Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sermon for November 13, 2005

Out of Egypt: Deliverance
Exodus 14:15-31; 1 Corinthians 15:51-58

For me, one of the most powerful prayers in all of Scripture has no words, no vocal sounds. It’s actually nothing more than the sound of a footstep. The prayer is the amen of action – our inspired response to an encounter with God.

We hear it in the reading from Exodus. The text before us fairly bursts with descriptive power. The Angel of Death has slain all the firstborn children. You can almost hear the Egyptian parents, even Pharaoh and his family, howling in grief over their lost children. The race against time begins. Moses and his lieutenants jostle the people “This is it! Let’s go! Let’ go! Faster!” They have one night the escape the vise of slavery that held them for almost four hundred years -- one night to escape a prison so familiar that it had become like home to them. It was now or never. Everybody knew that by tomorrow Pharaoh would change his mind. Tomorrow Pharaoh would come to his senses and realize what he had done. Tomorrow would be too late. Tonight was the night. You can almost see the people running breathlessly, grabbing whatever they can, without even glancing backwards.

They dash to the sea. They can’t take the highway to the Promised Land. It’s faster to take the road, but they have to get past six, heavily armed Egyptian outposts. The road was built to withstand the pounding of Egyptian chariots. No – they can’t take the road. They will be run down like animals. Their only hope of survival is in the wilderness of Sinai, and to get there means going through the sea. After a night of running in the dark, thousands of Israelites come to an abrupt halt. The end is right in front of them. The dust of Pharaoh’s chariots is behind them. Terrified, they cling to the banks while Moses urges them on. “Come on! Into the water! Into the water! God will lead the way!” The helpless people stand before Moses, cowering in terror. Finally, with the sound of the Egyptians coming closer and closer, God speaks to Moses -- three Hebrew words: “Mah Tizak Alai. Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people to walk forward.”

That’s it. That’s the answer to their prayers. God says, “Go ahead – you take the first step.” The people are expecting God to respond to their prayers by acting on their behalf. They want God to take out Pharaoh and the army, or do something supernatural. And when it doesn’t happen, they complain. “Why did you bring us out here, Moses. We liked it better when we were slaves in Egypt. It would be better to be slaves rather than die in the desert. They cry out to the Lord and hear, “Mah Tizak Alai. Why do you cry out to me. You take the first step.” In that moment, the people respond to their own prayers for salvation. The sound of their first step into the water of the Sea of Reeds is the amen of action.

Sometimes, we think that a prayer is merely a verbal exercise. We offer God praise as an introduction to our wish list for the week: God, You are good God, You are great God, You are powerful You are awesome Now let’s talk about me for a little while … Think of the last time you offered a prayer. Did it inspire you to take action? Or, was it nothing more than a liturgical lottery ticket offered in the hope that maybe this time your number will come up. Maybe this time your prayer will be heard and merit Divine action.

You know what I think God says to us, sometimes? “Mah Tizak Alai, Why do you cry out to me? Go and respond to your own prayer, take a step into the unknown, take a risk and see what will happen.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that we take not leaps of faith, but rather leaps of action. The record of humankind is divided by those who sat like spectators waiting for their salvation to come from elsewhere, and those who had the faith and the courage to respond to God’s call with the sound of a single step. When we respond to our own prayers with the amen of action, it can change everything.

The situations that we face are no less grave than that of Moses and the Children of Israel standing at the shore of the sea with water on one side and the Egyptian army on the other. Who among us has not felt overwhelmed by the challenges that threaten to wash over us. They may be personal issues: matters of health, finance, or family. They may be more global concerns, hunger, war, natural disasters, or evil in the world. The only question is whether we can hear the answer to our prayers by taking the first step of action, with the faith and confidence that God will be at our side. Wondrous things can happen -- seas can split open -- when people are willing to take a step, to act as the amen to their own prayers.

This morning, as we celebrate 275 years of ministry in Trumbull, I like to think that our spiritual ancestors acted as the amen to their own prayers. Back in England in the 1600’s, every citizen of the kingdom was a member of the Church. A group of Christians gathered, believing that God called them out of the national church. They dreamed of transforming the church from within. They were called Puritans. They thought that if they practiced their disciplines faithfully, the government would bring about renewal. Some reformers were not content to wait. They were called Separatists. The kind of church they believed God wanted, they wanted immediately. They were willing to separate themselves from the state church and establish congregations of their own where they could worship freely. The first separatists made their way to the new world. They were the Pilgrims who eventually landed at Plymouth Rock. A few years later, the flood tide of English Puritans flowed toward America and became the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Pilgrims and Puritans eventually united into what we now call congregational churches. Those Separatists knew the promises of Scripture, and they were ready to die to make their point. If Christ promised to be present to ordinary believers, then that was the kind of church they were determined to be. We are here today because some people acted as the amen to their prayers – they took the first step of action and changed the world.

I think we are ready for our own reformation. We get so busy funding programs and maintaining traditions. But, tradition serves no purpose unless we are also willing to step outside of that tradition to think about what kind of church we can be what kind of church we should be. We are a vibrant family of faith that is beginning to dare to dream of new possibilities with God’s guidance.

Let’s dream of a church in which all who enter in know of God’s consuming love that will never let us go . . . a place where we can come and be reminded that God knows us each by name. Let’s dream of a church where the real presence of the Holy Spirit is renewing and refreshing us. Let’s dream of a church that doesn’t have all the answers but asks the right questions–a church so deeply rooted in the gospel that it can’t be quenched by the rain-driven storms of life.

Let’s dream of a church where worship is joyful, exciting, and expectant, as well as reverent . . . a place where we can come as we are and know we will be accepted and wanted in this place. It’s a church that suffers when you are not here with us. It’s a church where people gather to encourage and be encouraged, to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven.

Imagine a church that’s not afraid of change, but a church that is able to see where God is moving and knows how to join Him. It’s a church that calls forth men and women, parents and grandparents, single people, youth, and children who are equipped and sent out to revitalize our families and our community for Jesus Christ. Let’s work for a church where people have the tools to raise their families in a godly way. . . where people are encouraged to reflect God’ s Spirit at school, work, and home. . .where we are all sent out to add value to the lives of other people. It’s a church where there are no status symbols, where the pastor works alongside the people so that we can all be the holy people of God together.

Let’s dream of a church that is so vital to the community that it would be missed if it was no longer around . . . a church so blazing in its worship, its quality of caring, it’s eagerness to reach out to those in need, that it can be seen by all and not contained

Dream, with me, of a church at brink of the sea. Behind us is a world that cares less and less about the institutional church. On the other side of the sea is deliverance. New life. A place where the sting of death is swallowed up in victory. On the other side, our divisions are healed and the church is made whole.

Today we stand on the shore, the waves of the sea lapping at our toes. And a voice is speaking. Can you hear it? The Voice says three words: “Mah Tizhak Alai, Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people to walk forward.” Let us muster the same courage, the same faith and the same vision as did Moses’ generation and walk forward, as individuals and as a church. God walks at our side as we participate in our destiny. With God, we help to form the amen of action.

Sermon for November 6, 2005

Out of Egypt: Not I, Lord
Exodus 3:1-15

The search committee for a new pastor was having difficulty making a decision. One member of the committee, who was admittedly tired of the whole process, offered one last letter of introduction from a pastoral candidate. She read: "To the pastoral search committee: It is my understanding that you have a vacancy in your pulpit, and I would like to apply for the position. I can't say that I preach too well. In fact, I tend to stutter when I speak. I do have many different experiences I could share with you, since I am over 75 years old. I recently had an encounter with God and, despite my initial resistance to the idea, I heard a Voice which told me personally that I was the one to do the ministry for you. One never knows when God will appear right before your very eyes. As far as people skills go, I do tend to lose my temper every once in a while. I also tend to want things done my way, and can get violent if it's not taken care of right away. Once I even killed somebody. However, that's all behind me now. I intend on showing up there in a few weeks to lead you into a brighter future. Although I was reluctant at first to work with you, I still feel called to be with " The committee member glanced up at the rest of the group. "Well, what do you think? Can this person be our leader or not?" The rest of the committee looked horrified. Have an old, arrogant, temperamental, neurotic, ex-murderer as their pastor? Who exhibits such colossal nerve? And who are his references? Who was this guy, anyway? The committee member answered, “It's signed, ‘Moses.’”

