Sunday, December 4, 2011

Forgiveness

When I agreed to speak this morning on forgiveness, I didn’t expect to have my entire sermon outlined to the congregation the previous week… Last Sunday, [---], speaking about relationships, mentioned the cost of unforgiveness – how it only eats away at the one who refuses to forgive. [---], in his meditation earlier, mentioned the cost of forgiveness – how it involves absorbing a debt, often at a great price. [---] mentioned the example of Jesus – how his sacrifice for us was for the sake of our forgiveness, and how critical this is for us. Finally, [---] mentioned how to be truly forgiving involves participating in the sacrifice of Jesus ourselves – experiencing within us that death that leads to resurrection.

It hasn’t exactly left me with much material to cover… but instead of taking this as a set-back, let me interpret it differently; as reinforcement: God’s way of letting us know just how important the subject of forgiveness is this morning. So let me begin with a true story. It’s one you already know, but in perhaps a slightly unfamiliar form. This telling is due to Ray Pritchard, from Mississippi…

It’s Friday morning. Outside the Damascus Gate is a road and on the other side of the road is a flat area near the spot where the prophet Jeremiah is buried. Up above is a rocky outcropping that, if studied at a certain angle, looks like a skull. You can see eroded into the limestone two sockets for the eyes, a place for the nose and maybe a place for the mouth. Skull Hill, they called it. Golgotha. It was the place where the Romans do their killing. And the soldiers are ready to do their dirty work this morning. This is the death squad. They are in charge of crucifixions.

On this particular Friday morning their workload is light. Only three this week. The soldiers know that two of the men being crucified are just average, ordinary criminals—the kind that you find in any big city anywhere in the world. No big deal. But the third man, the one from up north, the preacher from Nazareth, his case is different. They don’t really know who he is. But they know it’s important because they sense the buzz in the crowd. There are more people than usual. There’s something morbidly fascinating about watching someone else die. The people of Jerusalem, at least some of them, loved to come out and watch the crucifixions. Well, maybe they didn’t love it but they couldn’t stay away. Some strange magnetic force drew them back to Skull Hill again and again. But today there are more people than usual, a bigger crowd, noisier, rowdier, milling to and fro, waiting for the action to begin.

Up the road comes a parade of people led by a brawny foreigner carrying a cross. That couldn’t be the one they were going to crucify. It turns out he was a man by the name of Simon—Simon of Cyrene. The crowd swirls around him and behind him is a stooped figure. Now walking, now crawling, each step an agony to behold. He had been beaten within an inch of his life. His back was in shreds. His front was covered with the markings of the whip. His face was disfigured and swollen where they had ripped out his beard by the roots. And on his head a crown of thorns six inches long stuck under the skin. A shell of a man. A man already more dead than alive. When the fellows on the crucifixion detail saw that, they weren’t unhappy. After all, sometimes people got a little feisty when you tried to nail them to a cross. No, they didn’t mind getting a person who was almost dead because it meant their work would be easier.

They laid the cross out on the ground and they laid the body of this man on the cross. He moved, he moaned, he didn’t do much. One hand over here, one hand over there. Wrapping rope around this arm and around that arm. Rope around the legs. They drove the spike on the forearm side of the wrist so that when the weight of the cross fell, the spike wouldn’t rip all the way through the hand. A spike in both wrists and then a spike through the legs. With the ropes in place they began to pull the cross up. Jesus’ blood spurts from the raw wounds. Steady now, boys, steady. Don’t drop it. It was a terrible thing to drop a cross before they got it in the hole. They lowered it carefully, and it fell into place with a thud. And there was Jesus, naked and exposed before the world, beaten, bruised and bloody. The soldiers stood back, satisfied.

And then… then this man seems to want to say something from the cross. He opens his mouth, and out come these amazing, haunting, remarkable words: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

No one expected him to say that. A dying man might scream or curse or utter threats, but you never heard a word of forgiveness when a man was being crucified. Yet that is precisely what Jesus offered to these men who were murdering him. He offered them forgiveness. He prayed that they might be forgiven. He asked his righteous and holy Father in heaven, the Lord of the universe, to forgive his murderers while they were murdering him.

This man, Jesus, doesn’t do any of the things that we would do in his place:
• He doesn’t offer a word in his own defense.
• He doesn’t condemn Herod or Pilate or the Jewish leaders.
• He doesn’t proclaim his own innocence.
• He doesn’t turn against God.
• He doesn’t attack his attackers.
• He doesn’t attempt to save himself.
• He doesn’t blame anyone—though many were to blame.
Instead, he prays. As his life ebbs from his beaten and bruised body, as the blood drips to the ground, he does the one thing he can do. He prays – and he prays for those who are torturing him. And Jesus is an example to us this morning, dear friends. Let us learn from our Savior today:
• We do not forgive because they understand what they did.
• We do not forgive because they have suffered as much as we suffered.
• We do not forgive because they “deserve” forgiveness.
• We do not forgive to gain some personal advantage over them.
• We forgive in spite of what they’ve done.
• We forgive because God is gracious.
• We forgive because that’s what Jesus did on the cross.
• We forgive because that’s what Jesus did for you.
That’s right: he prayed for us, there, too. When he prayed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” he wasn’t just referring to the soldiers, the mob, and to the disciples who had all deserted him. I was included in the “them” and so were you. He was praying for you and he was praying for me.

“Hold on.” You might be thinking. “I’m not like that. I would never crucify anyone.” Perhaps not. But even Jesus’ closest disciples abandoned him before his trial. At best, if you had been there, you might have been like Peter – lying to and cursing at a stranger thinking you are connected to the arrested man. At worst, you would have been there along with the crowd shouting, “Crucify him. Crucify him!” We really are no better.

Early Sunday mornings at Bethel, we come before this table to participate in the Lord’s supper. We might be so familiar with it that we’ve forgotten Jesus words when he passed around the cup: “Drink from it, all of you,” he said. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28) Every time we drink from that cup, as we did this morning, we are acknowledging God’s forgiveness in our lives. We are acknowledging our participation is Jesus sacrifice for us.“This is my blood, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

When Jesus talks about drinking his blood, we naturally react with a shudder and an “e-e-e-ew.” Well, just like we might think that we would never crucify anyone, most of think that we would never drink blood. And sure enough, the Jewish people listening to Jesus’ words didn’t like that kind of talk at all. The Bible says, “From [the time he started talking like this] many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” After all, they had grown up with the Jewish teaching about blood, and avoided it as much as possible. “Drink blood? What are you talking about???” they might have asked.

