Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Exploring Worship Weeks 3 and 4

I have been teaching a class on Worship at First Baptist Cornelia this fall.  In week's 3 and 4 I explore we have changed worship by giving it purposes other than the worship of God.  The historical connections to our worship styles today is quite fascinating.    

Worship as Evangelism - Week 3

Worship as Inspiration - Week 4

I showed several video illustrations as part of this powerpoint.  Here are the links:

The Hour of Power:
Lakewood Church:
Saddleback Church:

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Gift of God's Future

          Recently, I had a conversation with a pastor friend of mine about the work First Baptist Cornelia is doing as around our Living By Faith emphasis.  As I described the work of our different initiative teams, he used a wonderful phrase that caught my imagination.  He said, “It sounds like you are experiencing the Gift of God’s Future.”  I love this idea – the Gift of God’s Future.  Indulge me for a moment as I reflect on its meaning in our context. 
            The metaphor that resonates most profoundly in my soul and life about the providence of God and God’s future describes God as the Master Weaver.  God as the Master Weaver stands in front of the barrier we call “Now” or “the present,” as a weaver stands before a loom.  Great strands of fabric stretch out before him, full of potential. God, the creator and artist, weaves this fabric into a beautiful tapestry called life.
            Now, imagine that God stands in our future – at the barrier between now and what will be.  As free humans who sin, hurt and love, we play a role in the tapestry God is creating.  God invites us into his future, into his life, into the joys and challenges that mold us into the person God desires us to be.  At the same time, God takes our choices – those that honor God’s future and those that do not – and weaves his purposes into our lives.
            I had a friend tell me he once thought of God’s Will as a narrow path in the woods like the Appalachian Trail.  In this metaphor, fear emerges at choosing the path correctly. We ask, “what is God’s will” afraid we might choose the wrong path.  Some of us live lives of great regret because we feel we choose wrongly. 
            When we imagine God as the Master Weaver, our choices expand.  God’s Will is not just one choice like a narrow path.  God’s will expands into a great meadow and is woven together through our choices.  We can still make bad choices and good ones – yet, there is still hope for God’s future in our lives. 
            God’s future is a gift given to us by a loving father who desires the very best for us.  Our task is to prepare ourselves for this future.  The more we grow to love God more with all of our hearts, soul, mind and body the more we prepare our lives for God’s future.  The more we learn to love our neighbor as ourselves, the more God’s future becomes a reality in our lives. 

            I hope that you will join me in celebrating God’s future alive in our church.  Let us look with eyes of faith to see God’s future at work.  And when we do – let us worship a God who continues to give us a hope and a future.  Thanks be to God.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Worship and the Bible

Here is week 2 of the class I'm leading called Exploring Worship.  This week, we review the biblical foundations for worship.  

This week I use these two books as my primary texts:
Daniel Day.  Seeking the face of God.  Macon:  Nurturing faith, 2013

Franklin Segler.  Christian Worship:  Its Theology and Practice, 1967

Here's one definition of worship.  To worship is to:  
To quicken the soul by the holiness of God.
To feed the mind with the truth of God.
To purge the imagination by the beauty of God.
To open the heart to the love of God.
To devote the Will to the purpose of God.

Exploring Worship - Session 1

For the next several weeks I am leading a class at FBC Cornelia called Exploring Worship.  Working with an energized Worship Initiative Team, we hope to lead our church to deeper and broader worship experiences that transform our church and world.

I want to share these seminars with a larger segment of our church and community so I'll post the powerpoints each week.  

In week one we discussed Worship Confusion.  We looked at descriptions and models of the various worship styles found in evangelical churches today.  

We also began to ask about the questions of why is there so much confusion and diversity and even animosity when it comes worship - the epicenter of what it means to be church.    Below you will find the PowerPoint I used to lead the class.

Most of the material in this class came from two books:

Daniel Day.  Seeking the Face of God:  Evangelical Worship Reconceived.  2013
Paul Basden, ed.  Six Views on Exploring the Worship Spectrum.  2004

If you would like to follow the links to the Worship examples - here they are:

Contemporary, Music Driven Worship 
Formal-Liturgical Worship
Emerging Worship

We also looked a great video about the shifts in the world in 2014 as these relate to worship.  Click Here.   

