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“Jesus redefines what it means to be King.”

By Pastor Michael Cofer

24th Sunday of Pentecost – Christ the King

Ever done this one? You run around the house looking for your car keys. You pull the cushions out of the couch. You look under your bed. No keys. So then you look out in the yard… under the car… nothing. And then, you reach down and pat your pocket. Doh!

Or my favorite is the same scenario with glasses. You’re looking all over for your glasses, and you can’t find them… but boy your vision is sharp! Oh… you’re wearing them already.
Sometimes the thing you’re looking for is right there in front of you. If you’ve been reading along in the Story, you will see how God has fought for and provided for Israel every step of the way. He cleared the way ahead of them. He laid down just and righteous laws.

And yet Israel begged for a King. “Give us a king to lead us… We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” Exodus, Joshua, and Judges all tell the story of how God did exactly that. So, Israel begged for a King, but they already had one.

The whole exchange seems pretty foolish, when you look at it at a distance. How could they be so blind to what’s so obvious to you and me? It’s because when they looked back at what God had done, they claimed it as their own.

And sometimes we’re no better. We think we deserve our jobs. We think we’re responsible for our good health. We think we’re loved because we’re the kind of person that’s easy to love. When in truth, every good thing we have finds its source in God’s hand.

We’re all hard-wired to think this way. But our Perspective will lead to Ignorance when we don’t Give God the credit for what He has done. That is why worship is one of the cornerstones of Christian life. God commands us to have a reality check at least once a week. Observing the Sabbath means setting aside one day to reflect on what God has done… and give HIM credit for it.
And so it was with Israel. They were convinced that they were king-less – when in fact it was only that they were living as though they had no king. But they were insistent. There had to be someone better qualified. Someone tall and strong and brave. They got Saul (so 2 out of 3 ain’t bad).

Of course, God knew it wouldn’t be ideal. He knew that there was nobody in Israel or anywhere on earth who could do his job for him. A human king meant giving up their sons and daughters. It meant giving up another 10% of their wealth on top of the tithe. It meant favoritism and cronyism.

And even after hearing all of that, Israel insisted. And this should stand as a warning for us. When we insist on our way, God will sometimes grant it. So He gave Israel a king. And another, and another… There were better kings and worse kings, but none would rule the way that God had. After all, even the best kings of Israel still died.

Which brings us to today – Christ the King Sunday. The celebration of the eternal reign of the King of Kings. The celebration of God reclaiming His reign through Jesus.

Jesus redefines what it means to be King. Unlike Saul (and all the other kings), he doesn’t claim the benefits of being King. He doesn’t exercise his rule to amplify Himself. In fact, He at every turn humbles Himself.

He is pretty much the opposite of everything that earthly kings are. He doesn’t send your children to war. He certainly doesn’t ask anyone to charge ahead of him into battle! His rule isn’t marked by what He takes, but by what He brings. He is first to Give, first to Serve, and first to Offer His Life.

Jesus is a king unlike any other king. And He is very up front about this. “[The] Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Which is why so many folks don’t recognize His reign yet. It’s natural for us to think of greatness and authority as being marked by privilege and prominence. We expect important people to act important.

But in God’s kingdom, the whole equation is flipped upside. The great serve the least. No one promotes himself. No one fights to save the King… But the King willingly lays down His life for His subjects.

You know, deep down everybody wants a king. Our hopes rise and fall on election days. Our stomachs churn as we wait for results… We just wish there was someone in charge we could trust to fix it… Whatever “it” is. But nobody lives up to their campaign promises. And even if they could, someone else will come along behind them and mess it up again.

Jesus is the king our hearts long for… Even if His reign doesn’t look like we’d expect. He keeps His promises. He loves his people more than His own life. Every one of his decrees is just, his judgments are merciful and his battles all end in victory. Best of all, His reign is eternal.

Israel cried out for a king, and now He is here. Jesus Christ is our King!

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“Life is less confusing and overwhelming if we just live faithfully today.”

By Pastor Michael Cofer
23rd Sunday of Pentecost
Book of Ruth

The past few chapters of the story have been epic in scope. Joshua leads Israel victory in battle after bloody battle. Then Gideon, routing a massive army with just 300 men of his own! Then Deborah and Jael nail down yet another triumph. And Samson! Single handedly slaying philistines by the hundreds and thousands.

And then there’s Ruth. Ruth doesn’t lead anyone into battle. Ruth doesn’t get a vision from God. She experiences nothing that is overtly supernatural. She doesn’t provide for the nation of Israel. She’s not even a Hebrew! She isn’t a warrior, or a prophetess, or anyone with any real influence at all.

But somehow Samson gets a couple chapters and Ruth gets her own book. Isn’t it interesting how different God’s ideas of what’s important are from our own?

So this week we’re talking about the book of Ruth – which is almost as much about Naomi as it is about Ruth herself. In fact, I think you can learn an awful lot more from this story if you keep your eye on how these two women deal with some tough times.

And it’s interesting to see how Naomi – someone who should know God – takes a backseat to Ruth – who figures very prominently into God’s plans. From His upper story, we can glimpse something great in the works, but from Ruth and Naomi’s perspective none of that is clear until the end. After all, Knowing God and knowing His Plans aren’t the same thing.

Our story begins with Naomi and Ruth suffering loss. They grieve together. I suppose you could say that Naomi suffered more because Ruth only lost a husband, while Naomi lost 3 men. But I’m not sure grief is as simple as that – and Ruth clearly sees herself as a part of Naomi’s family. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that she might have loved her father-in-law like a dad.

Now, we don’t really see their grief come to a head until they get back to Naomi’s hometown… and that’s when the breakdown comes. Naomi does not accept the comfort and kindness that folks try to offer. She literally tries to change her name to “Bitter.” Can you imagine being so bitter that you embraced that as your identity?

We can’t be that kind of people. Bitterness cannot walk with godliness. On the one hand, it does not produce righteousness. Bitterness has never prompted someone to act lovingly. And on the other hand, the source of bitterness is always blame. All too often, that blame will find itself pointing right at God.

And so it was for Naomi. She Blamed God for her Problems and was Blind to His Hand. What did she say? “[God] has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty… The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune on me.”

Now, if you read to the end of Ruth’s story, did Naomi end in misfortune? Does she have a bitter end? No! She’s a happy grandmother in a stable and prosperous home, living among her own people – God’s people – who heap blessing after blessing upon her.

But she couldn’t see that in the beginning. Just her grief. Just her bitterness and pain. And of course she had every right to mourn… but God wasn’t to out to get her. He didn’t wish her harm. I wonder how much more comfort and peace she might have experienced if she knew the kind of God she had – even if she didn’t know what His plans were.

And then there’s Ruth. The funny thing about Ruth is that she doesn’t seem to spend much time in asking why. So often, especially when times are tough, we ask “why, why, why?” But not Ruth. She didn’t assume that she was entitled to know what God had planned… she just lived a virtuous life, one day at a time.

In point of fact, Ruth could not have known God’s Purposes for her life, and God didn’t Need Her To. When God looked Ruth, He saw a woman who would provide for her loved ones. He saw the woman from whom would come King David, and King Solomon, and eventually Jesus himself!

But He didn’t have to tell all of that to Ruth. He just needed her to love the people around her, to live faithfully.

I think sometimes we sabotage ourselves asking the wrong questions. We can get really hung up wondering what God’s purpose is for our life – afraid that we might be missing out on something really meaningful if we just knew what God wanted from us. I can assure you that God has a plan and a purpose for you – but He may not tell the plan to you. And He may not be asking you to figure it out.

