Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The God of the Snowstorm

So here is an adaptation of the second sermon I preached at Inlet Community Church this month  in a series on snow. 

Job was a wildly successful businessman, prosperous in every way.  This from the beginning of the book that bears his name, “He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants.  He was the greatest man among all the people of the East” (Job 1:2-3).  This is said straight-faced, without any hedging.  He was the greatest, bar none. 

And then he loses it all in a day.   
- The 500 oxen and 500 donkeys are stolen by the vicious Sabeans and the attending servants are killed.
- The 7,000 sheep are burned up by fire falling from the sky and the attending servants are incinerated.
- Chaldean raiding parties sweep away all the 3,000 camels and the attending servants and struck down with swords.   

In three waves, all his livestock is wiped away, along with workforce.  Material loss is compounded by familial loss.  All his sons and daughters are feasting together at the oldest brother’s house, when a stiff wind causes the house to collapse and all of them are killed. Stripped bare, he declares, “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.” (Job 1:21).  It gets worse.  All that naked flesh is afflicted with boils, pussy and painful skin lesions.  Physical discomfort, emotional upheaval, material devastation.  

But despite all this tragedy, he refuses to reject God.  He will curse the day of his birth, with verbose eloquence (the whole of chapter 3), but he will not curse God.  Even at the prodding of his wife to do so.

But while he won’t reject God, but he will ask why.  Again and again. 
- Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb (3:11)
- Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul (3:20)
- Why do you hide your face and consider me an enemy (13:24)
- Why do you not pardon my sins and forgive my sins (7:21)
- Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power? (21:7)
- Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days? (24:1)

He may not raise his fist in response to this slurry of misery, but he will scratch his head.  He wants to make sense of all this.  For if there is no sense, then we are left with nonsense.  And to remain loyal to a God of nonsense is just one last heaping teaspoon of nonsense.   He longs for an explanation.

And don’t we all.  When things don’t work out the way we expected.  When we get terrible news.  When it seems like those with no regard for God are living carefree lives while we who strive to walk in obedience are beat down with misfortune.  Why?  It doesn’t seem fair.  We long for an explanation.  Is there sense in this or is it all just a pile of nonsense? 

Because if I were writing the script, I would never write in “get a flat tire” or “bang my knee on the corner of the bed” or “bite my lip in the same place for the fourth time”, or “fix the leaky toilet.”  And if I’m not inclined to include these little “c” crisis into my script, you can bet I’m not going to write any capital “C” Crises into the storyline – terminal disease, miscarriage, tragic accident, divorce, financial ruin, depression, adultery, job termination.  If I were writing the script it would be all green lights and blue skies.  And yet I look out the window and the sky is ashen, dreary gray.  Why? 

Job asks why.  Finally, God intervenes with an answer.  But it turns out he answers a different question.  Instead of getting ensnared by the question of why he responds to the question of who.  For four chapters (Job 38-41) God lays out a torrent of questions of his own, forceful in their delivery.  The two sections of his response are introduced with the same knee-knocking formula – “Brace yourself like a man and I will question you and you shall answer me” (38:3, 40:7).  He goes back to his work in creation and touches on sunrise, constellations, tides, rainfall, the foodchain.

In this midst of this, snow makes an appearance.    Job 38:22 “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail?” 

All this snow, vast and powerful, delicate and artfully sculpted, is at his bidding.  He determines when and where the snow will fall.  He has this immense storehouse of snowflake masterpieces that he grabs by the handful and scatters throughout the earth. 

As it says in Psalm 147:16 “He spreads the snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes.”   What can cripple us, shutting down the interstate, delaying flights, causing power outages and treacherous travel, is just handful of snow scooped up from his storehouse and flung through the sky.  I labor in the removal, doing the back breaking work of clearing my driveway.  But there is no labor in the delivery. My labor contrasted with his ease.

An avalanche begins with a failure in the snowpack.  The angel of the slope is usually somewhere around 38 degrees, a point at which accumulation is extremely unstable.  Most often, slides begin with additional snowfall adding weight to the snowpack or the sun causing snowmelt compromising the stability of the snow.  Sometimes other sources set the avalanche in motion – animals, skiers, seismic activity, explosions, thunder, etc. 
Whatever the cause, load exceeds strength and the inert snowpack is set in motion.   Up to a million tons of snow, traveling at speeds of nearly 200 miles an hour with no friction to slow it down.  It drives an invisible wave of air before it, smashing everything in its path.  It is an amazingly powerful display.

But avalanches in the macro are made up of snowflakes in the micro.  And a snowflake is as delicate as an avalanche is powerful.  Each flake is a tiny six-pointed ice sculpture, a uniquely crafted masterpiece.  They can be extremely beautiful, but are rarely admired.  They are too small and too fragile.  They are easily crushed and quickly melted.

And this is God.  He is crafting flakes with intricate precision and then flinging them with such abandon that they will never be appreciated for their artistry. 

All of this is intended to bring Job to this declaration in response, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” (42:2). 

We want to know why.  God suggests that a better question is who.  We need to remember that this is a God of vast power, displayed in creation.  He made all this.  The fury of the snow squall, the delicacy of the snow flake, and everything in between.

This power in harnessed with unfathomable competence.  He keeps the universe in motion and juggles the intricacies of an immense created order without ever getting jumbled up.  That same competence not only tunes the dials of this world, it tunes the dials of my life. 

I used to have this video game as a child, in the days of Atari and Intellivision.  Two biplanes would fight it out.  The controls were quite simple – up for up, down for down, red button to shoot.  That was it.  I was pretty good – quite a pilot.

Be wouldn’t that be audacious if I took my expertise at this video game as an indication that I was ready to sit in the cockpit of a real plane with its myriad of gauges and buttons, levers and switches.

Asking God why is akin to that.  As if we with our video game expertise could begin to understand the true complexity of the cockpit controls.  So when I’m in flight it’s more important for me to know who’s flying the plane that to know why he chose a particular cruising altitude.  If the pilot is trustworthy, I can leave the particulars of the flight in his hands. 

The God who unleashes avalanches with his pinky and crafts masterpieces by the trillions - he’s a God I can trust.  And if that question of who is settled in our minds, then the question of why, even if left unanswered, is not so pressing.  The pilot knows how to fly this plane better then I do.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Harvest Begins in Winter

I am preaching at Inlet Community Church for the month of January.  Inlet is a small village in the rustic Adirondacks.  This post is an abbreviation of the sermon I preached this last weekend, the first in a series on references to snow.  This post is a transitional step between sermon and article.  At some point I may tighten it up more and see if I can find a publisher.  For now, it finds it's place in the blogosphere.

When you think of things that are quintessentially Adirondack you may think of an Adirondack chair on the shores of a lake or pond, or maybe a solitary loon, sunk low in the water, or a handwoven fishing creel.  But not in January.  Not on the heels of a nor’easter.  Not after we were blasted with artic chill.  Maybe better, here in winter, an old pair of wooden snowshoes.  Like it or not, snow is characteristically Adirondack.  Of all the seasons, winter seems to have the hardest grip on this place.

In January, we’re not thinking about the harvest.  We’re just trying to dig ourselves out of the snow banks.  But the harvest really begins in winter. Mountain snows act as natural reservoirs in the winter, when agriculture is largely dormant.  Then, in the spring, the mountains unleash a steady supply of water as the ice pack melts just in time for the germination of crops. 

This is a reliable way to hydrate the land.  A way that has worked for generation after generation. For farmers, and forests, and fields, and flowers.  It doesn’t require sprinklers, reservoirs, canals, or aqueducts.  The skies open and unleash snow in the winter.  Gravity and warming temperatures do the rest.

