Life OVER God [Numbers 20:1-13]
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Life OVER God - 09.25.2022
Today we are diving in to part two of our sermon series called WITH, based on Skye Jethani’s book. Every week we are looking at a different way to approach God, ways that a lot of us have used in the past – and we’re going to look to see if something is missing. Like I said last week, this series is designed for people who love Jesus, but you’ve always had a suspicion that there is more to your faith journey than what you have experienced so far. We are here to discover Life WITH God. Now last week, we got started with Life UNDER God. If you missed it, this is sort of the “appeasing the gods” strategy. Way back in the day, some folks created this method where they do stuff to make the gods happy, and Christianity has a bit of that in our walk as well. There are times in our lives when we think – if I obey God, if I follow the rules – then God HAS to bless me. Living life UNDER God gives us control of God. Problem is – that approach unravels really easily. It’s not based in truth, and so it comes apart and we are left devastated.
But that’s okay – most of us are too smart for that method anyways. After all, appeasing the gods was what those silly primitive cave man types used to – but we are enlightenment people! We are scientific revolution people! We are far too advanced to slip into Life UNDER God tactics. Ever since Isaac Newton had an apple hit him on the head we know better. The scientific revolution and enlightenment thinking led us to look at the world in a very different way. In the book, Skye has these doodles. I think we can put them on the screen. We used to think, if we peeled back the layers of Isaac Newton’s apple, if we looked at the mechanism behind the universe we would see God’s will. But with scientific approach, we peel back the layers of the apple, peek behind the curtain of the universe and we get rational law. Scientific principles. Skye writes, “the desire to control our environment and mitigate our fears no longer required appeasing God. Instead, the new view said the universe was like a machine, and our job was to understand how it operated and then leverage those principles to control it.” You might remember the fear cycle that all humans deal with. We see danger, we feel fear, so then we try to grab for control. With Life OVER God, we are still trying to grab control – but now we look for control through science rather than superstition.
A really popular way to think about this is the watchmaker analogy. Some of us believe that God constructed the cosmos like a watchmaker constructing an intricate watch. He put all the required cogs and springs (the natural laws) in place. And then he wound up his creation before stepping back – and now the universe runs automatically without the creator actually doing anything. Skye writes, “Life OVER God…seeks control by discovering how the world works and then directly implementing the right principles.” (p48). In this posture, our job as Christians is to discover the principles that God has written behind the scenes of the universe, and then apply them to our lives.
This actually changes how we approach the bible. Rather than searching the scriptures to discover who God is and his love for each of us – the bible becomes a manual full of principles. Have you ever heard this one before? Some people will say that the BIBLE, the B-I-B-L-E stands for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Right, maybe you’ve heard this – that comes from a life OVER God posture. It changes how we approach God’s word when we’re searching for principles instead of searching for God Himself. This is an extremely popular position with professional communities and anybody who likes those self-help books. I mean, if you think about it – almost every self-help book in existence is basically just advocating a set of principles to overcome a problem. I remember growing up, my parents were big self help book people. Like The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People – right? All those take these three principles and you’ll succeed, or take these five steps and you’ll always win – we eat that stuff up! Knowing there’s a solution, a system and a principle – it provides you with relief because it gives a sense of control. We’re not so scared anymore. There was one example from a lady Laurie Beth Jones. She wrote a book called Jesus, CEO – and she checked out the bible and she discovered the three core principles of Jesus’ management style and her book taught that you can be just as effective as Jesus in any area of leadership. Life OVER God, teaches us to look for principles in the universe – rather than actually rely on God.
Here’s the problem, Life OVER God – just like LIfe UNDER God, they are actually methods to try and live life WITHOUT God. I mean, think about it - if the bible is just a collection of divine principles – we don’t actually need God anymore. We replace a relationship with God, with a relationship with the bible. Skye writes, “if one has the repair manual, why bother with the expense of a mechanic?”(p51) If you want to discover principles and then apply them to your life – you can do that, that’s great – but it doesn’t actually require a relationship with God. We might praise him, worship him – thank the watchmaker for making the watch, but we don’t actually NEED the watchmaker anymore. We see this all over our faith. In 2005 there was a study that found that 3% of Pastors list prayer as a priority in their ministry. If you’ve got all the education, the methods, the systems, the clever principles – you can almost build a church without ever really getting to know God. Life OVER God is actually Life WITHOUT God – and it’s never enough.