But Jesus chose this image, as objectionable as it is, on purpose. He knew that there would be this reaction to it, but he also knew that there is a similar reaction – something deep within us – that also reacts against the need to be forgiven. Jesus talk about blood-drinking is to shake us up – to help us to realize that we need to get over something deep within our very nature. By that nature, we are offended at the very thought that we might need forgiveness. We want to think that we are really quite fine, thank you. But no: the reality is so opposite, and so severe that Jesus puts it in the starkest of terms: “I tell you the truth,” he says, “unless you drink my blood [– unless you accept my forgiveness –] you have no life in you. [But] whoever drinks my blood has eternal life.” (John 6:53) “This is my blood, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

The first lesson this morning, dear friends, is that we are deeply, desperately, sorely in need of forgiveness. In fact, that’s the idea behind the story that Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 18, isn’t it? And before we turn there, I’d like to point out that this parable was delivered to Jesus’ disciples. Not to the Pharisees. Not to the tax collectors. This is a parable intended for the benefit of those closest to Jesus: and this is very important. Verse 23: “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him [a bunch of money] was brought to him.” Now folks often translate this “bunch of money” in ancient terms. The pew Bibles, for example, use “bags of gold.” But since I certainly don’t trade in gold, I had to do some research, and discovered that the amount of gold that this man owed to his king is close to the sum of all the balances of every single credit card in Canada – in the vicinity of 30 billion dollars-worth. As Richard Feynman famously noted, we used to call numbers like this “astronomical” numbers – these days, we should call them “economical” numbers. In its essence, this number is well beyond anything repayable. But let’s proceed with our passage:
“As [the king] began the settlement, a man who owed him $30B was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The king took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”
When the servant begs his master, saying that he will pay back everything, he’s saying the only thing that he can imagine to have any effect. But the king is willing to put up with this nonsense, too: knowing full well that such a debt could not be repaid in many, many lifetimes. You see, we’re not talking here about the “wups, sorry, how much do I owe you?” kind of debt. As if I were visiting a friend and on the way home I accidentally run over a rose bush. This is a bigger debt; much bigger. Imagine how your friend might respond if you try the “wups, sorry, how much do I owe you?” if, after climbing into your car to head home, instead of running over his rose bush, you run over his child. We’re talking that kind of debt, friends. And it is precisely because the debt is so enormous that the grace involved in the canceling of that debt is so amazing.

Every summer, I like to spend a week at camp, and one of the things that I like to do during the chapel time at camp is to have the campers re-enact this parable. I choose one child to be the king (or perhaps the queen) and other children to be the guards and the bookkeeper. One of the counselors always plays the role of the servant owing a lot of money, and the campers really seem to enjoy seeing a counselor grovel in front of the camper playing the “king” part. As the Bible reminds us, back then if someone couldn’t pay a debt, their freedom was forfeit – they became slaves, along with their entire family. The camper playing “king” often likes the sound of that. But then I come to this part:“The king took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” “NO WAY!” the campers sometimes respond spontaneously. And this is, of course, the correct response! As incomprehensible is the amount of the debt, the grace and mercy and love active in the canceling of that debt is more unfathomable still. God’s response to us is, “Yes way!” God’s grace is amazing and glorious and transforming.

As it says in Colossians chapter 2: “He forgave us all our sins; he canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross.” What a joy; what a relief; what a blessing. But hold up… the story doesn’t end there. (verse 28)
But when the man [having such a considerable debt canceled in its entirety] left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full. When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you [also] have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
Let’s be clear: Forgiveness is not an optional part of the Christian life. Practicing forgiveness is a necessary part of what it means to be a Christian. If we are going to follow Jesus, we must forgive each other. What does the Bible say?

Colossians 3:13 “Bear with each other and forgive one another ... Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Mark 11:25 “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Luke 6:37 “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Matt 6 “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Ok, so much for theory. So far two very important points: #1: we are in desperate need of forgiveness ourselves, and #2: being forgiven requires us to be forgiving. But it isn’t easy. Of course it isn’t. If it were easy, Jesus would not have had to come to die. To forgive us cost Jesus his life. To forgive others will cost us something too. We will certainly have to give up our anger, turn away from our bitterness, and decide by a conscious choice that we will forgive those who have sinned against us. And very often we will have to perform that act of forgiveness over and over again until we learn the grace of continuing forgiveness.

It is, of course, one thing to acknowledge the importance of forgiveness, and quite another thing altogether to put it into practice. As C.S.Lewis wrote: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”

So how about some principles, that if understood might make it a little easier to exercise forgiveness. First: forgiveness is not something to be avoided. Don’t make the hermit’s mistake. The hermit thinks that the best way to avoid needing to be forgiven or needing to forgive is to remove oneself from others altogether. Tragically, we see attempts at this throughout the history of the church. But that’s not an option for a true Christian. We’re called to be the light of the world. And Jesus explicitly says that that means that folks can see our light. We’re called to be the salt of the earth. And that means that folks can taste our saltiness. The solution to the “problem” of forgiveness is not less sin. The solution is more love.

One day, Jesus was invited out to dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees (this is from Luke chapter 7),
And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that [Jesus] was was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when [Jesus’ host] saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”
But Jesus replied: Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much”
Forgiveness flows from the spring of love. And with these words Jesus reverses the common conception. We understand that those who are forgiven much are grateful in proportion to the forgiveness they receive. But Jesus is saying the converse: this woman’s many sins are forgiven because she loved much. The solution to the “problem” of forgiveness is not less sin. The solution is more love.

We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. For it is when we truly love God that he give us glimpses of His glory: the glory of His perfection, of His righteousness, of His justice, of His love, of His mercy, of His holiness, and of His purity. The only possible response to such a revelation is complete humility before God’s awesomeness. The only way that we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we are not in need of forgiveness is to measure everything by ourselves. But if we love God, we just can’t do that. Hanging around God even a little bit makes one realize that God is the measure of all things, and we immediately come to appreciate just how much we need forgiveness.

But we are also called to love our neighbor as ourselves. We know from experience that people who have never experienced love find it very difficult to be loving, and people who have never experienced forgiveness find it very difficult to forgive. But God offers us such depths of love that no matter what we’ve been through, He wants to fill us with living water, overflowing to the world around us. But that’s the second practical Christian principle concerning forgiveness, isn’t it? We will forgive to the extent that we appreciate how much we have been forgiven.

One final point, a point that brings us back to Eileen and Randy from last week, and specifically brings us back to Christ on the cross. How is it that Jesus is able to even contemplate forgiving his enemies? If we understood that better, we would be better equipped to exercise forgiveness ourselves. Well, I think that the key is that Jesus had already initiated his sacrifice for us. He knew that that’s why he came into the world. And having already taken on the attitude of a servant, he was now taking on the attitude of a sacrifice. This morning, if you belong to Christ, you, too, are being called to share that mindset with Christ (“Let this mind be in you which is also in Christ Jesus” we read in Philippians chapter 2) – and this is a mindset that will heal your world through the forgiveness that is found in Him. We need to die with Christ, friends. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the ultimate source of all forgiveness – and we need to participate in it. As Tim Keller writes: “On the Cross we see God doing visibly and cosmically what every human being must do to forgive someone, though on an infinitely greater scale...There was a debt to be paid--God himself paid it. There was a penalty to be born--God himself bore it. Forgiveness is always a form of costly suffering.”

Jesus sends us as his Father has sent him: into a fallen world that desperately needs the love and forgiveness of God. But it hurts. Sure it does. But it is expensive. Sure it is. But Jesus obedience on the cross was the only solution for us. To forgive is simply to participate in the sacrifice of Jesus. But that’s not the end of it: because of his sacrifice, God exalted Jesus to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. And we, too, know that “if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6) For if we share in his suffering we will also share in his glory. (Romans 8) I’ll conclude by reading from Psalm 32.

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the LORD does not count against Him…
3 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;
7 You are our hiding place;
and our protection from trouble

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Thanksgiving

Good Morning boys and girls, Moms and Dads. Before we get too serious this morning, I’d like us to play a little game. And for this game, I need a volunteer. Josh! Would you kindly come up here this morning? The game I’d like us to play involves two packages.

As you can see, there is a letter on each of the package. On the first package is the letter O (with a line through it) and on the second package is the letter S (with a line through it). Now both of these letters mean something a little different when you put a line through them. In mathematics, if you put a line through the letter O, it means “nothing”. And that’s exactly what might be in the first package. It might contain nothing, or… it might contain nothing.

But what about the second package. Do you know what it means when we put a line through the letter S? That’s right – it means “money”. And that’s exactly what might be in the second package. It might contain nothing, or… it might contain money. So here’s the game: in a minute, you get to open up one of the packages and take whatever is inside home. But you have to take one or the other; you can’t take neither, and you can’t take both. You could choose the first package, in which there might be nothing… or… there might be nothing. Or you could choose the second package, in which there might be nothing… or there might be money. Which package would you choose?

The second package? Good choice. I think that we can all agree that that is the sensible choice to make. But before you open that package, I have a friend who would like to try to talk you out of your choice. But I’d like you to be smart, and only change your mind if you think that you really should, ok? Snake meet Josh; Josh meet snake…

S: Hi Josh. Sssssooo, you chose the sssecond package.
S: Didn’t your Daddy ever tell you – never take money from strangers?
D: Snake! I’m not a stranger!
S: You look pretty strange to me!
D: come on…
S: Besides, would you trust someone who keeps a talking snake in their closet?
D: I’m not sure you’re getting anywhere, Snake. Have you changed your mind yet, Josh?
S: But Josh! Josh! Why be predictable? Why be boring? He knew that you’d choose the second package all along. Don’t you want to be creative? Surprising? Courageous?
D: Courageous?? Are you convinced yet, Josh?
S: Well, even if that package does contain money, it is sure to have germs all over it. It’s likely been handled by hundreds of people over the years.
D: I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick from touching money, Snake.
S: But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
D: I suppose…
S: You know Josh, even if the second package did contain money, your Dad would want you to share it with Matt and Danny. You wouldn’t want to have to do that, would you?
D: What do you think?
S: All right, all right – the kid’s too smart for me. Let him open his package.

Ok – go ahead Josh – tear off the top of the envelope and show everyone what’s inside. Money! That’s your reward for being such a good sport, and for not trusting in talking snakes…

Now why did we just play that game? Well, the game that we just played is a good description of how life is. We have a choice to make. We can’t not make this choice. We can’t put it off. Everything we do is exercising this choice. We can either choose to live our lives without God – as if He didn’t exist: not caring what He thinks or listening to what He says. Or we can choose to live our lives with God – acknowledging his presence, and paying attention to what He wants us to know. That’s the choice.

Now if you are interested in what’s “in” those packages, there has been a lot of research concerning exactly that. Scientists have been trying to create a “science of happiness” for the last twenty-five years. And they’ve found some interesting things. They’ve found, for example, that your “subjective well-being” (a fancy sounding way to say “how good your life is”) is going to be better if you live like God matters (that’s why one circle is bigger than the other). Here’s what the research says (Witter et al, 1985) “Religion seems to give hope, meaning, optimism, and security to individuals, and some researchers have concluded that both religiosity and religious activity are positively related to subjective well-being.”

What does this mean? It means simply that even if we just think about this life then there is an already an advantage in paying attention to God. But that’s not all there is to the story, is it? We don’t make any secret of the fact that God wants to bless his children after this life, too, doesn’t He? And the Bible makes it clear that the eternal glory that is waiting for us far outweighs any momentary inconveniences we might experience here.

So that’s life’s big choice. On the one hand, you can choose a life without God. That’s a package called atheism. And atheism is all about “nothing.” Atheism is the belief that there was Nothing. But nothing magically became everything for no reason. And then, for no reason, everything came together magically so that we can all agree that it came from nothing. What’s inside that package? Nothing.

On the other hand, there is a package we could call Christianity. The belief that there is Someone. Someone amazing. Someone powerful and loving. Someone so smart He could make the universe. Someone so loving that when we turned our backs on him, he was willing to be humiliated and scarred and tortured – to literally sacrifice himself in order to win us back. What’s inside that package?

