Sunday, January 31, 2010

Today is the Day to Give God Control of Your Finances

Luke 12:13-34

I think that the hardest things for pastors to preach about are sin and money.  It’s hard to preach on sin because it hits too close to home.  Jesus had a unique standing when preaching about sin, because he never sinned, but the rest of us speak as participants.  Yes, cleansed from sin by the grace of God and the gift of Jesus on the cross, but participants nonetheless.  And it’s hard to preach on money because I don’t know if there’s anything else that we take so personally – maybe music.  But when someone else has the audacity to “suggest” what we are supposed to do with “our” hard-earned money, it’s just downright offensive.

That said, Jesus talked a lot about money.  In fact, he talked more about money than he did heaven or hell.  There must be something to it if Jesus thought it was worth his time to talk about. 

So today we’re going to talk about money.  Here’s the big picture: anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ is by definition an idol.  And in our society, money is the biggest idol there is.  People put their time and energy into what is most important to them; this is what Jesus was saying when he said this: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

To adequately talk about money, we have to see what that full breadth of the scriptures has to say about it.  It’s easy to take one or two verses and construct your entire theology based on them, and this is done all the time by purveyors of the so-called prosperity gospel.  The Bible is so full of references to money and prosperity that to only look at a few is a real disservice. That’s one reason to read the whole Bible, not just your favorite parts.  A few years ago, there was a big craze over Bruce Wilkinson’s book The Prayer of Jabez – focusing on one Old Testament verse in which Jabez prayed for God to “enlarge my territory” and God granted his request.  Though Wilkinson was clear that this "enlarging of territory" was all about being able to have the resources to glorify God and to use for Him, many took his message out of context and concluded that "as long as I pray the 'Prayer of Jabez' faithfully, then God will give me money."

Taking certain verses by themselves, we could agree with the prosperity gospel folks; as long as you pray for something with enough fervor, God will give you money. In places the Bible does show wealth as a sign of faithfulness.  So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul-  then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. (Deuteronomy 11:13-15)

The Book of Proverbs is full of sayings telling us that wealth is the reward for working hard (Prov. 12:27 The lazy man does not roast his game, but the diligent man prizes his possessions.)

However, wealth also brings with it the chance of idolatry: It gets in the way of worshiping God, and money itself becomes an idol. Ezekiel 7:19 (Message) They throw their money into the gutters.  Their hard-earned cash stinks like garbage. They find that it won't buy a thing they either want or need on Judgment Day. They tripped on money and fell into sin.

I love the way that last line reads: They tripped on money and fell into sin.

Here’s the thing: there are plenty of prosperity preachers who equate having tons of money with having God’s blessing.  But on the other hand, we often try to vilify money, incorrectly quoting Paul by saying “Money is the root of all evil” (it’s really The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. 1 Timothy 6:10a).  The truth is that money is a resource that is necessary for human needs.  Throughout the scriptures, this is seen as a good thing. The early church sold property and gave the money to the poor; this wouldn’t have been possible if they didn’t have wealth enough to sell properties! 

Our society has programmed us to believe that the end goal is money.  What is the American Dream if not financial wealth?  Owning one’s own home? As a nation, we have aimed at prosperity.  And as a Christian, I find myself more and more opposed to that notion. You see, money is not true wealth. (Ben Witherington III. Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis. p. 69)

Money isn’t true wealth.  This is what Jesus is saying in today’s scripture.  Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12:15)  There is something much bigger than money. Jesus tells his followers not to worry – to learn the lesson of the birds and the flowers, who God loves enough to care for.  Seek first His kingdom, and He will give you food and clothes and shelter, too.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “I’ll give you huge screen TVs and giant mansions and brand new gas guzzlers and boats and private jets.”

He will give you what you need to live. I have experienced this firsthand.  Let me back up a little bit and tell you what things were like when Tara and I were newlyweds.

  • All stressful things at once: graduation, quit job, get married, move to KY, start seminary
  • No job: dad had to sign that he would give us $ to get us in govt subsidized housing; date night was window shopping at Walmart; nachos at Taco Bell
  • Building project at church – decided that we needed to give tithe above and beyond pledge for the building. Never saw the building while we were there, but were blessed.
  • Money came in: scholarship, money from Ron & Ashley, money in SPO
r Or when I was going to Russia on a mission trip – God knew that it would change my life and the lives of the Russian students I would meet.  I didn’t have enough money to go $3300 was a lot of money for a college student.  My dad (again) offered money (that he didn’t really have). I took a second job and a third.  But then the money started pouring in.  We had a garage sale that brought in over $800 (I sold my game system and all my CDs). I went to visit a church that I’d been going to a few years back, and they had a missionary as a guest speaker – to Eastern Europe, of all places.   After church I was talking to him, and someone came up and overheard that I was going to Russia and wrote me a $50 check.  In the end, I had collected so much money that I was able to redirect some of it to help pay for someone else’s trip. And my extra jobs?  I didn’t have to pay any of that money toward the trip; and I earned more money that Spring than I had earned in my entire previous summer of employment; I was able to use it for tuition.

