Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Easter Earthquake - Shaking the Powers

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, February 18, 2018 (the first Sunday in Lent) at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS.  Listen to the audio here.

Read Matthew 27:62-66 & Psalm 25:1-7 here.

Many of you know that I grew up in California, which means I grew up with earthquakes. Even though I haven’t lived in earthquake country since 2005, I still live in some ways like I learned to there.  For instance,
·      I don’t have anything hanging on the wall over my bed. 
·      I am careful how I stack things in cupboards and on shelves. 
When you live in earthquake country you live with the expectation that shaking can start at any minute, and in an instant everything can change.  And so you plan accordingly.  Buildings are built differently.  Knick knacks are anchored to shelves with putty.  Because even though you don’t know exactly when earthquakes will happen, you know that they will happen.
Figure 1 Probability of earthquakes
Earthquakes are also common in Palestine, which may be why Matthew is the only gospel writer to tell us about them – the one that happened when Jesus died on the cross, and the other that happened when he was resurrected.[1],[2]  There’s a major fault line that goes right along the Jordan River, up through the middle of the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, because it’s the edge of a tectonic plate.  Earthquakes are so common in Israel[3] that they just spent almost $10 million to upgrade their earthquake detection and warning system.[4]
If you live where earthquakes are common, you plan accordingly, just like we plan here to be prepared for cold weather and tornadoes.
The expectation of earthquakes and cold weather and tornadoes changes how we live.  How does the resurrection change how we live?
Nobody expected it, but they should have. Jesus had told his disciples several times that he would die and then three days later rise again. ( mt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19, 27:60) When the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign, he told them that their sign would be Jonah.
 Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish, as the Son of Man will spend three days and three nights in the belly of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40 The Voice)
The Pharisees remembered this, and in today’s reading they ask Pilate to seal the tomb where Jesus is buried and post a guard – not because they believe the resurrection will happen, but because they want to make certain nobody tries to make it look like it happened.  Ironically, in doing so, they also ensure that when it does happen, we have additional evidence because of the seal and the guard.[5]
Posting guards to watch a dead man is kind of like something we probably have all done – asking somebody to watch our stuff.  Someone will say, “Watch my bag while I go to the bathroom.”  And I’ll say, “Why?  Is it going to do tricks?” 
No, of course not, it’s an inanimate object.  We don’t really expect an inanimate object to do anything.
Expecting an inanimate object to move or a dead man to rise both sound like an exercise in futility.  How in our lives are we doing like Pilate did and doing things that are futile?  Why are they futile?  Because the resurrection changes everything.
We sometimes live as if the resurrection didn’t happen, and death is the end. We pray but so often we don’t really expect God to do anything.  Maybe Paul realized our tendency to live this way when he wrote his prayer to the Ephesians:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead. (Eph 1:17-20)
The immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…. resurrection power.  Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the power of God’s love (Romans 8:38). When we pray we are asking God to bring that resurrection power into the situations and people for whom we’re praying.
Resurrection changes everything.  Resurrection shakes our assumptions about the world, about life, and about death.[6]  Resurrection changes our past, present and future.
Resurrection changes the past
·      Releases the tension
Most earthquakes happen along the fault lines that exist on the edges of the earth’s tectonic plates.  Those plates are not fixed and static.  They are moving.  Tension builds up along those fault lines.  For example, in California, the Pacific plate is slowly drifting north, while the North American plate is drifting south at a rate of about 1” per year.[7]  Tension builds up where these plates are sliding against each other, much of it along the San Andreas fault.
When something happens, and people are trying to figure out what happened, they’ll ask, “Who’s fault is it?”  And of course the answer is, “It’s San Andreas’ fault.”
Sorry.  California joke.  Anyway, earthquakes happen when the tension is released.  Similarly, our lives build up tension when we are hanging on to things – guilt and hurts from our past.  But we don’t have to. The resurrection shows us that because of our faith in Jesus, death and sin don’t have power over us anymore.  Jesus conquered sin and death.
Romans 6:6 (The Voice) We know this: whatever we used to be with our old sinful ways has been nailed to His cross. So our entire record of sin has been canceled, and we no longer have to bow down to sin’s power.
Living in the resurrection’s power means we let go of the baggage of our past, let go of our guilt and shame, and accept the forgiveness and new life that Jesus offers us.
Paul Laurence Dunbar[8] was one of the first influential African-American poets. His home in Dayton, Ohio is open to the public. He died young – he was only 33. When Dunbar died, his mother left his room exactly as it was on the day of his death. At the desk of this brilliant man was his final poem, handwritten on a pad.
After his mother died, her friends discovered that Paul Laurence Dunbar's last poem had been lost forever. Because his mother had made his room into a shrine and not moved anything, the sunlight had bleached the ink in which the poem was written until it was invisible. The poem was gone.[9]