Here are two verses to summarize what’s in that package:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you.” (1 Peter 1)

“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people. (Ephesians 1)”

So be smart like Josh: there is no point in going for the first package – it only promises nothing anyway.

Now for Moms and Dads, you might have recognized what I just presented as a simplified form of a very famous argument that is often called Pascal’s wager. Pascal was once of the smartest scientists who ever lived, and he was the first to present something like this. But if you go to Google and search for “Pascal’s wager”, the first three pages of results will be people who think that they can prove that the logic here is faulty. If anyone who would like to get into it I’d love to discuss that with you afterward, but with one exception, these arguments on the internet aren’t really refutations at all; they are actually evasions – excuses, really.

The exception, and the only good argument against Pascal goes like this: surely God is smart enough to know when people believe in him just to get a reward; God is more interesting in honesty and worship than selfishness. God knows your heart – whether you truly believe in him, or not. But Pascal himself addressed this problem. And he makes a really, really good point while he does it. He says that people who don’t really think that they can believe in God do it for reasons of lifestyle rather than for reasons of logic. That’s right: people don’t disbelieve in God because of science or evidence or logic. That’s a myth. People disbelieve in God because of lifestyle, among other things. And Pascal suggests that the obvious solution to this is… to change one’s lifestyle!

That’s right: “the person who [struggles with belief] should attach himself to a Christian community and begin to take part in the same spiritual activities that believers engage in – to pray, to sing, to read the Bible. Eventually, faith will come…” (WLC) and along with it all the benefits of knowing God. Simply practicing devotion can lead us to real heart-change.

But why did I decide to tell you all that on Thanksgiving Sunday? Well, it has a lot to do with Thanksgiving, believe it or not!

You see, after researchers discovered that Christians are happier, they decided to dig into that a little bit. If Christians are happier than other people, why? And they found something very interesting. The one thing that they discovered to correlate with happiness more than anything else they considered, more than health, more than wealth, more than youth, more than good looks (seriously) – the one thing that correlates with happiness is… an attitude of gratitude. That’s thanksgiving.
Let me describe one of their experiments. This is really cool. They picked three groups of people at random. They asked everyone in the first group to take a few minutes every evening for ten weeks, and write down three events that happened to them that day. The second group was asked to write down three things that irked them today – things that bothered them. And the last group was asked to write down three things that they were thankful for. The results were fascinating. By the end of the experiment, those people who were exercising gratitude were considerably happier than the other two groups. Simply practicing gratitude can change one’s attitude.
And further research has made the picture all the more clear: practicing gratitude reduces stress, fear, anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, and heart disease. Gratitude can actually extend your life.
But the primary source for teaching on thanksgiving and gratitude is the book in front of you this morning. This important idea, so strongly connected to your happiness, is found in the New Testament more than anywhere else in history. Of course, this is good evidence that the God of the Bible is the same God who also designed you and me.
As a concept, thanking and being thankful is more common in the New Testament than the concept of obedience. It is almost as common in the New Testament as that of worship. The size of the bubble matches the number of times the idea is mentioned in the New Testament. But there is a story in the Bible that puts thanksgiving in between obedience and worship, too. Let me read it to you. (Luke 17)
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, [Jesus] said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”
Now just in case you don’t know, leprosy is a terrible disease – a disease for which there was no known cure. In fact, it took almost two thousand years to discover a cure. And so these poor men must have heard that Jesus had healed other people, and so they were begging him to heal them, too. So why did Jesus say “Go, show yourself to the priests”? Well, to explain that, let me read another story (Luke 5):
12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy.[a] When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.
14 Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
You see, the law – the commands of God as given to Moses – had specific instructions for people who were healed of leprosy: they were supposed to go and let the priests examine them to establish that they were truly healed. But you probably noticed an important difference between these two stories. In the one I just read, Jesus heals the man first and tells him to go show himself to the priest second. But in the story with the ten lepers, Jesus just tells them to go. There’s a good lesson here, by the way: God deals with each of us differently – our experiences are tailor-made for us, and it can sometimes be a mistake to compare our circumstances with that of others. But let’s read the remainder of the first story:
12 As [Jesus] was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[b] met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, [Jesus] said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. [Pretty cool, huh?]
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then [Jesus] said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has saved you.”
Now I’ve got to tell you: if I was just healed from leprosy in that way, I’d be one of those nine who kept going to see the priest. And it wouldn’t be because I wasn’t grateful. It would simply be that the person who had just healed me had given me instructions, and not only that, but I had just been healed because I was following his instructions! So no matter how grateful I felt, I would have persisted in obedience – an obedience not just to the words of my healer, but also faithful to the law that God gave Moses.

But here’s the thing: by persisting in obedience in that manner, I would have missed out on a greater blessing. Greater than being healed from leprosy? Absolutely. For the thankfulness that drove the tenth leper back to Jesus is something that we all need this morning. Christian churches are full of people who have heard Jesus’ voice. For the most part, those people are at least trying to follow his guidance. But only a few, perhaps only one in ten, are able to see beyond the rules, to see the love built into the rules, and to be grateful to the rule-maker; to see through the healing, to see the love in the healing, and to be grateful to the healer; to see through the joy and see the joy-giver. And that was the man who received an extra blessing. That was the man who received the true blessing. That man is the challenge for us this morning.
You see, thanksgiving is actually two things at the same time – feeling grateful and expressing gratitude. Feeling grateful is the practice of slowing down to savor positive experiences. And no wonder that makes people happier! But expressing gratitude is even more important. Feelings of gratitude are often focused on the gift, but an expression of gratitude connects you with the giver. And that’s the other thing that research shows:
With an attitude of gratitude, your relationships will improve! Instead of focusing on what the other person isn’t doing for you, an attitude of gratitude focuses on all that the other person is doing for you – and what a difference that can make. Thanksgiving can heal relationships. How is your relationship with God this morning?
I can guarantee that all ten of the lepers in our story felt grateful. But only one understood how important it was to express that gratitude to his healer. Only one returned to connect with the one who not only gave the rules around healing, but actually provided the healing, too. Only one received that true blessing. Thanksgiving is the bridge between obedience and worship. Practice it – even if you might not feel like it!

