The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series – How Did We Get the Bible?

SCRIPTURE – Luke 1:1-4 – Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,[a] to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
How Did We Get it?
September 27, 2015

We’re continuing our sermon series on the Bible this morning. So far we’ve looked at what’s in the Old Testament and what’s in the New Testament. Today we’re going to talk about how the Bible got from the minds of the authors to the book we hold in our hands today. You know those trips we take where nothing goes as planned? Your flight is delayed, your luggage gets lost, you got 500 miles down the road before you remember that you used the iron that morning…did I turn it off? Of course I did! Did I? Should we turn around? The Bible’s journey has also been filled with the same kinds of false starts and U-turns, with a few murders thrown in for entertainment.

There’s a lot we don’t know about who wrote the Bible, but there’s one person we can rule out right off the top: God. God didn’t write the Bible. That doesn’t mean God didn’t have anything to do with it; in fact, God had a LOT to do with it. But God didn’t write it. The Bible was written by about 40 or so faithful, dedicated, imperfect human beings, working under God’s inspiration. The Bible is a divine-human collaboration, which means it bears the holy handprints of the God who inspired it and the flawed fingerprints of the people who wrote it.

There’s something else we know about the Bible that is important to state right up front. Before the Bible was ever written, it was told, passed down orally for generations and generations. Moses wasn’t carrying a notepad through the Red Sea and Luke wasn’t recording voice memos of Jesus’ teachings. Writing instruments and paper weren’t easy to find, and most people were illiterate anyway, so the stories of the Bible were simply memorized and recited for hundreds of years. Scholars believe the first five books of the Bible, thought to have been written by Moses, were more likely written by scribes hundreds of years after the actual events as a way of telling the story of the creation of the nation of Israel. These stories borrow heavily from creation stories in other religions in order to tell how God made the world. We’ll get into this more when we start talking about the truth of the Bible, but for now, the point is that in many cases, we don’t really know who wrote the Bible.

Some of the authors seem easy to spot because their books are named after them: The Gospel of Mark, the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Oh, if only it were that easy! If I were to write a book today and put my name on it, I would be guaranteed to sell tens of copies (if I begged people to buy it). But if I were to write it and put J.K. Rowling’s name on it, I would definitely sell a lot more books and probably get some jail time. Back in ancient times, it was common to attach a famous person’s name to a writing as a way of granting it authority. Did Matthew write Matthew? Maybe. Did Paul write his own letters? Probably some, but definitely not all of them. When it comes to identifying biblical authors, it’s more of a guessing game than a certainty.

One way or another, these stories did get written down, and began to be circulated among the fledging churches in the first century. By this time, the writings of the First Testament were pretty well solidified into a canon, which means an accepted group of authoritative books. The First Testament canon developed in stages, starting with the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, then the prophets, and finally the wisdom writings. The original writings would have been on scrolls, which would be unwound and read during worship. Some of the scrolls were so long they had to be divided, which is why we have 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, etc. Interestingly, the Jewish version of the First Testament only has 24 books in it because it combines a lot of the ones we have separated.

The New Testament had a more tumultuous journey to canonization. By about the year 100, all the books and letters had been written. But those weren’t the only spiritual writings that were on the bookshelves. Notice what Luke says at the beginning of his gospel: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,  just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word…” These stories, which were handed on orally and then written down, were being compiled by a number of people. We know today of many writings that didn’t make it into the Bible, like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

So, who decided what was in and what was out? That’s a little hard to say because it there’s not a moment in time we can pinpoint as the moment the canon was decided. We do know the first mention of all 27 books together was in 367 by a bishop named Athanasius, and confirmed 30 years later at the Council of Carthage. The books and letters that made it in met three important criteria. First, they were the most popular and were still in wide circulation about 300 years after their writing. They stood the test of time. Second, they had some connection to the people who were around Jesus, either written by one of them, like Matthew, or someone close to the apostles, like Luke and Paul. And third, they stayed true to the understanding of Jesus and the orthodox faith. Using those criteria, the final 27 books of the canon were decided. But that’s only part of the story of how we got the Bible.

While the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek with a little Aramaic thrown in, by the year 400 people weren’t speaking any of those languages. They were speaking Latin. So a monk named Jerome translated the Bible into Latin. His version, called the Vulgate, was initially condemned, because everyone knows the Bible is supposed to be written and read in the original Greek, right? But eventually the Vulgate caught on and became the official Bible of the church for about 1000 years.

Because Kinko’s hadn’t opened yet, the only way to get copies of the Bible were by hand. Monks known as Masoretes dedicated their whole lives to making hand copies of the Bible. They had a meticulous system of letter-counting and proofreading to make sure no errors were made, and if an editor found even one mistake, the whole Bible would be burned and the monk would have to start over. Still, I can’t help but think a sleepy monk may have slipped up on a sentence, like changing the word “celebrate” to “celibate” and altering the happiness of monks for centuries after. Thousands of monks copying thousands of pages for hundreds of years. You see the human fingerprints that are all over this sacred book?

Fast-forward to around the 1300s. The church was still using the Vulgate, but the common language of the people in Britain was becoming Middle English, most notable used in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. People were wanting the Bible in their everyday tongue, but the church was resistant to letting people read scripture on their own. You never know what might happen if people were allowed to think for themselves! So the church insisted that the holiness of the Vulgate shouldn’t be tampered with.

Well, a guy name John Wycliffe tampered. In 1382, he translated the entire Bible into English from Latin. Wycliffe was a critic of the church and believed people should be allowed to read the Bible on his own. The church disagreed, so much so that they made it illegal to translate the Bible into English, and 43 years after Wycliffe’s death, they dug up his body, burned it, and threw the ashes in a nearby river. That’ll show ‘em! Everybody knows the real Bible was written in Latin. Or was it Greek? Or Hebrew?

Wycliffe’s efforts started a subversive movement to get the Bible into the hands of the common folk. The biggest aid in this effort was the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Using the press, in 1521 Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, and at the same time William Tyndale translated it again into English. Because this is illegal, Tyndale fled England for Germany, continuing to publish his English Bible and sneaking them back into England in sacks of flour. Tyndale was eventually arrested, strangled, and burned at the stake, which seems to be the accepted way of taking care of illegal Bible translators.

Eventually, the powers that were realized the benefit of having an English Bible, so in 1611, King James I commissioned a group of 54 scholars to create an English Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. The King James Version became the official Bible of the church for about 300 years, a poetic masterpiece that is still used today by many churches. But thou dost noticeth a problem with the King James Version. In the last century, people realized that the use of “thees” and “thys” had greatly diminished in society, so new translations have been made, like the Good News Bible and the Message, that put the words of scripture into more conversational English. Even that fact has enraged biblical purists, who insist the only true Bible is written in the King James English. Or is it Latin? Or Greek? Or Hebrew?

Today, we have versions of the Bible that span the range between strict translations and loose paraphrases. But we have to remember that even the strictest translation is really just an educated guess. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, is read from left to right, and has no vowels or punctuation. It’s like putting together a 500-piece puzzle with 278 pieces and guessing what the final picture is. Translating from the Greek isn’t much easier. For example, the Greek language had several words that meant “love”: eros, philo, storge, agape. So when we read the word “love” in the New Testament, which one was the author meaning? That’s why we can take the Bible seriously, but not literally. Unless you are proficient at translating ancient Hebrew and Greek, you’re relying a whole host of people – authors, editors, copiers, translators – whose human fingerprints are all over the Bible.

The Bible has been passed down orally and then by scrolls, quilted together by editors, hand-copied by faithful and celibate monks, and translated by courageous folks who gave their lives for us to have the Bible today. It’s been translated into over 2200 languages and is the best-selling book in history. That’s how we got it, but there’s still work to do. Author Bruce Metzger writes, “There always remains the duty of all believers to translate the teaching of the Bible into their personal lives.” So we are called to take our place alongside Paul and Jerome and the Masoretes and Wycliffe and Tyndale. The story of the Bible is incomplete until we read it and interpret it for ourselves. We’ll start that hard work together in a few weeks, but for now, let’s appreciate all inspiration of our Creator God and all the hard work and sacrifice of human beings that allow us the freedom and privilege of holding this book in our hands today. Knowing what it has gone through, we owe it to all those people, to our God, and to ourselves not to let someone else tell us what it says, but to read it for ourselves.

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The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series – What’s in the New Testament?

SCRIPTURE – John 20:30-31 –  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
3 – What’s in the New Testament?
Sept. 20, 2015

As we continue our sermon series on the Bible this week, we turn our attention from the Old Testament, or First Testament, to the writings that are primary for Christians. We said last week that the principal purpose of the Bible is to tell a story, the love story between a compassionate, creative God and God’s stubborn, stiff-necked people – that’s you and me. We talked about how God created them and loved them, but we didn’t love God back. Then God gave them a set of laws for how they were to live in order to be God’s people, and we disobeyed. Then God sent prophets to them, to tell them what they were doing wrong and how they needed to change their ways. We didn’t listen. So finally God said, “There’s got to be a better way.”

The New Testament tells the story of that better way. God decides to stop sending other people to do God’s work and instead comes to us personally in the form of Jesus Christ. The New Testament tells the story of Jesus and the aftermath of his life, death, and resurrection. It also gives us some prime examples of how the first Christians struggled to know what it meant to have faith and how they were to live it out. And you thought that was unique to us! Christians have been disagreeing about things for millennia! For us it’s gay marriage, for them it was eating meat sacrificed to idols. The topics change, but the question is the same: How do we live out our faith in the world around us?

Implied in this question is the fact that context plays a crucial role in how we live out our faith, and in how we understand the Bible. If you buy the claim that the Bible is divinely inspired and humanly written, then you have to take into consideration the context in which something was written, because that can be a key that unlocks a deeper understanding of a passage. We’ll talk more about this in a few weeks when we look at questions about the truth and authority of the Bible, but as we make our way into the New Testament we need to keep context on our radar screen.

The first four books are a great example of why this is important. One of the knocks against the authenticity of the Bible is that there are four different accounts of Jesus’ life, and none of them quite match with the others. A remember seeing a cartoon where Jesus was speaking to a crowd and says, “Now pay attention, I don’t want four different version of this going around.” The gospels tell the same stories in much different ways, they have events happening in a different order, and some tell stories that others leave out completely. If there’s no consistency or agreement, how can this story be true?

I enjoyed watching the Republican debates the other night, although by about the eighth hour I was pretty tired. Let’s say I asked four of you to write a summary of what happened during the debates. One person is writing for a group of women; one person is writing for a group of ISIS militants; one person is writing for a group of 3rd graders; and one person is writing for Donald Trump’s mom. Even though everyone is writing about the same event, do you think the accounts might be a little different? Do you think the writers might choose to focus on some statements and leave out others, or focus on some characters and minimize others?

That’s what’s going on with the first four books of the Bible. The gospels – the word “gospel” means “good news” – were all written by different authors to different audiences with different purposes in mind. That’s why the official title is “The Gospel According to…” It’s the writer’s version of the story. Mark was thought to have been written first, probably 30-40 years after Jesus was resurrected. Why not sooner? Why didn’t someone say, “Hey, I should write this down, it might make a bestselling book someday?” Remember, back then literacy was a luxury. Most stories were passed down by word of mouth. It wasn’t until Christianity started to gain some traction that Mark decided some sort of recorded story was needed. Mark was not an original disciple but was a student of the disciple Peter, so Mark took notes from Peter’s stories of Jesus and wrote his gospel. In Mark’s version, Jesus is a man of action who is known for his miracles – there are 19 of them in Mark’s 16 chapters – and who spends half of the gospel focusing on his coming death.

About 10-20 years later, Matthew and Luke come along and decide to write their version of Jesus’ story, each for very different reasons. Matthew was one of the disciples, a tax collector that Jesus called to follow him. Matthew is writing to a thoroughly Jewish audience, so his goal is to show his readers that Jesus is the Messiah, the savior that is promised by the Old Testament prophets. There are 68 references to passages from the Old Testament in Matthew’s 28 chapters. In fact, 11 different times in Matthew he writes, “this occurred in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet.” The Messiah was believed to the person God was going to send to save the Jews from the persecution of their enemies. Because the Jews were under the thumb of the Roman empire during Matthew’s writing, Jesus was the perfect fulfillment of that prophecy.

In contrast to Mark’s action hero, in Matthew Jesus is primarily a teacher (the Jewish word “rabbi” means teacher). In Matthew we get the Sermon on the Mount and the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer. We also see Matthew doing something also found in Luke. Both authors take stories that Mark wrote an embellish them, changing the details to fit their purposes. For example, in Mark’s version, there are two verses telling about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness after his baptism. In Matthew, that story takes 18 verses, and includes four First Testament references. Matthew’s audience influenced the version of the story he wrote.

Luke’s audience was much different than Matthew’s. He wasn’t writing to Jews; his audience was primarily Gentiles. Luke also wasn’t an eyewitness to Jesus’ life, so he got his information second-hand, reportedly interviewing Jesus’ mother and other people who knew him. Luke’s goal was to show readers that Jesus came for everyone. In Matthew’s gospel, there’s a genealogy of Jesus that goes back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, to prove Jesus’ Jewishness. Luke also has a genealogy, but it goes all the way back to Adam, the father of everybody. In Luke, Jesus reaches out to lepers, foreigners, women, the poor. Luke is saying to his Gentile audience, “Jesus is your Lord, not Caesar.”

The first three gospels share so much in common that they are called the synoptic gospels, meaning they offer a similar summary of Jesus’ life. And then there’s John. Written as much as 20 years later than Matthew and Luke, John has a completely different audience and purpose, so about 90% of what he writes is unique to his gospel. He was writing to a fledging church that was beginning to question if Jesus was really divine or not. As those believers were being persecuted for their faith, they were doubting Jesus was the son of God and were thinking maybe he was just a really good rabbi or persuasive prophet. So John opens his gospel by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and includes stories about people who first doubted, like Doubting Thomas, but then believed.

We move from the gospels to the only history book in the New Testament, the book of Acts. The book of Acts was also written by Luke; in fact, they were meant to be a two-volume set. If someone wants to start reading the Bible for the first time, I always recommend reading Luke and Acts first. Luke tells the story of Jesus’s time with us, and Acts tells the story of what happened next, as the good news of Jesus began to spread. Within Acts is the story of Saul, a zealous Jew who persecuted Christians until he himself was converted to belief in Jesus. He changed his name to Paul and become the greatest evangelist and missionary that ever lived.

