Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Be Strong and Courageous

The children of Israel had made their share of mistakes.  Forty years prior to the time of our text they had refused to listen to the Godly report of Joshua and Caleb.  Instead they listened to the 10 frightened spies, and become fearful and unfaithful to God's command to possess the land of Canaan.  They wandered around in the desert for forty years like a man who won’t ask directions; meanwhile a whole generation passed off the scene.
By this time Moses has died and Joshua is their new leader.  A new spy contingent has looked over the land, and this time the people are going to go ahead with conquering what God has already declared is their possession. 
It was a new day, a new time to serve.  God's people took their heritage that stretched back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 
·    They carried their memory of Joseph and Egyptian bondage, and also an ark with remembrances of wanderings in the wilderness. 
·    They carried the taste of manna, supernatural food with which God had fed them for forty years. 
·    They wore sandals and robes that hadn’t worn-out for generations. 
With a kind and gentle hand God had prepared them for a new day.  Now it was time to leave the past and enter their destiny.  It was time to cross the Jordan River and step into the Promised Land.

today’s new beginnings

To some extent God’s plan can be seen in the way the United Methodist Church does things; just as Moses and Joshua led for a period of time, clergy today are itinerant as leaders for a season.           
I might remind us that, just as certainly as Moses and Joshua were different, they led for specific reasons God had chosen.  But they both pointed God’s children to the same Promised Land.  
Leadership style should never be confused with God’s purposes! Style is simply the difference in human personality, while God’s purposes are eternal, immutable and Kingdom-centered…they have nothing to do with the way a pastor parts his or her hair.
Every pastor you’ve had in this church’s storied 137 year history has been different, and that will be the case when Rev. Dixon begins her ministry here next month.  Her leadership style will most likely be very different from mine, as mine was from those who preceded me here.  United Methodists are experts at this change of leaders; we’ve been doing it for two and a half centuries. 
The question before the house today is…How do you enter the promised land of God’s favor?  Notice the spiritual principles Israel observed as God instructed them:

You must Take a Stand

 ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’”  Joshua 3:8b (NRSV)
The kind of "stand" that is represented here is the stand of faith.  The priests were told to take the ark into the midst of the river.  As their feet touched the edge of the river the waters rolled back as they had forty years prior at the Red Sea.   This was a revisiting of the power of God, visible for all the people of God to have their faith strengthened.
Notice that the priests "stood firm" on dry ground in the midst of Jordan (3.17).  A firm stand isn't belligerence, it is merely the confidence that God's way is best, and you will do things His way, no matter whom it may please or displease.  No matter who may be the leader here, take your stand for Christ.

You Must Remember the Stand  4:1

1When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua: 2“Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, 3and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’”….When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ 7then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”  ….then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ 23For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over…   Joshua 4:1-3, 6b-7, 22b-23  (NRSV
The priests put up a memorial of stones where they crossed over as a sign of their obedience to the Lord.  Putting up memorials is a good way to remember where you've been, and what great things the Lord has done in your midst. 
Memorials of this nature help us to not repeat mistakes of the past.  God's children did not want to act without faith as they had forty years prior.
Notice please that they were very careful to teach their children the meaning of this memorial.  Sometimes we are good at teaching rituals without conveying to the world the meaning.  That is what is wrong with some liturgy and worship in churches.  Everything is done for the congregants in a "holy huddle" while the average pagan, or even the children of the saints look on with puzzled looks.
Teaching the stand has to do with communicating the "God" in the middle of our ritual.  Crossing over Jordan on dry land is an exciting event in the life of a whole nation. 
·    It is like the "shot heard round the world" in Colonial America. 
·    It is like the wall coming down in Berlin. 
·    Or like watching the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad being pulled-over by the people with ropes. 
No matter who the pastor is here, take a stand for Christ, and teach that stand to your children and the world.
Take a stand, teach the stand, but most importantly…

Go forward – You Must NOT Stand Still

Too often we let the stones (those things God has done for us, and even our own accomplishments) keep us chained to yesterday.                               Beloved, God never sanctified sitting still.  Notice…

they Laid Down the Stones                                           and so should we                  Joshua 4:8

The Israelites…took up twelve stones out of the middle of the Jordan…carried them over with them to the place where they camped, and laid them down there.   Joshua 4:8 (NRSV)
Memorials are for seeing.  First we see them to remember – then we see them in the rear view mirror.  It is impossible to go forward when you only look backward.  (You bump into things that way!)

