Sermon: The Why Question
Scripture: Genesis 12:1-3
Date: October 23, 2016
As a pastor, I give a great deal of thought and prayer to trying to figure out what makes people come to worship. In fact, in the last 36 years or so, I have spent some sleepless nights wrestling with that question. And, of course, I have come to understand that there are a great many reasons why people come to worship. When I first began in ministry, many people came out of a sense of duty or obligation. They were raised in the church and felt to be faithful to their heritage they needed to continue in that mode.
This attitude was reflected by the father who woke up his family on Sunday morning with these words, “The Lord gives us 7 days a week, surely we can give Him 2 or 3 hours on Sunday morning.” Perhaps not the best motivation for going to church but certainly better than those who are on the opposite end of the spectrum and let every earthly excuse keep us and our families from worship. “The kids have this activity. Or – I’m behind at work. I’ve just got to go in. Or – we were out so late on Saturday night. We just need to sleep in. Or – it’s such a beautiful day. I just want to get out and enjoy it. Or I just don’t feel like going to church this week. So, the Lord won’t mind if we miss this week. But a week becomes weeks. And weeks become months. And soon it has been so long that we are embarrassed to go back to church. And besides nobody really noticed we were gone anyway. If anybody really cared about us at that church, then we would have never stopped going.”
Duty or obligation is always a little shaky as motivation for worship because it is highly dependent on who we feel that duty or obligation to. People? The institution? The Pastor? Or God? If it is to one of the first three than our duty or obligation is often negated by one perceived slight or mistake or moment of neglect. These are the ones we say have fallen through the cracks. Or who jump from church to church, always seeking the one that meets their needs. They have put their faith in people, or the institution or the pastor, and when one or more lets them down, as inevitably will happen, then that’s when their sense of duty or obligation ends.
And then I have learned that there are those who come to worship because they almost view it as entertainment. The preacher’s sermon is entertaining. Or the music is good. Or there is always entertaining skits or testimonies. Some pick churches as they would a movie. In fact, I often “check in” to St. Luke on Sunday morning and later that afternoon I get a message from Facebook that says you checked in to St. Luke UMC. Take a moment to “rate it” for others like you would a concert, or a movie, or some other form of entertainment. Consciously or sub consciously we are rating our experience and if it isn’t a four star rating at least most of the time, then we look for other ways to be entertained.
Several years ago, someone coined this as “entertainment evangelism.” Some (dare I say many) make their decisions about church based on whether they find worship to be entertaining.
And so the churches that most accurately reflect popular culture are the ones that attract the most people to worship.
But after thirty six years, by far, the most consistent reason that people come to worship is tied to the concept of God’s blessings. So either people come to worship in order to express gratitude for how God has blessed them or they come seeking God’s blessings often in specific situations of their life. Either way, the focus is on us and not God or worship or the church. And so as long as we believe that God has blessed us or will bless us, then we are good with worship and the church, but it’s in those times when we don’t feel as though we are blessed that our faith is shaken and we fall away. And we feel as though God and the church have abandoned us. The rock star Bono who is the leader of the iconic band U2 was invited to speak at the President’s prayer breakfast several years ago by the second George Bush. Successful, wealthy, a star wherever he went in the world, he gave every appearance of being blessed in life. And in his message he reflected on that and he made this statement. “In countless ways I was seeking the Lord’s blessing. I was saying, you know, I have this new song, look after it. I have a family, look after them. I had this idea (that’s how God’s blessings worked.) But a wise man said, Stop. Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing. Get involved in what God is doing because it’s already blessed. Well,” Bono continued, “God is with the poor. That I believe, is what God is doing.” In essence, he was saying, that he came to realize that God was not blessing him with wealth and fame and success. Instead He was blessing him with a heart for the poor.