That doesn’t mean we’re clueless. It doesn’t mean we don’t know what God wants us to do. He wants us to treat others fairly, to show mercy, and to live in humility. He wants us to love Him with our whole hearts, and to take care of the people around us as well as we care for ourselves. He wants us to trust Him… And if He ran all of His plans by us there would be no room for trust.

That is actually really good news for us. Life is less confusing and overwhelming if we just live faithfully today. Jesus taught us not to worry about tomorrow; because today is all we can work with. Ruth lived this beautifully. It isn’t that she didn’t make long term plans – certainly she did. But she didn’t blame God, she didn’t question Him. She just lived, day by day, as a kind, loving, godly woman. And God did not fail her.

It wasn’t an accident that she was in Boaz’s field. It wasn’t by chance that he happened to be checking up on his workers that day. It wasn’t good luck that gave them a child. God’s hand was working in the life of Ruth even when she couldn’t see it. She didn’t have to know God’s plans, she just had to live faithfully each day.

Maybe you can relate to this story. Maybe you don’t see God’s big plans for your life. Maybe you don’t see how important you are to God. Maybe you’re going through some difficult times right now, and you don’t understand why God is allowing that. If that’s you, look again at Ruth’s example. Let God be God. It’s no accident that you are where you are. Trust in His wisdom, His kindness, and His love.

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Are you always obedient to God? Do you recognize God’s presence and His blessings…..or are you prone to the same afflictions Israel was?

By Pastor Mark Nieting

There’s nothing I like for a vacation more than a good “road trip.” I honestly don’t care which direction the car is pointed: just let me hit the road and I’m a happy guy. That’s today. But back when I was 10, stuck in the back seat of my dad’s UN air-conditioned Ford going from Milwaukee to San Francisco via Seattle with my sister who was always car sick, with no video games, no DVDs? Horrible! Lesley and I learned young to ask what every kid has asked since kids were stuck on the backs of camels…..”Are we there yet?” About the 10th time mom would give us “the look,” which usually wasn’t enough. About the 20th time dad would threaten to pull over, which we knew he would do. Road trips as kids? Not a whole lot of fun, if memory serves!

But honestly, what would YOU do if you were traveling for what seemed like forever in the backseat of the car and every time you asked if we were “there yet,” dad kept repeating directions he says were handed down from his ancestors 400 years ago?

In Chapter 6 of the Story, Moses was the driver and the children of Israel were, well, “the children.” After the Golden Calf debacle, things had settled down around Mt. Sinai. To bring some order, God divided Israel into twelve tribes, each descending from one of the sons of Jacob. Each tribe had a giant banner in their camp. The people had also constructed the Tabernacle, the “dwelling place” for God. It’s good to remember again that in the Upper Story, God’s GOAL was to “dwell” with His people! So He did, in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Moses also had two silver trumpets made, so that when it was time to head out, everybody would know.

Finally, on the “twentieth day of the second month of the second year” the silver trumpets sounded! They packed up camp and headed out. Can you imagine what Moses thought as he looked back and saw over a million people following him away from Sinai? It’s really happening! We’re getting out of this stinky wilderness and in just a few weeks we’ll be able to let our sheep out in green pastures! What a great nation God is going to make out of us! I’m sure as you read it you could feel the elation.

That lasted 3 days. Three days. For a few short days they were able to enjoy the Upper Story of God who KEEPS HIS PROMISES! God HAD made them a great nation: from 70 rag-tag famine refugees they now numbered well over a million. They had seen God’s glory on Sinai and received God’s Laws. They enjoyed His presence. But in just 3 short days they fell right back into the tunnel vision of their Lower Story: it’s hot, it’s dusty, I’m thirsty, I’m tired, ARE WE THERE YET?

Remember how I said when Lesley and I got a little testy in the back seat mom would give us the look and dad would threaten to pull the car over? Remember, from the first page of Chapter 6 what God did? He sent fire down and burned the entire area around them! He didn’t hurt them…….but you think they would get His point. Right? Wrong!

They complained so much about their manna that Moses uttered the prayer that has been copied by almost every pastor since, “Lord why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you have put the burden of all these people on me? If this is what I have to deal with, take me to heaven right now!!”

God heard Moses and He heard His people. He sent them fresh quail, by air mail delivery! In fact, if it weren’t so sad it would be absolutely hilarious, God sent them so many quail that they got sick of eating i! That reminded me of one of my teachers from way back who caught a friend of mine chewing bubble gum in her class. She opened her desk, got out a BAG of bubble gum and made him chew about 25 pieces for an hour while we went on with class! Today she’d probably get arrested for child abuse, but we all thought it was great fun….and Bruce never chewed gum again, ANYWHERE!

It worked with my friend Bruce, but it didn’t work with the Israelites. They started in again: wishing for the “good old days” back in Egypt where they got to eat fish and vegetables, conveniently forgetting they had been slaves building pyramids!

There were at least TEN of these rather juvenile episodes, the later ones by the children of those who had left Egypt, whose parents had already died for the very reason that they complained so much! As I see it, that’s “second-generation complaining,” and God didn’t like it any more the second time!

But let’s leave Israel wandering in the desert for a moment and focus on ourselves. It’s REFORMATION SUNDAY, so I’ll say it this way: we are Post-Reformation Missouri Synod Lutheran Christians!! We live and breathe ”sola Scripture, sola gratia, sola fide!” We KNOW the story of Jesus. We KNOW what He did for us on the cross! We KNOW the Holy Spirit has called us to faith! We HAVE the assurance that we live in grace, mercy and forgiveness. We WORSHIP a God who always keeps His promises! (Yeah!)

According to what I just said, it seems pretty clear to me that the Christian life should be far more like “a joyful…..not easy but joyful…. journey” rather than an episode of “Survivor Sinai.” Let me ask this: in your life, have there been or are there still times or seasons where you feel like you are “wandering in the wilderness, spiritually or emotionally?” Have you ever felt like God was a million miles away and still moving? Have you ever thought your prayers were bouncing off the bedroom ceiling instead of making it to heaven? Is there more complaining in your spiritual life than rejoicing?

Why would that be? Perhaps it will be helpful if I meddle a little more by asking this: Are you always obedient to God? Do you recognize God’s presence and His blessings…..or are you prone to the same afflictions Israel was? What about it, dear friends? What about it?

What was the first question I asked? Are we always obedient to God? I don’t believe it ever gets clearer in the Old Testament than it does in this chapter: God set very high standards for His people. From our Lower Story perspective it can be tempting to conclude that God is mean-spirited and somehow enjoys punishing people. So what if they didn’t like manna. So WHAT if Miriam and Aaron were a little jealous because God made Moses the “senior leader.” So what if we complain about this in early service or that in late service. Will God really care if I gossip a little about this teacher or that pastor? Dear ones, I could fill a BOOK with the grumbling I have heard from God’s people over the course of my ministry (even this week)! ……And there’s a special chapter I keep in the back for what I have done myself!

I honestly believe we don’t see the harm in a little “sanctified griping!” But God does, and here’s why. From the Upper Story perspective, God was…..and God still is building, shaping and growing a very special people, one that is truly worthy of His presence! God’s people HAVE to be different because we reflect the very nature of God Himself and in so doing we attract others to Him, where they too will find the same grace, mercy and forgiveness for themselves that we enjoy ourselves!

Such a people, such a nation, such a church will only succeed if the people place their entire trust in God, even when things don’t make a lot of sense at the time. That goes just as much for us as it went for Israel 3500 years ago.

