Trust Issues: 2 Kings 4:1-7

Posted May 31, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

Preached by the Rev. Jeri Katherine Warden Sipes on March 11, 2012 at Wesley Memorial UMC as part of the Lenten Sermon Series
Disciple-2-Disciple: Learning from the Great Cloud of Witnesses

Our scripture lesson in 2 Kings 4 today is about reaching the end of your rope, hitting rock bottom, being between a rock and a hard place, running on empty, feeling hopeless and overwhelmed with no sign of a light at the end of the tunnel. Have you been there? Maybe you are there now. We all have moments in life where we or those we love feel overwhelmed by all life has thrown at us. What do you do or who do you turn to when you are facing difficult times? What do you do when you can’t pay your bills? When your worry consumes you? When every conversation with your spouse is an argument? When you feel depressed, alone and hopeless? When your heart is broken and your dreams are shattered? When you just can’t seem to find happiness or motivation for anything? When you are discouraged, down and disappointed? When you feel empty or purposeless? When you are juggling more than you can handle? What do you do? Who do you turn to?

This was where the unnamed widow in our verses was. She was perhaps at the lowest point in her life; she was experiencing despair, death, and debt all at once. Her husband just died. She was left with a debt that she could not pay. Back in those days when people could not pay their bills, parents were forced to sell their children into slavery to pay their debts. The creditor was knocking at her door. And this poor, unnamed woman was at the point of despair. But this unnamed widow teaches us today very important lessons about discipleship, about putting our full trust in God no matter our circumstances. When all seemed lost, our scripture verses tell us that this woman cried out to God.

Too often in difficult times we turn to God as a last resort. When we’re in trouble we often panic and worry and try to solve and control our own problems. We get overwhelmed at the size of our troubles. We don’t trust that God will take care of our problems. We don’t trust that God will provide. We don’t fully rely on God. I have always thought it was very ironic that our money says, “In God we trust” when too often we trust more in money to fix our problems than we trust in God. Too often in good and especially bad times we don’t make room for God, therefore we don’t make room for a blessing; we don’t make room for a miracle.

The widow cried out to God. She knew her problems were too big for her handle. She cried out to God and sought help from Elisha expecting God to provide, deliver, strengthen, and save. She didn’t just cry out half-heartedly or with doubt or skepticism or hesitation or distrust or unbelief. She expected, anticipated, strongly believed and knew in her heart that if she came to God with her problems, with all she had, God would make a way out of her troubles. There is an old gospel song that says: “Waymaker, He’ll make a way; Jesus will make a way. For he knows, the Lord know what you’re going through, and he knows, God knows, when you’ve done all you’re known to do. And the Lord know, He knows, just how much you can bear, and the Lord, I’m so glad he knows and he feels every pain, every cry of despair. So, in your trials, just remember that you’re never left alone, for in your weakness that’s when the Lord, He’ll make you strong. Waymaker, he’ll make a way.”

As God’s disciples we must trust that God is truly the Waymaker of our lives; God always makes a way if we but come to him with all we have. But too often we hold back. And again, we do not make room for God in our lives or in our troubles. We do not offer God everything; we do not come to God fully trusting, fully expecting and fully believing God to make a way through our problems as the widow did. Our problems, our troubles, our present circumstances may seem insurmountable, big and impossible in our own eyes, but we must fully trust and believe that nothing, not a single thing in our lives, is insurmountable, too big or impossible for our God. Psalm 50:15 says, “Call on me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 reminds us again of God’s promises: “God is made perfect in our weakness. When you are weak, God is strong.” Our God is in the business of delivering, of rescuing, of providing, of showing mercy. Our God is in the miracle business. Luke 1:36 reminds us that “nothing is or will be impossible for God.”

All God wants and asks us to do is to come—to come as we are and with all we have. Elisha asked the widow, “What do you have?” The widow answered, “Nothing.” We can come with nothing, with emptiness, with problems, with questions, with doubts and still God will make a way. God will make a way with what you have, even if all you have is nothing, even if all you have is a pile of debt, or a mountain of problems. God can and will make a way. Remember what God was able to do with Moses’ rod, young David’s sling, a little boy’s lunch, twelve ragtag disciples, and empty vessels. Time and time again throughout the Bible and in our lives, God shows that he will make a way around seemingly insurmountable or impossible circumstances. God is the Creator of the world; God has boundless resources; there is no limit to what our God can do.

The only limit is us. All too often we stand in the way of God. We prevent the Waymaker from making a way for us. We often limit God because we do not fully trust God; we do not trust God to be in the intimate details, or the overwhelming problems of our lives. We can’t imagine that the Creator of the Universe can care us us that much! But God has professed his unconditional love for us time and time again. And yet from time to time we all have trust issues when it comes to God. But the widow teaches us to not limit our God, but to trust God—to trust God to hear and respond to the cries of all his people.

But the widow also teaches us that God doesn’t always answer our prayers or our cries for help in the ways we imagine or want. I am sure you have probably heard the story about a man who was told to evacuate his house because he lived in a flood zone and in just a few days his house would be completely under water. The man did not leave his house when he was told, and so as the rains came he prayed for God to help him. At that moment a car drove by and one of his neighbor’s cried out for the man to get in the car, but the man said, “No, God will save me.” A few hours later the waters were so deep that the first floor of his house was completely under water. The man cried out for God to save him, and just then some emergency rescue people came by in a boat and yelled for the man to get in. But the man said, “No, God will save me.” A few hours later the waters were so high that the man was sitting on his roof. He cried out again for God to save him. Just then a helicopter swooped down and yelled for the man to get in, but he said, “No, God will save me.” Finally the man was swimming in the water. His whole house was under water, and he cried out to God, “God why did you not save me?” God said, “I sent you a car, a boat and a helicopter.” Sometimes God does not answer our cries for help in the way we imagine.

When Elisha told the widow to borrow empty vessels from her neighbors and to take her little jar of oil and fill up the empty vessels, I am sure the widow, for just a moment perhaps, thought: “You must be crazy, Elisha! You’re supposed to be a man of God, but now I think you’re just a crazy old man! That whole plan sounds ridiculous and a waste of time! How can something so ridiculous possibly help me at a time like this?!” The bible doesn’t say what the widow immediately thought, but I know if I was the widow that would have been my first thought! Maybe the widow thought that and maybe she didn’t. All we are told is that she trusted; she trusted that this crazy plan would be the answer to her problems. God does work in mysterious ways of course.

Now, I don’t want you to mishear me. I am not preaching the prosperity gospel. I am not saying God will abundantly provide material wealth for you and your family and do anything you ask. God is not a wish-granter; God is not a genie in a lamp. God provides for our needs, not our greed. Like the widow we all have needs—we all have spiritual, emotional, and physical needs; God knows our needs and we have to trust that God will take care of our needs. God provides for our needs, not our greed. From the widow, we learn as disciples to cry out to God in our need, to trust that God will respond, but that God doesn’t just provide, God can take our nothing, our emptiness, our brokenness and our troubles and do mighty things that will completely transform us and our circumstances.. But like the widow, we must first come to God. God will meet us where we are if, from where we are, we call upon God. Romans 10:13 says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” That is exactly what the unnamed widow in our verses today did, and God heard and responded to her cries.

But the unnamed widow is not the only disciple we learn from in these verses in 2 Kings 4. We also learn from the prophet Elisha. On the first Sunday of Lent two weeks ago we learned that as disciples today we need one another. Yes, the widow cried out to God, but she also turned to another disciple of God to help and guide her in her time of need. Another way we limit God is not recognizing or trusting that God just might want to use us—God just might want to use you—to be the answer to someone’s cry for help. The widow trusted that God would send her help, but Elisha trusted God to use him to be her help. God is a waymaker, and as his disciples we must be ready and trust that God has equipped each one of us to be God’s avenue or channel of his grace, mercy, love and compassion to people in all kinds of need. We must trust that God can and will make his way in and through us.

So, maybe right now, at this point in your life you are not at the end of your rope, not hitting rock bottom, not between a rock and a hard place, not running on empty, not feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, desperate, and discouraged. Maybe that is not you at all right now. So, maybe you are an Elisha through whom God is trying to answer the prayers of someone who is at the end of their rope, who has hit rock bottom, who is between a rock and a hard place and running on empty and who feels hopeless, overwhelmed, desperate and discouraged. Part of trusting God is completely opening ourselves up to being used by God. Part of our trust issues with God is that it is usually when we completely hit rock bottom before we turn to God and decide to fully trust God. But Elisha reminds us to trust God even during the good times when things are going pretty smoothly. Elisha reminds us to make room for God—not just when we are at the end of our rope or when we need something from God. We might not be in need of a blessing or a miracle as the unnamed widow desperately was, but God just might use us to be a blessing or a miracle to someone in need. Trusting God is not just about trusting God to provide, deliver or rescue, but trusting God is trusting that God will make his way in and through us.

As God’s disciples, we need to work on our trust issues. Like the widow when things get bad, God should be the first we turn to—not the last. And like Elisha, we must trust that God’s plan for this world includes each and every one of us. If you are where the widow is this week, put your trust in God and open your eyes to see the people God is trying to answer your cries of help. If you are more of an Elisha this week, open yourself up to God and trust him to use you to meet the needs of the unnamed widows among us. Amen.

Notes and Works/Sites Referenced: March 11 Sermon


Easter comes to WESLEY MEMORIAL!

Posted April 7, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

Come kick off the Easter season with us this Sunday at Wesley Memorial! We worship a great God with a great crowd of people, great music, great food and an extra short sermon this Sunday, sooooo it is a Sunday you won’t want to miss 🙂

Happy Easter from our church to yours!

Wesley Memorial: a vital congregation???

Posted March 7, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

What is a good measure of success? Most people would say numbers. Numbers seem not to lie. They are facts, right? Numbers are a quantitative, objective way to measure growth, decline, success or loss. But I am a firm believer that numbers do not tell the whole story; in a way numbers can and do lie.

Right now the United Methodist Church is calling churches to hand over their numbers. This church-wide data collection is called a “Call to Action” meant to help churches assess their vitality and grow into more vital congregations. Our church, Wesley Memorial, had already begun a visioning process when the UMC Vital Congregation initiative was introduced. We have had many conversations, looking at and studying numbers, numbers, numbers over the last two years. We do want to grow and we know some changes must be made in order for us to have a more sustainable congregation. Otherwise, as the UM Vital Congregation graph predicts (see below), we will be dead within a decade. Most churches and pastors, however, are treating this call for numbers as just more paperwork outside the usual Tables I, II, III and Charge Conference forms that are both filled out every calendar year. Most churches know their numbers inside and out, and most churches are always looking to grow. But can studying and focusing on our numbers really help us become more vital congregations? In some ways, yes. But do numbers tell the whole story? Can numbers truly say if a church is vital or not?

I would argue that Wesley Memorial is a vital congregation in many ways. We do need some growth to financially sustain us over the next decade, but if we ceased to exist today I think the community would feel the effects of our doors shutting. For a small church, we do an enormous amount of outreach in many areas of our community. Over the course of 12 months we serve, support and provide financial assistance to over 15 local non-profits, charities or ministries. When there is a need in our community, our church is quick to respond. We average 50-60 on Sunday mornings, which in the South is considered a “small” congregation. But of the 50 to 60 members and regular attendees, 100% of them are involved in outreach, evangelism and small groups. I’d rather have a small church with only 50-60 congregants and 100% participation than a mega church with less than 10% participation. The generosity and compassion of my church never ceases to amaze me. God has been able to use something small, like Wesley Memorial, to do great things for our neighbors and the Kingdom of God, and I believe God will continue to use our church in mighty ways as long as we continue to seek God, love our neighbors and invite people to join our discipleship community at Wesley Memorial. According to the vital congregation graph, Wesley Memorial is not vital; we are a dying church. Numbers do not tell the whole truth, and thank goodness we worship a God in the business of miracles and resurrection! The goals for our church attest to our belief that God can and will nurture our church in growth and vitality in areas where we need growth and vitality. With God, we have the power to change our predicted future. With God, nothing is impossible. With God, numbers never mattered much. Time and time again in the Bible, God is able to take the few, the small, the seemingly non-vital people and things and make great things happen–Moses’ rod, David’s sling, the widow’s pots, twelve rag-tag disciples, a boy’s lunch. Nothing is impossible for God.

Speaking the Truth: 2 Chronicles 34:20-33

Posted March 5, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Sipes on Sunday, March 4, 2012 at Wesley Memorial UMC

This Sunday we continue our Lenten Disciple-2-Disciple sermon series where we are learning from the great cloud of witnesses of scripture how to be better disciples. Last week we learned from Deborah and Barak two very important lessons for our Lenten journey and our lives as disciples in our world today. Deborah and Barak taught us in Judges 4 that 1.) We need God, and 2.) We need each other. Today we learn from two more Old Testament disciples, another woman and another man. We learn from the prophetess Huldah and King Josiah. Hear the Word of God in 2 Chronicles 34:20-33.

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If you have spent any time reading about the prophets in the Bible you might have seen that prophets aren’t always well-liked people. They are respected, but not liked because prophets for the most part did not always have good news for God’s people. Prophets were spokespeople for God, and God uses prophets to lead his people back to him and often that road back to God, as many of us know, is not an easy journey to make. In our scripture lesson for today God used Huldah, a wife, a mother and a prophetess to lead God’s people back to God because once again, like we saw in our scripture lesson last week, God’s people have strayed. They have turned their backs on God. They have forsaken their covenant. They are worshipping other gods.

Huldah dared to speak a word of judgment and reproof to God’s people which they needed to hear. Huldah’s message from God surely wasn’t easy to deliver, and I am sure it wasn’t easy to hear. Sometimes as God’s people we need a little tough loving when we stray from God. Sometimes as disciples we have to speak the hard truth to our brothers and sisters in Christ and to the world around us. As disciples we are called to practice this tough love on the people we love most, knowing that such love is for their best interest and growth. Remember last week we learned that we need one another, and part of needing one another is needing an honest accountability partner who will challenge us to see our mistakes and learn from them so that we can grow more and more into the image of God which we were all created.

