Noah and the Rainbow

(The text below is the sermon that I preached on Sunday morning, February 22, 2015 at Rio Rancho UMC.  I hope that the text reminds you to discover and follow your signs in life that lead to the Divine.)

We are always looking for signs.  In our petitions to God we ask for a signal that we might know that we are on the right path.  We want a clear indication that we are heading in the right direction.

In our world we are bombarded by a number of signs.  We have signs to indicate the right lane.  Signs to indicate if we can walk on a path.  Signs to tell us when we can turn left or right, or go straight.  The list is endless.

For whatever reason, I think this appeals to us.  We need structure.  We need to make sense of where we are going.  Don’t believe me?  How many of you could exist without a church bulletin?  We need them as a sign to indicate where we are headed in the worship service.  I can, and have, easily lead our wonderful tech team in the back to a state of chaos when I stop looking at the signs and try to simply guess what is coming next.  You’ve seen it.  It isn’t pretty.

So, this morning on our first Sunday in Lent, we turn our attention to the story of Noah.  I honestly sat down this week thinking that this would be an easy sermon to prepare.  I mean, how many of us have never heard of Noah and the rainbow in the sky to indicate a promise to never destroy the earth with a flood?  If you haven’t, please stay with me.  It will make sense, I hope, in a few minutes.

So, I sit down to begin my research really not sure that there was much to be found in this story today.  I know better than to assume that.  As soon as I do, God steps in and reveals to me things about this text and about me and my relationship with the Almighty that I really hadn’t ever thought of until preparing for this sermon this weekend.

In re-reading the story of the rainbow this week, some interesting things came out of hiding.  One, it was believed in the ancient world that the gods used rainbows as bows and the lightening was the arrows that filled the sky.  To the ancients, they lay witness to the heavenly wars in which the gods went to war against one another.

To the Hebrew nation, it is believed that the Holy One of Israel took these bows and set them as a reminder of a promise.  That this bow in the sky would remind God to never destroy the earth again by flood.

Yes.  I did say the wording of the text correctly.  The promise in the sky was not to remind us, but to remind God.  Our creator made this covenant with Noah and included this sign to remind not Noah, but God that He had entered into an agreement.  According to Hebraic tradition, the top of the bows are always pointed towards the sky so that no heavenly arrows will ever be directed down at the earth.  The word that is used for covenant in this text in Hebrew is “berit” and it refers to the covenant made to Noah regarding the rainbow and the covenant with Abraham regarding circumcision.

Now, I don’t know about you, but to me this is a major part of the story that I had usually glanced over.  I mean, here we see an extremely huge sacrifice on God’s part.  I could have truly named this sermon, “You are not the only one that is giving something up for Lent.”

In this covenant with Noah, it is God who gives us something.  We are the receivers of the gift.  By pledging to never destroy the earth in this manner again, God sacrifices himself.  In this promise, he will never deal justly with the sin of humanity in this world.

Think about it.  Before the flood it grieved God’s heart that He had created humanity.  He only found one person who was not imploding in on himself and turning away from this incredible God.  And so, out of God’s just and righteous anger, he floods the earth demolishing his own creation.  To pledge to the world that there would be no more devastation like this again, He the Almighty said, “I will no longer deal with you justly.”  I don’t know about you, but I say, “Amen to that.”

We see the fulfillment of this covenant much later in the Biblical story when once again God sacrifices the most sacred part of Himself for His creation.  His son.  Once again, God gives up something so that we may live.

This story in Genesis, as in the story of the Gospels, is not about what human kind surrenders, but it is about what God surrenders to save humanity from anything, including God’s judgment.  We get so wrapped up with what we are giving up and adding to Lent, that we can’t seem to recognize the fact that God has given more.  So much more.

The story of Noah is not simply a children’s story.  We wrap it up in a neat little bow with neat little songs and neat little stories.  It is tragedy and sacrifice at its finest.  It is the understanding that God remained and is remaining faithful to His creation.

We see in this children’s story the beginning of God’s incredible and radical love for us.  We see the story of Jesus revealed in the very beginning of scripture.  This notion of Divine love and holy retribution.

One of my favorite children’s stories is “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein.  If you have never read that story I encourage you to get a copy and read it.  In the story, this tree begins as a tall tree and develops an incredible relationship with a little boy.  As the boy grows, he demands much of the tree until, the tree is nothing more than a stump.  And even as the boy has become an elderly man, the stump (now a former shadow of its majestic self, still offers everything that it is).

The love that is shared is like that of our amazing God.  It is all-encompassing.  Sacrificial.  And will be given so that others may know comfort.  God did not set the bow in the cloud so that Noah would see it, but primarily so that God himself would see it.  It was a sign to him.

Thank God today that the gospel of hope depends not on what we see, on our senses, on our feelings, on subjective emotions that change with the seasons, but on firm, unshakable and unmovable realities: God in Christ has reconciled the world to Himself.  We believe today in a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God.  Better than a silver lining over our cloud is a bow in the heavens — the knowledge that whatever darkness covers our sky, God is able to deliver us and to keep us safe within the embrace of his eternal purposes of grace.

So, on this first week of Lent, let us be grateful.  Let us be grateful for creation.  Let us be grateful for each other.  Let us be grateful for this amazing God who continuously shares Himself with us so that we might know eternal life.

I entered this text feeling as if there wasn’t really much to say.  I left it with a richer understanding that God’s plan of redemption has been in the works long before Jesus ever became human.  God’s promises are constantly being made new.

I also think that this text teaches us that out of absolute disaster in life; when everything seems as if it is destroyed, God will come and be with you.  That is the hope of that sign.  That amazing and beautiful rainbow.

God is creating a sign for you.  The way to joy.  The only thing about this sign is that the rainbow has been placed within your soul.  No visual reminders are needed.  It is all here for you in this moment.  The choice is yours.

When you look to the rainbow, what do you see?  May it be the creator of all rainbows.  The One, who creates within you a clean heart. Today our journey took us back to the beginning of our relationship with God.  We give thanks for the creator of our paths.  The one who never stops loving us.

The Importance of Signs

Tomorrow I am preaching on the story of God placing the rainbow in the heavens and his promise to Noah that the Almighty will never destroy the earth by flood again. I started out thinking that this was a nice little neat children’s story and that everything is just pretty and “cute.” Immediately I had to take back my initial assumptions. The story of Noah is one of tragedy and loss. It is about rediscovery and survival. It is about hope and the radical sacrifices that we see God make to restore a relationship with the created.

I will stop right there, because I do not want to give my sermon away. What I find interesting is the wording that is used in verse 14-15, “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures” (CEB). The rainbow was created by God to remind God of the covenant.

What? God even needs a sign to remember his promises? This certainly reassures me of my unending reliance on notes, calendars, alarms, etc… I need to constantly be reminded of just about everything in my life. Spiritually, I need to remember to write through these forty days. When I sit to write this blog, it is my hope that I may recall the incredible blessings that come from God.

Maybe tomorrow when I pray after the children’s sermon I may really be saying, “Thank you for rainbows that remind us that God has a sign to remember His promise to us.” I pray that I may see my congregation tomorrow and remember that everyone in the room is a sign of God’s love for humanity. Thanks be to God!

The Fear of God – It’s a Good Thing

When I talk about the fear of God I am not talking about the kind of feeling that makes us anxious and recoil in absolute terror. If we had to live in that kind of fear to please God, I am not sure I would be up for the task. This type of fear brings about negative images and certainly not a place that I would like to visit much less in which I would like to live. There has to be another solution or definition for a unique kind of fear.

The shepherds warned us not to give in to this kind of fear when encountering God. Several times throughout the Bible different people are confronted with heavenly beings and the first thing that is said is, “Fear not!” Anxiety is not to be the main emotion when encountering the Divine. How can a person even hear the voice of the Divine if the main energy in the room is one of paralyzing terror?

So, then what does it mean to live in fear of God? Martin Luther suggested that there are several different kinds of fear. Servile fear is the kind of toxic anxious kind of stuff that we try to avoid at all costs. It is the kind that blinds us to any life giving substance. We are held in its grip and surrender to its dark power that overwhelms us. It’s that kind of fear that knocks me to my knees and beats me up until I can’t seem to stand. It is unyieldingly brutal and painfully crippling.

The better understanding of the fear of God is something called filial fear. It is an understanding or acceptance of the power and strength of God in our lives. This type of fear is one that describes our unique relationship with God as our Father. As children of the Holy One we fear that they will not do what is needed to please our parent God, and so our work is done carefully and thoughtfully to present the very best that we have to offer. It is not done in the worry and dread that there is punishment, but out of a necessity to please God.

Healthy fear is born out of our reverence and not out of our places of shame and worry. The more we live into a filial fear of God, we will experience the exact opposite of what we experience when we are driven by servile fear. We will experience joy as our work moves us into a deeper relationship with God. We will know peace as our ministry draws us closer to the Divine.

The author of the Book of Proverbs writes, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; the knowledge of the holy one is understanding” (Prov. 9:10 CEB). Our transformation from servile to filial moves us into the wisdom and holiness of God. This is the beginning of our journey. It is our story as we continue to share in the richness of God’s grace.

This Thing Called Fear

“Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:14b-15a CEB).

Yesterday I started by letting my fears be known. Okay, some of my fears. The truth is that fear is such a deeply rooted part of my psyche that I am not aware of its powers and hold over me. It sometimes it leaves me crippled and without a sense of purpose. It comes out in ways that hold my soul hostage and a freeze comes in and leaves my soul motionless.

The Biblical text from the third chapter of 1 Peter addresses those who shared in my struggle. I obviously was not the first person (nor will I be the last) to know what it is like to let fear control different parts of life. The ancient believers struggled as well. There was much of which to be afraid. To be discovered as a believer in Christ in the first and second century Palestine was to risk being imprisoned or even worse, martyred. There was a lot at stake to confess being a follower of the Amazing One.

It is in the middle of chaos that the author of the Book of 1 Peter reminds believers to not fear what everyone around us fears. This implies that there is good fear and there is fear that is not life giving. I am not simply called to dismiss the fact that I am afraid, but to redirect my fear back to God. In other words, as long as I can find strength from God in the middle of the times that put me on high alert, then fear can become a reminder that in the middle of all of this stuff that is hurled against me, God will be there in the middle of it all.

My hope is that you are able to acknowledge the most basic parts of you that is weighed down by fear and all of its negative consequences. I think calling them by name and writing them in a journal is a great way to begin this journey. We come before God authentically and say, “Here it is God; the stuff that I know that keeps me from worshiping you fully. The stuff that keeps me so blind that I can’t even see your amazing handiwork in my life.” Be open to allow the Spirit of God to help you see all of the other things in your life that seem to hold you captive.

Tomorrow I will write about the idea or thought of good fear.

Peace,

Joe

I Come to This with Fear and Trepidation

Today is Ash Wednesday, and I have made a commitment to write a post each day throughout the season of Lent.  I have to admit that I enter this with a ton of fear on my shoulders.  I have not been consistent in my posts, so why should I change my wicked ways now?  I hope to be able to follow through with this.

Another fear that I carry is that I will not have enough material to form meaningful sentences.  In other words, I am not sure that I have anything substantial to say.  I want to write about things that matter.  What if my writing is not of good quality?  This is a major concern with which I consistently struggle.

So the first of my Lenten writings is acknowledging my fears.  It is crucial for me to simply own up to the fact that “adding in” is sometimes a lot harder than “giving up.”  Adding in requires making room for reflection and discernment.  Planning becomes a necessary component of who we are.  In other words, we must be intentional by making our time an important part of our day.  I am not sure that I will be able to write at the same time of the day each and every day, but I do know that as I plan each day, I will include time to write in my day.  Some people need to plan a consistent time, but that is something I don’t think will work for me.

Now that I have shared some of my concerns, I can look toward the process of writing.  I start the journey and look forward to sharing what God continues to do in my life.  I hope to create a space that will challenge me and inspire me to find wonderful new ways to grow in the joy and love of our amazing God.

My Mother’s Love

It is hard to believe that tomorrow my mother will be gone for three years.  I find myself thinking about her as the anniversary of her death draws closer.  I miss the laughs, smiles, tears, arguments, etc.  I miss it all.  Those that knew her know what I’m talking about.

I think the most amazing thing that I miss is the security that I had knowing that she was just a phone call away.  I never had a problem that was too big for my mother to help.  Her voice is gone and I miss it deeply.  Even after three years, I miss it now more than ever before.

