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.

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