Do We Have Golden Calves?

“Do We Have Golden Calves?” – October 11, 2020

Exodus 32:1-14 (32:2-4)

We are living through great uncertainty. Look at the volatile weather during the past few months! Hurricanes, floods, wildfires, extremes in temperature. What about the COVID-19 pandemic? More than 210,000 people have died in the United States in the last six months, as many as died in all four years of the American Civil War. Added to those anxious statistics, we can name the recent racial tensions and the national political upheaval.

 When you or I are fearful or anxious or uncertain, what do we do? Where do we go for stability or comfort? What is all-important to each one, in such a tumultuous time?

As we consider the people of Israel, we might think of all of them being fearful and anxious, too. After all, they had just left Egypt not many weeks before. They were no longer slaves! Yet – they were also wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula. A foreign land, with strangeness and uncertainty at every turn!

Their trusted leader Moses had gone on top of the mountain to talk to this God that he said was the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. An invisible God they could not see, touch or understand, unlike the Egyptian gods.

“Get up and make gods,” they shout, because this Moses has obviously left us alone to die, and we cannot last another day, another minute, without some sort of God or gods to lead us. As for that guy Moses, well, “we do not know what it is to him,” which I take to mean that they have completely forgotten that he told them he was going up the mountain to chat with YHWH and would return to bring them the divine news of the day. As far as they know, Moses and YHWH are engaged in a handball tournament or a solo beach volleyball game.” [1]

Could you understand the fear, uncertainty and anxiety of the people of Israel? No wonder they begged Moses’ brother Aaron for some tangible god, a god they could see, touch and understand, like the Egyptian gods they knew from their time of slavery in Egypt.  

Aaron knew just what to do. He gathered all the golden rings, earrings and ornaments, melted them into malleable metal, and formed a golden calf. An idol the Israelites could see, touch and understand. Something to give them comfort and stability.

When you or I are fearful or anxious or uncertain, what do we do? Where do we go for stability or comfort? What is all-important to each of us, in such a tumultuous time?

We might scoff at the people of Israel sacrificing to the golden calf. But –is there anything we would sacrifice our time for? How about our money or our health? Anything that is so important in our lives that we might make it an idol? Our own personal golden calf?

Our golden calves might take many forms. I have an acquaintance who I’ve known for a long time. She considers her house to be so important. Of course, it is beautiful, but she has poured money into that house and the large garden—and the coach house out back—for many, many years. I suspect that house might be a golden calf in her life.

Another acquaintance I have owns seven cars. Seven! He is so proud of them! He washes them, waxes them, and considers them to be very valuable possessions. I think we all know someone who has idolized something – or someone – or some substance so much that it has become a golden calf to them. Perhaps each of us may consider something all-important. Something we sacrifice for. More important than God, even?

When you and I think deeply about it, the idea of an invisible God can be scary! Can we blame the people of Israel for wanting a tangible god, one they could see and touch and understand? Of course they wanted Aaron to construct a physical idol. “It is easy to mistake our own creations for our God. It is tempting to shape our plundered riches, our wages, and even the reparations for our losses into an image that pleases our senses, mollifies our anxiety, and invites admiration from our neighbors. But that thing we have made from Egypt’s gold is not our god.” [2]

We heard what happened between Moses and God at the ruckus with the idol. God got angry at the people of Israel, but Moses convinced God to allow God’s anger to subside.

Golden calves or “idols lure us with powerful illusions and misplaced hopes. They make seductive promises. These false gods come in all sizes and shapes. They promise much but deliver little. We can idolize almost anything — career, race, gender, sex, wealth, age, and especially nation. Our personal gods are so petty and pathetic that they would be laughable if they weren’t so insidious and corrosive.” [3]

We can take this example as a warning to us. We need to ask God to forgive us for constructing idols in our lives, too.

However, we also have promises from the Lord. God is always with us, even though we may not see God. Like the sun behind dark clouds, the sun is always present. Even in times of stress, fear and anxiety – such as right now! Even at times when we cannot see the invisible God, God is right there, by our sides. Surely, it is God who saves all of us. Alleluia, amen.  


