The Valley of Dry Bones
The Lord set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am The Lord (Ezekiel 37:1-6).
Growing up, I loved the African-American spiritual: Ezekiel connected them dry bones, and trying to remember not to leave any parts out. Not until many years later did I learn that this song was (a) in the Bible, (b) was Ezekiel's prophesy that Israel would "live again," would return from exile in Babylon, would be a nation once again, would be resurrected into new life, when no one ever imagined that they would. But such is the power of God, always to bring life out of death, light out of darkness, hope out of despair.
Receive this great word as God's word of hope to you today. Amen.
The River Flows
I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east, and the water was ankle deep, then knee deep, then waist deep, then deep enough to swim in, and it flowed down through the desert and flowed into the Dead Sea, bringing fresh water and living creatures everywhere (Ezekiel 47).
Ezekiel ends his prophesy with this amazing imagery of a life giving river that flows from the temple in Jerusalem. We Christians believe Jesus is that "stream of living water." And indeed He is, as He lives in the never ending flow of God's love, and invites us to enter in as well, and to say to others: "Come on in, the water is good!"
God's phone number: 537-333
"Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know." (Jer. 33:3).
I was in New York City, listening to Norman Vincent Peale preach - oh my! And he shared with us "God's phone number." I was all ears, and then he quoted Jer. 33:3 (or 537-333). Isn't that grand! And I've been calling ever sense. The line is never busy, the connection is never bad, the call is never dropped, the signal is never too weak; there is never a "Can you hear me now?"
I do love God so much, and am ever so grateful that God is there for me, for you, for us, for all. I'm so grateful that God is ready and eager to receive our calls; no matter what!
If you were to call God right now, what would you say?
The Good Shepherd
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them; I will rescue them; I myself will tend my sheep (Ezekiel 34:2-15).
When Jesus says in John 10: "I am the Good Shepherd," He is referring to this well known passage in Ezekiel 34, where the prophet is criticizing the political and religious leaders (shepherds) of Israel who look after themselves and not their people. Not much has changed! The human condition is such that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," thus it takes the work of Christ in our lives to move us beyond ourselves to live for others, as Jesus taught us to do. It is rare, but it is the calling of everyone who identifies as a follower of Jesus. Love God; Love others. That's our call, that's our life.
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares The Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." (Jer. 29: 11 - 13).
29:11 is our daughter's favorite verse. It was read at her wedding, and it continues to be a centerpiece to her faith. I suspect that you love it to. And while it was written to the exiles announcing that God would soon bring them home, it is also a word for us, for indeed God's plans for us is for good and for a future. Especially when life seems dark, God is there for us. As the old Gospel saying goes: God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good.
Go ahead and complain to God, if you feel like it; it's ok
"Lord, I would speak to you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?" (Jer. 12:1)
Often as a Pastor, I have heard a parishioner/friend struggling with the pain their loved one is going through, say, "I'm pretty angry at God right now..." And what they don't say is that they feel bad even telling me that and even voicing such a "heretical" feeling. And I always say something like: "Go ahead, tell God exactly what you're
feeling. You're in good company, and God is very okay with you doing it."
You're in good company, as we see from this verse from Jeremiah. He states the case pretty well, doesn't he? Who of us hasn't wondered about this? The Psalmist is famous for arguing with God, and few are more spiritual than the Psalmist, so go ahead, let God know just exactly how you feel. God would prefer our honest sharing - it's the mark of an authentic relationship. And, as with Jeremiah and the Psalmist, that honest sharing is always a prelude to new spiritual growth. So, go ahead, it's ok to complain to God. But then, remember, it's also important to thank God and tell God of your deep love for Him, too.
Some things are Mystery, Beyond Our Knowing
It Was Wrong then, and Still Is
Job's "friends" each repeat this idea: "surely such is the dwelling of an evil man; such is the place of one who knows not God." (Job 18: 21).
The prevailing idea at the time of Job was this: God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Makes sense - to some degree; in fact, in about 90% of the time, there is a lot of truth to this; we reap what we sow, etc. BUT, and this is a huge but: in at least 10% of the time, this doesn't hold. It is incorrect to deduce the following: Since God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, if one experiences tragedy it must be because he/she is wicked.
Please hear this: Job was written to dispel this lie forever and ever, amen! And yet it persists.
For centuries persons with disabilities, who are sick, chronically ill, who have a "deformity," who are viewed as "different" have been excluded from society because people misunderstood this wrong theology. Job tried his best to put this to the lie, and all who heard it were blessed. And then Jesus, when he came, he welcomed all those outsiders, people who had been excluded because their religious leaders had taught the same wrong message Job's three friends tried to promote. Jesus included the lame, the leper, the infirm, the psychologically unstable - all those who had been told that their "status" as an outsider was indeed the result of the punishment of God.
Thank God for Jesus!! And thank God for the Church that embodies His loving ways, and that sides with Job over against Job's friends.
Esther said, "The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman." (Esther 7:6).
Esther finds a way to reveal to the King the truth about Haman, which results in Haman being executed and Mordecai is honored and the Jews saved, resulting in great celebration, feasting and gladness among the Jews.
The Book of Esther is both a testament and call - to living a life that comes to the defense of the helpless, the marginalized, the threatened. It's a call to all of us to live into our God ordained destiny to rise to the occasion "for such a time as this." With God's help, let's do it!
For Such a Time as This
Mordecai said to Esther, "Who knows that for such a time as this you have come to the Kingdom?" (Esther 4: 14).
This is the most famous verse in the Book of Esther. Mordecai has just called on Esther to stand up for her people to the King, to reveal to him the terrible plot that Haman has orchestrated, that, if unchecked, will destroy the Jews. But Esther's dilemma is that even for the Queen it could be punishable by death to approach the king without invitation; she tells this to Mordecai, but he persists, and states this prophetic word, a word that is applicable to every one of us! For every one of us will have those occasions when we have been called into being "for such a time as this." Likely, there will be multiple times. May you and I be ready.
Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai's people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes (Esther 3:6).
Hitler wasn't the first. Attempts to exterminate the Jews have a long, horrific history. Maybe you are fortunate enough to have close Jewish friends and know about the festival called Purim. It's a little like Halloween in that the children wear costumes, tell the story of Esther and the horrible Haman. I remember once when Jan and I were in Israel, it was during the festival of Purim. It was a powerful way for them to remember and to celebrate God's protection and the important role Esther played. More on that tomorrow.
Mordecai and Esther
Now there was a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin named Mordecai, who had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother, she was also known as Esther (Esther 2: 5 - 7).
Esther becomes the new Queen of Persia, but she does not reveal her ethnicity, because then, as too often throughout history, prejudice against Jews has been prevalent. Why is it that humanity tends to discriminate against others? Why is ethnic cleansing so common? Why is bullying still a pervasive reality?
Paul was conveying the teaching and spirit of Jesus when he said, "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile." Followers of Jesus are called to live into a reality that is without bias and prejudice, although, let's be honest, much of the Christian Church has failed terribly in this area, hasn't it?
But almost every day we still have opportunity to stand up on the side of those who are discriminated against. Will I? Will you?
The Book of Esther
When the attendants delivered the king's command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger (Esther 1: 12).
The evolution of equality for women has been a long and arduous journey (with Jesus giving it a powerful and divine boost, continued when His followers live as He called us to do). But back in the time of Esther, women had no rights, and this "behavior" by the Queen, was not acceptable, either to the King or his advisers, who, figuring that if the Queen got away with "insubordination" it would lead to chaos in their own homes (see 1:17). So, they advised him to banish the queen, which he did.
Still today, people in power banish or marginalize those who they fear, dislike or feel threatened by. The challenge of Scripture is always before us: to treat others as we would like to be treated. Are you, am I treating others the way I want to be treated?
When Opposition Comes
Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other (Nehemiah 4: 17).
There were many in Jerusalem who opposed Nehemiah; Sanballat and others who knew that the rebuilding would diminish their own power, so they threatened Nehemiah with his life. There will always be opposition to the work of Christ, the work of unity, the work of good. But like Nehemiah, you and I will need to be prepared - with prayer, perseverance, doing our best, being wise and prudent.
Before we left Cuba, we spent two days in Havana. We stayed at the United Methodist house. The United Methodist Church is strong in Cuba and getting stronger each day. We visited Hemingway places, the huge and ancient fort, and also revolutionary plaza, where Castro used to give his 4 hour speeches (can you even imagine!). I asked my friend if the people of Cuba even liked Castro. He said, "In ten years his name will not ever again be mentioned in Cuba." I believe he is right. But the One, even Jesus the Christ, who brought to us and to all the world, the love of God incarnate, lives on and on forever and ever! And we join our hearts and hands with our sisters and brothers in Cuba, and all over the world, in praise and adoration of the One who is King of kings and Lord of lords, forever and ever. Amen!
Worship Service in Cuba
Let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2: 17), Christ has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14)
I had the joyous opportunity to preach in Cuba, and the above texts were what I used. Both are so relevant. We were there to help our brothers and sisters rebuild the walls of their church; to rebuild hope, faith, courage and love. And we were there because Christ has indeed "broken down the walls of hostility" making us one in Christ Jesus, in a bond of love that transcends government edicts. In Christ, there is "neither male nor female, Gentile or Jew, slave or free, Cuban or North American; we are one in Christ, one in Christ. And that unity, and the One who brings it, is the hope of the world. The music, dancing, joy and praise in worship, the holding hands, the embrace of our team by our brothers and sisters in Cuba - indeed the Body of Christ at its best. Yes, let's build up the walls of hope, and, with Christ Jesus, let us break down all the walls of hostility that would separate us from our family, our neighbors, our "enemies" our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. When we, the followers of the Prince of Peace, truly get this, then maybe, just maybe the rest of the world will follow. Amen.
