The Faithful Remnant trusting the King

The lessons this morning are certainly heavy: “All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way.”[1]  And then the Lord’s declaration that the covenant made with Moses will pass away “for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord”.[2]  And then that stern phrase from Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”.[3]

Wow.

And if you read Chapter 16 in The Story, you see why: after almost three centuries and 39 kings of God’s chosen people choosing to ignore God and go their own way, of people trying to come up with their own convenient solutions, of people going right back to the words of the serpent in the Garden and saying “did God really say that?  We won’t actually die if we disobey” …finally, God says: “ok”.

Think about that one.  I have to say, that was an earth-shattering revelation for me.

Some people – indeed, some whole denominations – like to talk about the wrath of God, about judgement and things like that.  And many of us, reading along in The Story, have a hard time reading through this downward spiral, as those whom God has given so much end up with so little.  

But what is the wrath of God?  As you read it, what do you think?  Does God inflict punishments on his people, does God cook up plans to show his wrath, to get his revenge?

No.  Not at all (though the punishments are no less real).

The wrath of God is when God finally says “ok”.  God’s judgment, those events in scripture that we might glance at and call “punishments”, really aren’t punishments that God inflicts at all, are they?  These punishments that God’s people finally have to endure are the things that they themselves have chosen.  As you read through scripture, Genesis to Revelation, we find, time and time again, that the wrath of God is nothing more than our patient, loving, forgiving, and merciful Heavenly Father finally saying
“I gave you free will; I’m not going to force you; I will let you have it your way”.

That changes things, doesn’t it. 

Three centuries, 39 kings, countless wars, altars to worship power and money and sex built in every town, and a total disregard for the promises made to keep the covenant and teach it to their children in order to remain safe and secure with the blessings of the promised land: and finally, God says “ok.  I won’t force you.  You can do it your way”. 

And there we have it; God lets Israel go it’s own way, and in a mere matter of weeks, the Kingdom of Israel is no more.  The tribes of Israel are broken up and scattered, so that only Judah, little Benjamin, and a few members of the priestly tribe of Levi are left.

Did God inflict this upon them for their disobedience?  The answer is “no”.

What God did was say “fine, ok, I won’t force you, you can do it your way”. 

That’s all it took.  God didn’t inflict this; he allowed the people to choose it.

And did you know that’s what the Church believes about judgment in our own day, too?  God doesn’t ever inflict judgment; but, because he honours the free will he gave us, he allows us to choose it by rejecting Him as Lord.[4] 

How did we get here?

For the Kingdom of Israel, we can pinpoint where this path started.  In fact, the prophet Samuel warned them – quite sternly – about the many dangers of the path they were choosing.  This all began when they said “we don’t want God for our king; we want a human king instead”.  Or, in other words, “we don’t want to trust in someone beyond our understanding; I want to trust in someone who looks like me, who thinks like me, who I can see”.

This whole path started because they didn’t want God to be king. 

And, on the one hand, it makes sense: it’s hard to argue with God.

God says “trust me, and let’s do the impossible together”.  And we say, “but we’re outnumbered; or we’re weak; or we’re facing an ocean that we cannot cross; or there’s a storm and we’re being rocked around in this little boat; or we’re tired and hungry and can’t wrap our minds around what you’re asking us to do”.  And God says, “yes, all of that, but trust me”. 

And I completely understand why they wanted a human king: because it’s hard to argue with God. 

It’s so much easier to have a human leader; to have someone to argue with, to have someone whose faults you can point out, whose logic you can challenge, to have someone you can either rely on because they’ve earned your trust, or walk away for some good human reason, and not feel bad about it.

It’s so much easier to have a human leader, because then we can come up with good, rational reasons not to trust them.

But if God is our king, and he says “trust me”, then we have to face the fact that the only real reason not to follow him is, well, because I don’t want to.  There’s no good reason we can ever give to justify why we argue and refuse to follow God except “I don’t want to”. 

And that means, when there are consequences for the path we’ve chosen, there’s no one to blame it on, either.  God didn’t inflict it, he just said “ok, I’ll let you do it your way”.  Israel has no one to blame for the kingdom falling and the lost tribes being wiped off the face of the earth but themselves.  And we, when we refuse to let God be our king, have no one to blame for the consequences but ourselves. 

So I get it: I understand why Israel wanted a king; because it’s easier to argue with a person than to admit that, ultimately, we just don’t want to trust God to do the impossible.

But there’s good news here, too.

We know, in this story, there was a faithful remnant.  There were a faithful few who, through the years, said “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. 

When God said “trust in me, let’s do the impossible” they said “well, I don’t see how: I don’t have much faith, I’m weak, I’m outnumbered, I don’t really understand how this whole covenant works, like how my faith and my good works have to go together, yet it relies on God’s gift; no, I don’t really understand much of this at all, but, I’ll trust in you.”  That faithful remnant trusts in God, and lets God be the king, even though that means there’s no one to argue with.

And we see in that faithful remnant this eternal truth: God never breaks a promise.

If God says “I will bless the nations through you”, He will. 

If God says “Be strong and courageous, I will go with you, I will never leave you nor forsake you”, He will. (Deut. 4:31; 31:6; Joshua 1:9; Isaiah 41:10-13)

If God says “I’ll go with you and watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land”, He will. (Genesis 28:15).

If God says “I will work all things together for the good of those who love me, who have been called according to my purpose”, He will. (Romans 8:28).

If God says “in every situation, by prayer and petition, present your requests to me; and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds”, He will. (Philippians 4:6-7).

But, at the same time, God knows our weakness.

The people struggled having God as their king.  The people struggled having a king that was so completely beyond their understanding; a king they couldn’t see; a king they couldn’t comprehend.

God knows that.  So does God hold that against them?  Does God say, “get your act together, salvation depends on you finding the Ark of the Covenant, and accepting the invisible God as your political leader?”

No.  Not at all.

When the people said “we want a human king”, God said “this isn’t going to end well, but I gave you free will and I won’t force you to be obedient, so ok”.

But what else did God have in store?

God, because He’s God, had already planned, from before the foundation of the earth, that He would come in the flesh; that God would walk amongst people for our sake, so that we can have a king whom we can look up to; a king who we can be sure knows and has experienced our human weaknesses; Jesus, my king and my God, who is one of us, who is an example, in whose footsteps I can walk; and when God says “trust me”, and I say “I don’t know what that looks like”, God says “look to Jesus.  Be like him, more and more each day, and when you mess up, say you’re sorry and start again, but I know the human heart needs a human example, so here: my only Son is your example.”

And God says, “now, trust me, let’s do the impossible”.

We either say “my God and my King, I don’t see what you’re doing, I don’t see how you’re going to work this together for good, but I will trust you”.

Or, we find ourselves in a situation where, however we go about it, whatever excuses or rational arguments we make, God’s response is “well, this isn’t going to end well, but I won’t force you, so… ok”.

God doesn’t inflict judgment. 
What we call judgment is when God finally says “fine, you can do it your way”.

Friends: we live in crazy times.  Uncertain times.  But no crazier and certainly no more uncertain than what we’ve been reading in the Story.  So my prayer, for you and for me, is that we would be that faithful remnant, that we would be those willing to say “God, I don’t understand what you’re up to, but you can be my king.  I will trust you.  Now… let’s do the impossible together.”

To God alone be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Isaiah 53:6-11

[2] Hebrews 8:7-9

[3] Matthew 10:32-36, 40-41

[4] I am not suggesting a silly idea that people want to be in hell (like they would choose it in response to a desire to be there), or that God somehow sits back and watches world events.  Rather, when we reject God as Lord, when we reject the blessings that are offered, it means we choose the alternative de facto, because there is no alternative middle-ground that is free of consequence.  The consequences of going our own way are severe, as shown in the terrible history of the destruction of Israel and the later exile.

Messages and Honest Messengers

As we get back into The Story this morning, we find ourselves with the theme of messages and messengers.

You’ll remember that God chose his people, not for their own sake, but so that all the nations of earth could come to know the one true God; that Israel should be a light to enlighten the nations, a city on a hill with lamps burning brightly to draw in all those who are lost and wandering.

God gave them that opportunity, to be part of his amazing plan.

But, you’ll remember, they wavered back and forth.  They’d trust for a bit, they’d rely on God to get them through some incredibly difficult situation, but then they’d slam on the brakes. 

They’d trust in God to do the impossible, but they’d give up trusting as soon as they could: He’d lead them through a famine, but they’d not trust him in the regular seasons of planting and harvest; He’d lead them through the raging waters, but they wouldn’t trust him to provide food the next day; He’d defend them and fight for them when they were hugely outnumbered by a well-trained army, but they won’t trust him with the everyday faithfulness of learning to love their neighbours as themselves.

And so the great nation of  Israel brought together under King David was divided.  And to be clear, it was no accident: it was God’s doing as he sought to wake his people up and draw them back to himself. 

It’s brutal to read: they cry out to God in the hard times, but once things start to get easy, they forget God again; and so God removes his blessing, and they find themselves facing hard times again and wondering where to turn. 

But here’s the incredible part: even when God removes his blessing and protection, God never abandons them.  Even when they’ve become so deaf to God’s still, small voice, God will send human messengers to speak those challenging words and call his people back.

Now, here’s the question.  Do you think God still does that today?

We live in a time that looks a lot like Israel under King Ahab.  We trust in money, we’re distracted by the big stories of things beyond our borders rather than caring for those at home; we prize the fulfilment of the individual over creating a community that seeks the common good, and while we don’t call them Ashtoreth or Baal anymore, we’re a very much living in a time that worships beauty and power.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 95% of our neighbours only think of God when tragedy strikes, or when they take his name in vain in anger: seriously, if you added up the attendance at all three churches in town this morning, all three of us together make up less than 5% of Fort Smith.

It’s not unlike Israel in the days of Elijah, when only 7000 – just a tiny fraction of the population – were found to be trusting in God.

And yet, the message of it all is that God sends that faithful few to call his people back; God doesn’t abandon his people, even if we do experience the painful consequences of years of going our own way and trusting in our own plans, and giving in to that need to slam on the brakes before each new act of faithfulness.

But again, here’s the big question: Do you think God still sends messengers to call his people back?

Yes.

Being a church member has changed.

40 years ago, you could sit on the sidelines, knowing there were a faithful few who would step up to do the work of ministry; to do the work of learning to lead, of learning to meet people where they are, of learning to trust God to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know how to do.

But those days are over.  There is no place on the sidelines, because we are the faithful few who are left. 

My friends, whether or not we signed up for it, we are like Elijah: look around, think through your family, friends, and neighbours.  Who will the Lord send to call his people back? 

Elijah said “I’m the only one left”; and isn’t that true in your circle of friends, too? 

And no, it’s not something we would ever sign up for – certainly Elijah didn’t either – but think about it: who else would God call to minister to that circle of friends? You’re already perfectly positioned for the task.

The Work of a Prophet

There’s a lot of confusion about prophecy.  The general understanding of most people is that a prophet is a fortune-teller, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The work of a prophet is to call people back to God, and to do so by both their words and the example of their own life.

And it is real work, though it looks different for each person.  Like I said, the days of a place on the sidelines are gone, there’s no comfortable pews left to sit on.  If we look at our reading from First John this morning, we’ll see that the key word there is “walk”; we can’t just sit in the light, but we will be called to move forward in faith, even if we can’t work out where the next step might land us.  It’s one step at a time, one day at a time, trusting that God will work all things together for good, in spite of our fears.

And central with that is the second half of that little reading: we must not “deceive ourselves”, but are called to be honest and quick to confess those times when we’ve been proud or scared or self-reliant or maybe just a little too comfortable (and I’ll be the first to admit that I have fallen into those categories too!).

…now I know what you might be thinking.    That’s nice… but I’m worn out.

Yes!  Amen.  Hallelujah.  Let’s be honest about that.  I’d say we’re not really worn out, but we are worn down.  This has gone on long enough, and if you honestly stop and look around this little congregation, these faithful few, it’s heartbreaking: how many families in this room don’t have some real burden to bear? 

And I’m willing to bet that, any family that you look at and can’t name their burden, it’s not because they don’t have one.

We are worn down.

But, my friends, there’s good news there too, also because we find ourselves in a position much like the prophet Elijah.

Do you remember from your reading this weekend?

Elijah was worn down.  He had delivered his message, and now he feared for his life.

What did he do next?

Did he say some spiritual-sounding words?  Did he give himself a little pep talk?  Did he tell himself to suck it up, put on a happy face, and pretend everything is alright?

No, not at all!  What did he do?

He got away from the noise, he went to be alone with God, and he was honest.  Brutally honest.  He poured out his heart.  He said “Lord, I’m fed up; I’m done with this; I wish I would die.” 

But God met him where he was.  And, miraculously, God gave him the rest and refreshment he needed.  Seriously, re-read it when you go home: God gave him not one, but two naps, and when he woke up, there was a fresh loaf of bread waiting for him to eat. 

And then God told him the truth: no, Elijah, these are not easy times.  And yes, what I’m asking you to do is hard.  I’ll go with you, but I need you to walk forward in faith, one step at a time; we can’t sit where we are, because I have a plan: that my people will be a light to enlighten the nations, that all people would have the opportunity to trust in the one true God, and I want you to be part of that plan.

God has blessed this church – but not for our sake.

God has blessed each of us – but not for our sake.

God has blessed us to be a blessing, for I’m willing to bet, as you look at your neighbours, as we look at our town, we’ll find ourselves in the place of Elijah: “Lord, I’m the only one left who knows you.”

But God is in the business of revealing himself.  All we have to do is trust him, to be faithful in each opportunity, to be honest with ourselves and with God, and to be willing to follow, even when we’re not sure where that next step will lead.

One thing is sure: God has called us according to his purpose, and he will never abandon those who walk by faith rather than by sight.

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

The Renewal of Baptismal Vows

My friends, I want you to think seriously about this covenant. 

You’ve made these vows before, dozens of times, but it’s important we don’t take them lightly.

These are vows that you’re making before God and his Church, and we really are the faithful remnant, as the three churches in this town are a tiny fraction of Fort Smith.  And God’s plan is that we invite our neighbours in. 

So take a moment to read these vows before I ask you to renew them, especially that third one that has proven so difficult for the church through the decades: “will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?”.

Read them now, and if you’re willing to make them, please remain standing. 

No pause button on faithfulness.

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I want to speak briefly this morning on this human tendency to go so far, to make so much progress, and then to swing back in the other direction.

We’ve seen it again and again as we’ve read through The Story together this fall.  God will provide for his people – but then we turn away.  God will call for his people to return – and we do, but then we fail to pass the message on to others.  God will appear and save his people with great might, and send his Word to guide and direct – but it’s astonishing, isn’t it: as we read through the pages of scripture, we scratch our heads and say “why?”.  “Why do they keep going their own way?  Why do they so quickly forget what God has done, or the work he’s given them to do?”

How is it that, after God finally unites Israel and gives them victory over their enemies under the great King David, that unity only lasts for a single generation?  How is it that King Solomon, even with all the wisdom he had been given to help others, could fall so far from following God’s law?  How is it that, once Solomon dies, God’s chosen nation splinters into bits, as they abandon this beautiful temple chosen by God and instead worship all sorts of idols on every mountain and in every forest; as the one who made himself king of Israel goes out and, of all things, makes two golden calves and says “these are your gods who brought you out of Egypt”… we want to say “no!  Go back and read the next chapter of Exodus… this doesn’t end well!”.

Why do we have this back-and-forth, back-and-forth in the story of God’s people?

Spring-Loaded Human Nature

There’s a phrase used throughout Christian teaching to explain this: it’s the idea that, because we are born in a world of sin, we are bent in on ourselves.[1] 

We were created to be bent outward, for God’s Image, God’s Light, God’s Love to shine onto us as we reflect it back, for God’s glory.  But, because of sin, our natural position is to be bent inwards; instead of reflecting God, we end up staring at ourselves, focusing only on our own reflection – what’s best for me and what I want for myself.

But it’s not just like we’re bent, like a crumpled pop can.  I think it’s better to say that we’re “spring loaded”.

God’s work in our lives is to gently unfold us, to pry us out of that curved-in position, so that we can be what we were intended to be.  But, it’s like there’s springs drawing us back.   While God is faithful, He also wants our cooperation; he won’t save us against our will.  So, while he does the work of unfolding us, of gently bending us outward to reflect his glory, the truth of scripture shows us that, when we pull away from God, that spring action built into our sinful nature snaps us back into that bent position, so all we can see is a reflection of our own selves, our own desires, and our own perspective.

That’s what we’re seeing in the Story this week: God works through his people, but when they pull away, they snap back into the position they were before.

And that, my friends, is why things like faithfulness and unity and marriage and fellowship and discipleship take real work.  We like to think that, when we fall away; when we pull back from following where God is leading, we just stay in place, like hitting pause so we can pick up where we left off when we get around to it.

But we forget that we’re spring-loaded, don’t we?

