The Killer King sermon series – #6: The Greatest Loss

The Killer King Sermon Series
#6 – The Greatest Loss
2 Sam. 18
July 20, 2014

            We continue this morning looking at the roller coaster life of King David. We have witnessed his highest highs, like being anointed as the king of Israel and defeating the giant Goliath. We’ve also seen him at his lowest when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah killed to cover it up. We know he can be ruthless, but we’ve also witnessed the depth of his compassion, like his treatment of the lame man Mephibosheth, which Robyn preached on last week. This David guy is a complex character, and today’s story only adds to that complexity.

            We’re going to cover the time span between David’s killing of Uriah and the events of 2 Samuel 18. I’m not going to read that whole chapter, but will be referring to key passages as we go along. I invite you to keep your Bibles open to 2 Samuel 18, or to simply sit back and hear the story.

            When David was confronted by the prophet Nathan for his acts of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah, David responded contritely with, “I have sinned against the Lord.” But that didn’t absolve him from the consequences of his actions. God tells David, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your enemy, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun.” In other words, for David, he made the decision not to turn away from sin, and now he must deal with the consequences. And there are always consequences.

            A minister friend of mine told her congregation, “Next week I plan on preaching about the sin of lying. To help give you some context for my sermon, I want you all to read Mark 17 this week.” The following Sunday, the minister said to the congregation, “Last week I asked you to do some reading in preparation for this sermon. Now, how many of you read Mark 17 this past week like I asked? Please be honest.” After a few seconds, hands started going up until almost everyone in the sanctuary had their hand raised. The minister smiled and said, “Mark only has sixteen chapters. So let’s talk about the sin of lying, shall we?” When we make the decision to sin, there are consequences.

            For David, those consequences are painful and divisive. The baby Bathsheba conceived with David dies right after childbirth. His family is rife with dysfunction as one of David’s sons, Absalom, kills his brother and then flees Jerusalem. When Absalom returns, he starts a plot to usurp his father’s throne and gains enough support that he forces his father David to flee Jerusalem. Finally, David musters up an army and prepares to fight his own son Absalom for control of Israel. All of this is a result of David’s one decision to commit adultery with Bathsheba. There are always consequences.

            Our sins, no matter how big or how small, have consequences. If we make the choice to not address our sinful thoughts and actions, then we have to be prepared to face whatever consequences occur because of that. Or, as one person put it, “If you pick up a stick, you have to be willing to deal with what’s on the other end of the stick.” We can try to ignore those consequences or blame them on someone else or run from them, but eventually, they catch up to us.

            In college, a friend of mine named Tom had a problem with his car. His “check engine” light came on and wouldn’t go off. I was always afraid to ride with Tom, but he assured me it was no big deal. One day I got in his car and noticed the “check engine” light had gone off, so I asked him how he fixed it. He reached over to the dashboard and pulled off a piece of black electrical tape that he had put over the light. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Two weeks later his car broke down.

            We have lights inside of us that go off when we know we’re moving into dangerous territory, don’t we? Our conscience, the God voice inside of us, will flash and say, “Whoa, be careful with that thought, that can be dangerous.” And we can choose to listen to this voice and deal with it, or we can put a piece of tape over it and hope it will go away. But if we do that, we have to be willing to accept the consequences.

            King David learned this the hard way. He decided to ignore the flashing lights and warning signs and give into his temptation and desire for Bathsheba, and as a result his family broke down, leading to this confrontation between David and his son Absalom. I’m sure David never thought that this one bad choice would have such devastating effects. We rarely think about the consequences of our actions; it’s a lot easier to act and worry about those later.

            Still, David does own up to his sin – “I have sinned against the Lord” – and receives forgiveness from God. But he still has to deal with the consequences. Does that bother you? After all, God forgave David. If that’s the case, why do these other things have to happen? There’s a fundamental distinction to be drawn here between punishment and consequences. David was spared from God’s punishment for his sins. He was forgiven by God, just as we all are through our faith. But being saved from punishment doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with the resulting implications of our sinful actions.

God has given us the freedom to choose how to live, but if we do so in a way that is destructive to ourselves and others, there are consequences. These aren’t necessarily directly from God – God doesn’t send down lightning bolts to smite us. Consequences are different than punishment. Consequences are the naturally playing out of our own sinful decisions I don’t believe God enacts punishment when we sin; I believe the consequences of our sins are that punishment. And there are always consequences. If I sin, and in the process of sinning break my arm, I can come to God with a genuinely repentant heart and receive forgiveness, but I still have to deal with my broken arm. God’s not going to make that magically disappear.

            That’s the difficult lesson David had to learn. In the battle between his and Absalom’s army, David asks his soldiers to deal gently with Absalom, even though Absalom is trying to kick David off the throne. We pick up the story in 2 Sam. 18:9: Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His hair caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. One of David’s men saw it, and told Joab, the army general, “I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” Joab said to the man, “What, you saw him! Why didn’t you kill him? But the man said to Joab, “The king told us not to hurt him.” Joab said, “Fine, I’ll do.” He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom. When David is told the news that Absalom is dead, he cries out, ““O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

            Consequences. Is it any wonder that the division in David’s house included sexual immorality and murder? The old saying goes that, “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons.” David’s boys learned to commit adultery and murder from watching their father’s actions. David’s army general, Joab, is the one responsible for killing Uriah. He learned to do whatever was necessary to protect David, even murder. So is it any surprise that he murders David’s own son? They all learned from David that the only way to deal with a problem is to kill it. Our sins have consequences that go far beyond our control. So what do we do about this? If we are imperfect people who commit sins, and there’s no escaping our consequences, how do deal with them? I think there are two things we can do to help us with this.

            The first thing we can do is change our perspective on dealing with sin. I don’t want to downplay the importance of God’s forgiveness, because that’s a cornerstone of our faith. But if we rely too much on God’s forgiveness, we can fall into the trap of abdicating our responsibility as a Christian, of treating God’s grace as a “get out of sin” card that frees us to sin all we want. Think of it this way: You’re charged with teaching a new driver how to drive a car. On the first day of class, you say, “Today we’re going to talk about your first crash. We’ll learn how to contact the police and exchange insurance information.” Now, this is important information, right? But you don’t want to start off talking about crashing. It’s called corrective thinking. If we only focus on what happens after we’ve sinned, we miss the chance to help ourselves avoid sin in the first place.

