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February 18, 2018, 12:00 AM

Starting Over — Charting the Wilderness

by Sandy Bach

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.[a] 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” Genesis 9:8-17 NRSV

It must have come as a crushing blow.

God went to so much trouble to create this beautiful planet.  God's ultimate achievement after flora and fauna and animals was us.  We humans were the crowning glory of creation.

It took fifty-five verses for us to blow it.  We got ourselves kicked out of Eden and went about our own way.  Four chapters later, God has had it.  It's time to start over again.  First a flood with only a remnant of animals and humanity saved. Then it took months and months to clean up the earth from pre-creation chaos.

That's when God did something very strange.  And that's what matters to us today.

This is the first in a series for the Season of Lent where we look at our spiritual wilderness and starting over.  Whether you're in that spiritual or emotional wilderness today or have been in the past, I hope this will be of help to you.

The wilderness is barren.  Foggy.  Filled with wild animals.  It feels God-forsaken.  It feels hopeless.  We drift from one place to another, not sure of our direction.  When we arrive, we recognize that it isn't where we thought we were headed.  We wander, unsure where to go or how we got there.  Overpowered by the powers that be.  Walled in and walled off.  Alone.  Too worn out to be scared or angry.

Once Noah and his family got off the ark, they were also in a wilderness.  They had to rebuild their lives.  Start all over again.

Jesus found himself in the wilderness.  Driven there by the Holy Spirit, he encountered beasts and angels and Satan.  He was there for forty long, unending days.  Tempted and tested and hungry, he endured.

There are others throughout history that have found themselves in the wilderness.  It's okay for them, but what about when it happens to you?  You wonder, how did I get here?  Did I earn this particular punishment?  Is God trying to tell me something?  Was there something I did or didn't do?  Or is this part of living in a dysfunctional, sometimes toxic world?

More to the point, how do I get out of here?  Perhaps if I'm very, very good, God will relent and open up the gates to allow me to escape.  Will I be here forever?  40 minutes, 40 days, 40 years: they're interminable, forever.

The thing is, when Noah opened the door of that ark and his family walked out onto the drying land, he was met by God.  And God had a message so important and astounding, that it left Noah speechless.

God took responsibility.  God changed God's mind.  God made a covenant with Noah.  Here's the strange thing: this is a covenant that depends on nothing or no one, except God.  No quid pro quo.  No, I'll do this but you have to that.  It's a unilateral covenant.

And it goes like this: "I won't destroy the entire earth with flood waters ever again.  To prove my point, I'm putting my bow in the sky to remind me that never again will flood waters destroy the earth."  It was believed that lightening was the result of the gods sending arrows to the earth with bows.  When God put that bow in the sky, God hung up a weapon of destruction.  Never again would God use it.

Jesus spent his forty-day sojourn in the wilderness with the Holy Spirit at his side.  He encountered wild beasts and angels.  But the Holy Spirit never left his side.  In other words, God was present.

So where is God when we're in our own wilderness?  Right there with us.  Look around you and you'll find evidence of God's provision.  For forty years the Hebrews received water and food from God's providence.  For forty days Jesus was sustained by God, not with food, but with power to withstand the temptations and testing.

The wilderness isn't an easy place to be.  Yet, it's a place where you can rest for awhile, where you can express anger, sadness and desolateness.  It's a place to experience God's grace.

What is or was your wilderness?  A spiritual dessert where you questioned God's existence? A place of addictions to drugs or alcohol?  A sickness of being controlled by wealth or fame or power?  A realization that your sense of control and self-sufficiency are only an illusion?

Ask yourself, how is God at work?  Whatever got you there, look around.  How is God at work to bring you to new life?

Rest awhile.  Learn from God and your experience.  Let go of your assumptions.  The wild animals will try to tell you what you need to do (just pray a little harder or have more faith) or what got you there (you know God is trying to tell you something) or how to endure (God never gives us more than we can endure.) Move away from them.  Like any wild animal, they aren't good for you.

