Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Now Showing: The Coming of the Reaching In

Preached on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 23, 2012
Scripture readings: Psalm 148; Galatians 4:1-7

There is a set of books for children that have its readers solve a single question. The question is: “Where’s Waldo?”

You are given a picture. It’s a very complicated picture. It’s full of hundreds of people doing all kinds of different things; on a big city street, in a crowded sports arena, at a fair, in a park.

In this picture, of hundreds of people milling around and doing every conceivable thing that you can do in that place, there is Waldo. Waldo is a tall and skinny guy, with a red and white tasseled cap, and a shirt with horizontal red and white stripes, and blue jeans, and big round glasses. You have to find Waldo in the picture.

Looking in at My Tree, 2012
There are people in the picture who look a little bit like Waldo, in one way or another. They may have a red and white striped shirt, but the stripes may go up and down, or the cap is wrong, or the person doesn’t wear big round glasses like Waldo does. The book of big complicated pictures is a story, and it doesn’t make sense until you find Waldo.

Sure, you can enjoy the pictures without finding Waldo. There’s a lot to see and think about. You can get the feel of it, and get into the experience of the big places in the pictures. You can think about the times when you have been in such a place, and what happened to you there. You can think about what you might like to do if you were in a place like the one in the picture. But you don’t know the secret of the picture, or the meaning of the story, unless you can find and follow Waldo.

Now the psalm we have read and the third and fourth chapters of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia give us two huge, complicated pictures. There is the same secret to be found in both pictures. There is a figure to find; an event to discover. The figure and the event is God reaching into that picture and putting himself right into the middle of that picture and revealing its secret meaning.

The psalm gives us a complicated picture that contains everything that exists; beyond our world, and in our world. It contains everything visible and invisible: angels, winds, stars, oceans, plants, wild and tame animals, mountains and hills. There are people of all kinds, and positions, and genders, and ages.

What do they have in common? They are created. They are organized. They are praising God.

Why? At the end of the psalm, we see. Everything that exists can see it. They see that God has reached down into this vast world, and God done something that would make his people close to him. “He has raised up for his people a horn, the praise of all his saints, of Israel, the people close to his heart. Praise the Lord.” (Psalm 148:14)

What did God do? “He raised up…a horn.” And what does that mean? A horn is a defense system for the animal that has horns. A horned animal is an armed animal. A horn is like a weapon. It means, in the thought of the Hebrew people, strength, and freedom, and life.

My Tree, 2012
“Raising up a horn for his people” would mean God doing something to protect his people, or to make them strong, or to expand their life, in a way that they couldn’t do for themselves. It could be something like a victory won by God for his people.

It would bring them closer than ever. It would make his people fit the name that the psalm gives them, when it calls them saints. The word saint, in the Bible, doesn’t mean perfection or even goodness. Saint means being set apart by God for a purpose.

But this special word especially means people who are different because they are the target of a special love of God that does not let go. It is a love that comes from God making a promise to them to love them always. It means God never letting go of that promise, and always finding a way to bring them close, even when their love fails.

Sometimes the word “horn” in the Bible refers to a person. It may refer to a leader or a king. In this case this person, this king, would be a gift from God to bring his people near; so that they can live within the beating of his heart.

In the Gospel of Luke, before the birth of Jesus, there is the father of a baby who was going to grow up to be the man we call John the Baptist. John would be a prophet who prepared the way for Jesus by teaching God’s people to be ready for their savior to come to them.

The father of John the Baptist was Zechariah. At the birth of his son, Zechariah was filled with God’s Spirit and spoke about the future of his son and the purpose his son would serve. Zechariah said, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us….” (Luke 1:68-69; also see Psalm 18:2)

This horn of salvation is Jesus. John’s purpose was to live and speak a message to God’s people that would prepare them for the appearance of Jesus.

The psalm tells us that everything in existence exists to find its purpose in praising the God who reached into their world to bring his human children close to him in Jesus. The sun and the moon, the weather and the waves, the birds and animals and the creatures of the ocean exist to praise the event in which God comes close, through the person who gives to his people the strength, and the freedom, and the fullness of life that they could never have without him.

Paul brings two big pictures together. He brings out a picture of what he calls “the basic principles of the world”.

Part of what Paul may mean by this has to do with the picture the psalm gives us. It has to do with all the parts and pieces of the universe. They teach us lessons but they can also enslave us. They limit us and confine us, unless God gets us beyond them.

The visible and even the invisible world can teach us many things. We may even reason out, from what God has made, how God wants us to live and why we are here. But we can never, Paul tells us, never get very far unless we see the God, who made all things, reach down into our world to act out his purpose in our sight. We can never grow up and grow close to the heart of God, unless we see God reach into the world he has made, in Jesus, and be born in a stable, and walk the countryside, and die for the sin of the world on the cross.
Ornaments from Our Church Tree

The other picture that Paul gives us, in Galatians, is the world of God’s laws. So many people see God’s laws as the way to please God, and win his favor, and get God to let us into his presence. So many see it this way, and Paul saw it this way, as well, until he met Jesus.

