Archive for November, 2008

Racism is claiming another generation

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Eli Reed, an African-American journalist and photographer, laments the grim future he saw for America during the 1990s L.A. Riots. “The past has become the present and perhaps the future,” he laments. Speaking to whites, Orientals, and black Americans, “Racism is claiming another generation.”

Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., in his book Hazardous Waste in America, sounds an alarm about the disposal of hazardous wastes. The disposal of wastes has arguably become the most significant environmental problem of our day–as any Somerset County resident will tell you. Rural America–like around our homes–has borne the brunt of the hazardous waste problem. Land is cheap and sparsely populated. So, tainted needles from a Manhattan hospital end up in a Nanty Glo landfill! The ultimate destruction of farmland and ground water will cost billions of dollars . . . and how much are our lives worth?

The destruction of the world’s forests has become a crisis in the earth’s ecology. During the 1800’s and early 1900’s many of the large forest areas of industrialized nations were eliminated through logging efforts and the creation of farmland. In the latter part of the 20th century the problem has extended to the vast tropical rain forests of Latin America and Southeast Asia. Poverty-stricken nations are anxious to realize the short-term profit that comes by selling to wealthier nations luxury goods that can be produced by large-scale deforestation and conversion of forest land to pasture (with thanks to Ms. Vera White for this information!). The long term effects of this massive deforestation include soil erosion, decrease in oxygen supply, depletion of clean ground water sources, destruction of habitats for many animals, and the wiping out of vast numbers of wildlife species.

There is a church in the East End of Pittsburgh that, in 1983, had $176,000 in the bank. They figured that given the average life of their congregation, that the majority would die in the next ten years. They also decided that therefore they had nothing to worry about and settled down to do nothing, in effect, and enjoy their income. They were right in one sense: most of them were dead by 1993. But they were wrong in another way: they did not have enough money to stay alive for ten years!

In Isaiah 39, Hezekiah is in a pretty precarious position. Judah, King Hezekiah’s kingdom, had the dubious honor of being strategically placed between hovering superpowers. For years, Hezekiah and his predecessors had taken care not to offend these powers. The time had come, though, when peace no longer seemed possible . . .


Thursday, November 27th, 2008

As I have intimated, our periscope is an exclamation of disappointment, of thwarted love. The good which God purposed for his people has been missed. And it is all our fault! We will simply not follow His commandments! “Oh Jerusalem,” God cries. “How often would I have gathered you. . . If you would have known. . . ”

But we do not know. We cannot know. We do not see the bigger picture. In Tolstoy’s epic WAR AND PEACE, the protagonist–Pierre–loves a young woman named Natasha. . . but he take 1500 pages to tell her! And it takes Natasha the same 1500 pages to realize that she loves Pierre! But God told us that He loved us since Creation . . . but we forget.

And, in a sense, we do not enjoy His pleasure because we disobey. We do not follow His commandments–which after all are here to help us–not to hurt us. to set us free, not to bind us up. As the preacher Alexander MaClaren writes, “It is not our only act contrary to God’s Law, but the source of that act in our antagonistic will, which fatally bars out the possibility of God’s intended good from us.” That possibility of lifting up our puny wills against Almighty God is the mystery of mysteries! Dr. James Dobson told a humorous story last week about the New Age leader and actress Shirley Maclain. Maclain advises her followers to “stand at the edge of the ocean and yell as loudly as possible across the waves– ‘I am God! I am God! I am God!'” Dobson chuckled, “Can you imagine what God thinks?”

But, in a way, we tell God in a hundred different ways that we are God. When we disobey His Word. When we decide to do what we want–like taking revenge on someone who wronged us–rather than do what He wants.

The mystery of Isa. 48, however, is that the mysterious possibility become an actuality in us (as MaClaren says). In other words, in Isaiah’s words, a river of peace and waves of righteousness can still be ours. Shalom can be ours because God loves us to send His only Son to die for those sins. And we can know His shalom as we obey His Word and accept His Son as our Lord and Savior. This is the lost good regained.

Almost forty years ago I woke up one Saturday morning to the screams of my neighbor. Mrs. Morphis, a tiny, Godly woman, had gone out to retrieve the morning paper and found instead her 18 year old son slumped over the wheel of his car dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. Johnny Morphis, my friend, had committed suicide.

His reasons are unimportant but Johnny left a note that told us that somewhere along the way he had lost hope. That he had lost a reason to live. He had lost the bigger picture.

But God is reaching out to us today. There is a River of Living Water flowing today. And it is for us. We are the generation coming home from Babylon . . . let us go back now to Zion.


Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

At the end of the Gore-Perot debates in 1993 concerning NAFTA, U.S. News and World Report reporter Thom Greier regrets the ill-informed demagoguery we all witnessed during the debates. “Six score and 10 years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln first recited the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address . . . But . . . Perot and Gore demonstrated there’s reason to think that oratory of that kind has all but perished from the earth.” “The problem is not so much with the oratory as with the orators,” says Ronald Reagan’s highly regarded speech writer Peggy Noonan. “Lincoln grew up reading the Bible and William Shakespeare and thinking inescapably in big themes. Modern politicians have to give their intellectual energy to arguing about the arcane of NAFTA. If that is what you give your energy to, you lose sight of the big flow and the big river.”

Israel, in Isaiah 48:17-22, has lost sight of the big flow and the big river. This new generation, born in Babylonian captivity, is now ready to return home. Their new Persian lords are letting them go–but will their sin? Will they be able to change their ways so that they can finally know true peace, wholeness, and Shalom . . .

There is only one means to achieve shalom and that is through judiciously following the commandments of God. This is the bigger picture. And this generation needs to get the bigger picture. Babylon, with its allure of safety and comfort, promises all kinds of riches–even if it means slavery. But captivity to Babylon can never give Isaiah’s generation peace or happiness.

Alan Thein Durning in his book entitled How Much Is Enough? argues that increasingly “people measure success by the amount they consume” and “people living in the nineties are on average four-and-a half times richer than their great-grandparents were at the turn of the century.” But how many of us are any happier?

Our text challenges us to plumb the depths of our commitment to God. How much are we willing to give up for Him?

The Bible challenges people to face the temptations of worldly wealth. Jesus warns His people “what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matt. 16:26)
Measured in constant dollars, the world’s people have consumed as many goods and services since 1950 as all previous generations put together. And we are no happier.
Durning argues therefore that “the main determinants of happiness in life are not related to consumption at all–prominent among them are satisfaction with family life, especially marriage, followed by satisfaction with work, leisure to develop talents, and friendships.” Yet, even though many of us know that fact, how many of us are willing to sacrifice everything in the eternal quest of possessions?

This quest captures the heart of Isa. 48 where God is looking wistfully at His people and desiring with all His heart that His people would obey Him, trust Him, follow Him . . .

Isa. 48 is addressed to a people ready to go home. To leave exile and return to responsible freedom.

But, to return to Jerusalem, after a generation in exile in Babylon, presupposes a new commitment to God’s commandments. God is aching in this passage. The God we meet here is like a yearning parent who, after punishing His children, wishes like everything that they have learned their lesson and He will not have to send them into captivity and bondage again. God is more ambitious, as it were, for His children than they are for themselves!

The bridge from captivity–Babylon–to Zion and freedom–Jerusalem–is obedience to God’s commandments. V. 18 makes it clear that the keeping of God’s commandments is critical to shalom, or health and wholeness.

The commentator Walter Brueggemann suggests that Isaiah in this passage is arguing forcibly that obedience to the commandments is a pre-requisite for healthy human relationships. The commandments as guidelines for covenantal social relationships intend an end to greed, acquisitiveness, exploitation, disrespect, and brutality of the strong against the weak (Brueggemann).
So, in Isaiah we see a patriarchal God who both loves us and also wants us to live under the shelter of His love. The prodigal son story (Luke 15), the lost sheep story (Luke 15), the lost coin story (Luke 15), and the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) all portray a loving father.

In order, though, for us to know this shalom, we must leave behind the comforts of Babylon and risk new forgiveness and grace.

Esther Study – Part 5

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Martin Luther wrote, “There is no greater love than God and no more desperate scoundrel than the world. . . His love is greater than the fire seen by Moses and greater even than the fire of hell.”

We stand today basking in the glow of the love of God in Jesus Christ.

My question to you is this: How much do you love Indiana? The USA? The World? Enough to prepare your children to be world changers for Christ? To prepare them to die for the Gospel if necessary so that others may know Him?

Esther had no status, very little influence really, she had no obligations to anyone but herself. But she obeyed God and saved a=2 0nation. In Ch. 4 when she turns the corner and faces her husband unsummoned she is facing death . . . or eternal victory. In the courts, in the business world, in higher education our children are doing the same. Will we prepare them to do this?

We stand with those facing death. We stand against systems that tyrannize, abuse, demean, and destroy. We stand for life–all life, everywhere. We stand because we know that we are loved . . . That He died for our sins so that we might live, and love others too. We daily dare to search our hearts, minds, and behavior and risk new ways of thinking, speaking, living, for the sake of our suffering neighbors, sisters, brothers, mother, fathers, sons, and daughters. We will not necessarily succeed . . . but we will try. The German theologian Karl Barth urges every church to ask constantly this question, “Is it time?” Could we be God’s instrument? Is this our time? Could we be called for just such a time as this?

Finally, I end with a prayer written by the theologian, humanitarian, and writer Thomas Merton wrote this prayer shortly before his death: “If I have any choices to make, it is to lie here and perhaps to die here. But, in any case, it is not the living or the dying that matter, but speaking your name with confidence in this light, in this unvisited place. To speak your name . . . and the light you have given.” Amen.

(The reader will find similar concepts developed20in “Who will Stand For us in the Face of Death?” a sermon preached by Pamela Ann Moeller in Pulpit Digest September/October, 1992. I used some of Pastor Moeller’s theological concepts and developed them concerning home schooling. The reader is encouraged to read Pastor Meoeller’s sermon.).

Esther Study – Part 4

Friday, November 14th, 2008

We are called to be Jesus Christ to this city and nation.

Jesus risked his life to face down death by hunger, by greed, and by tyranny. He stood eye-to-eye with raw evil and categorically refused to buy into any sort of hatred or oppression. In the face of the neighbors whom he loved He risked everything to tell the truth. He risked everything to transform situations of death into situations of life. He risked everything for people who never thanked Him–lepers, poor women, blind beggars, thieving tax collectors . . . and you and me. That is right. He put Himself at great risk for you and for me. Because He was there for such a time as this . . .

We have to be willing to enter the wilderness, to be in a place of great risk and diminished resources.

But better to be in the wilderness than in Egypt!

Our hurting world is out there with outstretched arms. Like Esther, we are called to be agents of transformation, agents of life in the face of death. But guilt is not the reason we accept the call. Our reason is that God loves us, stands up for us daily against death, transforms our lives from emptiness and despair to hope and life. Now I know that this sounds chauvinistic, but the fact is home schooled children are doing better in every arena. So what? This is a call to us to be Jesus Christ to this nation.

The missionary Robert Speer describes God’s call to his life in this way: “I think love will hear calls where the loveless heart will not know that they are sounding.” We respond to others needs because we are first loved ourselves. What else can we do?

Home schoolers, in 2008, we have come again to that sacred moment when God meets us in Jesus Christ. We are loved into becoming agents of transformation. We now need to take Him to the world. He empowers us to withstand whatever obstacles we may face.

Esther Study – Part 3

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

During World War II Zvi Michalowski, a Lithuanian Jew, was captured by the Nazi invaders and condemned to die, along with all the Jews from his village. Typically, the Nazi executioners lined up all the Jews in f ront of a ditch outside Zvi’s small town and then they were shot.

Zvi, though, had fallen into the pit a fraction of a second before the volley of shots which killed those standing with him, including his father. Later, Zvi crawled from the pit and escaped.

Nearby were several Christian homes–homes that Zvi knew were religious homes that might help him. Naked and covered with blood he knocked on the first door. The door opened. A peasant stood in front of him. “Please help me,” Zvi pleaded. The woman lifted the lamp closer to his face and responded, “Go back to the grave where you belong, Jew!”

And she slammed the door.

Zvi knocked on several doors and received a similar response.

Finally, Zvi, desperate for shelter and help, came to one final door and knocked. When the door opened, Zvi, lifting his arms to his side, cried, “I am your Lord, Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me–the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in.”

The poor woman did and Zvi survived the War.

The theologian writer Fred Buehner writes in his book Now and Then, “When you find something in a human face that calls out to you, not just for help but in some sense for yourself, how far do you go in answering that call, how far can you go, seeing that you have your own life to get on with . . .” You go as far as necessary. You go as far as you can. You go as far as Christ went. . .

Home schoolers, how much do you love America? Are you willing to die for them? Are you willing to put your children in a place of risk for this nation?

Perhaps we are called to this place for such a time as this . .20.

Listen: the safest place for our children to be is in the center of God’s will. Do you believe that?

Esther Study – Part 2

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Therefore, we have a responsibility to be Esther to this nation.

The reader wonders, “Where is the calvary? Who will save the good guys this time? Who will part the Red Sea? Where is Moses?”

But there is no Moses, there is no apparent savior. There is only weak Esther. Esther, the queen of Babylon who, hiding her Jewishness, manages to become the most powerful woman in Babylon. But, the most powerful woman in the world is less powerful than the poorest, weakest man, for this is a patrifocal society. It is ruled by men, not women.

But someone must save the nation. Someone must take a stand or every Hebrew man, woman, and child will die. And they will die soon.