[1] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/2014/10/you-cant-have-it-both-ways-john-holbert-10-06-2014 

“You Can’t Have It Both Ways,” John C. Holbert, 2014.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3442

Commentary, Exodus 32:1-14, Anathea Portier-Young, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[3] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/2014/10/you-cant-have-it-both-ways-john-holbert-10-06-2014 

“You Can’t Have It Both Ways,” John C. Holbert, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Jericho’s Walls Tumbled Down

“Jericho’s Walls Tumbled Down“

Josh 6 Walls_of_Jericho_1217-94

Joshua 6:1-7, 15-17, 24-25 – July 14, 2019

Obedience can be a really good thing. Parents at home, managers in the workplace and teachers in the schoolroom depend on obedience for good, orderly behavior, conduct and communication in a group setting. It makes so much sense: when people listen, understand and obey, everything works so much more smoothly. So much more easily, too.

The people of Israel were not always obedient to God and God’s Word. Not by a long shot! Remember after Moses led the people out of Egypt, and they wandered around the area of the Sinai peninsula for forty years? Repeatedly, the people of Israel were disobedient to God’s commands. God finally had enough with their rebellion and disobedience, and said that every person who had come out of Egypt across the Red Sea (where the Lord did a mighty miracle) would die in the wilderness—the sad penalty for grumbling, rebellion and disobedience.

It is a new day, with a new administration. Moses’s trusty lieutenant Joshua is now the leader of the wandering nation of Israel. After some celebration at crossing the River Jordan into the land of Canaan, and ritual preparation—circumcising every adult male—Joshua sends two spies into the city of Jericho. A covert operation, to check out the lay of the land.

The two spies are welcomed into the house of Rahab, a prostitute. She quite possibly had rooms to rent, and this was also a source of money for herself. The spies quickly find a friend in Rahab, and get some valuable information about the great fear and anxiety that had entered into the hearts of all the people of Jericho. More than that, Rahab even hides the spies when the city authorities come to her house to check out more about the whereabouts of these spies.

After the spies bring the news of the great fear and anxiety filling the hearts of all people in Jericho, Joshua our fearless leader prepares his army to fight.

Thus far, everyone among the people of Israel has been obedient to the voice of God.

I wonder, are you and I obedient to the word of God? Do we follow all of God’s commands? We might say, with the rich young ruler, we have followed all of the Big Ten. Jesus even tells us of the commands in His interaction with the rich young man: “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

I suspect the people of Israel followed the Ten Commandments, too. This was part of the Law that Moses brought down from the top of Mount Sinai just a few decades before. Although, lots of those people of Israel grumbled, rebelled, and disobeyed God, and Moses, while they were in the wilderness. As punishment, they all died without seeing the Promised Land.

As I said, this was the dawn of a new era. Joshua was the new leader of Israel now. The people of Israel were young, vital, and excited to enter the land of Canaan. The army of Israel made themselves ready to attack the city of Jericho, buoyed up by the positive report of the spies.

Except—what kind of a battle plan was this? Joshua, are you crazy? Are you drunk? What on earth were you thinking? Just walking around the well-protected city of Jericho once a day, in total silence, for six days? Not just with the army, but with the priests and the Ark of the Covenant, too?  Then on the seventh day, to walk around the city seven times, in total silence. And then, give a mighty shout, all together! Shout, and blow trumpets, and the thick, high walls will fall down all by themselves.

What kind of battle plan is that? God’s battle plan. God was going to fight for the people of Israel, and show everyone that God was on the side of the nation of Israel.

Lo and behold, the army and priests obeyed Joshua and the command of the Lord. Lo and behold, when the trumpets blew and the army shouted on the seventh day, the walls did come tumbling down. “In the face of such a great obstacle, Joshua complied with the plan of God. Though he may not have completely understood the plan or its significance, he followed God. Joshua moved the people to action.” [1] Obedience was the key to Israel’s success.