2 Corinthians 9:11, You will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous. And when we take your gifts to those who need them, they will thank God.
Money isn’t just a neutral means of exchange either.  There’s a reason that Jesus personified money by calling it “Mammon.”  It can be an object of devotion which actually competes with God for our love and attention.  It can be a stumbling block that gets in the way of us following Jesus completely.  To one rich man who wanted to know how to get eternal life, Jesus said, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. (Luke 18:22-23). His great wealth stood between him and following Jesus, and, indeed, between him and eternal life.
Where is your treasure?  You see, people put their time, energies, and resources into those things they value, those things dear to their heart. Resources invested in material things are a sure sign that the things of this world are valued and not the things of God’s kingdom.
Indeed, the parable Jesus told about the farmer who needed bigger barns concludes with God calling the man a fool.  You have to understand that a fool isn’t an idiot.  Fools are self-centered people who think they run their own lives and worlds.  They fail to take into account God, God’s will, and God’s word.  Fools may well be smart of even savvy about some things.  But they are not wise, they are not spiritually discerning about the real nature of life and reality.  (Ben Witherington III).
In contrast, a person who really trusts God finds it easier to let go of material things and be motivated to kindness and generosity.
Dr. Witherington asks the question: “How do we deprogram ourselves from the seductive values of our culture when it comes to materialism and conspicuous consumption?”  In other words, how do we give God control of our money?
1.      We have to start by understanding what the Bible really says about money.  God isn’t a magic genie, just waiting to give us riches. In fact, we as some of the world’s wealthiest people need to understand that God’s plan doesn’t look like the world’s.  That maybe we need to think more about simplifying and self-sacrifice.

2.      Develop a good sense of the difference between necessities and luxuries: When we are evaluating the difference between necessities and luxuries we need to pause before we say “God would never ask me to give or give up X.”

3.      Make a commitment to ministerial projects that require a sacrifice.  When we were involved in the building campaign at Southland Christian, one of my friends, a huge Nebraska football fan, gave up cable TV for 3 years and gave the money he would have spent on cable to the church. That was a sacrifice, because Lexington is SEC country and you rarely get a Nebraska game on network TV in that part of the country.

4.      If making money is no longer an issue, devote the rest of your life to ministry projects. My sister’s church building was partially built by retired Lutherans who go from place to place, living in RVs, building churches.

5.      Evaluate your budget, especially discretionary spending funds.  Dave Ramsey would be high-fiving us on this one.  Make 3 envelopes: save, give, and spend.  When the “spend” envelope is empty, don’t spend any more!

6.      Decrease the amount of waste in your life. I’ve thought about this: I love a good can of Coke (actually, a glass bottle is better).  I love fountain Coke. When I go out to eat, however, I rarely order a Coke anymore.  Why?  Because I buy Coke in 12 packs, and they cost between $2.50 and $3.  For 12. Or I can buy one at a restaurant for $2 for a single serving. That’s wasteful spending.  Evaluate your spending and see where the waste is.

7.      “Hang out with the holy rollers, not the high rollers.”  In other words, who are your friends? Do you find yourself having to spend a lot to hang out with them? I remember being a part of a wealthy Sunday School class where the guys all decided to go to Promise Keepers.  A good thing, right? Except they went to the one in Denver, Colorado, so they could go camping and mountain climbing for a week after.  Meanwhile all of their wives went shopping.  In Boston.  We didn’t have the money to hang out with them.

8.      Stop assuming that there are no problems with capitalism (“what’s mine is mine and if I choose to share it, I’m philanthropic”) – though communism isn’t any better (what’s yours is actually ours and we must confiscate it or treat it as public property). Regularly asses what good stewardship of personal property looks like.

9.      Declare a Jubilee Year, forgiving someone who owes you a debt & lend money interest free.

I want to conclude with John Wesley’s advice on the use of money.
1.      Gain all you can. (honestly, without hurting anyone)
2.      Save all you can – don’t be wasteful.
3.      Give all you can (this *starts* with a tithe...)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Today is the Day to Give God Your Dreams

One thing that makes humans unique is our ability to dream.  No, I’m not talking about the kind of recurring dream where you’re at school and you can’t remember your locker combination or you look down and figure out you forgot to put on clothes…  I’m talking about the dreams where you think of the future, your plans, and where you’d like to be in five years, ten years… 

I remember sitting in a hot tub with my best friend – talking about the future, about where we’d be.  Lucrative jobs, money flowing in, fast cars…  Guess what?  Neither of us is living that dream. 
I’ve talked to a bunch of brides who don’t have any affiliation with a church (or, for that matter, a real belief system at all), but they want to have a “church wedding” because they’ve always dreamed of walking down that aisle.

Many of us have dreams. What kind of dreams do you have?  What is your goal?  Where are you heading?  Now understand that the reason we have dreams is because God made us that way.  God made us to be dreamers.  God made us to be people who boldly strike out to seek fulfillment of our dreams.  This past week we celebrated the life of a man who boldly proclaimed “I have a dream” – a dream of racial equality in America. 

