A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Out of Egypt

Mark E. Ryman  •  A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018
Through the Bible in a Year  •  Numbers 24:1–9; Psalm 45:1–17; Hebrews 4:7–13; Matthew 11:25–30
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“May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

I hope I get this story close to right. After all, it isn’t my story, but I think you’ll get the gist. A friend of mine, a Nazarene pastor, tells the story of a man in his church who was given the task of finding a preacher for their denomination’s annual youth gathering. The name of a new, young preacher was given him but he turned him down because he wasn’t a known name, a name that could draw a crowd. The young preacher he turned down was none other than Billy Graham.

Discipleship isn’t a destination; it is following Jesus. So Jesus doesn’t say, Come over here. You should be in this place. Instead he says, “Come to me.”

As I’m sure you all know, Billy Graham died this week. He was 99 years old and by all accounts, he was a faithful preacher of the Bible. Well, by all accounts save NPR, which wants to suggest that he was a hypocrite because he was not only a preacher but a pastor to US presidents, because he should have stayed out of politics.

Perhaps then, it is NPR that is being hypocritical, being a news organization that should stay out of politics and religion, and just report the news.

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Presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama have met with Graham. Let’s be frank. They didn’t meet with him for mere spiritual reasons. Sometimes their reasons were political. I suspect, each one of them met with Graham for both political and spiritual reasons.

Years ago, when Susan and I were at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC, for a Rotary convention, the Obamas were also there for vacation at the beginning of President Obama’s first term. Driving home from the convention, we were startled to find official vehicles at every single exit ramp and on-ramp on I-40. Of course, we wondered if it had something to do with the nearby President. It had. He was on his way to meet with Billy Graham at his home in Montreat. They met for about a half an hour, closing their time together with the President first praying for Rev. Graham, then Graham praying for the President.

Let us pray. Eternal and Immortal God, only you are able to transform the hopelessness of death into the hope and promise of eternal life. Show us how to stand firm in faith through all of life’s trials and tragedies, trusting your promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.

Back in the day, some presidents wanted Billy Graham to help them in their public office. Eisenhower entertained the idea of having Graham write his speeches in hopes of ending the godlessness of communism. Later presidents used him for photo opportunities to bolster their religiously-heated campaigns. Some were purely moved in their own spirits, seeking Pastor Graham’s counsel when divorce threatened the White House, or asking him to lead Bible talks with their children, or having him lead worship services in the White House. It’s tough to even have a Bible study there now.

In our Bible readings this week, we encountered another preacher whom the king wanted to use as a puppet. King Balak of Moab sent for Balaam, a wicked prophet, though one who truly heard from God. The king wanted the prophet to curse God’s people. But, Balaam, at the Lord’s insistence, once through the agency of a talking donkey, would not curse the people. God would not allow Balaam to do the politically or culturally correct thing. “Must I not take care to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?” he asked the king.

In one of his oracles, Balaam prophesied about the God who brings Jacob out of Egypt. This takes us back to the First Commandment in Exodus 20. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”

Balaam could prophesy the same thing today. God is still the Lord who brings his people out of Egypt, out of bondage. He does so as he has always done, by leading them into the wilderness, where they must learn to follow him—even when it would have been expedient to turn aside to Moab or another culture. But the easy way often leads right back into bondage. And the way that is not God’s way always leads to bondage.

No matter who the president is, no matter how warm or cold culture seems to be toward God or the Church, no matter how difficult it is to follow God through this present wilderness that we find ourselves in, follow we must, or bondage lies ahead.

Sometimes I get the notion that what American Christians really want is for society to think like them, politicians to support Christian political agendas (whatever those are), and to generally have their lives easier, arriving at some sort of Christian utopia.

But that is not what God wants for us. What God wants is what he has always willed: that we follow him. He doesn’t want us to arrive at some heaven on earth where all seems right with the world. We aren’t dead yet! Heaven awaits us after this life. In the meanwhile, it is ours to simply follow, not to arrive. But how do we do that? How do we follow God? How do we journey toward that blessed rest while still in this life?

The writer of Hebrews reminded us in this morning’s New Testament reading that we must strive to enter that rest by listening to the God we follow in this wilderness. By listening to him, as I hope you are all doing by regularly reading his Word and meditating upon it, we learn, like Balaam, the will of the Lord. His Word cuts through the evil desires of our hearts. Through it, God is active within us, calling is back from the side roads of easy living and cultural correctness, into walking with Jesus along the straight and narrow path—the path that leads away from wandering toward a destination.

God doesn’t seem to be as concerned about our arriving at a destination in this life so much as he cares about us following him. This should be plain to us, after beginning to read the Books of Moses. But following God can be difficult, I know. It can be frightening too, when we look at how the world has changed, how our own country seems like we are traveling on foreign soil. Yet, perhaps it should be reassuring instead of frightening. Following God should be reassuring because we always know where we are: we are with God.

Discipleship isn’t a destination; it is following Jesus. So Jesus doesn’t say, Come over here. You should be in this place. Instead he says, “Come to me.”

Now this is nonsense to sophisticated adults. After all, grown-ups know that one has to arrive. There’s a goal in sight, a destination, a place where you know when you’ve arrived, finally made it in life. If you take the time to look, you’ll see that a lot of adults are clueless. The truth is absolutely hidden from them. But children get it. They’re followers, always sticking close to someone who knows the truth. In fact, we adults insist upon it, because we love our children.

We just don’t do it ourselves. We don’t follow our own advice. It’s do as I say, not as I do. It seems we would rather be in bondage to the cares of the world than to follow Jesus and be fee. Still, Jesus bids us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

When we take Jesus seriously, following him each day, instead of following after the world, we find he was right after all when he said: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” We look out at the Church and say, “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel!”

There is more to following Jesus than reading the Bible. Yet that’s where following starts and ends, and in that revelation, we discover the middle of discipleship. In it, we find God’s will for our lives. So, we must spend time in God’s Word every day, listening for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Otherwise, we are ignorantly stumbling through this life. We look like fools to God when we insist upon being adults, so wise and understanding in our own eyes. He isn’t going to send a donkey to talk sense into us. He has given us his Word. Through it, he reveals his will to those among us who would become like little children. Through it he leads us out of Egypt, out of bondage to sin and death by the power of his Spirit.

May God’s sharp arrows strike and pierce you. May the double-edged sword of his Word cut you so deeply that you discover the truth: that it is the Lord himself who is your destination. Follow him; take his yoke upon you and learn from him. “For [his] yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light.”

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