Faith in the Justice of God

Tonight, we had a special Large Group, featuring Pastor Michael Wilburn from Lexington Baptist Church. He preached from Genesis 22 and took us deeper into the story.

For so many of us, we've encountered God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and jumped straight to thinking about ourselves. "What might God ask me to sacrifice?" we ask ourselves. And that's appropriate. We should go there. But what about the questions raised by God's command. What does it look like to have faith in the justice of God?

Check out the sermon:

Here're my notes from the sermon:
Three true/false questions to start off...
1) Isaac's death would have violated God's moral character
2) Abraham believed Isaac would die (or stay dead)
3) The enjoyment of God's covenant required Abraham to act out his faith

Isaac was at between 10 and 15 at the time of this story (called "lad", asks insightful questions, carries wood, and is small enough to be lifted by his father). This means Abraham was at least 110 at this point (see Gen 21:5).

Main idea:
Your faith is going to be tested through trial
The trials increase...the hardest trials come at the end

1) The test was not the same as a temptation (James 1:13)
God was revealing what was in Abraham's heart
To point out that God stopped the sacrifice does not resolve the dilemma
Death would not void God's character
-Presupposition...God is light, in him there is no darkness (1 Jn)
-The sacrifice of Jesus...God doesn't ask what he would do himself

2) Abraham did not believe Isaac would die (and stay dead)
His focus was not on death, but on God's provision in the midst of uncertainty
"We will return" notice the "we"...response to Isaac's question
While Abraham is obeying, he is teaching Isaac to trust...what are you teaching?
Heb 11:17ff...God could raise him from the dead

3) Faith always has to be acted out in your life
Sacrifice is both a noun and a verb
See the reaffirmation of the covenant blessing
Why did God stop the sacrifice? No benefit for others, Abraham's faith sufficiently tested when he raised his arms

Now, we can ask, are you willing to sacrifice anything that hinders?

Love the world less and love Jesus more.

Christmas and the poor

The first Christmas was celebrated in poverty. A cave-stable-barn, a man and a woman, now a child, a star shines even more brightly, now shepherds, now wise men, refugees, exiles, aliens.

Christmas is still celebrated in poverty today. Sure, the holiday is celebrated in cathedrals and Macy's, but Christmas is also celebrated by some of the world's loneliest who are locked away in nursing homes and the hungriest who make their homes in garbage villages. The memory of Jesus and hope that comes from his Presence - Christmas - means something to folks who are lost, oppressed, downtrodden, and forgotten.

For many folks (despite the anti-materialistic sermonizing you will hopefully hear..."Jesus, not stuff, provides the reason for the season"), the Christmas celebration provides a reminder to reach out to and care generously for the poor. Choirs sing in hospitals and people send shoeboxes of toys and school supplies to children who have very little. One of my highlights from growing up was our annual family tradition of taking food to the inner-city mission around Christmas-time.

This is a beautiful part of the story. But it's not the whole story.

People go into debt buying Christmas gifts. And although more and more Americans intend to spend less on Christmas this year, we will probably still spend over $400 billion dollars on gifts before the year is out. And here's the thing...

Nothing changes

We spend this money, year after year, season after season and we're trapped. This cycle can't stop. Try it. Skip Christmas. Your family probably won't understand. People would be hurt, feel unloved. And we can chalk this up to petty materialism (and some of it probably is), but we are horrible as a society at communicating meaningful love to our families and friends. The Christmas season helps even our most inept members connect.

This is where God's presence exposes the status quo. The hamster wheel gets broken. Our habitual reliance on gifts and seasons for love and meaning comes crashing to a halt. We don't need the gold and incense and myrrh. They're great, but they're no substitute for the Presence.

And this Presence shows up among the poor. And wealth does trickle down. Gold and incense and myrrh appear in a manger (or a home, depending on when the wise guys showed up), but they're not what's important. God has chosen to spend Christmas with the poor. So, maybe they need us. Maybe they need us to buy them warm clothes and join the Advent Conspiracy. Maybe they need us. But we need them, especially around Christmas. What would it look like to seek God among the poor during the Christmas season?

Blessed are the poor, because they get the Presence.

God's presence

One of the big things Christmas is all about is captured beautifully in John's Gospel:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

God made his dwelling among us, tabernacled with us, moved into the neighborhood. What a momentous occasion!

But there's more to the story, more that John reveals in his Apocalypse:

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.

God's presence, his coming as a child, is a decisive move in an epic struggle. No, that's not quite right, it is the decisive move in God's sure struggle against evil, ordained from the foundation of the world, predetermined for our good.

When we celebrate the presence of God, whether it's on Christmas or any moment of our lives and years, we proclaim his now-but-not-yet kingdom, a kingdom established through this child. Maranatha!

What goes into Christmas Carols...

What would happen if someone changed the lyrics in my favorite Christmas carol to:

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, taking flight
Soldiers grab kids by the feet
Blood runs red in the street
Children die tonight
Chil-il-dren die tonight.

I remember my cousin Melanie singing this hymn (the real version) angelically when we were children. The Christmas Story is beautiful. The Christmas Story is hope-giving. The Christmas Story is peaceful. On that night, back in that stable, the world was all right. And on the nights that echo it, those silent nights, all was right in my world.

But the story is so much more complicated. So much more disturbing. Children died. Maybe not on that silent night, but on a night soon after. I don't want that to be part of my Christmas story. But it's there. Buried, disturbingly, in Matthew 2.

What do we do with the bits of the story that doesn't fit into carols? What do we do with the parts of the story that doesn't fit into hymns? Laugh and cry? Dodge and ignore? Wrestle?

Under the Unpredictable Plant

Jonah seems such a small, forlorn figure - satisfied when the plant grows and cools him, displeased when the plant withers and he is parched by the hot sun. How can he be reduced to such puny emotions, such piddling obsessions, such small comfort, such trite discomfort. Here is a man who has been in and out of the fish's belly, who has made the self-sacrificing commitment to be a faithful minister in Nineveh instead of a self-indulgent tourist to Tarshish. He has seen Nineveh, his congregation, turn to God. And he is petulant
- Eugene Peterson

Jonah and the City

So often our reading of the Jonah story goes like this...

God told Jonah to do something...Jonah rebelled (chapter 1)
God had Jonah swallowed by a whale...Jonah repented (chapter 2)
Jonah did what God told him to do and everything ends happy (chapter 3)
If God tells you to do something, do it or risk being swallowed by a whale (THE MORAL)

Unfortunately, the Jonah story is more complex than that. There's a fourth chapter, an angry chapter, a chapter with an object lesson, a joke and a question.

And the moral to the whole thing might be that God wants us to be concerned about what he's concerned about.

Here's the audio from this week's talk:

"Cheap Grace is the deadly enemy of the Church"

"Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship

The Genocide in Genesis

We must wrestle with God's justice to appreciate his grace.

The story of Noah's Ark has all the things that make up a great Sunday School story: animals, rainbows, genocide. God kills hundreds and thousands of people in a massive flood, kills men and women, adults and children, dogs. What are we to make of this slaughter?

Check out the audio for the talk: