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By Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

March 26, 2023

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Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili

Ezekiel 37:1–14 (ESV)

1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. 11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”

Ezekiel is not my favorite book of scripture. There are a few really interesting stories, or visions that he records. But overall it is a book that will leave you troubled. If the things that Ezekiel speaks about are literal and not an exaggeration, the world today is extremely moral and pure.

I think it is important to have this book in scripture though. It gives us a glimpse into something that I hope we will never have to experience. Ezekiel was born during the reforms instituted by Josiah. Josiah became king of Judah after they had spent a century as a vassal nation under the dominion of Assyria. A few weeks ago we spoke about that time when Isiah advised the king not to enter into an agreement with this nation. Assyria laid waste to the northern kingdom of Israel, and spared Judah as long as they continued to pay tribute. When Josiah became king, they found the books of the Law, and Ezekiel’s father and all the other priest began to restore the righteousness of the nation.  

Ezekiel watched as his father did these things. They tore down the altars on the high places. They instituted the feasts and festivals according to Torah. They began to train the next generation of priest, of which Ezekiel would become. And as they did these things Nationalism began to take hold of the people.

There is a healthy respect for one’s nation. I love my country because it is where I was born. But to blindly accept everything a nation does as being honorable because it is your nation, that is nationalism. Nationalism is irrational, it is idolatry. It is taking the love people have for their home and manipulating it to promote something that does not reflect the history and culture of the people that live there. Josiah was a good king. He tried his best to do what was right in the eyes of God, and scripture honors him in that attempt. But there is always a but, Josiah was human. For the past century the people of Judah lived under the thumb of pagan rulers, even their own kings promoted the worship of these pagan gods. Josiah sought to move Judah away from that and rightfully so. As they did this, as they repented spiritually, the people began to think that they deserved something better.

They began to think God was indebted to them. They began to believe that they deserved, that God owed them. And they began to move against Assyria politically and militarily thinking we have turned back to God and God will protect and liberate our nation because we are on the right side.

History would prove that the timing of this nationalistic movement would correspond with the weakening of Assyria and the rise of Babylon. And as Assyria plead with Egypt to help them with Babylon, Judah thought that they could gain full independence once again and Josiah lead the army to intercept Egypt. They were defeated and became a vassal of Egypt instead of Assyria.

Ezekiel watched this happen as he was being trained to serve God in the temple. He watched the rise of this nationalistic fervor; he watched as they made attempts to become righteous. He watched as the people of his nation turned to God in word, but those words did not saturate the soils of their being. Their heart, the core of who they were as individuals and as a nation were still as idolatrous as they had been for the past century. And this young apprentice priest watched as the rulers of his nation gave lip service to God and acted contrary. He watched as they went from a vassal of Assyria, to Egypt, and eventually he watched as Babylon deported Judah’s future far from Jerusalem. He watched because he was among them.

Ezekiel was just becoming a man when he made compulsory journey across the wilderness. Just as he would have been coming of age to serve in the Temple of God, he was following the pathways of the goat that was meant for Azazel. He like the youth of Judah were being lead away from their home, away from the dwelling place of God into a land that was not their own, a land under the dominion of evil. They were in exile.

I go through this brief and simplified history because we should make an attempt to gain the perspective of this man before we look at the reports of his visions. Ezekiel was not in Jerusalem when the temple was destroyed by Babylon. Ezekiel was among those that were carried away. He suffered not because of his own actions but because of choices others made around him. He suffered because his parents’ generation and those that came before them made choices that his generation were indebted to. The story of Ezekiel in many ways is the story we live in today. We see it in the news, we see it in our social media feeds, we see the same story within the arguments between the boomers and the millennials and Gen Z. Ezekiel speaks from the perspective of those that pay the price. And I want us to sit with that idea for a moment. Ezekiel speaks about the suffering of Israel, a suffering caused by the choices of his parents and grandparents, a suffering that must be endured even though it is not fair. And Ezekiel with all his vulgarity and passion helped a lost generation find faith in the most unlikely place.