Almost everything else in the New Testament is a letter that was written during the time period chronicled in Acts. Most of them are letters from Paul to churches. Paul would visit a town on his journey, say, Corinth, and while there he would start a church. He’d spend a year or so getting it off the ground, then he’d move onto another city, like Ephesus, to do the same thing. While in Ephesus, he’d get a letter from the church in Corinth asking for clarification about something or needing help settling a dispute. So he’d write a letter back to them clarifying or explaining or reprimanding. Those letters were preserved and passed down and voila! You have letters to the Corinthians, to the Ephesians, to the churches in Rome and Galatia, etc.

Paul also wrote letters to individuals, which is how we get 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Timothy and Titus were disciples of Paul who were leading their own churches, so Paul gives them some words of wisdom and encouragement. Philemon was a slave-owner whose slave, Onisemus, had escaped and ran to Paul for help. Because Onisemus was Christian, Paul wrote to encourage Philemon to free him as a Christian brother.

The last few letters are named for their authors: James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude. Each were writing to communities of faith about specific issues, usually how to deal with false teachers and people who were persecuting them. There’s also a letter to the Hebrews. The author is unknown, but the message is clear: Jesus is the great High Priest of God, imagery that Hebrew people could relate to.

Well, that’s it! That’s all the books in the New Testament. I don’t think I left anything out…wait! What? There’s still a book left? I hoped you wouldn’t remember. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, is Spirit-induced vision written by John, the same guy who wrote the Bible and the three letters. It’s a bizarre, sometimes disturbing, often unintelligible story about cosmic warfare and the end of times. One scholar wrote that it “participates in the exaggerated and violent rhetoric of ancient apocalyptic thought.” Translation? It’s really weird. A lot of people will tell you they know exactly what the dense symbolism means, but I’m not one of them. It most likely points to events that already took place during the time of the Roman Empire, but if you believe that, then it takes all the fun out of using Revelation to predict the future and figure out who’s going to Hell and stuff like that.

Next week we’re going to talk about how we got the Bible, which is a wonderful tale of lying and deception and bloodshed, a perfect bedtime story for the kiddos. But before we end our tour, I want to point this out. One thing I do like about Revelation is how it brings the Bible to a close. The Bible ends with these glorious words: “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.” Remember those stiff-necked people I talked about? That’s you and me. And yet, here at the very end, we’re told that the grace of Christ is with all the saints. That’s also you and me. The Bible’s last word is one I will offer here as a way of blessing our time studying the Bible together as we prepare to  move into deeper waters together. That word is “Amen.”

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The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series – What’s in the Old Testament?

The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series

2 – What’s in the Old Testament?

September 13, 2015

Let me tell you a story.

How did you respond when I said that? My guess is when you heard it, your ears perked up a bit, you leaned forward, you focused in a bit more on what I was about to say. We all love a good story, don’t we? As kids, nothing engaged our imagination like hearing, “Once upon a time…” We’re all suckers for a feel-good news story or well-spun tale in a book or a movie. We are narrative creatures.

That’s why, as we continue this sermon series on the Bible, it’s important for us, right at the beginning, to talk about the purpose of the Bible. Now, you’re going to get a lot of different responses to that statement, depending on who you ask. Some would say it’s a self-help guide that tells us how to live. Others would say it’s a history book detailing how God made the world and ruled God’s people. Others will tell you it’s the literal word of God, downloaded straight from heaven in the good ol’ King James English. And some people, particularly those who haven’t read it, will tell you that its purpose is to delude people into judging and hating others not like them. We can come up with all kinds of purposes for the Bible, can’t we?

But I want to offer today what I think is the primary purpose of the Bible. I think the primary purpose of the Bible is to tell a story. A love story. It’s the story about a creative, generous, patient God and God’s recalcitrant, difficult, stiff-necked people – that’s you and me, in case you were wondering. It’s a story about how God loved us but we didn’t love God back, so God kept loving us and we still didn’t love God back, and finally God loved us so much that God got right in our face and said, “I love you!” and we killed him. And then…God loved us some more.

How you understand the purpose of the Bible influences how you read it. If you read it as a self-help guide, you’ll look for nuggets of wisdom to get you through your day. If you read it as a list of rules, you’ll use it as a checklist for who’s doing right and who’s doing wrong. But if you read it as a story, you’ll see that at its essence, the Bible shows us what God is like. It is one of the primary ways we can know God, so when we read something in it, our first question should be, “What does this story tell me about God?”

Today, we’re going to look at the part of the story that’s told in the first 39 books of the Bible, which have been historically known as the Old Testament. There’s been a movement afoot lately to do away with that name and move to calling it the First Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures, because the word “old” has some negative connotations that go with it, especially when followed up by the word “new.” If I gave you the choice between and old car and a new car, most of us would choose the new car. When something in our house is old, we replace it with something new. But the New Testament is not a bigger and better version of the old one. It wasn’t meant to replace what came before.

Instead, the First Testament tells us the story of how God created us, formed a relationship with us, and sought to lead us. While it certainly points to Jesus Christ, it’s not simply a prologue or an opening act. The Hebrew Scriptures stand on their own as a compelling, heart-breaking, hopeful story about God and God’s people. I wish I could give you a lot of information about each and every book this morning, but then I guarantee we’d all be old by the time we left. So this is going to be more of scenic overview than a thorough study and will probably feel like we’re pushing a hotdog through a straw. If you’d like to talk more about it or have questions, come to our Crestwood University this afternoon. For now, fasten your seatbelts and make sure your Bibles are in the upright and open position. No, seriously, you may want to open your Bible to the Table of Contents in order to keep up.

The story starts where every good story starts: “In the beginning…” The first book, Genesis, tells the story about how God created the world and everything in it, culminating in God’s greatest creation, us. This was truly an amazing feat for which God was immediately sorry, because we human beings used our free will to disobey God, as we see in the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s Ark. So God chooses one particular couple, Abraham and Sarah, and seeks to build a great nation out of them and their offspring and lead them to the Promised Land. Genesis tells that story, through Abraham to his son Isaac, and then to his grandson Jacob.

Exodus picks up the story after God’s people were made slaves in Egypt. God calls on another man, this one named Moses, to lead God’s people out of slavery and into the Promised Land, where they could enjoy the blessing of being God’s people. Along the way, God gives them the law, which is God’s instructions on how the people are to live in order to be a blessing. The books of Leviticus and Numbers are mostly the details about that law, while the fifth book, Deuteronomy, is a restating of that law by Moses in his final sermon to God’s people.

Those first five books together – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – are known in Hebrew as the Torah, which means “law,” or in Greek as the Pentateuch, which means “five books.” This law spelled out in great detail how God’s people were to conduct themselves, treat others, and relate to God so that they could be in right relationship, or good standing, with God. God wanted the people to be a light to the pagan nations around them, so those people could see what it was like to live with God’s blessing. The law was the step-by-step instructions for being Godly people. The Torah is still an important part of the Jewish culture today.

As we wave goodbye to the Torah, we see coming up in front of us an impressive group of books that continue the history of God’s people and how they related to God and each other. These 12 history books span about 800 years, weaving together different storylines and characters into this beautiful tapestry that shows us, as my friend David Shirey says, that God is “patiently, persistently, passionately working God’s purposes out, sometimes with the help of God’s people, sometimes without them, and sometimes in spite of them.”