We’ll end on this: Time and again, God has watched, endured, and forgiven His people for what we have seen so clearly in chapter 6, where they turned a Golden Opportunity into a Golden Calf……and it cost them dearly. Finally, with his own life nearing an end, Moses called Israel together for what would be his final sermon. For a guy who had told God he couldn’t speak well, Moses crafts what ends up being one of the most beautiful and inspiring messages in the entire Bible. Israel is on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Moses knows his people well……he’s watched them obey God and watched them blow it completely.

His farewell words that are just as valid today as they were then, giving two alternatives: love God and obey Him and you will be blessed, or turn away from God, disobey His commands and suffer destruction. He ended with these words, (Deut 30:19-20): “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses. I set before you LIFE and death, BLESSING and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to His voice and hold fast to Him. For the Lord is your life, and He will give you many years in the land He swore to give to your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

Who would “blow it” after that, right? But let me ask: are we “there” yet?

Despite what I said about my dad, he wasn’t a mean or hard man. He loved vacations, even if my sister was always sick and we complained a lot. He knew the backseat was no picnic but he also knew that our arguing and complaining would make it worse. He wanted us to enjoy both the journey AND the destination, even if he had to be tough on us once in a while. That’s exactly how God is! He has both a journey and a destination for you and for me. All He asks is that we relax…and enjoy the ride! Our heavenly Father knows what He is doing, where We are going and He always keeps His promises! Amen

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“Obedience means we can hear the world tell us one thing – and maybe it even makes a lot of sense – but we choose God’s way instead, because we know that He knows best.”

By Pastor Michael Cofer

One of the things I love about reading through Exodus is how God was with Israel. He led them by day as great column of cloud, by night as a roaring fire, lighting the way forward. Sometimes he descends in thunderous clouds upon the mountaintop. Sometimes He fills the tent of meeting with light so radiant that it’s contagious.

For Israel, the presence of God was not something to be taken lightly. When he showed himself, they hid their faces. When he spoke, they trembled with fear. And with good reason.

Did you notice that throughout the exodus, Israel had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that God was on their side? They knew He was powerful. They knew He was holy. They knew He was with them… But they just weren’t sure that He was for them.

We have an incredible advantage over the Israelites in this regard. We know that God is for us… But perhaps we are less aware that He is with us. I know we accept it as a fact that God is around… After all, He’s everywhere, right?

But what if He is with us in a different way than just being everywhere? What I mean is, if God was sitting in the pew right there, would today be like every other Sunday? If He pulled up a chair in your cubicle tomorrow, would it be like every other Monday? If not… Then how would it be different?

Would you ask His opinion more? Would you speak to others more kindly? Would you take bigger risks?

The fact is, if God is with us – if we recognize His presence – it has to fundamentally shift our lives. We have to be changed, because you cannot go with God and go your own way.

Think about how God must have felt, looking down on the Israelites as they wailed and moaned because they were hungry or thirsty. They said, “We would rather be slaves in Egypt than free men out here.” Why? They were afraid of what is ahead of them. They wanted to live in the comfortable past, rather than push on into God’s future.

God’s plans call for courage. Courage is the willingness to do what is difficult or impossible for us. Courage isn’t an arrogant trust in our own ability. It is knowing that the mission is too hard, and pressing forward anyway. It is often said that there is a fine line between courage and foolishness. I disagree… At least for Christians. We are foolish not to be courageous – if we are going with God.

It’s simple, really. Nothing should be scarier than God, because God can do anything. And if you don’t know that God is for you that should terrify you. But He is for us, which means that there is nothing out there that we need to fear. Not the future, or the past, or anything in this world or the next.

With that kind of courage comes hope. Hope isn’t wishful thinking or unfounded optimism. Hope is the certainty of victory, regardless of our present circumstances. Have you ever considered that Christianity is a no-lose situation? If people turn their backs on me, God still welcomes me with open arms. If I love my job or my home, God will give me a new one – or if not, I know for sure that there is a home waiting for me in heaven. If I lose my health, I know that God can heal me in this world and will definitely heal me in the next. If I die, even that works out in my favor, because I will live with God forever.

Courage and hope like this are realized in obedience to God… But obedience to God isn’t about agreeing with God’s plans. It’s about accepting them. You see, obedience is anchored in trusting God… and trusting God comes from knowing His heart.
This is where we tend to go wrong in thinking about God’s Law. It’s easy to slip into the mode of thinking that the 10 Commandments are what God wants from us. It’s not. It’s what God wants for us. He doesn’t want us to be clueless about who we are, or how we are supposed to live with one another, or how we relate to God. He wants us to understand what we were created for.

He wants you to have life – full and abundant. He wants you to have your priorities straight. He wants to stop you from pouring your love, time, and resources into placebos (which is all that an idol is). He wants you to rest and receive grace from Him every week. He wants you to have a family that works – where parents take care of children, and children love their parents. Where husbands and wives commit to one another for life, and don’t have to live with the constant fear that their spouse will move on to something “better.” He wants you to be satisfied with and grateful for the many blessings you already have.

Obedience means we can hear the world tell us one thing – and maybe it even makes a lot of sense – but we choose God’s way instead, because we know that He knows best.

When a people are marked with those three things – courage, hope, and obedience – they are set apart from the rest of the world. Their lives look different. They talk differently. They give and receive forgiveness. They have peace when nobody else does. That’s what a holy nation looks like.

Holiness is dedication to God and to His purposes. You can’t be part-time holy. You can be good part-time, but you can’t be holy part time. Maybe you don’t feel too holy, but picture this with me: The cloud of glory descends on the mountain top to visit with Moses… and then it departs. The cloud of glory fills the tent of meeting… and then it departs. The cloud of glory fills the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle… and then it departs. The cloud of glory fills your heart… and it stays. We can try to ignore it, I suppose. But what a waste that would be! The Apostle Paul wrote: “Don’t you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit!”

How can we go on living like the rest of the world? It’s God’s presence that distinguishes the people of God from everyone else, and we should never take that lightly. He wants to lead you, and empower you, and forgive you and heal you. He loves you.

God is with us, and He is for us. And today, He is inviting you to go with Him.

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Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Even though I am a fairly lukewarm football fan, I’ll still pop my cheese-head on when the Packers are playing, as I did last week when they creamed the Minnesota Vikings. The game was SO lopsided that I almost…..ALMOST…. started rooting for the guys in purple. After all, you have to feel for a team that’s been to the Superbowl FOUR TIMES and blown it each time, right?

Everyone loves an underdog, whether it’s the corner store when Walmart’s moving in, David going up against Goliath or the Chicago Cubs. Here’s the deal on chapter 4: Nobody loves an underdog more than God. Nobody roots for the underdog more than God does, and nobody EQUIPS underdogs better than God does.

We saw God do that in chapter 3 with young Joseph, who rose to be #2 in Egypt. Now, in chapter 4, at the ripe old age of 120, “was gathered to his fathers,” a phrase we will hear often through the Old Testament, and a new pharaoh ruled. He enslaved the Hebrews, who were rapidly growing into a huge nation, forcing them to work from sun-up to sun-down, making bricks and building cities and pyramids. It was terrible work, and we have to imagine that these descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob wondered what had happened to all those promises God had given them about becoming a “great nation.” What’s so great about slavery in someone else’s country? What about Canaan, that land to which God had brought Abraham?

Even though we’re only on chapter 4, we already know that a lot of what God does in the “upper story” remains hidden from us. What’s going on might seem backwards or even impossible to us. And when it comes to TIME, let’s face it, don’t you feel that there are times when God is working in another time zone from you?

