Sunday, May 6, 2018

Sermon: God's Presence (Habakkuk 2:1-3)

Last Sunday afternoon, I had the most amazing experience.
It happened while I was sitting on a small bluff overlooking the Upper Newport Bay Estuary.
And that’s all I was doing: sitting.
And while I was sitting there, I could see the tide slowly rolling in.
And I could hear thousands of birds chirping. Most were hidden in the scrub; some birds I saw, but most I could only hear.
And I could see the bluffs covered with cacti and sage scrub, and I could see the wetlands below, with the mud and the water and the strange plants that grow only where freshwater mixes with saltwater.
And the were a few wisps of clouds, hinting at the fog that would roll in after the sun set.
And I could feel a cool breeze balanced by the warm rays of the sun.
And in that moment, I got overwhelmed. Just literally overwhelmed. An emotion swelled up within me, and I wanted to shout and sing and cry and dance, yet at the same time remain still and silent in awe.
What happened?
It had been 25 years since my last visit to Upper Newport Bay.
Back then, I thought it was nice and all, but it didn’t move me. I didn’t see the beauty. Just a bunch of mud and a few unimpressive plants.
But this time, something was different.
Maybe it’s because I’m older now, and I appreciate things differently.
Maybe it’s because I recognize now how few of these wetlands are left. Where the LA River drains into the Pacific Ocean, there used to be a massive estuary, covering many square miles. Many areas of Long Beach and San Pedro were a part of this magnificent wetland. But development channeled the river in concrete.
But I think the most significant thing contributing to my moment of awe and wonder was the fact that I visited the Upper Newport Bay Visitor Center, and read many of the interpretive signs along the trails, before I sat and had my moment of wonder.
I spent some time learning about the various types of plant life and wildlife that depend on wetlands like Upper Newport Bay.
I learned about how valuable estuaries are, and what remarkable ecosystems they contain.
I read about bobcats and squirrels and migrating birds. I read about lizards and snakes. I read about little worms and other creatures that burrow in the mud, and how they are such a vital part of the food chain, such a vital part of the whole ecosystem.
All that knowledge was the preparation. It was the preparation preparing me for the experience I had, the experience of sitting there, at the edge of the estuary, actually seeing the plants and the water, actually hearing the birds, actually smelling the sage and the mud.
Knowledge and experience joined together, filling me with awe and wonder. And the result was me being overwhelmed by the beauty and the miracle of it all.
And that’s kind of how it is in a life of faith. You have knowledge that comes from study and learning and teaching; and you have the experience.
Now if all you have is experience and no knowledge, you might look at the mud in your life and see nothing but an ugly gooey mess. How often do you look at your life and see only ugly mud, and miss seeing the miracle?
On the other hand, if all you have is knowledge and no experience, that's like reading all about how amazing the estuary is, but never experiencing the joy and awe and wonder that comes from being there, seeing and hearing and smelling it all.
In other words, you can spend all your time in Bible study, learning all there is to know about God, without ever experiencing the joy and hope and transforming power of actually knowing God at a deeper level.
Or you can spend time in God's presence, experiencing God, but not ever be able to name what it is you've experienced.
So you need the knowledge to go with the experience. You need the experience to go with the knowledge. You need to study the scripture, you need to know about the one who created you, who loved you enough to make you unique, giving you traits and characteristics that no other person on earth has….
And you need to spend time dwelling in God's presence. You need to experience God’s presence.
Consider the story of Mary and Martha. Jesus came to visit, and Martha worked hard to get the house ready. Think of that as the preparation. It's like the work I did educating myself about the plants and animals of the estuary.
But when Jesus arrived, and it was time to experience his presence, Martha was still preparing. She didn't realize it was time to stop preparing, and be present.
If you want to experience God's presence, you need to allow God to experience your presence. If you want to experience God's presence, you need to be present.
Martha wasn't present. She was still preparing. She was still in the visitor center, when it was time to be out in the estuary. She was still in the kitchen, when it was time to come close to Jesus.
It's like the artistry of a great musician. Several years ago I got to hear Yuja Wang give a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. She had done the preparation. She had spent countless hours studying, practicing. She knew the notes. She knew how to play them. Years of training.
But when she gives a concert, she has all that, but she is also present, in the moment, to not only play the right notes, but also to feel the music, to experience it happening right now, to express the passion, the energy, the emotion.
When someone like me tries to play guitar, I'm still working on getting the notes right. So there isn't much of me left to be present and just feel the emotion of the music. And you can tell the difference. I know you can!
It's like Habakkuk. He had the knowledge of God. He had studied the Torah. He knew it well. But he needed to experience God in the present moment.
The problem was, there was too much noise. The whole city was in an uproar. Battles were raging. Swords were clanking. And Habakkuk couldn't hear God.
He needed to find a way to experience God's presence. So he climbed up to the top of the fortress, up to the top of the watchtower.
And he waited for God.
It's hard to wait, isn't it? In our New Beginnings program, we keep finding ourselves rushing to find solutions and fix problems. Slowly but surely we're getting there. But “slowly but surely” is hard for some of us, isn't it?
Maybe one reason this process takes so long is to make sure we are allowed time to listen for God, that we are waiting for God, finding time to be present with God.
We've been doing lots of talking, lots of meeting, lots of studying, lots of conversing. We've been reading all the signs and looking at all the displays in the New Beginnings visitor center. And it’s all good.
But part of the reason it all takes so long is that we also need time to go outside, sit by the estuary, climb the watchtower, and wait for God.
The whole point of this New Beginnings program is to seek out and find God's will for our congregation.
We all have our own ideas about what the future of our congregation should look like. But have we waited for God's voice, to tell us what God wants?

