Category: bless the world

Sermon: What Does the Lord Require of You?

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow based on Micah 6:1-8. In light of current events, and the divisions within our culture, God’s people need to hear again the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. I hope your Sunday is glorious!

What Does The Lord Require of You?
Micah 6:1-8 NRSV

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Called To Testify

We lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia when I was subpoenaed to testify in a murder trial. I did not know the defendant, but I knew his parents. They were calling every witness they could to try to prevent their son, who had killed his wife, from being sent to prison. I was called to testify that I would be available to counsel and guide the young man should the judge sentence him to probation. It seemed like a long shot to me, and in the end it was. The judge sentenced the husband to life in prison. His family wept, while on the other side of the courtroom, the slain woman’s family celebrated.

What we encounter today in this passage from Micah 6, is no less dramatic than my courtroom experience years ago.

In verses 1-2, the prophet Micah says to God’s people —

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

So, God calls on the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth to be witnesses to the great case against Israel. (And, probably Israel here means both Israel and Judah because the prophet Micah preached about the judgment on both kingdoms.)

In verse 3 God asks rhetorically —

“O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

Then, in verses 3-5, God recalls three major events in the life of His people when God saved them from certain disaster and destruction. The first was when God used Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead Israel from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The second was when Balak, king of Moab, tried to hire Balaam, a prophet who listened to God, to curse Israel as they made their way to the Promised Land.

And, the third event was when Joshua led the nation of Israel from Shittim, crossing the Jordan, and finally stopping in Gilgal in the Land of Promise.

While we might lump all those stories together as part of the Exodus/Promised Land narrative, God breaks down the narrative into its component parts to remind Israel that every step along the way God had intervened and saved them.

But now it’s Israel’s turn to testify. And in verses 6-7, Israel asks indignantly —

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Micah is probably representing what he has heard from his countrymen a hundred times over. They don’t get why God has an issue with them. And, of course, they jump right to how they do worship, because they think they’ve been doing worship quite well, thank you!

So, they begin reasonably — “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

These are, of course, the standard and typical offerings presented to God. Yearling calves, offered on the altar.

But then, they get snarky —  “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” they ask sarcastically.

Rams and oil are offered to God in Temple worship, but not by the thousands and ten thousands. No, these are people who are put out that God dares to question how they do worship, because, of course, they’ve been doing worship at the Temple since Solomon was king — over 200 years at this point.

But then, they go too far. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

While the firstborn was dedicated to God, the firstborn (or any child or person) was expressly forbidden to be used as a sacrifice. Other nations around them offered child-sacrifices, often to Moloch, but Israel was prohibited from doing so. Some scholars think this sentence indicates they might have (and we know they did at one time), but others think this is the ultimate outrageous rebuttal to God’s criticism of them.

But now it’s Micah’s turn. In verse 8, Micah stops speaking the very words of God, and rather plainly observes —

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

In other words, “You know what to do, and it has little to do with what happens inside the Temple and everything to do with how you live your lives.” My paraphrase.

So, let’s look at what God requires, then and now.

First, there are three verbs in the second part of verse 8: Do, love, and walk. All action verbs. All with objects or modifiers. All indicating real life actions, not ritual affectations.

So, let’s break them down.

Do Justice

I’m not using my favorite translation, the New International Version, because I think the NIV misses the translation here. In the NIV the text reads “live justly.” But, Micah says God requires that we “do justice.”

Of course, theologians have often been accused of “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” (I think Jesus said something like that), but here I believe the distinction is critical to understanding what God is saying.

There is a difference in “living justly” and being required to “do justice.” Here’s what I think the distinction is: “living justly” implies that while I go about my individual life, I’m to do things correctly. Now, that certainly is true, but “doing justice” shifts the emphasis from my individual everyday life to an intentional assignment to make sure justice gets done.

As in our day, life in Israel 700 or so years before Christ contained not only individual injustice, but systemic injustice. Their injustice was like ours — the powerful abused those least able to stand up for themselves.

In Chapter 3, Micah notes:

“Listen, you rulers of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel! For you ought to know what is right, but you hate good and love evil. You have devoured My people’s flesh; you have flayed the skin off them, and the flesh off their bones.”

