Sunday, December 2, 2007



(Ventriloquism with a raven puppet)

· R: Eh, what’s up, Doug?

· D: You can talk!

· R: I can sing, too: “These are the days of Elijah...”

· D: A talking and singing raven; who knew? – and I told my kids that animals can't talk.

· R: Well most can't, you know.

· D: No kidding.

· R: In fact, only a very special family of ravens can talk.

· D: How did you learn?

· R: Well we ravens have a story about that – it happened a long time ago.

· D: Hmmm… That gives me an idea. Do you know what I’m thinking?

· R: Of course not; do I look like a magic trick to you?

· D: Well… I was just about to tell a story – so how about you tell your story, and I'll tell mine.

· R: OK. It all starts with my great, great, great, great, great, …

· D: Hold up. How many times were you going to say “great”

· R: One thousand two hundred and fifty four.

· D: You’re raven mad… what comes after all those greats?

· R: “Grandpa.”

· D: Ah. Do you think we could skip all those greats and just talk about your grandpa?

· R: OK…

· D: Go ahead.

· R: Well, God talked to…grandpa.

· D: God talked to a raven?

· R: Believe me, it was a surprise to grandpa, too!

· D: Go on.

· R: God asked grandpa to go get some food, and bring it to this man down by a creek.

· D: Hey, that story reminds me of a story I know.

· R: And this man's name was Elijah.

· D: I knew it was familiar. Elijah was fed by ravens! We have that story, too!

· R: No way!

· D: Yes way!

· R: That is so cool.

· D: It is true. In 1 Kings Chapter 17. Elijah had just told King Ahab that it wasn't going to rain for three and a half years. But he knew that the king wasn't very nice, and so as soon as he told this to the king, he ran away and hid beside the brook. And God told ravens to bring Elijah food! I suppose Elijah taught your grandpa to talk?

· R: Grandpa even followed Elijah around after the brook dried up, when God told him to go and live with a widow in a place called Zar... Zara...

· D: Zaraphath

· R: That's the place, thanks.

· D: You're welcome.

· R: And then, finally, God told Elijah it was time to tell King Ahab to get ready for rain.

· D: Yes, yes! That's one of my all-time favorite stories from the Bible. In fact, I was just about to tell that story to the boys and girls.

· R: Well tell away.

· D: Would you mind? My arm is starting to get tired.

· R: No worries. I can listen just fine down under [the pulpit].

So Elijah was public enemy number one in Israel. If they had paper in those days, they would have put his picture up on billboards with "Have you seen this man?" or "Wanted". He was "wanted" all right: King Ahab knew that if Elijah didn't come back, it might never rain again.

But why did Elijah make it stop rain, anyway? Well, you see, the King of Israel had gone and married the daughter of the King of Lebanon. Not cool. Her name was Jezebel, and she didn't believe in God. Instead, she brought with her an idol which she called Baal. She wanted everybody in Israel to worship her idol. And God wasn't too happy about that. So along comes Elijah who says that it won’t rain at all until he says so. You see, this idol that Jezebel called Baal was supposed to be the god of rain. Jezebel and her followers prayed to Baal so that the rain would come. Can a chunk of rock make it rain? Of course not. And Elijah told the king so: "you are trusting Baal to bring you rain -- but that’s a waste of time: God is in charge of the rain, and to prove it, the rain is going to stop for the next three years." By the time the king realizes that he has to take Elijah seriously, Elijah is hiding at the creek teaching grammar to the ravens. King Ahab tried everything he can think of to make it rain, but nothing worked. Now Elijah has come back and announces that the rain will start again. And this is where the story gets really exciting.

Elijah tells the king to meet him on Mount Carmel, to bring all the priests of Baal, and to get representatives from all the towns in the land. This was one of the history's first theological conventions, and Elijah was the keynote speaker. So everyone arrives at the top of the mountain, and Elijah stands up and this is what he says: "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." You see, the people, for the most part, didn’t want to give up on God entirely. They could see that God's justice was always a good thing when times were unfair, and his mercy was always a good thing when we didn't behave perfectly. So people kept behaving as if they believed in God. The trouble was that they wanted to believe in God and also believe in Baal. Today, we don't have Baal. But there are many who would like to believe in God and also put their faith in money. Or in power. Or in pleasure. Or in friends. Or in education. Those are today’s idols, and some people think that they can bring success or prosperity, but success and prosperity only ever come from God. And Elijah was saying to the people of Israel thousands of years ago and is saying to us today: “don't play games with God.” Believing in God is a serious matter. Serious commitment. Serious joy. Serious compassion. Seriously abundant life. But as soon as we think we can dilute God with little bits of this world, God might politely excuse himself: "Do you think that you can do better than me?" he says. "Be my guest." We shouldn’t imagine that we can play games with God.

But then the story begins to get really dramatic. It is showdown time. On one hand, there are four hundred and fifty priests of Baal. On the other hand, there was Elijah. To all the people standing around, it might have looked like the odds were stacked against Elijah. But was Elijah alone? Not at all. God was with Elijah. Those priests didn't stand a chance. The rules of the game were simple: Each team had a bull and a bunch of wood; each team was to take their bull, kill it, and prepare it for a sacrifice, but they weren't allowed to light any fire. Do you remember that Baal was supposed to be in charge of rain? Well, that means he was also supposed to be in charge of lightning. So once again the people thought that the game was unfair to Elijah. But can an idol make thunder or lightning? Of course not. Finally, Elijah gave the other team a big head start. And I mean big. He didn't just give them lots of extra time, he also gave himself a serious disadvantage. He asked some people to go down the mountain to the ocean and fill up four big jars with water and to bring them up and pour them all over his bull. Then he asked them to do it again, and then a third time. And then, then, just when the sun is going down, the altar is dripping with water and the ditch around the altar is full of water, then Elijah prays to God. "Let it be known," he prays. "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known that you are God in Israel." And *boom*. Fire comes down from heaven and consumes the sacrifice, and the altar, and the water – it all vaporizes. Talk about drama. Talk about victory. The Bible says that all the people fell on their faces and cried, "The Lord is God." yes!

Before we go any further, let me tell you what I think about the fire that came down from heaven. Now God could have easily just “poofed” the altar and the sacrifice with fire. He can do what he wants. But I don’t think that he did. God often likes to use the universe as it is. Some people think that it was lightning. But I don't. You know why? It hadn't rained for three and a half years. A little later on in chapter eighteen, Elijah prays for rain, but he waits for hours for the first cloud to appear in the sky. And we usually need clouds before we have lightning. So if it wasn't lightning, then it might have been a meteorite. Giving God credit for leading Elijah into the path of a meteorite is by no means irreverent. You see, it couldn’t have been just any meteorite. It had to be just the right size. If it was any smaller, it would have burned up before hitting the altar. If it was any bigger, it could have destroyed the entire mountain. And it had to be just the right material. Most meteors are made of gas, and they never make it to the surface of the earth. But if a meteorite is made of iron, then it heats up as it zooms through the atmosphere. But not only did the meteorite have to be the right size and the right material. It had to come at exactly the right time, and in exactly the right place. Meteorites travel at approximately fifty kilometers per second. That means that when Elijah started his prayer, the meteorite was more than one thousand kilometers away. From that far away, the slightest deflection would cause the meteorite to miss the altar. One thousandth of a degree off course, and the meteorite would have missed the altar by 17 meters, which is probably right where the king was standing, but no matter. God knew where that meteorite was going to land, and God knew when it was going to land, and God gave instructions to Elijah, and Elijah obeyed those instructions so closely that we have a fabulous convergence. That's a big word, isn't it? But convergence means that everything came together just perfectly. And God loves it when a plan comes together.

