Monday, March 26, 2012

God Speaking: Like a Companion

Preached on Sunday, March 25, 2012

Scripture readings: Psalm 139:1-18; John 11:1-16 

There are a couple of children’s cartoons I like to watch on television. I like “Phineas and Ferb” on the Disney Channel, and “Sponge-Bob Square-Pants” on Nickelodeon. They provide a nice contrast to some of the reading I do.

When I watch these cartoons, I also see commercials for children’s toys; and I am amazed! Because of these cartoons, I know what “pillow pet” is: it’s a pillow; it’s a pet; so it’s a pillow-pet! I know that “slushy magic” is “slush-a-licious”.

I don’t know a lot about kids, but I bet that kids see these commercials and ask their parents for this stuff all the time. I bet that kids get mad when their parents say “no”. At least, I bet they pout. I bet that, sometimes, they act like they think their parents are mean when they don’t buy them all that stuff. I bet that parents who truly love their children refuse to buy them all that stuff.

I remember when I was about ten and begged, and begged, and begged my parents for a chemistry set for my birthday. They bought one for me and I used it two or three times and got bored with it. Well, for one thing, the set had nothing that would make smoke, or crackle, or pop, or make even the smallest explosion. What good was that? What were they thinking?

I think the best gifts my parents gave us kids were our pets. We got a dog when I was four. Within a couple years it was my job to pick up after the dog. I hated doing that but I loved the dog. A couple of those dogs became really good friends of mine. They were a responsibility for me, and they were a relationship.

Come to think of it, the best gifts a parent can give to their children are in the form of relationships. Pets are just one example. Parents give their children great gifts when they give them access to their cousins, and uncles, and aunts, and grandparents. It is a gift for parents to nurture their kids’ friendships; helping them to grow in their enjoyment of having a friend and being a friend.

But the greatest gift is when parents give themselves as a gift to their own children. Then children will gradually learn to see their parents not as the givers of gifts, but as gifts in their own right.

When the Bible tells us that we were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27) the meaning is that we were given this gift of being a gift. And this also means that we were given the gift of receiving other people as gifts.

The truth is that God made us to be God’s gift to himself. We were created to give God delight. He was able to look at us and say, “It is good.” He was able to look at us, in the context of everything he had made, and God said it was all “very good.” (Genesis 1:31) What more perfect gift could there be than being a gift created in the image of God and surrounded by gifts of God which are made in the image of God?

John tells us this about God: that God intends himself to be a gift. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Jesus is a gift. John tells us, in the very first chapter of his gospel, that Jesus is the Word of God who “was with God in the beginning.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Jesus is God speaking himself to us; expressing himself. We can see who God is by looking at the one and only Son. (John 1:18) Jesus is the Word which tells us that he and his Father are gifts. God is a gift. In our reading from the Gospel of John today we can see that the heart of that gift is a relationship.

God is far more than the giver of gifts (although is he the giver of every good and perfect gift, as James says in his letter). (James 1:17) God himself is a gift, and we experience God as the greatest, most perfect gift through our faithful relationship with him, but even more through his faithful relationship with us. God has designed us for togetherness with him.

In the gospels, most people met Jesus as the giver of gifts. They would come to Jesus, and ask him for a gift, and Jesus would give it to them.

They did not come to Jesus lightly. They did not come for petty gifts or trivial gifts like toys. They came to ask for answers to the important questions of their lives. They came for life and death gifts. They came for healing. They came for the healing of their loved ones. They came for the healing of the dying. Jesus almost always gave them what they asked for, though sometimes he would give them a test question, or a challenge, or a task; not to earn the gift but to get a better look at themselves and to know Jesus better.

There was the time, in the ninth chapter of John, when Jesus made mud by spitting in the dirt. He rubbed that mud on a blind man’s eyes, and ordered that man to go and wash the mud from his eyes. John does not record that Jesus told the blind man that he would be able to see when he washed. He just told him to go and wash.

And the blind man does not seem to have asked Jesus for anything. He only knew that mud had unexpectedly been put on his eyes by, “the man they call Jesus.” (John 9:1-12)

He doesn’t seem to know much about Jesus, at first. It is only gradually that his interrogators get him thinking about who Jesus might be.

Jesus is what God is, and he is not a blessing machine, just handing out gifts. The gift that he is handing out is simply himself.

The blind man (who was probably just a teenager) received the gift of sight, but he also received, completely without asking for it or expecting it, the gift of faith in Jesus without having seen him. Jesus was nothing more to him but a stranger’s voice in the dark.

Later on, Jesus sought him out and found him, although the man was not looking for him. Jesus sought him out and found him in order to show himself to him and invite him to believe. (John 9:1-39)

When the man first felt a stranger rubbing something gooey on his eyes, he had no idea what was going on, or why. A God he did not know very well was up to something. It took a while. It took a lot of suspense and danger, to find out what God was up to.

In Jesus, the blind man met a God who was not waiting for requests, but a God who was looking for opportunities for fellowship. God had come to him in Jesus to give him a personal relationship that would change him forever.

