The Land Between: Growth

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Numbers 11:21-30
March 3, 2019

 

I’ve been out of the pulpit here for two weeks—it seems like a long time. Last week Deanie preached and the week before was the Presbytery pulpit exchange. You got to hear Pete Ullmann from Jessup while I preached at First Presbyterian Church in Brunswick. Don’t worry about missing anything; it was a sermon you all heard back in January. It’s good to be back in this pulpit, this morning.

          We are coming to the end of our series on the “Land Between,” and our study from the 11th Chapter of the Book of Numbers. Next week, we’ll begin our Lent Journey, as we make our way toward Easter. Our theme for our Lenten series will be “Busy.” It’s a timely series; we all struggle with busyness. As a way of catching our breath, we’re going to be encouraged by scripture to reconnect to an unhurried God. As a warning, we’ll be doing a few different things in worship. It’ll be exciting, so come and invite others who feel hurried in life to join us for a refreshing break each week as we gather on Sunday.

Now, let’s go back to the “Land Between,” that desert setting we’ve been traveling over since the end of January. We have seen how this barren land in which we all travel at one point or another is fertile ground for us to complain and even have a melt-down. It’s also a place where we learn to trust God to provide what we need, and where God might discipline us. All of this, our being in the “Land Between” and God’s response, helps us grow. In the Sinai desert, God was forging the Hebrew people into a nation. When we find ourselves in such situations, we should ponder what God might be preparing us to do. What’s God’s future for us? For our text today, we’re going to look at Numbers 11:21-30. Listen:  

         Little Tommy was riding in the backseat as the family came home from church. “What did you learn in Sunday School today,” his father asked.

We learned about Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea,” Tommy said.

What about it?” his dad asked.

“Well, the Israelites had their back against the sea as Pharaoh’s army approached. It looked like it was going to be a slaughter. So Moses quickly summoned his combat engineers to throw together a pontoon bridge and they hastened to get everyone across. And as the Egyptians followed them across the bridge, Moses called up his Air Force and had them scramble jets who strafed and then bombed the bridge, sending Pharaoh’s army to the bottom of the sea.

His mother almost had whiplash as she turned around in her seat and looked back at Tommy. Her face was red. “Was that what your teacher taught?” she demanded. “Did she tell you all that?”

“Well, not exactly,” Tommy hesitantly responded. “But if you don’t believe my story, you certainly won’t believe hers.

Moses might be the earthly leader of the Israelites, but he’s not the one in charge. It is very clear from the beginning that God is calling the shots. God freed the people from slavery. God saved them from the Egyptian army when their backs were up against the sea. God provided food and water for his people in an inhospitable land. Moses may be the leader of these people, but he knows it’s not within his power to do any of this. God has been active.

This also applies even to the church throughout history. The key to our success isn’t from the strength of our leaders, but from the humbled willingness of God’s people to allow God to work through us to accomplish his purposes. When we are aligned with God, we can do great things. When God is against us, even the most skilled leader will be ineffective. By the way, our mission isn’t success in worldly standards. Our mission is to be faithful to the God who resurrect the dead.

          Now back to Moses. He’s the face people see. And because they still aren’t sure what’s up, he’s the one who receives all the complaints. He’s weary and needs help. But unlike the people who have questioned God’s goodness, thinking the Almighty led them into the desert to die, Moses trusts the Lord. After all, God has always comes through. When Israel’s back was up against the sea, it wasn’t Moses who parted the sea. He might have lifted his arms as we see in the movies, but it was God, the one who watches out for Israel, who saves the day.

God has plans for this group of people. God doesn’t just want them to just exist. Nor, I believe, does God just want us to exist. God wants them (and us) to thrive. God wants them (and us) to grow and to be a community in which all the world is bless. So let’s look at our text for today and see how this works.

We have already seen how God provided for the people’s dietary needs, with manna and quail, as well as for Moses well-being, with others that shared the leadership burden. God has Moses bring seventy leaders into the tent and endow them with some of Moses’ spirit, giving them the power and responsibility to help lead the people. But when we looked at this text earlier (on Scout Sunday where I spoke about the patrol method and how the 70 were like patrol leaders), I cut the text off before getting to the part about how the experience of these leaders extended beyond the 70. What we find in this text is that we worship a God of surprises, and that people 3,500 years ago were no different than today. They don’t like surprises; they don’t like changes; they’re jealous when someone outside their group has a special experience.

          Let’s look at the text. After the elders were commissioned, they received the spirit and prophesied. That was all well and good, and expected. But what happens next is that there were two men, who were not in the assembly, who showed signs of having the spirit placed upon them. They, too, prophesied. This was disturbing, for these were not ones who were supposed to be doing this. A runner (a 14th Century BC tattle-tale) was sent to Moses saying, Eldad and Medad are prophesying in camp. Joshua was ready to have them stopped but it didn’t bother Moses. “Let them be,” Moses responded. “Are you jealous for me? Wouldn’t it be nice if all God’s people were prophets?”

Moses shows us what a mature leader comfortable with his relationship with God looks like.

You know, a similar thing happened in the ministry of Jesus. The disciples learned that there were others casting out demons using the name of Jesus. Some of the disciples, like Joshua, was ready to defend Jesus’ power and honor and put an end to the practice. But Jesus said, “No, don’t do that. If they’re using my name, they be for us and not against us.”[1] Mature leadership provides a calming presence and rejoices when others do well.

          What can we take from this passage? How might it apply to our topic of growth? There are two things that come to mind. First of all, as we see in the story of the Exodus, we have to take the risk to follow and to trust God. It can be scary at times, but if we are willing to take that risk, God will protect and watch over us. Faith isn’t about certainty; if it was, it wouldn’t be faith. Faith is about trust. Do we trust God enough to take a risk that will allow God to show us that he’s with us? When God’s church grapples at what its future might be, those who are willing to take a risk are the ones rewarded. It’s easy to sit back and do nothing, but that’s not the type of followers Jesus calls. As the Session of this church works on our strategic plan for the future (and this is a process), I hope you will be open to new directions. God calls us to risk in faith, not for our glory, but for God’s. Are we up for taking risks? We can’t keep doing the same thing that might have worked for us 30 or 40 years ago. Times change and new strategies are required. We are called to be people of faith and we must live into our calling.

        Secondly, we learn in this passage that we’re not in control and we need to let God’s Spirit work. Those who were upset with Eldad and Medad show a human tendency to have preconceived ideas of what it looks like when God shows up. We have to be ready for surprises, for God’s ideas may be different from ours. God has this incredible love for all people, not just those who look, think and act like us. We might be surprised what God is doing in our midst and it might make us uncomfortable. Someone might come up with a new idea that we’ve never tried before, or that was half-heartedly tried years ago. Is our first reaction to immediately reject it? Or are we willing to see if God’s Spirit’s is leading us in a different direction? The truth of Jesus Christ never changes, but how we live out that truth within a changing culture will be different.

          Remember, it’s not about us. We’re called to have faith, to trust, and to follow Jesus as we move through the “Land Between.” And if we have faith, we will experience growth in our own lives and within the community. We might not know what that growth really looks like until afterwards, but when we are there, we will know that God has been with us. Amen.

