Monday, September 29, 2014

My Early Encounters on the Way to God's Calling

Preached on Sunday, September 28, 2014

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 1:4-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Wild Horses Monument;
Across from Vantage, WA: Fall of 2014
When I was four years old, my family took a trip to visit relatives in Iowa, and Ohio, and Michigan. We took the train. Ever since those travels time, when I smell diesel fumes, it reminds me of being on the railroad. White linen tablecloths and napkins remind me of the dining car.
We took the Santa Fe Super Chief out of Los Angeles. We didn’t stay in a “sleeper” because it was too expensive. One of my memories is that when we were riding through New Mexico an Indian came into our car dressed up in full regalia. (“Indian” was a word he used: remember the year was 1956.)
He walked down the aisle, and talked with each of the kids. I think he was Navaho or Pueblo. He wore feathers, but especially he wore a lot of turquoise and silver.
When he got to me, I was very excited. I had watched all the westerns on TV and read stories about Indians. He asked me my name and then he asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I told him that I wanted to be a cowboy. He asked me why, and I said, “Because cowboys get to shoot Indians!”
He eyes got wide with fear. He ran out of the car. Then he came back. He poked me and said, “You know, Indians can shoot cowboys, too.”
When I was young, I had a lot of ideas of what I wanted to do when I grew up. Cowboys held my attention for a while; then being a fireman, then a scientist. Then I wanted to do what my dad did (which was to work as an electrician on the state highways).
Geology was very interesting, and I had a rock collection and charts of some mountain ranges and the Grand Canyon. Then I wanted to be an astronomer, then an architect, then an archeologist.
Then I wanted to work in the Foreign Service, for the State Department. That was why I started studying Polish from my “Babcia”, so that I could go to the University of Lodz, in Poland. At Lodz there was a free program for foreign students who were of at least one fourth Polish descent. I was in high school at that time: in my freshman through junior years. Baci would come and spend each summer with us and I would learn Polish from her. I still have the book.
When I was a senior I thought seriously about being a Forest Ranger. Then, in my first year in college, I went back to the State Department idea, or the idea of being a college history professor. In high school I had been known as “the little professor”.
When I was eighteen, during my sophomore year of college, I made one of the most important of my many commitments of my life to Christ. By the end of that same year, I began to tell people that I was going into the ministry.
I was not happy about this. It was something I had tried to avoid since I was twelve.
I loved God (I loved Jesus) for as long as I could remember. But I wanted to enjoy them in quiet and privacy, in my own way, on my own terms.
I grew up in a family where we knew how to pray, but we didn’t pray together, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas and maybe Easter; and that was a prayer that my dad and my Uncle Don would recite by heart. That was their job. My dad never taught me that prayer.
We knew that God was real. Jesus was real. We knew what Jesus had done, and that things like Christmas and Easter were all about him.
One of my problems with preparing for the ministry was that I was timid and shy. And I had almost no idea of what a minister did, except for preaching and leading worship. And I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to talk or even to stand up in front of others.
I also grew up in a family that didn’t quite approve of doing church. Oh, we went sometimes. There were times when we kids were taken to Sunday school every Sunday for weeks at a time, and then not go again until next Christmas.
About the time I was twelve we got really involved in a church for about two or three years. My parents taught Sunday school together, and my dad was a deacon for about a year: until he quit and took us all with him.
Being part of the Sunday school and (much, much more) being a deacon confirmed my dad’s worst suspicions about church. Church was about doing church, getting members, raising money, plugging people into programs and filling vacancies. It was about leaders building up little territories and constituencies, and sniping at the other people’s constituencies, and keeping them from getting their way.
Well, some churches are much better than that. I know this very well (now). I know (now) that the Presbyterian Church in Live Oak was simply not a very good church. They talked about helping people, but I don’t think they did much of helping outside of Christmas. They talked about love, but an awful lot of them didn’t love each other. They were very much like the whole town. Live Oak is an awfully feisty place.
There were very good people in that church; but there weren’t enough of them to outweigh the others. The rest were fine too. They were strangely nice, and good, and friendly people, just as long as you didn’t take someone else’s side in a disagreement.
When I was four years old and in a different church, I knew nothing about all that, and neither did my parents. That was still in the future. At the age of four, I sat on the floor of the Sunday school room while the teacher played “Jesus Loves Me” on the piano, and I simply knew that it was the truth. Jesus loved me, and he was right there loving me, wherever I was. And he was strong.
We know that children have very powerful imaginations, but we also believe that God gives certain abilities to children that grownups lack; or have forgotten or lost. There are times when children know what is right, when the grownups around them are doing something wrong. And so Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)
When I was very small and, later, in elementary school I had some strong experiences of realizing that God made me and loved me, and that I was responsible to God (to Jesus).
I am an oldest child, so I grew up knowing that I was the helper and protector of my sisters. I also learned that I was supposed to be of help to anyone who needed my help. And that was how I learned about my own pride, and laziness, and selfishness.
In order to get along with others I was taught two things. One was: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31) The other was: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The first is a Bible paraphrase. The second is an English proverb.
Because of these, it was easy for me to understand, even as a seven or eight year old, what it meant to be a sinner, but I also knew that grownups weren’t much better. More than once, as a little kid, I would tell my parents, “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” If the world lived by the golden rule and by that old English proverb, the world would be a completely different place. A child knows that.
Even though my mom certainly agreed with this, the parent who was the most vocal about this was my dad, and it came to him from my grandma Evans, who was a good Methodist. She would tell me the same thing. She represented the church side of the family.
When I was eight years old my family was in church. There was a huge black cross hanging from the ceiling. We were singing the hymn “Holy! Holy! Holy!” and I was looking at that cross, and I felt as if that cross were going right  into me: inside me.
One night, when I was about ten years old, Billy Graham was on TV. I committed my life to Christ. I was alone in the room. That was a year when my family wasn’t doing much church, so my commitment had nothing to do with church. Billy Graham was church for me that night.
When I was twelve years old, my family moved up to my home town of Live Oak, California. We got invited to the Presbyterian Church, the church that became responsible for my formative, negative view of the church, which I have already told you about.
