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.


  1. Very rich …your preach!
    Pastor Dennis…last week I’ve been busy…
    So it was impossible to me to come end read you! My loss!
    Today I saw your comment and I run to thank your friendship…that is as honor to me!
    Wishing you a very Merry Christmas full of peace, understanding, friendship, love and joy.
    And that we all may, in 2012, accomplish our dreams …with God‘s Blessings and Guidance..

  2. pastor Dennis,

    here's wishing you all the joys of the season.

    Merry Christmas to you and your precious family!
    thanks so much for being a source of inspiration for all of us.


  3. I come to read again and again...
    Thank YOU.

    May God Bless you every day, every minute...