Sermon Series


March 17, 2013, by Pastor Ben Willis

Numbers 13:1-3, 17-20, 25-30 [NLTse]

The Lord now said to Moses, 2 “Send out men to explore the land of Canaan, the land I am giving to the Israelites. Send one leader from each of the twelve ancestral tribes.” 3 So Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He sent out twelve men, all tribal leaders of Israel, from their camp in the wilderness of Paran…

17 Moses gave the men these instructions as he sent them out to explore the land: “Go north through the Negev into the hill country. 18 See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. 19 See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? 20 Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see.” (It happened to be the season for harvesting the first ripe grapes.)

25 After exploring the land for forty days, the men returned 26 to Moses, Aaron, and the whole community of Israel at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran. They reported to the whole community what they had seen and showed them the fruit they had taken from the land. 27 This was their report to Moses: “We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. 28 But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! 29 The Amalekites live in the Negev, and the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country. The Canaanites live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan Valley.”

30 But Caleb tried to quiet the people as they stood before Moses. “Let’s go at once to take the land,” he said. “We can certainly conquer it!”

31 But the other men who had explored the land with him disagreed. “We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!”

The famous, so-called “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13 ends, saying, “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (v. 13)

In my estimation, we Christians talk quite a lot about faith, and even more about love, but not so much, if at all, about hope. So I’d like to invite us to contemplate together our hope in Christ

“Faith” and “hope” are sometimes used interchangeably in modern speech, which is unfortunate. Because, where the writer to the Hebrews defines “faith” as “having assurance about things we cannot see” (11:1) – that is, that “faith” is having confidence about things we can’t see, confidence that affects what we say and do here-and-now – “hope”, however, is always future-focused.

Webster’s Dictionary states that “hope” means to cherish a desire with expectation of its fulfillment. And Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Greek Words states that “hope” is a favorable and confident expectation, the happy anticipation of good. So, “hope” is the confident expectation that good is coming. It is an overall optimistic attitude about the future based on the goodness and promises of God. We are called to be people of hope!

In our Scripture Reading twelve spies – one from each of the Twelve Tribes – were sent to reconnoiter the territory God had promised Israel upon their exodus from Egypt. All twelve spies saw the same land, saw the same inhabitants, saw the same fortified cities, saw the same bountiful farmlands, vineyards, and grazing lands. But only two returned calling Israel to invade, conquer, and claim the land: Caleb and Joshua. Why the difference?

The Scriptures make clear the difference was that Caleb and Joshua trusted the Lord’s promise and believed Him when He said the land would be theirs. While the other ten spies were filled with visions of the mighty inhabitants (even some giants, descendants of Anak!) and the massively fortified cities and the strength and power of their armies, Caleb and Joshua were filled with visions of God’s promises: Of Israelites walking up and down the streets of the great cities, and of Israelites tending the vineyards and the fields and the flocks, and of Israelites living in the Negev and in the hill country and along the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan Valley. They were filled with hope, and what they saw – the same things that the other spies saw – was transformed in their hearts and minds by the expections that what God had promised them would indeed come to be!

Paul’s letter To the Ephesians famously describes spiritual armor every lover and follower of Christ needs to always be wearing in order to stand in the face of evil. The head-protection of that armor is called “the Helmet of Salvation”, (6:17) which, in his first letter To the Thessalonians, Paul calls “the Helmet of the Hope of Salvation”. (5:8)

The Roman helmet that Paul is referring to covered the ears as well as the entire head and down over the forehead. That tells me that part of our salvation and the hope of our salvation is our being wise and guarding what we listen to. But then, once we have heard something and it has come into our minds – with the Helmet of the Hope of Salvation firmly in place – we must filter what we do hear through the favorable and confident expectations of the good God has promised us. That is, we hear bad news but we filter it through the hope we have in the good news God’s spoken to us through Christ; we hear about illness and tragedy but we filter it through the hope we have in Christ’s call to us to go and heal and serve those in need; we hear of hopelessness and destruction but we filter it through the hope we have in Christ’s good promises and expectations of new life!

It’s important what we think and how we think about what we think, because – to use the New American Standard Version’s translation of Proverbs 23:7 – “As [a person] thinks within himself, so he is.” Our thoughts, our motives – all that makes up that core driving what we say, how we use our influence, and what we do – that is who we are. And Christ has redeemed all we are to be People of Hope!

Of course, for us Christians, though we have much good and many good promises from God to hope for in this life, ultimately the great good and the greatest promises we have are in Jesus’ return from Heaven to raise all of the dead, grant us imperishable bodies, judge all humanity once and for all, establish a new Heaven and a new Earth free from sin and sinners and death and sorrow and crying and pain, and then to live with us there forever!

So, even with all we have to hope for in this life, ultimately our hope is not in this life at all but in Christ’s sure and certain promises concerning the life He has for us to come! And all of this is our part in wearing the Helmet of the Hope of Salvation and keeping it tightly fastened!

A Christian discipline that can aid and nurture our hope is the practice of meditation. Where contemplation is a practice that has us focus intently on a Scripture passage, thought, or idea – taking it apart, considering it from all angles, etc… – meditation is taking a passage, thought, or idea just as it is and taking it into ourselves with the intention of replacing the lies and deceptions we’ve previously believed with God’s truth. Meditation originally had to do with “mumbling to one’s self”, and when taken together with Romans 10:17 that says, “faith comes through hearing”, we get the picture of the practice of meditation being our preaching to ourselves the Word God’s revealed to us we need to hear.

We human beings need to hear the Word again and again and again to truly believe it and be transformed by it. And the act of meditation helps us soak in a truth so that the lies we’ve believed might be replaced by God’s truth, and so that His truth would indeed set us free!

I’m picturing taking time during my daily devotions to contemplate my circumstances. As I think in a focused way about my circumstances from all sorts of different angles the Holy Spirit directs me to consider, not my circumstances, but how I’ve been thinking about and responding to my circumstances: That is, what I truly believe about what’s going on in my life. And so, although the faith statements and doctrines I might tell others I believe are one thing, I’m helped to realize that my thoughts, words, and actions concerning my circumstances demonstrate that actually I believe something far different. The Spirit of Truth has helped me identify my true beliefs.

So, perhaps I write down those lies and half-truths I’ve believed. But then I research God’s full-truth about these things using Bible helps or, perhaps, by asking a more knowledgeable Christian friend: To know my situation in the light of Christ crucified, raised from the dead, and coming again! And then I begin meditating on those true-truths, seeking to replace the lies my thoughts, words, and actions have shown me I truly believe with the truth of God’s Word; seeking to fill my mind with God’s hope-made-flesh in Jesus Christ.

And so I meditate on God’s Word: “Mumbling” THIS is true; THIS is true; THIS is true; again and again. And then, across the day when I realize I’ve begun thinking, speaking, or acting according to those old lies I’d believed, I “mumble” God’s truth to myself again… My friends, our level of hope shows us whether we are believing lies or truth, because God’s truth produces hope!

In closing, pastor and author Steve Backlund has some helpful things to say about hope. He writes, “Any area of my life that does not glisten with hope is under the influence of a lie, and that area is a stronghold of the devil in my life.” He challenges us that, “My hopelessness about a problem is a bigger problem than the problem.” And he then reminds us, “There are no hopeless circumstances, only hopeless people. Once people get true hope from God, their circumstance cannot stay the same.”

“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

March 10, 2013, by Ann LeFevre

Shepherds and Sheep

Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.  March, 10, 2013

Follow the Leader/Simon Says- They were popular games we played as children.  Of course the best part of each of those games was when you got to be the leader!  There was a lot of power in saying “Simon says, ‘Put your hand on your head!’” and seeing all your friends do exactly what you said.  And when someone goofed and missed, you had the power and authority to say, “You’re out!” and that person had to sit down.  When playing Follow the Leader, you set the course and everyone went where you went!  It’s true, there’s a lot of power in being the leader, but most of us are not leaders, we are followers.  And that means we must choose who we follow wisely.