As we see in scripture – every time a person pulls away from God, we snap back into that self-centered, isolated perspective… and, again, as we’ve read this fall, people rarely notice until they’ve found themselves in a real mess!

A Call to Constant Faithfulness

And so, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, as we celebrate the one who has shown us his mercy and the strength of his arm; who brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly; who fills the hungry but sends away those who trust in themselves: let’s remember that these are all things that God will do when we walk with him and trust as he gently but surely unfolds us, bends us outward, so that we no longer see our own reflection, but instead shine God’s Image back out to the world.

But let’s be honest – let’s remember that it takes work to be part of that, simply because we must overcome that spring-action of our souls.  Unity takes work, whether we’re talking about a congregation, or Christians across denominations, or whether we’re talking about families and marriages.  Discipleship and growth into the people that God wants us to be takes effort and some real perseverance as we trust him for whatever our lives look like each day, because the truth is we can’t hit pause on our lives.

And so, I invite us all to think this week, in the lead-up to Christmas, about what it means for God to take the lead – to be in charge – as he unfolds us, opens our eyes to a perspective bigger than our own, and opens us up to reflect his glory to those who haven’t yet come to know the Father who loves them. 

And, knowing by example how quickly we can snap back into old ways, let’s be quick to notice when we’ve ‘snapped’, and instead of hiding, run back to God as quickly as we can, knowing that he’s faithful, that he keeps his promises, and – for some reason we may never fully understand – he’s invited ordinary, bent-up people like you and me to be part of his plan to give hope to a world that so desperately needs it.

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] The term I’m referring to is “incurvatus in se”.  It draws on Paul (Romans 7:15-19) and was picked up by St. Augustine.  Luther popularized the phrase in his Lectures on Romans: “Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, is so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.”

Seeking God’s Wisdom

A famous author once described the Christian life as “a long obedience in the same direction”.[1]  And I have to say it’s one of my favourite descriptions of what it means to be a disciple, to be an apprentice who follows Jesus as master and Lord.

Last week we spoke about the journey through the valley of the shadow of death.  How, in King David’s life, we see that God doesn’t promise a shortcut around the valley; no, what God promises is so much better: He promises that he himself will go with us.  Not that we will avoid the ups and downs of life in this broken world, but that we will have his presence through it all.

“A long obedience in the same direction”.  I really think it’s a fabulous description.

As we read through chapter 13 of The Story this week, we hear the story of King Solomon, and we see there the opportunity for this sort of long obedience; and if we stop to think about it, I think you’ll see that each person’s journey of faith has a similar overall shape as the story of Israel – and that’s no accident.

  • From humble beginnings, God quietly called Abraham to step out in faith. 
  • In Joseph, God had prepared a way to provide for his people. 
  • Through Moses God revealed himself in power and might;
  • and then in the days of Joshua, God defended his people against their enemies. 
  • Then, from the time of Samson right up to King David, God called his people to trust him, and when they were willing, strengthened and empowered them to do the work that God wanted done;
  • and now, having been found faithful – which, of course, includes repenting and returning when they go astray – under King Solomon they enjoy the peace that only God can give; they’re given wisdom and direction from God’s Word and by the Holy Spirit speaking through the community of the faithful, and are called to a steadfast life of obedience and faith, so they may remain at peace with God.

Don’t our own lives follow a similar pattern? 

  • Most of us have a humble beginning to our Christian life, as we learn to see God’s provision for our lives. 
  • Many Christians can look back and see one or two ‘Moses moments’ when we can see or feel God’s presence in a miraculous way – maybe in an answered prayer, or when things work together for good in a way that could never be a mere coincidence. 
  • Many of us can look back and recognize a time when, like Israel, we had two paths ahead of us; a time when we could trust in ourselves and do what was easy to get ahead, or, we could make the decision to do what was right, even if there were consequences.  Maybe you can remember one of those “choose this day whom you will serve” moments.

But the reality is that the bulk of the Christian life is not found in those dramatic moments.  No, most of the journey of faith is, thankfully more peaceful, less dramatic, but no less a journey of faith: it’s each and every day choosing to faithfully move forward, one step at a time, one day at a time, trusting in God as we learn to live “a long obedience in the same direction”.

Steadfastness and Solomon

King Solomon is a fascinating example.  He rules at a time when Israel experiences peace and prosperity like they never have before.  God appeared to him in a vision and said “ask me for what you want”;[2] and, having been born and raised after David repented and returned to God for committing adultery and murder, Solomon grew up knowing the Law of God.  He grew up knowing the importance of honesty and good judgment, and he knew the promise that God had made to David – that it’s only through obedience that his earthly throne would endure. 

God asked “what do you want?”.  And what did Solomon ask for? 

Wisdom. He wanted God to open his eyes to distinguish right from wrong.

(There’s a fabulous connection here back to Adam and Eve and the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, but I’ll save that one for Bible Study!)

But think about it: if God appeared to you today and said “ask me for whatever you want”, what would you ask for?

If we’re being honest, I know there have been times in my life when I would have asked God for that quick shortcut; when I would have asked God for a quick way around whatever was in my way, whatever hurt or problem had become front-and-centre at the time. 

But what a lesson we learn from Solomon – ‘I want your wisdom; I know there’s no shortcut: life is going to have ups and downs, there’s going to be temptations, there’s going to be trials.  I want you to go with me, I want you to show me right from wrong, I want you to help me stay on the right path.’

There aren’t any shortcuts – because our faith isn’t about checking the right boxes or undergoing the right rituals or heaping up the right deeds.  Our faith is a long obedience in the same direction; just as Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and called his disciples to follow him, fully aware of the trials that lay ahead, our faith is a matter of choosing to place our trust in Jesus, the Son of God, and then following where he leads, not for any short-term solutions, but to be in it for the long haul; it’s a matter of answering God’s call to draw us to himself, repenting and turning in that direction, and setting a course to follow where he leads.[3]

Advent and Adventures Ahead

If we can remember that the season of Advent is not a preparation for Christmas, but is a preparation for Christ’s coming again, I think we’ll appreciate the importance of this ‘long obedience’.

Just like Israel’s story – Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon – is echoed in our own journeys of faith, it’s also echoed in the life of the Church (which should be no surprise, for God is the same: yesterday, today, and forever).

  • Christ came with the humblest of beginnings in Bethlehem;
  • like God revealing himself in the Exodus, Jesus revealed his power in mighty works;
  • and then like God knocking down the walls of Jericho, Christ destroyed the gates of death on that first Easter. 
  • And he calls us to follow him, to trust, to go forward doing the work we’ve been given to do.  We know he will come again some wondrous day in glory to judge the living and the dead… and until then, we’ve been called to a long obedience in the same direction.

And so the preparation for that coming – our Advent preparation – is to step back, pull out our map (the scriptures), and make sure we’re following where he leads.   

If God asked you today “what do you want from me?”, would we ask for a shortcut?  Or would we ask for a fuller awareness of his presence, for an increase of faith, that we may walk boldly forward, trusting in the one who provides for his people, the one who takes the lowly and meek and empowers them to do incredible works for his glory and the increase of his kingdom. 

This Advent, may God give us grace to be steadfast in faith, to live out that long obedience in the same direction, trusting in his power, and giving him the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] This quote comes from the French atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886), translated by Helen Zimmern, section 188) – yes, it’s the same philosopher who famously proclaimed “God is dead”.  He intended it as a complaint about Christianity, as he was writing about how faith makes humanity worse by encouraging the weak to carry on by teaching compassion as a virtue – as though that were a bad thing!  Not surprisingly, what this atheist wrote for evil, here God uses his quote for good.

[2] 1 Kings 3:5-9

[3] C.S. Lewis’ idea of trajectories is big here.  A small change of direction at the start of a journey across the Atlantic has a dramatic effect when drawn out over time; so much more when it’s drawn out over a lifetime and eternity.  And, likewise, when we find ourselves off course, continuing in the wrong direction is never the solution; but no matter how off course we’ve gone, we can always re-orient ourselves and set a new trajectory as long as there is breath in our lungs.

Christ the King?

The people wanted a king.

Sure, God had rescued them from slavery.  Sure, he had done what they could never do for themselves, overcoming the mighty Egyptian army.  Sure, he had provided his people will food that they never planted or worked for, and gave them water from wells that they never dug. Yes, he heard their complaints and listened to their fears and struggles, responding far more patiently and generously than they deserved.  Sure, he led them victoriously in battle when they were overwhelmed and ill-equipped.  Yes, he had set up a system of government for his holy nation, a society where there was provision made for the poor and the widow, for the sick, and even for the foreigner who reaches out for help.

