November 10, 2009


I know I've been terrible about posting since I moved to South Dakota, but let's be fair, I've been so incredibly busy that life has afforded me very little time for scholarship and writing. In addition to moving into our new house and leading worship this past weekend, I preached my first sermon as a pastor. More to the point, I've only preached twice before - once in my teen years in a youth service, and once with five minutes warning in India. So this isn't coming from a lot of experience. But I've done my share of writing.

Below is the text of the sermon text and audio.

Many of you know this already, but for those of you that don’t, my wife Liz and I were missionaries in Australia for a year, planting a church in Melbourne. Moving into a new place can be a bit scary, but it’s exciting at first. You spend a lot of time “oohing” and “ahhing” over the cool things you see, hear, and taste. But somewhere around month two, you start to realize that not everything is as shiny as you thought. What comes to mind is that when we were in Melbourne, I could never figure out why people kept running in to me when I’d go places, especially in the Central Business District of the city. We’re talking pretty much anywhere I’d go; I’d be walking along crowded city streets, and people would just walk right into me. It took me forever to figure out that it was me, not them, who was the problem.

When you walk along a sidewalk here in the states, we tend to make the assumption that it works like we drive. We drive on the right side of the road, and so we also walk on the right side of the sidewalk; it’s just common sense, right? Well, Australians drive on the left side of the road, and so I assumed that they’d walk on the left side of the sidewalk. And yet every time I would stick to my brilliant plan, I’d inevitably walk right into people. And so one day I was in the city and decided that instead of getting hit over and over again, I’d stop and watch and see what I was missing. And sure enough, as I watched, I began to notice that people didn’t actually walk in straight lines, but instead wove in and around each other as they bustled from place to place. It wasn’t until I stopped to watch and then imitate their behavior that I could walk unobstructed through the city.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, but I want to suggest today that it’s probably got to be more than that if we’re to be Christians of the highest caliber. Around the year 61 AD, in a letter to a group of churches near the city of Ephesus, the Apostle Paul wrote these words:
“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly beloved children, and walk in the way of love just as Christ loved us and gave himself up as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” [Ephesians 5:1-2]
I think you'll find that a lot of the really profound things in scripture are built on "therefore" statements. This usually forms the hinge of many of Paul's writings in the New Testament; because God is, because of what came before, because of how good God has been, therefore we act. So in order to understand what we're reading here, we'll have to start with what came before.

1. What Came Before:

Ok, so what did God do?

Well, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. That's how the greatest story ever told starts, right? First there's nothing but God, and then God sets aside something that's not Him and calls it good. In fact, He created an entire universe.

But we all know how the story goes after that, right? Another part of creation, something or someone else not-God, referred to as the "serpent," decides to try and get us, the creation, off track, to pull us out of that relationship we had with God, and we fell for it. We made a choice, and a rift was created between the divine and the mortal, a barrier built between God and humanity.

But God already had a plan in motion.

You hear about it all over the place. Whispers at first, really, and then growing anticipation. God is moving, God is working, God is seeking redemption with His creation. All the way back in Genesis it says that God called out a particular family to be the vehicle for this, to be as numerous as the stars if they'll strive to be faithful to the way of life He's set aside for them.
The LORD had said to Abram, "Go from your country, your people and your father's household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing." [Genesis 12:1-2]
And God kept His promise – Abraham’s family grew and grew and grew, just like God said. But growth can be scary, especially to your neighbors, and eventually, Abraham’s family, who became the Hebrews, were enslaved by another nation, Egypt.

And so the desire for redemption, for reconciliation turned into a longing, a plea for freedom. One day, in the midst of this oppression and slavery, God called a man named Moses to be a voice for Him, to speak out and demand that God's people be set free. When they were, they were sent out to cross the wilderness. They were given a way of living that would honor God, who would honor their freedom if only they'd keep to this way of life. In Exodus we read that, because God freed them from Egypt, they were to obey His law.
And God spoke all these words: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Therefore, you shall have no other gods before me. Therefore, don’t make graven images … therefore …" [Exodus 20:1-17, abridged]
We know the rest of the ten commandments, right? In remembering the things God has done for us, we are to be moved to Obedience.

But we don't always obey too well, and neither did our predecessors; no sooner had the Israelites been freed then they fell back into their old ways. And so God decreed that they move back into the wilderness, until, when the last of those freed from Egypt had passed on, they were once again called to move, only this time into the land God had promised.

And so they took the promised land for their own, but once again, they disobey. In fact, God spends centuries trying to teach them to obey the law He'd given them. Over and over again, but worse each time. Prophet after prophet was sent to remind the Israelites of their calling, and prophet after prophet was cast aside by King after King. Even removing the Israelites from their home as punishment only worked for a short time, and all the while the world groaned for redemption. But God had not forgotten, and through His prophet Isaiah spoke these words:
"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. … He who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives life to those who walk on it: I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness." [Isaiah 42:1-7]
And when all seemed darkest, God chose to act. On a seemingly ordinary night, some shepherds were going about their business as usual when the skies lit up with beings the likes of which they'd never seen, announcing the birth of the world’s redemption.