At first, I liked it a lot. Lucy Witherow was my teacher, and she was a good one. She eventually wrote curriculum for the Gospel Light publishing house. In that class, when I was twelve, we were studying about the Old Testament and how God called people to serve him. It seemed as if an important part of each story was the way that each person who was called by God to serve didn’t want to do it, and made excuses.
This is me just before my 13th birthday.
I began to have the same feeling. I felt as if I was being held in a vise or had a heavy weight pressing down on me. I prayed about it like this. I told God, “God I feel like you want me to do something that I don’t want to do. If you want me to do it, then tell me in a way that I will know for sure.”
I prayed this every night for about a month. Then, about the time of my thirteenth birthday, I prayed this prayer once more and went to sleep.
In my dream I was awakened by an angel. He had wings, and hair like some kind of curly lion’s mane. I would say that it seemed that he was all one color, and he gleamed and shown, as if he were made from some kind of living metal, like bronze. I knew what bronze was because I had metal shop in the seventh grade. He didn’t speak with words but with sound. It was like music, and the roaring of lions, and the ringing of bells. I can still see it and hear it.
He picked me up. We flew over an ocean, but the ocean was not an ocean. It was the world of people; and it seemed ill, and dirty, and dim. We came to a place where there was a field and a road. The sky above was partly bright, but there was a terrible storm and darkness coming over everything. It was starting to rain, and silent lighting was flashing.
People were in the open place. Some were running from the storm and the darkness. Some were trying to build shelters to protect themselves. Some were shaking their fist at the storm. Some were hunched up in the road with their arms around their heads, just giving up.
A voice came from the light in the sky, and said, “People are growing afraid, and confused, and angry, and doubting, and despairing, and you will speak to them for me.”
Then I was back by the shore of the ocean, with the angel, and he told me that I was called to be a missionary and a minister. He told me to tell my parents. In the dream, that is what I did.
In the morning I told my mom. I didn’t tell her the dream, but I told her that I thought that God wanted me to do something like be in the ministry, and she said, very wisely, “You know, you wouldn’t like doing that. You would have to stand up and talk in front of people. You’d have to do funerals.” I just said something like, “Yeah, I guess.” And I said nothing more about it for years. I never told my dad, because I figured my mom would tell him. They were a team, after all.
We went to church for a few years. That was our big church-going phase.
I started to get interested in eastern religions, and in reincarnation, and in spiritualism. I tried to combine it with Jesus. My trick was to say that people got reincarnated until they found Jesus.
Eventually God would pry me away from all my strange spiritual interests (about which I became very serious). I wanted the protection of my own way. I wanted to be in charge of my own spiritual life. And it was all very experimental, and I treated it like a field of study and a science, and I was very much a scientist at that time. Duke University had a famous department of parapsychology that studied all those things. Eventually God would drag me out of all that. By the time I was eighteen, I had nothing left but Jesus, and his cross, and this calling I tried to ignore and couldn’t escape.
But, back to being thirteen, I became a member of the church for a while. (We called it becoming a “communicant”; which meant being able to take communion. It was like confirmation, but Presbyterians didn’t believe in confirmation in those days.)
In the process of becoming a member, I was in classes taught by the pastor. He said some odd things that I picked up on. Over the next couple years I asked him a lot of questions. It turned out that he didn’t personally believe a lot of traditional Christian things; like the teaching that Jesus is God in the flesh, and that his mother Mary was a virgin, and that Jesus died for our sins on the cross, and that Jesus rose from the dead.
I decided that if he didn’t think he had to believe certain things then I could develop my own religion and have Jesus along with reincarnation, and spiritualism, and a little bit of Buddhism thrown in. But, like I said, Jesus later put a stop to that. He made that way of escape impossible for me. But that is another story.
By the time I was eighteen, I had nothing left but a Jesus to whom I had promised to listen and follow. I loved him but I hadn’t listened.
One of my best friends, Danny Robertson, had a conversion experience. This made me feel ashamed. I asked God what to do. God told me to go back to where I left off; to that stupid church.
What was God thinking? Anyone who claims to be a Bible-believing Christian knows that that was the wrong advice.
I went back. I got there as everyone was coming out because they had changed the time for summer. They hadn’t put the change on their sign, or in the paper. I was ashamed again.
Still, I went back again, because God told me to. There was a really good youth group leader named Larry Jenkins. It was a small town and Larry was the older brother of a classmate of mine. Larry really believed the gospel. He understood the Bible. He helped me to have an honest conversation with the Bible as the word of God. He took the youth group to an evangelistic youth rally at the fair grounds.
The preacher there described the cross and called on those who wanted to make a commitment to Christ to come forward. I had always managed to be a Christian without losing my privacy and without being demonstrative in any way. The church had found ways, in the past, of manipulating me, and making me do things I didn’t want to do. I wanted to set my own terms. I didn’t want to change that now.
The preacher didn’t have to talk about Jesus on the cross any more. It was as if Jesus was speaking to me from the cross. It was as if Jesus said: “I have done all of this for you. Are you willing to be someone who says no to me?”
I couldn’t take it any more. I couldn’t stand to face myself as a person who was willing to say no to Jesus; not even if I might have other chances to say yes, because he had already given me chances. I knew I had to stop being a person who could say no to Jesus and all that he is and all that he has done. I went forward.
It made a huge difference. I became very happy to be a different kind of Christian: a Christian who could not say no to Jesus. Then Jesus started to remind me of that call that I had avoided for so long. I began to tell my parents and my pastor, and go through the long process of preparing for the ministry.
I would also tell you that I am a missionary as well. I have been one ever since that time of long ago. I am here in Desert Aire because I am a missionary, and I must tell you that you and your church have to start being missionaries. You can’t be normal Christians any more. You can’t be a normal church any more. That has to stop. Jesus is calling you, and you dare not say no to him.
I wanted to tell you a lot of other things. I wanted to tell you about the time I drowned and breathed my last, and left my body and went somewhere and came back. I remember the struggle and I remember the return trip very well.
