Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

The Story of Namaan

The Story of Naaman

During this part of the church year our lectionary calls us to look at the events in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Last Sunday was Baptism of the Lord Sunday where we remembered Jesus’ ‘ordination’ into the role he will play as the Messiah - where we saw the dove come down and infuse him with the Holy Spirit as the voice of God was heard saying, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” This act begins the story of Jesus’ life as he obediently follows where God leads him, to reveal for us the nature of God; to teach us the way to live; to offer our salvation on the cross and to deliver eternal life through the resurrection.
After the time of his sending by God, Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness to fast and pray for 40 days to consider what this new focus of his life is all about. He goes to spend time with God and with himself; a time of prayer and discernment. It is a time to sort of just take a deep breath before he begins what he knows is going to be a tough journey. And then at the end of this 40 day period when he is tired and hungry he is tempted by Satan with all those things that seem so tempting in our life. He was tempted with power, with recognition, with arrogance. Notice he is not tempted by the things in life that we associate with sin - drinking, drugs, sexual sin, theft, dishonesty….. No he was tempted with the things that are even harder to resist - a sense of pride, a sense of self reliance, a sense of God’s care even when we are disobedient to him. It is a time when Jesus is most vulnerable. And Jesus makes it. He doesn’t give in! Can you imagine what that felt like. The humanity in Jesus must have felt pretty good about himself - Wow! I did it!
So he heads home. On the way his ministry begins in full force. He teaches, he heals people. He is invited into synagogues to teach and everyone thinks he is great. On this great success he decides to head home to share this great moment with people he knows! Word precedes him about how successful he has been and how great his message and his healing and he is invited to the hometown synagogue to teach for worship….. He is handed a scroll and reads a prophecy about the coming Messiah and then says, “Look! This is me! I am the Messiah read about in the scriptures. I have come to God’s chosen people to help them turn back to God.”
Well, the people then began to remember who this was - “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? We remember him as a little boy. Who does he think he is? Why is he telling us we need to change?” So they run him out of town. Certainly didn’t go as Jesus expected……
And so it is in our lives. Things certainly don’t go as we expect them to. We think we have a handle on things. We thing we understand what is going on and then it truly rains on our parade and we find ourselves spinning out of control and we don’t know what happened.
In Jesus’ message to the people of his home town he mentioned the Syrian Namaan. And Namaan is another good example of someone for whom things don’t quite go as he thought they would.
Namaan is a Syrian. The time period of this story is back in the days of God’s people as they lived under a series of good kings and bad kings - and the bad kings far outnumbered the good kings. God raised up prophets to help refocus the kings and to help the people know the true word of God. One of these prophets was the named Elisha.
Historically what was going on was the nation of Syria was continually attacking Israel, especially the border towns, and in doing so would plunder the small villages and would kill the men and capture the women and children and take them back to Syria as slaves. In the ‘God can bring something good out of any situation’ category, was a young Hebrew slave girl that had been captured by a mighty warrior of Syria and given to his wife. The mighty warrior was Namaan.
But as big and important as Namaan was, Namaan had contracted leprosy. This was devastating to him because he was powerful and important and things like that just didn’t happen to people like him. The little Hebrew servant girl who saw Namaan’s turmoil was bold enough to step up and say, “There is a prophet of God in Israel who can cure your leprosy.” Now this had to be a very

difficult choice for Namaan. The Syrian’s looked down on the Hebrews as being ‘less than’, not being ‘good enough’ and for Namaan to stoop to going to a Hebrew for healing was almost out of the question. But Namaan was desperate and he was willing to try anything.
He had his entourage headed off to Israel in search of the prophet. And they found him. His name was Elisha. Namaan had brought with him many of his soldiers and advisors and servants. He had brought huge wealth with him because he was sure this prophet was going to charge a great deal to heal Namaan since Namaan was sure his reputation as a great and powerful man had preceded his visit and great and powerful men were able to pay large amounts for healing and Namaan assumed Elisha would charge him great amounts.
He had one of his servants knock on Elisha’s door and Elisha’s servant comes to the door and says, “Elisha says to go wash in the Jordan 7 times and you will be healed.”
Namaan is outraged! Who does this prophet think he is to send some lowly servant to deliver a message instead of coming to me himself.” Namaan declares, “Surely the prophet himself would come out and perform rituals and call on the name of his God in order to heal me.” Namaan was incensed that the prophet hadn’t performed some great act; hadn’t made a great show; hadn’t performed some visual display for someone as important as Namaan!
Namaan begins to move away saying “If he isn’t willing to come out and approach me himself then I’m leaving. Wash in the Jordan river 7 times; how dumb that is. I could have done that with better rivers and clearer water back in Syria.” Off he begins to ride when one of his servants is willing to speak up and say, “Wait! We traveled all this way and you are going to let your ego get in the way of your healing? We are here. We can at least try what the prophet said. What will it hurt?”
It took some doing, but Namaan finally agreed and he and his entourage went down to the Jordan. Namaan went in the water and dipped himself in 7 times and when he came out of the water of course he was healed. He couldn’t believe it. Something so easy and simple.
He goes back to Elisha and this time Elisha does talk to him. Namaan offers Elisha great wealth and Elisha won’t take it - which again doesn’t go as Namaan had thought it would and Namaan and his entourage return home vowing to worship the Hebrew God.
Nothing went as Namaan had expected. Namaan expected some great wondrous ceremony, this great waving of hands and calling on God and the presence of angels and something grand. He expected to have to pay greatly for this huge gesture and the presence of this famous prophet, and it didn’t cost him a thing…
Just like Jesus and Namaan had this expectations of how things would go, God had other plans. The events did not turn out as expected - yet Jesus’ ministry continued, Naaman was healed.
We too often have these great expectations of how things should be. We plan and we consider how we would see the circumstances play out and when they don’t we are confused, perplexed, we wonder what God is thinking? We are sure that we had the path cleared in front of us and we are going on as we see fit and then that path takes a sharp curve and we are lost.
But we need to stop when we see that curve and not see it as devastation, but see it as opportunity. Jesus’ had the opportunity to understand that it wasn’t the right time for him to reveal who he was and it certainly wasn’t the right place but God set him back on the right path and his work and his ministry continued. Namaan had high expectations of wonder and grandeur and God gave him the opportunity to see that around that curve may not be something huge, but something easy and simple and exactly what God knows it should be.
Open yourselves to what God knows is right for you.


It's Epiphany!

It’s Epiphany!

Today is Epiphany Sunday - a day for us to think about God’s direction to a group of scientists to travel and confirm the birth of the Christ child. The word ‘epiphany’, in the church sense, refers to an appearance of a deity to a worshipper. This day is significant because we recognize that God reveals the nature of Jesus, as the ‘king’, to a group of Gentiles. Throughout Jesus ministry we see this happen over and over. God is trying to teach us that Jesus, as the Jewish Messiah, did not come just for his own people, the Jews, but for everyone. And here, in the very beginning of the story of Jesus God is using these fellas from far away to reveal that Jesus is truly the coming King.
In the church, Epiphany Sunday is the Sunday that falls after the first of January but In many cultures, Epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas - as in the famous song ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’. In many cultures, unlike us who put all our presents under the Christmas tree to open on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, they give presents each day from Dec 25 until Jan 6 - one present for each of the 12 days
of Christmas. But for us in the Western Church, Epiphany is the Sunday commemorated as the day to remember the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus - a visit which in reality has big implications in our understanding the purpose of the coming of God in Jesus
A couple of important points about this visit if you follow closely the biblical account of the story of the Wise Men: First - the Wise Men did not come to the stable to visit the baby Jesus as we portray in all of our nativity sets. We are clearly told that the Magi visit Jesus in a house. We are also told that they visited the ‘boy’ Jesus - the Greek word for a young boy not a baby. With all their sources and calculations, theologians figure the Wise Men show up to see Jesus about 2 years after he was born. The other technically we have to bust is that we don’t know how many wise men there are. There could be 2 or 20. The only reason we traditionally talk about 3 wise men is that there were 3 gifts. They also weren’t kings - but a combination of priest and scientist. They were proficient in the science of astrology (not the astrology as in our ‘signs’ we read each day to see what will happen) - they studied the stars for patterns and changes and movements
which they believed were the way in which gods revealed themselves to people. These Magi were also experts in studying other religions and tried to work out the prophecies in all the major religions of that time.
They lived in the area of Babylon and remember the Jews were held captive in Bablyon. While the Jews were captives, one of the things that happened was that the Jewish scribes assembled their writings into what we would know as the Old Testament. So the Magi had access to the Jewish writings and all the prophecies included in those writings. So when they see this new star appear in the sky and they remember the Jewish prophecies about a star announcing the arrival of the King of the Jews, they decided they needed to go to the land of the Jews - to Palestine - and check this out. Any king who rates a star should be investigated!
Accounts of events in the Bible are recorded not only to teach us the history of our faith; to help us see how God has worked in and through people, but also to teach us something about how we are live as God’s people.
The Magi represent for us God’s directive to be seekers and learners. They had apparently been searching the heavens for years for signs of something unique and significant occurring in their world. They were open to new wisdom and truth - more than this - they searched for it. They were not simply content to get along with that which they already knew. So, when they saw a new star in the heavens, they sensed in their hearts that it was a sign from a god.
Jesus later will tell us that if we seek, we will find, if we knock, the door shall be opened to us, if we ask, we will receive. But how often do we actually seek for wisdom? For new truth? For guidance? For more information about God and Christ and what is actually recorded in scripture?
Think of assembling all those new toys and tools that appeared this Christmas. How many people actually looked at the directions before beginning to assemble them? How many tried to put something together relying on the knowledge they already had - only to find that it was not good enough? In order to finally get whatever it was put together, you had to resort to the instructions!
The wise men gained their wisdom because they were seekers - they were looking for new things, new
insights, new signs. They read their manuals; they researched their documents; they searched the heavens for