It would have been wonderful to have shared that poem, but in trying to hold on to the past, it was lost.
If we make our faith a shrine, it fades and no one benefits.  But if we share it, it lives on, and we find that….
Resurrection changes the present
We know that it’s hard to change old habits, and so during Lent we give up a bad habit or try out a new discipline.  Sometimes we get to thinking that we need to do this, that we need to do something difficult, to punish ourselves, to do something that makes us suffer because Jesus suffered.
But we attempt hard things during lent not because Jesus endured death on a cross, but because he overcame it and was resurrected.  Whatever we decide to do during Lent ought to be something we truly want to change, something we attempt because we trust in God’s power to resurrect us, to change us, and to make us new.
·     “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Cor 5:17)
Resurrection power is at work in our present, even we can’t see it.  As we work on trusting, this can be our prayer from Psalm 25 (1-2, 4-5):
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
    for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
We wait on God and keep on walking forward in the present, knowing that …
Resurrection changes the future
Even when things look bleak now, we know that God’s resurrecting work continues, and we keep on praying and seeking God’s guidance because we DO know that God changes things, and even if we don’t know what exactly to do right now, we trust that God will show us what to do, and point us to opportunities to help others know God’s resurrecting love.
We grow impatient like the prophets did and cry out to God to do something NOW.
·      Isaiah 64:1 Lord, rend the heavens and come down. 
God doesn’t act in the timing we would like, but if we believe in the power of the resurrection, we are believing that God does and is acting, and will keep on working through willing hearts and hands.
I read this week about a teacher who is making a difference in a surprising way. She knows that loneliness is a major factor in determining which kids become bullies or are victims of bullying. 
Every Friday afternoon, she asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. She also asks the students to nominate one student who they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.
And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her, and studies them. She looks for patterns.
Who is not getting requested by anyone else?
Who can’t think of anyone to request?
Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
[This] teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” [She] is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down—right away—who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.[10]
This teacher is looking for ways to make things better for the kids in her classroom.  Reading her story made me wonder who I might be overlooking in the places I go.  We pay more attention to the people who we know, the people who engage us and connect with us, the outgoing and gregarious people, and in the process we may be unwittingly ignoring those who are suffering in silence, those who most need to know that resurrection changes everything.
There was a little boy named Philip who was born with Down's syndrome. He attended a third-grade Sunday School class with several eight-year-old boys and girls. Typical of that age, the children did not readily accept Philip with his differences, ... But because of a creative teacher, they began to care about Philip and accept him as part of the group on the surface. 
The Sunday after Easter the teacher brought L'eggs pantyhose containers, the kind that look like large eggs. Some of you may remember those.  They stopped making them in 1991.  Each child was given one, and told to go outside on that lovely spring day, find some symbol for new life, and put it in the egg-like container. After running around the church property in wild confusion, the students returned to the classroom and placed the containers on the table. Surrounded by the children, the teacher began to open them one by one. After each one, whether a flower, butterfly, or leaf, the class would ooh and ahh. 
Then one was opened, revealing nothing inside. The children exclaimed, “That's stupid. That's not fair. Somebody didn't do their assignment." 
Philip, the boy with Down syndrome, spoke up, "That's mine." 
"Philip, you don't ever do things right!" one student retorted. "There's nothing there!"  
"I did so do it," Philip insisted. "I did do it. It's empty. the tomb was empty!" 
Silence followed. From then on Philip was fully accepted by the class. He died not long afterward from an infection most children without Down Syndrome would have shrugged off. At the funeral this class of eight-year-olds marched up to the altar not with flowers, but with their Sunday school teacher, each to lay on it an empty pantyhose egg.[11]
Resurrection changes everything.  It changes our expectations and the way we see the world.  Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we know that sin and death do not have the last word.  They do not win.  Love wins.
I really love that this book we’re reading for Lent is called Easter Earthquake,
·      not just because I grew up in earthquake country,
·      and not just because there were earthquakes in the gospel story,
·      but because knowing God’s love has rocked my world, and it is my hope and prayer that everyone would know God’s earth-shaking love. 
·      Everything can change in an instant, but God’s love does not change.
Though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the sea, the steadfast love of God is ours forever. (Psalm 46)
This season of Lent, let us seek God with all our hearts and ask him to help us take to heart the victory that Christ has already won through the resurrection,
·      to help us let go of our baggage from the past,
·      trust in God’s work in the future,
·      and see our present with resurrection eyes,
·      watching for opportunities to be the hope and victory of the resurrection in the lives of those around us,
·      that all might know God’s amazing, life-changing love.

