text and liberalism in its opposite journey toward infallibility of forms of criticism set up a false binary resting on a modern presumption of the existence of verifiable certainty. Yet quantum physics is illustrating to us that the nearest certainties are only approximate and always dependent on the position of the observer.

In lue of such certainties, Howard suggests the ancient rabbinic practice of Midrash, which he outlines as a four step process of (to quote from his post):

  1. P’shat (lit. Simple).  Read the text for its simplest, most literal meaning. For example, if the Torah says God spoke to Moses through a burning bush, we are not allowed to say God spoke to Moses through an exploding cigar. It is also known as the grammatical level.
  2. Remez (lit. Hint).  Rather than avoiding what appear to be contradictions or textual errors, or trying to explaining them away, this step calls us seek them out as hints of deeper meaning. This is sometimes called the allegorical level.
  3. D’rash (lit. Investigation).  In this step, we use our imaginations (and the imaginations of others) to explore all possible meanings and applications of the text. This is sometimes called the parabolic or homiletical level of Midrash.
  4. Sod (lit. Secret).  Finally, we are called to open ourselves to the mysteries revealed to us through creative imagination of Drash. This level of meaning is sometimes referred to as the mystical level.

In the succeeding posts (Applying Midrash to the Words of Jesus & Investigation and Mystery) he gives further examples of how to use this method. I look forward to learning from him and trying to apply this in my own bible study and sermon preparation. It seems to me a middle way for those who tend to approach the bible from a more liberal or conservative pov to share common ground in their respect for and listening to the text and the Holy Spirit speaking through it within the community of faithful study. Why not join me?

Some thoughts regarding “The Word of God”

At its most basic level, a word is a symbol used to express and idea, and perhaps to communicate that idea from one being or group to another.

When we think about God as represented in the Bible, we see a God who speaks to express ideas and who seeks to communicate. Genesis tells us that through speech (presumably of words) creation experienced order, distinction and categorization arising out of chaos. Thus we learn that words, or at least the words (Word?) of God has the power potentiality to create. “God said, “Let there be…” and it was so…and God saw and said, “It is good” (Genesis 1). God then turns the divine word toward relationship with humanity by offering the blessing of orientation, direction, counsel and boundaries that would constitute the divine/human relation. “Do this… don’t do that” (Genesis 2). Words are next used to disorient and deceive, and then to rebuke, correct, and warn (Genesis 3). From just the first three chapters of the bible, we learn that words are spiritual, powerful, and that they shape life.

With the second call of Abram/Abraham (Exodus 15) we encounter the phrase “the word of the LORD”. The all caps “LORD” is a place holder for the tetragrammaton “YHWY” which is the unpronounceable name of God derived from the encounter with Moses on Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:14). This word of the LORD comes to people, as an almost physical presence of God in speech – see the encounter of the boy prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 3.

Through the call, the word/speech of God continued to create/form a unique people (Isaiah 42:6). The calling/creating word/speech beaconed Israel back from captivity and restored them as a nation in Jerusalem and Judea. The word came and spoke through the prophets. The word had always been known by the Hebrew people as active in the world, and among them speaking and calling and creating.

Then, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The New Testament theologians understood that through this same word-made-flesh all creation came into being and continues to exist (1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2, 2:10). They recognized in the Incarnate One the same creating word which they believed was spoken (and spoken of) in Genesis. In the Hebrew Scriptures “the word of the LORD” is most commonly the direct communication from God to a prophet, priest or king. Similarly, we also encounter “the angel of the LORD” as a reference to God’s direct communication.

That mode changes in the New Testament, as Jesus himself comes to us as God’s Spoken Word – God’s direct communication to the world. “The Word of God” is a New Testament theme – the phrase only appears 3 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and once in the Apocrypha. In the writings of Paul and the other epistles “word of God” most often refers to the proclamation of the message about Jesus (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:36; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12; 1 John 2:14). The notable exception is Romans 9:6 where Paul is discussing the unfolding message of salvation to the Jews throughout their history.

The phrase “word of God” as used by Jesus in the Gospels refers to God’s communication to Israel as witnessed in the faith and testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures – specifically “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). When the same phrase is used by Luke in telling the story of the early church in The Acts of the Apostles, it refers to the testimony about Jesus (e.g. Acts 4:31; Acts 6:2). Here in Acts, as in the epistles, the proclamation of “the word of God” results in creative action – i.e. people become believers in / followers of Jesus and the Church, the Body of Christ, increases. Thus the notion of the Word of God being a creative force continues. Finally, in Revelation the usage shifts again, back to the more broadly understood message of God to the world through the Jews, where we encounter the new phrase “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:2; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 6:9; Revelation 19:13; Revelation 20:4).

Nowhere is the “word of God” a fixed or static thing. As Hebrews 4:12 says, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” At the time of Jesus there was strong debate among the Jewish leaders over what constituted authoritative scripture and how to interpret them. This is the essence of the conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Sadducees apparently denied the resurrection (Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27) and possibly the existence of angels – Acts 23:8 lists these distinctions: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.” The Pharisees also held an oral tradition of interpretation that is called “The tradition of the Elders”. An example of this discussion is found in Mark 7

1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles. ) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother’; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God )— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Here Jesus enters a discussion of the relationship between the Mosaic Law, the tradition, and the practice of his contemporaries. Clearly there were multiple understandings of “the word of God”, and only Jesus, the “Word of God made flesh”, was able to bring clarity.

What to make of all of this? I want to stress several points:

  1. The “Word of God” and the “Spirit of God” are intertwined, though distinct. We see this in the bible’s first story of creation – the Spirit moving and the Word spoken.
  2. God’s communication with us is creative – this is the active result of the work of the Word of God proceeding forth.
  3. God’s communication with us is ongoing, not closed or static. God spoke, is speaking, and will speak the world and the church into existence and into relationship through love.
  4. We are participants in this loving, creative, sustaining work. We are being made new. And because the Word is in us and we in Him, we are co-laborers with God in creating, redeeming and sustaining the world – the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus tells his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes (Who was also at the beginning of creation, moving over the waters of chaos) the Spirit will teach the church (Luke 12:12; John 14:26) which is similar to what is said in Psalm 143:10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.” The church taught that we abide in Jesus, and he in us, and that together we abide in God (John 15) “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.” (1 John 2:27)

Lastly, the writer of Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah the promise that eventually the communication of God with humanity would shift modes yet again, so that we would no longer be in need of an external teacher and interpreter, because the Law/Word would dwell in us.

10 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8)

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31)

We have not reached this place, but we are on our way. This is the goal of all spiritual formation and growth, until we come to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:13).