In the Desert

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In these weeks before our season of Advent starts, we’ve been exploring the Psalms of our scriptures.
Rev. Andrea Severson joined us at the end of October to talk a bit about times of transition and journeying and the songs the Israelites wrote to accompany them on the way.
Last week, as we remembered our saints, Pastor Todd reminded us of how God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Today, we turn our attention to one of the Psalms of Lament. These songs of lament, frustration, and longing make up over half of the psalms within our Bible!
They are the words that we cry out when we are troubled, persecuted, frustrated, and hopeless.
“There’s got to be more than this,” we say. “There’s got to be more than this.”

This particular psalm is one written by David and the note in the scripture itself indicates it was during a time when he had fled to the wilderness. Likely, it was written after he had become the King of Israel. His very own son, Absalom, led an insurrection and David was forced to run for his life.
And there, in the desert, he cries out…
Not just for water…
But for the very presence of God.
Robin Gallaher Branch writes that “although his body wastes from dehydration, his spiritual longing for God takes precedence. Hunted and afraid for his life, the psalmist remembers God’s protection and loving-kindness… his soul longs for God.”

In the midst of our trials and tribulations, in the midst of the pain in this world, do we, too, cry out with the psalmist?
Do we believe “there’s got to be more than this?”
Do our souls hunger and thirst for God?
And can we hang on to the vision of God’s enduring love in the midst of our longing?

Last week, brothers and sisters in Christ gathered in a sanctuary in Sutherland Springs, Texas for worship. They were there to pray and to sing and to worship God… and twenty-six of them lost their lives.
Yet another mass shooting in America.
Yet another tragic loss of life.
And I feel like we are lost, wandering the desert, parched with our longing for the violence to end. Parched with exhaustion from debating types of weapons. Parched with weariness from trying to understand the motivations for such acts.
There has got to be something more than this.

And so, we are gathered here, today, seeking God… thirsting for God… turning our hands and our lips towards the divine…. Clinging to the one who has upheld us before.

What comes next?

Do we turn inward and lock the doors?
Do we get lost in debate about causes and solutions?
Do we stop loving and trusting our fellow human beings?
Or is there something else?

In some ways, I wonder if the lessons of Veteran’s Day are precisely the ones we need in the midst of a desert like this.
After the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the “Great War” finally saw peace on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was believed to have been “the end of ‘the war to end all wars.’”
The next year, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day… a day commemorated “by paying tribute to the heroes of that tragic struggle and by rededicating ourselves to the cause of peace.”

You see, in the midst of all of that loss and pain and grief … in the midst of the desert of destructions and sacrifice… as they looked out upon that broken world and believed that there had to be something more than this… they named what they were longing for – peace – and they set it before them as a vision for what they would pursue.

In 1926, Congress officially recognized the date as a legal holiday – a “recurring anniversary of this day, commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”

And yet, even with that vision of peace before us, it was not the war to end all wars.
There was a second world war, and then the Korean conflict, and we know that since those days countless of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors have served our country around this world.
In 1954, aware of this reality, President Eisenhower proclaimed that we would expand this day to honor the veterans of all wars and to “reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

In the midst of our own desert of perpetual war and violence, we believe there has got to be something more than this.
And so we cry out every year, longing and thirsting for God’s peace to prevail across this world.

Maybe the question is… have we truly reconsecrated ourselves to the task of peace?
Simply marking a holiday is not enough…
How are we called to live differently in order to help God’s peace to be known all across this world? How do we lift up our hands and call upon God’s name and allow the divine power and glory to shape our world?

This past week, a colleague wrote a reflection about the kind of preparation she plans to do in the wake of more violence. Instead of preparing her church for someone who might burst in with a weapon, she wants to prepare her church to work against violence in this world.
And friends, there are lots of ways we can do that.

We can mentor students in our schools who are at risk for joining gangs.
We can work to provide better mental health care for our neighbors.
We can respond to domestic violence and take seriously the stories of women who are assaulted and work to not only keep them and their families safe, but provide help for those who are perpetrators.
We can get to know our neighbors and become a part of creating a community where people have one another’s backs and look out for what is happening.
We can talk about the gospel stories that teach us how to respond to oppression and injustice and hatred – often by heaping on extra doses of love and compassion and working for justice.
We can be a church that helps our children, especially our boys, learn healthy ways to express their emotions and to play so that they don’t grow up to believe that anger has to be expressed through violence.

If in the midst of this desert of violence, we turned our eyes to God and allowed that vision of peace to quench our thirst…
if that was the deep well from which we as a church and as a community chose to drink from…
if in the midst of this barren and hopeless struggle we chose to turn our eyes to the Lord and to bless God’s holy name and to cling to the one who has been our help…
then like David, we might find our souls satisfied.

May it be so. Amen.

Around Every Corner

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This summer I have harvested quite a bit of produce from my garden.
Tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers in particular.
I put up 7 quarts of salsa, 4 quarts of spaghetti sauce, 8 quarts of dill pickles, 4 quarts of sweet and spicy pickles, some pickle relish, and I’ve frozen 10 bags of roasted tomatoes.

My pantry is literally overflowing with the bounty from my garden, and you want to know what thought crossed my mind after this week?

Pickles and salsa won’t feed us if there is a disaster.

As I thought about all of the folks in Puerto Rico who are struggling with access to food and water and electricity, I tried to imagine what my family would do in that situation.
As the rhetoric has continued to rise with North Korea, I wondered what you actually could do to prepare for if the unthinkable happens.
As I sat and listened to colleagues at a Creation Care conference in Indianapolis yesterday, I heard them say that the UN no longer talks about climate change mitigation or prevention, but climate change adaptation… I began to think about how I personally need to start adapting.

If you turn on the television or scroll through your facebook feed or listen to the radio, there are a thousand threats to our health, safety, and security.
We lost 59 people last Sunday to a violent rampage from a man whose only motive appears to be that he wanted to shoot as many people as possible.
Our hearts began to race when a traffic accident in London outside of a museum yesterday was initially thought to be an act of terrorism.

The simple truth is that we have no clue what might be lurking around the corner. We can’t see what the future might hold and sometimes we allow fear to be the defensive mechanism that either keeps us from moving forward or which guards our hearts from those around us.

We aren’t the only people in history to have been afraid.