[1] Mathew 27:54, Matthew 28:2
[5] Michael Wilkins, NIV Application Commentary: Matthew (Zondervan), pg. 915.
[6] James A. Harnish, Easter Earthquake: How Resurrection Shakes our World (Upper Room Books, 2017) pgs. 11-12.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

It's In Our DNA

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, February 11, 2018 at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS.  Listen to the audio here.
Read Genesis 12:1-8 and Acts 1:1-8 here.


Did you know there’s a place in London called the Ministry of Stories?[1]  I am thoroughly fascinated by this place.  It’s a place that’s designed specifically to 
encourage creativity and imagination.  It’s especially created with kids in mind, to help them gain confidence in writing and communication skills by being free to write stories.  The environment encourages this.  The programs encourage this.  Because learning to write and express ourselves is an important part of our development and growth.

Do you like stories?

It’s fun to use our imaginations to come up with stories, and to hear stories that came out of someone else’s imagination. We read stories in books, watch them on television, listen to them on the radio, see them acted out on the stage, and watch them in movies. I particularly enjoy science fiction and fantasy stories that involve made up worlds where the laws of physics are a little different from our reality. 

For me, these stories work best when they involve people developing relationships and dealing with situations in which their thoughts and feelings are like what we also experience, so that the setting can be incredible and fantastic and mind-bending while still conveying profound truths about our lives.  Stories like these become classics that get read and reread because they ring true to us, even though they came from someone’s imagination.

Maybe the most powerful stories are the ones that are about real-life events and real people who have experienced incredible things or overcome tremendous obstacles to accomplish amazing things.  Stories about real life engage us and encourage us.  They give us hope.

I got to talk about one of these stories this past week when I was reading to the first graders at the grade school.  They’re learning about the Olympics, and one of the ideas in the book I was reading to be was “underdog.”  The example they gave was the 1980 U.S. ice hockey team.
How many of you remember this? The team wasn’t expected to win much of anything, but then they DID win and kept on winning, and despite all the predictions against this, won the gold medal. 
This was back before the Berlin Wall came down and we were still in the midst of the Cold War, when Russia was still feared as the power behind that wall.  The team that the U.S. beat to win that gold medal was Russia.  The Russians were the favorites, and the United States victory that day was called “the greatest upset in sports history.”[2]  Nobody thought the U.S. even had a chance to beat Russia at hockey, just like nobody at that time thought we would see an end to the Cold War.  But we did, and maybe the one victory gave us hope that there could be the other.

Stories about real life give us hope.
We may not think about the Bible story of Abraham from the book of Genesis quite that way.  Ancient history doesn’t sound like real-life history to us.  It’s lacking in detail.  The timeline is not strictly chronological.  But this ancient story still engages us and encourages us, and gives us hope.
Just before Abraham’s story in Genesis, in chapter 11, we read about the generations between Noah and Abraham, so-and-so begat so-and-so, and so on…and, by the way, the text goes on to say, Sarah was barren and had no children (11:30). Remembering all that begatting, and that Sarah is barren, we come to God’s promise to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you . . . and all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3).  Quite a promise to make to a man who has no children. 
In the midst of barrenness, there is hope. 
In the midst of barrenness, God brings a vision for the future.[3]

Q. Who was the smartest man in the Bible?
A. Abraham. He knew a Lot.[4]  (Ba-dum-pum)

We call this Abraham’s story, but really, this is God’s story.[5]  “God is not just a character in the story, rather God is the author who makes the story possible and whose nature and purposes are revealed in the telling of the story.”[6]

I particularly like reading this part of God’s story, because at a time in my life when I was asking, “Does God really call people to leave behind their childhood home and go to new places?” I read Abraham’s story and saw that God does call people that way.

God calls people to go to new places, and blesses them for their obedience and trust in him.

Abraham is remembered for this in the celebration of faith in Hebrews 11:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8)
Abraham’s story has become part of my story, and helped me to understand how God is working in my life. Maybe the story of how God worked in the life of Abraham has also become a part of your story like it has mine?  Genesis 12 helped me and my family to follow God and leave California, and I have met others with similar stories.  In telling each other our Genesis 12 stories, we have been an encouragement to one another as we saw how God was speaking to us in similar ways.

There’s something else we learn in Genesis 12 about life in those times . . .  it was intense.  Literally.  They lived in tents. (Gen 12:8) (Sorry, couldn't resist...so I guess that means not sorry.)

We read in Acts how Jesus says something to the disciples that sounds a bit like what God said to Abraham.  Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It’s a call to go and tell their story.  A witness is one who tells what they have seen and heard.

Even though the disciples have spent three years with Jesus, heard Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God and how different that is from earthly kingdoms, and they have watched him be crucified and die, and then be resurrected, and then had an additional 40 days of teaching, they are still asking, “Now are you going to take over the government?” (Acts 1:6)

I’m sure Luke must have forgotten to include Jesus’ giant sigh of frustration at the disciples’ question, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also rolled his eyes, and maybe even said a little prayer, “Lord, help us.”

Ok, so maybe Jesus didn’t really get frustrated, but he did tell them not to worry about that, and then told them this:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses …” (Acts 1:8).
And then Jesus was taken up to heaven, and, not surprisingly, the disciples are left standing there in shock, looking up into the sky.

Then two men dressed in white come talk to them.  This would be one of the few times angels appear to people in the Bible and don’t start off with the words, “Don’t be afraid.”  Why not?  Because what they have just seen makes the appearance of angels seem rather commonplace.

Those two men point out something else – don’t keep standing there looking up into the sky.  This isn’t the end of the story.  And as we see if we keep reading Acts, it’s just the beginning of the story – a new story, a story that continues today in each one of us.

What is your story?
What has God been doing in your life?
How has God given you hope?

We each have a unique story.  When we are trusting God and following Jesus and spending time with people, there will be times when people will ask us about our story, asking why we have hope.  With all that’s going on in the world today, with all the difficulties and problems we face, why do we have hope?

The Bible tells us to be prepared to answer that question:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. 2 Peter 3:15
The church is a place where we have opportunities to tell our stories, and to work on being prepared to go out and tell our stories to people who don’t yet see that they’re also part of God’s story.  One of the wonderful things about small groups, like the ones we’re starting up next week, is that we get to talk about how God is working in our lives, and we get to help each other see how God working in each other.

Jesus tells us to go and be witnesses, to go and tell what we’ve seen and heard.  Jesus tells the disciples to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of earth.  They did literally over the course of the book of Acts tell the story in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and beyond, telling the story to those close to them, their families and friends, and in their churches, their synagogues.  And to people who they would normally avoid, the Samaritans. 

For us that means talking with people we know and who are like us, and also getting to know people who are not like us.  It means taking the time to get to know one another, and in the process of developing relationships, listening to their stories and telling our stories.

The disciples did what Jesus told them to do - they continued even beyond the Samaritans.  They went to the gentiles, which means they were telling everyone.  This story was for everyone.

We read in Paul’s letters and in some of the parts of the book of Acts that the disciples had major struggles over whether it was ok to include gentiles in their churches at first, and this gives us the impression that including all people in God’s gift of salvation was a new thing that came because of Jesus.  But really Jesus was reminding us all of what God had said way back in the beginning, in Genesis, to Abraham:
all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you”
This is a promise, and a prophecy.  It’s looking ahead to the children that Abraham didn’t yet know he would have, and their children, and their children’s children who would become the nation of Israel. 
And it’s looking ahead to the descendant of Abraham who would come centuries later and die on a cross and be resurrected for every single one of us, so that each one of us would know the blessing of God’s love and forgiveness. 

Each one of us is a descendant of that promise.  Each one of us is part of the blessing.  We have received it through our faith in Jesus.  It’s in our DNA.  And we pass it on by telling our stories.

Our stories are meant to be told.

How many of you have had clogged drains in your homes?  Think about what happens to the water in the sink or the bathtub when the drain is clogged.  It’s coming in from the faucet as clean, clear water, but as it collects in the tub or sink and as we wash in it, it gets cloudy and mucky.  The longer it sits there, the more yucky it gets.

The blessing of the gospel is like that.  The good news of the gospel is clean and clear water that refreshes our souls.  But if all we do is take it in, it gets cloudy and mucky like a stopped up sink.  It needs to keep on flowing.  We need to pass it on.  We need to tell our stories.

What is your story?  How has knowing Jesus affected you? 
Where have you seen God at work in your life?

Our stories might be big and dramatic, or simple and ordinary.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a pretty story or a theologically correct story.  We just need to tell our stories, here at church, and to our families and friends, and to the people at work and school, and to people in new places.

Notice that before Jesus told the disciples about being witnesses, he says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”  That needed to happen first. They didn’t go right out and start telling.  They went back to that place where they’d been hanging out and they prayed.  Then the Holy Spirit did come quite dramatically on Pentecost, and after that they started telling their story.

That’s the first step for us, too.  Pray.  Let’s ask God to send us the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us and encourage us and help us to know when and where and how to tell our stories.

[3] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary
[6] Willimon, William H.. Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (pp. 2-3). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.