I wanted to tell you the story of why I cannot leave the denomination. The short version is this. Jesus said, “I have been faithful to you in this church, and you will be faithful to me in this church.” There is a story to this for another time.
But I do have to tell you that Jesus was faithful to me in a very strange way. I must tell you that when I said yes to Jesus about the ministry, almost no one believed me: at least no one whose opinion counted. Those who were in charge of people preparing for the ministry didn’t believe that I was meant for the ministry, and they wanted me to go away. They advised me, if I was determined to go into the ministry, to please go and do it in another denomination. Even after they had a change of heart and decided to support me, all kinds of misfortunes and road blocks made it look impossible. Most people would have quit. But that’s another story.

God is patient. Only don’t make his patience an excuse for your own convenience, or an excuse for following your own personal comfort. Don’t be someone who says no to Jesus.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Anchors for the Story - Glory to God Alone (2nd Edition)

Preached on Sunday, September 21, 2014

Scripture Readings: Psalm 96; Romans 11:33-36; John 17:1-24

An Iowa farm kid named Roger was a friend of mine during my seminary days. Roger loved to sing, but he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. When I sat next to Roger in chapel, and we were singing, when the music went up Roger went down, and when the music went down Roger went up, and he wasn’t singing harmony.
He had absolutely no idea what pitch we were singing. I don’t think he even capable of knowing what the word “pitch” means. But Roger loved to sing.
Around that house above Vantage, WA, Summer 2014
Some people, when they know they can’t carry a tune, stop singing completely. The very thought of singing embarrasses them. Roger knew perfectly well that he wasn’t doing what anyone else was doing when we sang, but he didn’t care. He sang anyway.
He told me that, when music was going on, he felt it do something inside him and he wanted to be a part of it. He wouldn’t let the fact that he couldn’t sing stop him from the happiness of being part of it. He told me this because I was young enough, in those days (I was 23), to be much ruder than I am now, and I just came straight out and asked him about this. Why do you sing?
Once I understood this, it was fun sitting next to Roger in chapel. It was all I could do to keep from laughing, and he knew it. Sometimes, when it was really bad, I would catch his eye, and he would just give me a knowing look.
This is important, because it helps us understand something about glory, and especially about the glory of God. It helps us understand why it is that God seems to want glory.
For God to love glory is like what it is to love music. The best way to understand glory is to soak it in from the poetry of the Bible. The Book of Psalms is the songbook of the Old Testament. It was meant to be sung. If you spend enough time with that ancient songbook, you will realize that most of the places in the Old Testament that speak of God’s glory are on the verge of music.
“Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations.” (Psalm 96:1-3) The glory of God is like joyful music. The glory of God is like the invitation to sing.
With God there is something to sing about: for “the Lord made the heavens.” (96:5) “Proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” (96:2-3)
The creation of the heavens and the earth, the story of salvation (which is new life for the soul, and the healing of all wounds, and the restoring of all losses, and the mending of all tragedies, and the new heavens and the new earth): these are truly works of love. These things are like joyful music. To give glory to God is to take part in the music of something worth celebrating.
There’s a high school football team I know of that sings a victory song on the field when they win a game. The words are set to the tune “You’re a Grand Old Flag”. They don’t sing it very well, but they sing it with gusto.
I don’t believe they sing it because they think they are great singers who deserve to be heard. They sing because they are happy.
For one thing, they are relieved. The game is done. They have won, and it is a great thing to win. They are happy.
They have put all they had into a game; or they have watched their teammates play and give their hundred and ten percent, just like their coaches wanted. When you have won, after all that, you have a natural invitation to sing. It’s a plunge into glory and it’s not big headed at all.
Some seasons, the song doesn’t get sung as often as they would like. But the fact that such a song exists reminds us that the enjoyment of glory is not necessarily selfish or egotistical. It is just happy. No harm can come from the glory of being happy. This is at the hart of the glory of what God does, and who God is.
There is an ultimate game (an extreme game) that is being played on the field we call the heavens and the earth. At the end of this ultimate game (this extreme game) a victory song will be sung. Part of the beauty of this game is that even our defeats, and our injuries, and our losses play into the victory.
The Lord is the coach, the team captain, and the quarterback, all in one. The Lord is the player on whom the whole team depends. The Lord does not play for his ego. God plays for happiness. God relishes that victory song. He waits for it and works for it.
“Proclaim his salvation day after day.” Salvation is shorthand for the long story that includes everything that has ever happened and ever will happen. Salvation is the story, most of all, of everything that God has done, and everything that God will do.
“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.” (96:7-9)
This psalm pictures the whole world coming to The Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was the place where one could worship and watch the sacrifice that was made for the forgiveness of sin. The Temple was where the God’s word was kept, and spoken, and heard.
Everything was there. The celebration of God’s creation was there. The story of the fall of our world into sin, and misery, and disaster was there. The story of the calling of a people to be God’s people, who would be a blessing to all other people, was there. The history of everything that happened to those people was kept there: their stubbornness, their lack of faith in God, their repeated betrayals of God, their worship of other things besides God, their repeated times of repentance and grace.
Read the psalms. It was all there to be sung about. It was all a part of what God was up to, and it was all a part of God’s glory. The Temple was as full of singing as it was supposed to be full of glory. The singing was a rehearsal for the victory song at the end of the old creation and the beginning of the new one.
In The Temple, the pattern of what God is about could be seen: a pattern of love and of victory. In this world we often don’t see God’s patterns. Sometimes we see only random events like random dots on a canvas.
There was a French painter of the late eighteen hundreds (named George Seurat) who made his paintings out of tiny drops of paint on the canvas. If you stand too close to his paintings you see nothing but spots. You don’t see the pattern that makes the spots into a portrait, or a landscape.
Worry, fear, anger, and doubt are like taking a position in life that puts us too close to events to see the pattern they form. We only see random, meaningless spots. Faith means standing at the right distance to see the whole picture and what it means.
