Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Ebenezer - 1 Samuel 7: 5-14

For several years a rock sat on my desk in my study. I have my friend Brian Phipps to thank for it.  One day over breakfast he told me about what he was preaching on the next Sunday here are RMC. I liked it so much that I went out and found me a rock.

The outline of what Brian shared with me then I share with you again now.           
Brian’s sermon was on I Samuel 7: 7-13. It was about the days of Samuel, the prophet, when there was no king in Israel. They had no standing army, but they had a mortal enemy—the Philistines.

The Philistines have been pushing the Hebrews around for decades. In 1 Sam. 4, they fought at place called Aphek. To assure victory, the Israelites carried the Ark of the Covenant into battle. In the past, whenever they had the Ark, they won. The ark represented the Glory of the Lord, and God never failed them. Everyone believed that with the ark there, they would surely win.

It didn’t happen. The Hebrews lost. Philistines killed the sons of the high priest and captured the Ark. When the high priest heard about the defeat, he fell over and broke his neck, dying instantly. 
  Imagine how awful this was to the Israelites!  They lost their king, their high priest, and the Ark.  No wonder one of the women of Israel named her child Ichabod— “The Glory of the Lord has departed.”  That’s how they felt in those days. 

Have you ever felt the sting of a defeat like that? I did once. Twenty-three years ago, I became pastor of one of the largest churches in our denomination. It was the job I’d always wanted. I took enormous amount of pride in my accomplishments. But after eight years of being pastor of that church I was tired, broken, and defeated. I felt that I had accomplished nothing. I felt the glory had departed from my life and ministry.

One day, I preached a sermon on the call of Abraham and revealed that God had called me away from the church, but not to anywhere. I tried to appear brave, but I really was scared. I truly felt as if the glory had departed. 

It was also a time of great personal change in our family. All three of my daughters left home at the same time—one to marriage, one to school, and one to Japan. We lived in a manse, so we were giving up our home. Not only that, but Joy had to give up her job, and we had nowhere else to go. Everything was changing for us.

That’s when I talked to Brian and picked up my rock.

Richard Rohr calls this sort of time in our lives liminal space. Liminal means “doorway.” It a time when everything starts to turn, and we have no idea where it will lead. It’s It is a time when things are changing for us, but we don’t know how they will turn out. There are times when we can go for weeks, months or years when nothing changes in life. Day after day moves on and things pretty much stay the same. The stream of life is slow and steady. Then suddenly we hit the rapids, everything changes. Back in 2002 was one such time for us. 

Last November, I was praying, and I felt the Spirit of God speaking to me that everything in our lives was going to change, and it is. This year we are back in that doorway, liminal space. We are experiencing the loss of our parents, retirement, a new grandchild, and our other grandchildren moving away. Joy has had two surgeries, we are faced with major home repairs, and I am back in school, going though a new round of education for a new role. For years, everything went on with relatively few changes, and then suddenly everything is changing for us again.

Our changes are minor, though compared to the changes that many of you have endured over the last few years, which have been far greater than ours. Many of you are living in changing times in your own life. 

And you as a church are back in liminal space, doorway space with us. Nothing is certain any more. But one thing is certain. God is still in control.

God doesn’t work on a schedule. When He gets ready to move, it’s in His time and in His way. Back in 2002, we prayed for about a year over what we were to do next, and the Lord didn’t seem to be giving us all the answers. During that times, He answered our prayers one by one, but not all at once, so we lived in uncertainty and confusion. We could see the glory of the Lord, felt His presence, but we were uncertain of His will. 

When the Philistines stole the ark, it took a long time for God to show what He was doing. But eventually He did.

First, we see what happened to the ark in 1 Samuel 5. It gave the Philistines nothing but trouble.

  They were plagued by rats and hemorrhoids. Soon, they were begging the Hebrews to take it back. They sent it back to the Israelites along with an offering of golden rats and hemorrhoids. They wanted nothing to do with the symbol of Israel’s powerful God.

