Now that we’ve found [home] what are we gonna do --- with it?
That would be my sermon title, if I thought it would bring even a flicker of recognition across the faces of any parishioners. Alas, they are not so familiar with Heavy D & The Boyz.
On behalf of all the minor prophets of the Old Testament I would like to officially welcome you BACK FROM EXILE. This 12-week series on the prophets has taken us through the whole journey. We started, in the beginning of this summer, with the pre-exile prophets who were warning that God’s punishment would come, and as we moved on we spent some time hearing from other prophets about what life when they were punished by being sent into exile… when they got dragged off to a foreign land and sat down and wept by the waters of babylon… remember that? We heard about a lot of oppression this summer. We heard about how they were in exile in Babylon and they were homesick and miserable. They turned to God and stamped their feet and said “God, solve this problem!” And now – we’re back! Problem solved! We made it home to Jerusalem! The last three prophets – haggai, whom we heard last week, and zechariah, for today, and malachi, (whom we’re actually going to skip over – don’t tell my professors) all wrote after the exile had finished and they had returned to Jerusalem. Home again, home again, jiggity jig.
Well it seems like those Hebrew children did get what they prayed for – they were returned safely to Jerusalem, and the foreign powers that now held them in colonial rule even allowed them to rebuild the city and the temple, and to practice their own religion again. They got to celebrate their traditional festivals and to read the Torah again. They were overjoyed and probably assumed this meant the end to all troubles. They probably hoped it was the beginning of the kingdom of God, when the Lord of hosts would directly rule the whole earth from the temple in Jerusalem, and all nations would gather there.
But wait… we know that the story doesn’t end there. The prophets still have a message to deliver. In fact we’re only this far ___ through the bible – there has to be more. Haggai told us last week -- Coming home is not the happy ending. You need to re-build the temple. And unfortunately then Zechariah and Malachi tell us – building the temple is not the happy ending either. They didn’t “all live happily ever after.” Jerusalem was rebuilt, the temple was back up and running, but something there was still a little rotten inside.
So Zechariah had something to say about that. Let me tell you how it happened:
A group of men were sent to ask the prophet Zechariah a question. They went to pray before God and then addressed their question to the prophet: For seventy years, every year in the fourth month we’ve fasted and lamented, to remember when Jerusalem fell. But now we’re back in the rebuilt Jerusalem – we don’t need to fast and pray this year too, do we? (just as an aside – I know the answer I would have hoped for if I were with them – I’d hope God would say – never fast again! Rejoice and be merry and throw parties in the fourth month! God has saved us forever and ever! – but unfortunately I didn’t write the Bible.)
This fasting wasn’t just a little token prayer they said every once in a while. Apparently they would fast four times a year for long stretches of time, wearing funeral clothes, going about in an attitude of mourning, restricting their food and drink. This was serious prayer. And they didn’t want to go through this whole prayer thing if they didn’t “have” to.
So Zechariah brings a word from God to answer these men.
He gave them a little speech on why they had been sent into exile in the first place, and why it took them so long to get out. You might remember the same kind of message from the beginning of the summer, from Amos or Micah or Hosea. God basically said – your fasting is empty! It has nothing to do with justice, mercy, or righteousness! If you pray to me while oppressing your neighbor, I WILL NOT LISTEN TO THAT PRAYER. God gave them a reminder – that the prayer that is acceptable is a matter of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly in the ways of the Lord.
So Zechariah is kind of sidestepping the original question here. These guys asked “should we fast this year?” and Zechariah said “well God wants you to remember that you never fasted righteously to begin with.” Zechariah asks “were you fasting for God? Or were you doing it for your own selves?” They were fasting and praying in order to try to get God to do what they wanted. This is a pretty normal human thing to do – to treat God like a cosmic bellhop, where we can ring the bell, tell him what we want, and wait for him to bring it down from heaven for us. And even though it’s a little silly, it IS okay to pray like this, because it is good to express your needs and desires to God.
But. That’s only part of the story. The REAL, deeper purpose of fasting and praying is to turn closer to God, to learn to live a more faithful life. This kind of fasting and prayer has no season; you don’t turn it on in the fourth month and off in the fifth. Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God are meant to be everyday activities. And the fact that Zechariah had to remind them of this means that they have been neglecting it.
