Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Jealous God

When I was in seminary, we used to begin most classes with prayer.  One day, a fellow student (who was about twenty years older than the rest of us) asked for prayer for his family.  His teenaged daughter had been dating a boy who was very possessive and controlling, and the father had forced her to break up with him.  Since that time, the boy had been stalking his daughter.  At night, he would pull his car up to the curb outside her house and just sit there, as if to say, “You can’t get away from me that easily.  I’ll still be here.”  In my youth, I knew several guys like that.  Even at that age, I wondered what drew girls to these kinds of guys.  These were often attractive, otherwise intelligent, promising young women who allowed themselves to become the personal property of loser-stalker teenaged boys.  I have a theory why they do this, which you can ask me about sometime if you’re interested.  For now, let me just say to any young women who happen to be reading this: If a guy becomes obsessed with you, if you see that he is the jealous type, run—don’t walk—away from him.  I know it’s flattering to be the very center of someone else’s universe, to feel like they can’t live without you.  But nothing good will come out of such a relationship.  That boy doesn’t love you.  He wants to own you.  You deserve better.  And young men, when your girlfriend breaks up with you...GET. OVER. IT.  It has happened to all of us, and we survived.  It will happen to you again, probably multiple times.  By the way, that girl’s parents have a much bigger claim on her than you do.  They love her in ways that you cannot possibly comprehend until God blesses you with kids of your own.  You do not want to make them angry.  Trust me on this one.
            Right now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this.  All this year, I’m preaching on the attributes of God.  We’ve talked about His holiness. We’ve talked about His incarnation as Jesus, who changed our world forever.  But for the next four weeks, I want to talk about an attribute that we don’t typically pay a lot of attention to: The jealousy of God.  When I think about the term “jealous,” I immediately think of stories like the one I started with.  Is God really like a loser-stalker teenaged boy?  This Sunday, we'll look at Exodus 34:12-14, one of several passages in which God calls Himself a jealous God.  We will see how God's jealousy differs from the kind we often feel.  We'll see, in fact, why we should rejoice in a God who is jealous for us.  And we'll see how the story of my seminary friend and the teenaged stalker ended.  I hope you'll be there. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

He Opened our Eyes

             One summer when I was in college, I worked with a guy named Dave.  Like me, Dave was from a little town.  He had followed his high school girlfriend to UH. She was very pretty, and Dave had his life pretty much planned out.  Sooner or later, they were going to be married.  Right in the middle of the summer, Dave’s girlfriend dumped him.  Most of us have experienced this.  She used very vague language in order to not make Dave feel too terrible. So he was left with the impression that she still cared deeply for him and this was very likely just a “break” instead of a break up.  Still, Dave was devastated.  Those of us who worked with Dave decided to cheer him up, so the very next Saturday, we all went to Astroworld (It’s funny how different you think when you’re 19 years old.  My father in law used to say Astroworld is the place you went if you died without knowing Jesus.  I’m at the age now where I feel that way about theme parks, too. But back then, it was a magical place).  At first, Dave was fairly glum.  But after a few hours of standing in line in tropical heat and getting his brain scrambled on the Texas Cyclone, combined with a gallon of Coca-Cola, he started to really cheer up.  We were the best friends ever!  Then it happened.  We turned a corner and ran right into Dave’s girlfriend…with her new boyfriend…who Dave knew nothing about until that moment.  Our wonderful plan backfired.  For Dave, it was a world-shaking moment.  His life changed forever in that one point in time.  Whatever else would happen from this point forward, Dave wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life with the girl he loved.

            We’ve all experienced moments like that, when suddenly our eyes are opened to a reality that is brand new to us, and from then on, we see the world in a different way.  Some of these experiences are good, thank God.  For example, if you moved away from the place where you grew up, you had a chance to start life fresh, meet new people, discover new things.  The next time you went home, the people you’d grown up with could tell you had changed.  Or perhaps you discovered a talent you never knew you had until that first time you pitched in fast-pitch softball game, or that first time you taught a lesson to a room full of kids, or the first time you worked on an engine, or the first time you helped someone who was injured.  For a lot of us, having a baby was that kind of event.  When our first child was born, it was the only time in my life  I’ve ever cried tears of joy.  And then I saw my wife holding our daughter for the first time, and I knew my world had changed forever.  From then on, I was definitely going to be in second place in her life—at best (depending on how the dog was behaving that day).  My eyes were opened that day to a new reality.  My life would never be the same again, because from that point forward, it wasn’t just about me anymore. 