There are medical cases where, as a result of a stroke or tumor, a person becomes unable to recognize the pattern of the face of their wife, or their husband, or anyone at all. This is not dementia, because these people remember the other person clearly; but not their face. They can’t recognize the familiar pattern of the face. (See the writings of Dr. Oliver Sacks)
Some people are actually born with this rare condition. It’s called “prosopagnosia”. People with this condition recognize voices, and clothing, and even smells, but not faces. They lack the ability to see the pattern that is always with them; the pattern of a familiar face of another person who is the center of their life. The pattern is there, but they don’t see it.
It is hard to join in singing the music of the glory of God when we cannot see the pattern of his love and his victory. The worship and the sacrifices in the temple told the story of salvation from the point where the pattern could be seen. They clarified that pattern for those who had forgotten it.
The scriptures also tell us the story of our salvation, with all its ups, and downs, and repetitions. We even see the pattern in the enormous length of the story: those long centuries of the story that lead up to Jesus.
The story of God coming down into our world in the poverty and hardships of the birth of Jesus, in Bethlehem, shows us the pattern of how God loves and wins in poverty and hardship. The story of the long silent years of the childhood of Jesus, and the long silent years of his work in the carpenter’s shop (about which we know nothing) shows us how God loves and wins in long, long silence.
There is the story of the wandering life of Jesus on the road as a teacher and a healer of the sick. There is the story of his brutal and gruesome death on the cross. There is the story of his resurrection, and the ascending of Jesus into heaven. All of these show us the pattern of how God loves and wins. They show us God’s glory: how God enters our life and goes to every needy place in us. There he changes us as only God can, and gives what only God can give.
There are phrases that sum up teachings in the Bible in ways that keep us safe. These phrases are like anchors in a storm that keep a ship safe from being tossed and broken by the waves, or driven onto the rocks. There are phrases like “grace alone” and “faith alone”. One of those anchors is the phrase “to God be the glory”; or, “glory to God alone”.
For the most part, I don’t think we usually think of wanting glory for ourselves, and we may have trouble thinking about God loving glory without having some unsavory thoughts about God. After all we have been taught that it is not right for us to go around looking for glory. So it’s hard for us to imagine it being right for God.
There are reasons why glory should be given to God alone.
One reason why glory should be given to God alone is that it is the only safe thing to do with glory. It is safe to give glory to God because God doesn’t need glory.
If we have a notion of what it means to seek glory we think it has something to do with self-seeking. We want something for ourselves. We want some measure of control. We might even seek glory as a substitute for love, because we don’t understand love.
God is the only safe focus for glory because he doesn’t need it. I think God doesn’t need glory because God is love (1 John 4:8).
People use other people for glory without giving it a name. Sometimes they know what they’re doing; sometimes not. We use people for our own glory because we are not so good at love. We want control because we don’t trust love. We don’t think love is enough.
We don’t trust God because we don’t trust love. Perhaps we can’t grasp the concept of being truly loved by God and so we seek substitutes. We even may make our religion into a glory-machine, a thing to make us impressive to others, and to ourselves. We turn religion into a means of achieving mastery.
With God, it’s not like that. The universe does not revolve around us, but it does revolve around God. Everything comes from God. It continues through God’s care. It has a purpose that is known only to God. Everything is intended to lead us to God, if we will let it.
Paul says something like this in the verses we read from Romans. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:36)
There is glory, showing up again. It’s true that there is control in God’s. God is in control. But God’s glory is not aimed at control. It is aimed at mercy and it is aimed at giving happiness, which is another way of saying that God’s glory is his love.
In Romans, Paul has been struggling with his observation that the human race, in its rebellion and fallenness, seems to throw up obstacles and resistance to God at every step of the way. It seems to be human nature to take the gifts, the blessings, the callings, and the promises of God to use them for our own glory.
So Paul writes about God’s radical way of dealing with this situation. In Romans 11:32 he writes: “God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
It is a way of saying that God has let us be ourselves so that he can be perfectly himself and show us that his grace and love can make the difference. He is the secret that changes our lives. That is what makes Paul sing about the glory of God. It is the glory of God to give us the glory of mercy.
In John we see into the heart of God before the creation of the universe.  We see that the everlasting nature of God is to give glory. Jesus is praying to his Father like this, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:4-5)
The everlasting glory of the Son is to give glory to the Father. The everlasting glory of the Father is to give it to the Son. They are always giving each other glory: not grabbing it for themselves. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as well, are an eternal fountain of glory-giving.
So God does not need glory from us. In himself, from everlasting, God is a love that loves to give glory as an expression of love.
In the Biblical languages, the word “glory” carries the impression of light and weight. Here is how the Bible expresses this. For light, Isaiah says, “Arise and shine, for thy light has come and the glory of the Lord has arisen upon thee.” (Isaiah 60:1) For weight, Paul says, “This slight, momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)
Glory reveals, as light does. Glory is like a light that shows you that you have never really seen anything so great before.
What does weight have to do with glory? Car-makers design car doors to shut with a certain sound that makes people think that their cars are built solid and heavy. They build a glorious sound into their car doors. The glory of God is the sense of something being more substantial, more solid, and more real than anything you have seen or heard before.
When Jesus glorifies his Father it is because he reveals his Father, and it is because he shows the solidness of the faithfulness of the Father. And the Father gives the same glory back. What is the solidness of the Father and of the Son? It is the cross: heavy and revealing. Solidness, in God’s case, is a faithfulness you can trust, because it involves him in the cross, for your sake. “He gave his only begotten Son.” It is light because it shows you how “God so loved the world.”
Jesus’ glory (that shows the Father’s glory) is the cross. This has been done to take away the sin of the world, and our sin. (John 1:29) God has done this for all people, to “have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32)
We say “glory to God alone” because God has done the incredible, the impossible, the inconceivable. God has done for the world (God has done for us) what no one else could do.
And God has done this in order to give us as a gift to himself, for his own victory and joy. This is his glory. Jesus prays about this, in this way, as he prays for us and for those who will believe through us: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…. I have given them the glory that you gave me.” (John 17:20-21)
We are like plants rooted in the soil of God, and rained on by the love and nurture of God. We are like plants, whose roots, when they are healthy, grow deeper and deeper, protected from drought and frost.