When you read his dossier, Moses doesn’t seem like the best candidate to receive a call from God. The story reads like a celebrity murder trial from the National Enquirer. Can you imagine what it might sound like?
Cairo Egypt, 1446 BC. More Misery for MosesDependable sources confirm that the notorious Moses was spotted in the deserts of Midian last Friday. Moses has been camping out in the Midian wilderness for the last 50 years, since fleeing from the brutal murder of an Egyptian guard. Residents on the Egyptian/Midianite border still live in fear of another terrorist strike from Moses. The Egyptian F.B.I. Lists Moses as the 9th most wanted person, and they continue to offer a reward for any information leading to his arrest. Family members close to the murdered guard believe Moses is stockpiling weapons and gathering a band of warlords to overthrown the Pharaoh. Our anonymous sources testify that Moses keeps a low profile. Now married with children, he lives a relaxed pastoral life, tending sheep in the desert. Our journalists captured stunning footage of Moses, now an old man, walking barefoot around a flaming bush. Is the burning a bush a signal to begin his alleged strike on Egypt, or is Moses planning a bonfire marshmallow roast for his neighbors? Our National Enquirer experts think Moses is psychologically deranged. Check the National Enquirer for the latest, and most reliable information.

Most of us learned in Sunday School what the burning bush is really about. Moses is running an errand for his father-in-law. Herding sheep in the desert, he sees smoke in the distance. It turns out to be a burning bush. Moses says, "What's going on here? I can't believe this! Why doesn't the bush burn up?" If that’s not strange enough, the flaming foliage speaks. Moses instantly recognizes the voice of God.

And God says, “Moses, I have some good news, and I have some bad news. The Good News – is that I've taken a good, long look at the affliction of my people in Egypt. I've heard their cries for deliverance from their slave masters; I know all about their pain. And now I’m here to help them. I will pry them loose from the grip of Egypt.” Moses is surely delighted to know God’s plans. God hears the cry of the people—a cry for justice in their oppression. God promises to come and deliver them. God is not cold and distant. The good news is that the situation will be made right. Quite an agenda—even for God. And Moses must be excited. He may think, "When God gets all that done, maybe it will even be safe for me to go back to Egypt and settle in with the family once again."

But God’s not done. God continues, “Now for the bad news The Israelite cry for help has come to me, and I've seen for myself how cruelly they're being treated by the Egyptians. It's time for you to go back, Moses. I'm sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the People of Israel, out of Egypt."

That’s a rude shock! Just as Moses is about to sit back and watch God shift into high gear and free the Israelites, he hears a second message. God drafts Moses to go back to Egypt and do all the legwork. How inconsiderate of God! God’s not taking Moses’ personal problems seriously at all. He’s on the most wanted list, for goodness’ sake! Moses is supposed to go back to Egypt, with a price upon his head, put everything on the line, and help a powerless people escape from a very powerful Pharaoh? “Uh, no thanks, God. I mean, it was great of you to drop in and light things on fire and chat with me, and all. But, I’m somewhat busy here. I got a herd of sheep to take care of, and I wasn’t really planning on an Egyptian vacation right now. And I stutter. That’s right God. I can’t go eyeball-to-eyeball with Pharaoh, because I s-s-s-t-t-tutt-tt-er.”

No matter. God is not impressed by Moses’ lame attempts to avoid an unpleasant task. Moses doesn’t have much choice but to report for active duty. He has been able to flee from the long arm of the Egyptian law, but he knows he cannot flee from the even longer arm of God.

Moses’ story is also our story. When we learn about Moses, we are learning about ourselves. For example, we’re like Moses because we like promises but we hate demands.
· "You are going to become a C.E.O. in the corporation of your choice" (Great!) "But first, you have to be tops in your class getting an M.B.A." (Aw!)
· "You are going to be a very successful politician." (Great!) "But you’ll have to work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week and lose your first three tries for public office." (Aw!)
· "You have the talents to do a great deal for world peace." (Great!) "If you are the least bit effective, people will call you a disloyal American.”(Aw!)
· "I call you to be my disciple." (Great!) "You may end up where I ended up, on a cross." (Aw!)
Who wants extra demands? It’s hard enough just to live a decent, ordinary life without heroics. Like Moses, we bargain with God: "How about if I just do the disciple bit on Sundays? I’ll work for peace, but I don’t have to stick my neck out do I? Who needs another martyr?" We like promises bit we don’t like demands.

There’s another reason we are like Moses. We don’t like demands that involve us in conflict. Religion is supposed to warm us and help us fulfill our human potential. We need lots of time alone, and minimal conflict. But it doesn’t work that way. Conflict seems to be the name of the game as far as God is concerned.

