October 7, 2012

Where Do We Go? Part 1

Alright, we are into the third week of our vision series.  For the last couple of weeks we have taken a look at both the mission Jesus has given to all of His churches as well as the particular approach to this that we as a church have been shaped to take.  More specifically, the task Jesus left for all of His followers to pursue in the context of local churches is to bear witness to the coming kingdom.  The kingdom is one day going to be restored to God’s people.  We are guaranteed as much in the Bible on numerous occasions. It’s not a matter of whether, but when.  That will be a time when our strangeness will finally be celebrated and seen as the norm.  The peace of God will reign over this world and we will be able to seek Him without the burden of sin that so easily ensnares us in this life.  In short, it will be a time more glorious than we can really conceive given our current experience of this world.  For all those who refuse this kingdom, however, it will be a season of unimaginable horror.  The nature of that horror is not explicit in the Bible, but the extent of it very much is.  And I know it seems crazy to think that someone would prefer horror over glory, but given the kind of lifestyle that glory requires, there are many who are willing to take the gamble.  In bearing witness we proclaim that the lifestyle is infinitely better than it is regularly made to sound, but also that the gamble isn’t going to pay off.

In making this bearing witness our goal, we must acknowledge that there are all kinds of different ways to go about it.  Some churches are huge.  Some are tiny. Some are ethnically diverse.  Some are pretty homogenous.  Some are modern.  Some are traditional.  Some have lots of programs.  Some focus on a few.  Some are primarily young in age.  Some are older.  Some are well-blended.  There is so much variation here that simply affirming that we are a Bible-believing, Christ-following church reveals nothing about us.  That doesn’t impart any information to the curious spiritual seeker because every Christian church is going to affirm those things.  The question isn’t whether you’re a Christ-following church but how you’re doing it.  Christ doesn’t take a cookie cutter approach with the local arms of His body.  Instead, He designs them very specifically to accomplish a particular mission in the overarching context of bearing witness.  Last week, through the lens of Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus we were reminded of the fact that our particular approach to the task of bearing witness is to help spiritual seekers find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally.  We live out this mission, this identity, by creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  We want every single person God calls to connect with this body to know beyond a shadow of doubt that they have a unique place to fill in this kingdom community.  We want them to know they are essential to the proper functioning of this body.  We want them to know that when all the rest of life feels like it is falling down around them, here they can have their worth affirmed beyond any quiver of uncertainty.  We then want to take every member of this body and empower them with the truth of the Gospel, with the knowledge of Christ, with the wisdom of the Spirit, so that they can make the biggest impact possible on the world; an impact which will only happen when they put the gifts Jesus has given them to work in the right places.  Anything less than this is being untrue to ourselves.  It is ignoring our identity and pretending we are something entirely other than what we’ve been created to be.  It is, in other words, a tragedy

Well, as we have covered all of this ground together, I have on multiple occasions told you that we were building to something.  I have stated my intention to share with you some things that have been on my heart regarding how we can effectively bear witness in our community.  I hope that I have built at least a bit of tension in you, that I have piqued in some small way your curiosity.  I have also said that starting this week, I was going to begin unpacking all this mystery for you.  And we’re going to get there.  But I want to tell you a story in order to do it.  You see, the task ahead of us is big.  The most recent data available suggests that almost 75% of Dinwiddie County has no real connection to any body of Christ.  That amounts to just over 20,000 people.  Narrowing things in to just the zip codes represented by folks at this church brings that number down to a shade over 8,000.  Even if you were to focus solely on the zip code 23833 which is where about two-thirds of our active members live, that’s still in the neighborhood of 1,500 people.  How does a church of basically 100 people (and that number includes our youngest members from whom, in their pre-verbal state, we don’t expect much in the way of outreach) reach 1,500, let alone 20,000?  That remains to be seen, but I can say with confidence that it won’t happen as long as we restrict our activities to our Temple.  The task of bearing witness to our Jerusalem, at face value, seems well beyond us.  Fortunately, as I hope to show you over the next couple of weeks, the Bible gives us some good hope to go on.

If you have your Bibles with you, open them up to the beginning of the book of Exodus.  I want to take a look this morning at the story of Moses.  Now, I’m well aware that most of you are pretty well-acquainted with this story.  Moses is one of the most well-known figures in all of Scripture.  Anybody who’s had much in the way of exposure to Sunday school has almost certainly had it driven into their memories that Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt after the ten plagues and gave them the Ten Commandments.  But truthfully, that’s about the extent of what Sunday school teaches and so beyond there gets a bit fuzzy.  Yes, perhaps you’ve heard the story of Moses before, but perhaps you’ve never heard it in quite this light.

