Just when you thought certain corners of Christendom had gone absolutely nuts, there comes this forehead slapper from Newsweek/MSNBC about "GodMen" — a movement among some evangelical Christian men to bring more testosterone back into the church. Apparently, church has become too "feminized" (e.g. putting flowers on the altar, etc.) and these guys want to bring more manly pursuits back into Christian consciousness–things like cussing, scenes from karate movies, and sex talk. Read the article for the full scoop.

My take on it? Well, here’s another attempt to hijack Jesus to suit a particular agenda. Stephen Prothero wrote about this in his book American Jesus, which chronicles the various movements in American history that have used Jesus as a poster boy. GodMen is nothing new, just a revival of some old propoganda.

Jesus did, indeed, turn over the tables in the Temple but that was an acted parable of judgment upon the revolutionaries who would use the Temple as a symbol and rallying point for fomenting a revolt against the Romans–in other words, Jesus was showing them that their ideas needed to be turned upside down–that agression and warfare weren’t the answer.

Granted, Jesus was not the "meek and mild" type. He didn’t mind a confrontation. But when he confronted he always did so by maintaining a deep sense of mission rather than acting on impulse. He was fully human, but incorporated the best of what being a human (and a male) is about. He didn’t lord his maleness over the women who followed him (like GodMen seems to promote), he felt compassion and even wept for others.

The truth is that church isn’t about emasculating men, but rather teaching the idea of partnership and love. There is, after all, that whole Fruit of the Spirit thing (Galatians 5:22-23), which doesn’t mention cussing or karate, for that matter. If the church doesn’t teach a more authentic way of being human (and being male for that matter) then who will? 

In a sense, I do get it…guys need an outlet to be guys, but Christian men need an opportunity to explore what it means to be disciples of Christ rather than caricatures of religious manliness. 

GodMen? Not exactly. Boys with an immature faith? Yup…

“All in the Family” Part V: Jacob–Wrestling with God (12/10/06 Sermon)

We continue our series on the Genesis genealogy of Jesus this week with one of the more interesting, entertaining, and compelling stories of the Old Testament. We’ve seen the sin of Adam and Eve, the faithfulness of Noah, the covenant promise to Abraham, and the promised child Isaac. We come now to Jacob.

Jacob’s story opens with the episode we read earlier about him and his brother Esau. Even though they were twins, Esau was the firstborn and by rights would receive the full inheritance of their father Isaac. Esau is a hunter and Jacob more of a farmer. Esau is also more impulsive, strong, a “man’s man.” Jacob knew his older brother’s weakness and exploited it—extorting the birthright from Esau in exchange for some stew. When it came time for Isaac to deliver the blessing to his oldest son, Jacob and his mother, Rebekah, conspired to seal the deal by having Jacob pretend to be the hairier Esau in front of their blind father. Esau comes in from hunting to get his blessing, but discovers that Jacob has cheated him out of it. The hunter resolves to kill Jacob after their father passes away.

So, Jacob runs for his life. He goes back to the ancestral home in Paddam-Aram to live with his uncle Laban, and on the way he has a dream about a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28). Dreams will play a big part in the rest of Genesis as the ancients believed that God communicated through dreams (and still does). In Jacob’s dream, God repeats to him the promise of Abraham—the promise of land and descendants—the promise that Jacob now carries. It is curious, isn’t it, that God would offer such an amazing vision to one who already has a bad reputation!

Jacob goes back to his family’s ancestral home and there meets Rachel who he wants to make his wife. Rachel is Jacob’s cousin on his mother’s side—the daughter of his uncle Laban, who’s a bit of a schemer himself. Laban agrees to the marriage but only if Jacob will work for him for seven years. Jacob does so, and finally has his first night with his beloved—only to wake up in the morning and discover that he hadn’t slept with Rachel but with her older sister, Leah (how this happened, well, it has something to do with veils and heavy drinking). Jacob, the deceiver, had been deceived. He confronts Laban, who agrees to finally give him Rachel, but only if he’ll promise to work another seven years for her.

