Sunday, August 14, 2016

“Didn’t You See It All the First Time?” (Hebrews 11:29-12:2)

One of the things I loved about my mother was her common sense.  In the eighth grade I went out for track after my mother urged me to at least consider checking out about being the manager of the track team.  It would allow me to go places, she said.  So, I signed up for track to be the manager but was convinced by the coach that I could probably contribute in some other way.  Thus it was that I began my career as a middle distance runner . . . I ran the quarter mile . . . once around the track.  That was something my mother could understand.  The second year that I ran track, my freshman year, I moved up to also run the half-mile . . . twice around the track.

Now this was something where my mother’s common sense got in the way.  After coming to watch me run for the first time in the Colorado Springs Freshman/Sophomore City Meet, my mother asked me about the half-mile race.  In particular she asked me, “Why do you run around the track twice . . . didn’t you see it all the first time?”  It was the first and only track meet she every watched me run in.  Despite my best efforts to explain the “sport” of running, she just couldn’t accept that anyone needed to go around the track more than once.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Christians who were faced with increasing opposition.  As the opposition grew more intense, the group was in danger of abandoning the Christian faith . . . they were on the brink of throwing the towel in and calling it quits.  They had run around the track once with some pretty tough results and they were not too sure that they wanted to run around it a second time.  In their minds they had already seen it all.  Enough was enough.

Yet, the writer of this letter implores them to stick to the task that is at hand . . . hang tight to their faith . . . because Jesus is the true and final revelation of God.  Through Jesus the example is set . . . the way has been shown . . . and, the goal is at hand.  Through examples of the faithful who have come before them, the writer urges the people to stick to their faith, keep their eyes on Jesus, and to endure whatever suffering and persecution may come their way.  In a way, the writer gives the people a pep talk.

The list of examples shared by the writer is pretty extensive: the exiled in Egypt; those who brought down the walls of Jericho; Rahab the prostitute; and, the many others.  All were people who faced great odds and possible death, but who stuck to their guns and did what was asked of them as a people of faith.  And, writers the author of the letter, so much more is promised.  Their example sits before those who have come before them . . . sits before a “great cloud of witnesses” . . .

So, who are they to let down those who sacrificed before them?  Who are they to disappoint God by quitting?

No, says the writer.  Do not give up!  Instead, “. . . throw off everything that hinders, and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith . . .”  Then, to add emphasis to his point, the writer throws in one more witness—Jesus.  Jesus who endured the cross.

The argument today, at least in the minds of many Christians in our nation, is that we live in an age of persecution . . . that we are being picked on.  And yet, compared to other nations around the world, we are living on Easy Street when it comes to living our faith.  We do not have to worry about the threat of death if we practice our faith as do some of our brothers and sisters in Christ in other parts of the world.  No, we don’t; but, at the same time we feel as if we are being persecuted.  Persecuted because our views and ways are not being allowed to be the standard for everyone.  We can’t display the Ten Commandments on the walls of our courts or schools.  We are not allowed to pray in school . . . at least not in the corporate sense of prayer.  We want to be the majority, but we are losing the battle. 

You know when a dog gets kicked enough; it gets the message that it is not wanted.  That was the feeling of those who received the letter from the writer of Hebrews.   Their first lap around the track had produced enough memories—lots of them were bad, and they had had enough.  They were going to quit before they had even finished the race.  And, who could blame them?

The writer tells them, don’t quit.

The writer reminds them that they are not the first to run this race.  There were many before them who had run the race . . . that “great cloud of witnesses.”  Their races were not easy.  In their quitting would they render the acts of faithfulness of those before them as useless?  Keep on keeping on, the writer tells them.  The problem, the writer says, is not on the race.  The problem is what they are focusing on as the prize at the end of the race.  The prize is that which Jesus promised . . . an intimate and personal relationship with God . . . a stepping into and acceptance of grace and love that knows no end . . . and spins out to change the world through the relationships that are had between the people and others.

The writer implores that the people focus on Jesus.  Jesus is the perfect example of a life of faith . . . the perfect example of how one is to live one’s life.  In Jesus the people are given the key to how to live in order to accomplish those two commandments that Jesus said were the most important . . . relating to God, relating to others.  In this way the world is changed.  In this way the Kingdom is realized.  It is all through love.  With this in mind the writer tells the people, then and now, that the key to it all is to focus on Jesus.

Unfortunately the race is never over after one lap around the track.  No, the race continues throughout the breath of our lives.  And, unfortunately, we cannot control others in the world around us.  All we can do is to keep plugging away . . . plugging away at the way that we live our lives on a daily basis.  In that living we reflect upon what Jesus has presented to us as the better way.  We focus on how he lived his life in relationship with God . . . we focus on how he lived his life in relationship to others.  We live in love.  There is nothing more that we can do; but, at the same time there is hope.  There is hope that in the way that we live our lives opens the eyes of others to live their lives in a like manner.

Common sense tells us that once around the track should be enough.  Faith defies common sense.  Once is not enough.  No, faith keeps on going no matter what.  The love and grace of God is so broad, how can we ever banish it to once around the track?  Let us heed the words of the writer: “. . . let us thrown off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us focus our eyes on Jesus . . .”  Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

“Trample My Courts No More” (Isaiah 1:1, 10-20)

The Book of Isaiah begins at a time when Judah, the southern kingdom, was being threatened by a powerful neighbor, Assyria.  In the prophet Isaiah’s understanding, the real threat to the life of Judah was not simply the might of Assyria, but the nation’s own sin and disobedience toward God . . . their lack of trust in God.  For this reason the prophet begins his ministry with vivid words and action to call the people and their leaders to a life of righteousness and justice, and warned that failure to listen to God would bring doom and destruction.  Now remember, Isaiah is the messenger . . . the messenger for God, and God is angry . . . very angry.