Moses, of course, was born to Hebrew parents during the time when the Pharaoh of Egypt had commanded the midwives to immediately put to death any Hebrew boys they delivered.  But for some reason two of the midwives, much to their favor in God’s eyes, decided not to obey their king and lied about it to his face (which makes for some interesting theological discussions).  As a result, Moses survived in hiding until his infant cries were strong and loud enough to be heard by people his parents very much did not want him to be heard.  In hopes of seeing him survive, even if at the generosity of another family, Moses’ mother put him in a reed basket and floated it down the Nile River (to which all the crocodiles said, “Oh good!  A food truck!”).  The basket was noticed and picked up by none other than the Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him as her own son with the help of a Hebrew nursemaid who happened to be his own mother.

Moses then grew up a prince of Egypt.  Things were going really well for him until he committed second degree murder and had to flee the death penalty he had coming after him.  By the way, if God can take a convicted murder who fled justice rather than facing up to his crime and turn him into one of the greatest figures in history, I think He can do a thing or two with me and you.  Moses fled some 250 miles to the East to Midian.  There, in true Hollywood fashion he rescued a group of women from some thugs, won their father’s trust, married one of the girls, Zipporah, and settled down to grow his family.  And by settled, I mean settled.  We later learn that he arrived when was about 40 and stayed for roughly another 40 more.  How many of you are at least 80 and have been in Dinwiddie County for half your life or better?  Do you feel pretty settled in the county?  Are you up for traveling to another city and starting a task that will take 40 years to complete?  I suspect not.  Moses was a rancher and was undoubtedly settled in his lifestyle.  He had a wife, at least one son, perhaps a grandchild or two, a home he knew well, a steady job, well-respected in-laws, and a variety of other things he was probably not in a real hurry to give up.  It was when Moses was thoroughly settled into this lifestyle and out tending his father-in-law’s flocks that he saw something that caught his attention.

If you’re counting, Moses was about 80 years old when he came across the burning bush.  You all know about the burning bush.  It was on fire, but not burning up.  And when he came near to investigate, he started hearing voices.  I think if I were in his shoes I would have just gone ahead and checked myself into Central State.  I love the way the text puts this in Exodus 3:3: “And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.’”  That’s called classic Biblical understatement.  I suspect that if Moses were around today it would have come out something more along the lines of, “Holy cow!  Those must have been some bad dates, I had for lunch.  I’ve got to get a closer look at this.”  And then, as if it weren’t enough to see something that quite simply didn’t compute from his eyes to his neural processors, all aural appearances suggested the bush started talking to him.  I’m telling you, if a burning bush told me to take my shoes off I would turn myself upside-down to get out of them quickly enough.  But the real curiosity for us this morning, though, is not that the bush started talking to him, but rather, the things “it” was saying.

Remember: Moses was 80.  He was settled.  He was looking forward to a few more productive years and then retirement.  He was anticipating the day when the flocks were going to be his and he could set his sons to work while he took life a little easier back at the ranch.  He was not looking for adventure.  He was not looking for excitement.  He’d already been through his midlife crisis.  He was set.  He didn’t want anything more than he had.  And then this.  Look at the text with me starting in v. 7, and I’m actually going to read from the Message this morning because it flows a bit smother than other translations: “God said, ‘I’ve taken a good, long look at the affliction of my people in Egypt.  I’ve head their cries for deliverance from their slave masters; I know all about their pain.  And now I have come down to help them, pry them loose from the grip of Egypt, get  them out of that country and bring them to a good land with wide-open spaces, a land lush with milk and honey, the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite.  The Israelite cry for help has come to me, and I’ve seen for myself how cruelly they’re being treated by the Egyptians.’”  Up to this point, if I’m Moses, I’m tracking with God.  Word didn’t travel very quickly across 250 miles of wilderness then, but he was certainly aware of the status of Egypt on the world stage.  They were the superpower.  They ruled pretty much everything in the region.  He could safely assume that their source of slave labor from a generation or two before hadn’t risen up to free themselves and the Egyptians certainly hadn’t released them willingly.  If this God who had identified Himself as the God of Moses’ people was stirring to come to their aid, more power to Him.  Moses would go home and tell all his family about his experience on the mountain and how his ancestral people—whom he hadn’t really fellowshipped with…ever—were about to get a good turn at the expense of the Egyptians.  But, God doesn’t tend to tell people about His plans unless He’s going to call them to be involved in them.  Thus v. 10: “It’s time for you to go back.  I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the People of Israel, out of Egypt.”  And we’ve just jumped the track and are sailing out into the open waters of the sea of “Am I on Candid Camera?”