How can a plant boast about its good soil and the rain that makes it grow? To God alone be the glory!
To say that the glory belongs to God alone does not mean that we have a God who is hungry for glory. It means that we have a God who loves to give glory, and we can belong to God no other way than by loving to give glory.
To say “Glory to God alone” is to respond to an invitation by God to live by learning how to trust. It means we can live without giving our life the “white-knuckle treatment”. It means not having to be afraid and worried all the time.
Since the glory of God is to be a giver, trust means you being a giver. Since the glory of God is faithfully merciful, living for God’s glory alone means being merciful. And it does mean giving glory to others: out of love, not out of neediness.

It means you connect the dots of life and you see the patterns of God. You see how God loves, and how God wins. You see the cross and the resurrection, and you live accordingly, God’s people must live accordingly together, because that is where God lives. That alone is the place where God dwells and can be found. There, alone, is the glory. Glory be to God alone.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Anchors for the Storm - Faith Alone (2nd Edition)

Preached on Sunday, September 14, 2014

Scripture readings: Genesis 15:1-6; Philippians 3:1-11; John 6:25-51

A faithful home above Vantage, WA:
September, 2014
I have a confession to make. Sometimes I drive too fast (actually more than sometimes). I never drive faster than it is safe to drive (well, almost never).
But I am a lawbreaker. I make excuses about it. Some people think it’s funny, and they tease me about it. But it’s true. And it is perhaps much truer than I realize that I shouldn’t even be talking about it from the pulpit without true repentance and the desire to change. I am sharing this because it is the very least of so many ways I am a puzzle to myself.
In this little puzzle to my life, what if I were to claim that my speeding wasn’t so bad because I make up for it by the fact that, when I am stopped by an officer of the law, I always know that I am guilty, and that it is my fault, and that I deserve a ticket.
I never pretend otherwise. I avoid making excuses. I never get mad at the officer. I do get mad, but my anger is aimed at my self.
My other claim to virtue is that I never plead for mercy on the basis that I am a minister. I never tell the officer that I am a minister. For one thing, I don’t believe that this would work, and I don’t believe it ought to work. So I don’t. And yet I really am a puzzle to my self.
This puzzle brings me to a Christian word. It’s a Bible word. That word is righteousness.
Righteous is a funny word, in the sense that we don’t use it much outside of church: except as slang. Isn’t it still used to say something like, “That car is righteous,” or “That dude is a righteous dude”?
I believe that this righteous slang word gets it right. This is what righteousness is all about. A righteous car is a car that does everything that a great well-maintained car ought to do.
I’m not going to comment on the word “dude”. But a righteous dude should be what a great human ought to be. In the world as it is, the slang righteousness is the only thing that saves righteousness from sounding like self-righteousness.
Righteousness is not weirdness, or what we call being “goody-goody”. It’s about being solid and real in the best way. You could expect fairness, and integrity, and truth, and compassion. You could expect the ability to look, and listen, and think things through, and to see them through, and not to quit. You could expect some degree of fearlessness. That would make a righteous dude or a righteous dudette.
The funny thing about being truly righteous is: who can measure up to it? I mean, we want to think of ourselves this way. Some people totally pull the wool over their own eyes about this, and those are the ones who aren’t fooling anyone but themselves: not for long.
We try to make excuses, to find reasons (and there are some). We try to justify ourselves.  We have our good qualities. But we are not righteous; not really.
The world is the same way. There are fear-mongers and hate-mongers and anger-mongers out there. And there are real things to fear, and to hate, and to be angry about. There are horrible things in this world: terrible things.
But there is also beauty, and love, and tenderness, and innocence, and faithfulness as well. There are people who love truth, and justice, and goodness; and these people stand up for the righteous things and fight for them.
The world is beautiful, and wonderful, and righteous. The world is horrible, and deadly. It is all of that; and so are we.
The Bible tells us that this world was made to reflect the glory of God, and so were human beings. The whole human order of things in this world, with marriage and family, and with friendship and community, was created to reflect the glory and beauty of God: to be righteous.
But it is also a fallen world. We all belong to that fallen world. We are made for the glory of God and we all fall short of it.
Some people will say that the world and its human inhabitants are a mixture of light and darkness, and they will advise us to try to live within the light. But there is nothing very grand, or bold, or victorious about this.
But we believe a grand, and bold, and victorious thing. We believe that there is a righteousness from God; a righteousness that has come into the world from the outside.
It has come into a fallen world in order to make a new world possible; to make new lives possible. This righteousness has come into the lives of some of the people in this world, and it can come into us. It is “the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Philippians 3:9)
The righteousness that comes from God and is by faith (this righteousness that God wants to give to the whole creation) is something God started in a single family; the family of a desert nomad named Abram (or Abraham). Earlier in Abram’s story, the Lord spoke to him and said: I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
The challenge and the difficulty of this promise was that Abram and his wife Sarah were old and childless. Yet the promise was based on a child that they were supposed to create between them.
They were in their seventies when God first made his promise to them. The years passed. The promise was renewed over and over again, and nothing, nothing, nothing at all happened.
Every time the promise was repeated they thought about that promise and they wished that it would come true. Every time the promise was repeated, guess what they must have done in the privacy of their tent. Guess what they must (at least) have tried to do. And nothing, nothing at all happened: nothing.
Then, in the verses we read from Genesis, God does it again. After years of making this promise, God repeats the promise again, and (even at this point) there are still years to go when nothing, nothing at all, will happen.
But one very strange thing does happen. This time we are told that Abram believed God. This was a very strange thing. It was a miracle. Here is how the Bible puts it: “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6) The Lord made faith to count as if it were righteous.
If being righteous required you to do what it took to be all that God intended you to be, then Abram and Sarah had a requirement that they had to live by. There was a law from God that ruled them. It gave them something they had to do together over, and over, and over again to make it happen, and it didn’t work. No matter how they tried, they could not be what God’s promise had promised them they would be.
They obeyed that law over and over, in the privacy of their tent; but something much more radical was essential.
