Living Word [Ephesians 4:1-16]

When I was around 13 years old, my dad used to come by my house mid-winter at 6am to wake me up and take me ice fishing. Sitting on a frozen block of ice catching bluegill was not my idea of a good time, but it was time with him nonetheless. I remember the day he took me to his garage and gave me the materials and instructions to build my own ice fishing box. I did my best, but just reading the instructions doesn’t quite do it for me. To this day, Ikea furniture assembly instructions makes my brain melt.

What did make the difference is when he decided to help me. He was a builder, so it came naturally to him. I needed his ‘hands-on’ example to get the job done.

Jesus is the ‘hands-on’ Word of God. For us, he is not just our redeemer but our teacher and example. He doesn’t just tell us how to live life in God’s Kingdom; he shows us! The Father knew we needed a tangible Presence. We call him the Living Word, and God’s Word is alive to us in Jesus.

For us, Jesus is the key to knowing the Father. Jesus said so himself [John 14:9]. He reveals God fully, and he alone has shown us what we need to know about the Father. Our faith is most importantly a relationship with Jesus Christ, and that relationship is the key to understanding Scripture. He is our hands-on help. We must know Jesus to fully know Scripture.

We see Jesus in the stories of Genesis and Exodus. We see Jesus in the laments and worship of the Psalms. We see Jesus in the Old Testament prophets. We meet Jesus in the Gospels. And then we see the risen Christ in His Body, the Church, until his return! We are the Body of Christ until he returns, and we continue the work of Jesus.

Just as Jesus is our ‘hands-on’ help, we are each other’s ‘hands-on’ help.

Let’s take a backwards look at Ephesians 4 to see how this works:

1] Together, we are the Body of Christ [4:15-16]. Who is the Head? Jesus. Not me. Not you. The rest of us who are in Christ respond to the leadership of Jesus in the same way all the parts of the body do the bidding of the brain. I don’t breathe without my medulla oblongata telling me to do so.

The church is a body. I am not the Body of Christ; we are the Body of Christ, a living organism, not an organization. We’re not Legos being stacked together; we are a living, breathing Bride.

2] We must grow up [4:13-14]. My wife and I are not raising children; we are raising adults. Maturity is the goal. We look to Jesus and the written Word to produce maturity in us, but we also look to one another. We grow up and mature when we are shaped by Scripture, by Jesus, and by one another as we follow Jesus. We need the Body for this maturity to take place.

3] We must be God’s grace to each other [4:7]. None of us are given everything needed to continue the work of Jesus. If we are in Christ, we are each given a portion of it! Together, we are fully equipped! Each of us carry a part of God’s grace to give to one another. We call these ‘gifts’. Jesus has spread the love among us, and each of us carry a portion to serve one another with.

Withholding it causes pain and limits the Body of Christ. It’s awkward when part of the Body of Christ goes AWOL. It affects us when we don’t see people for months at a time. It affects us when we are not extending God’s grace to one another. Don’t withhold the grace you’ve been given!

We have everything we need to be the Body of Christ. He has given himself, and he has given himself a little bit in each of us. The Living Word is alive in us and among us!

Word [Psalm 119:89-105]

We started our series on “Ekklesia: Living as Called Out Ones” by focusing on our worship as God’s people, but now we’re shifting focus to the importance of the Word to God’s people.

There are a lot of different views on how we should ‘interpret’ Scripture. Is it figurative? Literal? Allegorical? Metaphorical? Do we consider syntax, semantics, idioms and genres? Are we free to add to it or take away from it? Is it subordinate to our personal conscience or is it supposed to be the other way around?

But let’s simplify it: we either hold to a ‘high view’ of Scripture or a ‘low view’ of Scripture. The high view believes the Word is real and true; the low view believes it is something else. Our church (and church tradition) holds to a high view of Scripture. It means that we believe the Scriptures are our final authority. It is our go-to source for life and for our church.

We believe the Father has chosen to reveal Himself through His Word: The Written Word (scriptures), the Living Word (Jesus), and the Inner Word (the Holy Spirit). All three testify and work together to lead us to God’s Truth, and they never contradict one another.

A high view means we don’t dismiss it, erode it, forget it, avoid it, edit it, or ignore it. Instead, we gather around it, read it, teach it, preach it, value it, live it, meditate on it, and even love it [read Psalm 119].

Those who subscribe to the low view reject certain parts of the Scriptures they find troubling, undermining its legitimacy in many different ways. But why do we do this? The Father gives us some insight to this, but we have to search the Scriptures to find the answer.

[Read Isaiah 30:9-11; Psalm 50:16-17; John 12:48; Romans 2:8; Jeremiah 6:10]

Here’s the short summary: We want our ears tickled. We want to use the parts of Scripture that fit with our personal agenda. We want to be gods over our own lives. We want pleasure. We want to determine our own good and evil.

Isn’t it interesting that we do the same thing with the Word of God that the serpent did in Genesis 3? “Did God really say…?” We do the same thing now when we make Jesus and His Word subordinate to our own personal conscience. We’ve perfected the craft of diminishing the Word of God.

Jesus in John 12:48 gave us a pretty straight-forward warning about rejecting him or his words. To reject the Word of God is to reject Jesus! He tells us that his Word would never pass away [Luke 21:33]. It is not out of touch; it is eternal. It is not irrelevant; it is life-giving. It is not oppressive; it is freedom. It is not fable or fiction; it is Truth.

The Scriptures are authoritative. I know we don’t like authority, but… The thing is, God’s laws are good (and good for us). His Word is a gift! We don’t need to fumble around in darkness, because He has illuminated our path. And when we submit ourselves to its counsel and obey, it is an act of love (not my words but Jesus - John 14).

The Scriptures are trustworthy. The Father is a word-keeper, and the Scriptures are God-breathed [2 Timothy 3:16-17]. We’ve worked hard the last few years to help our church see the reliability of God’s Word. We’re working to build on a strong foundation.

The Scriptures are powerful. The Scriptures bring stability in chaos and direction in life. It revives the soul, bringing joy and delight. As we embrace the Word (Jesus, Holy Spirit & Scriptures), our life is transformed by the Living God.