            The alternative to corrective thinking is preventative thinking. If you teach that driving class how to obey the rules of the road and how to put safety first, you greatly reduce their chances of getting into a crash. Similarly, if we can focus on how we can stay away from temptation and how we can say “No”  to avoid destructive behavior, we can reduce our need to call on God’s forgiveness. Had David practiced preventative thinking when he first saw Bathsheba, he wouldn’t have needed to utter the corrective statement, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

            But nobody’s perfect, right? We can’t always avoid crashing, and the time will come when we are in need of God’s forgiveness and have to lie in the bed we’ve made. So the second thing we can do when facing our consequences is just that: face them. We can’t run from them or avoid them or try to sluff them off on somebody else. That would only get us into more trouble. The best we can do is confess to God, receive God’s forgiveness, and then trust that God is beside us as we deal with what’s on the other end of the stick.

            God was with David, even as he watched his family unravel. After her first child died, his wife Bathsheba gave birth to another son named Solomon, who would go on to continue David’s reign and would build the first temple dedicated to God. Despite the mess we can make of our lives, God can work through all situations – even those we bring upon ourselves – to bring about God’s good will, if we turn to God and ask forgiveness. I believe that part of receiving God’s grace means that God, in forgiving us, gives us the strength to endure the consequences and will help us learn from them. Let us be thankful that, no matter how far we run from God, no matter how egregiously we disobey God, no matter how many times we sin, God never stops loving us. And the power of the love is stronger than any consequence we face.

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The Killer King sermon series – #4: David and Bathsheba

SCRIPTURE – 2 Sam. 11:1-15, 26-27 and 12:1-13
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

SERMON
The Killer King Sermon Series
#4 – David and Bathsheba
July 6, 2014

We continue our look at the life of King David today. So far we’ve seen him anointed as the next king of Israel; we’ve watched him defeat the giant Goliath; and we’ve followed him into the wilderness as he was chased by the current king, Saul. Eventually Saul dies and David takes over as the king of Israel. He sets up Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and settles into his prosperous reign. But although he is a popular and successful king, he is by no means perfect.

Aside from the original sin of Adam and Eve, probably no sin in the Bible is more well-known than David and Bathsheba. That’s not necessarily something you want to be well-known for; that’s like getting on TV – in an episode of “Cops.” This doesn’t make David any worse of a person than you and me; we’re talking about one of the greatest kings in history, not some wild man or social deviant. The only difference between our sins and his is that his were published in the best-selling book of all time. Really, he’s no different than us.

Up to this point in his reign, King David had nothing but success. He restored the nation of Israel to peace and has built a formidable military power. His authority stretched throughout the land, and because his army was so powerful, he was king over many nations. He was king of Judah, of Israel, of the Philistines, the Moabites, the Hittites, the Edomites, the Stalagtites, the Stalagmites, and the Gesundtites. He has it all.

But it wasn’t enough for him. How could a man who had everything possibly want more? David would be about 50 now, so maybe he was hitting a mid-life crisis. He’s started using Rogaine, had a treadmill installed in the royal workout room, eating a lot more bran. Maybe he needed something to help him feel young again. When we stop being happy with what God gave us, we become vulnerable to thinking we need something more.

We should know David’s in trouble with the very first verse of this passage. It tells us that spring is the time when kings go off to war, yet David is sending his general Joab to lead the army instead of doing it himself. David, who was created by God to be a great warrior, decides to stop doing what God called him to do. He’s neglecting his duties. He’s got too much time on his hands. And, as the saying goes, idle hands do the Devil’s work.

So instead of leading his army into battle, David is walking around on his roof one night and sees a woman bathing herself. Now, David was a passionate man – passionate about serving God, passionate about leading the kingdom, and passionate about his passions. David is the king, he can have anything he wants, and at this moment, staring right into the face of temptation, David decides to not look away. Just because David was a faithful man of God doesn’t make him immune to temptation. When we make the decision to not turn away, we have to be prepared to face whatever comes of it.

So he asks a servant about this woman, and the servant says, “This is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah.” You hear what the servant is doing, right? He knows that David is thinking about more than baking a loaf of bread for this neighbor, so he tactfully tries to snap David back to reality. “Yes, King David, that’s Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife. Uriah is her husband. She’s married. To Uriah. He’s her husband.” But David doesn’t hear him. He’s already decided to not turn away.

So David brings Bathsheba to the palace and sleeps with her, and she conceives. Now some guys in this situation might panic. But not David. Notice the narrative doesn’t pause for an instant. David is a man of action, a problem-solver. He didn’t get to where he was without dealing with a few messes. And this situation, this matter of adultery and an unborn child, was merely another problem to be solved. So the cover-up begins.

That’s usually our first reaction when we do something wrong; we try to cover it up and hope that no one will notice. I once ran my dad’s car off the road because I was driving too fast to impress my date, and I damaged the car’s front end. I spent the next three days trying to keep my dad from looking at the front of his car; he was amazed at how much help I needed putting things in the trunk. Then one morning when I woke up my dad said, “Boy, what did you do to my car?” And in a moment of panic I said, “Uh, I hit a bucket!” As if there are buckets just lying around the roads of Southern Indiana. To this day, I think Dad still believes I hit a bucket.

That’s what sin does to us: the guilt of our wrongdoing causes us to try and cover it up, heaping lie on top of lie until we’ve dug a hole out of which we can’t escape. David’s cover-up is especially insidious. If he can get Uriah and Bathsheba to spend a romantic weekend together, Uriah might believe the child was his own. The only problem was that Uriah was out fighting a battle and was sworn to celibacy until the fight was over. David orders him back to Jerusalem and tells him two different times to go show his wife how much he has missed her, but Uriah, being a loyal soldier, refuses to sleep with her. Finally, David resorts to killing Uriah. He sends him back to the battlefront with a note for Joab to put Uriah on the front lines and then draw away from him, assuring his death.

You see what has happened here? David didn’t start out to be a murderer. But his neglecting of his kingly duties led to idleness which led to temptation which led to adultery which led to deceit which led to murder. James 1:14-15 says, “One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.” Most problems don’t start all at once; they start a little at a time, and each time we choose not to turn away, they grow to be much more deadly.

Once, at a committee meeting, someone had provided some snacks, including a big bowl of grapes, which was placed very close to me. This is not a good thing. I love grapes. As the meeting started, I ate eat one, then another, then another. And about halfway through the meeting, I reached for a grape, and they were gone! I had sat there and ate the whole bowl. So I took my napkin and placed it over the bowl – my own version of a cover-up. Someone asked, “What happened to all the grapes?” And I said, “Someone must have eaten them all!” I didn’t plan on eating the whole bowl; I thought I could just eat a few and then stop.