Monday, July 14, 2014

Mount Nebo: Discovering a New Perspective

Mt Nebo
Sermon 2 of Mountains of the Bible Series
Sunday, July 13, 2014
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 34

            In the Moab wilderness – in modern day Jordan – Moses stands on the edge of destiny.  He can smell the salt air of the Mediterranean.  The freshness of grass and tress drifts over the Great Jordan River Rift from the Promised Land.  The long journey from Egypt to Palestine has ended.  The land to which God called Abraham so many generations ago – before Joseph and slavery in Egypt – sits ready for the people of Israel. 
These former slaves have been formed in the wilderness into the People of God.  Their identity and covenant, their law and their rituals have matured them into a people ready to serve as God’s light for the nations.  
Moab Wilderness.  Modern day Jordan
            At 120 years young – Moses still possesses he same power and charisma that he displayed growing up in the courts of the pharaoh.  “His eyesight was sharp; he still walked with a spring in his step,” the scripture tells us.  Like an ancient version of Blanche Bowen who died last year at 96, I bet Moses could still be planting his own garden and mowing his own grass. 
            At the heart of Moses 120 years of unparalleled life stands his relationship with Yahweh God.  Yahweh saved Moses as a child and delivered him to the promised land of Pharaoh’s court in the same way God would save the People of Israel and deliver them to their own promised land.  God called Moses out of exile in the wilderness and declared his name for all the world – I am who I am, I was who I was, I will be who I will be – simply – YHWH – Yahweh. 
            Then, when the plagues were done and the People of Israel stood free at last at the base of Mount Sinai, God summed Moses into the Presence of God – a terrifying experience of smoke, thunder and noise to the top of Mt. Sinai.  The Scriptures say, Moses was the one prophet, to whom the Lord knew face to face.  Moses had experienced God and lived.  He confounded all things as they were in order for God to create something new in the world. 
            Now, Moses stands in the place that has only existed in his dreams – the Promised Land is so near he feels it calling him.  Yet, he knows the rest of the story will be left for someone else.  Once, years before, recorded in Deuteronomy 34, Moses begged God to allow him to complete the task before him – to lead the people into the Promised Land.  Like all great leaders, Moses didn’t want to leave a task unfinished. 
            “GOD, my Master,” Moses begged, “you let me in on the beginnings, you let me see your greatness, you let me see your might—what god in Heaven or Earth can do anything like what you’ve done! Please, let me in also on the endings, let me cross the river and see the good land over the Jordan, the lush hills, the Lebanon Mountains.”
            God would have none of it, though.  The Lord wouldn’t listen to Moses. Instead, God said, “Enough of that. Not another word from you on this. Climb to the top of Mount Nebo and look around: look west, north, south, east. Take in the land with your own eyes. Take a good look because you’re not going to cross this Jordan River.
            Since this moment, Moses has spent his waning moments in an eloquent filibuster – he keeps talking, hoping to wait God out.  Yet, death will wait no longer.
Now - Moses withdraws from the Hebrew camp on the plains of Moab to a high place for a climactic moment alone with the God he first met eighty years earlier on another mountain.  In the ancient worldview, if you went up topographically, you were just a bit closer to God. Mountaintops represented closeness to God. 
Mount Nebo as a mountain is not much to write home about.  Today, it is located in the country of Jordan, just to the East of the Dead Sea.  Rather than a mountain like Yonah or Curahee – standing high and regal for all to see – Mt. Nebo sits more like high ridge line.  Even its elevation doesn’t sound impressive – it’s only 2,680 feet high.  Today, a modern road winds up and over it and you pass the summit without even realizing where you are.  Moses’ walk to the top of Nebo carried none of the courage and stamina needed in those days of climbing up and down Mt. Sinai. 
Looking West over Dead Sea to Israel
Yet, first impressions of Mt. Nebo will fool us.  The top of Mount Nebo offers a breathtaking panorama of the Promised Land of Palestine. Unlike any other mountain in the world, Mount Nebo offers the best view of the Promised Land in the world.  While only standing at 2,680 feet above sea level, it soars over four thousand feet above the Dead Sea – the lowest point on earth at 1,401 feet below sea level.  The northern tip of the Dead Sea washes against the mountain's southwestern foot. A spot just across a small dip to the northwest of Mt. Nebo, is usually identified as Pisgah.  This location affords the best view of the Jordan valley and the land beyond.
            Moses ascends Mt. Nebo driven by the desire to see things differently.  The topography and promise of the land in front of this mountain has been carried in the conscious memory of Moses’ people for over 400 years.  Generation after generation from Joseph through history have told their children and grandchildren stories about this fertile place.  The land of our ancestor Abraham overflows with green mountains and trees, fresh water and produce.  This is the exact opposite of the wilderness with its dry, barren landscape.  Moses ascends Mt. Nebo to see the truth for himself – does the land live up to the promises?
   Moses also ascends Mt. Nebo to gain a new perspective.  Moses has driven the people of Israel relentlessly in trust Yahweh to provide.   He has pushed and prodded, begged and yelled to get them to this spot.  In the middle of the desert when everyone seems to be against you and God seems to have let you down – the vision that drives you forward gets lost.  We lose sight of the final goal.  Why are we doing what we are doing?  Why are we living like this?  Survival overcomes vision – and we live simple to get through the day. 
            Moses has been living day by day for 40 years – now, he ascends to see the vision of what started him on this odyssey.
            The desires that drive Moses to ascend Mt. Nebo – I would imagine – drives many of us to the mountain as well.  Caught in the daily crisis’ of life – the next doctor’s visit, remembering which medication to take at what time, where the kids need to be today, keeping the bills paid and the house clean – we also yearn to see life and faith differently too.
            Like Moses, we can forget the motivations and visions which started us on our life journeys.  We forget the love story that bought our spouse into our lives.  We forget the joy of holding that new born baby when temper tantrums or adolescent indifference claim all of our waking moments.  We forget the claim of Jesus on our lives when friends or co-workers invite us into compromising positions.  We forget the joy of serving Jesus when we are exhausted from long days and nights at VBS and Camp Agape.
            So – like Moses – God invites us up to the mountain as well.  God invites us up to gain a new perspective on our life and faith and ministry and job and family.  What drives you up the mountain today?