The first history book, Joshua, tells about God’s people settling into the Promised Land, while the book of Judges tells about the series of leaders – people like Gideon and Samson – God appointed to guide the people. Just an FYI that both books are rated R for violence and bloodshed, which makes them an interesting contrast the next book, Ruth, a gentle story about two women from enemy nations who share a lifelong friendship.

The next six books – 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings, 1st and 2nd Chronicles – tell the story of God’s people demanding a king to lead them, and God saying, “Really? You have me, but you want one of YOU to lead you? Suit yourself!” Starting with Saul, God’s people have a series of kings, some good like David and Solomon, some bad like most of the rest of them. The leadership is so bad that at one point God’s people split into two different kingdoms. Can you imagine a group of God’s people disagreeing so strongly that they divided? I’m so glad that doesn’t happen today! These books remind us that the human condition hasn’t changed much in several thousand years…and yet God still loves us.

The Northern Kingdom, called Israel is destroyed by the Assyrians, while the Southern Kingdom, called Judah, is ransacked by the Babylonians, and God’s people are taken into exile. After the exodus from Egypt, the exile is probably the most defining event for God’s people. They were removed from the Promised Land and forced to live as foriegners. And what they discover is that even while they are thousands of miles away from home, God still loves them. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the homecoming from exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. The last history book, Esther, is a beautiful little interlude, telling the story of one woman acting bravely to save God’s people.

From the history books, we move to the Wisdom and Poetry section, which includes Job, a parable about why bad things happen to good people; Psalms, the hymnbook of the Hebrews; Proverbs, a collection of wisdom sayings about how to live a Godly life; Ecclesiates, a pessimistic book about the meaning and purpose of life; and the Song of Songs, an erotic poem that will make you blush and remind you how much God loves you. Don’t read that one to your kids at night unless you’re prepared to answer a lot of questions.

That covers 22 books of the First Testament, leaving the last 17, which are the Prophets. The first five – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel – are called the Major Prophets because of their length; the last 12 are the Minor Prophets. The prophets all lived during the time of the History Books and served the role of reminding God’s people who they were called to be. Some of the prophets lived before the exile, and warned God’s people to behave or they would be punished. Some of the prophets lived during the exile and reminded God’s people that God had not forgotten them. What would usually happen was that the prophet would get a message from God and speak it to the people. The people would either listen and straighten up, or more often, ignore the prophet. God would then exact punishment on the people, which caused them to truly repent and return to their Godly ways. That would last a little while, and then they’d start falling away again. So God would send another prophet. Wash, rinse, repeat. One of the most famous lines from the prophets is from Micah, who says, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good;  and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness,  and to walk humbly with your God?” But the people didn’t do those things, so finally God decided on a better way to relate to them. We’ll save that for next week when we look at the New Testament.

So there you have it! A bullet-train ride through the Old/First Testament. You might be tempted to dismiss this as not important. I had a congregation member once who said we should do away with the Old Testament because all we need is Jesus. But could you imagine taking letters from your grandparents or your old photo albums and chucking them in the garbage because they didn’t matter? We have to know the story of how we got here in order to understand who we are. We need to know the lengths to which God has gone to create us, lead us, and love us in order to appreciate the magnitude of that love. We’ll talk more about how that love was made real next week, but for now, before you dismiss these “old” writings, remember: This ancient story? It’s God’s story. It’s our story.

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Delivery Man Sermon Series – #10: Unfinished Business

This is the last sermon in our series on the life of Moses. You can find the audio and text of the others here. I hope God blesses you today!

SCRIPTURE – Deuteronomy 34:1-12 – Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lordknew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that theLord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

Delivery Man Sermon Series
#10 – Unfinished Business
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
August 30, 2015

In our Sermon Talkback group that meets each Wednesday, I referred to last week’s sermon as the penultimate sermon in this series, which sounds really remarkable, but actually only means that it’s the next to last. That means the last of something is the ultimate, like the ultimate point in a journey. So I’m pleased to announce that today I will preach the ultimate sermon on Moses, a fact which either greatly impresses you, or makes you happy because it means it’s finally the last one.

We’ve come a long way with Moses in these 10 sermons, haven’t we? We started in the bulrushes of the Nile, where his mother put baby Moses to save him from Pharaoh’s death sentence, Then we stepped aside to witness his Burning Bush encounter with God. We marched with him to Egypt and heard him proclaim, “Let me people go!” to the Pharaoh. We saw him part the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk through from slavery to freedom. We smacked our foreheads in solidarity with him when the Israelites grumbled against God. We heard the 10 commandments proclaimed to the Israelites and grieved when not a week later they broke those commandments by fashioning a Golden Calf to worship instead of God. And last week, we stood with Moses as he caught a glimpse of God’s glory, reminding us once again that no matter how little we know about God, what truly matters is that we are known by God.

For this ultimate sermon, we skip over almost three whole books, moving from the end of Exodus to the last chapter of Deuteronomy. But we’re not missing much of the story. Most of Leviticus and Numbers are detailed accounts of the law God gives to the Israelites so that they can live as God’s people in this world. There are a few stories woven in here and there, but mostly its laws, decrees, and statutes, which don’t exactly make for compelling sermon material. The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ final sermon to the Israelites before he dies, his ultimate words of wisdom to these people he’s led for the last 40 years. He basically tells them they have a good thing going and not to screw it up, which of course they will do anyway.

That brings us to today’s reading, not only the last chapter in Deuteronomy, but the last chapter in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah. For the longest time, the Torah was essentially the Bible for the Israelites, because it contained the law, which for them was the ultimate revelation of God. For Christians, that revelation is Jesus Christ, who said he came not to abolish this law, but to fulfill it. But for the Israelites, the Torah was God’s word to them, and it ends here on Mt. Nebo, overlooking the Promised Land, but not in the Promised Land itself. Curiously, the Torah ends with some unfinished business.

In college I worked at the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville as a clerk, and one of my jobs on weekends was taking obituaries. I would sit at a computer for eight hours and do nothing but take information from funeral homes about dead people. Yes, it was as much fun as it sounds. It was a pretty sobering job, not just because of the subject matter, but because I was reminded over and over again how a lifetime of experience could be boiled down into a paragraph.

I guess that’s why today’s passage sounds so familiar to me. It’s essentially Moses’ obituary. If I were typing it for the newspaper, it would read like this: Moses, age 120, died today in the land of Moab. Cause of death is unknown, but when you’re 120, do you really need a reason? Moses was a former prince in Egypt, shepherd, and delivery man for the nation of Israel. He was a member of the Brothers of the Burning Bush and the Sea-Parters Club. He is survived by his wife, Zipporah; and adopted son, Joshua; and several hundred thousand followers. There will be no visitation and a private funeral, with burial to follow in an undisclosed location. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you observe a 30-day mourning period.

Does anything bother you about the way Moses’ life ends? It seems like ever since God came to him at the Burning Bush, Moses’ singular purpose has been to get this cantankerous, argumentative bunch of Israelites to the Promised Land. And yet, now that they have finally arrived, just a stone’s throw away, Moses is allowed to see the land but won’t be allowed to cross the finish line. Something about this seems grossly unfair.

To understand why Moses isn’t allowed into the Promised Land, we have to go back to a story in the book of Numbers. You won’t be surprised to know our story starts with the Israelites grumbling that they are thirsty, so God says to Moses, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.”

So Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and Moses said to Israelites, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank.  But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”

Ok, fair enough. God asked Moses to speak to the rock, and instead Moses struck the rock…twice. We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all been the parent in the grocery store who raises her voice to her child after the 475th “Can I have this?”, or the driver who snaps at the person who cut them off in traffic. It seems like a harsh punishment for Moses to bear, but as God’s appointed leader, Moses was held a higher standard, and he violated that in front of the people. We may not agree with it, but like Moses, that is God’s decision.

So that brings us back to the top of Mt. Nebo, where Moses gets an unprecedented view of the Promised Land. The geographical names don’t mean much to us now, but back then, it meant that Moses could see from horizon to horizon, from Paducah to Ashland, from Bowling Green to Covington. He gets to see the land that had been promised to his ancestors, but he doesn’t get to sink his toes into its fertile soil.

The year after Hurricane Katrina, I took a youth group down to the area to help with recovery efforts. Our assignment was to gut a house that hadn’t been touched since the hurricane. It was filled with water-soaked possessions, rotten food, and crumbling drywall, and we had to clean it out right down to the wooden studs. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a group work as hard as those kids did. We spent five days knee-deep in trash and debris, throwing away water-logged stuffed animals and ruined wedding albums, getting this house ready to be rebuilt for the family. On our last day, we were about an hour away from finishing when one of the adults said, “Kory, we have to go. Our flight leaves soon.” And I said, “No! We can’t leave! We’re this close to finishing. We only have half a room left.” But I knew she was right. So we packed up our tools and drove away, this close to the Promised Land of completely cleaning out the house.

I was so upset because I wanted to finish the job, I wanted to say that we completed what we started out to do, and because we didn’t I felt like we had failed. Well, if I apply that criteria to my daily life, then I fail every day, because every day there are things on my to-do list that don’t get done. Every night when I go to bed, I’ve left some unfinished business that I’ll have to carry over to the next day. Anyone else have that, too? If we define success and value our self-worth based on whether or not we finished the things we started, then we will never be successful or worthy.

But what if we change those definitions? After hearing all about Moses’ life, would you say he wasn’t successful? Of course he was! He accomplished amazing things in his life. He was faithful to God and served God’s people in such a way that he gets this glowing eulogy. So maybe success shouldn’t be the goal toward which we are striving. I wonder if we put so much stock in reaching a destination – getting the kids to college, landing the perfect job, making it to retirement, seeing a certain dollar amount in our savings – that we miss the joy of the journey. I wonder if we place our Promised Land as some destination out there to be reached, and miss the fact that our Promised Land is right here, right now, with all its challenges and frustrations and blessings. Maybe this is our Promised Land, because God is here with us.

I believe Moses was content to die overlooking the Promised Land because he knew it wasn’t his job to complete the journey. Moses fulfilled his mission, to lead the people, and now Joshua will take over and lead them into the land flowing with milk and honey. I’m sure the week after we left New Orleans, another group came in and finished the work we started. Does it matter who does the work? No, it only matters that it gets done. We will never do everything we want to do. We will never make it to the Promised Land we have constructed in our own minds. There will always be unfinished business in our lives. Was Moses successful? I don’t know. But I know he was faithful, and somehow that seems more important. So when we lay our heads down to sleep each night, we can trust that what we did was enough. Were we successful? Did we reach the Promised Land? Probably not. But may be a better question would be, “Did we see God with us on our journey today?” Did we see God in the kind act of a stranger? Did we hear God in the words of grace spoken to us in a difficult moment? Did we sense God comforting us through the words of a friend?  If we did, then I think we were successful.

As I said at the beginning, the Torah ends with unfinished business. There’s more story to tell. But that story doesn’t end in the Promised Land, and it doesn’t end in Jerusalem, and it certainly doesn’t end on the cross, and it definitely doesn’t end at the tomb. The story continues. One of my seminary professors told me that the Bible is the first four acts of a five-act play. We are the fifth act. We are responsible for keeping the story alive, for witnessing to the grace and welcome of Christ in our lives, for showing others what it means to be loved with God-like love. Ultimately, we may or may not be successful. I’m sure we’ll leave some things undone. But I hope, like Moses, we will be faithful.

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Delivery Man Sermon Series – #9: Glimpses of God

This is the ninth sermon in our summer sermon series on the life of Moses. Blessings to you!

SCRIPTURE – Exodus 33:12-23 – Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

17 The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’;[a] and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”21 And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”


Delivery Man Sermon Series
#9 – Glimpses of God
Exodus 33:12-23
August 26, 2015

As we continue our sermon series today on the life of Moses, let me give a quick recap of our journey so far, because it will have a bearing on today’s passage. We know that Moses was born in Egypt and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, but fled the country after he killed an Egyptian. He settled down in Midian, got married, and became a shepherd. One day, while tending to his flock, he sees the burning bush and hears a call from God to go back to Egypt to rescue the Israelites from slavery. To show Moses that God means business, God gives Moses God’s name to tell to the Israelites – “tell them ‘I Am Who I Am” sent you.” The giving of God’s name establishes a relationship between Moses and God.

Moses goes to Egypt and after some intense negotiations and 10 plagues, Pharoah lets the Israelites go, but quickly has Pharaoh’s remorse and decides to get them back. Pharaoh traps them at the Red Sea, but God parts the sea and the Israelites pass through, while the Egyptian army gets swallowed up. Finally, the Israelites are free from slavery and headed toward the Promised Land.

The problem is that the Israelites aren’t very good traveling companions. Before the Red Sea mud is off their feet they start complaining about the lack of food and water and un-luxurious traveling conditions. God responds to their grumbling, but the ungrateful Israelites grumble even more. Then God gets mad and Moses intervenes, things settle down, and then it the cycle starts all over again. The relationship between God and the Israelites is a bit dysfunctional.

The finally make it to the base of Mt. Sinai, where the Israelites set up camp while Moses goes up the mountain to receive the 10 commandments from God. The Israelites accept the commandments and pledge their undying loyalty to God…until about a week later. While Moses is gone up the mountain, they break the first two commandments by fashioning a Golden Calf which they can worship in God’s place. God finally loses patience and threatens to wipe out the whole lot of them and start over with Moses, but Moses talks God out of it.

That’s where we left off last week. An important point to note in the Golden Calf story is that, at one point, Moses is so mad at the Israelites for breaking the commandments that he takes the stone tablets, on which the commandments are written, and smashes them on the ground. By doing sot, Moses breaks the covenant that had been made between God and the people. Their relationship is strained, their vows have been broken, God is ready to wipe them all out, and once again, as we’ve seen many times before in this story, the Israelites are at a dead-end. God went into God’s room and slammed the door, the Israelites went into their room and slammed the door, and Moses is caught out in the hallway, completely helpless.

In the beginning of our chapter today, God commands the Israelites to leave Mt. Sinai and head toward the Promised Land, where God will drive out the foreign nations – the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Termites, and the Cellulites – so the Israelites may live there. Then God says, “Go to the land flowing with milk and honey, but I will not go with you, or else I would destroy you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

My youth group was driving from Chicago to Kansas City in two church vans for a mission trip. About three hours into the drive, the lead van pulled off to the side of a busy highway. I was driving the second van, so I followed suit, worrying the whole time what was wrong. Did someone get sick? Is the van having problems? The driver got out of the van, stalked around to the side door, opened it, and dragged out one of the middle school boys. He grabbed him by the arm, marched him to our van, opened the door, and said with deep exasperation, “Here. He’s all yours.”

