Saturday, February 11, 2006

Stay tuned...

Looking for whether or not church is on? We will be making a decision on church for Sunday, Feb 12 by 7:45 AM. Check back here or call the church at 610-363-7814.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Worship on Sunday, Feb 12

The worship service is planned for this Sunday, February 12. The Scripture text of the morning is 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

"For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.
To the Jews, I became as a Jew, in order to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became as one under the law (though I am not myself under the law) so that I might win those under the law.
To those outside the law, I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.
I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings."

The theme of the service is allowing Christ in--by imitating him and knowing him, our hearts can be healed. Then we can be the kind of person that Paul was, able to care for all people and love them completely.

The hymns we will sing are "Lift Up Your Heads, O Mighty Gates," "Take My Life and Let it Be" and "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee," all older hymns.

Some suggestions to prepare for worship:
  • Meditate on and/or memorize the Scripture passage. It is a tricky one this week, and can be a bit confusing. By memorizing and meditating, we write it on our hearts so we can gain from the preached word on Sunday.
  • Read through the lyrics of the hymns. (If you don't have a hymnal, just google the titles and you'll find them somewhere.) How do these hymns fit with the theme? What might they have to say to you?
  • Pray for those who lead (musicians, choir, lay leader and preacher) and those who worship in the congregation.

Join us for worship on Sunday!

Monday, February 06, 2006

Sitting in Starbucks...

...and experiencing writer's block while working on a sermon. So I decided to take a few minutes out to do some writing here, where thoughts can flow a little more freely.
Tonight, Beverlee Everett and I have the privilege of attending an ordination council. For those of you who have never done such a thing, it's an interesting and uniquely Baptist kind of event. The one to be ordained (the "ordinand") presents a paper that details their theology and understanding of their call to ministry. There are maybe 15 paragraph-length sections to the paper, each of which is read aloud. After the reading of each section, the floor is open to questions from the laity and clergy who have gathered.

Ordination councils run the gamut. Sometimes, there is a learned person who really wants to press a point and so they push the ordinand on one theological issue or another. (Sometimes, it is simply a person who fancies himself or herself learned who presses an issue.) But at some councils, there are a few "softballs" lobbed by the audience but no real substantive theological debate. At my ordination council, I actively asked for questions; I said that I loved to talk and debate this stuff and hoped that we could have some good discussion together. Of course, after that, nobody asked anything. I guess they were afraid to call my bluff. :)

I'm always amazed at the way we Baptists do ordination; it seems amazing that such a ragtag band of clergy and laity could say, "Okay, this person's fit to be ordained," whereas in other denominations, that decision is the province of some elite. What's most fascinating to me is that the paper is always read aloud. I can only guess that it goes back to a time when a significant portion of the audience couldn't read. It's amazing--and more than a little frightening--to think that was the case.

It's enough to make one be much in prayer, for it is only through the Holy Spirit that any good is accomplished.

Sermon from Sunday, February 5

Today we are completing our four-week series on the book of Jonah. When I finish a series like this, I remember the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, who in the 1940's and 50's preached through the entire Bible, eighteen years of sermons from the first verse in Genesis to the last verse in Revelation. Longer than many of you have been alive, this man preached through the whole Bible. So if I get weary at the end of a four-week series on Jonah, I try to remember him.

Well, in order to keep this from becoming an eighteen-year affair, I noticed there were really interesting things in this final passage that I had to leave out. I wondered, for example, about the bush that grew up over Jonah, and why God made it grow and why God made it die. I wondered also about the way that God seems intimately concerned with the animals.
Throughout the book, the participation of the animals seems very significant: there is the whale that swallows Jonah, when Nineveh repents, even the animals wear sackcloth, and here, in the final verse, God expresses concern not only for the people who live in Nineveh, but also for the animals who live there. That pastor who preached through the Bible for eighteen years said that it was like diving into the Scriptures, like the Bible was the ocean, and the hardest part was deciding which gems of Scripture to bring to the surface for everyone to see. For every one he pulled up, he said there were ten thousand more that had to remain on the ocean floor. That may be a bit of hyperbole, but it is true that we could never do the Bible justice only in sermons. It’s my hope that this series will encourage you to go back and take a fresh look at this old story of Jonah.

As for today, we want to focus on this last passage, where the book comes to a climax as God and Jonah finally have an extended two-way conversation; for the only time in the book, it is here that Jonah and God really get their feelings on the table about Nineveh and about life in general.