Jacob now has two wives who are sisters and this works out badly. Leah, who is “unloved,” has seven children by Jacob—Rachel has none. She is barren, like Rebekah and Sarah before her. She blames Jacob (“Give me children or I’ll die!”) and enters into a contest with Leah by having her servant girl sleep with Jacob to produce children for her. She eventually does bear a child, Joseph, who we’ll talk about next week.

That’s just a taste of the story…I’d encourage you to read it for yourself. There’s no soap opera that can compare with this! Hard to imagine what the film adaptation would look like. There is an interesting novel about all this, though. Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” is a fascinating biblical fiction that puts a different spin on the story. I’d recommend it as a good read, though it takes a lot of license with the biblical text.

Eventually, Jacob is so good at tending the flocks that becomes very prosperous in comparison to his uncle, and God calls Jacob to go back home to Canaan and the land of his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. In returning, Jacob knows that he will have to confront his brother Esau—the one whom he had wronged so terribly. So afraid is Jacob that he sends his whole family ahead of him, along with a whole caravan of gifts, to try and “soften up” his older brother (Honey, you go talk to him first, ‘kay?)

Now, here in the middle of the night by the ford of the Jabbok River, Jacob instantly finds himself in a wrestling match. The text calls the unexpected opponent a “man,” but when the nocturnal brawl ended, Jacob said he had “seen God face to face.” Whomever Jacob struggled with, Jacob thought he’d gone 15 rounds with God.

Certainly in a contest between a mortal and an immortal, God is the heavyweight favorite. But in this night-long struggle, we find no indication that God could wipe up the ground with Jacob at any given moment. Rather, God seems to limit his power so that the fight is a fair one, and Jacob holds his own. He isn’t whipping the celestial combatant, but he’s not embarrassing himself either.

As dawn breaks, this mysterious adversary knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint and insists that Jacob let him go. But Jacob refuses — unless this God-man will bless him. Jacob needs the assurance that he is the one to carry the promise because when he crosses that river the next day he could be facing certain death.

But rather than simply bless Jacob, the antagonist gives Jacob a new name, Israel, “the one who strives with God.”

Notice what the name implies. It’s the name for a whole nation—a people who would wrestle with God and with itself over the whole issue of covenant. From Jacob onward, Israel would engage in a constant battle against the desire to be like everyone else. They would struggle, suffer, wrestle, even limp about in their efforts to follow God’s leading. But God wouldn’t let them go, even as Jacob wouldn’t let God leave without blessing him.

Having received his own new name, Jacob asks his opponent for his name. This was no small request. Jacob wants to understand the mystery of heaven and earth. You may recall that God’s “name” was so holy that no one in ancient Israel would dare speak it (hence the commandment, “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain”). There was also a sense that if you knew a deity’s name, you could somehow manipulate that deity (like an incantation). But the God of Israel will not be so manipulated.

So the stranger will not give up that name. The opponent blesses Jacob, but will not give Jacob all that Jacob seeks. Some things have changed, but others will remain as unsettled as they were before the match began.

As the sun comes up, the stranger disappears, and Jacob limps away with less than he sought from the all-night battle. He survived seeing God face to face, and received a blessing, but he did not get God’s name.

Still, Jacob does not head for the locker room to sulk. Jacob is sore — literally — but not a sore loser, for he has received more than he ever expected. He is no longer merely Jacob, the deceiver; he is now Israel, the one who strives with God.

While on a literal level this whole story is strange to us, it is not that difficult to relate to when we plug in our own experiences. How many of us have had a sleepless night struggling with our conscience or trying to justify ourselves for some hurt we inflicted? How many of us have suspected God was calling us to something we weren’t keen on and found sleep elusive while we tried to rationalize the whole business away? And how many of us have sought God’s blessing, and been given it, but left without a clear sense of what to do next?

