There’s a gap in God’s story (and we’re in it!)

Well, after 31 weeks, today we come to the end of our walk through the Bible.  Since September, we’ve gone all the way from Genesis now to wrap things up in Revelation.

I won’t speak for everyone, but I know many of us have found this not just ‘worthwhile’, but completely eye-opening.  I’ve been reading and studying the Bible a long time, but I wish someone had given me a gift like this years ago – the gift of not getting lost in the weeds, but zooming out to see the big picture; the perspective-changing, mind-blowing gift of seeing how Adam, Eve, and the serpent connect to Moses lifting up the snake on the pole, and Jesus being lifted up on the cross; the gift of seeing how creation, the flood, Moses floating down the river in a basket, and the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan all relate to your own baptism; the gift of seeing why it was necessary for God to give the Law even though He knew we couldn’t keep it, and how the whole point of the new covenant is that God says “I will do it for you, you just need to trust me”; the life-changing, overarching gift of coming to see that, no, bad things don’t “happen for a reason”, but God can and will use the bad things of a broken world to bring about incredible good; the gift of learning that God does keep his promises, He does finish what He starts, whether that’s with us or in spite of us, and the quicker that we admit that He’s God, the quicker He can heal us, open our eyes to see ourselves as the beloved children that He wants us to be, and then offer ourselves to bring that good news to a hurting world.

What a gift. 

And it’s one of those things you won’t unlearn.  Once you’ve seen how the story fits together, how each character in the Bible has a part to play in God’s big plan, I think you can’t go back – and that’s a good thing.  It’s not a book of superheroes, but it’s also not a dry instruction manual: it’s a story; it’s a story of great love, of betrayal, of broken trust, but also of healing, and restoration, and victory over darkness.  And it’s eternal – it’s God inviting ordinary, broken, hurting people like you and me to trust Him, to learn to be apprentices of his son, to let the Holy Spirit move in and fix in us what we could never fix ourselves, and then to find ourselves doing things we wouldn’t ever dream of.

And the best part is that the story isn’t over.

There’s an incredible gap between chapter 30 and chapter 31, and it’s important we don’t miss it.  We’re living in that gap – the same Spirit who led the apostles to shake the world upside down, the same power that rose Jesus from the dead, the same Almighty God who can turn shipwrecks and imprisonments into victories, is at work in you and me, inviting us, in the same way that He invited Abraham and Moses and Ruth and Esther and the rest, to have our names written into the story. 

Think about that: the only thing that separates you from any one of these characters is time and place.  They’re ordinary men and women, caught up in the pain and circumstances of a broken world, facing doubts, carrying burdens, working through struggles and feelings of inadequacy, many with a past that haunts them, or with a point in their lives that made them want to give up.  Everyone in the story shares that struggle – even Jesus, because that’s what we mean when we say “he was made man”. 

But God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  His plan to break the curse, to restore humanity, to let us dwell in his presence and share in his glorious life is just as true for you today as it was for anyone we read in these pages.

And the invitation is just as real, too.

And have you noticed… the people around you are saying yes!

Look at our little church.  Look at the work we’ve done, not in our strength, but in our weakness!  You’d never imagine that this little group of people – less than 2% of our town – would be able to touch so many lives in so many ways.  We’ve got people who have never led a program before, and wouldn’t have ever dreamed of it, saying yes to God – “with God’s help”, I can lead GriefShare.  Listen to that: with God’s help, I can offer healing to those who are hurting!

With God’s help, I can be a lay leader, I can tell my story and help to lead my congregation.  We’ve got not one but two lay leaders who never dreamt of doing what they’re doing, but who said “ok… with God’s help, I can do it!”.

Over this summer you’re going to launch an ad campaign for Alpha; you’re going to run Alpha during a season without a Rector, and it’s going to be great!  And you’re not going to do it for yourselves – you already know the story.  You’re going to do it for your friends and neighbours and the strangers down the street, and you’re going to go beyond your comfort zone and you’re going to invite them in… why?  Because you’ve learned that it’s not about your strength or your words; it’s about trusting God through your weakness, and learning to simply say “ok… with God’s help, I can”.

I mean, seriously: a few of us were talking one day last fall about how to welcome seniors in, since the senior’s room in the rec centre is closed… and then what happened?  God said “here you go, do you trust me?” as the federal government handed over $23,000 to do a monthly seniors’ program.  Absolutely crazy, never in our wildest dreams.  But God invites us, and all we have to say is “ok… with God’s help, we can”.