Lazarus was sick, and he and his sisters hoped that Jesus would come and heal him. The story singles Lazarus out as a person whom Jesus called his friend. Lazarus was someone Jesus loved.

Of course Jesus loves everyone, but the humanity of Jesus, the human nature that he took upon himself when he entered our world as the baby of Mary, had special friends. Maybe we will all become special friends to Jesus, and that is the plan.

The sisters of the sick friend sent a message to their friend. “The one you love is sick.”

They didn’t say, “Come and heal your friend.” They didn’t have to. They knew Jesus, and they knew that he would know what to do. He would know that this was their unspoken prayer.

Some people claim that you have to be specific when you pray. If you want God to give you a car, you need to specify the make and model of the car. They often try to thoroughly explain to God why they should have the car. This is either a faith in a God as a blessing machine, or else it is a faith in a God who requires you to do follow the right procedures before he blesses you.

It is true that the sisters did not ask Jesus to come and heal their brother, but they also never asked him to raise their brother from the dead. They trusted Jesus to know what to do because they had a relationship with him. They knew Jesus, or they were getting to know him better. And they knew that Jesus knew them. They knew that they could count on what they knew.

It is also true, that their original, unspoken prayer was not answered. Instead of healing they got grief and loss. When the worst happened, Jesus was not there. Or, if Jesus was somehow there, present with them, they could not see him, or hear him, or feel him.

They were the friends of Jesus. Jesus loved them. Jesus did not answer their prayer. He knew what they wanted and he deliberately avoided giving it to them. 

In the end, Jesus answered a better prayer than they could ever have dreamed of praying. Jesus gave them something that was better than they had hoped for.

And then, again, Lazarus would die again. If Mary and Martha lived long enough, they would grieve at Lazarus’ bedside all over again. They would have to bury him again.

What they had (something that could never be taken away from them) was a relationship with God through Jesus. It was a relationship that had suddenly grown beyond their imagination.

They found that the resurrection and the life of the kingdom of God were not things to be given. The resurrection and the life of the kingdom were a person named Jesus who could be known, and loved, and counted on. Jesus could be counted on, not to give you what you asked when you asked for it, but he could be counted on to hold something for you in the unknown future that was better than your greatest hopes and dreams.

You don’t have to be so wise. You don’t have to know the right words to say, or the right things to do. You don’t need any tricks, or techniques, or methods. You don’t have to picture or visualize the answer to your prayers. There is a relationship that you hold onto when you pray; a relationship with someone who will hold onto you.

Psalm 139 visualizes the God who became flesh in Jesus. David wrote this: “You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.” (139:3) Yes, many miles away Jesus discerned Lazarus lying in his sick bed as it became his death bed and the sisters wept. Jesus discerned Lazarus going out from life in this world.

This would be true of Jesus, and Lazarus would find this out for himself: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol (the realm of death) you are there.” (139:7-8)

In Jesus we have a relationship with someone who will not let us go. He waits for us in heaven. When we enter the realm of death, we find that Jesus has already been there and we are not alone.

Jesus is with us in his death on the cross. Even now, Jesus carries the wounds of his death on his resurrected body. (John 20:24-29) “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” (Psalm 23:4)

What do you want, and when do you want to get it? The relationships we value most have nothing to do with those questions. Parents want to give their children the ability to not fixate on these questions. Happiness does not come to those who chant these questions over and over again.

Adam and Eve brought death, and conflict, and frustration, and fear into this world because they grabbed at a fruit that God might have given them, in his own time, without their asking. They failed to trust God and count on him. They failed to count on what they already knew about him when they learned to walk with God in the garden, in the cool of the day.

In Christ we have been given an extreme and powerful love that has gone the distance, and died for us, and has risen from the dead, in order to set us free from the ancient grabbing life of human nature, as we have inherited it. The God who did not grab hold of his own life, but who gave up his life for us, can set us free from a life of grabbing, and even from a life that is full of anxious, grabbing prayers.

In Jesus Christ God has given us the gift of himself; a gift that cannot be taken away. The whole purpose of this gift is a personal relationship, a companionship that will not end.

Thomas said, “Let us also go that we might die with him.” (John 11:16) That is what being a Christian is about. Even now we die to ourselves with Jesus because he has died for our sins. But if we die with Jesus, we will also live through him. That, too, is what being a Christian is about. It is the gift of relationship. In life and in death we belong to him.

Monday, March 19, 2012

God Speaking: Like Justice

Preached on Sunday, March 18, 2012

Scripture readings: Ezekiel 33:10-20; John 8:2-11 

The religious leaders of Jesus’ people brought a woman to Jesus for judgment. They wanted Jesus to be responsible either for her death, or for sparing her.

If Jesus took responsibility for her death, then he would be contradicting the mercy he showed to the wrong kind of people; the people they condemned as sinners. If Jesus took responsibility for giving her mercy, then she would be a nail in his coffin. They would accuse Jesus of betraying God’s laws. They intended to use this to turn as many people as possible against Jesus in order to destroy him and kill him.