There will come a time in your life when you need to risk your personal security to do the right thing. A few weeks ago, I watched a hidden camera program. It showed two actors in a park, pretending to be a couple in a emotionally violent fight. The man was physically aggressive and verbally abusive. The woman was crying and struggling to get away. Most of the other people in the park noticed the fight and walked away. Afterwards, the people were invited to debrief the episode. Some were afraid to get involved. Others were paralyzed by fear. One or two were brave. They swallowed their fear, and stood up for the abused woman.

Have you ever seen a kid being mistreated, and you don’t know what to do, or how to get involved, or whether you will become the target of an angry parent? Ever seen a person receive the explosive rage of another, maybe at a meeting or a family gathering? Did anyone stand up to the bullying, or did they just sit there in uncomfortable silence? It might be easier to run back into a burning building than it is to stand up to an enraged bully. Christians form their lives around God’s call to justice. God takes a stand against cruelty, and hatred, and oppression. And at some point, God will call you to be like Moses in that situation, whether you like it or not. And you will be tempted to avoid conflict and to ignore the suffering you see around you.

Remember, when we go into the places of conflict we are not alone. God is there too. God joins us in trouble. When God hears the people’s cry, the message from the divine throne is not, "That’s to bad. I’ll get to it after my game of Mahjong.” No way! God says, "I'll come down and work with my people in the midst of the trouble." God is right where life is tough and ugly. We are not alone. We discover, whenever we are trying to work for justice, that God has, once again, gotten there before we did, and has been waiting, sometimes not too patiently, for us to show up and get into the struggle too.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Sermon for October 30

The Lion’s Den
Daniel 6:1-28

Imagine you are invited to a dinner party. You’re dressed up. You smell nice. You’re planning on a fun evening. When you arrive, however, you realize the night is deceitfully different than you planned. None of your friends are there. Not only that, everyone around the dinner table hates you. Not only that, the sole reason for your invitation to this dinner is so that your rivals can tell you exactly what they think of you. Not only that, once you arrive, the doors are locked behind you. There is no escape. No defense. All you can do is sit and listen as others verbally attack you. At this dinner party, you are the main course of a meal celebrating your own demise! The guests want nothing better than to consume you by criticism or harassment.

With the holidays coming up, I know many people who dread family get-togethers. They are gearing up to endure unrelenting criticism around the Thanksgiving table. They go to visit family, get swarmed by critique, and have to defend every action – every decision.

The lions Daniel faced are perfect images of people who'd like nothing better than to consume you by criticism or harassment. How do you keep from being eaten alive by them?

The lion’s Daniel faced are also perfect pictures of our American culture -- a culture that is losing its patience with traditional Christianity. Most American’s claim they have a well-thought-out philosophy of life. Most of these same people also claim to be Christians. However, research shows that many adults live for the moment and have nothing more than a loose set of principles to which they cling. Sometimes these principles clash with each other. For example, a person might believe it’s important to love our neighbor, but also believes that a person has to look out for one’s own best interests. Another person might believe that God loves welcomes everyone. Except Muslims, gays, feminists, and unpatriotic Americans. Most Americans believe they are practicing Christian principles and beliefs, but they are really living out a spirituality focused upon living for the moment. We believe we deserve every possible good outcome without having to earn those outcomes.

Here are some of the most widely accepted values of Americans today:

  • Time is our single most precious commodity. Guard your time wisely, and protect your schedule.
  • Minimize long-term commitments.
  • Maintain your individuality and independence at all costs. No one else is going to serve your needs and interests but you.
  • Trust your feelings to guide you. Absolute principles place unrealistic limitations on you.
  • Don’t waste time doing things that don’t bring immediate rewards.
  • Character and self-esteem are only formed through achievement.
  • Have fun. Spend lot of money to make sure you will have fun.
  • Stay fit. Spend lot of money to make sure you will stay fit.

We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, how do it, or when it needs to be done. Placing parameters on people makes them rebel.[i]

What happens if you decide that your principles will be grounded on a reading of Scripture? What would you decide are important principles for Christians to live by. Here’s what I come up with:

  • We are mortal. While I like the idea of progress, being human means that we have limitations. At times, our wisdom is imperfect, and no matter how much we study, or what we invent, there will always be a few mysteries.
  • Christians believe in the supernatural. There is a God.
  • Christian worship together regularly.
  • Christians believe in a personal God, made known in Jesus Christ.
  • Christians live to please and obey God.
  • Christians believe that they are filled with the Holy Spirit.
  • Christians have an upward—looking faith, relying on God to guide us in making decisions.
  • Christians have an outward-looking faith, filled with compassion, generosity, and service to others.
  • A Christian’s faith influences a Christian’s behavior.