©2019

[1] Mark 9:38-39, Luke 9:49-50.

Lessons from a Quail Hunt

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Numbers 11:31-35
February 10, 2019

 

We are on our fourth week of looking at the Hebrew people in the wilderness. We have seen how they have complained about the food, how they have driven Moses almost mad, and how God has provided for their needs. This week, we’re going to look at a case of tough love. Yes, Israel’s going to have the meat they’ve demanded, but along with their bellies being full, God is going to punish them for their disobedience and lack of trust. We learn that we have to be careful for what we want. As Sheryl Crow sings in her song, “Soak Up the Sun:” It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got.[1]  I’m sure the Hebrew people didn’t want what they got. Read Numbers 11:31-35.

         Robert Ruark began quail hunting with his granddad at the age of eight. The opening story in his wonderful book, The Old Man and the Boy, is about a quail hunt. To the chagrin of his mother and grandmother, his grandfather, “the Old Man,” brought him a 20 gauge shotgun. They headed out into a pea field with two dogs. Quickly, the dogs were pointing and the Old Man gave him a shell and told him to load up. He broke open the barrel, slipped the shell into the breech, and snapped it closed. Then as his pulled the gun up to hold at a forty-five degree angle across his chest, to be ready for when the birds flushed, he quietly slipped the safety off and stepped toward the dogs.

“Whoa, Give me the gun,” the Old Man demanded.

        Shocked and a bit hurt, the young Robert Ruark handed his gun to his granddad, who set the safety, then headed out to the dogs. As the covey flushed, he shot a bird. When he came back, the boy yelled, “Why’d you take the gun away from me? It’s my gun. It ain’t your gun.”

At this point the Old Man gave the boy a lecture. “Safety catch,’ he said.” The boy didn’t think his granddad had heard or saw him slip off the safety. The Old Man continued: “No reason in the world for a man to go blundering around with the catch off his gun. You don’t know the birds are going to get up where the dogs says they are. Maybe they’re running on you. So the dog breaks point and you stumble along behind him and fall in a hole or trip over a rock and the gun goes off…’”

Feeling bad, the boy said: “You got to take the safety off some time if you’re planning to shoot something.”

“’Habit is a wonderful thing’, the Old Man said. ‘It’s just as easy to form good ones as to make bad ones. Once they’re made, they stick.’” The Old Man continued, as he taught the boy how the safety stays engaged until he brings the gun to his shoulder as he follows the bird in flight.[2]

          I wonder what the Old Man would have thought about the way the Israelites hunted quail. He probably wouldn’t care for it, but I expect he would understand God’s intention of teaching the Hebrew people some good habits such as placing their trust in the Lord. The land between is a good place to learn good habits.

The Hebrew people wanted meat in their diet and in this text we see that they got what they wanted. We’re told that a wind blew the quail into the Hebrew camp. Quail often migrate through the Sinai in the spring and fall. So, perhaps as these birds were transient, God blew up a storm and blew them toward the place where Israel was encamped.[3] And it’s not just a few birds. With quail, in which each bird produces about 5 ounces of delicious meat, you’ll need a lot of birds to feed so many people. But Israel gets more than a lot. The least anyone collects is ten homers. A homer is supposedly about 6 bushels, so each person has a truckload of birds. This is an absurd amount. I’m sure that soon there were fires going and birds grilling as the rest were being dressed out to dry and to store for later.

         It’s almost as if God decides to overwhelm the Hebrew people with quail as a way to show them his power. They should have been thankful that the birds were quail and not ravens. Had it been the later, Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds,” would could have been Biblical. But instead of the birds attacking, they are easily caught by the Israelites.

It’s as if God is asking, “You think I can’t take care of you?” “Let me show you.” But that’s just part of God’s response for there is divine anger brewing because of the people’s lack of trust. (See, those quail could have been ravens). As the people dress out the quail, eat their fill, and begin to pick the meat from between their teeth, God’s anger rises and a plague descends upon the people. Did the quail contain some pestilence? We’re not told, nor are we told how many died, but enough died that they named their encampment in remembrance of those who “had the craving.” And they quickly moved on to another camp. We’re left wondering if they took the drying quail with them or if they left them in the sun to dry and for the creatures of the desert to devour.

This is just one of God’s punishments of Israel in the wilderness we find in the Book of Numbers. A few chapters later, the people will revolt and suffer the consequences.[4] And later in the book, they’ll complain again against God and snakes will come after them.[5] The Book of Numbers provides lots of ideas for a horror flick. But what do we see? Over and over again, God cares for the people, yet they do not trust the Lord to look out for their well-being. Over and over again, the people are disciplined.

         I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s collection of sermons on Jeremiah, a prophet at a time when Israel was again facing some discipline. We don’t like the idea of discipline or judgment, do we? But it’s a frequent topic in scripture, probably because we (as humans) are so hard headed. Listen to what Peterson says about the topic:

Judgment is not the last word; it is never the last word. Judgment is necessary because of centuries of hardheartedness; its proper work is to open our hearts to the reality beyond ourselves, to crack the carapace of self-sufficiency so that we can experience the inrushing grace of the healing, merciful, forgiving God.[6]

        Scripture discusses judgment and discipline a lot. Some of you may think there’s too much judgment and discipline in Bible, but as Jeff Manion reminds us in his book, The Land Between, we have an advantage. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Scripture is useful in building us up,” and if we allow Scripture to work in such a manner, we can learn from the mistakes of others.[7] That’s a benefit to cherish.

        Yesterday afternoon I was sailing in a race. There was J-105, a much larger and faster boat than any of the rest of us. This boat set the mark. We were coming back up the river, against the tide, which is a time that you try to keep your boat out of the current as much as possible. One way to do this is to hug the side of the channel where the current is less. But there’s the risk of running aground. We watched that J-105, knowing that its keel was much deeper than ours. If it had problems with shoals and ran aground (which would have been the only way we could have caught it), we would know to steer clear. Scripture is like that, we get to see the mistakes of the Israelites and the early disciples, and can steer clear of them. We can learn from their discipline!

          There are many Proverbs that speak of the need for discipline.[8] We have all heard the saying, “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” and assume it is from the Bible. We’ll, not exactly. However, there are many Proverbs that do speak of the need for discipline, the one that comes closest to such a saying is Proverbs 13:24, which speaks of those who refuse to discipline their children, hate them. Paradoxically linking permissiveness and hatred is an attempt to drive home the message that discipline is required.[9] Corporal punishment isn’t necessarily required and certainly punishment that borders on abuse is condemned.[10] Discipline may be unpleasant, but if we are not taught what is right and wrong, how are we to know?