The Philistines were afraid of the God of Israel.  Yet while the enemies of God recognized the power of God, the Hebrews did not. They were still discouraged, still defeated—they felt their glory had departed. 

The people of Beth Shemesh were the first to see the ark return. Farmers in the field saw the ark returning, and they shouted for joy. God had restored his glory. 

But the ark was not yet in its proper place. The ark belonged in the tabernacle. Instead, it was left for a while in a place called Kiriath Jearim. It was only partially home. It was in for twenty years, the ark rested at Kiriath Jearim, waiting for its proper place.  

I mentioned the ark was in the Tabernacle. A tabernacle is a tent, not a building. It is like one of those elaborate tents that Arab sheiks still erect in the wilderness. It is a moveable temple for sacrifice, designed to be carried with the people wherever we go. It was a reminder to the people that they were not yet home. 

The Israelites were very much like us. We don’t want a tabernacle. We want a house. We don’t want to change but we must. Our mansion has not yet been built. It will be waiting for us in heaven. Until that time, we will always be somewhere in the doorway of life, expecting to move on eventually. 

In 1 Samuel 7, Samuel the prophet called the people together at a place called Mizpah. There they wept and fasted for God to make clear His will. The Philistines were out there, waiting to fight, but the people bowed their heads and their heart before God. Some might have thought this was foolish, praying and not defending, but Samuel knew better. When we are in the doorway, we don’t know what’s out there. But we are trusting God to make things right.  

Liminal space is the perfect place for Satan to attack. It is a moment when we are most vulnerable.  It is important at those times to be on our most trusting. At this time while the Israelites were praying, the Philistines launched a raid. If it were successful, Israel would have ceased to exist.

But they were not successful. Verse 10 says, “That day the LORD thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites.”   
 The Philistines went into a panic. After prayer, all the Israelites had to do was to go out and rout the stragglers. The victory was the Lord’s. If it weren’t for God’s thunder, they would have been dead meat. 

Samuel never let them forget the day that God delivered them from the Philistines, so he picked up a rock and set it on the ground. He called the rock and the place Ebenezer--the “stone of remembering.” Ebenezer means, “Thus far has God helped us.”

In times of change, we don’t have to know how things turn us. We only need to remember God is in control. Look how far God has brought us today. 

This church was founded in 1952. It has endured pastor after pastor—some who were good and some not so good, several splits, a relocation, building programs, phenomenal growth and phenomenal shrinkage, strife and unity, blessings and disappointments. Has the church always made right choices? 

No. Has God cursed or judged it for its wrong choices? No. Like all living things, this church has endured its ups and downs, good times and bad.

Don’t be afraid of it changing again. Don’t assume that change of any kind is bad. Change is the natural state of all living things. 

Don’t focus on what’s bad about change, but realize that every change is God’s invitation. Don’t look backwards through the doorway, but have the courage to face what is coming. God got you though the next doorway like he got you through the last if you will just keep holding His hand.

But do this one thing. When you get through the door, put down a stone of remembrance—your personal Ebenezer. Remind yourself of it from time to time. Look back and see How God has carried you in the past, so you will remember not to panic in the future. 

Remember your Ebenezers—those times when God helped you. It may be the time when you first met Jesus. It may be a time when God provided you a job. It may be a miraculous healing or when some loved one trusted Christ. Record and remember God’s interventions in your life.

The Israelites had short memories, it didn’t take them long to forget the Exodus, the Red Sea, the quail, and the manna. Samuel wanted to make it sure they would not forget this victory, so he put down the rock and encouraged others to do it, too.

So, when Brian told me about his sermon, I went home and got a rock. I put nothing on the rock then--I just picked it up in faith. I didn’t know where or how I would know that the glory was returned, but I wanted to be ready when it did. So, I took a rock from that place, and brought it to this place.

Today, I raise my Ebenezer. God has blessed me, and He has blessed you, too. Wherever He may take us in the future, we can look back on this day, this place, and know the faithfulness of God.