That leaves us with an interesting theme – God the Attacker. Even the disquieting picture of God as the attacker isn’t that hard to comprehend. Haven’t we sometimes experienced God as the one who needles us to change, who provokes us to try harder, who bullies his way through our defenses to demand our commitment, who hounds us to surrender to him? This is no namby-pamby God who sits quietly on the sidelines of life waiting for us to notice him. When it suits his purposes, God is an in-our-face figure who confronts us through our conscience, through other people, through Scripture, through worship, through gut-wrenching situations or through other means to pressure us to deal with him. In those times, it is not that we cannot find God; it’s that we cannot get him off our back.

It’s an interesting irony of scripture that God doesn’t just attack those who are coming against him. In many cases, the people whom God “attacks” are not enemies of God. Rather they are people who were either actively attempting to do God’s will or who are at least expected to play a crucial role in passing on the divine covenant.

But the fact that God takes action against those who are obediently loyal to him suggests that there is a tough-love component to God’s compassion. Perhaps one aspect of God’s love is like that of a parent who puts obstacles in the way of an obedient child to make the child learn the hard but necessary lessons that enable movement toward maturity. Or, as the writer of Proverbs puts it, “for the Lord reproves the one he loves” (Proverbs 3:12).

A similar dynamic must have been going on during Vince Lombardi’s reign with the Green Bay Packers. Sports writers noted that one particular player seemed most often the object of Lombardi’s anger. A Green Bay pastor had a team member in his congregation and asked him if the sports writers were right. “Definitely,” said the player-parishioner. “He’s Coach Lombardi’s favorite.”

We have to remember, too, that God’s own son was not immune from wrestling with God. Jesus wrestled with his call and wrestled with those who would oppose his message of grace. Jesus had, in fact, taken on the role of Israel in his own person and showed the way out the other side—what it means to triumph, even over the grave.

Jacob’s glory in this dusk-to-dawn duel is not that he went looking for trouble, but rather that when it found him, when he was faced with the most formidable of foes possible, he stayed with the struggle until he received God’s blessing.

And that’s where our glory comes in, too. When God assails us with guilt or doubt or menaces our comfort with an unwanted challenge, we always have the option to deny the reality of the experience, to attribute it to “crazy thoughts” or an over active imagination. Better than denial, however, is to go on the mat with God and stay in the struggle until we have wrung from the Divine Adversary/Lover the blessing he wanted us to have all along.

The fourth-century church father St. Augustine gives us one flavor of that experience when he tells of the brutality of God’s call. Augustine says that God attacked him through his senses:

You called and shouted and burst my deafness. You flashed, shone, scattered my blindness. You breathed odors, and I drew in breath and panted for you. I tasted, and hungered and thirsted. You touched me and I burned for your peace.

For another flavor, consider how one 21st-century man describes his call into the ministry. He had been feeling the quiet tug of God for quite some time, but he wasn’t interested. Then, he says, “God started to shout at me.” It seemed that he could hardly get through a day without something in his usual routine suddenly taking on new confrontational meaning — and what had been a gentle “Please respond” became a provocative “Well, what are you going to do about this?” The man says that when he finally yielded, he was blessed with great peace and joy.

We might say that differently. Some might discuss this in terms of perspective. When we encounter God, we undergo a perspective change, an attitude adjustment. Jacob could’ve said, “Well, I got whupped.” Or he could say, “Hey, I got a new name.”

It’s clear from the text, too, that Jacob/Israel had learned from his mistakes. He came clean and threw himself at the mercy of his brother Esau…fully expecting to be rejected at best or killed at worst. Instead, when Esau sees his brother coming, the older brother “ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept together” (Genesis 33:4). The struggle had a pay-off. From pain often comes reconciliation—with God and with each other.

God is in the business of perspective change. We encounter God and we’re a different person, with a different name. We might have asked for this, but we got that. We might not have gained what we wanted, but we got what God wanted for us.

We might be sore losers in all of this. No struggle is pleasant. Our pride may be wounded, our bodies may be tired, our minds may be abuzz with new possibilities.

