Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Enjoying God - Ephesians 3:14-21

Psalm 20:1-5
May the LORD answer you when you are in distress;
may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
2 May he send you help from the sanctuary
and grant you support from Zion.
3 May he remember all your sacrifices
and accept your burnt offerings.
4 May he give you the desire of your heart
and make all your plans succeed.
5 We will shout for joy when you are victorious
and will lift up our banners in the name of our God.
May the LORD grant all your requests.
Ephesians 3:14-21
For this reason I kneel before the Father,  from whom is whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge-- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
            One of the questions that has haunted human life for centuries is "what is the purpose of life?"   Billy Crystal, in the old movie CITY SLICKERS, addresses a group of 9 year olds about life, and his remarks reflect his own search for some meaning in his life. Being depressed about his life, he tends to depress the kids.

            Looking at these innocent children, he says, "When you're a teenager, you think you can do anything, and you do.  Your 20's are a blur. 30's you raise a family, make a little money, and think, 'Gee what happened to my 20's?'  40's you grow a little pot belly, you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud. One of your old girl friends from high school becomes a grandmother. 50's you'll have minor surgery. You'll call it a procedure, but its a surgery.60's you'll have major surgery. The music is still too loud, but it doesn't matter because you can’t hear anymore anyway. 70's you and the wife retire to Florida. You start eating dinner at 2 in the afternoon. Lunch around 10, and breakfast the night before. You spend most of your time walking around the Mall looking for the ultimate soft yogurt and muttering to yourself,  'how come the kids don't call, how come the kids don't call?'  80's you have a major stroke, You end up babbling to some Jamaican nurse whom your wife can't stand but whom you call momma."

            Now, later in the movie, Billy Crystal's character goes on vacation with three other middle aged men. They are all going through a mid life crisis. In an effort to rediscover themselves, they sign up for a vacation on a western ranch, in which tourists herd cattle from one ranch to another.

            During the vacation, Billy Crystal's character develops a friendship with a rough cowboy played by Jack Palace. Palace looks at Crystal and says, "You know, year after year, I see you guys come and go. You're all the same. You work in your suits and ties and when you reach your 39th birthday you come out here hoping to find the meaning of life."

            Crystal looks at him and says, "I suppose you already know the meaning of life."

            "Of course I do," says the cowboy. "It's this."

            And he holds up one finger.

            "Your finger is the meaning of life?" asks Crystal?

            "No you idiot. But its one thing."

            "What's the one thing?"

            "Can't tell you," says the cowboy. “You have to find that out on your own.”  And of course, for the rest of the movie, Crystal is searching and eventually finds that one thing that is the meaning of life.

            What is the meaning of life? Well, we Presbyterians have a document that is called the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It is a question answer document that presents the faith of the Presbyterian Church.  The very first question is, what is the meaning of life? To be exact, the way the catechism puts it is this -- "What is the chief end of man?" Which is the same thing.

            The answer is, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever."  Now that might be considered a strange thing for Presbyterians to say.  Because Presbyterians by and large view themselves as folks who are formal by nature, who don't think about God as someone to be enjoyed.   God may be feared, respected, worshipped, adored, studied, sought after, these are Presbyterian concepts.   But to have a good time with God and to enjoy him -- that seems a bit far fetched for some of us.

            Now why is that? Why can't we enjoy God?

            You'd think that we as Christians would be among the most joyful people on the earth. We do have something to celebrate, you know. After all, Jesus did NOT say, "I have come to bring you gloom, and believe me, I have plenty to share." Of course he didn't.

            Nor did he say, "I have come to make you miserable, more than you already are."

            No. What he DID say was "I have come to give you life, so that you may have it abundantly."

            How many of you enjoy God? I suspect that there are those of us here who might fear God, but not enjoy him. And I do not mean the kind of respect for God that the Bible means when it uses the terminology, fear of the Lord. But rather, a shaking in your boots kind of fear.

            Some of us may be suffering from what might be called "Oatmeal Theology."   The story is told of Johnny and his mother who were having a dispute about oatmeal. Johnny's mother was trying her best to persuade the boy to eat his oatmeal, but he wouldn't budge. She insisted that it tasted good, but that didn't work.   She insisted that it was good for him, but that didn't work.   She insisted that it was the right thing for him to do, but that didn't work.   Finally, in total frustration, she said, "Johnny, if you don't eat your oatmeal, God is going to get you and so am I."

            But Johnny still didn't budge.

            So Johnny was sent to his room early that night.   Then came the thunderstorm. The lightning was flashing and the thunder was crashing, and Johnny's mom went up to check on her boy. When she peaked in, Johnny looked at his mother and said, "You know mom, this sure does seem like a lot of trouble to go to just over a bowl of oatmeal."

            Most of us feel that God's purpose is to punish us. To get us. To throw lightning bolts at us because we didn't eat our oatmeal, or because we lied, or because we stole, or because we covetted our neighbor's wife.

            God has thundered his “Thou shalt not's” from the Mountain of Sinai. Moses has hurled the tables of the law at our feet. The prophets, like heavenly district attorneys, prosecute us.

            It is hard to enjoy a God we are afraid of. This view of God makes religion a burden rather than a blessing. It makes God's presence in our lives as welcome as a state trooper's when we've been doing 90 mph on the interstate, in another state.   But we are not to be spooked by God. We are to enjoy him forever.

            How do we enjoy God?

            First, it strikes me that what we need is to realize who we are and who God is.

            We are people -- And God is -- God. We are not God, which is to say that we are not perfect. We sin. We fall short of the glory of God. We are commit failures from time to time.   That is part of what we are. But God does not hate us for our shortcomings.

            Those of you with children will understand this relationship.

            A child is going to step in the mud puddle. A child is going to get too loud sometimes. There will be fights and name calling, and an assortment of other things that challenge your patience.   But that is childhood. And those failures and misbehavior are part of growing up. You don't love your child any less, just because your child acts like a child -- but what you do is discipline your child.

            We are God's children. He doesn't love us less because of our human frailties. But he does discipline us.   And that kind of relationship does not require fear and terror, but love and enjoyment.

            As the Old Testament lesson says, "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."

            Of course, there may still be those who sincerely believe that God is on their backs all of the time. God is the driver, the punisher, the one who is always watch us, waiting to strike us down. How do you get rid of this feeling that God is on your back so that you can begin to enjoy God?

            The best way to get rid of that feeling that God is always on your back, is to get God into your heart. There is no joy in religion when all we have are external ceremonies and rules. There is no joy in religion when we attend church, but inwardly are empty. The good news of the gospel is that our hearts can be temples of God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is the greatest of all the gifts God has to give: the Spirit of Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith. God is not just a reality above us and around us. God can be a reality within us.

            The Psalmist in our Old Testament lesson also knew what it meant to have God within his heart so that he might be able to enjoy him. He said, “We will shout with joy.”

            When was the last time you shouted with joy?

            When was the last time you heard anyone shout with joy?

            Let me see.  Quite some time ago my family went to play a game of putt putt.  After finishing up, we were about to get into the car and drive away, and I heard some kids shout “Hole in one!” 

            You could hear the joy in their voices.

            If we can have that much joy in our voices over a silly game, can’t we have that much joy – and more – with God?

            Sure we can – enjoying God is the one thing.  Enjoying God is what life is all about.

Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Wake Up!! 1 Samuel 3:1-10

Lesson                                                              1 Samuel 3:1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of theLord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!”[a] and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lordcalled Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is the well-known 12 step program that alcoholics move through to improve their lives.

Step 8 is to make a list of those we have harmed.

Step 9 is to make amends to them.

If I were to ever live my life with the 12 step program, and I were to arrive at step number 9, I would have to try to find my 11th grade chemistry teacher.

I’m sorry for what I did to her.

I did not mean to start the fire in chemistry lab – but I really don’t think she should have given me a Bunsen burner and a flask full of chemicals.  But really, what was she thinking?

I did not mean for her to be so close to my Bunsen burner when the incident took place.

Most of all, I am sorry that day after day, I drove her nuts because I never paid any attention to her.

I just couldn’t help myself.

After all, I was 16 years old. And it was the last class of the day. And I just had other things to think about than the Periodic Table.

And then, on one warm Spring Day – I think it was a Friday – I was lost in thought, dreaming about – well, I think it had something to do with girl.

Anyway, my teacher reached her limit with me.

She picked up her chemistry book, threw it on the desk, pointed her finger at me and said, “That’s why! That’s why the low grades. Wake up!!”

I’ll never forget what happened next.

The kid sitting behind me woke up and said, “Who? Me?”

We all left the class that day wondering, “was she talking to me? I thought she was talking to you?” None of us had been paying any attention.  But I knew I was the guilty one she was talking to!

I sometimes have the feeling that God is like my chemistry teacher. Trying desperately to lead us, guide us, call us, but we aren’t paying any attention.

Our Old and New Testament lessons have a common theme – God calling and trying direct individuals.

There is something wonderfully comic about the Old Testament lesson.

There is young Samuel, asleep, and God calls.

He wakes up, goes to his guardian Eli and says, “Here I am, what do you want?”

Eli says, “Aw, you’re dreaming, go back to bed, leave me alone.”

It happens again.

Samuel hears the voice of God and he gets up and goes to Eli and says, “Here I am, what do you want?”

Eli sends him back to bed.

Finally, a third time is the charm. Eli figures out that it is the voice of God.

One of the strange elements of this story is that it takes place in the holiest place of the Sanctuary, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. It’s as if Eli and Samuel are thinking, “the last place we would ever encounter God is in the church.”

God calls, and no one pays any attention.

No one is listening.

When the voice of God breaks through to us, we don’t recognize it as God.

And the sad thing is that this is not chemistry class. This is life. We desperately want to hear the voice of God. We earnestly seek his guidance in our life.

But we are not listening.

We are not paying any attention.

You want to hear the voice of God in your life? The first thing you have to do is to believe that God will speak to you.

You have to be willing to open the Bible and be attentive to His Word. You have to be willing to listen in Sunday School, and listen in your meditations and prayers, and even in sermons.

Live in the expectation that God could say and do something wonderful in your life.

In the Old Testament lesson, Samuel finally responds to the call of God, and God speaks: “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.”

Something wonderful is about to happen.

Something amazing.

Most of us live lives in which we don’t really believe anything amazing or wonderful can or will happen.

God is not going to do anything in my life.

God is not going to speak to me.

God is not going to lead me.

God won’t inspire our church, grow our church, heal my family, or restore my life.

God doesn’t need me.

We live pessimistically.


God is always, always, calling us to live in the expectation that he is going to do something with us and to us and through us.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells a parable about his Second Coming.

Mark 13:33-37
33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.
34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 "Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back-- whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.
36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.
37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ’Watch!’"

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us to always live in the expectation that we might hear the call of God, and witness the work of God in our lives. “Be ready for service,” Jesus says. “Be ready for service.” (Luke 12:35-37)

A friend of mine once taught a confirmation class to a very small group. In fact, there were only three young girls in the class. In one session, the minister was teaching them about the festivals and seasons of the Christian year, and when they came to the discussion of Pentecost, the minister asked them if they knew what Pentecost was. Since none of the three knew, the minister began to explain.

“That’s when the church was sitting in a group and the Holy Spirit landed on them like tongues of fire on their heads. Then they spoke the Gospel in all the languages of the world.”

Two of the girls took this information in stride. But the third one looked astonished. Her eyes grew as big as saucers. Finally she spoke up and said, “Gee Reverend Long, my family must have been absent that Sunday.”

The beauty of that moment was not that she misunderstood Pentecost, but that she understood something about her life, her church and her God. In her mind, there was the possibility that God could do something wonderful, even in the church.

Are you awake?

Are you listening?

Or are deaf to the voice of God?

God is calling all of us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. But we like to sit back and do nothing.

The reason may be that we have a large enough church that if we sit back long enough, somebody else will respond to God’s call for us and we won’t have to do anything.

Somebody else will feed the hungry.

Somebody else will volunteer to work at Habitat for Humanity.

Somebody else will join the Outreach Committee.

Somebody else will take care of the nursery.

Somebody else will sing in the choir.

Somebody else will donate to the Good Samaritan fund.

One of the members of our youth group was telling me about a high school sociology class he was taking.

His teacher talked about social responsibility.

If you are driving down the road and you see someone in a wreck, injured, do you stop and help? Or pass them by?

If you are driving downtown in Atlanta on a busy city street – the tendency is to pass them by. After all, there are hundreds of others passing the injured person, let one of them stop. You don’t respond because you convince yourself that with 1000 others passing by, you have only 1/1000th of the responsibility.

But if you are in a remote part of Alaska, and you are the only person who drives by the injured person, you tend to stop. Why? Because you know you have 100% of the responsibility.

In the church, we are not alone. There are lots of others around. We don’t feel the burden of responsibility. So we think, perhaps even pray, “don’t ask me to mentor at Eccleston.” Or we think, “the church needs volunteers to help with the youth program. I wish someone else would pitch in, I don’t have time.”

What we misunderstand is this – we have 100% of the responsibility to respond to God’s call.

We have a hundred opportunities every day to respond to the call of God.

He is calling us to love, to help, to be kind, to be generous.

But we act as if we are asleep or deaf.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says (Matthew 25:31 ff): “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, ’Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

"Then the righteous will answer him, ’Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

"The King will reply, ’I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

How many times during the day does God call us, but we act as if we are asleep? We ignore the call of God. We let the opportunity to live out the Christian faith pass us by.

The last time I was at a Presbytery meeting, I ate lunch at a table with pastors from other churches and one of them shared a story how their congregation had, as one of its ministries, a group devoted to drama. Every year they would put on 2 or 3 major productions for the community.

Several years ago, during the Christmas season, the church performed A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. To the delight and amusement of the congregation, one of the kindest, most generous and gentle souls in the church was cast in the unlikely role of the stingy, unloving, Ebenezer Scrooge.
You know the story.

Scrooge on Christmas Eve goes through a series of terrifying and life-changing encounters with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. These experiences cause him to repent of his cold heart and lack of generosity. As the light of Christmas Day dawns, Scrooge is a changed man.

To show this transformation on the stage, the script of the play called for the actor playing Scrooge to throw open his bedroom window and to stick his head out into the light, and to act as though he saw a lad walking along the street and to beckon with joy and excitement to the imaginary boy, “Hey boy, boy, you there. Come up here. I have something for you to do.” Then Scrooge was to distribute the gifts for the poor of London.

In the actual performance, though, when the actor thrust his head through the window of the set and said, “Hey boy, boy, you there…” a young boy in the fellowship hall, sitting with his parents and watching the play, obediently got out of his seat and walked onto the stage. Suddenly and unexpectedly, there in the middle of the play was a child from the audience. At that point, the actor playing Scrooge began to depart from the script in a wonderful way.
He spontaneously went over to the boy and hugged him saying, “Yes, indeed, you are the one I need. The very one! I need you to help me distribute my gifts to the poor.”

When the play was over, the audience applauded enthusiastically. The boy also took his turn at bowing to the audience, and it was this three year old who received the standing ovation. (Tom Long, Beyond Worship Wars)

God throws open the windows of heaven and calls out to us, “Hey, you there. Come here. I have something for you to do.”

Most of us, however, sit back, do nothing, and think, God could never use me. Never speak to me. Nothing is going to happen.

Wouldn’t it be something, I mean really something if we suddenly acted like that 3 year old and responded, “here I am, what do I do now?”

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.