October 15, 2012

Barriers to Faith: 10 Barriers that Keep Us from God


I loved cartoons as a kid. Back when good ‘ole cartoon violence was ok. Looney Tunes was a staple along with Tom and Jerry...both of them having a very similar plot line. One animal, either Wile E Coyote or Tom, attempting to catch and eat another animal, the Road Runner or Jerry, but always coming up short.

Animator Chuck Jones created the Roadrunner cartoons in 1948. In his book Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times Of An Animated Cartoonist, Church Jones says that cartoonists were to follow 11 simple rules when creating the cartoons:
1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going "meep, meep."
2. No outside force can harm the Coyote -- only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products. Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time.
3. The Coyote could stop anytime -- if he were not a fanatic.
4. No dialogue ever, except "meep, meep" and yowling in pain.
5. The Road Runner must stay on the road -- for no other reason than that he's a roadrunner.
6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters -- the southwest American desert.
7. All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy.
9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
10. The audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.
I think number 10 is very telling...The audience’s sympathy must remain with the coyote. There comes a point where we WANT to see the Roadrunner eaten because he just seems so arrogant. We begin to feel sorry for the Coyote! The rules for the Road Runner cartoons feel stacked against the Coyote. There are barriers everywhere that the coyote from getting the Road Runner.

We are starting a new message series called Barriers to Faith...that is why we have the State Flower of Ohio up here, but we are looking at things that keep us experiencing all we want to experience as part of our faith journey.

Barriers are really just things that keep us from getting where we want or need to go. We have all faced barriers in our lives. We have that perfect job, things are clicking, bills are finally getting caught up, and then a barrier hits and we are right back where we started.

We have a good life going. We are happy. We have a good relationship. We have children...and then a barrier hits that keeps us from continuing that life...a divorce...a death...a breakup.

We think we are going somewhere and then a brick wall just pops up and keeps us from getting where we want or need to go. Just as we face barriers in our life, we also face barriers in the faith. Barriers that keep some of us from being able to embrace a faith in God or even a belief in His existence. Barriers that keep others of us from growing in our faith and embracing Him fully. Barriers that cause doubt and frustration and sometimes even cause us to abandon the faith altogether.

Sometimes, if we are honest, it feels like there is a storyteller in the sky, who like Chuck Jones, has a list of rules meant to be a barrier to us. I posted a question on my Facebook page a few weeks ago asking people, “If you were sitting across the table from Jesus what would you ask Him?” One person responded, “When does it get easier?”

Today we are going to take a quick look at 10 different barriers, and how Jesus became a barrier breaker for one woman. I think Jesus is really the key in all of this. We tend to blame God for a lot of things, and often there are legitimate questions attached. But sometimes we blame God for things that come from not really understanding His character.

When someone says, “I don’t believe in God!” I will often ask, “Which God don’t you believe in?” After a few minutes of describing “God” I realize we are not talking about the God as revealed in the Bible.

If you want to know what God is really like...we simply look at Jesus. Hebrews 1:3 in The Message says, “Going through a long line of prophets, God has been addressing our ancestors in different ways for centuries. Recently he spoke to us directly through his Son. By his Son, God created the world in the beginning, and it will all belong to the Son at the end. This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature.” Jesus “perfectly mirrors God.” In the NIV it says Jesus is “the exact representation” of God.

If you have question about what God is like...how God would treat people...how God responds to people...how much God loves people...we need only look at Jesus.

So let’s look at John 4, and see how Jesus busted down some barriers for a Samaritan woman.

John 4:1-6,
“Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John—although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.”
1. Tradition Barrier-
Our Scripture says, “Now he had to go through Samaria.” But that is a bit of an overstatement...Jesus did NOT have to go through Samaria. In Jews hated Samaritans so intensely they would travel an extra day just to go around Samaria. They wanted nothing to do with the Samaritans.

But Jesus was not concerned with traditions that were a barrier to God. He doesn’t say they are wrong, but his ultimately goal is to help people get to God. We all have traditions and it isn’t until we break out of the traditions that we are able to see things in a different light.

Jesus, if he had followed tradition, would have never had the opportunity to meet this woman...and she would never have been able to experience God’s love for her.

Traditions are good. I like traditions. We all have them...especially when it comes to special moments and holidays in our lives. But sometimes traditions can get in the way of genuinely experiencing God.

