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.


  1. Wonderful sermon.
    May I quote something that was in my Lenten Mediations book?
    "To pray continually is to feel a love of God so deep that is becomes a shroud of presence in our heart. There, in our own heart, we are able to meet God in prayer no matter what events are taking place around us".

  2. Good morning Pastor.
    What time is it there? Here is 08:20 a.m.

    I'm curious. Glad to have your visit and your precious word. I'll be back in a few minutes.

  3. The best gift of all is God's presence in our life!
    What a great sermon. So much we can learn and meditate.
    So many things to think about, Pastor!

    Thank you, Thank you....
    God bless you every day!