In prayer and reflection, you'll learn more about yourself than any ten wild beasts!  You'll feel God's presence and a sense of peace will gradually embrace you.  Rather than godforsaken, the wilderness is God infused.  Rather than hopeless, the wilderness can provide a new kind of hope.

Look for grace.  Allow grace to find you.

Most of all, stay where you are.  God will tell you when it's time to leave.  For now, we'll spend the next couple of weeks in this wilderness.

After the flood, God realized that humanity simply can't live up to very high standards.  Sure, sometimes we get it.  But, after a centuries of wars to end all wars,  difficult race relations, increasing poverty, we still can't get it right.  Even when we do the right thing, we get the wrong outcome.

That's why God's covenant is so important.  It wouldn't take long for Noah to get drunk and his sons to disrespect him.  The Bible is filled with those here-we-go-again stories.  But, God looks at the bow in the sky and remembers: "I won't destroy the whole earth."  And for thousands of years, God has been at work.  Left up to us, it be a lot worse.

Listen to what God is saying to you: "I'll meet you in the wilderness.  I will not dessert you.  I will not leave you.  That bow in the sky is my reminder.  I will not change my mind.  But, I can and will transform you."

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




February 4, 2018, 5:35 PM

Searching for Jesus

by Sandy Bach

29 As soon as they[a] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.  (Mark 1:29-39 NRSV)

Jesus began his ministry as he intended to go.  He was a Jewish teacher, so it was natural that he went to the synagogues to teach and to heal.  His message was refreshing to those who were sick and tired of living under Roman rule and Herod's thumb.  His words were as healing as his touch.

He made sense of scripture.  He interpreted it in ways that many didn't.  He brought it home to those who felt themselves living outside the faith.   People who tried to live by the rules, were set free from legalism.  He showed them freedom in their Jewish faith where others saw only rules.  He taught them the common sense behind the law so that the people could live in community with each other and in deeper relationship with God.

His healing made equal sense.  He didn't make a big deal of it.  There was no hocus-pocus.  He used words to forgive sins, rebuke evil spirits or to calm a broken soul.  His touch lifted up, as in the case of Simon's mother-in-law.  He wasn't afraid to touch. Not even the lepers.  Often, a guided action on his part and healing took place.

Here was the heart and soul of Jesus' ministry.  Here was Jesus himself.  Yet, Simon and the disciples had to go searching for him.  What some saw as a man of God caring and healing and teaching, the disciples saw as opportunity.  They would be Jesus' advisers and public relations men. That's why they came to that deserted place: to let him know that the next healing event was ready to begin.  They were disturbed that he wasn't up and dressed and ready to go at the crack of dawn.

Do we go searching for Jesus because of our need to be with him?  Or because we have a to-do list for him to take care of?  Are we honest enough to admit that we try to control Jesus?

That to-do list isn't a bad thing.  In quiet meditation we can sit with the Master and share our yearnings and worries and hurts.  Jesus didn't come to earth only to desert us to earthly worries.  This is the One whom we can trust to understand and to help us with the demons.  That to-do list for Jesus can often turn into a list of what to hand over to God and let go of; what we can do ourselves; and what we will wait on Jesus to handle when the time is right.

We all try to control Jesus.  "If only X would happen, my life would be so much better."

The disciples did quite a bit of searching for Jesus.  Yet, there he was: walking beside them every day.  Waking up near them every day.  Eating and drinking with them every day.  What about us?  How do we miss seeing Jesus?

We miss Jesus when we fail to feel the power of a touch; or presence; or relationship.

I live near one of the busiest streets in town.  It's three lanes in either direction near a large medical complex.  When we moved there we knew that we would have to work with our terrier, teaching her not to run out the door and head for that street.  She chose to get out one early morning while I was trying to handle too much.  An hour later, I gently lifted her dead body off the busy street and carried her home.

