God’s Promises

A Sprig Held High

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)

Thus says the Lord God:

I myself will take a sprig
   from the lofty top of a cedar;
   I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
   from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
   on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
   I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
   and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
   that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
   I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
   and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
   I will accomplish it.


As you may have noticed reading the Bible, prophets can be strange folk. Ezekiel is one of the strangest, but he also reveals to us some of the most beautiful truths about God.

Born a little over six centuries before the birth of Christ, Ezekiel spent much of his time helping the people of Israel understand why their world had fallen apart. In short, they had turned on God, falling into idolatry, and God had given them up to their enemies. Ezekiel eventually was dragged off to captivity in Babylon, along with most of the brightest of God’s people.

Here are some of the odder things Ezekiel did to communicate God’s wrath to a very stubborn people:

  • He lay on his left side for 390 days, one day for each year God said the kingdom of Israel had existed in sin. He then lay on his right side for 40 days, one day for each year the kingdom of Judah had sinned.
  • During this time on one side or the other, he ate bread cooked over cow dung, to show how the people of Israel would be forced to eat in an unclean way as captives. He also ate very sparingly, to show how the people of Jerusalem would suffer from famine during the occupation.
  • Later, whenever he ate he had to tremble and shake with fear to show the people what they would feel when their towns were attacked and stripped of possessions.
  • He was not allowed by God to publicly mourn the death of his wife, as a sign of how the people would lose all they treasured with no recourse or way to complain.

It’s depressing stuff. But again, there is this powerful message of hope in the midst of so much suffering. We see that hope in the prophecy we have read as our Scripture today, the prophecy of the sprig.

For the people of Israel, the prophecy is about the restoration of the line of David, the great king of their history. A cedar tree was the sign of royalty.

Clearly, the tree had become twisted and corrupt, having moved its roots away from God as the source of life, but God was promising the people through Ezekiel that he still planned to fulfill the great promises he had made. God was in control; God is in control.

We have this image of a tiny sprig at the top of the tree, new life, being plucked from the old and being moved to a high and lofty place. A new king would come, one who would fulfill the promise from God that all the world would be blessed by the people of Israel, the line descended from Abraham.

This fulfillment has already happened. As Christians, we come here each Sunday to celebrate the great event. Jesus is the sprig broken off Israel, establishing a new kingdom as he was held high on the cross.

In his resurrection we see new life shared with the world. We see escape from our captivity to what is unholy.

And as we understand the story, we see the powerful change God offers each of us. Sadly, we are part of this broken world, but if God is transforming the world through Christ—if he is making all things new, as we know he is—then we can be plucked off and transplanted, too.

Perhaps our habits are not what God would have them be; like the ancient Israelites, we can find ourselves living in defiance of God.

Perhaps our families are corrupted in some way, suffering under the influence of the world rather than seeking God’s will, and we find ourselves pulled down.

Perhaps our relationships are not what they should be, and our ability to thrive is hampered by them.

Know this: Through belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we allow God to pluck off what is fresh and good in us and replant us in fertile soil. I’m talking about a life rooted in God’s holy word and refreshed daily by God’s Holy Spirit.

The first step is to offer ourselves, branches held high.

Take me, Lord, take what still has life and holiness in it, and grow me into what you would have me be.

 

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God Is Faithful

Romans 3:1-8 (NLT)

Then what’s the advantage of being a Jew? Is there any value in the ceremony of circumcision? Yes, there are great benefits! First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the whole revelation of God.

True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful? Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. As the Scriptures say about him,

“You will be proved right in what you say,
   and you will win your case in court.”


“But,” some might say, “our sinfulness serves a good purpose, for it helps people see how righteous God is. Isn’t it unfair, then, for him to punish us?” (This is merely a human point of view.) Of course not! If God were not entirely fair, how would he be qualified to judge the world? “But,” someone might still argue, “how can God condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights his truthfulness and brings him more glory?” And some people even slander us by claiming that we say, “The more we sin, the better it is!” Those who say such things deserve to be condemned.


Paul continues to speak about the Jews. They are a special people, he tells us, chosen by God to be the revealers of his true nature. God has made many promises to them as a people, and those promises will be fulfilled.

For several centuries, people calling themselves Christians have conveniently forgotten this truth about the Jews’ special place in God’s great plan. These people have dared to go so far as to persecute and kill Jews. Their faulty logic and failure to heed Scripture don’t need rehashing here.

As Methodists, our biblically rooted first rule for living, “Do no harm,” should tell us all we need to know about persecution. We don’t persecute others, regardless of their beliefs. We don’t persecute Jews, we don’t persecute Muslims, we don’t persecute Hindus, we don’t persecute anyone. When in a part of the world blessed with freedom, we preach and teach biblical truths to anyone who will listen, but we live peaceably with others regardless of how they receive that preaching and teaching.

As Paul discusses the special role of the Jews, he also reveals something about God’s nature that’s worth focusing on today.

We of course know we are supposed to be faithful to God, to be true to God. But lo and behold, it’s a two-way street, one God drove down first! God remains faithful to the Jews, even though many have turned away from him. And in revealing himself in full through Jesus, who is Messiah first to the Jews and then to the world, God showed his faithfulness to all of humanity.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that God’s faithfulness toward us is the driving force behind history. If God were not faithful toward his creation, there would be no history.

We have no reason to expect such positive treatment from our creator. There are a lot of indications in the Bible that God feels what we would call “pain” when humans sin.

Genesis 6:5-8, the beginning of the Great Flood story, is a good example:

The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the Lord said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” But Noah found favor with the Lord.

In the Great Flood story, death and chaos did follow. The surprising part is it was not complete. God left an escape clause for humanity, a way to continue. Noah found favor with the Lord.

It’s not that Noah was perfect or sinless. As best we can tell, he simply craved a relationship with God. He wanted to be right with God, to be aligned with God. And for God, that was enough to keep trying to heal that broken relationship with humanity, despite our sinful nature causing him pain.

Apparently, the merest turning of our eyes toward God is enough to warrant a response. God is holy; that is, his very being defines what is right and what is wrong, and he cannot tolerate sin forever. God also is love, however, and the loving nature of God makes him very patient. God chooses to keep loving us despite our sins.

This understanding of God’s ongoing faithfulness takes us to the core of Christianity, to that John 3:16 truth of what God is doing. God loves his creation so much that he took on flesh and lived among us. Being in pain already because of our sin, God went ahead and made his pain real in our world, dying on the cross for our sins.

He loves us so much he made reunion with him easy. Just believe in the work he has done.

A lot of people struggle with the idea of God being so faithful toward us that he actually pursues us. In fact, the ease with which salvation is received may be one of the biggest hurdles some people have to overcome to be able to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior.

A relationship with God is something to be earned, a lot of people think, particularly if they have striven for success in other areas. Don’t we first have to clean up our act?

No, we don’t. It’s that simple. God is so faithful in the promises he has made through time—to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses and the Israelites, to the Israelites again through the prophets, and ultimately to all of us through Jesus Christ—that he is just waiting on us to let him fulfill them.

Do you want a relationship with God? Just say yes. There’s no asterisk here, no fine print on a back page of a contract. Just say yes.

We don’t want to stop there, of course. God has also promised restoration, a driving out and destruction of sin. We can be the people God intended us to be. Don’t forget to say “yes” to that offer, too.

Sometimes, this process of spiritual growth does take time. It’s hard to lay down old habits and walk away from the comfortable mud holes where we’ve learned to wallow. We have to say yes to God’s offer of restoration on a daily, or even hourly, basis.

The offers of salvation and restoration are always before us. Why? Because God is faithful first. Our faith in him by comparison is a tiny, almost token response, but it is enough to gain us the eternal life we are continually offered.

 

All Eyes on Christ

Even Christians who practice the season of Advent sometimes have trouble explaining exactly what Advent is.

It is not the Christmas season, despite what Kmart, Walmart and all the other retailers would have you believe. In the church, Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve, and stretches through Epiphany on Jan. 6. Thus, the song “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

I realize I’m probably fighting a losing battle on the issue of when the Christmas season begins. Commercialism has overwhelmed the church calendar, and by the time Dec. 25 arrives, most people want to say, “I’m done.” I’m just concerned that Advent gets squashed in all of this.

Advent by itself is a special time, one where we reflect on anticipation and promises. We do think and talk a lot about the birth of Christ. His birth was, after all, the fulfillment of thousands of years of hopeful waiting by the Jews for a deliverer, a reconnection to God. So Advent does appropriately lead to Christmas.

It leads somewhere else, however. During Advent, we consider our present-day anticipation, our own desire for Christ’s return. Once we take on the moniker “Christian,” the concepts surrounding Advent should be one of the key drivers in how we live our lives.