Lord, As we open Your word today and learn of what it has to say to us about leaders and followers, we ask that Your Holy Spirit would enlighten us so that we will follow You and only You.  Amen

Contrary to the popular saying, certain ladies of the night are not members of the oldest profession!  That honor goes to shepherds.  Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of small tablets like this one.  This small piece of clay is a contract that records the number of sheep and goats which belong to a certain farmer.

In these contracts the farmer/owner hires a shepherd to move his flock to a new water source or to tend to his flock in a new grazing area.  An interesting aspect of these contracts is that there is a built-in loss factor of 20%.  In other words it was a given that some sheep would get sick, get lost, get hurt, or become the shepherd’s dinner!

In order to do this job well, the shepherd must know the lay of the land.  In Israel the majority of shepherding is done in the region known as the Negev.  It is a wide open region that accommodates large herds easily.  But it is also much drier, receiving substantially less rainfall the further south you go, so a shepherd needs to know where flocks will be able to graze and get water too.  Scattered wells and cisterns throughout this area help, but more importantly, good shepherds know how to “read the rocks”.  The bedrock of this region is comprised of Senonian Chalk, Alluvium and Limestone which can form large pockets in the rock where water can collect.  A good shepherd knows how to tap into these pockets and provide water for his herd.  Wadis are a water source too.  These gorges and ravines are carved into the ground by natural elements such as wind and water.  Some are very narrow, and some are quite wide.  Although they may look like a great place to bring a herd the shepherd must know the best way in and out for wadis are prone to rapid temperature changes and flash floods.

But why do sheep need a shepherd?  Aren’t they able to fend for themselves like other animals?  Well, there are two things about sheep that have not changed for thousands of years.  The first is:  Sheep are stupid!

Photo by Jennifer Esperani

And the second is that because sheep are stupid, they are also vulnerable.  Sheep are known to follow each other into ditches or wander off from the herd and end up lost.  If one tips over and ends up on its back with his feet in the air, he cannot turn himself over.  And other sheep will stand there and just look at him.  With no common sense and no natural defenses, sheep are prone to attacks from predators.  So to say they need a shepherd is putting it mildly.  Without a shepherd, sheep would not survive.

In order to keep the herd as safe as possible and make sure that the 80% required make it to the grazing area, shepherds have developed a system to move them.   The older, more experienced shepherd will follow behind the herd and watch for stragglers or ward off danger.  Another shepherd will go in front of the herd.  It is his job to guide them along the chosen route and he does this by calling out to the sheep (usually by name!).  The sheep in turn, hear the shepherd’s voice and follow behind him by watching his feet.  These practices have not changed for thousands of years!  One of my favorite experiences in Israel was while standing at Jacob’s well in Beer Sheva, my group saw two shepherds leading a flock of sheep through the Negev.  You could hear those silly critters bleating and complaining from a ways off, and my goodness, did they make a ruckus!  As the flock neared us you could also hear the shepherd calling out to the flock.  I’m surprised they even heard him!

As most of us know, David who wrote the psalm we read this morning was well acquainted with shepherding.  While three of his older brothers were enlisted in Saul’s army, David, the rest of his brothers and his father remained home and took care of their sheep.  David was a good shepherd from what the Bible tells us and shepherding seems to have prepared him well for fighting giants and the role of king.   It could have been easy for David to think that his shepherding skills could keep him out of harm’s way.  After all, in protecting his sheep he killed both a lion and a bear.  But instead David declares “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

David must have seen something in his sheep that reminded him of human nature.  Perhaps the vulnerability of his sheep reminded him of his own vulnerability in the harsh elements of the Negev.  The question is, “What does David’s Shepherd do that makes David trust Him so completely- just like sheep implicitly trust their shepherd?”  I would like to highlight three aspects of David’s Shepherd today.