I think that might be how God is feeling here. God basically says to the Israelites, “If we make this journey together, one of us won’t reach the destination.” We talked last week about how God is often portrayed in the Bible in human terms, and in this instance, God’s frustration with the Israelites boils over. “Fine, you all go, but I’m not going with you.”

So in our passage today, we’re overhearing a conversation between God and Moses that takes place right after this pronouncement. We know that Moses and God share a close relationship, to the point that the Bible tells us the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. I don’t take this literally, as if they stared at each other, but it is a testimony to the intimacy of their relationship.

Moses is disturbed by God’s pronouncement, and lets God know about it. He says, “Look, you told me to lead these people, but how do I do that if you’re not with me? If you really trust me, God, give me your exact marching orders. Tell me step by step what I’m supposed to do. Show me your ways.” This is a critical moment in the relationship between God and Moses. By asking to be shown God’s way, and then asking to see God’s glory, Moses is seeking to know God as much as possible. The more he can truly know God, the more comfortable he will feel in his faith, which is probably true for every single one of us. I know it is for me. “If we could only know you, God! Show us! Tell us! Let us see your face! Post a neon sign so we’ll know exactly what to do.”

In this world of ambiguity and competing agendas, sometimes we just want to KNOW, don’t we? We may not be lugging around a million stiff-necked, cow-worshipping ex-slaves, we may not be able to part the water in our bathtub, but we have our own burdens and anxieties, don’t we? We need a pep talk from the Big Coach now and then. We need God to pull out a clipboard and show us exactly what the plan is. Most of the time in my life I’m OK with trusting, but sometimes I need to know. I think that’s where Moses is in our story. At this critical juncture, he needs to know God is with him.

And God says…”No.” God doesn’t offer Moses a glimpse of the plan, but God offers him something even greater. After some negotiations, God retracts his earlier threat and promises to go with Moses and the Israelites to the Promised Land, saying, “I will do the very thing that you asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses was so focused on what he thought he needed to know, that he forgot that he was known. We do that too, right? We have this strong desire to know and we forget that what really matters is that we are known by God. No matter what happens, good or bad, we are known by God.

Moses asks for God to confirm this promise by showing Moses God’s glory. In one of strangest instances of humanizing God in all of scripture, God hides Moses in the cleft of a rock, covers the opening and passes by, removing God’s hand so that Moses can see God’s back. Have you ever seen that? I bet you have. In the moment, we have trouble seeing God, concluding that God isn’t with us or God doesn’t love us. But in hindsight, as we look back, we can see where God has been, what God has done, how God has left a mark in our lives, like the divine wake God leaves behind.

Through this action, God recommits to Moses and the stubborn, stiff-necked Israelites. At the burning bush, God sealed the agreement with Moses by giving God’s name. Here, God seals it with a more intimate encounter. The only way to know someone more closely than knowing their name is meeting them in person, even if it is only from the back. In the next chapter, Moses will make two new tablets and write God’s laws on them, re-establishing the covenant that was broken with the Golden Calf. Once again, through God’s grace, a dead-end turns into a path through the wilderness.

That covenant will last, even though the Israelites will continue to break it. God gave them all these laws to help them know how to be God’s people in this world, and yet time and time again the people broke them. So God sent prophets to the people, folks like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, to remind the people of the covenant God made with them. The people would repent for a time and recommit themselves to following the laws, but they were humans, so eventually they would revert back to their sinful behavior, breaking their end of the covenant even though God was honoring God’s end.

Finally, God threw up God’s hands and said, “This isn’t working.” It would have been completely understandable if God had given up on us, if God had truly turned God’s back on these stiff-necked people and left them to rot in the cesspool of their own unfaithfulness and sin. But instead of turning God’s back, God turned the other way. In Jesus Christ, God turned around so we could see God’s face. Through Christ, God says to us, “Here I am. I love you. I want to know you. I am with you.” We have seen God face to face.

We’re told that after Moses came down from the mountain his face was radiant because of his encounter with God. The Bible says, “Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory on his face.” In fact, his face shone so brightly he had to wear a veil. That’s what a personal meeting with God will do to you. Which makes me wonder…if we have met God face to face through Jesus Christ, do our faces shine? Can people look at us and just know that we have seen God? Does anything about who we are and what we say and how we live radiate the love of God to others?

Through Christ, God has said to us, “I am with you. My presence goes with you.” And each day, we have a chance to see this presence, to glimpse God’s glory all around us. Where do you see it? I see it anytime I visit a newborn in the hospital. Maybe you see it in a radiant sunset or a blooming flower. Maybe you hear it in a cat’s purr or a loved one’s voice. Maybe you smell it in fresh baked bread or taste it at the communion table. God’s glory is ALL around us! God IS with us! We have seen it!

Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries, and daub their natural faces unaware.” Do our faces reflect the glory we have seen? Do our words echo the joy that fills us? Do our actions imitate the grace we have received? The glory of God has been revealed to us – to us! How can our lives be the same? How can our faces not reflect that amazing fact? Show the world what you know, that you are known, and that God is with you.

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Delivery Man sermon series – #6: God’s Top Ten List

This is the sixth sermon in my series on the life of Moses.

SCRIPTURE – Exodus 20:1-21

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lordyour God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for theLord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days theLord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

Delivery Man sermon series
#6 – God’s Top Ten List
Exodus 20:1-21
August 2, 2015

Before we read the scripture passage, let’s take a quiz: How many of the Ten Commandments can you name? Four? Six? I’ll prime the pump for you a bit. “Do not kill” is in there. “Keep off the grass” is not. “Do not bear false witness” – in there. “I before E except after C” – not in there. “Honor your father and mother” is in there. “Always use your turn signal” – of course not…but it should be! Let’s listen to the complete list as it’s given in Exodus.

We continue our sermon series on the life of Moses by looking at this watershed moment in the history of the Israelites. When we left them, the Israelites had been delivered from slavery in Egypt, as Moses had led them through the Red Sea and into freedom. But the Israelites were an ungrateful bunch, and immediately started complaining about how life was better for them as slaves than as nomadic wanderers in the wilderness. God answered their grumbling by providing manna for them to eat, but also gave them strict instructions on when and how much to gather. God did this as a test to see if the Israelites were going to obey God and be faithful.

That quiz was just a precursor for the big exam, which we get today. Moses leads the Israelites to the base of Mt. Sinai, where God gives to Moses the laws that God wants the people to follow. Eventually they will receive over 600 laws addressing their clothing, their food, their work, and their relationships. But it all starts here with the Top Ten List.

I know the 10 Commandments have been a lightning rod in our culture. Their absence from schools and courthouses has been lifted up as a symbol of our increasingly de-Christianed culture (never mind that the laws are thoroughly Jewish). At times it has felt to me like there’s been more energy expended in fighting over the laws than actually following them.

There has also been a lot of debate on how to apply these laws. They are frustratingly ambiguous. “You shall not murder” – does that include self-defense? What about as an act of war? “Honor your father and mother” – even if one of them is abusive? I had a congregation member say to me this week he was afraid he was breaking the commandment to not covet because he really wanted a Ford Mustang. I assured him that his spot in Heaven was still secure.

