Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"The Last Straw"

My Message at the 
Ecumenical Lenten Service
Scottsville United Methodist Church
March 27, 2012
6:00 PM

Scripture: Exodus 5:1-6:1

Message:  “The Last Straw!”

"Did you hear the story of the man at the circus, near the camel pen? He was seen picking up a strand of hay and walking over to one of the dromedaries. He carefully placed the blade of dried grass on the brown fur of its hump. Nothing happened. The man shrugged and said, "Ah, wrong straw!" and walked off disappointed.

Obviously, he was looking for the straw that broke the camel's back. And he missed the point of the old proverb. A straw is a little thing. It really can't hurt anything. But added together, the little straws make a great heavy burden. And as you put more straws on a camel's back, theoretically they will become gradually heavier until there will be one last straw that adds the extra fraction of an ounce that exceeds the tensile strength of the vertebrae of that beast of burden. The last straw is not the last straw by itself."

 The people of Israel were in one of those “straw that broke camel’s back” situations...having gone through over 400 years of slavery and mistreatment by the Egyptians.  They felt like they couldn’t handle one more thing, or they’d break.
If you’re like me, then you’ve felt that way, too.  You haven’t gone through 400 years of slavery, but you have been through things that you feel like nobody else would understand.  Maybe you’ve felt broken by some things you’ve experienced lately…but God knows your pain.
Exodus 3:7  The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.

Remember—God hears your prayers.  Prayer isn’t just grasping at straws.

"When people face trials, they often turn to prayer only as a last resort. I knew a man who was fighting a valiant battle with cancer. As people observed the gradual effect on his body and lifestyle, one person said, "Well, they've tried everything else. I guess it's time to begin praying."

"Another man was going through an extremely difficult time at work. It was a crisis of major proportions that had ominous implications for him and for the future of his company. He just couldn't resolve it. Finally he said, "I've tried everything I know to get through this situation and nothing has worked. It's time to start praying."

"In both of these instances, prayer was seen as a last-ditch effort to resolve the problem. Only after all other options were eliminated did the person decide to pray. It was a desperate "grasping at straws."

"Instead of prayer being a last resort, it should be one of the first things we do. The Lord answers prayer, and He wants us to come to Him continually with all of our needs (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The Bible tells us to "be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer . . . let your requests be made known to God" (Philippians 4:6)."

So the people prayed, and Moses showed up on the scene, promising to deliver them from the hands of their oppressors.  Pharaoh didn’t believe Moses’ credentials, and the people didn’t appreciate the kind of help he was trying to give.  In fact, Moses’ “help” was just making matters worse.  Pharaoh instructed the Hebrews that because of their “deliverer’s” intervention, now he would no longer supply the straw for the slaves to make bricks.  They had to go out and collect straw for themselves.  The people had prayed, and now things had gone from bad to worse.

I know some people who’ve gone through one difficult situation after another.  They pray, and pray, and yet there seems to be no solution in sight.  Sometimes there will be a momentary relief, but then something will happen that takes them right out of the frying pan and into the fire.  They wonder whether prayer is doing them any good at all. 

In these last days of Lent, as we approach the Jewish time of Passover, we remember that God has a purpose that might not come to full fruition overnight.  The Jewish people prayed to God for salvation, and He sent a deliverer.  But God didn’t bring the Hebrews out of Egypt immediately.  The series of disappointments that the Jewish people went through, and the judgments that the Egyptians endured, were not designed to simply punish Pharaoh over and over.  Instead, God used these events to teach the people to be faithful through disillusionment, to endure distress, and to trust Him—even though life had given them the short straw.

How did God respond to Pharaoh’s abuse of the Israelites?  What did God do to ease the Hebrew burden?  Did He miraculously multiply their straw like loaves and fish?  Did He favorably dispose the Egyptians so that the citizens generously gave their straw to the Hebrews to they wouldn’t have to scrounge their own straw?  No—God did none of these things.  God allowed the Israelites to suffer, to struggle, to scavenge for themselves.  He let them go through the punishment that life doles out—but He gave them words of encouragement.

Exodus 6:1 – Then the LORD said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.” 

The time of miracles would come later…they hadn’t seen any yet.  Supernatural deliverance was around the corner, but the Hebrews just weren’t feeling it yet.  Moses promised the people salvation, but his promises had not yet come true.  But keep reading through the next chapters of Exodus and you’ll see how God saved the Hebrew people from the plagues brought on the Egyptians.  You’ll hear how He led them out of Egypt, pursued by Pharaoh’s armies.  You’ll watch the Red Sea open to let the Israelites walk through on dry ground, only to swallow up pursuing troops.  God’s time of deliverance would come…but that time was not yet.  For now, His people had to collect their own straw and feel the sting of their overseer’s lash.