Two weeks ago in our Sunday afternoon bible study, one of the presenters on a video clip we watched said that there aren’t too many people willing to “risk community” today.[1] Risk community. Think about that for a moment. What does it mean to risk community? What I think he meant was that being a part of a community, or in our case a church, doesn’t mean just gathering together once a week or for an hour here and there, but being community means involving ourselves in each others’ lives though all the good and bad, through all the easy and tough times and through all the clear and chaotic moments. The presenter went on to say that being a part of the community of God is “obligating” ourselves in the lives of our brothers and sisters at church just as Jesus so intimately involved or obligated himself in the lives of his disciples. As disciples of Jesus Christ or as baptized people who have been initiated into the family of God, we are called or obligated to keep one another accountable to the Word of God; part of discipleship is keeping one another accountable, and that is exactly what Huldah is doing in our verses today.

She isn’t just blindly making up rules for the sake of being hard on God’s people; her message isn’t one rooted in jealousy, revenge, vengeance or anger. She isn’t out to make other people look bad, so she herself will look good. Sometimes that’s how we are as humans. We like to point out faults in others so we feel better about ourselves. But that is not what Huldah is doing. Huldah is a true spokeswoman for God. She is attuned to God and committed to God’s Word even when everyone else around her was not. We have to know God’s Word to speak the truth to God’s people. Because Huldah knows God’s Word, she is able to speak the truth. Huldah lives by the Word of God and because of that she is able to help the Israelites see that they have turned their backs on God—that they have failed to let the Word of God shape their lives.

We have all been where the Israelites have been, right? I know I have. I have strayed from God and done my own thing without listening or caring if it is what God wants. I have been distracted, too busy and sometimes too lazy to immerse myself in the Word of God, or to make the Word of God the foundation or center of my life. A life in Christ, life as a disciple, takes work and sometimes it is just too hard and I am just too tired and too busy with all I have to do to make time for God. Have you been there?

I bet I can venture to guess that we have all been there. That is where the Israelites were, and Huldah spoke her message of tough love to all of Israel—even to the king. The thing I love about Huldah is that she doesn’t compromise her message for anyone. She calls it how it is no matter if you’re a peasant, priest, merchant or king.[2] Huldah’s message is the same message whether you’re rich or poor, young or old, educated or not educated, black or white. Huldah’s message of judgment and call to return to God is a timeless message for disciples of all ages and cultures. Huldah begins her message by saying, “Tell the man who sent you to me.” Now, Huldah knows very well that it is King Josiah, the great King of Judah, who is asking for her advice. But at first Huldah doesn’t even acknowledge Josiah as a king; she simply calls him a man—a man who in his very humanness has turned from God, a man who has sinned, a man who has not kept God’s people accountable to the Word of God.

All men and women, girls and boys—all people great and small as our verses in 2 Chronicles tell us—are prone to wander from God—as that old hymn says. It is also as Paul says in Romans 7, “I do not do what I want or should do, but do the very things I know I should not do.” From time to time, as disciples of Christ, we slip back into our old selves and forget that we have been made new and clothed in righteousness and holiness as our verses Ephesians 4 said this morning. Huldah was not impressed by positions or power; she told the King of Judah and his whole kingdom to get right with the Lord, to return to God, to renew their covenant with God.[3] God is also not impressed with positions or power. From time to time we all need renewal; we all need to have these return-to-the-Lord moments where someone we love speaks the hard-to-hear truth to us with love and compassion the way Huldah did to King Josiah and the Israelites. As disciples today, we need to be reminded that an important part of discipleship is keeping one another accountable to God’s Word. As disciples we all need a Huldah in our lives to keep us accountable. Who is your Huldah? Who is keeping you accountable? If you do not have such a person in your life, find one.

As I have said, Huldah’s message couldn’t have been an easy one to deliver. For me, I know it is hard to tell my own friends and family when I think they are doing something they should not be doing. I’m too afraid of what they will think or how they will react, and I don’t feel like I have any responsibility or right to call their attention to some obvious wrongs in their lives. But Huldah doesn’t seem to think about all that; she seems to be so brave and confident delivering her message of judgment and call for repentance and renewal. Nothing, not even standing before a king and a whole nation, stops Huldah from sharing the Word of God. But God shows us through Huldah that one person can make a difference in a thousand lives.[4] Huldah’s decision to speak the truth about the Word of God led to changes for a whole nation. Sometimes as disciples it is easy to get discouraged; it is easy to think of ourselves as the alone one or the very few, but as our Columbia DS, Rev. Tim McClendon, likes to remind me: “Do not fear to sow on account of the birds.” We cannot fear sharing the Word of God or speaking the truth in difficult situations just because we think no one is listening or no one cares. Sometimes we just don’t know what kind of difference our words make in the lives of others; we are all called to be spokespeople or witnesses for God in all we say and do.

