Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Lights: The Kingdom of Peace

Preached Sunday, December 26
Scripture readings:
Isaiah 9:1-7; Hebrews 1:1-14; Luke 2:8-14

The message the angels gave to the shepherds, in the rangelands above Bethlehem, was about the birth of a new king who would cause a new world to be born. It was revolutionary news.

To the shepherds, and anyone who heard their report, the words of the angels meant that the world order and God’s order were about to collide, and the world order was going down. This is what it would have meant to them, when the angels said, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11) The Christ was a royal title: messiah, king. They understood this to mean that, in a few years’ time, a leader would rise to the attention of the people of Israel and lead them in a confrontation against Rome and the other great powers of the world, and defeat those powers.

Jerusalem would become the imperial city of the world; the seat of world government. The nations would pay tribute and taxes, and support that government. The people of Israel would be free to worship as God intended, and follow God’s laws without distraction and without the competition and the corrupting influences of alien cultures. The Christ, the Messiah, would see to this, when he grew up to fight his battles and win his wars.

This is what they thought. This is what they thought when the read Isaiah’s words. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6) A new world government in Jerusalem: this is what almost every one of the people of Israel thought these words were about.

The problem came when the baby grew up, and thought differently than almost everyone else did. He understood those words differently. He put the accent on a different place, on a different word, and came out with a meaning and purpose that surprised everyone.

Jesus took the accent off the word government and put the accent on the word peace. Didn’t the angels, themselves, call the baby king the bringer of “peace on earth”?
I want us to think about having an intense interest in peace; in being bringers of the Lord’s peace. In the gospels, we don’t hear Jesus using the word peace very often. In fact, he sometimes denied that he had come to bring peace at all (Matthew 10:34). Jesus always found a way to disrupt the peace of people who he thought were unworthy of it (Matthew 21:12-16).

But Jesus did use the word peace in important ways, and he brought peace to the people who needed it most. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) And Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Notice that Jesus said, “I have overcome the world.” These are a king’s words. Jesus was saying something about his type of government but, in the same breath, he was also talking about his cross. He was saying these things as he waited for his capture, and arrest, and crucifixion. He didn’t want his friends to be completely undone by the horrible things that were about to happen.

The story of the gospel: the birth and life of Jesus; the death and resurrection of Jesus; describes his power as king. They are the actual weapons of his kingdom. They are the way his kingdom functions. They are his law that works in every person who belongs to his kingdom. The birth and life of Jesus; the death and resurrection of Jesus; are his way of governing you, and teaching you, and shaping your life and your commitments and relationships.

Jesus was also talking about his death (about the action of his being nailed to the cross, and that cross or that cross piece being lifted into place, and the people at the foot of the cross looking up at him dying there) when he said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32-33) His cross was his government drawing all people into his orbit.

This is his kingdom. This is part of what Isaiah meant when he said, “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing it and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” (Isaiah 9:7)

The justice and righteousness of the kingdom of God are the gift of Jesus in the work he has done for us. Jesus was born in Bethlehem to stand in for us in his humanity, in his life, in his death, in his resurrection. He carried our life in his. Our lives are contained in his life and everything he did.

The justice and righteousness of the child who has been born for us are the humility and mercy of God coming down in Jesus to rule in our favor. His justice and righteousness consisted of taking our sins and our old way of life, taking the world’s way of working, onto the cross in order to take it from us. His dying for the sins of the world is his way of overcoming the world. This is the key to the role of Jesus as Prince of Peace. Everything that Jesus is, and everything that Jesus does, is about peace.

But the peace is not just peace in our heart. And it is not only peace between us and God. The Prince of Peace rules a kingdom that is governed by the same laws that are at work in Jesus himself. If Jesus is our king, if we belong to his kingdom, then the law of peace will operate through us, in our lives.

If the Lord wants to give peace to the members of our family, and peace to our neighbors, and peace to our community, and peace to our world, then the laws of the Prince of Peace are going to reach out through us in order to give God’s peace to them. What God gives us in Christ, God seeks to give through us in Christ. Peace, as the Bible conceives it, is interactive.

The world around you needs you just as much as it needs God, because the kingdom of God is within you, as Jesus said. (Luke 17:12) The kingdom of God within you means that you are ruled by God. You are needed because the people around you, and the world you live in, needs people who are ruled by God. They need people who can be counted on; not just because of your talent, or imagination, or intelligence, or your creativity, but because, through Christ, the fullness of God dwells in you and works through you. (Ephesians 3:19) Through the Holy Spirit, the fullness of God and the life of Christ live in you. This makes you the mouth, and the hands, and the feet, and the shoulders of Jesus.

Peace is more than all things being calm. Peace is more than the absence of conflict. Peace is more than a feeling inside you. Peace is how you act and relate to the world around you.

Biblical peace is the state of things working right. Biblical peace is about the world working the way we know it ought to work. Marriages working right are peace. Constructive parenthood is peace. The healthy teaching and nurturing of children are peace. Neighbors being neighborly are peace. Outsiders being welcomed are peace. Old people being respected are peace. Good laws and honest public service are peace. People being free to find ways to improve their own lives are peace. Satisfying work to do is peace. Having time to rest and play and think is peace. Just and righteous societies are peace.

The Prince of Peace loves these things and he has a passion for them. Jesus showed this in the way he related to common people and to leaders in the gospels. His people, the people of his kingdom, should share with him a passion for the peace that makes things work the way we know they ought to work.

The kingdom of God has not fully come yet. Jesus promised to return from heaven to earth, and make all things new (Revelation 21:5). Part of the power and passion of being the people of God comes from a holy discontent, a yearning for the peace that hasn’t come. We are discontented because we know that the real reason for the world being the conflicted, brutal, unjust, and angry place that it is comes from the separation of the world from the rule of Christ.

We know Jesus, and we know that it is the lack of Jesus that the world cries out for. We see also that, if the world worked as if Jesus were living his life through every human being, the world would be a Christ-like place.

That is what we want. When we don’t see these things (the things that we and the whole world cry out for), we pray for them, and we stand and work in this world as if Jesus were working through us. This is what Jesus wants, and he can be trusted to do it.

If Jesus returned to the earth and set up his government in Jerusalem, and made us his bureaucrats, and his legislators, and his police force; that would not bring about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God will come when the people of the world operate according to the justice, and righteousness, and peace that come through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Exactly how and when this will happen, in the course of history, is not clear. But it is promised.

Loving the coming of God in Christ and loving the birth of Jesus means loving the work of the Prince of Peace. It means praying for his power to be at work in you. The whole principle of his being born in human flesh and blood goes hand in hand with his coming to be born in you.

This is a work in progress, just as his kingdom coming on earth in all its fullness is a work in progress. It is not finished yet. And we are to look for it, wait for it, pray for it, and work for it passionately. Isaiah promises that the Lord of hosts works with zeal and passion to make it happen. (Isaiah 9:7)

This is just a part of the promise which the angels spoke about to the shepherds: of peace on earth, good will toward men. It is an inescapable part of the real meaning of Christmas. May the birth of the Prince of Peace be within you and me.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

You Will Find the Baby in the Neediest Place

Preached on Christmas Eve

Scripture readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Luke 2:1-20

On the hills above Bethlehem, the shepherds saw, and heard, and felt unimaginable things, indescribable things. Angels: but there was more than angels with them. “The glory of the Lord shone around them.” (Luke 2:9)

The glory of the Lord is the sign of the presence of the Lord. The Lord was there; and the shepherds experienced his presence as an exceeding weight, and light, and fear, and joy, and peace. There are no words for this.

