Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 6, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Genesis 11 - 12:9
The world has a way of making us feel homeless. Saturday morning, November 1st in the year of our Lord, 1755. Somewhere underneath the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Portugal, the earth started quaking, and it didn't stop for 10 minutes. There was no Richter scale at that point in history, but historians estimate that it was about a nine. Several cities on the Portuguese coast were destroyed. Lisbon, one of the more wealthy and prominent cities in the world at the time, was hit hardest. Almost all the buildings in the city collapsed. Men, women and children were buried in the rubble, and then the fire started. The sky turns black with dust and soot as the survivors huddle at the waterfront to watch their city burn, and then something strange starts happening with the water. The water is drawing back. The sea is pulling in on itself. Eye witnesses said that the shoreline pulled back far enough to reveal shipwrecks and sunken treasures from failed voyages of generations past and then that's when the first of the tidal waves crashed into the crowded harbor, splitting seagoing ships apart and scattering the few that had survived the fire and the earthquake. It looked like a precision attack, a premeditated attack on the human race. That Saturday morning, 264 years ago, the modern world as we know it was born.
At least that's what author Susan Nieman argues in her book, Evil in Modern Thought. The modern world for all its optimism, all its hope in humanity and global progress, the modern world is marked by a deep sense of homelessness. And that event in Lisbon in 1755 did more than any other event of the time to make a whole society feel homeless. Before this event many more people believe that the world was intelligently designed and ruled by a friendly deity. After this event, many more believed that there were only two options when it came to belief in God: either this God was weak and couldn't stop earthquakes and, if so, wasn't really fit to be called God, or this God was evil and loved to torture people. Obviously, neither of those options are very satisfying. So Western European and North American people increasingly looked for other options. And in some cases this meant writing God out of their story.
What are you left with without God in your story? What are you left with without the all-powerful, wise, Creator God who made the world to be the home of humanity? What are you left with without the loving Father God who wants to dwell with His adopted human children? What are you left with without the God of the Bible, without the Bible as the story around which you center and organize and understand your life? What are you left with? You're left looking for a home, and that's what the modern world has been doing for the last 264 years, looking for a home.
How do you find a home in a world where you can't trust anybody? You can't trust authority. You can't trust tradition; you can't trust family; you can't even trust the ground underneath your feet. How do you find a home here? One answer that the modern world has supplied is get more knowledge. This answer was given by a 31-year-old college instructor named Immanuel Kant. Mr. Kant lived on the other side of Europe when the earthquake struck Lisbon. Word spread across Europe about what had happened, and people were freaking out, and Mr. Kant wanted to write some articles in his local paper to settle people down, to assure them. So first thing he said was that you don't really need to worry because earthquakes don't really happen in this part of the world. And the second thing you need to know is earthquakes are not mysterious acts of God. They are completely natural phenomena. They're the result of plates of the earth's crust rubbing together along cracks called fault lines. And with enough scientific knowledge, we can pinpoint the location of these fault lines and avoid them. And if that's not possible or not desirable, then we can apply scientific knowledge, architectural knowledge, the right building construction, the right construction materials to build houses that can withstand earthquakes. Now that sounds like a completely natural answer to you and me because we're children of the modern world. But you gotta remember in 1755 this was revolutionary.
Mr. Kant wasn't the only voice giving answers after the Lisbon earthquake. There were other voices, voices from that old superstitious religious world that Kant was trying to lay to rest. Kant said get more knowledge. These voices said, "Get on God's good side." You asked them about why that happened to Lisbon—oh, they had answers. "It's because of all those drunken sailors and those greedy merchants. God was punishing them for their sins." And then someone else pointed out, "Well, you know, almost all the church buildings in Lisbon were destroyed too, but the brothel was unscathed. What do you make of that?"
This is not a new problem. This is not a modern problem. It's a problem as old as Genesis. We've been going through the book of Genesis on this program. Last week we heard the account of the Flood—Noah and the ark. Noah and his family were the only people that survived. And after the Flood, they came out of the ark and Noah's family began to repopulate the earth.
And people went out looking for a place that they could call home. And that's where the story picks up in Genesis 11.
"Now, the whole earth had one language. They all had the same words. And as people journeyed east, they found a plane in the land of Shinar and settled there. And a man said to his friend, 'Hey, come on, let's make bricks and bake them all the way through.' So they used bricks instead of stone and tar for mortar. And they said, 'Hey, come on, let's build ourselves a city, a home, and a tower with a top reaching to the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, a name for ourselves so that we won't be scattered across the face of the whole earth.'