The leaders wanted death. They wanted the woman to die, and they definitely wanted Jesus to die. (John 5:18; 7:1) They saw Jesus as dangerous. They saw him as a sinner. They saw him as a threat. They saw him as evil.

And so they wanted for Jesus what Jesus did not want for them. They wanted for Jesus what God did not want for them. God the Father did not want them to die, and neither did the Son of God. The prophet Ezekiel spoke about this as he spoke for God: “As surely as I live, declares the Lord of Hosts, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11

This is what even the Old Testament (where things are often so scary and violent) is really all about. It is about bringing life into a dying world. This is what God has worked for all along. John tells us this about the Father and the Son, in his gospel. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)

The Father and the Son want life. They love life. They created all life. They desire to restore lives.

Those who brought the woman to Jesus for judgment wanted death. Something in their heart was in harmony with the people who stood against Ezekiel and the message he brought from God, when he asked them, “Why will you die?” (Ezekiel 33:11) Why do you want death?

Long before Ezekiel, Moses voiced the same offer from God: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…” (Deuteronomy 30:19) God wants to give us life, and God wants us to choose life.

But there are people who want death. The leaders who brought to Jesus the woman for judgment wanted death.

They thought they wanted death for the woman and for Jesus; but, in another way they were like moths drawn to the flame. They were drawn to be a part of the movement of death in this world. They didn’t understand that, however wrong the woman’s actions were, their actions were worse. Their hearts were set on something deadly.

I want to read an extended quote from C. S. Lewis, from his book “Mere Christianity”. Lewis wrote this: “People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long, you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature; either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven; that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.” (C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity; Chapter 4, p. 92)

When we look at Jesus, side by side with the leaders who brought the woman to be killed, we can see this difference between heaven and hell. They are doing the work of hell just as surely as they think they are serving God; when they are really only following an idol of a god that they have designed in their own image.

We don’t see this so much in the woman who has betrayed her husband, and her lover’s wife, and both their families. Probably she was only thinking about love. Perhaps she was reaching for the only love she could see, but she chose a man to love who would rather abandon her to death than stand by her side.

Maybe the man who left her to her fate was only a coward who was willing to be let off the hook because the leaders only needed the woman. Maybe the man who left her was one of the conspirators; one of the leaders who wanted to create a scandal in order to bring about the death of Jesus, and he used her longing for love to make her a puppet; to make her a pawn in their plan. Maybe he only used her. If either of these were true then her choice was all the worse, no matter how deceived she was.

There are women, as well as men (and there are kids as well), who make such self-destructive choices for themselves. Those who truly care about these men and women and kids lead lives of anxious prayer. They pray that the God who always works for life will open their eyes and lead them from death to life.

The leaders who brought the woman to be judged used God’s ways to lie about themselves. They used God’s ways as a lens to see others and not to see themselves.

They spoke of the woman as an example of the kind of people they called “such”: “such men”, “such women”. (John 8:5) They selectively used God’s laws to compare themselves with others; to earn points for themselves and subtract points from others.

The day before this hanging court (or stoning court) came into session Jesus had pointed out how the leaders used the law to blind themselves. He said: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?” (7:19)

Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath; and so they wanted to kill him for breaking the Sabbath by doing the work of healing. Yet they did the work of circumcising babies on the Sabbath in order to keep the law. (John 5:1-18; 7:23)

Circumcision was about the blessing and honoring of life; about setting people apart for God. Jesus blessed and honored life by healing the sick. Those he healed found themselves set apart for God.

The Old Testament law was about the blessing and honoring of life. It was about the shaping of life as God designed it to be lived. In the case of the woman caught in adultery, the law was about the blessing and honoring of marriage as a great source of life for human beings. The leaders were using the rules of God’s law as instruments for judgment and punishment, when the rules of the law were given to be instruments for the blessing and honoring of life.

The woman and her lover had also broken the instruments for the blessing and honoring of life. The leaders were going to use her as an opportunity to destroy life. They thought this was justice.

Jesus was going to intervene for her, and he was going to make her judgment into an opportunity for restoring life. Jesus thought this was justice.

The purpose of the law was to tell the leaders that they were sinners too. It was not given to them just to make them feel that they were better than others. They needed to know the truth about themselves and have their lives restored by God. Jesus had come to do just that. He would die for that very purpose. He would die for them and their sins on the cross.

The leaders who brought the woman to be judged used God’s ways to lie to themselves about justice. They thought justice was about punishment when it was just as much about transformation.

At the heart of the law was the lamb sacrificed for human sins. That was a law meant to speak to the heart and change it. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the lamb who changes hearts and lives.

Human rules and laws have the weakness of not being able to touch the heart and change it. This is why all the work of government, and all the work of human law, needs to be done under the influence of the virtue of humility and restraint.

Even God’s people do not have the power to reach into the inside of others to heal the blindness, or the hardness, or the confusion, or the brokenness of another person’s heart. We want to do it, but we can’t. Well, we can’t, and so we pray to the one who can do it.

