Sunday, June 7, 2015

Know God - The Power of Love

Peached on Sunday, June 7, 2015

Scripture readings: Hosea 2:12-23; 1 John 4:7-5:5

Many years ago I would be talking to my Baci (my Babcia, my Polish grandma) or writing to my Polish Aunt Genia, and I would make some observation or other, and the response would be, “You say that because you’re Polish.” Maybe that was wishful thinking on their part. I could never understand the pattern of thinking that they called Polish. They saw a family resemblance.
White Bluffs, Opposite the Hanford Reservation, WA
Columbia River, April 2015
Many years ago, some non-Polish relatives were visiting me in Oregon: my Dad’s brother Uncle Don and my Aunt Joyce. We got into a conversation about God, and what God did by coming into our world in Jesus, and dying for our sins, and rising from the dead.
The conversation went on and on, and it was very lively and exciting. Most of the interaction was between my Uncle Don and me. My Uncle Don, for years, had raised big barriers between himself and the Christian faith as it is commonly understood and explained.
I felt like I was making progress, but my Uncle Don kept raising objections. Finally he seemed to try to get off the subject by saying, “Do you know why I don’t go to church?”
We hadn’t been talking about the church. We had been talking about Jesus, and why we needed Jesus. I felt like he was trying to worm his way out of what we were talking about. So I said, “I don’t care why you don’t go to church.”
My Uncle Don’s eyes got large. Then he beamed a big smile, spread out his arms, and looked up on high, and he said, “Spoken like my brother’s son.”
My Uncle Don told the truth. This is how the Evans men all talk to each other. Of course there aren’t many of us, and maybe that is one reason why.
It’s all about family resemblance. It’s not just about a resemblance of eyes, and noses, and chins. (I have a double cowlick and that’s from the Polish side of the family.)
The resemblance can be seen in how we move our bodies. I put my hands on my hips like my grandpa Evans. I do a thing with the little finger on my right hand that comes from my grandma Evans. So those things have been going on for more than a hundred years. If I had kids, I might have passed these things on to succeeding generations.
I have an Irish side to the family. Some of us came to America about 1850, and some of us went to Australia, about the same time. We have been writing, off and on, ever since. It’s a family habit that has gone on for well over a hundred and fifty years. It’s a family resemblance. Enough of that!
There’s a God resemblance that gets inherited by the people who are born by grace and faith into God’s family. It’s the resemblance of love.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) It’s a spiritual genetics that points to Jesus. It’s a resemblance that perpetuates Jesus physically in this world.
Think what this means. Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world on the cross (John 1:29), and then he rose from the dead. That is the kind of love with which we are to love one another.
The Apostle John made this love part of the center of his teaching. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love…This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:7-12)
There was a woman who occasionally attended a church I served. She confessed to me, one Sunday morning after worship, that she had trouble feeling God speak to her in a sermon when the preacher wasn’t preaching fire and brimstone. (Yes, she really said that.)
Well I have just done that for you. You ought to be shaking in your boots right now, and so should I. Didn’t you hear it? Didn’t you smell the fire and brimstone? “Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love.” And John says it again, “If anyone says ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.” (1 John 4:20) A Liar! And John says it again, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:21)
But who is my brother? Someone asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” And that question is just another way of saying, “Who is my brother?”
To answer that, Jesus gave the example of the Good Samaritan who helped a member of the people of Israel who had been attacked, and robbed, and left for dead on the road. The Samaritans were deeply hated enemies of the people of Israel, and they hated Israel right back. The story Jesus told them gave the lesson that we are to love our enemies. (Luke 10:25-37; see also Matthew 5:44)
We are to show the family resemblance that we inherit when we are born into God’s family by grace and faith. John says that God loves those who don’t love him, and that God sent Jesus and came down in Jesus to be a sacrifice for our sins that would atone for our sins.
Atonement means unification. It means reconciliation. It means bringing together those who have been alienated and divided. It means making them one. God loves those who do not love him and so we need to love our brothers and sisters, even when they are our enemies and do not love us. It’s in the Bible!
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel, the people of God, stopped loving and trusting God. They went on, and on, and on worshiping other gods, because they thought it would get them somewhere. They thought it would make them happy.
They became what is called, in fancy theological language, apostate. Apostate means, among other things, leaving and denying a relationship with God. It means denying the faith. It means living life in contradiction to the faith.
In the Book of the Prophet Hosea, God never stops loving those people. In the Old Testament, apostasy was considered spiritual adultery. It was as if Israel was married to God by the promises that God had made. God had promised to be their God and to make them his people. His people betrayed those promises of God. They had mated with other gods and loved them better.
