Move Forward!

We find ourselves in the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, verses ten through fifteen. The main character in the story is Moses. If you use your sanctified imagination, you can see him. To many, he looks like a young Charlton Heston (1923-2008). He was the one God selected to liberate the Jews from Egyptian rule. You remember the story. After a series of plagues, the Pharaoh released his slave labor. It must have been an exciting day for God’s Chosen People. They were urban people, who were about to begin a rural life. Everyone was enjoying their freedom until our story. Suddenly, the mood changed. The people had made it as far as the Red Sea. Most eyes were on that body of water in front of them. However, someone looked behind them and saw the Egyptian army coming. They knew what had happened. Pharaoh had changed his mind. He had sent his army out to bring them back. What started off as a great day quickly turned into a very bad day. There was nowhere to turn. The waters of the Red Sea were in front of them, and the Egyptian army was behind them. They were in a hopeless situation. However, this is the truth. This is not really a story about a group of Jews who lived thousands of years ago. It is really a story about our time.

Have you ever found yourself in a hopeless situation? It may have been the time you children’s marriage was staggering. You tried to ignore the signs for years. You prayed they would have what you have, a happy marriage. The problem is your grandchildren tell you about all the fighting. You have a front row seat to a bad drama. It may have been the time you flunked out of school. The program was harder than you anticipated, and you just didn’t have time to study. Flunking out of school is embarrassing enough but now then student loans have come due. It may have been the time you tried to sell your house. The appraisal revealed what you have known for a long time. You owe more than your house is worth. It may have been the time you were pulled over at that the DUI check point. Have you ever been in a hopeless situation?

Could it be your church is in a hopeless situation? There are many mainline Protestant churches in hopeless situations. It has been your family church for generations. It was where your grandparents sang in the choir. It was where you were married. It was where your children were baptized. It was where you learned about Jesus. The stained-glass windows still shine as bright as ever, but the future of your church seems dim. You remember when the pews were filled, but now the pews sit empty. You remember when the offering plates bulged, but now they welcome a measly collection. No one complains about the noisy children because there are no children. The only ones who remain are bald and gray. You spend your time talking about the good old days because the future is too difficult to face. Everyone who remains knows the truth. The end is near. No one wants to close a church, but it is your only option. It is true of many churches, and it is true of many individuals. Each one of us has stood on the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit. You can’t go forward, and you can’t go back. You are in a hopeless situation.

In this blog, I want to talk about the three ways the Jews handled their hopeless situation. They handled their hopeless situation poorly so they will act as our negative examples. This is what they did. They looked back. They were consumed by self-pity, and they blamed others. Those things did not change their hopeless situation. There is no other way to say it: they were paralyzed with fear. I hope that is not your story. They did not move forward until they were encouraged by Moses in verses thirteen and fourteen and by God, Himself, in verse fifteen. Unfortunately we live in times when many are paralyzed by fear. For this reason, I want to break down the Hebrews negative behavior.

Do you know of anyone who can’t go forward because they keep looking back? That is what the Hebrews did. Look at the text with me. The Egyptians were coming, and things were looking bad. What did they do? They remembered a time when life was better. In two verses, 11 and 12, Egypt is referred to five times. Slavery looked good next to death. They looked back to Egypt and remembered the good old days. When was the last time you recalled the good old days? How often do you recall the good old days? Is it possible your good old days are preventing you from fully living today?

On September 6, 2012, the most sinister character in the history of Cleveland sports died, Art Modell (1925-2012). I remember that day. I know this is wrong, but I have to say it. At his death, it was hard to hear nice things about him. He was the one who moved the Browns out of Cleveland after the 1995 season. I will never forget hearing the announcement on the radio. It seemed impossible. The Browns were leaving! My heart was broken, and I could not understand why. How do you own the Cleveland Browns and lose money? How do you fill an 80,000-seat stadium each week and lose money? How do you walk away from a fan base that supported the team after decades of losing? I did it all. I bought the shirts. I bought the tickets. I bled orange. I sat in the Dog Pound before it had a name. I believed someday they would turn it around. I was a devoted fan, but on the day, Art Modell moved the Browns I stopped caring. (I am sure Art Modell does not need a sweater where he is spending eternity!) His death reopened those old wounds.

On the first family gathering after Art Modell’s death, I started lecturing my family about the ills of the old fool, Art Modell. My youngest daughter, Anna who was 22 at the time, looked at me and asked two questions. “Who is Art Modell?” “The Browns left Cleveland?” Suddenly I found myself being the person I never wanted to be. I was living in the past. Do you know what God was telling me? Stop looking back and move forward. When you live in the past you miss today! Could it be you are living in the past? Does someone need to tell you to move forward?

Do you know of anyone who can’t move forward because they are consumed with self-pity? That is what the Hebrews did. Look at the text with me. Verses 11 and 12 are coated with self-pity. They say, “They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Have you ever been frustrated because your life isn’t on schedule? How many pity parties have you thrown for yourself lately?

Did you know there are guidelines for holding a proper pity party? According to the internet, so you know it is true, there are four things you need for a proper pity party. I am not recommending these things, but this is what is required for a top rate pity party.

1. Alcohol

2. Lounging Gear

3. Food

4. Music, movies, or journaling

There is only one problem with a pity party. They don’t change anything. Wearing comfortable clothes doesn’t change the facts. Eating until you explode won’t change the facts. Drinking till you pass out won’t change the facts. Being absorbed in your favorite entertainment won’t change the facts. As a matter of fact, it may make things worse. Self-pity is only a distraction. Don’t invite God to your pity party because he won’t attend. God expects you to deal with your problems; God expects you to move forward. Do you know of anyone who likes a good pity party? Do you like a good pity party? Does someone need to tell you to move forward?

Do you know of anyone who can’t move forward because they are so busy blaming others? You know the slogan: it is hard to soar like an eagle if you are surrounded by turkeys. That is what the Hebrews did. Look at the text with me. Listen to verses 11 and 12 again, “They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” What are the Hebrews doing in those two verses? They are blaming Moses for their situation. If Moses hadn’t taken them out of Egypt, then they would not be in this difficult situation. Do you know of anyone who is having a difficult time taking responsibility for their own lives? Do you know of anyone who blames others for their difficult situation? Do you know of anyone who blames others for their limitations? Is it possible you have blamed others in your time hardship?You know it is true.

One of the most known stories in the Bible is the story of Adam and Eve. They were living in the Garden of Eden. They had everything they needed to be happy, and they only had one rule. You know the rule. Eve broke the rule first and then encouraged Adam to take a bite of the apple. When God discovers their innocence is lost, he confronts them. Do you remember what Adam did? Adam blamed Eve. Do you know of anyone who blames others for their actions? Do you know of anyone blames others for this difficult situation? Has anyone ever blamed you for their difficult situation? Have you ever been paralyzed by fear? As any preacher will tell you, fear has a way of paralyzing us, but faith has a way of mobilizing us. The choice is really yours. You can be paralyzed by fear, or you can move forward trusting God.

Do you know of anyone who trusts God and moves forward? The story does not end with the Jews perishing on the shores of the Red Sea. The story ends with the Jews moving forward and passing through the Red Sea as God holds the water back. If they would have not moved forward trusting God, then they would have missed the blessings God had in store for them. If it is true of them, then it is true of us. Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord.

Janez Rus (1914-2001) was paralyzed by fear. He went into hiding in his sister’s farmhouse in May of 1945. He hid because he was afraid. During the Second World War he had been part of the Nazi party. He was afraid his party’s activities would lead to his arrest. He stayed in hiding for years and didn’t come out until he was discovered in 1977. That means he hid for thirty-three years. That means he lost thirty-three years of his life! He missed everything because he was paralyzed by fear and failed to trust God. Let me ask you one more question. How much of your life are you wasting because you are paralyzed by fear? I implore you to trust God and move forward. American evangelical Bruce Wilkinson (born 1940) once said, “Dependence upon God makes heroes of ordinary people like you and me!”