Think about how some of this is at odds with the messages of the culture. The culture tells us to trust our feelings. Christianity says trust God’s word. The culture says avoid long-term commitments. Christians say get yourself to worship and commit to a church family. The culture wants you to live for yourself and spend whatever it takes to protect your privacy and individuality. Christianity teaches that we find ourselves by losing ourselves – that we are better as a community than as are as individual followers. Maybe you can see how following the guidelines of faith will put you at odds with the world around you. If you live out your faith, people will think you’re strange. They will talk about you. They won’t understand what you're doing and why you make certain decisions.

The lions Daniel faced are perfect images of people who would like nothing better than to consume you by criticism or harassment. How do you keep from being eaten alive by them? How do we live as Christians in a world that is losing its patience with us? Let me offer a couple of suggestions.

Turn Down the Invitation to DinnerDaniel. refused to be consumed by others. How can we follow his example? The nature of our Christian faith makes us a tempting snack. Be tough. Not even lions like a meal that’s mostly muscle and backbone. Here’s an example. I hear it all the time: pastors complaining about sports on Sunday morning. We are losing our children to soccer and basketball practices. The coaches should schedule Sunday afternoons. Sunday morning is a sacred time for worship, not sports. Listen, the sports leagues are not going to close down on Sunday mornings. I don’t care how much you ask, beg, or boycott. We can no longer expect the culture is not going to accommodate the church. The sports leagues are not interested in making your life easier or soothing your conscience. Their job is to teach sports and organize teams. You need to make a choice. You need to set your priorities and live with the consequences. If Sunday morning worship is a priority, then you say no to Sunday soccer practice. It takes a lot of strength. And courage. We can take our stand against the world’s offerings by participating in the alternative. The lion’s don’t know what to do with people who refuse to be consumed.

Turn the Restaurant into a Spiritual Retreat. When dinner is served in the lion’s den, and you’re on the menu, remember Daniel and imitate his example. He didn’t try to fight back, change his convictions, or close the lions' mouths himself. When Daniel knew that his enemies were out to get him, what did he do?

Did he compromise? Did he go to the king and say, “Ok you caught me. But really, I wasn’t praying. It just looked like it. I was humming show tunes. Yes, that’s the ticket” ?

Did Daniel complain? “Did he go to King Darius and say, “These other guys made you pass a law because they are jealous of my work. I’m the victim here. I don’t serve to be a lion’s lunch”?

Did Daniel Plot or get even get even? Did he read a book on taming lions? The text says, He went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open...he knelt down...three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days.

Daniel knew when he lived on his knees, he could rest in faith. How about you? How’s your prayer life?


You know what else? Sometimes God asks us to go into the lion’s den willingly. On December 29, 1976, shortly after 7 p.m., a train pulling out of Ashtabula, Ohio puffed its way across a trestle. Suddenly the passengers heard a terrible cracking sound. The trestle snapped and eleven rail cars plunged seventy feet down into a watery ravine. Even before the wooden cars slammed into the bottom, they were aflame, set afire by kerosene heaters. Of the 159 passengers in those cars, 92 were killed and most of the rest suffered serious injuries. Snuffed out by the wreck was a young couple whose bodies were never found. Their names were Philip and Lucy Bliss. Philip initially survived the wreck. But his wife was trapped in the wreckage. When a fire started he rushed back in to save her. They both died. Sometimes it works that way. Faith asks us to put ourselves in danger to help the one’s we love.
And Philip Bliss was a man of faith. If you don’t recognize the name, he was the most prominent hymn writer of his time. We still sing his songs today:
Sing them Over again to me, wonderful words of life
Brightly Beams our Father’s mercy
Let he lower light keep burning
Man of sorrows, what a name
The tune to “It Is Well With My Soul.”
Bliss wrote another old hymn. I wanted to it sing today. Dare to be a Daniel. I couldn’t find the music anywhere. Philip Bliss wrote the words in 1873, three years before he died
Standing by a purpose true,

Heeding God’s command,

Honor them, the faithful few!

All hail to Daniel’s band!