In 3:9, Micah continues:

“Hear this, you rulers of the House of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with crime, Jerusalem with iniquity! Her rulers judge for gifts, her priests give rulings for a fee, and her prophets divine for pay…”

The poor were exploited, those with cases to be heard had to bribe the judge to get a favorable ruling, and even in the Temple priests and prophets demanded more than their normal support to do their jobs.

Micah rails against this type of injustice which is built into the Temple, the courts, and society in general. Remember, the prophets generally brought three charges against God’s people regardless of when they prophesied: 1) they worshiped idols; 2) they worshiped insincerely; and, 3) they did not care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the stranger. Here Micah speaks of all three transgressions and failures.

To do justice means to ensure that everyone — rich, poor, powerful, or humble — has an equal place at God’s table. Old Testament law provided numerous ways for the poor to be fed, the widows to be cared for, the orphans to be nurtured, and the stranger to be welcomed. But, over and over, Israel’s spiritual and civic leaders bend the rules for their own benefit, while at the same time pretending to be righteous and upright. Jesus will condemn this same hypocrisy in the first century, 700 years later.

God’s requirement to “do justice” is not directed at our modern political parties, civic leaders, or social trendsetters. This is a requirement of God’s people. This is our duty, our job, our responsibility.

In LaGrange, Georgia last week, the chief of police, Louis Dekmar, apologized to the African American citizens of LaGrange on behalf of the city and the police department. He apologized that his department did nothing to protect a black teenager named Austin Callaway in 1940. Callaway had been charged with offending a white woman, and had been placed in the LaGrange city jail. That night, 6 white men with one gun, held the jailer at gunpoint, forcing him to open the jail and release Callaway to them. Later Callaway was found shot several times. He was transported to the hospital where he died of gunshot wounds. Chief Dekmar found there were no case notes, no investigation, and no one was ever arrested for the murder of Austin Callaway. That is an example of systemic injustice. But the courageous apology of a white police chief brought some justice to that community 77 years later.

But if we are not in positions of authority to see that justice is done in our social settings and systems, still we are required to be working to bring about changes in our society so that justice is done, and so that all share God’s blessings, all feed at God’s table, and so that all — not just some — flourish in God’s creation.

Of course, justice also means that good is valued and evil is judged. That’s a part of justice, too. That aspect of justice keeps our society ordered, and our social corrections proportional.

Justice then, is both systemic and personal.

Which brings us to the second requirement —

Love Kindness (Mercy)

No translation is perfect, and here the New Revised Standard Version lets me down. The Hebrew word translated “kindness” here is the word “hesed” which means “lovingkindness.” But, I guess it sounded awkward to say, “Love lovingkindness.” But lovingkindness also means mercy, so the good old King James Version gets it right when it translates this phrase to “Love mercy.”

And, loving mercy goes hand in hand with doing justice, obviously. If you just do justice — especially that which judges and sorts out good from evil — with no allowance for mercy, kindness, and forgiveness — then you have missed the example of God’s own lovingkindness and mercy.

That’s the point here — we do what God does. We “do justice,” but we “love mercy.” That sounds to me like mercy might be as important, if not more so, than doing justice. Justice always has to be tempered with mercy or we become a society with no heart, no compassion, no empathy.

Dr. Richard Hayes of Duke University writes of mercy — “Mercy precedes everything: that, and only that, is why the announcement of the kingdom of heaven is good news.” — (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pg. 103.)

The story is told of two ancient rabbis who were walking together one day. One bemoaned the fact that they no longer had the Temple in which to worship God. “But,” the other reassured his colleague, “we still have hesed.” His point was, that even if there was no Temple in which to worship, they could still perform acts of mercy and lovingkindness.

Do justice. Love mercy. Do we love mercy, or do we extend mercy as a last, begrudging resort, just because sometimes we have to?

Walk Humbly with Your God

Then Micah adds the final requirement — to walk humbly with your God. “Walk” of course is an analogy for the way in which we live our lives. We speak of people who are hypocritical because they “talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”

The idea of walking with God has its origins in the Garden of Eden where God walked with Adam and Eve each evening. Our walk with God is not only our conduct before him, but our fellowship with Him.