But we’re not always the one called to speak the truth; sometimes we’re the ones receiving the message of judgment like King Josiah and the Israelites—such a message is never easy to hear. It is not easy to receive criticism, to be told we’re in the wrong, to be told that we need to change. King Josiah could have had Huldah killed for her message of judgment and call for repentance. He could have been defensive and called Huldah a liar. He could have ignored her and kept on living away from the Word of God. He could have consulted another prophet who would give him a better, happier message. But King Josiah was a man of God. When he heard Huldah’s words, he was upset and ashamed, but most of all he knew Huldah was right; he knew she was speaking the truth from the Word of God. He knew he needed to make some changes in his own life and the life of his nation. King Josiah was led to repentance and covenant renewal, and he could receive Huldah’s message because he knew that with God there is always forgiveness. Huldah’s message was one of judgment, but it was also one of compassion and mercy because the God we worship is a God of compassion, mercy, and love who offers forgiveness if we but come to God.

King Josiah knew that though we are still held responsible and accountable for our sins and even though there are consequences to the bad decisions we make in our lives. With God we live in a state of grace and forgiveness. God offers us second and third and fourth chances. How many times have we heard stories this year alone about the Israelites or God’s people turning from God? God did not give up on them, and God does not give up on us, but with forgiveness we must confront our sins, seek repentance and change. Like King Josiah, we have a choice to how we respond when we are found in the wrong. We can choose to ignore those voices of truth in our lives; those voices that speak hard-to-hear words of truth out love for us, or we can be like King Josiah and choose to make changes in our lives with the help of God and others. King Josiah’s decision to listen to Huldah, the decision of this one man, one leader and king, again the is decision of one led to changes in thousands of lives.

We are told in chapter 33 that throughout the rest of King Josiah’s days, the Israelites did not turn away from God. That would not have been the case if Huldah hadn’t had the courage to speak up to a king and at a time when speaking the truth was very difficult. Huldah’s decision to speak the truth from the Word of God transformed their world, and King Josiah’s decision to listen to Huldah and make changes in his life transformed the world as well. We learn from Huldah and King Josiah that as disciples we are called to know the Word of God so that we can speak the truth even in difficult situations, but also as disciples we are called to be held accountable by others; as disciples we need the truth spoken to us from time to time because we never know if we are the one that will be the transformation the world needs. Huldah and King Josiah were open and available to hearing the truth God had for their lives and the world, and they allowed themselves to be changed when they heard the truth. Are you, as Christ’s disciples today, open and available to hearing God and the changes and transformations he is calling you to make in your life? Are you open and available for being the one to speak the trust in a world that has turned their backs on God? Huldah and King Josiah teach us that God uses his disciples—God uses us—in mighty ways that can transform the world around us. How are you making yourself available to God? Amen.

[1] David A. deSilva in Invitation to the New Testament: a short term Disciple Bible Study (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), Session 4, part I.



March 4 Sermon Notes (click to see the WordDoc with all Rev. Sipes’ sermon notes and works referenced)

Lenten Sermon Series

Posted March 2, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

Returning Home: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Posted February 27, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Sipes on Ash Wednesday 2012 at Wesley Memorial UMC

I don’t know if you listen to or even heard of or like Michael Buble, but I am quite enamored of Michael Buble’s music—his serenading voice and his big-band style that makes you think of Frank Sinatra; it’s all so beautiful and romantic. One of my favorite songs of his is one that he wrote for military soldiers coming back home to their families after months of deployment overseas. Every time I hear this song my eyes tear up and I usually cry. One time I was driving back from one of my many trips to Nashville. It had been a long week, a long road trip and it was raining and traffic was moving slowly. In the middle of all that Michael Buble’s song, Home, came on, and I cried almost the whole way home because I just wanted to be home—back with my husband and my dogs and in my own bed. As Dorothy says in the Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.” I can empathize with the military families Buble wrote the song for. My dad was deployed and returned home over and over again throughout my childhood, and when I was older my dad said that the thing that kept him going during all those months away in worn-torn and poverty-stricken countries was thoughts of home. But when I listen to Michael Buble’s song, I’ll admit that I don’t always think of those military families he wrote the song for or my childhood. There is just something about home, something about returning home—whether it is returning from a business trip, or deployment or an extended stay at the hospital or a vacation. There is no place like home.