Here’s an example, my wife and I have four beautiful babies, and two and half of them are potty trained – we’re getting there. And when it was time to potty train our first born, Sara found an amazing system. She found the self-help book, our generation calls them “Instagram accounts” – but it’s the same thing. There were these teachers, and I think they had a book, and they taught us the fool-proof way to potty train your child. You could potty train them younger and more effectively. And we were hooked. We’re going to be so much smarter than all those other parents, because it’s not a competition but a little bit it’s a competition. We used the system and it worked perfectly. I think we potty trained for like four days, or maybe it was a week. But then it was done. And after we saw how well it worked – it was like we had found the holy grail. We have the system, the secret scientific principle of the universe to perfectly potty train babies. And then we had a second child come of age – and I know this is crazy, but did you know that babies are different? They’re not little formulas that you can feed into a machine and get the exact same result? Because people are more complicated than that. Children are each going to approach that activity in their personal way. The system, the principle was not enough to give us the control we thought we had. Principles work a lot of the time, but just like last week – there are cracks in the system, weak spots that betray the fact that Life OVER God is not good enough.
Life OVER God leads to life WITHOUT God, and if we follow that line of thought all the way to the end – it leads to something called secular humanism. Now, if you’ve never heard of that – secular humanism is very popular with people, especially the younger generation, who grew up in the faith, and they still want to be good people – but they don’t really want that Jesus stuff. If we’ve got the principles, and we know how to be good people – do we really need God? It’s a new style of atheist – the secular humanist. All of humanity, with all of their scientific knowledge, unlocking the secrets of the universe to be good people without any of that silly superstitious God stuff. The problem is that evil isn’t a principle, it runs in every human heart. It’s our broken human nature that no principle can solve – only God’s presence in our life can heal what is broken in us. And we see this when we realize that secular societies have all the same problems as those founded on religion. Skye writes, “some of the most oppressive regimes of the twentieth century were constructed on the philosophical foundations of secular atheism.” (p44). He goes on to talk about Stalin’s Soviet Union (20 million dead), Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China with 65 million dead. In Khmer Rouge 2 million people died just a few years ago and the oppression continues in North Korea. A life without God, a secular society based only on the principles of the universe is not going to be the utopia we think it will. Life OVER God is not good enough.
We see this same idea in our scripture lesson for today. We’re jumping around a little bit – last week we were with Jesus, and this week we’re going all the way back to the time of Moses. But this story shows us the weak spots in “Life OVER God” posture. We walk in on the story, and not to give any spoilers – I know we’ve been reading a lot in Exodus, but God does free his people, and Moses is leading them all around in the wilderness. And to understand this story I have to tell you that the Israelites are some of the whiniest, nagging complainers out there. And over and over and over God has provided for his people – the biggest issue, walking around the desert, is the lack of water. And the people are mad a Moses for taking them to a place with no water. It says, in chapter 20, [v.5]. This is like when my kid asks for juice, and I give him a glass of water. The indignation. What’s this? There’s no figs here! There’s no pomegranates! The inhumanity! It keeps going, [read v.6-8]. Okay, so let’s remember Moses’ magic stick for a second. That staff has been there through all the big struggles Moses has had. It turned into a snake, he used it to part the water – this staff, for Moses, is connected to God’s power. Now, we know that’s silly – we know that’s superstitious. There’s nothing special about the stick, it’s the power of God that’s special, but for Moses – he's drawing the principle out: this stick gets the job done.
