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.

1 comment:

  1. . Faithfulness guides you into the hard choices that you make in order to deal with people you don’t understand.

    Honestly, it is as if you write these sermons just for me. I can't tell you how much your words mean in my life just now.
    Recently, I was reading my Bible and you know where Jesus has cursed the fig tree and they are surprised that the fig tree was withered? Jesus says, "Have faith in God" and those words seemed to jump out at me. Maybe I needed for them to, just as your sermon has spoken to me now.
    Great Is Thy Faithfulness!