Along with the declarations about Jesus we make in the Easter season, the Advent season has embedded in it the concepts that make us obnoxious to people of other faiths and nonbelievers. If you really understand the biblical texts around Advent and their related texts, it’s hard to be a universalist—to say that basic goodness or the underlying concepts found in all religions somehow restore us to God.

In the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of a time when God would re-establish control over all creation. In the New Testament, we understand Jesus as the path to this event. By going to the cross as a sinless man, Jesus broke the power of sin so we can stand with God and, appropriately, bow before our creator and worship in holiness, just as we were originally made to do. We understand Jesus to be God among us, at work even today through the Holy Spirit, another manifestation of God.

A handful of Christians try to make negotiable this idea of belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation, but most do not. I certainly do not. Again and again, the Bible gives us images of Jesus as the ultimate focus for creation. In the end, all eyes are upon him; every knee bows in his direction.

This concept becomes a driver for our lives because the Bible also describes the arrival of Christ as sudden and complete. The timing is a complete mystery; “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” we are told in Matthew 24:36.

Don’t believe it when people tell you certain events have to occur before Christ’s return. Such ideas lull us into a dangerous complacency. We should live as if Christ could return before you finish reading this column.

When we live in such a way, we live as people filled with excitement. This is joyous anticipation! As believers, we do not cringe in fear of a smiting—we await the one who saves us, the giver of grace, the one who frees us from pain, death and all the other shackles of sin.

Rejoice that Advent is here, and that for all we know, the risen Christ may arrive even before the Christmas season.

Job’s Story, Our Story

The Book of Job

I developed this sermon in the first person—that is, in Job’s voice—while in seminary. For various reasons, I did not preach it in the first person today, but the ideas in what is written below were the core of the sermon. I also should note that we baptized Alexandra Paige Price this Sunday in response to her profession of faith. Job had a vision; so did Alex, of what her baptism should be like. She was baptized by pouring, an option we have in the United Methodist Church, albeit one seldom selected. Like Job, Alex has faith in her Redeemer, known to us now as Jesus Christ. He will return one day to make the restoration of the world complete.

I recently found an interesting book called “The Holy Bible.” Imagine how surprised I was to find my story in this book—it’s about a third of the way from the beginning, with the simple title, “Job.”

I have to say, I’m relieved at how the written version begins. “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” It’s good to see that this book affirms my righteousness. A lot of people questioned my character.

For a long time, my life was just about perfect. I had a beautiful wife, seven sons and three daughters, and frankly, I was rich beyond belief. I had sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys grazing for as far as the eye could see, and I had servants taking care of them. To my utter bewilderment, it all fell apart on me in a single day.

First, thieves made off with my livestock, slaughtering most of my servants in the process. Then, out of nowhere, a great windstorm knocked down my oldest son’s house, crushing to death all my children as they feasted.

Not too much later, I began to get sick. I developed these nasty, oozing sores from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. And folks, that means they were on everything in between, too. I felt like God’s garbage, so I went and sat down on the ash pile. There, at least, I could use a piece of pottery to scrape the festering mess off of myself.

That’s when my friends showed up. They did really well at first—they just sat quietly with me for a whole week. I was in misery, but at least I had company. But as soon as I remarked that I wished I had never been born, Eliphaz felt the need to speak up. Then the others joined in.

Their arguments were quite elaborate, even poetic, but they all boiled down to this: “Job, you must’ve done something to offend God.” I told them I couldn’t imagine what it might be, but they just went on and on.

I should mention one surprise I learned from this book. One of God’s angels, the one known as Satan, “The Accuser,” was the actual cause of my troubles. He thought my righteousness resulted from my easy life, and that he could make me curse God.

To be honest, knowing that God let an accusing angel do so much evil to me leaves me even more confused.

I suppose I’ll just have to rely on what God told my friends and me: The Creator cannot be fully understood. At least God gave me a new family and restored my wealth in the end.

Still, I would like to better understand God. In the midst of my sickness, I did have a vision. I poured out some powerfully strange words, so powerful that I longed for someone to engrave the words in stone. Maybe a fever accompanied the sores—I don’t know.

Those words are recorded in the 19th chapter of my story: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

It’s a strange hope to have. Who is this Redeemer? And how could I ever hope to stand in the flesh before God after my body has been destroyed? It all sounds a little crazy.

Perhaps as I read the rest of this “Holy Bible,” I’ll find some answers.