August 19, 2012
I. On July 8 Candy and I worshipped with you somewhat incognito. Only a handful of people knew I was going to be your interim pastor. Lyle and Lillian Fry greeted us warmly when we arrived for the early service. We chuckled to ourselves at our evasive answers, feeling we shouldn’t be making the announcement ourselves. “Do you live in the area or are you visiting?” “Oh, visiting from Dallas.” “Do you have family in the area?” “No.” “When did you get into town?” “Last evening.” “When will you be going back to Dallas?” “This afternoon.” “How did you hear about our church?” “Someone told us about you.” “I hope you’ll come back.” “I think we will.” We were properly introduced and are delighted to begin our journey with you as you seek a new pastor.
A. Many thanks to Jason and Shauna for all the practical help with getting moved here. Also thanks to Julia and Andy with getting oriented to worship for this morning and a start on the daily workings of the church. We feel welcome and well supported.
B. Just a bit of a personal introduction. Candy and I have been married 43 years. We have three sons. Jon and his wife Leanne live in Schwenksville, PA with their children Hannah, 14 and Isaac, 12. David and his wife Rachel live in Milwaukee, WI with their children Sam, 10 and Elizabeth 5. Erik is single and is living in our Dallas home, hoping to get out on his own by 2013. In the months ahead we can fill in any details you wish.
C. Preaching in the transition time between pastors calls for some sensitivity. I don’t want you think I’m picking Scripture passages to send you some kind of jab. I start with the passages suggested by the Lectionary, the three year cycle of selections from the Hebrew Scripture, the New Testament Epistles and the Gospels used by churches of many traditions. My goal is to prayerfully discern how my sermons can help you listen for the voice of God from these Scriptures on your present journey.
II. This morning we read the conversation between God and Solomon in 1 Kings 2 and 3. As I have been reflecting on this the past couple of weeks, I wondered what I would say if God woke me up some night and said, “Ask for whatever you want, and I’ll give it to you.” I got to thinking about the many fables of people being granted three wishes. As a child I remember my friends talking about always asking for three more wishes for the last wish. Someone would always say with the voice of authority, that’s not how three wishes works! The genie in Aladdin’s lamp may be the best known of these stories, but they come from almost every culture. Often they show that we humans are not too wise in what we wish for. One family of three wish stories is about a woodcutter who is granted three wishes for not chopping down a fairy’s tree. He went home that evening and told his wife while complaining about the dinner she had prepared, and he says, “I wish I had a nice fat sausage.” It suddenly appears on his plate. Then his wife complains that he had wasted one of his wishes and says, “I wish that sausage was stuck on your nose.” Of course, it sticks and he can’t pull it off, so they use their last wish to get the sausage back on the dinner plate.
A. In contrast to the three wish fables that expose human foolishness, Solomon responds to God’s offer by asking for wisdom. God’s offer to Solomon is not a reward for heroic righteousness, though Solomon did love the Lord. Rather, it is God’s gracious faithfulness to the covenant with David. The narrator is clear that Solomon should not have been sacrificing at Gibeon, but God said nothing about it. God did not say to Solomon, “When you get everything right, I’ll help you be a good king.” No, God was meeting Solomon at the point where love and weakness converged and offering to participate.
B. Solomon’s request springs from realistic humility. First, he does not ask even for wisdom that would build his reputation. He asks for the wisdom to lead God’s people. He puts the covenant community ahead of himself. Second, he recognizes that he is inadequate. He needs God’s wisdom to do the job.
C. I easily identify with Solomon’s sense of inadequacy. I know God has called me to be a pastor. I love preaching and teaching. But preaching and teaching terrifies me. How dare I presume to stand in front of God’s people Sunday after Sunday and speak on God’s behalf? What if I say something that someone takes seriously and it heads them in the wrong direction? In your transition between pastors, you will make some decisions that will set the direction of this congregation for many years. I want to be sure I am pointing you in God’s direction. Already in my conversations with your congregational leaders, I can tell they are feeling the need for God’s wisdom too.
D. When the way forward is unclear, ask God for wisdom and abide in Jesus.
III. Today we are listening in on Solomon’s intimate conversation with God, identifying with his need for wisdom at the start of his reign. Next week we’ll hear Solomon’s great prayer for the dedication of the Temple at the peak of his reign. Knowing how Solomon later declined, we recognize that asking for God’s wisdom does not exempt us from our own foolishness. Understandably we ask, “How do we access God’s wisdom?” And “How do we discern which of the ideas that compete for action are from God and which are our own folly?”