We’ve learned – and are learning – to trust.  We’re not rich, but when’s the last time somebody stood at this lectern to worry about money.  No – we’re learning that God provides even more than we need, as long as we trust him to do it.  It’s like the manna in the wilderness, if we trust God to provide what we need for the moment, He will, but if we try to hoard it so we don’t need to trust anymore, it dries up. 

We’re learning to trust.  Going without a rector is hard, and we’re certainly sad to go, but we’re not going to worry about it – there’s no point!  We know God’s going to finish what He starts, so God will raise up people and equip them with the gifts we need.  We’re trusting, not worrying: and God provides.  Just this week, we got confirmation that we have a theological student coming as our full-time intern for July and August, and though I can’t share any details yet, there’s already a good application from an experienced priest who feels called to serve here.

You see, there’s a big gap between chapter 30 – the end of Paul’s life, and chapter 31.  And we’re living in that gap.

Each and every day God calls you individually and together as a church to be part of this incredible story that is still being written.

We know how the story ends.  It hasn’t happened yet, but the same God who kept His word and who empowered ordinary people to do the impossible has said it’s His plan.  We know God’s plan to dwell in paradise with redeemed humanity will be accomplished.

And, not to be harsh, but we should realize at this point that God’s plan doesn’t depend on me or you.  It doesn’t depend on St. John’s.  God will finish what He started with or without us.  But, He invites us to be part of it.  He says “do you trust me?  …Let’s do this!  Come, be part of my story.”

So the only question is whether we say “Lord, that’s crazy, I’m not qualified, I don’t have the answers… but, “I will, with God’s help”.

Or whether we say “no thanks”, and become one of those who stand in the way; whether God accomplishes his plan in spite of us.

My friends, the serpent’s head is crushed.  Death and the grave will be thrown away.  The curse will be ended, and humanity will finally be set free to reflect God’s glory instead of being bent inward on ourselves.  We will, one day, maybe soon, maybe long after we rest with our ancestors, be gathered before God to hear those wonderful words “well done, my good and faithful servant”, and welcomed into the land of love, peace, joy, and light that God had planned from the beginning.  You and I, if we’re willing, will live with all the redeemed in the light of God’s presence, with access to the tree of life itself.

But for now, we’re living in the gap in the Story.  And the characters, unlikely as it may seem, are me and you.

Will we be part of God’s story?  Let’s say yes.  Let’s continue to trust, more than we’ve ever trusted before.  Because you never know – it could be that, a couple generations from now, the story of this little church in this little town is the story that other Christians read for inspiration.  We know God uses the littlest and the least… but first, we have to say “yes”.

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

God’s Power Working in Us: The Bible is not a book of superheroes!

As we come towards the end of our year-long walk through scripture, this week we’ve read the amazing story of Paul’s ministry.

And if you’ve done that, if you read through Paul’s ministry as outlined in the book of Acts and in his letters, chances are you’re just blown away.

Wow!  Right? 

What a story!  What a life!  What amazing commitment!

What a brave guy – here he was, trained and groomed for a career that was opposed to everything the Church was about.  What courage it takes to have a total change of heart, and then be open about it; to admit his mistake and his failure, change directions, and move forward.

He was open and honest about his past.  He spoke up for what was right.

He helped people in need, right where they were, without any hope of getting anything back in return.

Such sacrifice; such boldness; such commitment.  Through many trials and tribulations, through many ups and downs, it was like each challenge propelled him forward to the next victory that God had in store.

We look at St. Paul’s life and we say… wow.

…And that makes sense. It’s an amazing story.

But then we get to First Corinthians 15.  And we’re confronted with a shocking message.  Paul says: No, I’m not special.  

Paul says: No, hang on here guys.  I’m just passing on what I received.  This isn’t my message – Jesus appeared to 500 others before I met him.  You might think I’m this great apostle, but hold on.  “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle… but by the grace of God I am what I am.”

What do we make of that?  We read our Bible and say “wow, look at Paul!  What a story!  How awesome, what a life, what a guy”.  And then, in the midst of that story, Paul says, “no, hold on now: I’m not special.  I’m the least of the apostles.” 

Superheroes take us off the hook.

I think the way we read it says something about human nature.  We love to find a good story, to elevate a good person to the status of “superhero”. 

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s good to recognize achievements, and for others to have a good example to follow.  But, too often, I think we want to put a good person on a pedestal, to make them into a superhero, because it takes us off the hook.