Seeds are typically very dry, which sets them in a state of dormancy.  Keep them dry and they will remain in this state of dormancy.   This is how seeds can be stored for many years in pouches in your cupboard or on a shelf in your garage.   They must be roused, awakened, jump started.  Water is the jumper cables for seeds. 

Seeds store some food reserve inside them – starch, protein, or oils.  Miniature doomsday preppers who have a cupboard full of MREs, food reserves that provide nourishment for the infant seedling.  When the seeds absorb enough water, enzymes are activated, breaking down this stored food into useful chemicals.  Those MREs are opened with a pull tab of hydration.

By the time initial the food reserve is used up, the plant has grown an initial set of roots and leaves.  Before long the seedling has grown into a plant, a plant with bud and bloom and blossom.   It flourishes, yielding, in the words of Isaiah “seed for the sower and bread for the eater.” (Isaiah 55:10).  Grain for the storehouse, fruit for the preserves, vegetables for the canning cellar, flowers for the pressing board, herbs for the drying rack.  Call it what you will.  This is harvest.  Harvest that began months prior with a snowflake.  By the time we reach the harvest in autumn, we have full stomachs and abundant surplus. 

This is the analogy of Isaiah 55.  “As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth:  It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

This is a promise, not a hope, not wishful thinking, not an uncertain variable.  God’s word is like snow in that it is effectual.  Snow does not evaporate without accomplishing its purpose.  And so his word.  These are not empty words, toothless threats, powerless promises.  All that is predicted by the prophet, now 55 chapters in, will come to pass.  All of it.  Every jot, every tittle.  Every snowflake of revelation will water the earth, will saturate the plants, will accomplish its purpose.

This reference to snow comes is in a section where Isaiah is pleading with Israel not to miss what God has in store for them.  In verses 1-7 there are 12 imperatives.  Command after command after command.  Come, buy, eat, listen, delight, seek, call, turn.  God, through Isaiah, is imploring the people to return to him.  These are words of repentance.  He’s inviting us to restore what was lost, to repair what was broken, to undo what has been done. 

Much of Isaiah has dealt with the inescapability of coming judgment.  Their stubborn rebellion would result in their living under the heavy hand of judgment.   This judgment is harsh and relentless - chapter after chapter of it. 

And when they are under this judgment, their tendency would be to see no further than the surface and lament their physical bondage and oppression.  But that is just a bur to remind them of their deeper bondage.  They are sinners.  This sin is what holds them in bondage.  Not another nation, not a drought or famine.  Their bondage and oppression is from within – they have turned away from God.

He is inviting them to return. To drink deeply to satisfy their parched souls.  To feast on the richest of fares (verses 1-2), not for their bellies, but for their souls. That their souls may live (v.3). 

And here is what hangs in the balance.  The word goes out and will not return void.  That is promised. What he intends will be accomplished.  We can orient ourselves to that and plunge into that current, finding blessing and satisfaction.   Verse 12, “You will go out with joy and be lead forth in peace, the mountains and the hills will burst forth in song before you and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. “ This is exuberance that will saturate the soil.  Blessing – joy, peace, celebration, fruitfulness, abundance.   This is what the word of God can bring.  Mountains and hills are singing, trees are clapping in joyful celebration of this restoration. 

But beneath the din of this raucous celebration is the possibility.  What if all these imperatives – come, buy, eat, listen, delight, seek, call, turn.  What if these are ignored?  The subtle implication is that even then, his word does not return empty.  It will not be powerless.  For those who will not return his word will stand as an accuser, condemning us to the judgment that we ourselves have chosen - to live with aching thirst and empty belly.  In going my own way, I may get pummeled by the force of this current that I’m resisting.  Our ways and thoughts are not God’s (Is 55:8).  We are bent, a gnarled stick against the plumb line purity of God’s holiness.  His word can straighten us, if we submit.

God’s word is effective.  It does not return empty. It will accomplish his purpose with or without our cooperation.  The snowflake of revelation will moisten the earth.  It will sweep us up in blessing or sweep us away in judgment.