And yet as I was thinking about Buble’s song, I thought that so many of us live away from home, or we live with that constant longing of home. Our scripture lesson tonight wasn’t the story of the prodigal son, but for just a moment let’s remember Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son—of how a son left his father, his family and his home with his entire inheritance which he spent on various temporary pleasures. When the son’s money ran out, all he could think about was home, returning home, but he felt too far away, not worthy, what would he say, how could his father forgive him? The story of the prodigal son is very similar to the story of the Israelites in the book of Joel. It is seems that so often throughout the bible God’s people turn from God and they, like the prodigal son, do what they want; they don’t listen to God; they break their covenant with God; they are reluctant to make their home with God. I don’t think much has changed since biblical times. I think we often find ourselves very much like the prodigal son or the Israelites in the book of Joel. We stray, we disobey, we do things we know God would not want us to do, we say things we know God would not want us to say, we live according to our will and not God’s, we want to control, we don’t listen for God, instead we turn from God and do things our own way and we rob ourselves from feeling at home with God no matter circumstances or where we are in life.

But thank goodness for the church calendar that brings us to Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent every year. If you have already abandoned your New Year’s resolutions to be a better person, to get your life right—lucky for you that this season of Lent is kind of like the Christian season of New Year’s resolutions. Only it is a bit more intentional and intense and should be taken a little more seriously because this is the season of “getting right with God.” I don’t really like to tell people to get their lives right with God. I like what Joel tells us to do; he says, “Rend your hearts to God…return to the Lord with all your heart.” The Lenten season is a homecoming season; it is a returning, a journey, a process of growth. My mom used to have a plaque hanging in our house that said, “Home is where the heart is.” The Lenten season is a season of returning home to God. It is a journey from where we are living away from God in our lives to once again giving our whole hearts to God so that God can make his home in us.

It is more than giving up chocolate, sweets or meat or this or that. Joel tells us to rend, give, or surrender our whole hearts and not just our clothing. What you give up or take on during this season of Lent is not just a show for the congregation, but our outward rituals, those things we give up, those new things we take on to challenge us to grow spiritually—those sacrifices or changes are supposed to ignite or spark or awaken inward change, so that we are transformed from the inside out; we are made new, made whole, our hearts are at home with God. Giving up that which we covet, or our those bad habits, attitudes, addictions or lifestyles that rob us of life without wholly returning our hearts to God will only leave us tied again to the gods and worldly ways and demands and chaos that already rule our lives. Lent is more than a period of momentary abstinence, momentary repentance and momentary renewal; today on Ash Wednesday begins a whole new way of life.

Joel is clear that returning home to God begins with repentance. Before we decide to give up or make changes in our lives during this forty-day journey, we must take a good hard look at our own lives and those dark places that keep us from a relationship with God. Where do we need grow or change? Where is God calling me to give up something? Where is God challenging me to do something new? It is hard to look at those areas where we are weak or fall short. It is much easier just to ignore those places we need change in our lives. After all we do hear week after week that God loves us where we are, so if God loves us in all the good, the bad and the ugly then why do we even need to change? It is true that God loves us where we are, but our God loves us so much that he isn’t content to leave us where we are. He wants us to grow in him every day, and part of growth is shedding those bad habits, attitudes and things that keep us from truly growing.

I just bought one of those fancy mirrors that has bright fluorescent lights and it magnifies everything about 25 times. I thought I would try to save money by plucking my own eyebrows in this up-close and personal mirror. But after the first time I used the mirror to pluck my eyebrows, I decided I hate that mirror. In a regular mirror with regular light I don’t see all my blemishes, pimples, red splotches and the thousands of tiny little eyebrow hairs that need to be plucked. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves—especially our inner, true selves—up-close and personal. Because when you start to look at yourself really, really closely as if you are holding a magnifying glass to yourself, you begin seeing those spots and blemishes and places in your life that you need to clean up. Repentance starts there, starts with an up-close and personal look at what parts of our hearts and lives have not been given entirely to God.

I read an article this week on these verses from Joel and the author wrote that Ash Wednesday and the journey through Lent is stripping down naked before God. Lent is a time for us to be honest not only with ourselves and where we need growth and improvement, but it is honestly coming before God as we are—truly as we are, not hiding anything, but bearing everything coming with all our burdens, all those broken places in our lives, all our weaknesses, with all our sin and admitting that we need forgiveness and repentance from those things in our lives that have kept us from fully loving God and loving others.

And part of coming before God this way means coming with an open heart and a willingness to be changed. It is one thing to see and admit our faults, but it is quite a different thing to agree to partner with God and with our brothers and sisters here at church in completely turning from and giving up those sins that have robbed us of abundant life.