The scripture that Don read as a part of the drama just a few minutes ago comes from the 41st and 42nd chapters of Isaiah.
The people of Israel had sinned against one another and God and the prophet was called upon to bring judgment.
And for 39 chapters, Isaiah lists the sins of the people and names all of the things that would happen to them as a result.
And they did.
Everything they feared came to pass.
Jersualem was destroyed.
The people were carried off to Babylon.
Life as they knew it ended.
And they weren’t quite sure what to make of their new life.
But then Isaiah speaks into their midst once again:
“Comfort, comfort my people!” says your God.
“Speak compassionately to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended.”
The turnaround from chapter 39 to 40 is abrupt and stark. Christopher Seitz notes that this is because “ a word is being spoken from the void, against all hope and all expectation, by God.” (NIB – VI – 328)

Against all hope and expectation.
When everything appeared to be the darkest.
With the future completely up in the air and uncertainty around every corner.
God speaks:
Do not be afraid, I am with you.

God is inviting the people of Israel to not only trust in God’s presence in the midst of a difficult time… but God is inviting them to transform their fear into curiosity and purpose and assurance.

First, rather than be afraid of the things that is happening, the people are invited to become curious and inquisitive and to allow God’s power and majesty fill them with awe.
In fact, if you read through chapters 40-48, you will find God asks a heck of a lot of questions!
Who measured the waters in the palm of a hand or gauged the heavens with a ruler? (40:12)
To whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? (40:25)
Who has acted and done this, calling generation after generation? (41:4)

I think one of the ways we can respond to the fears that creep into our lives is to be curious as well.
In the midst of a changing neighborhood and world, instead of walling ourselves off in fear, we can ask questions about what is happening and why. We can get to know our neighbors and read up on the roots of conflicts that we experience.
One of the things churches often struggle with is finances – always fearing that we will not have enough for the next year.
That fear can stun us into silence or it can keep us from taking risks and stepping out in faith.
So one way that we can turn that fear into curiosity is to look deeper into trends in giving and learn about ways to reach new people and we can invite one another to think about stewardship in new ways.
Curiosity, learning, exploration – these are all antidotes to fear.

Second, God gives the people purpose in the midst of their fears.
As our reading continued into chapter 42 of Isaiah, God tells the people that he has a job for them to do.
“I have called you for a good reason… I will give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison.”

When we look out at all of the things in this world that might cause us to be afraid – it would be easy to hunker down in our homes or within the walls of this building.
But God has given us a vision and a purpose, too!
God is calling us to engage deeper, to build partnerships and get to know our neighbors, to live a life of love, service, and prayer…
And just like the Israelites were not only supposed to be a light, an example, but were supposed to get out and heal and set others free… we believe God is calling us to help heal the lives of our members and friends and neighbors and community.
God wants us to be a part of restoration right here in this place.

Finally, God gives the people assurance.
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
You are not alone.
No matter what you are going through, I’m right here beside you.

I think this is perhaps the most important part of this message.
Because you know, fear can keep us from a lot of things.
It could keep us from visiting museums or hanging out in public places.
It could keep us from going to concerts.
It could lead us to build bunkers in our basement and never leave them.
It could keep us from doing the work of God in this world.

Every so often, folks stop in here to Immanuel and ask for some gas. We take them up the street to the Git-n-Go and fill up their tank.
Now, I’m a young woman, who doesn’t know much self-defense, and one of our previous Administrative Assistants was always afraid for my safety as I walked up the street to the gas station.
She was worried that the person might do something bad to me, or kidnap me, or some other unknown thing.

But you know what?
God is with me.
God has given me (and us) work to do.
And disaster and tragedy and violence might strike any person, at any moment, in any place.
It is all completely out of our control.
What is in our control is the work of Jesus Christ in this world.
And if something happened to us while we were trying to live that life of love, service, and prayer… well, God is with us.
God will be with us if the unthinkable happens.

Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me.
I will bring you home.
I love you are you are mine.

We are God’s.
And we have work to do.
In fact, in the midst of a world filled with fears and brokenness, we have even more work to do.
God has called us for a good reason…
We have the work of healing and wholeness and hope to do.

Spirit of Self-Control

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Many of you know that I spent some time this spring focusing on my health. I joined a gym, worked out five times a week, and kept to a limited food plan focused on building lean muscle and burning fat. For the six weeks of the challenge, I practiced incredible self-control.

And the week after, I gave myself a break. I stopped worrying about what I ate.

If I’m honest, I haven’t ever found my focus again.

About two months ago, I started back up at the gym. I missed the workouts and the community. My goal is not to fit into some unrealistic ideal of how society thinks I should look, but to be strong and healthy and have the energy I need to do this work.

One thing I didn’t change however, is that I haven’t turned my attention to how I was eating again.

So this past week, while thinking about this sermon on self-control, I thought that perhaps I should at least look at how I was doing in that department.

And I planned really healthy breakfasts, with veggies fresh from my garden.

I packed lunches each day, instead of running out to buy something.

But by dinner time, I lost all semblance of self-control.

Wednesday night, we got Chinese takeout. I ate all my food, PLUS two crab rangoons and potstickers.

Thursday night, we ordered pizza. I had four pieces of taco pizza, a couple of breadsticks, AND a cookie!

And in each case, we were having a lazy night, eating in front of the television, and I didn’t even realize how much I had consumed until I started counting it all up the next morning.

If you aren’t focusing on the task at hand, you will lose sight of your goal. Self-control is all about not allowing yourself to be distracted away from your purpose.

This morning we heard the familiar story of Samson and Delilah – of a man who was tempted into giving up his secret strength.

But to understand this story we need a little bit of background.

There was a man named Manoah whose wife was barren. Try as they might, they could not have a child.

But one day, an angel appeared to the woman and promised her that a child would be born to them – a child that would be holy – a child that would save Israel from their enemies. But in order for this to come to pass, the child must be set apart as holy and must live a certain way.

This vow – this promise was called the Nazarite vow.

And so even before this child was born, the mother lived according to the Nazarite vow and then when the child Samson came into the world, he was declared a nazarite.

Now, being an infant – he couldn’t choose this himself – but according to the tradition – a father can declare his son a nazirite. Samson had the right to refuse this status and to end his promises, but nowhere in the scriptures does it say that he does this.

To be a nazarite meant that he had to follow three rules.

First, he had to abstain from any fruit of the vine. He couldn’t eat grapes or drink wine or even use wine vinegar with his food.

Second, he had to refrain from cutting his hair. As time went on, the long hair on his head would have been a sign of his vow.

Third, he couldn’t touch dead bodies.