But finally, after Israel had been in Egypt for over 200 years, God’s alarm-clock went off: it was time. His people were ready. Canaan was ready. All God needed was a HERO!

He finds his man herding sheep in the desert of Midian…..and his name was Moses.

What kind of resume’ do you suppose was necessary for the person whose job was to break the power of the most powerful leader on earth, free up a million or so members of Pharaoh’s work-force, and lead them across open desert and up to Canaan? Let’s examine Moses’ resume: ex-prince, murderer, shepherd, speech-impaired, arrest warrants posted on every post-office in Egypt and last but not least, he’s an octogenarian (80)! With all that is anybody cuing up theme music from Rocky 1?

We all have weaknesses. We all have short-comings, and usually we are painfully aware of what they are and how they affect…and even limit our lives. The Bible tells us that Moses was aware of his. I like to believe I’m aware of mine (or at least most of them) and you are aware of yours. We also have our strong points; we lean on them and use them to the best advantage we can. But what’s even more incredible is when we see someone with obvious weaknesses and then watch God call on them to do some very amazing things in spite of who they are!

We’ve seen this before, friends, and there’s a lesson in this for all of us 3500 years later: God does not call the equipped. God equips those He calls. From our lower story perspective that might seem backwards, but in the Upper Story, God’s got it all under control. He always does. We might not see it, but to God, every work in progress is already a done-deal. God’s promise to Moses was the same promise that He made to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and to each of us here at Hope today: I will be with you! Every time Moses came up with an objection, God was there to deal with it.

Why is that, you ask? We human beings tend to look at the externals: job training, the right degrees, work experience, charm, leadership skills, resume and maybe even wealth. God looks on the inside. God looks deep on the inside. The only qualification God looks for in order to accomplish great things through His people is a willing and obedient heart. That’s all, and that’s enough. No matter what the obstacles are; no matter how bad things might get, if your heart is humble, if you are open and willing to what God is doing, God will do for you what He did for Moses: He will be with you!

So, in our STORY, Moses capitulated to God, went back to Egypt and went face to face and staff to staff with Pharaoh. Remember his famous words? “Let My People Go!” God enabled Moses to do miracles and for a while, through Satan’s power, Pharaoh’s magicians kept up. But one plague led to another as God methodically destroyed the power of one Egyptian god after another. Each time Pharaoh started to crack, but then, before he would set Israel free, the Bible is clear about this, it was GOD who hardened Pharaoh’s heart against the Israelites.

Why would God do this? It was all part of His Plan. St. Paul tells us this in Romans 9: For Scripture said to Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that My name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy and He hardens whom He wants to harden. What does that tell us today? Even people who do not follow God are used by God to accomplish His Upper Story plans…..even though they don’t know it!

Nine plagues were promised; nine plagues were delivered and Israel was still enslaved. Now God was ready for the final act in the story of His people in Egypt. The tenth plague was both devastating……and revealing. God told Moses that at midnight the “angel of death” would sweep through the entire kingdom of Egypt and take the life of every firstborn man and animal. However, this terrible angel would “pass over” any home that has the blood of a perfect male lamb brushed on the doorframe.

God also told Israel’s families to prepare a special meal that they were to eat on that night: on the menu the lamb, young, male and perfect, which had given its life to save them from the angel of death. There were also bitter herbs to remind them of slavery, flat-bread so they could be ready to leave, and cups of wine. Everything God did that night He wanted them to remember year after year: how He saved them from death and delivered them from slavery……all done to foreshadow what Jesus, the Lamb of God, would accomplish with HIS flesh and blood when He died on the cross.

When it all happened, God’s glory was again revealed. What had been a group of 70 refugees from Canaan many years earlier was now a nation of over a million. God not only led them to freedom, but drowned Pharaoh and his entire army in the Red Sea! Who can ever forget that scene of Charlton Heston….I mean Moses….with his arms outstretched over the Red Sea and those walls of water crashing in on the chariots!!

But it wasn’t Moses…..it was God! And God was enough. God was enough for Israel in Canaan. He was enough during slavery. He was enough for tending sheep. God was enough for standing in front of Pharaoh. God was enough then….and God is still enough, no matter what you are up against in your own life!

I ask you: Do you consider yourself to be weak? GREAT…..that’s just what God wants! Do you have excuses for not serving God? WONDERFUL…..God has answers for all of our excuses! Are there times in your Christian life when you are afraid? SUPER….even the great St. Paul admits that he was terrified! I’m terrified every time I get up here in front of you because I have a great case of “moses-ness.” But God is enough! He always is! Is there a “pharaoh” in your life that’s got you in slavery to it……. and you just can’t seem to get free yourself? GIVE IT OVER TO GOD! He is ENOUGH! Does God seem to be asking you to do something, to serve somewhere and you just don’t feel you’ve got what it takes? Remember……God doesn’t call the equipped, He (fill in the blank for me here….) He equips the called!

Before I close, let me offer one brief caveat: I’m not preaching a “theology of glory” here. No Christian’s life is going to be a full bed of roses. In fact, no less than St. Paul himself was given by God a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from getting so puffed up about himself that he would forget that he needed to depend on God 24-7.

In the lower story, in OUR story, things may be tough. They may appear hopeless. We may be afraid. We may feel life is out of control. We may think we’re out in the desert surrounded by stinky sheep…………..but God is always there. Nothing in our lives is a surprise to God! I said this a few months ago and this is a great time to repeat it: ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR THE GOOD OF THOSE WHO LIVE GOD!

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The Story of Joseph’s life could have gone very differently.  In fact, as a young man, I think he expected it to.  Think about what we know about him: Joseph was handsome, smart, talented, spiritual, and the favored child of a very wealthy family.  Joseph had everything going for him.

But Joseph’s story is not a story of leisure and comfort and ease.  His is full of opposition, and hard times. He lost everything… Twice! The Joseph at the end of the story is a completely different man because of what he went through.  The story of Joseph’s life is a story of growth, forgiveness, and trust.

Trust isn’t something you can learn in the abstract.  Reading about trust won’t teach you to trust. The only time that trust is learned is when trust is required.

It’s easy for me to stand up here and tell you that God is trustworthy – that he is faithful to his promises, and that he will take care of you.  But all of that is philosophical until the day when you find yourself at the bottom of a dry well, or thrown in jail for crimes you didn’t commit, or out of work, or betrayed by a friend, or in the hospital or…

That’s when trust is required. And it is only once you see that God is trustworthy, that He is faithful, that he does take care of you that your trust is validated. And that’s how trust in God grows.

You can see this explicitly happen in Joseph’s life. When he is being lowered into the pit, he cries and screams and pleads for his life. He doesn’t want to be there, period. And who could blame him? But God carries him through, and puts him in a house where he thrives. So Joseph is able to look back on it, and see God’s hand of deliverance.   By and by, he is thrown into prison – but this time he doesn’t cry or scream or plead for anything. He knows that God will work through this hardship, just like he did in the past. And he was right. “[The] Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.” As you well know, God used his imprisonment to position him in Pharoah’s court – eventually making Joseph the most powerful man in the whole country.

Joseph learned that God could be trusted, and looking back on his life he saw it all differently. The mature Joseph looked back on that dry well in a completely different way than his younger self had.

Imagine how differently the story would have ended if Joseph hadn’t seen God’s hand working through those dark times. Do you think he would have been peaceful or bitter? Humble or prideful? Forgiving or vengeful? But he did see God’s hand, and so he could embrace his brothers with forgiveness and say, “[You] meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

Without trust, he could not forgive. And if he never forgave, Joseph would have remained the bratty, entitled jerk he was at the beginning of the story. But because God softened his heart, he was a changed man. Without trust in God, you cannot forgive. Without forgiveness you cannot grow.