That highlights one of the misuses of the Ten Commandments. When we read them, we immediately apply them individually, as if they are a checklist for our own personal spiritual lives. But that was never their intention. The commandments were not written for individuals; they were written for a community. In the Israelite culture, there was not real sense of individualism. Everyone was part of a community, and individual actions had social and communal repercussions. God’s focus here is not to make them really nice people. It’s to foster social cohesion, to create a community saturate with godliness so that they can be agents of change, image-bearers of God to the nations around them.

We’ve talked several times in this sermon series about how the Moses story is a renewal of the creation story in Genesis. God is re-creating God’s people as they pass through the waters and into freedom. With the law, God is taking the chaos of this wandering band of former slaves and bringing order to it by saying to them, “Do this and be blessed. Don’t do this and be cursed.” Just as God drew a boundary with Adam and Eve by telling them not to eat of a certain tree, God is drawing boundaries for the Israelites by saying, “If you want to be my people, here’s what you are to do and not do.” God is giving them an instruction manual for living as God’s people.

Have you ever tried to put something together without instructions? I’ve muddled my way through the construction of many pieces of furniture with nothing but a few pictures and some directions written in Japanese. I usually come with several parts left over and a final project that looks like an MC Escher drawing. You can’t overvalue good instructions, and that’s what God is providing to the Israelites with the law.

It’s important to note that the law is not a condition for the Israelites becoming God’s people. “Do this and I will love you.” That’s already happened. This isn’t about winning God’s favor; it’s about being the people God created them to be. It’s about helping them purge Egypt from their systems and live out the freedom God gained for them. As Brian McLaren wrote, “Through the 10 plagues, God got the people out of slavery. Through the 10 Commandments, God is getting the slavery out of the people.” They are no longer beholden to the forces that kept them down. They no longer have to meet certain criteria or quotas in order to be deemed as valuable. That’s important for us to remember when we turn faith into a to-do list, as if we can earn our way onto God’s good side. We mess up and think God doesn’t love us any more or we’re not worthy of being God’s child. But that’s already been decided when Christ died on the cross. We’re eternally on God’s good side, which should compel us to live in a way that reflects it. By living out the law, people see God through us, as imperfection as that reflection may be.

OK, so let’s take the scenic overview trip through the laws. Each one could be its own sermon, so I’ll just hit some highlights on the tour. You notice God starts by grounding the laws in who God is:  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” In other words, “Because I have done for you what I said I would do, now it’s your turn to show me what you can do.” In other words, chosen people are expected to act in chosen ways.

The first law sets the tone for the other nine. “You shall have no other gods before me.” Notice God doesn’t say, “There are no other gods.” The Israelites spent the last 400 years in Egypt, where multiple gods was the norm. And they’re about to move into territory where the surround polytheistic nations will bow down to a number of deities. God is basically saying that other gods may exist, but none of them saved the Israelites from slavery. They may be tempted to worship other gods, but they need to remember to Whom they belong.

Well, it’s a good thing we don’t have to face that temptation anymore? I’ve never considered praying to Zeus or worshipping Ra or Osiris. But I am tempted to worship other gods, like money, power, security, property. “You shall have no other gods before me.” What gods do you put before the Great I Am? I wonder if being right is a false god we worship. I wonder if making a name for ourselves is a false god we worship. I wonder if our own convenience is a false god we worship.

The second commandment is related to the first: Don’t make idols or graven images of God. As soon as we think we can capture God in a statue, we start think that actually represents God. When I was a kid, my favorite baseball card was a 1976 Topps All-Star George Foster. I worshipped that card! Then one day, it accidentally got torn, and for weeks I worried that the actual George Foster was going to have a bad season because I tore his card. If you make a statue of God, you start worshipping the wrong thing. With this commandment, God is basically saying, “You look silly bowing down to statues. You don’t need them. You have me.”

The commandment about the Sabbath is interesting because (1) it’s a positive command and (2) the law is linked directly to the creation story, where God rested after six days of work. The Hebrew word “remember” is here an active remembering, not a passive one. It’s the different between remembering your anniversary – “Hey, I think today’s my anniversary” – and actually acting on that memory, which I highly recommend doing!

The first four commandments are about conduct toward God; the last five focus on conduct toward others, and this is where the ambiguity comes in. For example, “Do not kill,” even though God and the Israelites do plenty of killing in the Old Testament. One commentary said that this most likely refers to the type of killing God wouldn’t allow. When you figure out what that is, please let me know, because I really struggle with how to apply this commandment.  “Do not bear false witness” would be very important in the Israelites society for enacting proper justice. They didn’t have DNA testing or video cameras back then, so guilt or innocence depended upon the reliability of eyewitnesses. False witnesses would actually have to bear the punishment intended for the accused.

The last commandment, “Do not covet” is a summary of the others. If you covet your neighbor’s wife, you’ll commit adultery. If you covet your neighbor’s stuff, you’ll steal. If you covet more substantial things, it could lead to murder. In other words, be happy with what you have, which is something we still need to hear today.

So, what do we do with these laws today? Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, which means technically we are no longer beholden to them. And yet, in the course of his teachings, he reiterated nine of the 10 as being important (the only one he didn’t was the Sabbath). They are obviously still important to follow, or else the whole of society would disintegrate. It’s easy for us to judge others who break certain commandments, while forgetting that each and every one of us has broken, will break, or is currently breaking one of these commandments.

Here’s what I think we should do with them. I think we should keep them close to us as guidelines for who God is calling us to be, and the focus on the ones that we find most difficult. I’ve done a pretty good job in my life of not killing; that’s one I feel like I will be able to keep. But I haven’t been so good about not coveting or about putting other gods before the Great I Am. And each time I break one of these, I’m not only hurting myself or others, I’m hurting my relationship with God.

Just as with the Israelites, how well we follow these laws has an impact on how well we reflect God’s image. Like them, we are surrounded by people who don’t know God, or worse, don’t care. And one of the reasons they feel that way is that they’ve seen how Christians have acted down through the years. If we’re honest, we’ve done our part to tear at the social fabric of America, praising God’s name on Sunday and then worshipping false gods or using God’s name in vain or coveting something or someone the rest of the week.

So the challenge given to us today is the same challenge given to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. God loves us and wants us to fulfill our potential as God’s people, called to a higher standard of how we live our lives. Here is who God is calling us to be. Do these things and be blessed. Don’t do these things and you will not be a blessing to others. The laws have been given, Christ has shown us how to live and love and serve others. So he choice is ours. Are we God’s people…or not?

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Delivery Man sermon series – #5: Bread and Whine

This is the fifth sermon in a series on the life Moses. I hope you have a blessed day!

SCRIPTURE – Exodus 16:2-15 –  In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” Moses also said, “You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumblingagainst him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against theLord.”

Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.’”

10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”

13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.

Delivery Man Sermon Series
#5 – Bread and Whine
Exodus 16:2-15
July 26, 2015

This morning, we resume our sermon series on the life of Moses. When we last left him, Moses was leading the Israelites through the Red Sea, away from their time of slavery in Egypt and into an unknown future with God. Our scripture today is one of the first stories that takes place as the Israelites begin their march to the Promised Land. Let’s listen…(READ SCRIPTURE).

