Monday, August 24, 2015

Know God - The Passionate Discipline

Preached on Sunday, August 23, 2015

Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Hebrews 12:1-13

When I was a young kid, I remember sitting with other boys and talking about what our dad’s did to punish us when we were bad.
One of my best friends, Merle, was a good kid. He was a better kid than I was. But (when Merle misbehaved) he would get a belt across his bare bottom; and not just once or twice. We had heard of such things before but, honestly, it was scary to hear about it.
Assorted Pictures Taken in:
 Washtucna, WA; Northern CA; Desert Aire, WA 
But we all had another very strange reaction to hearing Merle tell us about this. It must have been the mark of kids belonging to an earlier time. I think we all thought very highly of him because of what he had to face. He had to face something we couldn’t imagine.
The discipline my dad used was to spank me on the behind with the slap of his hand. He knew how to slap hard, but it was always on top of my pants, which were mostly blue jeans.
I remember that my dad’s spankings were plenty for me. They hurt enough; until I was ten years old. One day, when I was ten, I did something wrong that probably wouldn’t have earned a spanking, but then I added to what I had done by making the mistake of talking back to my dad about it.
I sassed my dad. That was the worst thing I could do; so I got a spanking and, as he was paddling me I was shocked, because it didn’t hurt. I was so shocked at this that I almost laughed. That would have been the worst.
I think my dad realized that something had changed, and so he never spanked me again. He would just speak to me with anger in his voice, and he raised his voice just a bit: not much, but just a bit.
The voice became enough. I hated to have him mad at me. I hated it.
But my dad did one other very scary thing all along my young life. He actually was capable of this scary thing for as long as he lived. I don’t know how many people would be close enough to him to see this. And I am sure he never knew that he did this but, when my dad was really, really mad, he changed the color of his eyes.
My dad’s eyes were brown but, when he was very angry, I remember that his eyes turned green. I swear they turned green. It was horrible.
Now, I have told you these stories because the portions of the Bible we have read this morning contain the word “discipline”. Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews even uses the word “punishment” and that word means giving a whipping.
This idea of discipline and punishment is at the center of a huge misunderstanding. Here is part of life where God’s people either blissfully ignore God’s word, or joyfully misapply God’s word. Discipline and punishment are an area where the world judges us as God’s people, but we often deserve to be judged by this world.
The unbelieving world thinks that our ideas about God’s discipline and punishment make us judgmental and unpleasant. They think that our ideas about discipline and punishment explain a lot about why people who claim to follow a God of love can be so unloving.
Even God’s people often don’t understand that God’s discipline (and even God’s punishment) is all about God’s passionate love: God’s parental love. The language is about the best way to raise a child. The overwhelming majority of the examples of God’s discipline (and even punishment) are directed toward his own people and not toward other people.
In the Bible, when other people got disciplined, it was usually because they treated God’s people as if they were unloved. It is always a mistake to treat other people as if they are unloved.
The mind and the heart of God are not on discipline and punishment, as we understand them. Think of how odd this sounds; the way the Lord thinks of discipline.
In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminded his people of God’s discipline. “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert, these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna…to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.” (Deuteronomy 8:2-5)
There is that odd combination of God letting you be hungry and then feeding you miraculously. If we looked closely at this we would see that the hunger never seemed to hurt anyone, except that it made people complain. In the end, it was only their complaining about the hunger that never hurt them that turned out to be the worst thing that God’s people did. Then their hunger really did lead to punishment.
Yet the purpose (all along) was to teach God’s people to actually take more of their hungers seriously. They needed to know that God wanted to feed them in more ways than they thought they needed, and that they could trust him to do this. Their real sin was to not believe and trust how much they were loved.
