Taking God to the Bank

Hear now the Word of God from the book of Genesis chapter 15 verses 1 through 12 and 17 and 18.

“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’  But Abram said, ‘O Lord God what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?  And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’  But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’  He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are about to count them.’  Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’  And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’  But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’  He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’  He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.  And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him….When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.  On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Raphaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’”

This is the Word of God, for the people of God.  Thanks be to God for it.

There are many things in life that are uncertainties, and for some of us our bank account is one of them.  How many of us balance our checkbooks anymore?  I know that I do online banking, trusting that the bank will keep their promise and is keeping track of what I’m spending, and I just check and make sure we’re not bouncing.  But there are times I wonder – hmmm…..can I trust what’s in my account?  Do I really know what’s in there?  Will they keep their word?  Call it the paranoid in me, I sometimes have doubts.  Especially in the middle of the night, when all of those worries creep in.  If you can identify with this, you know something of what Abram felt as he struggled to believe in God’s promise in the midst of his doubts.

Before we dig into the story wondering about trust and promises, what was going on with Abram before this happened?  Well, you know the story of Abram, later called Abraham.  In chapter 11 of the book of Genesis we move from looking at the world as a whole and its various acts of disobedience, to following the story of Abram.  In chapters 11 and 12, God called Abram, saying “Go from your country, and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[1]  Wow.  Leave all that you have known and go to this new land that God will show you and God will make you, who has no children, a great nation.  That was pretty unbelievable.  You’re 75 years old, with no children, and God tells you go and I’ll make you into a great nation.  Yeah right.  But what does the text say “Abram left, just as the Lord had told him.”  So Abram begins this new journey.  He steps out in faith.  They really should make a movie like The Ten Commandments a la Charlton Heston about the story of Abraham because of the large scope of it all.

In chapter 13 God again makes a promise to Abram.  “Raise your eyes now and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.  I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.  Rise up, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”  So again, God promises Abram two very big things – the land and the offspring to inhabit it.  Not just a handful of offspring, but descendants like the dust of the earth never to be fully counted, because who in the world could count the dust?  I wouldn’t want to begin to count even the dust in our house.  So yes, again, God had promised this childless man not only land but descendants as numerous as dust.

Right before we met Abram in today’s passage there had been a battle and to make a long story short, with God’s help, Abram won.  When you win, you take the loot.  Our family plays the game of Risk a lot, and in that game, when you win a battle, you take that person’s land.  The goal in the game is world domination.  Just like in anything else – if you win, you get the reward.  Abram realized that God was the one who had delivered his enemies into his hand and after giving the priest ten percent of all the spoils, he didn’t take anything else for himself.  That was a whole heck of a lot to turn down, but God had been faithful to Abram delivering him from Egypt and helping him win this battle, and he didn’t want to owe anyone anything, he and his allegiance belonged only to God. Since he gave God credit for the victory, the spoils weren’t his. His refusal was a sign of faith.

This is where we are in our text today.  Abram has just turned down this handsome reward and God comes to him in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”  God says look I’ve got your back, I’ve got you covered.  You may have given up that loot, like in The Goonies, “the rich stuff,” but I’ve got an even greater reward for you.

What does Abram do?  He, a little on the angry, maybe even on the sarcastic side of things, asks what can you give me when I’m childless and everything I have will go to a servant in my house.  What can you give me?  Doesn’t that sound like a question you hear today all too often.  What can you give me?  The Message says it this way, “God, Master, what use are your gifts as long as I’m childless…?”[2]  What use are your gifts?  That’s a pretty straightforward and forthright question.  What good is all this stuff if I can’t take it with me and I can’t leave it to my children?  Abram has heard God promise to make him this great nation, and he’s heard God say he’ll make his descendants as many as the dust of the earth, but yet, he hasn’t seen anything yet.  It’s a show me the money kind of moment.  He’s tired of the talk; he wants to see some action.  Don’t we get like that sometimes?  We’ve been given this promise, this word from God, and it seems that nothing is happening or that our prayers are going unanswered.  Sometimes we start to worry if God’s taking a break or if we’ve misunderstood God’s will.  In our fast-paced society, we often want things right NOW, and if they don’t come fast enough, we begin to think they’re not coming.  We get discouraged.  Abram had some of these same fears and questions.