God tells Moses in Exodus 6:5-8, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.  Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.  And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.’”

 God tells you the same thing.  When you feel like you’ve reached your last straw, when it seems that all your prayers have done is make things worse—this is when you need to trust God the most.  Yes, you feel enslaved to the traumas and temptations of life.  But God redeems His people.  The time of miracles might be on the horizon, but you haven’t seen anything yet.  This is your time of struggling, of waiting, of trusting that God will work His purpose out.  This is your time to pray.  And you won’t be grasping at straws.  You’ll be grasping at God.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Seeing and Listening

Spirit & Truth # 266
“Seeing and Listening”

By Greg Smith

            In her blog, “Seeing, Creating, and Being,” Elizabeth Watts writes:

            Have you ever thought about the difference between ’seeing’ and ‘looking’?  For me, seeing is active; looking is passive. Looking is like showing up, punching the clock, not necessarily engaging. Remember the scene in the hysterically funny National Lampoon Vacation movie where Chevy Chase schleps his family to the Grand Canyon for an ill fated summer vacation? After an arduous journey, they arrive at the edge of the canyon, get out of the car and look out over the view for 7 seconds at most, jump back in the car, done—they’ve looked at the Grand Canyon. He did not however, engage with, or experience the Grand Canyon.
            Seeing speaks to understanding, illumination, discernment, and wisdom—seeing past stereotypes, cliches and preconceptions. Do you see?  To ’see’ is to look past the obvious, the expected; to take the time, to pay attention.[1]
            Seeing goes beyond just getting a look at something.  Listening is more than hearing.  In John 12:20-36 Jesus illustrates that some people are more lookers than seers, and some are more hearers than listeners.

            In verse 21 (NIV), some Greeks approach the disciples, saying, “We would like to see Jesus.”  The Master’s lack of response is perplexing.  People are looking for Him, and He just ignores them.  Nowhere does it say that He granted these seekers an audience.  The Gospel never records Jesus as ever speaking to them.  He simply goes on talking in riddles (a trick which He elsewhere explains is designed not to clarify a point but to keep in the dark those people who weren’t sincerely listening with their hearts tuned in to God[2]).

            In verses 27-29, God’s voice booms out of the heavens.  Some recognize God’s voice, but others just hear it as thunder or suggest that an angel has spoken to Jesus.  Clearly it makes a difference whether you have “ears to hear”[3] what God is saying.  In fact, Jesus says that the voice wasn’t meant for Him at all.  “Jesus said, ‘This voice was for your benefit, not mine (verse 30, NIV).’”

            God is continually trying to reveal His Son, Jesus.  The problem is that most people don’t really want to see Jesus; they just want to come to church and get a look at Him.  God is always speaking.  The trouble is that when most people hear God’s voice, and aren’t really listening.  It’s all for your benefit—so God can show you your own sin, drive Satan out of your life, save you and then use you to draw all people to Him (verses 31-32).  The question is whether you’re tuned in to see Him and listen to His voice.

            You’ve got to listen up now.  Verse 36 (NIV) says, “When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.”  God is always speaking to you—with one exception: when He can tell you’re not really listening.  Then He makes His Word scarce—to create a hunger within your heart to hear from Him again, and a desire to see with fresh vision what you’ve been missing for so long.  Isaiah 55:6 (NIV) implores you to “seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near.”  Don’t just be a looker—be a seer.  Don’t just hear the Word—listen to His voice.

[3] Mark 4:23; Luke 8:8

Monday, March 19, 2012

Look, and Live!

Spirit & Truth # 265
“Look, and Live!”

By Greg Smith

            Last week we celebrated one of my favorite holidays, St. Patrick’s Day.  Though I’m not a fan of green beer, I like a good pinch as well as the next guy.  But what I like most about Patrick is his sense of mission.  The young Welshman was enslaved by the Irish, then escaped from his captors to return home.  After receiving his theological education, he followed God’s call to evangelize the very people who had enslaved him.  That takes some dedication.  In addition to using the Shamrock to explain the nature of the Trinity, Patrick is credited with having cast the snakes out of Ireland.  In fact, there likely were never snakes in Ireland; Patrick, however, did drive the Druids out of Ireland, and put an end to the human sacrifice they practiced.

            In Numbers 21:4-9, Moses exercises a similar power over snakes.  The people have been grumbling against God because they’re bored with the manna He has been providing them to eat in the wilderness.  In righteous judgment, God sends poisonous snakes to bite the people, and some of them die.  The people ask Moses to pray to God for them, and God directs Moses to do something rather strange, that will bring healing to the people.  Moses makes a metal snake and lifts it high on a pole, and everyone who looks at the snake lives.  This seems pretty strange to the modern reader, but God was using this event in Hebrew history to foreshadow a far more momentous thing—a greater healing that was needed not just by the Israelites alone, but by all humanity.