they Prepared for spiritual warfare                 and so should we

About forty thousand armed for war crossed over before the LORD to the plains of Jericho for battle.  Joshua 4:13 (NRSV)
Spiritual warfare is done with the Gospel of peace, righteousness, truth, the shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.  The Israelites never lifted a metal sword…it was God who took down those walls of Jericho.

they Responded to the Upward Call                     and so should we

“Command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, to come up out of the Jordan.” Joshua 4:16 (NRSV)
Once you've laid down the memorial stones and taken up the tools of spiritual warfare, there is nothing left but to move out in faith.  Scripture (5:1) tells us that when God's people did those things, the enemies' hearts melted.  God gave victory to the people who did things his way.
Let me encourage you, people of God... Take a stand for Christ, Teach that stand to the community, and then...Don't stand still -- lay down the stones, pick up the tools, and move up and on for Christ!

how shall we lay down the stones here?

Stones were used for many purposes in ancient times. 
·       They were used to build altars such as the monument Joshua had the priests construct as a symbol of their united purpose. 
·       They were used to build dwelling places for families to be protected and knit together. 
·       And, sadly, stones were also used to kill those who violated important laws; they called it “stoning”!
It certainly can be that way in church life also; we are no different than the people who marched in circles in the desert for forty years.  Today we don’t use stones much for physical building or monuments, or even executions.  But we do have our will, our pride and our tongues, stones with which we can and do destroy each other.
When you came into the sanctuary today you were given a stone.  Hold it up before you now, and imagine it as representative of that power each of us possesses to either stone our neighbor or build an altar to God.  See that stone as a building block for God’s house of prayer and love. 
I want to suggest that we serve communion differently today.  When the table is prepared, and prayer of thanksgiving has been offered, let’s lay down the stones before we receive this grace.  Come up to the chancel and lay your stone before the altar. 
Let this laying down of a stone be a sign and vow before God that this church will move forward, standing for better than pride and selfishness.  You will stand strong and be courageous for the crucified and risen King of Kings.  Will you do it for Christ’s sake?
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012


7“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. Matthew 7:7 (NRSV)
There is nothing about the Gospel which is simple or easy; especially Jesus’ call that we take up our cross and follow Him. (1)  Living your life in response to that call is dangerous.  Following Jesus can be dangerous to your popularity; you have to make decisions that sometimes run counter-culture.  Following Jesus is dangerous to your health or even your life, because in some places Christians are still persecuted.
The previous six challenges we’ve considered in this series validate how hard it is to live the Christian life, particularly in 21st century America.  Review those challenges with me:
1. Believe – having faith in Jesus Christ means trusting Him, not yourself…counter-culture
2. Prayer – also counter-culture – we are a nation of action!
3. Forgiveness – is not only counter-culture, it’s counter-intuitive in human nature!
4. Give – is counter-cultural in a world that lives and breathes “getting”.
5. Serve – is ultra-counter-cultural in a world which never puts others first.
6. Telios (maturity) – is really counter-cultural when nearly every TV commercial promotes youth and playing games as the ultimate center of purpose for life.
Today we are going to consider the last of seven challenges to “embrace the grace of God”.  I’ve labeled these the 7 most important things I’ve learned over the past half-century about following Jesus.  Our word today is “perseverance”.
Perseverance brings forth images of epic struggles.  And there is a type of perseverance like that.  In Chinese mythology Jingwei is the daughter of emperor Yandi.  She dies in the East Sea very young.  According to the myth, after her death she chose the shape of a bird in order to exact revenge upon the sea by bringing stones and small twigs from the mountains to fill it up.
In a short dialogue the sea mocks the princess, claiming that in a million years she couldn’t fill up the sea; Jingwei retorts that she would then take ten million, even a hundred million years – whatever it takes, so that others would not have to perish as she.
From this myth comes the Chinese expression, “Jingwei filling the sea,” meaning a dogged determination and perseverance in the face of seemingly impossible odds. (2)
While the Sermon on the Mount is hardly to be compared with mythology, commitment to a mission that is fierce, and has as its object the good of others, seems to be a pretty good description of the kind of asking, seeking and knocking Jesus told his disciples they needed to consider.
First United Methodist Church in Gastonia looks much the same as many of the “red brick and steeple” churches you’ve seen.  Last year I attended a conference there and noticed that the main entryway has a bit of landscape shrubbery in an unintended place.  A tiny weed grows out of a sea of brick and mortar; it’s not supposed to be there, but it is!  It probably has to fight for every bit of nutrient and moisture, but, despite the conditions, that weed perseveres.  When I first saw that weed I immediately thought, “If ever a sermon on perseverance had a ready-made centerpiece, there it is;” and so it is (our centerpiece of perseverance this morning)!
The key to every part of this series is contained in these three little words (ask, seek, knock), but they are overshadowed by one other word – disciple.  It is the follower of Jesus who is pictured here.
At the end of this passage Jesus talks about narrow gates guarding the way of life.  It’s one of His metaphors for being in right relationship with God.  In short, Jesus is saying that only those who are serious about being His follower need ask, seek or knock.