Yes, yes, yes: God did all that. 

But the people wanted a king.

You see, Israel was supposed to be different.  All the other nations had kings – mighty men with impressive houses, strong armies, and large storehouses in which to put your trust.  All the other nations had a face they could put on their battleshields and on their coins, they had images and statues they could look up to; works of stone or iron or bronze that gave the illusion of strength.

But Israel was supposed to be different.  The message of God, going right back to that starry night when God invited a childless Abraham to trust in him, is at once radical and incredibly simple: ‘don’t trust in your own strength; don’t lean on your own understanding; don’t depend on your own plans, for you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  I will be your God, and you will be my people.’  The message of God is simple: trust in me.  God says, ‘let me be your Father, and I’ll adopt you as my own; I’ll provide more than you even know that you need’.

God calls out through the ages: ‘If I say the fruit on the tree in the midst of the garden will hurt you: trust in me.  If I say family is important and you are your brothers’ keeper: trust in me.  If I say I have a plan to free you from whatever enslaves you: trust in me.  If I say ‘go forward through the water, it will be ok’: trust in me.  If I say I will not provide all you want, but I will provide what you need: trust in me.  If I say ‘come to me as beloved children and open up about your fears, for I will strengthen and save you: trust in me”.

The message of God is unchanging through the ages.  He calls out to all people. 
…but the people wanted a king.

Part of God’s Plan

As we read in Samuel, Israel finally recognized that they wouldn’t put their trust in an Invisible God.  Even after all that God had done, they knew their eyes and their hearts would continue to lead them astray.  If they were going to be united as a holy nation, they told God’s prophet that they would need a human king.

Now, they already had a king – the king of kings, who went before them in cloud and fire and who led their armies into battle, seated above the ark of the covenant.  But, in a moment of incredible self-awareness, Israel finally admits that they’re prone to wander, that they want a person in whom they can put their trust.

Now God, as we would expect, is disappointed: you’d think that providing heavenly bread in the desert and knocking down city walls with nothing more than a trumpet blast would be enough.  Ideally, they would have faith enough to see the Invisible God leading Israel. 

But even when God is disappointed, He’s never surprised.

You see, Israel has forgotten, but we know a man was part of the plan from the beginning.

Right from that day of disobedience in the garden, what was the promise of God when he cursed that lying serpent?  The son of man will (do what?) crush the serpent’s head.

Israel had forgotten.  They thought a human leader was their idea.  But from the very start of humanity’s troubles, God promised that it would be the son of man who would free them from the devil’s lies.

That’s why, from the very foundation of the world, God had planned for his Son to take human flesh, to live and die as one of us, to be for us the image of the Invisible God, to be the king who is high and lifted up as he does what we could never do for ourselves, as the king who reigns from a tree, a king who offers himself as sacrifice for the freedom of his people, and in so doing destroys the selfish, self-centred, self-trusting power of the grave, if only we’re found to be trusting in him rather than clinging to our own false sense of power as it leads us to destruction.

Israel already had a king. 
The problem was never the lack of a king… it was a lack of faith.

They wanted someone to defend them in battle.
They wanted someone to provide what they needed.
They wanted someone to hear their complaints when they were distressed.
They wanted someone to guide and direct their lives together.

They already had a king – but they couldn’t bring themselves to trust in him. 
They couldn’t bring themselves to trust in one so radical that he would call a childless nomad to be the patriarch of his people; that he would call slaves to be a holy nation; that he would call a man with a speech impediment to be his spokesperson; that he would call a prostitute to protect his holy ones; that he would call – again and again – the lowliest member of the weakest tribe to be his chosen leader; that he would cast off those who thought they were mighty and of noble birth, only to welcome in strangers and foreigners who came in faith.  They couldn’t bring themselves to serve the God who says ‘I will drive out your enemies, but don’t dare collect their plunder’; the God who says ‘I’ll fight your battles, but send your soldiers home, and take trumpets, not swords, because you can’t trust in yourselves and call it trusting in me. 
You can’t trust in yourselves and call it trusting in me.

The Church and the Reign of Christ

Israel wanted a human king.  Someone they could rally around.  Someone they could complain about when things weren’t going the way they wanted.  Someone they could look to and say “that’s his job”.

But, as we know, God’s people would go to the grave still refusing to accept that theyall of them – are a royal priesthood; that all of them, together, are the royal family of God, imbued with the responsibility to accept the work they’ve been given to do.

Instead, they wanted a king to look to. …And how often does the Church do the same? 

Each of us are called to be messengers of that Kingdom.  Each of us are equipped and given the words to simply and clearly reach out to our friends and family and invite them into the kingdom of God; but how often would we rather grumble, and wish we had some great leader to rally around, as our grumbling – whether it’s over bake sales or which pew we sit in – only sends people away. 

My friends: the Lord is King.  He has provided all that we need – I mean, seriously, it’s a pandemic, and we have the highest offering in years, and have a surplus in our budget even in the midst of a renovation that we only did one fundraiser for!  God heals – we’ve seen lives changed through Celebrate Recovery and Grief Share.  God opens our eyes when we ask him – we’ve seen incredible learning and growth; we’ve even seen minds blown as people read the scriptures with an understanding that they’ve never had before.  And we’ve known the comfort of God, as God proves time and time again that he is gentle and kind when we stop pretending and finally pour out our hearts to a loving Father who runs out to embrace us. 

The people wanted a king… but God had given them Himself.
The people wanted an army to lead the way… but God said “you are my people; follow where I lead”
The people want a sure sign of God’s presence… but the God who chooses the weak and humble said “I have put my word on your lips – I’ll go with you”.

The world looks for kings to rally behind.  But Israel was to be different – a nation in whom God’s power is shown in spite of their weakness.

The message of God, going right back to that starry night when God invited Abraham to trust in him, is at once radical and incredibly simple: ‘don’t trust in your own strength; don’t lean on your own understanding; don’t depend on your own plans, for you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  But, I will be your God, and you will be my people.’ 

God says, I will be your king, but better still, I will adopt you as my own.  I will put my Son on the throne, and you will be my royal family, with all the rights and responsibilities that go with that.


The one true king is known as the good shepherd, who leaves his throne to get his hands dirty with wayward sheep; the one true king fulfils the promise made in the garden, crushing that serpent’s head; the one true king comes among us as one who serves, offering himself as a sacrifice to redeem us – to buy us back – from whatever we’ve sold ourselves to. 

But we can’t trust in ourselves and call it trusting in him.

May God give us the faith to see God at work in our lives, to accept the work he’s given us to do, and to put our trust in him, now and forevermore.  Amen.

Chapter 9: Ruth from Moab — a bizarre twist!

Almighty God, give us grace to boldly speak of your amazing love. In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.

As we’ve been journeying through the Story together, with the goal of understanding the whole scope of God’s plan from Genesis through Revelation, this week brings us to the story of Ruth.

In some ways it’s the easiest episode so far: the chapter was only 7 pages, there’s really only three characters, and it’s a pretty simple story of people showing kindness even in adversity. 

But, we have to be careful not to read it as a self-contained story; like everything else we’ve read this fall, we see it in a new light – we see so much more depth – when we see how it connects to the ongoing work of the one true God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Moab: A bizarre twist

If we stop to think about it, Ruth should strike us as a really weird story.  Maybe we’re too familiar with it to really be struck with just how bizarre this story really is.

Israel has strayed once more.  God had been raising up judges to guide his people, but his chosen family – called to be a holy nation – were doing just the opposite.  They’d forget the covenant, they’d fail to teach it to their children, they weren’t strong and courageous, and soon enough they’d find themselves worshipping gold, or bronze, or carved stones, running from temple to temple – not to worship, but to find bodily pleasure.

Israel has disobeyed to the point that the promised land – that land where they would eat milk and honey without toil – had dried up.  This is no accident: this famine, like several we’ve read about before, is meant to remind God’s people that we don’t and we can’t ever rely on our own strength; no matter what, we must acknowledge that it is God alone who provides.

And in that famine, a family – a man named Elimelech and his bride Naomi – leave home from Bethlehem, and seek food elsewhere. 

But they don’t go just anywhere.  They go to Moab.

And if we think back to the earlier chapters, “Moab” should ring a bell.

Moab is not a happy place. Moab is not the sort of place any Israelite is eager to be found.  Israel and Moab are enemies, and have been since Israel first avoided walking through their land after the Exodus, generations before. 

Balak, we read earlier, was the king of Moab who hired a prophet to curse Israel (you might remember the whole talking donkey incident that followed!).  And then it was Moabite women who overcame the Israelite army by leading the young men astray.