            As the serpent in Eden’s tree came to represent sin, so the serpent on the pole represented not just snakebites but Israel’s sin in grumbling against God.  In being forced to look to the metal snake, the people were made to confront their own sin.  There can be no forgiveness, no restoration for the sinful person, until he comes face to face with his own rebellion and repents.  The season of Lent is a time of asking God to reveal your sin, and to bring healing to your soul.  I hope you’ll join me in taking a hard look at those poisonous things that can kill the soul.

            In John 3:14-15 (NRSV), Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  That metal snake was a foreshadowing, a prototype, of Jesus.  The snake represented the people’s sin, but Jesus went one step further.  2 Corinthians 5:21 (NRSV) says, “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Jesus didn’t simply represent our sin when He was lifted up like that snake in the wilderness.  On the cross, He became sin for us, so that with His destruction, our sin was destroyed.  All who look to Him, to receive His gift of eternal life, will live.  

            Now you have a choice—to receive Him, or not.  Jesus came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10).  He was destroyed so that you might live.  Through faith, God gives you the strength to be like Patrick, and drive the snaky sins from your life.  I pray that through God’s power, you’ll evict those sins today.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Urim and Thummim: How to Hear from God

Spirit & Truth # 264
“The Urim and Thummim:  How to Hear from God”

By Greg Smith

            How do you hear from God?  Many people who are desperate for wisdom and understanding want to know.   In prayer, people since the dawn of time have spoken to God, telling God their deepest feelings and asking for an answer to their problems.  But does God ever speak to us?  How can we hear from God?

            In the earliest laws of ancient Israel, chief priests were given a tool for understanding the will of God.  While God didn’t usually speak with audible voice, priests were able to “hear” from God through a tool called the Urim and Thummim.  The English translation for “Urim” is “lights” (or “curses,” or “guilty” depending on the context).  “Thummim” is translated “perfections” (or “advice” or “innocent” depending on the context).  Nodody knows what these looked like exactly, but they were likely stones or slivers of wood engraved with the fist letter of Urim (the Hebrew character aleph), and the first letter of Thummim (the Hebrew character tau).  One may have been black and the other white.              

            How were the Urim and Thummim used?  They were placed in a pouch and worn around the high priest’s neck, over his heart.  By touch, they were indistinguishable from one another, but when someone came with a “yes” or “no” question, the priest could reach into the pouch, pull one out and read the negative Urim or affirmative Thummim.  The answer was not seen to be mere chance, but the will of God.  Not everyone could use the Urim and Thummim, but only the priest.  In fact, Leviticus 18 forbids people from trying to contact God through similar methods (unless they are authorized users of the Urim and Thummim, we may presume).  

            Today, we have a different way to hear from God—We have God’s word, the Bible.  The Old Testament sheds light on the guilt of humanity; the Law curses those who do not trust God for forgiveness.  The Old Testament is the Urim.  The New Testament declares all who receive Jesus to be innocent before God.  It gives advice on how to live day to day, and helps us to live in the perfections of Christ.  The New Testament is the Thummim.  So we no longer need such devices as a bag of stones around a high priest’s neck.  We have the Great High Priest, Jesus, who can show us the will of God.
            The aleph and tau show up one more place in the Bible, but readers of the English and Greek New Testament often miss it.  When Jesus said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” (Revelation 1:8, 22:13) He simply meant the first and last letters of the alphabet.  However, Jesus was probably not speaking Greek but Aramaic or Hebrew.  The first and last letters of Hebrew happen to be aleph and tau.  Symbolically, Jesus was saying, “I am the aleph and tau.  I am the Urim and Thummim.  If you want to hear from God, you have to come to me.  I am the voice of God to all who would hear.”   Greater even than the word of God (the Bible) is the living Word of God, Jesus.  It is He who not only hears our prayers, but answers them from on high.

            If you want to hear from God, read the Bible.  Pay special attention to the words of Christ.  Then, listen to what His Spirit speaks to your heart.  He who is the first and last word from God, and everything in between, will help you discern God’s will for your life—this day, and every day to come.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Please watch this very important video. Thanks. God bless.

KONY 2012 is a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.