The Lord was there. But the Lord was also to be found in a manger. He was lying in a feed trough in the place where the animals were kept for the inn at Bethlehem. There would be no sense of glory there: nothing that you could see, or hear, or feel. It would not be obvious.

The angel had to give the shepherds signs, so that they would know when they had found the Lord who had come to be the Christ, the Messiah, the king of the kingdom of God. According to the signs, they would have to find the Lord by means of priorities that were the exact opposite of what everyone else would have expected.

The message of the angels was about good news, joy, and peace. And these are things the world desperately needs and cries out for. We want them too. Sooner or later, we cry out for them. We want good news for a change. We want joy. We want peace. The message of the angels, and the directions they gave, and what the shepherds found tell us things about good news, and joy, and peace that very few people know anything about. The angels sent the shepherds to a place where no one else was going.

We think that if we could only go where everyone else is going that we could find good news, joy, and peace. We think that if we could only be like what everyone else seems to be, we would be happy.

Everybody thinks this by nature. Even those who seek to live in total rejection of being like everyone else find their happiness in being like others. The people who are Goths: who wear black clothing and black lipstick (even the guys) and dye their hair black, and wear spikes, and get piercings all look alike. They all look for much the same things. They like the same things, and that is their happiness.

The shepherds had to go to a really strange place, where no one else seemed to be going, to find the Lord. Maybe there were other babies in other mangers; but, if there were any, it was completely unintentional. In order to find the Lord, we must look where other people don’t look. We must go where no one goes intentionally. This is a mystery.

It is a strange kind of search that the shepherds were on. They were looking for the Lord who was really looking for them. The Lord insisted on finding them by making them go to the places where they wouldn’t want to find him. The Lord found them by sending them to the neediest place in Bethlehem.

I am thinking about going where God wants me to go, and experiencing what God wants me to experience. But I want to tell him what and where those things are. I think that I will find God there, but God sends me where I have no intention of going. God sends me to the neediest places.

I visit people in hospitals and nursing homes. Especially at Christmas time, I look for people who need help with groceries and other necessities. I deal with people who need to give gifts to their children, and they lack the means to do it. The greatest need a parent can feel is the need to give something good to their children. God often sends me to the neediest places, on behalf of his love for the world. This is not just what I do. It is what we want our communities to do. It’s what we want to be for others.

Sometimes God sends us to the places where we become the needy ones.
When these are the places we go, when these are the places where we meet other people, and where we pray for the wisdom to think the right thoughts, and speak the right words, and do the right things, it makes us have very interesting conversations with God. It forces us to look for the Lord in a different way, and a different place, than we would otherwise.

The holy family and the baby Jesus were in the neediest place. They were people who were pushed around by government programs. They were uprooted. They found all kinds of doors slammed in their faces. They had almost nothing. They had no idea what to expect next.

But the baby was the Lord himself. The Lord, himself, was to be found there in the middle of these unexpected and completely undesired circumstances.

Sometimes God blesses us with plenty. We have comforts. We have shelter. We have family and friends. We have plans. We have predictable lives, for a while. We can find God is these places. We can find him richly. But we often find him in the rich places in such a way that we do not really know him or know ourselves.

It is in the needy places where we must depend on God alone, and not on our money, or our health, or our work, or the kindness and welcome of others, that we will find the Lord, and really know who he is and who we are with him.

The good news of joy and peace belongs to a world that doesn’t know much about them. The good news is the news of a God who steps into the center of a needy world, and steps into the center of our lives when we need him most.

If we were able to see our own great need right now, we would be in the place where we could truly find the Lord’s presence and a glory that cannot be seen, or heard, or maybe even felt, but the Lord’s presence in born within us and makes its home in us.

This is why the Lord’s Table is such a simple thing. Bread and wine are the things you might find a beggar eating and drinking under a bridge in Spokane, or in a stable. It really is. And maybe, spiritually, we know what it is like to be in such needy places of our own.

The story of the baby in the manger is the story of God with us in the needy places. This is one of the greatest lessons of Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pastor's Christmas Letter: Be The Peace on Earth

Scripture readings: 2 Corinthians 5:1-17 and Luke 2:1-20

Dear Friends
So many kids who are my friends are suddenly turning 60 years old. So I wonder if I am getting old like they are. I have to remind myself that I am not. I am brand new. So are they. Well, we are all new in Jesus. Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Because of this Paul can also say, “So from now we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” (2 Corinthians 5:16)

This sheds light on Christmas: God becoming human in Christ. Christmas is the start of the new creation. The angels’ song about “peace on earth good will toward men” (Luke 2:14) is all about a new creation.

Of course the manger was only the beginning; barely the beginning of the beginning. Jesus had to grow up fulfilling our human life, then offering himself for us on the cross, then rising from the dead and taking his place on the throne (and all this to conquer the world, and sin, and death, and the devil). The work is still in the making. It has only begun in you and me.

Peace is not something that is just given to you. True peace, as God intends, is what we call “interactive”. Peace is how we interact; with God, our families, our congregations, our communities, and our world. And peace is about being peacemakers.
Paul says, “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view…” (2 Corinthians 5:15-16)

So are you looking at your spouse, your family, the members of your church, and the members of your community from God’s point of view, or from your own? Are you being God’s instrument of peace on earth? Even in your own internal conflicts and struggles, are you looking for peace on your own terms, or are you willing to work for inner peace on God’s terms?

God’s peace will make you new and change you into an agent of his peace and reconciliation. Our families, churches, and communities need this. They need us to be the Christians we claim to be by letting God stop us from being what we are, on our own, and make us different.

Let this peace on earth be in Adams County. And may this peace be in you, and may you be a bringer “of peace on earth, good will toward men.” Let Jesus be born in you. Be new. Live as the new creation of the true Christmas peace.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Lights: Baby-Talk

Preached December 12, Third Sunday in Advent
Scripture readings: Isaiah 9:1-7; Galatians 4:1-7

A husband and wife were expecting their first child. To get ready they attended birthing classes at the hospital.

It was a very nice hospital. On one of these sessions, the class was given a tour of the maternity ward, which was decorated to be as homelike and relaxing as possible.

The instructor told them everything that would take place during their stay, and that (on their last evening) they would be treated to a romantic dinner for two. The instructor mentioned some of the items on the menu.

As the tour moved on, the wife whispered to her husband, “Honey, I’m so excited.” And he smiled and said, “Me too. I’m going to order the lobster.”

For Isaiah and for Paul, the most important thing, the center of everything, was the baby. “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given.” (Isaiah 9:6-7) “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son; born of woman…) (Galatians 4:4-5)

For each one of them, this is how everything happens. Isaiah feels no need to tell us, here, what the baby will grow up to do. He tells us that elsewhere. But for now it is enough for him to say that the baby is how the kingdom comes. The same with Paul: “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law; to redeem those were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

Isaiah shows us a baby who brings light to a dark world, and victory to the defeated, and harvest to the hungry. Isaiah doesn’t tell us how the baby does this, except by telling us who this baby is: “And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Isaiah wants us to understand that this is no ordinary child. This is a real child, a human child; but a child with a difference. The plan of God for the whole creation; the plan of God to mend all things, to set all things right, to make all things new; the plan of God to bring in a world of peace, and justice, and righteousness; this plan involves God’s coming into his own creation as a baby born in the ordinary way. This God makes us his children by becoming our child: “for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”

This is one of the keys to understand how God governs this world, “And the government shall be on his shoulders.” It happens through the work of his becoming a baby. It also happens through the work of his living among us. It also happens through the work of his dying for us on the cross, to take away our sins and to give us his righteousness. It also happens through his rising from the dead and being the man who sits upon the only real throne in heaven and earth. It happens though the work God did by taking upon himself our limitations, and our weaknesses, and our sins. But the most important, most essential, part of the plan depends, first of all, upon the work of taking upon himself our flesh and blood, and the whole essence of being human.

