Sunday, January 27, 2013

Listening to God

Listening to God
Luke 5: 17 – 26.

Last year, I had an opportunity to preach a chapel service at East Texas Baptist University.  I was really excited about preaching chapel, but it is a sign that I am truly getting old.  The chaplain at East Texas Baptist University is one of my old college students from when I was the college minister in Waco.
Chapel at ETBU is different from what I remember about chapel at Mississippi College.  I remember chapel being painful and boring—painfully boring.  But, ETBU had a worship band and praise team made up of college students.  The chapel students actually sang along in worship.  Then, I got up to preach.  (I suppose I was the painfully boring part of the chapel service.)
I preached a sermon that I have already preached here in Lufkin.  The sermon is about the boy Samuel in the Temple.  While he was asleep, God spoke to Samuel.  Samuel did not recognize the voice of the LORD, so he ran into Eli’s room thinking Eli had called him.  Eventually, Samuel recognized the voice of the LORD; he listened; and he obeyed.
I was really proud of the way I concluded my sermon.  I said, “If the Bible is the Word of God, then God is still speaking to us today.  But, if our Bibles remain closed, then God is silent.”
I built my last sentence up and dramatically held up my Bible and snapped it shut.  You will never guess what I did next.  I set my Bible down on the pulpit and prayed.  Then, I drove all the way home from Marshall to Lufkin…and LEFT MY BIBLE IN MARSHALL.

Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?  I would suggest that this is one of our basic beliefs as Baptists in general and Lufkin’s First Baptist Church in particular.  We believe the Bible is our authority for both our beliefs and our behaviors.  When we gather in Sunday School classes or small groups, we read the Bible.  When we gather to worship on Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening, we read the Bible.
As a church, our corporate behavior reflects our belief that the Bible is the Word of God, and God speaks to us through the Bible.  But what does our private behavior demonstrate about our view of the Bible?  If you truly believe that God speaks to you through the Bible, then your private behavior will reflect that. 
I used to think this was very simple.  If you believe God speaks to you through the Bible, then you will read the Bible expecting to hear from God.  If you do not believe God speaks to you through the Bible, then you will not read the Bible.  But, I think there may be one more possibility.  It is possible to believe the Bible is the Word of God and refuse to read the Bible, because you are afraid of what God will say.

Reading the Bible does not have to be complicated.  Of course, it is very helpful to read the entire Bible and to have a good understanding of the overall story of God’s work in the history of Israel and how that history culminated in the life of Jesus.  It is also helpful to know something about the original languages of Hebrew and Greek or to study commentaries that are based on the original languages.
There are two ways to think about the Bible.  Some people think the Bible is complicated and can only be understood by people who can “crack the code.”  I do not believe this is true.  I believe God is revealed in the Bible and not concealed in the Bible.  Therefore, I believe anyone can read the Bible and come to know who God is.

The simplest way to read the Bible is to read it prayerfully.  I recommend that you read one short passage of Scripture and pray a simple prayer…  “Lord, what are you saying to me in this Scripture?”

Let’s try this together in a familiar story from the life of Jesus…

Luke 5: 17 – 26.
17 One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there. And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick. 18 Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. 19 When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.
20 When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
21 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
22 Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . .” He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. 26 Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

You have probably heard and / or read this story one hundred times in your life.  Sometimes a story is so familiar to us that we have learned everything we can possibly learn from it.  And, other times, a story is so familiar to us that we THINK we have learned all we can learn from it.  Familiarity is not always a good thing.
One of the best ways to re-read / re-hear a familiar story is to imagine what it would have been like to be there while the story was happening for the first time.  Try to put yourself into the biblical story and imagine what it would have been like.  What are some of the things you would see?  What would it smell like?  How shocking would it be to hear Jesus forgive a man’s sins and tell him to stand up and walk?
As you imagine yourself as a part of the story, maybe you can imagine yourself as one of the characters…  Jesus is the main character in the story, but none of us is Jesus.  Jesus had people overcoming all odds to meet him face-to-face.  Jesus pronounced forgiveness of sins.  And, Jesus performed a miracle.
But, maybe we can identify with one of the other characters…The Paralyzed Man, The Four Friends, The Crowd…

The Paralyzed Man
We don’t know much about the paralyzed man.  For example, we don’t know if he had been paralyzed from birth or as the result of some accident.  But, we do know that he could not walk.  His four friends had to physically carry him to meet Jesus.
His physical disability was only one part of his problem.  As a result of his paralysis, he was totally helpless and left to depend on his friends (and possibly his family members) to meet his needs.  He could not work and support himself financially.  He could not even move around under his own power.  This helplessness probably led to a loss of dignity and feelings of shame.
This is a very difficult situation for a man to find himself in.  He had nothing to be proud of and probably struggled with thoughts that he was a burden on others.
If you cannot relate to feelings of helplessness or shame, there is one more problem mentioned that we can all relate to.  This man was a sinner, who needed forgiveness.
This is the first problem Jesus addressed when he first met the paralyzed man.  Jesus said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven…”
The religious leaders were offended when Jesus pronounced forgiveness.  The Scripture says they were offended because Jesus claimed to do something only God can do—forgive sins.  But, I think there might be something else offensive about Jesus’ words.  Not only did Jesus claim to do what only God could do…Jesus was replacing the Temple and the entire sacrificial system of Judaism!
The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were very religious men.  They were committed to all of the teachings of the Old Testament.  And, they were committed to worship at the Jerusalem Temple and all the sacrifices required by the Scriptures.  And, Jesus has just by-passed both the Temple and the sacrifices.  Jesus is claiming equality with God, AND Jesus is claiming that he is all we need to be forgiven.
As I read this familiar story, I can certainly relate to the paralyzed man.  He felt helpless and ashamed of his life.  And, he knew he needed forgiveness for his sins.  That afternoon he found the answer to all his problems when he met Jesus face-to-face, because Jesus is all we need.

The Four Friends
The paralyzed man would never have met Jesus face-to-face without help from his four friends.  They placed the paralyzed man on a mat and physically carried him to meet Jesus.  That alone was quite an inconvenience for the four friends.  They had to put their own needs and their own daily schedules on hold so they could carry their friend to Jesus.
I don’t know what the four friends expected to find when they arrived at the house.  But, what they found was an impossible situation.  They had changed their daily schedules and put everything else on hold only to find a house so crowded that no one could enter.
Some people might turn around and go home.  We did the very best we could do.  At least we tried.  Maybe we can find Jesus another day.  That is not what these friends thought.  Instead, they found a creative and bold solution.  They climbed to the roof of the house; they cut a hole in the roof; and they lowered their friend right at the feet of Jesus.  These friends were willing to overcome any and all obstacles.
I want you to think about their creativity and their boldness.  They were creative, because they found a solution to an impossible situation.  They were bold, because they cut a hole in someone else’s roof.  Nothing could stop them from bringing their friend face-to-face with Jesus!
Can you relate to their creativity and boldness?  There are some people who will not allow any obstacles to stand between their friends and Jesus.  And some people who will not overcome obstacles because personal convenience is more important than introducing others to Jesus.
There is a remarkable phrase in verse 20…

Luke 5: 20… “When Jesus saw THEIR faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’”

 Jesus responded to the faith of the paralyzed man AND to the faith of his four friends.  It takes faith to believe that Jesus can change a life.  The paralyzed man had faith that Jesus could solve all his problems.  The four friends had faith that Jesus could help their friend.  And, it was their faith that led them to overcome obstacles.
If we have faith that Jesus still changes lives, then we will put our personal inconveniences aside and help others meet Jesus the way we have met Jesus.  If we do not have faith that Jesus changes lives, anything and everything can stop us.

The Crowd
I used to read this story differently than I read it today.  I used to think that the four friends could not get into the house because Jesus was surrounded by friendly faces.  I imagined that Jesus was teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God and that sick people were coming to Jesus to be healed.  I thought this was a friendly scene until I noticed an important detail in verse 17.

Luke 5: 17…  “One day as (Jesus) was teaching, Pharisees and Teachers of the Law who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there.  And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick.”

The house was full, because Pharisees and Teachers of the Law had traveled from all over the country to meet Jesus!  And, we know from the rest of the Gospels that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were not friendly faces around Jesus.  They didn’t like Jesus.  They didn’t appreciate his teaching about the Kingdom of God.  They were jealous of all the crowds that came to Jesus and believed his message of faith. 
The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were the most religious people Judaism had to offer.  They had committed their lives to read and follow all the teachings of the Old Testament.  When Jesus challenged their understanding of religion, the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law dug in their heels and did everything in their power to protect their religion from Jesus.  They tried to trick him with theological questions and eventually conspired to have Jesus executed by the Romans.

The paralyzed man could not get to Jesus, because religion stood in the way!

I wonder how often this happens to us. 
Perhaps there is someone who needs to meet Jesus, but they don’t dress the way religious people think they should dress.  The Bible never tells us we have to wear a suit and tie to come to church.  That is something we made up and added to the Gospel.
Perhaps we make it difficult for some people to meet Jesus by only providing Sunday morning activities.  What about people who have to work on Sundays like waitresses, police officers and firemen?
Perhaps we think people need to clean up their lives before they enter into the church.  We expect people to look like us, walk like us, smell like us and vote like us before they come to church.  Jesus never asked anyone to clean up their lives before they had faith.  Jesus accepts us just as we are and THEN Jesus is the one who changes us.  Like I once saw on a church sign, “You catch ‘em.  He’ll clean ‘em.”

When I read this story, I think God is speaking to us all.  God wants us to be more like the four friends who were creative and bold in their efforts to bring a needy person to Jesus.  He does not want us to be like the religious folks who stood in the way.

This week, a pastor friend of mine emailed me a quote from Philip Yancey.  I don’t know where this came from, but I love the quote…

“As I travel, I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God “moving” geographically from the Middle East to Europe, to North America, to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where He’s wanted.”  Philip Yancey

God goes where he is wanted.  That means if you don’t want to hear from God, then you have nothing to worry about.  But, if you do want to hear from God…God goes where he is wanted…  God has given us a way to hear from him.

Reading the Bible does not have to be complicated.  If the Bible is the Word of God, then God is speaking to us whenever we read the Bible.  But, if the Bible is the Word of God, then God is silent as long as our Bibles are closed.

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