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.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

God's Power: Undaunted Mercy

Preached Sunday, November 6, 2011
Scripture readings: Job 41:1-11; Matthew 23:33-39; Romans 11:25-36

One of the places where I often wish I had brought my camera is a stretch of the road between Ritzville and Washtucna. The place is just a few miles south of Ritzville. There are a couple of spots along that stretch of road. You don’t see them when you are driving north. If you try you will run off the road.

You can only see them when you are driving south. And you have to look at exactly the right spot and time.

There are two views (two elevations) that I have in mind: one looks to the southwest and the other (a bit further on) to the southeast. At certain times, on a clear day, with a particular light, I clearly see vastness.

I don’t see anything in particular, except for the vastness, and I would like to take a picture of it. I am not sure it would be possible to capture it in a picture, because it is simply much too big.

There are a lot of photogenic big things that are easy to catch in a photograph: a mountain, a canyon, a waterfall. Those things have a center that you can use as a target, or a focus. But there are certain places where there is nothing to see but pure, simple, unadulterated vastness.

Some people have a strange and strong dislike for it. Wide, open places make them nervous; make them afraid. But vastness makes me peaceful, and thankful, and even joyful.

There is a vastness that the Apostle Paul talks about in Romans, in chapters nine through eleven. This vastness first made him nervous, and anxious, and afraid. But, in the end, it made him peaceful, and thankful, and joyful. “Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33)

The vastness he has in mind is the plan of God for uniting all things in heaven and earth in Christ. (Ephesians 1:10) The vastness is the plan of God for the ages of restoring harmony to a fallen world; restoring humanity and nature to a relationship with him in such a way as to bring them all into the enjoyment of his love and goodness.

The plan is vast because it covers the whole extent and the whole history of the world (and possibly even the whole universe) as we know it. Paul calls it a mystery, but mystery had a specific meaning in the ancient world. It didn’t mean a thing you couldn’t know. It didn’t mean a puzzle or a predicament that was up to you to work out.

Mystery, in the ancient world, meant a great truth that God had revealed. Seeing the mystery meant seeing the truth that holds everything together and makes sense of everything. And even if it doesn’t make sense of everything at once, you see the mystery clearly enough to know that it will keep it promises.

Paul summarized the mystery in the first few paragraphs of his letter to the Romans. He called it “the gospel”, which means “the good news”. It was the good news of Jesus.

Paul summarized it like this. “I am not ashamed of the good news, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For, in the good news, a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)

This is the vastness that Paul wanted to share with everyone because God had revealed this good news to him through Jesus. Jesus is the center of the vastness that Paul wanted everyone to see. He found that Jesus is the center that makes sense of everything.

Yes, the center has a name. We can call the center the good news, because that is what Jesus is. We can call it the power of God for salvation, because that is what Jesus is. We can call it the righteousness of God (or right relationships with God and through God) because that is what Jesus is. Jesus gives us all of this. So we can call the center that holds everything together by the name of Jesus.

In chapter eleven Paul also calls the center of God’s plan by the name “mercy”. So we can say that, when the world seems most baffling, and confusing, and scary, and brutal, and when the world seems most unacceptable, the mystery is that, in Jesus, the mercy of God can be trusted to do its work; and do it perfectly. Everything can be explained by the mercy of God, according to Paul.

But this happens in the oddest ways. For instance, it works, “For God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32)

Paul grieved at the thought that the mercy of God might fail to do all the work he hoped for. Paul grieved at the thought that the whole of God’s plan, which had been carefully built upon the foundation of Abraham and his people, was in danger of losing its foundation. The people of Israel, who were groomed for centuries to become the people of Jesus’ birth and upbringing, and who became the people among whom Jesus taught and did wonderful and amazing things, seemed to be dropping out of the plan.

Paul was full of grief because his people now seemed to be left out of the picture for not accepting Jesus as their king and Messiah. They did not accept Jesus’ humble and sacrificial way of bringing his blessing to the whole world through the cross. They did not accept Jesus’ pattern of dying and rising as God’s way of life for them.

Paul always tried to reach out to his people with the good news of Jesus, but he had very little success. He had much more resistance and rejection than success.

The people of Israel were more than a nation. They were a family. In losing them Paul felt the loss of his family. It broke his heart every day. He wrote: “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers and sisters, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” (Romans 9:3)

The people of Israel, including Paul, had enjoyed a special insight into the work and the plan of God over the centuries. They saw that the promises of God go on, and on, and on, in faithfulness, and hope, and mercy. Suddenly, when all their hopes were coming true, they didn’t seize the moment. They shrank back from it. They pushed it away. It was like walking through a wonderful vastness with your friends and suddenly they vanish (as if in a nightmare), or (much worse) they start yelling at you like crazy people, and they run away from you.

“Cut off from Christ” is the phrase Paul uses for the offer he would make to God, if he could win his friends and family. It is a desperate thought!

Then, in chapter eleven, Paul tells a kind of parable or story about a domesticated olive tree which is the tree of God’s people. It is the tree of those who belong to God by faith. He says that there is something strange that God is doing with this tree. God is cutting off the true branches that are of the same variety as the domesticated tree and grafting wild branches onto the tree.

No good farmer, no smart farmer, would do that. Grafting the branches of a wild olive onto a domesticated tree is totally wrong.

Paul says that those who are not part of Israel, but believe the good news, become a part of the tree of God, the tree of Israel. It is faith that makes the wrong branches become a living part of the tree of God.

There is a twisting of faith, a malignancy of faith, a distortion of faith that Paul calls “unbelief”. It happens when faith stops being content to be nothing more than faith, because faith seems to be dependent and needy, and we do not want to be dependent and needy, not even toward God.

Paul gives this distortion of faith the name of arrogance and conceit. Paul says, “They were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.” (Romans 11:20)

Paul talks about continuing in God’s kindness. (Romans 11:22) Continuing in God’s kindness is a way of walking dependently; walking and living by faith in God.

The good news is about God, in Christ. The mercy is about God, in Christ. Faith is about God, in Christ.

When we become discontented with faith we may still want to be God’s people. But we want to have fellowship with God in a different way; not just by faith, but by our merit, by our work, by our effort, by our commitment, by our own righteousness, instead of by the righteousness of God. We want to stop owing our fellowship and partnership with God to his sheer mercy.

Paul is saying that this discontent and pride is no way to stay in a condition of faith. If you want to stop depending on mercy then you don’t understand faith at all. You don’t understand the righteousness of God because righteousness means right relationships, and those relationships depend on mercy and grace, whether toward God or toward others.

When God came to his people, in Jesus, he told them: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45) God’s people didn’t want to love their enemies but to judge them; not to pray for them but to defeat them.

Somehow, they built an identity that was based on their rightful place as God’s people, and not based on their place as the receivers of God’s mercy; mercy for themselves with mercy for others, but not mercy for themselves without mercy for others.

God’s people had made their faith and their holiness into a kind of disobedience that insulated them from pure grace and simple faith, which are the only way to find our true meaning in life. They used the beautiful traditions and laws which came from their history with God as a defense against the life to which they were called by God, in Christ.

God had called their father Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. The Lord had told Abraham: “I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing….and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

God’s people held themselves together and survived by enclosing themselves and insulating themselves inside a shell. It all looked very pretty, in its own way, but it actually protected them from the real meaning of their life.

Bad things had happened to them. Some of those things were their own fault, some were not. But what God found in his people’s unwillingness to listen to him, when he came to them in Jesus, and what Paul found when he spoke to them on behalf of Jesus, was what you find in a person who has responded to their hurts and their hard times the wrong way.

Some people respond by growing in compassion and love. Others respond by always trying to prove themselves, or by going around with a chip on their shoulder, or by not getting involved. We can grow tender or we can grow hard. God’s people grew hard.

It was a kind of disobedience and, as Paul said, they needed to see what they had done to themselves. Even the best of people need to know themselves as people in need of grace and mercy.

There is no other way to live as a true blessing to others. That is why Paul warned his readers (and warns us) against arrogance and conceit, for these are often the greatest sins of good people and they are destructive.

Paul talks about God hardening the hearts of his people. It is basically the same thing we saw God do in the first chapter of Romans, where people did not accept what God was trying to tell them about his power. They did not want to accept what God was showing them about his image that was supposed to shape their lives and change them. Paul says that, because they would not listen and learn, God “gave them up”. (Romans 1:24, 26, 28)

But, as we thought about that terrible fate, we also thought about how it could be a strategy of love. Loving parents always have to let their children go. Sometimes, they must let them go the wrong way, to do what they are driving themselves so hard to do, so that they can, hopefully, learn how to come home from the depths of their heart. Maybe, in a smaller way, it is like a parent ignoring their child’s tantrum, until the child sees that tantrums are no good.

Paul, here, is talking about God’s mercy. There is no mention of judgment here; only mercy. The only judgment taking place is what Paul calls the “the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God.” (Romans 11:33) How will God, in his wisdom, plot out the hidden way for those who need his mercy most to discover it, even against their will?

According to Paul, God, in Christ, has a plan to bring mercy to those who reject it. Jesus hinted about it in the middle of his anger at those who were rejecting him. “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 23:39)

Jesus is clear that they will see him again and that they will say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But he doesn’t say how that change will come, and he doesn’t say when.

Paul only gives a measurement that makes us wonder more than it answers our questions. The people of Israel will come in when “the full number of the Gentiles (the nations) has come in.” (Romans 11:25)

The Bible is pretty clear about this mystifying promise. Peter writes about it in his second letter. “The Lord is not slow about keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) But how can you even measure that? When will the growing human race finally include “everyone”?

Well, God may be patient, but Paul was often impatient. He wished that he could be cut off from Christ for the sake of his own people.

There is this odd thing that we must see in God’s promises. They are about life and death, and life and death are going on around us all the time. Life and death is going on in everyone we know.

At the same time, Paul takes stock of things and warns us against the conceit that comes from thinking we are rightfully inside and those who are against us are rightfully outside. Or we are inside and those who are just not with us are outside.

In this matter of life and death, we think of people we know. And we think about who we are, and where we are, in this matter of life and death. Paul was not thinking in the abstract about imaginary people, but about the people he knew; very often the people he loved most.

But God is telling us, through Paul’s writings, and through the rest of the scriptures, how to think. Paul struggled until he was able to think about the ability of God to accomplish his mercy. That is how we ought to think.

Our freedom, in response to God’s promises and God’s offer of mercy, is a scary freedom. What we need to think about is how we are to live with the knowledge that God is strong enough to accomplish his purpose in the long run and, then, to apply our faith in that future strength to God’s strength in the present.

If God is able to accomplish his plan of mercy in the long run, will he not use his same power for mercy for those who concern us now? Can we confidently entrust those whom we know, now, and everyone in our present generation, to the mercy of God now? Can we live, and speak, and think with confidence in that mercy now?

Paul was able to overcome his fears and anxieties about the faith or the unbelief of others, because he knew “the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God.” Paul could be faithful to the life and death issues that are involved in our choices and priorities in life. At the same time he could entrust the lives of those he knew and loved to the mercy of God.

Somehow even our disobedience is for the future purpose of our entering the mercy of God. There are warnings and cautions about presuming on this, or taking advantage of this. We don’t want to forget that caution.

In my own life, I can look at times when (maybe) God had given me up to my resistance against him and his purpose for me, and I learned to love the Lord more, and to know him better, as a result of the trouble I had caused myself and others, and all the precious time I had wasted. With God, nothing is wasted; not even the jealousy that Paul talks about; and few things cause more harm than jealousy. But, with God, nothing is wasted.

In war, there is a thing called “collateral damage”. It has come to mean civilian deaths and injuries caused by military action.

In our life as Christians, and as the Body of Christ (the family of Christ) in the world, we sometimes seem to cause collateral damage in our effort to be faithful to God, in our attempt to be holy. We wear people out. We allow our brothers and sisters to be unjust and unkind to others.

We need to grieve for that. We also need to trust that (in the mercy of God) the collateral damage will be healed and overcome.

But there is another fear that, in the plan of God, in the progress of the kingdom of God, all will come right in the end, but only at the expense of unacceptable levels of collateral damage. We fear that, along the way (even in God’s strategy), there will be the collateral damage of those who did not receive the mercy of God, and therefore lost it.

I believe there is another way the Bible gives us. It is true that there are those who receive God’s mercy and do not welcome it. They say “no” to the mercy of God. But in God’s scheme of things, in God’s time, or in God’s eternity beyond time, those people never cease to be offered the mercy of God.

I went to a high school that had a rigid “pecking order” (social order) and I was low down in that order. As low as I was, there were people lower on the scale than I was. Sadly, I would have been embarrassed to have them as my friends. I would have been embarrassed to be seen with them.

The mercy of God is the opposite of that embarrassment. The friendship of God may be unwelcome because it comes in a shape, or in a condition, that seems unacceptable to you, or to someone you know.

But God is like that most un-cool person in your school, who is so not-cool that they are completely blind to what others think of them. They are completely unfazed and undeterred by the clearest forms of rejection. They simply don’t know when to stop being the way they are. It isn’t in their nature to stop.

God doesn’t stop. God’s mercy, in Christ, does not stop. It is just like Jesus, praying for those who were crucifying him. We cannot know God as he truly is, in Jesus, and live as if anyone living or dead has stopped being the object of the mercy of God.

I believe in hell, but I also believe in the mercy of God, in Christ. I believe in not being afraid of anyone’s destination.

Let us believe in living as if everyone we know, and everyone we meet, and everyone in the world, belongs to God. God is doing everything to prepare that person for his mercy and love. It is the mystery revealed in the good news of Jesus that makes us say, “Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

God's Power: A Christ-Shaped World

Preached on Sunday, October 30, 2011

Scripture readings: Isaiah 65:17-25; Matthew 25:31-46; Romans 8:17-30

A man went to the zoo and found a small meadow-like area, surrounded by a high fence, where a wolf and a live lamb were lying down together. The sign on their fence said “Isaiah 65 verse 25: The wolf and the lamb shall feed together”. The man was amazed and spoke to the zoo keeper about it. “This is amazing. How do you do it?” And the zoo keeper said, “Well, we replace the lamb every morning.”

Isaiah is not telling us about a future world where lions and wolves stop being carnivores, but a world where what is wonderful, and beautiful, and innocent in this world will not live in danger of destruction, or blight, or mutilation. Isaiah, Paul, and Jesus too, tell us about a change that is coming, someday; of a world where life, and freedom, and happiness are not endangered.

A fish lives its whole life in the water and never knows it is wet. So I am told.

We are born, and live our whole lives, in a beautiful world that we know is unhinged; unbalanced at best. If the suffering, and the injustice, and the unfulfillment of this world were to us what water is to a fish, we would be different from the fish. We would know that we are all wet. We would know that there was something wrong, and that we were living in a world that was not what it was meant to be. We would know that we were not what we were designed to be.

I heard a news report about the changes in sheep ranching in Idaho, since the reintroduction of wolves. The journalist interviewed ranchers and sheepherders and learned how sheepherders have to stick much closer to the sheep in the wilderness, than they used to do before the wolves returned.

The sheepherders told about the differences they have found between wildcats and wolves as predators. They have found that wildcats kill a sheep and eat it, but wolves seem to enjoy killing a sheep, and then moving on to the next, and on to the next, and on to the next. The sheepherders (who are mostly Latinos) call the wolves “terroristas”: terrorists.

I have always thought that dogs are more like people than cats are. Maybe wolves are more like people than wildcats are, too. Or maybe humans are more like wolves. And some people are like wolves in sheep’s clothing.

I think Isaiah starts out describing sickness, disease, death, sin, and injustice; and then pictures them for us in the form of wild animals. He tells us that God promises a “new heavens and a new earth” where there will be no more wild animals; meaning no more sickness, disease, death, sin, and injustice.

There was a woman who told me about losing a four-year-old grandson. She told me that this grandson was just a normal energetic, exuberant four-year-old, but the boy’s mother did not know how to be a mother to such a child. The mother put bolts on the boy’s door and nailed the windows, to shut him in.

There was a house fire and there was no time to get into the boy’s room from the inside or the outside. The boy burned to death.

Perhaps the mother was possessed by a kind of insanity toward her son, but it made her a wolf to her son. The mother was fatal to her own child.

This is only an extreme case of what sin and injustice are, and what they do. God did not design the world to be this way. Most of us know that we were not designed for such a world. But sin has twisted God’s world into another shape.

It has even infected the world, like a disease, by infecting our hearts and minds. We live in a world that reflects the infection of our own hearts.

This is why Jesus says such extreme things. He says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother ‘Raca (worthless)’ will be subject to the High Court. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

For a while, when my mom was in the hospital, my sisters and I were required to put on hospital gowns and gloves before entering her room. When you know there really is a danger of infection, you take care. You take extreme care. We are all carriers of a dangerous infection called sin.

But God does a good thing here. God does a wonderful, extravagant, almost heart-breaking thing. He comes in Christ and suffers for the sins of the world.

The cross is the attack of the world’s infection against the life of God in Christ, and the cross is like God’s production of a vaccine for the cure. A vaccine always contains some element which it has in common with the disease it is designed to cure. This is why some people are afraid of vaccines.

Well Jesus does a scary thing in his battle against evil and sin. Jesus takes the infection of sin, and injustice, and death on the cross, and then he injects his crucifixion into our souls. Jesus makes his death into a way for us to die to sin, and injustice, and death.

It is as if the gospel, or the good news of Jesus, was the serum that contains the vaccine and the cure. Then, somehow, he makes us part of his work of injecting that vaccine into the world of which we are a part. The active ingredient of his vaccine is his life, and death, and resurrection. It is a Christ-shaped vaccine.

Paul says that “we are children of God”…”heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” His glory is heaven. His glory is the coming resurrection. His glory is our part in his new heavens and new earth: a new creation.

When Jesus claims us and makes us his own, we have to be his own by living what he makes us. We have to be Christ in this world; his hands, his voice, his feet. The world suffers, so Christ suffers, so we suffer; to make things different, to make things new. The world groans, so we groan, and even the Holy Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9) groans, in order to pray what we don’t even know how to pray.

Our prayers are the voice of the creation crying out to God for a new heavens and a new earth; for ourselves, and for everyone and everything in this beautiful and groaning creation. Our prayers are the voice of creation hoping for the day when “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay, and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21)

We are carriers of an infection. The world is like a school, or a home with lots of little kids, where the same virus goes around, and around, and around. But the promise of God is that the sufferings of Jesus (which we can share and which we carry for him) are the foundation of his work of a new creation.

We are sharing together the work of Jesus, because Jesus gives us the promise of hope. We are never without hope, because Jesus himself is the first installment of the new heavens and new earth, and he lives in us.

We have Jesus in us. Paul says, in Colossians, that we are God’s people, and that God’s people have been “chosen to make known among the nations the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27)

But it is even more positive than that. Paul says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:22) It sounds strange. We are all going to have a baby together, and that baby is the baby of God, the baby of Jesus. (Romans 8:21) The baby is a new creation, a new world.

The church is called the Bride of Christ. (Ephesians 5:23; Revelations 17:7) I would suggest to you that the baby will resemble the father more than it will resemble the mother. That baby is the liberated creation; the new heavens and the new earth that will be free from the old infections, the old dysfunctions that surround us and fill us. The baby is the kingdom of God; the kingdom of justice, and righteousness, and the peace of God.

What will that new creation be like? We have read some of the clues this morning. Paul says that our groaning comes, in part, because we “have the first fruits of the Spirit.”

What would the Spirit be doing in you that would create a contrast between you and the world as it is and has been for so long? What would the Spirit be giving you, and changing in you?

We have, Paul says, “the first fruits of the Spirit.” What is the fruit of the Spirit? In Galatians, Paul says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) If this is the shape of the world to which we are giving birth, then we can say that it is a Christ-shaped world. It will function like Jesus.

Surely the work of the Spirit has the goal of making us Christ-shaped people for a Christ-shaped world where people live in Christ-shaped ways. Together, that coming world and we will be Christ-shaped. Life will be like that.

This is what we were made for. This is what got twisted out of shape by the infection of sin. This is the shape that the power of Jesus, the power of the good news, and the power of the Holy Spirit is molding in us.

This is why it is true that Paul also says, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has gone. The new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The body of a mother changes with the progress of the baby inside her. We change with the nearing of Jesus within us.

It is not true that the reality of Jesus is only a thing of the future. He is here now, in you and me. He is here in the world, through us, and through his Spirit.

He should be visible. We should be able to look at each other (and at ourselves), and other people should be able to look at us, and see what is coming.

Later on in Romans, Paul will say, “Do not be conformed to this world (that is; don’t be shaped by it) but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) The power of God working through his good news makes you a demonstration, a proof, of what he is doing.

This is what Jesus is talking about in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. This is the truth that separates the sheep from the goats.

The hungry, and the thirsty, and the stranger, and the naked, and the sick, and the imprisoned are all part of the travail; part of the suffering of this world. They do not make a complete list, but they represent neediness within our world, as it has been deformed by sin. They represent the sufferings of this world that brought Jesus to the cross, and that bring us to suffer with him. They represent the needs of the world that we carry to God in the groaning of the Holy Spirit’s prayers.

Jesus calls these people his brothers and sisters.

Some people say that Jesus’ brothers and sisters are his messengers. After all, Jesus called the disciples his brothers. So some people say that Jesus means us to understand that the peoples of the world will be judged as sheep or as goats by the way they have treated Jesus’ messengers. This would make Jesus say that other people will be judged by how they treat you and me; or by how they treat the missionaries that come to their lands. This sounds very nice for us. It’s a good deal.

By all means, if we love Jesus, we should take care of him in the form of our own brothers and sisters in Christ. They all belong to us. Jesus works, and intends to work, in our lives through them. They are Christ to us. But so are all the people of the world.

At the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of the disciple Judas, along with the rest of the disciples. Jesus did this even though Judas was the one who was going to betray him.

When Jesus fed the multitudes in the wilderness he didn’t require a test to see if anyone who was hungry might also be spying on him. There were enemies in the crowd. There were Pharisees, and government spies, and hypocrites there.

The Gospel of John tells us that there were certainly unbelievers who were fed along with the rest of the crowd. (John 6:26-27) There was no test for loyalty; no test for a relationship with Jesus. The people Jesus fed did not have to be his messengers or disciples.

When Jesus travelled briefly out of his country to Lebanon (just a few miles north of Galilee) a pagan woman asked him to heal her daughter. Jesus, at first, declined to help her because, as he told her, he was sent to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. But she persisted and Jesus healed her daughter anyway. He said, “Woman, you have great faith.” (Matthew 15:28)

The point is that Jesus came for those who were most likely to be considered lost. Surely the ones who came, in their need, to Jesus are truly his brothers and sisters. Such people always receive the special attention of Jesus.

There is no test for loyalty that we have been given to use on anyone in need. We are to help the brothers and sister of Jesus, of course. And we are to help those who are hungry, and thirsty, and strangers, and naked, and sick, and in prison because they are in need of Christ, even if they do not know their need.

None of us know our need until we know him. Sometimes, even after we know him, we do not know our need.

We are not a part of the new creation of Jesus if the old creation does not make us groan. And that groaning takes a practical shape; a Jesus-shaped shape. We groan for the world in prayer. We groan in the form of stretching to help others, because we know that they have the special attention of Jesus. We know this is especially true when there are others who would put a warning-label on them, and pigeon-hole them as lost, or simply to be ignored and passed by.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther was led by the story of the judgment of the sheep and the goats to pray like this, “O dear Lord God! How are we so blind that we don’t take such love to heart! Who could have thought it up that God himself throws himself so deep down into our midst and accepts the works of all those who give themselves to the poor as though they were done for him. Thus the world is full, full of God – in every alley, before your door, you find Christ.”

This is a hard thing, and a wonderful thing. The world is groaning with the burden of sin; and it is groaning with the birth pains of God’s love and God’s new creation at the same time.

Our friend Paul assumes that we will be making noise ourselves for the same reason. We will pray with sighs and groans too deep for words. And we will serve and help, because we see Jesus in all the people who have all kinds of needs.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats the amazing truth is that, in the end, we will all find that we have seen Jesus. No one passes through life in this world without meeting Jesus.

The good news is all about the power of God in the form of grace. Grace is about need. It is true that this need is our need. But we cannot say no to the needs of the world around us and the people around us. When we say “no” to them, we say no to our own need for the grace of the gospel of Jesus. This is the proof of the sheep and the goats.

Every day in this world you have grace meeting you at your door. You have grace meeting you in the needs of those you work with. You have the need for grace facing you and talking to you at school. You have grace and the need for grace sitting with you at your table at home. You have the grace of Jesus meeting you every day.

Even now the shape of this world shows you the face of Jesus. And Jesus involves you in his mission; the work of bringing Jesus into a Christ-shaped world because you live a Christ-shaped life.