signs and wonders. And so should we. We have a wealth of instruction in our scriptures and we are told by God we need to read and learn and study what is there. 2 Timothy 3:16 - “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.” So like these Magi, we need to use the resource we have.
Once these Magi figured out that the prophecies led them to Jerusalem, they immediately began to pack to head off on what was going to be a very long and difficult journey. The journey would take a year and would go through treacherous and dangerous territory - which they knew about when they headed out on the journey. The wise men had faith that this journey was going to lead them to something important and didn't hesitate to begin the journey - even knowing the difficulties they would have to experience and the sacrifices they would have to make.
Faith by definition involves the idea of making a journey - of venturing forth - of risking one's very self in a new activity. The living God cannot be found by proxy. We can’t come to a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ through someone else. The magi had to travel from a foreign land. They did not know where the star would lead them, how long it would take, or what the end result would be for them. They only knew that it was important for them to follow that star to wherever it lead. It was a personal quest
and the result was an opportunity to visit the one who would be king of kings and Lord of Lords.
This may well be the most important truth for us in the Epiphany story. A story of faith with Jesus has to be a personal story, a personal quest, a journey of faith. It is not enough to know all kinds of facts about Jesus. One must encounter the wonder of God's grace and then make a personal decision to commit their lives to living with Christ. One must decide to learn the way Christ has taught us to live and then do so. No one else can do that for us. Faith is not inherited from someone else- nor can it come from simply knowing what others have said about it. Faith is like the difference between having read about how to make a cake and actually making one. One can know all there is to know
about cooking, one may well have memorized the recipe for the cake that he or she wants to make - but until one actually gets out the ingredients and mixes them together and puts the results in the oven and then has faith that when the timer on the oven dings, out will come a cake! . Faith is acting like the wise men - stepping out into
the unknown knowing that Jesus will be there no matter how long and hard the journey.
The wise men went off on their journey - knowing that the prophecy told them that the star would lead them to a king. They knew what a king was like - the same picture we would have of a king - crowns and royal robes; palaces and servants and wealth. Then they end up in Bethlehem at the home of a poor carpenter.There are no costly treasures in the house, no purple robes, no gold rings, nothing in fact to show that they are in the presence of person destined to be a great king. Only the star stood overhead to indicate that anything special at all was going on. And they accept this. Although all the
outward signs are telling them that they are in the wrong place, they accept that single sign - the Star, the sign of God that they have been following for so long.
So many of us have a hard time accepting what God has given in the form that he gives it. Because we are waiting for something spectacular from God - we look for great miracles, instant healings, signs and wonders. We may pray to God for a special blessing and miss what the blessing really is. We have this idea fixed in our minds that God does not appear to us in the ordinary aspects of our life. We do not
expect God to show up while we are at work, or doing dishes at the kitchen sink or just relaxing in front of the TV. The Magi found what they were looking for in a humble home in a small insignificant town. We have a hard time considering that God's answers to our questions can be found in a 3000 year old book, or from something that happens during an ordinary day, or a dream we have had during a long and troubled night that is in fact, a message from God.
The wisdom of the wise men is simply this
- they sought wisdom,
- they were willing to journey in faith to personally discover what God was doing,
- they accepted what they found - even though it clearly was not what they expected - and believed in it.
Simple stuff really - but wisdom normally is simple stuff.
Simple - but when used - as the wisemen used it, it leads us closer to God. Amen!