What did God say to Abram, even before he began to ask his questions?  “Do not be afraid Abram.”  God cuts at the core of his fear.  See in Abram’s day, being childless was a big deal.  Some thought it was a sign of judgment or wickedness and as it is today, your children are who hopefully care for you as you get older, so Abram’s concern was not unfounded.  God knew Abram’s thoughts and he gave him the proof he needed.  God knows us, and God knows where we are and what we’re feeling even before we articulate it.  God is a big God, and a gracious God and God doesn’t slink away from our questions, God doesn’t hide or back down from them, God doesn’t smite him down for questioning and God doesn’t get angry at his doubt – God reassures him.  In the movie Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise’s character, a sports agent, has just made a huge stand professionally and he’s trying to rally all of his sports clients around him.  Cuba Gooding’s character, a pro football player is who he calls first.  Over and over again he reassures him that he is on his side, looking out for his best interests and working hard for him.  And the classic scene shows Cuba yelling back and forth into the phone “Show me the money.”  With Cruise responding emphatically assuring him as he yells into the phone, “I will show you the money!” He puts everything he has into it at the loss of all else.  He assures him and puts his fears at ease.  He steps up to the plate.  God does the same thing.  God meets Abram where he is, and answers him.

God says that Abram’s heir won’t be this servant, but a child of his own from his own body.  God doesn’t give a general speech about keeping God’s promise, but God addresses Abram’s actual fears, the doubts and worries he has about his own specific situation – having an heir or a legacy to pass on.  After he answers his doubt, God provides him with another image, another symbol just like the dust in his earlier promise.  He says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them, so shall your descendants be.”  Again, he gives him something so huge that it can’t even be counted.  Can you imagine it?  If you were Abram in the days, weeks, and years to come as you go through your every day life, in the daytime seeing the dust and in the nighttime seeing the stars and thinking about this promise that God made you, this crazy and unlikely reality that God has promised you, would you believe it?  Would you keep the faith?  Does Abram have concrete evidence that this will happen, that God will keep God’s word?  Not really.  But we have heard how God had called him and had provided for him, and how God continues to make the promise.  We have heard how God answered his fears.  And because of these things, through God, as our Covenant Keeper, Abram believed. Verse 6 says, “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  Through his faith, Abram was made right with God.

There is a story about Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China, going to a bank in England and opening up an account for the China Inland Mission.  As he was filling out the application he came to a question asking him for his assets, or in other words what you got.  Taylor wrote in the blank, “ten pounds and the promises of God.”[3]  You can take God to the bank!  If you know the story of Taylor and the China Inland Mission and all of the great, faithful work that they did, you know the foundation for his life was God’s promise:  That God has begun a good work and would bring it to completion; faith that God would keep God’s covenant.  When you have received God’s promise, it is something you can take to the bank.

Abram had seen God at work in his life and as unlikely as the promise sounded, he believed.  He trusted that he could stand on those promises.  And what about those words, “reckoned it to him as righteousness?”  Paul would later allude to this verse in Romans 4 and Galations 3 when he begins talking about justification by faith.  He uses Abram as an example to the early church saying that through his faith Abram was set in right relationship with God, not by anything that he earned or worked, but just by his belief.  What Paul was trying to communicate was that it is the same with us.  We’ve seen all the ways that God has worked in our lives, just as Abram saw, and just like Abram, all we have to do is believe to be reckoned as righteous, or counted as good even though we obviously don’t deserve it.  We believe that God loved us and drew us to God even when we didn’t know it and that by grace God gives us the opportunity to believe.  Through this faith and belief, we are saved.

In verse 7, God again reminds Abram of who God is, the God who has brought him to this place, and the promise.  Here Abram goes again questioning God, “How am I to know that I shall possess this land?”  Although in verse 6 it says that he believed, he is now asking for some sort of sign.  Just like us, sometimes even when we do believe, we have questions and doubts.  Again, God answers him.  God provides the assurance that he needs both in word and deed.  God makes God’s self vulnerable by making a cutting covenant with Abram.  I know it sounds a little gross, but this is where we get our saying of “cutting a deal with someone.”   The way it works is that you walk between the animals sealing your agreement and if you break the agreement then your fate is that of the animals.  Covenants are serious, being cut in half is serious.  These are not just promises, but something far more-weighty and binding.  Marriage is one of these things, where it’s not just a promise made between two people, but it is a pledge, an oath that should not be taken lightly. It’s a covenant.

God’s covenant with Abram isn’t quite like a marriage where there is an equal partnership in the covenant-making. This is a special kind of covenant, a royal covenant, where a king rewards a servant for loyalty and faithful service.  All of the responsibility and pressure is on the king to uphold the covenant because he is the one of greater stature.[4]  In other words because of God’s love for us and God’s knowledge of our human limitations, God puts God’s self on the line, knowing that this is not an equal partnership, but that the majority of the risk is God’s.  In the form of a smoking fire pot and flaming torch, God covenanted with Abram to fulfill both of his promises – to give him all of this land and to give him descendants to inhabit it.