The Scriptures deserve priority in our lives. Interestingly, we’re told to ‘hide it’ in our hearts. This goes way beyond treating Scripture as trivia or a mere intellectual exercise. No. We love it. We embrace it. We welcome it. And we infuse it into our lives.

House of Prayer [Matthew 21:12-13]

Prayer is not a ‘pastoral’ duty, but it is a priestly one. And we’re told in the New Testament that everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ is a priest. Prayer is for all of us! The pastor is not your High Priest. Jesus is!

There’s been a lot of confusion about what prayer should look like. In our public gatherings for worship, we’ve made it the duty of the pastor or a handful of other wordsmiths to ‘pray out loud’. We’ve formalized it, ritualized it, platformed it, ‘King James’d’ it, and polished it. We use flowery words, puffed up words, academic words, and a lot of words. We’ve taken it from the people and given it to the ‘clergy’.

How unfortunate.

On Sunday, we read a lot of scripture together about prayer and came up with these easy guidelines for how we can all pray:

  1. Pray in humility [Luke 18:9-14]. No bragging or boasting or arrogance or judgment.

  2. Pray always [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18]. We don’t have ‘religion’ to make our life better. No! Our life is in Jesus, and He is our everything. Prayer isn’t something we add to our life, it is living life in communion always with Jesus.

  3. Pray for peace [Philippians 4:6-7]. When we are afraid, anxious, tormented and oppressed, we call on Jesus.

  4. Pray in faith [James 5:13-20]. Our prayer is a declaration of our faith in Jesus!

  5. Pray simply [Matthew 6:5-15]. It is a lie that only people who are good with words should pray in church. Prayer is never for show.

  6. Pray as a priority [Matthew 21:12-13]. We make God’s house into many things. If we’re not making room for prayer, we are missing the mark.

  7. Pray to do battle [2 Corinthians 10:3-5]. Prayer is how we do battle against darkness. It tears down strongholds, cuts through persuasive opposition, penetrates walled-off minds, and breaks through the stubborn heart.

At Covington Community Church, we pray many different ways when we gather for worship and study. It’s always in Jesus’ name, but it’s never led by the same people. We share it, we do it together, and we do it often.

Prayer is for all of those who are in Christ.

Brand Loyalty [Isaiah 61:1-4]

What we wear tells a lot about us. I’m a Carhartt kind of guy. Recently, one of the kids in our church saw me at a soccer game and said, “I knew it was you because you always wear the same thing!” Yes! Simple and functional would describe what I want to wear.

But let’s talk about our sports teams [uh oh, he’s meddling now]. Every August, a memo goes out and people start showing up everywhere in Seahawks gear. It’s like you all are part of the same tribe. You wear the same uniform…only to be disappointed in another dismal season. But we want to be part of them. We identify with our team by putting on their colors. We become part of them, and they become part of us [the 12th Man comes to mind!]. We put on our jerseys and walk around town strutting our stuff, high-fiving total strangers like we’re best buds.

Sometimes we are so into it that when our teams lose, we feel as though we have lost. When our team wins, we feel like winners. People’s weeks can be made or broken over their team’s successes and losses on the field. We get so into it and — you won’t like this — it really doesn’t matter all that much.

The Auca Indians of Ecuador have a term for getting excited about things that don’t matter very much: False Fire.

What do those who trust in Christ get excited about? What fills us with joy? What are we putting on? Worship is what the Christian wears! Let me explain what I mean. Read Isaiah 6:4, paying close attention to verse 4. Did you see it? We ‘put on’ the garment of praise. In the same way we wake up in the morning and decide what to wear for the day, we have to decide to put on the ‘garment of praise’.

So why do we worship? Why is worship an important part of our life together in ekklesia?

1] We are created to worship. All of creation is made to worship, but mankind especially is. “All the earth bows down to You; they sing the praises of Your name” [Psalm 66:4]. It ALL glorifies God, but we are created in God’s image. Our life is especially meant to honor God. All of creation — by its very existence — glorifies God, but we who are created in God’s image must choose to do so. That’s what makes our worship so special to the Father and why He ‘inhabits the praises of His people’.

Worship is THE place we were meant to be. It is the most-right thing we can do!

2] Worship affirms our loyalty & allegiance. What we run after is really our ‘god’. Our loyalty to God is not shown by Christian t-shirts, Jesus tattoos, really big Bibles, or witty bumper stickers. Our loyalty and allegiance to Jesus is demonstrated through our worship and obedience. “Let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, proclaiming our allegiance to His name” [Hebrews 13:15].

Worship identifies us as His.

3] Worship lifts us. In Isaiah 6:4, we see the exchange of ‘heaviness’ of life for a ‘garment of praise’. When we worship, the heaviness of life gets lifted. Did you know that our biochemistry respond to worship and prayer? It’s true. It’s as though our bodies were designed to respond to God in worship.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, has studied for over 20 years the affects of prayer on the human brain. He noticed in one study of a group of women praying together that the part of their brain that is associated with the self began to shut down as they prayed. This is phenomenal! As we become connected with God, the ‘me’ sort of goes away! As He increases, we decrease [John 3:30]. When Jesus becomes greater in m world and I become lesser in my world, my joy increases!

Worship of the Living God is what we were meant to do! It affirms the true loyalty of our heart, and we are restored through it.

I want us to be a worshipping community

Christian Worship [John 4:1-24]

All true worship glorifies (honors) God. We worship together (ekklesia) once or twice each week, but Christian worship is not limited to a sacred place or a certain hour of the week. Christian worship honors God every day.

In John 4, Jesus meets up with a scandalous woman at a well outside of town. There he has a conversation about thirst and life, and soon the conversation turns to worship. The woman had the same assumption about worship that many of us do: it must take place in a certain sacred space.

But Jesus said that ‘sacred space’ is created whenever 2 or more gather together in His name, no matter where they gather. Have you ever experienced ekklesia in Fred Meyer or in a park or in a school? When you connect with other believers — whether you know them or not — there is a palpable presence of Jesus.