The people of Israel had false hopes for a happy-ever-after, and they needed a reality check. And to me this seems similar to the reality check a family often faces when an alcoholic family member sobers up. Here’s what happens: For months or years, the whole family has their energy focused on one thing: We’ve gotta get little Billy out of the pubs. And everyone assumes that this is the only problem in the family, and that if Billy weren’t drunk, everything would be great and we’d be living happily ever after. The house would be clean, the bills would be paid, no one would fight anymore, and we’d send our friends postcards from our vacations in Hawaii. Everyone keeps pestering Billy about his drinking, blaming him for everything that went wrong. Then one day Billy gets to the end of his rope and checks himself into a treatment program. He emerges clean and sober and smiling, and everybody’s happy for about thirty minutes. Because the house ISN’T clean, the bills aren’t paid, the arguments are louder than they’d ever been – what happened?
What happened is that the people in this story don’t know where their problems really are. Everybody THINKS they’ve identified the problem, and they pray for a specific solution, and they get what they prayed for – but only that solution, and no more. The problem wasn’t only in Billy – it was in all of them.
It reminds me of a saying – wherever I go, I’m there. I can run around in all kinds of circles, getting into and out of troublesome situations, but when I get back to where I started, I’m still there. Sometimes the situations we’re in really AREN’T the real problems – the real problems are in us.
So that’s kind of what happened to the people of Israel. They thought that their troubles were situational, but when they’d gotten in and out of that situation – namely, exile in Babylon – they had to realize that they still had problems, because they were carrying them in their own hearts.
The truth of the situation is: because we are sinful human beings, we can have problems in the best of circumstances, and in the worst… but! By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can also have peace in the worst of circumstances just as we can in the best. So one of the messages we can get here is that circumstances don’t matter. As Paul said, he can live with plenty or in need, they are the same to him and he can do all things through Christ.
Have any of you ever met someone whose life has fallen down around them, and who can still praise God with a heart full of thanksgiving and gratitude? I have met people like that, and not just in the Ugandan orphanage. (this was the children’s sermon).
But on the flip side of that -- on the other hand, have you ever met someone who has incredible circumstances – money, property, prestige – and still does not have peace or contentment?
This is the scenario I want to focus on now, because that’s where the Israelites were, and I think it is the harder scenario. When you have a sick family member, it’s not hard to remember to get down on your knees and talk to God. When you’re stuck in Babylon and you can’t get home, you’re not likely to forget to ask God “what about that Savior you promised us, Lord…”
But what IS hard, is keeping that closeness to God when we don’t have problems forcing us down to our knees. It IS hard for us to remember to pray when we don’t have anything to pray “for.”
The problem is, if we only pray when we’re in trouble, and relax and stop praying when we’re out of trouble… we’re pretty likely to get right back into trouble again. And then we pray – ring the bell – okay God I’m in a mess again – I’d like a large order of salvation with some peace of mind on the side – thanks, God! And if we get what we want, and say “thanks, God, goodbye, see ya later,” we might never grow to have a true relationship with God, with all the infinite blessings God wants to bestow on us.
Lots of sermons are a case of the pastor talking to him or herself, of me telling you what I need to hear, and hoping that it makes some sense to you too. Most sermons have at least a little bit of that in it. But today I’ll just go ahead and use myself as an example. I’ve noticed a pattern in my own praying habits. Whenever I arrive in a new place, I pray like mad. And I’ve moved around a lot in my life, so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to notice this. My first few weeks here in Lostine I prayed a lot, kind of as the only alternative to talking to my houseplants. I’ve never been used to living alone… I needed to talk to SOMEONE so I talked to God. Then I got the internet set up in the manse so that started to use up a lot of the time I used to spend in prayer. Then I started to become friends with more people, so I had people to talk to, and I didn’t feel the need to talk to God as much. And by now – not only do I have plenty of people to talk to – I have so many wonderful things to do all day long, that prayer unfortunately gets squeezed into the very early morning or right before I fall asleep.
