The Call To Curiosity

Exodus 3.1-14

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up our of that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honest, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Now go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What name shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”

God can be so frustrating.

There are times, maybe you’re better than me so you don’t know what I’m talking about, but there are times when I jump into the strange new world of the Bible and I just want to say, “C’mon God! Really?”

Moses is a good-for-nothing shepherd. And he doesn’t even have his own flock to look after. He’s working for his father-in-law. So we’ve got this guy, who needs a handout from a relative, working out and around Mt. Horeb, which means wasteland, and he encounters the burning bush. 

Or, better but, the burning bush encounters him.

Does it ever surprise you that the Lord needs numbskulls to bring about God’s will?

I mean, just take a cursory glance at just about any book in the Bible and you liable to come across someone who has no business being in God’s business and yet, that’s how God runs the show.

And that’s not even mentioning who God calls upon outside of the Bible.

To bring it close to home, there are 29 portraits of pastors right underneath us and there’s a better than good chance that the vast majority of them never thought they would have their picture up on the wall of a church.

And yet, here we are.

Sometimes I wish God would start calling better people for God’s purposes. Surely, the world could do to have the best and the brightest working for the kingdom. 

But, then again, if God only called the best, then I certainly wouldn’t be here, and neither would any of you.

John Calvin, who gets quoted across the street far more than here once said, “God is so great, that God is able to condescend to miserable people just like us to accomplish God’s good.”

How odd of God.

And, notably, it’s important to notice the distinction between “I found God,” and “God found me.” Throughout the strange new world of the Bible, people do, indeed, go looking for God but they usually go looking in all the wrong places whereas God shows up in the unexpected places.

Contrary to how we might like to imagine it, or even here about it in church, God is not the object of our religious journeys, waiting for us to finally have enough sense to take the right  steps or read the right book or get the right job or make the right choice. God is, instead, the instigator of God’s journey to us. From Eden, to the wasteland, to Bethlehem; God finds us.

And that’s why we keep reading these stories week after week, year after year. It’s why we prepare for Vacation Bible School and read scripture at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. We keep listening to the story of how God reveals God’s self to people who otherwise would have never known who God was or is.

And (!) to further complicate the confounding nature of the God who speaks from bushes and books, particularly as it pertains to preaching, is that only God can tell us who God is. It has to be revealed to us.

Listen – All is well in Egypt until it isn’t. 

God’s people grow in such size and strength that Pharaoh grows fearful and subjugates them. They are forced to work under the tyrannical rule of the empire and yet, they continue to prosper in power and number.

Pharaoh then decides to order the murder of every first born male among the Hebrew people. A young mother, fearing for her son’s life, places him in a basket and lets him float down the Nile river and, oddly enough, the basket is discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter who chooses to raise the boy and she names him Moses which means “I drew him out of the water.”

Raised in the confines, and under the protection, of Egypt’s ruler, Moses is given access to a life that none of his kinsmen will ever know. And yet, one day, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster whipping a Hebrew slave and, overcome with emotion, Moses reaches out and murders the Egyptian and hides his body in the sand.

Moses flees for his very life, already a recurring theme, and he settles in the land of Midian where he marries Zipporah, the daughter of a priest, and begins to work for his new father-in-law.

So why, why in the world does God call to Moses from the burning bush? What’s so good on his resume, what kind of references did he list while seeking out employment with the Lord?

Moses really only brings three things to the table:

He’s in the middle of his mundane work, guiding the flock in the wasteland, when he turns aside to see the sight of the burning bush. In short, Moses is curious

That’s not much, all things considered, but to the Lord it is the difference that makes all the difference. Moses turns to take in something unexpected, and rather than lowering his head and getting back to the menial realities of life, he takes a further look.

He is like the proverbial worker surrounded by countless cubicles mindlessly typing away at a keyboard for a job that means nothing when a suddenly flickering in the window draws him up and away from his featureless desk toward the unknown.

It is good and right to maintain a healthy diet of curiosity, of keeping our eyes and ears tuned away from monotony. Be it a strange movie or meal or moment, God tends to work in the unexpected places in unexpected ways.