The surprising and radical thing that God wanted was faith. Faith was essential before they could become what God wanted them to be. Faith was like the hinge on a door that enables that door to swing open. (John Calvin “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, 3.11.1)
Some people, even some Christians, seem to think that faith is something you do as part of a bargain to get God to do something for you, or that faith is something you give to God so that God can give you something in return: like the thing we call salvation, or like the things we call the answers to our prayers, or like the things we want that have to do with success, and peace, and plenty, and happiness.
Faith has very little to do with anything we want. It has everything to do with what God wants. Real faith only wants what God wants. That’s why God will give anything to those who only want what God wants.
But even saying that does not go far enough. Faith has everything to do with who God is and who God promises to be for us. When you are in the middle of a storm in life; when you are struggling under the weight of worry, or fear, or anger, or failure, or pain, or loss, and your stomach hurts, and your heart palpitates, and you can’t sleep at night because of the anguish you feel, faith has everything to do with who God is, and who God promises that he will be for you, in the time to come.
Faith is like a fire within that does not light itself. Faith is the gift of fire that comes from seeing the love of God and the new life that is promised by God’s love. Faith is God’s gift of fire to a life without a spark. It is not your gift to God. It is God’s gift to you.
Paul says it in Ephesians 2:8. “For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.”
The fire of faith gives you light to see what you cannot see without it. It gives you warmth to thaw you out; so that the mind of faith can think, so that the heart of faith can love, so that the feet of faith may take you where God wants you to go, so that the hands of faith enable you to do whatever the work is that God wants you to do. Faith makes you alive so God can give life to others through you.
You can guard that fire of faith and feed it; but not light it. As long as it burns it will never cease to do the work that a living faith does. It will make you grow in its warmth. It will help others grow. It will give to others in their great need. It will do what is good, and helpful, and useful. It will be a force for good in the world around you.
Faith is always based not on who you are or on what you can do; but based on who God is, and what God does. And we meet God in Christ. We see who God is and what God does in Jesus.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t call this gift “fire” but he calls it food. What God does through Christ is the food that the Father and the Son give to all who come to him, and we come to him by believing. We come to him by faith.
This is why he says. “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” And Jesus says, “Don’t work for the food that spoils, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the son of Man (he means himself) will give you.” (John 6:27-29) And he says, “I am the bread of life.” (6:35)
Working for the food that spoils means doing what you think will make you all that you can be. But believing that Jesus is the bread of life is completely different.
Believing means having faith. It means trusting in God as he is (as we meet him in Jesus). It means trusting the cross and trusting the resurrection.
This is the work that is not work. This is the work that abandons itself and trusts in God’s work. Faith is not your gift to God but your journey out of yourself and into the gift of what God is, and into the life that God can give you.
Faith is based on God, knowing God as he is. What we know about God is what we see in Christ, in his life, his death, and his resurrection. We know God by seeing his sacrifice for our sins on the cross. We know God by seeing his power to defeat sin, and death, and hell.
Paul speaks of this in Philippians. He says, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:8-11)
The Jews worked to prove their status as God’s people by keeping the Old Testament law (the Torah). This was the work they thought would prepare them for the Kingdom of God and to make that kingdom come. But that preparation accomplished nothing but hardness of heart, and pride, and the inability to be the blessing to every nation that God had called Abraham to be.
Faith was the heart of the promise; and God had come, in Christ, to give the power of his righteousness to those who saw what God had done; to those who made the daring surrender of faith.
Those who trust in Christ have new forces at work within them. They have the cross of Jesus working in them. They have the resurrection working in them. They have the Holy Spirit.
We can never bargain for this. There is no gift we can give for this. We can only believe what God has done. Then it goes to work in us.
Paul wrote, “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (3:7-8)
Faith means going outside ourselves, in Christ: letting go of ourselves, and so there are things that are worth losing for his sake. There is the obvious rubbish of our selfishness and our lovelessness; the obvious rubbish of our sins.
Then there is the rubbish (the garbage) of good things. I am a hereditary saver and hoarder of good things. I have thousands of books, and trinkets, and artifacts, and memorabilia. Some day my treasures will be someone else’s garbage. There may be habits and marks of my character that are not bad in themselves, but they are clutter: sheer clutter. They stand in the way of my love for God and for others.
All Christians are called to be disciples. All disciples are sent out into the world as witnesses of Jesus in their words and actions and lives. We are all missionaries; whether we are officially ministers, or elders, or so called ordinary church members.
We are not called to be church members. The church matters, but church can turn into a club where we preach, and pray, and sing hymns, and take offerings. We are called to be members of Jesus: his arms, hands, feet, voice, and living presence. The organization and the responsibilities we assign each other can become clutter and an escape from being Jesus in this world. They become a substitute (or a crutch) for living as a disciple of Jesus by faith.
There are things we think of as our treasures, our strengths or our rights or our dignity. These get in our way of loving God with all we’ve got, and loving others as ourselves. These are not the great good things we think, no matter how tight we hold onto them.
We think of them as our strengths, when they may be nothing but strong crutches, and we don’t have enough faith to part with them. We don’t want to replace them with the strength of God that comes from faith.
There are people who say that faith is a crutch, but faith actually requires us to throw away our crutches. Faith gives us freedom from all our bad limitations and from all our good clutter. Faith makes us free indeed.
The author George MacDonald imagined God saying this: “My child, you must be strong in my strength. I have no other strength to give you.” This is “the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
There is no other way for it to come. It is by faith alone.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Anchors for the Storm - Grace Alone (2nd Edition)

Preached on Sunday, September 7, 2014

Scripture Readings: Psalm 51:1-19; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 1:1-5, 9-18
A family was talking to their pastor after worship and their little girl piped up and asked, “Pastor, just who is this amazing Grace that we sang about today?”
A gracious home above Vantage, WA
September, 2014
We can’t really understand what grace is, at all, unless we match it with the word amazing. There is no such thing as “mere grace”. Grace is, or should be, always amazing.
And the whole concept that grace should always, and only, be amazing should tell us something about ourselves that we don’t like to admit. The awful truth is that we don’t understand grace, and it is very hard for us to believe in it, or to accept it.