So Samson took on these vows for himself and God blessed him with strength as a result of his faithfulness.

However, Samson had a weakness.
He had a distraction in his life.
And that distraction was women.

It’s not so much that his love for women was a bad thing. But time and time again, his weakness for the members of the opposite sex put him in terrible situations.

And eventually, as we heard this morning, Samson was tempted away from his Nazarite pledge because he lost sight of what was most important.

He put this woman, Delilah, before the pledge that he and his parents had made to God.

As soon as he let Delilah cut his hair, his strength vanished, he lost his control over the situation, and was captured.

So, Samson because our poster child for what NOT to do in practicing self-control.

Where do we turn to understand what it means to allow God’s spirit to fill us with self-control? What is this fruit of the spirit that Paul commends us to embrace?

When we look to the gospels of Jesus Christ, one of the places I think we can see this fruit is in the command to stop worrying.

As the gospel of Luke tells us – “don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing.”

I could personally take that as a license to never diet again! To just take a deep breath and not focus on how much food I eat at all.

But when we look at the full context of this passage, Jesus is really trying to tell us not to be distracted.

This command to stop worrying is not about trying to save us from anxieties and troubles by promising everything will be okay.

No, Jesus is trying to tell us to stay focused on what is most important.

This advice not to worry about food and clothing and tomorrow end with the powerful statement:

Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness…. And everything else will take care of itself.

In other words, focus on God and what God asks of you.

That really is all that Samson had to do. Focus on God and what God asks of you.

The key to self-control is to let God to have the central place in your life.

The key to self-control is to allow the purpose God has given you guide your actions.

In my scripture study around the sermon today, I learned that the word for demons in the New Testament – daemonia – means “to be controlled by another.”

And in a real sense, every time we let food or worry, power or desire, or anything else to become the focus of our lives instead of God, those things begin to control us.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “the devil made me do it.”

In his sermon on “Self-Control and Freedom,” Charles Rush reminds us that people used to assume that there were spirits that caused us to indulge in pleasure, so anytime someone succumbed to a temptation – they saw it as a demonic possession.

“We no longer believe that,” he says, “but their insight was right about the [spiritual fact that] cravings… become compulsions. At some point… they begin to control us. At some point, our character becomes misshaped and misaligned in order [to] adjust itself to increasing demands our compulsions put on us. We are no longer free, but are driven by our compulsions.” (http://archive.christchurchsummit.org/Sermons-2006/060716-SelfControlAndFreedom.html)

It’s not that things like eating and drinking and sex are evil… but they can spiral out of control if we allow them to be the central objects of our lives.

Self-control is a barrier that prevents other things from distracting us from God’s purpose in our lives: to seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.

And discipline or a rule of life allow us to set boundaries that will help us to keep focused on what actually matters the most.

For the Nazarite, discipline and self-control was found in three simple rules – avoiding grapes and wine, not cutting their hair, and avoiding the dead. The purpose of the rules was to constantly remind them that they had been set apart by God for a purpose.

Many disciples of Jesus Christ today also have a discipline that helps them to focus first on God.

Some of you set aside time every morning to pray.
Some of you use the Upper Room daily devotional.
Some of you have made intentional choices about what you will eat or wear or drink because it is a witness to your faith in Jesus Christ.

Whatever it is, it is part of how you are creating space for God’s purpose to be prioritized in your life.

One of the things that I hope for this morning is that this might be a moment to reflect on whether or not self-control is a part of your spiritual life.

What are the temptations that try to sneak their way before God in your life?

Do you have… or do you need… a discipline or a practice that helps you to focus first on God?

As J. Hampton Keathley writes that Samson was a raised up by God to be a judge, a ruler, and was meant to lead Israel. “Samson strangled a lion; yet he could not strangle his own love. He burst the fetters of his foes; but not the cords of his own lusts. He burned the crops of others, and lost the fruit of his own virtue when burning with the flame kindled by a single woman.” (https://bible.org/series/1-2-3-john-comfort-and-counsel-church-crisis/bible.org/ttpstudents.com/sessions/node/5399?page=42)

We should be honest about the things that threaten to distract us from our faith and keep us from being in control of our actions. And then we should pray about how we can turn them back over to God.

I want to invite you to a simple prayer practice right now that helps us to do so.

Close your eyes and clench your hands up tight.
Picture the distractions and worries you have in your life that you have brought with you… even into this very place of worship.
Then in your own time turn your hands, still gripping, over so that they are facing down.
Imagine God’s hands underneath yours and slowly open your hands so that the things you are carrying fall into God’s hands.
If you do this at home or in your own time, you can repeat this several times.
Then turn your hands face up, but this time with the palms open and ask God’s Spirit to fill you afresh.
Let go of your desires.
Turn your heart over to God.
And seek first the Kingdom.
Amen.

The Spirit of Patience

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Patience is not a virtue that comes easily to us.

Some of us are built with fairly short fuses.

I think it is because we get personally invested in our work and our play and we want to see the results of our efforts.

But when things start to fall apart, instead of taking the long view – we begin to lose hope, we begin to get angry, and sometimes we behave in ways that are far from Christian.

So, this morning we are going to talk about patience through the story of two brothers… Jacob and Esau.

Esau is the older of the two – a rough and tumble sort of guy who thinks with his gut.

Jacob on the other hand, is quietly clever… a mamma’s boy who uses his wit to trick his older brother and gain the upper hand.

And Jacob uses these skills to steal the birthright and deathbed blessing from his brother, Esau.

Esau is furious at the outcome of these events. Everything has just been taken from him.

This isn’t the kind of frustration that comes from some sore muscles – this is the kind of existential angst that comes from having your very identity called into question.

As we heard in the scriptures from this morning – Esau seethed in anger against Jacob… he brooded, “The time for mourning my father’s death is close. And then I’ll kill my brother Jacob.”

It was the last straw. Esau just couldn’t take it anymore and he snapped. And Jacob had to flee for his life, far off to the land of his uncle, Laban.

Usually when we visit these stories, our attention stays with Jacob. We follow him to Paddan Aram where he works for seven years for the hand of his beloved Rachel… and then for seven more years when he is tricked into marrying Leah instead. We follow his story as he spends time increasing the flocks and in turning tricking his uncle Laban and ends up with the best of the flocks and the herds and a huge family of wealth and power.

We could point to Jacob and talk about his patience. About how in spite of being cheated by his uncle, he stuck to his promises and waited for God’s blessings. We could talk about how his persistence and trust led to his success.