I wonder, again. Are you and I obedient to the commands of the Lord, today? Do we follow all the words of Jesus in the Gospels? Here is more of Jesus’s conversation with the rich young man: ““Teacher,” he declared, “all these commands I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

How do we square love of money and possessions with the concept of obedience to a just God? I don’t care who we are, one commentary on this passage said we each have “virtual strongholds that impede our spiritual progress. It may be a weakness in our character, a physical infirmity, it may be indifference to spiritual things in general or to a specific area we are neglecting. It could be materialism or some life-dominating pattern. It may be a difficulty at one’s place of work, in the home, with a particular personality, or it may be a financial burden.” [2] Each of us has difficulty obeying God, in one area or even several at once.

I return once more to the question of the day: are you and I obedient to the commands of the Lord, today? Do we follow all the words of Jesus in the Gospels? Commands like being a good neighbor to absolutely anyone, even a Samaritan? Even someone of a different color, or a different religion? Let’s look at another command of Jesus. Love one another. Sure, it’s easy to love our neighbors and those in our families. But, what about loving the stranger? Yet, the Bible tells us we have to do that, too. Do we? Or, would we rather turn our backs on the foreigner, put the stranger in detention, or perhaps even deport them?

Let’s look at some commands Moses gave to the nation of Israel, the commands this nation of Israel must have been very familiar with. From Deuteronomy 10:19 – “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And, from Leviticus 19:34 – “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” In the books of the Torah—the first five books of the Bible alone, Israel is commanded to care for the stranger or non-citizen thirty-six times.

These are some important commands of the Lord. Are we going to be obedient to these commands, or are we going to grumble, rebel and be disobedient? These commands tell us to be open, welcoming, loving and caring to all—just like our God. These are challenging commands. Yet, they are echoed again and again throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.

Looking at a children’s bible story from an adult point of view? This serious reading about obedience from the book of Joshua pulls us all up short, and gets our attention. May God aid our understanding of our Scripture reading and sermon this morning.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.lifeway.com/en/articles/sermon-overcome-obstacles-jericho-promised-land-joshua-6

Michael Rochelle is pastor of Shadow Hills Baptist Church in Las Vegas, Nevada.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/destroying-fortresses-victory-jericho-joshua-61-27

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Courage, Not Fear

“Courage, Not Fear

Mark 6-50 jesuswalkingonthewater

Mark 6:46-52 (6:50) – August 12, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

“O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.” So says the Breton’s fisherman’s prayer on a small brass-inscribed plaque. The plaque was given to John F. Kennedy by Admiral Rickover, and President Kennedy kept this plaque on his desk in the Oval Office.

When I started to think about this Scripture passage from Mark, the narrative where Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee by night, this plaque came to mind. I suspect the disciples did feel afraid on that small boat as they faced the choppy waves, strong currents, gusty winds, and other weather conditions. Similar to that Breton fisherman.

I have never been to Israel, but I have read that the weather around the Sea of Galilee is particularly changeable. There are hills and even small mountains surrounding a portion of the inland sea. Sometimes, the weather patterns can cause rough weather to flare up with next to no warning. According to the Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, the weather that night on the Sea of Galilee was windswept and the water was churning and choppy. The disciples were out on the water after dark. Some of them were fishermen, but not all. So, some of them were used to being out in an open boat in the middle of open water. Others of the disciples were not fisherman at all, and were probably extremely uncomfortable.

What was the general morale of the disciples? Jesus was notably absent—not with them in the boat. I suspect some of the disciples were fearful and anxious. Maybe even complaining about their sorry situation, out in the middle of the lake and with no Jesus. Just think about their desperate situation, and compare it to your own. From time to time, I am sure all of us have felt like we are adrift in choppy water, all alone, someplace like the Sea of Galilee. Heavy weather is on the horizon. Who can help us deal with our fear and uncertainty?

We need Jesus, that’s who. Just as much as the disciples did.

This scary situation on the Sea of Galilee did not just happen all by itself. This nighttime situation followed after a very busy day for Jesus. This was the day that Jesus miraculously fed several thousand people with a few loaves and fishes. When this all happened, they all were in a lonely place far away from any village or town, near the Sea of Galilee.