Don’t let your problems fill your vision
The way to escape is to make a decision

Open your eyes; wipe the frown off your face
God is extending his hand in grace

Take a breath, chill, lose the attitude.
Be at peace, breath in some gratitude.

God loves you more than you’ll ever know.
And getting to know Him is awesome… so…

Don’t you think it’s time to start living?
Have yourself a grateful Thanksgiving!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Moses

As you might know, one of the things that I do at work is play with words.
And in the age of the internet, there are some brand new words, aren’t there?

You know, words like “blog” (which is like a public diary) and “netiquette” (which is how you are supposed to behave on the internet).
But there are also a bunch of words that were already in the English language, but have recently taken on new meanings. How about “spam”? (junk e-mails) or words that used to be nouns, but are now verbs, too, like “texting” (when you send a text from one phone to another)

But there are also some words in the English language that have taken on not new meanings, but new significance. One such word is “fail.” Fail still means the same as it always did – that is, to fall short of success. But today, if your friends use the word “fail” to describe something you did, they often don’t just mean that you didn’t quite succeed. They can mean that you missed success by such a margin that they’d like to capture it and publish it for your everlasting embarrassment. There are, in fact, websites dedicated to preserving life’s most embarrassing moments. Now while I would never approve of celebrating the misfortune of others, I do have a few examples that I thought I’d share.

• I like this one, because it happened just last month. The difficulty with it is circled in red in the top left-hand corner. It might have been the date of the century, but the newspaper misdated that edition!
• And I like this one, because anyone living in Montreal can appreciate just how desperate you must be to take an iron outside to deal with ice on the roof.
• But I like this one for its self-reference. If you want people to approve of your graphic artistry, it is recommended that you avoid spelling mistakes.

But why do I want to talk about failure today? Well, this morning, I’d like to tell you about someone really, really important in the Bible. Someone that the Bible says was “powerful in speech and in action”. Someone who might have accomplished more for God than anyone else in the Old Testament. And this person is going to be our example this morning. One of the greatest success-stories in the Bible, from him, we will learn some lessons on “how not to fail.” That’s right: this sermon could even be called “How NOT to Fail.”

Can anyone guess who our subject will be this morning? Hint: they made a cartoon movie about his life thirteen years ago. That’s right: today, we’re going to be talking about Moses. Now it wasn’t that long ago that I preached on Moses, but the last time, I talked primarily about how God looked after him when he was really young. This morning, I’d like to remind you of some of the wonderful things that Moses did when he was older. How he came to challenge Pharaoh, the greatest ruler in the world at that time. How he stood up to all the court of the sorcerers of Egypt. How he called down plagues upon the land, and how locusts and frogs and flies and boils and darkness and sickness all came from God according to Moses words. How he organized the people of Israel, and led them through the baptism of the Red Sea. How he met and spoke face to face with God on the mountain.

S: Are you talking about Moses?
D: Hello?
S: Down here!
D: Oh no, not you again!
S: No need to be nasssty.
D: Excuse me…
S: Ssssso. Were you talking about Moses?
D: Yes, that’s right.
S: Moses from Egypt?
D: That’s the one.
S: Well… I don’t think you should use him in a sermon…
D: Oh no?
S: Especially when the children are present?
D: Why do you say that?
S: Well… wait until you hear what I heard.
D: Is this centuries old gossip again?
S: Oh no! This is all completely true.
D: Alright. I’m listening.
S: Well… I heard that Moses was a very nasssty character.
D: Is that right? Who told you that?
S: Well… did you know that he was a murderer?
D: That’s old news.
S: You knew?
D: Sure!
S: And you’re going to use a murderer as an example in a sermon for children!
D: I was, yes.
S: Well, I can’t believe that you’d want to.
D: Are you suggesting that God can’t use people who have made mistakes?
S: Well, there are mistakes… and then there is murder.
D: You’ve got a point… and I sometimes think that Moses himself knew how big a deal it was… after the fact.
S: You mean like when he brought the stone tablets down from the mountain, and they said… “DO NOT MURDER”
D: Yeah – for sure, but I think he had figured it out long before that. After all, the Bible says that Pharaoh wanted to kill Moses after. Which is why Moses ran away.
S: Ran away? What are you talking about?
D: When Moses killed the Egyptian. Here: “He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”
S: Moses did *much* worse than that!
D: He did?
S: Oh yes, he was responsible for the death of many, many snakes!
D: [facepalm] I’m not sure I’m feeling altogether sympathetic to snakes at the moment. Here, let me finish.

Oof. What a slimy character. The worst thing about him… is that he always sort of tells the truth. It is much easier to deal with lies that it is with half-truths, isn’t it? But by reminding us about that icky event in the life of Moses, the snake unwittingly gave us our first lesson this morning.

You see, Moses really did fail – epic fail, even – when he killed that Egyptian. He lost the respect of the people of Israel, and he was chased out of the country by Pharaoh! By taking matters into his own hands, and doing things his way, Moses made a real mess of it. Moses might even have been trying to help God out when he did that, but his head was too big and his heart was too small, and God didn’t show up to cover for Moses.

But just the fact that the story of Moses, one of the biggest success stories in the Bible, starts with failure teaches us something, doesn’t it? Since we know how the story ends (how God used Moses in a powerful way to free his people), we know (and here is our first lesson on how not to fail, so pay close attention) that Moses didn’t let his past failures keep him from future successes. That’s lesson number one: don’t be crippled by past failures. Not even BIG failures. Just because you messed up yesterday doesn’t mean that you’re going to mess up today. Like the Bible says, we need to be always “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” One of the big principles in the Bible is this thing called forgiveness, and it means that God wants to give us second chances.

Now if any of you have seen the movie the Prince of Egypt, you know how the story goes after Moses messes up. Moses runs away into the wilderness and arrives in Midian. Check. He gets married to Zipporah. Check. And then he meets God in a burning bush. Check? Well, not so fast! Not even close to so fast! You see, at this point, the movie leaves out something important. Not just important; VERY important. In fact, we’re talking forty years important!!