God is our help. His glory is with us. If I remember that rock, I will remember that day. God helps us to never forget His blessings again.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Center and the Edge - Philippians 1: 21-26

My generation was the first to grow up with a TV. My childhood was spent in front of it watching old movies, sitcoms, and cartoons. Growing up, television was my third parent and my best friend. When I was lonely, it was always there. When I was hurting it cheered me up. Television was my life. 

Even though we were southerners, I didn’t have a Southern accent, because I learned to talk by television. I told time by television. Four PM was Father Knows Best. Nine AM was Captain Kangaroo. My tenth birthday I remember only because it was when The Beverly Hillbillies premiered. Every family event was dominated by TV; every holiday we watched football games and parades.

 People complain today about kids on the internet and video games. They are either lying, forgetful, or grew up in a different kind of family. In the 60’s, television sets were on at least eight hours a day in most homes. There’s nothing new about this. Kids are doing what they saw their parents and grandparents do—lose themselves in media. Furthermore, old people are just as addicted to media as their children and grandchildren. Today, according to the New York Times, we spend 10 hours and 39 minutes a day staring at screens. People over 50 watch the most television—five hours a day--and are the most influenced by it. The use of cell phones for entertainment has increased over 60 percent since last year. We have no right to criticize the young for spending so much time before screens when we do it ourselves. 

Here’s the problem--we are losing our souls.  We live in a matrix of media-induced reality. We think what we see on our screens is real, but it’s processed reality. Whether we are watching the news, sports, or science fiction, it’s still only a shadow of the real world.

This would be all right if we were strong enough in ourselves to resist what we see, but we aren’t. The world pulls us out into itself with such force that we never have time to evaluate what it is saying. There is no time left when we turn off our screens to think about anything. 
Richard Rohr paints a grim picture of modern life. He says:

“We are a circumference people, with little access to the center. We live . . . confusing edges with essence, too quickly claiming the superficial as substance . . . If the circumferences of our lives were evil, it would be easier to moralize about them. But boundaries and edges are not bad as much as they are passing, accidental, sometimes illusory, and too often in need of defense or “decoration.” Our “skin” is not bad; it’s just not our soul or spirit. . .  Earlier peoples, who didn’t have as many escapes and means to avoid reality, had to find Essence earlier — just to survive. On the contrary, we can remain on the circumferences of our lives for quite a long time. So long, that it starts feeling like the only “life” available.”

 We’re like donuts—our outsides are covered with sweet amusements, but inside there’s a big hole. We try not to think about what we’re consuming. Our electronic “friends” tell us what music we’re supposed to enjoy, what’s funny, and what values we are supposed to have. The media demands the right to tell us what to do, what to believe and what to value.

Paul said, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul’s center was Jesus. He didn’t care what the world said. Everything he was or did focused on Christ. Anything that distracted from this was discarded or treated with indifference. The stuff on the edge of his life didn’t disturb his inner core. Christ defines his world. That’s what it means to have Jesus as Lord. Christ, not culture, is your core.

Other generations lived lives that were so hard and short they were forced to develop their inner core. They had to build their personal center of strength through prayer, reflection, and self-examination, or go insane. But when we’re faced with problems, we lose ourselves in distraction. The center cannot hold, because we do not look within.

People, families, and churches are falling apart. Cynicism and anger replaces innocence and love.  The best thoughts on humanity are silenced while the worst parts of us are energized by mob mentality. The best part of us, our spiritual center, is underdeveloped.

 “To live is Christ and to die is gain” can only be claimed by those whose inner lives are more important than their outer lives. They are hurt, but not broken. They endure pain, and can be happy in it, because Christ is there. They bend, but don’t break. Their surroundings don’t matter, because they are grounded in Christ.

But when we focus on the circumference of life we become fragile and brittle. We follow every new fad. We are empty, rootless, and easily manipulated, swayed by every new thing. We are trapped by trivialities and cannot break free. 