When I was in college, I took my best friend on a road trip to Shenandoah National Park. One evening as we sat in the rain around a fire, a skunk meandered into our camp. Since I wasn’t in the mood to fight with a skunk and lose, we left camp and ended up around the only other fire in the campground. There we met a Christian couple and enjoyed hours of the presence of Jesus among us. A skunk drove us to it…

That doesn’t happen if our faces are buried in our smart phone.

Back to the story of the woman… Jesus answered the woman’s assumption about worship with a ground-breaking statement: “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. A time is coming (and has now come) when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and His worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

So what kind of worshipper does the Father look for? I want to know the answer to that question because I want to be that kind of worshipper.

We worship in spirit. This is a lower-case ‘spirit’, so this is about our spirit, not the Holy Spirit. This is about our spiritual and intangible ‘innards’, the part that makes us alive (breath, ‘heart’, will, emotions, thoughts, personhood, etc). How does the life within us honor God? What do we think about through the day? Are our thoughts centered on Jesus or all the distractions that compete with our heart’s attention? What does our life honor? What or who has won my affections? How is my personhood responding in praise to God?

We worship in truth. Worship is our response of love towards our God who is understood through His Word. When His Truth gets infused into our living, our living gets transformed (Romans 12:1-2). God’s Truth isn’t our truth until we’re living it out. Where ‘spirit’ is in regards to our ‘innards’, truth is about our outward living. When the Father’s Truth gets infused into our being, it will change how we’re living. It will flesh itself out in our families, in our workplaces, in the marketplace. Worshipping in truth is a transformed life and a determination to follow Jesus. Truth is weird these days, so choosing to honor God with your life is a decidedly different path.

Sometimes we worship gathered (and the gathered church should be a priority for the follower of Jesus), but the believer lives with an awareness that all of our life in Christ — inside and out — gives praise to God. Our worship is not bound by buildings or time.

Let’s be the kind of worshippers the Father is looking for.

Public Worship [1 Corinthians 14]

We have a diverse little church! I'm not just talking about ancestry and culture, but also the variety of Christian and non-Christian backgrounds we come from. We've got the liturgicals, the Catholics, the Pentecostals and a few methodical Methodists and predictable Presbyterians. Some of us are used to approaching worship quietly and reverently. Others wanna shout! Some want pulpits and pews and formal dress; others prefer something more simple and less formal. Some like the new songs; some like the old songs. 

My point is that we all carry with us our personal preferences for how we'd like to 'experience' worship. 

But if we're not careful, we will find ourselves trying to make worship in OUR IMAGE (the same way we try to re-make God in our own image or the church in our own image). We are all susceptible to our own narcissism trying to shape what belongs to God (like the church or worship). 

It might surprise you to learn that the Scriptures give God's people quite a bit of liberty in how we choose to worship the living God. The New Testament, though, does give us some guidelines for our public worship (there's a distinction between public worship and personal worship, by the way). 1 Corinthians 14 gives us some important counsel for our public worship.

But we have to start with 1 Corinthians 13.

That's where Paul tells us it's not about your tongues, your eloquence or your generosity but your love! So if our personal preferences can cause us to break fellowship with the church, we may have made an idol of a worship style. 

So what are some of those NT guidelines for public worship?

1] Our public worship must be edifying (1 Corinthians 14:1-5). Public worship is meant to build up the church, not just to build up myself. We come together so we all can be built up, and our preferential love for one another helps us keep this proper perspective. We don't insist on having things our own way, because we're also interested in what blesses others. You may not like the song choice or sermon topic, but it may bless the socks off someone else. We've got to make sure we don't turn our worship into an act of self-pleasure. 

2] Our public worship must be intelligible (1 Corinthians 14:6-25). Years ago, I was mentoring a group of young people in Northern Ireland who were all new believers. After meeting with them for a few months, one of the guys said to me, "Mr. Ray, you use really big words." Come to find out, they couldn't understand half of what I was saying.  My words were of no use to them if they couldn't understand what I was saying. I had to learn to speak their language. I needed to be understood.

Paul uses the gift of tongues and prophecy to illustrate this point. He uses a side-by-side comparison of these gifts in the context of public worship, and his conclusion is that our worship must be understood and intelligible. If a tongue is spoken, it must be interpreted. This is why in the assembly (ekklesia), Paul said he would rather speak 5 intelligible words than thousands in a tongue. In the public gathering of the church, the Gospel message must be understood. I apply that same perspective to the Bible translation I preach from or how I preach a message. If it's not understood, I've not done my job.

3] Our public worship must be orderly (1 Corinthians 14:26-33). Disorder and chaos is confusing, and we know God is not the author of confusion. If the message (and the messenger) can get confused, the message can be silenced. Ordered worship simply means that we must not throw confusion and chaos, interruption and inappropriate behavior into the mix of our worship. The Gospel needs no competition in the assembly. 

Our public worship is an essential part of our life together in the gathered church. So let's keep our times together edifying, understood, and without chaos. 

Ekklesia

A few weeks ago, we talked a bit about how we make 'gods' in our own image based on the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus. We do the same thing with the church. We try to fashion it into our image, too. 

'Ekklesia' is a Greek word meaning 'to call out of'. It is the earliest word for the church, a called-out assembly of the people of God. So what is the church (and what isn't it?)? Our new series "Ekklesia" takes a deeper look at the church, not the institution or building but the redeemed people who gather in the name of Jesus. 

Acts 2:42-47 gives us one of the earliest glimpses into what the assembly was like. Here's a paraphrase: "They devoted themselves to personal preferences, ideology and interests, to once-a-month communion, and to great entertainment. Everyone was feeling good, impressed by the lights, sound system, and clever wit of the speaker. All the believers were strangers to each other and looked after themselves well. They built their own kingdoms and amassed all the best toys. They came to church to sit among strangers for an hour whenever they could squeeze it into their busy schedules. They didn't know where each other lived but occasionally went to Applebee's with someone, quietly giving thanks for the food they didn't have to prepare. And they enjoyed their personal comfort and minimal commitment in the presence of all the people."

OK. Maybe I made that up.

Read the real Acts 2:42-47 and you'll see pretty much the opposite of what I've written above. 

