Raise your Ebenezer | Sermon from May 27, 2018

Based on 1 Samuel 7:7-12

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

Imagine that with me. What did you want to be more than anything else?

I wanted to be an astronaut. That was all I wanted. I could see myself on the moon, on Mars. I would daydream that I was the first man to ever set foot on Mars. I could see myself blasting off into space.

I drove my brother crazy. When I was about nine years old, I wrote letters to every NASA installation around the country. There are about thirty of them. I told them I was nine years old, interested in space and the space program, and asked them to send me whatever information they had. Within a few weeks, a large manilla envelope would arrive from each of them full of the most amazing brochures, papers, data, and pictures. I plastered them all over the walls of the bathroom my brother and I shared.

My imagination set my vision of the world. Everything I did for the better part of my childhood was in pursuit of the goal of being a part of the space program. I worked hard at school, I read about the sciences, I took pains with my math, I read everything I could get my hands on about the future of the space program. I remember when George HW Bush and Bill Clinton both pushed new initiatives for space flight and human exploration of space. I wrote to my senators and congressman asking that they vote for such measures.

My imagination set my vision for the world, and I responded with discipline.

Later in life, I needed some imagination for a different purpose. I was on my way to visit the third of the three churches I had in my first appointment. I received these directions:

Go and turn at the old oak tree. Then, find the corner with the broken fence and turn right there. At the old country store, turn right again.

Those are real directions I received when I started pastoring three tiny churches in rural baldwin county. The old oak tree, the broken fence, the old country store; these are well-known landmarks to residents of eastern Baldwin County and extreme southwestern Hancock. But to an outsider like me, they were practically meaningless.

It was up to dumb luck that I found the little Linton Church, the third of the three churches I used to pastor. It has no physical address. Sure, it’s got a property address, but to type it into any GPS puts you miles and miles away from it’s actual location. So, you need the old oak tree, the broken fence, and the country store, to find it.

As I grew with the church, located in an old farming village named Linton that still retained a sense of community, I discovered that some of these landmarks were more than timeless statues like the old oak tree. They were heirlooms of sorts.

There was the old country store that held memories of family members gone by. There was the old schoolhouse where some members of the church had taught, where the old syrup festival was held, where community events continued to occur every so often, such as a wedding reception for a couple I married in the little Linton church.

These landmarks contained deep meaning that reminded the people who drove by everyday about their family, their community, and their connection to each other. While these landmarks might look unremarkable to the average passerby, or even dilapidated and worthless, and certainly they did to me at first, these landmarks are practically heirlooms, a part of the heritage of a people, a reminder of who they are and the responsibility they bear to each other.

We may not be from Linton, but we know about the power of monuments. We erect them in our towns, in our city squares, to commemorate events and remind ourselves of our heritage. Washington DC’s Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson memorials come to mind.

In the book of 1 Samuel, the prophet Samuel takes stones and erects such a monument. The Ebenezer he raises is a symbol, a reminder, of God’s help in their struggle with the Philistines. It’s at the spot where God helped, to remind the people of God’s gracious acts, of God’s choice in them as a people, and to celebrate that God continues to be their God.

And remind them it did. The Ebenezer for the Israelites became the old oak tree, the community center, the monument. It was landmark, a constant, visual, reminder to them of who they are, of who their God is, and of what it means to be in relationship with this God. Ebenezer means “stone of hope,” and for the Israelites, it became a powerful symbol of the hope they had in God.

I love that Robert Robinson calls out this otherwise obscure moment of scripture in his hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” He declares “here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come.” He recognizes that it’s by God’s grace, by God’s divine action, that he has been rescued from a life of slavery to sin to know God personally and have that relationship.

He knew this personally because Robinson had spent years running with the wrong crowd. He and his eighteenth century buddies would go around finding field preachers, like John Wesley and George Whitefield, to heckle, generally trying to stir up trouble and ruin the preaching moment. They would also go find drunks and make them do ridiculous things, all the while getting them more drunk.

But one day, the Holy Spirit spoke into his life and he was a changed man. Hither by God’s help, he came into relationship with God. He found himself a preacher, and a Methodist one at that! He knew that it was by God’s grace he had made it out of that life and into his new life of God’s peace and love. And so he raised his Ebenezer, his stone of hope, by writing his now famous hymn, “Come, Thou Fount.” Such served as a reminder of God’s provision, of God’s grace that enabled him to make the right choice away from sin and toward God’s love; above all, a reminder of the hope he had found in God.

How do we find that hope? How do we make the choice for God’s hope when it’s offered? Robinson had the choice to either respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit or continue in his ways. He made the right choice, but how often do we each struggle with making that same right choice?

All around us are opportunities to make wrong choices. When we go to restaurants, the food that looks the best is the food that’s usually the worst for us. On the TV, the shows that seem the most appealing are probably the worst for our mental state.

And so, we seek to make changes. For example, we might choose the salad occasionally, thinking that’s the gateway to a healthier lifestyle. But on the other occasions, we still choose the delicious bacon cheeseburger. We know that eating a salad occasionally doesn’t make for a healthy diet.

Or we decide that we’ll exercise more often. We join a gym. We go to the gym. We get a juice and the juice bar. We look at the machines. We go home. Good intentions do not pave the road to health.

We know what’s good for us, but we have a terrible time choosing it. We know we should always make the healthier food choice, we know we should actually work out, we know we should monitor what we consume on the TV, but we have great difficulty making that choice.