There are, I suppose, any number of ways we could walk with God. Certainly we could walk regularly with God. Adam and Eve did so until they sinned, and then they hid from God.

We could walk gratefully with God. Scripture in both Old and New Testaments is filled with exhortations to give thanks, and prayers and songs that give voice to thankfulness.

We could also walk confidently with God. John writes in 1 John 1:5-6 — “This is how we know we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.” So our walk with God gives us confidence in our relationship to God.

But while we might walk regularly, or gratefully, or confidently, Micah reminds us that what is required of us is that we walk humbly with our God.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the virtue of humility may be defined as: “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.” St. Bernard defines it: “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.” These definitions coincide with that given by St. Thomas: “The virtue of humility”, he says, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior”   — (Devine, A. (1910). Humility. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 28, 2017 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm)

And there it is: humility is knowing our limitations, especially in light of God’s limitless love, grace, and mercy.

To walk humbly with God is to fellowship with God knowing that our relationship is not between peers, but of Creator to created, and of Redeemer to redeemed.

Walking humbly with God also reminds us that God has acted justly and shown mercy on our behalf.

One ancient rabbi said that Micah had taken the 613 laws of Moses and reduced them to their essence when he observed —

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?

When you watch the news this week, ask yourself, “Are we as a nation doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?” And if the answer is “no” or even “maybe not” then we must remind ourselves that God has shown us what is good. And that good means that we must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That is what the Lord requires of us.

Finding Our Place Among The Hungry

empty_bowls2More world citizens and more Americans go hungry each day than ever before in the history of the world.  One billion people out of the 6-billion who inhabit the earth, do not have enough to eat.  Almost 17% of the world’s population — 1-in-6 people in other words — are undernourished or malnourished.

In the United States of America, the numbers are no better:  16%, or 49-million Americans do not have access to adequate food.  Again, 1-in-6 in the most affluent country in the world go hungry.

The reasons for this record rise in world hunger lie in the global economic crisis coupled with the rising cost of food.  Food costs worldwide have increased 24% in just 4-years.  Civil unrest has followed the increasing cost of food and threatens to be the next global catastrophe.

But, here’s the interesting part:  In a newly-released Pew Forum survey, a majority of Americans prefer that religious groups feed the hungry and homeless.  Faith-based programs remain popular with the American public, and 52% said faith-based organizations are best able to feed the hungry.  Interestingly, those numbers are actually up from 8 years ago when the same questions were asked.

But are faith-based groups, churches included, doing what we can to feed people?  If 1-in-6 persons are hungry in America and the world, they should no longer be invisible to us.  Unfortunately, the hungry are disproportionately poor, minority, and marginalized by society.  They remain invisible to a vast majority of Christians because our paths do not cross, our children do not go to the same schools, and our social calendars do not coincide.

But this is a golden opportunity for faith-based groups to step up and fulfill the vision that America has for us.  If we as churches can do what our culture thinks we ought to do, which includes feeding hungry people, then we might find our place again in our own culture.  With church attendance continuing its 50-year decline from a high of 40% to today’s 17.5%, we need to reclaim our place in the world.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if the church reclaimed its place in culture by finding its place among the poor?  Of course, that’s what Jesus did.  And he fed them, too.

Paying Attention to the Outrageous

Hitler_w_youngmenSomebody did it again.  They compared one of our political leaders to Hitler.  It really doesn’t matter who did it because this is becoming a regular tactic for the extremists.  The frustrating thing is they get what they want — publicity.

The media pounce on their pronouncements as though the words they uttered were the first like them.  Bloggers and political sites pick up the refrain — “How dare they invoke the name of Hitler!” The outrage is palpable, and then the next day it starts all over again.

Frankly, I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of pop media personalities cheapening the tragedy of the Holocaust with their self-serving tirades.  If this is what passes for discourse and dialogue in America, we are at a new low.

But I also tell myself we must be on the cusp of change because so many are so afraid right now.  In times of turbulent change, the dividers voices are often the loudest.  It was that way during the Civil Rights struggle, it was that way during the Viet Nam war protests, and it’s that way again.