Verse 9, [read v.9-11]. Moses hits the rock, and the water gushes out. But what was God’s actual instruction? Back in verse 8, God told Moses to SPEAK to the rock. All he had to do was speak, and the water was going to come out. But Moses was thinking with Life OVER God. He needed a guaranteed solution – like those church conferences that advertise, “this is guaranteed to grow your church” – a way he knew wouldn’t fail. So he uses the staff, because that’s always worked in the past. Right? This thing turns into a snake, this thing parts the water – this thing will work. Skye Jethani writes, “He put his faith in the watch, rather than the watchmaker.”(p55) But the story is not over. [read v.12]. Moses is punished for his lack of faith. For trusting in a stick instead of the power of God. You can’t take all that God is and reduce it down to a formula. It ended up hurting his relationship with God.
The last thing I want to point out before we move on is that it DID work. Water came out of the rock when Moses hit it – so I mean, it was effective. Following the principles of the universe will give you the results you want sometimes – but it will not help you grow closer to the CREATOR of that universe. As Skye writes, “Life over God can only end in one place – a life WITHOUT God. And that means no life at all.”(p60)
The good news for us this morning is that God’s love is not manipulatable. I don’t know if that’s a real word, but you know what I mean. It’s not manipulatable. It’s fun too say too. Manipulatable. We can’t take all that God is, and turn him into a list of principles without losing something in the connection. That’s why I don’t talk about pulling out God’s principles or God’s rituals for the good life – we talk about having a relationship. An authentic connection with the thing that made you because he loves you and he wants you to know him and be known BY him. Honestly, this is the same message as last week – but instead of replacing God with ritual and superstition, we are trying to replace God with principles and advice. But God’s love is not manipulatable. When we look at the dangers of this world, and we feel fear deep in our souls – we have to understand that we cannot have control. Whether through ritual or principles – we cannot have control. We can only have trust in God’s ever present and completely steadfast love.
This explains why a lot of people fall away from the church. If you try to seek God with principles, you give yourself a ladder that is impossible to climb. So many people – their lives don’t line up with the principles and they’re so embarrassed or ashamed that they just stop trying. There’s a story about a pastor named Matt, and every day for nine months he sat in a Coffee Shop with a cellphone and a list of people who had left his church. He called everyone on the list, set up meetings, and listening to their stories. He tells that story saying, “I’d ask questions about their perceptions, their experiences, and their thoughts about church. What I heard broke my heart and changed my life.” (p148). What he found was that most people had not abandoned their faith, and they had not left the church because of some doctrinal issue or change in their beliefs. Skye writes, “Rather, most of these church dropouts were struggling with something they could not hide – abuse, sex addictions, eating disorders gambling – any number of chronic issues. The story he heard was usually the same. They went to church, participated in the activities, got involved in a group, even confessed their sins. But over time they felt judged or unaccepted by others, so they left. The hope and dignity they were longing for never came, and in most cases neither did recovery.” (p148) What they needed was not another self help book or another article on 3 steps to happiness. What they needed was hope that was not contingent, love that was not manipulatable. What they needed was an actual connection with the healing presence of God.
My challenge for you today is to reclaim hope. Last week I wanted you to reclaim faith by surrendering control to the God who is trustworthy. This week, we reclaim hope. Okay, so the goal is to reclaim hope – but how do we do that? It’s actually easier than you’d think. First – you must remember that God is the goal. Our goal as Christians is unity with God. It’s not about obedience and rituals, and it's not about effectiveness and principles and living your best, self-helped life. It’s about being with God. Because it is only in God’s presence that you can find the dignity and the sense of purpose that you need to truly have hope. Let me show you how this works with two examples.
