Thursday, July 27, 2006

1 Timothy 3:16

Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.

I know many people who are fascinated by the way things work. Give them a watch and they want to take its face off to reveal the delicate machine inside. Give them a car and they want to open the hood and see its powerful engine. I love people like this—my grandfather Lindley was such a person, an electrical engineer who always loved the inner workings of things.

But I am not a person like this. Give me a car and I’ll dream of the places I could drive it: Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in Montana; the road from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay that parallels the Alaska Pipeline; the salty, scenic road along the Delaware Bay to Bivalve and Fortescue, New Jersey. Give me a watch, and I’ll be encouraged to run faster, timing myself by the mile to improve on my 10K time.

That is why I love this passage from 1 Timothy. The (extremely) astute reader will recognize this as the passage from the second sermon I preached at Exton, back in September of ’02. I love the way it admits there is mystery to our religion, indeed that our religion is essentially mystery.

The question, “How does it work?” is not one Christianity can usually answer. We don’t know what happened on the molecular level so that Christ was “revealed in flesh.” We can’t say with precision what happened on a spiritual level when he was “vindicated in spirit.” We can’t say exactly how the Holy Spirit touched hearts so that, despite violent persecution, he was “believed in throughout the world.” We cannot measure the force that drew Christ upward when he was “taken up in glory.” The finitude of our minds simply will not let us know these things.

But “What does it mean?” is a question that Christianity can begin to speak to. Because Christ was revealed in flesh, we know that God shares our human joys and pains and can speak with authority to them. Because he was vindicated in spirit, we know he is victorious over any sinister and dark forces that rule those who do not know him. Because he was proclaimed among the Gentiles, those thought to be outside God’s favor, we know he will always be loved and have a special spot for those outside the elite. Because he was taken up in glory, we know that we will meet him there.

Mysteries, unlike watches and cars, are fragile things. Probe them too much and they fall apart. We don’t need to know how everything happens; we can never know it all. Instead, Christ calls us to simply celebrate what is.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

2 Thessalonians 3:16

One in a series of 3:16s of the New Testament. The eagle-eyed will note that there was no devotion for 1 Thessalonians 3:16--that's because 1 Thessalonians 3 has only 13 verses.

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with all of you.

A brief reading of the book of 2 Thessalonians (it will take you no more than ten minutes) reveals a church under severe persecution. Right near the beginning of the letter, in 1:4, Paul encourages the Thessalonians by telling them they are an encouragement to others: “...we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions...” Paul goes on to tell the Thessalonians that those who are persecuting them will one day face God’s judgment: “These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord...” But such a day of triumph will not come soon, says Paul. Even though there is no immediate end to their persecution in sight, Paul urges the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us...” (2:15)

Because of this persecution, Paul ends his letter to the Thessalonians with a salutation unique to them, which we read in 3:16: “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with all of you.”

It seems to me that in Paul’s “parting shot” to these good folks, he wanted to give them a sense of peace. It’s almost redundant, the way Paul phrases it: “May the Lord of peace himself give you peace...” To call God the “Lord of peace” instead of the Lord of righteousness, truth, etc., suggests that Paul knew that the one thing that these people needed God to be was peace. Before they needed anything else, they needed God to be a God of peace for them. And then, as if to intensify it even more, Paul asks this Lord of peace to grant peace to the people. And Paul still further “increases the peace” when he says “ all times in all ways. The Lord be with all of you.” The peace of God is not merely for the times we are miserable; it is for all times. The peace of God is not merely an emotional or a physical or a spiritual peace; it is all of these and more. The peace of God is not merely for an elite class of believers who have achieved great things for God: it is for all believers. God’s peace is given at all times in all ways for all of us.

Maybe you find yourself in the same place as the Thessalonians–faithful Christians usually do from time to time. Often, we are called on to lay something of ourselves down for the good of others or even for our own good. Often, Christians are misunderstood and even disliked by our culture, for we worship different gods than this world; we have different priorities than those around us. And this leads us to some difficult situations. My prayer is that you may know the peace that only a Lord of peace can give–at all times, in all ways, for all of you.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, July 23

Hi all--here is my sermon from Sunday, July 23. It is from Numbers 22:22-35: the story of Balaam's donkey.

Have you ever been between a rock and a hard place? You’re in a situation where you are stuck between two opposing sides, and there is no graceful, easy way out. No matter which way out of your bind, you are either personally going to experience pain or inflict it on others. I remember when I was a kid and my mother had very strict rules about where I could and couldn’t ride my bike. I lived in a small town, and so I was allowed to ride a certain distance from our house up and down the street, but I was not permitted to ride my bike on Porcupine Road. Porcupine Road was a four-lane road near the BF Goodrich plant; it was not heavily traveled but cars did tend to fly down there pretty quick as it was the only four-lane road nearby.

So it was with full knowledge that I was not to ride down Porcupine Road that I rode my bike to my friend Kevin’s house. I was allowed to ride to Kevin’s house. But Kevin lived near Porcupine Road, and he said, “Mike, let’s go for a ride down Porcupine Road.”

