Sermon Options: September 24, 2023

August 24th, 2020

Don't Pass over the Wilderness

Exodus 16:2-15

From the outset, I think we should take note that nearly all wilderness journeys are experiences of purification. We might not know it at the time, but such journeys prepare us for something special in life. At the beginning of their wanderings, God could have directed Moses to lead the Israelites by the shortest and easiest route. Instead, they are taken the long way about because God doesn't want the people to turn to him too quickly. God reasons that should the people turn too soon, they will want to go back to Egypt and not be the people of God...a jealous God indeed. We probably are familiar with all the complaining along the way. The Israelites were, more often than not, unhappy. After all, they lived up to their name: Israel meant "the one who contends or wrestles with God." I can hear them now, can't you? "Oh, my feet are killing me! These confounded sandals are rubbing blisters on my toes."

If my brother had been there when he was four or five years old, he would have asked, "Are we there almost-just-about?" at least a gajillion times. "I'm hungry. Moses, Moses! What have you done? Did you bring us out here into this wilderness to starve to death?" Imagine if adman Sam Sedelmeyer had been making a movie of their wilderness trials instead of C. B. DeMille. Some elderly woman really might have yelled from deep within the throng, "Hey! Where's the beef?"

The crucial thing for us to see in their experiences of the wilderness years is that God wanted to purify them, get them ready to enter the Promised Land. There was something very special about it, for which their hearts and minds and souls (and perhaps even their imaginations) had to be prepared. The same goes for Jesus, in that he was driven into the wilderness by the compelling guidance of the Holy Spirit to prepare himself for his ministry. As the humble, obedient servant of God, he went willingly. You see, in all the years between the Exodus and Jesus, there was a shift in people's thinking about the wilderness. In the later development of this stubborn and stiff-necked people whom God more than once thought about writing off, Israel came to see that the wilderness was the place to go if anyone wished to discover the way of God. The wilderness was a natural place for Jesus to go from his baptism. For him, it was just going with the flow, matching his actions to the rhythm of God and the wilderness. Jesus didn't mind being there because he put himself into the heart of God's will. The Israelites celebrated their deliverance from the wilderness with the Passover meal before they packed their bags to leave! They celebrated. Maybe that was why Jesus didn't seem concerned about being in the desert.

What about us? I hope we see the wilderness is not such a bad place to find God. There are scores of stories of men and women who have gone to the desert to find God. A ninety-year-old minister friend lives in the California desert. He once wrote a book about his experiences, why he likes living there and why, for him, he can always find God where he is. The wilderness isn't such a bad thing. It's a place where we can get down to the bare bones of being with God, experiencing God's love and care, God's reaching out to us and holding us close to the holy and wonderful. (Eric Killinger)

The Privilege of Suffering

Philippians 1:21-30

One verse that leaps out at you when you read today's text is verse 29: "For [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well." Most of us would not consider suffering a "privilege." The apostle Paul is lauding the Philippian church for their faith and perseverance even in the face of hardship and struggle. There is also a call here to readers outside the Philippian community, such as you and me. Paul is not calling us to be martyrs, but he does bring to our attention the dimension of suffering as a part of Christian discipleship.

I. Suffering Can Bring Us Closer to Christ

There are many forms of suffering. Typically, we think of physical suffering such as pain and chronic illness. We can also suffer emotionally and spiritually from broken relationships, divorce, and conflict with others. When we do experience suffering, the Christian response is to turn to God for hope and strength.

In doing so, we discover that God is not an abstract philosophy but a gracious, loving God who took on human form to reveal God's ways to humanity. God's grace is such that, crucified and in agony upon a cross, the Christ calls out, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" ( Luke 23:34).

In Christ, we find our example of a life of perseverance and a life wholly yielded to God's desires. We can choose to use our suffering as an opportunity to explore Jesus' life, grow closer in our relationship with him, and emulate Christ's life through discipleship. In some way, we participate in Christ's suffering. Out of our own agony, we deepen our compassion for Christ's agony. We are reminded of the words from 2 Timothy 2:3: "Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus."