The problem with little sins is that we think they are manageable; we think we can rationalize our way through them. But to rationalize is simply to tell rational lies. “This is such a little thing, it won’t hurt anyone, no one will know, it will only be this once.” But the reality is that every time we choose not to be honest with God about a sin, every time we choose not to turn away, we commit more sins to try and cover it up, furthering our dishonesty, until before we know it, we’ve sat there and at the whole bowl of grapes. We didn’t plan on it, it just happened that way, and we couldn’t stop it.

David finally does break his cycle of sin, thanks to the brave actions of the prophet Nathan, who realizes that for this deception to end, David has to be held accountable. Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was killed by the Nazis, once said, “Nothing is more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sins.” The apostle Paul talks about speaking the truth in love to each other. Telling people what they want to hear is not love. When people are engaged in destructive, soul-threatening behavior, they need a mirror. No one sets out to become an adulterer or murderer or absent parent or closet alcoholic. No one plans these things. But they happen every day. Why? Partly because we have no one in our lives whom we’ve invited to tell the truth.

We all need someone to hold us accountable. Who is that person for you? And are you that person for someone else? This is delicate, because we have to both speak the truth and speak it in love. John Ortberg says there’s a theological distinction between being a prophet and being a jerk. And yet, if we see someone in trouble, and we don’t speak the truth, what could happen? James writes, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his ways will save him from death.”

So Nathan holds up a mirror to David in the form of a parable, and David falls for it hook, line, and sinker. David sticks his head right into the noose and Nathan gives it a pull: “You are the man!” I wonder what went through David’s mind at that point. I guess the weight of what he had done finally hit him, and he responds with the words that I believe save his life: “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Those are not easy words to say. It’s a lot easier to make excuses, to deflect the blame, to write it off by saying, “It just happened.” But you can’t un-ring a bell. To say these words means admitting that we’re wrong. It means admitting than we’ve messed up and fallen short. It means swallowing our pride and acknowledging that we have hurt someone else and hurt God. And yet the only way we accept the forgiveness offered by God is by acknowledging our need for it. No words can bring more healing and reconciliation than those words. “I have sinned against the Lord.”

David showed great maturity, albeit too late. There are still consequences of his sin that he will have to face. Had David been obedient to the will of God on the rooftop, he wouldn’t have been disobedient in the bedroom. But, with the help of Nathan, he is finally honest with God. The moment we know we need God’s help and say so out loud, God can hear us and find us and bring us home.

There are many reasons we remember David as heroic, but I think this is the greatest reason of all. David was a hero because of this moment of honesty, when he stopped covering up an instead uncovered his heart, when he acknowledged who he was and what he had done, when he turned away from his sins and turned toward God. That’s what heroes do.

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The Killer King sermon series – #3: Into the Wild

This is the third sermon in my series on King David. Rather than read the scripture beforehand, I incorporate pieces of it into the sermon text.

The Killer King sermon series
#3 – Into the Wild
June 29, 2014

This morning, we are continuing our look at the life of King David, one of the greatest saints and sinners in the Bible. Two weeks ago, we witnessed how David, the eighth son of Jesse, was anointed as the new king of Israel. The only problem was that Israel already had a king, Saul, which will create all sorts of problems for David. Last week we shared the famous story of David, still just a pimply-faced shepherd boy, slaying the giant Goliath.

Today, we pick up the story after that stunning upset. Immediately after David’s victory, his fame began to spread. People were tweeting and texting and posting on Facebook so that before he even made it back home, David was an instant celebrity. I Samuel 18:7 tells us that as David and Saul processed through towns, people would throw ticker-tape parades and sing, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands!” Now, I’m no genius at math, but if I were King Saul, that song would not make it into my Top 40 playlist. In fact, I’d be a little bit peeved. We’re told that upon hearing this song, Saul began to keep an eye on David.

Even though Saul didn’t know David had already been anointed as the next king, he still grew more and more suspicious of him. The Bible tells us that Saul also began, using a medical term, to lose is marbles. We’re told in 18:10 that, “The next day an evil spirit rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house.” Once this evil spirit entered him, he turned the full force of his rage upon David. Saul tried to kill him six different times. If I’m David, I’m thinking, “OK, one time, maybe that was an accident. Two times, I must have caught him on a bad day. But by the sixth time, I’m getting the idea this guy doesn’t like me.”

Saul’s mental madness leads him to go to great lengths to get rid of David. One time he gives David his daughter Michal to marry, and then demands as a dowry the deaths of 100 Philistines. Saul is probably thinking, “Surely David will perish in his attempt to fulfill this pledge!” Instead, because God is with him, David kills 200 Philistines, to which Saul probably thought…well, I can’t repeat in church what he probably thought. When David presents the spoils of his victory to Saul, the Bible says, “Saul was David’s enemy from that time forward.”

Saul continues this vacillation between rage and remorse toward David. He tries to kill David and fails, then Saul’s son and David’s best friend Jonathan intercedes on David’s behalf. Saul is remorseful for a bit, but then gets all worked up and tries to kill David again. This cycle plays out several times until finally David’s wife persuades him to go on the lam, fleeing from Saul’s presence. David was probably about 20 years old when he left home and went into the wilderness.

Does that sound kind of familiar? What were you doing when you were around 20? As best as I can remember, I was in college. Is there any better description of that time in our lives than being in a wilderness? I was wandering around, spiritually and vocationally. I was working at a video store – remember those? – trying to figure out my major. And I had no real connection to God or a church. Like David, I was in the wilderness.

We’ve all be there, haven’t we? One day we’re relaxing in the luxury of our palaces and then – boom! – we’re in the wilderness, driven there by a doctor’s appointment or divorce papers or bad news from our children. That’s the thing about the wilderness: no one ever chooses to go their voluntarily. No one wants to leave the safety and comfort of the Promised Land. No one expects to live in a season of dryness. And yet, for each of us, the wilderness is a reality.

In scripture, David’s wilderness story falls between two others. The first is the Israelites 40-day journey through the wilderness to get the Promised Land after Moses leads them out of Egypt. The other is Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism. All three of these stories are characterized by testing, by the feeling of separation from God, and by significant spiritual growth, as iron is refined by fire. The Israelites make it to the Promised Land; Jesus survives his temptation in the desert. What will happen to David?
One of David’s first stops on his flight away from Saul is at Nob, to a group of priests who lived there in a temple. While there, David receives holy bread to eat and a sword for protection. It makes me wonder where we go when we’re in our wildernesses? There are many tempting options available to us to help us escape the rigors of our deserts. I believe that many addictions and so much debt are caused by people trying to escape the trials and temptations of a dry season in their lives. Sometimes it easier to check out than to push through.