Let me tell you a story of convergence from my own life. It might sound crazy. I still smile every time I think about it. But it is entirely true. It happened some time ago, during a rough patch at the company I worked for. One day, R. came to my desk with a rumor. And this wasn't a very good rumor: R. had heard that there were going to be some serious lay-offs at the company, and in particular he had heard that there would be layoffs in my group. And then on his way from my desk he said, "I'm going to buy a lottery ticket on my way home." What an odd thing to say, I thought. But then, as the day went on, I started wondering what I might do if I was laid off, and, well, at the time, the prospects didn't seem very good. But I would never do something as foolish as buy a lottery ticket, I told myself. Besides, I wasn't carrying any money. And I reached my hand into my pocket, and there was a loose twonie. How did that get there? I wondered.

So for the first time in my life, I started giving serious thought to lottery tickets. Not to get rich, mind you; I knew better than to ask for a jackpot. But there are second and third prizes that would help you get on your feet if you lost your job, for example. But I still didn't think that buying a lottery ticket was the thing to do, so I had an idea. The bank was a little out of my way to the train from the office. But every time I had gone to the bank, I had seen a panhandler asking for money. No problem, I thought, I'll take the long way to the train past the bank, and I'll give the twonie to the panhandler. That way I won't have to think about lottery tickets. And so I did. There was one problem: he wasn’t there that day. So I got on the train with that twonie still in my pocket, and I wondered. Raimondo coming to my desk and mentioning lottery tickets… a twonie in my pocket that I don't remember getting… the panhandler not in his normal spot… could this be God's way to help me out if I were to lose my job?

So I prayed. I prayed that God would give me some kind of a nudge if he actually wanted me to buy a lottery ticket. And I settled into my seat, and started to read my book on the train. The next thing that I knew, the conductor was saying, "prochain arret/next stop Beaurepaire", Beaurepaire??? I was jarred out of my comfort. For the first and only time in my life I had missed my train stop. In those days, I was supposed to get off at the Beaconsfield station, and we had already passed that station. What a delightful answer to prayer, I thought. How? Let me tell you. You see, I'd usually have to walk past the plaza to get home from the train. But there were just houses between the Beaurepaire station and home: no place to buy a ticket at all.

Now usually, having to walk two and a half kilometers would have been a drag. But it was a nice summer day; there was a bit of a breeze, and I was really very amused by what I thought must be God's way of telling me I didn't need to buy a lottery ticket. In fact, I'm pretty sure I smiled most of that long walk home. There was one break in the smiling, however, when my face must have looked something like this...and that happened when, well, when the wind blew a small something across my path. And then the wind changed direction, and that small something landed there, directly in front of me, no more than two steps away. I reached down and, to my exceeding amusement, picked up...a lottery ticket. Now if you find a lottery ticket on the ground, the chance is pretty high that it is a discard from a previous draw. So I checked. Nope. The piece of paper that the wind blew into my path, that lottery ticket was indeed for the upcoming Saturday draw. The chance of all these things happening together was crazy tiny. Not as crazy tiny as praying in the path of a meteorite, but crazy tiny nonetheless. Even smaller, incidentally, than winning the lottery! Convergence. Something that God loves to arrange for his children.

In fact, the whole universe is a fabulous convergence of physical laws. If the pull of gravity wasn’t exactly what it is now, if the other intra-atomic forces weren’t precisely as they are, the universe would look altogether different, and it almost certainly wouldn’t support life as we know it. God is in the business of beating the odds. Convergence was in play in our salvation, too: the Bible says that “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for us.”

So you might be wondering about that lottery ticket. No, it wasn’t a winner. But then, I didn’t lose my job either. Now hold on, you might be thinking: if the ticket wasn’t a winner, then what was the point? That’s a good question! And I don’t exactly know why God permits these things to happen, either – but that brings us back to the story of Elijah, because it isn’t clear that Elijah’s work on Mount Carmel was a winner either. You see, the Bible doesn’t suggest that Elijah’s momentous confrontation with evil was “successful” in any lasting or meaningful way. The object of the exercise was (18:37) “that the people would know that the LORD is God.” And sure, the people who saw the fire come down were in awe, but Jewish tradition says that, “In spite of Elijah's many miracles the great mass of the Jewish people remained as godless as before.” In chapter 19, Elijah complains to God: “[Your people] have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death.” The people were like those in the parable, where Jesus says: “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if [they see a mighty miracle] (Luke 16:31)” Big miracle, but no success. And, naturally, this lack of success depresses Elijah no end. That simply means that he was human, and reacted like you or me. In fact, Elijah was so depressed, only twelve verses after fire came down from heaven, we read this: “[Elijah] came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’”

Some days, we might be tempted to think that we are called to confront evil in the world. But it is interesting that Elijah, the most successful confronter of evil in history did not achieve the results he was hoping for. Instead, he was driven to the conclusion that he was no better than anyone else. Perhaps we need to reach this same conclusion.

So Elijah was naturally heartbroken. But if we’ve ever been depressed or heartbroken there is good news for us in the Bible. God takes no time to criticize Elijah for his depression. Rather, God makes sure that Elijah gets some rest, and gets some food, and finds other work to do – a very sensible remedy for depression indeed. It is as if this is the way the story was meant to turn out in the first place. Unfortunately for Elijah, God didn’t provide the script to him in advance. And God doesn’t give us the script of our lives in advance either.

As nice as it might be for God to fall in line and make our lives turn out the way in which we know that they “should”, life doesn’t usually work that way. God’s ways are higher than our ways after all. Being human, Elijah had certain expectations for the results of his obedience. Perhaps you do, too. Some Christians imagine that our faithfulness must make things turn out the way we prefer. That is not to say that our preferences are self-centered. We might very well have God-honoring preferences. Elijah wanted desperately for the people of Israel to return to God. We might want our family’s stability, or the salvation of dear relative, or for a friend to be healed, or the success of a business that employs a number of people. But you can’t always get what you want, and when what we want involves other people, God makes no promises; all bets are off.

So how do we understand the story of Elijah? Elijah was in perfect sync with what God wanted, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t get what he wanted. And so Elijah was crushed because the people of Israel would not turn back to God. But God shared in Elijah’s pain. In fact, he carried Elijah’s pain, and he continues to carry the pain of all of his children whose heart is broken by a world that doesn’t live up to God’s perfect plan. You see, Elijah didn’t get what he wanted. But he got something better. And not just a little bit better. To set us up for the climax, the Bible says that Elijah received the ultimate cosmic vote of confidence: God took Elijah to heaven in a chariot of fire! That’s right: Elijah never had to die – God took him straight to heaven. How cool is that? But if you can imagine, that’s just the appetizer; it gets even better than that! You see, what Elijah’s wanted most in the world was for God’s children to draw closer to God. His despair was from watching them miss the point – even after witnessing proof of God’s power. And so the final chapter in the story of Elijah takes place some time later, when Elijah has a private conference with God, and God explains His plan to save the world to Elijah in person. Matthew chapter seventeen: Moses and Elijah appear on the Mount of Transfiguration and talk with Jesus.