What happens when you’ve dreamed, you’ve done everything, and yet you’ve not seen any results?  One of my friends, Becky Piatt, is a United Methodist pastor in Westerville, and she has traveled the journey of waiting for God to fulfill her dream.  Check out her story.
Becky stood in line with other famous women in the Bible: Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who was ninety years old and barren; Hannah, Samuel’s mother, who poured out her soul to the LORD, asking for a son; Elizabeth, whose husband, Zechariah, the priest, doubted the word of the angel Gabriel, who told him his (elderly) wife would give birth… women whose prayers God heard, women who God granted that dream of being a mother.

But that isn’t always what happens.  I am fairly certain that each of you knows someone who has never realized his or her deepest dream.  In fact, that person may be you.  You know the woman who is crushed every mother’s day because she hasn’t had the child she has been praying for.  You might be the person whose loved one died, even though your dream was to grow old together.  Maybe your dream died so long ago that you don’t dare to dream anymore. Maybe you can relate to Becky’s story as you wait for an answer to your prayer, fulfillment of your dream.

This morning, let’s look at dreams – how to give your dreams to God like Becky did. First of all, remember that there are many kinds of dreams.  Some are God-given dreams, but others aren’t.  Last week I told you Mike Yaconelli’s story about a girl in his congregation who dreamed of her church offering radical hospitality to the carnies who came to town every year.  Clearly a God-given dream.  My dream of hitting a three-pointer at the buzzer to win a national championship… probably not a God-given dream.

Now, this might sound counter-intuitive, but one of the keys to following and achieving the dream that God has given you is to surrender your dream to God

I cannot stress enough how important it is to surrender your dream to God.  Becky shared how she had to surrender the dream of giving birth to her own child – how she and her husband had already decided to pursue adoption and how she was able to celebrate all of the youth she got to “mother” – and because she had surrendered her dream to God, the route of adoption would not have been merely “second best” but true fulfillment in her life.  In his book The Dream Giver, Bruce Wilkinson stresses the importance of giving your dream to God. “If you don’t surrender your dream, you will be placing it higher on your priority list than God.   You will go forward from this moment with a break in your relationship with your Dream Giver. Your dream will become an idol.  But your dream – no matter how big – will make a tiny god. Your dream is meant to be about more than itself or you. A God-given dream brings you together with what God wants to do in His world through you. You are meant to be a river of blessing, not a puddle drying in the sun.”

I’ve told you multiple times how going to seminary meant giving up my dream of coaching soccer.  But once I had chosen to follow His plan, He gave me the soccer coaching gig, too.

Maybe your dream is something you’ll be working toward for all of your life – maybe you were meant to only be a part of the dream and someone else will come along after you and they will see the fruition of what you set out to accomplish.  When I returned from my mission trip to Russia in 1993, one of the debriefing questions I was asked was, “What are you going to do next?” meaning – how was God calling me to use what I’d learned and how I’d grown while on the mission field.  My response was short-term; I was going to start a Bible study in my fraternity.  I had a dream of reaching my fraternity for Christ.  We started with four of us; me, Drew, David, and Weasel (my roommate whom I forced to come).  I led the study for a year; we started out meeting in my room at the fraternity house.  Then it grew a little bit, and more than four really wouldn’t fit in my room, so we moved upstairs to the library.  We still hadn’t “reached the fraternity” though.   
The next year I graduated and turned leadership over to Drew.  Sometimes during that next year, I’d come back and visit Drew’s Bible study, which had outgrown the library and now was so large that they had to meet in the living room.  Which enabled them to reach new guys… I had the dream, but it wasn’t about me – it was about God. And I stood in line with the heroes of the faith, who did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. (Hebrews 11:13)

When it comes to your God-given dream, remember that God has planted it in your heart.  You might be thinking that it’s overwhelming, that you can’t accomplish it, that you’ll never see the fruit of your dream.  This week I got a phone call from Asbury Seminary – they call their alumni every year to keep in touch and to ask for prayer requests.  After Nancy (the caller) prayed for me and told me about the neat things that were going on, I asked how I could pray for her. She is an empty-nest, second-career seminary student, and she doesn’t know where God is leading her.  But she is sure that she is following a God-given dream of becoming a pastor.

Sounds overwhelming, but here’s the thing: God-given dreams often seem overwhelming at the outset.  Why?  Because God loves to take “little” people and accomplish great things with them. Little people like Gideon, the runt of the litter, of the weakest family of the smallest tribe of Israel. Little people like Moses the stutterer.  Little people like David the shepherd. Little people like Peter the fisherman.  Little people like you and me.