Where did David go while in the wild? He went to church. He went to a group of priests, where he received community, sustenance, and protection. During our difficult times we are so vulnerable to quick fixes and easy solutions, when what we really need, deep down in our parched souls, is spiritual nourishment, protection from temptation, and a reminder that we are not alone on our journey. And that’s what the church has to offer us. That’s where I ended up when I was in my own wilderness during college, and I think that’s worked out pretty well so far. The church is an oasis in the midst of our desert, offering provision and companionship and bread for the journey.

Once David left the priests at Nob, he continues to wander in the wilderness, trying to stay one step ahead of Saul and his army. By this point, David was known fugitive. His face was on wanted posters and although the people liked him, they dared not help him or face the wrath of the unstable king. Several times Saul gets scarily close to catching David, only to be called away for a battle. In one scene in chapter 23, Saul has David trapped on a mountain. Saul is on one side and David is on the other. It’s like when you’re hiding from someone behind a tree, and when they move one way around the tree, you move the other. Saul’s madness is heightened by his frustration over not being able to capture David.

At one point in the story, we’re told that David is joined by a group of supporters. The beginning of 1 Samuel 22 says, “David left there and escaped to the cave of Adullam; when his brothers and all his father’s house heard of it, they went down there to him. Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him.” People in distress, in debt, and discontented – sounds like the church! This group of people was a tangible reminder to David that he was not alone on his journey and they helped him stay one step ahead of Saul.

But David’s ability to elude Saul was more than just craftiness. We are told repeatedly throughout this story that the Lord was with David. As you may know, among many of David’s accomplishments is the fact that he wrote a number of the psalms we have in the Bible. And many of those psalms were written while David was in the wilderness. As he negotiated rough terrain, as he searched for food and water and sleep, as he came face-to-face with Saul’s evil intent, David continually turned to God for comfort. Knowing what we know about David’s story so far, listen to these familiar words of David, and hear them as if he wrote them during this time in the wilderness:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;he restores my soul.He leads me in right pathsfor his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley,I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

In Ch. 24, Saul learns that David is in the wilderness of En-Gedi, so he pursues him with 3000 men. While there, the passage says that Saul needs to relieve himself – even kings need potty breaks! So he goes to a nearby cave to take care of business. Unbeknownst to him, hiding in the back of that cave is David and his followers. David’s men say, ““Here’s your chance! Catch him with his pants down and kill him!” Instead, David says, “I can’t do this to him, he’s the king!” So instead, he cuts off a corner of Saul’s cloak to prove he was there, then he let Saul escape.

In our wildernesses, we will be tempted to be someone we’re not. Jesus was tempted by Satan to do things that went against who Jesus was created to be. The Israelites succumbed to their own temptations to forsake God, building a golden calf to worship instead of trusting in God’s promises. David faces that same temptation. Should he give in and kill the king to save his own hide? Are we tempted to do things in the wilderness we normally wouldn’t do? How do we respond?

Once Saul leaves the cave, David comes out and says this to Saul: ““My lord the king! Why do you listen to the words of those who say, ‘David seeks to do you harm’? This very day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you into my hand in the cave; and some urged me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not raise my hand against my lord; for he is the Lord’s anointed.’ See the corner of your cloak in my hand; for by the fact that I cut off the corner of your cloak, and did not kill you, you may know for certain that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you are hunting me to take my life. May the Lord judge between me and you! May the Lord avenge me on you; but my hand shall not be against you.”

David stays true to himself, true to the person God created him to be, even when faced with the chance to escape once and for all. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for David to spend that decade in the wilderness, just as it’s not easy for us to spend time in our own wildernesses. David’s wilderness time defined him, but it didn’t force him into becoming something he didn’t want to be. The wilderness we face will indelibly shape us – the time we spend in a hospital bed or an attorney’s office can never be erased. But it’s up to us whether or not we let the wilderness make us or break us. For David, he went through the wilderness and yet stayed true to the person God created him to be. Even in the darkness of a cave, he honored God by honoring Saul. He didn’t let the wilderness win by changing him into someone else.

We don’t choose the wilderness, but it is there, and there will be times when we find ourselves in a barren place not of our choosing. The only way through it is through it. Even if we run away, it will be there. But if we can’t run away, we can still run. We can run to church, an oasis in the desert of our dry season. We can run to each other, the distressed and discontented among us, a reminder that we don’t walk this journey alone. And we can run to God, our shepherd, who leads us to quiet pastures and still waters, who walks with us through death’s valley, who restores our soul, who overflows our cups with grace and love. The only way through it is through it. Be we are not alone.

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The Killer King sermon series – #2: David V. Goliath

We continue our summer sermon series on the life of King David. Rather than read the lengthy passage for today’s sermon, I will comment on it and read relevant passages as I go along through the sermon. If you want to follow along, you can find the story in 1 Samuel 17.

 

The Killer King sermon series
#2 – David v. Goliath
June 22, 2014

I faced a giant once. I played one year of football in high school, which was about two years too many. I wasn’t built to play football; I was built to be the team manager. I ended up as a wide receiver because that was the position that was farthest from the ball and had the least amount of contact.

I always dreaded the drills we had to run in practice. My least favorite was the tackle drill. Two people stood about 20 yards apart. One person’s job was to take the football and run full-speed at the other person; that person’s job was not to die and to try and tackle the ball-carrier in the process.

One day when we were doing these drills, I realized that I was matched up against Tim Blankenship, who played middle linebacker. I think Tim was on steroids before it was popular to be on steroids. Although he and I were in the same grade, he was a head taller, about 40 pounds heavier, and he shaved three times a day. Plus, he was mean.

So there was Tim, about 20 yards away, football in his hand, smirk on his face, saliva drooling from his lips. And there was me, knees knocking together, trying to figure out how far I could run in the opposite direction before Tim caught me. The coach didn’t blow his whistle to start the drill; he played “Taps” on the bugle. The last thing I remember seeing was Tim barreling toward me, and then a bright white light with angels and harps. When I came to and sat up, I saw Tim sitting next to me – actually I saw about three or four of him sitting next to me. He looked at me and smiled and said, “Nice tackle.”

In our scripture today, King David also faced a giant, although I bet Goliath didn’t shave as much as Tim did. You may think you know this story, but it becomes even more amazing when you hear it in its context. As we heard last week, young David has been anointed as the next king, but the current king, Saul, is still ruling. Now settled in the Promised Land, Israel was constantly fighting off foes who wanted to invade and take their land from them. The most current challenger is the Philistines.