The passage starts with the narrator saying, “The Lord God appointed a bush and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade from his head, to save him from his discomfort.” From the very beginning here, it is clear that this bush didn’t grow by accident, but that God made it to grow for a very specific purpose. I don’t know if you believe that God does this sort of thing, but I certainly do. I do think God ordains things to happen in our lives for a reason. There’s a story I tell a lot about how I made it through seminary paying very little out of my own pocket. When Jill and I went to seminary and I was working a part-time job that paid very little, each semester there was a financial need for school that I was not sure how it would be met. But each semester, churches and people offered me scholarships–a little here and a little there, a chunk here and a chunk there–that made it possible for me to go to school. And I’m firmly convinced that God did it. God does these things that we can see if we are willing to look.

And here, God arranges for a bush to grow up over his lovably incompetent prophet Jonah. And it grow and grows and gives Jonah shade from the burning sun. And so we read that Jonah was very happy about the bush. You know, if you look through the book, this is the only time that we read Jonah was happy. After he preaches the word, and Nineveh repents, and changes their evil ways, we read that he was displeased, and that he was angry. But here, at the simple growing of a bush, which gives him comfort, we read that he is happy.

I can already tell you a little bit of what Christmas 2006 will be like around our house. I’ve heard a lot about it from other first-time parents. For our first Christmas, I just know it: our little one (we’re nicknaming him or her Scooter for now) is going to get all kinds of things. You know we and his grandparents anyway are going to break the bank on our little baby, and buy “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments, and Winnie-the Pooh books, and Santa Claus rattles, and little toys that light up and play Christmas music, and do you know what our little one will want to do? Eat the wrapping paper. The gifts, the games, the toys, the music, the tree, the lights, who really cares? All he or she will want to do is eat the wrapping paper. Oh yeah, that and nurse, cry and poop, which is pretty much what babies seem to like to do. Babies are made happy by the strangest things!

Babies cannot yet discern what Christmas is all about, and so they kind of miss the point as the rest of us enjoy the winter holidays. The simplest things make them happy, but they cannot yet be made happy by the truly joyous things. We must see how this is quite similar to Jonah. God has just stepped in, changed the world, and made Jonah a partner in this marvelous work; all of these are truly great gifts and things to be happy about. But Jonah is happy about none of these things; Jonah, instead, is happy about a bush. And why is Jonah happy about a bush? Not because it has any enduring value, not because it means anything in the eternal scheme of things, not because it bears any mark of God’s action, but because it makes him comfortable.

We must recognize how infantile this is on Jonah’s part. His preoccupation with himself is remarkable! Just like an infant, Jonah seems to be aware only of his own needs and completely oblivious to the needs or desires of others. Also like an infant, Jonah seems to think that the only way for him to be happy is for him to immediately get what he thinks he wants. You can’t reason with a baby. Next Christmas, I won’t be able to look at our little one and say, “Now, look. We got you all this stuff to make you happy, and you will be happy if you just enjoy it. So come on, let’s stop eating the wrapping paper, and let’s look together at this “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament. See how there’s a picture of a baby on it? That’s like you! See these letters here? That’s a B; that’s an A; this is another B; and this is a Y! That spells BABY!” Do you think Scooter’s going to like that? No–Scooter will not be happy unless he’s eating the wrapping paper.

And this is just like Jonah. You could say to him, “Look how happy you should be! Look at all the gifts God has given you; look at the part that you played in changing the world!” But Jonah simply won’t be made happy by anything except his own comfort. How much like a baby!

Again, though, we must not judge Jonah too harshly, because Jonah is representative of something true throughout humans, something present in each of us. There is something in all of us that just wants to eat the wrapping paper even while there are gifts all around us. There is a voice in each of us which encourages us to do that which seems comfortable, which seems logical, even if it means doing something potentially harmful while we fail to appreciate all the good gifts around us. We chase adultery, for instance, convinced it is what will make us truly happy, while to gain that thrill, we must forsake the greater gift of marriage. We chase consumer goods, convinced they will make us happy, while to gain consumer goods, we must forsake the greater gift of simplicity. We chase freedom to be our own person, convinced that will make us happy, while to gain that freedom means that we will lose the privilege of being God’s person. We chase and we chase and we chase, sure that we will make ourselves happy by getting these things, not realizing that we are chasing after Jonah’s bush, not realizing that we’re just eating wrapping paper. We chase that which cannot make us happy while we look around at those things that could make us happy and we just won’t let it happen.