During their forty years of wandering in the desert God’s people never needed new clothes. Their clothing never wore out. All that walking on sand and rock never did them a bit of harm. What kind of discipline and punishment was that prolonged journey with God?
Of course I’m leaving out a lot. But what I am saying is true. The Book of Deuteronomy is a typical Old Testament book. It’s full of discipline, but it is also full of God’s faithfulness, from beginning to end. Sometimes Deuteronomy is called “The Gospel of Love” of the Old Testament. Of course that love is tough love.
The writer to the Hebrew Christians told them (and us) to run a great race. The whole creation is like a great combination of a marathon and a relay race. It takes discipline.
This race is everything. It’s what the whole creation is about. The race is about faith, and fellowship, and community, and love.
In a race you aren’t supposed to be looking around you but, in this race, you are told to look back at those who went before you, and you are told to look at Jesus who started the race and who is also finishing the race. Jesus is “the author and perfecter of our faith”. This is odd, old-fashioned language. It means that Jesus started the race and that he is the one who will finish and complete the race. He’s not done until we are done, and he will see each one of us across. And he is the one who is like that coach in high school who ran along side me trying to get me to run right.
That coach wasn’t successful, but Jesus died to live in my heart and to run the race in me, and through me. Jesus is a better kind of coach. The Bible shows us that God knows what we need. Even parents can’t always give us what we need. Those of you who are parents know what I mean.
The writer to the Hebrews knows what he says. “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” (Hebrews 12:10)
Holiness doesn’t mean being perfect, and it doesn’t mean being better than others. Holiness is passion for a purpose. There is a difference between having passion and not having passion. On that level, holiness, as passion, is better than anything else. And holiness without passion is not holiness at all.
The Hebrews guy writes: “How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!” This living is not about survival. It’s about living life with passion and purpose. When this passion and purpose seem to set us apart from others, then nothing gives us more joy than to find that we can belong to others who also live in passion and purpose.
Passion and purpose are the best way to make us a team. They are the best way to make a happy family.
I’m not a runner at heart. I’m not a skilled runner at all. If I want to, I am still able to run, just a little bit. Sometimes a strange thrill will go through me and make me want to run, just a little bit.
My cousin Don (who is a much better Christian than I am) has learned (in his early sixties) to become a runner, and a happy runner at that. He runs with his grown kids and with the kids of his kids. That is passion, and purpose, and belonging, and joy. That’s what the race of Jesus is like.
Don gets aches and pains, and those hurt. Those are the punishment of his running. I mean they come from his running and they get in the way of his running. They hurt. The aches and pains, that are so punishing, have to be healed, and overcome, and proper running has to be practiced and retrained again.
When this happens, God isn’t punishing my cousin Don. Don could conceivably feel whipped, but God helps my cousin respond as if something coming from God required his attention. If the aches and pains are God’s discipline (I’m guessing) then they are also God’s challenge to return to a life of passion and purpose. God’s discipline works for love.
The Hebrews guy says that this leads to “a harvest of righteousness and peace.” Righteousness is the pattern of life where things are flowing together so right that it looks beautiful. Peace is the pattern of life where everything contributes to everything thriving.
The Hebrews guy goes on to tell us that we can get hurt in the race in a way that whips us. But it is not God whipping us. Bitterness whips us. It puckers life. It makes life dark, and angry. Bitterness makes life into a weeping and a complaining thing. Bitterness isolates us from love.
Sexual immorality is where people use other people instead of being faithful to them. This cripples them (and us) more than we know.
Esau selling his birthright was called godless because Esau didn’t enjoy his place in life as if it were a gift. He didn’t value his life as a gift from God. He didn’t receive his blessing because he had no concept of blessing, which is a gift.
These are the aches and pains of the race that disable us. These are how we let the race whip us.
Looking to Jesus, who begins and completes the race in you: that is healing. Jesus begins and completes the race by running his own race for you and me: by dying on the cross and by rising from the dead. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