Now one thing you must know about Kevin’s family is that they were far cooler than my own. Of course, to an eight-year-old, everyone seems cooler than your family. And I felt like such a stick-in-the-mud. How could I tell Kevin that my mom didn’t want me riding down Porcupine Road? Everyone would laugh at me–his dad, his mom, his big sister, even Kevin. But if I went riding down Porcupine Road, I’d be disobeying my mom–and standing a good chance of getting caught, too. What to do–disobey mom or get laughed at?

Between a rock and a hard place is a difficult place to be. No easy choices, no easy way out. Well, just to let you know, I did go riding down Porcupine Road. And a lady from our church saw me, and bumped into my mom and said, “I just saw Michael.” And my mom said, “Where?” And she said, “Oh...riding his bike out on Porcupine Road.” Let’s just say I chose the rock and I should have chosen the hard place.

I often feel for the donkey in this story. This poor donkey was certainly between a rock and a hard place. Balaam was on his way to see the king of Moab, and he saddled up his trusty donkey for the trip. As they are riding, an angel of the Lord appears before the donkey, a terrifying vision where the angel has a drawn sword in his hand. And so the donkey thinks, “I don’t want anything to do with this,” and so the donkey turns off into the field.

But here’s the thing: Balaam couldn’t see the angel; only the donkey could see the angel! And so Balaam thinks, “Why is this donkey veering off the road?” So he takes his stick, and he smacks the donkey to get it back toward the road. Poor donkey! Stuck between the sword of an angel and the stick of his master.

When the donkey gets back onto the road, again he sees an angel in the path, and again Balaam can’t see the angel. And this time, the angel is in front of the donkey on a narrow part of the road between two vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the donkey sees the angel this time, he can’t veer off the road because there’s walls on either side. So he tries to squeeze by the angel, and ends up scraping Balaam’s foot against the wall. And before Balaam was confused by his donkey, but now he’s a little irritated. So again he takes his stick and whacks the donkey for being so stupid. Poor donkey! Stuck between the sword of an angel and the stick of his master.

Then we read that the angel of the Lord went ahead to a place where the path was still narrower and stands there. This time, the donkey sees the angel and sees that there’s no getting around it, no getting under it, and sure no getting through it. So it just lays down, right there in the middle of the road. And by now Balaam is getting really peeved. So he takes the stick, and he smacks the donkey again out of sheer anger. Poor donkey! Stuck between the sword of an angel and the stick of his master.

And the donkey turns around and speaks to Balaam. And he says, “Why are you doing this? What have I done to you, that you would hit me these three times?” Now you would think by now Balaam would recognize that something funny, maybe something supernatural was going on. It was generally understood in that culture that animals doing funny or unexplainable things was a result of divine intervention. But Balaam, a holy man, a spiritual man, is so blinded by his anger and rage that he can’t see that something supernatural is happening. Even when the donkey speaks, which is a very unusual occurrence, Balaam doesn’t stop and look for God. Instead, he just responds in anger: “I’ll tell you why I’ve hit you! Because you’ve made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!

But the donkey responds wisely to Balaam. He said, “You’ve known me all your life–have I ever done anything like this to you?” And Balaam says, “No.” And suddenly, he can see it: suddenly he can see the angel that the donkey has seen the whole time. And the angel tells him that he shouldn’t have done this, and he then sends Balaam on his way.

You know, the first question most people have when they hear this story is, “C’mon. Did that really happen? Did the donkey really speak?” The only answer I really have is “I don’t know.” It may be that this is a story we are to understand as historical; or it may be a story we are to understand didn’t really happen, but has an important lesson. I honestly don’t know. But I do want to say that I do believe it could have happened. (When you believe a guy was crucified and rose from the dead, there’s not a whole lot you think God can’t do.)

But that of course is not the point of the story. That’s everybody’s first question, but that’s not really the point of the story. The point of the story is the way God can speak through anything, if we are paying attention. If we are blinded by anger, if we are blinded by busy-ness, blinded by addiction to our culture, if we are blinded by selfishness, we will miss the angels of God. Yet God will reach out to us from areas we never expect if we will be listening.

The fact that God can speak through an obstinate donkey should make us aware of all those ways that God may be speaking to us, even in the hardships of life. There was a professor once who said, “I used to complain about all the interruptions to my work until I realized that my work was the interruptions!” The interruptions he used to see as such a hassle, now he saw as a meaningful thing God had given him to do. Things like snow days stop being a hassle and start being a chance to reflect on the grandeur of God. Traffic jams stop being only aggravating and start becoming an opportunity to practice contemplative prayer and silence. What would it mean if we looked for messages from God through all those difficulties in our lives? God spoke through an obstinate donkey to Balaam–why should he not speak to us through our modern difficulties?

But even more than that, this story is about what happens between a rock and a hard place. This little snippet is only part of the big story between Numbers 22-24. This is a story about Balak, the king of Moab. Now the Israelites had just gotten through with routing the Amorites in battle. And the Amorites were a very powerful people, but the nation of Israel routed them without much difficulty at all. So Balak was very nervous when he saw the people of Israel camping near his kingdom of Moab. He said to his advisers that Israel was a real threat to them, that Israel could easily overrun Moab. So he decided to call Balaam, the man with the donkey.