The bush grows, and covers Jonah’s head, and you know the story; the next day, God sends a worm, which attacks the bush, and the bush dies and falls down to the ground and Jonah doesn’t have any shade left at all. And then God commands the sun to come out, and from the east comes a sultry, hot wind, and Jonah begins to bake in the hot sun. And Jonah is so angry–you know how it is when you get so hot, you just feel miserable, and Jonah gets so angry that he asks again to die. He says, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

God looks down at Jonah and he says, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Always, before, when God asks Jonah a question, Jonah doesn’t answer directly. But now he does. He says, “Yes, it is right for me to be angry! Angry enough to die!” Before, we saw that the wrong things made Jonah happy; now, we see that the wrong things make Jonah angry. Jonah could have gone to sleep perfectly peacefully, knowing that 120,000 Ninevites were going to meet a fiery destruction at the hand of a righteous God. Wouldn’t have bothered him a bit. Wouldn’t have disappointed him; in fact, he would have slept better knowing that was going to happen. But to disturb his shade, to tamper with the bush that gave him comfort–that made him suicidal. The destruction of the masses doesn’t bother him at all, but a bit of sunburn ruins his life. God brings Jonah face-to-face with this fact: “You care so much about this bush, which you didn’t create, and you didn’t bring into the world; shouldn’t I care as much about the nation of Nineveh?” Shouldn’t I care about those 120,000 people who live in soul-sucking ignorance each day, so blind to my ways that they don’t know their right from their left? Shouldn’t that bother me?

Peter Craigie, one of the commentators I relied on while writing this series, suggested that Jonah’s emotions were like “an elevator controlled by a berserk computer.” And I think that’s a pretty good description of Jonah–and maybe a pretty good description of us too. We also can care about the wrong things; we care about things like comfort and ease rather than the life of those around us. It is this Jonah-like tendency which allows us to splurge on things we think will make us happy, though they rarely actually do.

The story of Jonah is certainly challenging to us–it makes us re-evaluate our priorities. It makes us squirm in our seats a little bit, it makes someone who dares to preach it squirm in the pulpit a little bit. It brings us face-to-face with ourselves and it makes us ask what things we are attached to that we don’t need to be attached to. It makes us ask why God’s will is so consistently unappealing to us and it makes us strive to grow spiritually so that we learn to love what God loves, and learn to value what God values.

But at the same time, the story of Jonah should give us hope. Because even more than this book is about Jonah, it is about God. It is about the love God has for all people–not only those who are his chosen. This book no doubt made the people of Israel uncomfortable, because it showed one of his chosen people, an Israelite prophet, behaving very badly indeed. But the people who were not chosen, the very enemies of Israel, were pictured as following God perfectly. Furthermore, God is depicted as loving Israel’s enemies, not because they are chosen in exactly the same way Israel was, but simply because they are people, simply because God created them and they bear his image. The thought of God pursuing and loving Israel was a common theme in Jewish literature–just pick up practically any section of the Old Testament and you’ll see it. But the thought of God loving and pursuing Nineveh? The thought of Nineveh outdoing Israel in obedience? That was just weird and foreign and strange. No doubt that made Israel uncomfortable, as God’s chosen people.

God’s relentless love, even for the Ninevites, should remind us of his relentless love for us. None of us started our lives as God’s chosen people; we, too, were once estranged from God, once far-off. There was a time when we didn’t know our right hand from our left too. There was a time when we stumbled along like the people of Nineveh. We also lived in violent and dehumanizing ways, completely ignorant that there was another way to live. We thought we were so advanced and brilliant when in reality we were lost. But this same God, the God who sticks with Jonah through failure, the God who pursues Nineveh despite its evil, this same God pursues us relentlessly and will not call off the pursuit until we have been captured. This God does not give up on his prophets when they fail, and he does not give up on cities, even when they live in wicked ways, even when they celebrate injustice, even when they honor sin.

For all of us, we who are prophets one day and sinners the next, the love song of God floats down to us on the clouds and reminds us that each life is precious, even the lives that society says don’t count, even those we would prefer to forget, even those we demonize, even you, even me. God jumps over hurdle after hurdle to get to the people of Nineveh, and that same God is hurtling obstacles today to get to you, saying, “Won’t you enter into a new kind of living? Won’t you put aside your violence? Won’t you put aside the way everyone else lives, those ways that cause us pain, those ways that suck our soul, and follow me into new life? I created you, and I know you, and I want relationship again. I want to change the world, and I want you to be my partner.”

And it is up to us to answer that call of love, that call away from a way of life that will kill us, and into a new way of living that will bring us life forever and an eternal kind of life now.

That call comes afresh when we gather at the Table today. We gather at the banquet Table of the Lord, a Table that is set with the bread and wine, representing the body and blood of our Lord. And it looks nothing like the banquets the rest of Nineveh attends. It is not a complicated meal prepared by gourmet chefs; there is no appetizer, no dessert. It is merely this, merely the bread, and merely the cup. The world wonders at such a banquet, and why we would call such a plain meal a banquet. But for those with eyes to see, for those who have heard and succumbed to the love song of Christ, there is an abundance here beyond what anyone else could see. For in the humble bread and cup, the meal of the everyday, the meal of ordinary people, is the promise of God’s presence with us today. To eat the bread and the cup is to enter into a new way of living, a way that says that God’s flesh is true food, that His blood is true drink, that His life is true life more than any other life offered to us. Come to the table today, and enter into this new way of living.