Paul saw that living in the world of rules, even when they are God’s rules, is really not the way to live. It is not the way to live in a way that is fully and passionately alive. I mean that the law, seen like this, creates a complicated world of obligations.

You ought to do this. You ought to do that. And you can’t do it all. And each rule we address reveals some flaw or limitation within us that we cannot overcome.

Each law shows us that there is a secret, or a not so secret part of us, that plays with the laws of God, and always seeks our own advantage, as if we wanted to be our own gods.

These laws, seen in this way, make us into competitors, and into score keepers, instead of playing with all our might simply for the joy of the game. There is a not so secret part of us called sin that can take the map to the good life and make it petty and ugly. There is this thing called sin that distorts our understanding of the good life and robs it of passion and freedom.

We are nothing better than slaves in the face of God’s laws, and the good life, until we see God reach into the world of laws and rules. God reached down into this world of his own law and God became the very victim of his own laws. He died at the hand of this world full of sinners who claim to love God’s laws; or at least they claim to love truth, and right, and goodness.

God reached down into this world of his law in order to buy us out of the kind of slavery that thrives on taking his good laws, and making them fail, and making ourselves worse as a result. God bought us out of our slavery by becoming what our failure and sin actually make us, under the law. Jesus was condemned by the law. God became a man condemned by the people of God’s law, and nailed to a cross to die.

God came in Jesus and became the victim of his own laws. He won a victory over his own law by keeping it perfectly, and by overcoming the condemnation that comes from falling short.

God died on the cross in his Son, Jesus Christ, so that we could be reborn into a new life through trusting the power of God’s love and grace. Faith means trusting the faithfulness of God.

Receiving the faithfulness of God changes us. Instead of obeying God in order to be loved, we obey because we are already loved. We are loved with a love that is based on God’s promise, and not on our performance. It is a love that makes us saints, who are loved by an unstoppable love. It is a love that is perfect in its absolute commitment to us, the beloved.

When I was little, I would try to get away with things I wanted to do that I knew my parents didn’t want me to do. My mother had this saying. She would give me a piercing look and say to me, “I can read you like a book.”

Angel of Our Church Nativity Scene
Most children suspect their parents have this kind of superpower. Children learn to be good, first of all, by learning to be afraid of getting caught and punished. When they get older, and no longer think of themselves as children, they sometimes stop caring about getting caught; but that doesn’t make them better people.

The best way to learn goodness is not about the rules and the fear or being caught. And learning goodness doesn’t come from thinking that our parents love the rules better than they love us.

We change for the best when we get a vision of goodness that is stronger and more passionate than our own self discipline. Our vision of goodness is a vision of what true love is.

This is part of the vision that comes from God reaching into our world, in Jesus, and meeting the issues of sin and law, and raising us into the issue of love and faith in the faithfulness of God. Jesus is the faithfulness of God. Jesus is the horn, the weapon and the defense, of a loving heart. Jesus is the horn, the weapon and the defense of the love given to us by a God who goes into action to bring us close to him.

God came in the Son he sent, born of a woman named Mary, to join us in the world where we live. Beginning in Bethlehem the Lord allowed himself to be surrounded, as we are, by a big world that tells us many things, but not the one thing we need to know. He became the Waldo we need to find, in order to understand God’s story. He was born of woman to show us that single thing we all need to know, of the reaching love of God that brings us close to him.

He was born under the law, among the people of Israel. They loved God’s laws, but they continued to misunderstand the nature of the love and the relationship that God really wanted. They kept straining to keep a perfect Sabbath, and to live such a perfect life that God would be obliged to come near to them.

So Jesus was born under the law in Bethlehem of Judea to be the one thing that the law could not give. He became the secret thread of the law. He became the Waldo that we must find, in all this world of “everything we ought to do and be”. He became the perfect offering and the sacrifice under the law that his people could never be; to be the gift, for us, that we could never give to God.

And so God came in Christ to redeem us. This redeeming means to be bought from slavery. God came and gave himself to us, in Jesus, in such a way, that we would come to the end of ourselves, and die to ourselves, and be born again.

In Jesus we become the beloved sons and daughters that we could never be on our own. We become such beloved sons and daughters that the Holy Spirit can freely come and tell us so.

Our Church Nativity Scene
This is a miraculous way to grow up into the kind of maturity that makes us children again. The Holy Spirit tells us so and, in our hearts, a merely formal relationship comes to an end. A rule-conscious, obligation-conscious, relationship comes to an end. We just start living in a way that calls God “Abba: papa, daddy, dada.” This is what Abba means. The Holy Spirit brings us to Jesus, and Jesus gives us the ability to say “dada” to God, by the power of his Holy Spirit.

It is the glory and majesty of God that he has no consciousness of his own dignity. It is the glory and majesty of God to make us also forget his dignity. That is why he was born just as we are.

Everything in existence exists to praise this, and it did. The whole universe can find no true peace without this reaching down of God to us. That is why, on the hills near Bethlehem, angels sang as they must have sung in the psalms: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.”

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