We are the called-out community of Christ. If we're chasing the same things society around us is chasing, we're probably neither called out nor Christ's. The New Testament church was devoted, centered on apostolic teaching, and committed to each other; they ate together often, praying with each other in one heart and mind; and they were in awe of what God was doing among them. 

I've often thought the reason why we don't live like this is because we don't HAVE to live like this. We don't need each other, and we've created a church model that reflects that. We will need that kind of church again. We need it now.

So what is a NT church and what is it not?

It's not a concert, an entertainment center, or an activity center. We don't exist to compete with culture, providing a Jesus-themed alternative to the busy world. 

It's not a building. Somewhere along the line, we stopped calling the called-out people 'church' and started calling our buildings by that name. 

It's not the leadership. Yes, we can build on apostolic teaching, but let's not make the leadership the foundation for the church.

It's not a business, a marketplace, a social club, a political party, a museum, a denominational outpost, or your house.

We belong to Jesus. And as his, we get our identity as called-out people. So what is a church?

It is a house of prayer [Matthew 21:12-13]. Jesus got pretty upset with what the LORD's house had  become. It is a place we hear from God; it is a place we speak to God and seek God. 

It is the Body of Christ [Ephesians 4:11-13]. We embody Jesus to one another. Paul calls us the 'fullness of Christ'. In other words, each of us have a Spirit-given role, and none of us alone are the fullness of Christ. We need the Body for that.

It is family [Matthew 12:48-50]. There are dozens of scriptures that refer to the church as a family, and Jesus started it. Everyone belongs to Jesus who belongs to Jesus. I may be your third cousin twice removed who is cross-eyed from being kicked in the head by a mule, but I am still yours in Christ. We're family, but we're not perfect. You are my brothers and sisters. 

We are ekklesia. Jesus has called us to worship, to live out the Word, and to be his witnesses. Worship, Word & Witness -- living as called-out ones -- will be the focus of our new series.

I love my church. When I say that, I'm talking about you.

New Teaching Series

ekklesia2.jpg

Ekklesia is the Greek word for what we call 'church'. Our new fall series during Sunday worship fill focus on what the church is and what it is not. We'll learn about the ministry of worship, the word, and our witness in helping us understand who Jesus has called us to be. See you Sunday!

Wanderers [Deuteronomy 1]

We are wrapping up our look at the Exodus by reading Deuteronomy 1. The time of training at the base of Mt. Horeb was coming to an end, and the LORD was preparing to move the Israelites onward to Canaan to 'take the land'. Twice in Deut. 1, we read God telling his people to 'go in and possess the land'. So did they march right in and take it?

Um, no.

Instead of going in and possessing the land that God said He was giving them, they suggested to Moses to send in some spies to scout out the land first. Moses went along with what he thought was a reasonable request, but the LORD didn't take too kindly to His people AGAIN second-guessing His word. They trusted in their opinions more than God's promise, their light more than God's Light.

Unbelief had been their pattern ever since leaving Egypt.

So they sent in the spies -- and found the land just as God had promised. Numbers 13 tells us it was 'flowing with milk and honey', a fertile land full of vineyards. You would think this confirmation would have excited them to move into their new home...but they doubted God again, choosing to focus on the giants that inhabited the land. "They are too big for us!" They were afraid.

Yes, the Anakim were bigger and stronger than the Israelites, but were they bigger and stronger than God? Are our obstacles too big for us? Maybe. Are they too big for God? No way. It's so easy for us to see what's in front of our face and disregard the Word of the LORD. How many times do we focus on the giants?

I find it really interesting that ever since Israel left Egypt, they were daily seeing miracles (manna, fresh water, Red Sea crossing, pillar of fire and cloud, the Exodus, etc). Miracles were their daily bread, but they still lived in unbelief! They still didn't trust God!

I am Israel. Daily, He shows Himself to me, and daily I wrestle with fear. I am no different, so I choose not to judge Israel. I think it's a mistake to read scripture and not see ourselves in the story so we too can turn to God. 

Unbelief is not without consequence. Unbelief leaves us wandering in lostness, aimlessly meandering, floundering in life. And this is exactly what happened to Israel. The unbelieving generation spent the next 40 years wandering and floundering in the desert, living a nomadic existence, constantly harassed by their enemies. And they continued wandering until the unbelieving generation died off. Even Moses -- who gave into the people -- did not enter the land. 

Why do we flounder? Perhaps it is because we have chosen the nomadic path of unbelief.

There once was a man who had a son possessed by an evil spirit. He suffered from painful seizures, causing him to foam at the mouth. On several occasions, the convulsions threw the young boy into the fire or into the water 'to kill him'. The boy had suffered, and his dad was afraid for him.  Jesus's disciples tried to cast out the demon but were unsuccessful. [You can read the rest of the story in Mark 9:21-24.] It's the dad's declaration of faith that catches my attention...

"I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief."

I love this prayer! It is so honest and pure. "I do believe; help me in my unbelief!" Don't we live with this dichotomy? Isn't this us? We believe and struggle with belief at the same time. We've seen the work of God all our lives, but we still doubt him for today. 

The offspring of unbelief is insidious. Unbelief is a rejection of belief. It is the opposite of faith. It is disobedience. So when we do not trust God, we are in unbelief. When we chip away at the legitimacy of the Word of God, we are in unbelief. When we subject God's Light to our light, we are in unbelief. And it leads to confusion, aimlessness, lostness...and eventually death.

I do not want our church to be a place where we feed unbelief. I don't want us to flounder and wander aimlessly in the desert. I want us to trust God and embrace what He has promised. 

In Whose Image? [Exodus 32:1-19]

[Read Exodus 32:1-19]

Before we enthrone ourselves as judges over the Hebrews gone astray, we've got to admit we're not much different. They were products of their culture; we are products of our culture. And we are all trying to make God in our image. 