Balaam was a prophet of sorts. He was given power by God to bless and to curse nations. Whoever Balaam blessed was blessed and victorious in battle. Whoever Balaam cursed was cursed and so was defeated in battle. And so the king decides that Balaam might be the only hope for his overmatched military and his worried land. So he sends down an entourage of Moabite officials, with a gift of money, the prophet’s customary fee. The officials ask Balaam to come back and curse the Israelite army so that Moab’s army can defeat them.

But God appears to Balaam and says, “Don’t go with them; don’t curse the Israelite people, for they are blessed.” So Balaam says he won’t go. The king, Balak, is very upset by this, and so he sends down an even bigger, more distinguished group of officials to ask him again. They say, “no price is too high, and you’ll be greatly honored.” Balaam at first doesn’t go, but then he feels God prompting him to go, so he does.

And it was on this trip to Moab with all these distinguished officials that Balaam’s donkey starts acting up. The donkey alone could see the angel; the donkey was between a rock and a hard place. Little did Balaam know that he was about to be between a rock and a hard place.

He arrives up in Moab, and he warns the king that he can only say what God tells him to say. He lays down for the night, and he wakes up in the morning and he goes out to the king. And the king is waiting for him to curse the people of Israel. This is what he has paid the big bucks for, brought in the best curser, given him the best food. But instead, he looks out over the people and this is what he says, “How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like Israel’s!” And the king is very upset and says, “I brought you hear to curse my enemies, and all you do is bless them!”

And Balak takes him to another place, and he says, “Here, maybe when you see them from a different angle, you can curse them there.” And when Balaam sees the people he says, “God is not a human being that he should lie..I received a command from God to bless them; he has blessed them and I cannot revoke it.” And the king is really angry at this point, and he says, “Look, if you’re not going to curse them, at least don’t bless them. If you don’t have anything nasty to say, don’t say anything at all.”

And finally Balak takes him to one more place, and then Balaam delivers a third oracle that is even more strong: “Blessed is everyone who blesses you–and cursed is everyone who curses you.” Now the king is upset, and he slams his hands together, and he said, “Go home! I’m not given you any money at all or any honor at all. Get out of my sight!

On his way out, Balaam delivers one more message from God and says that “Oh, by the way, Israel will crush Moab and all the surrounding countries.”

Balaam finds himself here between a rock and a hard place. Do I say something I know is a lie, something I know God does not want me to say? Or do I tell the truth and offend the king, the king who’s paying me, the king who’s counting on me, the king who could have me executed? There are no easy options when you are between a rock and a hard place; to go one way would have caused Balaam physical danger; to go the other may have caused him spiritual danger, as it’s always dangerous to go against what God wants you to say or do. There are no easy options but no way out except through a difficult choice when you’re between a rock and a hard place.

Do you see? The story of the donkey parallels the story of his master. Three times the donkey found himself between a rock and a hard place; and also, three times Balaam, his master, found himself between a rock and a hard place. And eventually, both the donkey and the master learn to do the same thing: completely give their hearts over to God. The donkey lays down in the middle of the road even though it means getting swatted with a stick. Balaam blesses the people of Israel even though it may mean his very life.

I wonder what this very ancient story may have to say to those of us who live in very modern times. For one thing, when I look at the story of the donkey, and the story of Balaam, I can see many times in my own life when I have been between a rock and a hard place. And not just ordinary little times, like when you have only fifteen minutes and have to choose between the grocery store and the mall. I’m talking about big times, times when you know that following God in a given situation will be difficult and may just have consequences you don’t want to face.

For instance: when you are confronted with the need for spiritual growth, you might find yourself between a rock and a hard place. On one hand lies growing spiritually, growing closer to God so that you can act more like God in the world; and yet to take that path means that you are going to have to give some things up, to change some things in your life that you love deeply and you hold dear. That’s definitely a rock and a hard place kind of place.

Or perhaps you perceive God calling you to some area of service in a new way. You hear about a new mission to the homeless or a relationship with an emotionally needy person and you sense that God may want you to be involved; but your involvement, again, is costly. It will mean restructuring your time and your life in order to make that new ministry a reality. That’s a rock and a hard place.

Or maybe you feel an intense pull from God to become a better steward of what you own, sensing that your possessions control you rather than you controlling your possessions. And so the way to start that is to learn to be a giver, have an intentional plan for giving away some of the things and services that are controlling you. But we know how hard it is because we know how deeply we love our possessions sometimes. So we are in between a rock and a hard place; do we follow God even though it will cost us some of those things we love?

I pray that in times like this, and we all have them, that the story of Balaam and the story of his donkey will be clear in your memory. Because both the prophet and his donkey show us the way forward in those times. The way forward is not self-assertion, the way forward is not through clinging to those things that hold us back or hurt us. The way forward is always with the Lord; it is always with following His way–even when it leads between a rock and a hard place.