But I also know that the nascent signs of change in churches are encouraging.   Multi-ethnic congregations are blossoming, and new expressions of church are springing up in unlikely places.  Multi-culturalism is becoming almost as popular a topic among church conference planners as multi-site strategies.  More and more congregations are moving out into their communities, connecting with new groups of people who are helped, and who in turn change the helpers. Just as some courageous churches led the way in seeking justice for African-Americans, and later in seeking peace, these churches are the bellwether for change in our society.

That’s what we should be paying attention to — this new consciousness that I have not seen before in so many churches.  A consciousness of need, but of more than need.  An awareness of our responsibility as followers of Jesus to make a difference in the lives of people around us.  Next week I’m speaking to Duke Divinity School students about rural church ministry.  I’m going to talk about this new thing I see happening because it is unprecedented.

Examples emerge in unlikely places.  A church heals its community by planting a community garden in the wake of a local murder.  Another church reaches out to bikers and blue collar workers, not just for worship, but to help create jobs for them.  Churches feed people now in towns where before that need went unmet.  Kids are given school supplies, and encouraged to come after school for tutoring to an urban church that provides a safe haven until their working-class parents get home.

Change must be on the way because the voices of fear are growing louder and more shrill each day.  That’s the reason I pay attention to the outrageous statements of those publicity seekers.  I pay attention because I believe their outrageous statements carry with them a harbinger of hope, an indicator of impending change.   Let’s hope so, and let’s find a place to bring about that change.

The Care of Souls as Outreach

My latest interest focuses on exploring pastoral care as outreach.  I talk to lots of small church pastors and leaders, picking their brains for stories of smaller churches doing effective ministry.  More and more I’m hearing stories of people helping people — people caring for people —  as a means of outreach.

Pastoral care, to use the well-worn phrase, has not been in vogue in the past 20-years or so — really since the church growth movement changed the pastor from shepherd to CEO.  (But that’s another story for another post.)

David Augsburger, Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Fuller Seminary,  bemoans the neglect of pastoral care in evangelical churches today.  In their new book, Connected, sociologists Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler point out that 12% of Americans have no one in their network with whom they can discuss important matters, or go out with socially.  That in itself should present churches with new opportunities for caring ministry.  But, too often the care of souls, or “the cure of souls” as it was called about 500 years ago, conjures up images of the pastor as pseudo-counselor or chaplain. Hand-holding is not what most pastors aspire to, even if we all have to do some of it on occasion.

But the kind of care I’m talking about isn’t psycho-spiritual navel-gazing.  Nor is it practiced only by pastors.  I’m talking about the kind of care that seeks out those in need and helps them.  And, help isn’t just defined in spiritual or psychological terms.  Help, or care, is that which responds actively — with food, rent, a warm meal, a heartfelt conversation, or a word of encouragement.

Just about every church I’ve written about exhibits some form of caring ministry.  Small churches can do that because caring is about relationships with people; not programs or marketing.  The big kicker is that the unchurched are ahead of us on this one — they think the church ought to do more caring for people in need.

What are your experiences?  Have you used a caring ministry as outreach?  What were your results?  How did caring change both you, and your church?  Let me know because this is a topic I’m going to visit regularly from time to time.

Foolproof evangelism program needs no budget or training

“Here’s a foolproof evangelism program that requires no budget, no training, and can be implemented immediately.”  That’s the way I introduced one of my seminars at The Billy Graham School of Evangelism last week.  Participants suspected there was some kind of catch, but showed up anyway.  Sure enough, there was some kind of catch.

But the catch is a good one — this program of evangelism comes from the words of Jesus, is not optional, and has eternal consequences.  Plus, it needs no budget, no training, and can be implemented immediately.  And, church size has nothing to do with its success or impact.  Any church can do it, and every church should.

What is it?  Doing good.  Helping others.  Showing we care.  The care of souls.  Social gospel.  Whatever you want to call it, it’s found in Matthew 25:31-46.  Here’s part of it:

34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Jesus continues by saying that those who did not do this “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”  Sounds pretty important to me.  Everybody can do this, and small churches can do it just as well as megachurches, maybe even better.

So, that’s it.  Doing good.  Helping others.  Meeting needs.  Because when you do you are doing it unto Jesus himself.  That’s the catch.