The Lord told Hosea to marry a prostitute to symbolize what the relationship between the Lord and Israel had turned out to be. He told Hosea to do this deliberately because that is what the Lord had really done by making his vows to Israel. When the Lord made his covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, it was clear that this is exactly what he was doing.
God’s love, perfect love, can be angry for a long, long time and never stop loving. The Lord described all the things he wanted to do to Israel in his anger, and then he says: “Therefore, therefore, I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her.” (Hosea 2:14) The desert, in the Old Testament, is the place for intimacy with God. The anger of God would end in everlasting tenderness.
Eventually this prostitute left Hosea completely, and became the slave of another man. Hosea had to go and buy her back. He didn’t have enough money so he had to empty his cupboard. He had to pay part of the price with his own food. (Hosea 3:2)
The Lord told Hosea, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites.” (Hosea 3:1-2)
Hosea and his unfaithful wife had children. He had to wonder if they were even his own children. One was called “Not Loved”. Another was called “Not My People.”
In his anger God gave these children terrible, terrible names to reflect his anger and his separation from his people. In the end, God in his love tells Hosea to change their names, because “Not Loved” will be loved, and “Not My People” will be God’s people. (Hosea 2:23)
The New Testament describes this same love that Hosea writes about, and the New Testament tells us that this same love also belongs to us. It belongs to all people who love God and who love others. Paul says this in Romans: “What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy whom he prepared in advance for glory; even us, who he also called, not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea: ‘I will call them “my people” who are not my people; and I will call her “my loved one” who is not my loved one.…” (Romans 9:23-25; see also 1 Peter 2:9-10)
We all share the same story of being changed by the love of God. We are all “God’s loved” and “God’s people”.
We inherit the story and the spiritual genetics of love. Love is as necessary as faith for our life in God. God loves the unworthy, and the outsider, and the enemy, and even the apostate redemptively, because that is the only way to make them his children and to make them our brothers and sisters.
If we are God’s children, then the family resemblance holds true. We love the unworthy, and the outsider, and the enemy, and even the apostate redemptively, because that is the only way to make them God’s children and our own brothers and sisters.
I’m not making this up. God did it first. It’s in the Bible.
If God’s love (which means God’s kind of love) is not in us then God is not in us. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
The Lord gave Hosea a seemingly impossible task. It would take all of Hosea’s life to work it out. This is God’s task with you. This is God’s task with the whole world.
The Lord gave Hosea a seemingly impossible task: to make someone who was not God’s person into God’s person. He gave this seemingly impossible task to Hosea in order to show God’s own seemingly impossible task: to take a whole human race that was not his people and make them his people.
In the end, this required death on the cross by Jesus, who is God made flesh. (John 1:14) In Jesus, God died in order to love those who did not love him. In Jesus, God died in order to love those who were his enemies.
Paul says this in Romans chapter five. “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life.” (Romans 5:10)
There is a Christian thinker who wrote this: “When God sets out to embrace the enemy, the result is the cross.” (Miroslav Volf, “Exclusion and Embrace”, p. 129)
Love is hard. Love is sacrificial. Some Christians don’t want their life with other Christians to be hard or sacrificial. When I see this happen and when I don’t have God’s love in me; that makes me mad. When I see this happen and when I do have God’s love in me when I see it; it sometimes makes me afraid. But God’s love is also meant to deal with my angers and my fears. God’s love insists on taking anger and fear away so that it is possible to love others no matter who they are, no matter what they have done.
I am commanded to love others with God’s love; which means that I am commanded to trust God’s love. When I know God’s love, then I trust God’s love to work in those who are unworthy, and in the outsider, and in the enemy, and in the apostate. We are not called to fear or to anger. Perfect love (God’s love) casts those out.
Can you live like that? Can I live like that? We better, if we want the love of God to live in us. We better try to live like that, or else we will prove ourselves to be liars. There’s the fire and brimstone again, but it’s not my words. It’s John’s words.
We are part of this world, but God came in Christ to overcome the world. (John 16:33) There is a holy discipline in this matter of love, and that discipline is faith. We struggle and we trust. We struggle and we trust. “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” (1 John 5:4-5)
This means that we believe that Jesus is more than a teacher or a holy man. We believe that Jesus is the face and the resemblance of the living God. When we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father. (John 14:9) When we have seen the love of Jesus, we have seen the love of the Father. When we see it, we will resemble it. We will live it.
If we don’t live in love it is because we have never truly seen love. Or we have seen it and not responded in kind. By faith we see love and we die with Jesus on the cross, and we rise with Jesus from the dead. We trust and live in the love that Jesus came to show us.
“If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him, and he in God, and so we know and rely on the love God has for us.” (1 John4:15)