I'm not white-washing their sin. Yes, they were impatient. Moses was gone for 40 days, and they thought the old geezer was dead. Yes, they were forgetful. They had witnessed miracle after miracle since leaving Egypt, but they still turned to the pagan practices that were familiar to them in Egypt. Yes, they were foolish. You gotta love Aaron who was Moses' right hand man. He smelts the gold, makes the calf, instructs the people to worship it -- and then offers Moses the lamest excuse ever heard [check out Exodus 32:22-24]. Yes, they were compromising, mixing pagan practices with their worship of God. Remember, for over 400 years, they were held captive in Egypt, so they were familiar with the Apis (the bull fertility god of grain and herds). 

The LORD took them out of Egypt, but Egypt was slow to come out of them. They were products of their captive culture, and the Living God was saving them from their culture.

What God do we serve? The god of our imagination or the One True God? Did God create us in His image, or are we trying to do it the other way around?

This story got me thinking about all the times in my life when I wanted God to be what I wanted Him to be. I've attempted to re-make and re-shape God to fit my demands and wishes. It's funny how when we create gods, they look an awful lot like our desires. Created people trying to recreate the God who created them.... Odd, isn't it?

We often shape Jesus to fit our interests without even knowing it. Let me give you some examples:

The Oprah Jesus: he sits along side of the Buddha, Vishnu and other enlightened ones to lead us into generic spirituality.

The American Jesus: he comes draped in Old Glory bringing patriotic renewal, democracy, Sunday afternoon football, and white bread.

The Social Justice Jesus: he is the mascot for all our causes.

The Political Jesus: he's the champion of our preferred political party and power-over leverage.

The Dr Phil Jesus: he's the giver of advice and fixer of your problems.

The Prosperity Jesus: he came to give you everything you want.

The John Lennon Jesus: all is one, and there's no religion; just peace and ecstasy, man.

The BFF Jesus: he's just your buddy.

The Angry Nun Jesus: he walks around with a ruler ready to slap the offending hand, the champion of legalists and legalism.

You see how easy it is to make God in our own image? We do it all the time. It's no coincidence that when Moses came down the mountain carrying the Law carved onto two stone tablets, the first two laws read: 'I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt; you shall have no other gods' and 'do not make for yourselves any idols of created things' (including our own vain imaginations). 

These stories remind us we are no different. We're no better; we're no worse. We attempt to re-make the Living God in the shape of our culture and personal preferences. What is God to do with people like us?

[Read Exodus 32:9-14 again]

Moses interceded on the Hebrew's behalf, and God was merciful. And Jesus intercedes on our behalf, and God is merciful. He's still working to get Egypt out of us...

The very real One True God will eventually have His way in us, and we will be forever changed by the encounter.

God with Us [Exodus 29:42-46]

We are very familiar with the story of Adam and Eve and their decision to disregard the word of God and the consequences of their choice: separation from God. They had it made in Eden but now had to labor to live outside of God's protective provision. They felt exposed by their sin and isolated from God.

Some say that God remained distant from us until Jesus, but when we look more closely at scripture, we see that it has always been the heart of God to be with His people. And He often comes close to those who love Him and put their trust in Him.

In Exodus 29, we read about God giving the freed Israelites instructions on how to establish the Tabernacle. Phrases like 'I will meet with you' and 'I will dwell among them' show up repeatedly in this story! The Father wants to dwell among His people, and we see evidence of this all through the Biblical narrative.

God with us...

...in the Garden (Genesis 2). The Father was walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden.

...in the Covenant (Genesis 15). God made a covenant -- a promise -- with Abraham because of his trust in God. God made for Himself a special people to bless.

...in the Exodus. God delivered them to dwell with them! This was always His original intention.

...in the Promise (Isaiah 7:14). The prophet Isaiah wrote about God's intentions to be with us: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel."

Fast forward to the New Testament. God with us...

...in Jesus (Matthew 1:22-23). He was called 'God with us'.

...in Christian Community (Matthew 18:20). Jesus is among us when we gather in Jesus' name.

...in Communion when we break bread together.

...in the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 30:21). He is the believer's constant companion, filling our lives with His presence.

...in Eternity (Revelation 21:3). "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them."

Do you see it? From Genesis to Revelation, God is with us! And He is with us now.

The presence of God is personal, real and life-changing because the living God lives in His people and walks with us. His presence has made all the difference in my life. God has been with me in my childhood when I felt Him close. God has been with me in my deserts when I felt alone. God has been with me when I was cut off by my sin (because He made the Way through Jesus). God has been with me in my spirit when I've called on the name of Jesus and the darkness was dispelled. God has been with me in my Christian community when I've experienced the grace of God through His people. In my home, in my family, in my baptism...

God is with us.

 

Laying Down the Law [Exodus 20:1-17]

Here's some important information you may want to consider: in Oklahoma it is illegal to have a sleeping donkey in your bathtub after 7:00 pm. 

Six o'clock is fine. Not seven.

It's easy to poke fun at the dumb laws of other states, so let's bring it a little closer to home.

Did you know it is illegal in Washington State to harass a sasquatch? It's punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. Did you know it is illegal in WA to buy a mattress or meat of any kind on a Sunday? There's also a law on our books that says it is mandatory for a motorist with criminal intentions to stop at the city limits and phone the chief of police as he is entering the town...

Like that's going to happen.

We like to judge yesterday's decisions with today's wisdom. There must be a story behind each of these crazy laws mentioned above, but we like to poke fun at them anyhow.

We do the same thing when we read some of the 'crazy' laws we read in the Old Testament. All of us agree, the 10 Commandments are pretty straight forward counsel for our lives. But what about stoning a bull to death that gores someone or returning your enemy's wandering donkey? [Yes, they are in there.] It's the civil laws that leave us scratching our heads, mainly because we are judging them through today's lenses. 

When the Israelites came out of Egypt, God not only had to teach them how to be his people again, he also had to give them civil laws to govern their lives together. God is not the author of confusion, so he wasn't about to let a bunch of self-serving anarchists eat each other alive on the way to the Promised Land. 

So he gave them examples of how to apply God's laws to the kinds of cases that commonly arose in those days. Sure, Exodus 21-23 make us squirm now, but let's be careful about jumping to any unholy conclusions about God. He gives them laws about how to treat indentured servants, give opportunities for the poor, make commercial restitution, and lend without being predatory. 