But today, I want us to look back to the land of Canaan to the son who was left behind.

The fruit of the spirit we know as patience, is often translated as longsuffering.

It is the gift of being able to endure in spite of the circumstances that have come against you.

It is a hopeful fortitude that reminds us that there is light at the end of the tunnel… that if we trust and wait, the outcome we are praying for will come to pass.

Barclay’s commentary writes that patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t.

Patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t.

Patience is seeking an opening, waiting for the anger to pass, breathing deeply, and finding a way forward.

Patience is remembering that this inconvenience, this obstacle, will not last forever.

If patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t… then I think the person who actually exemplifies the spirit of patience is not Jacob, but his older brother, Esau.

The first way that Esau is patient is that he doesn’t strike out immediately in anger when his brother cheats him.

If we followed their story from the time they were just children, I’m sure that there was more than just these two instances of trickery. And yet, up until this point, up until the moment that Jacob steals away his blessing, Esau has managed to not let it get to him.

The straw that broke the camel’s back is this moment where everything is taken from him and Esau is pissed off.
But, even in the midst of his anger… we might even say righteous anger… he has enough control to wait.

I haven’t played a lot of disc golf this summer, but there was an afternoon a few seasons ago when I hit four trees, in a row, on four consecutive shots, before I ever got to the basket. I hadn’t been playing well all afternoon, and my frustration was building. My temper was getting the best of me.

If we truly think about patience as having the grace to not revenge a wrong, then patience would have been taking a deep breath, not picking up my disk and chucking it at the nearest tree out of frustration for it being in the way.

Many people in today’s world who had something done to them like Esau experienced would immediately grab the nearest weapon and seek out their brother. But Esau waits. He thinks. He knows that there are some things that are more important at the moment… namely, the fact that his father is dying.

Patience means being slow to anger and while Esau became angry, he didn’t allow that anger to consume him in an instant. He thought about others. He put his anger on the back burner.

In moments when you find yourself on the brink of acting out of frustration or anger, patience is taking a moment to breathe and to pray.

It is asking for God to come into the situation and remind you of what is really important… and if necessary to let go of the anger.

Esau also helps us to understand patience in how he lives his life after Jacob flees.

He acts not out of spite, but in all things tries to follow his father’s wishes.

When his brother is sent away, Jacob is commanded not to marry a Canaanite woman. Esau is not given this expectation, but he also chooses such a bride, always looking to please his father. He seeks out his half-uncle Ishmael… and marries one of his daughters.

And that is all we hear about his life for the next 14 years.

Not once does Esau plot and plan and come looking for his brother.

Not once does he try to make good on his promise that his brother should die.

No, he moves on with his own life.

He carves out the best possible future for himself.

In spite of the situation that he finds himself in, he endures.

That is longsuffering. That is patience.

Making the most of our given situations is a very hard thing to do. We like to sit and stew and wish that things were different. We breed anger and resentment in our hearts. And we spend too much time looking into the past, instead of living into our new futures.

Yesterday, I had the honor of helping to celebrate the life of a woman named Renee. When our church began its work with the Women at the Well Re-entry Teams, Renee was the first person that we had the honor of walking with.

As I sat talking with her dad, Paul, he mentioned to me how you always think that someone else’s child would be homeless, or addicted, or abused. You never imagine that it could ever happen to your child. But it did.

From the ages of 4-14, Renee was sexually abused by a family member who also gave her alcohol. Her addiction began before most children even know what a drink is. That terrible injustice had a profound impact on her formation. In some ways, it led her to be scared of being successful – often getting in her own way. But in other ways, it provided the source of her ability to connect with people who were struggling, homeless, down and out. Her experience helped her to share her life story and God’s word with people who desperately needed to hear it.

In the midst of the hurt and pain of her life, she knew that God was with her and that her journey was not something to be ashamed of or to run away from, but it was an opportunity to share with others. As the Message translation of Isaiah chapter 50 reads, “The Master, God, has given me a well-taught tongue, so I know how to encourage tired people.” And in spite of her addiction, Renee used her humor and writing to bring encouragement to people who needed it the most. She didn’t allow herself to be overcome with bitterness and despair.

That is God’s longsuffering patience.

Finally, Esau teaches us about patience through his ability to forgive.

We sometimes think of patience as simply the ability to wait… to hold out.

But the kind of patience that God invites us to embody is that grace of a person who could revenge a wrong, but doesn’t.

Had Esau simply been waiting for the opportunity to strike back then his moment would have come when Jacob returned to the land of his father.

And Jacob knows it.

Jacob trembles with fear at the thought of the anger of his brother. He sends messengers ahead to let Esau know they are coming… it’s almost as if he is saying – I’m here… let’s get this over with.

Jacob divides up his great wealth and sends it over the river in waves as a gift to soothe his brother’s anger. He sends his wives and children over – in essence saying – all that I have is yours if you want it.

If Esau had been “patiently” harboring revenge all of those years, he would have destroyed those gifts. Those four hundred men standing with him on the other side of the river would have taken the flocks, killed his wives and children and come rushing over the river to kill the trickster brother.

But Esau was a man of godly patience.

He put his anger on the backburner of his soul, and allowed God to let forgiveness replace the hatred.

When Esau was given the chance to revenge the wrong that was made upon his life, he instead ran to his brother, fell into his arms and wept.

He looked upon all of those gifts, the wealth his brother had humbly offered, and Esau could have taken them all out of righteous indignation. He could have said, “it’s about time that I got my birthright and my power and wealth back.”

Instead, he looked his brother square in the eye and he said, “I have enough, brother… keep what you have for yourself.”

The past was forgiven. All that mattered now was their futures. The future of two brothers reunited at long last.

My family has experienced the kind of conflict and betrayal of family members that Jacob and Esau struggled with and I have to be honest that they have not yet reached the point of reconciliation.

It is difficult to forgive.

It will take time to forgive.

But I also know that when we fail to do so, we carry around with us a burden that is often too heavy to bear.

My prayer for my family and for all of us who have experienced the frustration of relationships or illness or pain is that instead of holding onto revenge, bitterness, or despair, that we would instead seek God’s patience.

It is the kind of patience that our Master has with us.

In 2 Peter, we are reminded that God is patient towards us, not wanting any to perish but for all of us to be able to change our hearts and lives (3:9).

God’s gracious spirit chooses not to revenge the wrongs we have committed.