That’s right: Moses didn’t run into that burning bush in the month after arriving in Midian. He didn’t run into that burning bush a year after arriving in Midian. He had to wait FORTY years before meeting up with that burning bush – but you can be sure that those forty years were no waste of time. Oh no: Moses needed FORTY years before his head lost its swelling and his heart grew some humility. And then, and ONLY then, was he ready to really meet God.

But that’s our second lesson on how not to fail. If we want to be sure to succeed, we need to do things in God’s timing and in God’s way. Like the Bible says: “unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain; unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.” If we go out doing things on our own power, they might not turn out the way we had hoped. And in order to know what God’s timing is, and in order to know what “God’s way” is, we need to get to know God Himself.

So let’s do a quick recap: Two lessons so far on how not to fail:
1. Don’t let past failures cripple you.
2. Get to know God (which also means being open to his timing and his strategies).

Which brings us… to that burning bush (Exodus chapter 3): “…Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So he thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” You see, Moses is curious (that’s always a good thing) and he is wondering why this bush isn’t quite behaving like people had told him to expect. So pay attention! You’ll find that there are LOTS of things in the world that don’t exactly behave like they teach you in school. And you may well find God is there (in those things) wanting to get your attention, too.

Now when God finally got Moses’ attention, the Bible says that he called Moses name “Moses!” and Moses replied “Here I am.” Can you imagine how awesome it would be to hear God’s voice? Well, did you know that the Bible talks about you hearing God’s voice, too? In fact, it even talks about you hearing God’s voice today. What do you think of that? In Hebrews chapter 3, we read: “Today” – that’s right, the Bible is talking about today. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” You see, the Bible knows that God wants us to be listening to him all the time, and the number one reason that we do not see God at work in our lives is not that God is not at work in our lives. The number one reason that we do not see God at work in our lives is that our hearts have become hard. Soften our hearts, O God, that we may hear your voice today, we pray!

So God has got Moses attention, and he goes and surprises Moses again. The first thing that God says to Moses is really odd: “Take off your sandals,” God says. Now I’d like you to put yourselves in Moses shoes for a second. I mean “in Moses sandals”. You see a bush that seems like it is burning, but not burning up. You hear your name being called, and then you are told to take your sandals off, which likely means that you will need to put your bare feet down on the hot sand – and believe me: where Moses was, the sand can get pretty hot. So I’m guessing that most of us today, having been taught at school to be independent thinkers, would want to respond: “why should I take my sandals off?” But while thinking the word “why” and before saying the word “why,” Moses hears God say “because you are standing on Holy Ground.” Now if he didn’t feel the goose-bumps yet, just wait for what comes next.

Once again, having been taught at school to question authority, and knowing that that sand is really hot, before you take off your sandals, you want to know one more thing. Just who is it that is giving you orders, anyway? You want to ask “who are you telling me to take my sandals off?” But while thinking the words “who are you” and before saying the words “who are you,” Moses hears God say “I am the God of your father.” Goodness! It is just like God is reading Moses mind! And now God really has Moses attention.

Incidentally, that “taking off the sandals” thing – it isn’t just an ancient custom. It is a lesson for us, too. Moses sandals were the point at which he connected with the world every day. And God is saying to us that in order to come and meet him, we need to be willing to set aside all those things that connect us with our world, too. For us, it isn’t sandals, of course. Perhaps it is television. Perhaps it is internet. Perhaps it is your music. Perhaps it is your phone. Perhaps it is the gym. Or that spot behind the school.

In order to enter into God’s presence, we need to set all those things aside. Have you ever been talking to someone, and in the middle of the conversation, they pick up their phone and send a text message to someone else? How rude is that? Well, don’t make the mistake of doing that to God – by the time you look up from your phone, he may very well be long gone – and it won’t be his fault! Remember: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.”

So God tells Moses that he has a job to do: God asks Moses to go see Pharaoh, and to bring God’s people out of Egypt. And Moses does exactly what I would have done, and what most of you would do, too. “Oh yeah! Let’s go God!” – not so much! He starts making excuses. But it is really interesting to see how God responds to those excuses. Now there are a whole list of excuses that Moses makes, but I only have time to deal with two of them this morning. The most important one is the first one:

Excuse#1: “Who am I?” Moses asks. The implication here is that Moses thinks that he is nobody special. But God’s reply is most interesting. You see, God doesn’t answer Moses’ question. I wonder if that doesn’t happen to us sometimes: we come to God with burning questions. We pretend like our service to God depends on answers to our questions. But In the Bible, God almost never answers our questions! Why is that? It is because we are almost always asking the wrong questions! When Moses asks “Who am I?” God’s replies: “I will be with you.” This is big. This is not just big: this is enough. When God says “I will be with you” that should be the end of all excuses. You plus God is bigger than any ten armies. The Bible calls you to be a holy people. If you don’t think that you are up to that, God wants to remind you “I will be with you.” Jesus calls you to be the light of the world: to shine warmth and truth in a dark world. If you don’t think that you are up to that, God wants to say to you, “I will be with you.” Jesus calls you to be the salt of the earth: a preserving influence in a culture rotten at its core. If you don’t think that you are up to that, God wants you to hear his voice, “I will be with you.” Remember our second less in how not to fail? Get to know God. If Moses knew God, he would have known that God being with him was bigger than any excuses. But as it was, he had at least one more excuse:

Excuse#2: I’m really bad at talking. And God replies “Who made you, and gave you your mouth? I will help you, and will teach you what to say.” You see, we might know from the end of the story that Moses was a prophet mighty in word and deed. But Moses, at the beginning of the story, really truly didn’t know what he was capable of. And that, dear friends, is the third lesson on how not to fail: we need to know ourselves. Now that doesn’t mean deciding what we are “really like”. Not at all: I’ve known far too many people who have made a “decision” like that with disastrous results. The only way to truly know yourself is to pay attention to the one who made you – to become the person that God made.