Moses brought God’s Law to His people. Elijah demonstrated God’s power to His people. But neither Law nor Power are sufficient to save people from themselves. During that conversation on the Mount of Transfiguration, I bet Jesus explained that people’s hearts aren’t won by shock and awe. Proof is good for the head, but rarely reaches the heart. People’s hearts aren’t turned toward God by demonstrations of power, or by the elimination of evil. You see, we can eliminate all the outside evil we want, and it simply doesn’t address the real problem, which is the inside evil. In order to solve that problem, Jesus had to come and die for us – to show us perfect love, to become the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and to take on himself all the pain and all the suffering. Only then can we be washed clean. Only then can we be brought into the Kingdom of God. Only then can we see God’s perfect plan unfolding. We might not fully appreciate how things are going at the moment, but God has an eternity to bless us if we are obedient and faithful like Elijah was.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Upgrade your plan

In July 2005, the journal Science has a list of 125 things that scientists cannot explain. One was the origin of language. Another was the business of language learning. And even though I’ve been working in language science for twelve years, my most profound language-learning experience occurred on a cross-walk in Germany. Let me tell you about it!

I was walking down the street in Munich, and I stopped for a red light. There, already waiting for the light, was an elderly gentleman. When he saw me beside him, he turned and said “* * * *”, (I could only tell you what he said if I spoke German!) but I could only smile, and shrug. It was so terribly embarrassing. I wanted at least to be able to say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” But I couldn’t. Providing a merciful escape, the light turned green, and we both started across the cross-walk. And then about half-way across the street, it hit me: I knew exactly what this man had said to me! It was the strangest feeling. I turned back to agree with the fact that it was indeed a lovely spring morning. But then I realized that I had no idea how to say that in German. (so I was embarrassed twice).

Now humor me for a second. I might have been completely kidding myself, and he could (possibly) have been talking to me about the price of sausages, but I don’t think so. At the time, I knew that he had made a polite comment about the weather, even if I could never explain how I knew it. But German is related to English. And there were just enough hints in the words he used and in the way he talked that I was sure that I understood him after thinking about it for a number of seconds.

So why I am I telling you this? Well, language learning is somewhat like spiritual learning. Hearing words isn’t enough. If we just read the words or listen to me talk all those words can just pour over us, without any of it sticking, almost like a man speaking German. But just like listening to a man speaking German, if we have hooks to hang those words on, it can become valuable for us. Then we can have one of those “a-ha!” experiences that I had in Munich.

This morning brings us to the third in a series of sermons from the book of Romans. And I’m going to try to convince you that the sixth chapter in the book of Romans contains the key to understanding a lot of scripture. In fact, I’d claim that Romans chapter six represents perhaps one of the most important spiritual lessons that we can ever learn. But the words aren’t enough. If you let me, I’d like to encourage you to build spiritual cupboards to put these ideas in. That way, when you hear similar ideas from the books of first or second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians or Colossians, you will have a place to put them.

Before we get to Romans chapter six, we really should read at least the last verse-and-a-half in chapter 5: “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Wow – that’s pretty dense, but these are our signposts, the big words of the day: sin and grace; death and life. Sin and Death go together, and Grace and Life go together. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the subject of Romans chapter six was, in fact, a matter of life and death. For starters, and if nothing else, we can learn from Romans that grace can trump sin; life can conquer death. The good news this morning is that grace and life are available to us, too. And Romans chapter six is nothing less than an attempt to explain just how we can be part of that victory.

But I almost get the feeling that Paul was having an experience a little bit like I had on that crosswalk in Germany: I knew what the message was, but I was inadequate to respond appropriately. Similarly, with Paul, the words of Romans are not simple; they are not easy to follow; they can be confusing. In fact, Paul gives us a hint of this problem in verse nineteen: he says “I’m putting all this in human terms because you are weak.” In our weakness, we just don't have the spiritual hooks to hang the spiritual truths that Paul wants to give us. Some people might find this lack of clarity frustrating. But that isn’t necessary. In fact, it could be comforting. What does this tell us? It suggests to us that life is not simple; life is not easy to understand, and life can be confusing. This means that the Bible is appropriate to our experience. It doesn’t pretend that there are short-cuts or magic words. It doesn’t make light of the difficult circumstances that we are going through. It understands that living is hard work.

Of course, this doesn’t sit well with some people. As John Piper says:[modern Christians] are pragmatists to the max. We want results. And we want them yesterday. We want them simply. We want them without too much pondering and too much pain. And … we have developed all kinds of Christ-coated remedies that [taste good and are easy to swallow, but are, in reality] shallow and short-lived.

Not so Paul. In Romans chapters six and seven, Paul is literally struggling with ultimate truth. And that’s where we’re going today. Romans chapter six and verse one: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may increase?” Paul isn’t living in a dream world; he, like every one of us, knows that our lives are places where sin and grace meet – that’s almost what it means to be human. We sin, but God’s grace is still extended to us. We celebrate God’s grace, but we still sin. So Paul knows that sin and grace do co-exist, but he is basically asking the question “Can the grace and sin co-exist happily." And immediately, he gives a decisive answer. The King James says “God forbid!” The New International Version says, “By no means.” – but both of these translations don’t do justice to the original. The New American Standard has the most literal translation: “May it never be!” Modern ways of conveying this thought include:

“can’t happen”/“it doesn’t work like that.” Or/“you can’t get there from here.”

Sin and grace cannot both increase in the same place. If grace is present, it means, of necessity, that sin must decrease.

But then the rest of the verse introduces the first wrinkle into the chapter: Paul explains “we died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Now hold on. Back a couple of verses, we heard sin reigns in death, and now he says “we died to sin.” Now I’m pretty sure that Paul isn’t saying that he wants sin to reign, so when he says “we died to sin,” it must mean that Paul is now using the idea of “death” in two very different ways. How in the world are we going to keep track of that? And we’re only on verse two.

Benjamin Franklin said that nothing is certain in this word but death and taxes, and now it seems like we can’t even be certain about death. Of course, death is a bit like taxes...

Have you ever got a call from a financial adviser? These guys never let up, do they – I get a call every two months. They know that nobody likes taxes, and they know that everyone would like to pay less tax. So they phone up and tell you that there are options when it comes to taxes, and they offer a free seminar to find out more; with the hope, of course, of becoming my tax consultant or accountant. Often, the trick is to pay tax at different times. If you invest now, you can end up paying less tax when the investment matures.

Well, this morning, Paul is saying that there is an option when it comes to death. And here we are in a free seminar to find out more about that option. But just like the tax guy, the trick is to experience death at a different time. Verses three and four: “don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with Christ… into death.” Apparently, this “early death option” is part of the “grace-and-life” package. And indeed it is. What’s more, it is a shame that it is not better advertised. You can’t be blamed for feeling that it is a bit of hidden fine print in the Christian life.

But you really shouldn’t feel like that for long. You see, the “early death option” isn’t an “extra” – it isn’t tacked on the end to make our lives complicated. Instead, the “early death option” is part of the reason that the whole salvation thing works in the first place. Our Savior, Jesus Christ broke the ground: he was willing to die early – when he didn’t deserve to, but then, as we read elsewhere, “[because Jesus was willing to die] God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth.” So the fine print (if you think of it that way) includes this promise, too – let’s read the rest of verse four and verse five: “We were therefore buried with Christ… into death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, we may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection." Similarly in verse eight: “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him."