This Wednesday issue of the Wall Street Journal had an article by Robert Hamilton, a pediatrician in Santa Monica, titled “The Right Way to Spank a Child.” While he was careful to differentiate spanking from abuse, as he was writing against a recent ruling from the American Academy of Pediatrics that had expressed its opposition to all forms of corporal punishment, he made the case for mild spankings. This would be spankings that strings but doesn’t come anywhere near injuring the child. He set ground rules that I’m sure many of our parents didn’t abide by, such as only a two or three whacks, done privately so as not to humiliate the child, and administrated as soon as possible after the offense. The main thrust of his column wasn’t to defend spanking as much as it was to emphasize the necessity of effective discipline in raising children to be responsible adults.[11]

        In the land between, we see that God, our Heavenly Father, disciplines his people in order for them to grow into a nation. When we are disciplined by God, we need to remember that God is loving us. God is correcting our behavior so that we might grow in our love and trust of him. Sometimes discipline is hard. I don’t know why so many people had to get sick and some of them had to die. But the God who gives us the breath of life can also take it away. But as we see, God wants his people to trust him as they are led through the desert and into the Promised Land. It’s an important lesson, for if they don’t trust him, the people will be lost. And that goes for us, too. If we don’t trust God, we are lost. Trust God; accept his discipline as a sign of love. God wants something better from us and for us. Amen.

After note: After preaching this sermon yesterday, I attended a sail club potluck dinner last night where Mike, one of the members of the group, brought quail! There were a few there who had heard my sermon and thought it was funny.

Mike’s quail

 

 

©2019

[1] Sheryl Crow, “Soak Up the Sun” (2002)

[2] Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy (1993, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1957), 11-12.

[3] Philip J. Budd, Numbers: Word Biblical Commentary #5 (Waco, TX: Word, 1984), 129.

[4] Numbers 16.

[5] Numbers 21.

[6] Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1983), 173.

[7] 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Jeff Manion, The Land Between: Finding God in Difficult Transitions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 133.

[8] Proverbs 19:18, 23:13-14, 29:17.

[9] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs: Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1999), 140.

[10] Exodus 21:20.  See also https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/bible-study/what-does-spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child-mean.html

[11] Robert C. Hamilton, “The Right Way to Spank a Child,” Wall Street Journal (February 6, 2019), A15.

The Land Between: Provision

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Numbers 11:16-20
February 3, 2019

 

 

         We are currently working our way through the 11th chapter of the book of Numbers. Some may wonder, “why Numbers?” After all, it’s an obscure book in the Old Testament, filled with whinny, self-centered people. What could Numbers have to do with us? Well, we’re not much different. We complain, we whine, we focus on our wants and desires, as we struggle trusting God…

          In this chapter of Numbers, the Hebrew people are in a crisis. They are in the land between, a hostile place between their former lives as slaves in Egypt and their promised future in the land of milk and honey.  But they haven’t yet arrived and, in this in-between land, God forges them into a nation. They learn about temptations. In the last two weeks, we saw how it’s easy to be greedy and to complain in this land. The people’s complaints demonstrate their lack of trust in God. Moses, caught in his own land between, is being pulled apart by a grumbling people who want him to do their bidding and a God who expects him to lead the people. Although Moses also complains, he takes his complaints to God. “Believers argue with God,” I quoted last week, “skeptics argue with one another.”[1] Be a believer!

Today, we’re going to see how God answers both the complaints of the people and the honest prayer of Moses. Read Numbers 11:16-20.    

The foundation of the Boy Scout movement is the patrol method. The purpose of the scouting program is to develop and build leadership. Each troop has layers of boy leaders, from scribes and quartermasters, to patrol leaders and assistants, up to the senior patrol leader. Of course, there are also adult leaders who monitor the program, but successful adult leaders don’t get overly involved. They let the boys make decisions and mistakes. They don’t step in to stop such mistakes unless it’s too dangerous or carries too great a consequence. The boys learn, even from their mistakes.

         My first patrol leader was Gerald. He always seemed so mature even though he was probably 14 when I was 11. It rained on our first camping trip. That night Gerald gave his tent to two boys whose tent was flooded. Gerald said he would sleep in their tent. “Wow, this guy cares about us,” we thought. Of course, he was partly guilty for he suggested our tents to be lined up in a straight line and equal distance from one another. This one tent happened to be in a low spot. The next morning, Gerald was up early, helping build a fire. He was full of energy for one who had slept in a wet tent. We later learned he slept in the scout trailer which was even drier the rest of the tents.

Several of us in this group went on to become patrol leaders and, having learned such unselfish values from Gerald, we also strove to be responsible leaders who took care of the members of our patrol. We’d made out duty assignments so each member took turns cooking, cleaning and bringing in the firewood. Those were good days and they remain as good memories.

          In our text today, we see God answering Moses’ pleas for help. God consecrates leading men of Israel. They’ll serve essentially as patrol leaders. Moses, with only his brother Aaron to help, has become weary by attempting to take care of everyone’s needs. Moses is like a scoutmaster without patrol leaders or an army general with no junior officers and no NCOs to implement the plan. To address Moses’ weariness, God has Moses pick seventy leaders from among the people and then takes some of the Spirit that was on Moses and gives it to those seventy. A new generation of leadership is established. This is the way the scouting program works. Those in leadership positions are constantly training new ones as younger scouts slowly take on the responsibility of the troop. And it’s the way the church is to work. As new leaders are elected, they are ordained by the church with the older leaders laying their hands on the new as a sign of ordination.

Moses, in the text, sees that his concerns are being address. He faithfully cried out to God, trusting God’s goodness and mercy. He now will not have to carry the burden of all Israel on his shoulders. Many shoulders make a light load!

        The people who have been complaining will also experience God’s answer to their prayer. Moses is to have them to get ready. They’re going to be eating meat! Of course, because they haven’t trusted God, they’ll eat so much meat they will get sick of it. It’ll be coming out of their nostrils, which isn’t a very pleasing picture. They had thought God had brought them into the wilderness in order that they might die, but now they’ll once again experience God’s power. God is able to answer their prayers and, in this case, will answer it in a way that they’ll wish God hadn’t.

          You know, it’s amazing I still love peanut butter. One day, when I was in the second or third grade, I was hungry after the academic rigors of the classroom. I came home from school and went into the kitchen in search of nourishment. I spotted a large jar of peanut butter, a three pounder. It’d just been open. It was full. Seeing no one around, I unscrewed the lid and dug out a finger-full. I licked it off my finger. It was so good! Then went for another scoop. I bet none of the Scouts have every done this, have you? About the point that I had dug out a second finger full of peanut butter, my mom walked into the kitchen and yelled a few chosen words that I had not known were in her vocabulary.

Now, my mom could have been proud of me for not bothering her with a basic need, such as food, and taking matters into my own hands. But that’s not the way she operated. Sanitation was akin to godliness in our house. Seeing my finger covered with peanut butter, she grabbed the jar and yanked it from my hand. “What do thing you’re doing?” she asked. Without giving me time to respond, my mom went from police officer to the judge (forget the Constitution, under my parent’s roof, the enforcement and judicial branches of government were intertwined). I was sentenced to hard time. For the next month or so, before I could eat whatever was being served, I had to eat a peanut butter sandwich. No jelly, just peanut butter on a slice of bread, until that jar was empty. Remember, this was a large jar, and it was now mine. I had to eat it all. Before Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and dressing and all the trimmings, I had a plain peanut butter sandwich. Before Christmas dinner with a ham and sweet potatoes, I ate a peanut butter sandwich. By New Years, it seemed as if the stuff was coming out of my nose. I felt a special kindship to the Hebrew children in the wilderness. And I’ve never stuck my finger into a jar of peanut butter again.