Joel tells us that God is gracious and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. As we take a good hard look at ourselves and see those areas in our lives that we try to ignore most, those areas that are too difficult to face, those places or relationships or attitudes or feelings that we don’t want to see up-close and personal—as we face those dark places in our lives during this time of Lent, Joel reminds us that we are not alone. That God walks with us during this sometimes painful journey to the cross where we lay all our burdens and all our sins at the feet of Jesus. We are not alone; God walks with us, and God has given us one another to walk this journey of Lent, to begin our return home to our Father who is the Father of life and not death. Yes, on this Ash Wednesday we begin this solemn journey with repentance and ashes, but forty days from now our journey will finish at an empty cross and an open tomb where we will sing alleluias.

God is calling you home. Only you can decide if you are ready to make that journey. Amen.

Does It Take Two or Three to Tango?: Judges 4:1-10

Posted February 27, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Sipes on the First Sunday of Lent, Feb. 26, 2012 at Wesley Memorial UMC

This sermon is part of a Lenten sermon series called “Disciple-2-Disciple: Learning from the Great Cloud of Witnesses.” Proverbs 27:17 reminds us that just as “iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” During Sunday morning worship this Lenten Season, Wesley Memorial will learn from several lesser-known disciples in scripture while also hearing witness moments from the disciples of our present congregation. Together during this 40-day Lenten journey Wesley Memorial will learn practical, yet life-transforming lessons from the great cloud of witnesses of the past and present. Our hope is to grow in our faith journey as a church and individual disciples, so that we may see our world truly transformed for Christ. This Sunday we learn from Deborah and Barak in Judges 4:1-10.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a forty-day season of preparation, self-reflection, and growth. It is a journey of transformation, growing closer to God as more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  But I think too often we throw around the word disciple or discipleship without really knowing what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in our world today. If someone who wasn’t a Christian, who didn’t know anything about the church, came up to you and asked you what a disciple is, looks like and does, what would you tell them? I remember a few months ago I asked many people on church council that very question—what is a disciple—and I discovered that is a very hard question for people to answer. But we need to know what a disciple is so that we are able to grow as disciples and so that we can also nurture disciples for the transformation of the world—which is Jesus’ Great Commission for all of his disciples.

Fortunately for us we have a wonderful collection of timeless stories of disciples in the Bible that can teach us what it means to be a disciple in our world today. God wants us to grow in our faith walk as his disciples. God has given us a guide and provided a way for us to grower closer to him, but it is up to you and me to be intentional and deliberate in working on our relationship with God. Again that is what Lent is all about. Lent is a season where we take a good, hard look at ourselves and where we have fallen short as Christ’s disciples, but we don’t stop with simply self-reflection. Lent is a season we open ourselves up to God, so that he can truly transform us from the inside out, making us whole, new and stronger disciples.

Today we begin the journey of Lent with two disciples of the Old Testament whom you may have never heard of, but whose story has a lot to teach us about discipleship today. Their names are Deborah and Barak. Here is the beginning of their story in Judges 4:1-10:

“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgement. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, “Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.” ’Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’ And she said, ‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’ Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.”

So, here we have a woman judge and prophetess at a time in the world when being a woman was hard and definitely didn’t have any benefits. But this woman was called by God to be a prophet, to speak on God’s behalf to God’s people, and she was also called by God to be one of twelve judges, the only woman judge, to hear and settle conflicts among God’s people. But also as prophet and judge it was Deborah’s job to call God’s people to repentance and return to faithfulness.

Our scripture lesson today tells us that “the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Another place in Judges tells us that the problem with the Israelites was that “each person did what was right in his or her own eyes.” Israel was full of corruption. People chose new and false gods to follow, they turned their backs on God, and there was a spiritual void among God’s people. This is a familiar pattern in the lives of disciples in the bible and disciples throughout history. The pattern seems to be: follow God for awhile and then stray, follow God for a while and then turn away, and again follow God for awhile and then do my own thing—does that pattern sound familiar? It does to me; it is way too often the pattern in my life. It is so easy in all the busyness and distractions and demands of our daily lives to fall into this pattern. It is so easy in our world that puts a high value on independence and an emphasis on “me” rather than a collective “we” to feel self-sufficient, to feel like we can do everything on our own, to forget that we need God.

But together Deborah and Barak remind us that none of us are entirely self-sufficient.[1] We may think we can do everything on our own; that is what the Israelites thought, but Deborah reminds the people that first and foremost they need God; they need to return to God, to seek God. Today, we also still need God. Barak and the Israelites probably thought Deborah was crazy for what she was calling them to do. For twenty years the Israelites had been violently oppressed by and lived in fear or King Jabin. In the pit of despair and with no hope at all the Israelites finally cried out to God. God heard their cry, and God sent Deborah to lead his people out of their trouble. God does hear our cries and God rescues. But sometimes our rescue doesn’t always look the way we expect it to look. I don’t think the Israelites thought a woman could lead them out of their troubles. Sometimes our rescue doesn’t always look like what we expect it to; it doesn’t always look like a man emerging from a phone booth in a cape, or a woman with a check for a million dollars in his hand. Sometimes our help from God comes in very unexpected and surprising ways; sometimes our rescue from our problems looks like a woman quietly sitting under a tree in prayer like Deborah. It seems that God likes to upset our expectations and prejudices. God called up a God-fearing woman, Deborah, and Deborah called on Barak to gather 10,000 foot soldiers to fight Jabin’s 900 chariots.