Photo by Ruth Moucharafieh

First: David’s Shepherd brings him to a place where he can eat!  Our translations often read “green pastures” for this place, but the word here nahavote in Hebrew, is really the specific word for the green places at the bottom of the wadi where water has produced nice, green, vegetation.  It’s a great place to eat and rest but without a shepherd who understands the lay of the land and knows what to listen for while he’s in the wadi, the sheep could be in danger of drowning in a flash flood, getting hurt, or succumbing to a rapid temperature drop.

Photo by AHL

Secondly: David’s Shepherd restores his soul.  The wilderness is a dry place.  In the shepherding region of the Negev there is only 10 inches of rainfall per year.  David’s Shepherd knows where the water is (whether it’s in a wadi, a cistern or in the rock) and He leads him to that water source.  In the Hebrew mind there is a close connection between the soul and breath therefore the same word is used for them.  In a practical sense David’s Shepherd refreshes the place that his breath passes through- his throat- with this water.  But the Shepherd also restores his inner most being- his very life-breath, his soul.

Thirdly: David’s Shepherd makes sure that David is on the right path.  He guides him across the Negev to the places where water and food can be found.  He leads him along those rocky wadis in the safest way so that David arrives at the proper destination.  The climate in a wadi can change rapidly.  There can be a vast difference in temperature just between the area with sun and an area in the shade.  Without common sense, sheep need someone to watch out for these dangers.  Because David’s Shepherd is so good, David never fears the dark shadows of the wadi.  He has confidence in the Shepherd who is leading the way.

Photo by Joanna Payne

So here is my question today.  Who is your Shepherd?  If you and I believe that the Lord is our Shepherd, then that means we are…His sheep.  And what do we know about sheep?  Yes, they are stupid and vulnerable!  They lack common sense and need guidance through their harsh environment.  But do you and I really believe, REALLY BELIEVE, that the Lord is our Shepherd.  Do we see ourselves as a sheep?  Or do we think we can handle life on our own?  If we believe we are as vulnerable as sheep, then are we following the Shepherd?

You probably think that I have never made any stupid decisions in my life.  But, believe me, I have.   Perhaps one of the worst decisions I ever made was a judgment in character.  I was particularly enamored with one girl in 7th grade.  She was cute, she was popular and I wanted to be just like her.  So I followed her lead.  She was also mischievous and prone to lying.  I found myself copying her in dress and behavior.  But one day, after doing something I knew was wrong behind my mother’s back, it all came crashing down around me.  I was discovered in a lie, and I was mortified!  I may not have put myself in physical danger, but I had become vulnerable in mind and spirit.  I had followed the wrong Shepherd.

Do you see yourself as a sheep?  If so, who are you following?

Jesus says in John 10:11 that He is the Good Shepherd.  If Jesus qualifies Himself as the Good Shepherd, that must mean there are bad shepherds.  What makes a shepherd bad?  Simply put, the bad shepherd does not really care about the sheep.  He cares more about himself.

Jesus therefore said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.  I am the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.  I know My own and My own know Me even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father;  and I lay down My life for the sheep.  My sheep hear My voice and I know them, and they follow Me.  And I give them eternal life to them, and they shall never perish and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:7, 11, 14-15, 27-28)

After the fall harvest is complete and the winter months settle in, shepherds in Israel bring their sheep in from the grazing fields and put them in sheep pens.  These enclosures are somewhat like a corral, but they are bordered with stone walls that are only waist-high.  The entry way, which is about 5-6 feet wide, is called the gate, but it usually doesn’t have a gate or door there.  It is open.  During the day a shepherd or one of his hirelings will stand guard there.  At night the shepherd lies down in front of the gate and literally becomes the door.  No predator will be able to get past him; no sheep will be able to wander out.  The bad shepherd abandons this duty as soon as trouble comes his way.  He does not protect the sheep.  When I was caught in that lie those many years ago, my friend abandoned me- even denied she was a part of the whole episode.  She was a false shepherd.

Jesus sees us as sheep.  He knows we need a Shepherd.