And God uses little people to accomplish great things for Him.  This is an important reminder when we’re looking at God-given dreams; if they are truly God-given, they will serve God’s bigger plan in the world.  I practiced that last second shot in my backyard all the time, but that wasn’t going to serve God’s bigger plan; it was all about me getting carried off the court in victory.  Now, this isn’t to say that sports can’t be a God-given dream; I lived in central Kentucky when Cameron Mills helped lead UK to the NCAA championship.  Cameron Mills was an excellent basketball player, but he saw his stardom and celebrity status as simply a means to an end.  His real goal was to share Jesus Christ, and being who he was in a UK basketball crazy state, he had an excellent platform to share.

Unfortunately the obstacles to following God-given dreams are huge.  Any of us could find thousands of objections or reasons why you can’t reach your dream. And most of us have plenty of negative voices telling us we can’t do it.

Bruce Wilkinson outlines five types of negative voices in his book The Dream Giver. There’s the bully who beats you down. There’s the alarmist telling you “it’s not safe.” There’s the traditionalist saying “that’s not the way we do it” or “we’ve never done it that way.” The defeatist says “it’s not possible.” And there’s the antagonist making sure you know that “I won’t let you succeed.”  I wonder which of these negative people had frustrated the paralyzed man in our scripture today.  Jesus asked him “Do you want to get well?” His response: “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me. (John 5:6b-7)

Did you notice that this guy never answered Jesus’ question?  He never said, “Yes, I want to be healed.”  Instead he focused on the objections, why he hadn’t achieved his dream of healing. I wonder if those weren’t all of his objections.  Like, what happened if he did make it into the water and nothing happened?

Sometimes the fear of failure itself can paralyze. All of those negative voices keep adding up.  This is too big for you to do it.  We know who you are – you’re just a nobody.  Nothing good could ever come from Millersport.  Or Perry County.  This is exactly what they said about Jesus.  Jesus told Philip, “Follow me.” So Phillip went and found his friend Nathanael and told him, “We’ve found the Messiah!!! The one Moses wrote about!  The one the Prophets foretold! And he’s from Nazareth!” That was the wrong move.  Nazareth was a backwater.  A nothing. Nowhere. Nathanael’s response: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”  (John 1:43-46 paraphrased).

Instead of focusing on how impossible your dream is, focus on the God who gave you the dream.  Keep praying for the result you’ve dreamed of.  For 38 years the paralyzed man had hoped for healing.  Have you ever dreamed a dream for so long that you don’t even believe in it anymore? Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story is a great reminder that God is still listening.  I love what Becky had to say about this: the only thing that is impossible for God is to do nothing. Even if every obstacle stands in your way, God is still working on your behalf.  So continue to pray and pour your heart out to God. Here’s the thing: God doesn’t just do miracles for the sake of showing off.  Jesus was clear about this.  In Matthew 12, the Pharisees demanded that Jesus do a miracle for them.  He told them no, and then he gave this strange speech. When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it.  Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there.  And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45).

Unless the result of a miracle is that the person surrenders their life to Jesus and allows the Holy Spirit to fill them, in the end, they will be worse off than they started out.  This holds true for you and your dreams as well.  Give God your dreams and allow Him to fill you.  Or another way to put it is this: seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33).

As you focus on God, believe that He will fulfill your dream, and behave as if God is fulfilling your dream. Becky referenced the “nothing is impossible with God” scripture from Luke 1 – but shortly before that scene was the scene where God told Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth, well along in years, would have a child.  Now, we know that Mary’s pregnancy was miraculous – that she conceived having never slept with Joseph.  This wasn’t the case with Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Luke 1:23 says When his time of service [in the Temple] was completed, he returned home. After this, his wife Elizabeth became pregnant… You see, they had a part to play in the fulfillment. 

When I’d moved to New Knoxville, I was sad to leave my soccer team, and I dreamed that God would give me the opportunity to play.  So when I first arrived there, I took my soccer ball and walked down to the city park, where I met a couple of people who I quickly became friends with, a teenager from the high school team (who is now in the Air Force in Afghanistan) and a parent of teenagers who was disillusioned with the institutional church.  Two people who I could reach out to with God’s love.  Meanwhile, I was getting to play soccer.  I simply lived out what I knew to be true. 

So if you believe God is really working on your behalf, what does that mean for you?  For Nancy, the woman from Asbury Seminary to whom I spoke this week, it meant researching the next steps for a career change and taking the time to take seminary classes toward her degree.  For Cameron Mills of Kentucky basketball fame, it meant a whole lot of time in the gym shooting jump shots and free throws (as well as even more time in the Word of God and prayer). 

What might your life look like if you were to behave as if God is working to fulfill your dream? What part might you need to play?  If you dream of raising Godly children, your part might be to become the spiritual leader that God is calling you to be in your family. Are you modeling Christlikeness in front of them?  Do they see you spending time in the Word and in prayer? If you dream to be at the center of a ministry that reaches our community, you might need to start with small acts of service. If your dream is for your cell group to be a meaningful, growing part of the body of Christ, maybe you need to start by opening up and sharing your struggles and what God is teaching you through them.  If your dream is to see our church grow, you need to share Jesus with someone – maybe invite them to church or to your cell group.  God sometimes intervenes miraculously, but usually He asks little, ordinary people like us to take a step of faith to accomplish the dreams He has given us.