The two armies meet in the Valley of Elah with the Israelite army on one hill and the Philistine army on the other. As they are surveying each other, out of the Philistine camp steps Goliath, who is described in terrifying detail. He was over nine feet tall, he wore armor that weighed almost 200 pounds, and he had a shield so big that it took a full-grown man just to carry it for him.

He steps into the valley and begins taunting the Israelites. “Send me one person to fight. If they win, we surrender. But if I win, you surrender. Today, I defy the ranks of Israel.” It’s biblical trash talk! I’m sure there were a few “nanny-nanny-boo-boos” thrown in there. Verse 11 tells us that when Saul and all the Israelites heard these words, they were dismayed and greatly afraid. This went on twice a day for forty days: Goliath would issue the challenge, and no one from Israel would be brave enough to answer.

David’s three oldest brothers were in the army, but David was stuck at home tending the sheep. One day, his father tells David to take a bunch of supplies to his brothers on the front line. While he was there, he saw Goliath and heard the challenge being issued. And then, he saw the whole Israelite army run away in fear.

David says, “What’s the deal? You’re going to let a Philistine defy the armies of the living God?” And the Israelites say, “Have you SEEN this guy? King Saul is offering a huge reward for whoever kills him: the king’s blessing, the king’s daughter, and no taxes for the rest of his life.” I’m not interested in the first two, but that last one would have been pretty enticing. David doesn’t get their fear. The soldiers had looked at Goliath and said, “He’s so big, how can I win?” David looked at him and said, “He’s so big, how can I miss?”

David’s challenge to the Israelite army gets back to King Saul, who calls for David, which sets up this interesting conversation. David, God’s anointed king, tells Saul, the king God has rejected, “I’ll do it.” Saul says, “You’re kidding, right? Have you SEEN this guy? You’re just a kid.” David responds, “As a shepherd, I’ve killed both lions and bears to protect my sheep.” Verse 37 says, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul says, “Go, and may the Lord be with you,” which is the Israelite way of saying, “We’re all behind you. WAY behind you.”

Before David goes, Saul tried to give David his kingly armor to wear. But Saul was a 52 long and David was a 36 regular and the armor didn’t fit. Rather than trying to be someone else, David is fine just being David. If he’s going to trust in God, he’s going to fully trust in God, not hedge his bets by making sure all the bases are covered. “Yes, God will protect me, but just in case God forgets, let me put on this chain-mail armor.” So he grabbed five smooth stones from the local creek and headed out to the battleground.

So we come to the climactic battle scene. When David stepped into the valley, Goliath takes one look way down and snorts, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” and curses David. And David steps up to respond. You can just hear the orchestral music building in the background as he gives this stirring speech: ““You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

Yes! If I were in the Israelite army, I would be pumping my first and cheering for this little shepherd boy. And if I were Goliath, I’d probably be wondering if I picked a fight with the wrong kid. David then ran toward the big bully, took out a stone, slung it, and struck Goliath right between the eyes. The stone sank into his forehead and he fell face down on the ground. The giant has been killed.

Was David scared as he walked onto that battlefield? I would think so. Despite his supreme confidence in God, Goliath was still a giant and David was still human. But David’s real battle wasn’t against Goliath; it was against his own fears. Would he be ruled by his fears or by his faith? What rules us?

We also face giants in our lives today, forces that threaten to take over our lives and hold us captive. The reality of life is that we have to face these giants: a diagnosis we’ve received; the fear of getting older; regrets that keep us stuck in the past; problems that keep us fearful of the unknown future; a sin we can’t seem to conquer; a worry we can’t seem to shake. We all have giants in our lives whom we’re afraid to confront.

David shows us how we can face our own giants. He wasn’t intimidated by the size of his opponent. Sometimes our giants can loom ten times larger than they really are, making us think we don’t have the size or strength to fight them. That disease is too deadly, the addiction has too tight a stranglehold on us. But as we were told last week, God doesn’t judge us by our physical characteristics but by our character. So we are called not to be fooled by appearances. Like the saying goes, “Don’t tell God how big your giant is; tell the giant how big your God is.”

Something else David did was he ignored the advice of others. Very well-intentioned people will try to make you feel better by explaining away your giant. “Don’t worry, that surgery is no big deal.” “You just need to move on and leave that person.” But no one else can fight for you. Your Goliath is YOUR Goliath. Someone else might say, “Ah, that’s no big deal.” But to you, it’s Goliath. And no one else can battle him for you, not a counselor or a pastor, not a parent or a friend.

Saul tried to make David into someone else by putting armor on him. But we are not someone else. We are us, the person God created us to be, the person God wants to use to defeat those giants. When we are true to ourselves, we remember that we are not alone. “The battle is the Lord’s,” David said. We believe in a God who’s not intimidated by swords and coats of armor and bombastic speech. We believe in a God who’s not intimidated by tumors and hateful words and the power of sin. Our God is the true giant in this story and in our lives. We don’t have to be eloquent or strong or handsome. We don’t have to be beautiful or brilliant or have all the answers. God honors our faith. All God asks is we trust, that we stand before our giants with integrity and faith and call on God’s name.

To be fair, not all battles end in a rousing victory like David’s. Tim Blankenship definitely got the better of me in our collision. I wasn’t the winner. But I’m still here. There will always be giants for us to battle, but there will also always be God, standing beside us, ready to fight for us. Don’t let your giant problems of today eclipse the promises of a God who is, and was, and will always be. The battle is the Lord’s.

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The Killer King sermon series – #1: From Pasture to Palace

This week I’m starting a sermon series on King David called “The Killer King.” We’ll be looking at all the high and low points in the life of this biblical icon. Because many of the stories are longer, I’ll be interspersing the scripture in the midst of the text, rather than providing it all at the beginning. I hope this will help the sermon flow better, and will also let us discover the story together as we go along. God bless!

The Killer King sermon Series
#1 – From Palace to Pasture
June 15, 2014

There are a lot of big dogs in the Hebrew Scriptures. A hall of fame would include folks like Abraham and Joseph and Moses. But of all the Great Danes and Saint Bernards we read about in the Hebrew scriptures, David stands head and shoulders above the rest. Consider this: In that section of the Bible, there are 14 chapters about Abraham, 13 about Joseph, 11 about Jacob, and 40 about Moses. But there are 66 chapters dedicated to the life of David. His influence and stature grew so big that the Old Testament couldn’t hold him; there are 57 references to David in the New Testament. And he is credited with writing many of the beautiful psalms we have. Aside from Jesus, David is truly the big dog of the Bible.

