Sunday, December 25, 2011

God Speaking: Interactive

Preached on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2011

Scripture Reading: Exodus 40:34-38; John 1:14

For years and years, when I was a kid, my family would take a camping trip during the summer and stay for a week or two somewhere in the Sierra Nevada, or in the Coastal Range, or in the southern bottom of the Cascades. We always camped in a tent. We always “tented”.

Once in a while, we kids would ask our parents to get a camper, usually when it was raining. My dad always said that it wasn’t really camping unless you stayed in a tent.

A tent definitely made you much more than an observer of nature. A tent made you a participant in the rain, in the early sun shining through the canvas, in the wind rippling the cloth. A nearby rushing river rushed its song through the flaps.

The tent changed your relationship with the other families who were camping around your. Noises carried from their tent to yours even when yours was pitched more than a hundred feet away. The grove of trees where you were all camping was a single house divided by walls of cloth.

John, in his gospel, writes that, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. We have beheld his glory; glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (John 1:14)

The Greek word for “dwelt among us” is a camping word, and it carries the thought that the Word became flesh “and tented among us”. He uses the “tent” word from the Exodus, when the people of God built a meeting place for God in the form of a tent.

The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is God in the act of pitching his tent with us. We are not observers but participants with God.

God is interactive. God doesn’t merely see us. He shares our campsite with us. We know him as the one who can hear us breathing; reading our thoughts not from a cloud, but as though God were watching through the eyes of your husband or wife, or friend, or child, or parent.

If we want, we can think of God as a stranger, someone people only talk about. But God refuses to respect that kind of thinking. John tells us that it is the nature of God not to let that happen. He is the kind of God who pitches his tent too close to yours and spoils the privacy of your campsite.

Two people in a room can be strangers even when they have known each other for years. We can live with God like that. We can think of God as the other person in the room that we do not acknowledge and we do not want to look at, as if we were a little child trying to sneak a forbidden cookie when our mother is sitting at the table behind us. But God will not get up and walk out of the room just because we want to think of him that way.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, can mean that God is like the one person whom you have allowed to know every nook and crevasse of your being. God is like the one who is scary because you know he will feel and know your pain more than you may want anyone else in the world to feel it and know it.

When John tells us that “the Word became flesh” he means, by “flesh”, the essence of human life. He has pitched his tent in what you are, no matter what that means.

“Flesh” can mean the part of life that is like a tent in the sense that it wears out faster than any other kind of house. It is the part of life that gets tired, that gets old; that gets sick; that doesn’t shelter you when you need shelter the most.

“Flesh” can be the part of life we mean when we say, “I am only human.” It is the part of life we would, sometimes, like to forget, or deny, or justify on the basis of very poor logic. It is what we are when we say, “This is who I am and you can’t do anything about it; and neither can I.”

“Flesh” is everything we say and do that makes life hard for others, and for ourselves. Jesus pitches his tent there and lends a hand where our “being human” needs a hand.

But he does more, because he carries the wounds of being “only human”, and he carries the sins of being “only human”. He grew up to carry them on the cross so that we could journey with him, and know him as the bearer of our sins.

“Flesh” can mean the part of life we are thinking of when we say that “life is difficult”. One of the most difficult Christmases of all time was the very first Christmas. It happened when the holy family was uprooted from their home in Nazareth by a decree of the Roman emperor.

They tried to find a place to stay, where their baby could be born, in Bethlehem. They didn’t find a very good place. Even in the ancient world it was a shame for a baby to have to lie in a manger, in a stable. God came in Jesus and pitched his tent with them there; and with us in the places where Christmas was hardest.

God, in Jesus, is with you in your loves, and struggles, and play, and work, and family, and when you are alone. God is not the spot in the corner of your bedroom where you look when you pray at night. God is not the spot on the horizon you look at when you drive across open country. God is there beside you, as well as in your heart.

But this is a good thing. God has done this for us. God has pitched his tent with us, in Jesus, for the sake of a loving intimacy, and inescapable intimacy. It is a good thing not to be able to get away from someone who loves you. God is a parent holding their child close.

However you feel at this stage in your life, God is holding you in your sorrows, fears, achievements, and joys. Christmas means the Lord has come tenting with you, and God is there not to be an observer, but to be a participant. God is always interactive.

The Old Testament people of God had a tent in the wilderness where they could meet with God. We have just such a tent. It is pitched right beside us. It is a tent made of flesh; your flesh and mine. It is both a human tent and the place where God waits to meet us. The name of this tent is Jesus.

Monday, December 19, 2011

God Speaking: The Persuasion of Baby-Talk

Preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2011
Scripture Readings: Genesis 18:1-15; John 1:9-13

It was a warm spring day, and a boy was lying on his back looking up at the sky. A sense of awe came over him. He felt he was in the presence of God. The boy said, “God, you’re here!” And God said, “I am always here.”

The boy said, “You seem so huge. What does this world seem like to you?” And God said, “It seems like a tiny, precious jewel to me.”

The boy said, “What does a million years seem like to you?” And God said, “Like only a minute to me.”

The boy said, “What does a million dollars seem like to you?” And God said, “Like only a penny to me.”

The boy said, “God, will you give me one of your pennies?” And God said, “Yes, in a minute.”

The boy had yet to know what was on God’s mind, but God knew what was on the boy’s mind.

There was a cartoon where a husband and wife were sitting side by side. The cartoon “thought-bubble” over the man showed he was thinking about a million dollars. His wife spoke up and said, “A penny for your thoughts!”

We don’t always know how to give the proper value to what may be going on in someone else’s mind or heart.

There were a few times, in my adulthood, when my dad shared some of the experiences that happened around him, and to him, in South China and in the South Pacific, toward the close of World War II. They were horrible things, and he had to decide what to do to fight back and survive.

After he shared those things I began to wonder what kind of thoughts went on inside my father’s head because of those horrible things that happened to him; that he had witnessed and been part of. I began to wonder what it meant to have a father who was haunted by such experiences and who lived a seemingly normal life with such events in his past.

There is a sense in which we are all walking mysteries. At least we are all, in some sense, a mystery to each other.

There are ways of breaking through that mystery. Sometimes there is an adventure (as in love and marriage, perhaps) in having a safe relationship in which you can discover the mystery of one other person, and have that person discover you over time.

There are mysteries in people that we can never penetrate. Sometimes we, ourselves, are impenetrable mysteries to other people.

There are good reasons for being a mystery. There are bad reasons.

The Gospel of John tells us that the God who entered the world and became human in Jesus was a mystery. You would think that the closer you get to the heart of a mystery, the easier it would be to see through it, to get the point of it, to understand and appreciate the mystery that has shown its face and resolved itself into a truth we can know.

John says that the opposite happened. The closer the mystery of God came to the human world, the more it came to be the case that humans did not see through it or understand it.

God came to them and they did not know him. They did not recognize him, or know who he was. They would not even believe what he told them and showed them.

John says, “The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home and his own people received him not.” (John 1:9-11)

Don’t we all know what this is like? You have a secret, and you don’t want to carry it alone, and you don’t know whom to tell. You are afraid of what would happen if you told it. You might lose a friend. You might lose a love. You might build a wall instead of opening a door.

I’m not talking about telling someone else a truth about themselves (something they need to know about themselves that is worse than bad breath or dandruff); or telling something about a third party. I mean, some deep part of you would like to reveal to another person just who you truly are, as a thinking, feeling human being. We know this can be a dangerous and costly thing.

John tells us that this is what happened with God. The God who made the galaxies, and the world, and the heavens, and dogs and cats, and sheep and cattle, and coyotes and cougars, and men, and women, and children was coming into the world. Everything God has made reveals something about him, but God decided to reveal himself by himself.

“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”

John learned from Jesus a wonderful gift of understatement and he wonderfully understates what happened when he wrote, “and his own people received him not.” He means they tried to kill him. The king of his own people (King Herod) sent soldiers to kill the baby Jesus when he heard that a future king had been born in Bethlehem. Other babies were killed in the effort to find and kill the baby Jesus. (Matthew 2:13-18) Years later his own people, with the support of the Romans, crucified him.

Yes, his own people did not receive him. Yes, we do not belong to those people, but we are still the people of his home, because he made his home in our world; the world he has made and given to us. He made his home with us as Jesus, and we are part of the home that did not receive him. We are part of the home that killed him.

What if God wanted you to know him, receive him, believe in him (the way John puts it)? And what if this is a God who true nature is not to wait to be found? What if this is the kind of God who does not want to be guessed at or imagined; who does not want to leave clues or drop hints? What if this God has decided that we should know him, and receive him, and believe in him the way he has proved himself to be by his own actions?

In the Old Testament the Lord wanted to be known as the one who redeems his people from slavery. This was not something for them to contemplate. This was something he did; so that they would know who he truly was, and so they would live accordingly. And living accordingly is what God means by faith.

I am not saying that we should know God all at once, just because it is true that God has said and done what we need to know. The truth is that God takes his time with us. In fact God is much more comfortable taking his time than we are.

There was a lot that Abraham did not know about the Lord, when the Lord came to him. What Abraham saw coming to him, out of the desert, were the figures of three men. (Genesis 18:1-15)

That was strange. That is still a mystery. But the Lord came that way in order to renew his vows. He came to them in their home to give Abraham and Sarah a promise that they had had so much trouble holding onto and trusting, because it was taking so long.

The Lord was taking so long; so long. So the Lord came to them the way he did, as men coming to give their friend a promise that would be kept.

And it happened within the year. The Lord came as a promise-maker. Abraham would hold onto that truth that God had shown. The Lord had shown his face, who he truly was, and Abraham would have faith in this.

And Sarah would laugh again. Sarah would laugh in joy, next time, and not in the desperation and frustration which she, as a person of faith, struggled to deny.

With Abraham, as a person of faith, what matters is that he received the Lord, even in spite of the strange way the Lord came to him. And he grew because of it. It was the Lord’s plan for making Abraham and Sarah the people he wanted them to be.

In Jesus, “The light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” He came as a baby in Bethlehem, and the shepherds, and the wise men, received him as he showed himself to be: as a baby. I don’t mean that they understood what they saw. They understood next to nothing except that God was working there to do something great. They understood next to nothing, but they received him and believed in him anyway.

How do you receive God? I know I receive him in Jesus, but sometimes I find it hard to get past the picture of an old man with a white beard, sitting on a throne, on a cloud in the sky. And that is not God.

God wanted us to see him; and so he set the stage and walked onto it. He walks on stage carrying a cross and he dies on that cross. Then he gets up from death, and walks out of the tomb, and pops in and out of his friends’ houses, or pops onto the shore of the lake where they are fishing, and he eats their food, and he cooks for them. That is God.

Seen in another way, God looks entirely different. In the first sentence of the Gospel of John, or the first verse of Genesis (at the creation), God is beyond time and space. There is no room, beyond time and space, for a face, or for hands and feet. There is no room for anything but God.

That is God. But the man on the cross, and the man who has risen from the dead with holes in his hands and feet, is also God.

Even that is not enough. For us to know who God is, God does not just appear full grown. God is born as the baby of Mary in Bethlehem. He needs to be fed at his mother’s breast. He needs his bottom wiped. And babies of other mothers in Bethlehem were killed by those who wanted to kill this baby. I wonder what it meant to Jesus as a child, and as a man, to know that babies had died because of him. This is part of who this God is.

This is who we pray to. Do you talk to Jesus? Do you ask him to help you understand the reason for things? Do you ask him for things? How would it affect you if you knew that this was the identity of the Jesus you talk to?

Jesus says to pray. He also says to pray in his name. What is his name? If his name was Sam, instead of Jesus, would that change the name we pray in? No!

The name of Jesus is not something that can be spelled and written in a book, or sounded out phonetically. The name of Jesus is what Jesus says and does, and thinks and feels.

It is the same for each one of us. I am what I say and do. I also am what I think and feel, and you may not know what those things are, but that is my real name.

Jesus’ name is written in a book; but the important thing is that what Jesus said, and did, and what Jesus thought and felt, are much written for us to learn about in a book. The Bible is the written word of God given to us so that we can meet the unwritten Word: the everlasting, living Word, whom we name Jesus.

In the Bible we do not meet him as we want him to be. We meet Jesus as he is, and as he has shown himself to be.

When we pray in his name, just as when we receive him and believe in his name, as John tells us to do, we pray in the light of what he has said and done. To belong to him we have to receive not J-E-S-U-S, but the baby, in the arms of his mother, escaping from the soldiers, and the boy with the questions in the Temple, and the rebel teacher and healer on the road, and the man bearing the sins of the world (and our own sins) on the cross. To belong to him we have to receive and believe that we truly have been died for by this one, and that Jesus has risen from the dead to give us a new life now, and to make a new world for us, and to give us everlasting life for what is to come.

What we pray for, what we believe, and how we live has to match that. That is what it means for us to connect ourselves with his name: not sounding out the letters J-E-S-U-S.

The Christmas part of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, is the message for us to live with a God who is a baby in a manger, in some kind of stable; maybe the bottom part of a stone or mud house, or a cave under the inn where the donkeys were kept.

How do you pray, and how do you think, and how do you live, when you live in a stable with God and with the animals? What kind of life do you live, what kind of person do you become lying in the feed trough with a God who is nursing or having his bottom wiped?

I am still trying to figure that out. But we ought to think about what God is showing us about himself in the Bible, and his birth in Bethlehem surely ought to play a large part in our knowing exactly who he is.

The Christmas part of the gospel is the power of God that makes us as small as he made himself. If we were in the manger, with Jesus, everything that happened to us there would be a gift. We would hardly know where anything was coming from, or what anything meant. We would know (whether we wept or smiled; and we would weep and smile a lot) that we were kept in safe and loving arms.

We would know that we were being stretched, and rolled, and wrapped, and carried. We would be used to constantly meeting a world we did not understand at all, but we would have faith because we were warmly and safely held.

Maybe God is able to make us his children, first of all, because he was able to make himself a child, and we begin there. Think about it. But then, in the face of death Jesus dies and rises from the dead.

The presence of death makes us like children in so many ways. But Jesus’ dying and rising makes us better children in the face of all the things we fear, and in the face of all the things that hurt us and those we love. And then we remember that there was danger, and suffering, and injustice, and grief in Bethlehem, too, when Jesus was a baby.

To receive him and believe in his name is to become a part of all that God has been and all that God has done in Jesus. And then we find that God has found a way to draw us in and capture us almost without our understanding what was going on. It is the gift that babies have; the power to capture those they reach out to; the power to capture those who hold them in their arms.

The world we are a part of has taught us not to receive him, and not even to recognize him. He is, after all, such a strange God; something we would never have made up on our own. He has humbled himself and we have gotten caught. And we have found ourselves humbled in exactly the right way by God coming in this Jesus. And we become his children, born not of our own will or of our own planning but of his.

Monday, December 12, 2011

God Speaking: Making Christmas Witnesses

Preached on the Third Sunday in Advent, December 11, 2011
Scripture readings: Malachi 3:1-4; John 1:1-8

A husband and wife were taking a walk, and the wife asked her husband if he thought she was still attractive, after all their years together. The husband stopped, and turned, and held her hands, and looked into her face, and answered that the more he looked at her, the prettier she got.

The wife beamed with happiness at the thoughtfulness of her husband and the sweetness of his words. She thanked him for his enduring tenderness and love.

Then they resumed their walk and the husband began to think to himself, “I guess I ought to look at her more often.” (Brian Crane, in “Pickles” comic strip [“Parables, Etc.”, June ‘95])

This tells us a lot about what it means to be a witness in God’s scheme of things. We are only eight verses into the Gospel of John when he begins to talk about the action of being a witness. Witness is one of John’s keys to understanding everything.

So far, leading up to the introduction of the first witness, John has only told us about beauty. John has told us majestic mind-stretching things about God, and God’s connection to everything that he has made. The Word, who has spoken everything into existence, has spoken his own life and light into them. There is nothing in the universe that does not owe its existence to this God speaking himself and God grounding every created thing in his life and light. (John 1:3) What a beautiful thing that is.

Before the beginning, there was nothing but God; but God himself is an everlasting relationship. Relationship is his very nature and so he was never alone, even though there was nothing outside of him. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

It sheds light on the understanding that “God is love.” In a sense it tells us that, from everlasting to everlasting, love is enough. Love is sufficient in itself. It truly can exist by itself, and it needs nothing else.

This love is life-creating, life-giving, life-sustaining. Love underlies all of life. This is what life is for (what life is created for; for love, to give love, and to receive love). To deny this, to resist this, to escape from this is to try to go to a place that does not exist. To seek to be something that is not responsible to God, when all things were made by him, is to seek to leave the world of all things and be nothing. Sin is a state of mind and desire that wants to be on its own without reference to God but (as such) it wants something that cannot exist. In the effort to achieve the impossible it causes great harm. Through sin we hurt others and ourselves, and our world.

When we seek to create our own life without reference to God, we try to overcome a light that cannot be overcome, we bend our minds to thinking and justifying the impossible, and we make ourselves incapable of understanding and comprehending the light. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Or, as other translations tell us, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1:5)

There is darkness around us and within us, and so there is a special demand for witnesses. John the gospel writer tells us about the witness who was called to introduce the light when it came into the world as one of us. There needed to be a witness because the darkness might make it hard to see how one particular man could be God with us. So John the writer of the Gospel tells us about John, the cousin of Jesus; the John who became known as John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer (because there were no real Baptists in those days, just as there were no Presbyterians or Methodists).

Those of us who have read the stories of the gospels many times can’t help thinking of John the Baptist as a harsh and blunt man. Do good witnesses have to be harsh and blunt? But John, the gospel writer, has only given the Baptist great and beautiful things to be harsh and blunt about, so far.

Surely any parent will understand this. A good parent needs to be a witness to the truth which is a great and beautiful thing. Sometimes a parent has to be harsh and blunt in their witness to such things.

The truth is that the child needs to learn a passion for such beautiful things as goodness and love. A child needs to grow to become a person who is safe to love and who will love others wisely, and justly, and mercifully, and faithfully. So a good parent needs to love the truth and be such a passionate, faithful witness of the truth that their children cannot overcome them. Sometimes a parent, as any lover of goodness, needs to be harsh and blunt.

The word witness, in the Greek, is our root word for martyr. Bearing witness, in God’s scheme of things, is a passion and commitment that is faithful unto death.

In fact witness is part of the beauty of God himself. Remember what John said, “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” God is a great and beautiful Word, and God is always faithful to it.

Love, and life, and light are like great events and stories; and so God is an event worth seeing and a story worth telling. We should expect witness to be important. The word “gospel” means good news, and the news is a message, and a message needs a witness, even when the only witness of the message is God.

Christmas is part of the message. It is the message of the humility of God who left the glory of heaven to become the baby in a carpenter’s family. God became a baby who would grow up to learn the carpenter’s trade and even die on a cross that another carpenter may have sawn and shaped. But, first he was born in a place where animals were kept, and his first bed was a manger, a feed trough for donkeys or other animals.

The prophet Malachi said that the Lord is a kind of messenger for himself. The Lord is a messenger about his own relationship with us as his people. “The Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his Temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord of Hosts (the Lord of the angel armies, the Lord of might).”

Covenant is a message too. Covenant is a message about the relationship that God wants with his people. The manger in Bethlehem and the cross in Jerusalem were always intended to be part of the message of the covenant of the Lord with us.

His death on the cross is part of the covenant not only because it is the sacrifice that gives us forgiveness, grace, and life. His death on the cross is the sign of his faithfulness to us. It is a sign of his passion for his own truth. It is his faithful willingness to be the one who carries out his own truth for our sake.

God makes everything not out of his emptiness of longing for another. God makes everything out of such a great fullness that he can look at what he has made and see the image of himself. His work of creation makes everything he has made into a witness, because that is what God is in his own heart.

John the Baptist, as a witness who came from God, and who was sent by God, is what we are all created to be. We all come into this world for witness, to have a passion for what we see and hear about God, and to have a passion to share it.

John, the writer of this gospel, tells us some important issues about being a witness.

One issue is a problem (or what my Uncle Eddie would like to call a situation). We have that old issue called the darkness.

There is a battle going on. The devil’s temptation of Adam and Eve, to separate them and the rest of the human race from God, was an attempt to overcome God and rob God of his creation.

There is a darkness that wants to be in charge, in the place of God, and get his own way. It is our human nature, as born rebels, to make a world for ourselves where we are in control, and where other people, and the rest of creation, are all our competitors.

In fact nature has fallen with us, and what we see in creation often reflects our sins and our fallenness instead of the image of God. We and the most other living things are all competitors, as if we were all programmed to do everything in our power to tip the balance of creation in our favor. We are all damaged goods that God wants to recreate in his true image.

I guess that means that we, ourselves, are our own worst enemy in being a witness to God and to God’s plan for a new creation. It was the calling of John the Baptist, as the ideal witness, to know that he himself was not the light.

We often live as people who are saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” John the Baptist was shaped by God to get over this and say, “Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me!”

I will tell you that, when my mom was in the hospital and my sisters and I were spending so much time there, and trying so hard to figure things out and do the right things, there were times when I was alarmed to find myself thinking about myself: how tired I was, and how stressed I was. I got angry because I was being forced to be tired and stressed. It made me mad.

I was less capable of being patient with my sisters and understanding of them than they needed me to be. It was a dark around me and within me.

I should have focused more on God. I should have focused more on the fellowship we have with God in the midst of suffering, through Jesus. When I did focus on that, it helped me to be the person I needed to be for my mom and my sisters; or at least I hope so.

Peter, in his first letter (Peter 2:9) calls us to be people of the light: “That you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are people of the light, in Christ, but we have some old sympathies with the darkness, and we carry some divided loyalties in our heart.

When fear, and anger, and weariness, and suffering, and injustice create darkness around us, we have trouble seeing the light and understanding the presence and the work of God, even in his partnership with us in Bethlehem and on the cross.

The area where I grew up, in the Sacramento Valley, is prone to floods. I remember two times we evacuated our home because the danger was so real. One time was just before Christmas, when I was thirteen. It was our first year in Live Oak and I remember putting our presents up in the top shelf of the closets in the hopes of keeping them safe before we left our home.

The second time we evacuated was just after Christmas, a few years after I moved to Washtucna. I had gone down to my folks for a late Christmas celebration.

I am not sure where everyone else was but my parents and I left our family home and we went to stay with friends of the family who lived in a neighboring town, on slightly higher ground. These friends had given shelter to a lot of their relatives, and to other friends like us.

There must have been thirty people or more in that house. All I know is that the only room for me to sleep was under their Christmas tree; and so I did, but not very well.

We were away from home for only a couple nights, and then all was well. I wasn’t homeless for long; really not homeless at all. But God left his home in heaven, and stripped himself of his familiar glory, and lived in a world where he was supposed to be the light of the world, and yet that world treated him like a stranger and an enemy. It treated him with misunderstanding and rejection. A storm of darkness constantly swept around him.

Even in his mother’s womb (where a baby almost ready to be born should be surround by safety and shelter) the world conspired against him. The Roman emperor made a decree that uprooted his family from their home and required them to go to a town where Jesus would be born in the place for animals.

His family was uprooted more than once. They had to run away to Egypt for a while. And Jesus was often on the road during the time of his ministry. He could truthfully say that he had no place to lay his head. (Matthew 8:20)

His own neighbors misunderstood him and, once, they were so mad at him that they tried to throw him over the cliff where their town was built. In the end, the leaders of the truest religion in the world and the empire that prided itself on giving the world its best laws and finest justice conspired to kill the one who had created them.

This was no accident. It was part of the plan, but God did not have to force the world to treat him this way. He was meeting the darkness on its own terms and winning on his own terms.

On the cross God saluted the nature of the darkness that opposes God and lives in each one of us as sin. In the strange plan of God, the solution was for God to allow himself to be the victim of the darkness. The solution was to free us from our sins and darkness by carrying them upon his shoulders on the cross. But that sacrifice began in Bethlehem.

That is how we have received our salvation and our freedom in Christ. That is how God, in Jesus, created a new life for us.

The old problem of the darkness is that we don’t want a God who works that way. That is a hard way. The darkness wants to find some easier way of its own devising.

The way of God’s choosing means that we can find life no other way. It is the way of humility and smallness. God’s way may very well even take us the opposite way of what this world calls success. Jesus says we must be willing to take up crosses of our own, in order to follow him.

We want to tell the world, “Look at me!” But we don’t want the world to watch us become humble and small, unless we find a way to brag about it and use our humility to get our way.

We don’t want to look at him on the cross if it requires us to become his kind of witness; passionately faithful unto death. If we would only look at him more often, perhaps we would see that this humility and passion were part of his beauty, and we would want to be like him; but only so we could say, with all our heart, “Look at him!”

We don’t complain about having to look at him in a manger, if we can only think about the baby and not a real manger, or the danger that baby was in. But we don’t really want the way of the cross. The fact is that the two are the same. The manger was only a type of cross that was suitable for the needs a baby whose strategy was to grow up and carry a cross. We need to look at him more.

But the manger and the cross make us witnesses in another way. In one way, God came into our world to confront the darkness and set our lives free from it. In another way we can truly say that the manger and the cross reclaim this world as holy ground. God left his home, and came to us here, in order to make this world a home as well.

God entered the place where babies are conceived and take shape within their mothers, to make that place holy ground. God entered childhood with all its play, and with all its learning, and with all its questions, into holy ground for us. It is through him that we know childhood and growing up are not only difficult and risky but also beautiful and holy.

God entered families to make them holy, and when Joseph died, as he likely did in Jesus’ teenage years, Jesus became the breadwinner and the caregiver of the family. He was the man of the house (almost the father) until his sisters and brothers grew up and found their own places in the world. Jesus made work, and parenthood, and family holy.

Jesus was born in a world of need to make the needs of others holy. Jesus entered the world of grief and death in order to make them holy ground as well. Jesus wept when he confronted grief and death. (John 11:35) Then Jesus died and rose from the dead to make them the holy ground of our mysterious birth into a new life.

We can tell Jesus that he didn’t take the way we would have chosen but, the truth is, that he is with us on our way. Through the miracle of his birth, Jesus makes our ground his ground and makes his home with us. That is his way. That is his story. We are here to become witnesses of this.

Even in a court of law, witnesses may have to be patient, but patience is a daily requirement for those who are born into this world to be witnesses. God, as our witness, is patient. When God shows himself to us, he tells us his message over, and over, and over, and over and over again; like parents and teachers do with children. They do this well when they have gotten a vision of goodness deep enough within their hearts that they become passionate witnesses.

We need a vision of the Lord that works like that. We need a vision that will help us stop trying to be the light and enable us to give our witness to the light that became flesh in Bethlehem.

We will stop saying, “Look at me!” We look at him more often.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

God Speaking: A Love Story

Preached Sunday, Second Sunday in Advent, December 4, 2011
Scripture readings: Psalm 19:1-15; John 1:3-5

The first lines of the Gospel of John take us to a time before time, and a place before space. Only God was there. There was only God.

Before time and space God was not lonely or empty. God was full. God was full of love, and joy, and peace.

God’s fullness was like a message, like a speech, like a song that never got tired, or stale, or old. It is as if, before time and space, God was speaking himself, expressing himself, singing himself, out of his own fullness. John gives this fullness a name and calls the fullness of God “The Word”.

John describes it in this way. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2)

John says that the word was “with God” and there is more than one word in the Greek language (in which the gospels are written) for saying “with”. This concept of being “with” does not mean being side by side. And in the time before time and space, there was no space or room for being side by side.

The way “the Word was with God” was to be “toward” God. But this way of saying that “the Word was toward God and the Word was God” is not so much a location as a relationship. It can mean “face to face”.

But being face to face is a thing that doesn’t really occupy space at all. Two people can sit with their eyes wide open and their faces pointing at each other, and nothing happens. It is only a certain kind of relationship that makes you face to face.

Here we have the Word, who came into our world in human history, and who walked among us in this world, as Jesus, and who spoke to us of his Father. In those days Jesus said, “I and the Father are one”. (John 10:30)

He spoke of a relationship that does not need to occupy time or space. There is a sense in which you have a relationship with yourself. Have you ever come face to face with yourself? What space does that meeting occupy? Could you locate it with an x-ray or a microscope? Maybe a brain-scan could locate some brain cells lighting up when that happened and, yet, would that really be the meeting place, where you came face to face with yourself?

Our relationship with God is something that we live out in time and space among other people, but where does that really happen from God’s point of view, and in God’s time? When we come face to face with God, our meeting can take us outside of time and space when God, the Word, speaks to us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

And then, suddenly, John brings us into the world we know. He says this. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3) Light, and dark, and time, and space, and stars, and planets, and plants, and animals, and beings made from the stuff that the stars and the planets are made of (along with the gift of being living souls) all these things were made through the Word (who was with God and who was God).

And this God so loved what he had made that he joined this world of time and space and people and things. He came into human history as the baby in the manger who became the man we call Jesus.

All things in time and space have been made through the Word. They began, and came into existence, out of nothing, through the Word. Through the centuries, Christians who studied the Scriptures have always noticed that John does not say that “all things were made by him”. John says that “all things were made through him”.

Christians have understood that all things were made by the fullness of the fullness of God: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the first chapter of Genesis, in the first story of the creation, we begin with the words, “in the beginning, God.” Then we are told about the presence of the Holy Spirit hovering upon the unformed creation, and we hear God speak his Word. There we find the Father, and the Spirit, and the Son all together in the first chapter of Genesis. The first centuries of Christians would say that we were created “by the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit”. (Cyril of Alexandria, “Commentary on the Gospel of John” 1.5)

Remember that there is something about God, as a being or a person, who is also like a message, or a speech, or a song. Remember that what we call “the gospel” is a message that becomes part of us.

The message is the good news of Jesus; the good news of God in Christ. This message takes the form of a story; a very long story. It is the story of our creation, and about our fall into separation from God through the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Eden.

Then it is the story of God calling a family of faith (the family of Abraham, the people of Israel) and using the history of that family to tell his message and make it come to life in the world. It can be seen in the story of how he saved that family from slavery and destruction in Egypt. It can be seen in how God made them into a family that could nurture him and mold him into the Savior he intended to be. He was born into a family living in a time and a place where it was the most normal thing in the world to give a baby boy the name “Yeshua” (which we translate as Jesus).

The story would be about God, in Jesus, growing up to set the world free from the power of sin and death. The baby who was God would carry our sin and death, in his own flesh, on the cross. The baby would grow up to defeat death by rising with a body that would forever bear the marks of his execution; the nail holes in his hands and feet, the spear wound in his side.

It had to be a story that came true, in real time, so that it could come true in real lives like ours, but it was also a story that began before time and space, in the very heart of God. John, in the Book of Revelation, describes Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God. He describes Jesus as, “the lamb slain from the creation of the world”. (Revelation 13:8)

When “all things were made through him” they were all shaped by the nature of the message of this good news. The Word, the living message, put its stamp on our identity from our very beginning. He truly made us for himself.

Families raise their children by means of stories and messages. Families act out their messages in the form that their parenting and nurturing take. How do they really love a child, discipline that child, encourage that child?

Families shape their children by the family stories that they tell and repeat. Sometimes those messages and stories are not good ones. A child may need to create better stories when they grow up, to tell to their own children. They may have to write a new story of their own.

The truth is that I was shaped by some good stories and by some not so good stories. I think we all are. But there were some good stories about English ancestors coming to New England in the sixteen hundreds, and about Polish ancestors who were brave enough and angry enough to throw an egg at a portrait of the Russian Czar that was being carried in a parade, in the days when the Russian Empire ruled their part of Poland.

I was shaped by stories of ancestors who served their country in time of war, or who held their family together in hard times. I was shaped by stories of family values and family talents. Those stories played a big role in making me the person that I am.

We were created by a God who carried a story in his heart of what he was determined to do for us. The story was that he would create us as his free sons and daughters and, when we would go astray (as he knew we would), he would seek us out, by extreme measures. God would be born as one of us, and die for us, to recreate us as a new kind of sons and daughters.

He created us with the intention of making us his children not only by the grace of creation, but by the grace of his sacrifice for each one of us. Our lives are shaped not only by the story of his skill as our creator, but by the story of his humility and passion.

As Christians, our lives are shaped by a love story. We live in a beautiful but fallen world that was created, from the very start, to be a world where God would die and rise for us.

There are no exceptions to this. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Every person you know, everything that exists in this world, was created to be part of a love story.

Most of us know examples of stories of good families that have a son or daughter who would be called “the black sheep of the family”. They are sons and daughters who are always loved, and yet they never learn to trust that love. They never learn to enjoy a love that does not let them go. They never experience home as the place where they can be at home.

But God has created all these sons and daughters for home. No one is excluded from this creation; and behind this creation is the story of the cross, and the defeat of all sin and death, to build a new creation in their place.

We are called by the gospel, the good news of Jesus, to hear our invitation to the love story of God. We are called by the gospel to see every person, and every need of this world, as being addressed by God’s invitation to his love story. Every need, and every issue, and every human being is created by a living invitation to be set right and made new.

“All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

“In him was life.” In God (the Word) was life. This has to do with the creation of all things, but modern people are often handicapped in their understanding of what life is.

I like science, but we are tempted to be much too scientific about life. We know so much about genetics, and biology, and medicine, and psychology, and even about the environment. We know so much that we don’t understand life as well as our ancestors did.

We see life as methods and machinery. There are scientists who see love, and joy, and inspiration as nothing more than biochemical processes. We don’t see life as a miracle or a wonder.

Here again, the writers of the Scriptures had more than one word in both Hebrew and Greek for life (Hayyim and Nephesh in Hebrew; Bios and Zoe in Greek). In Greek you have Bios and Zoe. Bios is the word for what we know as biological life.

In a sense, biological life is simply life as existence; cells replicating, muscles moving, digestion taking place. The other word for life is Zoe. Zoe is quality life. But even that is not quite right. Zoe is life as a gift. Zoe is life as a gift from God; rooted in God, nurtured by God.

As Zoe, life is holy. The Bible almost never (if ever) refers to Bios, because all life is supposed to come from God, all life is supposed to be holy.

Psalm nineteen gives us the picture of life in the physical world and life in the world of relationship with God but, in fact, both are absolutely connected. We only disconnect these two aspects of life because we (as modern, scientific people) don’t understand them.

The writer of the psalm looks up at the night sky and sees the work that the whole creation is made for. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the skies proclaim his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.” (Psalm 19:1-2) This isn’t only the work of the heavens. We were created to be telling the glory of God and his handiwork.

The Psalm tells us that we are carried in the arms of a message, and that we are witnesses of the message. We can see it for ourselves and be a part of it.

The sun, “like a strong man runs his course with joy.” I remember when I was in seminary and a few of us were going for a walk on a beautiful fall day. The trees were blazing with one of the brightest autumns I had ever seen in Dubuque. The weather was as mild as spring turning to summer. We were walking down the hill where the seminary grounds turned into the city golf course, and then into the woods where there were paths and a limestone quarry.

All of a sudden one of my friends took off running for the woods like a crazy person. I remember us laughing at him, but knowing how he felt.

Remember when you were young and just had to run or jump? That is Zoe-life. That is life as God gives it. That is the message of what the Word spoke into us when he created us. That is the life that the story of Jesus creates in us, even when we have to use a walker or a wheelchair. It is the story of a life that yearns to run.

Even the part of the Psalm that tells us about the laws of God is full of this running energy. “They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.”

They are not just God’s rules, they are God’s ways. They are sweeter than a box of chocolates. They have the beauty of God in them. They are the beauty of a life when life is right, when life runs its course with joy.

Even when God’s way is hard it is beautiful. We have to realize that following Jesus can be like carrying a cross on which you will be crucified with him. (Mark 8:34) But Jesus carried you on his cross. That is his greatest beauty and sweetness.

You have seen what it is like for someone to carry another person in love. You have seen somebody live faithfully beside another person and walk beside them in love, even when it was hard. Don’t you think that is beautiful?

It is the life called Zoe. It is hard; but it is a miracle and a wonder. It is the place where Jesus joins us. And John tells us that, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

There is a thing called darkness that tries to overcome the light of the love story that created us. Once upon a time the darkness tried to overcome the light of life when that light was born in Bethlehem. When Jesus was a baby, King Herod sent his soldiers to kill him, but they failed. (Matthew 2) They were the darkness that did not overcome him.

The darkness tried to tempt the living, breathing light in the hunger and thirst of the desert, and make him lose his way. (Matthew 4) But the darkness did not overcome him.

So the darkness killed the light of the world on the cross. But Jesus took the darkness in his hands and turned the nails of the cross into chains to bind the darkness. Jesus rose from the dead and he will protect those who trust in him, the darkest darkness will not overcome them.

We are not the light. It is not up to us to face the darkness alone.

Jesus is the light that shines even in the darkness. Jesus is the message of a God who shall not let us go, and who shall not be defeated, and neither shall we. He was born as an ordinary human being in order to bring his light to ordinary humans like us. This is the Word of Christmas. This is the life that gives us light.

Monday, November 28, 2011

God Speaking: The Message of Himself

Preached on Sunday, November 27, 2011.

Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-2

John knew what he was doing when he used the words, “in the beginning.” (Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1) They are the very first words of the scriptures. They take us back to the start of the creation when there was nothing but God. “In the beginning, God….”

That was all there was before “God created the heavens and the earth.” Even after God created the heavens and the earth, in the order of the story, everything was “without form and void”. Whatever was there was shapeless and empty. There was no order and there was no substance.

There was no time, because not one single day was named. So the words “in the beginning” tell us that there was a time before time; a time before space and matter. There was nothing to move, and nowhere for anything to move.

There is a saying that goes like this. “Time exists to keep everything from happening at once and space exists to keep everything from happening to you.” But, in the beginning, there was nothing but God, and there was no time, and there was no space.

John has told us the same thing. In the first two verses of his gospel there was nothing but God.

But he names God in a strange way; not the Genesis way. Genesis says, “In the beginning, God….” John says, “In the beginning, word”. Well, literally, he says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Still, with that odd name for God, there was nothing but God, but the first name John uses for God is “Word”.

The scriptures tell us that there is only one God. The prophet Isaiah spoke these words which the Lord gave to him. “Before me no God was formed; nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.” (Isaiah 43:10-11)

We know that John will go on to tell us that the Word, who is God, will also become the human being known as Jesus. Jesus will call himself “the Son” and will speak of someone he calls “the Father”. And he will say, later in this gospel, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)

When we go to the time and place where there was no time or place, and nothing but God, we find that God was alone, and yet God was with; with God, with himself. When God was alone, God was not solitary.

The first thing John sees (and wants us to see), at the beginning of all things, is the Word. “In the beginning was the Word”. The Word was, at the same time “with God” and “was God”.

Later on, John will introduce us to the Holy Spirit, and will teach us about the same principle of oneness. (See John, in chapters 14, 16, etc.) There is an original oneness in the essence and the heart of God; and, at the same time, there is a fellowship, a partnership (an involvement) of personality and relationship in the essence and the heart of God.

John, in his first letter (1 John 4:8; 4:16), tell us that “God is love”. So John, in his gospel, tells us about the time before time and space, and says that, even when there was nothing but God, God was love, and God was not alone in his aloneness. God was never lonely.

When the scriptures say, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” we can understand that God did not create out of a sense of loneliness. He did not need to create in order to find happiness. God did not create us out of need, but out of happiness. God was full of a Word that enriched him and fulfilled him.

A little child can play in the dirt, or with cardboard boxes, or with the funniest, littlest, simplest things, and be brimming with happiness. All of that play does not come out of need, but out of the fullness of the child’s heart and creativity.

The child is probably chattering away to himself or herself while that creation is going on, but that chattering is not nonsense. In all that talk you can often hear the story of the creation.

There is more than one Greek word for “word”. One of those is a word that means individual words, like those you find in a dictionary, or a spelling test. The other Greek word for “word” (as John uses it) tells us about a “speech” going on; a “speaking” or a “message”. We use the word (“word”) that way when we say, “I want to have a word with you,” or when an advertisement is about to appear on the television, it says, “And, now, a word from our sponsor.”

What God is in himself is a kind of word. God speaks the message of himself and his happiness. God speaks and sings that message, within him self, and enjoys the beauty of what he feels in his heart. In creation God makes his message come to life outside of himself.

The Greek language has more than one word for “with”. (Greek is a rich language.) One of those “with” words means the “with” of being simply together: side by side.

But, when John says that the word was “with God”, he uses a less common word for “with” that is more like “towards”. So Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not with each other in a kind of idle togetherness. They are with each other in a kind of movement toward each other. They are eternally coming together, and they are never done, and this is a part of their perfection and their happiness.

God speaks creation into existence and, even there, his words are more like a message than a construction of definitions from a dictionary. God says, “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3) And it means something in the message of God. And God speaks the “day”, and the “night”, and “time” itself into being and they compose part of the message of God and his happiness within himself.

If the Word is the message that is always being spoken within the heart of God, and that message has placed you in this world, then the same movement that goes on within the heart of God is going on in you. Or it should go on in you.

God’s message, around which your creation is organized, is about “withness” and “towardness”. Your existence is about “towardness” towards God, and “towardness” toward others.

For instance, when people function according to the message, they will move together instead of moving apart. A story about people moving apart is not a story that takes place in God. Distinct identity exists in God, but not division or separation.

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes about a reality that God has set in motion through Jesus. Paul says that God, “made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment: to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” (Ephesians 1:9-10)

We will see that God has created everything by the Word. Everything, when it is acting according to the message, is created to come together. Everything is created for love. Everything is to be created to give love and to receive love, to give pleasure and to receive pleasure, and to give fullness and to receive fullness.

Sin is the reality that destroys the “towardness” of creation. Sin creates separation and division between us and God, between us and our fellow humans, between us and nature, and between us and our true selves.

Christ, the Word (the Message), died on the cross to erase the destructive message that sin plays in us. This, too, is a part of the eternal message of who God is. The dying and rising of Christ, the cross and the empty tomb, record a new message; but really it is the old message that we were created for.

It is the old, old story. Jesus and his love tell us the old, old story, and make it come to life within us and through us.

We can tell if we have truly heard the message by whether our lives are playing the message. Are we part of the message that leads us towards each other?

The church is the “sound studio” where we test-play our message. Then we go out and play it for others. Our families, our communities, our nation, and the whole world, are places to play out the message. The most important thing in the universe is to play the message that the Word has spoken to us, through the creation, and even more through the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

The message is not just words. The Word creates the reality it represents. The Word made the universe a reality. The Word, acting through us, plays its message in order to create a new world around us. The Word makes us a “new creation” so we can do the work, and live the life, of a new creation.

There is one more discovery to make about what happens when the Word that was with God speaks itself into our heart. When we realize that the Word was directed “toward God” and “was God”, it gives us the picture of the Son and the Father living face to face beyond time, in eternity.

They are always facing each other, and taking each other in. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was face to face with God, and the Word was God. He was, in the beginning, face to face with God.”

When we are not moving along with the message we stop looking at each other and taking each other in. We stop looking for ways that will make the “towardness” and the “face-to-face-ness” of the message of the Word to come true.

I remember once, when I was in the third grade, when I was sitting at my desk after we had just come in from recess. I turned around to look at some kids (boys and girls) who were talking and laughing together at the back of the classroom.

Something in me wondered about them. I wondered what they were thinking about while they were talking to each other and laughing. Were they just talking and laughing without thinking?

Maybe because I have always been really shy, I always think hard about what I say before I say it. I always think very hard about what I want to do before I do it. Sometimes I think about what I want to say or do until it is too late. When I don’t think first, it seems like everything goes wrong.

I wondered about these other kids. What was going on inside them? Where was their talking and laughing coming from?

Ever since then, it has been a matter of interest to me. I wonder what goes on inside of other people. I am always trying to understand them. What goes on inside of you?

I often think about you that way. If you are shy (as I am) you know what I mean, and you know how this feels.

So I spend a lot of my time trying to understand. I even try to understand myself, because I am often a mystery to myself. You might not see much benefit coming from all my effort to understand people, and to think things through; but I am sure it would be much worse if I didn’t make the effort.

What I find is that there are people who don’t want to understand. They reach their limits too fast. They say, “I have had enough of this.” So, they stop trying to figure things out.

We are tempted to react and judge, instead of to understand. We don’t want to face people long enough, patiently and creatively, until we reach some kind of an understanding, for good or for bad.

I think that if we remembered that we were all created by a message called “the Word” then we would be constantly trying to read the message in other people. Would we hear that message in a familiar way? Would we find it all garbled and distorted?

Would we hear it sound like the music it is supposed to be? Would we listen until we found that the confusion of the music was really in us, and not in them?

Sometimes we are like a radio tuned between two frequencies, and two messages are playing at the same time. They jumble each other, and they make no sense; or else the jumble ruins a beautiful song so that no one can hear it properly.

Let’s contemplate the message. Let’s try to tune into it as Jesus (the Word) plays it for us in his life, and his sacrifice, and his defeat of the powers of sin and death.

Let’s listen as we try to play it ourselves. Let’s listen for it in others and try to figure out exactly what it is that we are hearing (or not hearing), what we are saying (or not saying).

There is a Word that has been speaking to us from the very beginning of creation. Christmas celebrates the coming of this message into our world in a visible way, with humility and compassion, to set the message straight in us. Let us listen to it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

God's Power: Our Strength

Preached on Sunday, November 20, 2011

Scripture readings: Romans 16:25-27

I want to tell you one of the odd ways I learned about faith and trust. One of my jobs, in my college days, was being a tutor in a number of subjects. To be a tutor you had to know your subject, but there was a lot more to it than that. You had to help people who were struggling with that subject.

In order to help them, you had to understand that they were not struggling because they were incapable of learning. They were struggling, usually, either because they were afraid of the subject, or because they hated the subject.

Because this was during the early nineteen-seventies, part of our training by the college was in the form of what they called “sensitivity training”. These were emotional exercises that were popular in those years. It was a hippy sort of thing.

The exercises that come to mind were the trust building exercises. A group of us would stand close together in a circle and one of us would stand in the middle, close our eyes, and fall. And the people in the circle were supposed to catch us before we fell to the ground.

Another exercise was to split into pairs. The one in front would close their eyes, or be blindfolded. The one holding onto their shoulders from behind would guide them around the campus.

We laughed at these exercises. We thought they were silly. Also we thought they made us look silly, especially when we did them outdoors in the quadrangle of the campus. I was eighteen and nineteen years old, and I didn’t like looking silly. But I tried to laugh it off, like the rest.

But we knew what these exercises were about. They were about trust. The college professors sent failing students to us, and those students needed to trust us. We needed to imagine what it felt like to trust someone else, to put your well being in their hands, as the students were doing with us. We needed to know what it meant to be responsible for bringing a student face to face with a subject they feared or hated.

I suppose we also needed to learn to respect the student who came to us, and to be on the alert to whatever they were going through. It could be that there were things going wrong in their lives that were making them struggle with their studies.

But the point of this respect and alertness was to help us build trust in the student. By building trust the student would find the freedom that he or she needed to study, and learn, and succeed.

Paul began his letter by describing where the ultimate trust comes from. When Paul, and the other writers of the scriptures, speak of faith and belief, they mean a relationship with a God who is faithful; a God you can trust.

The ultimate faith is never about our selves. It is always about God. Faith is about trusting God.

Trust came from the great things that God has done in Jesus Christ. God came into the world in Jesus and gave us a new life through his life, and through his death on the cross and his resurrection.

Through the cross and the resurrection God has defeated sin and death, and rescued those who trust him, and reached out to the whole world that is damaged and infected by sin and death. This is the great work that enables, establishes, and strengthens those who trust (or have faith) in what God has done in Christ. In Christ we die to our selves and rise to a new life.

These great things are the gospel; and the gospel means the good news. At the beginning of his letter to the Romans Paul describes this good news as “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)

In the end of his letter, Paul puts his readers in the hands of “him who is able”. And so he is right back to thinking of the good news as “the power of God”; the one “who is able”.

Paul ends his letter with a statement of praise that gives glory to God as the one who is able. Right there, Paul is telling us that we can live by trust. We can live by faith.

Paul says that God is able to “establish” you. This is another way of saying that God is able to make you strong through the good news; through the great things that God has done for us, and for the whole world, in Christ.

Jesus is God coming and dying to our sins and rising to new life, and the message about this is the news of events that are so big they are able to take us up into them. We live those events even though we were not present at the cross or at the empty tomb.

There are events in history that are so big that they take everyone in. The events of nine-eleven took in everyone who was old enough to comprehend them. They formed a kind of news that was bad news for us. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (sixty years ago) was news of the same sort for another generation.

The news of God coming in Jesus to share our sin and death, and to defeat them, is good news for all time. And it is good news because it works the opposite way from all the other news in this world. It is good news that lasts. It is good news that keeps getting better.

The gospel is news that was able to exist even before it happened. It was the good news of the prophets that Paul talks about. They knew the good news long ago. The people of faith trusted in that good news centuries and ages before a baby named Jesus was born and laid to rest in a stable in Bethlehem. It reaches back to Adam and Eve and makes them new.

The good news of God in Christ takes us in and makes us new. It will do the same for those who come after us until the end of time

It reaches out to all people and makes them God’s chosen people when they are people of faith and trust in God. God is the maker of this ancient heaven and earth; and what God has done in time, in Jesus, will be powerful enough to make a new heaven and a new earth. The good news will make us fit for everlasting life.

The good news is such a big story that you can never get to the end of it, and you can never grow out of it. It never stops being the message of your life.

Your life gets taken up into the story of the dying and rising of God. Because you know about dying and rising, you can wrestle with some struggle or some issue in your life that has gone on for so long old that you have given up on it, and you can face it as a new person. You can take failure and build something new out of the ashes.

What God is able to do on the cross and through the empty tomb; that same God is able to work through you. This “establishes” you and makes you strong, just as Paul says; but it is the strength of trust.

God came into human life in Jesus so as to be able to come into your life and live in you. And you are able because God is able. The gospel is the power of God, as Paul says, and it doesn’t stop being the power of God, but it becomes the power of God in you.

Some people see faith as if it were a spiritual muscle of some sort. They say that, if your spiritual muscle is strong enough, God will answer your prayers. They say that, if your spiritual muscle is strong enough, you will prosper in this world.

But faith is not a spiritual muscle. It is our response to a reality and a power that we cannot contain. That reality and power can only be contained by the one who made us and who carried the sins, and the injustices, and the death of the world on his shoulders.

I think this is what Paul means by “the obedience of faith”. In the translation we use, Paul seems to use the phrase and thought that the good news has been revealed by God so that all the nations “might believe and obey him.” (Romans 16:26) But believing and obeying (in this case) are not two separate things. In the Greek language, as Paul uses it, they are connected and they belong to each other, and we would understand them better as “the obedience of faith”.

Faith is what we see in a baby learning to walk. Their mom or dad is standing in front of them. The parent smiles and beckons to their child. The child gets up on its feet and steps, and falls, and rises, and steps, and steps, and falls, and rises, and walks into the father’s/the mother’s arms.

It’s true that the baby will most likely grow up to be an adult who walks without thinking, but is that entirely a good thing? When I was a child, I knew a girl who walked with a terrible limp as a result of polio. I know people with degenerative diseases. I know people bound to wheel chairs.

I often think about the wonder of walking. Wonder takes us into the world of miracles, and faith, and trust. We should never outgrow this.

We think that most of us are made to walk. Faith is doing what we are made to do while walking into the Lord’s arms.

The toddler is joyful, but never proud. There is power in its legs, but there is also power in the smile and the outreaching arms of the parent. A neglected child, locked in a closet will not walk, because there is no faithful parent there to trust. This is the truth.

It is also true that, when we live by faith, our life will be hard work. We have to practice a lot at life. We have to step, and fall, and step, and step, and fall, and step into God’s arms (and into each others arms, as well). But faith is not the work itself. Faith is the vision behind the work; the vision beyond the work.

It is like playing an instrument. You have to work the music out, sometimes. You have to practice something new when it demands something new from you. You may have to struggle with it. But the practice and the struggle is not the faith.

The faith is the vision of the music. You have to hear the music within you, and love that music, in order to really play. It is the same with singing. I suspect it is the same with sports and with all of life.

There was a girl I knew in seminary who loved to dance. I loved being with this girl, and I was growing to love her. I was not a dancer, and I am even less a dancer now. But it was the nineteen-seventies and it had become the age of disco dancing. Dubuque had a place with a disco floor made from colored panels, lighted from underneath. There was a giant mirror ball spinning overhead that flashed its lights on the dancers.

Donna and I would go there with some of our friends, and I would dance with her, and I would forget that I didn’t feel comfortable dancing. The discomfort went away when I danced with Donna. I even loved it. But she made me love it. I probably looked like a fool; but she didn’t look at me as though I was a fool. This dancing was like faith.

When we live by faith, there is a reason why we can do it. When we are established and strengthened there is a reason why.

It is because of “him who is able”. It is because there is a law in the kingdom of God that goes against the laws of this world that grind us down and wear us out, or frighten us, or anger and embitter us.

The law of the kingdom of God is the law of grace. It is the law of dying and rising from the dead. It is the law of God making us right. It is the law of God promising to make the whole world right in Christ.

Paul closes his letter and sends his readers out into a world where God is able. He does not tell us exactly what will happen next, but he tells us who God is, and why we can live by faith. This is what establishes and strengthens us; and for this we can be thankful.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

God's Power: Hands Together

Preached on Sunday November 13
Scripture readings: Psalm 18:16-19, 43-50; Matthew 18:21-35; Romans 15:1-13

Sometimes I can still remember what it was like to be young and in love, and to walk down the street holding hands with the girl I loved. It felt really good; such a seemingly little thing as holding hands. It felt very good!

The goal of the universe is the goal of a feel-good moment like that. But it will not last only for a moment. It will last forever. The whole creation, all heaven and earth will hold hands. That will be the day when the whole creation enjoys the reality it was created for. The universe has grown old in the absence of the joy it was created for. It will become a new heaven and earth.

This is the point of Jesus’ coming: to bring all cultures, all nations, all individuals together as the people of God. The point is so important and exciting for Paul that he awards it four quotations from the scriptures. It is his way of saying that this future of holding hands in the presence of God is the message of the scriptures, and the great quest of God himself.

My hand-holding days did not turn out to be very productive. The hand-holding days that Paul hopes for are sure to come, and he knows it; but there is a problem in the present. He looks forward to the hand-holding of the estranged, of the alienated, of the enemies, of the opposites. And God has created the church to be the foundation of this; the first evidence of this.

You can see that this presents us with a difficulty. There may be a hand you do no want to hold.

It is the whole point of the Gospel. The word gospel means good news. It is the good news of Jesus. It is the good news that God has come to an estranged and alienated world; and God has done something in the life of Jesus, in the suffering and death on the cross, and in the defeat of sin and death in the resurrection. Something in that miracle (God’s staggering offer of himself) bridges an unbridgeable gap, pays an unpayable debt, reconciles irreconcilable differences.

Paul uses some shorthand to describe the gap. The classic shorthand of the Bible for this is the difference between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews are Israel; the people of God. “Gentiles” just means “peoples” or “nations”.

Some Indian tribes originated names for their tribes that just mean “the people”. In their concept of identity, you are either one of the people or you aren’t.

That is how it was with the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews were “The People of God” The Gentiles (or “the nations”) were just everyone else. You might as well say that the Jews versus the Gentiles were the ultimate insiders versus the outsiders, or the ultimate old-timers versus the newcomers.

Anyone who has lived in a place where people are either old-timers or newcomers knows that there can be a nearly unbridgeable gap between them. You can live in a place and be a part of it for thirty years and never be an old-timer. Individuals on either side my hold hands, but the groups (as groups) do not.

Now the church of Paul’s day included Christians of Jewish origin, and Christians of pagan origin; the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jewish Christians were the original Christians, the old-timers of the Church. The Christians of pagan origin were the cutting edge, the growing edge of the Church. They were inclined not to want to hold hands on their way to heaven and the new creation.

The other shorthand was the pairing of the strong and the weak. Basically Paul means what he calls the strong in faith and the weak in faith.

Paul has discussed the issue of the strong versus the weak all through the fourteenth chapter of his letter. The really important thing is that Paul considers himself to be one of the strong. If we happen to be someone who likes to be strong, we will like the thought of being on Paul’s side. But then (wouldn’t you know it) Paul manages to spoil it all by turning strength on its head. He says that the real calling of those who are strong is to adapt them-selves to serving the needs of those who aren’t.

Here was the problem of the strong in faith versus the weak in faith. The strong would say that the good news was about living in the power of the Holy Spirit and with the mindset of Christ, and so don’t worry about all the laws and rules of the tradition that tells you what pleases God. Stop being a scorekeeper. This is what Paul calls living by faith and not by the law.

But Paul gives an awful lot of advice to those who need to follow Jesus better. Aren’t those rules?

The so-called strong in the faith would say that they were living boldly. The so-called weak in faith would say that the so-called strong in faith were living carelessly.

The so-called weak in the faith would say that they were the true conservatives and the original faithful. The so-called strong in faith would say that the so-called weak in the faith were obsessive-compulsive, and just plain silly.

The strong in the faith would probably be like those who text. The weak in the faith would probably be like those who still practice their penmanship and write notes on real stationary.

The so-called weak in the faith would go to worship because the discipline of worship is a healthy habit for the soul; or because it was one of the rules. The so-called strong in the faith would go to worship because they want to practice resurrection. But neither the strong nor the weak would sleep in on a Sunday morning.

The pairs of Jews and Greeks or weak and strong were not friendly pairs. They found each other (at best) annoying, (at worst) dangerous. They were not inclined to hold hands on the way to the new heaven and earth.

But that failure was a sin, as Paul understood the plan of God. How could they expect to hold hands like lovers in the new creation when they didn’t want to hold hands now? Why did they think that Christ had come, if not to join them together?

God’s scheme of things was that he wanted to right the wrong created by human sin. The nature of sin is to break and divide everything that God has made. God came into our world to put us back together.

Human sin had divided the world from God. It had created imbalance in the creation. It had created conflict in the whole realm of human relationships. Human sin even broke our own inner wholeness so that, in so many ways, we seem to be at odds with ourselves. God wants the broken pieces of creation to join hands.

God, the insider, became an outsider in Jesus; ostracized by his own people: killed. God became an outsider in Jesus to make insiders of all people. The new heavens and earth will be a place where all people who want to come in will be welcome.

I sometimes tell kids who are graduating and going out into the world that these small towns of ours are places where they will always belong, as long as they want. At least, to my mind, that is what these places are for.

Paul says “accept one another”. I can accept lots of things without liking them. But the Greek word he uses is a much stronger word than that. It means “receive” and “welcome”. Paul says, “Accept, receive, welcome one another, then, just as Christ accepted, received, welcomed you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 15:7) God is praised and glorified when diverse people, different people, people with different temperaments and personalities, and different ways of living their faith and expressing their faith welcome each other. Paul says it. All we can say against this is, “Yes, but!” And I don’t want to say “yes, but” to God.

Jesus did, by his cross, what the great Old Testament King David could not do by conquest. Jesus could bring people into his kingdom through his love. The cross shows us a different use of strength.

Jesus has died for the sins of all, and risen to give victory to all, so that all people can sing together about the praises of God and his kingdom. “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

The forgiveness that Jesus’ story (about the king and his servants) talks about is not at all like cancelling a debt; at least not if cancelling a debt means crossing out some numbers on a page or deleting them from a computer chip. Forgiveness is not a legality but real work and real effort. Jesus did, by his cross, what a king could not do by canceling debts from his ledger.

The Greek word for forgiveness carries the thought of putting something away, or sending it off. The Hebrew Scriptures share the same way of thinking. Psalm 103, verse twelve, says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has the Lord removed our transgressions from us.”

Our sins, and the sins of all other people, have been removed from us and put upon Jesus. “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” (Romans 15:3) All of the sins and evils of our world, and of our lives, are like living insults against the God who created us for good and for love. And they have all fallen upon Jesus on the cross. If we know Christ, as he is on the cross, we should know that our sins have been sent away to that place where Jesus has died for us.

But the same truth holds true for others. If we see something in another person that seems to divide them from us, then we should know that that difference, and that division, has been carried away by Jesus on his cross.

What Paul calls bearing with others, building others up, pleasing others, is not about casting a blind eye to any real wrong or evil. In fact Paul tells us to “hate what is evil”. (Romans 12:9) But we are called to use our understanding of Jesus in order to understand others, and encourage them in the right direction, and build them up.

The small town where I first served as a minister, after I was ordained, had an amazing number of people who had been in jail or in prison. And there were people who went to jail or prison after I had gotten to know them. And they went to jail or to prison for some very good reasons. I needed to give them the dignity of using my understanding of Jesus to know how to listen to them and what to say to them that would bear with them and build them up.

We are called to use our knowledge of other people to guide us to Jesus. We seek Jesus to find his answers and his guidance for what we are to say next and what we are to do next in the world of other people.

There is a story in which a person sought to understand the difference between heaven and hell. This person had a dream in which they were led into a room where there was a huge banquet table with a feast set laid out on it. The diners sat around the table, and they could see and smell the heavenly feast, but they were all starving to death. Their forks and spoons were all four feet long and they were unable to feed themselves. So they were starving to death. That was the picture of hell.

This visitor was guided to another room where the diners were also seated around a feast, just like the one in the room of hell. The utensils were still four feet long, yet everyone was eating to their hearts delight. They feasted because they used their long spoons and forks to feed each other. That was heaven.

That is what the church is for. The church is a table set with the love, the peace, the joy, the hope, the faith that come from God, through his Son Jesus.

It is the grace of God that we really cannot feed ourselves at the church’s table (at the Lord’s Table). If we think we are feeding ourselves, it is only the dying dream of a starving soul. We live by feeding others and by being fed by others.

We must feed each other. In the end, it is not what we do for ourselves that makes us thankful, and satisfied, and full, but what others have given us, what others have shown us and how they have fed us. And our lives are full because we have fed others.

Paul sees that the church is a family where people feed each other, and this is our holy calling in Christ. We are to give to others what Christ has given to us. “For even Christ did not please himself.” (Romans 15:3) How else can we claim that we have anything to do with him?

Christ has fed us with himself. We must be feeders, too, by the very nature of Christ living in us. There is no other way to get to heaven. There is no other way to the new creation but by holding hands.