For instance, in English, and in a lot of other languages, we use the concept of grace for the purpose of thanks; and this is a good thing. Grace is a word we use to designate a prayer of thanks. We say grace at a meal (if we remember to, or have someone to remind us) because God has done something for us by providing for us, and so it is only right to give him thanks. God deserves it.
We thank people for what they have done. We thank people because they deserve thanks.
In an odd turn-around of this, if we have been taught to be really “nice” people, we have also been taught to not accept thanks graciously, even though we have been carefully taught to say “you’re welcome”. When someone thanks us, or even praises us, our mind races around to find some way to make an excuse for what we are being thanked for. We try to explain it away, or justify exactly why we don’t deserve to be thanked or praised.
In Spanish, when you do something for someone, they say “thank you”. They say “gracias” or “grace”. Then the polite thing for you to say is “de nada” which means “it is nothing”; as if you haven’t done anything worth mentioning. This shows the gallantry and generosity of the Spanish culture. It also shows the confusion that human nature feels about real grace.
Even though grace is amazing, it can be embarrassing. But you might not think that.
We talk so much about grace, as Christians, and we say how wonderful it is to receive the grace of God. I’m not sure we really believe this. How can we say that we love grace when God gives it to us on a divine scale, and yet we get embarrassed by it on a human scale, when one of our fellow human beings offers to help us? Because, helping someone, expecting nothing in return, is exactly the same thing as giving them grace. Why is it embarrassing when people help us, but not when God helps us?
When I was twelve, we moved to a new house; and the yard was all dirt and star thistles and it was my job to hoe up all those thistles. Here I was slaving away and not very happy about it, when this gnarled up, stooped over, little old man, with arthritic hands, named Jose came over from next door. Jose saw me out there hoeing all by myself and he came over to help.
I still remember his hands. I saw them as he started to hoe beside me. I had never seen such twisted hands.
All I could do was say to him, “No sir, no sir; I can do it. Thank you. Thank you, sir. I can do it.” And, finally, he let me do it myself, and he went back home. I was confused about grace.
We are confused about grace. It’s no wonder that, when we finally do understand it, we find it to be amazing; not just in our talk or our singing, but in fact.
Grace is amazing because it is beautiful. The original New Testament word for grace is the Greek word “charis” and the basic root meaning of charis is beauty, or loveliness. The original Old Testament words for grace are “chen” and “chesed”, and the basic root meaning of both these words is the concept of beauty and loveliness; although “chen” has come to mean favor, and “chesed” has come to be interpreted as loving kindness, or steadfast love, or unfailing love.
“Chesed” is the grace word used in the psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love.” The origin of these words for unfailing love was beauty.
Even our English word “grace”, itself, has that same root meaning. When we say that a woman moves with grace we mean that she moves with great beauty and loveliness.
It is only by understanding the grace of God, in terms of an amazing beauty and loveliness, that we are able to understand the meaning of grace at all. Grace is a gift because it is an action (which God takes on our behalf) that reveals his infinite beauty and loveliness to a degree that completely amazes us.
When we experience grace, it has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with the beauty and loveliness of God. It has nothing to do with our worthiness, and everything to do with the worthiness of God. When we experience the worthiness of God, our own worthiness is swallowed up by his, and it disappears in his. And our being swallowed up and disappearing into the worthiness of God is no injustice to us. We lose nothing by it. We are only enriched by it. This is grace. It’s beautiful.
Surely even an achievement is a kind of gift. If you write a good poem, your pleasure is not in your achievement but in the vision at the center of your poem. If you have the skill in mechanics to build an engine, surely your pleasure in your skill is swallowed up when you put that engine in a boat, or a car, or a truck, or a plane, and you drive it, or you fly it, and you feel the power and the smoothness of that engine at work.
Your skill is swallowed up in the pleasure of the gift. The better the gift, the more thankful you feel. The best gifts direct you beyond yourself, no matter how much your participation has been a part of it. You want to enjoy the gift far more than you want to claim credit for it.
There is a way of living and understanding the meaning of our life that is called “grace alone”. It is a way of living your life, and understanding your life, from the point of view of everything being a gift; seeing the goodness of all the gifts, and being able to be properly amazed by the greatest gifts.
It is all about beautiful gifts. The meaning of our life, our relationships with others and the commitments we share, our relationship with God and the promises that bind us to him, are all about grace, and grace alone. This means that the most important thing about our life is not our skill, not our achievement, not our maturity, not our ability, not our self worth, not our savvy or wisdom but the grace of God. It is about our experience of all these things as gifts from God.
This is not to say that skill, achievement, maturity, ability, savvy or wisdom, or even our own worth are not important. They are important.
We, ourselves are of infinite worth to God. We are worth a cross to God. But what we have, (and what we are) are not the way we come to God, except through thanks. They are not the way we come to others. They are not even the way we come to ourselves, except through thanks.
We come to God. We come to others. We even come to our selves, through the experience of life as a gift that is full of the gifts of God.
What people are able to do with their hands, and their minds, and with their backs and shoulders and legs are amazing. I try to never underestimate what anybody accomplishes.
I served a church in southern Idaho where the land was homesteaded about 1910. One of my members told me the story of how his grandparents homesteaded about one day’s mule team trip from the Snake River. They had no water on their place for the home, the farm, and the livestock. The grandfather had to take a wagon load of empty water barrels by mule team, a day’s journey to the river. It took them another day to get back, and this gave them water for one day. Then the process had to be repeated.
A minister visited a farm, and it was a beautiful farm: the fields, the home, the machinery, everything. The minister said, “What a beautiful farm God has given you.” The farmer replied, “You should have seen it when God had it to himself.”
There is great beauty in achievement and worth, but there is an even greater beauty in the gifts that we haven’t earned and cannot earn. The truth is you can only work with what God has given you, because you have not brought yourself into this world. You have not given birth to yourself.
Life in the kingdom of God is not about earning, but about gifts. Life is about grace alone.
The Bible is full of pictures of grace.