I came from a very free church background, but when I have worshiped in an Episcopal or Catholic church, I really enjoy the structure. I have experienced God in some profound ways while worshipping in those churches. But others, having grown up in them, found them stifling and the traditions got in the way of their ability to experience the presence of God.

Jesus is willing to break through the traditions when it becomes necessary to help us experience God’s presence.

John 4:7-8
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
2. The Gender Barrier-
Jesus spoke with the woman. A man was not supposed to speak with a woman in public. It was being too forward, and was considered inappropriate. Especially considering that both Jesus and this woman are alone. Men, in this culture, would often not even speak to their mother or sisters in public because it might give the wrong impression.

But Jesus made a habit of not just speaking to women, but also allowing them to sit and listen to his teaching. There is a story in about two sisters, Mary and Martha, and Jesus allows Mary to sit at his feet and listen to Him teach. When Martha complained to Jesus that Mary should be helping, Jesus responded that Mary had chosen the better and most important thing.

For a long time, women have been treated as second-class citizens in the church and in the culture...but whenever we look at Jesus he is welcoming women into his presence, teaching them, allowing them to be His disicples. And women continue to serve a strong role in the Early Church. Throughout the Apostle Paul’s writing it Priscilla who receives mention before her husband Aquila.

When speaking with this woman Jesus is actually busting through another barrier...

John 4:9
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
3. The Race Barrier- 
Jesus spoke to the woman who was Samaritan. Our passage even tells us that Jews do not associate with Samaritans. They considered them a mongrel nation of half-breeds. Samaritans took the Jewish religion and worship of Yahweh and mixed it with some other practices. They were unwanted and unwelcome.

Usually an interaction between a Jew and a Samaritan would have resulted in a fight. There would certainly not have been a time when a Jew would ask for help from a Samaritan.

It is hard for us to understand this because today the word Samaritan has good connotations. We have Good Samaritan hospitals all over the United States. When we think of a Good Samaritan we think of someone helping another person in need.

What we often don’t realize is that the story of the Good Samaritan was meant to get under the skin of people. If we were to retell the story of the Good Samaritan in a way that would bring the feelings to life... we would tell the story of someone hurt alongside the road and a Pastor drives on by, then Senator or Judge, then a Cop or Fireman goes past on the other side, but then a member of Al Qaeda stops to help, and empties his pockets of all his money to pay for the person’s care.

That is a difficult way to think about that story, but that is what any story would do in that culture that put the Samaritans in a positive light.

Jesus is breaking down a barrier that says some people are not welcome in God’s presence.

John 4:10-14
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
4. The Ego Barrier-
Are you greater than our father Jacob? What a question! This man was a jerk and a thief his entire life. But notice that Jesus simply ignores the question. He doesn’t take offence at the question. Jesus is a big boy he can take it. This woman doubting or questioning him didn’t cause him to react badly...his ego was not at stake.

There are some in the church who are bullies. They have a lot of knowledge and want to share their faith with people, but what is really at stake is their ego...not the Gospel. If they are questioned or rejected they become angry and defensive.

There have been times when some of us have been hurt, offended or pushed away from God by a religious know-it-all jerk. And we have to get past those who are religious bullies. It can be difficult to do, but we have to separate who Jesus is and what He says...from some of the people who think they represent Him.

Jesus’ ego was not on the line. He didn’t need to take offence and react strongly. He was able to patiently wait for this woman to get to a place in her life where she could hear his message and receive its truth.

John 4:15-18
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
5. The Morality/Sin Barrier. 
This woman is a sinner (husbands). The way this is stated implies that this is more than just a woman who has had a string of husbands. She probably had a string of bad luck in her life that has led her to this point, but she knew what she was doing was wrong. People had been putting her down for a long time.

Every time Jesus encounters someone who has done too much bad stuff and wants forgiveness...it is never an issue for him. Sin is not a barrier when people come to Him genuinely seeking to know God. For those who want to follow him and leave their sin behind...Jesus welcomes them with a quickness.

Sin is only a barrier when we refuse to let it go. When you and I hang on to our sins...it becomes a block in our lives that keep us from entering into a full relationship with God. This doesn’t mean that we never sin again. We will wrestle with temptation and sin the rest of our lives, but when we do falter...we must simply turn to Jesus and give it over to him.

Jesus uses the word repent. This simply means to do a 180 degree turn around. We are going in this direction, doing our own thing, fully engaged in our sin...then we do a complete turn around and turn our backs on our sin and follow Jesus. Our sin is not a barrier for Jesus when we are genuinely seeking to know God.

John 4:19-20
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
6. The Religion Barrier. 
The woman does what so many of us attempt to do...she tries to distract Jesus with a religious argument. If things get too close we start talking about the different ways to worship, how we talk about God, songs vs hymns, style of dress...people can find so many things to argue about when it comes to practicing religion. It is so easy to let our religious hangups and baggage become a barrier or at least an excuse for us to distance ourselves from God.

Religion and religious practices are not all bad. They can be extremely beneficial. As a Jews, Jesus participated in religious practices like Sabbath worship, Passover, baptism, all kinds of things, but when religious practices became a barrier to God he would knock it over.

Sabbath was and is a wonderful thing that should be practiced. We live in a hurried and harried culture that could use a day of rest and reflection and worship. But the Pharisees allowed their rules of Sabbath keeping to keep them from helping those in need.

One pastor I worked for would say, “You have to pick carefully the hills you are willing to bleed and die on.” There are some things that are worth bleeding and dying for, but sometimes we pick some petty religious things and make them barriers that keep us from truly experiencing God.

John 4:21-24
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
7. The Relationship Barrier-
It is easy to believe that God is distant and unknowable...that he would never care for someone like me. It is interesting to see that Jesus uses the term “Father” three times in this passage. Jesus shows him as close and fatherly.

Sometimes the “Father” language gives people problems because their own fathers do not bring good memories to mind. My own father abandoned us before I was born. What helped me was realizing that God does not deserve my comparing him to my Father. It was my father who was broken and damaged...not God. My father failed because he didn’t reflect God as Father.

The Bible uses other images to demonstrate that God is not out there...somewhere...distant from you and I. It uses motherly references of a mother hen calling her chicks to the safety of her wings. But It is all imagery meant to show God’s closeness...his familial concern for His people.

In fact, Jesus is the first to regularly uses this language to speak of God in relation to his people.

You and I can have a real relationship with God. We can experience God’s closeness and presence. God is not unknowable.

John 4:25-26
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
8. The Expectancy Barrier. 
People were expecting a Messiah to come. There were a million swirling expectations for what this Messiah would be and what he would do.

Some today have this expectation that Jesus only came to give eternal life, later, so we can go to heaven. Jesus didn’t just die so we can live in His presence one day in the future. The Message of Jesus is that our Kingdom Life starts now...in this life. He makes a difference here and now...not just in the future.

We can participate in His presence and in His activity here and now. We can be part of His Kingdom here and now. God’s plan is not just for the life after death...but for us to live fully in our life before we die.

John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

What matters is having His life right now!

John 4:27-37
Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”
“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”
9. The Priority Barrier. 
What is really important in life? The Disciples return with much needed food after a long day of travel, and Jesus is not interested.  Something far more important is taking place. Jesus knew it was more important to help those who were seeking God than it was for him to eat. Not just more important, but somehow he was receiving a nourishment more valuable than food.

So many times we make the wrong decision in terms of our priorities, and they become a barrier between us and God.

Jobs are important. We need them to provide for our families, pay our bills, enable our us to live, but they can take priority in life that becomes a barrier between us and God.

Families are important. They provide relationship and places where we can feel safe. They are important, but they reach a place where they receive more priority in our lives than our relationship with God.

It is not an issue of importance. There are very important and special things in our lives, but when they take priority over God than become a barrier. Jesus understood that not even food was important enough to divert his attention from the work of God going on right in front of him.

John 4:39-42
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.
They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
10. The Political Barrier. 
Jews and Samaritans expected the Messiah to save them from the Romans. When the Samaritans proclaim that Jesus was “Savior of the World” they proclaiming this against Caesar who proclaimed himself Son of God and Savior of the World. They were saying Jesus you are a better King and leader than Caesar.

The Church only works when Jesus is King. And in today’s world people attach all kinds of politics to the Gospel message of Jesus. Jesus would vote Republican. Jesus would vote Democrat. We all know that Jesus is Independent!

Being able to worship with those who are diverse from us means recognizing that Jesus is King first and foremost. No political system can accomplish what the Kingdom of God is meant to accomplish.

Conclusion
Over the next few weeks we are going to take a look at some more barriers...look at some barriers a little more in depth. What happens when you doubt God or doubt his goodness? How do faith and reason work?

But today maybe you caught a glimpse of a barrier that keeps you from growing in you faith. I want to pray for you to close our message today.

[For this message series I am using messages adapted from the Cincinnati Vineyard and the Columbus Vineyard.]

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