Just so there is no misunderstanding, resurrection with Christ is more than enough to make any “early death option” more than worth it. As Paul writes elsewhere “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Similarly, Jesus says, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." So let’s spell it out.

Death option number one – “the basic death plan”: let nature take its course. In this option, sin reigns, and the result is death. Physical death is an appropriate metaphor for spiritual death. Folks who choose “the basic death plan” are usually fixated on death by actively avoiding it. It is a little bit of a puzzle, but something like the ladies who, after reading the first English dictionary, commended Dr. Samuel Johnson, its compiler, for choosing not to include “naughty words.” “What?” Dr. Johnson asked, “Have you been looking for them?” By looking for unsavory words, the ladies demonstrated an unhealthy fixation. Similarly, there are a number of activities that demonstrate that we are motivated by death-avoidance.

The first indication of death-avoidance is the attempt to live as long as possible, or, to put it another way, a fixation with health. Indeed, our society and many modern Christians appear to be obsessed with health. A sure sign of a true Christian is the ability to look physical death in the face with that calm assurance that in the song: “And then one day, I’ll cross that river; I’ll fight life’s final war with pain. And then as death gives way to victory, I’ll see the lights of glory where my Savior lives.” In contrast, the world spends double on health food. The world idolizes the medical profession. We pay large amounts for fancy ways to exercise. The cosmetics industry is booming as we change the color of our hair, smooth out our wrinkles, and work on our complexions.

All these demonstrate an unhealthy fixation and death-avoidance. All these are clear signs that we’re committed to “the basic death plan”. Last week in the early service, it was quite a blessing to hear X show that her faith in God is bigger and more important to her than the medical machinery around her. We need more of that attitude in our churches. I’m sorry, folks: but God does not promise his children physical healing. He wants to heal our souls, yes; but the reality is that our bodies run down and fall apart. In kindness, He might grant us brief reprieves on that score, but they do not come with any guarantees, expressed or implied.

The second indication of death-avoidance is the attempt to establish a legacy in wealth, or status, or fame, or power. Have you even seen that bumper sticker, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins?” When we come to the realization that the world and all that is in it is temporary, none of these things matter any more. In spite of what television teaches us, God can be far happier with the contribution to the Kingdom of God from a single widow than he is with all the gifts of a church full of rich folk.

The final indication of death-avoidance in the attempt to squeeze as much out of the time that we have: we only care about doing the things we feel like doing, when we feel like doing it. We feed our appetites, because that’s all we live for: we eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Indeed. All of these actions, obsession with health, wealth, and self, derive directly from a commitment to “the basic death plan.” In verse 21, Paul asks “What benefit do we get from all these things?” -- and the answer is stark and final: “They result in death.”

But that isn’t the only option that we have for death. In our text this morning, Paul introduces for us “death option number two” the “early death plan” which is simply this: have faith in Jesus dying for us. When we have this faith, we become united with Christ in his premature death. We willingly lay down our lives before God, accepting the death of our desires, the death of our ambitions, the death of our rights and the death of our own personal glory. That is what it means to have saving faith. Yes, we are talking about salvation here. Death option number two is part of the package of saving faith. Saving faith is not faith *that* Jesus died for me. Saving faith is not “faith that anything.” Saving faith is faith *in* Jesus dying for me. Note the verb tense: the English language doesn’t even permit me to say “faith in Jesus died for me. Rather, we must say “faith in Jesus dying for me.” Our faith is not of the past or in the past. Our faith is living and active and present.

As verse five suggests, our salvation involves being united with Christ. Our hope of glory is that Christ is with us and in us today. But that eternal resurrection life depends on our participation in Christ’s death. Only if we are united with Christ in his death will we be united with him in his resurrection. Folks talk about being born again, and so they should. But the reality is that the second birth requires the first death. It is only by opting for an “early death plan” that we can be born again at all.

Incidentally, this idea isn’t limited to Romans chapter six. It can be found throughout the New Testament. Four quick examples:

Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

2 Corinthians 5:14, 15 “we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

Colossians 2:12 “[You were] buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

Colossians 3:3 “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

The “early death plan” is part of the fiber of scripture. The intervening centuries might have diluted the message, but it is clear and it is clearly important. And the key is that the “early death plan” supersedes the “basic death plan” – verse nine: “since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.” And that is precisely what God wants for us – to eliminate the mastery that death has over us, and to give us the means to live eternally. As it says in Hebrews 2:15 Christ came to "free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." And in 2 Corinthians, we read: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

One final point from our text this morning: the “early death plan” is not just a theological construct. It is not just something waiting for us in heaven. We have the power and the responsibility to “work out our salvation” – to turn the “early death option” into a reality in our lives. Verse 12: “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies.” This is our responsibility. In the days in which Paul wrote this, regime change was only rarely due to a peaceful transfer of power. When he says “Don’t let sin reign,” he is saying that We need to be actively chipping away at the power of sin. We need to be aware of our weaknesses and cautious of our strengths. But our responsibility isn’t just to resist the advance of sin, verse 13: “rather, offer yourselves to God.” We also need to actively establish a beachhead for grace in our lives. Only by resisting sin and making ourselves available to God can we find ourselves united with Christ.

Here Paul uses words that indicate a struggle is taking place. And indeed it is. Next week, chapter seven will focus on this struggle. But let me leave you with this challenge. Don’t be satisfied with the “basic death plan”. Not only will it bring you to an unhappy end, it will also leach the joy and delight out of life. Instead, follow in the footsteps of Jesus, have the same attitude as him. Opt for the “early death plan”, and enjoy eternal life in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Saturday, May 5, 2007


This morning, I’d like us to talk about one of my favorite people in the Bible.

This guy was very likely one of the most important people in the entire Bible: without him, the entire people of Israel would not have survived. But he was also undoubtedly one of the very most annoying people in the Bible. Can you imagine? But it is true: God is able to use annoying people. In fact, God often chooses annoying people to do his work. Now if you are one of the prestigious, proper, pious, perfect people, you might find this bit of news to be quite bothersome. In fact, some people have been turned off to God precisely because he is friendly with annoying people. Do you remember the Pharisees’ complaint about Jesus? “He hangs with tax collectors and sinners,” they said. Sometimes it is tempting to do the childish blackmail thing with God: we tell God, “if you want to be my friend, you aren’t allowed to play with him – he is so annoying.” But I’m happy to report that God doesn’t for a second even consider buckling to any kind of blackmail. He will play with the very most annoying people on the planet, and that is tremendously reassuring for the rest of us!