I want to be sure all of us understand. This feeding was not just a little miracle. Instead, Jesus did a huge miracle! Feeding well over five thousand people with just a boy’s sack lunch of a few little loaves and fishes? How astounding is that? The disciples were right there with Jesus, serving and distributing all the loaves and fish to all the crowds who attended Jesus’s after-lecture luncheon. Except, Jesus provided all of the food! Miraculously.

Listen again to the beginning of today’s Scripture reading from Mark, which follows the paragraph on the feeding miracle: “ 45 Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.”

At the end of a really busy day with a lot of public ministry, I can see why Jesus wanted to be all by Himself, not only to pray and rest and recoup, but also to spend some down time rejuvenating with His loving, caring Heavenly Parent. Wouldn’t you, if you were in a similar position? Resting and recouping after a long, challenging day of ministry, just about anyone would want to be reassured by the loving embrace of their Heavenly Parent. I know I would!

After Jesus withdraws to be with His Heavenly Father for some hours, it’s time for Him to rejoin the disciples. Let’s continue with the reading from Mark: “ 47 Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48 He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake.”  I would have loved to be with the disciples in that boat!

Just imagine all the exciting information we would hear about leadership and discipleship, serving and helping others, and getting closer to God!

Or, even more, I would love to have a film camera and crew on their boat that night! What a bunch of reaction shots! Shots showing fear, anger, uncertainty, anxiety—the whole range of emotions and reactions to the unexpected and miraculous appearance of Jesus, supernaturally walking on the Sea. Considering what huge miracle had just happened only a few hours ago, “what confidence did the disciples would have had to believe that Jesus would now help them in this terrifying situation?“ [1]

We’ve talked about this before, how the disciples sometimes had a problem believing what Jesus plainly said. Or, a problem seeing what Jesus had just clearly shown them. Or, a problem understanding an illustration or object lesson Jesus had just brought to them. This was one of those situations.

The disciples were a bit thick-headed. They just did not get the full ramifications of the huge miracle of the loaves and fishes. They just did not understand how Jesus—who was God’s son, fully God, and creator of the heavens and the earth—could possibly walk on water.

Jonah had this problem, too. He was a prophet of God, he heard the word of God regularly, but he just didn’t get the message clearly. It took getting swallowed by a fish in the middle of the ocean to get the cotton out of Jonah’s ears.

Listen to a part of Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the huge fish, from the 2nd chapter of Jonah: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and God answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.”

It took a miracle of a huge fish to get Jonah to see clearly. It takes a miracle of Jesus walking on the water, on top of the feeding-and-provision-of-food miracle, to get the disciples to see clearly. Yet, God is with them all, even through the darkness and the storm, even through being swallowed by the big fish or being buffeted by choppy seas.

“What does this story reveal about Christ’s involvement in our own trials? He is both aware of and concerned about our struggles and acts on our behalf. In addition to helping us in our plight, His deliverance reveals to us His supernatural power.” [2] another way of says it is that Jesus is God’s son. Fully God, and fully man. Of course, Jesus can walk on water! And, of course, Jesus can be with us, in and through and beyond our trials and problems. Having God incarnate as my—as our personal Friend and Savior is very reassuring, believe me.

Sometimes we do go through the storm, and even repeated storms. Sometimes we do have serious illness happen to us or to a loved one. Sometimes we travel through the valley of the shadow, and we need that reassurance that God is with us. Jesus can say to us just as much as He said to the disciples, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

These are the words of Jesus. We can take them to heart. These reassuring words are for the disciples, and for us, too. Alleluia, amen.

[1] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 101.

[2] https://intervarsity.org/bible-studies/mark-6c

Mark 6:45-56: Confounded by Christ | InterVarsity

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Be Strong, Courageous, Unafraid, My Son

“Be Strong, Courageous, Unafraid, My Son”

1 Chronicles 28:14-18 (28:20) – July 8, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

King Solomon's Temple at Jerusalem

An older father, giving the gift of encouragement and advice to his younger son. We have seen this sort of touching scene play out, over and over again. In books, on television, in movies. This is like a pep talk from a wonderful motivational speaker, only even better.