So, what are your dreams?  What’s it going to take to see them come true?  I’ll invite you to spend some time prayerfully reflecting about that and asking God to show you next steps.  Write it down.  Have you surrendered your dream to God?  Or has the dream become an idol for you? Are you willing to step away from your dream if stepping away will accomplish God’s plan for you?  Are you totally focused on God?  And are you working toward accomplishment of the dream?  Today is the day to Trust God with Your Dreams.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Today is the Day to Stop Running and Do Hard Things

Do those words from the Psalmist hit home for you? Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm. (Psalm 55:6-7). We are wired to respond to acute stress by “fight or flight” in which we either meet our problems head on or we run from them.  Not only am I a runner physically, but I am naturally a runner when it comes to conflict, too.  I would rather have everyone just be happy and get along together.  I don’t like conflict! I would rather run!

But the truth is that God calls us as Christians to do hard things.  We are not called to run away from trouble. 

Last week I mentioned the “faith hall of fame” in Hebrews 11, and how all of these heroes of the Bible lived by faith.  They lived by faith even to the point of death, and they were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.  And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. (Hebrews 11:13) Abraham left his family and followed God’s call, even though he didn’t know where he was going (Hebrews 11:8).  God led Moses to set aside his position as a son of the Pharaoh and to lead God’s people out of slavery.  God called young David to fight Goliath. God called Esther to risk her life in order to save her people from genocide.  Jesus told his disciples If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)  This is the exact opposite of taking the easy way out! 

This is the only way to truly be a Christian.  It’s not taking the easy way out.  It’s not just taking things as they come, skating by, or just doing what comes naturally.  In fact, Jesus went as far as to say Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14).  Jesus is telling us that to follow Him is to do hard things.

What kinds of hard things might God be asking us to do?  Really, the possibilities are endless, but teenage brothers Brett and Alex Harris have put together a pretty good list in their book Do Hard Things.  (by the way, if you are a teenager or if you have teenage or preteen children, this should be required reading)  Check out their website at

They suggest that God will lead us to do hard things that will:
Take us outside our comfort zone: When I was in seminary, one day I was doing laundry at the Laundromat. You can meet some really interesting characters at the Laundromat!  As I was doing my laundry, trying to read something or other for a class, I ended up in conversation with a woman who had been going through a really rough time.  While we were talking, I think I heard God’s voice, telling me to pray for her. After she’d left, I was sure that was what I was supposed to do.  I didn’t know how it would go, and I was nervous about it.  And anyway I’d missed my chance.  So I prayed that I’d get another chance, and that this time I wouldn’t blow it.  Wouldn’t you know it, as I was loading my clean clothes into the car, she came back.  I asked her if I could pray for her, and she immediately began to cry.  Tears streamed down her face as she told me, “Nobody has prayed for me in years.”

Praying with a stranger wasn’t “within” my comfort zone.  But it was needed.  Some of you have some pretty small comfort zones, and they need stretched!  What are some things you can do to stretch your comfort zone?  Start this way: pray that the Holy Spirit will lead you as you move out of that comfort zone, that He will show you who to reach out to. 

Go beyond what’s expected or required: This is what Jesus was talking about when he told his listeners “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles(Matthew 5:40-41).  This is countercultural, and people don’t expect it.  People expect to get the bare minimum.  Have you ever had a waiter or waitress who really goes beyond the call of duty?  You notice it, don’t you!

Listen to this story Mike Yaconelli shared in his book Dangerous Wonder.
Our town ins small by California standards – one traffic light and six thousand residents.  One Sunday morning I was preaching about the unconditional love of God, a love that was outside the lines and resulted in the church loving outside the lines.  Our church is different from most; the congregation feels free to interrupt me during my sermons.  Just as I was finishing, a sixteen year old girl said, “This is a good sermon, Pastor, but I was thinking that if we are supposed to love outside the lines, then I know how we can do it.  In three weeks the Siskiyou County Fair is coming, and with the fair come the ‘carnies.’” (The “carnies are itinerant workers who operate the rides of the traveling carnival.  Every year the carnies are the talk of our rural town.  Most of them are tough-looking and scary with lots of tattoos, huge muscles, and hard-looking faces.  People always make derogatory comments about them.)

The high school girl continued, “I was thinking that instead of making fun of the carnies, maybe we should have a dinner and welcome them to town.”

The church agreed, and this young girl organized the entire event.  She called the manager of the fair for permission, called the owner of the carnival to see if they would want a dinner.  The carnival owner suggested a lunch just before the fair opened.  “Okay,” said the girl, “We will barbeque hamburgers and cheeseburgers and have salads, desserts, and soft drinks. All you can eat.  How many can we expect?” After some thought, the owner said to expect fifty. 