But let’s get back to my hero, X – oops! I almost said his name. I wanted to ask you to guess who he was. Does anybody – any of the children, now – have any idea of who my hero is? Now before you guess, let me remind you of what you know already: the only clues that I’ve given so far are that 1) He saved all the people of Israel, and 2) he was really annoying. Actually there are quite a number of guys like that in the Bible, aren’t there? Ever heard of Samson? He was a really strong guy who saved the people of Israel, and he was really annoying to the Philistines – remember when he tied the foxes tails together around a torch, and let them loose in the grain fields. Hoo-boy! But he’s not my hero: Samson was annoying to his enemies, but my hero was even annoying to his friends. Can you imagine? Ever hear of Moses? He was the great leader, who led the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, and he was annoying to those same people – the Bible even says that after Pharaoh asked them to make bricks without straw the people wouldn’t listen to him at all. But he’s not my hero: Moses might have been annoying to the people of Israel, but my hero was even annoying to his family. Can you imagine? Ever heard of David? David was the great king of Israel, who conquered the Philistines decisively. But when he was younger, he was annoying to his brothers – did you know that David’s older brother called him conceited and wicked? But he’s not my hero. David’s brothers just wanted to insult him, but my hero was so-o-o-o-o annoying, ten of his brothers actually wanted to kill him! Does anyone know who my hero is? That’s right, my hero is a guy named Joseph. He wasn’t just an ordinary Joe, let me tell you.

Do you know why Joseph was so annoying to his brothers? Well, for starters, he was the father’s favorite. You might have thought that of all people, Joseph’s father Jacob would have learned the lesson that parental unfairness causes problems – having lived on the short end of the favoritism stick and all. But no: Jacob ended up having a favorite, too, and Jacob’s favorite son was Joseph. So guess what? Joseph’s brothers resented the special treatment that Joseph received. It didn’t help that Jacob gave special presents to Joseph. That kind of upset his brothers. And it didn’t help matters that Joseph was a bit of a tattle-tale: whenever his brothers did something that he thought they shouldn’t, Joseph would go to his father and rat on them. And it didn’t help that Joseph had this bad habit of telling his brothers about these dreams in which he was always much more important than his brothers. His brothers didn’t exactly warm to that, either.

So one day, when Joseph was out in the countryside with his brothers, they took him, tore off his fancy coat and threw him into a dried up old well. And while they were at it, they very likely let it slip that they were planning to kill him – just to make sure that his last hours were as miserable as possible. Now we don’t have many old wells in our back yards these days, so it would be like locking someone in a closet, or taking someone and wrapping their hands and mouth with duct tape. I’m sure that nobody in this church would be cruel enough to do that to anyone. And I’m sure that nobody in this church deserves that kind of treatment. So imagine Joseph wrapped in duct tape, I mean, there in the bottom of the well. What do you think he did in the well? It’s not like he could fight back. All he could do was howl – in fact, the Bible talks about his cries of distress. Ever so often I hear something like howling at my house, but I’m sure glad my kids haven’t tried to kill each other – yet. The howls in the Peters’ house often come with a cry for “Dad!” – because part of my job is to keep things fair between my kids. But Joseph’s Dad was miles away, so Joseph couldn’t call for his father to come and bring justice. The Bible says that besides howling, Joseph was pleading for his life. After all, they had taken his fancy coat, and it was starting to get dark, so Joseph was probably getting a little cold, and a little frightened. Can you think of anything else that Joseph might have been doing down in that well? Well, it is possible that Joseph did some praying down in that well. But you know what? Sometimes things get worse before they get better. And if Joseph was praying, God didn’t seem to be answering that prayer at all.

So picture this: it is getting late, and Joseph is cold and hungry and miserable. He has been crying for hours. And just as it starts to get dark, he thinks for a second that his prayers have been answered: a rope is thrown down into the well and he is allowed climb out. But then he hears this noise , and his brothers grab him, wrench his arms behind his back and wrap him with chains. “What are you guys doing?” I’m sure he asked, and then he noticed something that he hadn’t noticed before: his brothers weren’t the only ones at the top of the well. Then he heard a sound like and he spun around to see some strange man wearing strange clothes giving his older brother a stack of coins. How would you feel to discover that your own family considered you to be worth about this much metal? And then his brothers start walking away. And he was hauled off to Egypt and sold as a slave.

Now some people, having just been mugged by your family and sold as a slave might be a little tiny bit bitter about the experience. Some people might have accused God of letting his guardian angels go on vacation at the wrong moment. And then after blaming God, it isn’t hard to give him the silent treatment. But let me tell you from experience: giving God the silent treatment only makes things worse. Now I’m not sure if Joseph avoided that mistake. Since he was only human, it took him a while to be able to handle the whole slavery thing. But I do know that he eventually came around, and concluded that God could even be at work in Egypt. After all, if Joseph let God work in him, and Joseph was in Egypt, then God would be working in Egypt, too.

Being a slave has never been fun, and being a slave in Egypt was no fun at all, let me tell you. But Joseph was sold to a guy named Potiphar. And that was a good thing. You see, since Potiphar was wealthy and powerful, he could afford to treat his slaves well – especially the good slaves. And Joseph turned out to be one of the very best slaves that Potiphar had. That’s already a good indication that Joseph was trusting in God. When we trust in God, God often helps us do our work better. So after a while, Joseph’s life wasn’t so bad. But just when Joseph was about to get comfortable, Potiphar’s wife comes along. Now if you remember, I told you before that Joseph was a bit of a tattle-tale. But there are two types of tattle-tales: the first type tells those things that you’d prefer to be kept secret. That’s the kind of tattle-tale that Joseph was with his brothers. But Potiphar’s wife was the other kind of tattle-tale: you see, she wanted to get Joseph in trouble, and so she made up lies to tell his master. She told Potiphar that Joseph was doing some really bad stuff. And who is Potiphar going to believe, this slave he bought from the camel traders, or his wife? Well, he believes his wife, and Joseph gets thrown in a dungeon.

Now some people, having been thrown into a dungeon because someone made up lies about them might be a little tiny bit bitter about the experience. Some people might have accused God of letting his guardian angels go out for doughnuts. And then after blaming God, it isn’t hard to hold a grudge against him. But let me tell you from experience: holding grudges against God only makes things worse. Now I’m not sure if Joseph avoided that mistake. Since he was human, it probably took him a while to be able to handle the dungeon smells. But I do know that he eventually came around, and concluded that God could even be at work in the dungeon. After all, if Joseph let God work in him, and Joseph was in the dungeon, then God would be working in the dungeon, too.

Now the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly how long Joseph was in the dungeon, but it does say that it was a least two years. Can you imagine? The first time Joseph gets thrown into a well, he “kinda-sorta” deserved it – he was annoying after all. But this time, he didn’t deserve it at all. In fact, he was thrown into the dungeon for doing that right thing. Thrown into a well, sold as a slave, wrongfully accused, thrown into a dungeon…Joseph might have been tempted to imagine that God had abandoned him altogether. But do you know that the Bible says that God was with Joseph this entire time? What do you think of that? I can guarantee you that there were times in those two years that Joseph was convinced that God had entirely left him. He was, after all, only human. But that’s an important lesson, isn’t it? Just because we don’t think that God is around to look after us, doesn’t at all mean that he has left us alone. When God says “I will never leave you, I will never forsake you,” he doesn’t sneak in some fine print “as long as you do such and so.” As long as we live, God is there watching out for us, and showing his grace to us. The Bible says, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “in Him all things hold together.”