God wants his people to honor him by honoring one another. Lawlessness only looks after self. And this leads us to a very important and consistent biblical theme for righteous living: whatever you have received from God, you must give to others.

You were set free, so do not oppress. You were forgiven, so forgive. You received mercy, so be merciful. You are loved, so love. 

God's justice flows from his goodness. As his goodness pours into our lives, his goodness must flow from us. This is how God wants us to live in society. 

His [Exodus 19]

My first visit to the Grand Canyon was a bit of a let down. I love our national parks, and I had built the GC up in my mind. It's one of those American places everyone has to see. I got there and realized that every viewpoint along the canyon's edge offered the same exact view. It's a big hole that looks the same from every view! After spending 10 minutes on the rim, I said to myself, "Now what?"

In our look at Exodus, the Israelites had  been set free from 430 years of Egyptian slavery. They had some incredible experiences through their miraculous extraction from Egypt. Now they were camped in the Sinai desert and were asking themselves, "Now what?"

God took the Israelites out of Egypt, and now he needed to take the Egypt out of the Israelites. For over four centuries, they did their master's bidding, living under their laws, influenced by their religion and culture. The probably looked more Egyptian than they did Hebrew. So the LORD led them to the base of the mountain to meet with is people.

To teach them.

To show them how to be his people again. 

[Read Exodus 19:4-6]

Notice God didn't say he brought them to the desert; he said, "I brought you to myself." We're always looking at the place we're in, but the place doesn't matter so much. Being with God is what matters! God rescued Israel to bring them to himself, not just to change their address to a better neighborhood. The Promised Land wasn't the point of the trip; a relationship with God was the point of the trip!

Like Israel, God wants to remind us that we belong to him. "You are my people, and I am your God. I love you. I value you. I cherish you. You are my beloved possession." When we choose relationship with God, we are adorned with his love! We must remember whose we are: we do not belong to ourselves, we do not belong to our nation, we do not  belong to what has enslaved us.

God met with Moses and the people to let them know they were under new management. With a new manager came a new identity. We need to know this: the enemy works tirelessly to compromise and destroy the image of God in us. He accuses, belittles, and judges. He gets inside our head to discourage, disqualify, disenfranchise, and disable. And we start to believe his lies. 

We label ourselves with his lies and pretend like we're just keeping it real. How about instead of keeping it real, we keep it True? We need to speak God's Truth into our lives; we need to speak God's Truth into each other's lives. We need our new identity in Christ!

In Exodus 20, Moses climbs the mountain of God, and he is given 10 simple rules for living as God's people. And it begins with a statement of possession: "I am the LORD your God;  you shall have no other gods before me." Not only does he rescue, but then he shows us how to live. He is a teacher. We don't have to guess our way through life, because he has shown us the way.

Father, thank you for taking us out of Egypt. Continue taking Egypt out of us.

Quibblers & Quitters [Exodus 12-17]

Moses knew the challenges of leading a tribe. If you lead 100 people, you have to deal with 100 minds full out countless emotions and ideas -- all while trying to hold it all together. Let me share just how complicated leadership can be with this [you'd think getting a lightbulb changed would be easy, right?]…

A pastor asks if someone can change a burned out lightbulb, and the suggestions started rolling in: "If God wanted the bulb changed, he'd do it himself." "The bulb doesn't need to be changed. We should pray for its healing." "Call the elders together to anoint it with oil and lay hands on it." "We need to cast out the spirit of darkness." Some conservatives said, "Don't even go into that hallway anymore. We should separate ourselves from all darkness" while progressives said, "We don't want to make the bulb feel unwanted or uncomfortable." Some warned that if we touch it, it could lead to dancing. The hippies said, "Far out, man", the business men suggested we form a committee, and the older folks said, "I remember the good ole days when a lightbulb lasted for 20 years." The rest of the bunch told the pastor to do it and reserved the right to complain about how he did it. One person said that a lightbulb had burned out in their last church, and it wasn't pretty, so they were leaving the church. And a handful of people were offended they didn't get their way and walked out. 

Meanwhile, we sit in the dark.

That's what it must have been like for Moses to lead the Israelites. Leaders will get frustrated, and they will have obstacles and opposition. They will often not feel up to the task, and they will want to walk away from time to time. But it is impossible to engage in God's work without challenge and opposition! Do we think the enemy is going to just sit back and accept our success?

Every member of the tribe of Jesus needs to ask themselves what kind of person they are to lead. We need to vow that we not make this journey about our personal pleasure and preferences. If we see the church and the LORD as a source for our personal pleasure, we will end up resenting the church and all those who didn't feed our need for pleasure. We end up living in constant hurt as we consult our feelings instead of consulting Jesus. 

We don't judge the Israelites for all their grumbling, because we're the same. I am too often fickle, feckless, and faithless.

Like the Israelites, we have selective memories. We romanticize the past, longing for the good ol' days, and we forget what God has already done. Nearly 200 times in scripture, we are told to 'remember'. We need to remember all that God has done for us!

Like the Israelites, we're short-sighted. All they could see was the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh's army behind them. We do the same thing. We panic with what's in front of our face, and we forget where we're going. We forget why we are a church and that we are the people of God who he is taking on a journey. Instead, we focus on what we want here and now. We need long distance vision!

Like the Israelites, we are more in tune with our feelings than Jesus. I filter my life through my feelings every day. That's normal...but we must learn to submit our feelings to God's truth. That takes work (discipline). We're so good at awful-izing. We feel a lot of deep emotions, but we have to know the truth!

You know what I love about the stories of all the grumbling of the Israelites? They grumbled about slavery, and God freed them. They grumbled about the Red Sea, and God made a way for them. They grumbled about bitter water, and God gave them sweetwater. They grumbled about being hungry, so God gave them their daily bread. They grumbled about being thirsty, and God caused water to flow from a rock. They grumbled about their enemies, and God gave them the victory. 

I'd have walked away from them.

But not God.

He heard their complaints and met their needs (even though he was slightly annoyed with them). 

Isn't he good?

May God bless our feeble efforts to walk together in love!