In the wilderness, God provides for the people. Leaders are provided who could take the burden off Moses. Food is provided to nourish the Hebrew people. But because the people do not trust God. They are punished, which went even further than being sick of the food, as we’ll see next week. By the way, that’s a teaser for what’s coming next.

God has what’s best for us in mind. Sometimes, what is best is nourishment. Other times, discipline is required. In the land between, both are necessary. What about us? Are we willing to trust God to provide? Are we willing to trust those whom God has called to lead us? And are we willing to learn from discipline?

         When we are in the land between, there are plenty of opportunities to experience and learn from God’s graciousness. This is true for our scouts and all the rest of us, for we are in the land between, often, throughout our lives. We are all on a journey to a promised land, to the promised kingdom, to the heavenly banquet. And along the way, we should learn what we can. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 1983), 103.

The Land Between: Meltdown

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Numbers 11:10-15
January 27, 2019

This is our second week exploring the “land between,” that place where we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. When we are in the land between, it is easy to become exhausted and disheartened. We feel like we cannot go on. We want to give up. But we must remember that God might be preparing us for something. In the wilderness, Israel was trained to trust, to have faith in God, in preparation for becoming a country. In our own journeys, we should ask God what we should learn. Read Numbers 11:10-15

###

         Last week, we saw how the “land between” was a dangerous place. Not only are there the obvious ones. For the Hebrews in the wilderness, such dangers included thirsting, starving, or dying by snake bite. For us, the dangers may be an illness, financial ruin, the loss of a relationship, the death of a loved one. These journeys are stressful. Israel had been called into this place by God, who is trying to teach her to trust him. But what if God doesn’t show up one day? What if God doesn’t provide? Of course, because God has called them into the wilderness, they should trust the Lord. So for two years, they have been trusting God for daily food and during this time, God has not failed them. This leads to the second danger, which we saw last week, which occurs in the land between: complaint. Instead of being grateful, the Israelites become greedy. They bicker and grumble about the quality of food. Such complaints fires up God’s anger, forcing Moses to intercede.[1]

         This week, our text focuses on Moses. He’s the leader of these bickering people. Moses is in his own “land between.” He’s caught in the middle. God is on one side and an ungrateful people on the other. It’s a lonely place. All those complaints are getting to him. He can’t please the people. God wants him to be the leader and the people just want him to do their bidding. He’s God’s servant, but the people are looking at Moses as if he’s their errand boy. 1400 years later, Jesus will remind us that we can’t serve two masters.[2] Moses is a living example of this truth. As a result, he has a meltdown.

In the first class I lead on the book this series is based upon, The Land Between (and I encourage you all to get involved in such a class), the conversation veered into the topic of suicide. The land between is certainly a place where such action may occur. It’s an uncomfortable place. If you reside there too long, despair sets in. One loses hope. One loses perspective. We saw last week how the people suddenly forgot their struggles and cries in Egypt and remembered only the food they enjoyed there—food that was only given to them so that they would have the energy to do the work their Egyptian taskmasters set before them. It’s easy to forget how things really were.

        While we are not told that Moses contemplated suicide, we do witness in today’s text that he’s ready to die. He has certainly thought about death. It seems more desirable than continuing to live in the desert where life is hard enough, but is made unbearable by a bunch of whiners. Death seems better than to live in the middle and be pulled into two different directions at the same time. Moses has had enough. I like how The Message translation handles Moses’ complaint to God:

 

Why are you treating me this way?
What did I ever do to you to deserve this?
Did I conceive them? Was I their mother?
Why dump the responsibility of these people on me?

 

Questions after questions, Moses asks God. Moses ends his complaint in this manner: “If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I’ve seen enough. I’ve had enough. Let me out of here.” Leadership is often hard, as Moses experiences. You can’t please everyone. Many people are going to second guess you. Most think they know better than you. People will bicker and complain behind your back. You know what, things haven’t changed much in 3400 years.

        In addition to leadership being hard, often leadership is thrust upon people. Moses never asked to lead Israel out of Egypt. If you remember, he begged God to find someone else. He came up with all kind of excuses. “Lord, they’re not going to believe me.”[3] “God, you want me to address Pharaoh? I don’t talk good.”[4] Often times we are called to step into leadership positions in the church or at work or in our community. And even if it isn’t something we covet, as ones who follow Jesus, we are to do our best and to be honest and ultimately, be faithful to our Lord. And sometimes, just being faithful means we get caught in the land between. Think of prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the Apostle Paul.

Last week, we saw how God responded to the people. God was ready to incinerate them. Next week, we’ll see how God responded to Moses. But before we learn of God’s response, let’s let it simmer a while. But I assure you the Almighty doesn’t send a lightning to singe Moses and ends his meltdown. God answers, not always immediately, but God hears our prayers and responds.

Let’s ask ourselves this: “if God was ready to incinerate the people, yet responds positively to Moses plea, what’s the difference?” Ponder this: “Why the different response between how God responded to the people and to Moses?” “Why is God ready to be done with the people, yet listens and responds to Moses?”

While you are thinking about this, let me tell you about a bear encounter I had while hiking in the High Sierras. A friend and I was hiking the John Muir Trail. One evening, toward the end of the trail in Yosemite National Park, my friend stayed in camp, while I had hiked about a ½ mile to a place with a lovely overlook to the west. There, I watched an incredible sunset. When it was done, I started to head back to our campsite on Cathedral Lake. Once I got back into the trees, it was fairly dark, but I could make out the trail, so I walked without a flashlight. Then, suddenly, I froze. There was a bear coming at me. It quickly stood up on his back legs, just ten feet or so in front of me. I stood straight and waved my arms, trying to look larger than the bear. It looked at me for a second or two, then turned around, dropped to all fours, and took off through the woods. Of course, I was shaking, but realized I was going to be fine. I had responded properly. When you encounter a large wild animal, especially one that likes to chase and hunt, you don’t turn and run. You can’t outrun the beast and it’ll often delight in the chase. Instead, you hold your ground and then slowly move away, never turning your back on the animal. Had I turned and ran, things might have been different.

Israel, instead of confronting God, was willing to run from the Lord. They wanted to high-tail it back to Egypt. They didn’t want anything to do with the mountain where Moses met God. It was scary, all that fire and smoke.[5] If they couldn’t run from God, they would cowered before him. Now, maybe I am pushing it too far to suggest that God is like a wild animal—like a bear or a cougar—in the wild. Or maybe not, for God is metaphorically referred to in Scripture as a lion,[6] another animal that it’s not recommended humans run from.