So as a picture for us, as an illustration of His love that we can learn from almost four thousand years later, God came and rescued Joseph. It only took thirteen years from the time that he was thrown in that old well. Thirteen years! Some of you gentlemen in the front row aren’t even that old. That would be like waiting your entire life. But if you remember the story, what happened was this: one of the guys that Joseph met in the dungeon had this really strange dream, and Joseph explained to him exactly what that dream meant. So later on, when Pharaoh, the king of Egypt had some dreams, this same guy remembered Joseph, and told Pharaoh that this strange guy in the dungeon named Joseph could interpret dreams. And then, when Joseph proceeded to explain to Pharaoh what his dreams meant, Pharaoh was so pleased with Joseph, that he made him the ruler of the entire land. And it was a good thing, too, because Joseph was able to prepare in advance for the worst famine that the land of Egypt ever had. That’s when they don’t have enough rain to grow food. Because he had the people store away food before the famine, they had enough to survive when the famine came.

Now it is always fun when people dig up archeological evidence for the Bible. Did you know that they have evidence that the source of the Nile River, the big river that runs through the land of Egypt, dried up for a significant time in the same period that we think that Joseph was there. What’s more, there is also a lake in Egypt whose source dried up at the same time. There is an ancient canal that was built to supply this lake with water. And do you know what they call this canal? They call it “Joseph’s canal”, and as far as we know, that is the only name that it has ever been called. I don’t know about you, but I love learning about stuff like that.

And so God saved Joseph, and Joseph saved all the people during the drought and the famine. Pharaoh had Joseph manage all the food distribution for seven years. The famine was so bad that people from all over the area came to buy food from Joseph. And one day, ten men arrived from a long distance away to buy food. They don’t recognize Joseph, but he recognized them. That’s right: his brothers had come to ask for food. My hero this morning was really, really powerful, and when he had his enemies entirely under his control, did Joseph get back at them? No, my hero looked after them instead. You can picture it: here is a ruler in the greatest kingdom on earth, flanked by squads of guards. And his enemies come groveling before him. These are the same enemies who had come “this close” to killing him. They were only talked out of it at the last second. Instead, they tore off his clothes, they threw him in a well, and they sold him as a slave. But now Joseph is the boss, and they are nobodies. But Joseph, even though he might have struggled with the situation, is really kind to them. He takes the money that they used to pay for the food, and has it hidden in their luggage, so when they get home, they find food and their money. And then when the entire family returns to Egypt, Joseph makes sure that they live in the best part of the entire country – a part that is the least affected by the drought and the famine.

So everyone lives “happily ever after,” more or less. But the best lesson of the story comes a little later on, when we finally get to see what is in Joseph’s heart. You see, Joseph’s brothers are feeling so guilty about all they did to him, they suspect that Joseph has some plan to get back at them. And they imagine that the only thing holding Joseph back is the fact that his father Jacob is still alive. And so when Jacob became old and died, Joseph’s brothers all got together and came to Joseph, and the Bible says that they threw themselves down before him and said, “We are your slaves.” Now listen carefully to what Joseph says in reply. He says, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” Now this is a rhetorical question. Does anyone know what a rhetorical question is? (apparently not – I love that joke). A rhetorical question is a question for which the answer should be obvious, so it doesn’t need to be answered. And Joseph’s question was just that. Joseph’s answer is “no, or course not, I am not in the place of God.” Now considering that the rulers in Egypt had a long history of claiming to be in the place of God, Joseph’s words are particularly significant. Here is Joseph, in deliberate opposition to centuries of tradition, making it clear that God is God, and he is just a man. This might just be the hardest lesson to ever learn, and one that each of us dearly needs to learn.

It is so easy, so convenient, and so seductively empowering to take the place of God, isn’t it? And it all goes back to the Garden of Eden, and the temptation that our greatest-grandfather and greatest-grandmother bought into. What did the serpent say to Adam and Eve? He said, “if you eat of the fruit, you will become like God, knowing good from evil.” This is the primary human temptation – it always has been and it always will be. We want to be in the place of God. We want to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. We want to judge, we want to be in control. But we all need to come to the place that Joseph came to, where he knew that it was not his place to judge, it was not his place to decide what is right and what is wrong. He was not in the place of God, and neither are we. And when we finally come to the place where we realize that we are not in the place of God after all, then our whole perspective changes. What does Joseph say to his brothers next? Genesis 50:20 says, “Even though you might have meant it for evil [when you threw me into that old well,] God meant it for good.”

“God meant it for good.” Being thrown in a well? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Being sold as a slave? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Being wrongfully accused? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Being thrown in the dungeon? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Now it is one thing to recognize God’s work in your life when He has picked you up and dropped you on the throne of the greatest civilization in the known world, but it is quite a different thing to recognize God’s work in your life when you are still in the dungeon. But this trick here is just this: if Joseph wasn’t able to give God room in his heart while he was in the dungeon, Joseph would not have given God the credit that he deserved when he sat of the throne. If things aren’t working out for you at school, or at home, or at work, don’t give up on God. Even in the most evil situations we will ever experience, God can still work. Let him work in your life and in your heart, and you will not get in the way of his working in your school, or your home, or your work, to redeem that situation. While you may not have seen the end of your story quite yet, the story of Joseph gives us a hint as to how it can turn out: whatever is going on in your life, it can’t possibly be as bad as what happened to Joseph, and if Joseph was able to come to the place of being able to recognize that God meant it for good, then perhaps we should, too.

Now when we know what someone means, when we know what someone “is getting at”, when we know what someone intends, we say that we understand them. Joseph was someone who actually understood God, because he knew that God’s ways are higher that our ways, and that God can turn even the greatest evil into good. One of the greatest of all human experiences is simply to be understood, and one of the most tragic is to be misunderstood. In fact, we could even go so far as saying that a friend is someone who understands us, and an enemy is someone who chooses not to understand us. One of the most heart-breaking experiences you will ever face will happen when you say something nice to a friend, and the friend imagines that you are saying something unkind. The classic case (it would be a joke if it were not so tragically true) is when a husband says to his wife: “Your dress looks great, honey.” And the wife replies, “What’s wrong with my hair?” Ouch. That hurts.

But I wonder how often God is heart-broken by our choosing to misinterpret his work in our lives. He means it for good, but we misunderstand it as evil. I wonder if we hurt God by missing His meaning. Be God’s friend this morning: be willing to understand him. God “meant it for good” in Joseph’s life. God could also mean it for good in our lives, too.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Psalm 44

I was reminded about a week ago that the Bible is primarily made of stories. So I hope you don’t mind if I tell you some stories this morning. To the best of my knowledge, these stories are true.I checked with the sources to make sure I wasn’t going to pull a James Frey. [ed. wrote a "memoir" of questionable veracity]

Around 1918, the Russian countryside witnessed frequent skirmishes between the white army and the red army. The history books can tell you about the generals and the battles, but I’m going to tell you about some of the Russian citizens that were caught in the middle of it all. One afternoon, a company of the white army (those loyal to the Czar) stopped in a small rural community, and following the conventions of the day, took supplies as needed without payment. This week the supplies that they needed included a horse and a cart. Unfortunately for Isaac Peters, the horse and the cart that they chose to requisition were his, and unfortunately for his wife Sarah, they also decided that they needed a driver for that cart, and so they chose to take their fourteen-year-old, Gerry for that purpose.

We live in a different day and age. My son, Nathanael, is fourteen, and he is in no shape to go off to war. His older sister, at sixteen, is barely in any shape to graduate from high school! But there was my great-uncle Gerry, at the ripe old age of fourteen, being taken to war against his wishes. His mother, my great-grandmother was none-too-pleased. But what could she do? The Czar’s army were armed and in a hurry. She could only give her youngest son a kiss and then? She could pray.