My neighbor, the dog rescuer, saw me and came out to meet me.  "Would you like me to take her to the crematorium?"  All I could do was nod my head as the tears fell.  We laid her in the back of her SUV and then she turned to me and held me as I cried.  She had never touched me before.  And hasn't since.  But that touch spoke volumes.  It said she understood about losing a pet; that she was a friend who cared.

The power of touch brings Jesus front and center.

When have you found yourself wanting to console the inconsolable, only to discover that your quiet presence seemed enough?  As Job lay in sackcloth and ashes, having lost his home, his children and grandchildren, his livelihood and his health, his friends came and sat with him for seven days.  For seven days they said nothing.  It was only when they began speaking that they made things worse.

Jesus is present in the quiet moments when words can do nothing.  Jesus is present to make inadequate words say so much more.

Relationships can become a time of presence with Jesus.  A conversation with a stranger while waiting to check out can become a message of insight; a call to a friend out of the blue turns into a moment of peace and tranquility.

Touch, presence, relationship.  Touch, intimacy, nearness.  These have to power to make whole; to bring peace, God's shalom.

Use these with care.  Be prepared to restore yourself often.  Jesus needed retreat, so do we.

Jesus retreated while it was still dark.  Think about the previous day.  He taught in the synagogue, healed Simon's mother-in-law and spent the rest of the day healing.  That's tiring work.  Each person we touch, each person we reach out to fills us and depletes us.  We need quiet and meditation and prayer to nourish our souls.  We need good food to nourish bodies.  We need laughter and tears.  We need to decompress.  If we don't find a way to do this, we'll burn out.

In this particular text, Jesus retreats in the dark.  He must have been worn out.  Yet, he seemed to need time with God more than he needed sleep.  Was he praying for direction?  Trying to decide if he should remain in Capernaum or move on to other parts of Galilee?  Was he looking to recharge his batteries?  Whatever it was, it was a time to get away from everyone to do his own searching while his disciples were searching, even hunting, him out.

Preaching and healing.  Healing and preaching.  The saying goes, "Preach the Gospel.  If necessary use words."  It's a statement that reminds us that silence can be golden.  Preaching without words is modeling Christian behavior.  We are good at doing that.  But, we don't necessarily realize that silence and presence and touch can make huge impacts on the lives of others.  You don't have to know the Bible by heart.  You don't need cliches.  Use real words, if you speak.

Searching for Jesus?  Look for him in the solitude of the early morning; look for him in the conversation with a stranger; look for him in the touch of a friend; look for him in the news; look for him wherever you are.  He's as close to you now as he was to the disciples 2,000 years ago.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




January 21, 2018, 12:00 AM

Fishing with Jesus

by Sandy Bach

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news[a] of God,[b] 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;[c] repent, and believe in the good news.”[d16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.  (Mark 1:14-20 NRSV)

It seems like a scene out of a zombie movie.

"Follow me and I will make you fish for people."

Simon and Andrew leave their nets and follow him.  Just like that.  Not a word is spoken.

James and John, not only leave their nets, but their father and the family business!  Just like that.

I used to interpret this as a scene where these prospective disciples had known about Jesus' reputation.  Perhaps they'd even met him, spent time with him.  It's a possibility.  Jesus was used to meeting people where they are.  That's why he walking through some fishing industry on the Sea of Galilee.

Why is there not a longer conversation recorded?

I spent six months hiding from God.  I wore out before God did, and finally gave in.  In silent prayer I said, "Okay. I'm listening."

I heard one word.  "Ministry."

But there was more to it than that.  I recognized the voice.  I knew it was God calling me into ministry.  My response was amazement, questioning God's choice of sinner.  But, I couldn't say no.  The call was that compelling.

When God, in Jesus, calls it's compelling and carries authority.  Simon and Andrew and James and John couldn't say no.  They knew that voice.  Their choices became clear.  They acted spontaneously, trusting in the prompting of their Lord.

From that day forward they were never the same again.  And neither are we.