"And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the children of Adam had built, and the Lord said, 'Look, they're all one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do, and nothing they proposed will now be impossible for them. Come now, let us go down and confuse their language so that they will not understand one another speech.' And the Lord scattered them from there across the face of the whole earth. And they left off building the city. For this reason, the name of the city is called Babel, which means confusion because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth."
Now this episode happened in the family line of Ham, Noah's youngest son. In the family line of Noah's son, Shem, ten generations after Noah, there was a man named Abram: Abram, which means exalted father. His wife's name was Sarai. Now, Sarai was barren. She had no child. The exalted father and his wife had no child.
"And the Lord said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you, and I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. And everyone who blesses you, I will bless. And anyone who dishonors you, I will curse and in you, through you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.'
"And Abram went, as the Lord told him, and also his nephew Lot. Abram took his wife, Sarai, and all the belongings that they had gathered at their home in Haran and all the people that had become a part of their household in Haran. And they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they arrived at the land of Canaan. Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem the oak of Marah. The Canaanites were still in the land at that time, and the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, 'To your seed, to your offspring, I will give this land.' So Abram built an altar to the Lord who had appeared to him. From there, Abraham moved to the hill country east of Bethel, and he pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east, and there Abram built an altar to the Lord and called upon the Name of the Lord, and Abram journeyed on." These are excerpts from the book of Genesis 11-12.
Have you written God out of your story? If you have, you're not alone. Your one of the many spiritually homeless orphans of the modern world. When I listened to the book of Genesis, I hear another answer to this question of "How do we find a home?" It's not get more knowledge. It's not get on God's good side. The God that I meet in Genesis, He cannot be manipulated. You cannot get on His good side because His good on all sides. The problem is not getting on His good side. The problem is that we're looking for a home without Him.
This God, the God of Abram who's later called Abraham, the God of Abraham wants to make His home with you, me, with everyone who will walk with Him in faith like Abraham. This is the way home. This was the way home for Abraham's most famous descendant: his seed, his offspring, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus walked with God. Jesus did not yet have a home here. He said it. "Foxes have holes. Birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man, He has no place to lay His head."
Jesus spoke for the God of Abraham to the descendants of Abraham. He said, "Follow Me." He said, "Don't be afraid, little flock. It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom, to give you a home. Sell your possessions, give to the poor, provide for yourselves money bags that won't wear out and a treasure in the heavens, a treasure with God that will not fail, where no thief breaks in and no moth destroys." "Walk with Me," says Jesus. "Walk with God like Abraham. I know the way home. I am the way home." The promise of Jesus found a home in the hearts of many, but not all. Some were too at home in their religious systems. Some were satisfied with their practical home-building know-how, and Jesus was crucified. He was left alone, apparently a homeless orphan claimed by no one, except One. The God of Abraham said, "That's My Son. I have a home for Him. He is Mine." And He raised Jesus from the dead to provide for you a home.
Seen rightly, the cross of Jesus scatters our dreams like failed homebuilders fleeing from Babel. Seen rightly, the cross of Jesus foils our plans, foils our proposals to build a home without God, and still God used the crucifixion of Jesus to make a way home for us. Jesus is risen from the dead, and today He calls you: "Walk with Me, I'll bring you home."
After I'm done talking today I want to introduce you to a friend, a dear sister in Christ. Her name is Noks. I met Noks when we were both serving on an outreach project shared by our two churches. We were working at an apartment complex. The apartments weren't very nice. They were just temporary homes for refugees.
And this is where I got to know Noks. Noks wasn't living there in the apartment. She was part of the service project team. And I watched Noks interact with the kids, and she could relate to them so well. Later I learned that Noks was herself sort of a refugee. She had been expelled from her father's house, for her faith in Jesus.
Now she's walking with us, walking with the family of Abraham, walking with Jesus. Noks helped me remember that whoever you are, long-time citizen or refugee, none of us has a permanent home in this world, in its current state. On this side of the return of Jesus in glory to raise the dead and renew all things, we don't have a permanent home. We are promised one in the new heavens and the new earth. And on the way, we have Jesus. We are walking homeward with the One who knows the way, the One who paved the way, the One who is the way.
Would you like to walk with us?
If so, pray with me. Father, You have called us in Jesus with Abraham and Sarah and all Your people to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that You are walking with us. Dear Jesus, we pray. Amen.
Note: The Lutheran Hour is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio at lutheranhour.org. It includes emotion and emphasis not reflected in the transcript.
Reflections for October 6, 2019
Mike Zeigler: I have a special guest with me in the studio today, Noks Shabalala. She is studying at Concordia Seminary here in St. Louis, getting her master's degree in spiritual care. Welcome. Thanks for being here with us today Noks.
Noks Shabalala: Hi. Thank you for having me.