You can see how God’s faithfulness changed Joseph’s perspective, and indeed his whole life! The bottom of the well looked different after seeing what God had done. This is an important lesson for us to learn, too. Not just that God could redeem tragedy in Joseph’s life. Not just that He is able to bring about good from hardship and difficulty.

Scripture tells us that “All things work together for good for those who love God and who have been called according to His purposes.” All things. It’s important that we can recognize evil for what it is. It’s important to be able to call a tragedy what it is. But it is even more important that we learn to look for what God is going to do in response to those hardships and pains.

God consistently repairs brokenness into a new and better creation. It’s how He works. Our God is a God of healing and redemption, of transformation and glory. He never promises that we will live an insulated and problem-free life. Certainly Jesus didn’t.

But what He does promise is that He will bring about good even from those situations that were meant to hurt us. He promises to be with us, even at our lowest. He promises to love us through the hard and lonely times.

In fact, there is no clearer proof of this than the image of Jesus on the cross. On the one hand, he was there because people hated him and wanted to silence him. He was there because Satan poisoned the hearts of crowds of people who cried for his blood. Satan’s evil plans culminated in Jesus’ crucifixion.

And yet… What Satan meant for evil, God meant for good. The greatest and most eternal good there is! And when we look up at the cross, our perspective is completely transformed. We don’t lament it; we celebrate it because we know that it accomplished God’s perfect plan, that saving of many lives.

The story of Joseph’s life is just one example of God’s trustworthiness and his redemptive power. I don’t know what you have gone through, or maybe even what you are going through right now, but I believe that God can be trusted to work through every circumstance. He has proven Himself over and over again, and today He is inviting us to put our trust in Him.

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Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

C.S.Lewis once said, “We read to know we are not alone.” That’s the very reason God gave us the Bible, so we can know for certain that we are not alone; and that He is not only with us, but loves us and created the entire world so He could be with us!

Last week we formally started The Story, a chronologically-condensed Bible that we will be reading together for the next 30 weeks. The idea is that by May 10 we will rejoice in knowing that as a church, we have worked through the entire story of the Bible! Parents are reading it to their children. Families are reading it together. We won’t be alone IN the story and we’ll know that God’s entire Story is about being with us! That’s great!

We began at creation. God tells us in His book that life itself has an author; that He made us and that each one of us has a place in His Story. We heard about the fall into sin and then how sin spread so quickly and so terribly around the world that ultimately God wanted to start over. To do that He saved one faithful family: the family of Noah. As it turned out, they weren’t exactly perfect saints either.

By now we know that sin touches every aspect of every person’s life. In the sermon outline in your bulletin point (please turn to that) there is a simple question: what has sin ruined in your life? It’s usually not a hard blank to fill in, is it? Not in my life it’s not!

This morning we move to the next major event (be sure you’re at chapter 2 on page 13): God needed to build a nation to bring His plan of salvation into being. First things first, if you are building a nation, what do you need first? PEOPLE! LOTS of people! People who are young and strong and able to pop out bunches of babies to get the nation-thing going fast, right? Not GOD! He chose a 75 year old man and his 65 year old wife with not a baby produced yet. He told them to pack up their stuff and get ready to leave their homeland and their people and He made them a promise that’s highlighted as poetry on page 13. Let’s read it together: I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.

            I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.

            I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse;

            And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Gen 12:2-3)

Remember what Abram did? It’s on the bottom of page 13, last paragraph: so Abram went. He had NO IDEA where God was leading him, but he went. You can see the journey on your map. It was a LONG journey…..all told about 600 miles. Not something one does on a whim! And on the top of the next page God tells us why: he had FAITH.

Let’s call a time-out at the top of page 14. As you were reading through the chapter, did this section…..and a few others as well…..stop you in your tracks? Or perhaps you were following along in your NIV to see which verses are IN The Story and which are not and this section stopped you cold! Why is that? Because our authors here chose to incorporate verses from Hebrews 11 and Romans 4 that describe to us what was going!

What WAS going on? What did Abraham….I’ll use his “covenantal name” from now on…have that God thought so highly of? He had FAITH. Abraham had FAITH.

What IS faith? That’s a question worth asking right now. What is it? What is the faith that God commends here? There are a lot of things faith is NOT. It’s not just a “positive attitude” or the “power of positive thinking.” It’s not just wishing something will go well. It’s far deeper than that. Look at the bottom of page 14, the footnote: what does it say? Read the first three words with me: Faith: complete trust. COMPLETE! TOTAL TRUST, no matter what! Abraham didn’t know where he was going, but he went! Sarah too! In Hebrews 11 we read this: faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see! Let’s go a bit deeper on this: where does faith come from? In Romans 10:17 Paul tells us: Faith comes by hearing and hearing from the Word of God.

God’s WORD brings faith….it’s God’s gift to us. Faith is what connects us back to God, because sin has broken the relationship that God wanted with us all in the first place! Little Sadie Bagwell, in her baptism today, was GIVEN the gift of faith in Jesus Christ. Yes, it is really there, even in a little baby. Yes, it has to be nurtured as she grows up; yes it will be tested, but it’s there! And when we open God’s Word; when we read and study God’s Word, faith grows!! Your faith will grow this year because you are studying God’s Word! I promise you that!   I also promise that God will test your faith.

Our story continues (on page 15): Abraham and Sarah settle in Canaan and remain faithful to God; but Abraham starts to worry. Remember why? The years ticked by. He and Sarah weren’t getting any younger and there hadn’t been any children yet! There were no sons to carry on the promise! Abraham still believed God; still trusted God but he started wondering if his slave will be the heir on which God would build this nation.

So…..out of love, God appeared to Abraham and promised him a son and descendents as many as the stars in the sky! Look at the second last paragraph on page 15: what does Abraham do? Abram believed God and He credited it to him as righteousness!

This is HUGE! This is the first time in Scripture when the terms faith and righteousness have been linked together! The faith of this sinful man has put him in a position where the God of heaven and earth view him as righteous! St. Paul rephrased this 2000 years later when he wrote: by grace are you saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:8-9)

What Abraham learned, and what God shows every believer is this: the longer we walk with Him, the more we learn that we can trust Him! That’s not always true of people. You know from your life experiences that there are people you can trust and there are people you can’t. You know who will stick with you and who won’t. You know whose promises are good and who’s just blowing smoke. Abraham KNEW he could trust God.

Sarah wasn’t so sure. After all….she was the one who had to produce the population for this new nation, and as the years clicked by and she was ready to celebrate her 75th birthday, it wasn’t happening. Sometimes, from our Lower Story perspective, God doesn’t seem to be doing what we think God needs to be doing when He needs to be doing it!!!! Have you ever had thoughts like that?

Sarah did. Somewhere along the way Sarah decided God needed a little help in the son-producing department; so SHE came up with the idea of Abraham and her Egyptian slave Hagar, “helping God out!” I won’t go so far as to say that Abraham doubted God, but he was certainly weak enough to go along with his wife’s program and thus Ishmael was born. The problem was clear: it wasn’t God’s plan. It wasn’t God’s idea. It wasn’t trust and faith on Sarah’s part. It may have been culturally correct, and it did produce a child…….but it also produced chaos.

I think we all realize that it is easy to trust God when life is cruising along just fine. That’s a no-brainer for most of us because it certainly appears that God’s plans and our plans are working hand in glove. And God does give us times of peace and blessing and when we’re there, it’s good to recognize them as such and thank Him for them!