But when we stay with the struggle, we can come out the other side, like Jacob, with a new name — “one who strives with God.”

A lot of people expect faith to yield easy answers…to be a panacea against problems. The truth is that following God is often more like a wrestling match than a walk in the park. If you’re going to follow, expect there to be some measure of struggle.

And if you’re struggling now, know that there’s a purpose to that wrestling. Jacob shows us that often it’s the only way we can truly experience the blessings God has in store for us.

See, if you wrestle with God…there’s no such thing as a sore loser!

(Excerpts gleaned from Homiletics, “Sore Losers” July 31, 2005)

Announcing a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

You heard it here first! I will be leading a 10-day trip to the Holy Land in October of 2007 and you are invited. Details are forthcoming, but I’m excited about this opportunity to explore the places that have meant so much to many Christians, Jews, and Muslims for thousands of years. The tour is a package run by Educational Opportunities, Inc.–a Christian company that has been leading Holy Land tours for more than 50 years. I’d invite you to go to their web site to get a glimpse of the itinerary. We will likely depart on October 15.

As a way of preparing for the trip, I will be going to the Holy Land myself in January for a week on an EO-sponsored "familiarization" trip, which will give me the opportunity to become acquainted with the area and make plans for leading the October trip. I’ll be anxious to come back and share with you the wonders of this place and encourage you to come along!

EO’s tours are all-inclusive–air fare, hotels, meals (except lunches), tours, and fees. Ten days in Israel for less than $2000 (excluding taxes and tips) is quite a deal. It’s an amazing opportunity to make your study of the Bible come alive.

Some will immediately raise concerns about security. The truth is that EO has been leading groups without issues throughout the various times of trouble in that region. The "pilgrim’s path" is largely free of tension as people in that region realize the importance of foreign tourism. You can also check out the impressions of recent traveler’s on the EO site.

I’m really excited about this opportunity and hope that you’ll consider coming along. I’ll have brochures available at the church in the next week or so, and I will be scheduling informational meetings in late January.

If you’re looking at this post and you live outside of Park City, you are welcome to consider the trip as well. You can register with us and travel from the city closest to you. Email me if you are interested in signing up!

Coming This Sunday…

This Sunday we continue our series on the Genesis genealogy of Jesus with a look at Jacob, who is one of the most compelling figures in the Old Testament. Abraham got the call, Isaac almost got sacrificed, but Jacob is the one who the nation of Israel gets named after. It’s not because he’s got it all together–he lies, cheats, runs for his life, has 12 sons by four different women–yet he is somehow still the person who carries the covenant promise forward. Take a look at Genesis 25:19-34 and chapters 27-35 for his story.

I have to say that I’ve been enjoying preparing this series. Getting into these old stories and finding their connections comes at Advent from a completely different angle. Even though I’ve been studying these characters since childhood, there’s always something new to learn! I hope to see you Sunday!

“All in the Family” Part IV: Isaac–Child of Promise (12/3/06 Sermon)

We continue our series on the Genesis genealogy of Jesus today with Isaac, who was the son of Abraham and Sarah. Last week we talked about Abraham, the patriarch, who set out on this great journey at God’s invitation—a journey of promise based on land and descendants. Though Abraham and Sarah were both very old and Sarah had been barren all her life, God promised that they would have a child together. What seemed impossible, God made possible. It was almost laughable, really—which is why when Sarah gave birth, the child was named “Isaac” which means “he laughs.”

You’ll recall that God had chosen Abraham as the father of a new family, a new nation—a new kind of Adam. Through his descendants, God’s chosen people, Abraham would be a blessing to all the families of the earth. The story of Isaac, then, is really the story of how that family becomes a reality and how the faithfulness of the family will be tested.

The story of Abraham taking his son Isaac to Mt. Moriah is one of the most treasured and confusing stories in the Bible. We have seen God to this point being both the whimsical creator (Genesis 1 & 2), the divine parent (Genesis 3 – Adam and Eve). We have seen God as being grieved over the evil of humanity and yet still providing a way of salvation in the story of Noah. We have followed Abraham on his journey and waited with him for the son of promise. But then, like a lightning bolt, comes this horrifying tale of God’s order to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love,” and offer him “as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (22:2). Could a more terrifying test of faith be devised by even the most demanding of deities? Hardly! And yet, Abraham complies. He saddles his donkey, takes two young men and his son Isaac, and hits the road toward the place in the distance that God has shown him.

You’ll recall that up to this point, Abraham has been engaged in a kind of back and forth dialogue with God. Just four chapters earlier, Abraham had bargained with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah—total strangers. But now, when God tells Abraham to sacrifice the son he had been promised, the son for whom he had waited, the son through whom this great nation would come into being…Abraham is speechless. God is putting him to the test. Genesis 22:1 tells us, in a sense, that God wants to know if he can trust Abraham.

God’s testing is the real hang-up in the story for those of us with modern sensibilities. We’d rather have a God who simply gives us what we want with little to no conflict. In this season of “peace on earth” it’s hard for us to hear that God can act this way, but the evidence shows that testing and conflict are part of the whole biblical narrative.

Some of you may be fans of Patrick Lencioni’s books The FiveTemptations of a CEO, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, or my personal favorite Death By Meeting. In the book on CEOs, Lencioni offers that one of the key temptations for leaders and companies is to continually choose harmony over productive conflict or, to put it another way, choosing peace over progress. No growth or maturity can occur without conflict, be it in a company or in a family or in any relationship. We are somehow trained to believe that conflict is always bad and something to avoid, while the witness of the Bible is quite the opposite. The struggle over Isaac here is a conflict brought into the relationship between God and Abraham, and Abraham is now faced with a choice: do I choose peace and security by refusing to go up that mountain, or do I move toward the conflict and meet it head on, trusting that somehow God will keep his promises?

Surely Abraham’s head was spinning as he walked with his son up Mt. Moriah. Why can’t my contact with God be pleasant and enjoyable? How can I handle the horror I feel as I think about what is going to happen to my son? Is there any way that I can find a peaceful way out of this? How can I reconcile with my son before I … before I … before I … have to kill him? Abraham desperately wants to choose harmony over conflict.

You don’t have to be a CEO or a biblical patriarch to sympathize with his struggle. And yet, despite his intense inner pain, Abraham remains faithful to God. He takes the wood for the burnt offering and lays it on his son Isaac, and he himself carries the fire and the knife. The two walk on together, and then Isaac innocently asks, “Father! … where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” We can imagine the ache in his chest and the lump in his throat as he answers, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Abraham is not conflicted with theological questions we might have in this situation. After all, what kind of a god would make such a request as this? Yet, for Abraham, God is God, and God is a God who will provide a “lamb for a burnt offering.”

If God is God, it is clear that Abraham is Abraham. He is a father, and this is, as far as he knows, his only surviving son. Ishmael was gone, presumed dead, expelled into the desert with nothing but his mother, a bagel and a canteen of water. Now, Abraham has only Isaac left. The anguish is palpable. Abraham has to make a devilishly difficult decision, a conflicted choice that looks like it will lead to certain sorrow and despair in his life. He desperately wants harmony, but does not know how in the world he can achieve it while remaining faithful to God. So he makes the choice – the tough choice – of productive conflict, throwing his life into turmoil and sacrificing his immediate peace in order to gain peace in the long haul.

Abraham binds his son Isaac, lays him on the altar, on top of the wood, and clutching the knife in his hand, reaches out to kill his son. But an angel appears with a last-minute stay of execution, and announces that Abraham has passed God’s test of faithfulness. Abraham looks up to see a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns, and he sacrifices this beast in place of his son, discovering in a new and dramatic way that God will, in fact, provide.