The Messiah in the Torah: The Seed

The Messiah in the Torah: The Seed

We are coming into the season of Advent. Advent is a time of waiting, a time to get us ready for the Christ child who will come at Christmas. We know the Christmas Story. We have heard it many, many times and you probably can’t hear it too many times because it is a beautiful story, but during this season of Advent we are going to look how the Christ, the Messiah, is presented to us through the prophets of the Old Testament because the better we understand how Jesus fulfilled the role of this coming Messiah, the better we can wrestle with our own faith and how we understand Jesus to be a part of our lives.
So we go back to the pictures of the Christ in the Old Testament, especially those images of Messiah we find in the Torah – the first 5 books of the Bible, also called the Pentateuch or the Books of Moses. They are the books that most people can rattle off in order – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy! In these books, we find pictures of the Messiah that the people of God looked for for generations since the time of Moses. The Messiah - the coming one who will save them. The pictures of this Messiah from the Old Testament are designed so that when the Messiah comes, the people will be able to recognize him as who he is - the coming one, the savior, the Son of God.
However, we as Christians know that that didn’t happen. The Jews did not recognize Jesus when he took on the role of the Messiah. Jesus over and over again kept saying to the Jews, his own people – “You’ve got the evidence”, “You know the scripture”, “You’ve heard the prophecy”, yet they didn’t see it.
And even though we do understand Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the World, It is still a great benefit to us to go back and see what it is that the Hebrew scriptures say about the Messiah. Because it does help us to better understand the role of Jesus in our life and the better we understand who Jesus is, the easier it is to allow him to shape us and mold us into the people he wants us to be. The more we understand about God’s plan for this ‘coming one’ the more we can appreciate the coming of the Christ Child on Christmas.
We first look at the picture of the coming Messiah, the Christ, that we understand to be Jesus of Nazareth, as a seed. One of the great Christmas Carols is Hark the Herald Angels Sing but the form we sing is not exactly like the hymn that Charles Wesley wrote. In his original carol came the verse: Come, Desire of nations, come, Fix in us thy humble home; Rise, the woman’s conquering seed, Bruise in us the serpent’s head. In this verse, Wesley is referring to the passage in Genesis 3:15.(read). Wesley understood that the seed that is mentioned in Genesis 3:15, is a picture off the coming Messiah. God is talking to Eve and telling her that even though she and Adam are being thrown out of the Garden because they disobeyed God, the serpent who represents Satan, will suffer a worse fate because an offspring of Eve – and we realize that this offspring of a future generation – will eventually be the one who defeats Satan.
In the opening scene of the move “The Passion” Jesus is praying in the garden right before his arrest and as he gets up to walk out to the disciples, there is a snake crawling around him and he takes his heel and crushes the head of the snake. That is a reference back to this passage where we are assured that the Messiah who comes, will be the one who defeats Satan, the serpent of the Garden.
Again, in the book in Genesis, in Genesis 22:18, Abraham is promised that through his seed, the world will be blessed and this passage has always been understood to be a reference to the blessings of Jesus for the world; the one who will come offering salvation to all. So just
from these two verses we already understand that God promised to Eve that there would come a savior who would defeat Satan and from Genesis 22 we now know that this Messiah will be a descendent of Abraham – in other words the Messiah will be Jewish. And from this Messiah, the whole world will be blessed – salvation will offered to all people. What this does to help us with our faith is to understand that from the very beginning of time – God had a plan to redeem all people which we see in the coming of the Christ; in this baby Jesus. It also reminds us that there is a continuity between Old Testament and the New Testament and that it is important that we come to know what is in the Old Testament in order to fully understand what happens in the New Testament. We read in Colossians 1:17 (read thru 20) we see that this was God’s plan all along – from before creation God planned to offer salvation to all people and this will come from the seed of Abraham.
Not only does this picture of the seed help us to see the promised of God fulfilled in Christ, the seed also becomes a picture of the believer and what happens to the believer as they allow Christ in their lives. The seed represents Transformation; the seed represents growth; the seed represents bearing fruit; and the seed represents the future.
Picture a seed. It has this really hard shell around it. Until you plant it in the ground and water it and then something magical happens and that shell opens up and a tiny shoot of a plant comes out and begins to grow. Without Christ in our life, we are like that seed. We are hardened, our hearts are hardened (that is another phrase used often in the Bible to describe people who aren’t open to God). Without Christ, we are that seed with a hard shell. But when we give our life to Christ – we are reborn. The New Testament uses the vision of dying and being reborn as a new creature. That is the picture from the death of Christ when he is buried and resurrected. We are in essence buried as one person and we rise from the ground as someone new when Christ comes into our lives. The shell opens up, our heart softens and we begin to allow Christ to change us.
We are a baby plant – Paul calls us ‘baby Christians’, the more we learn, the more closely we follow Jesus, the more bible study we do, the more we pray, the more we surround ourselves with God’s people, Christ is able to nourish us just like the water and the sun nourish that new plant. What often happens is that as a tender shoot, we neglect the nourishment, we don’t do the study, the prayer, the worship, we isolate ourselves and as a result we never grow in our faith, or our faith actually will wither and die. But as we allow Christ to nourish us, we grow and we become stronger. And once the plant grows enough, it gets strong enough, the plant begins to bear its fruit – fruit in this picture isn’t really talking about apples or pears, but the seed that the plant produces. All plants produce seed in one form or another in order to propagate itself. Once we have allowed Christ to nourish us and we grow strong, we start bearing fruit. We start bearing seeds that can propagate in the lives of others. Our lives bear witness to what Jesus can do in a life – our transformation is so that people can see Jesus in us.
Jesus’ words in John 15:16 remind of this command that Jesus gave us – go and bear fruit. And how do we bear fruit – by loving each other. Not just each other, those of us here in this sanctuary, but love each other. Love all people – and all that entails – caring for people, treating people with respect, providing for the needs of others…And how is this possible, only through allowing Jesus to live in us and through us.
From the beginning, from Genesis, the Messiah is presented to us as a seed. Remembering the purpose of that seed is to bless all people and to bruise the head of Satan. We come to see this fulfilled in Jesus – the Christ; the Messiah. But we also see that it is through allowing Jesus to live in us that this truly comes to pass. For as we allow Jesus to transform us, as we allow Jesus to come into our hearts and soften that shell and allow us to grow, it is through us that Jesus comes to bless all people, for as we allow Jesus to lead us to Love Each Other, to care for each other, that we will bear fruit, that the message of Christ will spread, there will be more people transformed and Satan’s plan to make us all miserable will be defeated.
So this advent, allow the Messiah, the seed of the Torah, to transform you, to soften that shell you have build around yourself, to allow you to grow until you can bear fruit and then through you, this baby born at Christmas, this Christ, this Messiah, will be a blessing to the world.