God’s gracious spirit waits until we finally turn back towards love, grace, mercy and peace.

God’s gracious spirit shows us true patience, waiting with open arms for us to come back home, no matter how many wrongs we have done in this world.

Amen and Amen.

Lessons for the Journey

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Last winter, my immediate family planned a trip to Hawaii to escape the cold and the snow.  We often like to travel all together, but because of my weekend work responsibilities, the rest of the family took off earlier, while Brandon and I stayed here in Iowa to get through church on Sunday morning and then fly out. 

Our original plan had been to fly out on Sunday afternoon, but about a month before the trip, they cancelled that flight and rebooked us for first thing on Monday morning.  So our alarms were set for 4am, our bags were packed and we were ready to go.  And then the text message came.  Our flight had been cancelled.   There had been storms that weekend in Dallas, flights were backed up and ours was being bumped.  We had been rebooked for Wednesday morning. 

I instantly got on the phone and tried to see if there was any way we could get out of town sooner.  Except the hold time with the airline was estimated to be an hour or more.  Brandon and I live near the airport, so I decided to go and try to get in line and talk with an actual agent at the ticketing counter.  Only, the lines there were nearly out the door.  Everyone was trying to get out of town and no one was going anywhere.   There were no earlier flights to be had.

We decided to make the most of the day and built a fire in the fireplace at home and tried not to grumble.  The next day around noon, we got another text from the airlines.  Our flight Wednesday morning out of Des Moines had been cancelled, too. 

I think I spent about three hours on the phone with the airlines and the soonest they could rebook our tickets was on January 1st.  It would be another two days before it would be possible to get out of Des Moines due to the back up all throughout the system.  I cried.  The good lady from the airlines tried her best to help make something work, but it was a mess.   

I finally asked if the flight from Dallas to Hawaii was still taking off the next morning.  It had been only the Des Moines leg of the trip that had been cancelled.  And sure enough, it was still going to be leaving at 9 am Wednesday morning.  Brandon and I looked at each other, and decided to drive to Dallas.  

We picked up the rental car around 4pm, left Des Moines around 5, and drove through the night.  When we arrived, exhausted, around 4am, we found a quiet corner in the airport to take a short nap, made our flight, and made it to Hawaii to spend the rest of the trip with our family… only three days late.  

 

In our scripture this morning, the Israelites are on a journey as well.  While Brandon and I were trying to escape the cold of winter for a warm, sunny beach, the Israelites had escaped slavery in Egypt and now they were headed for the Promised Land.  God was leading them to the land flowing with milk and honey.  Only, they didn’t quite know how to get there and they trusted God to lead them.  

This was supposed to be a fairly simple trip, and yet at the outset, God planned to lead them the long way round.  The pillar of smoke and fire was taking them on a journey that would avoid most of the difficulties they might encounter along the way.  But no road is easy and the setbacks they experienced were far greater than a few cancelled flights. If you continue reading through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Israelites experienced loss, frustration, bickering, and ended up wandering for forty years in the wilderness.  There were times in the journey when the destination seemed so far away that they wished they were back in Egypt.  And despite the daily guidance and food provided from above, there were even times they forgot God was with them.  Ultimately however,  just like we finally touched down on the rainbow isle and got to spend our vacation with my parents, siblings, and three amazing niblings, the Israelites finally made it to Canaan.

While we might not be on a physical journey, the people of the United Methodist Church and the people of Immanuel are on a journey, too.  John Wesley often talked about how we are going on to perfection and I think part of that means that we as the church should always be working towards the Kingdom of God and growing not only in our personal faith, but we should be transforming the world around us to look more like the “Promised Land” every single day.  As a church, we need a compelling vision to hold in front of us, a picture of the destination we are longing for, so that we can actively work to bring that reality into being. 

But like the Israelites, our journey has been and will be marked by setbacks. Most journeys are.  We, too, have experienced loss and decline.  In fact, I bet some of you in this room can remember when this sanctuary was built in order to accommodate when we had over 500 in worship every single Sunday.  And, there are times of disagreement and disunity.  We won’t always be able to find the best worship times for every person and we won’t all agree on what a faithful Christian response is to some of the toughest conversations of our day.  

Last week in fact, an email came out from a new group that has formed within the UMC called the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  The email contained a video that highlights the three central beliefs of the organization.  That God is good, the Bible is true, and that Promises should be kept.  And yet, how those three very simple statements were defined is not something that all United Methodists agree upon.  So I became part of a group of young clergywomen that created a statement in response, trying to expand and enlarge the conversation.  

When Bishop Bickerton talks about this journey of faith we are on, he knows that it will not be easy.  But he offers a couple of simple lessons that might help us arrive together at our final destination.  As I have thought about the journey of the Israelites,  my own adventures in travel, and the journey we are currently on as a church, I find them helpful.

The first lesson I want to highlight is what my colleagues and I were attempting to do last week as we drafted a response to others in the church.  And that is the see yourselves and others as a work in progress.   I think this faith that we share is not simple, but it is complex and messy and real.  We are always learning and growing and going on to perfection.  Or as Paul put it, “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face.  Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way I have been completely known.” (1 Cor. 13: 12).  And so that means we should constantly be in dialogue with one another.  We need to admit our shortcomings and leave ourselves open to the possibility that we might be wrong.  We do not need to have it all together or have all the answers… we are still on a journey!

The second lesson relates to that idea.  In the famous words of Vanilla Ice, we need to stop, collaborate and listen. It is often the people we disagree with the most who can help us to get farther on our journey.  We need to collaborate across generations, with our older folks helping out our young parents and our younger folks providing support and care for their elder counterparts.  In his book, Bishop Bickerton shares a story from Zimbabwe and Bishop Nhiwatiwa.  In the Shona language, the word used for the spirit of collaboration is chabadza .  “If you approach a person working in a field, you do not say, “May I plow your field for you?” Instead you say, “May I help you plow your field?”  Chabadza represents a willingness to enter into relationship with someone else on the journey.” (p. 36)   And it is a willingness to let to, let others help, and to let it be done another way.  This is the spirit that we embody here at Immanuel whenever we put the needs of another person above our own and let go of our way in order to let God move us in a new way.  