Ah, road trips! When we lived in the Chicago area, several times a year we’d pack up the car with suitcases, toys, snacks, and pillows and make the six-hour drive through the Windy City and down the entire length of the state of Indiana to see our family in Jeffersonville. And inevitably, about a half-hour into the trip, it would start: “Are we there yet? I’m hungry. I have to go to the bathroom.” I’m sure Leigh and the girls got tired of hearing me complain like that. And I’m equally sure that Moses got tired of hearing the Israelites doing the same thing on their journey together. The group is only about a month removed from their miraculous trip through the Red Sea, but they are already starting to grumble against God.

You know the job of cheerleaders, right? I’m convinced the Israelites had gripe leaders, people whose job it was to stir up unrest and convince people that they are unhappy. “Two-four-six-eight – slavery in Egypt was really great!” What else would explain the fact that the Israelites actually wax nostalgic about the great food they ate while in slavery? Something tells me the prison cafeteria wasn’t serving filet mignon, but the Israelites are convinced that God has forgotten them…just a month after God delivered them from the hands of Pharaoh.

Are you familiar with the term “hangry”? It’s a combination of hungry and angry. When I’ve gone too long without food, my mood turns from hungry to hangry. Well, the Israelites are hangry. Hangry at Moses, hangry at God, hangry at their situation. Their complaining is not the deep, soul-searching laments that we find in the psalms. There is such a thing as complaining because of your faith in God. “God, I love you, why don’t you do something?” But the Israelites’ complaining shows a lack of faith in God.

As a pastor, I’ve dealt with my share of grumbling, so I know a bit how Moses feels. So imagine my glee when I read the line in which God says, “I’ve heard your grumbling, and I’m going to rain…” Yes God! What are you going to rain on these hangry grumblers? Fireballs? Big boulders? Telemarketing calls? No! God says, “I’m going to rain bread from heaven for you.” Say what? And then I find myself grumbling, “You’re going to actually give the grumblers what they want?”

To understand why God responds this way to the Israelites, it’s very important to understand the nature of their relationship at this juncture in the story. We made the point a few weeks ago that when the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, it marked the beginning of a new chapter in their existence. God actually reset their calendar back to Day 1 so that the Israelites would have a fresh start. Because they’ve been in slavery for 400 years, they’ve lost their connection to God. They have no knowledge of who God is, and I believe God is also relearning who they are. So as they make their way into the wilderness, God and the Israelites are getting to know each other all over again.

I remember very well my first date with my wife Leigh. September 24, 1993. We went to Tubby’s and had baked spaghetti, and then jumped on my sister’s trampoline. Yes, I was that kind of smooth romantic in my younger days. For some reason she agreed to a second date, and the more time we spent together, the more we learned about each other. That’s how relationships grow in strength and closeness.

In our passage today, God and the Israelites are basically on a date. They are getting to know each other, feeling each other out, figuring out what they like and don’t like. More importantly, God is learning about the Israelites’ ability to be faithful. Will they be the people God created them to be? Will they be steadfast in their faithfulness and strong in their obedience? Will they be grateful and honorable and loyal? Well, the short answer is “No.”  But God doesn’t know that yet.

So God tests the Israelites by responding to their plea for food, but giving very specific instructions that go along with it. God provides a daily ration of bread for the Israelites in the form of manna. We’re not exactly sure what manna is. The name itself actually comes from the Hebrew phrase “man hu,” which literally translates into “What is it?” The prevailing theory is that the manna is actually bug juice. A insect native to this region of the world feeds on local tree bark, and secrets a yellowish-white flake or ball of juice that is rich in carbs and sugars. The flake hardens but also decays quickly, lasting only about a day. So manna could very well be hardened bug secretions. Coming soon to the next church potluck!

Every day the Israelites were to go out and get their daily share of manna, except on the day before the Sabbath, when they were supposed to get two days’ worth so they could rest the next day. If they gathered too much, it would go rotten. If they tried to gather on the Sabbath, it wouldn’t be there. In this way, God tests the Israelites’ ability to follow instructions, to be faithful in their obedience to God. They didn’t do so well.

Do we do any better? I would like to think that grumbling against God stopped when the Israelites finally reached the Promised Land, but I know better. Today, we continue the rich tradition of complaining to God, which proves two things: our own stubbornness and God’s infinite patience with us. Even after God gave us the true bread from Heaven in the form of Jesus Christ, we still find things to grumble about.

Why? Why do we grumble? If we’re honest, it’s because we don’t get our way. We grumble when our comfort is disrupted. We grumble when our entitlement is threatened. We grumble when things do go according to our plan. “God, you were supposed to heal me. God, this job was supposed to be better. God I want you to act now!” Are we there yet? I’m hungry! We’ve heard the Israelites’ complaints come out of our own mouths.

One commentator calls this grumbling “selective forgetting.” The Israelites selectively forgot that God had delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh and only chose to listen to their grumbling stomachs. How often do we forget what God has done for us in the past and instead only focus on our present circumstances? We pray for the miracle we want, forgetting that God doesn’t always provide what we want, but God does always provide what we need. And yet, when we don’t get what we pray for, we think God isn’t listening or, worse yet, God isn’t there. Meanwhile, we’re missing all the other things God has done and is doing for us – things like bug juice, or a compassionate friend, or moment of rest in a busy day, or a piece of bread and a cup of juice – grape juice!

God does indeed provide for us, but maybe not in the way we expect. For the Israelites, God only provided what they needed for each day, nothing more. That accomplished two things. First, it required the Israelites to be dependent on God’s provision. Each day they were reminded that they needed God to survive. And second, it put everyone on the same level. No one would have more than anyone else. The local bigwig couldn’t invite people over to show off his manna collection. Each day, everyone was equal.

Wow, has that changed! What does it say about us that we seek to build up a lifetime of manna while others go hungry every day? Because we selectively forget God’s provision, because we don’t believe God will be as good to us tomorrow as God is to us today, we eat and spend and mortgage way more than a day’s ration. We don’t just gather enough for today; we gather enough for the next hundred years, and leave others to fend for themselves. And then we grumble when the security we have built for ourselves is threatened.

The risk we have in building up a stockpile of manna is that we will come to rely on what we have accumulated rather than on the God who has provided it for us. We’ll come to think that we’ve earned all that manna we’ve collected and we’re not under any obligation to share it with someone whose plate is empty and whose stomach is grumbling. For many of us, we’ve never known a day without bread, and so there’s no urgency in our dependence on God. It’s good to know God is there when we need to send up a prayer, but otherwise we’ve got things covered.

Each day, we need to rely on God. Each day, we need to talk to God. Each day, we need to ask God what God wants us to do to share our abundance. It could be as simple as buying bread for a homeless person or as challenging as committing our time and resources to changing the systems that make people homeless in the first place. But make no mistake about it: each day, we are called to do something to provide manna for someone.

The Israelites’ grumbling won’t stop with this story. It will continue on for 40 years, until the reach the Promised Land. What about our grumbling? Will it continue on, or will it stop today? We can replace our grumbling with gratitude, being thankful for all that God has provided, selectively remembering that we have what we have because of God’s goodness. Every good thing you have today comes from God. And everything good thing you have tomorrow will come from God, too. Our challenge is to remember each day to thank God for our daily bread, and then to go into the world and share it.

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