The prophet Isaiah says this about God’s special work, which is the work of his servant the Messiah and Savior; the work of Jesus the Son: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.” (Isaiah 42:1-4)

God’s justice and God’s law are about tending to the bruised reed and the smoldering wick of the people who are unaware, or isolated, or cut off from God’s fullness of life. They need to be restored. They need a forgiveness that will change their lives. This is the justice that God came in Christ to bring to the world.

That day in the temple, Jesus gave this restoration, this new start, to everyone present. He gave it to the leaders and to the woman they sought to kill. That day, they all saw the danger of their sins.

The leaders saw that they were sinners who were not fit to throw their stones at another sinner. The woman saw her own danger, and she saw the love of Jesus who presented her with a new life blessed by God. She now had a calling from Jesus to a new way of life.

We live our lives as judges of others, and as those who are judged. We are called by Jesus to a new kind of justice in our life in this world.

We need him to take our blinders taken off, so that we may see the danger we are in; the danger of making ourselves into self-righteous judges who are ripe for hell.

We need to hear that we, ourselves, are bruised reeds and smoldering wicks; and perhaps we have sought cover under the disguise of being self-righteous judges. We have sought to hide from ourselves. We need Jesus to restore us.

And we need to hear Jesus calling us to not hate and despise “those people”; those who are really nothing more than broken reeds and smoldering wicks. If we will hear, and see, and follow Jesus, we will leave behind us the life of the justice that deals in death, and we will find the justice that receives new life from God and gives that life to the world.

Monday, March 12, 2012

God Speaking: Like Bread

Preached on Sunday, March 11, 2012

Scripture readings: Isaiah 55:1-13; John 6:25-59

Just the day before, Jesus had fed a crowd of thousands on a remote shore of the Sea of Galilee. The crowd was hungry and Jesus wanted to show them something by feeding them there.

A boy in the crowd had brought his lunch; five small barley loaves and two small salted fish. He offered his lunch to Jesus. Would that help? It turned out to be more than enough. In Jesus’ hands, the boy’s lunch became a meal for thousands.

The crowd was excited by what Jesus did. They thought they knew what it meant. They thought it meant that Jesus was the prophet that Moses had predicted: the prophet who would be like Moses. (Deuteronomy 18:15)

Moses had seen to it that they were miraculously fed in the wilderness, and Moses had led them to freedom from slavery in Egypt. The crowd by the shore of Galilee had been miraculously fed by Jesus, and they thought Jesus might be the one to lead them to freedom from the occupation of the Romans.

They weren’t sure how to make this happen; what to do with Jesus in order to get this done. They thought it would be a good start if they made him their king. The Romans would hear about it and attack. If Jesus cared one bit for his people, he would have to use his power to protect them from the Roman attack. Jesus would have to lead, and fight, and win, and become the ruler of Israel; and perhaps the ruler of the world, when the Romans went down.

One of the titles of the Roman emperor was “the savior of the world”. That was the kind of savior God’s people wanted. Jesus knew this and so he snuck away. And that leads to a whole other story.

But the next day the crowds found Jesus on the other side of Galilee. They asked him a rather silly question: “Rabbi, when did you get here.” It is a silly question, after all the strange things that had happened the day before: Jesus feeding thousands of them; their attempt to make him king; his escape and hiding from them. It was awkward to say the least.

Their question was an awkward question. How could they get back to the feeding question, and the king-making question, and the war against the Romans question? They beat around the bush. They tried “small talk”. But Jesus never goes along with this.

They were interested in following Jesus; even if it was on their own terms. But Jesus would have nothing to do with this, either.

Jesus made no attempt to work with them. Jesus would not bargain or negotiate. Jesus didn’t even try to politely nudge them along into whatever was his way of thinking. Jesus scolded them, instead. “I tell you the truth; you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (6:26)

The rest of the conversation shows that the people who were looking for Jesus only got more and more confused by him. Jesus kept shoving them verbally until they were no longer the people who had been fed by him but the people who were fed up with him.

Was that any way to treat his fans? Why was he going around speaking and doing miracles, if not to attract people to himself? Didn’t he want people to follow him? They wanted to follow him; but Jesus was making it hard.

The issue of the signs confused them. Of course they were following him because of the signs. Jesus’ ability to feed them was a sign of the power of God at work.

The bread was the least thing on their mind; or so they thought. The power of God had worked through Moses to lead them to freedom, and the power of God could work through Jesus for the same purpose. Freedom, and a kingdom of their own, was on their mind. Of course they followed him because they saw the signs!

The people in the crowd were smart enough to realize that there was some miscommunication going on. They could not understand each other about the work of God, or about what Jesus wanted from them when he told them they needed to believe, or about the signs Jesus did.

So they asked about the signs. It sounded strange. “What miraculous sign then will you give us that we may see it and believe you?” (6:30)

Were they crazy? Hadn’t Jesus just fed them by the thousands? So they probably meant, “Give us a signal. Give us a clue. Use sign language. If the sign doesn’t mean that you are ready to lead us to freedom, then what, on earth, do you mean by it?”