First, when Skye Jethani was training as a hospital chaplain in seminary, he learned that suicide was most common among the elderly. And to help him understand it, his supervisor had him do this activity. On a series of notecards he wrote down all the things that gave his life meaning. Relationships, activities, accomplishments, work, memories, etc. In the end he had thirty cards laid out on the table in front of him. Then the supervisor began telling the imaginary story of his aging. Your body begins to weaken, cards with activities he enjoyed were removed. Then work disappeared. Vital relationships lost. As the story continued, fewer cards remained, even joyful memories faded away as his mind weakened. Then, when there were just a few cards left, the supervisor asked, “How would you feel if this was all that remained of your life?” And Skye’s only response was, “Lost. I would feel lost. There’s nothing left. I would have no purpose.” This is the despair that comes when you tie up your meaning and purpose in temporary things. I mean imagine that there is a time in your life where there is nothing left EXCEPT your relationship with God. Because God love is permanent and eternal and it will always be there for you, so there could be a time when there is nothing left but God. But if you know God as this far removed watchmaker, who wound up the universe billions of years ago but has nothing to do with your daily life. That would give you no comfort. No hope. But if God is your creator. Your Father, your friend – who loves and sustains you every single day. If walking WITH God every single day is the best part of your day – hope is reborn. Because nothing on the outside can hurt that. In a world of chaos, our hope – it can’t come from our circumstances, it has to come from walking with God.
Skye puts it like this, “the call to live in continual communion with God means that every person’s life, no matter how mundane, is elevated to sacred heights. Are you married? Then engage your marriage with God and learn to love your spouse as God has loved you. Are you single? Then be single with God and devote yourself to him. Are you a mechanic? Then commune with God in your work and repair cars as an act of devotion to him. Are you an office worker? Then welcome Christ to your desk as you serve your employer. Are you a homemaker? Then foster a life of ceaseless prayer, ever mindful that God is with you, amid your hectic day with your family. In other words, the fullness of Christian life can be lived anywhere, in any circumstance because God is WITH us.” (p.152)
Second example – have you ever heard of a hush harbor? It’s kind of a crazy story. Back during the slavery era of American history, white owners of slaves would make their slaves go to church. But it wasn’t real church. It was church to get them to behave, they would select which principles were taught out of the bible, the manual – to get them to be good slaves. One former slave described it, “Church was what they called it but all that preacher talked about was for us slaves to obey our masters and not to lie and steal. Nothing about Jesus was ever said and the overseer stood there to see the preacher talked as he wanted him to talk.” (p153). But if you give a group of people a taste of the gospel, they’re going to want more. Hush harbors were secret church meetings, gatherings in the swamps where the slaves could openly express how much they wanted freedom and they could receive assurance that God’s presence was with them. They would huddle together in secret, singing in hushed tones because what they needed was not the censured self-help nonsense of their white masters. What they needed was a savior, and his name is Jesus. These hush harbors gave early Christian slaves the strength they needed to have hope, even in the midst of incredibly hopeless situations.
One time, there was a slave named Jacob, who made a habit of praying three times every day. He would stop his labor, take time to be with God and then start up again. One time, his master – a man named Saunders – saw him praying and he was enraged. While Jacob was kneeling in the field to pray, Saunders came up to him and pointed a gun at his head. He said, “stop praying and get back to work.” Jacob finished his prayer, and then invited his master to pull the trigger. He said, “Your loss will be my gain. I have two masters – Master Jesus in heaven, and Master Saunders on earth. I have a soul and a body; the body belongs to you, but my soul belongs to Jesus.” Saunders was so shaken by Jacob’s strength and complete lack of fear that he never touched him again. We don’t need the illusion of control that comes from Life OVER God, we need the hope that comes from living every day WITH God.
I think I said it last week, but I’ll say it again. I see myself in each of these postures. There are good elements to each, but it’s so easy to get it twisted up and lose sight of what really matters. But getting back on track and focusing on living life WITH God can be incredibly powerful. And so I’ll leave you with this. If this thing we do – religion, faith, church, whatever you call it – if this has always been about trying to regain control in the midst of fear. I get it. The world is bonkers out there right now, and some of us just want the secret formula whether it’s ritual or scientific principle – we’re all just clinging to control. But I want to invite you to something deeper. I want you to come close, discover the real God, who is truly out there, whose love is cannot be manipulated, cannot be swayed. May you come close and reclaim your hope by living life WITH God. Amen.