The Blood [Exodus 12]

The Jewish Torah says that 'life is in the blood' (Lev. 17:11). We, of course, know this now -- and that's why we give blood rather than practice blood-letting. God knew that our blood is life long before we did! Blood within us is life. Blood spilled is brutal and gruesome. From the earliest age, we know that blood is supposed to stay in us (no doubt the reason my children freak out when they see red). 

God created life-giving blood to flow through our veins, but we have chosen violence. Adam and Eve's own son was the first to draw another's blood, and the history of the world ever since has been violent. God himself met the violence of the world with violence when his Son Jesus bled out on the cross. Yes, spilled blood is gruesome, but in this case it is profoundly life-giving. 

Exodus 12 tells the story of the Passover. Below are a few things that stand out to me as I read it:

Cleansing: The people were told to use Hyssop to spread the blood on the doorposts for a reason. Hyssop was used for cleansing and purification purposes throughout history, and it is commonly referenced in the Old Testament in cleansing rituals. It even made an appearance -- not a coincidence -- at the crucifixion of Jesus when the Roman soldier offered Jesus a drink from a sponge attached to a branch of -- you guessed it -- hyssop. Their homes were their temples, and God wanted them cleansed. 

Covering: The home is a sacred place. Life and faith is nurtured there, and the blood on the doorposts marked each home for God's protection and covering. The LORD told Moses, "When I see the blood, I will pass over you." We are safe 'under the blood'. He is our covering. In the same way he provided skins of animals to cover Adam and Eve, the blood of Jesus covers our shame. 

Commemoration: Before the miracle of the Passover happened, God told his people to forever commemorate (remember) what he was going to do. The Passover has become an annual observance of God's provision. Jesus told us to do the same thing when he held the Passover meal with his disciples, breaking the matzah saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." We have to remember what God has done for us! Write those things down when you experience the presence of God in your life. We must remember who we are! We must remember Whose we are! We must remember what the LORD has done!

Cruelty: The first-born were struck dead that night in all the households where there was no covering. Some say this paints a cruel picture of God (we love to judge God). We get it backwards, though. It paints a cruel picture of humanity that has rebelled against God. We enslave. We kill. We destroy. We rebel. We refuse God. The Passover isn't about God's cruelty toward Egypt; it is about God's protection and provision for those who love and fear him. 

Yes, blood spilled is brutal and gruesome. That became all the more clear to us this week as a 40-year old man was accidentally shot just behind our home. But when we look at the blood of Jesus, all we see is love, love, love! Under the blood, we are cleansed and covered. This week has reminded me that we are continually confronted with the brutality of life lived outside of the will of God. 

Wouldn't it be good to embrace God's offer of saving grace through Jesus?

Let My People Go [Exodus 4-10]

I grew up hearing the stories of Lewis & Clark, Daniel Boone, Davey Crocket and other great pioneers of the American west who explored their way through the wilderness in search of new discovery. Early on, I learned the difference between settlers and pioneers -- those who homestead vs those who trailblaze. A settler has a calling to steward the land, while a pioneer explores it and follows unknown paths. 

Moses had settled for nearly 40 years working for his father-in-law Jethro. He was tending sheep and providing for his wife and children when God interrupted his settled life calling him to pioneer. In Exodus 4, we see Moses trying to break free of the cement of settled living. He was still shaken by 80 years of loss and disappointment, and he didn't want to go and do this thing God was calling him to. But rather than destroy Moses, God saved anyhow by accommodating Moses' weakness and providing Aaron to help him.

God's grace.

When Moses finally mustered enough courage to head back to Egypt, it didn't go to well for him. Pharaoh's immediate response was to tighten his grip on the Hebrew people, increasing their suffering. Moses thought it all backfired, and he blamed God for it all (Exodus 5:22-23). Despite Moses' accusations, God saved anyhow by making a way for him.

God's grace. 

The LORD is always way ahead of his people [you need to be encouraged by this!]. No person, no government, no king, no limitations, no fear can stand in the way of God accomplishing what He is determined to do. It's important for us to remember that where we are today is not where we will always be when we trust in God.

In Exodus 9, we see the LORD beginning to break Pharaoh's grip on God's people. These 'plagues' were not random acts but were a direct assault on the gods of Egypt by the One True God. Egyptian religion was rooted in Babylonian polytheistic rebellion, and this was a contest of wills. The plagues were strategic hits to shake Pharaoh's faith in his false gods. 

Let me show you what I mean [starting in Exodus 9]:

Plague of Nile Turning to Blood: this was a judgment against the Egyptian gods Apis & Isis, the god and goddess of the Nile and fertility. The Nile River was the lifeblood of Egypt and was believed to be the bloodstream of Osiris. 

Plague of Frogs: this was a judgment against the god Heqet, the frog-headed goddess of birth. Frogs were sacred to Egyptians, but now there were thousands of them piled up and rotting in the streets.

Plague of Lice/Gnats: this was a judgment against Set, the god of the desert, storms & violence. It's as if God was saying, "You've never seen a storm like this!"

Plague of Flies: this was a judgment against Uatchit, the fly goddess. She was also the god of papyrus (paper-making), so this was a judgment against Pharaoh's decrees.

Plague of the Death of Livestock: this was a judgment against the goddess Hathor and the god Apis, both depicted as bulls. Not only did this affect the Egyptian economy, but it was a direct hit at the Egyptian belief in reincarnation and the afterlife.

Plague of Boils: this was a judgment against the god Sekhemet, the god of plagues, destruction, and healing. Even Egypt's religious leaders were afflicted and powerless to appease their god and end their suffering. 

Plague of Hail & Fire: this was a judgment against the goddess Nut who was said to provide the protective covering over the earth. Hail and fire devastated the land and cities. 

Plague of Locusts: this was a judgment against Osiris, the god of death and the afterlife. With the wheat and rye crops decimated, famine and death would soon follow. 

Plague of Darkness: this was a judgment aimed right at Pharaoh himself! Pharaoh believed himself to be the reincarnation of Ra, the sun god. The reincarnation of the sun god was powerless to make the sun shine, and it terrified the people!

