Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Life’s Critical Questions (Jeremiah 1:4-10; I Peter 1:3-9) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Questions, questions!  Life has so many questions?  Such as: Is there intelligent life on other planets or solar systems or galaxies?  Why did dinosaurs disappear around 65 million years ago?  How did life begin?  Is happiness life’s greatest goal?   Does the abominable snowman exist?   Are ghosts real or a hoax?   What came first the chicken or the egg? 

Of course we can also think of questions that are a little more down to earth?  “Why is it harder to lose weight as you get older?”  “Where did I put my cell phone?”  “Why is there always one sock missing in the dryer?”  “When is my baby going to start sleeping through the night?”    “Where did I put my glasses?”  “When is the pastor going to stop asking questions?”

Questions are important?   I wonder who first asked – is it possible to fly to the moon?  We don’t ever want to stifle our children’s curiosity and discourage them from asking questions.  The 5th century B.C. classical Greek philosopher Socrates developed an entire approach to learning called the Socratic Method.  It is a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas.  It is a dialectical method of discussion for examining opposing ideas in order to find the truth.

True, we won't have all our questions answered in this life,  for example, questions about suffering and the death of loved ones.    Some people give up asking questions and pursuing answers.  Some people seek answers all their lives but never find them.  And some people find answers to their questions.   

In our O.T. Lesson, Jeremiah, a 6th century B.C prophet to the Jews in Judah, the southern Kingdom questioned God; he questioned God's call upon his life.    God says:  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you and before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”  Jeremiah questioned God's judgment.  He replies:  “O, Lord, I do not know how to speak, I am only a boy.”                  
 And God responds:  “Do not say I am only a boy.  You must go to everyone I send you and say whatever  command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.”  Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched Jeremiah's mouth saying:  “Now  I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdom to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”  

God called Jeremiah to speak to the people.  God equipped Jeremiah for his service as a prophet to Judah.  Jeremiah was to bring God's prophetic word – Repent or face God's judgment.”  Like Jeremiah, we ask questions during the course of our lives.  Here are some critical questions which people wrestle with.

Who Am I?  It's a fundamental human question, one that's as old as when human beings first developed language.   I can picture it:  “Two people are looking at each other after discovering that they can speak:  One says, “hello, who are you?  The other one answers:  I don't know, I was hoping you could tell me.”

I can answer this question in many ways.  I am a man.  I am a husband.  I am a father.  I am a grandfather.   I am a pastor.  I am an American.  How would you answer the question? 

What is the biblical/Christian answer?   As believers, we must first rephrase the question from a biblical viewpoint:  Who does God say I am?  Who does God say we are?  God says to Jeremiah, “Even before you were born I knew you.”   God is the God of all humanity.  God has seven billion humans on this planet.   When God looks at humanity, what does God see, a faceless blob?  No.  God who is the author of life sees individuals. 

God knows you and me more intimately than we know ourselves.  We are people of utmost value and  importance.  We are made in God's image.   God created us, God knows us, God loves us, God sent his son to save us and God reaches out to us in our lives. 

I like the way Pastor Rick Warren puts it:  “You must begin with God not with yourself.  You exist only because God will that you exist.  You were made by God and for God.  And until you understand that life will never make sense.  It is only in God that we discover our origin our identity our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny.  Every other path leads to a dead end.”  

Scripture is unequivocal; in life and in death we belong to God.   Romans 14:  “If we live we live to the Lord, and if we die, we died to the Lord, so whether we live or whether we died, we are the Lord's.”  I am a child of God.  You are a child of God.  We are children of God.

Author Tim Storey in his book, It's Time for Your Comeback, writes about heavyweight boxer George Foreman.  He says George used to be a very disturbed, angry, mean individual.  One day after losing a fight, he was lying in the back room on a table, when he had a vision of Jesus.  Jesus said:  “I'm going to transform your life.”  And George Foreman gave his life to Christ.  The happy, smiling face you see on television is not the same man he was before he met Jesus.  Foreman says he learned to trust in Christ and that since that time his life has been blessed.  He knows who he is.  He knows to whom he belongs.  He knows what it is to have hope and meaning.  He knows he is God's child.

A second question is why Am I here?  This too is an age-old question.  People have asked it since time immemorial.  What would be your answer?  