Wow.  Look at his boldness.  Look at his courage.  Look at how he helped others and made sacrifices with no chance of getting anything in return.  Look at his commitment.  Wow… “He must be special”, we say.  “I’m not like that.  I couldn’t be like that.  I’m no Paul, or Peter, or Mary”.

But if there’s one thing I hope we’ve learned as we’ve read through the scriptures this year, it’s that we need to stop doing that. 

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, David, Solomon, Esther, Jeremiah, Mary, Joseph, Peter and James and John and the rest.  They’re not superheroes.  And that’s the point.

They’re ordinary people, offspring of Adam and Eve stumbling along in a broken world, carrying hurts and pains, having a past full of struggles, each full of reasons to say “no”, but each having the grace and the faith to say “yes” to God, to take that next step in faith, and to trust that God will guide the future and finish the good work He has started in them.

Paul’s life is amazing.  But he isn’t special.  And that’s the point.

Peter’s life is amazing.  He offered the hope and healing and peace that comes through faith in Jesus.  But he isn’t special.  He was a stubborn fisherman with a short temper.

Matthew’s life is amazing.  He wrote eloquently about how Jesus fulfilled all the hopes of Israel as the Messiah.  But let’s remember: those inspired, divine words that we read here this morning were written by a sketchy tax collector who collaborated with a foreign army to make a few bucks.

And Mary Magdalene, that first witness to the resurrection is the same one that, just a few years earlier, everyone dismissed as demon possessed.

The Bible isn’t a book of superheroes.  And that’s the point.  They’re normal people; imperfect, scarred people with a past and more than a few bad decisions along the way.  But… what’s different about them?  They know Jesus, they trust him, and they decide to follow.  And all the rest is nothing more than the power of God working in us, which can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

They’re normal men and women.  They do extraordinary things because they say “yes” to God, and let His power work through them.

Let that sink in.  Think about that.

How much damage has been done through the years because we’ve read the Bible as a book of superheroes?

People look at those in the church, they look at you and me gathered here today, and they say “huh, what a bunch of hypocrites.  They’re no heroes, they’re not perfect, they’re normal people.”

Well, yeah, that’s the point!  The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.  And the Good News of God isn’t that he selects a few heroes for his work.  No, it’s that the power of God, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. 

Working in us.  Normal people, with normal problems and normal struggles.  The only difference is that we know Jesus, we trust in Him, and we decide to follow where he leads.

Your Story is part of God’s Story!

As we work our way to the end of the Story, there’s a big idea I want you to grapple with this week.

You have a story; and your story is part of God’s story.

Why?  Because God is at work in you.  God is unchanging.  He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever.

And the God of Adam and Eve, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob, of Ruth, of David, of Esther, of Mary, of Paul is the God of Isabel, of Mark, of Frieda, of Milly, of Alex, of Tanya, of you.

As we read Paul’s incredible story, you need to step back and realize that you have a story.  That your story is part of God’s story. 

…so are you willing to tell it?

Every one of us here has an incredible story of God’s grace and goodness.

Maybe you weren’t shipwrecked or thrown in prison, singing hymns until an earthquake broke down the door.  But you have an incredible part in God’s story.

Every one of us has a story full of incredible ups and downs.  Every one of us has a story where we thought we understood things, but then God opened our eyes, and we discovered we were looking at things the wrong way.  We were blind, but now we see.

Every one of us knows what it is to be in an awful, painful, terrible situation – to feel the effects of sin in a broken, sick world – and then have the grace to look back, and though the situation was awful and not what God wanted, because we trust in Him, He brought healing through the pain and our loving God brought good out of the bad.

Paul’s no superhero.  Paul was a mean guy on the wrong path.  But he came to know Jesus.  He came to trust in God, and made a decision to follow where God leads.  And Paul’s story became part of God’s story, because God’s power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Your story is part of God’s story.  Will you tell it?

When we tell the story – our story – people will listen.  Honesty, openness – it’s a challenge, but it’s such a breath of fresh air that people are blown away when we take off our masks and speak of God’s goodness, far more than we could ever earn or deserve.

We worry about how to spread the good news.  But your story is part of God’s story, so all you have to do is tell it.  Now, we have to be clear that it’s God’s story: that God is unchanging, and what he did for Peter, Paul, or Mary, he did you for you, and he can do for any of us.  It’s a story of trust in God – it’s that same message we hear throughout the scriptures.  Ordinary people who say “don’t put your trust in me.  Don’t hope in me, but come, trust in the One I’ve learned to trust in.  Hope in the One who is faithful and who holds the future.” 