The idea that it should be necessary for God to become a baby might seem strange. In the same way the idea that it should be necessary for God to die a human death on the cross might seem strange.

At this point, I can think of nothing better than to give you the words of a great Christian thinker and Bible student named John Stott. Stott wrote this about Jesus: “He was God’s son. He was also born of a human mother, so that He was human as well as divine, the one and only God-man. And He was born ‘under the law’, that is, of a Jewish mother, into the Jewish nation, subject to the Jewish law.
Throughout His life He submitted to all the requirements of the law. He succeeded where all others before and since have failed: He perfectly fulfilled the righteousness of the law. So the divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, and the righteousness of Christ uniquely qualified Him to be our redeemer. If He had not been human, He could not have redeemed humans. If He had not been a righteous person, He could not have redeemed unrighteous people. And if He had not been God’s Son, He could not have redeemed human beings for God, or made them the children of God.” (“The Message of Galatians”, by John Stott, p. 106; Inter-Varsity Press)

If you were able to travel back in time and see this; what would you see? You would see wounds, and blood, and a man dying on a cross. You would go further back and see a baby sleeping in a manger. This is what God’s work looks like when you see it for yourself. This is the appearance of God’s greatest wonders and miracles.

It is possible, when God works, for you to see and hear extraordinary things. But there was nothing extraordinary about a man dying on a cross or a baby sleeping in a manger. These things are the most characteristic of God’s work. Here is what God’s work looks like when you actually see it. And many people completely miss it.

And (since God always tells the truth as it is) this man on the cross, and this baby in the manger, must tell us the very truth of who God is. There is something about God that cannot be said or worked out any other way.

Somehow, when God does his greatest work, we do not see power, or dignity, or glory, or else we see the glory shinging upon those who are the least glorious. The glory of the Lord, and of the angels, shed its light on despised shepherds guarding their sheep among the hills. The wealthy wise men saw only a star (though a moving star, at that).

For those who went to see the God-Man, the King of the Kingdom of God, what they saw was a baby in a feed trough, in the place where the animals were kept. It was the glory of God to come down to earth and be found not even in a place for humans.

How much confidence did Mary and Joseph feel toward God’s care of them, when they saw the accommodations that God provided for their child-king? And yet Mary and Joseph knew that God had chosen them to care for his Son. God chose a man and woman sleeping in a stable to be the caregivers of the work of God.

What lavishness and impressiveness could they see in themselves? Yet, there with them, God was doing the greatest thing he had ever done; and the baby was the message.

God was revealing himself through this baby. God was speaking in this baby. The Gospel of John says: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” (John 1:18)

He shall be called “Wonderful Counselor”. This is about wisdom and understanding. Do you want to understand life? Do you want to understand what is going on around you, and how God works in the world? Do you want to understand yourself? You have to look at the baby and see God there. Then you can see where God is at work in other places. That is the wisdom of God.

He shall be called “Mighty God”. The word “mighty” here is not a power word, but a warrior word. It means hero. If you want to know how to live in courage and to fight the good fight you look at the baby.

Think of the journey from heaven’s throne to the manger. What would it mean for you, if you were to live with courage like that?

If others looked to you to be their hero, what kind of action would the “babiness” of God require of you? What might you need to allow yourself to come to, in such a battle?

He shall be called “Everlasting Father”. Father, here, is another kind of hero. Father carries the weight of being the provider and caregiver of a family. In this sense, mothers are fathers too.

Everlasting means never stopping being what you are. What you are, everlastingly, you are with unyielding faithfulness. Isn’t it true that mothers and fathers never stop being mothers and fathers? Somehow the baby Jesus tells us about the unfailing faithfulness of God.

Isaiah also called the Messiah “Immanuel”. The meaning of Immanuel is “God with us”. Isaiah said, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child, and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
If God is with us, in this baby, then God is with us in all our own “babiness”. When you can no longer do anything for yourself, when you can no longer speak for yourself or protect yourself, when you have nothing to give to others but your little self, God is with you.

In this way God is faithful, and we see, in the baby, that God is our Everlasting Father. He can be trusted to be with you when you are at your smallest and weakest, and never fail you.

He shall be called “Prince of Peace”. Here is a long quote from the German teacher and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Where God comes in love to human beings and unites with them, there peace is made between God and humankind, and among people. Are you afraid of God’s wrath? Then go to the child in the manger and receive there the peace of God. Have you fallen into strife and hatred with your sister or brother? Come and see how God, out of pure love, has become our brother and wants to reconcile us with each other.

In the world, power reigns. This child is the Prince of Peace. Where his is, peace reigns.” (“God Is in the Manger”, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 74; Westminster/John Knox Press)

The baby Jesus, lying in the manger cannot say one single word, and yet he is the living word of God. He is God speaking for himself. His “babiness” reveals God: his faithfulness and promise to us; his covenant and relationship with us and ours with him.

There is this great quietness and humility of God working in the world. We even see it in the Lord’s Supper, where Jesus chose to come to us, in all his fullness, as we do such a simple, innocent thing like tasting a bit of bread and drinking a bit of grape juice. The bread and wine bring us into the presence of the living, crucified and risen Jesus, the King of Glory. And yet it is still only bread and wine.

So little, so petty a thing; the way God comes. Yet this is the path he took in order to do the greatest things he has ever done.

We are right to call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, but very few people found him in the manger with all his baby-talk. God is quiet and humble. Listen to what the baby says. He is talking to you. He has come here for you. He is with you now, but you must be careful not to miss him.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas Lights: Victories

Preached December 5, Second Sunday in Advent

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 9:1-7: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-28

I am the oldest child in my family so, when I learned to read, one of the things I started to do, as the oldest, was to read to the others; first to Kathy who was already on the scene, and then to Nanci after she was born.

I loved doing this, but sometimes I would be mischievous about it. I would open the cover of some book they gave me and I would read the story like this: “Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after.”

When reading a book to myself, I have always been tempted to cheat. If I don’t like one part of the story; or if I don’t like something that one of main characters is going through; or if the story is very long, and I wonder if it’s worth the effort, I have always been tempted to turn to the last page.

I never read the last page. I just give it a searching glance, to see if there is something there that I want to see; something to make me want to read to the end.
Isaiah and Paul don’t always do this; but they do it in the verses we have just read. In the eighth chapter of his book, Isaiah looked at the evils of his own day, and suddenly, as chapter nine begins, he saw the final victory. He described it as a great light, and as the gathering of spoils and the burning of the wreckage of war, after the battle was over. He saw the cause of it all as the baby whose birth made all things right, and then he saw the everlasting kingdom of that child.

In a few sentences he told a story that has been nearly three thousand years in the making, and is not over yet. And he left out all the bad stuff that we don’t want to see.

Paul did a similar thing in the verses we read from 1 Thessalonians. The followers of Jesus who were living in the Greek city of Thessalonica apparently wanted some information about the times and the dates leading up to “The Day of the Lord.” “The Day of the Lord” means the arrival of the kingdom of God, in its complete form, in its perfection, in justice and transformation. The day of the Lord is when the Lord Jesus will return, and set all things right, and make all things new.