The day of the lunch about twenty people from the church showed up to help serve. There was enough food for seventy. At twelve-thirty when the lunch was to begin, only four carnies showed up. By one-thirty, however we hadn’t served 50 carnies, or 75 carnies, or even 150 carnies.  We had served 200 carnies. When it looked like we would run out of food, the young girl came running up to me, the pastor , and said, “We’re running out of food.  GET SOME!” We did.

When the lunch was over, numerous carnies came up to the young girl and thanked her.  One older lady who had been working carnivals for a long time said, “I have been doing carnivals for forty years, and this is the first time I’ve been welcomed to town.” The all-you-can-eat carnie lunch has been going for seven years now, all because a teenage girl was na├»ve enough to believe God loved a group of carnies as much as He loved her. (Mike Yaconelli: Dangerous Wonder, NavPress. 1998.)

Which of these carnies expected to get welcomed to town?  Let alone an all-you-can-eat meal. Yet this girl and her church went above and beyond what was expected and truly served them.

Are too big for us to do alone: Have you ever thought about a problem and shook your head and said: I could never do something about that?   I’m just one person…

Ginghamsburg Church is a 4500+ United Methodist congregation in Tipp City, Ohio. In December 2008, Senior Pastor Mike Slaughter challenged Ginghamsburg’s attendees for the fifth year to match what they spend on Christmas gifts bring that in for the Sudan Project “Miracle Offering.”  This year’s result? Nearly $700,000 to continue Ginghamsburg’s child protection & development program, serving 19,000 children in Darfur, Sudan, while also expanding a four-year project enabling 14 water yards that will provide safe water and sanitation for 219,000 people, the most critical health need in Darfur today. The 2008 offering total was especially miraculous given the economic crisis and that Dayton, Ohio, was named by Forbes magazine in August 2008 as one of the 10 fastest dying cities in America.

They have put 6900 Sudanese families back into the farming business in 2005 and had a successful harvest that has now expanded to feed 80,000 people.  They have trained 190 teachers, constructed or rehabilitated 149 schools and gave 19,000 children educational materials.

Which of us could do that on our own?  But together, one church has accomplished all of that.

Don’t pay off immediately: Learning how to study, even when schoolwork comes easy.  Shooting 500 free throws every day.  Getting up early to start your day in prayer every day.  The first day of a diet.  Deciding to forgive.

Go against the crowd: remaining sexually pure.  Not cheating on your taxes.  Driving the speed limit.  Not cheating on tests.  Not accepting a victim mentality and working to better yourself.  Deliberately not climbing the corporate ladder, even though it would mean more money – because you’ve chosen to spend more time with your family.  I remember being a part of a Sunday School class of yuppie newlyweds. When we were having a discussion about career and children and Tara said, “I want to stay home with my children,” you would have thought she was speaking Greek by the way our colleagues responded. How about reaching out to people who your society has labeled as undesirable?

I’ll add to their list this one: Do hard things that nobody will know you did. I remember coming home from church after the first snow we experienced in New Knoxville, only to find that my sidewalk had been completely shoveled.  I had no idea who had done it. Later I found out that my 90 year old neighbor had been out shoveling.  Once I got to be a part of giving an anonymous gift to some families at Christmas time.  That was so fun, and I remember seeing the thank-you note they wrote to the church and was just excited to have been a part of it.

My friend Rob Turner is a pastor in Zanesville and one of my closest friends.  He was actually one of my top motivations to run a marathon.  The following link goes to a video he made for us.

I love this quote from Rob: If you can force yourself to run 50 miles on purpose with nobody chasing you, don’t you think you could let me help you do some other hard things, like face your junk or deal with your stuff? That 50 mile race hurt you for months, but this stuff has been hurting you for years.

I know many of you do hard things already - so when was the last time God led you to do something hard?  If you can’t think of a time, maybe you’re not listening to Him. This might be the hard thing God is calling you to do: stop simply getting fed by the pastor and start eating solid food on your own. In 1 Corinthians 3:2, Paul tells the people of Corinth that he had to treat them as spiritual infants.  He said, I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.  In Hebrews 5 we find a similar statement: By this time you ought to be teachers, but you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.  You need milk, not solid food… But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:12, 14)

Maybe God is calling you to do the hard work of actually reading and studying His Word for yourself.   Maybe God is calling you to tell someone about Him.  Maybe to invite them to your cell group or to church.  Or maybe it’s time to get vulnerable and actually share what’s going on in your life.  Maybe it’s time to confront sin in your life or actually confess to a trusted friend what’s going on. 

Here’s the thing: God blesses us when we do hard things.  I remember as a small child, I was horrified to find out that other children weren’t going to get toys for Christmas, and I decided that I needed to help.  Now I had plenty of toys, but I felt like I needed to give something nice.  So I gave my favorite toy, a beat-up old camera.  It wasn’t so much about the camera itself, but the hard thing I did, to give my favorite toy away.  And somehow someone heard about it and gave me a really neat toy camera (and a real one, too).  I ended up being the one who was blessed.

When I was appointed to Stonybrook UMC, we went to Appalachia to do a service project every year, and when we were done working, sweating, sleeping in gyms, enduring hard circumstances, do you know who felt most blessed?  It was us.  But God also blesses others when we do hard things.  God blesses the world through us.  And it’s often because of the hard things we’re willing to do that others take notice, not just of us, but of Him.  They say, “You’re different, and I want to know why!”  And then we get the wonderful opportunity to point them to Him.

Remember how we started this message?  Oh, that I had the wings of a dove, that I could fly away Jesus also talked about birds.  In Matthew 6:25-26, he said this: Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they?  If God loves the birds and takes care of them, don’t you think He will take care of us as we do hard things for Him?

And there will be people whose eternity is sealed because you were willing to do hard things… or not.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Today is the Day to Stop Waiting and Start Living

Living in exile.  Life isn’t what it was supposed to be.  Apart from the ones you love.  Though you live here, your heart is somewhere else.  Life is hard, and you’ve found yourself waiting.  Still waiting.  It feels like you are living in exile.  This isn’t how you’d envisioned that your life would turn out.  Life is hard in exile, no matter how things got that way.  It’s even harder when you know things aren’t right.  This was the story for God’s people. 
God’s original plan was that God would live face-to-face with his people, in perfect unity and community.  But once Adam and Eve sinned, that ruined this plan, and they were banished from the Garden of Eden.  Then God said he would bless all people on earth through Abraham. God told him “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)  But the people of Israel didn’t live out their part of the covenant.  One of the most depressing books I’ve ever read is Judges; it details the people of Israel’s failures to follow Him, again and again.  In fact, when you read the Old Testament, you will see the same pattern repeated time and again.  God’s people are living in prosperity, and they take their eyes off Him.  Then their enemies overrun them and they finally turn back to God.  Eventually their enemies overrun them to the point where they carry them off into exile.
This is the context of Jeremiah 29.  In verse 1, we read that Nebuchadnezzar had carried the people of Judah into exile, but in verse 4, it says that God did it.  Which was it? Who took Judah into exile?  Was it God’s way of punishing the disobedience of his people, or was it the act of an outsider who came to conquer?  The short answer is “yes.” Both things are true.  God’s people were disobedient and had broken their covenant with God.   Meanwhile, King Nebuchadnezzar was out to take their land.  Here’s the thing: there are times when we are in exile, but no matter how you got there, God isn’t surprised, and God hasn’t abandoned you there.
The key to living in exile is to walk in obedience to God, no matter the circumstances.  Judah’s exile had everything to do with their disobedience, and for them, exile was their discipline.  They had to learn to depend on the LORD, to love Him, to love justice, to walk in obedience. If your disobedience has led you into exile, you’re going to have to walk the road of repentance and transformation. 
Often the exile we find ourselves in isn’t about disobedience; it’s more about the circumstances we find ourselves living through in this fallen world.  Life can be extremely hard, but Jeremiah had some interesting advice.  He told the people of Judah who were living in Babylonian exile to build houses, settle down, and live life.  This might seem impossible; you resent where you are with every fiber of your being (whether the “where” is a place or a circumstance). You resent cancer.  You resent loneliness. You resent having to take care of your aging parents. You resent having things not be what you wanted or what you asked for.  You resent failure.  You resent not seeing answers to your prayers. You even resent the resentful feelings you have. 
You now have a choice in how to respond.  I have been enjoying watching college football bowl games, but one thing bugs me.  If you watch football, you’ll recognize this: it’s fourth down, and the announcer says, “Now they’re forced to punt.” Really, they’re not forced to punt.  They can go for it.  They can try again.  Likewise with all of us who are suffering through exile.  We can choose our attitude!  I remember “suffering” through a horribly boring concert at a youth convention in high school.  After sitting around for a while, complaining about how awful it was, my friend and I had an idea.  We made our way down to the front and began dancing.  We were the only ones down in front.  But shortly we looked around and saw that not only had many more kids come down front, but a majority of those in the stands were echoing our silly dances.  We chose to have fun.  Though my sister was horrified, everyone else had a blast.  And it was because we chose our attitude.
1 Peter 2:9-12 But you are a  chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.  Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
Live good lives among the pagans.  Meaning, don’t just take on their lifestyle.  Just because you’re in a small town, you don’t have to gossip about your neighbors.  Or just because you’re in a suburb doesn’t mean you can be isolated from your neighbors.  Or just because you’re in a city doesn’t mean you can ignore your neighbors.  Live such a good life that the people around you see that there’s something different, something right, something good about you.  
Often when we’re in exile, the natural temptation is to put life on hold.  Life isn’t going anything like you’d planned…  maybe after you move, things will be OK. Maybe when you’re finished with your treatment plan, or when you’ve earned enough money to get you back on track, so you pull back from your activities and friends.  You’ll just wait until you’re back from exile.  Then you’ll get back to life.
This isn’t how God told us to deal with living in exile.  Listen to the words he told Jeremiah to pass on: build houses and settle down.  Plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage.  In other words, make yourself comfortable.  You’re going to be in exile for the next 70 years.