They’re not superheroes.  And that’s good news, because neither are we.  But, all of us, each of us, are children of God by adoption, those whom He loves, and by His grace alone, your story is now part of God’s story. 

So tell it, and give the Glory to God whose (say it with me) power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

“God works in mysterious ways”… and other half-truths to avoid in the story of Queen Esther.

Our journey through the Old Testament and the history of God’s chosen people brings us today to the story of Queen Esther. 

As we’ve read the Old Testament, we’ve seen a number of repeating themes.  We’ve seen that the consequence for disobedience is to be sent away from God’s presence; but at the same time we’ve seen, over and over, that the only thing required to return is the bold admission that “I’ve missed the mark, I’m too weak to do this on my own; God, I need your help”.  And, we’ve seen over and over, whenever a person admits their own weakness in a situation, God is ready and willing to reach out and lift them up with his mighty hand.  After all, we know that God’s power is made perfect in human weakness.[1]

In the story of Esther we see again that if we’re faithful, God will make a way where there seems to be no way.

Or, let’s put it this way: Human Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” that present incredible Opportunities.  Circumstances. Divine Coincidences. Opportunities.

Esther’s Situation

In case you’ve forgotten the story of Queen Esther – or didn’t get a chance to read it yet this weekend – let’s catch ourselves up.

God had led his people into the Promised Land, but over a period of 800 years, they decided they would rather go it alone than fulfil their mission to live out the revelation of Almighty God in the world.  So God sent them out of the land, sending a foreign king to lead them into exile. That generation responded by taking their faith and mission seriously: they heeded the words of the prophets, they taught their children the Word of God, and then the king allowed them to return and rebuild Jerusalem.  Not everyone could leave – some had taken on too much debt and found themselves enslaved; some had been given government jobs, and the king wanted them in the capital rather than on the outskirts of the empire; and some were bound up in the sadness and messiness of life: like Esther, a teenage girl whose parents died, leaving her as an orphan with no legal standing or protection in those days.

Esther’s cousin, a Jewish man named Mordecai, from the family of King Saul, was a civil servant – perhaps some sort of scribe who writes up and reviews contracts, who stands outside the palace gates to work with people as they come to conduct their business.  He took her in and provided for the girl.

Now King Xerxes of the Persian Empire was known for his parties.  We know from history that his empire stretched from Egypt to India, from Saudi Arabia all the way up to Uzbekistan.  And he invited all the governors to his capital in modern day Iran to have a six-month-long party.  One day he called his beautiful wife to come out and put on a show for the governors, but she refused, so he threw her out of the palace (that’s another topic for another day).  So his officials suggested they hold a mandatory beauty pageant to pick another wife.  That’s where Esther comes into the story – she’s pretty, so she’s forced to take part.

Now, one of the King’s officials, a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemy King Agag of the Amalekites, comes up with a plan.  He suggests that the whole empire would be better if the worshippers of the Almighty God of Israel were killed off, because those people refuse to bow down to other gods – though, secretly, he’s just upset that Mordecai, a descendant of the Jewish royal family, won’t bow down to him in the street. 

The King says “ok”, rolls some dice, does some math, and says, “alright, nine months from now, anyone who wants to kill a Jewish man and take his goods is free to do so”.  It’s a day of legalized murder and looting. 

And, to make a long story short, Esther happens to be in the right place at the right time to intervene.  She boldly decides to risk everything to confront the king, and as a result, the Jews throughout the empire are able to defend themselves; and in a major twist, the official who cooked up this whole plot is impaled on the pole he had made to hang the Israelites on, and Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, is promoted to be governor over the capital.

Human Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” which present Incredible Opportunities.

Now there are lots who would look at this story and say, “wow, it’s all part of God’s plan”.  Or… “yes, the Lord works in mysterious ways”.  Or, worst of all, my pet peeve: “see, everything happens for a reason”.

That all sounds nice.  Some might even think it sounds religious, but resist temptation!  The worst temptations of all are those that are almost true. 

We have to react strongly against that kind of ridiculous half-truth that we can only fall into if we don’t know the Word of God.

Yes God has a plan, but come on, no, we do not believe being born into exile and orphaned as a child and forced to dance for an old man in a perverse teen beauty pageant is God’s way of doing things. 

You see – that’s the incredible danger of those ridiculously over-simplified statements.  We risk making God the author or cause of human sin. 

