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Monday, August 29, 2022

An Honest Disagreement Between Paul and Barnabas

For our last message in our series, I want to share a story from the New Testament when two Christian leaders parted ways.  The disagreement involved two heroes of the Christian faith—Paul and Barnabas.  And their dispute was about another Christian named John Mark, who probably wrote the Gospel of Mark that’s in your Bible.

Paul probably needs no introduction.  He was one of the giants of the Christian faith.  Paul, AKA Saul, was the greatest evangelist of the New Testament—maybe of all times.  Though Paul was not one of the original 12 Disciples who ministered with Jesus before the crucifixion, Paul was considered an Apostle because the resurrected Christ appeared to him and converted Paul from a persecutor of Christians to an evangelist who preached about Christ all over the world. Almost half of the books in the New Testament are attributed to Paul.

The average person knows a little less about Barnabas. Barnabas was one of the unsung heroes of the early Christian faith.  The first time we hear about Barnabas, he sold a field he owned and gave all the money to the apostles for the work of God’s Kingdom.  His real name was Joseph, but the apostles nicknamed him Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement”. Barnabas lived up to his nickname.  Barnabas is the guy who vouched for Paul helped the other Christians accept him.  Remember, Paul started out as a terrible villain—persecuting Christians.

"When [Paul] arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to meet with the believers, but they were all afraid of him. They did not believe he had truly become a believer! Then Barnabas brought him to the apostles and told them how [Paul] had seen the Lord on the way to Damascus and how the Lord had spoken to [Paul]. He also told them that [Paul] had preached boldly in the name of Jesus in Damascus.  So [Paul] stayed with the apostles and went all around Jerusalem with them, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord."  (Acts 9:26-28)

Paul and Barny’s 1st Mission Trip
Paul and Barnabas made a good team.  The Holy Spirit appointed them to go on a mission trip together, preaching about Jesus and converting people to Christianity.  John Mark, who was Barnabas’ nephew, went too.  Their trip was a huge success—converting many people to Christianity, including the governor of Paphos.

But something else important happened on their first trip.  About halfway through the trip, Barnabas’ nephew, John Mark, left them and went home (though Scripture doesn’t say why).  But Paul and Barnabas soldiered own and were very successful, but they also met resistance.  They were chased out of town by a mob in one city, had rocks thrown at them by a mob in another city, and Paul was nearly stoned to death in yet a third city. 

When they returned home, “they called the church together and reported everything God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, too” (Acts 14:27).  Paul and Barnabas continued to work together for some time as partners in ministry.

And that brings me to our Scripture for today and the disagreement I want to study.

Act 15:36-41
After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” 37 Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. 38 But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. 39 Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. 40 Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. 41 Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there.

Paul and Barnabas Disagree
Paul and Barnabas were both good men—willing to put their life on the line to serving the Lord.  But they disagreed “sharply” about John Mark.  Paul didn’t want to take John Mark on the next trip, but Barnabas did.  The Scripture says John Mark had “deserted” them on the last trip.  Why, we don’t know.  Was he homesick?  Was he afraid?  Did he have some kind of disagreement with Paul or Barnabas’ leadership?  We don’t know.  All we know is the Scripture says John Mark “deserted” them about halfway through the trip and went home.

This, apparently, was an insubordination and betrayal Paul couldn’t accept.  He didn’t trust John Mark anymore.  Paul would not have him on the mission team.  For Paul, the mission to tell people about Jesus was too important to be entrusted to a wishy washy kid like John Mark who may get tired or scared or homesick and abandon the cause.  Paul would not have it.

Barnabas was more understanding.  John Mark was his nephew and Barnabas was also an encourager and mentor.  His spiritual gift was seeing the best in people and working to bring it out in them, despite failures and setbacks.  Barnabas saw John Mark’s potential, despite how he’d failed on the last mission trip.  Barnabas wasn’t going to give up on Mark.

So, Paul and Barnabas separated.  Paul chose a disciple named Silas to be his ministry partner and they went one direction.  Barnabas chose Mark and they went another direction. 
And the work of the Lord continued in both directions

Who was right? Who was wrong?  We don’t know.  The Scripture doesn’t say.
We do know this.  Later in life, when Paul is an older man and facing martyrdom, he asked Timothy to send him Mark because "he will be helpful to me in my ministry." (2 Timothy 4:11)

Conflict Resolution Through Separation
I don't know about you, but I don't like arguments and fighting.  I always want everyone together along. If I can be open and vulnerable with you (and you will indulge me in a little self-psychoanalysis), I think it has a lot to do with my childhood. I grew up in a household where my parents were always fighting.  There was a lot of screaming and verbal (and sometimes physical) violence.  That had an affect on me.  

I grew into an adult who really doesn't like conflict.  So, I always want people to get along. I'm often the peacemaker trying to break up arguments. Even if people have a mildly awkward moment of disagreement, I'm liable to crack a joke to try and soothe things over.  My nature is often to avoid conflict, even when there's an honest disagreement that needs to be worked out. 

Thankfully, I know this about myself and I've learned in 48 years that some disputes will never be resolved if you don't have the courage to address it up front.  Most of the time, working through a dispute leads you to a place of understanding and respect and a stronger, healthier relationship. 

Unfortunately, there is sometimes no resolution to be had.  Sometimes your differences are about core issues and compromise isn’t an option.  If you can’t agree to disagree and still stay together, then the best thing may be to part company like Paul and Barnabas.

Think about how this principle might apply in every day practical life.  It might be at your job.  Do you have a dispute with your coworkers, your boss, or even the philosophy of your company?  You may need to resolve it or else learn to live with it.  If you can't live with it, it may be time to find a new job.  

What about other conflicts in your life?  Do you have a dispute with your friends?  Is it in your marriage or romantic relationship?  It could be a difference of opinions in you church?  In these situations there are options.  One is to do nothing.  That only works if the issue is not serious or ongoing.  A better option would be to talk the issue out honestly and try to come to a resolution.  Having an objective third party meet together with the to disputing parties can sometime be helpful.  If no resolution is possible and you can't live with the disagreement, it may be time to part company.

The United Methodist Church is facing severe divisions in our denomination about core values of our people.  We have tried for 50 year to resolve our conflict, but have been unsuccessful.  One side in the UMC believes God wants the UMC to ordain practicing gay people as pastors and also perform same-sex marriages.  Another side says the Bible teaches homosexuality is contrary to God’s will and we must be faithful to Scripture.  After decades of arguing fighting, we’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that we have irreconcilable differences. Many bishops and denominational leaders have decided they will no longer abide y the denominations decisions or rules.  They are acting in ways many pastors and church members do not agree with and cannot live with.  A split is coming and is already happening.  

I have friends on both sides of the divide.  I plan to join the new Global Methodist Church as soon as it is feasible because I believe it is the most faithful path forward—and my calling as a minister is to be faithful to Christ as revealed in Scripture.  I am excited about the pitential for this new denomination to serve Christ.

I'm sad too, because I know I will have friends and colleagues I’ve worked alongside for 30 years who choose to stay in the UMC.  We will go our separate ways because our disagreements with one another are just as severe as that of Paul and Barnabas.  It breaks my heart, but unfortunately, it is necessary.

If you are a United Methodist too, I’m sure you also know people who disagree with you on this issue.  Maybe they’ve even questioned you about it.  (If they haven’t yet, someone probably will in the days ahead.)  You will undoubtedly find yourself with friends and colleagues and even family who were formerly in the same denomination as you and soon they will be in a different one. 

Multiplication Through Division
I know it’s sad, but I have a lesson from the garden that may give a bit of encouragement.  

I love garlic.  Garlic is one of the most common and useful ingredients in most cooking.  And there's nothing better than cooking with fresh garlic!  That’s why I started growing a lot of garlic in my garden a couple years ago. 

Garlic has a unique growing habit.  Rather than primarily propagating from a seed, garlic bulbs underground begin to divide an spawn new plants from the ground up.  If you've ever held a buld of garlic, your probably noticed inside may be 7 or more cloves of garlic.  Each clove is a potential new plant.  So from one bulb of garlic, you can potentially grow over 7 new garlic bulbs.  Garlic multiplies through division.

Paul and Barnabas separated, but their separation actually led to a multiplication for God’s Kingdom.
Sometimes God works through our disagreements and division.  What we see as division, God uses as a opportunity for multiplication.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we only had one worship service at my church.  When COVID struck,  we wanted to spread out more for social distancing.  So, we split our in-person worship into an early service and a regular service.  Plus, we added an online service for a total of three worship services.  After two and a half years, we have less concerns about overcrowding, but we still have the three services.  Sometimes it seems like there are fewer people in worship, because we look around and see less people sitting in the pews.  However actual average average worship per Sunday has increased.  (Our data is only for people in live worship and doesn't account for people who might watch the recorded service after it's over.)  So though the numbers may seem smaller, we've actually multiplied through division into three services.  My prayer would now be that all three services continue to grow in numbers.  (Wouldn't it be great if we needed to dive into four or more services?)

In the current UMC split, perhaps God will use the division to multiply the work of His Kingdom.  I trust God to take care of how it all turns out.  All I know to do is be faithful to what He is calling me to do and try to lead our church to do what I believe God wants us to do.  I trust God to work out all the rest.

What about your own life?  What divisions might you need to address?  What are you facing right now and what is God saying to you today?

Monday, August 22, 2022

The Divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah

We’re in the midst of a series of sermons about times in the Bible when people separated.  Sometimes, the disputes that divide people develop over generations and that is certainly the case in the story I want to share today.  Today, I want to study the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

A lot of people don’t realize Israel had a civil war and divided into two kingdoms—north/south.
That’s one of the reason’s reading the Bible can be confusing, because when we say “Israel” it can a number of different things.  It can refere to the Twelve Tribes of Israel before they were a united Kingdom and were still a loose confederation of tribes known as Israel.  Israel can also refer to the unified kingdom that came together under King Saul, King David, and King Solomon.  After the civil war,  Israel was the northern kingdom who quickly rejected God and served idols, but Judah was the southern kingdom who compiled the Old Testament of the Bible and also was also sometimes referred to as Israel (though the proper name was Judah).  Judah was the "Israel" from which came Jesus, who was a "Jew" because he was of the tribe of Judah.  All these different names can make understanding ancient Israeli history in the BIble very confusing for mdern readers.

It wasn't just one thing that cause the civil war between Israel and Judah.  It was a multitude of things that developed over generations. As with many split ups, it was very complicated.  There were many political rivalries, because Israel was a kingdom of tribal people and tribal people tend to be very clannish (it's that my tribe is better than your tribe kind of thing).  Furthermore, people felt over-taxed.  All of Solomon's great building projects caused a heavy tax burden on his kingdom's subjects.  Ultimately, God ordained the split up of Israel into two Kingdoms (as we will see in the Scripture reading).

The wedge that eventually drove a split between Israel in the north and Judah in the south started with King Solomon.  Solomon was King David’s son.  You’ve probably heard about Solomon because he was supposed to be the wisest man who ever lived.  Furthermore, under Solomon’s rule, Israel became very rich and powerful.  Solomon also built the famous Temple in Jerusalem, which we hear about so often in the Bible.  For these reasons, you might think Solomon was an ideal ruler.  Unfortunately, Solomon had a fatal flaw that became the downfall for his Kingdom.

1 Kings 11:1-3
Now King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites. The Lord had clearly instructed the people of Israel, “You must not marry them, because they will turn your hearts to their gods.” Yet Solomon insisted on loving them anyway. He had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines. And in fact, they did turn his heart away from the Lord.

Strange Bedfellows
Groucho Marx once quipped, "Politics doesn't make strange bedfellows--marriage does."  And that was certainly the case for Solomon.  You have to understand, most Solomon’s marriages were political in nature.  Marriage was a way for one ruler to secure a treaty with another ruler.  (It’s harder to betray someone who’s married into your family.)  Solomon was so powerful that everyone wanted a treaty with him.  That’s why he had so many wives. 

God knows the human heart better than we know it ourselves.  Who you choose to marry has the greatest influence of anyone on your attitudes and beliefs.  That’s why God told His people in Israel not to marrying foreigners--to protect Israel from being led astray by foreign people who worshipped false gods and idols. (The prohibition was really about the foreign god’s of foreign people.  If the foreigners forsook their false God’s and committed to worship the God of Israel alone, then there was no issue.  Israelis could then marry foreign people.  We see many examples of this.  Rahab and Ruth are two such examples, and they are even included in the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah.) 

Even though Solomon was a wise and effective ruler, he forsook God’s warning and his many wives and combines swayed his thinking and corrupted his decisions.  He even began to worship false gods.

1 Kings 11:9-13
The Lord was very angry with Solomon, for his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. 10 He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. 11 So now the Lord said to him, “Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants. 12 But for the sake of your father, David, I will not do this while you are still alive. I will take the kingdom away from your son. 13 And even so, I will not take away the entire kingdom; I will let him be king of one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, my chosen city.”

1 Kings 11:29-32
One day as Jeroboam was leaving Jerusalem, the prophet Ahijah from Shiloh met him along the way. Ahijah was wearing a new cloak. The two of them were alone in a field, 30 and Ahijah took hold of the new cloak he was wearing and tore it into twelve pieces. 31 Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten of these pieces, for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and I will give ten of the tribes to you! 32 But I will leave him one tribe for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel.

The Divided Kingdom
Israel remained united as long as Solomon was in power, but eventually Solomon died and his son Rehoboam came to power.  Rehoboam refused to reduce taxes in Israel and even boasted he would raise them higher and enforce them stricter than Solomon had.  So, the 10 northern tribes of Israel revolted and the kingdom of Israel was torn in two.  You can read about it in 1 Kings chapter 12.

It was not God’s will that Israel be torn in two.  God preferred Israel to remain one kingdom that was faithful to God.  Unfortunately, Solomon was not faithful to God and neither was his son Rehoboam.  So, God allowed Jeroboam to rebel and split the kingdom in two—with Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  What happened next was the saddest development of all.

1 Kings 12:26-30
Jeroboam thought to himself, “Unless I am careful, the kingdom will return to the dynasty of David. 27 When these people go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple of the Lord, they will again give their allegiance to King Rehoboam of Judah. They will kill me and make him their king instead.”

28 So on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”

29 He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom. 30 But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there.

Golden Calves
So, Solomon’s led his kingdom to worship false gods, God tore 10 tribes away to form their own kingdom in the north.  Then, Jeroboam does the same thing and leads the 10 tribes in the north to worship idols and false gods too!  (Do you ever just want to scream?)

God gave Jeroboam 80% of the kingdom.  What an opportunity and he squandered it!  Rather than worship God faithfully, Jeroboam was scared and greedy and power hungry and paranoid and tried to control it all and he turned away from God.  He used religion as a weapon to manipulate people.  He set up idols.  He led the people of Israel astray.  Ultimately, the 10 northern tribes of Israel who turned away from God and worshipped the golden calves disappeared from the earth.  Their kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC.  The entire population was killed or deported and assimilated into other people groups.  They no longer exist.  We call them the 10 lost tribes of Israel.  So what started as a good thing, ended very badly because of idolatry and unfaithfulness.

There’s a practical lesson in this for us today.  We always need to be on guard against idolatry and false gods in life, but the temptation is even greater when we are going through some kind of terrible trauma--when we lose someone we love, go through a divorce, when the kids all move out and you’re on your own, when you retire from your career, move from one place to another, etc.  In these moments, your life, your routines, your relationships, your emotions get shaken up.  You may find yourself looking for something to cling to. Be sure you cling to Jesus and not some golden calf.

Idols and false gods can be appealing because they're often tangible things that you can touch.  For Northern Israel, it was a golden calf they could see and touch that was beautiful and expensive.  This seemed more real than the invisible God, Yahweh of the Old Testament.  For us today, idols can be people or money or power--things we see in the world and the world tells us are really important.  We can feel like these are the things we should cling to, but these "false gods" always let you down.  Jesus never will.

Money, power, people, prestige—all the things of this world—give a false sense of security, but they cannot provide what we really need.  We are called to worship the One True God through Jesus Christ. 
He’s the only One that’s real and eternal.  So don’t let your trials drive a wedge between you and Christ.  Hold to Jesus even more firmly, especially when your life gets turned upside down.

The Untied Methodist Church
I once received a pen from a company selling promotional merchandise.  The sent me a free pen with my church's name on it in hopes that I would buy a large order.  However, they misspelled the name of my church and printed it as "Mt Zion Untied Methodist Church" instead of United.  I always thought that was funny.  I didn't realize at the time it was also prophetic. 

Right now, the United Methodist Church is facing a denominational split.  Many believe the UMC has drifted from God’s original mission and lost its way.  Not only has the UMC lost it’s footing on historical, biblically based Christian doctrine.  The UMC has also grown dysfunctional, inefficient, and overbearing.  Like the divide between the Israel and Judah, the divisions in the UMC didn't develop overnight; it took generations.  A lot of small things have added up to the insurmountable divide we see in our denomination today.

Congregations and pastors across the globe are rightfully discerning whether now is time to disaffiliate from the denomination.  Along with this, they are contemplating what to do next if they leave the UMC.  Some will join the new Global Methodist Church—a new denomination that formed in May.  Some will join other Methodist denominations.  Others will become independent congregations with no denominational affiliation where they can make up their own rules without being beholden to a denomination. 

I believe God has ordained this split in the United Methodist Church, but I also believe God ordained the split to help His Church be more faithful to Jesus and not simply do whatever they want.  This is a critical time for everyone to stay close to Jesus through prayer, Bible study, fellowship, and worship.  The temptation at a time like this is to do what we want to do.  the temptation is to try and take control so we can make things the way we want them to be.  If we’re not careful, we may find ourselves acting like Jeroboam—who got scared and greedy and power hungry and paranoid and turned away from God.  He set up idols and he led his people astray.  They were destroyed and are no more.

We are living in a special time in the life of God’s Church.  It’s critical that we act as God’s Church and not just do whatever we want.

What about your own life?  What are you facing right now and what is God saying to you today?

Monday, August 15, 2022

The Division Between David and Saul

It grieves God’s heart when there is disunity among His people.  His desire is that we would all be united in love and obedience to His Word.  But we also see in Scripture that God never sacrifices Truth for the sake of a false unity.  If there is to be unity, it must be a unity where people agree to worship and obey the Lord in Spirit and in Truth.  When obedience and Truth are at stake, God may be the very One who divides people.

Last week we saw how Abram and Lot went their separate ways.  Today, I want to study another division among God’s people in the Holy Bible—the division of David and Saul.

A little background.  Saul was the very first king anointed to rule God’s people in Israel.  The people wanted Saul to be their king because he looked like a king—he was tall, head and shoulders above everyone else.  Saul physic inspired people to follow him into battle to fight Israel’s enemies, but Saul’s heart was not right.  He was more concerned with what the people thought than what God really wanted.  He was always getting caught up in trying to please his constituents, even if it meant disobeying God.

And so, God rejected Saul and chose David to replace him.  David was an unlikely King.  He was the youngest of all his brothers who was always overlooked by his family.  David wasn’t as tall or physically imposing as Saul, but David was “a man after God’s own heart”.  David trusted God with his whole heart and always cared what God wanted more than what anyone else wanted.  David was the kind of man who would obey God even if no one else wanted to, even if it cost him.

So one day, God sent the prophet Samuel to call Saul out for his disobedience, and to tear the kingdom of Israel out of Saul’s hand in a dramatic display.  Saul had just won a battle against the Amalekites.  Saul won the battle but disobeyed a direct order from God afterwards.  Saul kept the spoils of the battle even though God had told him to destroy everything.  Saul’s army was greedy and thought it would be a shame to destroy all the loot they’d just plundered from their enemies.  Saul listened to his army instead of God.  God sent the prophet Samuel who called out Saul’s disobedience.

1 Samuel 15:24-25
Then Saul admitted to Samuel, “Yes, I have sinned. I have disobeyed your instructions and the Lord’s command, for I was afraid of the people and did what they demanded. 25 But now, please forgive my sin and come back with me so that I may worship the Lord.”

King Saul
God is patient and merciful—even in the Old Testament.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Saul disobeyed God.  Saul had already disobeyed God repeatedly.  This time was the last straw.  To make matters even worse, Saul is not really sorry for what he’s done.  He is still more concerned with what his people will think that what God thinks.  God is in the midst of calling Saul out for disobeying battle orders, and the most important concern in Saul’s mind is saving face in front of his army.  He want’s Sameul to join him in a public worship ceremony—probably something to honor Saul and his army for their victory over the Amalekites.  Saul is not taking his sin seriously and doesn’t even really care that he has already dishonored God by his disobedience.  To Saul, worshipping God is just a show.  He doesn’t even really care about God.  He only cares about public relations and his own position as king.

1 Samuel 15:26-29
But Samuel replied, “I will not go back with you! Since you have rejected the Lord’s command, he has rejected you as king of Israel.”

27 As Samuel turned to go, Saul tried to hold him back and tore the hem of his robe. 28 And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to someone else—one who is better than you. 29 And he who is the Glory of Israel will not lie, nor will he change his mind, for he is not human that he should change his mind!”

1 Samuel 16:7
God tore the kingdom of Israel away from Saul, not just because Saul was disobedient, but because Saul’s heart was not right.  He cared more about pleasing people than pleasing God. 

And so in the next chapter, 1 Samuel 16, we find God sending the prophet to anoint David to be the new king of Israel.  David will be faithful to God.  He won’t always do the right thing.  He made some big mistakes of his own.  But the thing that was different about David is his number one concern was his relationship with God. 

God told the prophet Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Align Your Heart with God’s
In this world, we will always be tempted to go along with the world’s values. 
We want to belong.  We want to fit in.  But the world is not right.  The world is corrupted by sin.
Part of the healing process for our soul is learning to trust in God more than our own selfish desires to fit in with a fallen world. 

Sometimes our call to keep our hearts aligned with God’s heart means turning away from a from people or groups in this world.  Even Jesus said in Luke 12:51-52, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I have come to divide people against each other! From now on families will be split apart, three in favor of me, and two against—or two in favor and three against.  Father will be divided against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’”  Jesus' claim as absolute Lord of all forces people to choose sides.  Jesus doesn't want people to be divided, but inevitably some will receive Jesus as Lord and some will reject Him.  Their rejection divides them from those who accept Him. 

Has your heart been torn in two because someone you care about deeply has turned away from you because you disagree about one of your deeply held core values?  I know that hurts and breaks your heart.  But if your heart is right with God, you’ve done the right thing.

There are many hearts that are breaking in our current divides between the life of faith and the corrupt values of society.  Many of you may be facing these.  I know it’s hard.  I know it’s hard when a family member or a close friend says your religious beliefs are ignorant or outdated or hateful because you believe what the Bible teaches.

I think about so many churches in the United Methodist tradition right now.  Many churches across the state of Georgia are divided—some 70/30, some 60/40, some even 50/50—divided about whether the congregation should disaffiliate from the UMC.  In those churches, no one is going to be totally happy.  Many of those churches will end up being torn apart—whether they stay in the UMC or if they leave.

I don’t want that sort of thing to happen at Pleasant Grove.  And I don’t think it needs to because I think we are more united in our core values than most churches.  We have hearts that want more than anything to be aligned with God and His Word.  But even if we lose one family or one person through this transition, it will hurt.  Yet, we must be faithful to God.  And it is also very important that we strengthen the ties that bind us to other believers who share our values.  What are you doing  to help with that?

Let us be willing to give up any thing, but never let go of God!
Let us walk away from any relationship, but never walk out on God!
Let us be torn apart from any group, political party, denomination, faction,
      but never be torn apart from God!
Let us rend our hearts in sorrow at the loss of friends or family or church members,
      but let us always rejoice that we remain faithful and true to God and His Word.

For in the end, our relationship with God is the only thing that matters. 
It is the only thing that is eternal.  All these other things will soon melt away.

God Shelters Us In Difficult Times
But we can learn yet one more thing from the story of David and Saul.
As you can imagine, it wasn’t an easy life for David to be chosen as Saul’s replacement while Saul was still the King of Israel.  It was a dangerous life for David.
Saul grew more and more jealous of David and paranoid for his own position.
Saul went mad trying to hold onto power and a kingdom God had already torn away from him.
And Saul chased David around the countryside trying to kill him.
David had at least two chances to exact revenge and kill Saul,
but David refused to take matters into his own hands. 
David would let God work out how to finally take the kingdom from Saul and give it to David.
Through all David’s difficult years as a fugitive running for his life from Saul,
God took care of David. 
And so David could write God's sheltering protection in one of his most beautiful psalms:

Psalm 64:10 - The godly will rejoice in the Lord and find shelter in him.  And those who do what is right will praise him.

Close your eyes and consider:
In what ways has your faithfulness to God caused divisions in your life and relationships?
How can you seek shelter to protect you from pain and sorrow and even real harm?
Now imagine that God, our Heavenly Father, is with you right now, sheltering you in His loving arms.  He is pleased with Your faithfulness, despite your suffering.  And He will honor your loyalty.

Monday, August 8, 2022

The Parting of Abram and Lot

Usually at church, we learn about building new relationships and reconciling broken ones.  We don’t often talk about parting ways.  Didn’t Christ come to bring us together and not divide?

Unity is certainly a huge part of Jesus’ Gospel.  But we sometimes forget Jesus also said people would be divided by whether or not they chose to follow Him.  He said in Luke 12:52, “From now on families will be split apart, three in favor of me, and two against—or two in favor and three against.”

Disagreements and separation are sometimes an unfortunate necessity in our broken world.  Friends fall out.  A family leaves a church.  People quit a job.  Even husbands and wives sometimes divorce. 
So, over the next four Sundays, I want to study four Bible stories where people parted ways.
I believe God will speak an important word to each of us that may help us just where we are.

The first story is the story of Abram and Lot.  God called Abram to leave his homeland and family and go to a new land.  Abram (AKA Abraham) is revered by three major world religions as a made famous for faith.  He trusted God enough to leave what he knew for what he didn't know, believing God's promise to bless him.  Abram’s nephew, Lot, went with Abram.

Genesis 13:5-7
Lot, who was traveling with Abram, had also become very wealthy with flocks of sheep and goats, herds of cattle, and many tents. But the land could not support both Abram and Lot with all their flocks and herds living so close together. So disputes broke out between the herdsmen of Abram and Lot. (At that time Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land.)

Herding Sheep
Abram and Lot were living as nomads.  They didn’t live in cities.  They left a great city named Ur because God called Abram to leave his homeland.  So now, Abram and lot are wandering from place to place in the “wilderness”, living in tents, herding their livestock from pasture to pasture where there was enough water and grass for the animals to survive.  Now, we don’t have any sheep farmers, but I know we have some here who raise cows (or have raised cows).  Can you imagine herding your cows from place to place while also taking everything you own with you and moving from place to place every few months?

It’s always a challenge living together.  Too many people living together can cause serious problems--even in the best of situations.  Anyone who has lived with teenagers may understand the tensions that can be part of a household where people disagree about the rules and the right way to live together.  

“Politics” is a word we usually associate with negative connotations.  Everyone says they hate politics--especially politics in the church.  I think what we really mean is we hate dirty politics.  The definition of politics is just the art making decisions in groups.  People have to live together in groups, because we are social creature.  However, this also means individuals have different ideas about what is best.  Living together means learning to compromise and get along.  But what do we do if our core values or goals are so drastically different we cannot compromise?

One tragic solution people have used is war.  They will fight it out until one side wins and forces the losing side to do what the winning side wants.  How much suffering has been caused over the millennia, how many millions have died because of war?  Is there any other way?

Abram was a man of God.  He saw a better way so resolve his conflict with his nephew, Lot.

Genesis 13:8-9
Finally Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not allow this conflict to come between us or our herdsmen. After all, we are close relatives! The whole countryside is open to you. Take your choice of any section of the land you want, and we will separate. If you want the land to the left, then I’ll take the land on the right. If you prefer the land on the right, then I’ll go to the left.”

Abram was Gracious
Rather than continuing to fight, Abram proposed a separation.  Separating was hard.  It meant Abram and Lot—who were close relatives—would not be living together in the same camp.  And this would also affect everyone in the camp, because all the shepherds and extended family involved were friends and relatives who had lived together for a long time.  They’d traveled many mile together for decades. 

So there were friendships and good times together that would come to an end.  There were also probably many long running disputes and arguments that would go unresolved.  Nobody would be the final “winner”.  Separating meant just, “letting it all go”.  Furthermore, Abram’s proposal gave Lot and his side the pick of the land (and maybe there were many on Abram’s side who thought, “Why do they get the pick of the land?  Shouldn’t we get to pick first?”)

However, Abram is famous as a man of faith.  Abram’s solution relied on his faith in God.  Abram always believed God would take care of him.  God had promised to bless Abram.  Therefore, Abram could be generous and gracious and give Lot the pick of the land, knowing God would take care of Abram and his household. 

I’m also sure Abram loved his nephew, Lot, even if they’d had their disagreements.  So, Abram was gracious and he let Lot pick which way he would go.  Abram trusted God to work it all out in the end.

Genesis 13:10-13
Lot took a long look at the fertile plains of the Jordan Valley in the direction of Zoar. The whole area was well watered everywhere, like the garden of the 
Lord or the beautiful land of Egypt. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) 11 Lot chose for himself the whole Jordan Valley to the east of them. He went there with his flocks and servants and parted company with his uncle Abram. 12 So Abram settled in the land of Canaan, and Lot moved his tents to a place near Sodom and settled among the cities of the plain. 13 But the people of this area were extremely wicked and constantly sinned against the Lord.

The Easy Way Isn't Always The Best Way
We see some great life lessons in this story.  We’ve already seen how Abram’s deep faith in God allowed him to be generous and offer Lot the first choice of where to live in the land.  Abram’s generosity was gracious and sparked goodwill between his clan and Lot’s clan that helped preserve relationships and fostered continued cooperation between their groups, even as they separated.

But there’s another lesson to learn.  Lot chose the easy way.  He chose to settle near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  You probably know how Sodom and Gomorrah came to represent decadence and sinfulness and immorality.  Sodom and Gomorrah were surrounded by rich, fertile land that led to their prosperity.  This in turn led to their decadence, pride, rejection of God, and ultimate decline and destruction.

The easy life, the path of least resistance, where we simply gratify our immediate impulses and avoid all hardships is rarely good for you.  That way of living makes you soft.  It leaves you weak and can start you sliding down a path to destruction. 

We have to learn in life to take the harder roads.  Rather than borrowing money to get what we want now, we must learn to earn and save for what you need before we buy.  Rather than resting on our laurels and coasting off past accomplishments, we must keep pushing to become better and do more good in the future.  We should under promise and over deliver.  And above all, we must always trust God to take care of you—not because you are blessed with a lot—but because He can take care of you even if you only have a little.  Learn to live with less instead of always wanting more.

Closing Meditation
As I close, I invite you to contemplate and pray about these questions:
Where do you see a fork in the road in your own life?
Are you involved in some relationships or behaviors that are not healthy for your soul?
Is it time to part company with some of these people or things? 
Is it time to let go of some relationships that are pulling you away from God?
How might trusting God help you to be generous and gracious, even as you say goodbye?
How can you learn to trust God more in every situation, and not lean on your own understanding or depend on the easy way of doing things?
How could trusting God help you to be more generous and gracious—even to people with whom you disagree?

May God guide you as you make your own decisions.