That’s the real principle in the story: When we trust God, God provides. God’s command to sacrifice Isaac could have led to an easy peace, with Abraham abandoning the Lord and living a safe and unremarkable life with his little family. But he chose instead the productive conflict that goes along with faithfulness to God, and he became the father of a great nation.

When peace paralyzes, a struggle can save. Often, as in this case, when conflict is chosen, God supplies a ram in the thicket, and the long-range results turn out well. Short-term harmony is attractive, but it is rarely a better choice than long-term productive conflict. If we behave in a way that is faithful to God and to each other, we can opt for constructive conflict, and trust that we will grow in productivity, relationships and spiritual well-being. The Lord will provide for us, as he helps us to grow into the people he wants us to be.

We have to remember, too, that this story of Isaac and Abraham is played out in the experience of God, too. Jesus, God in the flesh, was tempted in the wilderness to do things the easy way, to avoid conflict and instead engage popularity. He was tempted by people who wanted to elevate him to political power. He was tempted to take the easy way out of his conflict with religious leaders.

When we find him there in the Garden of Gethesemane the night before his death, we see him struggling with the conflict. Is this the way? Are you sure, Father? Jesus could have easily slipped into the desert that night and avoided arrest. But like Abraham, and like so many other faithful people in the Bible, Jesus trusts and God provides.

The writer of Hebrews makes the link between these stories of Isaac and Jesus. The process of trusting and provision for Abraham is the paradigm for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Abraham believed that “God is able to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking he did receive [Isaac] back.” Jesus trusted the promise of God that through his death the world might be saved—a promised sealed and delivered through the empty tomb.

It’s not easy to endure conflict when the easy path is so close at hand. But the story of Abraham and Isaac teaches us that God always provides when we trust him.

What decisions are you facing in your life? Are you being tempted to choose harmony over productive conflict? To pick peace instead of painful growth? Is your conflict being found

• in an abusive relationship, in providing tough-love with a child, in speaking out against some injustice at work, in confronting a friend who needs help, in dealing with conflict in your marriage

Remember the promise that God gave to Abraham: “I will be with you.” Abraham chose to trust that promise and chose the hard mountain path even if it would cost him everything. The same applies to us– if you choose the tougher path, we have to believe that God will supply you with a ram in a thicket. If God is calling you to service, to obedience, or to greater faithfulness, God will challenge you – as he challenged Abraham – to trust him with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. You will discover that divinely sanctioned conflict does not lead to death and destruction, but rather to life and growth and new opportunity.

We have to remember, though, that trust costs us something. It forces us to give up the idea that we can solve every problem, and that we can provide for ourselves. Trusting God in the face of difficult circumstances is a constant struggle, but it is a struggle that leads to growth.

Isaac himself would grow up, but he would never speak to his father Abraham again. Things had changed. There was an implicit conflict in the family. Sarah would die soon after, and Genesis 24:67 tells us that Isaac mourned for her. But when Abraham died, we don’t read of Isaac’s emotions (though Abraham was buried by Isaac and Ishmael together). It could be that Isaac struggled with that incident on Mt. Moriah his whole life. It’s a foreshadowing, really, of the fact that this conflict, this testing, this reliance on God would be a struggle for the rest of the family from generation to generation.

The text tells us that Isaac would be the one to carry on the covenant promise, but he would do so without much fanfare. Isaac would marry Rebekah—his second cousin. Like Abraham and Sarah, they would struggle to have children because of barrenness, but again God provided and the twins Esau and Jacob would be born. The conflict between those two brothers would further test the covenant promises of God as we will see next week.

The challenges of life can cause us to look for an easy peace, taking the path of denial and avoidance and minimal resistance. But for those who choose the productive conflict that goes along with doing God’s will in love and justice, there can be life and growth and new opportunity.

The bottom line is this: When peace paralyzes, a struggle can save. When we trust God, there will always be a ram in the thicket. Sometimes you have to look hard for it, but God promises us that it will be there.

What conflict is God calling you to face? How will you trust God?

Source: “When Peace Paralyzes,” Homiletics, June 27, 1999.