The final lesson is one that I needed to remember many times on our long journey to Hawaii.  You need to lighten up, loosen up, and have a little fun The journey we are on is difficult, and if we don’t open ourselves up to find the joy in the midst of the journey it will feel like its longer than it actually is.  We need to enjoy the ride, remember that we are loved by God, let the Holy Spirit encourage us every step of the way.  Here at Immanuel, there are so many opportunities to have a little fun as we grow in this journey of discipleship.  You can sing and dance with the kids in Children’s Church.  You can laugh together over coffee in Faith Hall.  You can step out of your comfort zone and make a new friend.  You can stand up and let God move you when the music starts playing.  You can roll with punches and smile more and see where the Spirit will move.  

Above all, no matter where we are on this journey, God is with us, pushing us, pulling us, prodding us, and never letting us go.  Like the cloud of pillar and fire never left the side of the Israelites, the presence of God is in this place and will continue to guide us every step of the way.  Amen. 

Rusty Leftovers

I want to start out this morning with a testimony… This is my experience and I hope and pray that my own story might somehow connect with yours and that the transformation in my own life might point to the way that God might also work in yours. 

This testimony however is about a topic that makes a whole lot of us uncomfortable… but it is part of our daily lives.  This morning, I’m going to talk about money.

And my testimony is this: It took me three years of serving a congregation… three years of being a pastor… before I tithed to the church.

You might hold pastors up on a pedestal or think that as a pastor I do all of the things that people of faith are supposed to do like feed the hungry, pray every morning, read the bible cover to cover all the time, and give 10% of their money to the church.

But pastors are just like everyone else.  We are disciples, too.  We have struggles and successes.  We have places where we are explorers and beginners.  Only sometimes are we truly mature in every part of our faith. There is always room to grow deeper in our relationship with God… even for pastors.

I often gave to the church… but for a long time, I made excuses about how much I should give.

When I was a teenager and had occasional part time jobs, I might have stuck a dollar or two in the offering plate – whatever pocket change I might have had that day.  It was the last of my money… not the best.

When I was in college, I did not attend a church regularly on Sundays, but worshipped on campus Wednesday nights – and no one asked for a financial contribution.  No one asked me to give, much less give sacrificially. So I didn’t.

As a seminary student and an intern at a church, I was spending more money on school and travel than I was making and piling up debt.  I gave my time to the church and occasionally a few bucks as well.

And then I was commissioned and sent to First UMC in Marengo.  I was sent to be their pastor and I knew that I could not ask them, in good faith, to give faithfully to the church and to God, if I was not also giving. 

Having a steady paycheck for the first time in my life, I should have immediately started tithing.  But I didn’t.  I held back.  I looked at my student loans and debt from college… I looked at how much our cable bill was going to be… I thought about how we wanted to travel a bit… I knew that taxes would take a chunk of my wages… And so I started out small.  I gave to the church – but only a small portion.

And then, I became comfortable with that level of financial giving.  I knew I was doing God’s ministry in other ways and so I didn’t worry about it.

But one day about three years into ministry, I was having a conversation with a friend, a fellow pastor, about the things that we cling to… the things we hold close and refuse to give to God.

I realized in the midst of that conversation that I had never willingly yielded my money to God. 

There had been times when I had given out of guilt. 

I have given because it was what I was supposed to do. 

I have given out of habit as the offering place went around and each person in the pew pulled out a few bucks and dropped it in. 

Sound familiar?

But never had I prayerfully thought about what God wanted me to give. 

Never had I searched my heart to ask what I was willing to yield, what I was willing to joyfully give up in my life, for the sake of our Lord and our church.

 

This conversation was a conversion experience for me, and I really prayed about what God could do through the gifts that were placed in my hands and started giving more to the church on a regular basis…

The next year as we made our financial commitments, my heart led me to set aside a full 10% of my salary for the Kingdom of God.

In Marengo, the church struggled with finances and they didn’t have a lot of money to pay their pastor…. But I found that even… maybe especially… because I was giving, I had enough. 

I joyfully gave that money to God… and I have to tell you – I didn’t miss one cent.  I still don’t!

And maybe that’s because in the process I learned how to give to the church first.  I make sure that the gifts I have committed come out of my paycheck before it ever comes home with me. 

I learned how to give God my first and my best, instead of the change in my pocket – instead of the leftovers from my own spending and desires.

In Leviticus, we hear instructions for this early agricultural society to leave the crops on the edges and on the corners for the needy in the midst.  The farmers were not supposed to harvest every last seed and kernel, but rather let them remain in the fields so that the poor could go through the fields and glean the leftovers for themselves. 

A portion of the harvest, of the economic benefit earned by the farmers, was to be let go of before it was even taken out of the fields.   It belongs to God… and God desires that it belongs to those who need it the most. 

Today, not all of us are physically out in the fields harvesting the grain… but we can think about setting aside a portion of our income… a portion of our take home pay… for God’s use before it ever makes it into our bank accounts.   

Instead of giving to God what is leftover after all of our other expenses… necessities and luxuries… we can leave that portion of our gifts in God’s hands first. 

 

A year or so after I had this discipleship conversion and grew in my generosity, Bishop Trimble asked me to lead Imagine No Malaria.

I had just learned how to give… but I was so excited about what God could do through the dollars and cents entrusted to our care…

Maybe that made me exactly the right person to help United Methodists across the state give over $2million to help fight malaria… often $5 and $10 at a time.  Millions of children are alive today because you helped purchase a net, and train a community health worker, and provide malaria medication. 

In Matthew, we are invited to stop hoarding the blessings of our lives, and instead set them free for the Kingdom of God: 

As The Message translation puts it: “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

The old adage says, you can’t take it with you… and its true.  Our time here on earth is short and piling on pleasures and wants and desires doesn’t get us anything but a house full of stuff that someone else is going to have to sort through.

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says.

My family still has a cable subscription and a Netflix subscription… and an amazon prime subscription… and I know I still have some growth to do in my personal discipleship.  Because let me tell you – I am putting some of my treasure into those forms of entertainment and almost every night I end up sitting on the couch in front of the television. 

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says.

Television and new clothes and name-brand cereal… they don’t last.  They will all wear out without having made an ounce of difference in this world. 

What lasts is the kingdom of God.  What lasts is the word of God.  What lasts is the joy that I have found through letting go of my desires to ask what God needs from me.

 

This week, I had the amazing experience of traveling to Atlanta to attend the first meeting of the Global Ministries Board of Directors.  I was elected by the jurisdiction to serve as a Director for the next four years. 

One of the executive staff members is Dr. Olusimbo Ige who heads up our Global Health ministries.  Dr. Ige is trained as a community physician, which means she is not only a medical doctor, but also has background in community development, engineering, finance… she is trained to help make the entire community well. 