What an amazing God we serve, that God has staked God’s own life on this promise.  This is not a promise that Abram initiated, but it is a unilateral decision and covenant made by God.  It is not something we have to do or initiate, but it is part of the nature of God.  That’s the important point.  God’s promise is certain not because of anything that we have done, but because of who God is.  Yes, Abram has been faithful, but so has God and so God will be.  God is not a distant God who watches from afar, but God is a present God who has entered into the fray with humanity.  God seeks relationship with us and has covenanted with each of us in the greatest of all sacrifices on the cross.  God doesn’t pull back or go half way, but as in popular games of Texas Hold ‘em, God goes all in.  God, Emmanuel, became one of us.  God is a personal God that seeks us, that woos us, that draws us to God’s self.  On the cross God provided the greatest sign and gave us the opportunity to join in the greatest covenant.

What is our response?  Our response is that of Abram’s, to believe.  To have faith in the God of the universe that covenants to be in relationship with you and with me, sinners redeemed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.  To trust God’s promises – promises to never leave nor forsake us, promises to give us abundant life, promises to walk with us, both assuring us and answering our questions and fears, but also calling us to grow and trust and respond in faith.

An old man and woman were driving down the road, with the man behind the steering wheel and his wife of many years sitting next to the passenger-side door. They came up behind a car in front of them that had a very young couple riding side by side, almost looking like a two-headed monster because they were sitting so close together. The woman looked over at her husband and pointed at the young couple in front of them and asked, “Why don’t we do that anymore?” He slowly looked over at her and replied, “I haven’t moved.”[5] There have been times, like Abram, we have moved back and forth sometimes trusting, sometimes doubting and questioning God’s provision for us. At times we’ve even gotten out of the car, but God hasn’t moved.

In closing, one of my favorite hymns, perhaps because of the words, perhaps because of the gusto, is “Standing on the Promises.”  Listen here to the second verse, “Standing on the promises that cannot fail, when the howling storms of doubt and fear assail, by the living Word of God I shall prevail, standing on the promises of God.  Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior, standing, standing, I’m standing on the promises of God.”[6]  You can stand on and trust the promises of God.  God’s a sure thing.  Bank on it!

[1] Genesis 12:1-3, All scripture references unless otherwise noted are from The New Oxford Annotated Bible – New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message:  The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs:  Navpress, 2002), 39.

[3] Patrick Mead,“Standing on the Promises of God,” www.sermoncentral.com, February 20, 2006.

[4] David J. A. Clines, “Genesis-Esther,” HarperCollins Bible Commentary  (San Francisco:  HarperCollins, 2000), 93.

[5] King Duncan, King’s Treasury of Dynamic Humor (Knoxville: Seven Worlds Press, 1990), 173.

[6] The United Methodist Hymnal:  Book of United Methodist Worship (Nashville:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 2002), 374.

God works wonders from dust…

Today is Ash Wednesday.   It is the beginning of Lent and the day in the church calendar that we are called upon to face our own mortality.   I am confessing a secret that I actually don’t hate Lent.  Because in this crazy, busy culture we need 40 days to contemplate, pray, and fast and this is the day that kicks it all off.  It is in Ash Wednesday that we are called upon to face the deep truth that as mortals we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Mary Oliver says about this life “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Even though we talk about calling and gifts and graces and God guiding and leading us through life, Ash Wednesday is reminding us that we are dust and to dust we return.

It can be scary, a little refreshing.   Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran priest shares the image she has about Ash Wednesday, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and us not knowing what the distance is between the two, well then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and then held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. With these ashes, it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”  We live in a culture that tells us if we work hard enough, have enough money, buy enough skin care products, eat healthy enough, or exercise with enough vigor, we might just live forever.  And yet, we know that is not true.  So today, we proclaim the truth that we shall return to the dust over which God first breathed life.

And I, at least, breathe a sigh of relief.   Because admitting and facing my own mortality, allows me to admit that God is God and I am not (and we should all be very thankful for that).  It allows me to lay down my attempts to manage my own human brokenness, and step into the deep and holy mystery that is the Christian life.   Having confessed my sins, and admitted my own mortality, it allows me to live freely this incredible, mortal life that is my reality right now.  It allows me to take chances, take leaps of faith, with every breath that I have in my body.

But perhaps more than that, it helps me to let go of my fear.  Because Ash Wednesday reminds us that in spite of it all, death does not have the last word.   While we and others have the power to destroy our mortal flesh, God has destroyed death.