God’s discipline is designed to make us like Jesus. That is also why we focus on Jesus. Then we will love to run with Jesus. That race will be what our life is about, no matter what our earthly legs and feet are fit for.
I need to tell you about a boy named Blain and the discipline of love.
I met Blain around early 1993, when he was about ten or eleven. He had broken one of our church windows with a rock. He and some other boys were really just trying to hit the wall of the church with rocks. It must have been, for him, like it was for me, when I was four years old and I wanted to see how close I could get the coat hanger to the electric outlet without actually sticking it in.
Blain had been seen, and exposed, and caught. His dad brought Blain to me and the elders and explained that Blain would pay for the window. The family was a farm family and there was always work for Blain to do. This was part of his discipline in life.
Blain was a good kid; a kid who loved Jesus. He loved the farm. He grew up to love to work. He loved sports. He loved youth group. This was his discipline in life.
He grew in his love for his country. He enlisted in the Army before he graduated from high school. He married the sister of a best army buddy. This was his discipline in life.
He loved the Army. Blain was a joyful warrior. It was his life’s discipline. Blain went to Iraq around 2003. There he was killed by a sniper, in Bagdad, in 2004.
 One of the obituaries told it like this:
“Weeks after arriving in Iraq…Specialist Blain asked people in his hometown to send clothes and shoes for Iraqi children.”
Blain’s small town “responded with box after box of clothing, candy and other goods.”
Blain’s father, Mike, looked back on Blain’s love for the Iraqis and said, “He spent every moment over there worrying about those people. In his eyes, love and the future of Iraq were going to come through the Iraqi children.”
Blain was injured a month before his death, when a car bomb exploded near his tank but, after a couple of weeks of desk work, while nursing a bruised eardrum and a sore back, Blain asked “to be sent back out there”; back on combat duty.
So, at the age of twenty-two, back in his tank, at a roadblock in Bagdad, “Blain popped his head out of his tank’s command hatch and a sniper got him. It was instant death with one shot.”
I did what they call “officiate” at Blain’s funeral. It was in the school gymnasium and the room was filled with more than twice the number of the people in the town. It included a lot of military officers and ceremony as well.
In my eulogy for Blain, I said this:
So who is God, as we meet him in Jesus? God is a God who loves us passionately, and who does not want to be on the sidelines when the people he created and loves are in trouble. God is a God who is capable of meeting danger and risk, and capable of being killed if he wants (as he was on the cross), but he is willing to meet that danger to protect, and save, and encourage those he loves.
This is the kind of life that makes sense to the maker of the universe, our maker and savior. This is God’s love. This is the love poured out for us by Jesus on the cross.
And so human love, in its highest form, is also love like that. This is what it means to be truly, fully alive.
And so Blain was not dying when he exposed himself to danger and became a sniper’s target. Blain was living his life to the fullest. He was living for his fellow soldiers, for the people of Iraq, for his own people, for his own family and home, and for a community that he knew was proud of him.
 For us, God’s discipline is for a great adventure. It’s a race. It’s a family that draws all life together in love, in heaven and earth.
God’s discipline is for passion and purpose. God’s discipline is for belonging, faithfulness, and love.
When God’s discipline makes us his children, we are not afraid of anything. We are not afraid of shedding of our own blood for love. We are not afraid to share our beautiful God with others. We are not afraid to share God’s story in our lives with others.
The punishment we take in the pains of the race (the punishment we take in discipline) always comes from the training of God our father. We often feel whipped by the discipline, but not whipped by God. God is exactly what we find in Jesus, and his discipline makes us the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
We are not afraid of aches and pains. We are not afraid of injury to ourselves. We are not afraid to be the people who live like Jesus, and for Jesus, in this world.
The Hebrews guy says that “Our God is a consuming fire”. By faith, we know that this means nothing but good for us. The consuming fire is God’s discipline living in us. Consuming fire is our hope. The fire is our life. This happens when we go through the discipline of Jesus.
(Note: Excerpts from an Associated Press obituary for Army Specialist Blain Ebert; killed November 22, 2004: Operation Iraqi Freedom, 4th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. )

