Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Meeting God's Changes: The Life-Giving Word

Preached on Sunday, January 29, 2012
Scripture readings: Nehemiah 8:1-12 & 18; 1 Peter 1:17-2:3

The Book of Nehemiah tells us about a time more than two thousand years ago when God’s people discovered that their old way of being God’s people would not work any more. It seemed as though everything had changed.

The big, outside world had taken them over. The big, outside world wouldn’t leave them alone. God’s people were no longer independent from the rest of the world. They no longer had borders to keep the outside world out. The outside world had laws they had to serve, and taxes they had to pay.

The outside world had a culture that was not shaped by God or by faith in God. That outside culture could reach in and touch each one of their homes and their children. How could they be God’s people in such a world?

We have to find solutions to such questions. The world we live in no longer supports families or makes it easy for parents and children to spend time together. The world we live in gives less and less time for church and faith.

The world we live in isolates us from being God’s creatures together. When I was a young pastor, taking kids back to their homes, in the evening, after a youth group activity, my car would be full of chattering and laughing. Now it’s just full of the silent, shifting lights of cell phone applications.

So the question is how do we, as God’s people, meet the changes of God’s world? Part of the answer is that we meet God’s changes with the help of the gifts of God that do not change.

Living as God’s people in God’s changing world is like living with the seasons and the weather. We have seasons every year. We have weather every year. I have never heard anyone here ever say something like this: “I’m really bored with the weather, this year; because it is just like the weather we had last year.” No one ever says that.

Once in a while we do say, “Now this is the way it should be!” Even the people who believe that there is no purpose, or rhyme, or reason to the universe believe that the climate and seasons and weather of the world ought to be a certain way.

Both of the scriptures we have read today (both Nehemiah and Peter) tell us about certain unchanging things that help God’s people meet God’s changes in the world. What I have in mind are two things in particular that are really the same thing. They are a pattern that is described by two words. The Old Testament word is “law”. The word Peter uses, in the New Testament, is “word”. “For you have been born again…through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23)

In Nehemiah a surprising thing happened, all on their own everyone seemed to come to the same conclusion at the same time; that what they need most, in order to be God’s people, was to hear God’s law. It had not been read in their hearing for a long time.

And here we have to see what they meant by hearing the law. Nehemiah and the other leaders knew what they wanted and gave it to them. They wanted the whole law. They did not want snippets. They did not want a buffet where they could pick and choose.

And so they got the whole thing read to them. They read it for hours (from sunrise till noon). They read it for days (a week and a day).

What God’s people wanted, what they felt they needed, was to get the whole thing all together. They wanted the whole picture of this thing they called “the law”.

We don’t have a good English word for this. The Hebrew word for what they wanted is “Torah”.

Torah means law, but it also means way. It means God’s way. It also means teaching: God’s teaching. It also means revelation: with God revealing himself through words (written, and spoken, and listened to, and heard): words to be followed, words for life. They wanted the whole thing so that they could have the whole picture; the big picture.

If they want what the rabbis have called “The Law” (meaning “The Torah”) for the past two thousand years or so, then they wanted the first five books of our Old Testament. They wanted Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

This helps us understand the old Hebrew idea of the law, because it really is about the big picture. The law is “revelation”. It is a mirror held up to God, and God’s ways, and all the lessons that God taught his people from the very beginning, from the very creation.

God’s law is not just about what we are to do. It is about who God is and what God does.

God’s law is not just God’s rules for us. They are what we call the owner’s manual for the world and the human race. They tell us exactly who we are, and what our specifications, and tolerances, and maintenance are. God’s law is not arbitrary. It tells us about our design and how we can perform at our best; even when the car of our life has been so abused that its performance days are over.

When I came here I owned a Camaro. I always keep cars longer than I should; so, when I came here, it was past its prime. But when I first got it (used of course) it was still in its prime and it liked to go fast: faster than any of my other cars have liked to go.

When I bought it, a lot of my driving was on arrow-straight roads in the desert on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. That car loved those roads.

I would tell you that the law called “The Torah”, the law that Nehemiah’s people wanted to hear, was like the laws for a car like that driving on roads like those. Nehemiah’s people wanted laws for life, not laws to suffocate life, and this is what God’s laws are for: laws for life.

I have told you that when I first got glasses I cried. I was ten years old. Suddenly, I could see in a way that I had completely forgotten. I realized how little I had been able to see. I realized how much I had been missing.

Nehemiah’s people wept when they heard God’s law for reasons like my weeping. They saw what they had been missing and how far off target they had been. They saw what they had lost. They saw how it was their fault. But, when the big picture was explained to them, they were also told to rejoice because God’s way was about God’s grace.

God’s law revealed God’s ways. It began with creation, because Genesis is the book of the law that begins with creation. It showed that God’s way led from darkness to light, from nothing to fullness. God’s ways are grace.

God’s law showed the way of God calling his people. God called Abraham and Sarah from their sheltered, comfortable city life to a life in the open air and on the edge of adventure. God’s law showed that life at its best was a life of faith and change lived under the guidance and care of God. God’s ways are grace.

God’s law showed the way of God leading his people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. It showed that God’s way and God’s law was designed to lead them from slavery to freedom. That is about grace.

The story of God’s people was the typical human story, that the human way is to want to find the shelter of some kind of slavery as a refuge from the fear of freedom and faith. The story of God, in setting them free, told of the law of God’s own nature. God is characterized by his way of delivering his people from whatever enslaved them to give them the joy of freedom and faith. God’s ways are grace.

The small picture of God’s law as a rule book is confusing and suffocating until we see the big picture of the law, as given from Genesis through Deuteronomy. In the big picture we find that the law is about freedom, and growth, and faith, and grace.

In the end, toward the end of Deuteronomy, in the words of a song the Lord gave to Moses, the Lord tells his people that they will fail. They will sin. They will be judged, and punished. They will seem to lose everything. And, in the end, the song tells them that God will make atonement for his land and his people. (Deuteronomy 32:43)

Spell the word atonement and you will find that it spells “at-one-ment”, and this is what it means. God promises to make us one with him.

Where human sin seems to build an impassible barrier God breaks the barrier down through grace. Where human sin seems to have caused a spiritual earthquake that opened an impassible canyon between us, and our world, and God, God builds a bridge. God makes atonement. God makes us one with him.

God’s law taught his people to have faith that he had thought of everything. God was prepared to do everything they needed. And so, even the law tells us that God’s way is not just a way of rules, but a way of grace. Grace moves people from tears to joy.

God’s law showed them the big picture of the life that the rules were meant to serve. Peter wrote to God’s people that God’s word was a life-giving thing. It’s true that God’s word has rules that weigh the authenticity of our lives. God’s word weighs how true to God (and how true to each other) we are living. But God’s word also shows how that authentic life comes from God through faith.

God’s word was Jesus, and the story of what God did through Jesus, and in Jesus. “Through Jesus you believe in God who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:21)

Peter writes this: “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth, so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22)

Notice that this obeying business makes us feel as though we were talking about the law of God. Notice the direction in which this truth and this word take us. It takes us in the direction of sincerity, and depth of heart.

It is about truth in the sense of becoming true to what we are created for. It is about finding our true selves.

And it comes from the power of a truth, or a law of God, that is about grace. It is about the death and resurrection of Jesus for us.

Peter tells us that this word, this message, is the way God gives us a new life. It is about life. It is about being born again. And this leads us back again to a pattern of moving in a direction from death to life.

This word tells us the way of God for our life. God’s way is for us to die and rise with Christ. This is like the work of creation in which God takes us from darkness to light; from nothing to fullness. This is what it means to be a Christian.

We can see God’s way of changing people so that they can meet his world in a new way. We can see this later in chapter two of Peter’s letter: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)

According to Peter, we do not make ourselves a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. God makes us chosen by calling us out of darkness into his wonderful light. We have been changed into what we are now because we have received God’s mercy.

Both in Nehemiah and in Peter we find what we might call the law of conversion that takes us from tears to joy, from darkness to light, from death to life. This is the law of God. This is the word of God.

This is an old and unchanging law. It has its center in Christ and what he has done for us through the cross and through the empty tomb.

It was the law of God, the way of God, the way for God to be God, chosen “before the creation of the world”. It was God’s way because he can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It shows that God has thought of everything and has always been prepared to do everything that we need.

In Nehemiah we find God’s people experiencing conversion, experiencing a change of heart. They change from weeping to joy because they discover that the real law of God is a law of grace. The way of God is the way of grace, from beginning to end.

We will find that those people of God will not always listen to God’s law and God’s word; not even when Jesus came to fulfill them and flesh them out before their eyes. But the grace they found gave them a new relationship with God that enabled them to meet a changing world. The words written in a scroll came to life and God spoke to them and gave them the message of life.

God’s word is always a living thing; a life-giving thing; and that is one thing that never changes. The old words come to us and they suddenly become the voice we must follow. When that word comes to life for us, we have the joy and the strength we need to meet a changing world.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Meeting God's Changes: Strategy for Faith

Preached on Sunday, January 22, 2012

Scripture readings: Nehemiah 4:6-23; 6:15-19; Ephesians 6:10-20

Now we have read the scene where the armor was put on, and the weapons were drawn, and the battle was joined at the walls of Jerusalem. Only not a shot was fired there, at the center of the great battle.

Nehemiah is all about an enormous battle. His book is all about the same spiritual warfare that Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesian Christians where Paul tells them (and us) that our greatest battle is for the mission of the kingdom of God; the work of the kingdom of God in the world and in our lives. Our battle is real but spiritual in nature. In this battle we must carry spiritual weapons and put on spiritual armor. Paul calls it the whole armor of God.

The builders of the walls wore real armor and carried real swords and spears. If the story had turned out differently, they may have had to use them.

Their swords and spears were successful as deterrence in the real strategy of war. The armies they feared did not come against them. Their arms served a purpose in the strategy of the battle, but (in the end) they were not used for the most important battle of all.

You might say they fought their battle using building stones, and mortar, and cedar beams, when they rebuilt the wall of the city. And, when they finished, Nehemiah tells us that their enemies became afraid of them, because their completion of the walls sent the message that God was with them. The walls were the proof that it had been a spiritual warfare in which their God fought alongside them.

Walls were a kind of armor for cities and towns. The walls of ancient cities provided a resource for internal law and order. They trapped wrongdoers inside until they could be caught. The walls of ancient cities provided law and order by protecting their citizens from outside gangs of outlaws, and marauders, and raiders from the desert. The walls made the city a safe haven from which to provide law and order for the surrounding area.

The walls were more than a defense from invading armies. They enabled people to plan, and build, and invest, and do business, and create, and worship without fear or danger. Walls enabled the people inside to be themselves and to live life to the fullest.

The walls of Jerusalem would enable God’s people (the people of Israel) to be themselves again (at last); for the first time in generations. The world had completely changed around them, but the walls would allow them to find a way to live life to the fullest as God’s people in that changed world.

But the real battle was not about stones and mortar. The real battle (the spiritual battle) was for them to fight their way into the spiritual place where they could be God’s people in a new way. The old way would not work anymore in the new world around them.

Their job was to do more than survive. Their job was to do more than thrive. Their job was to be a blessing to the world.

The people of Israel had their beginning, and their mission, set when God called Abraham and Sarah to leave the comfortable world they had always known, and live a new life on the edge of things. They would become people of faith and that faith would be the foundation of their blessing to the world.

After the creation, the world had become divided from God by a loss of faith; by the loss of the ability to trust God to be God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were tempted to become like God for themselves, by knowing good and evil. They wanted to run their own lives and know for themselves what was good or bad for them. Then they would no longer have to live by faith; by trust.

But a life without faith destroys what we, as human beings, were created to be. We were created to be people who knew how to love and how to be loved. The loss of faith created a human nature that was no longer able to properly love and properly be loved.

When you have no faith you live by self assertion, or by indifference, or by fear. You live by being in control. You live by justifying yourself and proving yourself.

The freedom to truly love and be loved comes from faith, and Abraham and Sarah were called to be the beginning of a way of faith that would bless the world. Only their faith needed to be more than an idea, or an attitude, or a state of mind.

True faith would depended on knowing just how faithful God was, in fact; and true faith depended on God bringing that knowledge into the human heart by changing the heart and making his home there as Savior and Lord. God would do that by his own strategy of becoming one of the people of Abraham and Sarah, as a baby named Jesus.

In Jesus, God would carry the faithless and sinful, rebel heart of the human race on the cross. On the cross, our faith-deficient human heart would die with Jesus. Because of Jesus we, in our rebel nature, could die to ourselves and we could be reborn to a new and changed life with God, through Jesus. This is how the life of faith, as begun with Abraham and Sarah and completed by Jesus, would be fulfilled become possible for us. All the world would be blessed by this new heart in a new human race.

The people of Israel, as they were called to be a people of faith, existed for the purpose of breaking down the walls between the human race and God. But, to maintain their purpose in the world, they needed to build walls for Jerusalem. They needed a place where they could find the ways to reshape their lives as a people, to be God’s people in a new way.

Their old way of being God’s people, a people who would bring faith into the world, had not worked. They made God’s purpose for them fail.

The old walls had made Jerusalem the strong city of the kingdom of Judah, in which God’s people had not learned to live by faith. They lived without faith by worshiping other gods and goddesses who claimed to have the ability to give them what they wanted in life without demanding of them the devotion that the God of Israel required.

These little gods only asked for bits and pieces of their lives, not the whole thing. The God of Israel was the God of faith because he asked for the whole thing: to love him with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their strength.

They lived without faith by taking advantage of each other; with each person looking out for themselves. They lived for themselves and became incapable of sharing the God of faith and faithfulness to the world. In fact that purpose was the farthest thing from their minds. Their old way of being themselves had failed God’s purpose.

So now they were building new walls where they would find a new way to be God’s people. The new walls would no longer make Jerusalem a strong city for its own nation. The walls would make Jerusalem a strong city for the kingdom of Persia.

Their governor was Nehemiah, a friend of the king of Persia; one of his most trusted servants and officials. The new walls would make Jerusalem a blessing to the kingdom of Persia. Jerusalem would help defend the empire from rebellion and invasion. It would be a good step to teach them the humility of faith and get them out of themselves.

It was a good start to being a blessing to others. God brought change to his people so that he could make them (even force them) to be part of a bigger world, a changing world.

Empires changed. Empires came and went. Borders moved. Over time, Jerusalem became a fortress city in the Roman Empire, guarding the military and trade routes between the provinces of Syria and Egypt, guarding the frontier near the Arabian Peninsula.

The time came when a wandering carpenter named Jesus rode a donkey into the city that Nehemiah had helped to rebuild. Jesus came with an offer to make Jerusalem and its people the beachhead of the invasion of the kingdom of God. Their kingdom would have the mission of bringing peace with God, through repentance and faith, to the Romans, and the Greeks, and the whole world. This strategy would work if they would learn a new kind of repentance and faith from the Messiah Jesus.

God’s people were spreading out beyond the old kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Their old capital was now a small part of a much bigger and stranger, competitive world. Yet that bigger world was more in need of God than ever.

Even in Nehemiah’s generation God’s people could be part of a spiritual battle to be faithful to the faithful God of faith, in this bigger, changing world. They could do this only if they were willing to stop being the thing that they used to be. They could do this only if they stopped working in the ways that no longer worked. They had to change to meet God’s changes.

What Paul calls “the mystery of the gospel” is not a mystery in the sense of a puzzle. Mystery, in the Bible, means God shedding light on an answer (on a solution) to the problem of the world, and of the human race, and of our own hearts and lives. The solution is that God provides a way to a new world, a new humanity, a new heart and life for each one of us, and that way is through God entering the world, and God entering our human race, and God entering our heart and life through Jesus; born, living, suffering, dying and rising. And this is about change.

The changes of this world divide us. They frighten us, and exhaust us, and discourage us, and leave us unchanged in heart. God’s changes bring us back to our creation by recreating us through Jesus, by restoring us to what we were meant to be.

By this change we die to ourselves. We seem to lose ourselves, but we actually find ourselves. We actually come to life.

But it is still change. Change makes us feel weary and scared.

Weary and scared is how the builders of the wall felt. The job was so big that it seemed impossible. “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.” (Nehemiah 4:10)

They were in danger from neighboring people who wanted them to fail and had the ability to stop them wit real weapons. Nehemiah says, “Then the Jews who lived near them (near their enemies) came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.” (4:11) Notice that there were people who shared their fears “ten times over”.

Weariness and fear undermine faith. When we look at ourselves and think that being God’s people requires us to give up holding onto the ways that don’t work anymore, we grow weary and fearful; especially when we don’t know what good any change will do. Nehemiah looked for ways to fight back against weariness and fear.

First of all, Nehemiah reminded his people to believe and have faith. “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.” (4:14) Remembering, in the Bible, doesn’t just mean recovering lost information. It means re-confronting the realities with which you have lost touch.

Remembering the Lord is like getting on a bike when you haven’t ridden one for years; or opening up an old album or diary; or finding a recipe, written in your grandmother’s handwriting, that she used to make for you when you were a child, and making it for yourself. “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome,” requires you to get in touch with a neglected reality that was once familiar to you; once a part of your life; if it ever was a part of your life.

If you have never known this reality before, then remembering means opening up your heart to a new life where you will learn to be in touch with this old, old reality. Jesus lived this reality so that he could introduce it to you and bring it into your life.

The other tactic of Nehemiah, that he used to lead his people out of weariness and fear, was to put them together, closer than ever. He nurtured their sense of belonging to each other (a sense which much of his book shows us that they had lost).

He made them into teams of guards, organized by families. Each family guarded a weak, vulnerable place in the wall.

Families grow together by guarding their weak places. There is a fellowship of guarding together a loved one in a hospital room. There is a fellowship of guarding together when parents play together with their children or grandchildren, or help them with their homework together. There is a fellowship of guarding each other by praying for each other together.

Nehemiah paired his people up, so they took turns, within each pair, being the soldier and being the worker. Each one watched their partner work for them. Each one watched their partner stand by, ready to fight for them.

They all became soldiers. The ones carrying rubble in their left hand held their sword in their right hand. The ones putting stones in place had their sword in their belt. They were protectors of each other.

This is what we are to be in our families. This is what the church is to be. This is what God’s people are meant to be for each other. It is how we become new people who live their faith.

It is what God came to do for us in Jesus, so we could see him work for us and fight for us in life, and in death, on the cross. It is what we can see him do for us in rising from the dead; facing and dealing with what we fear most. In his resurrection he faces and deals with what hurts us most.

Our job, as God’s people in this world, is to find the way to show a changing world the God who works and fights for them. We show the world, by mediating to the world, what God has done for us. Mediating means being a bridge, being a representative, being a go between, being an example for God to others.

We work for the world around us, because the world is the object of God’s love and passion. And we fight for it with all the love that God has given us in Jesus. This is faith.

Paul calls faith a shield that extinguishes the flaming darts of the evil one. The discipline of working and fighting for others, and seeing them work and fight for us (and doing this together, side by side) quenches the arrows of weariness and fear.

Remembering the power and awesomeness of the Lord (as we meet him in Jesus); and doing together (for each other and for the world) what we recapture when we remember him; is our best defense. It is our best strategy. It is living out what God has done for us.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Meeting God's Changes: The Well Planted Heart

Preached Sunday, January 15, 2012
Scripture readings: Nehemiah 2:9-3:7; 1 Corinthians 3:5-17

Two prisoners are shackled to the wall of a deep, dark dungeon. They are manacled and chained up tight, in a spread-eagle position. They are suspended several feet above the dungeon floor. There is only one tiny window thirty feet up. They are alone and pinned to the wall. One prisoner turns to the other and he whispers, “Here’s my plan.”

Part of the reason why Nehemiah told no one about his plans, at first, may have been because he was afraid of appearing like the optimistic prisoner. He knew he needed to be in touch with reality; the reality of the ruin of Jerusalem.

Although he had seen the ruined walls and gates when he entered Jerusalem, he had not looked at them too closely. Nehemiah was too polite to take notice.

After all, if you are going to help discourage people, you don’t want them to see you noticing the thing that discourages them. You want them to see you noticing something better. If you meet a person with a visible defect, you ignore it.

If you have a friend, you might get away with laughing at it. When I was in high school, one of the families that were friends to my family lost their family business. They had to give up their home, and they found an old rundown place up in the foothills where they could live for practically nothing.

We went up to visit them and I went with the boy, who was my age, to his room. I saw that he didn’t have a bed anymore, just bedding on the floor. I didn’t take a second look at it, but I just looked at him and said, “I see you’re sleeping like the Japanese”. He laughed and said, “Yeah, I’m Japanese now.” Then we were back to normal.

Nehemiah had wept when he first heard about the ruined walls. They were not merely ruined; they were twice ruined. They had been ruined, for the first time, by the Babylonian army, when they conquered the kingdom of Judah, and destroyed the city of Jerusalem (along with its Temple), and transported all the people of leadership and skill back to Babylon.

Now, the latest conquerors, the Persians, gave the Jews the freedom to go back home and rebuild. But the Persians were responsible for the second ruin of the walls.

The Persian king appointed a Jewish governor, and authorized him and gave him funds to rebuild the Temple and the walls. Then that very same king (who was Nehemiah’s boss) ordered them to stop and allowed the governors of the neighboring provinces to tear down and burn the half-built portions the Jewish people had worked on so hard.

So these were twice ruined walls. That was the news that had made Nehemiah weep, in the first chapter of his book.

Now Nehemiah was the new, royally appointed governor, and his plan required these people to rebuild what they had already rebuilt and lost again. His plan required them to trust a king who had given them permission to build before, and then punished them for doing it by destroying their work.

The conditions under which the people of Israel could be themselves, the conditions under which they were free to act as the people of God, had changed. They were bound, as they had never been for nearly a thousand years, by a bigger and stronger outside world. The bigger world had changed, and it would not allow them to be what they once were. The bigger world would not let them do things the old way. They had to change.

Some of their people had changed by changing their way downward. They had changed by blending into the rest of the world as it was. They had intermarried with the tribes that had been settled in their place by the Babylonians. Their spouses didn’t care about the God of Israel who had allowed the land to be destroyed. They were raising children who would not bother to remember the God of promises; the God of extreme faith and extreme faithfulness.

These were people who had changed, and lost themselves in the process of changing. They would lose themselves by losing their old story, their true identity, and leaving it behind.

Nehemiah wanted to lead his people through a different way of changing, in which they would not lose themselves. They would find a way to change without giving up their old story. They would change by holding onto their story in a new way. They would change, and stay the same, by building on their story in a new direction.

When I was a kid I was really bothered when other kids reinvented themselves. What bothered me was that they usually did not reinvent themselves for the better. They reinvented themselves to be more popular.

As a guy, I find I face an ongoing challenge to not be a jerk. It is a special guy thing (a guy’s temptation; women have their own unique temptations), and I saw some guys reinventing themselves in the direction of that temptation.

A friend of mine named John, whom I’ve known since we were in the eighth grade, recently emailed me a picture of him as an eighteen year old, wearing his Marine Corps dress uniform. I remember him, sometime after he had finished basic training, telling me how much more self-confident the Marines had made him. Because of his basic training he knew that, if he were walking down some lonely city street and some thug attacked him, he knew how to kill his attacker with his bare hands.

But John didn’t become a jerk. Even though he reinvented himself through the Marines he changed in a good way. He talks the same way he did as a kid. He was a ham radio geek in school, and now he is a computer geek. John changed and grew, but he did it by building on his story, not forgetting it.

Building his people to meet God’s changing world was Nehemiah’s mission. He would do it by bringing them back to their old story so that they could reinvent themselves by building on it.

The story of Nehemiah is about much more than rebuilding a ruined city wall. It is about rebuilding people. We can see how to rebuild ourselves, how to rebuild the people of God as a body, and how to change to meet God’s changing world, by means of something Nehemiah shows us as he inspects the twice ruined walls of Jerusalem.

There is a change in Nehemiah. He changes from being a weeper at the news of ruin to being an inspector of the real ruin. He measures the ruin to the best of his ability. He comes up against it and sees how impassible it appears to be. Then he goes to the people and tells them, “You see the trouble we are in.” Nehemiah himself has stumbled over the trouble, or at least his donkey has.

When Nehemiah was thinking about his need for good timing, and keeping his own counsel, and gaining the information he needed about the damage and the repair, he was also thinking about this: “I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.”

Once Nehemiah had been a weeper; now he was a person who knew what it meant for God to put something in his heart to do. He was looking at piles of charred and ruined stone. He was looking at discouragement and despair. And he saw what his God had put in his heart to do.

He saw what no one else could see. He saw it because he had wept, but he had also prayed. Back in the Persian capital he had prayed himself from tears to faith.

In the first chapter we see that he had learned to pray to the Lord, the God of heaven. This is about the God who rules over everything. He prayed to, “The great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey.” (1:5) The God who loved his people and set them free from slavery in Egypt was still working to set his people free. So it was natural for this God put in Nehemiah’s heart something to do for them.

He could stumble among the ruins and see what God had given him to do. He could see this because he did a lot of praying about it, but we also see that he did a lot of preparation and planning for it. He had made plans from a distance and he had given his plans to the king for his royal permission. He was making smarter plans as he climbed the ruins.

But all his plans and preparations were the result of his conversation with God about the situation. This conversation became a habit that left a habitual opening in his heart, where God could come and put something.

It is also true, in that prayer in the first chapter, that Nehemiah was committed to doing what God was planting in his heart. Nehemiah shows us the kind of faith we need to look past the ruins to see the change to which God calls us.

It is a faith that is willing to listen. If you reserve to yourself the right to not listen to God when you pray, God reserves the right to not speak to you when you pray.

This is what the Apostle James means, in his letter, by what he calls “The double minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:7) The double minded person wants things both ways; for God to answer him but for him not to have to answer God.

Some people could find the third chapter of Nehemiah boring because it is a long, long, repetitive list of the names of the groups, and families, and leaders who rebuilt the wall, section by section, gate by gate. The story has a meaning. It shows how Nehemiah saw the way to make what no one else could see possible and doable. It shows how God’s people cannot make the changes they need to make in God’s changing world unless they learn the discipline and habit of working together.

The rest of Nehemiah shows us the ways that God’s people had trouble working together. Everyone was in survival mode. They were guarding their own turf, and they were not taking care of each other.

Notice also that, even though the government of the king of Persia gave them materials to do the work, the people themselves came up with the plan that each one of them would play in building the new city together. The king really liked Nehemiah, and Nehemiah could have depended totally on the king, but he decided that (as important the rebuilding of the wall was) the most important thing that needed rebuilding was the people.

The people were rebuilt and they did their work inspired by the joy, and the energy, and the faith that came from what God had put in Nehemiah’s heart. They became God’s people, working at their very best, so that they could play their part in a world that had changed around them.

Humanly speaking, Jesus, the Son of God, was the son (or the descendant) of King David, but Jesus did not come as a king like David. And Jesus did not come to an Israel that was shaped by David. Jesus came to the Israel that was shaped by God through Nehemiah.

The story of the gospels takes place on the stage that Nehemiah built. And it was a holy stage. It was exactly the right stage for Jesus to enter, because it was built from something that God had planted in those people’s hearts. When God puts something in our heart, it leads to a place where Jesus, himself, can come on stage.

Because God had put something in Nehemiah’s heart, Nehemiah could play a part in God’s work of putting something in the hearts of his people. I would put to you that we had something like this happen last summer, when we couldn’t have someone else run our Vacation Bible School, the way we have gotten used to. God put something in people’s hearts and it spread. The work was spread (and there was a lot of work to do and it had to get done fast), but enthusiasm, and joy, and peace of heart spread too.

We knew that we were a part of something Biblical, something supernatural. We were participating together in partnership with the Holy Spirit. So we know, from our own experience, that God can do this. God works this way.

This is the grace of God. We are not always open to the grace of God, and so we try to play our part in being the people of God by resisting the changes through which God desires to lead us and teach us. We want to be the way we were in a world that God has changed.

There is no faith in that, but God can plant something in our hearts (his grace). God can make us into a new kind of people of God, who don’t forget the old story, but will build on it in a new way.

Paul tells us that we are a building, but we are a living building. (1 Corinthians 3:5-17) Buildings and walls of stone don’t move, and they resist change. They crumble with the earth moves and shakes. Change is like an earthquake that breaks rigid walls of stone and wood. We can be different because we have a moving foundation that can survive, even when the earth moves. Our foundation is Christ and Christ moves. Christ is alive.

Christ is alive, and Christ is the grace of God made flesh; born, living, crucified, and risen from the dead for us. When Jesus rose from the dead he was the same old Jesus, but he was also a transformed Jesus who was not limited by locked doors and thick walls. (John 20:19) The risen Jesus could walk through obstacles.

The change Nehemiah brought to Israel was like a resurrection. The changes that God brings to us, as his people, often look like death to us, but really they are the offer of joining Jesus in his cross and resurrection.

Experts who have studied church organization and leadership have often remarked on what they see as the ability of small churches to keep on going. I don’t think this ability comes from any particular talent of small churches. I think that the ability to go, and go, and go (in spite of predictions, and trends, and threats) comes from the power of the resurrection of Jesus.

This power is part of the foundation of the very thing we are, as a church, by nature. Christ has called us together to be his living body in a changing world. When God puts something in our hearts we can rise and walk through the obstacles in our way (just like Jesus), and meet the changes of God’s world.

Small churches live by the individuals within them who are susceptible to God putting something in their hearts, so that they can see what no one else can see, and can do what no one in their right mind would even try to do. This is the grace of God.

This is how God works. This is how the grace of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus, works. We should know this and live accordingly.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Meeting God’s Changes: Getting Started

Preached Sunday, January 8, 2012
Scripture readings: Nehemiah 1:1-2:6; 2 Corinthians 7:2-13a

Nehemiah is not well known to most of us. He is not a Noah, or an Abraham, or a Moses, or a David. He did not hold one of the great spots in the nation of Israel. He was not prophet, priest, or king. Nehemiah was just one of the people of God who were scattered by the failure of his people to become what God wanted them to be. He transformed his nation after it had stopped being a nation at all.

Israel had stopped being a nation in our sense of the word. It stopped having a land of its own with borders. It stopped having a government of its own. Most of its people had stopped living in the land that had once been its territory. But the nation with the soul of a family continued to exist.

The people of Israel were brothers and sisters of the big family that traced its beginnings more than 14 centuries back from the time of Nehemiah to Abraham and Sarah.

God had chosen Abraham and Sarah, and called them to follow where he led them. God led them through changes that would change the world. Those changes began small enough: too small for the world to take notice; but more than big enough for them.

They were chosen and called to be people who lived by faith. They were chosen and called to be part of the plan of God to restore a rebel-hearted humanity to a relationship with God that was defined by faith. There is no better environment for faith (real faith) than change.

The faith for which they were chosen, and to which they were called, was not a faith in themselves, but a faith in God. The changes to which they were called brought about the end of life as they knew it. They were city people who were called to become desert nomads. They were an old childless couple who had grown to accept their childless condition and let it define them. God called them to stop accepting the condition that defined them.

When they left their city comforts, with a nephew, some workers, and some sheep and goats, for the desert, the only part of their life that stayed the same was God. Nothing else was recognizable or familiar in their lives: only God.

That is faith in the extreme. It is normal human nature to not want to live in the extreme. I know I don’t. Yet we should never be surprised when a time that calls for such an extreme faith comes to us. There are times when we find very little in our life that is recognizable or familiar to us but God. There are times when everything that seems to define us disappears, except for God.

God led the first fathers of his people (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) this way of faith. Then God led the whole extended family to Egypt where they became slaves for more than four hundred years. Then God broke them out of slavery; broke them out of the mold that had defined them for generations. It was a definition that they had come to accept. Slavery took care of them and gave them their niche in life. But God told them to stop accepting their definition of themselves and led them into the desert of independence, where they were independent from every condition but God.

God led them to the promised land of faith. They were to live in that land by faith. It was not an irrigated land but a land where life survived by the rain that God sent. There they would meet every challenge and every change by faith. They would be different from all other nations, because they would live upon the promises of a faithful God: they would live by faith.

But that was too extreme for them. So they lived by faith in other gods who were not so extreme. They lived by faith in the gods of money, and sex, and success. They would live for things and for themselves. They would not live to love the Lord their God with all their heart, and all their soul, and all their might. (Deuteronomy 6:4) They would not live to love their neighbor as themselves. (Leviticus 19:18)

So God sent the Assyrian Empire to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, and scatter and enslave its people. Then God sent the Babylonian Empire to destroy the Assyrian Empire and the southern Israelite kingdom (called the kingdom of Judah), and scatter and enslave its people. Then the God sent the Persian Empire to conquer the Babylonian Empire.

The cities of Israel and Judah were ruins. The poor people of Israel and Judah were not considered fit to carry away by their conquerors, and so they were left to live a hand-to-mouth life among the ruins.

Some of those who had been left behind were people of real extreme faith. Others just blended in and intermarried with neighboring people who did not feel any obligation to the God of the people of Israel. What (after all) had that God done for his people but to let them be defeated, and enslaved, and relocated? Their conquerors wanted them to blend in and vanish, and some of them did.

The leaders, the educated, the skilled craftsmen, and the skilled laborers, and the people of business were relocated to other parts of the empires that had conquered them. They, also, were supposed to blend in and vanish. I think some of them did; but some of those people were people of extreme faith, and they remained loyal to the God of extreme faithfulness.

Only they didn’t quiet know what to do with themselves. They didn’t know how to be God’s people when the world around them had changed and everything was different. They found themselves living at a time in history when they could no longer be God’s people the old way. But what other way was there?

They had old ruined homes, in the old Promised Land, but that was a land of poverty and squalor. They could go back to their old towns, and villages, and homes, and farms and claim them; but those places would not really belong to them, except under the rule of the king of Persia. They could call themselves their own, but they couldn’t act on their own. They had to act as subjects of the King of Persia.

Israel could not be Israel they remembered and wanted to be. They could never be the same as they were. It would no longer work. They didn’t know how to make it work any more as the people of God, as they had always done it before. If there was another way to make being the people of God work, they had not found it yet.

Nehemiah had found a very successful way of life as an individual person of God without making “the-people-of-God-thing” work. He was cup bearer to the king of Persia whose name was Artaxerxes.

At first glance this looks like some form of food-taster job: a guinea pig job of drinking the wine from the king’s cup before the king did, to make sure the wine was not poisoned. His job was to play Russian roulette with the wine and food of the king.

This job was not without risk. Artaxerxes’ father, Darius, had been killed in his sleep by his most trusted servant. The servant (actually a kind of royal prime minister, called a vizir) claimed that the king’s oldest son, the heir to the throne, Darius Jr. had done it. So Artaxerxes, in his outrage, killed his own brother.

Then the prime minister tried to kill Artaxerxes out in the open, and Artaxerxes fought back and killed the prime minister in armed combat; mano a mano. Life in the royal court of Persia was not for the faint hearted or for the clueless.

The real cup bearer seems to have been a sort of chief of security in the palace. He was in charge of the guards that protected the royal living quarters within the vast palace complex. The cup bearer seems to have been a member of the king’s cabinet.

Since the cup bearer also had access to the queen, the cup bearer was required to be a eunuch; a castrato. Young boys were sometimes castrated with the hope of their becoming officials in the palace government, and so having influence within the royal government on behalf of their families.

Probably, Nehemiah’s parents had picked him out for this honor as one of their younger and more expendable sons. Then he would have been trained in a palace school for future service to the king and the royal family. Nehemiah did this and rose through the ranks, until he attracted the attention of the king himself. Artaxerxes promoted Nehemiah to a position of immense personal trust and influence.

But Nehemiah also kept contact with his real family. They were part of his identity. Old Israel, the old people of God, was part of his identity. His habit of prayer is clear, and his knowledge of the God of Israel, the God of extreme faith and extreme faithfulness, is clear in his prayers. He spoke often with the God of faith who kept faith with his people.

Nehemiah is an example of a person of extreme faith. Now, by extreme faith, I don’t mean that he was weird and other worldly. Nehemiah was extreme in another way, because he was extremely likable. The King of Persia, always on the lookout for plots and deceptions, from practical experience, trusted and liked Nehemiah. We will see (all through the book) that people trusted Nehemiah and listened to him; except for those whose interests lay in keeping God’s people down.

Nehemiah’s faith led him to call the Persian king of kings a man and treat him as such. That is probably why the king liked Nehemiah. No one else treated him as a real human being.

Nehemiah went to Jerusalem with all the authority of a Persian governor, but (when he talked to his subjects) he spoke to them with the language of “we” and “us”. And they liked him for that.

Faith does not look down on others, or act superior or judgmental. Faith makes us creatures of God; and brothers and sisters of our fellow creatures. Faith, after all, in not about ourselves, and so faith sets us free our true selves.

Being a person of extreme faith does not mean that Nehemiah was so heavenly minded that he was of no earthly good. He had common sense.

He was capable of sizing up a situation and dealing with it in a practical way. He could look at miles of ruined fortifications and know what to do. He talk to demoralized people and know what to say. He knew how to plan, how to start, how to keep people on track, how to overcome difficulties, how to finish well.

Faith knows how to cope. Faith is reliable and faithful. You can trust faith. People knew they could trust Nehemiah.

Sometimes God’s people find the world has changed around them; so much so that they cannot be God’s people in the same way they used to, and make it work. People of faith never deny or pretend that God has not called them to follow him into a changed world. Nehemiah and his friends found a way to make being the people of God workable in their world. Let’s look at a short list of how Nehemiah got started.

When I started thinking about this I thought about starting positions. I thought about running track, and the starting block behind my foot, and how the coach taught us the balance than comes from finding your marks and getting set. There is a way of bracing yourself, and focusing forward. That is the starting position of a faith that is ready for anything.

The first part of Nehemiah’s work of leading God’s people to meet God’s changes was in that bracing, that pushing back. Nehemiah was braced backward to push himself forward. This meant claiming his heritage, claiming what had come before him.

He knew for himself the faithful God, the extreme God, whom other people often talked about without truly knowing what they talked about. He talked to this God and he showed his knowledge of what the old scriptures said about this God.

Nehemiah, in his prayer, shows that he knew the history of his people, and their failure to be the people of faith in the face of God’s changes. He felt involved in that history, he repented of it as if he shared their guilt.

He did not judge them or blame them for making his situation harder. If you identify with other people, and with their story, you do not think of being guiltless. This was the starting block Nehemiah pressed against to go forward.

One of the marks at the start was that Nehemiah was interested. Nothing would have happened without that. Nehemiah would have lived a comfortable and faithless life, and died in it, if he were not interested in what God was doing and what God wanted for his people.

His brother Hanani had made the long trip to Jerusalem and come back to tell about it. The Jews there were trying to rebuild. Maybe Hanani had gone there with the thought of helping them. An earlier Jewish Persian governor named Zerubbabel had rebuilt a humbler version of the old Temple. They had gone on to start rebuilding the walls, and the neighboring governors of non-Jewish provinces had written to Nehemiah’s king, asking him to order them to stop.

King Artaxerxes ordered some research on Jerusalem and Judah and found them to be very stubborn, rebellious, dangerous little places. He ordered them to stop building their wall, until further notice. The neighboring governors brought their guards and wrecked and burnt the work the Jews had started.

This was the news of Nehemiah’s brother. But Nehemiah was still interested.

He was interested enough to cry at the bad news that the king he served every day had stopped God’s people from being God’s people in the old way. It is not a bad start to cry for what has changed, even when God is working behind the scene of those changes.

Nehemiah identified with the old petty rebellion of his people; especially their rebellion against the God of faith and faithfulness. Nehemiah knew, in his heart, that he carried that same potential in his own heart. He knew he carried the same potential within himself to not follow God in faith, and not faithfully live as God commanded.

We are not safe agents of meeting God’s changes unless we know our capacity to make the same mistakes that others make, and to actually disobey God, even in the name of obeying God. The people who would become his friends in Jerusalem had been wrong in their way of going about what God wanted, and Nehemiah wept and prayed for them.

Nehemiah could start to meet God’s changes because he knew how to pray. He could pray good, long, theological and contemplative prayers, like the one in the first chapter. He could pray quick, undetectable prayers without moving his lips or making a sound, like the one he prayed in the presence of the king and queen.

Prayer not only changed things, but prayer changed Nehemiah. He acted on his own prayers, and it is important to notice that fear and preparation do not take away the power of prayer, because Nehemiah planned with deliberation, and he prayed with fear. His prayer obliged him to ask the king to reverse a policy that the king had made to strengthen the security of the kingdom and his own power. Nehemiah knew how to ask the king to make a decision against his own best interests in the interest of fairness and justice.

Nehemiah took his time. He takes his time more than once in the course of this book. He prayed, “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” (2:11) But, “today”, took three months to arrive. He prayed his first prayer in the month of Kislev which was late November/ early December, and (although he spoke to the king every day) he spoke to the king about Jerusalem in the month of Nisan which is late February/early March.

Nehemiah took his time. He was on guard for the right time and he found it. We can let the right time pass us by. I have done that many times. But if we are people of faith who trust in God’s help to meet his changes, then we can be on guard for the right time and find it.

God’s changes do not require us to be frantic. There is a big difference between being desperate and being determined.

Paul wrote to his friends about godly sorrow and repentance. For Nehemiah and his people, it was the time for that. And Paul and Nehemiah show us what this is. Repentance and sorrow in a time that requires us to change is not a weakening thing, but a strengthening thing. It is what has often been called a holy discontent. It leads to salvation which, in this case, means healing and victory. It means overcoming with no regrets.

The Greek word for repentance means a new mind and a new way of thinking. It is exactly what we need when God’s people need to meet God’s changes; especially because we tend to hold onto the old ways of being God’s people long past the time when they have stopped working; and we all need to carry the blame and not to shift the blame to others.

But remember that it starts with the God of extreme faith and faithfulness. It is all about God. It is not about us, nor is it about mistaking our desires for God’s will. Real faith cares about others and will always be on guard to find the ways to win their hearts. Real faith is about fears, and tears, and taking time just as much as it is about courage in the face of a changing world.

Friday, January 6, 2012

God Speaking: From the Heart

Preached on Sunday, Christmas Day, December 25, 2011

Scripture readings: Exodus 33:12-34:9; John 1:14-18

The Gospel of John is all about seeing, knowing, understanding, believing. The whole Bible is that way, really.

And we would like to comply. We would all like to cooperate. We would like to believe, and all the rest. With God, we would like to see and know. We would like to know and understand.

If we could see the glory of God, we think it would answer a lot of questions. And we have a lot of questions.

For John the great gift of Jesus (and grace means gift), the fullness of Jesus from whom we receive grace upon grace, is that Jesus “shows us the Father”. When we see Jesus, we see God.

Look at some of the lines from the Gospel of John that we have been reading the past few weeks.

Remember, first, that the Word is God, and Word (because of the Greek word that John chooses to use for it) means message and speech. The Word is God speaking and expressing himself, and this self-expression of God was in existence from the beginning, from the time when there was nothing but God. The self-expression of God has no beginning in time.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth….No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only (the Only Begotten God), who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” (John 1:1-3, 14, 18)

We want to know. We want to know God. We want to see and believe. What is it that we want to see? What do we want to know?

We have the same problem with Jesus as we have with God. We can’t see him; not anymore. At least, most of us have not seen him, and that is true of most of the people who first read John’s gospel. Yet it is true that, since God became flesh (became human) in Jesus, we can see something that could not be seen before.

John says that no one has ever seen God. But is that right? Didn’t Moses see God?

Well we can read that story. We can find out what Moses saw. In fact, the Lord told Moses, from the start, that Moses would not be allowed to see the Lord; that is, not from the front side. Moses would only see the back side of God.

And then we have no description of the backside of God. We have no description of the appearance of God, if God is anything like us. We are not told that God resembles us in any way. We have no description of a head; or of shoulders, or a neck, or a mass of hair falling over a back, or over a collar.

The Lord specifically said that Moses would see the Lord’s glory pass by. What Moses would have seen was glory. And what description is given to us of this glory? What do you see if you see glory?

The Lord shows this glory (that is, “himself”) by saying his name, and it is a very long name. This is probably just a short version of the real, full name of God; that takes him for all eternity to say. This is his name, as he says it. It is this: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

Notice that his name is all about the forgiving of iniquity, and transgression, and sin. Notice that Moses asks for a relationship between his people and this forgiving God, even though he warns God that his people are “stiff-necked and hard to forgive.

Notice that, with all the warnings that seem to come with the name of God, it is forgiveness that Moses depends on the most. (Exodus 34:9)

What we hear as the possibility of judgment, Moses hears as forgiveness, and he wants that forgiveness. Moses jumps in where we would hesitate. Moses sees that God’s grace is what God promises, even where it is undeserved. Moses reads the heart and mind of God correctly.

The interesting thing about this name is that it is so long. The name is a whole speech. It is God talking about himself. It is God’s self-expression (God’s Word about himself).

Yes, this name of God is the Word of God. It is the thing that John says was with God in the beginning. It is the thing that John says is God.

This is what passes before Moses. It is God’s self-expression (God’s Word) that Moses sees. But, it is God’s self-expression only as words. It is God’s word as words, and there is nothing to show that it is anything else. And that (as such) is God’s back side.

It is in Jesus that God showed his front side, so that we could see God and live. In Jesus, God showed his word, and his front side, by his life. In fact, when John says that Jesus is full of grace and truth, he is echoing a Greek translation of the Lord’s words to Moses: “Abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

There is more than one word for love in the Hebrew Old Testament, and more than one word for grace. Because steadfast love (as the Revised Standard Version translates this particular love, in this particular place) is love that does not go away.

It is love that depends on the promise of God. It does not stop; not even when it is undeserved. Steadfast love (which is called “hesed” in the Hebrew Old Testament) is grace.

The good, old German commentary on this is “Keil and Delitzsch”. This is what they say about the verse Exodus 34:6: “Accordingly, all the words which the language contained to express the idea of grace in its varied manifestations to the sinner, are crowded together here, to reveal the fact that in His inmost being God is love.” (p. 478)

When we read that Jesus is full of truth (as well as being full of grace) this does not mean that Jesus is full of facts and logic. Facts and logic are comforting things, but “truth” means that Jesus is true to those who meet him. Jesus is true-blue to them and to us. Jesus will not turn out to be something other than what he promises to be.

Jesus is the living face for the words “full of grace and truth”. Jesus embodies grace and truth. Jesus lives grace and truth to the fullest.

Jesus is the grace and truth of a God who will be gracious and true to the death, just as he proved himself to be on the cross. But, first of all, it was the birth of God as a baby sleeping in the feed trough of a stable that proved just how gracious and true this God was, and will always be.

What would it be like to go to Bethlehem, on that first Christmas, and be told by a person on the village street that we could go to a stable and see a man and a woman whose baby was God? When we went there, what would we see to believe?

We would see a man named Joseph and a woman named Mary, both looking very weary and happy (but the woman wearier and happier than the man). And we would see a baby in the feed trough of a stable.

Imagine seeing grace and truth in that baby. Actually it may be possible to see grace and truth in every baby. Every baby is a miracle. In fact each one of us is a miracle.

At first we might wonder what we were looking at, and what it would mean to believe what we saw there. But then, if we could visit the holy family once, we could surely be able to visit them again and again, every Christmas, wherever they went.

So let’s do that. We could watch the baby grow into the kind of boy we could imagine so loving the world so much that he might daydream of it being a good thing to die for its sins. Kids daydream about the strangest things.

We could keep visiting every year until we saw the boy become a man and do just that: die for the sins of the world. The message of the gospel is that this is the face of God. This is the identity and self-expression of God.

Grace and truth are not a matter of understanding. They are not words. They are not principles. Grace and truth are found in a God who is gracious and true enough to be a baby, and a child, and a youth, and an adult who will walk among other children, and youths, and adults, and love them, and live as one of them, and work and play among them, and do amazing things for them, and most of all die for them.

The Lord gave Moses a warning and a caution: “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” If Moses was right about the name and glory of God being about his steadfast love and forgiveness, then God has a steadfast love and forgiveness that are too strong for us. The glory of God is more than we can bear. (Exodus 33:20)

What we find, in the New Testament, is that this danger is still in force. The danger of the glory of God, in Jesus, is what puts an end to life as we know it. If Jesus is the face of God, then the warning is still true. The good news of the Gospel is that God, in Christ, is a goodness that is more than we can bear.

No one can see Jesus, as he truly is, and live. Something has to happen to you: that is, if you really see. When you see God in the baby, and in the man on the cross, you have to die to yourself, and rise from the dead.

That is what it means to be a Christian.

It may be possible to say the most beautiful and moving things about God, and about spiritual realities and ideas. It is another thing to see the face of God become a single, historical human face before your eyes.

The face of God becomes one living person who could be found in one time and one place. And that one person becomes someone who can make that life count for all times and all places forever.

God has made such a thing happen. This is the miracle of the gospel; the good news of Jesus Christ. We find God in one life that counts for all times, for all places, and for all people. We find, in Jesus, one life that counts for you and me.

In this one life, in Jesus God is full of grace and truth. We find that grace and truth in Bethlehem, in Jesus whose birth we celebrate today.