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it cuts through the crud, the non-essentials.  It gets to the heart of the very core of everything.  It reminds us of God’s infinite promises to us.  It reminds us there is beauty in our brokenness, and freedom that we don’t have to live up to some earthly falsehood of perfection.

Ann Voskamp says this about Lent, “I can’t seem to follow through in giving up for Lent. Which makes me want to just give up Lent.  Which makes me question Who I am following.  Which may precisely be the point of Lent.”

Whether you’re adding something or taking something away, whether you commit to have some quiet in your life and spend twenty minutes in day in silence, whether you write down things that you are thankful for, or fast one day a week.   Randy Wells reminded me before the service that I have to talk about the “feast” days on Sundays that you can choose to follow your Lenten discipline or not because every Sunday is supposed to be a Resurrection Sunday or mini-Easter.  He then pointed out, we shouldn’t take that as an invitation to cram all of the other days vices into that one day!

Jo Ann Staebler in her book “Soul Fast,” says, “In the deep stillness of prayer my soul fasts.  Fasting, at its heart, is turning away from what keeps me from God.  Two things I must leave:  the walls I build around the space that was made to be God’s dwelling; the absurdities I keep in that space, so jealously hoarded.  Taking down the wall that protects the false self I have been building, all these years…risking exposure, emptiness, loneliness.  The fast is silence, ocean-deep and prolonged.  Shard by shard, the wall begins to fall.  Inch by inch, the space clears, and Love lights the shadows.  I come unprotected, and learn that God alone is safety.  I come unaccompanied, and find that Christ alone is Friend.  I come hungry, and receive the only food that satisfies.  In letting go is abundance.  In emptying I am filled.  This is not denial, but freedom.  Fast is feast.”

Maybe we should fast from the 24 hours new cycle.  Maybe we should fast from television.  Maybe we should fast from social media.  Maybe we should fast from the electronics that get in the way of us talking to our friends and family, like they are attached to our bodies or something.  It doesn’t matter to me what you do, I just want you to be intentional in this Lenten ritual.  As most things in life, what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it.  It’s only a tool, a ritual, to draw us closer to Jesus.

Hear these powerful words from the artist and poet, Jan Richardson, in her poem “Blessing the Dust.”

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

God can work wonders from dust.  God made you in your mother’s womb.  Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made — the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place — what are human beings that you think about them . . . that you pay attention to them?”

I’ve heard Hawk Nelson’s “Diamonds” on the radio and can’t help but relate it to Ash Wednesday every time it comes on.  Here are the lyrics:

Here and now I’m in the fire, in above my head
Being held under the pressure, don’t know what will be left
But it’s here in the ashes
I’m finding treasure

He’s making diamonds
Making diamonds
He’s making diamonds out of dust
He is refining
And in his timing
He’s making diamonds out of us

I’ll surrender to the power of being crushed by love
‘Til the beauty that was hidden isn’t covered up
It’s not what I hoped for
It’s something much better

Oh The Joy of the Lord
It will be my strength
When the pressure is on
He’s making Diamonds

I won’t be afraid to shine

May we never be afraid to shine.  God can do mighty things through us.  Our Rabbi Jesus can lead us to do some crazy, awesome things as we follow his teachings, example, and have his dust all over us.  The Holy Spirit can fan the fire to make diamonds out of dust.  So, shout it from the roof tops, sing it in your heart, whisper it quietly to yourself, but tell that truth.  That you were formed from dust and to dust you will return.  Then, breathe a sigh of relief and be free.  Because it’s not all about you.  It’s about what God does in us.  As I will say when I put the ashes on your forehead, God can work wonders out of dust.  Thanks be to God indeed.

Something is Different about this Rabbi

Matthew 4:12-23

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

Did you notice how Matthew made reference to the prophet Isaiah?  Matthew’s gospel in particular is geared towards a Jewish audience.  The other gospel authors don’t reference the prophet Isaiah in this passage, but Matthew wants to create a compelling case for his people that this man, Jesus, is whom the prophets foretold.  This is the person we have waited for.  In verse 16, “16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  People in darkness crave the light with an unquenchable thirst and he’s letting the world know that the Light has come – by his use of prophets and stories and parables and miracles.  He’s making a case that Jesus is the Messiah.

People sometimes wonder why God chose to come to earth when Jesus did. Do you ever wonder what was special about that time and that place? Was it a dark time in history?  Did they have massive amounts of turmoil in all the world?  What was so special about first-century Palestine that made for the perfect time for the in-breaking of the Light of the world? There are all sorts of great answers in hindsight. For one, the world was primed for the spread of the Gospel. The Greek and then Roman Empires had built an infrastructure that spread across continents. There were established roads and trade routes and seafaring technology, common languages and schools, military protection and the rule of law. These Empires persecuted the Church, yes, but the Church was also able to kind of harness the systems in place to spread the Good News guerrilla-style.