Rebuilding the Walls
Then I said to them..."Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem." (Nehemiah 2:17)
In Cuba, everything takes longer than you can imagine; it took 3 years for the church to get the permit to rebuild after hurricane Dennis. As you would imagine, the communist regime is unsympathetic to Churches; in fact, most all of the 400 members of the Cienfuegos church are first generation Christians, and they are led by an outstanding, wonderful, genuine pastoral couple: Moises and Barbara Isla. Jan and I stayed in their parsonage, which adjoins the church, which means people in and out all the time! These dedicated servants persevere with joy. Moises has led, with help from the US, in putting a new roof on the church, reconstructed walls, and other restoration. When we were there, they were putting the new window frames in.
As you see from pictures, there are lots of 1957, 58 Chevys, Olds, Fords, Buicks, and also lots of horse drawn carts for transporting people and goods; paved roads from the pre-revolution era, along with well built buildings, now, many of which need paint and some restoration. When the paint is new, the buildings look beautiful, although inside there isn't much. However, changes are in the works; since Fidel has been too ill to govern, his brother, still restrictive and oppressive, has allowed for more capitalistic enterprise (to be sure, this has always been going on on the side, illegally, as it's the only way people could survive), and most of our group stayed in either of two homes owned by a couple that they run as bed and breakfasts, with air conditioning, a beautiful outdoor patio, internet advertising to Europe and South America. There are encouraging signs of progress, with the hope that when the two C brothers pass, a new era of opportunity will emerge, and also that the US will end the embargo, an embargo that only hurts the people of Cuba, and does little or nothing to the communist leadership, which live quite well.
When Our Hearts are Moved
So the king asked me, "Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart." (Nehemiah 2:2)
Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king of Persia, which meant that he protected and tasted the wine before the king partook to insure that it had not been poisoned and that it was of excellent quality. On this particular day, the king notices that N is sad and asks why. N tells him that he had just heard a report about his beloved home city of Jerusalem, that its walls remain in ruins. And then he asks if he could return to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls, and the king grants his wish.
That was our purpose for going to Cuba last week: to help rebuild the walls of our sister city Church; walls (and roof) that had been destroyed by hurricane Dennis in 2005. Over the past 9 years, Sanford and Alma Mayo have faithfully kept this church and its plight before us at Trinity, making many trips, carrying funds to help them rebuild. Our group of 13 also took personal money to help.
Why is this important? In Cuba, doctors, pastors, etc. earn $25 a month! Yes, you read that correctly. Due to the combination of the communist regime and to the US embargo, life is astonishingly hard for the average Cuban person. And yet, they have a spirit of amazing perseverance in the midst of it, with a mix of fatalism, having lift with Castro's rigid ideology since 1959.
The Cuban Nehemiah is a man named Moises Isla, the pastor of our sister church in Cienfuegos; more about Moises tomorrow.
Adam, Seth, Enosh (I Chronicles 1:1)
The first 9 chapters of I Chronicles consists of names, only names! These are the chapters we tend to skip over if we're reading through the Bible. But let's not miss this important point: Names are important! Behind each name is a person of infinite worth. The Bible affirms that. Jesus spoke of a God who knows us by name and knows the numbers of hairs on our head and cares for us, like the lilies of the field.
What is your name? You are a child of God, beloved and cherished - for who you are and who you are becoming! Amen.
Then Solomon began to build the temple of The Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where The Lord had appeared to his father David (2
If you were to read the 2 books of Kings and then the 2 books of Chronicles, you would feel like deja vu, for Chronicles repeats much of what is in Kings. Why? I'm not sure; perhaps to emphasize the importance of this period in Israel's history, for David and Solomon's reigns marked a high point in Israel's history; it was followed by a series of mainly unfaithful kings who left a trail of destruction, with a few exceptions, that led to the pivotal time of Exile into Babylon.
Lesson: power is tricky; it can lead to greatness; it can also lead to downfall. Let it be the former for you.
All Israel came together to David at Hebron... and they anointed David king over Israel, as The Lord had promised through Samuel (I Chronicles 11: 1 -3).
I Chronicles is all about David, his rise, his conquests, his spirituality; it leaves little out, except his downfalls. Some suggest that I Chronicles whitewashes David, leaving out the whole episode with Bathsheba, and other things that cast David in a less than positive light. All of that to say that, in general, the Bible is pretty strong at "not holding back" when it comes to honest reporting, even pointing out the foibles of the king - very unusual in ancient writings; it could get the writer killed.
This is a testament to the higher ideal of truth; it was more important than political expediency. It was essential to Israel's identity and continues to be vital to the health of any society, any government, to any relationship, to any person's selfhood. May truth prevail always.