But that’s not the way life stays, is it? As God connects His UPPER STORY with our LOWER STORY there can be plenty of things that are far beyond our understanding and sometimes far out of our comfort zones. Maybe it’s that “forgive us as we forgive others” part of the Lord’s Prayer that interferes with the grudge or the hurt that we are struggling to release. Maybe it’s resisting tithing, first mentioned when Abraham tithed. Sometimes it’s watching our kids or our friends fail badly or deal with illness and wondering why God allows such things to happen. Perhaps we’re still making life choices we know are unpleasing to God and we know we should be doing better BUT.

That’s when, like Sarah, we are tempted to say to God, “God, I’ve got a better idea. Let me help you out!” Have you ever tried to “help God out” by telling Him YOUR plans? From my experience it always turns out badly……for me. It’s like what happens when guys and video cameras get together with the phrase “watch this.” Just dial 9-1-1!

We ought to know from God’s Word that when we trust in ourselves more than we trust God, it’s time for a spiritual ambulance to show up. Allow me an example from my life. Before Hope I served Emmanuel, Asheville NC. It was a great 14 years of ministry, but extremely tiring. I’d been through a divorce, two building programs, staff challenges and I was tired. I had promised my son that I would stay in Asheville until he graduated high school. As that got closer, I really knew it was time to draw that ministry to a close and move on. So I clearly told God that He could send me to a church in Arizona or New Mexico, any time, please…..I was that specific! It wasn’t long after that I received a phone call from Pastor Lobien asking me if I was interested in visiting a church down in Virginia Beach. “God, you have got to be kidding, that’s not in my plans!”      It was in HIS! I still remember the long drive down here the first time, trying to convince God that He didn’t know how to read a compass!

If we’re going to be committed to following God in our lives….and that’s what the Christian faith is all about….we are called to be “all in,” no matter what. Turn to the last paragraph on page 15, actually from Romans 4: 18. Against ALL HOPE, Abraham in HOPE believed! I’ll paraphrase a little: He did not weaken in faith even though his 100 year old body was as good as dead. He was fully convinced God was still going to do what God said He would do! And God, in His time, did it!

Abraham was tested in other ways; powerful ways! So was Isaac, who was willing to lie down on the altar in place of the lamb. So was Jacob, who wrestled with God. So was Jesus, so much so that He trusted that God would raise Him from the dead, and so He was willing to die for us. God IS trustworthy!

Let’s end on one more definition: faith means following God and being fully convinced that God is able to keep His promises. It’s not about us. It’s about GOD.

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God gave [people] one more thing: freedom…they could accept His relationship or they could reject it…..the choice was theirs.

By Pastor Mark Nieting
Genesis 1-9
The Story,” Chapter 1
(Some of the material in this message comes from the book “The Heart of the Story” by Randy Frazee.)

Follow along with “The Story,” Chapter 1, “Creation.” worksheet

Imagine the Creator of the Universe “out there” somewhere! How far “out there” is “out there?” We’ve got earth, which is big, but one of the smaller planets of our solar system, which is enormous enough. Then we’ve got our HUGE Milky Way Galaxy; but “out there” contains not just one galaxy. In 1996 the Hubble Telescope photographed 3,000 more, each with billions of stars, planets, moons and comets. As far as our limited technology can see, there may be more than one hundred billion galaxies ‘out there.’

But open Scripture and God says that before He began work, there was nothing. Just God, creating a space and place where He could enjoy being with you and me. The STORY of the Bible does begin with a Big Bang, but it wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t random, chance evolution. It was God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit challenging each other to the mother of all science fair projects: the universe, all of it from NOTHING.

That’s the point of the first two chapters of Genesis: God describes for us how He came up with a plan to connect His UPPER STORY with our LOWER STORY. He created paradise and then people, men and women in His image so He could do life with us; just like the three Members of the Trinity did life with each other. It’s amazing.

On days one, two and three God’s creation provided the SET, using theatrical terms: the light and dark on day one, the water and sky on day two and the dry land on day three. On days four through six He populated creation. First came the sun, moon and stars. Then came fish and birds. Finally, on day 6, He made all the animals. Every day, after work, God looked it all over and said, “It’s GOOD!” And it was. It still is. Name one part of creation that is less than perfect, I dare you! The pre-flood world of creation was nothing less than completely amazing. But God wasn’t finished. He wouldn’t stop with lions and lizards, dinosaurs and dodo birds.

He still needed the crowning touch. In His amazing mind He had already envisioned PEOPLE, beings created in His image whom He could enjoy being with and with whom He could communicate: people. So He made man and woman and again declared, “It is Good!” This was no accident. None of this just happened. It was all a carefully designed plan so God could spend eternity enjoying the fellowship of His created beings.

There are questions about all this, of course. Some people spend a lot of energy on the “when” question…..how many billions of years this and that. Some on the “how” question: how do energy and matter relate to one another. But for Christians who take God at His Word, the biggest question is WHY? Why would God want to add a Lower Story to His already-perfect Upper Story? If you are a parent, you understand. After being married to the one you want to spend your life with, you want to share that life with a new creation: a baby. It’s someone you create together. So you create the perfect environment, pink or blue are usually the choices, and the bigger mom gets the more excited you both become until you can’t wait to BE with that baby!

And when that day arrives, the joy you feel when you see that little face is indescribable!

You just know everything will be perfect with this perfect child and its perfect parents!

That’s how it was with God. It was perfect, mostly green! The place…..called Eden, the Hebrew word for “delight” ….was located, most Biblical scholars believe, in modern day Iraq…..how ironic it’s mostly desert today! It was the perfect garden that would sustain the perfect people: Adam, Eve and their children and their evening walks with God. It was nothing short of paradise. It was paradise. It was LOVE in action….agape!

God gave Adam and Eve things to do. They were to care for the earth. They were to populate it so that God would have MORE people to be part of The Story. These were more indications that God had made the world with the goal of being there with People. And God gave them one more thing: FREEDOM. God didn’t want puppets or machines; He wanted people to have the freedom to “go it with Him” or “go it alone.” They could accept His relationship or they could reject it…..the choice was theirs.

How would they decide? God provided a way for that too. He made two special trees that stood out from all the other wonderful trees. One was the Tree of Life: eat its fruit and you live forever. The other was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. “Leave that one alone,” God told Adam even before Eve was created, “because if you eat from that one, you will die.”

We don’t know how much time passed between this conversation and their choice but it couldn’t have been long: there had been no “multiplying” yet! At some point, God’s Word tells us, an archangel who had already fallen into sin appeared in the garden in the form of a serpent and tempted them with the desire to know as much as God knew. It sounded good to them; so they ignored God and ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When it was done, they certainly did know good and evil. Sin, acting in opposition to the will of the Creator, came to infect the DNA of every human being ever since. This first sin we could call “selfishness,” the root of hatred, bigotry, jealousy, anger, violence, greed, lust and we humans are covered up with it.

With that one act, God’s desire to “walk with us in the cool of the garden” ended. Adam and Eve KNEW they had blown it, because now they knew the difference between good and bad and they knew they had been bad…..so they hid from God. When God sought them out, instead of taking responsibility for their actions, they played the “blame game.” Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake and the perfect community established at creation was broken. God ended it all by banning them from Eden. So Adam had to scratch out a living at farming; Eve would suffer in childbirth and they would both die.

Why did God do this? Were they so bad? It was just one little act of disobedience, right? Everybody makes mistakes, God; it’s just 1 wrong tree! Aren’t You over-reacting a little? I bet most of us have wondered that at one time or another. Wasn’t God being cruel?