We are God’s people and we have been born by grace and by faith into God’s family. We have been born to act as the power of God’s redemptive love in this world.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Know God - No Substitutions

Preached on Sunday, May 31, 2015

Scripture readings: Isaiah 40:12-31; John 4:1-24

A man was hiking along the top of a canyon, and he stumbled and fell. There was a bush growing out of the side of the cliff, and the man grabbed hold of that bush. He held on for dear life.
He looked down. He was hanging hundreds of feet straight above the bottom of the canyon. He yelled, “Help, is there anybody up there?”
White Bluffs, Along the Columbia River
Near Handford Reservation, WA
April 2015
There was a voice that answered, “Yes, I’m up here. I’m everywhere.” “Who are you?” “I am God.” “Can you help me?” “Yes, I can help you and I will help you, if you trust me.”
“I trust you Lord.”
“Then let go of the branch, and I’ll catch you.”
“Let go, and I’ll catch you?”
And the man yelled again, “Help, is there anybody else up there?”
If this joke had been written in the Old Testament, the voice that said “let go” would have been the God of the people of Israel. The “anybody else up there” would have been an idol.
In a way, the Bible is a bit unfair about idols. An idol is a statue, but it’s also something more. At least that is what the old idol worshipers claimed. An idol represents something beyond itself that is considered to be spiritual and divine: like nature, water, storms, mountains, seeds and crops, and even the stars and the planets. Or an idol could represent something considered to be spiritual and divine, but connected to human relationships and the human order of things: like sex and marriage; wealth and prosperity; rulers, governments, and nations; and war and peace.
If you made an idol, the powers represented by the idol would benefit. They would grow. They would be happy. They would bargain with you, and they would be more likely to give you what you wanted. If you took care of them, they would take care of you. That was their claim.
This is why the people of Israel were tempted to worship idols. It seemed very practical. It was claimed that there was a sort of method behind it. This is still a big temptation in our world today, and in our own nation.
Most of us don’t make statues of prosperity, or security, or sex, or politics; but we spend a lot of time and energy on them and maybe more time and energy than we give to our relationship with God, and to human beings who are the real image of God.
The Samaritan woman, who found Jesus at the well, didn’t worship idols, and she seems (for all the mess-ups of her life) to still be a believer, but she worshiped some things more than she worshiped God. She seems, to me, to have worshiped marriage (or men, or her sense of security) more than she worshiped God.
Sometimes God’s people are smart enough not to make the mistake of worshiping things, or emotions, or even relationships, more than God. It is much harder to be smart enough to resist the temptation of making God into an idol.
We say that we trust that God is big: bigger than we are. But we don’t really want that. We want a smaller god who will let us make him in our own image. This is part of what Isaiah means, when he says: “Who has understood the mind of the Lord, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way?” (Isaiah 40:13-14)
We want the Lord to consult us. We want to teach God the right way.
We want to manage God. We want to organize him on our own behalf, at least to make him see and do things our way. For God to see and do things our way he would have to be closer to our own size. Then what help would he be? But what we want makes much less sense than we think.
God will never be what we want him to be, if we want him to be our idol.
The woman at the well managed to have a whole conversation with Jesus and she asked him to give her something to make her life easier. We don’t read that she ever gave him the drink of water that he asked for. But she did give herself to serve him as his witness. Even when we know the Lord we may serve him in one way and we may also withhold ourselves from him in another way, at the same time. We treat God like an idol. What a mixture of intentions we are!