Looking Around
            When Moses gets to the top of Mt. Nebo – the whole Promised Land spreads out before him in a glorious panorama.  On a crystal blue sky day – with no smog or pollution or cataracts to hinder him – Moses sees all that God promised. 

            In the scripture passage that summarizes this moment – the writer records all that can been seen.  In a zig zag manner – he follows Moses gave from one landmark to another.  If you have a map in your Bible let me invite to turn over to it to get an idea of all Moses saw that day. 
Immediately across the valley on the Western slope of the Jordan rift valley stood the city of Jericho, one of the oldest human settlements in the world.  It is still known as a city of Palm trees.  God then showed Moses all the land from Gilead in the south to Dan – all the way in the North near today’s Lebonan border.  Dan was the first place Abraham had entered into the Promised Land. Then God showed him all of Naphtali – the Northern Galilee, Ephraim and Manasseh – the central highlands with their rolling hills and valleys; all Judah reaching to the Mediterranean Sea – including the mountains that would one day hold Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives and Bethlehem; the Negev – the southern desert wilderness and the plains which encircle Jericho, City of Palms, as far south as Zoar.
Moses came up to see the Promised Land – and it was even grander than he could ever have imagined.  It was more spectacular than any family myth had remembered.  From the perspective of Mt. Nebo – Moses regained God’s vision for the people of Israel.  The Promised Land was no long a myth or a promise – it was here in front of Moses, ready to be received. 
Mountaintop experiences help us to re-orient our lives around God’s vision for us as well.  The mountaintop is the place we can go to get perspective on what we are doing.  On the mountaintop, we can transcend ourselves to ask the important questions about ourselves and others.  It’s a place we can see the patterns of the life.
Like Moses, our mountaintop experiences allow us to get a panoramic view of our lives – we can see better what we are doing, where we are going, and what stands in our way. 
When we stand on the mountaintop, we see our family more completely.  We see the joy that lies at the foundation of the daily chores and challenges – we remember the laughter we share and the love that bonds us.
When we stand on the mountaintop – we get a glimpse of our vocation – the passion and experiences that brought us to where we are.  We rekindle the joy that started us on this journey.
When we stand on the mountaintop, we see the daily medical challenges that confront us differently.  We see God molding us into the image of his son, as we walk each new day.  We see more clearly our ultimate destination and the fear of death and dying slowly slip away. 
Mountaintops reorient our lives and force us to look up off the sidewalk and catch God’s vision for our lives. 
Like Moses, we must intentionally seek these mountaintop experiences.  They begin in prayer as we meditate on scripture.  They become intentional retreats at home or away from home.  Our mountaintop experience may be a mission trip or Camp Agape, a spiritual get away or a morning at home with the Bible.
We must be willing to allow the presence of God to meet us in these moments for this re-orientation to take place.  We can all climb a mountain of some fashion – but we have to be willing to see with the vision of God for that re-orientation to occur. 
            Finally, Moses doesn’t stay on top of Mt. Nebo.  At some point, he has seen all that he can see and it’s time to return to the valley.  If Mountaintops give us vision, the valleys give us life. 
            When the Cherokee and the old time pioneers first settled these Georgia Mountains, they didn’t build mountaintop cabins like we see today.  They settled in the lowlands, the valleys and the river bottoms were the places that produced crops and offered constant water.  Mountaintops offer vision, but we can never live there.
            Moses returned to his tribe and his people and then died.  He was full of vigor and vision till the very end. 
            I love the Oswald Chambers quote on the front of our Order of Worship. 
“The mountaintop is an exceptional type of experience; we have to live down in the valley.  After every time of exaltation we are brought down with a sudden rush into things as they are, where things are neither beautiful nor poetic nor spiritual nor thrilling. The height of the mountaintop is measured by the drab drudgery of the valley.  We never live for the glory of God on the mount; we see His glory there, but we do not live for his glory there; it is in the valley that we live for the glory of God.”  We descend the mountain to live for Jesus with a new vision
This is the Gospel for us today:  From the mountaintop, God reorients our vision for our life in the valleys. 
God has a path for you and your life.  Roadblocks and barriers block our paths.  On the mountain top, we begin to see with God’s eyes the direction and purpose of this path before us – with God’s vision these the barriers no longer seem as big, the path no longer feels as long, and joy suddenly descends into our lives again. 
What part of your life does God need to re-orient today to help you begin walking God’s path and faith purpose again?