So, it is with a sense of loss that I had a fantastic dream.  In my dream, I was in a desolate area and a pay phone started ringing.  I answered the phone and it was my mom on the other end.  I started to cry and told her that I missed her.  Getting myself together, I asked her, “What’s it like?”

She responded, “Do you remember the prettiest city that we ever visited?”  I told her that I remembered.

She then said, “It is so much prettier.”  I knew then that she could not leave and that she wanted to stay.  The dream ended with me telling her that I loved her.

No matter how incredible the descriptions are in the Bible, we can never know the beauty that awaits us.  Our own imagination is limited by our humanity.  Every now and then we have wonderful glimpses into what is to come.  And we know that at the end, we will be united with our loved ones and proclaim in unison, “It is so much prettier!”

My Boy’s Mighty Spirit

As I reflect back on my stinky boy’s journey through the long hospital stays and the incredibly large amounts of time traveling back and forth to and from our home, I remember the one thing that seemed to be missing. It was my son’s spirit. He is quick and joyful and full of wonderful amounts of energy. It is impossible to keep up with him.

As the hospital stays got longer I saw that amazing spirit disappear. I did just about everything I could to bring it back. It took time and it took being a cheerleader to keep that energy present. We played games. We talked. We moved heaven and earth to maintain his joy.

We are far removed from those horribly rough times. I have seen the return of the old spirit that my son fearlessly shares. I have seen a joy return that has been missing for quite a while. He is happy and very glad to be where he is right now. He indeed gives thanks for the journey.

As a parent watching and sharing in this journey, I am amazed at the many life lessons that this incredibly boy of mine continues to teach me. I learned from him that the worst possible things can happen, but that little seed of faith that is in the core of who we are can be ignited to bring us comfort during the hard times. Just because the journey becomes hard does not mean that our travels are not worth the effort. We must continue to stay strong and to keep moving forward in spite of the obstacles that seem to stand in our way.

So, today I give thanks for my amazing son who teaches me the greatest of life’s lessons every day. I am grateful that even at my age I am learning the biggest lessons from an eight year old. Praise be to God for him and for the one who fills my soul with so much gratitude that the only thing I can do is to stand and shout, “Hallelujah!”

I Will Teach You How to Skate

I am reflecting back on the journey my family and I have taken over the course of the year. My youngest son spent almost every holiday between October thru February in the hospital.  I helplessly stood by and watched my son lose the ability to walk.  He was suffering from an internal bleed that occurred right in the knee joint.  As the bleed progressed he lost mobility in his right leg.  He could not extend his leg fully and the bleeding continued for almost four months.

Hemophilia has reared its ugly head in our family many more times than I care to admit. At times living with the effects of a bleeding disorder takes a toll on one’s psyche.  For me as the caregiver it is sometimes overwhelming. I can’t imagine how my son must feel.

Last week my stinky boy and I went to the ice rink near my home. He wanted to go with me to see me skate.  I enjoyed seeing him sit in the stands.  This was a part of my life that I had not shared with him.  The ice actually is my solitude.

As I was leaving the ice my son said to me, “Daddy, I wish I could skate.” It never occurred to me that he would want to join me.  I quickly grabbled around for the right words to say to him.  I said, “Son, I will teach you how to skate.”  As I listened to the words come out of my mouth I realized that all I have to offer my amazing boy are words of assurance.  Sometimes a quick message of hope is all that we can bring to the table in the toughest of times.  These mighty words filled with confidence and a promise that things will not stay the same.

I give thanks today that we are at a new point in our treatment. Knock on wood, my son has not had a bleed since February.  With the help of a good physical therapist he is beginning to walk again.  It is our hope that he will not depend on a wheelchair in the very near future.  We will look back on this season of struggle and give thanks for the lessons that we have learned through these difficult times.

I will teach him to skate. I will also teach him many other things reserved for dads and sons.  I will continue to be his biggest cheerleader; his biggest advocate.  I will…

Fear is a Part of Life

I have to admit something right off the bat. I am a pastor and I struggle with fear. I have heard it said that a pastor should never allow fear to enter his/her life. Faith should be enough to carry a “person of the cloth” through any situation. Well, if only it were that easy.

The truth is fear is a reality that seems to be present in my life and makes its way into my psyche without warning and without any introduction. This past week my youngest son was admitted into the hospital and had his fifth port-o-cath removed and his sixth placed in a new position in his body. For some reason I had a tremendous amount of anxiety regarding this his eleventh or twelfth surgery (I’ve lost count). I kept thinking that the Spirit had protected my son in the past, but another procedure is really tempting the fates.

I did the one thing that I never do; I lost control of my emotions. I am very good at keeping things in check except when it comes to my family. I tend to love much deeper and feel things much stronger where my wife and children are concerned. So, it should have been expected that fear would be present in most aspects of my life. In other words, the “What Ifs?” were killing me.

As I was feeling overwhelmed, a Bible verse came to me. The text reminded me that my son would be protected and that he would be okay. I felt a sense of relief wash over me as I claimed the promise found in this special verse. While it did not wipe away all of my anxiety it did bring me a sense of peace.

I thought about the crazy notion that a pastor does not, or should not fear. I say balderdash to that idea. The truth is, we are human. We can get angry, happy, sad, resentful, etc… The issue is not that we feel emotions, but whether we let our emotions become our god. Notice I put the little “g” and not the big “G”. That is the constant struggle with fear. While it is normal to experience feelings, nothing should replace the source of strength to which we are called. For me, I reclaimed my strength in a verse from scripture. I didn’t go from frazzled to fantastic, but I did reclaim the source of hope that holds me up when my path becomes uncertain.

My prayer is that we all my return back to our source of hope, light, and life when we struggle. May you encounter that Divine spark and let it illuminate your soul to penetrate the darkness. It all comes down to one word; trust. This five letter word filled with a ton of meaning.

What will be your God? The choice is yours to decide.

A Memory That Makes My Soul Smile

Image

Recently I was sharing a story about the time that Cazandra told me that we were going to have our first child.  I related the story to a fellow staff member at my church.  As I shared with her the story of how I told my mom about this new journey that we would begin together, I felt overwhelmed by a flood of emotions. 

I was taken aback by how I was feeling in retelling that story.  What caused me to connect so profoundly to the announcement of my son’s impending birth?  Was there something that I had not recognized about the dramatic changes that my life was about to experience?  Why now?  Why so emotional after all these years?  He wasn’t born yesterday.  His eighteenth birthday is still a few months away.  Maybe the realization that he will be an adult is leading to a heighten feeling of nostalgia regarding his life.

Perhaps it could have been a quick moment to remember my mother.  I know that she loved my children well and was a fantastic grandmother to boot.  Maybe my emotional response came from a place of sadness as life goes on without my mother’s physical presence.  Her silence speaks loudly into my life.  One of the most important places in which she speaks is her absence in my children’s lives as they will not be able to build new memories with their “Granny.”  I know my mom still lives on in spirit, and I know that the joy and love that I share for my son are interwoven with the love that I have for my mother.

And as for me, I went back to my office and gave a prayer of thanksgiving for that big stinky boy that I have been honored to raise.  I gave thanks for his presence in my life and will continue to thank my God for this particular person that I call my son.  His talents are great and his heart is even greater.

There are people, places or things that connect us to the most intimate part of ourselves.  The part that reflects upon the greatness of God.  My son is the reminder of the Divine love that I have in my heart and the overwhelming gratitude to God for being trusted to raise him.  I try to make sense of how I was qualified to raise a child and I must say that I agree with the Psalmist when he says, “That kind of knowledge is too much for me; it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it” (Psalm 139:6 CBE).  Whatever the reason may be, I am eternally grateful.

And as far as the picture, this is him in his element:  His love of the theater shines through his eyes despite the green makeup.  He played the title role in Shrek at his high school.  His voice is so much better than mine.  He has a nice beautiful tone that just flows naturally from his mouth.

To watch him on stage is pure joy.  I am so glad that he is able to follow his passion.  Onstage Mr. MacDonald is fearless.  There is no doubt where he should be.  How blessed am I to watch my child delight in his calling.

Today I am filled with gratitude for the love that is now and for the love that I have had.  I eagerly look forward to the future and the amazing things that await my son as he continues to astound me along this journey.

christopherjoiner

Some Thoughts Along the Way

Cazandra Campos-MacDonald

We take our journey with love and hope.

Perseverance Runner

Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

strugglewell

That marriages in crisis will find Biblical solutions and reconciliation

jefflust

Reflections on leadership and what it means to be the church God intends for the 21st century.