No, He wasn’t. The Garden, Eden, was a perfect place; perfect so that God Himself could BE there! But they had corrupted it with their sin and turned it into a place of fear and hiding, and so they had to leave so that the Garden would stay perfect. It was still a place for God to visit…..but without people-in-residence, there was no point.

Getting kicked out of the garden was a fair punishment for what they had done, but it was more than that. It was God’s way of continuing His plan. God HAD to keep them away from the Tree of Life, because if they had gotten to THAT tree, they would have lived forever in their fallen and sinful state; forever separated from God who both made them and loved them. No….the garden had to stay pure and God had to adjust His plan so that we would have the possibility…..notice I said WE and I said POSSIBILITY….to join Him there someday! And that plan is all a part of THE STORY. In Genesis 3, as He dealt with them God provided a hint of how it will all come back together, by the “one who would crush the serpent’s head while having His heel struck.” (Gen 3:15)

Adam and Eve did start their family, but you know what happened. Selfishness interjected itself and one son, Cain, killed the other son, Abel. The sin-nature had moved from parents to children. It became clear that when given the choice, people would choose evil over good far too often. We are, as our Martin Luther would write, bound over to sin and unable to save ourselves unless God Himself intervenes on our behalf. Call it original sin if you wish, or the “doctrine of total depravity,” but as sinners, we are unfit and unwelcomed company for God in His garden!

It’s about time for some Good News, right? The Good News is this: God did not want to end His relationship with the people He created! As selfish and sinful as we can be, He still loves us. SO, as bad as the world was…..and it was very very bad (see Gen. 6), God had a plan. He would start with the best people left, the ones with whom He believed had a chance. It’s actually one of the few times in the Bible when the most likely candidate is chosen: Noah and his family. The rest were too evil to mess with. So God gave them a task: build an ark in which He would carry them and the ancestors of all the animals through a global flood that was so catastrophic it changed the face of the entire planet. It was God’s “reset button.”

When the planet dried out, Noah and his family thanked God by building an altar and offering a sacrifice. God was moved; He blessed Noah and his family and gave them the same command He had given Adam and Eve: be fruitful and multiply. God established what some call “the rainbow covenant” with them: a visible reminder that He would never destroy earth with a flood again.

The cycle of life started all over again, but it didn’t take long for the sin to strike again. Noah got drunk and passed out in his tent and one of his sons made fun of him. It might sound like a typical Saturday night for some of us; or it might be enough to get others of us quite upset, but for God, it became crystal clear that the solution to the problem of sin wasn’t going to come from people. No matter how “good” Noah and his descendents would be, they were all infected with sin. The solution to restoring creation to the kind of relationship God had in the Garden of Eden would have to come from somewhere else.

That could have been the end of the story. God could have pushed the “erase” button and we would never have had a chance to live. But He didn’t. Despite EVERYTHING that had happened, God STILL wanted to be with us. God’s Upper Story went on, and because it did, what happened next was chapter after chapter in the Greatest Story ever: God’s love for His people, with God doing whatever it would take to get us back. IF the flood wasn’t the way, there had to be another way; the rest of The Story!

So you are ready for next Sunday, I ask that each of you, each individual and each family, read chapter 2 in The Story. Fathers and mothers, read it to your children. If they are old enough, let them read it from their books to you. Discuss it around the table and in the car. Make sure you have at least one or two times in the week ahead where you can devote time together to know how God created HIS NATION.

Amen.

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“God has a chapter reserved for YOU in His Story too, one that’s in the process of being written right now. YOU are a part of God’s Story!”

By Pastor Mark Nieting
2 Timothy 3:16

Download the “introduction worksheet” and follow along with the sermon.

Most of you don’t remember this, but a few months after Pastor Cofer came to Hope, he was called by one of our funeral homes to do graveside services for someone who had no local family. Since he didn’t know the area well, Pastor Cofer got lost. Eventually he arrived, about an hour late. The hearse was gone, the backhoe was next to the open hole and the workmen were sitting under a tree eating lunch. Pastor Cofer, eager to do the right thing, went over to the grave and found the vault lid already down. Feeling guilty about being so late, he launched into a long series of psalms and prayers, all intent on sending the dearly deceased to heaven in great style. Finally all done, as he returned to his blue Taurus, he overheard one of the workmen say to the other, “I’ve been putting in septic tanks for 20 years and ain’t never seen nothing like that!”

We love stories. We love to hear stories, read stories, watch stories and even write stories. This year at Hope we’re all going to work through a book called, appropriately enough, “The Story.” It is an abridged version of the Bible, which is itself a story!

I believe that Christians have a tendency to see the Bible as a series of individual stories between a set of covers. Part of why we do that is because of the way the Bible is organized. Let me give you an example. In 2 Samuel 11 we have the story of King David. Fresh from a whole series of military victories, the young king sees beautiful Bathsheba bathing on her balcony. He commits adultery with her and is confronted with the truth of his sin by Nathan, God’s prophet. In 2 Samuel, all we hear about David’s reaction to this confrontation is verse 13, where David said to Nathan, “I have sinned.”

But to understand how broken David was over his sin we need to turn to Psalm 51, where David pours out his heart to God with words like this: Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. That’s when we begin to see the bigger picture. It would be nice to have the words and the emotions of Psalm 51 fit right into the narrative of 2 Samuel 11, but 2 Samuel is a book of history, so it is arranged with the other 11 books of history and Psalms is a book of poetry, so it’s organized with the other 4 books of poetry. (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs) It’s not a bad thing; it’s just one thing that keeps us from getting a picture of the whole Story.

One of our goals this year is that every member of Hope will gain a better understanding of the Bible as one beautifully woven-together story. Think of it like a mural; hundreds or even thousands of different scenes, each one of them specifically given to us by God as individual parts of His Story. The Story is where God intervened into the lives of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Moses, David and Esther, Peter and Paul. The same God who did all that is the One we worship every Sunday. The God who loved stubborn old Jonah is the same God who hears our prayers every time we pray! All of this fits together even now, because God has a chapter reserved for YOU in His Story too, one that’s in the process of being written right now. YOU are a part of God’s Story!

I’d like you to take out your copy of The Story, please, and look at the cover. What’s the subtitle? The Bible as one continuing story of God and His people. That’s what it is: one long and amazing story. Now turn a few pages inside, to the table of contents. There’s all 31 chapters that we will be working through over the course of the year. What’s chapter one? Obviously it’s the story of Creation. It’s Genesis, where, as the description says, life begins as WE know it. But that’s not the “whole story,” is it? There was life before creation, was there not? Who’s life? GOD’S LIFE!

Let me introduce you to two terms that we’ll be using frequently. The first is the UPPER STORY and the second is the LOWER STORY. The Upper Story is God’s story. God is real and God has been at work every day of eternity. There has never been a time when God didn’t exist. God created everything that exists, and the Upper Story is where God’s grace and mercy continue to move in our world because God loves us!

There is also the Lower Story. I think you can already guess whose story that is: it’s ours. We have good times and we have tough times. There are times we run from God and times we bow down and worship Him. Sometimes we get so tied up in our own stories that we don’t see God trying to bring His love into our lives. It’s very easy to forget that God created this world so that He could have a personal relationship with each and every one of us. Just as the Bible has a beginning (Genesis) and an ending (Revelation), the Lower Story had a beginning. We’re going to focus on that next Sunday: God coming down and walking with His children in a beautiful garden. We can’t even imagine what that was like; but at the OTHER end of the story, whenever that happens, God has promised that He will walk with us again on golden streets!