More recently, during the time of the judges, Moab had taken Israel hostage for 18 years, as Israel forgot the God who led them miraculously out of Egypt, and turned themselves over to be enslaved to someone else.

Things are so bad in Israel, that Naomi’s husband goes there

The God who Redeems

But, God is faithful, and his perspective and knowledge of the big picture is far beyond what we could even imagine. 

From any one human perspective, we might not see how God is working out the salvation and redemption and restoration of humanity, but we can rest secure in that fact that, if God said to Adam and Eve that the son of man would one day crush the serpent’s head, he’ll do it. 

And, what was the promise made to Abraham?  Yes, he would have land and he would have many offspring.  But, much more importantly, God promised that through Abraham, through Israel, all the earth would be blessed. 

And God doesn’t forget his promise… that’s the central message of the book of Ruth.

A blessing to all nations

Sometime during the famine – scripture doesn’t give us all the details – Israel returns to the Lord, and God provides food for his people.  It’s such a big deal that word spreads to the surrounding countries, and all to God’s glory. 

Even over in mighty Moab they hear that the God of Israel has miraculously intervened.

Naomi, a helpless widow, is going to pack up and go home – surely some relative will take her in.  But those two young widows, her daughters-in-law, they’re free to stay.  They’re not Israelites, they’re Moabite women.  Naomi certainly can’t provide for them; and their husbands were born abroad – it’s not like they have any friends back in Bethlehem. 

But, having heard of God’s provision, and having seen the example of Naomi’s faith even through the death of her husband and her two sons, Ruth has made up her mind: she’s not going to do what was socially expected; she’s not going to do what was easy; she’s going to journey with this helpless older widow, and she’s going to put her trust in the God of Israel.

Now, with all of that background, maybe it’s becoming a little more clear as to why Boaz is hailed as being exceedingly gracious and kind.  Young Ruth isn’t just any widow gleaning in his field: this is a Moabite.  ‘We hate Moabites’.  ‘Moabites curse Israel.  Moabite women were the downfall of our army.  Moabites enslaved us for 18 years!’  And here she is in our field? 

Yes, says Boaz, and make sure she’s well provided for.  Don’t send her around to another field – they might hurt her.  Out of a famine, God has provided overflowing storehouses and leftover food on tables – let her take some home.

…and as we read this, the bells should be ringing in our ears: God’s promise and God’s desire is not just to bless Israel.  God’s plan is to bless all nations.

As they hear of God’s glory they will turn from their idols, they will turn from trusting in the might of men or swords or the size of their storehouses, and they will come and worship the one true God who created heaven and earth, and they will be blessed.

And what follows then for Ruth, as odd as the details of an arranged marriage may sound to our ears, is a story of adoption.

Ruth, who sought to follow the one true God – even though she’s a Moabite, an enemy of Israel – is adopted into God’s family.  She’s no longer a stranger, no longer a foreigner dependant on the charity of others. 

No, she sought the God of Israel, and she was adopted into the family of God’s people. 

And then, in the biggest twist of all, God makes an incredible statement.  Yes, God had called Abraham and his descendants to be his people.  But the promises aren’t inherited by blood – Abraham had faith, and that was accounted to him as righteousness.

Israel was born into these promises. But, to remind us that it is by faith, not by birth or anything else, God adopts Ruth, a Moabite woman, into his family.

And Ruth has a child.  And, tell me, who is Ruth’s great-grandson? 
King David, who defeats the Philistines and brings peace to Israel.

God, by faith, adopts a Moabite, makes her part of his story, and uses her faithful offspring to do what faithless Israel hadn’t been able to do before.

…But the Word of God doesn’t just promise to bless the nations.  He promises to crush the serpent’s head when He takes up residence among us as our friend and brother, the son of man: Jesus, the descendant of David. 

Ruth, a Moabite widow, a helpless foreigner, becomes the ancestor of Jesus: through whom, death, sin, shame, and all the devil’s lies are crushed through the one perfect sacrifice of the Son of God.

It’s an incredible story.

…but how did it all start?  What made it all possible?

Word of God’s goodness reached Moab.

Ruth couldn’t believe unless she heard.  There needed to be those thousand tongues telling of God’s goodness to all people; there needed to be prople willing to sing of those 10,000 reasons to bless the Lord. 

Friends: there are people all around us who worship all sorts of gods.  People all around us who have pledged themselves to all sorts of idols that they think can give them fulfilment, or can take away – or at least numb – the hunger that they have inside.  God’s desire is to bless all nations, but he’s calling you to be part of that. 

That doesn’t mean you have to be a missionary or hold up a sign on a street corner. 
No, not at all.  What it does mean is that, when God provides, when God gives comfort, when God proves that his wisdom is better than our wisdom, we have to be quick and bold to give him the glory; He’ll do the rest, as he did with Ruth. 

Whoever first spread that news that God had provided food would never know what God had planned… just like you and I can never imagine what God has planned for the poor widow across town, or the struggling kid across the street. 

But that’s not for us to figure out!  God will adopt any who come to him in faith. 
But they need to hear before they can believe – they need those thousand tongues to sing 10,000 reasons to bless the Lord.

And that’s the work he’s given to us.  May he make us bold: for, like Ruth, we’ll never know what incredible things God has in store, if only we’re ready to give him the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

A New Command: Be Strong and Courageous

We pick up this morning at chapter 8 of The Story

God has shown his mighty power in delivering his people out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea, and provided everything they needed to get to the Promised Land.  How did that generation respond?

They grumbled and complained.  They looked across the border, saw their enemies, and believed their doubts rather than trusting in God.

That generation wandered in the wilderness, until their children grew up and took their places.  Joshua became the leader in place of Moses, and they trusted; they entered the promised land, and were victorious in everything God gave them to do. 

God fulfilled his promises in greater and greater ways.  And I don’t know if you picked up on this in the story of Joshua and all that follows, but there’s an important point to tuck away in the back of your head for everything we’re going to read between now and Christmas. 

God told his people to be holy: to be set apart for his glory, to be holy people – to be sanctus (is the Latin word); to be saints

How do they do that?  Well it’s actually quite simple – God said it straight up when they were at Mount Sinai: be holy – be saints, is our English word – by keeping my commandments and remembering my testimony; or, in other words, the saints are those who live as God directs (which means asking for forgiveness when they mess up), and telling the story of God’s mercy, love, and power. 

And it’s important to point out that, when God makes a new covenant with Joshua and his generation, God adds something new.  It’s a phrase repeated at least 10 times in chapter 7, a phrase that is key to overcoming their enemies, to knocking down the walls of Jericho, and inheriting the land God had promised to them.

Let’s see if we remember… Joshua said to them, “be…” (what was it?)
Be timid?  Be insecure?  Be weak? 
No!  What was it God said?  “Be strong and courageous”

Be strong and courageous because the Lord is with us.
Be strong and courageous because the Lord has given them into our hand.
Be strong and courageous because the Lord will finish what he started.

That’s the key to living in the promised land.  Live as God directs (“keep my commandments”), keep telling the story (“remember my testimony”), but to cap it all off, be strong and courageous!  Live as those who know that God does keep his promises, and does defend those who trust in Him.

…Pretty straightforward, right? 
And that brings us, then, into chapter 8 where we see the exact opposite. Chapter 8 begins the long and sad story of a people who forget God’s testimony, who set aside his commandments, and who – more often than not – cave and cower in fear almost every time they need to have a little faith.

The Judges

In Chapter 8 we saw snapshots of those who trust in God – those who were strong and courageous – side by side with those who didn’t, who trusted in worldly wisdom and found themselves crushed under the weight of the world, as happens every time. 

There’s some fabulous characters in there: Othniel the warrior who was the grandson of one of those original spies sent into the promised land; Ja’el, that courageous woman who drove a tent peg through the head of an enemy king to prove that God’s power can be shown through mighty women; Gideon the reluctant leader who took the time to make sure it really was God who was speaking to him; and the graphic depiction of a king so large that a sword got lost in amongst his rolls.

So many directions we could go, but in the big picture, the thing that ties it all together is God’s command: keep my commandments, remember my testimony, be strong and courageous, and I will be with you.

That’s what ties all of these together: when they do those things, God is with them to provide what they need; when they go their own way, they realize just how weak they are on their own.

Ignorance or Disobedience?

The big take away from this is a simple but earth-shattering message.  God has revealed himself to the Israelites.  And that changes things.  From God’s perspective, there’s a distinction between ignorance and willful disobedience.