Dr. Ige shared that she could put her extensive skills to work in a hospital and make $500 – 600,000 a year… but when she sees the lives transformed in a village where babies are surviving birth and children stop dying from malaria… she knows that she is doing the work she is supposed to do.

Today, you will be asked to help contribute funds for UMCOR blankets and health, sewing, and school kits for Ingathering.

This past week, I heard countless stories of how those kits and blankets are being used across this world.  I heard about 5,000 girls in South Sudan who received school kits this year… about women in Armenia who are using sewing kits to learn a new skill and support themselves economically… pregnant moms in Liberia who had no prenatal or obstretic care… but because of the United Methodist Church… because of our gifts and resources… because we traveled to their remote village and brought life-saving interventions every single one of the 123 babies born this year lived. 

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says…

And as United Methodists, we end up all over this world, doing amazing things for the Kingdom of God.  

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 

You see, friends, God does not want your money, if God doesn’t have your heart.

God doesn’t have any use for your stuff, if you won’t let go of your soul.  

God doesn’t care about the things that you own… even if they could be used to help other people… unless you are willing to share with God your life. 

 

Our generosity is a deep part of our discipleship… of our relationship with and for God.

Grow in your love of God… grow in your love of neighbor… and let God grow your generosity for this world. 

Everyday, Ordinary Worship

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It’s Sunday morning.

According to the Pew Research Center, even though 77% of adults in Iowa claim the Christian faith, only 36% of those people commit to going to church worship at least once a week. 

Another 33% attend anywhere between twice a month to a few times a year.

If we are generous with our numbers, maybe half of Des Moines is not participating in a religious worship service this morning.

 

So what are your friends and neighbors doing? 

They’re sleeping in.  Or at softball games.  They are relaxing on the porch with the newspaper. Or at brunch at one of the many amazing restaurants in the city.  They are traveling back home after being away tailgating at a game yesterday. 

I see your wheels turning.  Those things sound amazing! Why didn’t I do those things?  Why didn’t we stay home today? 

 

I’m going to share with you a confession. 

When I stepped away from congregational ministry to lead Imagine No Malaria, I didn’t go to church every single Sunday. 

I traveled, preached, and led worship in churches on Sundays all across the state, but when I actually had the chance to be home, the temptation to actually be home and not go to worship was real. 

And here is something I discovered.  The more I stayed away, the easier it was to stay away. 

I felt less guilty about it, not more.  Honestly, I didn’t really even think about it.

But on those Sundays a couple times a month when I was back in a church, I realized how disconnected from God I had been.

 

Why do we worship?

Is it out of habit?  Obligation? 

Do we come on Sunday mornings to be fed and renewed?

Are we here to gain God’s favor? Or to hang out with those people who have the same beliefs as us?

 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he addresses the divisions in the community and how focusing our attention on God transforms every aspect of our life. 

As the end of chapter 11 states in the Message translation:

Is there anyone around who can explain God?

Anyone smart enough to tell [God] what to do?

Anyone who has done [God] such a huge favor that God has to ask their advice?

Everything comes from [God];

Everything happens through [God];

Everything ends up in [God];

Always glory! Always praise!

Yes. Yes. Yes.  

If that is God… the beginning and end of everything… what does it mean to worship? 

It means, according to Paul, that we honor and praise God by putting our very lives into God’s hands… by discovering who God has created me to be and then by responding out of love.

Hear again our scripture for this morning from the Message translation

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

The time we spend in worship is about honoring God by being in relationship with God.   

And you know what… relationships take work.  They take time and energy.  It is hard to be in a relationship with someone you don’t spend any time with.  

When we gather to worship, we are saying that God is the focus of our attention, our energy, our time, our life.   

It is about living out the commandment to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

In worship, we encounter the living God and allow that encounter to shape everything else.  

 

Worship has nothing to do with you.  Worship isn’t about the songs you sing or the money you put in the offering plate.  It isn’t about your preferences or desires.  Worship reminds us that all of it… our time, our energy, our money, our voices… they aren’t ours to begin with.  Everything begins with God… everything ends with God… It all belongs to God already.

And the more time we spend with God in worship, the more we realize that worship is not about what we do for God: an obligation, a responsibility, a duty… but worship is about what God does for us. 

 

As Paul writes in this chapter of Romans, “the only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and what God does for us…  Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of [the body of Christ].”

Lisa Gungor, the singer/songwriter says – “It’s hard to truly worship and not be changed.  When we are connected with our Maker, we are pulled outside of our self; we begin to live for something more.  Love is the reaction to [encountering God in worship]” (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worship/features/25684-whats-the-point-of-worship)

And the opposite is true, too…  when we are disconnected from God… when we don’t worship, then we start to turn inward on ourselves and our world becomes much smaller.

When I chose not to spend time in worship, I found myself distracted by the world’s values and temptations.  There was even a time when I doubted my call… when I started to think that I could get a job doing something outside the church and just walk away and never look back.

I was forgetting what God had done for me.

How could I just walk away from that?  How on earth was that part of the great commandment to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength?

I wasn’t part of a community, a part of a worship experience that reminded me of who God was and who God created me to be.   

That’s what those people sitting next to you in the pew are for… to remind you.  To tell you the story again and again.  To hold that truth sacred, even if you forget it.

That’s what worship is about… It is rediscovering, over and over again, who God is and who God created us to be and responding to the good news of God’s love by being those people.  

 

Worship in its fullest sense is about far more than simply showing up for an hour on a particular day of the week.  

Worship is about taking those everyday, ordinary parts of our life… the sleeping, eating, going-to-work, walking- around life, and letting God have control of them. Letting God’s power fill them.  Letting God’s love shape them.  Every moment.  Of every day.  

 

All throughout this series on discipleship, we are recognizing that this journey of following of Jesus isn’t easy.  

We all start in different places… like the servants in the parable who each had a different set of talents.  

And the same is true of our worship experiences.  

I know this room has people who fall in that category of the 33% of Iowans who only come to worship once a month or a few times a year.  And I am so glad you are here today. 

I know this room has people has people who show up faithfully for church every Sunday, but who are simply going through the motions and don’t ever expect to really encounter God here.  

And there are people who not only show up, but bring with them the willingness to be transformed and changed through this time.

There are people in this room who not only worship on Sundays, but take time to be with God through worship and devotions in your homes and families.  