So we need to spend some time sitting in the presence of God. We need to spend some time in silent prayer and contemplation.
Turn off the radio. Turn off the tv. Turn off your phone and put it in a drawer.
And listen…
Allow yourself to get bored…
Do you ever notice how your best ideas come when you're in the shower, or when you turn off the light and crawl into bed? Or when you're doing activities like gardening or walking the dog?
Times like these are when you get to mentally take a step back. The constant stream of information that flows into your brain is stopped, and at first is disconcerting. At first you can't stand it, because you're so addicted to that constant stimulation.
But then you start to listen. Really listen. With your mind. And you're present in the moment. You're mind is in the present, which is the only place where God is.
And you can hear that still small voice.
We need to listen for God's voice.
We need to experience God.
That is an incredibly vital part of this whole process.

What did Habakkuk hear when he found a place away from the noise, and listened?
You'll talk about that at the fourth and final house meeting this Wednesday evening. But perhaps a word of caution is appropriate: the voice of God that you hear can be surprising. And challenging.
Sometimes it's not what we are ready to hear.
Jonah - another prophet - heard God's voice. But Jonah was so caught up in what he himself wanted, that God's very different idea was offensive to jonah.
“Get up and go to Ninevah!” God said. God's vision for Jonah was the redemption of Ninevah.
But that was very different from Jonah's vision. Jonah had it in his mind that, no, he was going the other way.
It took a long time for Jonah to adopt God’s mission as his own, and even then, his heart wasn't in it.
So it can take a lot of listening, and a lot of time in prayer, to not only hear God's voice, but also to allow God's spirit to work in us ...and change our hearts so that they are aligned with God's will.
Not our will, God, but yours.
The vision may be hard. It may be a comfort. It may also be a challenge.
But when our hearts are aligned with God's heart - when God's vision becomes our vision - no matter how challenging it is, the end result is joy.
Joy is what came to Habakkuk. Even in the midst of the challenges he faced, Habakkuk found joy. Habakkuk found reason to praise God.
After seeing God’s vision, at the end of everything, Habakkuk sang a song of joy and hope:
“Even though the fig tree does not blossom; even though no fruit is on the vines; even though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; even though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.”

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