King David is aging, and he knows his time is short. God has already chosen David’s favorite son Solomon to be the next king, among all of his sons. (And, he did have a number of sons, from a number of different wives.) What is more, David calls together a large crowd of the leaders, nobles, and executives of Israel for an important royal address.

What is the backstory here? How did this grand scene with a cast of hundreds of the leaders and administrators of Israel come about?

For that, we’ll need to step back and consider King David. He was considered a man after God’s own heart. He wrote a good portion of the book of Psalms, the song book of the Bible. He truly had a relationship with the Lord. But—God did not want David to be the one to build a special Temple for the Lord in Jerusalem. Can you imagine? Why? Why was that?

King David had also been a warrior for years, and had either killed or ordered the killing of a large number of people. The Lord God communicated in no uncertain terms to David that he was not supposed to be the one to build the special Temple. It would be up to David’s son Solomon to build the special house of the Lord. That was by order from God most high.

Can you imagine the scene? All the people, gathered for this grand motivational speech at the end of David’s life. He had been collecting the best of everything for use in the construction of such a fine structure, for years. All for Solomon’s use, and all for the glory of God. Remember, this was a dearly beloved wish of David’s, to see God’s Temple built in Jerusalem.  

David had it all. In his prime, he was a skilled warrior. David also was a fine musician—he played the harp and wrote songs; he was incredibly attractive, and he was a natural leader of men. What was not to like about King David? Or, to look at him from another point of view, King David must have been really intimidating, certainly for young Solomon. And probably for most of all the leaders and administrators of Israel.

Why do coaches, teachers and other motivational speakers give those rousing speeches? To encourage and hearten their listeners, of course. King David must have known that Solomon needed encouragement, and even reassurance.

As an important note, King David also wanted to let everyone know for sure that Solomon was his chosen successor. Just in case, even after the death of David, he wanted everyone in the kingdom of Israel to understand that fact—even though there were a number of sons of David, including several with eyes on the throne and the king’s succession.

Let’s focus on Solomon, specifically. Sure, he had already been anointed as king, and David his father had already made his views on the succession crystal clear. Can you picture Solomon, standing there next to his father?

He must have been young and inexperienced. Plus, his father David was putting the extensive plans and provisions for the Temple into his hands.  What a remarkable position to be in.  His father David is at the end of his life, and the young, inexperienced Solomon is offered both detailed plans for the Temple plus letting everyone know—for sure—that Solomon is the one God wants to follow the aged David,

Let’s take a closer look at the provisions for the Temple. David made it absolutely clear to everyone listening that everything Solomon would need would be given to him. Reading from our scripture passage today again, “10 Consider now, for the Lord has chosen you to build a house as the sanctuary. Be strong and do the work.”

11 Then David gave his son Solomon the plans for the portico of the temple, its buildings, its storerooms, its upper parts, its inner rooms and the place of atonement. 12 He gave him the plans of all that the Spirit had put in his mind for the courts of the temple of the Lord and all the surrounding rooms, for the treasuries of the temple of God and for the treasuries for the dedicated things.”

Imagine how meticulous the Temple plans of King David were. The brief excerpt I just read was only scratching the surface. I get the feeling that this kind of explanation and planning might have been right up the young man Solomon’s alley. From several situations that are mentioned about the heir apparent, after he has succeeded to the throne, I suspect Solomon might have particularly relished the level and amount of detail in the plans.

There is another important focus in this passage. I could preach a whole sermon on this aspect of David’s instruction and command to his son. However, let us just mention the charge that David gave: “in the sight of all Israel and of the assembly of the Lord, and in the hearing of our God: Be careful to follow all the commands of the Lord your God, that you may possess this good land and pass it on as an inheritance to your descendants forever.” In other words, be faithful to God! Follow the Lord all the days of your life! This is a solemn command, just as much as the rest.

We come, finally, to the assurance God has given to Solomon, and by extension, to all of us. “20 David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. God will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.”