Now, that might not mean anything to any of us today. 10,000 foot soldiers against 900 chariots seem like good odds. But it wasn’t. Jabin’s army actually outnumbered the Israelites by 4,000 soldiers, and not only were the Israelites outnumbered, but Jabin’s army had better technology and far more advanced equipment.[2] For Barak and the Israelites it looked like a hopeless and impossible situation. But Deborah had courageous commitment and trust in God despite the odds. Deborah’s courage eventually inspired Barak, his army and the Israelites against great odds, so that in the end the Israelites were victorious, and the Israelites and their neighbors enjoyed peace for the next forty years. Deborah’s courage came from God, and Godly courage will influence and inspire others to take on and overcome the impossible. Satan uses many tactics to veer us away from the God—but I think he especially likes to do so by bringing seemingly impossible situations into our lives that make us doubt and feel like we have hit rock bottom with no hope at all. But Deborah teaches us that those are the times when we need to cling to God; we need to search for God, cry out to God and trust that God hears our cries and sends help, but we must open our eyes to the unexpected places God is sending help. No situation is too big or small, or too complex or simple for God. As disciples we are called to put our whole faith in God—as Deborah did and as she inspired others to do as well.

But Deborah and Barak’s story and our scripture lesson from 1 Corinthians 12 are all clear that not only do we need God in our lives, but we need the perspectives, strengths, gifts, talents and support of the entire body of Christ. We need others. God created us for relationships—a relationship with him and a relationship with other people. Whether introvert or extrovert, shy or gregarious, God has hardwired us to need him and one another. Deborah, even though she was a judge and a prophetess called by God, needed help and support from others. Deborah called Barak to help her, and Barak had enough humility and sense to ask for Deborah’s help and support when he needed it. Again Deborah, Barak and the Israelites seemed to be in the middle of hard and difficult times with no hope of deliverance. In such seemingly impossible and hopeless situations, God has given us others to make it through those hard times that seem to have no end in sight. Deborah helped Barak and all the Israelites put their faith and trust in God once again. That is what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ. We are called to help one another on our faith journey. Deborah and Barak remind us today that there is strength in community.

Hiram and I have been taking ballroom dance lessons, and I was thinking about Deborah and Barak as Hiram and I were practicing our steps in our kitchen. There is a cliché that says “it takes two to tango,” but really after learning steps for the tango and the rumba,  I think it takes three people. I know for us, it takes me, Hiram and our dance teacher. We wouldn’t even know where to begin to dance without our dance teacher. She helps us learn the steps; she takes turns leading us through our steps; week after week she makes us better dance partners. Randy Maddox, one of my favorite Wesleyan Theologians, says that God invites us to dance with him in this life. We can choose to join God in his dance, or we can choose to refuse, but if we refuse that does not deter God from asking us over and over again to dance with him. Because sometimes in this dance of life with God we miss a step or two. In fact the Greek word in the New Testament for sin literally means to “misstep.” Sometimes we misstep, we take our eyes off God and we lose our place in the dance, or we try to lead the dance or we decide to sit the dance out for awhile, but God has given us stories of those in scripture and stories of disciples throughout history, and God has given us Godly women and men in our lives to help us learn how to be better dance partners with God, to encourage and support us, to nurture us, to help us grow.

Our first lesson during this journey of Lent is that 1.) We need God, and 2.) We need each other. Deborah reminds us to put our whole faith in God, to give our whole hearts and selves to God. And together Deborah and Barak remind disciples today that we are called into a community of faith. Our faith in God is not to be lived out in private, but to be shared with and in and outside of God’s family.

As we begin out Lenten journey, we begin with two very important reminders—we need God and we need each other. This Lenten season of self-reflection and discipline and return to God is not an easy journey to make—especially if you try to do it alone. Like the Israelites in Deborah and Barak’s story, there are some hard truths about ourselves that we must face and change. Throughout Lent it will be easy at times to “cheat” on those things we give up or take on, but just as God promised to be with Deborah and Barak as they faced their impossible situation and just as Deborah promised to go with Barak—God and our church family walks with you on your Lenten journey. So remember when things get tough this week, or throughout this Lenten season that God is with and we, your church, are with you. Amen.