How angry is God?

God is angry enough to mince no words.  God is angry enough to do a little name calling.  God is angry enough to turn away from the people . . . to ignore the people.  God is angry enough to even threaten destruction if the people don’t shape up.  God is angry because the people and leaders have trampled the Lord’s courts . . . ignore God and God’s ways . . . made a travesty of all that God represents and truly is.  God is angry and Isaiah is the chosen vessel to deliver this anger to the people.

During this time in the history of God’s people, the Temple has been rebuilt and the nation restored . . . it was a time of transition.  During times of transition there is often a period of change . . . of what they call scrumming in rugby.  You know what a scrum is in rugby.  That is that point in the game when the ball is still and the two competing teams hover over it in one great mass with each pushing to get the best position in order to win.  It is a big pile-up with lots of pushing, shoving, pinching, punching, and even biting to see who come up with the ball and control of the game.  Such is the situation in this time period of transition as many groups are vying for control and power.  In this, the people have lost focus on what is important . . . God and others.

Now this probably doesn’t make sense.  From the sound of God’s own complaints it would seem as the people were quite religious . . . quite faithful.  There were services of sacrifice . . . burnt offerings . . . worship services . . . it seems as if the Temple was a happening place with lots of stuff going on to express the religion and faith of the people.  Yet, God is not happy with any of it.  True, it looks like the people are being faithful; yet, at the same time God sees it for what it is . . . busyness.  There is no depth, no meaning, and no purpose in what they are doing.  It is nothing more than a charade.  In the actions of the people they attempt to hide the reality.  The reality is that they are a sinful people who have turned their backs on God, God’s ways, and it has spilled out to destroy the lives of those who they have been called upon to love and serve.  God is sick and tired of the people trampling upon God’s holy court . . . God is angry.

In the eyes of God, this is a cover up to hide that which the people are not doing.  They are not loving one another . . . they are not taking care of each other.  They are mean and nasty towards one another.  They are ignoring those in need . . . the oppressed, the orphans, the widows, the people on the outside looking in.  They have turned their backs on God and the ways of God to seek out their own glory and power.  They have chosen to rely upon themselves and not God.  And, God has had enough.

I imagine, that in the listening to this passage, more than one or two of you sitting out there probably thought to yourselves that this description of what the people were doing at the time of Isaiah is not too far off from the time that we are living in.  I imagine that more than one or two of you saw the similarity of what was happening in the reading as being true for today.  As a people of today . . . of now . . . we are not without our prophets, and those prophets have been calling for the people to listen and change in light of the times we are living in.  These are not times for the weak as we look around and see the turmoil and violence occurring on a daily—nearly hourly—basis.  The prophets of today are echoing the words of God spoken by Isaiah so long ago.

But, wait.  The faithful still have a presence in the world.  There is worship.  There are gatherings.  There are celebrations.  There are meetings.  Yet, the question that needs to be asked is whether or not any of this is making a difference . . . is our faith changing the world to be a better place . . . to a place where all are accepted, embraced, and welcomed into the fellowship and family of God.  The question is are we about “kingdom” building or are we just going through the motions?  Or, are we playing an elaborate game of charade?

To be honest, I have my opinion . . . just as each of you has your opinion.  With those opinions we can argue and debate for days on end and still get no closer to attaining God’s will for the family of God.  In doing this we only perpetuate the charade.  No, we need a plan of action.  God, through Isaiah, offered the people a plan of action.  God says, “Come now, let us reason together.”

Let us reason together.  To reason with God we begin with prayer.  In the presence of God we offer to God our lives . . . not only our words, but our actions . . . the very way that we live our lives.  In prayer we offer ourselves and then we wait in the silence to hear the voice of God.  God will speak . . . God will speak if we are patient and truly listening with all of our senses.  And then, we discern.  We discern the message of God to each of us . . . discern what it is that God is asking us to do.  If we do not understand what it is that God is asking, then we offer that up to God also.  We continue to pray for God to receive us as we are and to send us out into the world to live God’s will.  In this process we reason with God.  In this way we return to God.

This was the offer that God gives to the people in our reading this morning.  It is a call to return to God and God’s ways.  A call to set aside the charade . . . to set aside the selfishness causing them to sin . . . and, to return to God once again to embrace the grace and love.  To obey God.  To trust God.  If the people are willing to do this then God promises them redemption.  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.  If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best of the land,” says God to the people.

That is a promise.  God says so.

At the same time, God warns the people: “. . . but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”  God is not going to choose for the people, it will be up to them.  Neither will God choose for us.  It will be up to each of us as individuals . . . as the children of God.
Faith is not a state of being.  Faith is action . . . action that reflects what we truly believe.  In light of the world we are living in today, does our faith truly reflect our love for God and for one another in such a way that we are striving to build God’s kingdom in this time and place?  And, if it is not, are we just trampling down God’s courts?  The only way we will ever know is to take it to God in prayer, discern, and strive together to do God’s will.

God loves us . . . shouldn’t we love God?  May our lives truly reflect the love of God in all that we do and say.  Amen.