The purpose of this blog

I’ve seen an increase in readers to this blog since the fall, and I want to say two things:

1. Welcome!

2.  Here’s why I do this:

  • To be helpful. I try to offer practical, effective, and affordable ideas for small churches (and other sizes, too) that really work.  I’ve tried most of the things I tell you about, so I know they worked at least once.
  • To be encouraging. I’m a small church pastor.  Small churches have their own set of challenges, and I want to encourage small church leaders — that’s you — to hang in there.  To enjoy your ministry.  To know that God put you where you are.  To rejoice in small victories, and keep on keeping on.
  • To be positive. I try to keep things positive here.  The blogosphere has plenty of criticism, negativity, personal attacks, and general nastiness — it doesn’t need anymore.  Sometimes I’ve forgotten my own rule, and when I do, I apologize, take down the post, and start over.
  • To be informative. I try to post ideas, information, and inspiration here that you won’t find anywhere else, especially about small churches.  I read books, scan blogs, review news sites each day, all with the goal of bringing fresh thinking to this page.
  • To bring people together. Too often ministry is competitive.  It shouldn’t be.  I am not diminished by another pastor’s success, and I want to rejoice with him or her when they do succeed.  I also want to weep with those who weep, to encourage the discouraged, and to provide a safe place where comments are respected, and participation welcome.

I probably have some other reasons I write this blog.  I enjoy it. I like to start a conversation. I like to get to know other folks in other small churches.  But, mainly, I write to help.  I hope I do, and I thank you for dropping by from time to time.  Invite some others and let’s keep the conversation going for a long time.

For the latest church news and ideas from around the web, visit SmallChurchPROF.com and NewChurchReport.com.

Sermon: The Privilege of Seeing The Future

The Privilege of Seeing the Future

December 28, 2008 – First Sunday of Christmastide 

Luke 2:22-40

22When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

 25Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 
 29“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, 
      you now dismiss your servant in peace. 
 30For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
    31which you have prepared in the sight of all people, 
 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles 
      and for glory to your people
Israel.”

 33The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,35so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

 36There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

 39When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

Predicting the Future

 

Here we are at the end of another year.  The news media has begun their standard “Best of 2008” articles and features.  We have reviewed the best electronic gadgets of 2008 – cell phones kind of led the way there.  We have also been treated to the most admired people of 2008 – Barack Obama won that contest going away, it seems. And, before the year is over, we’ll see more of the “Best of….” and “Worst of…” lists for 2008. 

 

Following close on the heels of the stories that look back at 2008, are those that look ahead to 2009.  Writers and producers are already picking the trends that will “change your life” is 2009.  Of course, cell phones are at the top of that list, too, so maybe 2009 is not going to be al that different from 2008.  We have a new administration that takes office in January, and pundits are already speculating on either the “success” or “failure” of the Obama administration before it even begins.  I saw a CNN article the other day asking if “America’s honeymoon” with Barack Obama was over.  And, he’s not even president yet! 

 

I’m old enough to remember the 1950s.  Now that was a decade that could predict the future.  We were told that the kitchens of tomorrow would do all the work of food preparation automatically.  And, while some devices like the microwave have speeded up the popping of popcorn, not too much has changed in the kitchen as far as I can tell. 

 

But the big promise of the 1950s was that by the next century we would all be riding in flying cars.  Remember those?  “Highways in the sky” I remember one article calling them.  Well, no flying cars. 

 

But, then some of the things that seemed amusing, but useless did come about.  Like Dick Tracy’s wrist radio.  Okay, not exactly, but cell phones (there they are again) are pretty close.  I actually saw a wrist-mounted cell phone with camera (remember Dick Tracy’s 2-way wrist radio got upgraded to a TV?), and the article remarked that Dick Tracy would have been proud.

 

Some other things have happened that no one foresaw.  Like the ability to communicate instantly around the world for free.  The internet has changed lots of things, giving us a portal into worlds we would never have visited, or been able to access before.

 

And, no mention of predicting the future would be complete without reference to my favorite psychic, Jean Dixon.  Remember Jean Dixon?  1960s psychic, whose track record was spotty at best.  Yet on every late December National Inquirer, there she was offering up her 10 predictions for the coming year.  And, right or wrong, she would be back the next year for another shot at getting it right.

 

Seeing The Future

 

But, our story today is not about predicting the future as much as it is about seeing the future.  In Luke’s second chapter we find two of my favorite characters in the story of Jesus’ birth – Simeon and Anna.  Both Simeon and Anna are somewhat mysterious figures.  Luke gives us only a sketch about each one:

 

n      Simeon, a devout righteous man who lives in Jerusalem.  The Spirit of God is upon him, and moved by the Spirit Simeon goes to the Temple and encounters Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.

n      Anna, described as a prophetess and widow.  Anna, whose husband died perhaps 60-years ago, and who has stayed in the Temple courts since that time. 

 

Two very old and odd characters, but they give us a glimpse into the future because God has let them see it. 

 

Simeon is quoted directly by Luke: 

 

29“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, 
      you now dismiss your servant in peace. 
 30For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
    31which you have prepared in the sight of all people, 
 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles 
      and for glory to your people
Israel.”

 

And, then turning to Mary, Simeon says:

 

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,35so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

 

What’s in the pronouncements of this old man?  On the surface, Simeon seems like every other devout Jewish elder – he prays for the “consolation of Israel” which is a phrase understood in the first century to mean the coming of the Messiah of God, the Christ.  That was the prayer daily of devout Jews, particularly under the oppressive weight of the Roman occupation.

 

But there is more to Simeon than just an oft-repeated prayer.  Simeon has been told by the Holy Spirit that he will not die until he sees the Lord’s Christ, the Messiah.  And, the Holy Spirit moves Simeon to go to the Temple that day, at that hour, for the most important moment of his life.

 

Mary and Joseph have come to the Temple to follow the ritual purification law, and to redeem Jesus as their firstborn son.  The redemption of the firstborn is first seen in Exodus 13, as Moses prepares the Israelites for the exodus from Egypt.  Moses tells them that in future they are to redeem their firstborn son, by offering a sacrifice to God, and then they are to explain to the son why they are observing this ritual.  Of course, Jesus is too young to comprehend what is happening, but as Mary and Joseph prepare to “redeem” their firstborn, Simeon sees the baby and takes him in his arms.

 

Can you imagine Mary’s concern?  When your children were small, did you ever have someone pick them up, or try to take them from you?  Well-intended as people are, those actions make mothers, and fathers, very nervous. 

 

But somehow, Simeon’s face showed his faith, and his kindness calmed their fears.  But then Simeon says very strange things indeed – quoting from the prophet Isaiah, talking about how this child will be a light for the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel.  That, after all, was how the prophet referred to the Messiah! 

 

But then Simeon turns to Mary.  Now the future is not so grandiose, it becomes much more personal.  Jesus, Simeon says, will cause the rise and fall of many.  He will be a sign that will be spoken against.  And, a sword will pierce your heart, too, he says to Mary.  Her heart, too?  Will Jesus side be pierced?  And so the shadow of the cross falls across this firstborn male child, this son of God, this babe who is God incarnate. 

 

Before Mary and Joseph can recover from Simeon’s words, or fully understand them, Anna, an old prophetess appears.  Called Anna in Luke’s gospel, she has the same name as Hannah, the mother of Samuel.  Hannah means “the Lord was gracious.”  Anna runs around telling all who will listen that this child will bring about the redemption of Jerusalem, meaning the entire nation.

 

The Future of God Involves His People

 

Can you imagine what Mary and Joseph must have felt?  A strange sense of pride because two old devout Jews, a man and a woman, have told of wondrous things that will involve their son, their Jesus. 

 

Not too many years before she died, my mother told me the story of a woman who came to our home when my dad was a seminary student at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.  I was about 3 or 4 at the time.  As the woman was leaving, she turned to my mother and looking at me she said, “That boy is going to be a preacher.” 

 

Now that might not have been such a hard guess to make.  After all, there we were at Southwestern Seminary where my father was preparing for ministry.  “Like father, like son” is an old saying for a reason.  But, still my mother cherished that moment, telling me about only much later in life after I had indeed become a preacher. 

 

There is something we want to believe when others tell us our children are talented, or capable, or destined for big things.  Even if we only half-way believe it, or don’t put much stock in it, we still like to hear it said about our own children.