Or, as one of my favorite authors Haruki Murakami puts it, “If you only read the books everyone else is reading, then you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

After Moses’ curiosity draws his gaze toward the bush, the next thing he does is wonder. The strange fiery foliage isn’t enough on its own, Moses wants to know why it burns but does not burn up. He is not content to let things be the way they are simply because they are that way, he probes further.

It is good and right to wonder about the workings of God. 

It does my ego good to remember that none of you come here with the great desire to hear preachments about the Lord, but instead you are here to daydream about God, to wonder, to ask questions, and rest in whatever answers you discover.

A couple weeks ago one of you asked me, after church, about the Apostles’ Creed and why we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” I won’t out you, but this person said, “Why do we say that? We’re Methodists, not Catholics.” And I gave the typical response, “it’s the lower-c catholic which means universal, we’re just saying we believe in the church writ large.”

This kind of question pops up all the time, but what struck me most this time was the fact that the person then said, “I’ve wondered about that my whole life, and I’ve never had the nerve to ask.”

Faith is a strange and wondrous thing that necessities wonder. That’s why the disciples are forever asking Jesus to elaborate on the kingdom of heaven, they want to know more.

Moses is curious and Moses wonders about this strange sight in the wasteland, and when the Lord sees Moses’ curiosity and wonder the Lord says, “Moses, Moses!” And he says, “Here I am.”

In short, Moses responds.

“Kick those sandals off your feet, we’ve got holy business to attend to. I am the God of your people, and the time has come to set them free and I have just the person for the job.”

“And who might that be?”

“You, silly goose.”

“Are you out of your mind? You’re a talking bush that’s on fire! And you want me to deliver the Hebrew people from Pharaoh?”

“Have no fear Moses my dear, I will be with you.”

“Maybe you didn’t hear me fiery fig tree, or whatever it is you are, even if what you’re saying is true, no one will believe me when I tell them. I don’t even know your name.”

God says to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”

The rest is biblical history.

When it comes to the question of “Why Moses?” It doesn’t really matter. Sure, there are some bits to his history that make him a prime candidate for paradigm shifts, he spent time in Pharaoh’s court. In the end, who he is doesn’t matter.

The only thing that matters is that God is the one doing the calling.

You see, God does God’s best work making something of our nothing, of making a way where there is no way whatsoever, of making the impossible possible.

We, today, tend to view ourselves and one another through failures, mistakes, shortcomings. It is the negative that we carry around day after day. But to God, each and every one of us has a potentiality that can be made manifest in the kingdom of God.

Or, to use a very old adage, God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called.

Think about Moses! In just a few short chapters this would-be shepherd in the wasteland will be taking care of the flock of God, standing up to the tyranny of Pharaoh, delivering the Hebrew people to the banks of the sea waiting for the God of impossible possibility to do something.

It’s fun to pick on Moses, he’s an easy target. The rest of his tale paints the picture of his relationship with God like an old married couple who constantly bicker and fight and eventually reconcile. For what it’s worth, we read more about Moses than any other person in the Bible with the exception of Jesus. And yet, Moses’ story isn’t even really about Moses – it’s about the One who calls him.

I AM WHO I AM 

I love how quickly Moses moves from “Here I am,” to “Who am I?” His curiosity and wonder and response are all good and fine until he hears what the Lord wants him to do. And immediately, Moses has reservations. Who am I to do all of that?

Who am I?

Who are you?

Whatever it is your experiencing in your life right now, whether you feel like you’re wandering through the wasteland or making moves on the mountaintop, God calls miserable and merry people like you and me all the time. It might not be to deliver God’s people from the oppressive rule of a dictator, it might be as simple as the nudge to call someone who needs to feel loved, or the feeling that there’s something we can do to make a difference in this community. And it might not come through a burning bush, it might be as simple as the words of a hymn, or the silence of a prayer, or any other number of possibilities.

Or, as Paige Anderson so wonderfully put it to me this week, “Sometimes all we need in life is the tiniest sign from God to remind us of our purpose.”

What makes the story of the burning bush so good is the fact that, in the end, the call of Moses is a wild and ringing reminder that we don’t have to be saints to be of use for God’s kingdom. If we need anything at all, it’s a little bit of curiosity, wonder, the tiniest smidge of faith.

Faith not in ourselves or our abilities, but faith in the God who is able to do far more than we could ever ask or imagine.

If you ever feel like you’re not good enough, that’s fine. Because God is good enough for all of us. Amen.

The Lord Is With You – Sermon on Luke 1.26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Luke-Chapter-1-The-Annunciation-to-Mary

Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.

In the sixth month, that is to say in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (from the scripture last week), the angel Gabriel was sent to another Israelite. Just as he had come to bring good news to Zechariah, Gabriel was now on a mission to find a young woman. And so it came to pass that Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

This is a new episode in the gospel of Christ according to Luke, yet it is very clear how closely this story parallels the story of Zechariah in the Temple. Both interactions with the divine messenger are stories of God’s grace and power. Grace in that what is soon to take place will illumine God’s favor toward the world, and power in that God can work through the unable — an old childless couple, and an unmarried virgin. Both Elizabeth and Mary will become mothers because God is able, and they will have sons for our sake because God is righteous and gracious.

Gabriel said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel continued, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Do you remember the story from last week? Do you remember how Zechariah was struck with fear when confronted by the angel in the most obvious of places, the innermost holy place of the Temple? Do you remember how his unbelief regarding the good news from Gabriel resulted in his becoming mute until the birth of John the baptist?

archangel-gabriel-struck-zechariah-mute-1824

Instead of a priest, one who should have been most familiar with the ways of God in the world and the stories from the past, Gabriel appears to a young unmarried virgin named Mary who does not respond in the same way.

Zechariah was overwhelmed with doubt and fear whereas Mary responded with awe and perplexity. Zechariah wanted to see a sign, wanted proof of the tidings brought by the angel, wanted to have his unbelief changed. Mary responds with curiosity. The messages from God speak into one’s insufficiencies, and brings good news of heavenly grace that must be trusted before its ways are known. There is great power in this story between the way Zechariah reacted, and the way Mary responded.

“And now Mary, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

This is good news. This is the kind of message that everyone had been waiting for. A new gift from God was going to come into the world through a young woman to be called the Son of the Most High. A new gracious leader is coming to take back the throne of David. The kingdom that God had always wanted for us is coming! And nothing will be able to stop God in all his majesty because this new kingdom will have no end!

“How can this be, since I am still a virgin?” Mary wondered. There is a difference here between doubt and curiosity. She believes the words from Gabriel, she understands that she will be bringing a child into the world. She is already preparing herself for God’s will in her life, but her curiosity regarding the fundamentals of God’s purposes come forth.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power from the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And even now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God!

9

After explaining the elements of her coming conception, Gabriel ends his description with a final word of assurance. Gabriel recalls for Mary, and all of us, the creed behind all creeds, the very words spoken to Abraham and Sarah when they doubted the word that they were going to have a child in their old age: For with God nothing will be impossible.

And with perfect clarity, with willing submissiveness to God’s plans in the world, and with hope and joy, Mary responds to the calling of God: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. And then Gabriel departed from her.

How many times have you heard this story? Even for the so-called “unchurched” most people have heard, even just a sampling, of this story. The amount of art, Christmas decorations, and portrayals of Mary’s meeting with Gabriel are far and wide. This story is the source of great hope, frightening church schisms, and definitive reality shifts. Just as the prophet Isaiah told the Israelites, “Behold a virgin shall conceive a son and he will be called Immanuel,” the virgin Mary was met in the middle of the night by an angel to discover that she was to be the vessel of the Lord.

However, like the story of Zechariah in the temple, Mary’s midnight meeting has been told so many times that it is often difficult to discover something new and fresh when we approach the story. This week as I made my way through the first chapters of Luke, engaged in numerous conversations, and pondered over the heart of Advent, I began to wonder: Why Mary?

Why Mary? If God wanted to come into the world in a big way, with pomp and circumstance; If God wanted to come in the form of flesh to dwell among us as a king with power, he certainly could’ve picked a better mother. Why on earth did he choose her?

I’ve always had a hard time understanding what it is about Mary that made her highly favored in the eyes of the Lord. Remember Gabriel’s first words: “Greetings, favored one!” Really? How could she possibly be favored? Immediately following this episode she would presently go on a long and difficult journey to small town, not because she wanted to, but because the foreign rulers of her homeland forced her to go. She would be ridiculed, and judged, and even threatened for carrying a child conceived outside of normal circumstances, particularly before being married. She would give birth to this “son of the Most High” in one of the lowliest places, a stable. And after Bethlehem? Long years of obscurity and poverty with the world continually churning with its disapproval of the Jews, with the power from on high weighing down the life of the people. Her baby from Bethlehem would go on to become one of the most hated men in all of Israel and his life would increase in danger until the very end. The humble, marginalized, poor, and weak loved him, while the powerful and wealthy regarded him with hatred. Mary’s baby boy would be murdered on a cross, betrayed by the very people he came to serve. She would come to cradle her lifeless son’s body in her arms just as she did that first night in the manger. That was the favor of God?

Why Mary? Why an unwed, impoverished, and teenage girl?

Throughout the gospels Mary is portrayed as thoughtful, obedient, believing, worshipful and devoted to Jewish law. To us, and to all who knew her, she is the ideal Christian. However, none of these qualities are offered as reasons for God choosing her, God’s reasoning is tucked away from our view. We can guess, and we can come to our own conclusions, but the truth of God’s choice is known only to God in his eternal plan.

If Mary had wanted a perfect life on unbroken happiness, ease and pleasure in all things, then she certainly didn’t get it. If she had tried to measure up the favor of the Lord by the expectations of the world, then it would seem that the promise and salutation of the angel was only an illusion.

But the truth, and I mean real truth, is always deeper than it appears on the surface. 

The world would tell us, that God’s favor is to be found in ease, pleasure, and prosperity. God’s favor can be seen in a Christmas tree covered in perfect ornamentation with a plethora or present piled underneath. How many televangelists and “christian” writers make their millions and claim that God’s favor is with them, that God wanted them to be wealthy and powerful? Their messages always contain some sort of theologically problematic promise: If only you pray more, if you only read your bible more, if you only put more money in the offering plate, then God will make you healthy, happy, holy, and wealthy.

That is not the gospel.

It is a terrifying paradox, but, it is the lives which have been given something great to do and to bear, even though they may have been bruised and battered in the process, which have truly known the favor of God.

If God had wanted our discipleship to be easy then he would not have come into the world through the difficult situation of an unwed virgin. If God had wanted our faith to be easy then we would have no need for church, repentance, and forgiveness.

With Mary, and frankly with every single one of us, it comes down to obedience. Purely and humbly Mary put herself into the hands of God. She sacrificed so that God’s will could be done in the world. “Let it be with me according to your word.”

As the story continues, Mary meets with her relative Elizabeth, and when John leapt in his mother’s womb while in the presence of Jesus in Mary’s, she responds by praising God. She praises God even though the child in her womb will certainly make her life more difficult. And when we read the Magnificat it seems like Mary is continuing to praise God for the wrong reasons. Rather than celebrating God’s gifts to the proud, the powerful, and the rich, she offers joy that God has turned such values upside down.

I believe that we, myself included, are so often caught up with what the world defines as greatness, what the world defines as favor, that we lose sight of God’s kingdom right in front of us. We would all do well to join in with Mary’s song and magnify the Lord who lifts up the lowly and vulnerable in love. We would do well to open our eyes and ears to what God is doing in the world, what God wants to do through us, and respond with a resonating, “Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.

So, how is it with your soul? Where have you felt God tugging you in your life? Is there a pull or a nudge that has happened, perhaps you don’t know why, but you know that something is there? Have you seen a place in your life that you want to change but you’re unsure of whether or not you really can? Is God calling you to do something in your life and you, like Mary, are perplexed at how it would even be possible?

My guess is, we all have something. Whether large or small, grand or simple, God is always calling us to something new. To fix a broken relationship, to reach out to those marginalized in our own community, to shine a great light when it feels like the darkness is taking over.

As we prepare to make our way to Christ’s table let us all remember that with God nothing is impossible. An old childless couple can be given new life, a virgin can bear a child who came to save us, we can all be forgiven for the wrongs we have committed, death can be defeated, life after life after death is available through the grace of God, lives can be transformed, love can be discovered, and faith can be rekindled. Nothing will be impossible with God.

Amen.