So there it is: the Upper Story is God’s Story and the Lower Story is my story and your story. The crucial thing for each of us is what happens right now, in our lives and our stories. In the Lower Story there are bills that have to be paid, homework to be done, things to do and decisions to be made……pass the mashed potatoes and oh, no, we’re out of gravy, should we got to the beach or go to church? Thank God that you aligned YOUR story with God’s Story the right way this morning! Did you know that God is constantly trying to intervene in our stories so that He can use our stories as part of His divine plan for the world? ALL of us, because God created every single one of us, will ultimately have a role in God’s Story. The only question is, will we align our lives with God’s Upper Story or will we go in a different direction? Using more technical terms, we can be either protagonists in God’s Story or we can be antagonists.

Let me give you an example from Scripture, one we came across in our Wednesday morning Bible Study. It’s in John 11. Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead (how’s THAT for a Lower Story experience?) and now the Chief Priests and Pharisees are trying to figure out what to DO with this problem. (As soon as I said this, if you were paying attention you already categorized these guys as antagonists, right?) So they have a meeting and they’re all worried about everybody believing in Jesus and the Romans taking away their jobs. They’re all wringing their hands when up stands the High Priest, Caiaphas and says, “You do not realize that it would be better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish!” (John 11:50)

The Gospel of John goes on to tell us that Caiaphas didn’t say that on his own, GOD USED HIM to prophesy that Jesus would die, not only for the Jewish nation, but for ALL of us! As far as we know, Caiaphas never came to faith in Jesus, but God STILL used Him as part of His Upper Story Plan to redeem the world!

Another example, probably more familiar to us all, is the story of Saul. After Pentecost, when the church was “on fire” for Jesus, this young man did everything he could to stamp that fire out. He even had Christians put to death. He thought that he was aligning his life to God’s Story, but he wasn’t, until Jesus met him face to face on the road to Damascus. From then on, Paul aligned his story with God’s story and the rest is told in the 13 books of the New Testament that he wrote!

Passing on the Story is crucial to God’s plan of salvation for the world. That’s what we’re doing this morning. That’s what parents are doing with their children. Fathers, and I’m addressing you specifically, you have the God-given responsibility to teach God’s Story to your children! (Eph 6:4) Mothers, so do you, especially if fathers don’t. That’s a huge part of this year’s ministry plan here at Hope……that each and every family, whether it’s a one-person family or you’ve got a multi-generational household of 15, each and every family take time together to learn The Story. We’re asking you to covenant with each other to spend at least two times a week TOGETHER around The Story. It might be a couple reading together over morning coffee. It might be parents reading to the kids at bedtime. Whatever it takes, I beg you to make that commitment.

It would be helpful, I believe, to take these last few minutes to be sure that we all understand both how The Story, the Bible itself, came to be in our hands and how we, as Lutheran Christians see the role of the Bible in our faith and in our lives. In 2 Peter 3, Paul used the word “inspired” when he described for us how each of the several dozen writers of the Bible were moved by God to put on paper what He wanted them to write. It wasn’t that they fell into trances and woke up to see words on their papers. It wasn’t angels dictating to them. Over a period of 1600 years, God used their stories, their vocabularies, and their faith to put down what He “breathed” into their minds to write. The Holy Spirit was there to make sure that what was written and what was passed on was true and accurate, all according to God’s Upper Story plan.

Before writing was invented, God’s STORY was passed on from one generation to the next by STORY-TELLING. We’ll talk about that a lot more in Bible class this morning. We’re going back to Story-Telling this year, making sure that there is no one who doesn’t know God’s Story: how He MADE them and how He SAVED them and how, when all is said and done, we will be WITH HIM through faith in Jesus Christ.

So…..your homework (say YEAH!) for next week is to read Chapter 1 of The Story.

Will the church say Amen to that?

Amen!

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Stories matter. More than facts, more than explanations, more than theories. It’s stories that matter the most.

At the end of a man’s life, what do people remember about him? It isn’t trivia about him that people share – it’s the stories of what he did, and what he said. It’s through stories that we explain who he was. It’s through stories that we share how much he meant to us.

Sometimes, as church people, I think we get really caught up in explaining God. But God’s Word doesn’t really do that. It reveals God, and it does so primarily through talking about what He has done – that is, telling His story.

It is a consistent theme in the Bible that we should listen to and pass on the stories of God’s goodness, his mercy, his power, and his deliverance. Moses and David and Paul and so many other voices in the Bible tell us to remember what God has done. “Come and see” says the Psalmist, “Come and see what God has done!”

You know, through much of history teaching and learning were done through the sharing of stories. Consider this: a teach of the law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” How did Jesus answer? He could have just given him a simple answer like, “everyone,” or “anyone who is in need,” but He didn’t. Instead, He told the story of the Good Samaritan. Why do you suppose that is?

Sharing stories is more that just transmitting data; it’s a way of inviting someone to experience something secondhand. And I will tell you that experience is the most persuasive evidence there is. You can present all of the logical data you want from as many angles as you like, but if someone has experienced something to the contrary, they are very unlikely to budge.

That’s why telling stories – true stories about what God has actually done – is so vitally important. You can tell someone that God is good, but why would they believe you? But if you can show someone that God is good, that means infinitely more. We need to tell God’s story, and understand where we fit in it.

Unfortunately, we get this turned around sometimes – we get focused on our own story, and try to figure out where God fits in it. It happens all the time, and quite naturally. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, your bridge club, your quilting group, the water cooler in your office – they are all perfectly tuned to encourage you to tell your story… and there’s nothing wrong with that. But God is too big to fit inside of your story; you fit inside of His.

This year, we’re going to walk through God’s story – starting at creation and stretching all the way through to the end of the world (and beyond). And as we do that, you can expect that we’re going to get to know our Bibles better. But even more important than that, as we walk through God’s story we’ll get to know Him better.

You see one of the attributes of God is that he doesn’t change. He is the same today as He was thousands of years ago… and in 100,000 years He’ll still be the same. The key to understanding your future isn’t in looking at what is going on in the world today. It’s in learning the history and heart of the almighty and unchanging God. Your future is in His story.

Hearing, learning, and sharing God’s story is vitally important, and this year we are going to unite around that simple goal. As a church, we are going to provide you with opportunities to learn and resources to teach. We want to treat God’s Word like it is the very food we need to survive – because it is. And some of us have been silently starving because we didn’t know where to begin or how to do it. But not anymore.

If God’s story is the most important story there is – if it is more vital to us than the food we eat – then it should be natural that we will talk about it in our homes, around our dinner tables, when we wake up in the morning, when we go for an evening walk… It should be a bigger priority than teaching a child to ride a bike or tie their shoes or memorize their multiplication tables.

We are in this together. This is what God’s people are all about. We encourage each other with stories of God’s power. We reach out to the lost and hurting around us with stories of God’s love and forgiveness and healing. We make sense of our own lives by remembering our place in God’s story of salvation.

Your story matters to God. He is deeply invested in your life – every minute of every hour of everyday. After all, He wrote the beginning of your story and He already knows the ending. And He wants you to know that you aren’t alone. He has carried others through the same trials you are facing. He has overcome bigger problems than you are struggling with. He has forgiven whatever sin you are still hanging on to, time and time again. He is invested in your story, and He is inviting us to be just as invested in His.

Stories matter. Yours, mine, and every person you meet. But every one of those stories is incomplete until it finds its place inside of God’s story. This year we will focus on the big picture. This year, we will stand up and say, “Come and see what God has done!”

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