Dare to be a Daniel,

Dare to stand alone!

Dare to have a purpose firm!

Dare to make it known.


Daring to be like Daniel means being unshakeable in a world that will try to shake you up. It doesn’t mean we won’t face tough circumstances or we don’t be afraid of feel weak. It does mean that you can turn down a few invitations to be a lion’s dinner.

Sources:

Face Your Enemies the Way Daniel Did by David Jeremiah
George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Waco: Word, 1998), 129-148.

Sermon for October 23

The Writing on the Wall
Daniel 5:1-12

I once had a friend who heard the voice of God. His name was Willie. Willie always made me a little nervous because the things God told him were not very pleasant. God told Willie a lot about judgment and death, plagues, and deadly diseases. No, Willie’s God was not a happy God, and Willie let us know it. For the most part, the messages he shared made me nervous for selfish reasons. I was afraid God was going to tell Willie some secret detail of my past, and I didn’t want to be around if the Lord was going to embarrass me in front of my friends, with Willie as God’s mouthpiece. Let’s just say I haven’t always been the angel I am today.

I had a similar experience once at the Church of Brotherly Love. Sister Bradley, the church’s ancient pastor, invited me out to one of her church’s revival. The speaker was a woman from Florida – a Prophet Lady. After preaching for an hour and a half, the Prophet Lady prayed, and God sent her messages about specific people who needed their lives fixed up. The Prophet Lady pointed to a man in the back and said, “You, over there in the red shirt. Jesus wants to free from your sinful ways.” The man in the red shirt walked forward. The Prophet Lady situated her hands on his head and prayed over him. Then the man in the red shirt fell to the ground, twitching like he was getting electroshocks. The Prophet Lady said, “That’s what happens when you get filled with the Holy Ghost.” Then she called up her next sinner to get the Holy Spirit whammy. That’s when I started praying. “Lord,” I said, “I know what I’ve done. You know what I’ve done. Let’s just keep it between you and me and not tell the Prophet Lady about it. OK?” The Prophet Lady’s voice interrupted my bargaining with God. “You, the young pastor over there.” I knew she was pointing at me. She said, “The Lord has a message for you.” Meanwhile I’m thinking, “God we had a deal here. Don’t make me go forward. I won’t know when to fall down and twitch.” Mercifully, I never had to go forward, and my notorious past was never exposed. She gave an encouraging message, and let me sit back down. God is good!

Do you ever wonder if God still speaks to His people? These days God speaks to us through billboards. Have you seen them? Black backgrounds with bold white letters quote God saying,
· Do you have any idea where you’re going? – God
· That “Love Thy Neighbor” thing... I meant it. – God
· What part of “Thou Shalt Not...” didn’t you understand? – God
· Don’t make me come down there! – God

And, in case you were worried, God has a direct hotline to President Bush. In a BBC series called, “Elusive Peace, Isreal and the Arabs,” The Prime Minister of Palestine says, “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq …” And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, “Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.” And by God I’m gonna do it.’“[1]

Does God speak to us today? We walk a fine line when trying to answer this question. If someone claims to directly hear the voice of God, we usually consider the person to be a fanatic or demented. The other side of the line is that we want to hear from God. In our age of competing spiritualities, we want to know that the God we worship is real and involved in our lives. We desire God to communicate His message of love directly to our hearts.

Does God speak to people? It happens in today’s reading from Daniel. It almost sounds like a Halloween story by Edgar Allen Poe. The Babylonian Empire is in decline, and the Emperor, on his way out of power, throws a wild party with free flowing booze and loose women. Feeling superior, King Belshazzar calls for the gold and silver chalices that were stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. He wants to drink his wine from these holy artifacts. At that very moment, the fingers of a human hand appear and write on the lamp-illumined, whitewashed wall of the palace. When the king sees the disembodied hand writing away, he turns white as a ghost, scared out of his wits. His legs turn limp like spaghetti as he watches the hand in a paralyzed fear. No one understands the words: MENE, TEQEL, PERES.

He says, “I’ve seen the writing on the wall. Someone tell me what it means.” But the king’s magicians and fortune tellers are stupefied. The queen mother enters the hysteria and says, “Long live the king! Don’t be upset. Don’t sit around looking like ghosts. A man in your kingdom is full of the divine Holy Spirit. He can do anything--interpret dreams, solve mysteries, explain puzzles. His name is Daniel.”