John Gardner, the founding chairman of Common Cause, a citizen's lobby in 1970, tells of a cheerful older man who asked the same question of every new acquaintance he met:  “What have you done that you believe in and you are proud of?”   He never asked, what do you do for a living?  It was always what have you done that you believe in and your are proud of?”  It was unsettling to some people.  This gentleman had no particular answer in mind.  He was delighted with a woman who answered, “I'm a mother and I'm doing a good job raising my three children.”  And by a custom cabinet maker who said:  “I believe in good workmanship and practice it.”  and by a woman who said, “I started a bookstore and its' the best bookstore for miles around.”   The man said:  “I am not looking for any specific answer,  I just want to put the idea into their minds.  They should live their lives in such a way that they can have a good answer.  That's what's important.”  How would you answer the question?

Biblically, the answer is to glorify God, to bring glory to God.   The lyrics of a contemporary song are:  “In my life Lord, be glorified, be glorified, in my life, Lord be glorified today.”  Glorify God in whatever you do, in all of your activities, in your work, in your leisure, in all the endeavors of life.  What has God willed for you to do with your life?   What is your answer to God?  Jeremiah knew why he was here.  God had spoken to him and had given him a mission to glorify God as a prophet to Judah.    

Once again, I turn to Pastor Rick Warren, who writes:  “It's not about you.  The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness.   If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God.  You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.” 

You were made for God and life is about letting God use you for His purposes.  It's about becoming what God created you to be. 

Third, where Does My Power Come From?  Where do you find the energy and the endurance to serve, to get involved, to follow God's call, to glorify God with your life?  Eating properly helps.  Getting enough sleep is important.  Taking care of your health is fundamental.  But let's look again to Jeremiah.  

God touched his mouth and empowered this prophet for his task.   God always empowers us and supplies the ability for what he calls us to do.   God chooses us to do His work and then God equips us for the task.  Jeremiah immediately thought God had chosen the wrong man, but how did Jeremiah know he couldn't fulfill God's call upon his life?   Like the man who was asked if you could play the violin.  He answered:  “I don't know.  I've never tried.”  That's a good answer.  How do you know what you can or can't do until you've tried it.

Maurice Berquist in her book, “The Miracle and Power of Blessing, writes about the parallel principle:  “If you pull a copper wire, parallel to overhead power lines you get a transfer of power.  Even through the second wire is not physically touching the first or connected in any way to a generator, power will come into it just as soon as it gets parallel.”  The Bible declares that when our lives are parallel to God's purposes we find a power we never dreamed possible.

 The final question is what happens after I die?  Where Am I going after I die?  There are countless answers to this question in philosophy and religion about the After-Life or Life After Death.  One notion is that death means the end of everything.  It means the total annihilation, the complete extinction of the body, soul, personality, memory.  One's identity and existence is wiped away forever.  There is no continuing existence of any form.  A typical saying is: “This is the only life you will have, so enjoy it.”   This concept is not biblical.

Reincarnation is another idea.   This too is not a biblical or Christian notion.   But it is interesting to ponder.  It is the religious or philosophical concept that the  human soul or spirit, after death, begins a new life in a new body that may be human, animal or spiritual, depending on the moral quality of one's previous life.    Just like one changes clothes, our soul changes life forms.  Reincarnation asserts that all animals including humans have souls and the soul goes through different life forms until it is purified and becomes one with God.      
Ultimate Immersion or absorption into the divine is another concept of the afterlife.  Think of God as an ocean and our soul as a droplet of water. The water droplet is separated from the ocean and its goal is to merge back into the ocean. We are like those rain droplets; our souls have been separated from God after our being born in this world.  Like rain droplets, the main purpose of our souls is to merge back with God.  Once a soul merges into the being of God, it achieves salvation, rids itself of all suffering and pain becomes lost and one in the eternal being of God.   This too is not biblical.

Purgatory is a Christian concept, represented in the Catholic Church.  Purgatory is a temporary realm where all souls go to be purified or cleansed before they are ready to enter glory or heaven to live forever in the presence of God.  There has been an ongoing debate between Christians since the Reformation about whether or not purgatory is biblical.

A biblical notion is that death takes believers immediately to be with Christ in heaven.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death.  Jesus describes the image of a house:  “There are many rooms in my Father's house, and I am going to prepare a place for you.  I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.”   The last verse of the hymn How Great Thou Art says:  “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!  Then *I shall bow in humble adoration,  And there proclaim My God, how great thou art!”

Another biblical notion is the Resurrection.   At the final coming of Christ, our bodies are resurrected, they become transformed or changed into glorious bodies.  Our new bodies are different and yet we retain our individual identity and we join together with the communion of the saints.  I Peter declares this assurance for the future:  “By God's mercy we have been given a new birth into a living hope through Christ's resurrection from the dead, that that hope is an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.  In this we rejoice, even if now for a little while we have to suffer various trials.”  

May you during this Lenten season take time to ponder, to reflect, in light of your faith, upon some of the critical questions of life and of your life.  Amen!