 

And, so Mary and Joseph that day must have gone home with a glow inside their hearts. 

 

That would all quickly be replaced by their flight to Egypt to escape the terror of Herod who was killing all the boy babies.  And so Mary must have thought about the second part of Simeon’s prophecy, that Jesus would be a sign spoken against, and a sword would pierce Mary’s heart, too. 

 

But still, there it was, a glimpse of the future.  A promise that Jesus would play a role in God’s salvation story, the redemption of Israel.  And, just maybe the Gentiles, too, although I am sure Mary and Joseph had little comprehension of what that might mean.  For the Jews were no missionary people.  They were not sharing their position in God’s future with anyone.  If they had a future, for that looked very dark at the time of Jesus’ birth. 

 

Seeing The Future Again

 

Looking back on the words of Simeon and Anna, we can see that they did come true.  Simeon and Anna did know what they were talking about, their prophecying was really from God.  Jesus, we now know, would cause the fall and rise of many, would be a sign spoken against, would attract opposition, suffer, and die. 

 

But, just as Simeon and Anna also said, Jesus would be a light for the Gentiles and for the glory of God’s people.  He would be the consolation of Israel, he would redeem Jerusalem spiritually. 

 

And what of today?  Can we see the future of God today as Simeon and Anna did?  Some can still see that future.  One such person was Sundar Singh. 

 

Sundar Singh was born into a wealthy and religious family in India in 1889.  As he grew, his mother especially was concerned for Sundar’s spiritual growth and enlightenment.  She not only sent Sundar to study with Christian missionaries, she also had a Hindu holyman, a sadhu, come to their home to instruct young Sundar. 

 

But, at the age of 14, after his mother’s death, Sundar Singh was an angry young man.  So angry that one day he brought a Bible home, called all the neighbors around, and one by one burned its pages in the fire.  His father was outraged at the disrespect showed for the Christian religion, even though he himself was not a Christian. 

 

That night, as a reproved Sundar lay down to sleep, he prayed that God would reveal himself to him, or if not, Sundar was prepared to take his own life by lying down on the train tracks near his home. 

 

In the night, Sundar Singh recounted, a strange glow came into his room.  Sundar searched for the source of the light, but all was still an dark outside his room.  As the light grew brighter, Sundar saw a figure in the light, a figure that in his words seemed “strange yet familiar.” 

 

Then, a voice spoke to him in Urdu, his tribal language – “Sundar, how long will you mock me?  I have come to save you because you prayed to find the way of truth.  Why then don’t you accept it?” 

 

Sundar said that it was then that he saw the marks of blood on the hands and feet of this person whom he knew to be Jesus.  He said at that moment he was filled with deep sorrow and remorse for his conduct, but also with a wonderful peace.  And though the vision was gone, the peace and joy remained.

 

A Different Future

 

Sundar was soon baptized by the local missionaries.  Renounced by his father for accepting the Christian faith, 33 days after his baptism Sundar set out on foot, wearing the robes of a “sadhu” – a Hindu holy man who traveled on foot, and depended on the kindness of others for his food and shelter.

 

Although Hindu sadhus never bathed – a sign of a true holy man – Sundar did.  And as he walked from village to village, he talked to his people in the language they understood about the Master he followed.

 

Word spread of the “apostle with the bleeding feet” as he was called.  Walking barefoot across rocky terrain inflicted cuts on Sundar’s feet, yet still he carried the message of Christ. 

 

Speaking to his people in India, and then in Tibet and other countries, Sundar Singh used common words, illustrations from everyday life, and stories familiar to those cultures to tell them of the God who created the world and sent his son to save his people. 

 

Sundar Singh was heralded as a great and original evangelist.  He spoke in Europe, England, and around the world.  His biography was written and rewritten, and he was called the greatest evangelist India had ever known. 

 

God is still in the business of showing people the future. But God shows us the future, not just for our own benefit, but for the blessing of the world.  Like Simeon, our prayer should be to see the Lord’s redemption. Like Anna, our witness should be of Jesus who is the redeemer of all creation.  Like Sundar Singh, our prayer should be a search for the truth so that we may live our lives into the future that God has prepared for his creation.