Instead of running from God, Moses stands up to God and is very honest. Is this dangerous? Of course. God is the Creator who can give and take away life. But it’s less dangerous to stand up to God than to turn our backs on God or to act like God doesn’t matter. Unlike the people who try to run away, Moses relates to God and that’s what God desires. Even though the people had experienced great miracles, they still doubt God’s ability to intercede. Their complaining betray how they question God’s goodness. Rumors are spreading that God might have brought them out into the desert to die. But Moses is different. He never turns his back on God. He’s like a hiker in the wild who encounters a bear or cougar and holds his ground. And instead of complaining behind God’s back, he takes his complaint directly to the Lord.

Eugene Peterson, writing about how Jeremiah argued with God notes that our anger can be a measure of our faith. “Believers argue with God; skeptics argue with each other,” he writes.[7] Get that? “Believers argue with God; skeptics argue with each other.”

Throughout the Old Testament, one common form of prayer is that of lament. The prophets lamented. Throughout the Psalms, you’ll find laments.[8] In such prayers, and that’s what we have here with Moses, those praying are very honest to God. They confess their challenges. They are not shy about admitting the frustration they feel.

I know when I have been in such places of difficulty, my prayers to God are raw. And God listens. When we are honest about our feelings, God doesn’t get upset with us. God listens. And, as I have often found, if you put your burdens on God’s shoulders, you will feel light enough to get back up and continue on.

Yes, Moses had a meltdown. But God wasn’t mad at him. The next time things seem hopeless, take your burdens to God. Offer up your raw emotions. Don’t try to run and hide. Instead, face your challenges and trust God. Answer Jesus’ invitation to let him take your yoke.[9] He will lighten your load. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Numbers 11:1-3.

[2] Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13.

[3] Exodus 4:1.

[4] Exodus 4:10-17.

[5] Exodus 19:16.

[6] See Isaiah 31:4, Jeremiah 2:3, 4:7, 5:6, 25:38, 49:19; Hosea 5:14, 11:10, 13:7-8 and especially Revelation 5:5 where Jesus is the “Lion of Judah.” Of course, this is metaphorical as a lion is also used for our enemy as in 1 Peter 5:8 and Revelation 13:2.

[7] Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1983), 103.

[8] For more discussion on such laments in Scripture, see Jeff Manion, The Land Between: Finding God in Difficult Transitions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), chapter 6.

[9] Matthew 11:28-30.

The Land Between: Complaint

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Numbers 11:1-9
January 20, 2019

 

 

As we worship in his beautiful sanctuary on a mild, yet wet and windy winter day, we should acknowledge and be thankful. Not everyone gathering for worship this morning are enjoying these conditions. In Pakistan and other countries, Christians gather in fear.[1] Yesterday, in Alabama, a Presbyterian Church built in 1858 was destroyed by a tornado.[2] And in much of our country, Christians are gathering in less than ideal circumstances as blizzards roam across much of our nation. Preparing for worship in such a setting, Linda Olin rewrote a version of the Doxology for this morning. It goes:

            Praise God from whom all blizzards blow, Alleluia! 
            When snow comes down and cold winds blow! Alleluia! 
            Praise God for shovels, gloves, and plows, 
            When four-foot drifts surround your house!
            If more snow falls, Praise for snowballs.
            Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! [3]

I have no idea who Linda Olin is, but I applaud her effort to make the best of a difficult situation. When we find ourselves in situations beyond our control, we need to fight against the tendency to complain and learn to count our blessings, even if such blessings are only gloves, shovels and snowballs.

Starting today and for the next five sermons, I am going to preach from the 11th Chapter of the Book of Numbers. The Hebrew people are in the wilderness, but unlike Ms. Olin, they’re not counting their blessings. They’ve been eating manna for nearly two years now, and are sick of it. In Exodus, we find the people complaining about a lack of good water. God provides a way to purify it. Later they complain of the lack of any water and God provides a pouring spigot from a rock.[4]  Let’s face it. Those were legitimate complaints. Without water, we die. But now, we hear that the Hebrew people are complaining about a bland diet. And yet, remember, Jesus tells us to pray for our daily bread.[5] In other words, if we have enough to get by, we should be thankful even if we are working for something better.

As illustrations for this series, I’m using some photos I took on a trip into Central Utah with a friend of mine, the late Ralph Behrens. I told you more about one of these photos in my e-news yesterday—if you don’t receive that newsletter and would like to, see me.[6]

Ralph grew up in Goler Gulch in the Mojave Desert. He escaped that hard-scrabble life thanks to the Army Air Corp, spending the final few weeks of the Second World War in the Pacific. Afterwards, on the GI Bill, he earned a chemistry degree, but having grown in a mining camp, he remained interested in the industry. Because of this, he took a special interest in my dissertation on role of the church in the Nevada mining camps.

Ralph and I would often travel out into the desert looking at old camps. On these long drives, he would tell stories of growing up in such a place. One of the stories he told was when his father would go to work at the mine, he always said he was going to “Make Beans.” And that was it. He made enough money to buy beans for dinner, which was most of their diet during those hard years of the Great Depression. Few of us have that kind of hardship or exist on such a bland diet. If we have, I’m sure we’d be complaining, as we will see that the Hebrew people did when they were in the wilderness. Let’s look at this text. Read Numbers 11:1-9.

 

 

 

 

I was reading a novel on a flight from Boise to Chicago back in 1990. It was an early flight and arrived mid-morning in the windy city, a city that lived up to its name that day. As we began the approach, the pilot came on told the attendants to quickly prepare the cabin and to take their seats as it was going to be a rough. It was. The plane bounced all around as we came into a landing. Why he decided to attempt the landing was beside me for on the ground the wind was blowing like crazy and tarps were flying across the runways as ground crews tried to protect luggage. We stepped off the plane with water flowing through the gap between the plane’s body and the walkway.

When I arrived inside the terminal, I headed off into the direction for my flight to Pittsburgh. I had plenty of time, so when I came upon a bar with a hundred people or so crowded around it, as if it was happy hour, I decided to check it out. It was only 10:30 in the morning, so I was pretty sure it wasn’t a happy hour special. Instead, everyone was glued to the monitors above the bar, tuned to a local TV news.

That morning, tornadoes were ripping through the western suburbs of the city, not far from the airport. I felt blessed to be on the ground, and again wondered why the pilot tried to land. Ours was one of the last flights to touch down before they closed the airport. With only a book in hand (this was before the airlines nickeled-and-dimed you over luggage so I had checked everything), I made my way to the gate where I would spend the next 18 hours. Of course, I didn’t know I’d be stranded so long. Had I known, I would have had a few more books.

We have all been there, haven’t we? Maybe not out in the desert eating only beans or manna, or in an airport with just one book to read, but we have all been in situations where we had to wait, where we just spend time in boredom. We wait, hoping for a better future, a better diet, a quicker flight, a new job (or a better one or maybe just any job), or long for healing, or to get over grief.

Waiting is hard. And when there is no variety, it becomes boring. We start to complain. It’s natural to complain, or is it? Let’s look at today’s text.