            Jesus changed the world more than any other person who has ever lived.  For weeks now, we’ve been talking about some of the ways He changed our world—He changed the way we think about compassion, education, success, enemies, religion, sex and marriage...and about who God is.  But this Sunday, I want to talk about the most important and profound way Jesus changed our world.  People who met Him experienced something that no person, no institution, no multi-national force on earth could give them, either then or now.  This Sunday, we’ll look at a story of that happening to two people on the first Easter Sunday. As we do, I want you to ask yourself if you’ve experienced this or not. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Call Him Father

As the story goes, a Scottish Presbyterian Church had a new pastor who had spent most of his life in the ivory towers of academia, teaching theology to young seminary students.  He loved to pray lofty public prayers, using obscure theological terms.  One day, his head was bowed as he held forth.  Suddenly, there was a tug at the coat of his vestments.  He looked down to see a little Scottish woman in a choir robe standing there.  She said, “Just call ‘im Father and ask ‘im for somethin’.” 

            We all nod our heads in approval at that story.  But where did we get this idea that we could come to God just as we are, without one plea?  Most other religious traditions have very strict rules about who can get close to their god; even if you’re one of the favored few, there’s usually an elaborate set of rituals that one must go through before you speak to God.  Yet most of us in this room think nothing of praying to God in the shower, in the car, lying in bed in the middle of the night, or anywhere else, anytime we have a need, a question, or a fear.  Is it just presumption that makes us think that we deserve that kind of access to an infinitely holy, awesomely powerful God?  For that matter, what makes us think we can call Him Father? 

            The answer to all those questions is Jesus.  Next week, we will finish our series about the amazing impact Jesus has had on this world, and the influence He still has today.  But for now, I want to talk about how Jesus changed the way we relate to God.  Jesus taught us to call God “Father.”  We see it here at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer.  Now, there are some references in the Old Testament to God as the Father of Israel.  But no Israelite before Jesus would have referred to Yahweh as “Abba.”  That is a word in Aramaic, Jesus’ native language, that means “Father.”  Except linguists will tell you it’s not a formal word like our English word “Father.” It is a word of intimacy.  It’s probably the first word most Jewish babies would have learned.  It’s something like “Papa.”  It’s interesting to look at every time Jesus uses that term, and notice the pronouns He uses.  For instance, when He talks about forgiveness, He says, “Your Father,” which excludes Himself, for He never sinned.  When He talks about His sonship and mission in life, He says “My Father,” which excludes the rest of us.  But here, He teaches us to pray, “Our Father.”  You and I may not have much in common, but we are all adopted sons and daughters of a King who loves us. 
This Sunday, we'll talk more about how this idea of a God of love--who wants to be our Father--changed the world forever...and what that idea requires of us, His children. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Removing the Stain

Luke 7:36-50

Fair warning: This week's sermon might make you uncomfortable.  We’re talking about sex. And when it comes to that particular subject, we contemporary Americans have a rather peculiar attitude.  On the one hand, we act like Victorian prudes, who get embarrassed at any mention of sex.  On the other hand, we act like perpetually hormonal 13-year-old boys, who find the subject fascinating beyond all reason, who sort of snicker when it comes up.  If a person from some other civilization time-traveled to our day and spent just a few days here, they would notice our obsession with sex.  It’s the subject of most of our humor, our advertising, our movies, music and television.  If you’ve ever read the Bible all the way through, you know that the Bible has a very different outlook on sex.  Its language is very frank.  There are lots of passages that preachers like me find it difficult to preach on; we have to do verbal gymnastics to avoid embarrassing the prudish side of our congregation and titillating to distraction the immature side.  And honestly, there are sections I won’t touch in a sermon, like Ezekiel 23 and big portions of the Song of Solomon.  But this Sunday, I am going to try to speak as frankly as the Bible does.  For the parents out there, I’m going to try to talk about this in a way that won’t steal your children’s innocence—I’m a parent myself, so I get that.  But you may end up having to answer some questions before you were prepared to do so, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 
We’re in a series about the way Jesus changed our world and continues to influence it.  And here’s an ironic fact: Even though Jesus was a lifelong celibate single person, He changed the way we think about sex and marriage more than any other person who has ever lived.  Today, even though we live in an increasingly irreligious culture, most people still choose to get married in a church; they take vows in the name of Jesus, a man who never married.  Why is that?  And how does Jesus’ sexual ethic still challenge us, whether we are religious or not?  We'll spend some time looking at a story in Luke 7:36-50 that is very revealing.  We'll also look at Matthew 5:27-28.