Jesus says that He is the Good Shepherd and that He lays down His life for the sheep.  Do you see the picture of the sheep pen that Jesus is painting here?  I don’t think it’s an accident that Jesus refers to us as sheep or to Himself as the Shepherd!   Sheep are prone to getting themselves in trouble or danger.   Sheep are prone to wandering astray.  Sheep have an enormous lack of common sense.   That’s why sheep need a shepherd.  When I look back on some of the choices I’ve made in my life, I know Jesus was right in comparing me to sheep!   I know I have wandered from the path at times thinking I could find the water and green stuff myself.  I know that I have trusted bad shepherds to refresh my soul only to be abandoned by them.  As the Good Shepherd, Jesus not only leads me on the right path, He lays down His life for me.  Let me say that again.  As the Good Shepherd, Jesus not only provides me with the same things as David’s Shepherd, He lays down His life for me.  That’s why the Lord is my Shepherd.  Why would I want to follow anyone else?

Are you following the Good Shepherd?  Your life may depend on it.

March 3, 2013 AD, by Pastor Ben Willis

Exodus 33:12-23 [NLTse]

12 One day Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Take these people up to the Promised Land.’ But You haven’t told me whom You will send with me. You have told me, ‘I know you by name, and I look favorably on you.’ 13 If it is true that You look favorably on me, let me know Your ways so I may understand You more fully and continue to enjoy Your favor. And remember that this nation is Your very Own people.”

14 The Lord replied, “I will personally go with you, Moses, and I will give you rest—everything will be fine for you.”

15 Then Moses said, “If You don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place. 16 How will anyone know that You look favorably on me—on me and on Your people—if You don’t go with us? For Your presence among us sets Your people and me apart from all other people on the earth.”

17 The Lord replied to Moses, “I will indeed do what you have asked, for I look favorably on you, and I know you by name.”

18 Moses responded, “Then show me Your glorious presence.”

19 The Lord replied, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will call out My name, Yahweh, before you. For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose. 20 But you may not look directly at My face, for no one may see Me and live.” 21 The Lord continued, “Look, stand near Me on this rock. 22 As My glorious presence passes by, I will hide you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove My hand and let you see Me from behind. But My face will not be seen.”

In ancient construction practices the cornerstone was the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. It was important because all other stones in the foundation would be set in reference to this stone. The position and soundness of the entire structure was based on how rightly this first cornerstone was laid. It set the stage for the rest of the building.

As Moses was leading Israel from Egypt to the land God had promised them, Moses asked the Lord to help him understand His ways because Moses wanted to know the Lord and enjoy Him more fully. Moses said, “[Lord], show me Your glorious presence.” (v. 18) And the Lord’s response was, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will call out My name before you.” (v. 19)

Moses wanted to understand God’s ways and see His glorious presence. And the Lord’s response was, “I will make all My goodness pass before you…”

Have you ever wanted to understand God’s ways? “I will make all My goodness pass before you,” the Lord responds. Have you ever wanted to see God’s glorious presence? The Lord responds, “I will make all My goodness pass before you.” The cornerstone for knowing God’s ways and seeing His glory is the reality of God’s goodness. God’s goodness is the reference point for everything else about Him: His ways; His glory. Knowing and trusting that God is good is the cornerstone for all the rest of Christian faith and practice.

Have you ever heard the Christian chant, “God is good!”? [All the time.] “All the time.” [God is good.] And yet there are so many theologies out there threatening people with God’s wrath and explaining the terrors and tragedies going on around us as the result of God’s judgments. But the Lord Jesus says, “God loved the world so much that He gave His One and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” That, “God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.” (John 3:16-17)

When Jesus was cutting through Samaria to make His way to Jerusalem, one village wouldn’t let Him pass, and His disciples wanted to call down fire from Heaven to punish them. But Jesus rebuked them! In a longer version of that event, Luke records, “The Son of Man has not come to destroy people’s lives but to save them.” (9:51-56)

In revealing the Father to us, the Lord Jesus doesn’t show us a God Who destroys people with floods and storms and has people get shot and go hungry so that they’ll learn to fear Him and Hell and then want to become His disciples. He said, “The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. [Referring to Satan and his crew.] My purpose,” Jesus went on, “is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” (John 10:10)

Now, I know that Jesus makes clear that there’s a real Hell, and that He makes clear that there will be a real Day, when He returns, where everyone will be judged according to their deeds, and whether or not saving faith in Him motivated those deeds. But He it wasn’t Jesus’ practice to threaten people with Hell. His pattern seemed to be showing people God’s goodness and calling them to follow Him because of God’s goodness!