This young man, this apprentice priest, who was just coming to an age where he could begin serving in the temple was exiled to Babylon and had been in that foreign land for five years before he received his first vison from God. That first vision is filled with imagery that is terrifying and confusing if we want to be honest. If you were to do an internet search for literal depictions of angels from scripture, it is the stuff of nightmares and that is what Ezekiel saw. But it is imagery not literal, Ezekiel was seeing the magnificence and the terror of the very throne of God. The throne of God is both beautiful and terrible depending on the perspective of those gazing upon it. And unfortunately for Ezekiel it was terrifying because he was called to go to a rebellious nation. He was not being sent to the people that were left in the land of Judah, but he was being sent to those that paid the price for the rebellions to those in exile. If you are brave, I encourage you to read Ezekiel. If you are brave I encourage you to look deeper and examine your life, our community, and our nation in the light of this prophetic book. But I warn you it is not for the faint of heart, because it is vulgar and brutal.

Today, we meet this young priest as he is again meets with God within a vision. And God takes this priest into the deserts of the soul to show him the truth behind the rebellious nation. “He brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.”

I have heard songs about this vision my entire life. Since I was a child I have been told about this vision, and yet those songs and the stories do not do the passage justice. They skip past the terror of the vision and make light of the reality. This is a valley full of bones. And Ezekiel is walking through this valley. This is not just a vision of a graveyard, but the vicious carnage of war. A war so devastating that the fallen were not removed and buried, but left in disgrace to the elements. The devastation was so vast that no one came to the battle ground for such a long time that the fallen were forgotten for so long that their bones were not just dry, but very dry or bleached in the sun.

We have a tendency to rush through these words, but as I sat with these words this week my mind was captivated with these first two verses. My heart is heavy as I reflect on these words. A valley of bones. A valley of the forgotten, the damned. A valley filled with young men that bravely followed their leaders into battle, only to be struck down and left. It is in-human what is being said in these verses. It is a commentary on the dehumanization that occurs when ideology becomes more important than humanity. Throughout the valley Ezekiel walks. Imagine the shear emotional pain this man was feeling at that moment. Imagine the full-throated wails of sorrow this young priest would have been uttering as each step was greeted by yet another empty gaze from the eyes of the disregarded. My chest tightens with the thought. And I imagine eventually emotion grips him completely and he falls down next to one of the bleached remains of a man who might have been younger than him.

Ezekiel walks this valley of despair, and I imagine like so many who question the existence of God, he asks where was God when? God is right there with Ezekiel as he walks in that dry valley. Often we look at this passage and the voice we imagine is booming around, I do not think that is the case. I believe God was in tears right next to Ezekiel.

God is right next to Ezekiel, he is with him as he faces the grim reality of the failures of the kingdoms of men. And I believe they just sat looking across this valley in tears. I believe they sat with those fallen men and watched as the shadows marked the hours. God sat with Ezekiel as he gazed upon the hopelessness before him. And as the tears dried God asks this young priest, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

What question is God really asking? As we sit in a hopeless situation, as we look at the world around us and we see everything seems to fall apart. God is asking us, “Can hope be restored?”

Not long ago I went to Union Station and visited the Holocaust exhibit. And I remember looking at a single shoe with a sock still stuck with it. Behind that single shoe was a photograph of a mountain of shoes. And in that moment, I realized just how weak I am. When I went to school, I read the writings of the theologians of the confessing church. At the time I thought yes, I would be like those great individuals that stood up against the evil they saw before them, and yet as I looked at that single shoe, I realized that I would not. That single shoe convinced me, it showed me just how often I too have denied the humanity of someone, and how I too have blindly followed and even carried the banner that would deny the humanity of person that might have worn that shoe. Ezekiel sat with the bones, I stood staring at a shoe, and both of us came to grips with the reality that we are at fault. Those bones were there because ideologies denied humanity, just as that shoe did. There is always a cost and eventually that debt will come do. But can hope be restored?