We have read Psalm fifty-one. The great Old Testament King David wrote this psalm. David was God’s key person in his time and place. David is so keyed to God’s plan that God was born, in Jesus, as the Son of David. David was the eighth son in a huge family, and he was fated to be that family’s spare boy. He was fated to stay with the sheep all his life.
In the human way of things, David was not needed. But the Lord did a divine thing. The Lord worked by grace. The Lord called him from the flocks to be the future king; the replacement for a king who had failed.
David did not really want to be king, and he never tried to be king, but the Lord, through many hardships, brought him into the kingship. God called David a man after his own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), and all of this seems like the highest level of success.
But then David lusted after the wife of one of his most faithful officers. David committed adultery with this woman Bathsheba, and arranged the death of the faithful husband. David was accused and exposed openly. He broke down and saw himself as he was: a sinner in need of grace, a sinner unworthy of any grace at all. (1 Samuel 11-12)
But David prayed for grace. This psalm is his prayer. And his prayer was answered.
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your unfailing love.” (Psalm 51:1) The phrase “unfailing love” here translates one of those Hebrew words for grace, and for beauty, and loveliness. David asked for God to take action, on his behalf, in a way that he could never deserve, and never repay.
Justice is a beautiful thing, but justice would have killed David. So David asked for something more beautiful than justice. He asked for an amazing grace; a scandalous grace (it’s true) but an amazing grace. David admitted that he deserved nothing but the judgment and punishment of God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.” (51:4)
David prayed “have mercy” when he had no mercy on the woman’s husband. David prayed “according to your unfailing love,” after he had turned his back on his duty of love and grace to others.
David prayed “according to your great compassion,” when he had had no compassion at all. He knew that he was asking for something that he did not deserve.
The story of David’s life (as we read it in Samuel) tells us that the Lord answered his prayer for grace by giving him grace.
The grace of God in David’s life gave David what he knew he needed above all else: “Create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (51:10)
The grace of God would make David’s heart pure again so that he could do what he had failed to do. David would try to see his life as full of the gifts of God and live accordingly. He would try to treat others with reverence, with the reverence due to them as gifts of God in their own right.
The truth is that David would never succeed at this very well. Many times he would just be awful. But it was his aim to live by grace. It was his desire to live a life that was changed by grace whether he succeeded or not. David sometimes lived a life that showed a gracious heart. He lived in a way that drew the love and sacrifice of others because he, himself, often overwhelmed them with his own sacrifice.
After his failure, David knew he did not deserve any real peace of mind ever again, but he prayed for it anyway: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.” (51:12)
This is the beauty and loveliness of God that Paul writes about when he says: “God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:5-6) The beauty of this action by God, on our behalf, is grace.
Only grace would allow David to live fully as a servant and a child of God. Paul teaches us that it is the grace of God that lifts us up “into the heavenly realms” which means the capacity to live life in the freedom of the power and the presence of God, through Christ. The grace of God gives us the drive and the freedom to become gracious.
John tells us that the coming of God in the flesh, in Jesus Christ, was full of grace and truth. (John 1:14) This grace gave us the power to see God, and to be reborn and recreated as brand new children of God, who are born by the will of God. (John 1:12-13, 18) And God’s will for us is grace, and his grace gives us wills like his own.
There is a time when everything in our life is grace; even though we have earned nothing. When we are babies and little children we can’t do anything for anyone except to need grace; to need love, and nurture, and endless (tireless and exhausting) care, and direction. When little children experience neglect instead of care, there is a neediness within them which often follows them all their lives.
Sometimes neighbors, and relatives, and other concerned people can step in and give them a new start and a new life. This is grace.
One way or other we can generally only give what we have been given. We give what we have received. We can only give grace when we have received grace.
No matter how independent we think we are, or ought to be, we can only build a good life on the foundation of having learned, at one time in our life (at least), that everything is a gift; everything is grace and grace alone. There is never a stage in life where you can become an abundant giver (a passionate, uncalculating giver) without continuing in a life full of grace, in which it seems that you live by grace alone. Sooner or later we will find ourselves in a place where we can do nothing but receive grace.
Even in the Bible, the word grace is a strange and confusing word. When we study the Bible it is easier to find grace in the New Testament than in the Old Testament.
There is plenty of grace in the Old Testament, though. Otherwise the people of Israel would never have survived.
But the simple, clear word for “grace” is very rare in the Old Testament. The Bible itself tells us to expect this.
John, the writer of the gospel, tells us that the clearest thing to find in the Old Testament was the law. The clearest thing was the challenge to try living by the law and by earning your own way.
John tells us that Jesus helps us to see more of God than the law alone. Jesus helps us to see everything that God would give us through grace, beyond the law. John says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God, the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”
John tells us that God, the Word, became flesh. He uses the word flesh, instead of the word for human or man, because the flesh is the weak, central core of human nature.
The flesh is the part of human life that wears out the soonest. The flesh represents us as frail people, as rebels hiding in the in dark. The flesh represents us as people who cannot understand what it means to receive and welcome Jesus; as people who will not come and live in the light of God, who gives us life.
Jesus became flesh. He identified himself with all of human life (the best and the worst). But he went beyond that. Jesus was aware of our need, and so he identified himself, most of all, with the undeserving heart of human nature; the failing, sinful heart of human nature.
Jesus not only identified himself with humans at their best, but at their worst. This is important.
This is why the cross is beautiful and lovely in all its awful horror. God, in his grace, goes the distance with us. God goes with us infinitely beyond any notion of worthiness or deserving.
God deals with the darkness in us until that time when we are truly free, until that time when he will put all the darkness away in a new heaven and a new earth.
Grace alone means that there is no other story. God is never done with us, or with grace. The story of grace is the only story; and it never ends. After all, isn’t the good news of the gospel beautiful because it is the heart of a never-ending story?
It is a story where there is joy because everything is a gift, and the story only leads to the discovery of gift beyond gift, beyond gift, beyond gift: “one blessing after another.” The Bible calls it “grace upon grace”.
Everything will be grace and grace alone. This is the good news of the gospel.