But he didn’t start out that way. During this sermon series, we’ll be taking a look at the life of David, from his humble beginnings, through his rise to the throne, to his up-and-down rule as king. David has been called “the greatest saint and sinner in the Bible.” Since I believe we all have a little bit of both in us, David might have something to teach us about having faith.

To understand David’s story, we have to understand a bit about the history of Israel leading up to his appearance in 1 Samuel. The nation of Israel was governed for a long time by a series of judges. These judges served as God’s representatives and provided leadership for the people. But the only true ruler of the Israelites needed was God.

Unfortunately, they didn’t believe that. Once they got settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites looked around at other nations and saw they had earthly kings. All of a sudden, an invisible God as your ruler didn’t seem so cool. So the Israelites decided they also wanted a king they could see and touch and complain about on Facebook. God didn’t like this idea, but God let them have their way. So the Israelites named Saul the first king of Israel. His coronation a story includes runaway donkeys, a sacred cooked thigh bone, and Saul hiding behind someone’s luggage. Obviously, the Israelites are making up this monarchy thing as they go. Now, Saul was what you would expect a king to be: handsome, strong, well-spoken. His hair was well-coifed and his suits were Armani. As the tallest person in the kingdom, he commanded attention and respect. He was an obvious choice and the people were thrilled to have him.

The only problem was that Saul wasn’t a good king. He stopped seeking God’s direction and tried to take matters into his own hands. In fact, the last verse of I Samuel 15 says, “The Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king.” So that brings us to our text today. Let’s read v. 1-5:

The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’ Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.’ And the Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you, and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.’ Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ He said, ‘Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.’ And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

God sends the prophet Samuel to see a man named Jesse, because from his sons will come the new king. Samuel is a little concerned about this mission on which God has sent him. Samuel has no hesitation anointing a new king – he hasn’t been thrilled with Saul, either – but the problem is that appointing a new king to replace the old king can be hazardous to your health when the old king isn’t gone yet. Despite all his failings, Saul is still king, and probably won’t be too thrilled with Samuel to find out Samuel is going around anointing Saul’s successors. But Samuel’s loyalty is to God, not Saul, so he goes.

Samuel is not the only one concerned about this trip. Great prophets like Samuel didn’t just show up in backwater villages like Bethlehem. It’s like in elementary school when the principal would make a surprise visit to the classroom and the hair would stand up on the back of everyone’s necks. “Why is SHE here? Who’s in trouble?” But Samuel assures the elders he has come in peace to make a sacrifice. Let’s read a little more…

v. 6 – When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen any of these.’ 

Samuel meets with Jesse and sees his oldest son, Eliab. Eliab was a wonderful physical specimen: tall, handsome, confident. Samuel says to himself, “There he is! He just looks like a king.” But God says, “No.” Then Samuel sees son #2, Abinadab. While not quite as impressive as son #1, Abinadab certainly met all the kingly requirements. But God says, “No.” The Samuel meets the third son, Shammah. OK, maybe not the top of the line model, his suits may be from Sears instead of Armani, but not a clunker either. “He’ll do,” says Samuel. “No he won’t,” says God. And then it turns into a version of “America’s Got Talent” called “Israel’s Got Royalty.” Will anyone make the cut? Son #4. No. Son #5. No. Son #6. No. Son #7. No.

That’s it. That’s all the sons that Samuel sees. Any of them would have been just fine as kings; they all looked the part. But as God reminded Samuel, God doesn’t look at our characteristics, but our character. God doesn’t consider the color of our eyes; God considers the capacity of our hearts. Like the Disney story, Samuel tries the glass slipper on all the brothers, but it won’t quite fit. None of these seven sons fit the bill.

There’s some interesting symbolism here. All you biblical numerologists out there – you know who you are – realize the significance of the number seven. It means completeness, perfection. Think of the seven days of creation. The seven sons represented all that is good and right and worthy in a worldly sense. They are the perfect pool from which to select a king. On the contrary the number eight doesn’t have that kind of meaning. We’re not told what God did on the eighth day of creation, because it doesn’t matter. In a sense, the number eight is meaningless. It’s extra baggage. It’s the leftovers. So what happens after God rejects the seven sons?

v. 11 – Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.’ He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

After seeing the first seven, Samuel says, “Is that all there is?” And Jesse says, “Yeah…Oh, wait! There’s one more, little What’s-His-Name, out with the sheep. Do you really want to see him?” We all know of the last born children in families who have been labeled “accidents.” You get the impression here from Jesse that David is an accident. But Samuel, to his credit, says, “Look, God told me to see all your sons, and I’m not leaving here until I do.” So in comes the runt of the litter. We’re not even told his name. We are told that he was good-looking, but probably in an eighth-son sort of way. And God says, “There he is! Rise and anoint him; he is the one.” David is a true Cinderella story, rising from the dregs of the sheep pen to become the next king. God chooses the leftovers.

I’m not sure we can understand just how absurd this decision must seem. Samuel’s just seen seven fine, hardy, upstanding young men, and he’s been told to anoint the short one wearing stained clothes and smelling like sheep. It’s as if the Coach Calipari needed someone to shoot a game-winning free throw, and instead of picking one of his star players, he chooses the ball boy.

So God’s chosen king is David. He’s not an accident; he’s a divine intervention. Should we really be surprised? Haven’t we learned by now that God’s criteria are much, much different than ours? We’ve seen time and time again how God chooses the younger, the weaker, the less popular to do God’s work. The world has a pecking order: elder son over younger, Pharaohs over slaves, religious authority figures over common peasants. But God pays no attention to that order.

God often chooses those whom we overlook. So much of a person’s value is determined by worldly criteria: their looks, their wealth, their age. We naturally place our trust and authority in people who look like they deserve it and who look like they are worthy of being entrusted with it. There was a TV commercial on recently where a man dressed in a sharp suit and tie convinces people to hire him as their investment banker. He then reveals he’s actually a DJ at a local dance club. Looks can be deceiving, can’t they? The road of history is littered with fallen leaders like Saul, people who looked the part but didn’t have the heart to be faithful to God.

God doesn’t want people who make good impressions. He wants people who make good servants. We often overlook people because they don’t appear to be gifted or valuable. But that’s because we’re seeing them through the world’s eyes, and not God’s. God chooses people that others dismiss and devalue, even when we feel that way about ourselves. If you’re the shepherd boy, if you’re the eighth son, if you are the one who’s been on the outside looking in, God is saying that you are valuable. People may have told you otherwise, but they aren’t seeing what God is seeing. God sees our hearts, and God chooses us and anoints us to do God’s work in this world. No one is too small or too insignificant for that job.