God goes out of his way, again and again, to reveal himself to those who do not know him, who have not heard about his love or his power.  And, as much as God is always ready to forgive, when he’s revealed himself but we then choose to disobey and go his own way, he lets us do that, even if the results are disastrous.

Let’s zoom in on the story of Samson.  Samson is the miraculous answer to the prayer of a barren woman.  An angel appeared to his mother and told her God’s plan, that her son would lead Israel in overcoming the Philistines who had made them slaves once more.

He was raised and became a Nazirite: that’s someone who make a special vow to live in a holy way in order to be an effective servant of God.  There’s three vows that they make: The first is to abstain from wine; the second is to have nothing to do with corpses or graves; the third is not to cut their hair.

Now, God have given Samson awesome strength; like the angel said to his mother, he was supposed to be a strong leader to free God’s people from slavery.

And I know it’s easy to get caught up in the fascinating details of Samson’s life, but, when you stop to think about it, how did Samson do with the work God had given him?  Or, how did he do with keeping his vow?

This is the part we overlook: In all that we read about Samson, we see that he’s violent and proud; he relies on his strength, and does incredible things.  But, when you go home, flip back through the story of Samson.  What’s missing compared to all the other leaders we saw so far?  Samson never spoke with the Lord

He was given a divine purpose, called to be another Moses to free his people from slavery.  He was given unique gifts that would help God’s people.  But he was so occupied with his own ambitions that he doesn’t stop to ask what the Lord actually wants him to do.

And, in the process, multiple times, he breaks his vows.  He, himself, holds a drunken feast in his honour; he doesn’t avoid corpses – he makes them, and then strips 30 of them off to take their clothes to pay others for losing his bet.

God had great things in store for Samson, but he becomes a blind guide (literally), and rather than freeing God’s people, finds himself enslaved in a prison workcamp.  He was meant to lead the Israelites to freedom, but, scripture says, he accomplished more when he died than in all the years he was alive. 

That goes to show that strong and courageous alone isn’t the key – it’s a package deal.  The holy people of God, the saints of God – you and I – have to keep God’s commandments, remember his testimony, and be strong and courageous.

No, my friends, Deborah is a better example: a faithful, wise, strong, and courageous woman who led all of Israel.  She didn’t rely on a palace with strong walls, or a mighty army of guards to be her protection.  Remember where she ruled from?  Under a tree! 

Those who rely on worldly wisdom will be crushed by the weight of the world. 
But those who keep God’s commandments, remember his testimony, and are willing to be strong and courageous will always find that God keeps his promises, that he will finish what he starts, and he will show forth his glory through his holy people, through his saints, even you and me.

And so, as St. Paul says, we’re not to run aimlessly; we’re not to throw punches into the air and call it boxing.  No, we’ve been given work to do – each of us – and we need to be strong and courageous, running forward, knowing that God is with us. 

And we can trust in that, even when our knees are knocking and we’re shaking in our boots.  We can choose to be strong and courageous even in the face of fear, because Jesus said that he knows his sheep, and no one will snatch them out of his hand – all it takes is for us to hear his voice, trust in the Good Shepherd, and follow him.

As we renew our baptismal vows and our commitment to be one of the saints of God, do so remembering all that you’ve read in his word this week:

What does God ask of us?

            Keep my commandments
            Remember my testimony
            Be strong and courageous

God will be with us.
God will finish what he starts.
And if we keep his commandments, remember his testimony, and be strong and courageous, he will be glorified in his saints… even you.

Amen.

Pharoah wasn’t the Problem

And Moses said: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. … Now choose life.”

This weekend we’ve read Chapter 6 of The Story together, and it’s a doozie, isn’t it? It’s absolutely jam packed, one stunning thing after another.


God had kept his promises, He had shown his glory in bringing his people out of Egypt, and being among them in powerful ways like no one had ever imagined before. He promises to provide, called them to be his people, and asked in response that they would be holy – set apart – so that all the world would see his goodness and mercy and come to worship Almighty God alone.
For a year they camped out, learning what this holiness was all about, learning to trust God and worship Him. And then – this was it, the moment they were waiting for. It was time to enter the Promised Land. God was driving out their enemies before them… but that wasn’t enough to settle their rumbling bellies. They had set out to enter the land promised to their ancestors, but all they could think about was the great selection of produce back in Egypt; God is right there with them, but they’d happily trade God in for some quail, or cucumbers, or leeks, or melons. They would trade in God’s presence for a good meal.


And it’s funny how the memory becomes selective, isn’t it?


“Think of the great food we ate at no cost! It didn’t cost us anything!”.
Well, no, it didn’t cost you anything because you were slaves! We humans have this ‘skill’ to cling to something bad while talking ourselves into thinking it’s better than it was, don’t we?


And the rest of the chapter just went downhill from there. There’s a leadership battle, as Moses’ brother and sister become jealous of his position. The scouts sent ahead to check out the promised land don’t trust that God will help them in battle, so they spread a false report, and the people lose heart, right at the doorstep of their new land – they plot to replace Moses, saying they’d rather die in the wilderness than face the Canaanites.


And finally, that’s where God says “fine, I’ll do as you wish”.

Isn’t it strange how we tend to have learned that wandering in the desert to die was a punishment that God inflicted; but when we read the story and see the bigger picture, what we find is that it was something much sadder. Wandering in the desert until they died rather than facing their enemies wasn’t something God cooked up out of nowhere – no, it was exactly what they had asked for.


Moses, too, you might remember, had become fed up for having to nurse his people along like infants, and prayed that God would let him die rather than bear the complaints of his people. And, at the entrance into the promised land, rather than simply praying for water, he chose to be dramatic and strike the rock to make it look like a great magic trick so the people would stop complaining and trust him: but that’s not the kind of trust – or the kind of leadership – that God desires.

It was jam packed, wasn’t it! And there was more: more complaining, poisonous snakes, disease, politics, a talking donkey, and all the young men running off to worship another god because that god had pretty women working in its temple.

And so, the big point today is simply this: Perspective matters.

On the one hand we could say “is God angry? Why is He treating His people this way? I thought he loved them?”

But when we zoom out, when we know the whole story, we see just how inappropriate a question that is. God – the merciful and just, forgiving rebellion, but letting sin have its consequences – is recklessly patient. A dozen times He could have said, no, you know what, there’s a more obedient, less-stiff-necked option somewhere else; a dozen times He could have said ‘if you don’t want to be my people, then fine, go your own way’. But God sticks with them.

The problem though, when we zoom out, is that instead of using the law to become more like God, they’ve become more like pharaoh, haven’t they?

Every time they’ve seen God’s glory, they dug in their heels and hardened their hearts, choosing to focus on a problem rather than God’s solution.

Every time they experienced God’s forgiveness, rather than repenting – changing direction, fixing the problem, and doing things differently – instead they said, “oh good, God forgave us… but what about those cucumbers!” Or, “ooh, there are pretty women in that temple!”.

Perspective matters. And, if we look carefully, there’s a common thread woven throughout this story – and it’s one that applies directly to us today.

Pharoah wasn’t enslaving them.


Now, sure, when they were crying out in Egypt making bricks without straw, Pharoah sure looked like the problem. But that problem was dealt with. The Egyptians weren’t chasing them. They were free people now.

Pharoah sure looked like the problem at the start, but now it’s clear: they weren’t slaves to pharaoh. They’re slaves to sin. They’re slaves to the hardness of their own hearts. They’re slaves to selective memories, longing for what they don’t have, while happily throwing away the solutions that God has put right in front of their faces.

They thought they wanted freedom. But what they really craved was familiarity. They wanted a pot of meat and some melon slices, even if it meant back-breaking slave labour in the heat of the Egyptian sun.

And the same happens to us, far more than we realize.
We like to have a focus, a figurehead for our problems. But, how often is part of the problem just the simple fact that we will gladly choose what is familiar over what will make us free?

And, in this chapter of Israel’s history, we see another common thread that applies only too easily to ourselves.
God’s bright future was clouded out by regret.

God had so much prepared for them. And He was ready and willing to make it happen – all they had to do was follow. But, at every turn, rather than seeing all that was laid out in front of them, they were focused in the wrong direction. They wanted to go back, rather than move forward.

And how often do we do the same thing?

Now, this is a serious thing – it’s not something to take lightly at all. We’ve all have real hurts in our past; some of us have had real tragedy, real and lasting trauma. But God calls his people forward. And whether it’s 12 steps or 40 years of steps, the way through the valley of the shadow of death isn’t to stand still and stare at it, but to faithfully take that next step, one step at a time, one day at a time, accepting that God does have a better and brighter future prepared, but it means being ready to look forward rather than cling to the things that are behind.