Let’s review a minute.  Moses is guilty of a felony and had fled to his current home rather than face Egyptian justice.  He is ethnically a member of a people who are currently enslaved to what is arguably the most powerful nation in the world at the time.  In the mind of the Egyptian people, the Pharaoh was a god on earth.  Getting an audience with him wasn’t something even a former member of the court returned from a self-imposed exile hopefully after the statute of limitations had passed was likely to be able to do.  And even then, to think that Pharaoh was going to voluntarily give up his source of free labor currently building monuments in his honor on the word of some God he had never seen and whose people were currently under his thumb (which in his mind meant he was the more powerful god) would not have made any rational sense to Moses or anyone else.  This would have been somewhat akin to a black man riding up to Jefferson Davis and announcing that God wanted him to set all the slaves free.  Can you imagine how the conversation must have gone with Moses’ family when he got home?  God wasn’t simply asking Moses to do something hard.  He was sending Moses to do something that was by any worldly measure utterly impossible.  It was much more likely that, assuming he even got an audience with the Pharaoh, he would be put to death on the spot for suggesting such a thing.  Indeed, God was calling Moses to kingdom work and the job was so far beyond him he couldn’t see or really even imagine what success looked like from where he was standing barefoot on the side of that mountain.

Moses was fully aware of all of this and so he responded as most of us would have. Keep reading in the text with me starting at v. 11: “But why me?  What makes you think that I could ever go to Pharaoh and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?”  Moses was thinking just like any of us would have been: “That’s a huge task.  It takes a much greater man than me to do something like that.  Great people do great things and I’m not a great person.  I’m a murderer who’s simply trying to eke out a humble existence in this foreign land, understanding that I’ll probably never see my people, let alone my family, again.  In other words, I am not big task material.”  And God responded to his objection.  But Moses had more.  Jump down to chapter 4: “They won’t trust me.  They won’t listen to a word I say. They’re going to say, ‘God?  Appear to him?  Hardly!’”  And then, “Master, please, I don’t talk well.  I’ve never been good with words, neither before nor after you spoke to me.  I stutter and stammer.”  Finally he just got blunt: “Oh, Master, please!  Send somebody else!”  Look at what’s happened here.  God has come to him and revealed His intention to work through him (in other words, all Moses has to do is show up and God will take care of the rest).  And Moses does everything he can think of to get out of it.  He starts with false humility: Who am I?  Then he goes with a bit of equally false self-deprecation: Oh, they won’t listen to me.  Then he gets more specific: I don’t speak well.  Then he’s just honest: I don’t want to go!

Have you ever been there?  Have you ever felt God call you to something you really weren’t interested in doing?  Or perhaps you doubted your capabilities.  Or maybe you felt the task was better suited for a “better Christian,” whatever that means to you.  Now, perhaps the task wasn’t quite on the scale of demanding an audience with the most powerful man in the known world and announcing that he completely overhaul his nation’s economy to better suit a God he doesn’t believe in, much less care about, but as far as you were concerned it might as well have been.  I can remember in high school I was at a week-long jazz camp about three hours from home.  I didn’t know anyone there including my roommate for the week.  Well, all week I had sought to be faithful to the daily quiet time I had recently started practicing.  About midway through the week I was sitting on my bed and reading my Bible while my roommate was lounging on his side of the room.  This particular morning I was deeply impressed with a sense that I needed to share my faith, to bear witness, with my roommate.  It was so strong I had to actively think about something else in order to shake the feeling.  I went through all the same objections Moses raised here.  Who was I to do something like that?  He wasn’t going to listen to me anyway.  Besides, I’m not good verbally on the fly.  I’m much better on paper.  Someone else could do the job much better.  God has lots of other servants who are much more gifted than me.  In my heart God dealt with each and every objection.  And yet, I kept my mouth shut.  I let the weight of the task flood my vision and lost sight of what was more important.  I walked the path Moses sought here.  I don’t know what happened as a result.  I’ve never seen nor heard from or about him since the camp ended almost 15 years ago.  God seems to have had an intention to speak the message of the Gospel into the life of this young man whose name has long since left my memory.  But I rejected the part God had called me to play.  At what cost, though?  What glory did I miss in my doubting, not my abilities, but those of the God who called me?  Who else has suffered because I wouldn’t be obedient to Christ’s command to bear witness?  Have you walked this path?  Have you experienced the regret?  Or did you perhaps push on in faith and experience the glory, the presence of God?  Because that’s precisely what happened to Moses.