Paul approached their question about the schedule of approaching events by skipping over the schedule completely and simply giving his friends a glance at the last page, or the next to the last page, of the story.

Paul told his fellow followers of Jesus that he did not need to write them about the schedule (the times and dates) because they already knew that the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2) This is very much what Jesus, himself, said. (Matthew 24:42-44; Mark 13:32)

The first chapter of the Book of Acts tells us that, just before Jesus left this world for heaven, his disciples asked about when he we going to bring the kingdom of God to them. Jesus told them, as his parting words: “It is not for you to know the times and dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:7-8)
The simplest and clearest thing that Jesus and his apostles ever said about knowing the times, and dates, and schedule of his returning is that it is essentially unknowable for us. If Jesus tells us, through his apostles, that this knowledge is not for us, it is, in some sense, a sort of forbidden knowledge.

The fact that so many good and devout Christians have sought out this knowledge (in spite of what Jesus and his apostles have clearly said) is the best evidence we have of the patience of God. It is the perfect evidence that God has a great sense of humor. I mean this will all my heart.

This is very important. There is a purpose and method in how God wants to train our expectations. God wants to mold our expectations into something greater than expectation. God wants to mold our expectations into hope. The Lord has many ways of doing this.

The Lord enabled Isaiah to envision the horror of the evils of his time, and to look at horrors to come. And then the Lord said: Look beyond all of that to the coming of the perfect kingdom. Look to the coming of the King. “For to us a child is born. To us a son is given.” (Isaiah 9:6) Look at the victory.

“You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as people rejoice when dividing the plunder.” (Isaiah 9:3) The Lord does not help Isaiah envision our part in the battle. He only shows us enjoying the victory. It is as if the Lord to Isaiah and his people, “Look, in spite of the horrors, and the defeats, and the fears to come; wait for the king, live in the victory, and live in hope.”

We can sum up Paul as saying, first, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. It will be as unpreventable, and as sudden, and as inescapable as the beginning of childbirth for a pregnant woman.” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3)

The next thing Paul said about the Day of the Lord is this. “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24) Everything Paul said between mentioning the day that comes like a thief (or like birth pains), and giving us the assurance of the Lord who will faithfully see us through, amount to the simplest advice possible: live in the victory.

What is the victory here? Paul said it. “He died for us.” (5:10) “He who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” (5:24)

This is all about hope. God does not want us to live just in times, and dates, and seasons, and expectations. God wants us to live in his victory. God wants us to live in hope.

In the block of the prophecy about the Messiah and the kingdom of God, in Isaiah chapter nine, nothing describes the course of the battle, and nothing explains the victory, except the birth of the baby. The birth of the baby is the victory. In Paul’s letter the victory is only described by the words: “He died for us” and “The one who calls you is faithful.”

Those who know me best know that I have an obsession with making things complicated. So I am the best one to tell you the simplest thing that the Bible tells you: keep it simple; be people who live in the victory of God and live in hope.

People forget that the armor we are supposed to put on, according to our reading in 1 Thessalonians (You can also find it in Ephesians chapter six.), is (after all) the armor of God. It comes from another place in Isaiah (Isaiah 59:17) and it is the armor that describes God’s victory over evil and sin. The victory belongs to God.
We are like little children dressing up in our parent’s clothing and playing their parts together; doing their work, living their daily life. But, as children we don’t really do our parents’ work or life their lives. In God’s armor, we are children arming ourselves for a war that the Lord, himself, has essentially fought and won.

It is not that our life is not a struggle. It is not that we don’t really have to fight a spiritual warfare, as well. We may not understand what is happening to us, or how things will turn out for us. But we are fighting a war that has been won in Christ; in the birth, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

At the end of World War Two, American service men and women who served in the South Pacific after the surrender of Japan, still fought and died fighting against defeated Japanese troops. The battle they fought and the blood that was shed was as real as any. But they were living in the victory. They lived in a hope that was not a future hope, but a present hope.

We pray “thy kingdom come” because it hasn’t come. It isn’t present yet. And yet the King who was born in Bethlehem, and who died on the cross, and who rose from the dead, and who will come again, lives and rules in our hearts. And, as Paul wrote: “He is faithful.”

As I was studying for this message I saw something that I had never seen before. The framework for what I saw is in Paul’s message: that the night and the darkness are this world’s darkness; and the day of the Lord is the coming of the Lord. In all of the, the day of the Lord is our time.

So, if we are children of the day, are we children of that day? Are we actually children of the day of the Lord? Is that our real world? Is that the place where we really live? Are we like children who have the last glorious, victorious page of a long difficult story already written in our hearts? Is everything we hope for already in us because “he who calls us is faithful”? I believe this is true.

What is life like in the day of the Lord? It’s telling makes a long list. I will select just a few words for your attention. There is faith, hope, and love in the armor of God (5:8). There is encouragement, nurture, respect, peace, patience, and kindness (5:11-15). There is always joy, prayer, and thanks (5:16-18). It’s true that there is warning and correction as well, but that is just a part of a much bigger picture.

“Rejoice always.” This is a word for those who live in the day of the Lord. Paul wants us to never forget that the times we are living through are truly a time for joy. The fact that we are somehow living in a time for joy often comes as a surprise to us.

We are to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances” because we are to live with one foot set securely in the day of the coming of the Lord. This is the new creation. This is living in the victory of God. This is the fulfillment and realization of all hope.

The word advent means coming. We have a season of Advent to teach us about expectant living. It helps us identify with the expectations and hopes of the people of Israel as they waited for the coming of the Lord.

As we read the story of those people in the gospels, we realize that this was a coming which most of them did not understand. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, when he taught and healed among them, when he died on the cross, they did not understand the coming of the Lord.

It may do us good to identify with those people. It may be good for us to identify ourselves with people waiting for something that they think they understand but completely misunderstand. Yes, that’s us. There we are.

We are waiting for so much that is simply beyond our understanding. We are waiting for so much that we are not supposed to know beforehand; as Jesus told us. And we find it hard to be content or patient about that.

We are watching and waiting for a world that needs a new creation just as much as people in the darkness need the light. Jesus and his apostles have told us to do this. This watching and waiting, this expectation and hope, are part of our calling. The world needs people like us who are patiently watching and waiting for something more, for something completely different from the way life is now.

A schedule of future events will not tell us this, but the kingdom in our hearts will tell us what we are watching and waiting for. The kingdom of God in our hearts, Jesus in our hearts, is like a blueprint that will guide us in the work we have to do. “Christ in us, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) will give us the words we need to show this kingdom to the world.

Both Isaiah and Paul tell us to envision the victory and to live in it just as if it actually lived in us. But it does live in us, because Jesus lives in us. “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”
There is a lot to learn, and it is very important for us to know what it is that we are not to know. The basic stuff to live by is very, very simple. Live in the victory of God. Live in hope. Can you say you are doing this? “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”

Monday, November 29, 2010

Christmas Lights: Newness

Preached on Sunday, First Sunday in Advent, November 28, 2010
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 9:1-7: Titus 2:11-3:7

Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah told about the appearing, in the future, of a very important baby. Actually (since babies don’t just appear) Isaiah spoke about the birth of a baby. The first several verses of chapter nine, in the book of the prophet Isaiah, tell us about the meaning of this child.