Asking is natural; we begin life that way.  An infant child asks for food with a wail.  A baby chick opens its’ little beak with a screech and the mother sets aside her own appetite and feeds.  A baby lamb’s bleating cry not only brings Mom to the rescue, the sound actually causes the milk in her udder to begin secreting.  The cry of a child brings the response of the parent.  Jesus was showing us just how ready our heavenly Father stands to answer when we ask.
The Psalms writer gives us an important principle of seeking; it is an inside job:
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.  15 Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”               Psalms 50:14 - 15 (NRSV)
Generally, after “asking” God, we begin seeking for stuff to meet our needs.  But here the seeking is an internal search for anything that stands between us and God’s response.  What exactly do you seek for?  Well, what is it that your heart condemns?  Are there promises you’ve neglected?  Is there a bad attitude?  Are you insincere?  Get your heart right before you seek for answers.
We should also seek for that which is truly the desire of our heart.  At times we receive an answer we didn’t expect because God is speaking to our heart, and our selfishness gets in the way.  St. Augustine's mother prayed that God would keep her son with her until she could win him to Christ.  But the boy left and went to Rome.  It seemed like God hadn't listened.  But in Rome Augustine met Ambrose, an eloquent preacher, and was converted, and became an important instrument in God's hand.  What Augustine's mother REALLY desired in her heart, was given by a most gracious Father.
Action must always follow the search.  This is where the rubber of prayer meets the road of faith.  The apostle James (3) tells us that merely talking or wishing is not what comprises real faith.  You must somewhere along the line INVOLVE yourself with what God wants to do.  In prayer, a step of faith is:
finding something you can be totally dependent upon God for (that’s ASKING)
banishing selfishness from the matter (that’s SEEKING)
finding something connected with the matter and helping out until God reveals His heart in the thing.  (KNOCKING)
A man feels unhappy with his career.  He is a Christian and desires to honor God with what he does for a living.  So he ASKS , Father, I give this job situation to You, because I really think I need to get another job; one that I can be used better in Your kingdom.  
And he SEEKS, Lord, help me to know the reality of my desire.  Is it just that I can't stand Horace who works in accounting?  Am I money hungry; is there some kind of selfish thing driving my prayer?  Father, what’s going on INSIDE ME that’s not in-sync with YOU?  Search my heart, Lord; see if there’s any wicked way in me. (4)
And he begins to KNOCK.  The next day he checks with Horace about his spiritual condition, and makes up his mind to witness to him for a while before he makes any final decision about a new job.
Yankee baseball legend Yogi Berra often said about a ball game that it ain’t over til it’s over.  What that lacks in grammatical correctness is made up in its spiritual depth.  Yogi was saying a team member never gives up until the last out is made.
In spiritual asking, seeking and knocking we must also never quit.  In Jesus’ statement all three words are in the present tense, meaning there is a continual action; Jesus-followers:
persevere, we keep on asking,
persevere, we keep on seeking,
persevere, we keep on knocking.
There is a saying that God is not finished with me yet; and it is also true that He isn’t finished with the circumstances you can see.
The follower of Jesus who gives herself or himself over to being a servant of God is:
one who believes, rests in God’s strength alone
one who prays so as to develop a relationship with Jesus
one who forgives, because she is forgiven
one who gives, because all is given to him
one who serves, because in serving others we serve God
one who grows mature (telios), because we want to believe, pray, forgive, give, and serve stronger tomorrow than we did today.
When a follower of Jesus takes seriously these first six issues, asking, seeking and knocking becomes possible.
We’ve almost come to the close of our ministry together.  By now you know I am not a perfect pastor or Christian follower of Jesus.  By the grace of God let us all press on to that!  Amen.
 1. Matthew 16:24
 2.  In Wikipedia, quoting Long, M., C. H. Langley 1993. Natural selection and the origin of Jingwei, a chimeric processed functional gene in Drosophila. Science 260: 91-95.[1]
 3.  James 2:14-17
 4.  Psalm 139:23-24