Yes, God has a plan: “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11), but God’s plan is not that a girl’s parents have to die so she can dance around in a harem for a lustful old man.  That’s ridiculous.  And, worse still, if we say that this is part of God’s plan, it’s blasphemy, because now we’re saying that God is the cause of that horrible human sin.

Or, how often do we say “the Lord works in mysterious ways”?  But where is that in scripture?  Nowhere!  You can search the Bible in your pew from cover to cover, but it’s not in there.  Why?  Because it’s a lie! 

The work of God is to reveal Himself, not to shroud himself in mystery.  God says “my ways are not your ways, my thoughts are higher than your thoughts”[2], yes, but God says “call to me and I will answer you, and I will show you the great and mighty things which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).  God said right back in Deuteronomy 29, “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever”[3].  God does things that are mind-blowing: as he says through the prophet, “look among the nations; wonder and be astounded.  For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told”, and none of us can pretend to understand the height and breadth and depth of the mind of God,[4] but let’s be clear: God is in the business of revealing himself.  If something is mysterious, scripture says, it’s because we haven’t sought the will of God.  Think about that: when we spin that familiar lie “the Lord works in mysterious ways”, what we’re really saying is “I haven’t read the Word of God or said my prayers, so I don’t understand what God has been doing”.  But we should be clear on that: God is doing in Esther what he’s always been doing: turning human evil into good and drawing us back to himself.

Worst of all, there are those who would look at the story of Esther and say “everything happens for a reason”.  Gross.  Yuck.  What terrible heresy.  Because no, God’s perfect and eternal will does certainly not include young orphans being forced to join harems.  Let’s be perfectly clear on that.

Combat the easy lies with the Truth

We need to resist those tempting, religious-sounding lies that swirl around us, but we can only do so when we know God’s truth.

Human circumstances lead to divine coincidences that produce incredible opportunities.

God didn’t want Israel to disobey and go into exile.  God didn’t want the world to be full of murder and greed and jealousy and lust and exploitation and abuse.  The world wants to blame God for those things, but only because we’re trying to avoid admitting that humanity puts itself in this mess, as every little decision not to love your neighbour as yourself produces ripples that echo out over generations, like rocks thrown into a pond on a still day.

We can’t blame God for the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we have to open our eyes to see that “coincidences” in the present are divine. 

See how easily we’re tempted to mix that up? 

We want to blame God for the past but not see him at work in the present.  But really, we need to see human brokenness in the past, but accept that God is working in the present.  God didn’t want Israel to sin and go into exile, but now that they’re here, Mordecai has an opportunity.  God didn’t want Esther to be forced into a harem, but now that she’s here, God creates an opportunity.

God doesn’t want our community to be chock full with people with insecure housing situations who are kicked out of their houses when they test positive and are forced to find a couch to bunk so there are a dozen positive people sharing a two-bedroom house, without groceries, and without money, and with a government that turns a blind eye when low-income people get Covid.  God doesn’t want that, but he’s at work in the “coincidences”.  He’s at work in the fact that we’ve been faithful, that when the phone rings at the church because the social workers say there’s nothing they can do, the Church of God is ready to deliver a food hamper as our Lord commanded, whether it’s 6 in the morning on Thursday or 8 o’clock on Friday night.

Why this matters

My Friends, let’s not fall into the trap of accidentally saying – or worse, believing – that God wanted the awful situations that humans find themselves in.

Let’s be clear: humanity is to blame for the mess we’re in, but God is at work in the present, in each moment, ready and willing to work each mess together for good, as soon as we admit that we’re in over our heads, that we can’t do it on our own, that we need the help that only he can give.

Circumstances lead to Divine “Coincidences” that lead to Incredible Opportunities.

We all have messy circumstances in our lives.  I challenge you to see every coincidence as a “God-incidence”, a God-given opportunity for a fork in the road, a God-given opportunity to say, with Esther, “here I am: I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I need your help, and I will put my trust in you”.

Does the Lord ever fail those who put their whole trust in him?  No.
Does the mercy of the Lord ever fail?  No.
Does the Lord work all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose?  Yes.

My friends, that’s the gospel.  That’s the good news you’ve been given to proclaim. 
May God give us the grace to fulfil our mission.  Amen.

[1] 2 Corinthians 12:9

[2] Isaiah 55:8-9

[3] Deuteronomy 29:29

[4] Habakkuk 1:5; Romans 8:28

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]


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?


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.