For each of us, there is the person that we think we are, but there are also all the people that other people see. Which one is “real”? None of the above. The person that God wants you to become –if you let him, God will help that become the “real you”: the person that “redeemed history” will record as being you. Of course, if you insist on being who you think you are, God might be a gentleman and leave you to it. But if you do that, you will never experience the amazing wonder of sharing in the glory of God as Moses did. But having said that, there is one more important lesson on how not to fail. So far, we have:
• Don’t be crippled by past failures
• Get to know God
• Get to know yourself
But the last lesson comes from the next part of the story. And please remember: this isn’t the end of the story, which ends in great victory for Moses and the people of God. This is just the next part, but all we have time for this morning…. Moses gets up and heads back to Egypt. He confronts Pharaoh, famously saying “let my people go!” and he throws down his walking stick, and it turns into a snake in front of Pharaoh and his court. And how did that turn out? Well, first, Pharaoh isn’t too tickled about it, and orders the people of Israel to do twice as much work. And those people are not exactly delighted about the “help” that Moses has brought for them. Ouch. Fail. And second, all of Pharaoh’s sorcerers are also able to change their walking-sticks into snakes! Yikes. Double Fail. Out in the desert, it all sounded so good. But here, in the sophisticated court of public opinion, it really doesn’t seem to be standing up very well… which brings us to our last lesson on how not to fail. But it is a lesson that comes from the first three. What were they?
1. Don’t be crippled by past failures
2. Get to know God
3. Get to know yourself
Lessons, if we really “get,” will ensure that we:
4. Don’t give up
Moses didn’t give up. He stuck it out, and he goes down in history as one of the greatest men who ever lived: a leader, a lawgiver, an inspiration, and a servant. God might want you to be one of those things, too. And as we approach the season of Emmanuel, we need to be reminded of the words of Moses: “Be strong and courageous… for the LORD your God is with you – he will never leave you nor forsake you.” And we need to be reminded of the words of Jesus: “surely I am with you always.” If God is with us, that should always be enough. “Today, when you hear God’s voice, don’t harden your heart.”

Sunday, February 6, 2011

David's imagination

Good Morning, and welcome to all…

The last time that I was up here, I told you about a boy named Samuel. Of course, that boy named Samuel became a man named Samuel, didn’t he? You may recall that the Bible had lots to say about Samuel when he was really young and lots to say about Samuel when he was really old, and not much to say about Samuel in the middle. Now this, of course, is exactly the opposite of what you’d expect if you listen to television. Now notice that I didn’t say “watch television” which can sometimes be harmless – instead, I said “listen to television”. You listen when you start believing that what happens on television is real. It isn’t, you know. On television, you’d learn that the job of someone who is really young is to play and to be entertained. And on television, you’d learn that the job of someone who is really old is to relax and to retire. But we learned from the life of Samuel that God wants both the really young and the really old to be available for His work.

And nobody who has ever truly been available for God’s work has ever been disappointed. Nobody ever says, “instead of doing God’s work, I wish I had just tried to entertain myself.” I can tell you that there is nothing in this world nearly as interesting, or challenging, or rewarding, or fascinating, or delightful as doing God’s work and seeing Him at work in your life.

Sure, there is great value in play, and in recreation. But that’s not what life is all about. Hey, chocolate is fun, too, but just try living on chocolate for a week. Now, some of you who know me might be thinking “Oh sure, you can talk – you don’t have a sweet tooth!” But there is a reason that I don’t. Let me tell you the story: One afternoon about two months before I was three years old, my Mom found me at the back of the closet. There I was, hiding under the coats with an almost empty double layer deluxe box of Black Magic chocolates. Those were my Mom’s favorite chocolates, and she had received that box for Christmas. But now they were gone. And. I. Was. So…. In trouble! But even more than that… I was SO sick. Seriously. Finishing off an entire box of Black Magic chocolates is asking for diabetes. At two years old, you can imagine that finishing off an entire box of Black Magic chocolates just isn’t very healthy at all. My Mom says I wasn’t able to look at another chocolate for months!

A chocolate is nice at the end of a good healthy dinner, for sure. But don’t try making a diet of chocolate. And it is exactly the same thing with playing. Playing is good; playing is fun. But we weren’t put on this earth to be spoiled. And you know? Those people who see play as a reward for good hard work always enjoy their play more than anyone. Learning to work, and to work hard, and to enjoy hard work is one of the most important lessons in life. Of course, it is also a very Biblical lesson, too: Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.”

And that just might be the lesson this morning – a lesson from the life of someone who appears in the Bible after Samuel. And, like Samuel, we meet our hero this morning when he, too, was very young. But instead of Samuel, who we first met in the temple serving the Lord, this morning’s hero from the Bible is first met looking after some sheep. Who can tell me his name? That’s right, this morning we are going to look at the early life of David. Has anyone in this room ever been a shepherd? Has anyone in this room ever hung out with shepherds? Me neither. The only place I’ve come close to sheep is in petting zoos, but that’s it.

But occasionally people with real experience with sheep share their experiences with the rest of us, and it seems that all of those people with experience with sheep agree on one thing. Sheep… are really… really… stupid. Seriously. They just aren’t smart. But you know what that means, don’t you? It means that looking after sheep can be really, really boring. According to Wikipedia, which has an entry on “sheep husbandry” (I kid you not), sheep need three things – air, water, and food. If you needed Wikipedia to tell you that, you should feel… sheepish!

An ordinary shepherd might awake every morning and say, “water: check; grass: check; air: check. Just 23 hours and 59 minutes left in today.” And then the ordinary shepherd would turn his off brain and let the sheep be sheep. In other words, being a shepherd would make practically every living Canadian teenager cross-eyed with boredom. But David, our hero this morning, was no ordinary shepherd. Instead of being bored, David decided that he was going to be the best shepherd ev-er. He looked beyond his job description. This is always a good idea, incidentally: looking beyond the job description. The job description says “air, water, and food.” But that’s just for the ordinary shepherd. Besides keeping the sheep in water, grass and air, David knew that there were two other things that a shepherd was responsible for – two things that could be challenging at times, and two things that kept David from ever being bored – even while looking after sheep.