Just like a skilled motivational speaker, David hits on facing and overcoming natural fears and anxieties. Plus, he also focuses on assuring his son of God’s caring, enabling presence. As commentator Leslie Allen says, “The Lord is David’s own God. David is testifying that God had seen him through every problem and would be there to help Solomon to the end.” [1]

“Be not afraid or discouraged!” This is on top of “Be strong and courageous!” After the clear unequivocal statement of God’s presence being with David his whole life long? What a tremendous encouragement and reassurance this must have been to Solomon, especially since David his father said those things in front of all the important people in Israel.

What is this summer sermon series all about? We are taking a look at different aspects of the “Be Not Afraid” passages. Yes, the aging David was giving his son a much-needed boost of encouragement, as well as reducing fear and anxiety. When anyone has a huge task looming over their heads, fear and anxiety naturally enters the picture. Solomon had two huge tasks ahead of him: that of taking over as king, and of building the Temple.

As we can see from the example of Solomon, fear of huge tasks can be disabling. Fear and anxiety can cause us to trip up, even to freeze. David has a remedy for this kind of paralyzing fear: do the work! This matter-of-fact strategy helps many people conquer their fears and overcome anxiety. This apparently was just the ticket for Solomon. And, this is a great suggestion for anyone facing a really big task.

Hear the words of David: be strong! Be courageous! Be not afraid! And then, we can celebrate. For, our God will be with us, even to the end of the age. Amen, alleluia.

[1] Allen, Leslie C., The First and Second Books of Chronicles, New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. 3 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), 463.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

When Abram Believed God

“When Abram Believed God”

Gen 15-1 not afraid

Genesis 15:1-6 (15:6) – June 10, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Fear. Anxiety. Not knowing which way is up, you’re so worried. I am sadly familiar with these kinds of emotions, since I’d often encounter them in the hospital, working as a chaplain. There is a certain kind of anxiety and worry that sometimes comes with having no one related to you. I have been with and accompanied patients who had no one to be with them as they were extremely sick, or even at the point of death. Family certainly is important.

This is our second week considering the passages where the Bible tells us to “Be Not Afraid!” In one of our Scripture passages today, we read of the Lord telling Abram not to be afraid. But, why? Why did God tell Abram something like that?

For the answer to that, we need to look at what happened in the few chapters before Genesis 15, chapters 11 through 14. Here we learn that Abram and his wife Sarai are recent immigrants from far away who came to the region escaping famine. Abram and his only relative Lot are feuding over wealth, and how to distribute it. Even worse, Lot has been captured in regional fighting, and Abram and his men need to rescue him. [1]

Yet, this is not all. God has made a big promise to Abram that has not come true. Abram is now eighty years old, his wife not far behind him in age. Since God promised Abram would be the father of many nations, and there is no son yet, Abram is probably wondering, what gives? God, what now?

I suspect that Abram must have been more than afraid. He probably was disheartened, too, perhaps even depressed. Long-term depression, too. Here the Almighty God who created heaven and earth had promised Abram that he would have a son, some years before. As time continued, no son. Just think, in Abram’s time, there was no fertility clinic, no medical advisor, nothing at all like that. Except, hoping and praying and perhaps sacrificing to God, pleading and imploring God to be gracious and grant Abram and Sarai a son.

Today, there are also people who pray for children of their own, couples who have difficulty with fertility, or carrying a baby to term. Fertility clinics and specialists certainly aid many couples in fulfilling dreams of a child of their own. But, that is today, with all of the technological and medical advances of the 21st century. Abram and Sarai had nothing at all like these treatments and medical capabilities.

Worry, fear, anxiety. How long, Lord? What gives? Am I doing something wrong? What about my wife, my husband, or my partner? Are any of us doing something wonky, or saying something they shouldn’t? What do I need to do, or say, or sacrifice, in order to get a son?  

I realize this topic of yearning for a child may be a difficult topic for some to hear. I do apologize, if that is the case for you, or for a loved one. I would humbly like to point out that this situation is something that is highlighted in Genesis. It’s referenced a number of times in other places in the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments.

After we find out that Abram is afraid, or fearful, what happens next? God shows up! By the word choice and behavior in Genesis 15:1, we see a particularly special thing is happening. “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.” This construction in Hebrew means that this is a particularly marvelous thing. This is the only time we have these particular words written in the first five books of the Bible, period.