So, they call Daniel in. The king asks him, “Are you the Daniel who was one of the Jewish exiles brought here from Judah? I’ve heard about you--that you’re full of the Holy Spirit, that you have a brilliant mind, that you are incredibly wise. I brought my wise men and enchanters in here to read this writing on the wall. They can’t figure it out--not a word, not a syllable. But I hear that you interpret dreams and solve mysteries. If you can read the writing and interpret it for me, you’ll be rich and famous with a purple robe, the great gold chain around your neck--and third-in-command in the kingdom.” Daniel answers the king, “You can keep your gifts, or give them to someone else. I will read the writing for you. God sent the hand that wrote on the wall, and this is what is written: MENE, TEQEL, and PERES. This is what the words mean: “They are references coins. Mene is a half dollar. It also means numbered. God has numbered the days of your rule and they don’t add up. Teqel is a penny, and it’s related to the word weighed. King Belshazzar, God weighed you on the scales and you’re not worth much more than a penny. Peres is worth two bits and is related to the word divided. It’s also related to the word Persia. Your kingdom has been divided up and handed over to the Medes and Persians.”

At that moment, the king knows God has spoken. Not the gods of gold, silver, and wood, but the God of Universe. God speaks through the prophet Daniel, and helps the King understand his encounter with God. In return, Belshazzar does what he promised. He robes Daniel in purple, drapes the great gold chain around his neck, and promotes him to third in charge. That same night Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, is murdered.

Does God speak to people? Listen to the book of Hebrews: Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. But now, in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. Jesus Christ is God’s Word to us. In Jesus, God expresses how he feels toward us. Some people would have you believe that we humans are rotten to the core without a shred of worth to God. These are lies. God would never come to us in Jesus Christ if he thought we were worthless. In fact, by sending Jesus Christ to live with us, God communicates a message of hope to us. We may be sinful, we make bad decisions with misguided motives, but God still loves us. Jesus Christ is God’s love letter to us. Remember for a moment the things that Jesus did while he lived on this earth. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. He comforted the grieving. Jesus was a friend to outcasts and sinners. God would never heal, feed, or comfort those whom he despises. God wouldn’t have bothered if he didn’t care. God would only show such care to those whom he loves with a passionate, all-consuming love. Jesus is God’s message to us that someone understands us. God became a human being to walk with us, to experience this world with us, and even to die with us.

Do we get it? Sometimes I think I see the handwriting on the wall. As I look at the church and the world around us, I see strange and mysterious signs. I see people who are desperate for spiritual truth, but they aren’t finding the answers they need in Christian churches. I see a country where ethnic diversity is here to stay, and where racial reconciliation is a national concern, but our churches are still segregated institutions. I see a church that is called to care for the least of all people and to be known by the quality of its love. Yet, poverty is prospering in America. At a time when Americans are devoted to seeking spiritual enlightenment, the church is having less and less impact on people’s perspectives and behavior. Where is the church? When did we start proposing tired and trite solutions to secondary problems instead of addressing the nagging anxieties and deep-seated fears of the people?[2]

Do you want to know something else? God is still speaking. God speaks when the people of the church live out God’s love wherever it’s needed. Last year, the UCC came up with a TV commercial as part of the “God Is Still Speaking” initiative. The church planned to run the spot on national television during the month of December. The three major networks refused to air it. They claimed that the ad was “too controversial.” If you haven’t seen it, the opening, scene features a couple of burly bouncers turning several people away from the door of a church, including African-Americans and a gay couple, while welcoming some attractive straight white families. A text then says, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” And a narrator adds, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
It was evidently so subversive, counter-cultural, and distasteful that it had to be kept from the airwaves. As an editorial cartoon in Friday’s Plain Dealer cleverly put it, “The United Church of Christ ad will not be seen at this time so we can bring you another male impotency ad.”[3]

God is still speaking – through the church. The world needs what churches like TCC have to offer . . . The affirmation that Jesus Christ died for everyone . . the declaration that all people belong . . . the conviction that for those who are hurt or excluded, this is home. God is still speaking, through Christ, through the church, and through you. May we listen, and may we boldly speak and live the word of God.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2005/10_october/06/bush.shtml
[2] George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Waco: Word, 1998), 2-5.
[3] Hamilton Coe Throckmorton, “http://www.fedchurch.org/Spiritual_Life/Sermon_Archives/SermonHCT120504.htm

Sermon for January 21, 2018

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