Balaam and His Donkey

Balaam and His Donkey

This is Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday in our church calendar year. This Sunday reminds us that the ultimate understanding of our Lord Jesus is as our King, our ruler, the ultimate authority in our life. Today before the beginning of a new church year, before we begin our wonderful season of Advent, we take a moment to remember who this baby we will celebrate turns out to be - Christ Jesus who ascends to the throne and sits at the right hand of God and from there we are to see Jesus as our King - the one to whom we look to rule all aspects of our lives.
A while back during one of the Bible Study classes the passage we were looking out referenced this man named Balaam and someone suggested we have a message on Balaam because they didn’t know who he was. And when I thought about this Christ the King Sunday, for some reason Balaam came to mind because the account of Balaam’s life teaches us the importance of giving Jesus our allegiance as king, the importance of paying attention to Jesus’ rule in our lives.
So let’s look at this man named Balaam. It is significant that the people of God are a real peripheral part of this story. The Hebrews are mentioned, but they don’t have a key part in what is going on. That’s part of the point of the story – that God can use even people that are not part of the people of God, people who are not even believers in the one true God to do what he needs done or to teach us something important about being God’s people. About through someone outside of God’s people to teach us how we really need to look to God for our instruction and our obedience. Balaam was not a Hebrew, he was not a believer in God, in fact he was not even a worshipper of idols. Balaam was a free lance giver of blessings and curses and would work with any group of people who worshipped whatever god. It appears that Balaam was sort of the world renowned blesser and curser. This was a time in history when people truly believed that certain people could bless or curse others and it would really happen. So you would hire Balaam to bless or curse an individual you knew, or leaders of countries would hire him to bless or curse other countries and it seemed to work! Balaam was known to be the best in his field!
As our story about Balaam begins, the Hebrew people are in the process of the conquest of the Promised Land. Remember they wandered through the desert of the Sinai for 40 years on their way to the promised land – the land of Israel today - but God didn’t just give them the land, they had to go in and militarily conquer it. Of course, God told them he would help them as long as they called on him to help and trusted in how he told them they should defeat certain cities and certain nations. The Hebrew’s were doing a pretty good job of defeating the people who were there and occupying the land and so the leaders of neighboring countries were getting nervous as to whether or not these people of God were going to come after them next. The King of Moab was one such king. He was scared of these people of God and scared of what they were going to do to him and to his country should they decide to come and invade his nation. So the King of Moab, a man named Balak, decided to hire Balaam to come and curse the Hebrew people so if they did invade his nation of Moab they would fail. So the King of Moab sent an envoy to Balaam to ask Balaam to come to Moab and curse the people of God.
So the team from the King of Moab arrives at Balaam’s house and tells him what they want to hire Balaam to come and curse the Israelites. You see the Israelites are camped on the border of Moab and Balak is really getting nervous. But Balaam is very serious about his work and so he tells the envoy that he must spend some time in a trance to see if this was really what he was supposed to be doing. So Balaam goes into a special room and into his trance and comes back to the envoy and tells them that the God of the Hebrew people spoke to him and that the Hebrews were endowed with a special blessing that Balaam did not have the power to reverse. These people, Balaam said, were ‘uncursable.’ So the envoy travels back to Moab and reports to Balak the King.
Balak assumes that Balaam is just playing hard to get and that he had just not offered Balaam enough money, so Balak sends the envoy back with a sweeter deal to try and entice Balaam to come and curse God’s people. Not