Plus, these words have special significance, wherever they appear in the Bible. These words flag us that God is going to show up, up close and personal. These words can even mean that an appearance of God in a way that humans can understand and deal with. A fancy word called “Theophany,” meaning “Learning from or making an appearance by God.”

And, what super-special thing does the Lord have to say in this super-special appearance? “Be not afraid, Abram!”  This is a momentous occasion, let me tell you. God doesn’t just happen to stop by. God doesn’t just pop in, or make appearances to any random person. No, the Lord really wants to communicate to Abram.

In this situation from long ago in Genesis, Abram is revealed to have a prophetic voice.  “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.”  How awesome is that? God had a special delivery message, just for Abram. (for Abram, and his wife Sarai, too, of course.)

What else does God say to Abram? “I am your shield; your reward will be very great.” Wow! Let me ask you: what would you think if God communicated with you like this? Do you have any fears, any really big anxieties? What would it mean to you to have the Lord tell you that the Lord will shield you from harm? From worry? From evil intent?

What’s more, what would it be like to have God call you by name? By your personal name, not “O, mortal!” or even your family name. God is being extremely intimate with Abram here. That is powerful stuff!

Sure, Abram had been waiting for a long time. Even after this reassurance, he questions God! He has a contingency plan, an heir to all his property, just in case. However, as biblical commentator Sara Koenig points out, “Abram expects — and believes — God will keep God’s word, which is why Abram speaks in the way he does.” [2] God comes back at him with the marvelous statement/repeated promise, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

How heartening is that? Such a personal, individualized promise! The next words we read are, “Abram believed the Lord, and God credited it to him as righteousness.” Pretty powerful stuff, indeed.

Even though continuing situations can be telling us that the situation is really bad, almost hopeless, we can still hope in God. Even though Abram went for years with no son, no assurance of this promise from God, God’s faithful promises still came through, in God’s time.

Did Abram have fear and anxiety in his life? Was he probably disheartened, even depressed, long-term? Yes. Did the Lord supernaturally step in and move Abram from fear to faith? Yes. The testimony of Hebrews 11 tells us “By faith Abraham made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she[b] considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”

Yes, this is the rest of the story. This is how God miraculously continued to work in the lives of Abram and Sarai (that was before God gave them the new names Abraham and Sarah.)

Can the Lord move us from fear to faith, too? Yes! We, too, can look forward to that eternal city, whose architect and builder is God. We can claim the eternal promises of God, by faith, and pass through our fear, anxiety and worry to life in God’s faithful promises.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 22.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730

Commentary, Genesis 15:1-6, Sara Koenig, Pentecost 12C Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

A Great Multitude

“A Great Multitude”

Rev 7 multitude white-robes

Revelation 7:9-17 – April 17, 2016

This past Friday, April 15, 2016, I convened a Peace Breakfast at Kappy’s Restaurant, here in Morton Grove. We had a diverse group assembled! Not quite as diverse as this great multitude that John talked about in Revelation 7, but still, diverse. Culturally, ethnically, and religiously different from one another.

Let’s step back, and think about the book of Revelation. This is not your typical bible passage to read on a Sunday morning. Not your usual sermon text, either. The book of Revelation is a series of interconnected visions alerting believers to the last days of the church.

Chapter 7 comes towards the beginning of John’s visions.

I’d like everyone to think of an old-fashioned radio or television serial, in multiple parts, or episodes. Here we have yet another fantastic episode of this amazing book.

For centuries, many preachers, teachers, and bible interpreters have read Revelation, and completely pick it apart. Find all types of supposed references to actual people, places and things. Use it as a guidebook for the End Times. It sounds like the political hype we lament but can’t quite seem to escape. (Let me say—bible interpreters have been “identifying” people, places and things in Revelation for centuries. Different anti-Christs, different identifications for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and all the rest—every century, every era, every place.)

If John wrote this book to bring hope to his readers, how in the world can this passage of Revelation provide a different, more life-giving vision to us, today?

Our bible passage today opens with a great multitude. It’s like John has a huge video screen in front of him. He’s watching this fantastic vision play out in front of him.