That’s true for everyone, not just those of us sitting here today. There are people right now out working in the fields and in the streets and in the factories who probably smell like sheep or worse and who probably don’t fit our preconceptions of God’s chosen ones. As Christians, it’s our responsibility to make sure that these folks have a place at the table. The world looks at them and only sees what it wants to see; we are called to see what God sees. We are all valuable, we all matter, and we are all called to serve. If we want to get a sense of who God is calling to do great things, we might want to look around and see who doesn’t have a voice, to see who is being pushed to the side. Because it’s the very people most consider human accidents that are actually divine interventions.

You matter to God. And the people you think don’t matter, they matter to God, too. We are called to treat everyone as they deserve, to extend to them God’s hospitality and grace, not just the ones who look like the deserve it. Because you never know when your investment banker is only a club DJ, and you never know when the people around you who look like accidents and smell like sheep are actually God’s chosen. Just ask the eighth son of Jesse.

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Bursting Our Techno-Bubbles

I was walking my dog the other day, 21st century style: listening to a podcast on my headphones and checking my email on my smart phone. Even a task as leisurely as dog-walking can become a productivity-driven multitasking adventure thanks to technology. At one point I looked up from my phone screen and realized I had walked right by my neighbor several minutes before without even stopping to say “Hi” or even acknowledge his presence. I was so engrossed in the podcast and focused on the screen that I missed a chance to make a connection.

Technology isn’t going away. The interwebs isn’t a fad and these new-fangled devices won’t go the way of the Betamax tape player (kids, ask your parents about that one). Our screens – cell phones, tablets, laptops, with more sophisticated ones on the way – are now ingrained as an essential part of our daily lives, which means it’s very easy for us to take for granted the blind spots associated with these technological developments. Like ignoring our neighbors.

That’s the irony with which we have to wrestle in today’s world. We are more connected globally than ever before; we can have thousands of friends and followers; we can receive and send mail anytime and anywhere. And yet, you could argue we’re more disconnected than ever. We can become so isolated in our techno-bubbles that we rarely have any actual human contact. We can use the self-checkout at the grocery store, the ATM at the bank, the self-serve kiosk at the post office, the Fandango machine at the movie theater. We can even serve our own frozen yogurt! We can go through our whole day without needing to acknowledge the existence of another human being.

There’s a more insidious danger here than just the isolation. When we interact with others via technology, we have a lot more control over who we let into our circle of influence. We seek out voices that sound like ours and minds that think like ours, blocking or unfriending those who don’t agree with our worldview. We create these homogeneous pods of people who reinforce each other’s perspective (“The President is a Muslim!” “Parents these days are lazy!”) without allowing for any sort of balancing voice to enter the conversation. And the more we participate in these discussions, the more we begin to think we are right and everyone else is wrong.

You see how deep the pothole is here, right? Because what happens when we are forced to interact with someone in real life who’s outside of our techno-bubble, someone who we wouldn’t let in if we had a choice? Our kid’s teacher or the lady behind us in line or a visitor at church – how do we react when they do something or say something or just exist in a way that doesn’t fit our technologically reinforced criteria of what counts as normal? The work of the Spirit on Pentecost is reversed. Instead of being united together in the midst of many languages, we are driven apart by a common language used in hateful, racist, ignorant ways.

We have to look up. We have to look up from our screens, from our Facebook conversations, from our political websites to see the world around us as it actually is, not as we have conditioned ourselves to believe it should be. Author Tad Williams says it so well: “Our challenge in the coming century will be to resist hiding in the comfort of these self-made bubbles, to remember that there will also be a growing number of other bubbles, big and small, and each one will contain people who feel just as strongly as we do about their own individual truths, passions, and needs. For all our differences, we are sharing the same planet. It may be difficult, but we still need to hear what we don’t want to hear, sometimes from people we don’t like. We will still need to think about others, and not just ourselves. In fact, as the old ways disappear, we humans will need to find an entirely new way to be neighbors.”

How can we be neighbors in the biblical sense? We need to burst our bubbles. We need to welcome a diversity of voices into our conversations and then we need to listen to them, not just use them as a foil for debate. I don’t necessarily want to hear what they have to say, but in the interest of being a good neighbor, I need to hear what they have to say. It’s the only way I can ensure I’m not falling prey to the tyranny of the techno-bubble. Our modes of connection will continue to change, but our purposes for connecting – building relationships, seeking peace, sharing love – shouldn’t. May we have the grace, the courage, and the foresight to let God burst our bubbles by forcing us to interact with those around us.  In doing so, we may find that we’ve been neglecting our neighbors without even knowing it.

bobblehead

 

 

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This Week’s Sermon – Going Up!

SCRIPTURE – Acts 1:1-14 - In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

 

SERMON
Going Up!
Acts 1:1-14
June 1, 2014

Now here’s a treasured story we all know and love. A wise and powerful being descends from the heavens to make his dwelling among us mortal humans. He develops a small following of people who were outside the power structure, including women and children. He performs miracles and healings. He is hunted down by the ruling powers, who finally end up taking him captive. He dies, is resurrected, and then ascends back to the heavens as his earth-bound friends look upward, gazing at the sky.

Of course, I’m talking about “E.T. the Extraterrestrial.” That movie, which came out in 1982, was a defining moment for my generation. I’ll never forget in that very last scene, when E.T. is about to board his spaceship. He goes to each of the three children and gives them a message to remember. When he comes to Eliot, the boy with whom E.T. had such a strong connection, he puts his glowing finger on Eliot’s heart and says, “I’ll be right here.” I’m tearing up just thinking about it. And then, E.T. boards his spaceship and goes home.

Our story from Acts today might not have the same emotional appeal or the special effects, but there are a lot of similarities. Like E.T., Jesus has been persecuted by authorities, he’s died, been resurrected, and is now ready to go home to his Father in heaven. But before he ascends, he has some marching orders to share with the disciples. After doing so, we are told he was “lifted up,” and a cloud took him out of their sight. This is his last earthly appearance. This moment is the culmination of all that Jesus had done and said in scripture. This is the Ascension.