A. Every once in a while I hear something so compelling I want to hang onto it and repeat it. So you may hear me talking about Fr. Thomas Hopko more than once while I am with you. He’s retired now, but when I heard him he was dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. He told us that when he was a boy, his mother would say to him, “If you want to grow as a Christian, read your Bible, say your prayers, and go to church.” Then he said to us, “Now I am the dean of a seminary training people for a lifetime of ministry, and I tell them that if they want to grow as Christians and want their congregations to grow they should read their Bibles, say their prayers and go to church.” The sheer simplicity of this is powerful. Christian spirituality is not complicated, only difficult. Bible, prayer and church are the essential ingredients in discerning God’s wisdom.
B. If we ask God for wisdom, faith implies acting as though we believe God is leading us, not confusing us. James 1:5-6a says it eloquently. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting.” I believe the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton articulated this faith in one of his prayers.
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Thoughts in Solitude © Abbey of Gethsemani, 1958, p. 83
C. Ephesians 5:15-20 that we read responsively this morning emphasizes the importance to tuning into the nudges of the Holy Spirit with joyful thanksgiving.
IV. God is nurturing Christ in us, which comes out more in how we make decisions than what we decide. When the way forward is unclear, ask God for wisdom and abide in Jesus.
A. When we think of abiding in Jesus we typically think of John 15 where Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Abide in me and bear much fruit.” Jesus also spoke of abiding him in in John 6:51-58 with a very different image.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
B. This image of abiding in Jesus by eating his flesh and drinking his blood is graphic, shocking, and certainly offensive to his Jewish audience. We access God’s wisdom by absorbing Jesus so he permeates every aspect of our being. Jesus lives his life through us. We become so saturated with God’s wisdom that it oozes out of us without having to consciously ask what Jesus would do.
C. Feeding on Jesus is much more than accumulating information about him and agreeing to obey him. We read the Bible, especially the Gospels, expecting to be encountered by Jesus, and that he will leave something of himself behind in us. We pray, not to tell God what to do about what matters to us but to engage in conversation in which we increasingly see from God’s perspective. Life with the church goes beyond religious, educational, social and service activities so that by the Holy Spirit we recognize the presence of Christ in each other and touch each other on Christ’s behalf.
D. When the way ahead is unclear, ask God for wisdom and abide in Jesus.
In the late 1970s I went through a crisis I still think of as my “dark night of the soul.” Just at the point that I was falling in love with my pastoral calling, it was seriously challenged. I couldn’t see the way forward to anything else, but pastoral ministry was blocked for over 3 years. As awkward as I felt, I stayed engaged with the church and a small group that had studied and prayed together for a long time. I kept up my daily Bible reading routine, though I can’t say I got anything out of it. The words went by like withered leaves in the wind.
What I did find meaningful and helpful was praying though the Psalms once a month. Five Psalms a day. I started doing that in 1970 and am still doing it today, but then I was only a few years into it. In that dark night I discovered that fully 100 of the 150 Psalms are laments and complaints. Two-thirds of them! I latched onto the laments and complaints. If Scripture included these Psalms, then surely God was giving me permission to be honest about the darkness of my own journey. I used the very words of the Psalmists to cry out to God, “Why can’t I hear from you now when I can’t find the path?”
I have since learned that God was guiding my path all along. The words of Scripture were soaking in. My lamenting prayers kept my communication connection with God. The church, especially that small group, was the source of encouragement and affirmation.
That’s where the window first opened to let the light in. In one of our small group discussions we encountered Proverbs 17:22. “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries us the bones.” I didn’t hear this as scolding me for my “dark night” but as the opening of the latch on the window that let in the light.
Very soon after that, a friend who was a professor at Wheaton College asked me to lead a breakout group at a retreat for engaged and seriously dating college students. The morning session seemed to go smoothly and the couples responded positively. At the afternoon session, my group about tripled in size. As the session wrapped up, I asked where the extra people had come from. They said that at lunch when they were talking with their friends, they expressed disappointment with their breakout groups. Those in my group invited them to come since they were finding it so valuable. I had not experienced such joy or exhilaration in years! That was the turn in the road that took me back to pastoral ministry which has continued to today.
I do not tell you this today because I think I was then or am now such a wonderful pastor. Rather, I tell it as my own experience of praying for God’s wisdom and abiding in Jesus when the path ahead of me was not only unclear but dark. As we begin this journey in the transition to your next pastor, there will be days of disappointment and confusion. Part of my responsibility as your interim pastor is to facilitate keeping up with Bible and prayer and church. To encourage you not to fear, for God is ever with you and will never leave you to face your perils alone.