What do we learn from all this? Our weakness, our fear, our setbacks, and even our idols and false trust are powerless to stop the One True God. The LORD promises us that if we go with Him, He will go with us. 

He breaks chains, ends slavery, accommodates weakness, and equips us for the journey. He is already ahead of us, preparing the Way. 

Let go.

Follow.

A Life Interrupted [Exodus 3]

We have some pretty good kids. For the most part, they listen well...but there is one thing we need some help with: our kids are proficient interrupters. They don't hesitate to burst into any conversation with whatever 'urgent' thing is on their mind.

God reserves the right to interrupt, and that is exactly what he does in the life of Moses in Exodus 3. Here are some things we can learn from Moses' encounter with the Living God at the burning bush:

1] Moses was dealing with life-long disappointment [Exodus 3:1]. Keep in mind, Moses lived for 40 years as a prince of Egypt before running for his life to live 40 years working for his father-in-law as a shepherd. Moses had settled down, married, and had kids, but he had lost a lot. No longer a prince and orphaned from his Hebrew people, he faced a series of disappointments and saw his hopes and dreams for his people fade away. He wallowed in a sense of person failure for 40 years...until God interrupted. 

2] The LORD called Moses by name [Exodus 3:2-4]. The burning bush caught his attention. How can the Holy Spirit be in a bush and not consume it? How can the Holy Spirit be in Mary's womb and not consumer her? How can the Holy Spirit be in the church and not consume us? Because God performs a miracle which allows Him to come close to us without destroying us. As Moses walked closer, what he heard next stopped him in his tracks. He heard his name. For the first time in 400 years, God spoke and interrupted the silence by calling Moses by name. 

3] Moses met with God [Exodus 3:5-10]. He met a holy God who told him to take off his sandals. He met a compassionate God who had heard the cries of captive Israel. He met a providing God who wanted to lead the Hebrew people back to the Promised Land. He met an imminent God who had come very close. He met a personal God who knew Moses by name and called him to a special purpose. 

4] Moses got hung up on his own self-doubt [Exodus 3:11-15]. Moses responds to what the LORD said with a "...but who am I?..." Remember, he had carried loss his whole life. He had no successes to speak of. He didn't even own his own flocks and worked for his father-in-law. Yikes! But notice God didn't answer Moses' questions with a list of Moses' qualifications. The LORD answered his question with the LORD's qualifications! Because I AM! This will take place because I AM...and your faith in me will be all the proof you will need. 

While it seems like God was absent in Moses' life, the LORD was actually preparing Moses for this special purpose. For 40 years, Moses was trained in the ways of Egypt and the Pharaoh, and for 40 years Moses was trained in leading a herd through the desert. He knew how to talk to Pharaoh, how to find safe passage, how to deal with loneliness, and how to herd sheep that each want to go their own way. The final 40 years of his life, God led Moses into his calling! Moses had been prepared for this his entire life.

That's what God does!

Do we believe the LORD can take our loss, disappointment, history, highs & lows, failures & successes to prepare us for our calling? That's exactly what God did for Moses. Despite our loss and disappointment, God saves anyhow! Do we have the faith to believe God can use and redeem our disappointments to propel us into His mission and purpose?

That's what the interrupting God does. 

From Pauper to Prince [Exodus 2]

When our kids were toddlers, we had friends with a swimming pool. [Isn't it great to have friends with a swimming pool?] We were super cautious parents taking our kids into the pool. We put floats and vests all over them! They could have survived a hurricane on the open seas. Looking back, I'm fairly certain they never actually got wet...just floated on the surface. 

But Moses' mother made a basket of reeds and sent her son down river (a river which flowed to the sea and was filled with crocodiles). Why did she do it? She was so desperate to save her son who was going to die anyhow. God led her to the water. 

[Read Exodus 2]

Scripture teaches us that we are born into poverty (the Bible calls this 'sin'). Just like Moses, we are under the curse of death. As we trust in God, we pass through the waters (baptism) and arise out the other side sons and daughters of God. As I read again this story of Moses in his infancy, it reminded me of the importance of 'going through the waters' and Christian baptism.

1] It's in the water we are buried. [Romans 6:3, 6-7] Essentially, Moses' mom put a dead boy in the water. It was a burial, and her grief was deep and real. When we baptize believers, we immerse them in water. Why? Because it resembles burial. We are buried in Christ...

2] It's in the water we are cleansed. [Hebrews 10:22] My kids often argue whether or not they need a bath, but our noses tell us a different story! We often can smell our own stench. But when essence of your kids lingers behind after they leave, it's time to bathe. It's in the water our guilty conscience and bodies are washed. 

3] It's in the water we are adopted. [Galatians 3:27] I love this one. When we are baptized, we are united with Christ and given a new name and new identity as we are adopted as God's own. 

4] It is in the water we are resurrected. [Romans 6:3-5] Like Moses -- whose name means 'drawn up from the water' -- we are brought out of the water into new life. When we baptize, I always end with these words: "You are buried in Christ and raised into new life." When Moses came up out of the water, death was behind him. He was buried a pauper and raised a prince. 

5] It's in the water we are initiated. [1 Corinthians 12:13] Baptism connects us in committed relationship to the local church and makes us part of the Eternal Church (One Body). Baptism immerses the individual into the community of Christ. You become us.

6] It's in the water we are equipped. [Acts 2:38] Yes, there's a promise of forgiveness, but there's also a promise for the gift of the Holy Spirit who fills us and equips us, which leads to my final point...

7] It's in the water we are ordained. [Mark 1] Jesus wasn't baptized for cleansing or forgiveness; he was baptized to be released into his ministry! When we come up out of the water -- just like Moses -- God sends us out to serve him!

For whatever the reason, Jesus connects our trust in him with the need for baptism. Being washed is important to Jesus (John 13; Mark 16:15-16). Baptism is our confession, and Jesus tells us "Whoever confesses me before men, I will also confess him before my Father" (Matthew 10:32). Max Lucado said, "Baptism separates the tire kickers from the car buyers."

While we don't believe baptism saves you, we do believe trusting Jesus does. And he says going into the water is very important. God is calling us out of death, and He has made a way for our salvation. 

And that is some pretty good news.