The key is in understanding what is meant by being blessed by God. Hear me now because I think this may be the key to this entire study that we have been engaged in and most of us get it wrong. We tend to look at blessing as something that is happening to us, rather that something that is happening in the world. We need to understand God’s blessings in a much larger context then just our lives. How many times have we heard athletes after winning the big race or game thank God for blessing them with the win and the talent to win. Or we see entertainers winning awards thanking God for blessing them. Or people emerging from a dark time of illness, now healthy, talk about being blessed by God. Or those who are wealthy and successful attributing that to being blessed by God. Now don’t misunderstand me. Those are blessings. But the problem is when they are perceived as the exclusive blessings of God for us. Does the fact that we win the game mean that God does not bless those on the losing side? Or if we win the award does it mean that those who are not picked are not equally blessed by God. Or because we are blessed with wealth and success, does that mean that those who dwell in poverty, are not blessed. Or because we are blessed with restored health, does that imply that those who are not, are somehow outside of God’s blessings? You see, on any given Sunday if I asked how many here have been blessed by God, most would answer yes. And if I asked How have you been blessed, most could articulate ways that God has and is blessing them. But what if I asked, Why? Why has God blessed you and not blessed others in the same way? Most of us would struggle to respond. But you see, I think to truly understand the nature of God’s blessings in our lives, we need to start with the question Why? Why me? And the cousin to that: What does He want me to do with His blessings?
In our study, What In The World Are We Here For?, Rick Warren says that the fourth answer to that question is that we are called for the purpose of being blessed by God. In essence, God created us so that He would have someone to bless. And when I first read that, I thought how awesome that is. That one of our purposes is to be blessed by God. And I started thinking about all the ways that I have been blessed by God in my life. Family, friends, ministry, home, plenty to eat, a comfortable life. How many blessings can I name? But then I started wondering why? I made the mistake of asking the Why question. Why me? And in asking that question, God brought me back to the story of Abraham.
Here is Abram. 75 years old. Living the good life in Ur in the land of the Chaldeans. (show map). Lot’s of sheep and cattle and servants, which were three indications of wealth for the Nomadic people. He probably had the biggest tent. He was married to the beautiful Sarai who was apparently his trophy wife. She was ten years younger than Abram. If they believed in God, they would have no doubt thought that they had been blessed by God. They were blessed in everything except two things: land and children. They had neither one. And then one day when Abram was out tending to his herds, an unknown God came to Abram and said this: “Abram, if you will leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to this unknown land that is across the desert from here” (about 700 miles as the crow flies). But Abram would have followed a route around the desert to the north which was known as the fertile crescent. It was about 1200 miles around the desert. But it was a major route from the Persian Gulf to Egypt. The promised land was little more than a highway at that time. Which is why Israel was so often attacked. Whoever controlled the land controlled the trade route between the great powers in the east and Egypt in the west. “So, Abram, if you will go to this land (the blessing of land) then I will make you a great nation”(the blessing of family/children). We know the story. And from this we lift up Abram, soon to be Abraham, as the most blessed of men and the Father of Israel. But being blessed wasn’t always easy for Abraham. His journey was often hard. And at the end he still had no great nation to call his own. In fact, it wasn’t too long before he had to flee Canaan to survive and go to Egypt. I wonder if Abram was thinking, like his descendants did in the wilderness after they fled Egypt to go back to the promised land, “Lord, did you bring me all this way so I could die.” It was the why question? Why did you bless me like this God?
So in the course of Abrams journey, I think there are three things we can learn about God’s blessing. First it is God’s desire to bless everyone. We have no indications up to this point in the story of humanity that Abram was anything special. In fact the only things we really know about him is that he is descended from a long line of Nomads, shepherds and farmers, common laborers who really had no place to call their own. Their only claim to fame was that they lived a long time.
In spite of the announcement last week that human beings can only live to be 115 years on this earth before the body just completely wears out and breaks down, the Bible tells us that several of Abram’s descendants lived to be more than 400 years. I guess they didn’t get the memo about the limits on longevity.
And the life of a nomad then and now was not an easy one. Scraping out a living on inhospitable, dry land. No indications that Abram had any special skills that would make him open to God’s blessing. He probably didn’t even know who God was. And yet God blessed Him. God’s blessings are not reserved for special people. Or for church people. His desire is to bless us all.