And that links to the third common thread I see in this story, and which I know applies only too well to my own life.
God’s people talked themselves out of trusting.

Now don’t get me wrong, talking is good.
But they were on the threshold of the promised land. They were right on the verge of the best thing they could ever imagine, the greatest fulfilment and glory and provision that God had prepared.

And 12 went in to scope it out. It was perfect. Absolutely perfect. Everything they hoped for.
But, they were afraid. And that fear spread faster than any disease. Soon enough, all but two of those scouts had exaggerated, making the Canaanites out to be giants like Jack and the beanstalk, and then more false reports – fake news – spread, and before you know it, the people had talked themselves out of the solution that God had provided for them.


Now, I don’t want to get political or anything, but who here know someone who has talked themselves out of the solutions offered by science and medicine in this pandemic?

How many of us know someone who has talked themselves out of getting the help they need? Of talking to a counselor or going to a group, or taking that scary leap to do something new, to take that God-given opportunity to be forgiven and become a new creation as we follow where God leads?

See, I set before you life and prosperity, death and destruction

Pharoah wasn’t the problem. They wanted familiarity over freedom. God’s bright future was clouded by their own regret. And they talked until they talked themselves right out of trusting the solution God had provided.


And the saddest thing in all of this: this was their choice.
“See, I set before you life and prosperity, death and destruction… choose life.”

Is the Lord’s arm too short to provide all we need? No! Precious Lord, reach out and take my hand, right? Lord, I need you; every hour I need you.

We are God’s people, grafted into Israel by faith, adopted into the family of God as we are made a new creation as we pass through the waters of baptism.

We need to stop believing our doubts; instead, we need to go forward in faith, offering ourselves wholly to God, promising, committing to serve Christ to the end, knowing that he goes before us as our friend and master, so we don’t need to fear the battle or cling to any regrets from the past.

May God give us grace to go where he leads, and may he, who alone can change a heart of stone into a heart of flesh, give us the strength and courage to follow Him. Amen.

True Thankfulness is Expressed as Trust.

The Story Chapter 4 (Exodus 1-7; 10-17)
2 Corinthians 9:7-11
Matthew 6:25-34

On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we’re called to express our gratitude for all that we have, and more importantly, we’re called to remember that it’s all a gift from God: all I have needed, thy hand has provided, right? 

But for me, as we go through our second Thanksgiving in a global pandemic, and having read together this weekend the remarkable story of God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt, I have to admit: I’m thinking a little differently about Thanksgiving this year. 

It’s easy to preach that Thanksgiving is about the virtue of gratitude.  But, I don’t know if it struck you like it struck me and my kids as we read Chapter 4, sometimes we just don’t know how thankful we should be.  Sometimes I know I find myself a lot like those Israelites – crying out to God for help, God responds, but instead of thanking Him and trusting in His plan, I find something else to complain about, and, like Jacob’s descendants being led out of Egypt, sometimes I maybe even wish that God hadn’t answered my prayer.

As they say, hindsight is 20/20, and that’s true in the Christian life as well. 

Just as the Israelites’ grumbling through the exodus becomes evident as we read it after the fact, self-awareness and recollection are God-given tools to open our eyes to the way He answers prayer.

Unless we stop to see how one prayer has been answered, we end up like those slaves, flip-flopping back and forth, praying for freedom, and then wishing they were slaves again; praying for God to protect and provide, but when He does, they respond by anxiously wondering who will protect and provide next time.

Trusting the God who Delivers

The first, and maybe the biggest point that should be jumping off the page as we read The Story together is this: God will make a way.

What we’re seeing is that God always keeps his promises.  The issue, though, is that we too often think his promises are for our personal gain.  Now I know some preachers have conned a lot of people and made themselves very rich by saying that God promises health and wealth and prosperity.  But you’ve read it: is that what God promises? 

God promises to crush the serpent’s head.  God promises to provide what we need.  God promises to use those who are obedient to His call to bless the whole world and reconcile them to himself.

No, God isn’t in the business of setting us up to depend on ourselves.  He told an old childless man squatting on someone else’s land in a tent that he would be the father of kings; he gave a young boy a dream that would protect his entire family, but only after he remained faithful through 20 hard years in a foreign land; and now He has indeed made Abraham’s descendants very numerous, thousands of people, but lest they depend on themselves, they find themselves in a foreign land, oppressed by a fearful king who is scared by how resilient this people is, even as slaves.

In that we see that God will always make a way.  But, especially at Thanksgiving, we have to accept that God’s not blessing us for our own benefit.  God blesses us to show forth his glory.  God blesses us so that all people will see and know that He is the Lord, that the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob is the Creator, who loves us enough to seek us out while we’re still sinful rebels, and desires nothing more than for us to turn from our wickedness and live to his glory.

God will make a way – but it’s always to his glory, and our response must always be to show the world how good he is.

Grumbling

The next thing that leaps off the page, though, is grumbling.  And grumbling is a lack of gratitude.

We all knew the Israelites grumbled in the desert, but until you read Chapter 4 this weekend, did you realize just how much they grumbled?  Eye opening, isn’t it!

But how often do we fall into the same boat? 

They wanted to be free, but they didn’t really want to be free.  They wanted their own land, but they missed how easy it was to get food and water when they were slaves.  They wanted God to lead them, but complained and wanted to turn back when He didn’t lead them in the direction they wanted to go.

As Paul said in our Epistle today, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work”. 

God will provide, but the good works we do with what he gives are up to us.

Will we take what God has given and give glory to his name?  Or will we gladly take what he has given, and then grumble because our hearts still aren’t satisfied? 

I’ve caught myself this week: for 18 months I’ve prayed daily that God would protect our town from this virus – and he has.  I’ve prayed daily that we would work together for the common good.  But have I praised him for his protection?  Or, instead, have I been quick to express my exhaustion and become a little complacent – which doesn’t serve the common good, and to find myself anxious as our case count begins to climb.

Jesus says, “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about the body, what you will put on”.  If God has provided thus far, now’s not the time to question his provision and protection; now’s the time to work together for the common good as much as we did in the beginning, and most importantly, to give God the glory, because it’s in times like these, times when we learn that health and strength are gifts, that God uses you and me to draw our friends, families, and neighbours to Himself, that they too may trust in him and see his glory revealed.

God will make a way, but Grumbling is a lack of gratitude for the ways God has turned the world’s evil into good.

Faith in Action: Gumption

Instead, we need to have Gumption. 

Yes, putting our faith into action, whether it’s the exodus from slavery in Egypt, or the second thanksgiving in a pandemic, requires good old-fashioned gumption.  Perseverance, endurance, resourcefulness, initiative, imagination, wisdom, understanding, practicality, mettle, nerve, courage – all synonyms for good, old-fashioned gumption. 

Four chapters in – and each with a lifetime of experience – we know God is for us.  We know God provides, that he will work through whatever mess we’ve found ourselves in, if only we trust that his ways are higher than our ways.

But God expects our commitment.  He provides all we need, but then he expects us to follow through, to follow where he leads, whether that’s with a pillar of cloud and fire, a still small voice, or hiss promises patiently tucked away in our hearts.

Exodus tells us that God has a systematic way of dealing with the competition.  Those 10 plagues aren’t random – each plague is set against one of the false gods of the Egyptians, as their gods of the Nile, of crops, of livestock, of medicine, of fertility, of the sun, and of procreation are all proven to be subject to God Almighty. 

And so, part of our Thanksgiving recollection must be asking ourselves: what false gods do we worship? 

Where do we place our trust?  In the economy?  In our ability to work?  In democracy and good government?  In self-sufficiency and individual rights and freedoms?  In the pride of believing that all that we have comes from our selves? 

It’s worth thinking about, because we know God is in the business of casting down false idols, and in my own life, as I wander through this pandemic time, I see God calling me to turn away from all those good things in which I put too much trust, and to instead trust him with gumption, to trust him boldly, knowing he’s going to reveal his glory, and he’s going to provide for my every need, if I follow him in faith.

True Thankfulness

I want to leave you with this observation.  I’ve always limited “thankfulness” to gratitude, to stopping to say “thank you” for what I’ve received. 

But as I’ve read chapter 4 this week, I think there’s more to it.  Taking a break to say thank you isn’t what God desires.

True thankfulness is expressed as trust. 

True thankfulness is trusting that God will make a way, as he has before.

True thankfulness is giving up on grumbling, and trusting that God knows best.

True thankfulness is having the gumption to say “all I have needed, his hand has provided”, so I will go where he leads me, because he will never forsake me, his grace is sufficient for my weakness, and he will finish what he started.