But notice the manner in which God chose to act: He chose to come in the most humble means possible: He was born to an unwed teenage girl in enemy-occupied territory. He only told two groups of people about it: a bunch of peasants, nobodies, and then several years later, a small group of astrologers (Bibles often translate the term "magi"), who found the child and presented gifts intended for burying a king. Nothing about this story makes sense to our understanding of things – and yet this is how God chose to enter history; in the most ordinary means available. Isaiah 53, a prophetic chapter talking about the messiah, says that Jesus would be ordinary, plain, simple.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. [Isaiah 53:2]
It’s like if you took a group picture of Jesus with the disciples, you couldn’t pick out which one was Jesus! And yet, THIS is the man who history hinges on. He then spent thirty years growing up, learning how to speak and write, memorizing the Torah and Talmud, learning Hebrew customs, and working with his adopted father as a carpenter before he began any kind of public ministry. And when he did begin, who did he call to work with him? The second-rates, the guys who flunked out of Rabbi School and had to instead work as fishermen and tax collectors.

Then he had the nerve to further challenge the religious establishment and tell them that in the two thousand years since Moses, they STILL hadn't managed to understand the intent of the Law they'd been given. He taught with authority and conviction, telling stories about fields and wheat and coins, stories drawn from the very lives of the people who followed him. And for simply teaching Truth to people who were not considered clean, Jesus – God himself – was betrayed, sold out to the very enemies that occupied the promised land, then tortured and killed in one of the most painful manners that history has ever devised.

THIS is why Paul writes that our gospel is a stumbling block, a folly to Jew and Gentile alike. It doesn't make sense to us that God would act like this!

Paul tells it like this:
Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a humble servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even a criminal's death on a cross! [Philippians 2:6-8]
This was the fragrant offering that Paul is speaking of in Ephesians 5. In the Ancient Hebrew Temple, incense was burned 24/7, its smoke a symbol of the prayers of the people drifting into the Holy of Holies, where God Himself lived. At the exact hour that Jesus died, the Scriptures say that the very curtain separating the rest of the Temple from God was torn, top to bottom, from God's side to ours.

Of course, we know that the story doesn't end there. In the hour that humanity reached its lowest, Jesus was resurrected. He beat death, and having become the very offense we were supposed to be – He wiped the slate clean. He began the story anew, and fulfilled the redemption for which the world had been longing since Adam and Eve first chose themselves over God.

2. Therefore:

God came in skin, into a zip code and sandals and mortality and all the trappings that went along with that. John’s gospel says that “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood,” that He was “generous inside and out,” that he was “true from start to finish.” Not just the stories about Jesus, they are true, but JESUS HIMSELF was TRUE! He told stories, he ate food with people, he healed those that were sick, he touched the untouchables, he taught with authority. And then when it became necessary, He gave Himself up as a sacrifice for us and died at the hands of those that opposed Him, and rose from the grave and defeated death.

And we are supposed to be different because of this story, because it is THE true story.

In each of Paul's letters, it is this story that he starts with. For Paul and the early church, the gospel story is one in which we remember what came before, because it's in remembering that we are inspired to action. Because God did this for us, THEREFORE you ought to imitate God. Matthew 28 - because all authority has been given to Jesus, because of what he's done, THEREFORE go and make disciples of all nations. Romans 12 - because of what God has done, THEREFORE offer your bodies as living sacrifices and don't conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds as your spiritual act of worship. Philippians 2 - THEREFORE if you've been encouraged by your life in Christ, have the same attitude as Christ, value others above yourself and be a servant!

It’s sort of like God was a missionary. Historically, one of the ways that theologians would describe God was with the term “Missio Dei.” In English, it means the Missionary God. And this story is why! If we are to imitate God, then we need to imitate Him as missionaries. Because God IS a missionary, we too are to be missionaries. We all tend to think of missionaries as those people who go off and move to exotic places with lots of sand and people with bones through their ears. But not everybody can do that; it’s just not possible, and I don’t think God asks that of everyone.

So the question comes, what does that look like? For those of us that don’t get to go to those exotic places, for those of us that feel a bit too ordinary, how are we missionaries to our own culture?

Well, again, what did Jesus do?

Jesus, I think, used the ordinary to point to the extraordinary. He told stories using ordinary things like plants and coins and wedding banquets and lamps and fields. What’s more, even when He did do extraordinary things, like healing, He STILL asked people to do the ordinary things like wash in a river and put mud in their eyes. It was through the ordinary that their extraordinary faith was shown.