There are lots of other interesting facts in the first century that made it a prime time for Jesus’ ministry, but the one that particularly interests us today, and for the next several weeks of our series together, is something that was a central piece in the Jewish culture. I’m talking about the role or the office of the rabbi. The Rabbi. Now, up front, I want you to know that this isn’t a focus and function sermon.  What is the text saying and what does that call us to do as Christians? Rather, it’s about following a sort of trail that will lead us into our “At the Feet of the Rabbi” sermon series. Not a rabbit trail, but a rabbi trail. HA! No, but seriously, if this is the main role that Jesus lived out of in his culture, it can tell us much about what he was doing, teaching, and living and what it means to actually follow him.

To unpack this, we start our trail in the childhood of the average Jewish kid in Jesus’ day. For the ancient Jews, much like us, a person’s introduction to God and faith started as early as possible. Not only that, but the Jews believed that teaching their kids the Word of God was their first priority in life. They believed that you had to really embed Scripture deep in the bones of the next generation, because if you didn’t, you were only a generation away from being extinct as a people. For example, Dr. Thomas Thangaraj was one of my favorite professors at Candler.  He helped shape immensely the inter-religious ministry I took part in during my Contextual Education with Religious Life at Emory.  He is a 7th generation Indian Christian from Nazareth, India.  The disciple Thomas of Doubting Thomas fame was said to have visited all over the coast of India and he comes from a town that was discipled by the Apostle Thomas.  He did most of his work on training Christians to talk with people of other faiths, specifically Hindu, and he wrote The Crucified Guru.  He shared this personal story during one of our class times, as he studied Hindu more and more, his father urged him, begged him not “to mess this up” because their family had been Christians for 7 generations.  How much more so, would it have been for God’s chosen people, Israel?  This wasn’t overblown anxiety, it was real. It was their heritage.  Where they came from.  Remember, Israel’s history was one of persecution, battle, exile and enslavement.  They were in a continuous spin cycle all throughout the Old Testament where they disobeyed God’s laws, God sent them a prophet, they didn’t listen, and they were conquered, exiled, and nearly wiped out completely. It was the real deal for them, saying “Our children HAVE to KNOW who our people are, and who God is, and what God commands.” The children of Israel needed to know their rich culture, deep heritage, the oral history of their past, present and future story.

So, they started early. One teacher gave this advice:  “Under the age of six we do not receive a child as a pupil; from six upwards accept him and stuff him (with Torah) like an ox.” Ha. Awesome, right? This was taken very seriously. There were three phases of education for Jewish kids, and the first one, kind of like elementary school, was called Bet Sefer. Repeat after me: Bet Sefer. It means “House of the Book” and in Bet Sefer, kids ages 6-10 were tasked to learn the Torah, the first five books of our Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. And when I say learned, I mean really they had to memorize it. All of it.  If we had to memorize the begats or all of the laws in Leviticus, could we? Could our kids hack it?  Well, as Rob Bell said in his NOOMA video, it’s not that we don’t have the mental capacity for this anymore – how many of you know every single word to the albums you played over and over in high school? How many of you can recite every line from your favorite movies?  Mike and I were stunned when we heard the song “Peaches” that I knew all the words.  I don’t know which brother had the tape, but I remember it was an orange tape and we listened to it over Christmas when we were trying to create a hangout place in the shed in our back yard.  What a ridiculous song to know.  So we have the capacity, it’s a determination of what’s important to us and if we want to do it.

Just to instill how important God’s Word was, in that first phase of education, even on the first day of class, the Rabbi would take honey and cover the slate or desk of the students. Now, honey was incredibly exotic and valuable and seen as the most pleasurable thing to eat, like Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  After covering everything the Rabbi would say, “Now, lick it all off.” And as they went to town licking it all off, he would say, “May the words of Scripture be like this to you” – exotic and valuable and pleasurable.  Words that you treasure.   Powerful, right?  That was Bet Sefer.

Now, the second phase of education was even tougher. This was like middle school, and it was rarer for kids to make it this far. Only those who passed Bet Sefer advanced to Bet Talmud, which means “House of Learning.” It was for kids 10-14. In Bet Talmud, the students were tasked with memorizing all the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, through Malachi. Not only that, but they started to really dig into the text and use the art of question and answer. For instance, our Western style of education says, “here’s the exam, spit out the info.” The test says, “2+2=___.” But the Rabbi’s method was to ask something like, “What is 2+2?” and he expected to be answered by a question, “Well, what is 16 divided by 4?” Tricky, right? They were creating this working knowledge. One of the scriptures my mom made us memorize as kids was Luke 2:52, “Jesus grew in wisdom and knowledge, and in favor of God and man.”  Remember Jesus at the age 12 was in the temple, is there among the wise men, and we get the sense that this is what was happening. Bet Talmud.

Finally, for those who passed middle school, there came phase three, like high school and an Ivy League college combined. It was called Bet Midrash, meaning “House of Study.” These kids were the best of the best of the best. At age 13 or 14, they would apply and hope to be invited by a Rabbi to go into apprenticeship.

Late one evening, a rabbi is sitting out with his students, watching the stars appear in the heavens one by one. “Tell me this,” asks the teacher: “how can we know when the night is ended and the day has begun?”

One eager young man jumps right in. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when you look off across the pasture and can tell which animal is a dog and which is a sheep.”

The teacher says nothing, gazing off into the distance.

“Is this the right answer?” the young man asks, after a time.

“It is a good answer, but not the answer I am looking for,” replies the teacher.

“Let me try,” says another student. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when the light falls on the leaves, and you can tell if it is a palm tree or a fig tree you’re looking at.”

“That too is a fine answer, but not the one I am looking for.”

“Then, what is the right answer?” demand the students. “Rebbe, answer your own question!”

The teacher looks out over the eager young crowd of disciples and replies, “When you look into the eyes of a human being and see a brother or sister, you know that it is morning. If you cannot see a sister or brother, you know that it will always be night.”

In this phase, it wasn’t just about knowing Scripture. Your Rabbi would teach you everything he knew. Everything he had learned from his Rabbi. Everything he knew about other Rabbi teachings. As well as, his own unique interpretation of it all. This special kind of course of study was known as the Rabbi’s “yoke.” The Rabbi hoped to have a strong school of apprentices, because one day when the Rabbi was no more, he wanted to be sure the yoke was passed on. Some yokes were about perfectionism and rigid rule-following. Others were about pride and being well-known. Some Rabbis were incredibly selective because they wanted their yoke to be the most rare and unattainable. Others were interested in having the biggest following. Whatever the case, this was like making the NBA or NFL for Jewish children. So many of them didn’t make the cut. And when a kid was told they weren’t good enough at some point, the Rabbi would come to them and say, “I’m sorry, now it’s time for you to return home and learn the family trade. Go and have many children and if God blesses you maybe one of them will one day be a Rabbi.”

Do we start to hear just how much the office of the Rabbi was revered?  The word Rabbi itself actually comes in two parts. The first half is rab. Repeat after me. Rab. It means, great in every way: much, many, big, strong, powerful. You might even say “yuge.” Rab. The second half is the little sound i. In Hebrew, adding the sound i to the end of a word made it personal and possessive. It could be translated as “my.” In other words, the Rabbi was “MY great one”  — the best of the best of the best, who was also the personal one that I’d chosen for myself, or who had chosen me.

Y’all, all of that makes up the backdrop of understanding who Jesus was and is.

For one, why were the disciples in Matthew 4 by the sea fishing? Because they hadn’t made the cut at some point. They were “didn’t make its.” Not only that, but why did they abandon everything, and their dad, and just jet off after Jesus? Because when a Rabbi said, “Follow me,” this was your chance. Why did Jesus say things like, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light?” Because his yoke, his teaching, wasn’t weighed down with human nonsense or empty rules…his was built on his own sacrifice and grace. But to understand him as Rabbi also lends a lot more weight to statements like, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Because following a Rabbi wasn’t just sitting in a classroom with a teacher, it was physically and emotionally and spiritually, full-bodied following. Going where they went, learning what they taught, doing as they did.  It was more than rules; it was embodying how Jesus lived.

I once saw a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown says to Violet: “Just think of it: the dirt and dust of far-off lands blowing over here and settling on ‘Pig-Pen.'”

“It staggers the imagination!” Charlie continues. “He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar or Genghis Khan!”

Pig-Pen: “That’s true, isn’t it?”

In the next frame he’s saying with unaccustomed pride: “Sometimes I feel like royalty!”

We should feel like royalty too, because if we follow our Rabbi, we really follow Jesus.  We will have his dust all over us.  What it means, y’all, is that when we listen to the Sermon on the Mount the next few weeks, we aren’t just hearing words or teaching like any old sermon. We are joining the people in sitting at the feet of a Rabbi. Our Rabbi. And that makes us more than just students or listeners, but disciples, actively walking in his ways.  People charged with taking up his unique yoke, living it, and passing it on.

 

Timothy

Sweet starts this chapter with these words, “We are all treading in someone else’s footsteps.”  We all work within the framework of someone else’s legacy and to those that have gone before in the great cloud of witnesses.

2 Timothy 3:10-11 says, Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness,my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.”

A Timothy is a protégé, an heir, and an apprentice.  A Timothy knows your mind better than anyone else.  They can anticipate your every move even before you make it.  A Timothy is not an Andy and a Paul is not a Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, where she will have to gopher all of Miranda’s every whims at all hours of the day or night.  But, they would have spent an awfully lot of time together.

Who is Timothy?  Of all the early Christian workers on behalf of the Gospel, Timothy was the closest to Paul.  It’s often the case, that Paul pushes Timothy to the beginning of his letters to a particular church.  For example, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians, all start this way.  Paul looks on Timothy as a son in Philippians 2:22.  He was from Lystra in Asia Minor.  He was born of a Greek father and a Jewish Christian mother.  Timothy was young when he first joined Paul and Silas, but his co-workers in Lystra and Iconium spoke so highly of him that Paul decided that he could handle this journey.  Although Timothy’s mother was Jewish, he had not been circumcised.  Paul was concerned that this would impede his authority among the Jews to whom he would be preaching, who knew his father was Greek, and so he circumcised him personally and ordained him as a preacher.  His mother Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, are noted as examples of piety and faith. 

What kind of legacy will you leave your descendants?  Alan Jamieson says it like this, “Like Abram, the question that we, too, must consider is whether we will have descendants:  not children in our own line but descendants in faith and life.  Will we love and care for others in such a way that they become descendants?  People to whom and through whom the lessons of faith we have learned are passed on?”  What’s our legacy going to be?  Will our descendants be numerous as the stars or will they all be extinguished when the mere flicker of doubt sends them running for the hills?

Before Paul had a Timothy, he first had to BE a Timothy.  Paul was a protégé of Gamaliel, the most important rabbi in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.  Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel, one of the greatest interpreters of the Torah in Jewish history, as evidenced by the title bestowed on him of Rabboni, “our teacher” rather than Rabbi, “my teacher.”  Even though Gamaliel recommended patience with those who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah, his star pupil Saul didn’t agree with him and stoned the “blasphemers.”  Before becoming an evangelizing Paul, Gamaliel’s star pupil was a persecuting Saul.  In Acts 22:3 Paul tells a crowd in Jerusalem, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.” 

A mentor is someone who is a wise and trusted counselor and teacher or an influential senior sponsor or supporter.  Synonyms for mentor are an advisor, master, guide, or preceptor.  We all have mentors that shape us and mold us as we ask vocational questions or continue on our career paths.  That make it easier for us to not walk this journey alone.  It depends on the relationship how hands on the teaching is, how personal.

Osmosis was how protégés like Timothy learned from Paul.  He traveled with him, watched what he did, and then was given “tests” or assignments to complete to see how well he was developing his potential.  Wherever Timothy went, he carried the aura of Paul’s authority and name with him.  For example, the Assistant Directors are leading the leadership meeting this afternoon, and I want y’all to treat them the same way y’all would treat me….only better.  The Timothy relationship cannot develop without the patience of presence.  A Timothy needs a balance of instruction and silence to process the teaching, and the trust you place in him or her to do the job.  You don’t have to say a word, or call every other day, to let him or her know you still care.  That’s the difference in a Timothy relationship, you care.  You care about how well their soul is doing.

I will have dinner with three of my Timothy’s tomorrow night in Atlanta.  I’m meeting with Angela, Jessica and Jon at the Vortex, a hamburger joint in Little Five Points.  Angela spent two years with me.  She was a rising Junior when I got to Winthrop Wesley, needless to say that first semester our relationship was rocky.  She didn’t want anything to change and she liked Wesley small, which would never work for me.  I’ll never forget taking Angela on her first camping trip or her first rafting trip.  Stories abound, and I will tell you about her first camping trip Wednesday night.  She saw me at my best, and at my worst.  And she’s the only one that has ever experienced the joy of Enoch projectile vomiting on her when he was an infant.  She’s now the campus minister at Georgia State Wesley, and I’m exceedingly proud of her.   Jon and Jessica are in their second year of Candler, where I went to seminary. Jessica worked for me as my student assistant for 3 years and Jon lived for two years at Wesley in a small room that we had on the side.  So they certainly saw “my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness.”  The good, the bad, the ugly.

I could name students that are not ministers, lest you think I’m creating little spawns of me.  Josh and Jaime that work at the CDC, Jan that’s a neuro nurse, Ashlee who some of you met in New York, that got her Master’s in Social Work from Columbia University.  I am incredibly proud of all of them and I’m hoping that they’re creating a ripple effect of being God’s hands and feet in the world.  A healthy tree is not a single tree, no matter how beautiful it may look.  A healthy sycamore tree is a tree with heirs, a sycamore community with trees in various stages of growth and development.  You must always look at trees successors before you judge its health and vitality.

Joshua in the Old Testament, did not pass the baton, he had no heirs.  Then came the judges, spawning the most horrible times recorded in the Hebrew Bible for Israel.  When the baton is passed, we tend to grab the wrong end of the stick, where our mentors are holding.  We want to be clones not heirs.  Joshua is not Moses’ clone.  Timothy is not Paul’s clone.  What we find is a “mash up.”  Mash-ups remix the same song with a different beat, sometimes in a different key. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FPsAVg2DNU 

Glee made mashups popular again.  Do you see what I’m saying?  They’re not the same song, but there are some similarities and you can tell it is the same vein.   

The process of being a Timothy is a gradual revelation of the song your life is composing, that one-of-a-kind, unrepeatable, irreplaceable song that only you can sing.  Remember Winnie the Pooh in the story about losing his song?  He gets his friends to go on the hunt for his song and then he finds that his song is within him.  “A friend is someone who, when you forget your song, comes and sings it for you.”

When James Mawdsley was imprisoned in Burma, he sang to give himself courage, “After [the prison guard] left, still unable to sleep, I began singing “How Great Thou Art.”  My voice got louder and louder until I was belting it out.  I could feel strength coming back to me; I was not going to bow yet.  A gaggle of guards came running and told me to be quiet.  They were excited and afraid.  I sang to the end of the song, congratulating myself on my defiance, then crumpled back into bleakness.”  Let Jesus sing through you.  When God sings in and through us, liberation happens.  The sound of a voice calling from the darkness can pierce through that very same darkness.

The primary organ a Timothy must possess is ears.  Jesus says when Pilate confronted him, “Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice.” Sweet says if anything indicates the success or failure of a Timothy, it’s the ability to listen.  “Some things can only be heard by those with ears to hear.  The more layers of interference—iPods, iPhones, cell phones, the tv, Netflix – the more our inner voice is blocked and the more help we need to hear.

Astonomer and atheist Carl Sagan said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”  Sweet makes the supposition that more either becomes better or different.  More as better means doing what you’re already doing, except doing it bigger, faster, with added value.  In contrast more as different means doing something unique and outside the box.  As Christians, we don’t live better than others.  But we sure as heck better be living different.  They will know we are Christians by our love.  Timothys have to take some leaps into the unknown when they do the different route.  How about you, when someone says, “You sure are different and you think different.”  Do you take it is a compliment?  Is it meant as a compliment, or is it almost always negative in its implications?  What about when we say it to others?

Charlie in the Broadway Show Kinky Boots, is set to inherit his father’s shoe business, but he has other plans of moving to London with his girlfriend Nicola.  When his father suddenly dies, he must take over the shoe business.  His doubts are expressed in a song “Charlie’s Soliloquy” and I would like to play it for you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E81VXIDSxe4

Charlie:
Do I belong here?
Am I what’s wrong here?
Know what I’m doing?
Or am I a fraud?
Do I fit in?
Where do I begin?
Same old Charlie,
Frightened and flawed.
So, I pretend
and keep my head up like I
Know how this will end.

Maybe these pieces
Are falling together.
Making me feel like
I’m not alone.
Punching holes
Into this leather
This kind’a feels like
I’m back home.

I’m watching myself
And I know what to do.
Hey look at me now
It’s a shoe.

Charlie was feeling alone with the burden and the weight of his father’s legacy on top of him.  But then he realized that he’s not in it alone, he’s got a community behind him.  He’s got a cluster of sycamore trees rooting for him, quite literally.

I couldn’t help but call to mind the Rob Bell NOOMA video “Dust”  so I’m going to end there.  Because anybody can be a Timothy, if they want to be.  Anybody can follow if you have a willingness in your heart.  Just pay attention to be on the lookout for mentors.

Dust – 9:30-13:49

 

Let us pray.

Holy and Gracious God, may we be covered in your dust.  May we earnestly seek you and to do your will in our lives.  May you give us hearts to follow, but also hearts to mentor, to guide, to lead.  Like Charlie may we find reassurance for our doubts.  May you speak truth over our lives and may we hear your truth and not brush it to the side.  In Jesus’ name I pray, and I pray as you taught your disciples to pray, saying…