They received a new identity.  Jesus said, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people."  This wasn't a new task they would learn that they would add to their fishing skill set.  Jesus called them into a new identity.  They would always be able to go fishing, but they would forever be known as "fishers of people."

It didn't happen overnight.  It took awhile.  They had much to learn from their teacher.  They would watch him; be astounded by him; misunderstand him; lose track of him; look for him; betray him; deny him.

Sound familiar?  We do it often, ourselves.  The miracle? Jesus hangs in there with us, because he's bigger than this world.  His aim is ushering us further into the God's reign.

Sometimes, our call yields an immediate response.  And when it does, we tend to enter it in need of training and testing.  The disciples had much to learn.  They would misunderstand often.  And they would backslide.  It's what we do.  And Jesus picks us up and puts us back on track to serve, having learned from previous experiences.

Perhaps you have had experienced a call similar to the disciples.  If you did, you remember it well as the high point of your life.

If you can't remember that kind of call, you might remember the dozens of times you acted without thinking.  Later, you couldn't say why you responded as you did.  There was no way to predict how it would work out.  You probably didn't have much of a plan.  You just did it.

Those are calls from God.  Compelling, fascinating, captivating.

Can't think of any?  I trust that this week, you'll remember.  I also trust that there will be more.  They may yield small or large results.  That part doesn't matter.  Fishing with Jesus is about working in the kingdom.

How has your identity as a child of God changed?  When have you fallen down?  How did the Great Fisherman pick you up and set you back on your feet?  How has your life been different as a result of answering the call?

Enjoy your week remembering those fishing expeditions.  Enjoy those moments with the Master, when you answer the call and make a difference.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




January 14, 2018, 12:00 AM

Eyes to See. Ears to Listen

by Sandy Bach

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!”[a] and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,[b] and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. (I Samuel 3:1-20 NRSV)

The "lamp of God had not yet gone out..." (vs. 3)  The lamp was lit in the evening and kept burning throughout the night until morning.  It burned in God's presence as a symbol of God.  Pure oil of beaten olives was provided by the people of Israel.  Was the lamp about to go out because it was nearing dawn?  Or had the people failed to bring enough oil to keep it burning?  Or was God tired of the direction Israel was taking?

Does it feel as if our lamp is sputtering out?  Is God done with us?  We see the decline of the mainline church.  Mega churches continue to grow, but they can't keep the back doors closed.  As new people arrive, others go elsewhere or stay home.  We're a society of itchy ears.  Perhaps we need some tingling.

God comes to Samuel to share with him something new.  Something new created out of nothing.  Samuel's mother was barren and prayed hard for a son.  Eli heard her plea and told her that God heard it, as well.  Hanna became pregnant and raised the child as a gift back to God.  Literally.  When he was weaned, she took him to the High Priest, Eli, and "lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord." (1:28)  Out of the nothingness of a barren woman, God created a new way for Israel.

God could have called a lot of people: adults who worshiped God and knew God well; adults who lived on the fringes of their faith.  Instead, God chooses a boy who hasn't experienced a relationship with the Lord, yet.  Out of the nothingness of faith, God creates a new relationship for a new way for Israel.

God's plan includes tingling ears.  Ears tingle when good news is heard.  Ears tingle when bad news is received.  Ears tingle and we often hold our hands over those ears trying to shut out the news.  We don't want to hear any more.  Perhaps it's time to find a quiet place and listen for God to tingle our ears in a new way.  Is it possible that God can come to you out of nothingness with a new message?  Or even an old message with new and deeper meaning?

God begins with Samuel as God means to go.  He gives an adult and difficult message to Samuel about his mentor and father-figure.  Samuel doesn't go back to sleep, but lays awake until dawn trying to make sense of what he's been told.  He is reluctant to share the news with Eli.  It will hurt the old man; maybe anger him and turn him against Samuel.  But, if Eli is a poor father to his sons, he's a wise and caring man in other ways.  He demands that Samuel tell him everything.  From that day forth, Samuel will speak truth to power without remorse or fear.  God and Eli prepared him well.