And Jesus did not answer their question. He still pushed against them like one kid pushing another kid to start a fight. He just told them that they were asking the wrong question, and that they should know better. Moses never gave them the bread that fed them on their way to freedom. God gave them that bread.

And now God the Father was giving them a better kind of bread. It was the bread of God; and that bread was Jesus.

Remember how the very first few sentences of the Gospel of John set the stage for understanding what follows. Those opening lines go like this. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Jesus is the Word of God. He is God speaking himself and expressing himself. John tells us that no one can see God, but that Jesus has made him known. We see who God is by seeing who Jesus is. We can see what God’s glory truly consists of, because Jesus is the Word who was with God, and who was God.

Jesus tells us that we must eat and drink him because God is like bread. We don’t have to just use the word bread. We could use other things. God spoke to his people in Isaiah and used other examples besides bread. God said, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me that your soul may live.” (Isaiah 55:1-3)

God is like a street vendor who is hawking a product that cannot be bought. It can only be given away. God’s gift is himself. God’s gift of himself is life. “Hear me that your soul may live.”

Being born into this world is a gift from God. We do nothing to make it happen.

There is a life of the soul that we also cannot buy. It must be given. In Isaiah, God calls that life “joy and peace”. “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst forth into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12)

The life of the soul will thrive when God’s work is complete. “Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.” (Isaiah 55:13) It will be a whole new way of life in a whole new world that will be given to us.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve reached out and took for themselves what was not theirs. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was something that was not there for the taking. If it was to be theirs, they needed to trust that it was God’s for the giving.

They grabbed something that belonged to God for the purpose of making themselves their own little gods. They wanted to expand their options and have a relationship with God that did not put them in a position of need. They wanted some elbow room, some independence.

But God is life. To be independent of God is to be independent of life. To go out from God is to go out from life into death, and death gets into you. That is what sin is and what sin does.

Sin is like making a desert of your world and your life. Competition for life in a desert is fierce. We were created for fellowship and peace with God, and with others, and with our own lives as God created us to be. In sin the competition becomes fierce. Peace and fellowship become rare commodities.

We compete with God. Will God get his way, or will we? It sounds silly, but it is a game everyone plays.

We compete with each other. They say that in marriage a husband and wife become one, but the problem comes when they try to work out which one. It is possible to make any relationship into a competition to see who will get what they want. Communities can become like a game for who can win the most points. Who will control the court?

Even within ourselves there is a competition going on. We are made in the image of God, and we are rebels against God. We can’t be happy unless we listen to God. We can’t be happy unless we assert ourselves in spite of God. We want love. We want control. We want peace. We want to be angry, resentful, and bitter. We want others to feel sorry for us, and we hate being the objects of anyone’s pity. Even within our selves the competition is fierce.

The people of the Bible didn’t live in the jungle, so they didn’t talk about sin as the law of the jungle. They lived on the edge of the desert or over the edge of the desert, and so sin was the law of the desert. The new creation, where God will make all things new, will be the end of the desert around us and within us.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:47-51)

The term “everlasting life” in the Bible is literally “the life of the age”. “Age” means the age to come, the age that will never end, the age when God will make all things new, and all things will stay new. It is the age when everything in heaven and earth will be heavenly.

It is the end of the desert of relationships. It is the end of the desert of the soul. It is the end of the desert of a fallen, broken world.

Jesus says, “He who believes has everlasting life.” Jesus does not say, “He who believes will have everlasting life at some point of time in the future.” Jesus means that everlasting life starts now. The way we will live in heaven, and in the age to come, begins now, if we come to him, and eat him, and drink him.

This is true because, when we come to Jesus, we come to God and, when we come to God, we come to life; life as it is in God. It was not God’s intention to create a life that comes to an end. The ending of lives came about as part of a world that has been separated from harmony with God. Lives that come to an end are only natural in a fallen world.

Jesus came to bring life to a fallen world. He is like bread because God is like bread. Jesus is like bread because God is life and bread has always been “the staff of life”. Everything depends on it.

Bread is the basic food. God is not the caviar of life. God is not the gourmet chef of life. God is not a luxury. He is what everyone needs. He is a necessity. God is very humble and simple about what he likes. And so he is glad to be our bread.

Jesus said, “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Jesus came to give life to the world, and to everyone in it, and to each one of us.

He says that he gives his flesh and blood as food and drink for us but, to do that, he first gave his flesh and blood on the cross, to defeat the sin of the world and the sin of our lives. He gave himself as a sacrifice. He gave himself as a gift. He wants us to know that he is still a gift to us, and that we can still come to him. We can eat him, and drink him, and live.

Coming, hearing, eating, and drinking are all pictures of believing. Belief is not a thing in our head. Belief is not about the world of ideas. It is about a relationship of simple trust.

Faith is like eating and drinking. There is no achievement, there is no virtue, and there is no credit involved in eating and drinking. You have to do it or die. And eating and drinking are not a once in a lifetime experience. You have to do it all the time. Eating and drinking are literally a way of life. To choose not to eat or drink is to choose death, and some people do.

When you eat and drink, you are at the mercy of what you take into your body. Once they get inside you, that food and drink will have their way. They might go to your thighs, or to your waist, or to your arteries, so it is important what you choose to eat and drink. Some food and drink may hurt you, and steal life from you.

Jesus scolded the people of the crowd who came to him because they wanted loaves of bread. That was the truth that they were not willing to face.

They could have told Jesus that he was wrong. They didn’t want bread. They wanted freedom. They wanted power. They wanted control. They wanted to restore their pride.

The truth is that anything you want beside the life of God is only as important as the bread that spoils. Whatever you hunger and thirst for, besides the God of Life, you will have to leave behind when you die. There is a life after death, but that life is either life at home with God who is our life, or else it will be life cut off from life itself.

When Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead there was a lot of joy. But Lazarus, in order to come home to his family and neighbors, had to leave his new home with God.

And Lazarus would have to die all over again. His family and neighbors would have to grieve all over again.

In our world, as it is, grief is as natural as love. But when the law of the desert of this world comes to an end, then love will no longer seem to come to an end, and grief will end forever.

I have to tell you that when the New Testament tells us about believing in Jesus it literally means believing “into” Jesus. Eating and drinking Jesus means that faith is about having Jesus in us and us getting inside Jesus.

The eating and drinking of Jesus is about interpenetration. When we eat and drink our food, it is changed into chemicals that penetrate our cells and energize them. We turn our food into ourselves.

When we eat and drink Jesus, we are at his mercy, because he gives himself to be eaten and drank by us in order to turn us into him. When we turn into the one who gives his flesh for the life of the world, then we will do the same. We will be servants of life. We will give ourselves for the life of the world, just as Jesus made himself a servant for life of the world.

If you don’t want to be a part of this, if you don’t want to take this all the way, then you can believe all you want, but it won’t be the kind of believing that eats and drinks Jesus. No life will ever come from such believing.

Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56)

At this point Jesus starts to use a different word for eat. It is a word that means chewing; like a cow chewing its cud. You chew, and chew, and chew, and chew, and chew.

Mothers like to see their children chew their food. If they like to cook, they like to know their children enjoy what they have given them.

I remember being told, as a child, to chew my food more. How many times were you supposed to chew your food? For me, it was always too many times. But now I am a slow eater who enjoys good food.

Jesus means us to savor him. Enjoying the process of being turned into Jesus is meant to be a way of life as well.

And then he gave us the meal of the Lord’s Supper, the meal of Holy Communion, the Holy Partaking or Participation of Jesus. Receiving the bread and blood of life are not completely spiritual. They are not purely symbols. They have to become real.

All that Jesus is and all that he has done must come into us; must come into our life. So he gave us this meal; a thing that we must eat and drink between lips, and teeth, and gums.

He promises to be there with us in our real eating and drinking of the bread and the cup. Jesus gives us his flesh to give us life. He ate bread, and shared it with his friends, and he loved doing this.

He is not too proud to come to us in such a strange and familiar way. The one who calls himself the bread of life is not too proud to come to us by eating and drinking him. Eat! Drink! Live!

Monday, March 5, 2012

God Speaking: Like a Fountain

Preached on Sunday, March 4, 2012

Scripture readings: Ezekiel 47:1-12; John 4:4-42

When I was a child, growing up in California, I always got excited about a special kind of water. We called it snow.

There was never any snow where we lived. We had to go some where else to see it. We had to go to the mountains if we were going to play in the snow.

It took us forever to get there. The snow must have been at least an hour’s drive away. We would drive, and drive, and drive, and drive, and then we would see a little patch of snow. “O daddy! Stop the car! Stop the car!”

So he would give in, and stop the car, and we would go out, and make snowballs, and throw them at each other. Then we would get back into the car and drive until we saw another patch of snow. “O daddy! Stop the car! Stop the car!”

Snow is so exciting when you are a child.

When I was in college it snowed in the Sacramento Valley. We must have gotten two or three inches, and our college town went crazy. The streets were full of twenty-year-olds skipping their classes, throwing snowballs at each other, and pulling sleds behind their cars. It never snowed where we lived and, for us, it was exciting. It was a kind of living water. It was the kind of water that made us feel really alive; the kind that Jesus talked about.

Not exactly the same; but it was still exciting, because it was so rare. The “living water” Jesus spoke about was actually moving water, running water, flowing water; not the water that sat at the bottom of a well like the water the woman had come to fetch. This living water was exciting.

Living water ran in rivers and streams and brooks, but the only river of any respectable size in the Holy Land is the Jordan. It has its main sources in the mountains of Lebanon to the north of Galilee. South and downstream from Galilee, there are only a few year-round streams and brooks that feed into it.

The only other source of living water, for the people of Jesus’ time and place, came from the fact that the rocky ground of the Holy Land funneled rain water into springs. Spring water seeped and bubbled from hillsides here and there. Spring water was the closest that most people came to living water.