Ezekiel answered God saying, “O Lord God, you know.” Ezekiel in this moment is not expressing exuberant faith. He is expressing resignation. He is at the end of himself. He is looking at the sun bleached bones and he is saying that there is nothing he can do. The bones are dry, all is lost. God is with Ezekiel in that pit of despair. He is with him in the hopelessness, but God does not let Ezekiel stay in that place. “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them. O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

What do we do when all hope seems lost? If we were to deeply study Ezekiel, you will see that he often makes reference to the Garden of Eden. He takes the rebellious nation he was called to minister to not back to king David, not back to Abraham, but to the very beginning. He reminds them not of the glories of the kingdom, but he reminds them of God’s original plan. God’s original plan was that God and humanity would walk together. That humanity would go out into creation and nurture the entire earth and make it into an extension of the garden. Ezekiel reminds them that even the kingdom ruled by David was not the original plan, but was one sign of repentance. It is not the nation in a political sense that God wants, the people. God wants us to repent. He wants us to return to him.

We can continue to be motivated by the kingdoms of men, but where does that lead us? Turn on the news and it will tell you. Wars, famine, poverty, devastation all around, hopelessness. God wants something more than a government he wants us. In the query we reflected on today it asks a question, “Do you attend regularly the services of your church and participate in them actively? Do you prayerfully endeavor to minister, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in humble dependence upon Christ, the spiritual gifts with which you have been entrusted?”

That query is like the question God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Can hope be restored? The answer that God gave to Ezekiel is a resounding YES! Hope can be restored, the garden can be reestablished. And it begins with each of us turning away from the things that dehumanize and turn back to the things that restore the dignity of each human life. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hope is restored when we draw near to God, when we listen to his voice, when we let the words we confess percolate deep into the very core of who we are, and we let it revive us. Hope is restored when we embrace that of God instead of that of man. Hope is restored when we walk with the dry bones and as Saint Francis says, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.”

But where do we start? There is a valley of dry bones before us. There is a war in Europe, wars in Africa, earthquakes in Turkey, and that person on Facebook just said something bad about me. We do not live in Europe, we do not live in Africa, we do not live in Turkey, but we live here now. We begin to restore hope in our lives and in the dry bones around us when we begin to Love God, Embrace the Holy Spirit, and live the love of Christ with others. We love God by actively participating in the Meetings of Worship. We actively participate by preparing ourselves for worship. That means turning off the tv for a bit and reading scripture instead so that when we come to worship, we have something to contribute. We embrace the Holy Spirit by taking the words we read and meditating on them in prayer. By talking with God about what we have read and allowing space for the Spirit to speak and guides. And we live the love of Christ with others but using the things that we have, our finances, our careers, our talents, and our time to encourage those around us. This does not only have to be here in this Meetinghouse, but everywhere we go. We restore hope by living and reflecting the love of Christ wherever we are. God is asking each of us, “Can hope be restored? Can these bones live?” How will we respond? “O Lord God, you know.”

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Seeing Beyond Uncertainty

By Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

March 19, 2023

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Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili

1 Samuel 16:1–13 (ESV)

1 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. 6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” 12 And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.

The past few years have been rough. I do not know if this is true for most of you but for me they have been rough. In 2020 as a member of the Yearly Meeting Elders board, I with the other elders had to come to some sort of decision as to how we would approach the pandemic. This might not seem like it would be something that would be weighty, and for some you might think that it was not a big decision, but it was. It was huge. It was one of the most stressful meetings I had ever attended. We had to make a decision with incomplete knowledge, knowing full well that half of everyone would believe the decision was wrong. We made this decision. We made it not knowing if our Meeting would survive.

The Friends church, when compared to other religious societies, is not large. The largest meeting within our Yearly Meeting would be considered a small church in most other denominations. We are small, yet we have a strength that goes beyond our size. We are small, mainly due to our structure. We do not vote. We develop within our various meetings as sense of the meeting. Some might describe this as seeking unanimous support, but this is not exactly true. Some describe it as seeking unity, this is true but it is not always the outcome. To gain a sense of the meeting, requires that we have discernment. We need to understand those we are working with, and in the case of our Monthly Meeting, God. In 2020, we had a sense of the Meeting, and yet we were uncomfortable with our decision. Did we close the book of history upon our Yearly Meeting? Did we succumb to fear? Did we move forward in faith, or did we publicly expose faithlessness?  These are questions that have strong opinions and these discussions then trickled down to our local meetings.

We all made decisions, and we must live with those decisions. When our doors closed, and we joined for worship online we had no idea with how it would end up. I thought I had been here working for ten years, only to have the church close because of a disagreement of opinions. The first Saturday night I stared into a camera getting ready to record a message three years ago, I thought I killed our meeting. I thought I had, as an elder and pastor, failed the very people I claimed to love and serve. And I was afraid.

Then July came, the restrictions were lifted and we as a religious society of Friends decided that it would be ok to reopen our doors. We decided together, but even then, we had struggles. Would we follow the recommendations of our local governments or not? The entire cycle began again. Differences of opinion reared and again we had to make an attempt to discern a path forward. No matter what decision we made it did not change the way I felt. I stood by our decisions, but I questioned myself every step of the way. I wondered if I had failed. I wondered if I had missed some opportunity to reflect the light of Christ into the darkness of the chaotic world. I still question. I question because I am human. I know my weaknesses, and I care about those around me. I look out and I say prayers of thanksgiving when I see people that I know have health concerns, sitting among us. When I do not see someone, I say prayers of protection and hope. And there are times I feel lead to say words that I know will hurt, and I stand here looking at the words I have written, and I question everything. And yet I speak the words. I speak the words because I do not write messages on a whim, I write only after hours of prayer and study. And I only write when I sense a clearness to proceed.

We do not know the future. We make decisions based on incomplete data at best, and we move forward with hope. We move forward even when it does not make complete sense because we have faith. When we closed the doors for Covid three years ago, I was afraid that we might never open them again. I was afraid that many would find a more entertaining YouTube worship leader and would migrate away. I was afraid I would find a more entertaining YouTube worship leader and would decide to just stop. We just did not know.

Samuel was in a place like this. He did not know. He was a prophet of God. He was the man that was supposed to have all the answers. When the people demanded a king. He went to God in tears thinking he was a failure. Samuel thought Israel was rejecting his own leadership, but God informed him that Israel was rejecting God. In Judges there is a common phase saying, “In those days there was no king in Israel: Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Many believe that this was a phrase of condemnation, I think it is positive. God was their king. They were supposed to live with each other in community reflecting the law of God. I do agree that they failed at living up to this ideal. They wanted to be like everyone else, they wanted a king. So, Samuel found them a king. He looked over the tribes of Israel and he saw Saul. Saul was tall, strong, wealthy, he was the ideal candidate for a king. Samuel anointed Saul, and God allowed it.

For a while Saul was a good king. But like most humans, personal ambition began to cloud his judgement. He began to rely on his own knowledge instead of seeking advice from others. And suddenly he is caught with a bunch of looted cattle God commanded him to kill, but Saul justified his actions because he was going to give some of them as a sacrifice.

Turn after turn, Saul made decision based on his own gain and with each step he lead Israel to reflect the kingdoms of men instead of the Kingdom of God. And as he did this paranoia began to set in. When you live your life seeking only personal gain, the fear of losing what you have becomes greater. Saul, like most dictators, could not trust people. He believed that everyone was out to get him and demanded loyalty oaths. He did this because Samuel had told him that God rejected him as king. Saul knew his time was short.

Samuel did what was right, but he did not like it. He grieved over Saul. Saul was his king. He was the leader of his nation. He trusted this man, and this man failed him. I have been betrayed, I have watched as people I respect have been ill-treated, and I have felt that myself. I understand how and why Samuel felt the way he felt. He was instrumental in putting this man in this position. He anointed this man; he advised this man. Samuel invested his life and his reputation in this man. Saul failed, Saul was rejected by God, where does this leave Samuel?

God says to him, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go…for I have provided for myself a king.”

God understands our emotional states of mind. He should because he created them, and through the incarnation Jesus experienced them. God understands Samuel’s feelings. I do not want you to misread this passage and come away thinking that God does not care. God is with Samuel during this time of lament. And he is with us as we struggle through our own bouts of disappointment. God understands, but God is not bound by time and space like we are. Samuel believed that Saul’s rejection by God was God rejecting all of Israel. God is not being uncaring, but he is telling Samuel, this is just one man. Sure, he was king, but one man will not stop God. How long will you grieve this one set back? How long will you focus on this one bump in the road? How long will you live focused on failure when tomorrow is a new day?