In this text Eli loses his power and authority to a boy.  He will teach and train Samuel, but it is Samuel who will rise to power and authority.  Eli will die shortly after his sons are killed on the battlefield.

Does it feel as if God's lamp is going out?  Is God calling someone or multiple someones out of nothing?  Is God making our ears tingle?

I believe the answer is yes.  I believe that God is always at work and that in this day and time, we can use the tingling as a spiritual tool to bring us closer to God.

No matter your age, from whom do you learn?  Are you comfortable?  Seek the uncomfortable.

Are you running from the tingling?  Take courage, pause and listen to it.  Use the words that Eli gave to Samuel: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."

I pray that your tingling, and mine, will take us to new, Spirit-filled places.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




January 7, 2018, 12:00 AM

Order Out of Chaos

by Sandy Bach

In the beginning when God created[a] the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.  (Genesis 1:1-5 NRSV)

Before humanity walked the earth;  before cattle and creeping things and wild animals were brought forth;  before the waters held swarms of fishes and sea monsters and the birds of the air flew through the sky; before stars dotted the dome of the sky to give light to the earth; before summer and winter and spring and fall; before plants and trees; before the dry land emerged out of the waters; before the dome of the sky was put in place; before night and day was formed into what we call time; before the formless void and darkness: there was God.

Before Abram and Sarai and Joseph's coat of many colors, there was God.

Before the great Exodus out of Egypt and the creation of a nation in the wilderness, there was God.

Before anything in history as we know it, there was God.

God was present in history, active in history.  God is still active today and will meet us in our tomorrows.

I turned off the news a couple of weeks ago.  I needed a break from politicians, world leaders and weather changes that require new words to describe them.  I needed these words from Genesis to put me back where I belong: within God's loving arms, living out this life that is difficult at times but always filled with gratitude and joy.  I needed the reminder that whatever happens God is still in charge.  Politicians have the potential for good and harm; weather can be cruel or good; but God is good all the time and God never changes.

I think many of us need that reminder.  We need that reminder every time we tune in the news or pick up the newspaper.  It was God who created this earth we live on and God who continues with humanity and all of creation.  God hasn't given up ever.  God isn't giving up now.  That's the promise of the Bible.  That when God's people are in slavery in Egypt, or captivity in Babylon, God goes with them.  God loves this world so much that God sent God-self to be with us and teach us.  God is still with us as Father-Son-Holy Spirit; Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer.

We need the reminder that God creates order out of chaos.  Out of a formless void and darkness, God created something spectacular.   In fact, God does God's best work in chaos.  If we believe ourselves to be living in a chaotic, fast-paced time, then we can look for God's redeeming work among us all the time!

First there was water.  Dangerous and beautiful water.  It was water that John used to baptize Jesus, who stepped into those waters, not to wash away his own sin, but to enter into our sin-filled world.  As he stepped out of the water, the heavens were torn open and God spoke.

Second, God called for light and light shone on this new planet and time was created.  It was Light who entered our world as a baby and grew up to show the darkness for what it is and bring light into the corners of our lives.

Water and light.  We need them to live.  They are more than mere symbols of our faith, they are life-sustaining.

In the beginning God.  God's Spirit moved across the waters of a formless void.  God said, "Light" and light happened.  And the beginning of order out of chaos was marked by the very first day on earth.  In the beginning of our redemption, Jesus stepped into our world and made order of a chaotic world.  God spoke and things happened.

Before humanity walked the earth;  before cattle and creeping things and wild animals were brought forth;  before the waters held swarms of fishes and sea monsters and the birds of the air flew through the sky; before stars dotted the dome of the sky to give light to the earth; before summer and winter and spring and fall; before plants and trees; before the dry land emerged out of the waters; before the dome of the sky was put in place; before night and day was formed into what we call time; before the formless void and darkness: there was God.

We are part of that creative order.

We are a part of God's creative ordering out of chaos.

And, God is still at work.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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