Esther’s cousin Mordecai comes to warn Esther than she must give up her anonymity and take a stand or20they will all perish. All Esther wants to do is slip back into the safety of her role. Who can blame her? But for the sake of the nation, Esther will risk everything to do what is necessary. Though her knees must be shaking, she determines to stare death in the face and stand up for her people. Which is what she does. Unless summoned by her husband, Esther faces certain death by approaching him,for one never approaches an Oriental monarch unsummoned. Especially if one is a lowly woman–even a wife.

Why should she help her relatives and countrymen? What had they done for her lately? No doubt they had scorned her for her fraternization with the enemy. Esther would have known much condemnation and rejection. I doubt that she had any love loss with the Jews. Why should she put herself and her children in jeopardy for people who had no doubt rejected and derided her?

Home schoolers why should we care about the rest of America? What have they done for us lately–except harass and persecuute us. Why should we rest anything–much less everything–for this nation?

Esther Study

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

In Esther 4:14 the Jewish nation is facing imminent extinction. They stand at the brink of annihilation, genocide. They are the victims of the vitriolic and uncontrolled hatred of one man, Haman, and the whimsical irresponsibility of the foolish king, Ahasuerus.

Today America is facing a crisis. While we no doubt, in spite of Sept. 11, 2001, have political and military hegemony, we have lost the high=2 0ground. That is for sure! And our world as we know it is ending. The once sacred cultural icons of this nation no longer satisfy the needs of our people. What is He trying to say, brothers and sisters?

In the past God used Revivals to bring renewal. I think it is time we had another. Let’s look at how revivals came in the past and how Esther handled this too.


Monday, November 10th, 2008

This selfish response captures the tragedy of a Hezekiah figure. He was willing to sacrifice the future of his children for the pleasure of a moment. The cause of the exile and loss of Jerusalem, this preacher concedes, is complex. But for this text, however, it is clear that the primary cause for Judah’s destruction lies with Hezekiah’s cavalier cooperation with evil superpowers. Hezekiah forgot, for a moment, in whom he trusted, in whom he believed, in what he hoped, and upon whom he counted. He forgot everything in his eagerness to purchase his own desperate years of peace and power. Hezekiah is a study of a state of mind that resists change, fights against progress, for the sake of complacency. The Hezekiah attitude can kill a nation . . . or a church.

These are exciting days to be alive Johnstown, Pa. We have so many opportunities before us!
The Greeks have a word for this, kairos, which means, “window of opportunity or a decisive moment.” We must recognize that these are special times. Jerusalem did not recognize the unique kairos when Jesus came to save it (Luke 19:44), and there was to be no second chance. The disciples, however, did. And they turned their world upside down (see the Book of Acts). We are, First Church, poised, I believe, in a kairos, a moment in our history of great opportunity.

There have been other great kairos in our history–like when First Church pulled together after the 1977 Flood. We did not retreat; we took advantage of the circumstances in which God placed us–even if they were difficult–and made the most of them.

The French word is carpe diem or “seize the day.” We must seize the day, First Church. We have a noble and great calling before us. We must not retreat. We will not fail.

So, you see, it is not our nature to miss a Kairos moment. It is not in our history or nature to compromise our future to feel comfortable today. We shall do whatever is necessary to make sure that we do not miss God’s will for First Church circa 2000. . .

This does not mean that we have to be perfect, or special–only redeemed. We are, along with other churches, God’s chosen instrument for His purposes. We, therefore, need to be ready to do what He wants us to do when He wants us to do it.


Friday, November 7th, 2008

Walter Brueggemann offers what I find to be the most intriguing commentary on our morning scripture. The king of Babylon sends a diplomatic mission to Jerusalem (vv. 1-2). The mission likely intends to establish an alliance in which Judah would be the subservient junior partner, Bruggemann postulates. Judah would function as a “buffer zone” for Babylon against Egypt.

Hezekiah is delighted to receive the ambassadors–what else could he do? He shows to the representatives of Babylon everything that might have been a state secret. He exhibits the finances of his realm and his defense system. What a foolish man Hezekiah is! Showing his enemies his money and military potential!

Enter the prophet Isaiah, the voice of relentless, non-negotiable theological realism (vv. 3-4). Isaiah speaks of a future known only from the rule of God, unknown and unacknowledged by the time-bound, present-tense king, Hezekiah (Brueggemann). Isaiah, in effect, tells Hezekiah that he is one foolish king who has now given away the kingdom to the Babylonian conquerors.

The response of the king is pitiful and wimpish (v. 8a). He says quickly and agreeably to the prophet: “Thanks for the good word.” He concedes the truth of the prophecy with one haunting addendum: There will be peace and security in my days . . .