Mike Zeigler: So where are you from originally, Noks?
Noks Shabalala: I'm from South Africa in a little town called Mandeni near Durban.
Mike Zeigler: So in this series we've been talking about the book of Genesis, and now Abram, later called Abraham, and how God called him from his country, from his homeland to set out on a new path. Now, you're far away from home right now. So tell our listeners a little bit about how you came to be where you are today?
Noks Shabalala: When I was in high school, my dad, I will just say accidentally sent me to this boarding school, but he did not know that it was a Christian school. We had this mandatory religious class that we took. And with many of my new friends there, we took this class and about half of the class were from traditional ancestral worshiping families. And so we were sitting, and we are studying a class. I don't really remember what we were studying about, just going into the class and the pastor ... he was an American pastor who was a missionary at our school at that time. And he was just introducing Jesus to us the best way he knew how, introducing us to grace. Whereas the religion that I came from—there's so many things that we had to do, so many rituals that had to be observed to appease the ancestors—so that people may remain healthy so that we can have luck in the family, people can get jobs, get married, all these things. So for the livelihood of the entire family, we constantly had to sacrifice to the ancestors.
So when I went home at the end of the semester, I told my dad about this newly found religion. But I only told him solely because I was thinking, "Hey, we can save a lot of money from the cows that we have to buy and all the incense that we have to buy to sacrifice to the ancestors." But I think the way that I presented it to my dad wasn't really in a missional way, because he was really angry and taken aback by it. And he told me that I was never to mention that religion in his house. And so then after high school I really was blessed to move in with a friend of mine that was a Christian. It was interesting to me because there was so many things that we went through, but she always just had that joy, that peace. Mind you, Africans have joy all the time and peace, and things like that. But there was something unique about this friend of mine. And so I started asking her questions about how did you come to be that? And she would tell me stories.
And her herself was also disowned after becoming a Christian. And I was freaked out for her, I was like, "How did you survive? You don't see your family?" She's like, "Yeah, but God provided a different kind of a family for me." And I remember one day I picked up the phone, and I don't know what I was thinking, but I guess it was just the Spirit making me brave and bold, and I picked up the phone and I told my dad, "I think I'm going to become a Christian." And my dad was silent on the phone for a long time. And then he said, "Okay." Then we hung up the phone. Nothing was said. I was like, "Oh, that went well." So I come home, my grandma's there and everybody, oh, this is great! But I didn't know that they were there because I was going to get disowned that weekend. And on a Saturday we were going to have an ancestral ritual.
My dad was talking to the ancestors and saying, "Hey, from this day forward, Noks is not going to be a part of this family. And when she leaves, remove your protection from her. Remove the blessings from her." And things like that. And truly, I think at that time I was just at a crossroads because I feel like if my pastor had not really gone into the Scriptures with me, and brought them to light, I would have really been like, "Yeah, just kidding."
Mike Zeigler: You would have gone back?
Noks Shabalala: Yes. I would have been like, "Okay, just kidding, friends. The protection remains, and all the blessings intact." And I remember leaving and making this prayer, saying, "Jesus, You better be real. Because ...
Mike Zeigler: Because you have put your whole life into His hands.
Noks Shabalala: Yes.
Mike Zeigler: Okay. Noks, so to jump ahead a little bit. You became a counselor at a boarding school, right? And there you met a professor from Concordia University, Irvine, California. She helped you get a scholarship, and then you came to America and got involved with campus ministry with students from all over the world. And then from there, I understand that you lived in China for a while. You taught English and German, and you served as an independent missionary. And now you're at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis finishing your master's degree. What's next?
Noks Shabalala: My desire is to serve as a missionary. Right now I'm praying and having this pull towards central Africa, working with our former child soldiers or children, soldiers and women that have been victims of the civil war there.
Mike Zeigler: You had a great way of summarizing that, the message of the cross: "We don't have an explanation for suffering"—how did you say that?
Noks Shabalala: We really do not have an explanation of why we are suffering. But we know that in the midst of our suffering, Christ is suffering with us. And that's the message that really should ring loud in anyone's suffering, that I don't know why I'm suffering. It's not a curse, and it's not because I've done something wrong. But it's just the sinfulness of nature. But in my suffering, I am not alone. Christ is there with me, strengthening me through it all, and resurrecting a hope in my heart to look not just to the situation that I am in, but to the glory that is to come—where a time where suffering and pain and poverty and war will be done away with, a time where we will be in heaven beholding the glory of God eternally.
Mike Zeigler: That is a powerful message of hope. I pray that God speed you on your way to share it with many people. Thanks for being here, Noks.
Noks Shabalala: Thank you so much for having me.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"I Know My Faith Is Founded" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)