only was Balaam going to be given a large sum of money, but when he got to Moab, it would also be given a position of the highest honor in the nation and the power that goes with such an honor. But Balaam, it appears is a man of integrity and he will only bless or curse if the god of whatever people he is dealing with will allow him to do so. Keep in mind that Balaam believes in everyone’s gods, no god is better or worse than the other, and works and listens to them all. So for Balaam, the Lord God of the Hebrew people, our God, is just another god to him. But this time when Balaam goes into his trance to talk to this God of the Hebrews, the one who had told him not to go last time, now tells Balaam to go ahead and go to Moab – but God tells Balaam, Balaam is to say exactly what God tells him to say and Balaam is to be completely obedient to God whatever God tells him to do. So Balaam tells the team from Moab to go and tell King Balak that he will come. The team of ambassadors goes back to Moab and in the meantime Balaam prepares to head out. He gets out his donkey and packs an overnight bag and then Balaam and his donkey head out to Moab.
Now it appears as if Balaam has had a change of heart along the journey. The money and power sound good to him and so he’s thinking that regardless what this god had said to him, he was going to go ahead and curse the Hebrews. And this makes God angry. So Balaam is riding his donkey and all of a sudden the donkey veers off the road and into a field. Turns out the donkey had seen an angel standing in the middle of the road with a big sword ready to kill Balaam – but Balaam hadn’t seen this angel and couldn’t figure out what the donkey was doing and he began to beat the poor donkey who bypasses the angel by going in the field and now continues down the road. You’ve heard that old saying “No good deed goes unpunished”. That is what is happening here. God is trying to get Balaam’s attention to get him to do what he had said he would do and not curse Israel, but Balaam isn’t paying attention – yet the donkey is and for saving Balaam’s life, he gets beaten. A little while farther down the road, the same thing happens again. But this time they are in a narrow part of the path and the angel is standing to one side with his big sword, and the donkey is just able to squeeze by the angel but it so doing, Balaam’s leg is grazed by a retaining wall. Here again, the donkey has saved Balaam’s life and Balaam beats and curses the donkey for grazing his leg against the wall. The donkey continues on with Balaam on his back through an even narrower path, and the sword yielding angel is standing in the middle of the road and the path is so narrow the donkey cannot get around this angel this time so to save Balaam’s life, the donkey just lays down. Well Balaam just loses it and begins screaming at the donkey and beating him and telling him to get up and get going and all manner of nasty words toward this donkey when the donkey turns his head around to Balaam and says, “What is your problem? I have been your donkey for years and have traveled numerous times with you and have always taken you where you need to go. Don’t you figure something odd is going on here if
I am acting this way? Don’t you have any faith in me at all?”
At this moment Balaam looks up and sees the angel and his sword and realizes that this poor donkey has been trying all along just to save Balaam’s life. The angel says to Balaam, the God of the Hebrew people has sent me to remind you that you are only to do what God tells you to do. With this new experience, Balaam learned not only the power of this Hebrew God, but that he really needed to do what he had promised to do all along and go to Moab and do only what this God led him to do.
The point for us being, that we are often blind to what God is trying to get us to do. We just blunder along, trying to do things our way, ignoring what God what wants us to do; even though God sends us message after message, God speaks to us through happenings or our thoughts or other people and we just don’t get it because we are so focused on doing what we want or doing it our way. So we are blinded to what is right in front of us, just like Baalam.
Jesus our King sends us his spirit which is all around us and trying to guide us to live as his people and he tells us that if we will just pay attention, if we will just listen to him then things will work out the way they should. So when all the normal ways to get our attention don’t work, he will try something foolish or unexpected like a talking donkey…….
The story of Balaam reminds us that if we would just open our eyes and our ears, if we would just spend some time considering Jesus the king of our life, if we would just listen to him, then we would know that Jesus is always there leading us and guiding us and instructing us in the way we should go – and we could avoid a lot of the turmoil we feel within ourselves – if we would just pay attention to the leadership and care of our King. He is there, we just have to look and repeat who he is! Amen!