The village where the woman at the well lived actually had one of these springs. She didn’t use that spring of living water because she had reasons for staying away from the people who went there. They didn’t like her. They looked down on her. They made life unpleasant for her.

So she went to the well outside her town at noon when no one else was likely to be there. Drawing and carrying your water for the day was morning work.

Most people had cisterns or basins under their homes, which collected the rain water that fell on their roofs. It was nice not having to go out and carry your water home; but, when your cistern went dry, you had to do it. In that desert country cisterns often went dry.

Water was necessary. Water was work. All water was precious, but living water was clearest, and coolest, and freshest. It was the best water.

The woman at the well would surely crave a drink of living water, but there was none to be found there. There is no spring at the bottom of that well. It is just ground water.

The woman thought that Jesus might be joking or teasing her. She didn’t think he meant to be rude, so she teased Jesus back.

But Jesus was being rude, in the sense of crossing an uncross-able line of courtesy and honor. Men did not talk to women in public. Men were not supposed to talk even to their wives in public places. Talking to a woman was an intimacy, and talking to a woman in public was an indecency.

Yes, Jesus was rude, or else he had a way of taking the lid off of things. Jesus spoke and behaved in extraordinary ways, and he seemed to bring the extraordinary out in others.

He did this either by setting people completely at ease, or taking them by surprise, or outright shocking them. In fact, Jesus did all of this to the woman, and to the villagers, and to his own disciples, that day. In any case there was something about Jesus that made people either forget about themselves or harden themselves. The results of this were often surprising and revealing.

So the woman, whose life had been so messed up, and so scandalous, was suddenly ready to talk about courtesy, and theology, and prophecy, and the matters of her own heart and life with Jesus. Jesus opened her heart that day.

She went back to her village where everyone knew everything about her messed up life, where she was rudely shunned every day, and where she lived by rudely shunning others. There she surprised herself, and she opened her heart, her hopes, and her faith, to them. She said to them, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” In that village, her neighbors knew everything she ever did, and they were surprised (they were shocked) that she would even mention the unmentionable to them.

She was happy and excited when she spoke to them. She was free from the hardness of heart caused by years of repeated patterns of scandal and shame. She was changed. Her life flowed. She became living water, herself. She became a living witness, a living example, for Jesus. Jesus opened her heart that day.

A little bit later in the gospel, in the seventh chapter, Jesus returns to this picture of living water. He says: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” And John explains this by saying, “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:37-38)

John, in his gospel, has told us that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. (John 1:29) John calls Jesus the Word of God (John 1:2) and the Son of God the Father (John 1:14, 18). John tells us that this Lamb, this Word, this Son, is also God. (John 1:1)

The Holy Spirit, the presence and power of God, belongs to Jesus. The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ gift to give. In the gospels, when Jesus spoke to a person who needed him, or did something for that person, that person would be changed in some way. That person would become a person of faith, or a person of joy and courage, or a person who was set free and made fit and able to give to others.

In the Book of Revelation (22:1-5) we see the new creation cared for and thriving because of the direct experience of the presence of God. We see the throne of God and the Lamb (the Father and the Son). When we see this throne in Revelation, we are not looking at a great big chair. We are looking at the living presence of God the King.

And we see “the river of the water of life” flowing from their presence into the new creation, making it a garden of fruitfulness, and plenty, and beauty, and healing. When we see this river of life, we are not looking at a lot of flowing water. We are looking at a picture of the Holy Spirit.

When we see the trees of the new creation and their fruit, we are not looking at trunks, and branches, and leaves, and apples, and peaches. We are looking at God’s new creation and we are looking at ourselves. We see ourselves and those we love within that new creation. We see what we will become.

We see this in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. (Ezekiel 47:1-12) There is a river that comes from a new temple which is God’s presence with his people. The river has no tributaries, no brooks or streams running into it and filling it up. The river starts from under the dwelling of God with his people, and it gets bigger and bigger, all by itself.

A dry, and barren, and thirsty land comes to life, a dead sea grows sweet with the living water. The desert is replaced by a garden like the Garden of Eden, full of life. This is not just a promise about changes that will take place in a land half-way around the world. This is a promise of what God intends to give us; what he intends to make us.

The river is a picture of what Jesus promises, as the giver of living water (the Holy Spirit). It is a picture of what he can give to a thirsty life. His thoughts within our thoughts; his work within us through his word, and through prayer; the work he does within us through our fellowship with his people; and the work he does within us through our faithful service in this world, grow bigger and bigger with a power all its own. The Holy Spirit takes our smallness and weakness and creates a garden in it.

Before we start our vegetable gardens this year, hopefully when the frosts are done, we have to get the ground ready. We have to get the weeds out and soften up the ground. The farmers do the same with their fallow ground.

Jesus knew how to open the woman’s heart. We see it in his conversation with her. He knew what to say in order to arouse her interest and her curiosity. He knew how to open her heart to honesty and reality. He knew how to make her aware of her need. God knows how to speak to us through the events of our lives, and through our relationships, and through our hearts and minds, so that we become open to him. He knows how to soften the fallow ground of our lives.