Do Not Worry

They tell me along the rural paths in India, there are shoulder-high posts with a shelf on top. They call these posts a Soma Tonga, which means “resting place.” Travelers on foot often carry heavy loads. When travelers come upon one of these posts, they place their heavy loads on the shelf to rest. When Christianity spread to India, the new converts started calling Jesus, “My Soma Tonga.” Jesus was the one who gave them rest. Jesus was the one who shared their load. Jesus was the one who gave them strength. I like that simple illustration because that is my story.

We find ourselves in the twelfth chapter of Luke, verses twenty-two through thirty-four. This section of Luke begins in the previous chapter. It is a busy section of scripture because the author clusters various teachings of Jesus together. The teaching on worry is just one of many topics the Master covers. However, Jesus’s teaching on worrying grabbed our attention because everyone worries about something. You are not alone. Can I make a confession? I have spent many hours in the middle of the night worrying. Worry is one of those topics that unites the entire world. Our is not the first generation and ours will not be the last. That leads us to an interesting question.

What are you worried about today? Are you worried your health? There is an imperfection in your complexion, and you are afraid it is skin cancer. Or are you worried about your age? You are now the exact age your father was when he died. Are you afraid you are going to die in the next 365 days? Or are you worried about your left knee? It hurts and you don’t want to have that operation, because you don’t want to go to a rehabilitation center. They are creepy and smell bad. Are you worried about your finances? You live on a fixed income and life seems to be getting more expensive. Or you are a college graduate, but your degree is useless. Are worried about your children?  They are now in high school, and you haven’t started saving for college yet. Is anyone here worried about the weather? My sister-in-law is preoccupied with the weather. They say the heavy rain in California is caused by “Global Warming.” Do you know of anyone who is worried about global warming? Are you worried about the future? The world can only support so much population. Are you worried about the future of America? The face of America is changing. Caucasian Americans will soon be a minority. Does that fact make you anxious? Are you worried about the future of our world? There are so many hot spots and complex situations. Our society is filled with worried and anxious people. Study after study tells us, it is true.

According to the people at these are our greatest worries:

  1. Health issues
  2. Memory issues
  3. Independence issues, nursing homes
  4. Sight issues
  5. Hearing issues
  6. Financial issues
  7. Being a burden to others, living with loved ones
  8. Their mind failing but their body staying fit

Research from the APM Research Lab, tells us 84% of Americans feel extremely or very worried. So, when Jesus says not to worry, his words fall on deaf ears. Worrying is one of the things we do naturally.

Verse 22 is the perfect example of why you must read the Bible in context. It says, Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear.” What is Jesus really trying to say? Jesus knows it is impossible to eliminate our worries, but he also knows it is possible to control our worries. Jesus wants us to control our worries for one reason. He wants you to enjoy every day of life. Psalm 118:24 says, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” The next time you are overcome with worries, remember three things.

First, the next time you are overcome by worries, remember you are valuable to God. You are so valuable God came into the world to have a relationship with you. That is why we celebrate Christmas. It is a time to stand in awe of the Incarnation. God became one of us. It is obvious, but Jesus said it. You are more valuable than a raven. You are more valuable than a lily. You are so valuable to God that Jesus, the Incarnation of God, died on the cross so God could spend eternity with you! Never forget it. You are valuable to God!

Second, the next time you are overcome by worries, remember to seek the Kingdom of God first. In the tenth chapter of Luke, Jesus visits Mary and Martha. Prior to his arrival, there are a million things to do, so Mary and Martha are working hard. The problem begins when Jesus arrives. There are those last-second things that must be done. Martha continues to work hard but Mary stops working to listen to Jesus. Martha goes to Jesus to express her frustration, but her words fall on deaf ears. He reprimands Martha for her poor priorities and praises Mary. That story teaches us one major point. Filling your life with good things isn’t good enough. The driving force in your life must be the best thing, Jesus!