He helped people see God’s goodness! His every word and deed was an example – a living parable – of God’s goodness! In our day it seems that many people enter the Kingdom of God with fear and foreboding, thinking they need to accept Christ in order to escape Hell. When the reality is that we have a good Father Who’s shown Himself so very ready to welcome us into His family!

When the goodness of God is our cornerstone it powerfully shapes what we do, speak, and think! And like with a building, the cornerstone of our faith sets the stage for all that we’re about. If we look around us lamenting evil’s victory, we are not only believing a lie but will also spread that lie through our attitudes, responses, and actions to those around us. Too often Christian preachers and teachers tell us to pray harder, pray longer, to pray with more desperation! Somehow a weed has sprung up in God’s garden that we are more merciful that He, and that God pays more attention to our desperation than He is to our faith and confidence in His goodness!

I’ve shared with many of you of how my little brother was killed just following his 21st birthday. My older brother was not a Christian at that time and, trying to be compassionate towards me about my faith, he was asking me what it was like believing in God when something horrible like this happened. And I remember telling him, “I’d rather be slapped by someone I know loves me than be slapped by someone I think hates me.”

Trusting in God’s goodness gave me supernatural strength during that horrible time (and through many days since) and the cornerstone of His goodness transformed the ministry I was able to have towards others through it all. I didn’t understand my little brother’s death: Why; how? But I did understand that God loved me, and that He is good all the time!

Typically right after some calamity, you can hear people ask, “If God is so good, then why do bad things happen?” But the cornerstone of that question is out of whack. The truth is not, “If God is so good,” the question should be, “Since God is so good, then why do bad things happen?” Because then the stage is set for us, in humility, to consider that, perhaps, our finitude and limited understanding keeps us from seeing and keeps us from knowing all that our good and loving God and Father, in His infinitude and limitless understanding, sees and knows.

Afterall, aren’t we a people who truly believe that God does indeed working everything together for our good, we who love Him and who have been called according to His purpose for us? Aren’t we a people who truly believe that God is love, and that in Him there is no darkness at all? Of course, we are! Of course, we do!

And this is the good news our good and loving Father in Heaven has given us to share with our friends and coworkers and classmates and family members and all those who will learn from our attitudes, words, and deeds: That God is good! That God wants to give them a full and satisfying life! That God wants to give them greater understanding, like being a light for them when they’ve gotten used to walking around in the darkness! That God wants to fill them with peace that surpasses our culture’s comprehension and that our events and circumstances can’t take away! That God wants to fill them with joy that not only brings laughter and happiness, but that gives strength for our living day by day!

And it’s our Father’s desire looking for those around us to be able to see His goodness in us. And God’s goodness can always be recognized in those who seem to overflow with joy, encouragement, forgiveness, peace, and generosity…

Romans 10:15 says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach glad tidings of good things.”

O Father, may our feet be truly beautiful! Help us grow in revealing Your goodness to those around us. Increase our trust in Your goodness. Grant the goodness You have shown us in Jesus Christ – the joy, the peace, the wisdom, the health, the wholeness, and every other good promises we read about in the Bible – grant the goodness You have shown us in Christ to truly be our cornerstone, setting right all that is our life and faith. And when trouble and tragedy come, grant us the readiness and the courage to bring the truth and deeds of Your goodness to those tempted with doubt and despair.

You are love. You are good. And we trust and praise You this day, in Jesus’ name…