Neither Isaiah’s people nor the woman at the well were thriving, they were living on the edge of survival. At least they thought they were, and they weren’t happy about it. In Isaiah’s time the northern kingdom of Israel was completely destroyed and the people were carted away into exile by the Assyrians.
Then the Assyrians conquered the whole southern kingdom of Judah, except for Jerusalem. The Lord saved that kingdom by an amazing miracle. As a result of the miracle, the Lord got the enemy completely out of their country. But that only served to show how desperate things were. Except for the faithfulness of God things were desperate.
The people of Israel were not particularly thankful about this. They wanted more. They wanted better. They believed that they shouldn’t have all the fears and hardships they were going through. They knew that they were never far from disaster. According to Isaiah, they said, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God.” (Isaiah 40:27)
The woman at the well had come to get her water at noon, the hottest time of the day. She did this because she was an outcast. She was a reject. She had made an outcast of herself by so much scandal, and foolishness, and shamelessness. She had ruined her life.
The other women of the town were heartless and relentless toward her. They made her life miserable. Those were the good people (the religious people) of the town; and (to their way of thinking) what good was it for them to be good if they couldn’t make other people take notice? Their goodness was their idol.
They all made other issues bigger than God. Isaiah doesn’t explain it, but he makes it clear that his people would find a new life if they could learn to trust how big God is. The woman at the well found her life changed because she found that God was big enough to ask her for a drink of water, even when he knew everything about her. Jesus showed her that.
God was different from the good people and the religious people around her. God refused to be the idol that the good and religious people made him out to be. In Jesus, God crossed a line that his own people would not cross. God took a risk that they would not take.
Isaiah said this to his people: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31)
The people of Israel didn’t understand what was going on around them. They seemed to be at the mercy of nations and rulers; and the troubles just went on and on. If they had done something wrong, and if they could benefit from God’s discipline, couldn’t God just do it and get it over? But it went on and on.
Isaiah has some wisdom for dealing with the stress that comes from trying to understand what is going on. He says this about God: “His understanding no one can fathom.” (Isaiah 40:28)
What if we were to say that, with God, what he looks for in us (the thing he is after) is not understanding but faithfulness? Understanding is good, but faithfulness is better.
This is shocking, because we want to be smart. I know that I want to be smart.
We think that understanding means being smart. We think other people will look up to us if we are smart. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve wanted to be as smart as God, and that turned out to be asking for trouble.
But look again at how you live life fully. You don’t always understand the people in your own family, and they don’t always understand you. Wouldn’t it be (at least provisionally) better if you and the people closest to you could just be faithful even when there was no understanding? Understanding is something that could come after you have given your faithfulness: not always, but sometimes.
Being faithful doesn’t mean seeing everything as good. God’s faithfulness to you doesn’t depend on him blinding himself to what is not good in you.
Jesus shows this with the woman at the well. He faithfully shows his desire to get through to her and give her real life, even though he is not blind to her sins. He could never give you a faithfulness that was blind to your sins and still be of any lasting help to you.
Faithfulness has nothing to do with blinding yourself. Faithfulness guides you into the hard choices that you make in order to deal with people you don’t understand.
Faithfulness can mean saying no to something or someone. That can be the most faithful form of love, as any parent knows. And a child often can’t fathom the understanding of the best parent in the world. But this is how we grow and thrive. Sometimes we can serve best when we don’t worry about fathoming what is going on. We just settle on worrying about being faithful. This is enough. This is love.
People try to force God into a mold. They try to shape him into an idol that their minds can grasp; into a god who will see things their way. There is no love in this. We make idols of life and things when we don’t love God as he deserves, and when we don’t love others (who are made in God’s image) as they deserve.
Twice Isaiah asks this double question: “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” (Isaiah 40:21 & 28)
They did know. They had heard. The word of God had told them. There were very few books in their world. Even the scriptures could be found in only a few places, but people knew what was in them.
They knew the stories of the long wanderings of Abraham and his family, even though the Lord had promised him a land. They knew the stories of the long slavery of their people in Egypt and the long travels through the wilderness, with Moses, on their way to the Promised Land. They knew that God worked over long periods of time, and yet God was faithful, and God gave life and hope to his people. With this life and hope they could “run and not grow weary”. They could “walk and not be faint.”
We make an idol of God by making the religious business and church business bigger than God. The more we let people make this business the big thing, the more we let them divert our energy from crossing the lines and, taking the risks, and reaching out to the people who are not like us for the love of God. The woman at the well made the question of the business of where and how to worship more important than giving a drink to a thirsty traveler for the love of God.
But God, in Jesus, crossed the line to share his life with someone who was not like him in order to give her a drink of the living water that would well up into eternal life. (John 4:14) Jesus said that the business of where and how to worship wasn’t important and it would someday not count at all. The business of where and how was nothing compared with worshiping in spirit and in truth.
Jesus came and died on the cross, and rose from the dead in order to change our hearts; in order to open our hearts to him and to his Father to the core and spirit of our being. Jesus came to change our hearts and make us true, and to get rid of all the idols we make to hide the true God.
The woman tried to distract Jesus over and over again. The Messiah (the king of the kingdom of God) “will explain everything to us.” By this she meant that she didn’t want to talk with Jesus about this any more. He wouldn't let her manage him. She would rather wait for the Messiah.
Jesus said, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:25-26) There is no where and how to worship God in spirit and in truth except through Jesus.
Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10) Jesus knew who she was to the core and spirit of her being, and he offered her the gift of life that only God can give.
Back in the Book of Isaiah (55:1) it’s God who gives the water of life. That’s the God whose understanding no one can fathom. That is the God who asked the woman for a drink.
God in Jesus reached across one of the deepest divisions and across one of the deepest hatreds in the world. God offered life to the woman, and to her people, even though they were his people’s enemies.
Jesus knocked down every idol or confinement that the woman tried to build to keep Jesus under control. This is disturbing when God sets himself the task of doing the same thing to us and when God asks us to cross the same lines and take the same risks.
Isaiah’s people and the woman at the well were desperate people because the Lord was knocking down their idols. If we are desperate it is because God, in Christ, is knocking down our idols and calling us to come to him and follow him into something new; something too big for us.
This is what God is like. This is what the cross is like. This is what the resurrection is like. What God has done for us in Christ is too big for us and it calls us to join God in a life and a calling that are too big for us. We can’t fathom it. We would be desperate if God were not faithful.

There is no statue, or picture, or image that we can hold in our mind in order to make this God manageable or fathomable. God comes to us as a moving target. God comes, in Jesus, in a life that is beyond our control. If we will trust this, and put our hope in this, then we will know God, and follow God, and others will know God through us.