And then the second thing that we learn from Abram’s journey is that the blessings of God don’t always make our life easier or happier or more fulfilled, at least in the short term. In fact, sometimes God’s blessings turn our lives upside down, inside out. Abram certainly wasn’t looking for a new start. A new life. But God blessed him and in doing so turned his life upside down. Isn’t that what Jesus had in mind when He first laid out the beatitudes? The people thought that when the Messiah came, He would bless their lives and He did. But not in the way they had anticipated for many centuries. He turned their understanding upside down. For instance He said: “You thought that when the Lord comes the poor would rule on this earth, but I tell you that the poor will be blessed in a Heavenly Kingdom.” And He said: “you thought that when the Lord came, you would be blessed with no more reasons to mourn, but I tell you that you’ll be blessed with comfort in the midst of mourning.” And He said: “You thought that when the Lord came, you would no longer be persecuted and oppressed in this world because of your faith, but the truth is I will bring even greater persecution until God’s Kingdom comes.” Jesus did not come to restore some version of the good life but rather bless them by turning everything upside down. Elsworth Kalas says that Jesus sent His disciples out, not to restore order, but to turn the world upside down, or perhaps he says to turn a world that was already upside down, right side up. In a sermon on the Beatitudes that she entitled “Blessed Are The Upside Down”, Barbara Brown Taylor recalls what it was like to be a little girl and stand on her head and observe the world from that perspective. And she says this: “Grass hung in front of my eyes like a green fringe. Trees grew down, not up, and the sky was a blue lawn that went on forever. For as long as I kept my balance I could tap dance on it, while birds and clouds flew under my feet. My swing set was no longer an “A” but a “V” and my house seemed in danger of falling off the yard – just shooting off into space like a rocket – leaving the sidewalk lined with pansies to nowhere . . . in a world where trees grew down and houses might fall up, anything seemed possible.” And then she says: “I think Jesus should have asked the crowd to stand on their heads when he taught the Beatitudes because that was what he was doing. He was turning the known world upside down, so that those who had been fighting for breath at the bottom of the human heap suddenly found themselves closest to heaven, while those who thought they were on top of things found themselves flat on their backs looking up.” The blessings of God often turn our world upside down so that what we presumed were God’s blessings are exposed as worldly blessings, and our quest for blessings are exposed as humanity’s misguided attempt to somehow make the world right side up and usher in the Kingdom of Man. God’s blessings say to us that no matter how difficult things may seem, anything is possible with God in our lives.
And then thirdly I would say that God’s blessings aren’t really for us. This is the answer to the Why question. Why is one of God’s purposes to bless us? What on this earth are we here for? Well, what we learn from Abraham’s journey is that we are blessed in order that we can bless others. Look again at what God says when He calls Abraham to be blessed. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” In other words Abram, you may think that I am giving you the blessing of land and family for your own benefit, but the truth is that the land I will take you to and give you, will bless my people for many generations, and the children I will give you will be the first of many generations of Disciples. You will be blessed and through you I will bless all my people for generations to come. In other words, God doesn’t give us the blessings of our lives so that we will hold on to them, keep them for ourselves. Think about the blessings that you wrote down a few minutes ago or at least called to mind. I presume that they were blessings like family, friends, resources, a great home, a good job, perhaps good health, talents and abilities. Am I close to identifying your list? Now ask yourselves the why question. Why does God give us all of these things? For our own gratification? In Jesus day, King Herod had great wealth. Lots of money. Several fancy palaces. A semblance of power. A huge family. He thought he was blessed beyond measure. More than any other. But the reality is that he kept it all to himself. Did nothing to benefit anyone else with his wealth and the other so called blessings that he was so fond of flaunting. In fact, if anything he used his blessings to bring misery to others and in the end, Herod the Great, died cursed and hated.
You, see, Just like Abram, we are blessed so that we might bless others. Look again at your list. How are you using your blessings to bless others?
And one final word, and that’s the word yes. In order to be blessed by God, we must say yes to our calling. He called Abram to go and be blessed but before the blessings, there had to be the “yes”. Before the land, Abram had to say yes. Before the great nation could ever be conceived, Abram had to say yes. Before he could bless others, Abram had to say yes. Before God can turn this mixed up, off track world, upside down (or right side up), Disciples – you and I must say yes to His blessings.