 

It’s been two years since the Lord led Israel out of Egyptian slavery. They left Egypt with a vision of this new land promised to Abraham, a good land flowing with milk and honey. But instead of taking the direct way, up the coast line, the Way of the Sea, and on into the land of Canaan, God has Moses take a right hand turn that leads into the rugged and inhospitable wilderness of Sinai. Why would God do that?  Of course, God provided for them. Manna every morning, more than enough to sustain their fill.

But people are weary. They are tired of a life in the wilderness. They are tired of a bland diet. They begin to bicker and complain, so much so that God becomes enraged and his anger is kindled and fire burns toward the people. Panicking, they cry to Moses. Moses prays, and the fire are extinguished.

In verse four, we are told that that rabble had strong cravings. The word rabble is interesting. This is the only place it occurs in scripture and it appears imply not only a group of people, but a mob-like group led by their “sensual appetites”[7] This group’s “cravings” drive their behavior. They think back to all the good foods they enjoyed in Egypt: the fish, vegetables, and spices. Now they have just manna.[8]

          In the Book of Exodus, we’re also told more about manna, the collecting and gathering of this substance. The word manna means, “What is it?” Both books tell us it tasted like coriander seed.[9] Many of us have coriander in our pantries. It’s a wonderful spice to use in breads and stews, but only in moderation. Have you ever tasted it? Coriander comes from the seed of cilantro, another wonderful spice. The seeds are ground up. A recipe might call for a teaspoon of the spice, or maybe a little if you’re preparing an Indian recipe. It’s kind of bitter. I can’t imagine eating bread where the ground seed of cilantro replaces the flour. If you have an interest in seeing what coriander tastes like, I have some in this mortar that I’ll place on the communion table. After the service, if you are curious, you can take a spoon and put a pinch of the powder in your hand and try it.

            It sounds like I justified Israel’s anger over their diet, doesn’t it? Certainly, it is not anything we would want to endure, right? But the point is that at some time or another in our lives and in our Christian journey, we’re going to be in the Land Between. We are going to be at the point in which all seems old and bland and that all there is to do is to wait. At such a time, we’re going to think like me in O’Hara: “how much longer can I endure this boredom?” Instead, I should have been thankful I was safely on the ground. It’s easy for us, like Israel, to fall into the trap of complaining. “Oh great, manna again.” Like Israel, it’s easy for us to start blaming. “Moses, why did you bring us out here, we had plenty to eat in Egypt? Did you bring us out here to die?”[10]

Remember, sometimes God calls us, like Israel, into a transition. While we are tempted to throw up our hands in disgust or anger, we should remain faithful and ask God what we should be learning while we trust that God is preparing us for something new. Knowing that God is good, we should trust that God has something better in store for us. Now it may not be immediate or even in this life, but we go forth trusting.

           Hear this, the Land Between can be a dangerous place for our souls. As we transition to a new normal, we have to guard our hearts against the spirit of despair. If we go down the direction of despair, we easily end up believing that God is not good. Then we become bitter. Or we give up on God. Instead, we need to be patient and believe that God is preparing us for something better.[11] We worship a God of life, of new life. Let’s remember, it’s only after death that we can experience resurrection. The Christian message, the gospel, is to not give up on God. It is to trust that God is working to make all things new, in our lives, in our community, and in our world.

          When we enter this Land Between (which we must all travel sooner or later—as individuals and as a part of the communities in which we live), we must look around and give God thanks for the blessings we enjoy. We must be content and patient. We’re Christians, we should be the hopeful ones in the crowd. Israel should have been thankful they were no longer enduring the whips of their former masters and that, even in the wilderness, God was providing for their needs. In the wilderness, where God was actively working to forge them into a new nation, God sustain them. And God will sustain us.

          When you enter a period of transition, don’t be like Israel. Believe in God. Trust in God. Give thanks for that blessings, however small they might be, that you have been given.  And wait in hope, because you have faith in God. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] https://www.persecution.org/2019/01/08/pakistani-christians-fear-new-security-mandate-may-lead-church-closures/

[2] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/01/19/wetumpka-alabama-tornado-causes-significant-damage-downtown-storm-injuries-buildings-damaged/2627450002/

[3] Linda Bonney Olin “Praise God from Whom All Blizzards Flow: A Doxology for Those Blessed with Both Wintry Weather and a Sense of Humor.” (2019). Set to Geistiche Kirchengesanger, 1623; harmony Ralp Vaunghan Williams, 1906, Lasst Uns Erfreuen.  Found on Facebook.

[4] See Exodus 15:22-27 and 17:1-7.

[5] Matthew 6:11.

[6] You can email me at jeff@sipres.org

[7] Philip J. Budd, Numbers: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1984), 127.

[8] Interestingly, in Exodus 12:38, we are told that they left Egypt with large herds of animal. Here, no herds are mentioned. Had they eaten all their herds? Numbers doesn’t provide an answer.

[9] Exodus 16:31, Numbers 11:7.

[10] Exodus 16:3.

[11] Jeff Manion, The Land Between: finding God in difficult transitions  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012 ), 38

Psalm 29: To the Glory of God

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
January 13, 2019
Psalm 29

 

 

 

 

Upcoming!

Starting next week, I will be preaching a series of sermons from the Book of Numbers. In this series, we’ll look at the Hebrew people in the desert during the exodus. They have a choice. They can continue ahead into the Promised Land or they can go back to Egypt. As we do this study, I encourage you to read Jeff Manion’s book, The Land Between. They’ll be avaible this morning, in Liston Hall, for $15. I also encourage you to join a study group working through this book, which will be mirroring the topics I’m preaching. By hearing the sermons, discussing the topics in a small group, and reading the book, you’ll get more out of this series as we learn how to handle change and transition

We’ve just finished focusing on Jesus’ humble birth with the celebration of Christmas. Born in Bethlehem, God came into this world in like all of us. This morning, let’s for a moment contrast the humility of Jesus’ birth with a vision of God from the 29th Psalm. This Psalm, which lifts up God’s glory, orients us to the proper way to approach God. In God’s presence, like the wise men and shepherds, we can only stand in awe.

The Reformed Tradition, in which the Presbyterian Church stands, has always maintained a high view of God. Worship is based upon scripture and directed toward the Almighty. We are skeptical of making too many claims about God, for we understand that God is outside of our control. God is totally other. If God was anything less, he’d not be Almighty and we’d really be in trouble for we’d be depending upon a being that doesn’t have the power to do what we need. In scripture, we learn that God comes to us, drawing us into a relationship with him. God’s grace always precedes any action on our part. When we are truly in God’s presence, we’re speechless. We stand in awe. We’re like those in the Psalm, who can only mumble in amazement, “Glory!”  Read Psalm 29.

          There is nothing like an electrical storm to remind us just how our lives are fragile. I’ve been caught in many such storms: hiking in the forested woods of the Appalachians, backpacking above tree-line in western mountains, in a boat offshore of North Carolina, paddling a kayak in our sounds, and even once—as a kid—playing golf with my grandfather on Pinehurst #2.