It is easy to fill our lives with good things. I see it all the time. There is nothing wrong with celebrating birthdays. There is nothing wrong with spending time with family and friends. There is nothing wrong with looking fashionable. There is nothing wrong with eating a delicious dinner. There is nothing wrong with watching football or baseball. There is nothing wrong with reading a good book or listening to your favorite tunes. There is nothing wrong with any of those things. The problem is those things are only good. They will not sustain you during life’s worries. They are not the best thing. The best thing is God, who never fails. Jesus is our Soma Tonga. That is why Jesus said to seek the kingdom of God first! We need rest from our worries. The next time you are filled with worry, remember you are valuable to God and to seek the kingdom of God first.

Third, the next time you are overcome by worries, remember to live life one day at a time. Looking ahead and guessing about the future can be overwhelming. You know it is true.Most of the things we worry about never happen. Most of the things we worry about are out of our control. Don’t let tomorrow’s worries rob you of today’s joy. Live one day at a time.

When my children were young, we ate dinner together every night. It didn’t seem like a big deal then, but it does now. It has been years since the four of us ate together. The menu changed but it was the same every night; we talked about the various things that happened throughout the day. Everyone talked. The girls talked about their friends. They talked about their teachers. They talked about what they wanted for their birthdays and Christmas. Often, they would talk about their worries. They spent a great deal of time worrying about things that might happen. If I said it once, I said it a million times, 90% of the things we worry about never happen. I don’t know where I came up with that wise advice, but it is true. Just think about it. Most of the things you worry about don’t happen. The best you can do is the best you can do. Your worries don’t change anything. The next time you are filled with worry, remember you are valuable to God and to seek the kingdom of God first. In the end, the best thing you can do with your worries is trust God.

My wife Kathryn is a proud graduate of Vanderbilt University. I am extremely proud she is a Vanderbilt graduate. It is an outstanding academic institution. Her days in Nashville were filled with all kinds of wonderful memories. She tells the story of being in a history of Methodism class. Like all classes at the Harvard of the South, it was demanding. The only saving grace in that class was the announced quizzes. Periodically, the professor announced there would be a quiz on a certain day, covering a certain amount of material. There were numerous quizzes throughout the semester. One day, the professor announced a quiz would be issued during the next class. Only a fool wouldn’t study that material for the next class. Kathryn isn’t a fool, so she planned on studying the night before the quiz.

Just as she opened the book to study the assigned material, a friend called and needed to talk. She was a young woman by the name of Marion, but everyone called her by a nickname, Mimi. Kathryn said to come and thought she would only stay a few minutes. She had to study for a quiz. When Mimi arrived, she began to talk and a short time later, her words became emotional. Mimi talked about her boyfriend. Mimi talked about their relationship. Mimi talked about their physical relationship. Mimi, it pains me to say it and I never met her, talked about her abortion. Mimi talked about her grief. Mimi talked about her shame. Mimi talked about her regrets. Mimi talked, and Kathryn actively listened. She listened for a long time. After all the words, tears and emotions, Mimi left. Kathryn was exhausted. She looked at the clock, and the hour was late. It was too late to study for the quiz. She was too emotionally spent to study for the quiz. She went to bed and tried not to worry about the quiz. She tried not to worry, but not worrying was impossible. With no other option, she prayed for help.

When she got to the history of Methodism class, she was sick with worry. Then, the miraculous happened. The professor walked in and announced to the class there would be no quiz that day. He simply changed his mind. According to Kathryn, it was the greatest announcement in the history of Vanderbilt University. That leads me to an interesting question.

When was the last time you worried about something that never happened? The only thing that matters are those things that matter in one hundred years. The only thing that is going to matter to you in one hundred years is Jesus. Your worries really do not matter. However, worrying is a part of life. Our worries are part of the human experience. We can’t stop worrying, but our worries can be controlled. Never forget it. In the end, God is in control. American author Leo Buscaglia (1924-1998) once said, “Worry will never rob tomorrow of its sorrow, it can only sap today of its joy.” Jesus said it best, do not worry.

Mary, Jacob, and George

In 1946, Frank Capra (1897-1991) released his movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. It was nominated for five Oscars. It has become a holiday classic, seen by many. The storyline revolves around George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997). He wants to see the world but is shackled by responsibility to his hometown, Bedford Falls. George doesn’t have a clue the difference he has made to the people in his life.

I love the scene where absent-minded Uncle Billy, played by Thomas Mitchell (1892-1962) lost $8,000 of Bailey Building and Loan’s money. That would be like losing approximately $122,000 today. On clue, the bank examiner suddenly arrives, played by Charles Halton (1876-1959) and George begins to panic. Without success, George looks everywhere for the money. With his shattered dreams in his hands, he decides to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. He decides life is not worth living. So, to speak, he is wrestling with God and wished he had never been born.

He is saved by his guardian angel, angel second class, Clarence Oddbody, played by Henry Travers (1874-1965). He is the one who grants George’s wish. He shows George what his world would be like if he had never been born. The picture is not pretty. His wife, Mary, play by Donna Reed (1921-1986), never married so his children were never born. His mother struggles for survival. His brother, Harry, drowns, so others he had saved died. His Uncle Billy was institutionalized. His town, Bedford Falls, was run by his enemy, Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954). It is now called Potterville, where life is dark. Considering this new information, George begins to realize the difference he has made on his world. With nowhere else to go, he returns to the bridge and asks for his old life back. He wants to live again! George is a changed man, and the transformation is complete. The life that seemed so pointless suddenly has meaning. That leads us to two questions. How do you feel about your life? How would your world change if you had never have been born? That takes us to our scripture reading.

We find ourselves in the first chapter of Luke, verses forty-seven through fifty-five. The main character in the scene is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Forget about everything you think you know about her. She was not a blond attractive woman in her mid-twenties. She was a dark complicated Middle Eastern girl between the age of thirteen and sixteen years of age. That was common in her age. Her and Joseph’s marriage was an arranged marriage He may have been thirty. The scriptures tell us they were betrothed. In other words, they were not legally married, but they were legally bound. They acted like they were married in every way but one, sex. That fact is important because Mary was pregnant. Did you hear what I said? Mary was pregnant without the need of a man. Jesus’ birth was a virgin birth. Mary was pregnant, but she was sexually innocent. Read the next line slowly so you comprehend it completely.

The story of Christmas began with an unwanted pregnancy. It is not comfortable, but it is true. Annually, I read this passage and wonder why God put Mary in such a horrible position. Surely, there must have been another way. This pregnancy complicated Mary’s life. On the one hand, it was the best thing that ever happened to Mary. Just think about it for a minute. With all the women that have ever lived in this world, God only chose one to be the mother of his son. As Protestant’s we don’t want to look too Catholic, so we are uncomfortable saying it. We both admire and respect Mary. She completely trusted God. On the other hand, this pregnancy was the worst thing that ever happened to her. Unlike our time, she lived in high moral times. Her personal reputation was ruined, and she was a black sheep in the family. She cried tears of joy at the birth of Jesus; she cried tears of sorrow at his execution. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. Yet, in the face of all this uncertainty, she trusts and praises God.

Our scripture reading is Mary’s response to this unwanted pregnancy. It has been called the Magnificat, which means “glorifies.” It comes from the first verse of the passage, “My soul glorifies the Lord.” It is a great piece of scripture because it reveals Mary’s faith in God. We do not have that kind of faith. With her eyes fixed on eternity, she surrendered her life to God. We are near sighted and demand our way. This is the question you must answer. How far do you trust God? No one has ever trusted God as much as Mary.

Most of the time we are more like Jacob from the Old Testament. His story is found in Genesis twenty-five through fifty. After a period of living in a foreign land, Jacob returned home. It was not just a matter of personal choice. It was all part of the divine plan. At first, Jacob was open to the idea. He was tired of eating foreign food in a foreign land. He longed for what was comfortable; He longed for what was familiar. With every step he takes, he is closer to home. That was the problem. It was the same life he ran from years earlier. An encounter with his red hairy brother, Esau, was inevitable. It would not be a pleasant reunion. After all, Jacob had taken everything from Esau. Jacob dreaded their reunion. He dreaded their reunion to the point Jacob wrestled with an angel (Genes 32:22-32). Jacob knew their reunion was part of the divine plan, but he resisted. Unlike Mary, he did not trust God. Have you ever wrestled with God? Have you ever known what God wants you to do but you resist. At those moments you are more like Jacob than you care to admit. That is what makes Mary so amazing. She didn’t wrestle with God. She simply surrendered to God’s will. What part of your life are you willing to surrender to God?

How much of your personal agenda are you willing to sacrifice to serve God?

Mary accepted this unwanted pregnancy and surrendered her agenda. Answer this question. What would have happened to Mary if God would have chosen another woman to birth his son? This is the answer. Mary would have done what Mary wanted to do. In other words, she would have made her choices within her society’s expectations. It is safe to say, Mary would have married Joseph and birthed only his children. Mary’s name would not be found within the pages of the Bible. She would have lived a common life. That would have been fine with Mary because that was all she wanted. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. How has Jesus altered your agenda?

I served the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield, Ohio for twenty-eight years. It was not a megachurch, but it was a healthy midsize church. My longevity surprised many because Methodists are known for their short-term pastorates. I never dreamed I would stay so long. There was a time when I wanted to move on and serve a large membership church to make a name for myself. However, my life did not unfold that way. Through the years, I played the part of Jacob, wrestling with God. There were years during the appointment season, I wanted that call. However, when the call came, I fought to stay here. There were many days l was frustrated by my own lack of success. Through the world’s eyes, I was not a success, but I live at peace with my career, because God wanted me at Western Reserve. At some point I forgot about my agenda and surrendered to God’s agenda. That took me years to accomplish, but Mary did it in an instant. How much of your personal agenda are you willing to sacrifice to serve God? Mary trusted God and surrender her agenda.

Are you willing to sacrifice your social standing to serve God? Mary accepted this unwanted pregnancy and surrendered her social standing. For the rest of her life, she was identified as the woman who had this child out of wedlock. She was the topic of many gossipy conversations. Her reputation was destroyed, and she was an embarrassment to her family. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. How has Jesus changed your social standing?

You know it is true. There is a stigma that comes along with being a minister. I cannot count the number of times, I have sat at a table, and someone says, “We better behave! We have a preacher sitting with us!” Everyone laughs, but I just smiled. Do you know how many times I have heard that line? Do you know how sick I am of that line? People just don’t know how cool ministers are. It is not just true of ministers; it is true of Christians. Mentioning Jesus will change the way people look at you. Mary trusted God and accepted this unwanted pregnancy, surrendering her social standing. How important is your social standing?

How much of your money are you willing to sacrifice to serve God? Mary accepted this unwanted pregnancy and surrendered her money. On the night Jesus was born, Mary’s heart was filled with joy. Two years later, Magi appeared from the east to worship him. They brought gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. (Matthew 2:1-12) That was the only financial compensation she would ever receive. Jesus was no different from any other child. With his birth came extra expenses. The Brookings Institute reported it costs $310,605 to raise a child to eighteen years old. That is approximately $17,000 a year. That does not include college expenses. This unwanted pregnancy changed everything. How much is Jesus costing you?

Years ago, I officiated at a wedding in the Cleveland area. After the service, the photographer began taking pictures. I sat in the back and watched. A gentleman came up to me and introduced himself as the groom’s uncle. We began to talk. He pointed out one of the ushers. He was another nephew. He told me about the young man. He was bright and full of potential. He said, “You will never guess what he wants to do with his life?” I just looked at him. I didn’t have a clue. He said, “He wants to be a preacher.” I thought, “That is great!” He said, “What a waste! He could do anything and make big money, but he wants to be a preacher.” That gentleman spoke for many in our society. Money is the driving force for many.

Jesus spoke more about money than any other topic because money is revealing. We only spend our money on things that are important to us. If you are going to follow Jesus, then it is going to cost you. I don’t just mean ministers. I mean true disciples. If you are going to follow Jesus, then how are you going to ignore the financial needs of your church? If you are going to follow Jesus, then how are you going to ignore the needs of your community, country, and world? How much of your money are you willing to sacrifice to serve God? Mary trusted God and sacrificed her money.

That takes us back to the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey stood on the bridge. It was the same bridge he had visited in the past. At that time, he was going to end his life. This time he was praying. He had learned a few things about his life. His life wasn’t pointless. His life had meaning. It was unfolding just as God planned. He surrendered to God and embraced every day. That is what the movie teaches us. Like Mary, we need to trust God and let God be our guide. Evangelical Christian Bruce Wilkinson (born 1940) once said, “Dependence upon God makes heroes of ordinary people like you and me!”

God’s Mysterious Ways

Where is Jimmy Hoffa? That is one of the great mysteries in our country. The other day was the 45th anniversary of his disappearance. The teamster union leader disappeared on July 30, 1975 in Oakland County, Michigan. His involvement in organized crime is well documented. The police and forensic anthropologists have searched several sites in Detroit and Oakland County to no avail. One popular theory is that his body is under Giants Stadium in New Jersey. I think about him every time I watch a game from that location. As the years have gone on it appears Jimmy Hoffa’s body will never be found. Finding Jimmy Hoffa is one of our country’s great mysteries, but it is nothing next to understanding God’s mysterious ways.  That leads us to today’s scripture, Habakkuk 1:1-11.

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “Embrace,” but we just call him Habakkuk. He lived in the year 605 BC.  He was well rooted in the traditions of Israel, so many have concluded he lived in Jerusalem. His book does not contain any proclamation to Israel. His book, only three chapters long, is a dialogue between himself and God. Verses two through four are Habakkuk’s complaint to God. Verses rive through eleven are God’s response. The prophet is trying to understand God’s mysterious ways.

That is what we hear in the reading for today. According to verse six, God is going to use Babylon to punish Israel. The Babylonians were a mighty power at that time. Winning their independence from the Assyrians in 626 BC and destroying the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC. Those words seem benign to our generation, but to Habakkuk’s generation it seemed like shear insanity. Why would God use this evil foreign power to command his will? It is a good question. Have you ever tried to understand God’s mysterious ways? I will admit it, I have.

Our world seems to be broken. I am not just talking about the coronavirus. Our world seemed broken before the pandemic. Our world was and is facing some massive problems. Things like world hunger, climate change, violence, inequality, poverty, and corruption. Our denominational, the United Methodist Church, was on the verge of splitting over the LGBTQ debate. Both sides are filled with arrogance. What a mess! Then, the co-vid 19 entered our world and the simplest things got complicated. It is difficult to do anything. It is a hard time to have surgery. It is a hard time to get married. It is a hard time die. It is a hard to time travel. It is a hard time to own a business and be a preacher. It is a hard time to be a teacher or educator. It is a hard time to be with loved anyone because everyone has a different opinion, and everyone listens to different people. The rules keep changing. We have never seen anything like this, and we thought things could not get worse. Then, things got worse. George Floyd died, and racism grabbed the front page. Race riots and protests are common and not a single rioter was wearing a face mask. Statues have been torn down because some are trying to rewrite history. I was taught we were to learn from history, not worship history. Do not forget the national election is coming. Both sides will do anything to win. They are passionate about their candidate, but no one seems to care about what is best for the country. It is obvious to me. Our world is broken. We are not much different from Habakkuk’s generation. His world was broken too. We believe God is in charge, but his ways are a mystery to us.

Freddy Fritz has been the minister of the Tampa Bay Presbyterian Church for many years. In 2006, he wrote a sermon called Understanding Today’s News. In that sermon, he says there are several reasons we do not understand God mysterious ways. Each one is found in this morning’s reading. Consider these three things with me.

  1. God ways seem mysterious to us because God’s inactivity is frustrating to us. Verse one quotes Habakkuk. He says, How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?”  Have you ever wondered why God does not do something? We are not patient people. We want problems solved instantly, but God never seems to be in a hurry. God’s inactivity bothers us.
  • God’s ways seem mysterious to us because of God’s unexpected providence confuses us. Verse 5 quotes God. The Almighty says, Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”  We do not like surprises. We try to be organized and we like agendas. God often answers our prayers in unexpected ways. God’s unexpected providence confuses us.
  • God’s ways seem mysterious to us because of God’s unusual instruments. Once again God is quoted in Verse 6. He says, “I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.” The unwilling are often part of God’s plan. The disliked are often part of God’s plan. God use of unusual instruments baffles us.

I hope you do not feel special. You are not the first one to be confused by God and ours will not the last. Habakkuk, himself, was confused by God. It is important to remember God is not accountable to us. However, we are accountable to God. It is equally important for you to remember it is not necessary for you to understand God’s ways. It is only important that you trust God. It has been said: FAITH IS TRUSTING IN GOD EVEN WHEN YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND HIS PLAN. How far do you trust God? That is an important question to answer in our broken world. It has always been important to answer that question.

Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse (1895-1960) was pastor of the famous Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA from 1927 until 1960. In 1939, he was invited to preach at two preaching conferences in Britain. The first was in Edinburgh, Scotland. The second was in Belfast, Ireland. There was a week off between the two, so he decided to visit his family, who were staying in Normandy, France.

As he set out for France from Edinburgh officials urged him not to travel to France. Europe was in political turmoil because Hitler had just signed his nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union and was threatening to march into Danzig, Poland. Barnhouse did not listen. War seemed to be remote. As he traveled there was a frenzy of military activity. Nevertheless, he was able to join his family in Normandy on Sunday evening. Most of the time was spent on the beach, though the atmosphere was tense with uncertain anticipation for what was about to happen.

On Thursday morning word came that there would be no more flights to England. Dr. Barnhouse took a train to Paris and a boat to England. When Dr. Barnhouse arrived I England, he caught a train to London. From there he caught another train to the coast of Scotland, from where he was to take a boat over to Ireland. He spent all day on Saturday traveling, along with thousands of frightened children who were being taken out of London and harm’s way. Dr. Barnhouse finally arrived in the train station in Belfast at about three o’clock on Sunday morning. The committee that had arranged the Belfast preaching conference met him at the train station. After a short prayer they took him to his hotel. It was four o’clock in the morning and worship began to eleven o’clock. In parting, one of the men said to Dr. Barnhouse, “I hope you have a good sermon. It may well be the last sermon that some of the men will ever hear. The Prime Minister is declaring war on Germany tomorrow morning.”

When Barnhouse arrived at the church, he expected it to be empty. He was wrong. The church was full. Barnhouse knew that was a historic moment. Just moments earlier Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany. It was September 3, 1939. He read Matthew 24:6. Jesus said, “You will hear of war and the rumors of war: Do not be troubled.” Dr. Barnhouse then recounted the series of experiences that he had had on his way to Belfast. After each account he repeated his text: Do not be troubled! He told of the church bells sounding: Do not be troubled! He told of the mobilization of soldiers: Do not be troubled! He told of the frightened children: Do not be troubled! He told of the millions of homes that would be destroyed: Do not be troubled! The tension was mounting in the sanctuary, but then Barnhouse suddenly stopped. A minute later he said, “These words are either the words of a madman or they are the words of God.” But then, after a long pause, came the answer.

There are no troubles because Jesus Christ is God. Jesus Christ is the Lord of history. Jesus Christ is the God of our broken world. Jesus Christ has always been the Lord of our broken world. Jesus Christ is the God of every detail. Nothing has ever happened that did not flow in the channel that God has dug for it. No event has ever astonished, bewildered, or confused him. He is our God and he is in control. It is a lesson for the ages. That is what God taught Habakkuk years ago. That is what God is trying to teach us today. The question is how far do you trust God? Do you remember the slogan? FAITH IS TRUSTING IN GOD EVEN WHEN YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND HIS PLAN.