True thankfulness is expressed as trust.  And may God give us the grace to be truly thankful.  Amen.

God Builds a Nation

The Story chapter 2, Genesis 12-36

Genesis 12:1-3; 15:3-6
Galatians 3:16-18, 27-29
Mark 3:31-35

Last week, we saw that, in God’s unchanging “Upper Story”, a good God created a good creation where people made in His Image enjoyed beautiful, healthy relationships with God the Holy Trinity, with each other, and with all of creation. 

But, because no relationship can be forced, there’s the possibility that we can say no.  And when we did, what did we find?  Sin changes everything.

But as we read Chapter 2 this weekend, we see another aspect of God’s eternal plan revealed to us: what sin changes, only faith overcomes.

Our relationship with God was severed by sin, and there’s no way to get that back – no amount of sewing fig leaves or making sacrifices or doing good deeds can undo what was broken.  There’s no way to get it back… except by faith.

We were created to be a family – brothers and sisters, children of God Our Father.  But, our relationships with each other were destroyed, utterly broken by blame and jealousy and envy, picking sides and choosing favourites, lying, cheating, and stealing to the point where no one can trust another.  And there’s no way to get it back… except by faith: by the faith to actually believe and live as though we are brothers and sisters, children of Our Heavenly Father.

And we were created to be in relationship with creation, to rule over it in the same way that God lovingly rules over all things.  But instead, we war against creation, and our bodies bear the consequences as we wear out and return to the dust from which we were made.  But there is a way to overcome that broken relationship with creation, to find re-created and restored life beyond the grave.  And what’s the only way to get that back? By faith!

Yes, God’s grand story shows us that what sin changes, only faith overcomes.

God Wills to Build a Nation

In Chapter 2 you read the story of Abraham, the one through whom God would build a nation – a holy nation.

But it’s a surprising story, isn’t it?  Maybe you’ve been taught (through Sunday School songs about “Father Abraham” and his many sons) to see Abraham as a great and mighty figure, the patriarch over God’s chosen kingdom.  But when you actually read it all laid out, it’s not that simple, is it?

We often think of faith as something we choose: the choice to be here this morning, the choice to repent of our sins and see ourselves through God’s eyes, the decision (as the song says) to “follow Jesus” (no turning back, no turning back).  But those are all responses.  The eternal, unchanging truth that we see in Abraham is that God reaches out; God calls out to each and every one of us first.

God offers us faith; we then decide if we will allow that faith to fill us: if we want to be faith-filled, faith-full.

God calls us.

And the glorious truth we see in Abraham is that God’s purposes, God’s desire, God’s covenant is not conditional.  We don’t often stop to think in these terms.  But God doesn’t say “if you will follow me I will make you a great nation.”  He doesn’t say “if you will follow me, the whole world will be blessed through your line”.  He doesn’t say “if you will follow me, I will send my Son to take flesh through your descendants so that sin and death can be defeated.”

No.  What does God say?  God says, “I will.”  God calls Abram and reaches out with the gift of faith, because God has a plan – the same plan from the beginning.  Abram just has to choose how he will respond; will he spend his life being fueled and filled by that faith, or will he spend his days running from and fighting against the relationship that God desires?

And God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. 

There’s not a single person who isn’t made in the Image of God, created to reflect His glory, and share in the life and love of the Trinity.  There’s not a single person you know whom God isn’t calling, whom God isn’t offering that gift of faith.  The question is whether they, whether we, say “yes, fill me.  I want to be full of faith, I will, I choose to be faithful”, or whether we run from that call and go our own way.

God calls Abram, and God’s decision is to use Abram to make for himself a holy people, a nation through whom the rest of humanity can see God’s glory, and be saved from sin by the gift of faith.

Drawn Together for a Purpose

In that we see another big, universal, unchanging truth.  God calls us individually, but not for our own sake

And that’s a hard idea, because sin changed everything.  Sin made us individualistic; we were created for relationships with God, others, and creation, to be part of something much bigger.  So when God calls each of us, it’s not so we can be glorified individuals.  He calls us, and his purpose is to restore those relationships; not just so I can be holy and I can live forever, but that I can be part of a holy people that lives forever in relationship, reflecting the Image of God to each other, and the glory of God back to the source of life and light Himself.

God calls us, he offers the gift of faith, and he’s drawn us together for a purpose.

But it’s the choice, that response, that desire to be filled by faith – to be faith-full – or not, that changes how it plays out.

It’s a fabulous calling… but how did it work out for Abraham and this chosen family?

  • Scripture tells us Abraham picked up and moved alright, but He didn’t quite trust that God would protect his life, and lied twice, saying his beautiful wife was his sister for fear he’d be killed.
  • He didn’t quite trust God would do what seemed impossible in his wife’s old age, so he went to bed with his maid.  And Sarah gets jealous to the point that the maid and her son are sent out into the desert with nothing but some bread and water.
  • Issac, the promised child, finally comes, and there begins the story of a dysfunctional family of epic proportions.  Mom has a favourite kid, Dad has a favourite kid, and the two play off each other with elaborate hoaxes to trick one into inheriting God’s blessing. 
  • Jacob gets the blessing, but is afraid his brother wants to kill him, so he runs away from all that he inherited – only to fall in love with his first cousin… except then his uncle tricks him, so he ends up marrying not one, but two of his first cousins.
  • He finally patches things up with his brother, and goes on to have a dozen kids of his own… but what does he do?  Well, this child of promise follows in his parents’ footsteps, and picks a favourite son again!  How does that play out?  As you’d expect!

God made a decision; God made an unbreakable promise; God had a purpose to bless all of humanity through Abraham’s family line. 

Did he do that because Abraham was the best choice?  Because he was strong and mighty?  Because he had built himself a nice empire in a good land?  Because he was patient and had good child-raising skills?  No, not at all.

Not at all.  This family was a total mess.  Sure, Abraham wanted to be filled-with-faith, to be faithful, but if you want to see the effects of sin in a human life, look at Abraham, look at Isaac, look at Jacob!  Yes, God called Abraham, but we overlook that between Genesis 12 and Genesis 23, God calls Abraham 10 times, because Abraham needs it! And Jacob, who is to become the patriarch of all Israel, just can’t understand God’s grace until God finally wrestles him to the ground and pins him with his hip out of joint.  Then he understands God’s grace… only to go and play favourites with his sons, repeating his own parents’ failure.

The point is this: God uses broken people to fulfill His unbreakable promises.

It’s the idea in one of my favourite “motivational” posters: “when God put a calling on your life, He already factored in your stupidity”.  It sounds harsh… but read your Bible!  It’s true!

Not so different from ourselves.

But… God called them.  And he called that family for a purpose, drawing them together for a purpose.

And, because God is unchanging, the same is true for us.

God called a man, took him away from any chance he had for worldly power in his hometown, told him he would have countless offspring and be the great-grandfather of kings… and sent him to live in a tent as a squatter on someone else’s land.  God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.

And, seriously, look around.  We’re the inheritors of that promise.  We, along with our brothers and sisters at the Pentecostal and Roman Catholic churches,are the ones through whom all of Fort Smith is to be blessed and called back into relationship with God.

But look at us.  We’re a lot like Abraham!  We’re a congregation that’s past childbearing years; most of us are retired, we don’t have influence or worldly power.  Every time I hold an event, even yesterday, someone who has been in town for years said they had no idea we were here.  Like Abraham’s family, we’re richly, richly blessed, but in the eyes of the world, we’re ‘small, and of little account’.

But God has called us.  God made a decision.  God has said “you are my son; you are my daughter; I am your Father”. 

And he calls us and equips us individually, but not for our own sake.  We are children of Abraham’s promise; we have inherited by adoption God’s blessing to Abraham – yes, you are the one through whom God wants to bless the world and draw all people to himself. 

…And that sounds ridiculous, but believe me, it’s no more ridiculous than telling an old man in a tent that he’s going to be the father of kings; and whatever you’ve done, however you’ve been unfaithful, you probably haven’t pretended your wife was your sister, slept with your maid because you were impatient with God, and sent your mistress and son to wander in the desert, so believe me, if God can use Abraham, God can use you.

Because the bottom line is this: God’s calling is not dependent on our performance.  God offers faith.  Our job is to decide if we want that faith to fill us, if we will and desire to be faith-full.

My brothers and sisters – for that’s what we were created to be – sin changes everything.  But what sin changes, faith overcomes.  And, by faith, it’s through you that God wants to bless the world with eternal life.

May God draw us ever closer, and equip us for the work he’s given us to do.  Amen.