I’m so glad that all of you are here.

Wherever you are… whatever has brought you to this place… you have a chance to take the next step. 

You don’t have to go from attending church once a month to doing a daily devotion tomorrow.  God doesn’t expect that of you.  But God does invite you to take one more step.  To take one step closer.  To grow in your ability to love God, to serve God, to open your heart in prayer to God.   

And God would love for you to take just one more step deeper in your faith life.  To take the next step from wherever you are.  To let go of just a little bit more… because it’s all God’s anyways…  

God’s Love Never Fails

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This is our fourth week with the prophets of the Old Testament, and one of the things I hope you realize is that they weren’t all the same.

Every single one of them were called by God to share the word in radically different ways.

Elijah was called to do battle with other prophets.

Elisha did miracles like his master and brought healing in the midst of a time of conflict.

Amos stood up for justice, even though he wasn’t a prophet at all.

 

Sometimes, God called these prophets to speak the word to those in power, those in leadership.

And sometimes, God called the prophets to demonstrate with their very lives… to be an example to the world of God’s intentions.  They were called to acts of witness.

 

So today, we are going to hear God’s word through a living sermon, too.

I have here all of the things you expect for making a simple box cake mix.  Except, we are going to make it better…

 

God asked me to use Devil’s Food Cake Mix… because we all are tempted by sin in our lives.

Now, typically, I’d add some tap water to this recipe…. It calls for 1 1/3 cups.  But God is tired of lukewarm Christians, so we are going to use really really really hot water.

This recipe also calls for some eggs.  1, 2, 3.  But Jesus reminds us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light… so we are going to add some egg yolks to this recipe.  1…. And 2…..

And then, instead of using vegetable oil like I might normally do, we are going to use real, melted butter.  God doesn’t want us to substitute cheap grace for the real stuff of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace that transforms our lives.

Okay then, now we mix it all up and we pour it out into the pan. And it takes a lot of work to mix it up.  And faith is like that too.  There are lumps and difficulties.  We can’t just throw everything in and hope it turns out okay. You have to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

And, we are going to add one more thing.  Now that it’s mixed, we pour it in and we are going to sprinkle the top with some sugar.  And that is because when we work our faith, we tend to get puffed up and inflated and think we are earning our salvation, and this very subtle layer will help keep our pride at the proper density.

And then, we bake the cake and it will taste absolutely delicious.  [puts raw cake batter to the side]

 

What… were you waiting for the finished product?

I did cut corners by having the water and butter right there, ready to go, but this demonstration is in REAL TIME.

So unless we want to put the whole service on hold for 40 minutes while we go preheat the oven and stick the cake in the oven, I think we had better just keep going 😉

God wants to build the spiritual fruit of patience in your lives, after all

 

That is the really difficult thing about demonstrating God’s word.  It had to happen in real time.

And for someone like Hosea, that meant a lifetime commitment to demonstrating God’s word through his actions.

As we heard in our scripture this morning, the Lord told Hosea to go and marry a prostitute and to have children together.

So even if Gomer and Hosea eloped and got married that very day, this demonstration, this living sermon, was going to take at least nine months before Hosea received the next command… to name the baby Jezreel, because the King would be punished for the sins of past generations.

And then, another child came into their lives… a daughter who was named “No Compassion” because God was done having compassion on the people.

And then another child… born after the second had finished nursing.  A son who was to be named “Not My People” because the people of the land were not acting like God’s people.

 

Hosea wasn’t just speaking to the head priest or the king of the land.  He and Gomer were bearing children that bore the marks of God’s prophecies.  And their very marriage represented the relationship between God and the people of the land, who sold themselves to other gods instead of being faithful to their God.

 

All throughout the prophecy of Hosea there are a few important things to keep in the back of our minds.

 

First, the land that we think of as Israel in the time of King David was no longer one nation, but two. 

In our teaching on the prophets thus far, we have overlooked this point, but the conflict of the leaders broke the nation into pieces.  Israel, or the Northern Kingdom, worshipped at Bethel, while Judah, the Southern Kingdom, continued to worship at Jerusalem.   Only two of the original tribes – Judah and Benjamin remained in the southern kingdom, loyal to the successor of David’s line, while the rest chose a new king in the north.

As you read the book of Hosea, then, you will notice that there are prophecies towards both Judah and Israel.  And to complicate matters even further, sometimes Israel is also referred to as Ephraim and Samaria – the tribe and the city that rule the kingdom.

 

Second, the relationship between God and the people is described in an intimate manner. 

Rather than a far off ruler or Lord, the relationship between Hosea and Gomer demonstrated the kind of deep love that God has for the people of Israel.  And God desires a marriage, a union with the people this is faithful and holy.

 

But a faithful marriage with someone who is used to infidelity is not easy.

Hosea experiences this when Gomer runs away and returns to prostitution.

In the same way, Israel and Judah keep turning their backs upon God and seeking after others.

The cycle keeps returning.  The faithlessness of the people is unending.

They seek protection from other lands.  They build altars to other gods.  They sacrifice to try to appease God…

But as God speaks in chapter 6:  “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings.”

And God is frustrated.

 

The very names of the children represent the prophecy against the kingdoms.  There will be no more compassion.  If the people will not stay in the relationship, then they will no longer be God’s people.  The land of Jezreel will be wiped away.

 

There is intense sadness in this prophecy.  The love of God for the people is palpable. In chapter 11:

“When Israel was a child, I love him, and out of Egpyt I called my son.  The more I called them, the further they went from me… yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love… I bent down to them and fed them…” (vs 1-4)

And so in spite of God’s frustration and anger, in spite of the promise to destroy and turn away, God cannot help but remain faithful.

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?… My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (vs 8)

And then God says, “I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being.” (v 9)

 

I am God, and not a human being.

 

We have fickle hearts.  Our emotions lead us to make rash decisions and to turn against one another.  And throughout the book of Hosea, as God speaks through the life of this human man, we see the heart and emotion of God as well.

 

But God is God and not a human being.

 

And God’s love for us is all encompassing and total.  There is no wavering.  There is no fault.

God will remain faithful to the covenant, to the promises, to the love God has for us even if we fail every single time.

Every time God will be faithful.

Every time.

 

So if you have been faithless…

If you have turned your back on God…

If you think that God must be so angry with everything you have done or left undone…

If you think it’s too late for you… it’s not.

 

Because God’s love never fails.  It never gives up.  It never runs out.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen