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.

No comments:

Post a Comment