If we are going to follow Jesus, we would do well to think like Jesus about other people. We would see those who do not know God as though they were only waiting to become gardens. We would see them as the fallow ground that would become a fruitful field.

If we would think like Jesus, we would not be careless gardeners. If we garden or farm we know what that means. We don’t garden or farm by leaving work undone.

We leave so many things undone and unsaid in our lives with others. Because of my dad’s fatal accident a few years ago, and because of my mother’s illness this past year, I am beginning to understand this more and more.

We treat our gardens and fields more carefully than we treat the people of this world, and our neighbors, and sometimes, even, our own families. We would never intentionally spread weed killer on our garden after it was planted, yet we use known poisons on the people God entrusts to our care. We use spite, and manipulation, and blame, and discouragement, and backbiting, and gossip on the garden of souls around us.

I said that Jesus was rude to the woman at the well, but the fact is that he was gallantly and graciously rude. It was the rules of courtesy of the society around them that was rude. It was courtesy that maintained a wall of rejection and bitterness around this woman. Jesus rudely overcame that rejection.

Jesus made her into a person who could be of help to others (a blessing to others), because he asked her for a drink. He accepted her as a person who could learn the ways of God. He accepted her as a person who could see the mess they were in, and repent, and live a new life. He treated her as a person who could move from questions and distractions to faith and hope. If we wanted to think like Jesus, in the garden of souls and lives around us, then we would treat others the same.

When the woman found that Jesus could read her like a book, she thought that she in the presence of a prophet. We have to realize that she didn’t understand very much, but she was learning.

She seemed to think that the Christ, the Messiah, was talking to her the way he did because he could read her mind. By the time Jesus left, the people of the village (and probably this woman as well) realized that Jesus knew what he knew because he was the Savior of the World.

It is a very good thing to know that we are intimately and completely known by God. There was a girl I loved who could read me like a book, and yet she liked me anyway. She could tell me when I was full of baloney in a way that would warm my heart and make me laugh.

If we will trust God, we will love being known perfectly and completely by him. We will know that it is the best and safest thing for us.

Jesus knew this woman because he was truly her lover. She had had other lovers who had used her, just as she had used them. She knew enough, by experience, to learn that Jesus was a lover of a totally different kind.

Jesus was her lover because he was her creator and her savior. She was alive because he desired her to be a living being. She would receive eternal life because he desired her to be a saved being. Jesus knew her because he was going to die for her. He knew her value, and he knew her sins and failures, because he was going to carry them on the cross.

We never understand our selves or others very well, because we understand our selves and others as sinners, as rebels. Our rebellion against God’s purpose for us has raised barriers of sin between us and God, between us and others, and between us and the life God created us for.

Those barriers block our view. They blind us and make us ignorant gardeners of our own lives and the lives of others. As sinners we do not know much about ourselves or others.

God knows us. He knows our value and he knows our sins because he is our creator and our savior. Because of this, he knows everything. He has got the whole world in his hands. He holds our forgiveness in his hands on the cross. He holds the end of our old life and the beginning of our new life in his hands, in his resurrection. This is why he knows how to talk with us and open our hearts.

Living water is moving, running, flowing water. The life Jesus gives us through his Holy Spirit is a moving, running, flowing life.

In this living water, our lives stop being shut up, as that woman’s life was before she met Jesus. She found her life moving in the direction of change, and freedom, and hope as she moved toward Jesus.

When I was a kid, we would usually go camping in the Sierra Nevada, which is a granite range of mountains. We like to camp fairly high up above the foothills (high enough to be above most of the mosquitoes), and we would do a lot of hiking along steep streams of living water. They would gush and pour over granite rocks and granite sand.

We kids would want to drink from these streams, and my dad would let us, in the belief that such streams cleansed themselves. They were self purifying. We never got sick from doing this, although my dad developed doubts about his theory of self cleansing water, later in life.

Living water was, for the Jews of Jesus’ time, the best water to wash in because it was the cleanest water you could find. And it was always considered clean, in and of its self. The life that comes from Jesus moves us away from all the old mess. It makes us clean, and sweet, and fresh, and refreshed.

The woman who opened her heart to Jesus became like living water that carried the life of Jesus to her neighbors. It made her an overcomer of the old obstacles between herself and her neighbors.

The living water overcame the obstacles in her neighbors’ hearts. If that living water had not moved them, they would have asked Jesus to go away. They would have told Jesus to leave their town, because Jesus was a Jew, and a rabbi, and (therefore) an enemy. They would never have learned that he was the savior of the world.

They found Jesus first through the changed life of their neighbor, the woman they had despised. Then they found Jesus for themselves. They knew he was the savior of the world, and their own savior.

Jesus is God speaking himself, expressing himself; and he speaks like a fountain of living water. He moves and changes hearts and lives. He moves and changes people and relationships. He moves and changes communities like that little town in Samaria.

Even a whole world is not too big for him to move and change. The living water that Jesus gives us is meant not just for us but for the whole world. Let that water live and move through you.