The baby would be a very real baby, who would be known by some very strange names or titles. Even if that baby was a royal baby, the sort or titles given to it would be far more daring, far more outrageous than any royal titles ought to be: not “highness”, not “majesty”; but “Wonderful Counselor” (in the sense of supernatural wonders), “Mighty God”, “Everlasting Father”, “Prince of Peace”. (Isaiah 9:6)

Over the next few Sundays (as we draw near to the celebration of the birth of Jesus) we will think about what Isaiah says about this baby. The reason why we will do this is because we believe this baby that Isaiah talked about is our baby of Bethlehem; Mary’s baby.

The first thing Isaiah says about this baby is that the baby brings light to the darkness. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Or why not just say that the baby is the light? Jesus himself said, “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) The baby, himself is a new day; the best day of all days; the day of the Lord.

Paul wrote, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11) He is talking about Jesus here. Paul is writing about Jesus, and what Jesus did, as the grace of God. The word for “appear”, that he uses here, is a word that the Greeks used for the sunrise, or the dawn.

Paul goes on to describe the life that is in the darkness and the life that is in the light. He writes that this grace teaches us to say “no” to one way of life, and “yes” to another; and the difference between these ways of life is like the difference between the darkness and the dawn. They are completely different.

What we have read in Paul’s letter to Titus gives us some word pictures for this darkness and this light. There is so much here. But notice a contrast between what we are, if we are left to ourselves, and what God gives us. Paul writes, “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…”

There is so much here. We often find ourselves possessed by a secret love of darkness. For instance; in the darkness there are passions and pleasures… and we really do like our passions and pleasures. Sometimes we suspect that belonging to God deprives us of certain passions and pleasures that could be ours; things that other people get to enjoy.

But we have to see what sort of things they are, that we need to be saved from them. There is a passion and pleasure in envy, in anger, in malice, in hating, and even in being hated.

I have known people who have reveled in being hated by certain people. I knew one kid in high school who wanted me to tell him that I hated him. He worked on me every day. He went out of his way to make my life miserable, every day in school, because he wanted me to hate him. One day, in the middle of his working on me, he asked me, “Evans, you hate my guts, don’t you?”

Wherever my own past hurts and angers come from, when I remember them, and when I want to gnaw on them, I remember this as a challenge to me. There is a darkness that I must say “no” to.

And notice especially what God brings into the equation here: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…” This is the light in the face of the darkness we have just looked at: kindness and love.

Kindness and love are the very source of our life in God. To live outside of kindness and love is to live outside of what God would give to us. To live outside of these is to live outside of life itself. This kindness and love are not designed to make us into a doormat for others to walk upon, but much of the darkness of this world comes from the absence of kindness and love.

I want to tell you an example of darkness in the history of the people of Israel. In Isaiah’s time, the people of Israel were divided between north and south. The northern kingdom, made from ten of the twelve tribes of Israel, kept the name of Israel. The southern kingdom, which was made mostly from the really big tribe of Judah, where Jerusalem and the Temple were, was called the kingdom of Judah. The north was the bigger, richer, stronger of the two kingdoms, but it wasn’t content with that. The king of the north wanted to conquer Judah and take Jerusalem.

It was the ruggedness of Judah that made this difficult. In order to achieve their goal, the northern kingdom made an alliance with Syria. Together they were strong enough to make the conquest happen.

But, there was another growing power to the northeast of Israel and Syria called Assyria. Judah made an alliance with Assyria, and asked it to go to war against the northern kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Syria, which it did. In the course of that war, Assyria destroyed both Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel.

Then, as you might expect, Assyria turned on Judah. The Assyrian army invaded and almost completely overran it. Judah was saved by divine intervention alone (2 Kings 18-19), but it was left weakened and more demoralized than ever. Eventually, it fell to another new power on the scene called Babylon.

This is a long summary of a longer story, but it illustrates the darkness. Every time Isaiah’s people made a decision that only made matters worse, they tried to deal with it and solve it by making new decisions that only made matters even worse than before.

There was a time when Isaiah offered one of the kings of Judah a chance to ask God for a sign, by which he meant an experience that would make it possible for the king to break this chain of horrible choices. The King (King Ahaz) pretended to be very pious and reverent, and he said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” (Isaiah 7:1-12)

What was really going on was that king Ahaz was too proud to break with his past actions. He was too proud to break with his past words. He was too proud to break with the patterns of his choices. He would rather let himself and his people be destroyed. It took a while, but that was the eventual result.

Without God’s intervention, without God’s saving help, everything in this world is degenerative. Pride, malice, envy, anger, the refusal to break with patterns that don’t do any good at all: these weaken or destroy marriages, families, businesses, churches, communities, and nations.

In my home town I could see many good things that never succeeded because people got more pleasure out of quarreling and competing and counting up other people’s faults and misdeeds than being what Paul said to be: “eager to do what is good”. I was friends with the Jenkins brothers who often said that they were related to half the people in town, but they were only on speaking terms with half of them.

But with God things are different. Isaiah said, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.” “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:1,2)

God, in Christ, creates a new world of light and brings us into it through his birth, and his life, and his death, and his resurrection. This new world, this new day, dawns in Christ as we open our lives to his life. This new world began when Jesus was nothing more than a slight movement in his mother’s body; a slight roundness of her middle.

Joseph, when he found out that his fiancée Mary was pregnant, thought about “putting her away quietly.” (Matthew 1:18-20) An angel told Joseph that this baby was the work of God. Still Joseph lived in a world that was motivated by honor and pride, and by the power of shame. Because of Mary and the baby, he was put in an impossible position where, if he listened to God, he would live under a cloud of shame all his life. His passion and pleasure would have been to live in honor. He could only live in honor if he were free of Mary and the child.

Joseph could have been angry about this, and I am sure he was, at first: confused and angry. He could have said no to God. We say no to God, don’t we; out of fear, out of anger, out of pride?

But the grace of God that brings salvation (as Paul said) was appearing. The kingdom of God was at work and having its way. The grace of God was saving Joseph from being foolish, and disobedient. God gave Joseph the grace of being a giver of care, and strength, and wisdom, and grace to Mary and the child. The grace of God was saving Joseph and giving him the power to say “no” to worldly passions: the passion for pride and honor and self-justification; things we have to say “no” to as well, for the sake of Jesus.

We are degenerative. God is regenerative. Paul says that, “God saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:5-6)

The Greek word “rebirth”, here, has the word “genesis” in it. The Book of Genesis is called what it is because it begins with the story of the creation; the beginning. In Jesus we have a new genesis, we have a new creation.

The word “renewal” that Paul uses here has a special kind of newness in it. It is different from having a second chance. It is not like turning out a new model of an old make of car. It is the difference between turning over a new leaf and really having a new heart, or like having a heart of stone turned into a heart of flesh. It is being born again in the sense of being born from above; not from human power and will, but from God.

On this side of heaven, our life (even our born again life in Christ) never seems quite new enough for us to be content. And other people still have good reason to be discontented with us. We have the old struggles that should serve to keep us humble; that should serve to keep us forgiving toward others; forgiving the sins of others as we know we need to be forgiven ourselves.

Being born again does not mean only being slated for heaven. It means being saved from something now. Our new life may not seem new enough to make us content. But that is the whole point. It is new enough to make us eager for something better. If the coming kingdom of God will be a world of justice and righteousness, then we want to be a part of justice and righteousness now. If the coming kingdom is all about kindness and love, then we want to be a part of that now. We will ask, in any given situation: “What is the loving thing to do now?”

The baby Isaiah prophesied (the baby born in a manger; who grew up to heal, and teach, and to die for our sins and the sins of the world on the cross; and who rose from the dead) rules us now. The hope of his coming kingdom rules us now. Or maybe not: which is it?

We are different because we know what it means to be people in the darkness who have seen a great light. We know what it has been to live “in the land of the shadow of death”, because we have lived and breathed that very shadow ourselves. We have made a contribution of our own to the size and darkness of that shadow. And on us “a light has dawned”.

The baby Isaiah predicted, the baby who was born in Bethlehem, has made us willing to be babies in our own way who learn to say no to the right things and yes to the right things. What is a baby’s first word? Isn’t it often “no”? Really, to say “yes” to Jesus, we need the courage to say “no” to our beloved world of darkness.

Seeing Jesus and the beauty of his dawn makes it all possible. It’s a new world, meant for new people, when that light comes. “On those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” That light is Jesus Christ who has come into our world, and who is coming again.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Wilderness Discipline of Thanks

Preached on Sunday November 21

Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 8:1-10; John 6:1-15

There is a scientific word for a certain kind of fear. That word is agoraphobia. It means the fear of open places; the fear of wide open spaces.

I know at least one person who has this fear.

A couple summers ago I drove around with my camera, not long before harvest. It was a brilliant, crystal-clear day. Cotton-ball clouds (just the right amount) floated through a perfect blue sky. I took a bunch of photos of horizons, and long views down straight gravel roads, and far off farms; and I took pictures of the sky. I called my little album of those pictures “Our Local Vastness”, and I sent it over the internet to my family, relatives, friends, and I posted it on Facebook.

To my complete surprise, my uncle responded to say that he sometimes felt uneasy in wide open spaces, and that my pictures actually gave him that creepy feeling! But that awareness of wide open spaces is a feeling that most of us love.

I love our local vastness. I love the size of our sky. Surely it is bigger than the skies most people see. I love the view of the horizon in so many directions. I love how big everything feels; and I even love how small and exposed it all makes me feel.

My uncle is an amazing guy, and I love him. Otherwise I would say that agoraphobia was of the devil.

There is a pattern found in the Bible of the way that God works; and he seems to do some of his best work in wide open spaces. God called Abraham and his family out of the city of Ur and shaped their faith on the fringes of the wilderness. God led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and guided them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. There they had a journey that (what with all those grandparents and small children on foot, along with goats and other livestock) should have taken two or three weeks, at most, yet God made that journey last for forty years, because his people needed to spend a lot of time in the wide open spaces before they were spiritually fit to come home. The Lord came down from heaven, and became truly human in Jesus, and continued to lead his people, from time to time, out into the wilderness; out into vast and lonely and hungry places.

Moses said to God’s people: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years; to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your hearts, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)

The Lord Jesus led his people into the wilderness, again, by the Lake of Galilee, where they would be hungry again, and where he would feed them again, so that they would listen to his words. If we read on with this story in the Gospel of John, we would find that, just as the Lord’s people did not learn this during their forty years in the desert, neither did they learn it when they were led by Jesus, and fed by Jesus, in the wilderness east of Galilee.

It is a hard lesson to learn. It is wilderness work.

Still, there are lessons to be learned from the patterns of God working with his people in the wilderness. And these help us to find the true lessons of thanksgiving.
We all know (don’t we?) that we (ourselves, here in Washtucna, and Kahlotus, and Benge, and Hooper) don’t live in anything like a wilderness. People from the west-side, or from California, or from Portland, or from other such places might think that this is a wilderness (as they drive through it); but this hasn’t been a wilderness for over a hundred years. Even so, we know some things about the wilderness that most people from the city don’t know.

The wilderness does not teach us about thanksgiving because of it representing the simple life. Life here is not simple. The wilderness is the very place where nothing is simple.

The wilderness only simplifies things because it makes the most important things harder. The important things take longer. They take more preparation. They take more planning and foresight. The things that are truly important find their way to the center of our lives, and there is not much room (not much time) for other things.

In northern lands the season of winter is like a wilderness too. It’s a wilderness for drivers, because winter conditions on the road make you stop daydreaming or enjoying the view. The wilderness of winter makes you start watching the road, and the cars around you (if there are any), because safety is in short supply.

Warmth becomes a precious commodity; a frightening thing to lose. It becomes an enormous, luxurious pleasure, because warmth is in short supply.

For God’s people (whether with Moses or Jesus), the wilderness is the place of scarcity, neediness, hunger. For God’s people the wilderness is where things are hard.

In the wilderness, life is not simple, but reality becomes simple. We know what we have and what we don’t have. We know our true size and strength. We know the real, true worth of things; the things we have and the things we lose. We know the worth of others. This is the very beginning of our ability to be truly thankful.

Part of my calling is to speak for the living God in the presence of death and mourning; to speak for the crucified, and risen, and ascended Jesus in the presence of deep loss. I think there could be no greater danger than to treat this like some simple thing. It is a wilderness thing. Even Jesus wept bitterly in the presence of death and sorrow. (John 11:35)

Where I have found the greatest gifts and the greatest reason to give thanks, in the presence of sorrow, is in the presence of other people who have suffered great losses and sorrow for themselves, and absorbed their lessons. They know what to say, and how to say it. They know what not to say. They know what to do and what not to do.

These people have the gift of comforting others. And I see (perhaps) that their gift does not come from having recovered from their loss, but from their knowing how to carry their loss. Their ability to comfort others comes from their learning how to keep on going.

They have learned how to continue a life where they are called to loving and giving in spite of their loss. And they are enriched by this. And they enrich others. Without having planned it, they have found quiet, humble gifts to give.

And I believe that one more thing gives them strength to comfort others. That is a sure sense of the value of love, and relationship, and commitment; and the fact that they have not lost their thankfulness for that love. They have never lost their thankfulness for the treasure of the person they have loved and lost.

This is a kind of wilderness life. The life-giving power of thankfulness in the wilderness is a gift we receive when we go into the wilderness in the presence of the Lord.

What God’s people had in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land (and what God’s people had in the wilderness with Jesus) was the presence of the Lord. Life does not become simpler, but reality becomes clearer. The important things take the center stage.

Maybe some people are afraid of the wilderness because it seems lonely. In that case, we can learn that God’s people are never alone in the wilderness. The Lord goes through it with them.

The wilderness is even a wilderness for God. God, who was present in the pillar of the smoke and fire that led his people to the Promised Land, struggled with his people in the desert. It was not easy to be their God in the wilderness. It was no fun at all; not even for God. The important things came into focus and became life and death issues. God had to be tough to bless them.

Jesus went into the wilderness more than once. He went out into the desert after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11) in order to fast and be thirsty, and to experience temptation and loneliness. When we have nothing; when our standards, and values, and desires are tested beyond every limit; Jesus is with us in our wilderness.

The Lord saw his children in the wilderness of a fallen world; a world of fear, and anger, and injustice; a world of confusion, and doubt, and idolatry, and sin. The Lord saw his children in a wilderness of loss, and sorrow, and death. The Lord entered that wilderness to be with us, where we are. This is who Jesus is.

The Lord entered the deepest part of our wilderness in the form of a cross. He carried every hard and bitter thing (even sin, and evil, and death). On the cross he carried those things away from us, and buried them forever in his tomb. In his resurrection the Lord gave us his victory over the wilderness, so that the wilderness does not need to be a place of fear or emptiness.

The wilderness becomes a place where we are with the Lord, and the Lord is with us. He cares for us, and feeds us. So our wilderness becomes a place where we can give thanks.

The boy whose lunch became a feast that fed the five thousand is also a lesson in thanksgiving. The disciples thought the boy’s gift was too small, but Jesus didn’t think so. Jesus used the boy’s small gift and made it much greater than any smart, mature person thought it could be.

We don’t know who that boy was, or why he was there, or why he was the only one with food to share. I think the grown-ups took no food with them because they had desperate work to do. Jesus was someone who might save them from the Romans. They couldn’t just let him go. They couldn’t just let him wander. They had to be smart and move fast. They had to chase Jesus down and draft him to their cause.

The boy probably had food with him because he was seriously planning to have an adventure with Jesus. He didn’t know what Jesus was going to do next, but he wanted to find out and be a part of it.

He packed food for the adventure as a young boy might. He had a serious plan but it was a child’s plan. The five barley cakes would have been the size of dollar pancakes, cooked on a griddle in olive oil, and the two fish were dried and the size of sardines or herrings. He may have made a pocket to hold them by tying the corner of his cloak together, and his mother scolded him later for the oily stain they made in it.

The boy wanted to see what Jesus and the crowd was about, so he grabbed the food and ran off without telling his mother. When he got home, at the end of the day, he would yell, “Mama! Papa! Me and Jesus fed five thousand people!”

For the rest of his life, that boy knew that he could expect to get back better than he gave. The boy was thankful enough for the food his father grew and his mother cooked for him to share it with Jesus, in the faith that Jesus could make something good happen through it. The boy would know that he could share other things with Jesus, too. He could share his whole life with Jesus, and Jesus would make it into something worth sharing.

When our wilderness makes us want to hunker down we need to remember that, with the Lord, the wilderness is the place to share.

Over and over I have seemed to lack what it took to do any good; but Jesus did good with what I gave, even when it seemed so worthless, and so small. I am learning to be thankful. I have so much more to learn. It is a wilderness discipline.

When we are in the wilderness, we think we cannot share because we do not have enough for ourselves, or because we do not have enough for others. But the wilderness is the place where the Lord is, and he can make “not enough” into enough. It is, first of all, a matter of faith. Then it is a matter for thanksgiving.

The wilderness, where the Lord takes us, teaches us that we don’t live by reducing what we want. It is also true that wanting more and having more will not make us happy. But we don’t live by reducing what we want. In the Lord’s presence we live by changing what we want. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Those who ate the boy’s loaves and fishes did not eat the finest of the food that Jesus served in the wilderness. The finest food was to hear what Jesus said and see what Jesus was able to do with the boy’s gifts.

“Jesus…gave thanks.” (John 6:11) We can’t imagine what form Jesus’ thanks took. Was it a long, original, inspiring prayer? Was it deeply personal and touching? Or was it one of those short, simple blessings that the rabbis designed for everyone’s basic mealtime needs? The standard blessing for the bread would have been this.

ברוך אתה ה' א לוהינו מלך העולם, המוציא לחם מן הארץ.‏
Transliteration as: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha olam, ha motzi lehem min ha aretz.
Translation is: "Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth."

No one but Jesus knew where that bread came from, or how it got there. The secret is that this bread was there because of him. Long ago, he had made the heavens and the earth. He had made the soil in which the barley grew. He had sent the rain that watered it. He had guided the hands that harvested it, and ground it, and cooked it. John tells us: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3)

The meal was there because of him in another way, as well, because of a crowd that was hungry for something it did not know or understand. The crowd was a small part of a whole world that needed Jesus, and what Jesus had come to give them. Jesus had come to live, and die, and rise to plant the kingdom of God in our hearts and to draw all people to him. (John 12:32) Jesus came to become the meal that would give us life.

The barley bread and the dried fish were there for yet another reason, because one person, out of thousands, hungry in the wilderness, was willing to share his small gifts with Jesus. And so Jesus could give thanks.

Our wilderness, and the presence of Jesus there, makes our most precious things; and our smallest, most humble things; and even our losses and poverty holy. And that is the foundation of all thanksgiving in any wilderness where you may find yourself.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Anchors for the Storm: Glory to God Alone

Preached Sunday, November 14, 2010

Scripture Readings: Psalm 96; Romans 11:33-36; John 17:1-24

I have told some of you about Roger, who was a friend of mine during my seminary days. Roger loved to sing, but he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. When I was sitting next to Roger in chapel, and we were singing hymns, when the music went up Roger went down, and when the music went down Roger went up, and he wasn’t singing harmony. He had absolutely no idea what pitch we were singing, and I don’t think he even knew, by actual experience, what the word “pitch” means. But Roger loved to sing.

Some people, when they know they can’t carry a tune, stop singing completely. The very thought of singing embarrasses them. Roger knew perfectly well that he wasn’t doing what anyone else was doing when we sang, but he didn’t care.

He told me that, when music was going on, he felt it inside him and he wanted to join in. He wouldn’t let the fact that he couldn’t sing stop him from enjoying that music. He told me this because I was young enough, in those days, to be much ruder than I am now, and I just came straight out and asked him about this. Why do you sing?

Once I understood this, it was fun sitting next to Roger in chapel. It was all I could do to keep from laughing, and he knew it. Sometimes, when it was really bad, I would catch his eye, and he would just give me a knowing look.

This is important, because it helps us understand something about glory, and especially about the glory of God. It helps us understand why it is that God seems to want glory.

For God to love glory is like what it is to love of music. The best way to understand glory is to soak it in from the poetry and music of the Bible. The Book of Psalms is the hymnbook of the Old Testament. And, if you really learn about that ancient poetry, you will find that most of the places in the Old Testament that speak of the glory of God are at least on the verge of poetry, or else it’s just meant to be sung out loud.

“Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations.” (Psalm 96:1-3) The glory of God is like joyful music. The glory of God is like the invitation to sing.

With God there is something to sing about: for “the Lord made the heavens.” (96:5) “Proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” (96:2-3)

The creation of the heavens and the earth, the story of salvation (which is new life for the soul, and the healing of wounds, and the restoring of all losses, and the mending of all tragedies, and the new heavens and the new earth): these are truly works of love. These things are like joyful music. To give glory to God is to take part in the music of something worth celebrating.

When the Washtucna football team wins a game, they sing a victory song on the field. They don’t sing it very well, but they sing it with gusto.

I don’t believe they sing it because they think they are really great. They sing because they are happy. They are relieved. The thing is done. They have won, and it is a great thing to win. They are happy.

They have put all they had into a game; or they have watched their teammates play and give their two-hundred percent, just as their coaches want. When you have won, after all that, you have a natural invitation to sing.

Some seasons, the song doesn’t get sung as often as we would like. But the fact that such a song exists reminds us that the enjoyment of glory is not necessarily selfish or egotistical. It is just happy. It isn’t a bad thing to enjoy the glory of being happy. Glory is at the essence of what God does and who God is.

There is an ultimate game (an extreme game) that is being played on the field we call the heavens and the earth. At the end of this ultimate game (this extreme game) a victory song will be sung, and part of the beauty of this game is that even our defeats, and our injuries and our losses play into the victory.

The Lord is the team captain and the play-maker. The Lord is the player on whom the whole team depends. The Lord does not play for the glory of egotism but for the glory of happiness. God relishes that victory song.

“Proclaim his salvation day after day.” Salvation is shorthand for a long story that includes everything that has ever happened and ever will happen. Salvation is a story, most of all, of everything that God has done, and everything that God will do.

“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.” (96:7-9)

The writer of this psalm pictured the whole world coming to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the place where one could worship and watch the sacrifice that was made for the forgiveness of sin. The temple was where the scriptures were kept safe and whole.