II. Suffering Can Be Redemptive

If the heart of the gospel is relationships (with God, Jesus, and others) and suffering can bring us closer in our relationship with Christ, then suffering is closely tied to redemption. Lest this be misunderstood, it is not that God causes us to suffer for our redemption. This idea is incompatible with the God of grace whom Christ reveals. Rather, God's marvelous ways are such that God can be at work for good, even in the midst of suffering. God can bring hope out of tragedy, trust out of betrayal, strength out of weakness, and encouragement out of anguish. Such is the wondrous nature of this redemptive God we worship.

III. Suffering Can Put Life in Perspective

It is easy to allow life's daily busyness to preoccupy our thoughts so that we fail to see the bigger picture, the larger scheme of things. God has acted to redeem the whole world through Christ, but often we do not live or act like that is so. When we personally experience suffering, our experience can remind us of what is truly important in life. The scripture tells us: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart,/and do not rely on your own insight" (Prov. 3:5) . God's ways are not our ways. The suffering that we experience along life's journey does not always resolve itself as we would like. Even so, God's ability to provide for our needs in the face of suffering is wondrous. God offers us the promise of the divine presence through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are not alone.

Rev. W. James White, in a sermon called "Life's Turning Points," puts it this way: "Crises like these become turning points leading us to new places—places into which we would never have gone, to people we would never had met, to strength we never knew was possible, to happiness we might never have found." (Gary G. Kindley)

Who Cares About Being Fair?

Matthew 20:1-16

Thirty years...but I still remember quitting jayvee basketball. I had slaved four years hoping for a starting spot. It was my turn. I had earned it. Then came a walk-on, fresh from varsity football season. He wasn't a basketball junkie. He hadn't suffered through preseason conditioning drills and scrimmages. He just waltzed into practice midseason and suddenly was given a jersey and a place in the starting five. I was asked to come off the bench and give him a bit of rest from time to time.

It just didn't seem fair. So I quit. I regretted it later, but I'm not going to be anybody's doormat. Was the other fellow a better player than I? Was it the coach's right to play whoever he chose? Hey, don't bother me with facts! Fair is fair. In the corporate world, the world of politics, and even the church, "fair" is not always the definitive policy. Sometimes seniority doesn't count for much. Nepotism counts. Or talent. Once in a while the boss is even motivated by grace. The early birds in Christ's parable thought the pay scale was unfair. They worked from sunup but were paid no more than the lazy scoundrels who showed up an hour before quitting time. So they took their case to the labor relations board, which immediately filed a class action complaint against the corporate CEO. His response was honest and logical: "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?" (v. 13). In other words, "Your contract has not been violated. I paid exactly what you asked for." "But what of those other guys," they countered, "who worked only one hour? They're getting as much as we are. It's not fair!" The vineyard owner answered, "I choose to give to this last as I give to you" (v. 14). In other words, "It's my money. I can do with it as I like."

Admittedly, that attitude may not be palatable to labor unions, but I like the feel of it theologically. You see, I don't want what I deserve. I'm not like those workers who began at dawn. I've not kept all the laws and observed all the ordinances. Have you? Before you say, "Yes," remember that there are over six hundred laws in the Old Testament. I find it tough just managing the Ten Commandments. Six hundred are absolutely overwhelming.

I have coveted. Maybe you've never looked at someone else's sports car or summer home and thought, I wish it were mine. Most of us have. I have borne false witness. Even little white lies count, you know. "Son, grab the phone, and tell them I'm not home." "Why, you haven't aged at all." My parents would have contended that I did not always honor them properly. Adultery and murder? No. "Thou shalt not steal?" Well, I have borrowed a few sermon ideas and illustrations without asking permission first.

The point is, in one way or another most of us show up about quitting time. Very few are sinless Law abiders. Very few are spiritually spotless. Thus, I don't want justice. I want mercy. I don't want fairness. I want grace. I don't want to play by the books. I want an Employer with a soft heart who doles out wages even to those of us who showed up around sundown. And that's what this parable promises: a God who gives us not what we deserve but what we need. And that is the meaning of good news! (Michael B. Brown)

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