Donate to Invisible Children: https://www.stayclassy.org/checkout/set-donation?eid=14711

Purchase KONY 2012 products: http://invisiblechildrenstore.myshopify.com/

Sign the Pledge: www.causes.com/konypledge

DIRECTOR: Jason Russell LEAD EDITOR: Kathryn Lang EDITORS: Kevin Trout, Jay Salbert, Jesse Eslinger LEAD ANIMATOR: Chad Clendinen ANIMATOR: Jesse Eslinger 3-D MODELING: Victor Soto VISUAL EFFECTS: Chris Hop WRITERS: Jason Russell, Jedidiah Jenkins, Kathryn Lang, Danica Russell, Ben Keesey, Azy Groth PRODUCERS: Kimmy Vandivort, Heather Longerbeam, Chad Clendinen, Noelle Jouglet ORIGINAL SCORES: Joel P. West SOUND MIX: Stephen Grubbs, Mark Friedgen, Smart Post Sound COLOR: Damian Pelphrey, Company 3 CINEMATOGRAPHY: Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole, Gavin Kelly, Chad Clendinen, Kevin Trout, Jay Salbert, Shannon Lynch PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: Jaime Landsverk LEAD DESIGNER: Tyler Fordham DESIGNERS: Chadwick Gantes, Stephen Witmer


Original Instrumental Scores by Joel P. West http://www.joelpwest.com/

“02 Ghosts I” Performed by Nine Inch Nails, Written by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, Produced by Alan Moulder, Atticus Ross, and Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails appear courtesy of The Null Corporation

“Punching in a Dream”, Performed by The Naked and Famous, Written by Aaron Short, Alisa Xayalith, and Thom Powers, Produced by Thom Powers, The Naked and Famous appear courtesy of Somewhat Damaged and Universal Republic

“Arrival of the Birds”, Performed by The Cinematic Orchestra, Written by The Cinematic Orchestra, Produced by The Cinematic Orchestra, The Cinematic Orchestra appears courtesy of Disney Records

“Roll Away Your Stone”, Performed by Mumford and Sons, Written by Benjamin Lovett, Edward Dwane, Marcus Mumford, and Winston Marshall, Produced by Markus Dravs, Mumford and Sons appear courtesy of Glassnote Entertainment Group LLC

“On (Instrumental)”, Performed by Bloc Party

Written by Bloc Party, Produced by Jacknife Lee, Bloc Party appears courtesy of Vice Records

“A Dream within a Dream”, Performed by The Glitch Mob, The Glitch Mob appears courtesy of Glass Air

“I Can’t Stop”, Performed by Flux Pavilion, Flux Pavilion appears courtesy of Circus Records Limited

Monday, March 5, 2012

Prayers for Pastor Youcef

Spirit & Truth # 263
“Prayers for Pastor Youcef”

By Greg Smith

            By now, many have heard of the Iranian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, who has was jailed for converting to Christianity from Islam in 2010.  Placed on trial, Nadarkhani was given the death sentence, but (as of this writing) that sentence has not yet been carried out.  Late last month, however, the Iranian government affirmed the court’s decision, and ordered the execution—which means that the sentence could be carried out at any time.  The international community has appealed to Iran’s sense of mercy, but frankly that government is in a bind.  

            In her column The Optimistic Conservative,  J.E. Dyer explains the complicated situation that goes to the very core of that nation’s identity and future:

What sort of nation will Iran be? If the clerical regime kills Nadarkhani, it will have to keep on killing, very possibly with the brake of compunction fully released. If it whisks him out of the public eye without explanation, it will have affirmed a precedent that can only metastasize and become a cancer on the life of the nation, as demonstrated with the Soviet Union and Communist China in the last century. And if it releases the pastor, it will have to do so in spite of its own laws, opening up the possibility of an unplanned and unpredictable future.[1]

            Those who are aware of Iran’s history of persecuting Christians may be experiencing a bit of déjà vu.  The Rev. Mehdi Dibaj was an Iranian Christian pastor who was condemned to die on the charge of apostasy on December 21, 1993.  After legal appeals and an outcry from the world, he was released on January 16, 1994.  However, the following June he was abducted and martyred for his faithBishop Haik Hovsepian-Mehr. Bishop Haik, an Armenian pastor who had assisted Rev. Dibaj by appealing to the Iranian government and calling his case to the world’s attention, was also abducted and killed.[2]  These are not isolated incidents—many Iranian Christians have been imprisoned or martyred for their faith.

            Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10 NIV).”  He also said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23 NIV).”  Jesus knew that He must die for the salvation of all who believe in Him.  He reminds his followers that persecution and martyrdom may be the price they pay for their faith.  Would you die for your faith?  What price would be too high to pay for what you believe?

            I urge you to pray for Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, and for his wife and children.  Pray, too, for those in the Iranian government who need to understand the peace of God.  Also pray for Christians who suffer persecution and martyrdom around the world.  In addition, pray that the Christian reaction to all of this might not be one of hatred or reprisals, but one of unconditional love and peace.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek…blessed are the peacemakers...Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:5, 9, 44 NIV).”  Only by love can the violent be turned from their hatred.  Let us pray with the words of St. Francis, who said, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”



[1] Dyer, J.E.  The Optomistic Conservative.  “The Fate of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani—and of Iran.”   http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Fate-of-Pastor-Youcef-Nadarkhani-J-E-Dyer-03-05-2012.html.  March 5, 2012