Over the past year, I have hike Mt. Yonah through every season.  I love the Mount Yonah hike because it is a high reward hike.  From the mountaintop, the whole Georgia Blue Ridge opens up before you – like a panorama of God’s handiwork.  From the backside of Yonah I can look across the valleys and fields of white and Habersham Counties to see Chenocetah rise up on the horizon.  All of the struggles and challenges of my life live in those valleys – but from the mountaintop, they no longer look imposing or impossible.  Instead, they look small, feeble and doable.  God meets me every time I struggle up that steep road on Yonah and re-orients again with a vision for life in the valley.  He wants to do the same in your life today.  Will you let him? Thanks be the God.  Amen.  

Early Spring from Mt. Yonah

Monday, July 7, 2014

Mount Sinai: Discovering the Presence of God

From the Summit Of Mt. Sinai
Sermon 1 of Mountains of the Bible Series
Sunday, July 6, 2014

            In the summer of 2009, I found myself frustrated, depressed and flat.  My ministry had no life and my life contained little ministry.  I vacillated every day between anger and sadness.  Everything that I had always trusted seemed to let me down:  my ministry skills, my leadership ability, my faith, and especially my God.  I waited for God to open a new door for ministry and I wondered if it would ever happen.  For the first time in my life I started seeing a counselor to help me find my way through deep feelings of failure and disappointment. 
            That summer, our family traveled to the Grand
Canyon.  It was a marvelous road trip filled with unexpected surprises and family defining moments – like the day we met the real life Flo from the Disney movie Cars at the Midpoint Cafe on the old Route 66 outside of Amarillo
            One morning while staying in the Grand Canyon National Park, I woke up earlier than the family to join a Ranger led hike down in to the Canyon.  We met at the South Kaibab Trailhead and began hiking the 1.5 miles down to Cedar Point – a great view inside the canyon and a great place to turn around.  Like all Canyon hikes, the 1.5 miles down the trail was easy – it was all downhill.  I spent time marveling at the rock formations and asking the ranger tons of questions. 
            When we reached Cedar Point, the ranger dismissed
the group and allowed us to hike up on our own.  I found myself sitting on a rock outcropping reflecting on my life – especially my anger, sadness and disappointment.  I prayed deeply as the sun rose higher over the canyon walls and began to heat the day.  My life felt flat and my ministry felt dead.  I needed to experience God in a new way. 
            When you sit in the middle of the Grand Canyon, you realize there is only one way out – up.  What felt easy going down, but would not be so easy going up.  As I stared at the trail going back up to the trailhead, I prayed and dedicated my hike back up to God.  I asked God to allow the pain and burn in my thighs to burn away the anger and pain in my soul.
            Then, I started hiking.  Each step up I prayed – “Lord, burn within me.”  The hike up out of the Canyon was difficult.  The hike out of my depression and anger was even harder.  The burn in my thighs and the pounding of my heart were nothing to the poison I had allowed to penetrate my life.  When I finally reached the edge of the canyon, I stopped and looked back down from where I had come.  I was tired and sweaty, but I felt something new had begun. 
            My attempts to control my life, ministry, faith and future had been fruitless. That long hike out of the Canyon reminded me that the presence of God is much bigger and uncontrollable than I can ever imagine. 
            In 1979 movie a cinematic masterpiece called The Black Stallion arrived in movie theaters.  The movie begins across the ocean. In the early 20th century a young boy and a wild black stallion are journeying to the US on an old ocean linear.  Deep into the ocean, a giant storm overwhelms the boat and the boy and the stallion both survive and make it to shore on a uninhabited island.  The first half of the movie has little dialogue.  The boy and the horse simply exist on the island.  The stallion represents all that is wild and untamed in the world – full of power and speed and danger.  The boy lives meekly on the island, trying to survive away from any parent or adult. 

            The movie depicts the relationship the boy and the stallion build – slowly and dangerously over time.  Soon, the two find a way to trust one another.  The boy is still meek and weak compared to the wildness and strength of the stallion but the trust they build allows them both to survive and to be rescued.   
            The movie conclusions with the boy and horse back in American society.  The boy rides the stallion in a horse race.  This is incredibly dangerous.  The boy latches himself on top of a powerful stallion who is unleashed to race the wind.  Yet, the danger grows less important the more deeply the relationship grows.  It’s like the horse and the boy have been created for this moment.  The untamed presence of the stallion brings fulfillment in the boy’s life. 

            In Exodus 19, we catch a glimpse of the untamed presence of God a top Mount Sinai. 
Mt. Sinai
            It’s been 3 months since Moses led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt.  For three months, thousands of weak, hungry and frightened people have been walking through the hot, barren wildness now known as the Sinai.  Moses leads them to the plain in front of Mount Sinai on the southern tip of the ancient peninsula. 
            Moses is very familiar with this terrain and this mountain.  For years he worked as a shepherd in this wildness after his flight from Egypt.  In fact, it was here on this plain in front of Mount Horeb, another name for Sinai, that Moses first experienced the presence of God in the burning bush.  At this same spot, Yahweh called Moses to return to Egypt to deliver the slaves – his people – from the Pharaoh.  Now, the slaves are freed, Pharaoh sits in shame with much of his army destroyed, and Moses stands before the Mountain of God … again
            No one really knows the exact location of Mount Sinai.  Crag filled granite mountains fill the Sinai wilderness.   A few hundred years after Jesus, Coptic Christians from Ethiopia came to a mountain in the Sinai they believed to be this mountain and called it Gebel Musa (Mountain of Moses).  By any standards, this Mt. Sinai would be just another barren peak lost among the martian landscape of Southern Sinai. It is neither the highest mountain in the region, nor the most dramatic; there is no soaring, heaven-reaching apex, and it is rare to see anything resembling a divine shroud of clouds hugging its peak.
Monastery of St. Catherine
Yet, for over 1,500 years pilgrims have come to this mountain, now with an ancient monastery called St. Catherine’s, to visit a place connected to the Presence of God.  People like you and me, desperate for the presence of God, come looking for something, even if we don’t know what we are looking for. 
            When the Hebrews arrive at the foot of Mount Sinai they are desperate too.  Hungry, thirsty and dirty – they have been delivered from slavery into a vast wilderness with now hope for a future, no sense of community or family, and with little experience with the presence of God. 
            God begins a conversation with Moses to prepare these Hebrews to meet the God who has brought them out of Egypt.  Moses travels up and down the mountain speaking with God and speaking to the people.  At over 7,400 hundred feet, Moses hikes up almost 3000 feet in elevation every time he travels up Mount Sinai. 
            God tells Moses to command the people to prepare for his presence.  They are to wash their clothes and prepare their bodies for in three days God’s presence would arrive on the mountain for the people to experience.
            On the third day, our scripture passage says, “there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled.”
            These former slaves with dry tongues, loose skin and clean clothes stood at the place where God had called Moses and witnessed the presence of God descend onto the mountain in the form of a dark, heavy smoke.  The mountain shook and the air fill with the loud wail of a trumpet.  The generous God of the Exodus abruptly becomes the demanding God of the Sinai.  The mountain and all around it become heavy with a holy presence. 
            The scripture writer tries to describe in inadequate words the presence of God on this mountain.  All we see are fire and smoke, violent movement and loud trumpets – yet we sense that these words are too small to contain God’s presence. 
            Yahweh is an alien presence, a foreboding, threatening, de-stablizing other.  The writer wants to take us up in awe and terror, in the presence of the holy one who is beyond all. 
Mount Sinai is a dangerous environment, a place where the ordinariness of our human existence makes contact with the holy.  When this encounter takes place – when we experience the presence of God – we will never be the same. 
The theological term for what happens on Mount Sinai is theophany.  A Theophany is a visible appearance of God.  The burning bush is a theophany.  The still small voice that Elijah hears on this same mountain is a theophany.  The birth of Jesus is a theophany.  The arrival of the Holy Spirit in the upper room is a theophany. 
 For every theophany in the Bible we also see a cataclysmic confrontation that destabilizes all conventional certitudes.  When the presence of God arrives – all that we know or think we know gets turned on its head.  The theophany on Mount Sinai tells us to get ready when God shows up!
            Within the violence of this image of God on Mount Sinai, God summons Moses to the top of the mountain.  He has more information to give him.  Can you image Moses now – he’s used to climbing these 3000 feet to the top of the mountain, but now – he’s climbing with nothing to guide his way.  He’s alone on the mountain with all of the sounds and smells of the presence of God.  I can feel the terror through the pages in the simple words, “Moses went up.” 
            In the book The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe, C.S. writes these words as the four children in Narnia are introduced to the idea of Aslan, the lion, the God figure.
            “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion,” Mr. Beaver tells the children. 
"Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"...
"Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”
            There is nothing safe in this image of God’s presence on Mount Sinai.  Yet, God still draws us to his presence.  Moses still hikes up the mountain in the deep smoke to listen to Yahweh set the stage for the deliverance of the 10 Commandments in the next chapter. 
            As I think back on my time before my descent in the Grand Canyon, safe would be good word to describe my faith.  I wanted God to bring me a good life and a good ministry with not much work.   I just wanted to show up.  Yet, God had more he wanted to do in me.  God needed me to learn to trust his wild, untamed presence – like the boy and the Stallion.  Like the boy, I was learning there was little safe and much that is dangerous about seeking the presence of God.  Yet, God drew me to him and invited me to trust him in new ways. 
            How often have we domesticated our faith in Jesus?  We have attempted to bring God down to our size.  Rather than a wild stallion that could crush us or a violent storm or earthquake that could kill us, we make God in our own images.  We envision God as a kind old man, high in the sky that delivers goodies to us when we do well.  We make God into a traffic cop to keep us on the moral way.  We envision God as a boyfriend or girlfriend who just wants to make us happy.  None of these images gives God or us enough credit.  God is much bigger and uncontrollable than we can ever image.  Just as soon as we think we have God figured out – he goes out and call us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to walk the extra mile.
            This week we have celebrated the beginning of our country.  I’ve thought about the number of individuals throughout American history who have risked their lives for the sake of pushing past the ordinary and the safe.  The pilgrims who ventured across a vast ocean on some tiny ships.  The colonists who set up small villages on the edges of civilizations that would one day become great cities.  The explorers who pushed past the cities of the Atlantic – deep into the Appalachians and across the Great prairie.   Our American story is full of stories of risk and adventure.  If these are our people - why have we allowed our faith lives to become so domesticated?
What would happen in our lives if we uncaged God to work and move in our lives?  What would happened if we climbed up the steep mountain of God into God’s presence?  Maybe God just might transform us more into the image of his son?  Maybe God would send us into unknown lands for his Kingdom.  Maybe God would call us to love with abandon this week at camp agape and VBS.  Maybe God wouldn’t let us stay where we are – he would invite us to something more. 
            This is the Gospel:  The untamed presence of God invites us to risk our lives in communion with him. 
            Last March, I woke at 5:00 am at a hotel on the
Wadi River Bed
Dead Sea.  I had 2 hours before our group would leave to explore the wilderness across the street.  With Jimbo Stapleton and ?? I walked up into the canyon across the street.  Another canyon worlds away from the American Southwest. 
We hiked up through the river bed and then turned to climb the steep ridge that ran beside the Dead Sea.  In a Martian landscape full of red, dry rocks, I hiked as hard as I could up the steep terrain. 
Trail up the Mountain
Soon, the rocks and the steepness got to me. I couldn’t go any further.  So, I traversed the mountain to the end of the ridge to see over the side.  In front of me the sun slowly, hazily, rose over the Dead Sea.  I gasped at the experience of God’s presence.  I had worked hard to arrive here, yet, I did not have the power to get where I wanted to go.  Still, God’s untamed presence found me.  I held on tight, this place was dangerous.
I could fall, I could twist my ankle or break my leg.  Yet – being here – meant that God had something new for me.  I had been healed from the anger and sadness and disappointment of years ago.  I God brought to see life from a new place of trust and hope.    Maybe today – God has something new and dangerous awaiting you as you explore your faith in Jesus as you seek the presence of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


[A friend of mine recently asked me about a sermon I preached during Lent.  His college-aged son lost a close friend from high school to leukemia this week.  He asked me to post this sermon on my blog.  This blog is for him and everyone else who faces death today - either literally or figuratively]

Preached:  Fifth Sunday of Lent
Sunday, Sunday, April 6, 2014

Mary and Martha choose to move towards death
I learned a profound theological lesson from a cancer surgeon.  In the first few weeks after my dad’s kidney cancer diagnosis we did what all new cancer patients do – we sought second opinions.  We traveled to the premier cancer center in Charleston associated with the Medical University of SC for an appointment with its top cancer surgeon.  We carried a large manila envelope with dad’s x-rays and cat scans.  These images held the truth of dad’s disease.
The surgeon invited us into a conference room, turned off the lights and placed the images onto a large light board.  One after another, he slowly looked with practice attention at each image.  One after enough, we watched and we hoped.  Finally, he began to explain the scope and seriousness of the invasive tumor filling dad’s torso.  With a hand on my dad’s shoulder, he drew a breath and concluded with these words I’ve never forgotten.
“Mr. Spivey, everyone is dying.  You just know what is killing you.”
From the time that we utter our first loud wail at our mother’s side to the time we extinguish our last feeble breathe we are in the process of dying.  Death hangs over all of us like a dark shadow.
            Death hangs over the story of Lazarus in John 11 like the stench of a man dead for four days.
            From the moment John introduces us to an ill and dying Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha – we sense the shadow and foreboding of death.  The sisters send their friend Jesus a message informing him of the illness.  We sense the unspoken urgency and fear.  Jesus, sensing it too, delays leaving for 2 days – informing his disciples cryptically – “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory.”
            When Jesus decides to finally leave for Bethany, death seems awfully close at hand.  The disciples warn Jesus that there are people who want him dead, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 
            When Jesus informs his disciples that Lazarus has died, the cloud of death grows even thicker – Thomas says to the all of the disciples ominously, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
            When Jesus arrives in Bethany – Martha leaves her sisters and the other mourners at their home and confronts Jesus out in the road outside the village.  She voices the statement those who knew Jesus were surely thinking - “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Between the lines you hear - “Jesus, you are a healer.  I have seen you heal the blind and the lame on the side of the road.  I have seen you heal children just with the mere faith of her father.  I have even seen people healed by the simple touch of your garment.  Lazarus is your friend and you could not get here in time to heal him?  Now, look, he is dead 4 days.  What now?”
            Yet – Martha still trusts Jesus even when she doesn’t understand, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  Martha can’t rule Jesus out.  She believes he is the Messiah.  “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  Even with this affirmation – death still lingers.
            The same is true for Mary.  We find Mary overwhelmed by grief, surrounded by friends who have come to mourn and grieve with her.  If she lived around here – there would be quite a few pound cakes and fried chicken boxes on the kitchen table and friends rushing around the house cleaning and washing dishes. 
            Mary loves Jesus.  She trusts him.  Yet, when Martha fights her way through the mourners to catch Mary privately and let her know that Jesus has arrived, Mary has the same statement of confusion.  You can see the red checks and disheveled hair and wet eyes as she kneels at the feet of Jesus and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
            Mary and Martha know Jesus as well as anyone.  They heard him teach in their home.  They saw him heal.  Yet, when death invades their lives, they choose to move towards death.  They struggle to find hope.  Death has robbed them of life.
            This catches Jesus off guard.  If anyone knew of the hope that Jesus offered – hope greater than even death – it should have been Mary and Martha.  Instead – death wins. 
            Seeing Mary and Martha overwhelmed by death moves Jesus greatly.  V. 33 says – “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  And famously in v. 35:  Jesus wept.  He begins to cry. 
Often, we interpret Jesus’ tears with his empathy with Mary and Martha’s deep grief.  John Chrysostom, an early church father, interrupted Jesus’s tears differently.  Rather than sadness, he says, Jesus was angry and disturbed because of the evidence of the power of death in the world.  Jesus delayed his trip so that the glory of God could be revealed.  As he stands with Mary and Martha, he witnesses the true power death has over all of our lives. 
Mary and Martha stand before the tomb of Lazarus surrounded by friends.  Everyone’s eyes are wet with tears.  Wailing fills the sky.  Death – even for those close to Jesus – is overwhelming – and Jesus weeps.  Death is a formidable enemy.  Even as Jesus commands the stone to be removed from the tomb, Martha pipes up – “Jesus, he’s been dead 4 days.  The body smells.  What are you thinking?”
Notice in this story how much Jesus lingers before the miracle at the tomb.  He lingers two days before the trip.  He lingers outside the village.  He lingers at the tomb.  John wants us to feel the burden and power of death.  John does not want us to take resurrection and life for granted.  Resurrection is no quick fix.  It does not come easily.   

We choose to move towards death
            For folks who know this story – and the story it foreshadows – we too often follow Mary and Martha and choose to move towards death as well.  When we move toward death – we step away from life. 
We step away from life when we ignore death as a reality.  We forget the old adage from Benjamin Franklin:  “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  We put our heads in the sand and live life with no purpose and no goals.  By ignoring death, we make the lives we live trivial, something to be survived rather than truly lived. 
We step away from life when we focus only on the outward parts of our lives.  Our culture tells us that we shouldn’t grow old, we shouldn’t age, our social standing and our belongings are more important than our inner life.   So, we fight the wrinkles with creams and surgeries.  We resist aging and forgot the wisdom that comes with the years.  We buy as many toys as possible.
We step away from life when we make death into a euphemism.  We deny death’s power and its pain when we talk around death rather than living through it.  Our friends have passed away, passed over, fallen asleep, expired, resting in peace, kicked the bucket, in a better place, belly up, checked out, gone to meet their maker, snuffed out, bumped off, checked out – but rarely have died.   Even Jesus has to speak clearly with his disciples when they miss the reality of Lazarus’ situation – He is not asleep - Lazarus is dead!  By denying death’s power, we give it more power over us.
            We step away from life when we let circumstances control us rather than allowing God to work within those circumstances.   We forget God transforms our circumstances and instead allow these events in our lives drive us to depression, fear, and loneliness.   
Let me just say – I understand – all of these responses to death.  Stepping away from life is easier than facing death.  The fear of death can usher us into some dark places. 
            This week I heard a call in radio show where a woman called in for help.  The mother of three was pregnant with twins when she went into labor.  Something happened during the birth and only one child lived.  She called in desperate and afraid.  She described how the loss of this child had destroyed her life and broken her faith in God.  The power of death had descended over her and she had stepped away from life.  She couldn’t see the 4 gifts of life living under her roof or the beauty of a husband standing beside her.       
            When we step away from life – when we choose to move towards death – we miss the eternal life Jesus gives to us. 

Jesus gives life to Lazarus
            While death hangs over the story of Lazarus – the eternal, resurrection life of Jesus stands at the core of the story. 
            From the very beginning of the story, Jesus tells any who will listen what is really happening here:  “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
            When Jesus meets Martha outside Bethany on the road, he tells her exactly what is happening – but she misses it – such is the power of death in her life.  Jesus tells her plainly - “Your brother will rise again.”  Martha misses the plain intent and makes this statement into a reference to the ongoing theological discussions happening between the Pharisees – who believed in a life after death – a resurrection – and the Sadducees – who did not. 
            You can almost see Jesus shaking his head as Martha makes this statement.  Then – Jesus makes an identity statement similar to the others in the book of John.  This is the main purpose of the whole chapter.  “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
This is not a story about death – this is a story about life.  Resurrected, eternal life.  Jesus is just the only one who sees it. 
When the power of death seems to be complete control of everyone around him – Jesus steps forward at the grave and with authority – declares God’s power over death.   He looks at the tomb carved into the side of the mountain and says “roll away the stone. “
“Wait,” Martha challenges, “what about the smell.  He’s been dead 4 days.”
            Jesus looks over at her – and says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
            Then, he looks to heaven and prays – “Father, I thank you for having heard me.”
            And with a loud voice – Jesus commands with ultimate authority – “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus gives life to Lazarus.  He destroys the power of death in our lives.
            And the dead man exits the tomb, like a mummy walking – he stumbles, and falters – and he lives!
            Eugene O'Neill, the famous play write, in his play Lazarus Laughed, has an eyewitness describe what happens next this way: 
            “I helped to pry away the stone so I was right beside him. I found myself kneeling, but between my fingers I watched Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus looked into his face for what seemed a long time and suddenly Lazarus said "Yes" as if he were answering a question in Jesus' eyes.
Then Jesus smiled sadly but with tenderness, as one who from a distance of years of sorrow remembers happiness. And then Lazarus knelt and kissed Jesus' feet and both of them smiled and Jesus blessed him and called him "My Brother" and went away; and Lazarus, looking after Him, began to laugh softly like a man in love with God! Such a laugh I never heard! It made my ears drunk! It was like wine! And though I was half-dead with fright I found myself laughing, too!
            With a choice between death and life – Lazarus said yes to life and laughed from the core of his being.

Jesus gives life to us
            Jesus invites us to laugh as well.  Jesus is still performing miracles in our lives too – Jesus gives life to us too!
            Eternal life is not something that happens when we die – eternal life happens in the here and the now.  Eternal life is ours for the taking if we will only say, “yes!”
            One of my Baptist heroes was a man by the name of Dr. Bill Hull.  Dr. Hull served as the Samford provost during my years in Birmingham and was my pastor for a year.  If I could only preach with a 10th of the ability of Dr. Hull I would be grateful.  6 or so years ago, Dr. Hull was diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He died last December.  Between his diagnosis and death, Dr. Hull said yes to the life Jesus gives us and taught us all how to live and how to die. 
            As the disease slowly took every muscle of his body, Dr. Hull continued to write:  first, his legs, and then his body, and then his arms, but never his mind.  By the end, his family would set up him up in a chair, place a pen in his hand and he continued to write.  Life was too precious – to eternal - to be wasted away. 
            When asked about his dying- Dr. Hull responded – “If I think of what I have to live for – if I were to use this to become relentlessly selfish, it would deny something bigger than myself.  Call it the Spirit of God.  Call it Christian commitment.”  Dr. Hull looked into the eyes of Jesus and said, “yes” to life. 
            Are you ready to stop stepping away from life?  Are you ready to allow Jesus to restore you to true life, real life, eternal life?  Jesus stands before you today – with the smell of death hanging over you – and calls you by name.
            “Eric – come out!”  It’s time to live.  It’s time to dance.  It’s time to laugh.  Come laugh with me.  Say, Yes!  Say, yes!  Say, yes – to eternal, everlasting, true, beautiful life!  There’s no better time to start than now.  There’s no better place than here!  Amen!