When it comes to our spiritual lives, we have the same difficulty. We know we should be more disciplined. We know we should spend time with God by ourselves. We know we should pray more. But we don’t seem able to choose those options as much as we like.

So how do we go about making the right choice in our spiritual lives, as Robinson did? How do we find the hope he knew?

Robinson’s hymn “Come, Thou Fount,” gives us the answer: we raise our ebenezers.

In your mind’s eye, imagine this future with me: you’re less busy, less preoccupied. There’s less strife in your family and in all your relationships. There’s peace within your corner of the world. You live a life where you help others, where people are encouraged by being in your presence, where there’s no anxiety but, instead, rest. The worries, financial, familial, business, safety, and security have little power over you for you are free from slavery to fear.

This is the power of raising our ebenezers, our stones of hope, our reminders of God’s provision and goodness in our lives. Our Ebenezers remind us to hope; a hope we learn through a life of spiritual discipline.

Samuel, in the scripture, imagined that God would come to their aid. He sought after God for help, God provided, and the Israelites received victory. Samuel could see the world the way God does: through the lens of provision.

The spiritual disciplines give us the lenses we need to see the world as God does: lenses like love, restoration, peace, life, rest, freedom, justice, and hope.

Human nature does just the opposite of this. Without the spiritual disciplines to give us God’s sight on the world, we see the world through the opposite lenses: hate, devastation, strife and war, death, anxiety, oppression, exploitation, and despair.

Our imagination sets our vision of the world, whether we’re dreaming of what we want to be when we grow up or seeking a more peaceful life with God. Without the spiritual disciplines to give us God’s vision of the world, our imaginations are consumed by evil’s vision of the world, for we have no hope. That’s the power of spiritual disciplines in our lives: they teach us to see the world through the lens of hope.

And we need that. On this Memorial Day, we’re reminded of the sacrifice of brother and sisters, fathers and mothers, grandparents, uncles, and aunts, who gave of themselves because of conflict in the world. We long for the day when we will no longer need soldiers, when our armies will no longer be needed to keep us safe. We long for the promised day of scripture when peace will reign. But in a world full of strife and fear, in a world where there are wars and rumors of wars, how can we have hope?

Or in our personal lives, how can we find hope when our lives give us so much reason to despair? We have family conflicts, we have financial troubles, our children give us concern or we worry about our aging parents future, we struggle to feel like we belong and wrestle with insecurities, we feel like the world is against us, we feel unloved. How can we find any hope?

Or do we even really know what it is to hope? Scripture tells us, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” When you speak, are you frequently complaining, bitter, resentful, seeing how we’ve been wronged? Are you frequently posting and reposting articles and memes on facebook that reinforce how right your position is and how wrong others are? Do you speak of other generations of people as lesser, as needing to learn a few things, as problems, to justify how wise your generation is? Is your speech mostly negative? If so, you probably do not know hope.

For hopeful people speak positively, they see others as equal, they seek first to understand before being understood, they are always complimenting others, thanking others, giving their best selves to others. Out of the overflow of their hearts, hope speaks, for they know God intimately and deeply. They have raised their own Ebenezer and believe that, with God, all things are possible, even hope in this war-torn world.

To raise an Ebenezer is simple. It’s to find something tangible in our lives that reminds us of God’s hope. We have all known hope at some point in our lives. There’s some way in which God has provided. There’s some means by which we have known God’s abundant provision. To raise an Ebenezer is to keep something around that reminds us of that hope, lest we forget and move back into a life where all we see around us is sin and evil.

Raising our ebenezers, having a tangible reminder of God’s hope, reminds us to keep our hearts and minds focused on God, to engage in spiritual disciplines. Raising our ebenezers gives us hope.

So raise your Ebenezer every day.

CS Lewis said that every morning, we wake up with desires, goals, and motivations. These in and of themselves aren’t sinful. But when we fail to pause and ask God for God’s desires, goals, and motivations to power our day, we fail to ask for God’s help; in other words, when we fail to practice spiritual discipline, we set ourselves on a path of sin.

We can run ourselves ragged chasing our own desires, goals, and motivations. Indeed, we dirty our souls and corrupt our spirits when we chase after what we desire ourselves, failing to seek God’s vision, failing to ask God for help. We dirty our souls because the inevitable result of chasing after our own desires, motivations, and goals is sin.

But when we practice spiritual disciplines, we learn what God’s desires, goals, and motivations are for our day. This is why daily practice is so important. Those spiritual disciplines, as we see God’s path for us in each and every day, teaches us to see the world the way God does: through the lens of hope. And when we know that hope, we can raise our ebenezers, for we will believe, without doubt, that hope will carry the day.

Commit this day to practice spiritual disciplines daily. You can begin by raising an Ebenezer. Find something tangible that reminds you of the hope you have in God, perhaps something that reminds you of a time when God provided, when God came through, when you discovered the hope that God provides. Even if you’re far from that hope today, you’ve known it before and you can find your way back again. Find something noticeable in your home that will help you remember that you need to ask God for help everyday. Maybe it’s a special chair you always sit in when you pray. Maybe it’s a cross you have on a table. Maybe it’s leaving the bible out on the table, a reminder to read. Maybe it’s training yourself to always pray after pouring your first cup of coffee.

No matter how you form the habit, this week, raise your ebenezers. Practice spiritual discipline. Begin each day aware of your need for God, and then go seek after God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Then, you will see the world as God does: ultimately, through the lens of hope.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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