“For I have provided for myself a king.” God says. When I began reflecting on this passage, I found that there is a reoccurring theme to this chapter. That theme is around the verb “to see”. Samuel sees only failure and rejection, that is why he grieves, but God says how long are you going to sit here blinded from reality. And he tells Samuel, I have Seen for myself a king. The word translated as provided is raah or the verb “to see’, God sees, and God will provide. He does not leave the people he loves and calls by His name completely alone. Samuel sees rejection and loses heart, and God tells him not to grieve because He sees the king.

We can get caught in a whirlpool of despair, at least I can. I bring up the trials of Covid, because it was the most difficult aspect of ministry I have faced. Everything had to change. The things I once relied on were not available anymore, and I along with everyone else had to figure it out. I was afraid. And yet, I had hope. I had hope because God had already begun to reveal a direction to us. We already had a YouTube channel set up. And we were already participating in digital space. At the time it was just luxury, but had we not listened and allowed one guy to set up a camera on the front row of our meeting for worship, we might have been in trouble. God saw our way through, before we even needed it. And God sees a king where Samuel only sees rejection.

God urges Samuel to go to Bethlehem to speak to Jesse and his sons. Samuel tenses up. He knows that Saul is already irritated, and If Samuel goes out to Bethlehem it can only lead to questioning. Saul has spies, he has these spies because Saul is a paranoid dictator that sees the people he rules as potential enemies. And Samuel asks God, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” Samuel is caught in grief and despair over the rejection of Saul by God, but Samuel also fears Saul. Samuel, like us, is caught between worlds. He wants to serve and follow God, but he is also aware that he lives in a world that often opposes God. At times following God may require paying a price.

“Saul will kill me,” Samuel pleas. I sat with this phrase as I prayed this week. I reflected on the various moments in my life where I felt led to speak or act, knowing that there might be a consequence. I have spent the past three years in this place. Will we speak, will we act, will we stand for what is right even if those with power may threaten us? I sat with this passage and I thought about the early Friends. Those people who so strongly believed that all people were equal and sought to honor that of God in all people. Those early Friends that were thrown in prison because they refused to use pronouns. Yes, I say this because it is a hot topic. The early Friends were imprisoned because they would not refer to the nobility with plural titles. Friends did not believe that those among the nobility were better than anyone else, so why should they use a plural pronoun for a singular person. They were imprisoned because they supported equality. All people have dignity because they bear the image of God. And a king or peasant equally bears that image. I wonder what those early Friends might say in today’s situation. Would they respect the pronouns or not? I think the answer is they would respect the person.

Saul will kill me. Samuel is stuck. If I do what I believe God is leading me to do, the people of the world might reject me. And if I do what the world accepts, I might in turn reject God. We might look at Samuel as being a coward in this moment but put yourself in the story. Each of us has been in this position in one way or another. We have had to make a decision, we have had to make a stand knowing that someone somewhere, someone we might respect or want respect from, might reject us. I have faced this dilemma at work. I have been in this place in meetings I have participated in. I have been in that place right here in this very meetinghouse. Will I say what I believe I should, and face rejection? Or will I say what I know people want to hear and get praised? Samuel is not a coward but a realist. And God again meets him in that situation.

“Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do.” Some say that God is being a bit deceitful in this moment. But it was Samuel’s job to offer sacrifices. This is a time and place before the establishment of the temple, so sacrifices were not centrally located. When the king was going into battle Samuel would go to the king and offer sacrifices. When the prophet went to a town it was perfectly acceptable for them to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving with the people, and for them to share a meal with the community. God is not being deceitful, God is telling Samuel to do what he is called to do. God is telling him to continue to serve him no matter what the world might think. His job was to offer sacrifices because he was a priest and a prophet. His job was to go to the communities of Israel because he remained the last of the Judges. Samuel’s job, his ministry is not determined by humankind, but God. God in this moment was affirming Samuel and showing him his love and provision. Do not worry about Saul, just do your job Samuel. Do what God has called you to do, be who God has made you to be.

Samuel goes to Bethlehem. He meets with the town elders, who were a bit upset to see him at first. He invites Jesse and asks him to present all his sons to him. Eliab, the eldest comes in and Samuel thinks that this is the anointed one. And God rebukes him. “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

This is one of my favorite passages. It is something that I remind myself of nearly every day. It goes back to the common theme of this chapter, “To See”. Samuel is looking but he is not truly seeing. This is the lesson of this whole section of scripture. Often I am asked about what I think about the status of the church today. People ask me if I am worried about the current trends. I will admit that I am concerned, but I am not worried. I am not worried because I think the emerging culture around us is in a lot of ways more honest than we have been in previous generations. This is important. The emerging generation is more concerned with meaningful life and  lifestyle than being right or wrong. This scares some, but for me it is a breath of fresh air. When we seek meaningful life, that means there is searching. And when there is searching there is activity. “To See, To know, to hear, to be” are all involved in this quest. This is right where God and Samuel are in this passage. Do not look on his appearance, God says, look deeper. Look at the heart.

The concept of the heart is important. It is symbolic, God is not looking at our literal heart to make sure our arteries are free of cholesterol blockage, but He is looking at the core of who we are, our character. The heart is what makes you, you. God is telling Samuel that the world looks at a façade built to give an impression. We use these masks to hide and deceive. We build up these images of what we want and put people in the box. Since the invention of Television, people in America care more about the image of their leaders than what the leaders say. Are we looking or seeing? Are we concerned with the image we exude or are we focused on the heart?

Three years ago, I stood here alone in a cold empty meetinghouse. I stood staring at cameras and computer screens wondering what the future might hold. We faced one of the greatest struggles of the church in generations, and we came through it stronger than we were before we faced the trial. We discerned together that it is best to preserve life than to meet, and we encouraged our meetings to use creative means to continue the work we were called to do. And I can say today, the Friends church is stronger today than we were three years ago because of it. But that does not mean we do not face more struggles as a church, as a community, or as individuals. Much has happened since the covid lock downs. Each of these struggles also carries with them the potential for great harm or can propel us into greater strength.  I want us to consider how we approach our future. Are we grieving rejection? Are we fearful of conflict? Or do we have hope in Christ? Jesus faced struggles. He faced rejection. He faced betrayal, loss, and injustice. He faced every manner of temptation that we face in life, yet without sin. He came down from heaven taking on human life so that he through his life, death, and resurrection, he can lift us up to glory. Can you see? Can you see past the postures of humanity to the heart? Will we, like Samuel, look past ourselves and see the king? And will we walk forward into the mists of unknowing with the faith that God will provide? Will we shine light into the chaotic darkness and see ourselves and the person next to us for who they are, an individual bearing the image of God, so loved by their creature that while they were still sinners rejecting him, Christ saw them.

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Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

By Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

March 12, 2023

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Click to read in Swahili

Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili

Exodus 17:1–7 (ESV)

1 All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Is the Lord among us or not? Such words many of us have asked. We may have asked them throughout these past few years. We might have uttered such words in the past months, or possibly even this very day. Is the Lord among us or not?

As I sat down to write this week, my mind stopped in this place. I wrote those words and stopped. I even opened up a new document to retype those words thinking that maybe if I just retyped them I could move forward. I did this three times. I do this because I am a very honest person. I would love to say that I sense the presence of God every moment of every day, but that would be a complete lie. I do not sense God’s presence all the time. There are moments where I wonder. I remember during my childhood I would climb a tree in our yard and would sit in the branches wondering. And if the sunset was particularly weird casting a red tint to the earth around me, I would sit in that tree in tears wondering why I was left behind. There is a reason I do not like eschatology, and that is the main reason. I was so worried about being left behind that at times I forgot to actually live.

I might be too honest as a pastor. I admit that I do not know a lot. I admit that if you ask me a question, chances are very high that I will not have an answer that you would find profound. I admit that most of the time I struggle through life wondering what the point is. Some might find this unsettling, but I am ok with who I am. I do not know but I have always been curious. That is probably why I would climb the tree and cry when the sky was red because I figured my curiosity killed the proverbial cat. But through the years my curiosity has deepened my faith. I ask questions, and I believe that God does provide answers. The answers that I receive at times are odd and most would not understand because usually the answers tend to be “does it really matter?” I am ok with that answer. It tells me that maybe in all my seeking and searching, in all of my curiosity I have missed the point.

I have been a pastor for twenty years, thirteen of those years have been right here at Willow Creek. In those twenty years it has been rare for me to speak out of the Old Testament. I do not know why that has been the case.  I have read the books, I have studied them, but there is so much history and connections that weave throughout that I have always found it too difficult for me to stay on point. But my mind is curious. I have questions and I am completely happy just reading about various passages that I have come across in scripture. I can spend hours reading why translators used one phrase instead of another. I find it fascinating when people I respect can look at the same passage and see completely different things, which scares some people but for me it just gets me going.

And then I come to this passage. It is a story I know well; I should be able to just write something down in my sleep, but instead of writing my mind seems to get stuck. “All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according the to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.”

They were moving from the wilderness of sin. I have read about this place countless times in my life. I know that this is a desert they cross early in the Exodus. When we think of Exodus most of us think of the calling of Moses, the Plagues of Egypt, and the crossing of the Red Sea. We then know that they travel for forty years and God does some things, but we do not really worry about it from there. But these places they visit and what they do in those places have interesting stories.

They cross the Sea and they go into the Wilderness of Shur, and they go three days into this wilderness and they find no water until they come to Marah. There is water at Marah but they cannot drink that water because it is bitter. The people grumble against Moses, “what shall we drink?” Which is a perfectly good question when it comes to traveling in the wilderness. This wilderness of Shur is mentioned a few times in scripture. When Hagar flees with her son Ishmael it is toward Shur they are running, and it Shur is often referred as the western boundary to which Israel’s battles are fought. I find this interesting because Shur can be translated wall, but archaeologists have never found any ancient fortifications east of the Nile and west of Sinai. But it can also be translated as a verb meaning to watch. Which would suggest that this might be considered the Wilderness of The Watchers.

This gets my mind racing. The Watchers are a mythical group of spiritual beings in Hebrew literature that are believed to be the Sons of God that married the daughters of Men that prompted God, out of dismay, to flood the earth. And the offspring of these unions were known as the men of renown or the Nephilim, or giants. In many ancient near eastern religions they refer to these men of renown as the gods or the founders of their societies. In ancient Greece the Watchers could be the Titan and the Nephilim the god of Olympus. In Babylon, whose founders came from the land of the Hittites in southern Turkey, Gilgamesh their first king, and the one that survived the Mesopotamian flood epic, was a believed to be a demigod, or hybrid child of a deity and human union. Do you understand why my mind races? The tribes of Israel are walking across the wilderness of the Watchers, and the water is bitter. And they grumble. They grumble because they are walking through this wasteland, a land they once believed to be the dwelling place of divine beings, a land that they believed should have been filled with all the water imaginable, and instead of hope they find bitterness. Marah. Yet God is with them in this place. He tells Moses to throw a log into the water and that log transforms the bitter pool into water sweet to drink. And after they drank of the waters of Marah, God said to them, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your Healer.”

They leave the Wilderness of Shur and they enter the Wilderness of Sin. In this wilderness between Elim and Sinai, they face another trial and they again begin to grumble. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” In the wilderness of sin, God commanded Aaron to speak to the people, and after Aaron spoke they looked over the wilderness, and the cloud of God’s presence appeared. And Moses was commanded to speak for God, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” That evening God provided for Israel’s hunger. Quail covered the camp as the sun began to set, and as the dew in the morning lifted the wilderness was covered with flakes, which later became known as Manna. God provided meat and bread in the Wilderness of Sin. And for the next forty years the tribes of Israel ate of the bread of heaven.

Now they are leaving the wilderness of Sin, and they travel deeper into the deserts. They came to Rephidim. They have their quail and their manna, but there is no water. I grew up in the dry lands of Kansas, I might identify with these Wilderness wanderings more than I should, because I know that water is life. We protect water, we terrace our land to catch as much water as possible and to direct excess water to what we call waterways, which are large grassy areas that will slow the water down and prevent soil erosion and filter as many chemicals and sediment as possible before it enters streams and rivers. We build these things to protect the water and the soil, because it is water that provides for our life and lifestyle. God lead Israel out of the Wilderness of sin to a place where water was not available. And Israel quarreled with Moses and grumbled against God. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”

This is not mere complaining but conflict. Moses says to God, “they are almost ready to stone me.” Water is more important than food, because all living things require water. One could make a case for the rule of three here. An average human could survive three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air. I do not wish to put this to the test, but it is significant. Water is important. We need water to maintain our health. If I ever had a health concern the first thing my grandmother would do is give me a glass of water. I will not tell you the second step to her cure-alls, but water was always number one. Israel is without water and it is getting serious. Wars have been fought over sources of water. Even today near the center of most geopolitical conflicts access to water is present within the conflict.

Moses in fear, cries out to God. And in this instance, something interesting happens. In the Wilderness of Sin, the cloud of the presence came when Aaron spoke. Here God tells Moses “I will stand before you there on the rock.” Moses and the elders of the tribes walked away from the crowds for all to see. They climbed up upon the rocks before them and the people saw the presence of the Lord in front of them upon the mountain. And when they saw the Lord on the rock, Moses struck the rock with the staff he used in Egypt, and water began to pour out. Moses and Israel knew that place no longer as Rephidim, but as Massah and Meribah.

Israel travels through the wilderness. They move symbolically through their own history, through the wilderness of Shur, or the Watchers. And they face a trial, will we trust God or turn to back to the kingdoms of men? They trust God and they move deeper into the wilderness, into the wilderness of Sin. The wilderness of Sin. In Numbers this is called Zin not Sin, and some people argue about that, but I find it interesting that here it is Sin. They grumble again. And as they move beyond the trials of sin, they face their greatest struggle.

We are in the season of Lent. The time of year many Christian traditions participate in fasts as they join with Jesus in the Wilderness where He was tested and tempted by the devil. This is why it became difficult for me to write this week. My mind is ricocheting from Genesis to the Gospels and from Revelation to the Garden. And in my mind, I stand with Israel in this moment asking myself, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

We are all traveling through a wilderness. We all face struggles. Some of us have struggles thrust upon us from outside, and others face struggles from within. I do not want us to focus on which struggles are most important or where to place the blame. A struggle is a struggle, and for each of us that struggle is monumental. We are in the wilderness.

Then my mind took another squirrel moment and I began to think about the seasons. Lent is near the end of winter. Winter is a wilderness. Winter is dark, bleak, and cold. We love the first part of winter because we have Christmas, but winter remains for two months beyond Christmas. CS Lewis wrote of Narnia, “It was always winter but never Christmas,” when the land of Narnia was under the spell of the White Witch.  I see this as the time after Christmas when winter continues. It is a yearning for the light in the darkness, a hope for Spring. Lewis purists will probably argue with me on that but I think it is appropriate, because all of Narnia is walking through the despair of Winter looking toward the thaw that never seems to come.

Lent is a journey through the wilderness. It is that final sprint through the end of winter to the emergence of life beyond the dark days of despair. “Is the Lord among us or not?” Is it always winter but never Christmas? Jesus in the wilderness, and we are there with him. The author of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to hemp in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16) Jesus knows the struggles we face. He knows hunger, sorrow, and betrayal. He knows what it feels like to be misunderstood and misrepresented. He knows the joys of plenty and the suffering of want. He knows injustice and acceptance.

Israel walking through the Wilderness of Shur, Sin, and Meribah the presence of God was with them. Jesus, God Incarnate became Israel. He became the light to the nations, and through him the reconciliation of all that was lost. Jesus was in the wilderness. He was there with Israel and he is here with us. Though we may be in a place of testing and quarreling, of Massah and Meribah, he is near. In our time of questions and despair he hears our voice and he stands upon the rock before us telling us, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’”

Through the Wilderness of Shur and Sin Israel walked. Hungering and thirsting. Questioning and seeking. They struggled with the ideologies of the kingdoms of men and the hope of the Kingdom of God. But they had to choose. Will we follow? Will we believe? We may not walk the same path but we too wander through the wilderness and face similar trials. We walk individually and together as a community. We walk. But as we walk Is the Lord among us or not?

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