Thankful for Suffering

Thankful for Suffering?

One of my favorite stories of the Apostle Paul happened in the city of Philippi. Paul went to Philippi to spread the Gospel, to teach people about Christ. He was in the town square where he usually went to teach and preach, and once again Paul got in trouble for preaching about the love and grace of Jesus Christ. He was arrested. Now remember, Paul wasn’t violent; he wasn’t an imposing figure; he wasn’t a large man - the many times he is arrested he always goes willingly. However, for some reason when he is arrested in Philippi they are so worried about him that they take him in chains to the prison - which was actually a dungeon. They take Paul to the most secure portion of this dungeon, which was down several levels underground where it is dark and damp and full of vermin. Not only did they lock him in a prison cell in the farthest part of the prison, they also attached his chains to the wall and put his feet in stocks. Now, what is your mood going to be? I’m sure I would be vacillating between anger at the over reaction to my crime and fear at where I was and misery over my circumstances. And I know I would be whining…… How uncomfortable, if not painful, it would be to be shackled to a wall, sitting on a hard stone ledge with your feet up in stocks……. Yet, the Apostle Paul sits in this environment singing praises to Almighty God. Just think about that for a moment.
During this time of November we think about what the scriptures teach us about GivingThanks. Today we address what is probably the hardest aspect of giving thanks - giving thanks in all circumstances. We know we are to say “Thank You” when someone gives us something nice. We know we are to say “Thank You” when someone says something nice about us or does something nice for us, We say “Thanks” to God when something great happens to us. But our focus verse today is the passage from 1 Thessalonians where Paul says “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Does God really mean that in every circumstance that we are to be thankful? How can we possibly be thankful when things go horribly wrong? How can we see the blessing in the midst of tragedy that comes into our life?
There are three approaches to this verse in Thessalonians. The first one is to put on some sort of other-worldly expression of thanks that totally ignores the reality of what is happening around us. It is the person who is smiling in the midst of tragedy saying, “well praise God and give thanks in all things”. They come off as just being weird or a little crazy or on some type of mood altering drug. The second approach is that in the midst of tragedy there is an obvious ray of hope that allows us to be thankful - like when you totally destroy your car in an accident but no one is seriously hurt. Certainly we can be thankful for that. But that is a pretty obvious example and we as people of faith are taught that we need to focus on the blessing rather than the tragedy - we focus on the fact that everyone is OK instead of the fact that our car is totaled. This instance represents that Biblical teaching that we are to focus more on what God is doing for you than it is on what has gone wrong. It remembers the words of Paul when he says in the book of Philippians that he has learned to be content in all situations. He has learned that because he keeps his eyes on the sovereign Lord whom he serves and not on his own expectations or his own desires or even his own comforts he can give thanks.
But what do we do when the tragedy outweighs the blessing? It is easy to give thanks when the car is wrecked and you are not. You and your passengers are worth far more than the car. But what if that hadn’t been the case. What if there had been loss of life in that car crash? What if you suddenly lose a family member you are close to in some type of sudden accident or horrific disease? What do we do with the loss of a child? How could anyone give thanks fire or flood has taken everything you own? How can you give thanks when you see a high school devastated by a shooting? What about the young woman or the young child disfigured from abuse? What about when we are betrayed or disappointed by someone close to us; someone we love dearly? Does God really expect us to give thanks in situations like that?
And as difficult as it is for us to understand - the answer is “yes”.
These types of situations are the ultimate test of our ability to trust God no matter what.
They bring us to the same place as Job - where we find the ultimate story for God’s call “To give Thanks in all circumstances.”