As I said a minute ago: God answered all of Moses’ objections.  He enabled him to do miracles aimed at convincing people God really had sent him.  But more than that God told him explicitly: I will be with you.  Speaking about Moses and Aaron (whom God agreed to send with him as a concession over his cowardly refusal to go) God said: “I’ll be right there with you as you speak and with him as he speaks, teaching you step by step.”  And indeed God was.  He was with Moses throughout his interactions with Pharaoh.  He was with Moses after the people had left Egypt and were pinned between the Red Sea and the fast approaching Egyptian army.  He was with Moses in the wilderness when the people were hungry and thirsty and whiney.   He was with Moses when he was trying to do too much for the people on his own and was in danger of burning out.  He was with Moses when the people turned on Him wholesale and worshiped the golden calf.  He was with Moses through three attempted mutinies including one at the behest of his own brother and sister.  He was with Moses when he faithlessly struck the rock to give water to the people instead of speaking to it as God commanded.  And He was with Moses at the end of his life when he was allowed to see the beauty of the Promised Land before he died.  God gave Moses a big task, but He didn’t shove him off a cliff of uncertainty to accomplish it.  He walked with him every step of the way until his part of the task was completed.  God called Moses to a big task and stuck with him to the end.  Indeed, when God calls us to a big task He sticks with us to the end.  When we step out, like Moses did, we step out in the face of odds which can seem beyond the point of overwhelming.  Again: all rational presumption had Moses meeting his death in front of the Pharaoh.  I’ve been overwhelmed before.  But I’ve also had the opportunity to step out and be a witness to the work of the Spirit in someone’s life, drawing them home.  Rational presumption as we see it means little to God.  That doesn’t mean He’s irrational, but neither should we forget that He’s beyond our full comprehension and so at times the appearance is there.  Our not being able to see the end from the beginning is meaningless.  That’s why it’s called faith.  Moses couldn’t see the end from the beginning.  We don’t step out with guarantees of success.  We step out with the promise of companionship.  When God calls us to a big task He sticks with us to the end.

Now: big question time.  Why the story of Moses?  How does his story matter for our mission and vision?  We’re not likely to be involved in liberating any people groups from bondage anytime soon.  Oh really?  What about liberating north central Dinwiddians from the bondage of sin?  What about freeing our unbelieving neighbors from the paralyzing grip of this world?  Friends, just like Moses, we have a big task ahead of us.  Our vision alone goes beyond what we’re capable of doing on our own.  There are big tasks all around us.  And when God calls us to a big task He sticks with us to the end.

So what’s our task?  What’s our big task?  Well, let’s think through some things we know.  What’s our vision?  To create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  With this in the back of our minds, what group of people in the church is absolutely essential for its future health and life?  What group of people, as it turns out, happens to struggle more with issues of identity than just about any other?  Perhaps several arguments can be made, but I would say: young families; families with young and school-aged kids.  How do you bear witness to young families and draw them in to a place where they can find and have affirmed their inherent worth?  Where they can be empowered with the truth of the Gospel in order to impact their world for the kingdom?  Again, perhaps there are several ways, but let me suggest one that seems particularly powerful: you help them make sure they are able to see their most pressing felt need taken care of in a personal and direct way, namely, you help them love on their kids.  Stay with me here.  Where is it that we are called to bear witness again?  Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the end of the earth.  Where did I say we have the most conspicuous lack of involvement in bearing witness as a church?   Our Jerusalem.  We’re doing really well within the borders of our Temple, but it’s time to turn outward.  Last question: where in our Jerusalem is a place where we could potentially have the greatest impact on this most acute felt need of young families?  Let me suggest two places which are near and dear to the hearts of all of us in one way or another, two places with leaders who are highly interested in finding ways to partner with us to increase our collective positive impact on this community: Boy Scout Pack 185 and Midway Elementary School.  Come back next week and we’ll talk about what this can look like.  You won’t want to miss it.