I encourage you all to get into the spirit of this passage. Shut your eyes, and imagine yourself seated in a heavenly theater (an iMax theater, if that helps you). John is seated right next to you, and suddenly, you see a great multitude on this massive screen in front of you. Every racial group, every ethnicity, every language spoken. All of them! All the things, as the young people say today.

Yes, in the larger picture, all of these people in the great multitude are going to go through a time of great trial. However—I would like to focus on this multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual multitude of people.

We are all aware of other separations and designations for groups of people. Upper class, working class. City folk, country folk, North side, South side. With all of this fantastic stuff going on in the book of Revelation, on that huge theater screen in front of us, who has time to think about these divisions? Who would be concerned—in heaven? Standing before the throne of God Almighty, in the full sight of God.

Yet—here in this world, here in the United States, in the Chicago area, those things do matter. As a pastor, I talk to a number of people many times in a week. Some of these people share about their fears and hopes for the future. More and more, I notice a shift in the mindsets of people—a shift towards deeper feelings of uncertainty and general anxiety.

I am distressed and dismayed at the overt anger, undisguised racism, and blatant xenophobia that is increasingly happening in this country. The shouting, yelling, name-calling, and general mud-slinging in this political primary process, just for an example. Note: I am not taking sides, but I am truly dismayed by the marked increase in such attitudes due to people’s ethnicity, culture, or religion. That is what I see as a big problem today.

Perhaps I am an idealist, but I would like to believe that we as a nation are truly a melting pot. This country is one of the most like this image, this part of the vision that John saw. That is such a strength of the United States! Yay! Go, us!!

We are going to switch gears. Let us look at the beginnings of the church.

In Acts, shortly after the day of Pentecost, a disagreement came up in the church. As Rev. Findlayson mentions, “The Jewish world was divided between Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine [Hebrews—home grown], and Greek-speaking Jews from the dispersion [or Hellenists—who had grown up outside Palestine]. Racial tension, often focused on religious purity, existed in the wider Jewish community and found its way into the New Testament church. [The tension] revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. The [Greek-speaking Jews] claimed that their widows were not getting a fair share of the church’s welfare budget.”

Do you hear the problem? Two separate groups of people in the early Church—all Jews, and one group—a minority group, no less—claimed they were being overlooked. Discriminated against. Now, multiply that 100 times. No, 1000 times. And, you begin to see the problems we all have today with rampant, widespread hatred, racism, fear, and xenophobia.

I guess I was one of those people who wanted to believe that we as a country and maybe even as a human race were becoming more open, integrated, and generous. I wanted to believe that humans were moving past this kind of hatred, fear, and violence. I thought we were on the way towards making it as difficult as possible for anyone to intimidate or harm others simply because they are of a certain religion, or racial background, or culture.

What can conquer such deep set feelings?

John 3:16 is a wonderful verse. So much promise, so much love, so much grace. And—so much power!

Let us consider John 3:16. I suspect many of you can say it with me. We are just going to quote the beginning of the verse: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” I wondered: let’s unpack this verse. God loves? With a God-sized love. We all agree. God gave His Son—God’s ultimate Gift. Again, we all agree.  

The last phrase of this sentence? God so loved—the world.

Who is not part of the world that God loved? Let us consider racist feelings. Does God love the racist person? Yes. How about the person who is racially profiled? Yes.

Let’s consider xenophobic fears. Does God love the person who is so afraid of people who look different from them, or speak another language, or come from another part of the world? Yes, God does. God loves everyone. No matter what.

That is the hope we can gather from this passage in Revelation 7 today. God loves you. God loves me. Even though we may be flawed, and make mistakes, and do or say bad things. God still loves us.

The Peace Breakfast was a beginning, a chance to continue the conversation. We all live and work together, in community. Let’s promote positivity and friendship, not distrust and alienation. Here, in Niles and Morton Grove—and in Des Plaines, Glenview, Skokie—all over the Chicago area—we have such a multitude of diverse people! And it’s an opportunity to shine forth as a light of the Gospel, right here on this corner of Shermer and Harlem.

Finally, we can all praise God along with the great multitude from Revelation, and say, “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)