Job was a good man. God thought Job was a good man so he must have truly been a good man. He had everything that anyone would associate with a good life. He had a lucrative source of income - land and livestock; he had a large close family, he had vast wealth. He was happy and content and we would call him a ‘religious’ man. He was close to God and lived for God. And in a matter of days he lost it all. The land, the livestock, his hired help, his family. Everything….. and then he finds himself covered with boils - that hurt and itched so bad he would break clay pots and use the pieces to try and scratch. There wasn’t anything else bad that could happen to him - even his wife came to him and said, “Why don’t you just die?” So his support system is not even there - his friends stop by and tell him that this is all his fault. So lets just make Job feel as bad as we can. There were no “I’m sorry’s” or “I’ll pray for you” or “We’re here to help you” - just accusations and insinuation that Job has led some secret dastardly life that has finally caught up with him. And what does Job say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away - Praise the Lord.”
Praise the Lord? He’s sitting in an ash heap at the edge of town and has nothing left of his life and his friends are harassing him and he is in serious pain and he says, “Praise the Lord?” Job continues to say, “Even though the Lord slay me, still I will trust him.” What God wants us to hear is that there comes a point in our lives when we can’t find that bit of blessing in the hardship, when the pain far outweighs the good we can see. It is at that point that all we have left is to trust in a sovereign God - a God that we believe with our whole being is still present and is still in charge and who knows our pain.
When we gather for worship, we gather in order to worship God for who he is and for what he has done. We worship God for his character as much as the amazing things he has done. Giving thanks in hard situations must follow that same wisdom. Even if we find it hard or even impossible to thank God for some specific thing in our lives we can still give thanks for who God is. Paul did not say to thank God ‘for’ every circumstance, but ‘in’ every circumstance and this distinction is very crucial. It means that even when you can’t find anything about the circumstance to be thankful for, you can and you must, still thank God for being there; for being present; for being in charge; for being sovereign. That is what ‘sovereign’ means - that no matter what is happening we know without a shadow of a doubt that God is present; that God knows what is going on and that God has control of the situation. You can still thank God for his love and mercy, even in a time when it feels so distant. You can still trust God as Job did and as Paul did. That trust becomes evident in thanking God for who He is even when what is going on makes no sense, is painful and leaves you bewildered and hurting and just devastated.
We need to remember that God never tells us to do anything without promising us that God will, not might, God will, be there to hold us up. Philippians 4 says:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Where God wants us to be is that when tragedy strikes, the first reaction is to cry out to God. Not thanking him that the tragedy happened, but thanking him because we know that he is there with us and as we cry out in anguish and we cry out in pain and we even lash out at God, trusting he is there.
But God gave us something else that we can be thankful for - God gave us each other. God gave us a family of believers who are ever present in our moments of greatest need. Always remember that. God gave us each other to help one another, to support one another, to pray for one another, to just be God’s presence with one another. Never think, “Oh, I don’t want to bother others with my problems” or “I don’t think there will be those who will care I am in pain” or “I’ll just suffer in silence in the midst of all these people who care about me.” “I can’t give up enough of my pride to allow others to help me - even if God has told me to.”
God gave us each other so that we always have physical arms to hold us in God’s name. That is one of the greatest benefits of being part of this community of faith. There isn’t a person here who would not be available to help - or to pray - for anyone else here and by not taking advantage of what God has given us in this congregation, we deny the opportunities God has given us as his people to be thankful for one another and to be thankful that God has made us a part of this community of believers. I read this great statement somewhere, “The pews of our church are avenues that carry us to one another in our suffering.”
When Paul was singing his Thanksgiving songs in the dark, damp, dank dungeon, the guards and the others prisoners were amazed. And it was because of Paul’s thanksgiving that others in that prison became believers…….. Amen.