I can assure you, there were plenty of thunderstorms the summer I hiked the Appalachian Trail. With the exception of when above tree line in New Hampshire or Maine, the best thing to do when no shelter was around was to keep on trucking. If it was cold, I would pull on a rain suit, but most often when summer hiking in the heavily forested eastern mountains, it’s was warm enough that you can just get wet. After all, I was probably in need of a shower. Of course, before the storm got too close, I’d stop and put on a pack cover to keep everything inside dry.

I lived through many such storms. The wind picks up. I’d begin to feel vulnerable. The trees start to bend and sway. Occasionally a branch breaks. But the wind is just a warning. Sound of the thunder increases. Soon the lightning is no longer just a flash in the distance, but well-defined streaks. It’s getting closer. Bolts begin popping trees nearby and the smell of burning ozone fills the air. If hiking with others, you spread out. That way, if one is struck, someone else could try CPR, or at least not everyone would be fried and would live to tell the story. After a brief intense period of lightning and deafening thunder, the rain comes. Like the electrical display, it’s short and intense, but quickly passes. Then it’s over.

As the storm moves off eastward, each boom of thunder is a little less intense. It’s hard to tell when the rain stops as the leaves keep shedding their water a good thirty minutes after the storm has past, even after rays of sun break through the canopy, which provides another glimpse of awe. In a few minutes, the storm seems to be a distant dream. In camp that evening, you build a fire and attempt to dry out socks and boots as you discuss shared experiences. Everyone was scared, but are glad to have gone through it. Storms are awe-inspiring.

Did the Psalmist have such an experience? He must have. The description of God’s glory being seen in a powerful storm that breaks trees and shakes the wilderness. In the face of such power, all one can say is “Glory!”

         I love this Psalm! We live in a narcissistic world, yet the Psalm reminds us of our limited abilities. In the face of such a storm, in the presence of our God, all stand in awe. The power of this Psalm drowns the choruses of “me, me, me” and “I, I, I” that dominate the sound waves of our lives. We can’t think too much of ourselves when we truly contemplate the power and the glory of our God. When we truly consider the omnipotence of God, a God shown in the 29th Psalm to have power over creation, we are left nearly speechless. The majesty of God drives us to our knees.

        I may have told you before about the cocky scientist who thought it wouldn’t be too hard to create a human being. If God could do it, he could do it, or so he thought. So God issued a challenge. He accepted. On the day of the event, the scientist went down to a creek bank and dug out clay and rich dirt. He then began to mold it into a body. It was looking pretty good. But before he could try to blow life into his body, a lightning bolt shattered this creation and a voice from heaven boomed, “Hey you, Mr. Scientist, go get your own dirt.”

In a profound way, the 29th Psalm humbles us before our Creator. Notice that in these 11 verses, humanity remains inactive. The Psalmist remains a passive observer. The Psalm is attributed to David and we can image him as a young man, out herding sheep, having such an adventure. While we are inactive, the Psalm opens with a call for us to worship God, but when we get into the meat of the Psalm, God provides the movement, not us.  We just watch as God’s glory is revealed in a violent storm that breaks the strongest trees known in that part of the world, a God over fire and earthquakes, tornadoes and floods. At the end, after tiring himself by proclaiming the wonder of God, the Psalmist expresses hope that God will give us strength and peace.

You know, we are all on a journey in this world. We are here for only a short time. And while we are here, God has something for us to do. We refer to this as our calling and those of us in the Reformed Tradition understand this calling to be more than just what we do within the church. In fact, worship is more than just what we do here on Sunday morning. Our whole lives are to glorify God, so our vocation—whether in the church or in the secular world—is important to God and the furthering of his kingdom.

        On Monday, in our Calvin January Series lecture, some of us were blessed to hear Dr. Jimmy Lin talk about the “good news” in the battle against cancer. Those who heard the lecture may have been shocked that before Lin talked about cancer, he discussed his relationship to God, referring to himself as a “scientific doxologist.” As you know, the doxology is a praise of God. Dr. Lin suggested that the most important thing for all of us to do is to praise God. In other words, we are all called to be a doxologists. Yet, we live out our lives in different ways. He is a scientist, so he calls himself a scientific doxologist. When we all think of the labels we place on ourselves for our journey through life, all of us should strive to include the title “doxologists” with our description. “I’m a business doxologist, an engineering doxologist, a banking doxologist, a lawyer doxologist, a retired doxologist, a preaching doxologist…” You get the idea, don’t you?

         Interestingly, with all this discussion this morning about storms, Martin Luther, the great Reformer, religious vocation began with a thunderstorm. A nearby lightning strike threw him from his horse. Scared, he prayed and vowed that if saved, he would become a monk.[1]

In his Small Catechism, Luther began his explanation of the Ten Commandments with the phrase, “We should fear and love God.”[2] Most of us probably don’t think of these two terms, fear and love, together. They seem paradoxical, especially to our modern or postmodern minds. We have an idea that for true love to exist we have to be on an equal footing, otherwise one party will dominate the other. This may be partly true in the love between individuals—even though it is not always so. Certainly the foundation of love between a parent and an infant is not built on equality.[3] The child is totally dependent on the parent. The same goes for our relationship to our Heavenly Father. We’re totally dependent on God.

In our relationship with God, there is a dialectical tension between fear and love. We fear God because of our alienation due to sin. And yet, God draws us back to himself, through Jesus Christ, showing us love. Therefore should praise God always.

It’s with fear and love that we approach God and we can see both emotions in the 29th Psalm. Certainly the experiences of storms and natural disasters described in verses 3 through 10 are fearful. But isn’t it reassuring that God’s power extends even over these calamities, and that the God whose power extends over nature is the same God who gives us strength. Such a God is to be the focus of our worship; such a God is to be the focus of our lives. We’re called to join in with the heavenly host and praise him.

The trust of the Psalmist as he contemplates God’s power revealed in a fierce storm is the type of trust Jesus encourages us to have when we pray, “your will be done, your kingdom come.”[4]

When we encounter storms on our journeys, and sooner or later we all will, we should remember that it’s only in God Almighty that we find security. When it comes to the bottom line, there is nothing you and I can do unless God either wills it or allows us the freedom for it to happen. This may seem as a restriction on our sovereignty, but true freedom can only be found by humbling ourselves and by placing our faith in God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Friends, as you leave this morning, go out into God’s world living up to your calling. Go out into the world and be a doxologist! Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950: Mentor Books, 1961), 15.

[2] Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for this Urgent Time. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 97.  See all the Lutheran Book of Concord, pages 343ff.

[3] For a discussion on how love changes as we mature, see Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (1956: Harper & Row, 1974), 41ff.

[4] Matthew 6:10. See also Luke 11:10.

The Wise Men and the Evangelical Stream

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 2:1-12
January 6, 2019

 

 

        This Sunday is Epiphany. In the Christian calendar it marks the end of the Christmas season as we see the decorations disappear. Epiphany means a surprise encounter or a manifestation of God. The root is from the Greek word for sunrise or dawn, although the word was also used in reference to an appearance of a god. In the Eastern Church, Christmas is celebrated on this day with an emphasis on the incarnation—the surprising way God came to us, “in the flesh.”