So why don’t we pay any attention to it? Culturally, this story doesn’t have the commercial appeal of Christmas or the heart-overflowing joy of Easter, but in the grand scheme of God’s work in this world, what we observe on this Sunday is just as important.   Ascension Sunday falls six weeks after Easter and one week before Pentecost, which is next week. Before we get there, we first have to tie up the loose ends in Jesus’ story, like the fact that he’s been resurrected and is walking around making appearances. Now what? Is he just going to keep doing this forever? Two thousand years after the first Easter would Jesus still be walking the earth, popping up here and there? “Honey, set an extra plate, I invited Resurrected Jesus over for dinner tonight.” Of course not! So we have this story at the beginning of Acts about Jesus’ ascension, which sets the stage for the disciples to take up the torch and continue God’s work.

I think I know why we don’t really celebrate Ascension Sunday. It’s because what is acknowledged on Ascension Sunday is that fact that Jesus left us; it’s the day the present Lord became absent. Who wants to celebrate being left behind? Do we really need a day commemorating Christ’s absence from us? We get too many reminders of that on regular days, that God doesn’t always feel as close to us as we would like. We want him around, popping up here and there when we need him. But he’s gone, as we are reminded today.

This might seem like a strange thing to celebrate, but it’s just one of the many paradoxes about Christianity. A paradox is defined as “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” That pretty much sums up our entire belief system, doesn’t it? Think how absurd this gathering must look to outsiders. We come together week after week with no intention of doing anything productive. The main leaders put on a dress – even the guys! – we sit and face a huge instrument of torture, we close our eyes and talk as if there’s someone there. We declare things we can’t prove and make promises we don’t always keep to a God we can’t see. Does that sound a bit absurd?

But remember the other part of the definition of paradox: “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” A possible truth. Can we say a definitive truth? Not definitively. Do we really know that we know that we know what we believe is true? No more so than I can show you a picture of what the wind looks like or describe what freedom feels like. But I believe what I know about God is true, and one of the reasons I believe that is because of what happens on Ascension Sunday.

As you may know, Acts is actually the second part of a two-part book, both written by Luke to his friend Theophilus. In the first book, the gospel of Luke, the author writes his account if the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But the story doesn’t end there. You can’t stop at the end of Luke. That would be like stopping the story after Cinderella lost her slipper or after E.T’s gray little body is found in that creek bed. There’s more to the story. To fully grasp the whole narrative arc, you have to read Acts.

What Acts does, particularly these first 14 verses, is it completes Jesus’ story and fulfills God’s promises. It reminds us that what God begins, God completes. What God promises, God fulfills. This episode brings closure to the story of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, and prepares the way for the fulfilling of the next promise. Jesus says in John’s gospel, “If you love me you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.” That’s what happens on Pentecost, the reminder that Jesus told us, “I’ll be right here.”

But we’re not there yet. We only have to wait seven days, but the disciples had to wait 40. Forty days in between Jesus ascending and the Holy Spirit coming. No wonder they stood there looking up at the sky! I would, too. In a sense, ever since the Ascension we’ve been looking up, waiting for a glimpse of God, waiting for Jesus to return and set things right. We’re living in what theologian Karl Barth called “the significant pause,” the time in between Jesus’ first and second coming, the time where we wait with expectant hope for God to do what God has promised. And until then, we stand with the disciples, looking up and wondering and asking, “Now what?”

Now what, indeed. I’ve heard that question asked many times. Now what? The person I thought would always be around is no longer around. Now what? That security I thought I would always have is gone. Now what? The child I thought would always need me is off on their own. Now what? Sometimes the assurance of Jesus’ presence slips from our hands like a child’s balloon that ascends to the heavens. And we’re left behind to ask, “Now what?”

God heard the disciples’ hearts crying out that question, because God provides an answer in the form of two angels who offer a gentle reproof: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?” In other words, “Don’t just stand there; do something!” Jesus spent three years doing ministry among these disciples, teaching them and listening to them and forgiving them and empowering them. He has been preparing them for this moment, when the reins of this fledgling religious group would be handed over to them. It’s time to stop looking up and start looking around. As I heard one pastor say it, “Don’t look for Jesus in the heights; look for him in the depths.” The depths of human life, the deep, dark places in the world, that’s where the disciples will now find him.

So as we sit here this morning, experiencing the paradox of Sunday worship, I wonder if we are guilty of the same neck-craning as the disciples. Are we sitting here looking up, waiting for a concrete sign from the heavens, putting God’s work on hold until we get some sort of confirmation that this paradox of Christianity is more than just a possible truth? Are we hoping to experience a presence that would make sense of the feelings of absence, a definitive, incontrovertible truth to counteract the absurdity of life? Are we holding back until we know that we know that we know this whole faith thing is true?

If we are, that’s OK. I believe all of us go through times when that’s all we have to offer, simply to be here with our craned necks and our quizzical looks. But the reality of life is that there will be times when Christ feels absent, when we live in the “significant pause” between Christ’s appearances here on earth. But if we only spend our time looking up, I think we’ve lost the plot. Unlike the disciples, we don’t have the benefit of three years of teaching from Jesus, but we have something else. We have this church. We have God’s word. We have the bread and the cup. We have each other. This place is our training ground, where we can hear about and practice grace and forgiveness and loving each other, so that we can take those things into the world. But if the extent of our faith – our scripture reading, our praying, our talking about justice and inclusion and being Christ-like – if all of that starts and ends here, we’re just looking up.

I believe we are called to come here and look up so that we can go out there and look around. We come here each week to listen and to sing and to taste, to be reminded of who we are and who we’re called to be so we can go out and live that call. We come here to pray so we can go out there and witness. There’s nothing wrong with looking up, with seeking God’s face and waiting with hope for Christ’s return. But if we only look up, if we don’t then live out what we believe is true, we’re missing the presence of Christ that’s already here, in our midst.

The answer to “now what” is the church, reaching out to comfort the afflicted, to be a companion to the lonely, to confront evil, to speak a word of truth. Pastor Barbara Brown Taylor says about this story, “It’s almost as if he had not ascended but exploded, so that all of the holiness that was once concentrated in him alone flew everywhere, so that the seeds of heaven were sown over the fields of the earth.” The Ascension isn’t a story about Christ’s absence. It’s a story about Christ’s presence with us in all times and all place. “I’ll be right here.”

I think I have a better understanding of why Ascension Sunday is no really given a lot of attention. In this sermon alone, I’ve compared Jesus to a Disney princess, an extraterrestrial, and a balloon. There just aren’t any good Ascension metaphors. “Jesus, I need a picture. I need a comparison. I need a reminder down here on earth of what you are like so I can tell others about you.” (Look around) Oh, yeah. I see Jesus now. He’s right here. Now what?

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