I’m sure this isn’t what Jeremiah’s audience wanted to hear.  We’d like to hear that things will turn around now.  The cancer will disappear.  You’ll get that miracle job tomorrow.  You’ll come home to find a voice mail message from your estranged loved one, saying “I’m coming home.” Quite honestly, we want to believe that bad things don’t happen to good people like us. Yet we find ourselves in exile, suffering through tough times, and the Bible just doesn’t support a theology that says that as long as we pray hard enough and believe enough, only good things will happen to us.  Quite the contrary, the book of Jeremiah tells us something else. 
One thing God is telling all of us through this passage is something you’ve heard frequently if you’ve taken The Progress of Redemption class: God is not in a hurry.  For the exiles in Babylon, the wait was going to be 70 years.  Yet sometimes we get up in God’s face and say, “I’ve been praying about this for three days, and you still haven’t answered.  You must not love me.”   That just seems awfully presumptuous.  It’s a matter of not knowing the scriptures and then passing judgment on God based on that lack of knowledge.
In fact, in Hebrews 11, we read what is often called the Faith Hall of Fame, of the heroes of the Bible.  Then get this: 11:13-16: All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.  And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
All of the heroes of faith in the Bible fall into this category. They didn’t see the fulfillment of their hope; they lived life as aliens and strangers.  How are aliens and strangers supposed to live?  Not just live out life, but be a blessing to the people who you live among.  Jeremiah 29:7 says Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
Don’t just live life, but serve the people where you are. Look around.  There are hurting people around you who actually need you.  You might be thinking, “I’m so messed up; what do I have to offer?” You have yourself.  God has shaped you to be in community, to encourage, uplift and support others.  This doesn’t just mean serving people in the church.  In fact, it means the opposite.  It means serving people outside the church.  This isn’t optional.  The reason for this is two-fold.  When we serve the people around us, we are living out our side of God’s covenant with Abraham.  Remember that?  As God’s people, we are to be a blessing; all the earth will be blessed through [us].  But when we serve others, we are demonstrating our love for Jesus.  Jesus tells his followers that whenever we give food to the hungry, give water to the thirsty, invite the stranger in, give clothes to the needy, visit the sick or imprisoned, we do it to Him.  This is how to live out your time in exile.  Serving others.  Think of every detail of every task you have, and do it as if you are doing it specifically for the LORD.  Maybe you are just doing menial chores.  Think of them as for Jesus.
It is hard; I don’t want to minimize your difficulty.  I’ve been there. I’ve lived in exile.  As you depend more and more on Jesus, realize and recognize that you can trust God with your future. When I graduated from seminary, a friend gave me a mug with Jeremiah 29:11 on it. 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.” Understand that God’s plans aren’t always our plans; God always has a plan, and it doesn’t always look like our plans.  We’ve often got to go through our struggles and exiles to prepare us for what God has in store for us.
Andrew’s favorite Bible story is David and Goliath.  I love that story of the underdog defeating the giant.  To an outsider it would look like he didn’t have a chance.  But David was prepared.  How had God prepared him?  In 1 Samuel 17, David told King Saul that he would go and fight Goliath.  Saul replied, “You are not able to go against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth.” But David said to Saul, Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep.  When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth.  When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it, and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God.  The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine. (1 Samuel 17:33-37a)
David would never have faced Goliath if he hadn’t first faced the lion and the bear.  Perhaps God is preparing you for something bigger, something better.  Maybe he is preparing you to help countless others. 
In the meantime, and this is most important, Jeremiah says to seek God.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
This verse is a reminder that the object of our seeking is not the blessing, the reward, or even the strength to get through the exile.  The object of our seeking is God Himself!  And these verses promise us that if we seek God, we will find God.  Exile is a time of learning more about yourself.  When everything else is stripped away, when your job, your health, your looks, your athletic ability, your money, your family are no longer your identity, what you have left is your true character.  This is one of the greatest gifts of being in exile; when everything else is stripped away, we will realize that God Himself is enough.
It’s easy for me to tell you from the pulpit “depend on God for everything” but it’s not easy at all to live it out.  And you’ll never live that out when you have so much other stuff to depend on.  If you are wealthy, you will more likely depend on your money rather than on God.  If you have lots of friends, you will more likely depend on them for support and encouragement rather than on God.  If you are in a happy marriage, you will more likely depend on your spouse for love and intimacy rather than on God.  Exile can help you to find that Jesus really is enough.  Enough for everything. 
I know some of you are living in exile.  I don’t know what your exile is, or how long you’ll be in exile, but I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that God has not abandoned you in your exile.  In fact, God has a plan for you, even in the midst of your suffering.  So no matter what kind of exile you are in, today is the day to stop waiting passively for God to deliver you from exile.  Today is the day to start living, to choose to obey God’s voice while you are waiting, to repent and do what God is calling you to do.  To serve others around you, and to seek God and to worship Him, trusting Him with everything, to trust Him with your future… and your present.