Everything was there. The celebration of God’s creation was there. The story of the fall of our world into sin, and misery, and disaster was there. The story of the calling of a people to be God’s people, who would be a blessing to all other people, was there. The history of everything that happened to those people was kept there; their stubbornness, their lack of faith in God, their repeated betrayals of God, their worship of other things besides God, their repeated times of repentance and grace.

It was all there to be sung about. It was all a part of what God was up to, and it was all a part of God’s glory.

In the temple, the pattern of what God is about could be seen: a pattern of love and victory. In this world we often don’t see God’s patterns. Sometimes we see only random events like random dots on a canvas.

There was a French painter of the late eighteen hundreds who made his paintings out of tiny drops of paint on the canvas. If you stand too close to his paintings you see nothing but dots. You don’t see the pattern that makes the dots into a portrait, or a landscape.

Worry, fear, anger, and doubt are like taking a position in life that puts us too close to events to see the pattern they form. We only see random, meaningless spots. Faith means standing at the right distance to see the whole picture and what it means.

There are medical cases where, as a result of a stroke or tumor, a person becomes unable to recognize their wife, their husband, or anyone at all. This is not dementia, because these people remember the other person clearly, but not their face. They can’t recognize the familiar pattern of the face. (See the writings of Dr. Oliver Sacks)

In fact there is a rare condition one can be born with of having various degrees of inability to recognize faces. People with this condition recognize voices, and clothing, and even smells, but not faces. They lack the ability to see the pattern that is always with them; the pattern of a familiar face of another person who is the center of their life. The pattern is there, but they don’t see it.

It is hard to join in singing the music of the glory of God when we cannot see the pattern of his love and his victory. The worship and the sacrifices in the temple told the story of salvation from the point where the pattern could be seen. They clarified that pattern for those who had forgotten it.

The scriptures also tell us the story of our salvation, with all its ups, and downs, and repetitions. We even see the pattern in the enormous length of the story: the centuries of the story that leads up to Jesus.

The story of God coming down into our world in the impoverished birth of Jesus, in Bethlehem, shows us the pattern of how God loves and wins. The story of the long quiet years of the childhood of Jesus, and the long quiet years of his work in the carpenter’s shop shows us how God loves and wins. The wandering life of Jesus on the road as a teacher and a healer of the sick, followed by his brutal and gruesome death on the cross; the resurrection, and the ascending of Jesus into heaven: all show us the pattern of how God loves and wins. These all show us God’s glory, and they all show us something only God can do; something only God can give.

Remember that we are looking at phrases that help summarize things in the Bible that keep us safe, just as anchors in a storm keep a ship safe from being tossed and broken by the waves, or driven onto rocks. One of those anchors is the phrase “to God alone be the glory”; or, “glory to God alone”.

For the most part, I don’t think we usually think of wanting glory for ourselves, and we may have trouble thinking about God loving glory without having some unsavory thoughts about God. After all we have been taught that it is not right for us to go around looking for glory, and it is hard for us to imagine it being right for God.
There are a few reasons why glory should be given to God alone.

One reason why glory should be given to God alone is that it is the only safe thing to do with glory. It is safe to give glory to God because God doesn’t need glory.
If we have a notion of what it means to seek glory we think it has something to do with self-seeking. We want something for ourselves. We want some measure of control. We might even seek glory as a substitute for love, because we don’t understand love.
God is the only safe focus for glory because he doesn’t need it. I think God doesn’t need glory because God is love (1 John 4:8).

People use other people for glory without giving it a name, because to give it a name would be rude. We use people for our own glory because we are not very good at love. We try to be in control because we don’t trust love. We don’t think it is enough.

We can’t trust God because we don’t trust love. Perhaps we can’t grasp the concept of being truly loved by God and so we seek substitutes. We even may make our religion into a glory-machine, a thing to make us important and impressive to others, and to ourselves. We turn religion into a means of achieving mastery.

With God, it is not like that. The universe does not revolve around us, but everything comes from God, and continues through God’s care. Everything has a purpose from God that is known only to God. Everything is intended to lead us to God, if we will let it.

Paul says something like this in the verses in Romans that we read. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:36)

Now there is glory, showing up again. It’s true that there is control in that glory. God is in control. But God’s glory is not aimed at control. It is aimed at mercy, which is another way of saying that God’s glory is his love.

Paul, through whole chapters of his letter to the Romans, has been dealing with the mystery of history. Especially Paul has been struggling with the observation that the human race, in its rebellion and fallenness, seems to throw up obstacles and resistance to God at every step of the way. Human nature even seems able to take the gifts, and the blessings, and the callings, and the promises of God, and tries to use them against God himself.

So Paul writes about God’s radical measures to deal with this problem. In Romans 11:32 he writes: “God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”

It is a way of saying that God has let us be ourselves in order that he could be himself and show that his grace and love can make the difference. And that is what makes Paul sing about the glory of God. It is the glory of God to give us the glory of mercy.

In John we see into the heart of God before the creation of the universe. We see that the everlasting nature of God is to give glory. Jesus is praying to his Father like this, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:4-5)

The everlasting glory of the Son is to give glory to the Father, and the everlasting glory of the Father is to give glory to the Son. They are always giving each other glory. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as well, are an eternal fountain of glory-giving.

So God does not need glory from us. In himself, from everlasting, God is a love that loves to give glory as an expression of love.

In the Biblical languages, the word “glory” carries the impression of light and weight. Here is how the Bible expresses this. Isaiah says, “Arise and shine, for thy light has come and the glory of the Lord has arisen upon thee.” (Isaiah 60:1) Paul says, “This slight, momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Glory reveals, as light does. Glory is like a light that makes you see things in a way that shows you that you have never really seen anything so great before.

What does weight have to do with glory? Car-makers design car doors to shut with a certain sound that makes people think that their cars are built solid and heavy. They build a glorious sound into their car doors. The glory of God is the sense of something being more substantial, more solid, and more real than anything you have seen or heard before.

When Jesus glorifies his Father it is because he reveals his Father, and it is because he shows the solidness of the Father. And the Father gives the same glory back. What is the solidness of the Father and of the Son? It is the cross. Solidness, in God’s case, is a faithfulness you can trust, because it will inevitably involve him in the cross, for your sake.

Jesus’ glory (that shows the Father’s glory) is the cross, and the resurrection. This has been done to take away the sins of the world. (John 1:29) God has done this for all people, to “have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32)

We say “glory to God alone” because God has done the incredible, the impossible, the inconceivable. God has done for the world (God has done for us) what no one else could do.

And God has done this in order to give us as a gift to himself, for his own joy. This is his glory. Jesus prays about this, in this way, as he prays for us and for those who will believe through us: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)

We are like plants rooted in the soil of God, and rained on by the love and nurture of God. We are like plants whose roots, when they are healthy, grow deeper and deeper, protected from drought and frost. How can a plant boast about its good soil and the rain that makes it grow? To God alone be the glory!

To say that the glory belongs to God alone does not mean that we have a God who is hungry for glory. It means that we have a God who loves to give glory, and such a glory can come from no other place.

To say “Glory to God alone” is to respond to an invitation by God to live by learning how to trust. It means we can live without giving our life the “white-knuckle treatment”. It means not having to be afraid and worried all the time.
Since it is the glory of God to be a giver, it means being a giver yourself. Since the glory of God is faithfully merciful, living for the glory of God alone means being merciful.

It means you can connect the dots of life and see the patterns of God. You see how God loves, and how God wins. You see the cross and the resurrection, and you live accordingly because that is where God is, and there alone is the glory. Glory be to God alone.