So Zechariah’s question hits me hard: when you prayed, was it for God’s sake that you prayed? or for your own?
When I prayed so much, was I holding tightly to God because I really wanted God in my life, or just because I was afraid of having nothing else going on?
This is a question for all of us. If all our problems were miraculously taken care of, would we keep on praying regularly? Would we keep on inviting God to work in our lives, even when we don’t have a specific problem in mind for God to fix? Would we let God out of the job of our cosmic bellhop, and into a job that is more like teacher, or friend?
Here are some wise words about that from a seventeenth century monk, called Brother Lawrence, who wrote a book called “the practice of the presence of God.”
God has infinite treasures to give us. Yet a little tangible devotion, which passes away in a moment, satisfies us. How blind we are, since in this way we tie God’s hands, and we stop the abundance of His grace! But when He finds a soul penetrated with living faith, He pours out grace on it in abundance. God’s grace is like a torrent. When it is stopped from taking its ordinary course, it looks for another outlet, and when it finds one, it spreads out with impetuosity and abundance.
I think that quote speaks for itself. And it always reminds me to invite God in, even if I don’t have something in mind for God to do… to pray even if I don’t have a request… to keep opening my life toward God and trying to remove the blocks that are in the way of receiving God’s blessings.
The other point I want to make is that even at those times when we feel we are “home,” and blessed, and restored, and walking in sunshine all of our journey – even then, the story is not over. Just as it was not the end of the story for the ancient Israelites when they got back to Jerusalem. There’s still more to come. We are moving toward the FINAL home, waiting for the day of the Lord, a day when God’s will of justice and mercy will be seen all over this earth. It is hard to remember this because, hey, we just got back to Jerusalem, and yknow, compared to Babylon, it’s pretty nice here and we’d like to sit back and relax…
As comfortable as we might get here, and complacent, and just happy to sit around and enjoy ourselves – we know that God is calling us onward and forward. That’s one of the reasons why we keep singing songs like “I’ll fly away…” reminding us that we are headed to a far better place.
and I have another one to sing to you today. This is a song by Steven Curtis Chapman. (yes I did put SCC and Heavy D in the same blog, they’d be mutually mortified if they knew).
To all the travelers
Pilgrims longing for a home
From one who walks with you
On the journey called life's road
It is a long and winding road
From one who's seen the view
And dreamt of staying on
the mountain high
And one one who's cried like you
Wanted so much just to lay down and die
I offer this, we must remember this
We are not home yet
We are not home yet
Keep on looking ahead
Let your heart not forget
We are not home yet
Not home yet
So close your eyes with me
And hear the Father saying "welcome home"
Let us find the strength
In all His promises to carry on
He said, "I go prepare a place for you"
So let us not forget
We are not home yet (chorus)
I know there'll be a moment
I know there'll be a place
Where we will see our Savior
And fall in His embrace
So let us not grow weary
Or too content to stay
Cause we are not home yet (chorus)
Today I invite you to really remember that we are not home, and deep in our hearts we have a longing that nothing can satisfy except God. So set your sights on the kingdom of God instead, and on the fullness of justice, and mercy, and peace that God wants to bring to this earth through YOU. And in the meantime I encourage you - and myself – not to fill ourselves up with temporary things that will not satisfy. Look for the best – for the true blessings that God wants to pour out in our lives.
***** PS: this sermon killed me. I finally wrapped up writing it about 5 minutes before I needed to be at church this morning, with an attitude of, "oh well, this'll probably fall flat." I really struggled with writing and felt disappointed by the process -- that I had not had any of the epiphanies that bring me so much excitement in researching and writing. Most sermons I write long and cut short -- this one I wrote short and cast about wildly for something else to say. BUT THEN, post-partum, I found out that this meant as much if not more than any of the other sermons I'd been more excited about. A very organized and critical parishioner counted it as "one of your better ones" and other folks just swept me up into hugs and "thank you"s. So it's more and more obvious that this is not about me, not about my skills in thinking and writing and delivery - but that in fact I am to be the "hollow reed" just trying not to get in God's way. I am humbled and grateful.