The next morning, a company of the red army (those were the communists, who were winning this war) arrived in their village. And the captain of the company chose the Peters’ residence as their billet. Great-grandma served the captain the best that the farm could serve and looked after his animals as well. And the captain talked with my great-grandfather. The company was chasing a recently departed white army contingent, he was told. But since the revolutionaries knew the territory, the captain was certain to overtake them within the week.

When she heard the news, my great-grandmother approached the captain and asked him for a favor. And having been feasted and treated all evening, the captain was quick to agree: my great-grandmother’s request was simply this: when the white army was engaged to extend mercy to her fourteen-year-old son. How would he know the boy? The captain asked. He always wore a white cap. She also promised another farm meal for their return trip.

The next morning, the red army was off at a quick march. And my great-grandmother prayed. In the middle of the next week, the captain returned, and as they sat down to dinner, the newly liberated Gerry Peters, safely home with horse and cart, told his story: the white army had given him a gun, but when the fighting started, he threw down the gun – after all, he had never held one in his life, and did not know how to use one. But there wasn’t much cover. He thought about hiding behind his cart-horse, but wasn’t sure he should do that – after all, how could he return a dead horse to his father? But one by one, the soldiers beside him were being shot, and he was quite puzzled by the fact that he was spared a bullet.

“Wasn’t that lucky?” he asked.

“Not lucky,” replied the captain. “Because of your mother’s wonderful hospitality, my troops were all told that whoever shot the boy in the white cap would be court-martialed.”

It clearly wasn’t luck that great-Uncle Gerry wasn’t hit by a bullet during that battle. But you might say that it was lucky that the red army captain billeted at my great-grandparents, or that the conversation took the direction it had, or that, or that. But was it lucky? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I think that it was an answer to prayer. And Uncle Gerry was a very important person in my own life.

Eight years later, Gerry and his brothers, including my grandfather, Frank, had immigrated to Canada. The Canadian government had opened its borders in the 1920s to the Mennonites, because the Canadian West needed farmers, and the Mennonites were good farmers. Unfortunately for my family, my grandfather was not a farmer but a teacher – He spoke four languages, but none of them English. As a result, the only work he could get was in the coalmines of Alberta. It wasn’t long before the coal dust killed him, and my grandmother, Margaret, was left to look after four little boys on her own.

Not an easy life – my father has a picture of the foundation of the house in which the five of them lived. It was approximately the size of my garage. And that first winter was very difficult. Grandma told me that there were times that she would collect the crumbs after sweeping the house, and bake them into the next loaf of bread. But the second winter was even more desperate – because Grandma had run out of money. So what could she do? Winters can be quite cold in Alberta, and the cellar was out of coal. She got the family together: herself, my father and his three brothers, and they prayed.

The next morning, they were awakened by a loud sound. My grandma bundled up and went outside to discover a man she had never seen unloading a truckful of coal into her basement. There must be some mistake, she told the man.

“No mistake, lady,” he replied.

“But there is no way that I can pay for this,” she told him.

“It’s already paid for,” he mumbled.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s been paid for, lady, it’s been paid for.”

There are few things in the world that are more awesome than answered prayer.

But why am I telling you these stories? Well, we’re preaching from the Psalms these days at Bethel, and I’d like you to turn to Psalm 44. The first verse of Psalm 44 explains these stories:

We have heard with our ears, O God;
our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago.

My father told me these stories, as he experienced them and as told by Uncle Gerry. So I can appreciate this verse on two levels; perhaps, you can, too. We read the stories from the Bible, and see God at work. Perhaps God has been at work in your life or the life of your family, too.

Oh yes: I need to tell you how Uncle Gerry played an important role in my life. A couple of years later, Uncle Gerry had made a lot of money on his farm and decided to move to Abbottsford, in British Columbia. And on his way out West, in 1944, he stopped in at the little Alberta village of East Coulee, and asked his widowed sister-in-law if she and her boys would like to have a lift to Vancouver where there were likely more opportunities for them.

We have heard with our ears, O God;
our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days [not so] long ago.

In the case of the writer of Psalm 44, God’s participation in the significant past is represented by His protection and blessing: verse 2: “with your hand [O God,] you drove out the nations and planted our fathers; you crushed the peoples and made our fathers flourish.” Now there are things in the Bible that should go without saying, but the Bible says them anyway. Please look at verse 3: “It was not by [our fathers] sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, [O Lord,] your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them.” The main idea here is also echoed in verses six and seven “I do not trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory; but you [O Lord] give us victory….”

Now this isn’t just false modesty: the Psalm-writer isn’t just trying to get in good with God by giving him credit. Rather, the attitude that is being expressed is not only the only honest one that we can have, but it is critical to our spiritual health. We must remember that without God there is no success. Without God there is no victory. God provides strength; He provides opportunity; and he deserves the credit for our successes. But it is a common human failing that we want to take the credit for as much as possible. In fact, this is such a common failing, and such a strong human inclination that the Bible, of course, anticipates it.

Deuteronomy 8:17. There, God says, “[Be careful not to] say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’” The next verse contains this warning: “But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives the ability to produce wealth.” Not only does the Lord give us the ability to produce wealth, but He also gives us the ability to get along with each other, the ability to praise his name, and the ability to work hard. All of human virtues derive directly from God our Father.

I think that parents have the opportunity to understand the truth of this teaching in a special way. My daughter Margaret, bless her heart, is a dear. Last month, I had asked her to help me clean up after dinner, and then when I thanked her, she gave me a big hug. “I love you, Daddy,” she said. “You do all the work, but you still want to thank me for it.” And I’m betting that that is what it is like with God: He does all the work, but he is still willing to let us take some credit, however absurd that misplaced credit might be.

At Bethel, on a number of occasions, you have shared that you feel that without God’s presence, it would be impossible to praise him… Without his participation, it would be impossible to serve him. You were entirely correct. Nobody ever brings anything into the Kingdom of Heaven that didn’t already belong to God Himself.

As Paul quotes the poet, “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” Every human being on earth relies on God, whether they know it or not, to succeed. And God, in his mercy, causes the Sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. He gives grace to all…but some more than others. And, unfortunately for many of us, it is almost never the case that God chooses to dispense grace in the way that we would prefer. And it is on that note that Psalm 44 changes key. From verses one to eight, Psalm 44 sings in a major key. From verse nine, to the end, however, the key is a minor one. In music, at the boundary between movements, a composer will often put a double bar. In Psalm 44, on the other hand, the transition between major key and minor key is indicated by one very interesting word: “Selah”.

What does the word “selah” mean? And why don’t our Bibles put it in English? Well, it is a little tricky to translate: it derives from the word to “weigh” or “measure”. I have friends who named their daughter “Selah” – but I’m sure that they weren’t thinking about how much the child weighed. You see, the word “selah” is likely an instruction to stop and think before proceeding. You know, something like “chew on it” or “ponder it”. And this is good advice, especially in the case of Psalm 44. You see, the music of Psalm 44 is never resolved, and we need to draw on the resources of the past to keep us strong for the challenges of the present. Let’s read verses nine to twenty:

9 But now you have rejected and humbled us; you no longer go out with our armies.

10 You made us retreat before the enemy, and our adversaries have plundered us.

11 You gave us up to be devoured like sheep and have scattered us among the nations.

12 You sold your people for a pittance, gaining nothing from their sale.

13 You have made us a reproach to our neighbors, the scorn and derision of those around us.

14 You have made us a byword among the nations; the peoples shake their heads at us.

15 My disgrace is before me all day long, and my face is covered with shame

…you get the idea… let’s just skip to verse 23 and 25:

23Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.