Here are some signs we’re living on the circumference of life, not the core:

1.  We feel anxious and afraid. Our lives are run by the urgency of other people’s agendas. It’s amazing how important we think the news is. Half the news is gossip, most of the rest are lies, but we think we must listen to it all. Very little of the news has any real impact on your lives, or who you are.

2.  We distract from unpleasant thoughts instead of dealing with them. We lose ourselves in TV, video games, the internet, social networks, and shallow conversations that distract us from deep thought to avoid pain from unresolved issues. This doesn’t solve our problems, it just delays them.

3.  There’s a difference between what we really believe and what we are “supposed” to believe. We don’t have time to think through what people say to us. We accept easy answers just because they are easy. If we have questions or doubts, we pretend we don’t. Our electronic, entertainment driven world discourages us from thinking or questioning.

4.  There is no time to sit and think. Our lives are so busy we never reflect upon our feelings, thoughts or actions. Someone has said that experience teaches us nothing. But thinking about our experience teaches us everything. If we never ask God to show us the meaning of our experiences, we stay stupid.

5.  We’re obsessed with quantity, not quality.  Everything must be more, bigger, better, and louder.  Going to church must be a major production or we don’t hear God. Everything is about getting more, more, more, but not appreciating what we have. We buy in to the consumer-driven world, because we cannot be still long enough to hear the voice of God. 

6. We’re bored most of the time. We don’t understand what things mean, so it just seems boring to them. If you are deaf, music means nothing. If haven’t understood the meaning of the life around you, it’s just boring. You are constantly seeking something to interest your time, but find nothing.

7.  We never have deep conversations. All conversations are about weather, news, sports or television. There is no time with others to be open about our real thoughts or feelings. 

8.  God is a what to us, not a who. God isn’t a friend. We may go to Him for strength or answers, but He’s not just to enjoy him. We see Him as a policeman, or a professor, or judge, but not as someone who we can know. We are content to know a few facts about God, but not to know him personally in our inner being.

Don’t say, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” if you don’t mean it. People who live in the circumference of life become used to repeating slogans they don’t understand. To truly have Christ as the center, you must spend time with Him. To receive Christ is to receive Him into your inner being, and to invite Him into your heart and to seek His presence always. We live with Christ in our inner being, as Paul did. When He is there, we can resist the pressure of the world around us.  

How do you develop your inner core? Let me give you some suggestions.

First, turn off your devices. TV, video games, and cell phones are a spiritual issue. You don’t know if you are addicted to them until you try turning them off. Instead of listening to them all the time, try turning them off and practicing a little contemplation. Be still in the presence of Christ. 

This is hard at first. It takes a few minutes to silence the constant thoughts that crowd our minds.  But set aside your devices and distractions and listen to God. 

Second, stop multitasking. When you are with someone or something, give it your full attention.  Pay attention to the person in front you. When you are with your spouse, child, or friend, pay attention to them. When you are praying keep your mind on God. When you are alone, pay attention to yourself, and listen to your inner voice.

Third, practice daily self-examination. It only takes a few minutes a day, but it can change your life.
Get alone and sit in silence before God. Find a place where you can get away from the distractions of the world. Enter the presence of Christ. Acknowledge His presence by reading a verse, singing a song, or just bowing your head. 

Give thanks to God. Find something that was a gift from God to you, and thank Him for It.

Now, this next step is important. Go back through the last day in your mind and think about your thoughts, feelings, and conversations. Give each moment to God and ask Him to show you where He was or wasn’t in it. Confess your sins to God as you recall them. As you think about what you have done today, God is with us always, but sometimes we aren’t paying attention. Ask God to show you the meaning of what you did today, and how He is working in your life.

Paul said, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” How did you live for Christ today? How do you acknowledge Him as Lord of your life this day? The world through many voices demands our attention in the circumference of life, but Christ demands that we do not neglect the core. 

 Before we can honestly say that, “for me to live is Christ,” we need to learn to give him a few minutes of undivided attention. Spend less time looking outward at Facebook, YouTube, Hulu, Snapchat, Fox, MSNBC, or ESPN, and more time looking at the Son of God.