Traditionally, for those of us in the Western Churches, Protestant and Catholic, this is the time we hear the story of the Wise Men or the Magi, who follow the star that leads them to the infant child. They experienced firsthand the light coming into the world.

          As I have done throughout this Advent and Christmas season (with the exception of last Sunday), we will look at these traditional seasonal passages through the lens of Richard Foster’s book, Streams of Living Water.[1] Foster identifies six different streams or traditions in which we encounter and respond to God. With each of the streams, we have explored a different character within the Christmas story. For contemplation, we looked at Mary. Joseph was our example for holiness and John the Baptist for social justice. The shepherds served as our example for the charismatic stream and, of course, Jesus is the supreme example for the incarnational stream.

Our last stream is the evangelical tradition. The word evangelical, which has been often misused, comes from the Greek word evangel or good news. Sadly, when we hear the word evangelical today, people either think of it in a political realm or as a group of Christians who are against things. That’s not a fair way to think about this tradition. It’s not about politics or what we are against. Being evangelical, in a true sense, is about what we’ve experienced in Jesus Christ and a desire to share that experience with others. It’s about being for Jesus. Today, as I conclude this series, we will look at the wise men or magi as an example of the evangelical stream. Read Matthew 2:1-12.

 

There are a number of angles we can approach the story of the wise men coming to Jesus. This morning, I would like to highlight three:

  1. The wise men made it a priority to seek Jesus.
  2. Finding Jesus, they responded with gifts of thanksgiving, without expecting anything in return.
  3. Having encountered Jesus, they knew their loyalty was to a higher power.

 

 

Let’s look at each of these.

We don’t know what was so special about this particular star. It appears only the wise men noticed the star and followed it. Why weren’t others following it? We don’t even know who these guys are. It’s generally assumed they are from Persia. Some scholars suggest they were Zoroastrian priests who spent time studying the stars. And God placed this star (or a conjunction of planets, or an unfamiliar comet, or a supernova, or whatever it was) into the sky to catch their attention and draw them to Judea.[2] It’s obvious these guys are not Jewish, for if they were, they would have known the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Instead, they had to stop and ask direction. They knew something special was happening and wanted to check it out even if it meant a long trip to a distant land.

They took a risk. It was important for them to find Jesus, as it is with us. Responding to Jesus’ call to follow him is the most important decision we will make. It overrides all other decisions. And when we decide to answer this call, like the wise men, we are off on a journey in which we have little control. We are no longer our own; we belong to the Lord.

        What might we learn from the wise men’s search? They first go to Jerusalem, the holy city, a place of excitement. Herod’s there; the temple’s there. The streets are packed with pious folks carrying out the work at the temple and with pilgrims who have trekked there to worship. But that’s not where they find Jesus. Instead, they are led to a small dumpy town five miles away. A poor suburb, inhabited with shepherds and goat herders. The town supplied meat and animals for the appetites and sacrifices of those in the capital. Flashy isn’t one of God’s traits. God humbled himself by coming to us as Jesus and, I would suggest, we’ll often find Jesus in humble circumstances. To encounter Jesus, we have to be humbled. Being splashy or among those who are popular isn’t a guarantee that Jesus is present. Jesus comes to those who humbly admit their need for a Lord and Savior over their lives.

Following Jesus is the most important decision we have to make. But we can’t do it unless we are humbled.

         Now let’s look at this passage from what it tells us about giving. One of the most important lessons for a Christian is to learn that giving is as much a blessing as it is an obligation. You know, we feel good about ourselves when we give, especially when we give without expecting anything in return. The wise men show the importance of giving without being asked and without expecting anything in return. If you think about it, this is a story of foreigners giving gifts to a child they don’t know. It would be like someone from Romania dropping by the maternity ward at Memorial Hospital and handing out gifts.

Contrary to the popular carol and the ubiquitous nativity scenes, we don’t know for sure that there were three wise men. Instead, we’re told that they had three gifts, so it’s natural to assume three bearers of the gifts, but they may have been more (or less). Gary Larson, author of the Far Side comics, suggested there were four wise men. The fourth was turned away for bringing a fruitcake.

Over the years a lot has been made about the three gifts. It’s natural to associate gold with a king. Myrrh, which was used as an anointing oil for priest was appropriate for the Messiah, the anointed one. Frankincense, used in the sanctuary where prayers were offered to God, may indicate Matthew saw the gifts as foretelling a time when the baby Jesus would be worshiped with God the Father. However, this is only speculation. The gifts may have just been those worthy of a king.[3]

The wise men knew they needed to worship something greater than themselves. They knew they needed to worship God who considered them so precious that he came in the flesh. In coming, although they had no idea of this, they fulfilled the passages from Isaiah about the light of Israel rising and the nations and kings coming to see the glory. In fact, it’s from Isaiah that we get the transformation of wise men or magi into “kings.”[4]

         Finally, think about the loyalty of the wise men to a higher authority. Herod provides a counter-plot to the wise men. He reminds us that even though the Messiah has come, evil remains a threat. Herod’s false humility almost fooled the wise men. But then, after being warned in a dream of Herod’s intentions, they skip out of town without letting Herod in on the secret. The wise men are a reminder that our first loyalty is to God. Although as Christians, we’re called to obey those in authority, our allegiance has its limits and our commitment to God always comes first.

         Now, let’s think of the wise men or magi in the context of the evangelical tradition. This stream within the Christian faith places a high priority on the proclamation of the gospel, the centrality of Scripture, and the confessional witness of the early Christian community.[5] This good news, the grace of God’s work in Jesus Christ, calls us to follow Jesus. As with the wise men, it calls us to respond out of gratitude, and it also calls us to a new way of life in which God becomes first. We see this twice in this passage, first with the gifts they gave and, secondly, when they follow God and ignore Herod’s request that would allow him to carry out a great evil.

For those of us in the evangelical tradition (and that would include Presbyterians for I am speaking of the true meaning of the word, not how it is used in political discourse today), the need to tell others about Jesus fueled our missionary efforts to spread the good news to other nations and people. We always do this with God at the center. For the wise men, it’s God who calls them to Bethlehem. The wise men become the first converts to worship Jesus outside of his parents and a few shepherds. They represent the first fruit of an evangelical zeal that will spread the gospel to all the world. Friends, we need to rekindle that zeal.

          I started this sermon with three things we learn from the wise men. I am going to add one additional thing to this. There are four things that I want you to take home today and to ponder throughout the week: Seek Jesus, give graciously, know that God always comes first, and remember that we’re called to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

©2018

[1] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith (New York: HarpersCollins, 1988). The idea for this series came from Peter Hoytema, “Six Biblical Characters, Six Traditions of Faith” Reformed Worship #65 (September 2002).

[2] For a detailed treatment of the various ideas around the star, see Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah  (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 167-173.

[3] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Commentary (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 14.

[4] See Isaiah 60:1-6 (especially verse 3 for kings and verse 6 for their camels). See also Psalm 72:10-11. Brown, 187-188 has a detailed account on how the wise men or Magi were transformed into kings.

[5] Foster, 219.