Jesus was like a tour guide for the way that God was already at work within the world. And that’s what we’re supposed to do! We say, “God is working in the ordinary!” God didn’t just abandon the world to its own fate, He intervened, and the stories are all around us just waiting to be told. Paul said it this way:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. … To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. [1 Corinthians 9:19-22, abridged]
A great example of this in action can be found in Acts 17. Paul has just come to Athens, Greece. Now, a little background about Athens. You’ll remember from grade school that the Greeks were polytheistic, that means they had a lot of gods that they worshipped. And by a lot I’m not just saying like, five or six, I’m talking hundreds of them. There were so many that what they’d do was make a little statue, or sometimes a really big statue of those gods to remind them who they were worshipping. They were so nervous that they had forgotten someone that they’d gone and made up a statue called “the Unknown God” just in case!

Another thing that was really common in those times was the public debate. A guy would get up in the street and start giving a monologue, and inevitably someone else would come along and start debating with him. It’d be like a guy getting up in Walmart, and starts to tell everyone why the Packers are so great, and of course that doesn’t go over so well, so then someone else gets up and starts telling him no, the Vikings are far better, and here’s why. And they go through player stats and game stats and history and maybe trade a few insults, and all the while everyone’s standing around going “huh, that’s interesting, I never thought of it that way.”

Well the same thing happens to Paul. Now Paul walks into the scene and is worried by all the statues everywhere. The scriptures say that when he saw the idols he was “greatly distressed.” He starts doing this whole debate thing in the marketplace and some philosophers come along and start debating with him. But it gets to the point that they hold a formal meeting and invite Paul, and at the meeting Paul sees the statues all standing there, including the statue to the unknown God, and of course he knows what that means, because he’s spent time with them. So what does he do? He gets up and gives them a huge compliment – “I see that you are very religious!” The Greeks all smile. Then he says, “I see you have this statue to an unknown God. And maybe you didn’t know who this is, but I know this God, I know that He’s THE God, the one who made everything and you and me and that a relationship with Him is beyond anything you can possibly imagine …” Paul used His surroundings, the things that the Greeks took for granted, and turned them into a gospel message! He gave them a tour of their own religion, of their own culture and showed them how God had been working the whole time, even when they didn’t see it!

Now, not everyone believed. But some did. “All things to all people so that some might be saved.” Paul could take the ordinary and show them how it pointed to the extraordinary.

What ordinary things in the lives of those around us can we use to point to God’s work? What parables can we tell? What questions are there being asked that we can help to answer? Who is seeking that we can seek with? What in our lives is ordinary, and how will God use it to do extraordinary things? What about garden gnomes? Or pheasants? Cows? Corn? There’s a lot of that around here. Taxis? What stories are there waiting in the ordinary to be made extraordinary?

But Jesus didn’t just USE ordinary things, He didn’t just talk about them.

What did Jesus do? Jesus actually became ordinary!

Why would he do that? I mean, if I was omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent and all that, I wouldn’t want to give it up. I’d like being that, I think. But Jesus, Jesus was better than that. Jesus really loved the people he came to serve. What we need to remember the most is that we too must actually care about those that we are here to serve. Not just out of obligation, not just because we have to or because it makes us feel better about ourselves, but because we genuinely care for them, about them. The same way that God cares about us.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” [John 3:16-17, 21]
A friend once told me a story that illustrates this well. Some Navy SEALs were performing a covert operation, freeing hostages from a building in a dark part of the world. The team flew in by helicopter, made their way to the compound, and stormed into the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The room was filthy and dark, and the hostages were curled up in a corner, terrified. When the SEALs entered the room, they heard the gasps of the hostages. They stood at the door and called to the prisoners, telling them that they were Americans. The SEALs asked the hostages to follow them, but the hostages wouldn’t; they sat there on the floor and hid their eyes in fear. They were not of healthy mind and didn’t believe that their rescuers were really Americans.

The SEALs stood there, not knowing what to do. They couldn’t possibly carry everyone out. Then one of them got an idea. He put down his weapon, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the other hostages, getting so close that his body was touching some of theirs. He softened up the look on his face and put his arms around them. He was trying to show them that he was one of them. None of the prison guards would have done this. He stayed there a little while until some of the hostages started to look at him, finally meeting his eyes. The SEAL whispered that they were Americans and were there to rescue them. “Will you follow us?” he asked. Then he stood to his feet and one of the hostages did the same, then another, until all of them were willing to go. The story ends with all the hostages safe on an American aircraft carrier.

A long time ago, God came into our cell, took off His powers and His immortality and everything that made Him God and curled up next to us. And then He rescued us. What he asks is that we be willing to do the same to those around us who haven’t heard about that rescue, who don’t know what true freedom is like.

During this song, I want you to think about how you’ve been telling the story. The purpose of this time is for reflection; the words will be up on the screen for you to think through, not to sing. To that end there’s a blank space in your bulletin if that would be helpful for you, or listen to the music if that would. But think about this: do you know the story? If you know the story, how are the ordinary parts of your life given over to God? How well do you dwell in your neighborhood? Do you take offense at their habits or their language, or do you extend grace? Do you try to learn about them, about who they are and what motivates them and whether or not they like baklava and how they feel about the Huskers?

[Sing "Worlds Apart" by Jars of Clay]