Number one: a shepherd needs to gain the sheep’s trust and keep those sheep calm. Animals that aren’t super-smart can panic easily, and panicking is usually not what a shepherd wants his sheep to do. So David thought of at least one way to keep the sheep calm. Do you know what farmers do today to keep their animals calm? They often pipe music into their barns, especially gentle classical music. It seems to work. So one of the things that David did while watching sheep was that he became very good at playing the harp. He practiced. And he practiced. And he practiced. And he became g-o-o-d. He became SO good, people began to notice – so much so that he even scored a concert at the palace. He became SO good, that he started to write songs – and he started to become really good at that, too. He became so good, that one of his songs has been on the top of the all-time charts for literally three thousand years – seriously: Psalm 23 in your Bible is the most quoted song in all of time:
The LORD is my shepherd [being a shepherd, himself, David knew how important he was to the sheep, and he realized that God is even more important to us].
The LORD is my shepherd, so I have everything that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along good paths, bringing honor to his name. Bringing honor to God’s name – that’s what happens when we decide to work at things and get better at them.

But I said that there were two things that kept David from being bored, didn’t I? Number one: David worked at his music until he was really, really good at it. But the other thing was even more important for a shepherd than keeping the sheep calm.

Number two: a shepherd needs to protect the sheep. An ordinary shepherd carries a stick – not just to direct the sheep, but also to fight off a wolf who might want to steal a lamb. But a stick won’t get you very far with something bigger than a wolf. Suppose a bear came to have a sheep-snack – a stick wouldn’t get you very far with a bear. Or suppose a lion wanted to have a lamb-lunch – a stick wouldn’t help you against a lion. Now an ordinary shepherd would say “I’m not getting paid enough to take on lions or bears.” But David was no ordinary shepherd. And David had plenty of time on his hands out there in the fields looking after those sheep, so he used that time to become an expert, and not just with a harp, and not just with a stick, either.

In fact, David was so dedicated at becoming the best shepherd that he could ever be that God looked down and said “that’s just who I want to be the next king!” Imagine! That's like a promotion from the mail room to the CEO! You see, the king at the time, whose name was Saul, wasn’t paying close attention to God, and so God told Samuel to find another king to replace him. So, following God’s instructions, Samuel went to the house of Jesse to choose a new king. When he saw Jesse’s oldest son, he thought “ka-ching – king material here.” But God said to Samuel (and this is really important -- please listen carefully), “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart. And God directed Samuel to choose Jesse’s youngest son, David, to be the next king. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” And David had the right kind of heart that God could use: he wanted to develop his abilities and worked hard to be the best at what he was asked to do – that’s the kind of heart that God is looking for.

Well, a few months after Samuel came to visit, David’s dad asked him to take a care package to his older brothers. They were in the army, and the army was off at war with the Philistines. So David left the sheep behind, and walked to where his brothers were camped out. But as he walked into their camp, he was greeted by a very rude spectacle indeed. Outside the camp there was one of the enemies – a Philistine, shouting insults at the armies of Israel and challenging them to a little one-on-one battle. “Choose one man to come down here and fight me! If he kills me, then we will be your slaves. But if I kill him, you will be our slaves!”

Hearing this, David turned to his brothers and said “Who is this guy, and why are you just letting him insult you? Hey – I’ll go fight him.” And his brothers said “don’t be ridiculous.” He knew his brothers well enough to know that they weren’t going to listen, so he talked to the soldiers close by, and they said “don’t be ridiculous.” And they stage an intervention, taking David to the king, who says to David, “don’t be ridiculous.” And David replied, “what?” and they all said “are you blind? That guy is enormous!” Sure enough: the Bible says that “that guy,” whose name was Goliath, was b-i-g – over nine feet tall!

The first mistake that King Saul and the rest of the army made was to think like the enemy. Whenever we do that, we’ve already lost the battle. Whenever we start thinking like the enemy wants us to think, the battle is lost already. But not David. David remembered the lesson that he had learned a lesson from Samuel just a few months before. Remember? God had said: “Don’t look at his appearance or his height [who cares if he’s big? Who cares if he’s mean?] – the LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” And David knew that no matter how nasty Goliath looked, God was bigger and stronger and tougher than any giant.

So David finally convinces Saul that he is serious and Saul agrees to let David go fight, and he wants to help David out. He helps in the only way he knows – and he piles armor onto David, and provides a weapon with proven effectiveness. Saul is the “expert” here. But as David does what Saul asks him to do, he discovers that he can hardly move. So David does what David has to do – even though it’s not easy. David takes off the helmet, unbelts the sword and removes the armor. It couldn’t have been easy for David to walk away from all that loving expertise Saul offers him. But to go meet Goliath wearing Saul’s armor would be a disaster. David needs to fight the battle using what he knows, what he’s practiced with for hours, and hours, and days, and weeks and months. And what he knows is the weapon of the shepherd – a sling.

Dressed only in a light shepherd's tunic, David runs down the hill to meet Goliath in the valley. Goliath sees him coming and, the Bible says, he disdains David. But Goliath reveals the weakness that David picks up on right away. Goliath says: "Come over here and I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky." This is Goliath's weakness. He needs David to come within range because he can't get to David. And David knows it too. He’d rejected the offer of Saul's armor. If David gets close enough to Goliath to need armor, he’s already lost. It’s game over. But with a sling, he can stay out of Goliath’s reach, and literally run circles around him, waiting for the perfect shot. David would lose in a cage match but he’s not in a cage.

Goliath sees David’s footwork and gets nervous. And it shows. He says stupid stuff like “I will feed you to the cattle.” Even Goliath knows that cows don’t eat meat.

Then David said to [Goliath]. “You come to me with a sword, a spear and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel whom you have taunted. This day the Lord will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down [so] that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and so that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not deliver by sword or spear; for the battle is the Lord's and He will give you into our hands.”

At this point, I like to imagine that Goliath starts to laugh, and as he laughs, he tilts his head back and exposes his forehead from under his helmet. And at exactly that moment, David lets fly a stone from his sling, striking the giant on his forehead. The stone sinks deep into his forehead, so that he falls on his face on the ground – stunned. Then David runs and takes Goliath's sword from its sheath and kills him, and kills him with it.

The difference between David and the others is insight. David doesn’t only see the giant. He also sees the hand of God. He doesn’t measure by size but by opportunity. The difference between David and the others is that David didn’t arrive at the battle with an enemy-dominated imagination. David has a God-dominated imagination. God is the reality that David lives with. What is your imagination centered on this morning?

Let me finish up reading from another one of David’s famous songs, Psalm 56:
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
4 In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
…I will present my thank offerings to you.
13 For you have delivered me from death
and my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before God
in the light of life.

May David be our good example this morning. Amen.