26 Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love.

Wow. Eight verses of praise, and fourteen verses of complaints – who let this Psalm into the Bible anyway? Well, God did, of course. And that is because he knows that we can learn as much, and sometimes much more, from righteous complaining as we can learn from praise. Now please don’t get me wrong here: by saying that I am not validating the recreational complaining that takes place at almost every church, ours no exception. Righteous complaining has a number of characteristics that we can see from Psalm 44. First, the complaining that we see in Psalm 44 is prefaced by honest praise: we need to be willing to accept the good before we have the right to decry the bad. Second, the complaining that we see in Psalm 44 is not directed at any individual; it is directed at God himself. Third, the complaining in Psalm 44 is honest. Sometimes our complaints aren’t so much – they are often really just a diversion that comes out of our guilt feelings.

Let me use myself as an illustration. In my job, I have the chance to work at home regularly. Working at home is terrific – I don’t have to spend an hour-and-a-half a day on the train, and forty-five minutes walking to the office. But it has its downside, too. There are plenty of distractions at home – especially after the kids return from school at around 3pm. But I’ve discovered something about myself. If I’ve worked really hard, and well, and accomplished a lot, I am not bothered by the noises that my kids make when they return home. On the other hand, if I have been distracted during the day, and wasted time rather than doing the work that I know needs to be done, then all of a sudden I complain that my children are distracting during those last two hours of the day. That isn’t an honest complaint. Far from it. Rather, complaints like that just indicate deep-seated feelings of guilt – and I’ve noticed that much of twentieth-century complaining is of this variety. In fact, I’ve found that whenever I’m inclined to complain about something – anything – that it is a really healthy exercise to question my motives.

But righteous complaining is different. It is prefaced by praise, it is directed at God, and it is honest. Finally, the complaining that we see in Psalm 44 is a cry for justice: it implicitly, and correctly, regards God as the ultimate source of justice, and it is a cry to Him for fairness, and a cry to Him for mercy.

Having said that, I’d like to point out that the complaining is every bit as spirit-led as the praise. I’d like you to appreciate that God can be present in the life of someone who is complaining about God’s absence. That might have been a little tricky, so let me say it again: We need to appreciate God’s presence in our lives – even when we are struggling with God’s absence. The proof of God’s presence in the life of the Psalmist is the fact that this Psalm was preserved for us in God’s sacred writings. Seriously. The Hebrew scriptures do not suppress human feelings or failures. They represent honest expressions of God’s children throughout history. And when those writings find their way into the canon – when God permits his name to be associated with these words – it validates them. Imagine that: God is actually validating questions about his care and concern in the lives of his children.

This is just like Psalm 22, where David writes, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But Psalm 22 paints a prophetic picture of Jesus suffering in great detail, doesn’t it? So much so, that Jesus quoted this passage from the cross. As a result, Psalm 22 represents one of the most startlingly accurate prophecies in all of history. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that David was struggling with a sense of abandonment when he wrote it. And in his great mercy, God validated those feelings of abandonment. Psalm 22 is not the only Psalm that is quoted in the New Testament. The New Testament also quotes Psalm 44. And when it does, it does not quote the happy, positive verses. Rather, it quotes a verse that summarizes the sad, confused, minor-key portion of that Psalm.

Psalm 44, verse 22: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” Paul quotes this verse in the book of Romans. And as a Pharisee and a student of scripture, he is calling on his readers’ knowledge of the Old Testament to help them understand what he is referring to. Passages like Psalm 44 represent all of the injustice in the world. There is still injustice in the world, and Psalm 44 resonates with those who experience it daily. But I have a hunch that Paul was thinking about more than just Psalm 44 when he chose the verse to quote. Otherwise why not quote “we have been rejected and humbled” or “my disgrace is before me all day long”.

Verse 22 reminds me of the story of when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Psalm 44 says, “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered a sheep to be slaughtered.” For God’s sake, Isaac was literally considered a sheep to be slaughtered. And he faced death the entire trip up the mountain carrying the wood. You might say, “well it wasn’t exactly his choice.” But we need to understand: Isaac was his father Abraham’s life. I bet Abraham would have preferred to give up his own life rather than sacrifice the life of his son.

I have a friend at work who is not a Christian, and to him this story of Abraham and Isaac represents all that is wrong in the Bible. Perhaps you also reacted with disgust the first time you heard it – I can still remember the feeling of revulsion that I felt the first time I heard this story: why would/how could God ask Abraham, his friend, to sacrifice his own son? It is only when we remember this indignation that we begin to see how powerful the story really is. Yes, God does, in fact, ask us to give up those things that we consider our own – to give to him those things that mean more to us than life itself. With this in mind, let’s turn to Romans, where we find God’s answer to the writer of Psalm 44.

“[middle of verse 31] If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with [his Son], graciously give us all things?” You see, in as much as we react to God asking Abraham to sacrifice his Son, it is then that we appreciate the love God demonstrated by giving his Son for us. “[verse 35] Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written [in Ps. 44:22!]: 'For Your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.”

If nothing can separate us from the love of God, then why do you suppose we all have our moments when we struggle? Perhaps we approach God with an agenda. We might sing, “take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee,” but at the same time, we might be counting on God to look after us. We might be counting on God to keep us healthy. We might be counting on God to support us in our family or in our career. We’d like to add layers to the deal, as if we are in any place to negotiate with God.

But we will never understand the power of the love of Christ until we are willing to set aside all of those extra conditions on a relationship with God. It is only when we are willing to bring our health to the altar. It is only when we are willing to bring our career to the altar. It is only when we are willing to bring our family and friends to the altar. Then, and only then will we might have the power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. In Abraham’s case, God returned what was precious to him, providing a ram for the sacrifice in place of his Son. But we must not count on that: our willingness to sacrifice what we hold dear is key to our growth.

The Apostle Paul, who scriptures say is an example for us, had this focus that each of us needs. His health? Paul asked God to remove a physical ailment on a number of occasions, but God replied, “my grace is sufficient for you.” His marriage? As a Pharisee, Paul was almost certainly married at one time, but it is clear that he was single throughout most of his Christian ministry. His career? He could have been written the book “A Guide to Jails of the Roman Empire”. Based on these “extras”, many modern Christians might be inclined to consider the Apostle Paul to be a complete failure. But those are precisely the Christians who will never know what he meant when he said, “we are more than conquerors." It is only once we put to death the claims we have to the things of this world that we can truly experience the depth of the love of God.

Psalm 44’s minor-key chorus was only resolved hundreds of years later, in the book of Romans. And it is possible that the minor-key experiences that we have might never be resolved in our lifetimes. But those experiences need not destroy us;
they need not make us bitter. We need to be able to give up our ambitions in those areas, to see that the love of God is bigger and greater and wider and deeper than any and all of the suffering that we could ever endure. And then, giving these things up on the altar to the Lord, will we become more than conquerors through him who loved us.