Monday, August 17, 2015

Know God - The Book Lover

Preached on Sunday, August 16, 2015

Scripture readings: Psalm 119:57-64; 2 Timothy 3:14-17

A young couple were worried abut their four-year-old, because he had never spoken a word in his life. They took him to a lot of specialists, but the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him. Finally, one morning at breakfast, the boy blurted out, “Mommy, this toast is burnt!”
“Oh honey, honey, you talked! You talked!” Why did it take you so long to talk?”
And the boy said, “Well, up till now everything has been OK.”
Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County
Temporary Exposition -
Grandes Maestros: Great Masters of Iberoamerican Folk Art Collection
 of Fomento Cultural Banamex
June 2015
We have a God who talks: a God who speaks, not just to complain when things go wrong. We have a God who speaks in order to start a relationship, and to build a friendship that will last forever.
In the Bible, it is typical for God to come to someone and talk to them. God calls them by name; gives them a direction to go; focuses them upon a calling or a purpose in life. God strengthens them with a promise they can hold onto, and build their lives on.
Or God talks to them and puts them to shame for some shameful thing they have said or done: something heartless, something hurtful, something unjust, or some kind of betrayal.
Or the Lord talks to them and says, “Come to me and find rest,” or, “Come! Take up your cross, and follow me,” or, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Yet our God doesn’t just talk, God also writes, or God has others write for him. When the people of Israel were escaping from slavery in Egypt, and they had to fight an enemy tribe (the Amalekites) in the desert, and they won (but only because God helped them) the Lord told Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered…” (Exodus 17:14)
And when the people of Israel were getting ready to enter the Promised Land, the Lord told them to hold his words in their hearts and he told them write them down. Write them down in a lot of places where they could read them.
The Lord told them to fasten scraps of notes with the words in their wristbands, and in their headbands. God told them to write his commandments on the doorframes of their houses, and on their gates. (Deuteronomy 11:18-20)
God says, “Write it down! Write it down!”
The Lord told his prophets to, “Write down the revelation, and make it plain,” as he said to the prophet Habakkuk. (Habakkuk 2:2) Write it down!
When Jesus was being tempted by the devil in the desert, every time the temptation came, Jesus remembered something that the people had been told to write down (words from the scriptures). Jesus remembered those words. He spoke them, and fought the temptation, and cleared his mind, and cleared the issue.
The Devil offered Jesus a bad choice by misusing what was written in God’s book. The Devil used what was written in order to make Jesus put himself, and his own concerns, first. But Jesus found the antidote to the misunderstanding of what was written by remembering more of what was written.
Jesus used what was written to help him think of his Father in heaven instead of thinking of himself. Jesus said, “It is written,” in order to remember the love of his Father, and not for the love of himself. Jesus used the words that we should use when we are tempted to put ourselves first. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” (Matthew 4:1-11)
In the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John, John writes this: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)
Paul wrote to his junior colleague and friend, Timothy, and reminded him of the people and the holy writings that had shaped Timothy’s faith and his life. “…continue in what you have learned, and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:14-15)
Christians have always been people who had something in writing. They had a book, or at least a bunch of scrolls that all belonged together: a book where God speaks. We are people with a book.
We believe that God wants us to have a book. What does that fact tell us about our God? We have a God who loves a good book.
This simply tells us that the Lord wants to talk to us. An answering machine has a little light that flashes when it has recorded a message for you. You come home, and glance over at the machine, and its light is blinking, and you know that someone wants to talk to you, unless they have hung up without leaving a message.
When you see a Bible sitting on a shelf, or on a table, it is a signal that God has left a message for you. He wants to talk to you. There is a message there, from God, to be read. Nowadays we should say that God has texted us.
Paul says, “All scripture is inspired by God (or God-breathed) and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”
Perhaps, besides being the light on an answering machine, the Bible is like a bell: a school bell. By giving us the Bible, God is telling us that he is calling us to school.
When I was a kid I didn’t like the sound of the school bell, except when it rang at three o’clock. Well, sometimes I liked the other bells too.
I liked the bell for lunch. I didn’t like the bell for my science class on the days when we had to turn in our lab books, but I liked the bell for my science class when we were studying light waves and I knew it meant that we would be playing with the strobe light in the dark room.
It was just the same for those times at home when home can be like a school. I liked home being a school if my dad was explaining the choke on the car, but not when he was explaining the choke on the lawn mower. The car and the lawn mower meant two completely different things for me. It depended on what the school at home was about.
Paul sums up the purpose of the school of God’s Book as righteousness; but what is righteousness? Righteousness is about rightness; the rightness of something working right or fitting right.
Imagine taking a motor apart, and then putting it back together again, and having parts left over. That wouldn’t be right. That wouldn’t be righteous.
Imagine a recipe for a dish that is not written down, but it is written in the heart. Each time you make the dish it is never quite the same, but it is always good, and then (sometimes) it is just right. That is real righteousness.
It is like the heat of a wood stove on a freezing day. It is like a plunge into a cool lake under a blazing sun. That is part of righteousness. It is rightness when things are right.
Righteousness is like that, but it especially applies to relationships. Righteousness is how to get it right with others, and how to get it right with yourself.
Most of all righteousness is about how to get it right with God. But that is where the amazing truth comes in. The truth is an amazing grace.
Righteousness is the love, and power, and grace of God that forgives you, and mends you, and transforms you. Righteousness is the love, and power, and grace of God that motivates you, and gives you another day, and gives you peace at the end of the day: so you can live right in this world: with others, and with yourself, and with God. Righteousness is about how God gets things right with you.
But, in the grace of God, there is a school for learning. It is for learning how to be the real human being you were created to be. And so there is room in our school book for teaching and rebuking: that is positive and negative. And there is room for correcting and training in righteousness: that is negative and positive.
Well, is correcting positive or negative? It all depends on whether you like to be corrected when you are wrong. The thing is that, in his book, God will say things you don’t want to hear, because you need to hear them; but he will also tell you some things you will be glad to hear.
The truth that God gave us a book tells us that the Lord wants to speak to us in words that will not go away. There they are, in black and white.
The way we translate the ancient Hebrew of the Old Testament and the ancient Greek of the New Testament might need to change in order to keep up with the way we speak and hear, but the teachings and the message don’t change. The original black and white that people wrote when God first breathed on them is always there and there are no secrets in it. You don’t have to go to any other source to know what God wants to say: what God wants you to believe and do.
God gives us a book so that he can be the kind of God we can depend on for telling us things that we cannot fiddle around with to suit ourselves (though we may play games with the words of the Book, to fool ourselves, like a child who plays with his parents instructions to justify doing what he wants).
God is like a wise parent who will tell us what we need to hear, not necessarily what we want to hear. Deep down, I believe that children love knowing that they can depend on their parents to say and do what will make things right and keep things right, even when they don’t like it.
I know some people that I can always depend on to tell me what I’m doing wrong. I know people that I can always depend on to make me feel better when I need it most, and I am blessed that I know a set of people who can be depended on to do both when necessary. These people don’t change.
Paul tells us that God wants to give us a book that is inspired. The word for inspired means “God-breathed”: “God-exhaled.”
The words of God’s book are words written by people, but God breathes into those words and makes them come alive when we read them. Without that kind of inspiration God’s book is dead to us. We need the Lord to breathe on the words, and also on our hearts, at the same time. This breath of God is like the warmth of an incubator that makes the truth crack open, and hatch, and flutter, and sing.
Yet in another way those words of God’s book were breathed by the Lord into the thoughts of those who wrote them, and remembered them, and organized them. The writers were not breathed into a trance or blown around like puppets.
There was an inspired rightness, an inspired relationship between them and the Lord. The Lord helped their hearts, and minds, and lives to fit his message, so that the story in his book would be the true story, so that the story could become our story, so that we could read it and find ourselves in that place where God breathes.
The fact that God gives us a book tells us that we have a God who is working on a story. We have a God who is working on making us part of that story.
The Book is a living story and a rescue story. It begins with God giving us a world that was just right. Then it shows us the part of the story where humans broke the world, and broke themselves, and couldn’t put themselves back together again.  Most of the story shows us the horrible consequences of being broken people in a broken world.
Brokenness sounds sad, and it is; but brokenness also creates ugliness in the form of how broken people treat each other and how they can nearly lose any resemblance to being the creatures of God. The story tells us how God dealt over, and over, and over, and over again with that brokenness.
The story shows us how most of the solutions we want God to use have never worked. You can’t flood the world and save a few good people and get a righteous world. You can’t give good laws and get a righteous world.
God’s one solution was his own extreme faithfulness. This extreme faithfulness is God’s righteousness, which caused him, finally, to personally take on his own shoulders all of all the sin, and the evil, and the injustice, and even the power of death with him on the cross.
It’s the story of a God who turns out to be truly with us in every way; without compromise and without sin. There is no God like the God in this story.
God carried all of this brokenness and this ugliness with him into his death on the cross. So God, in Jesus, sentenced our brokenness to death. Then he sentenced death to death, by rising from the dead.
When we receive Christ into our life, then we come into the presence of God. Because of the cross and the resurrection, we can come into the heart of God, where our brokenness, and our ugliness, and even death are gone.
The story began with God making everything new. The story ends with a new beginning where God says, “I am making everything new.” (Revelation 21:5)
When God breathes his story into us we become a new creation. We become new people who are working and waiting for God to make everything new. The book is all about this one great thing.
The Bible is not a text book that teaches us various subjects. If the Bible only makes us smart, or gives us know-how, then it has failed, and so have we. The Bible is a living story that has been written to bring the reader to the place where he or she can die with Jesus and rise from the dead into a new life. That is what God’s plan is for the whole creation.
God’s book is the long, long story of a God who seeks people out, and does everything that is needed to make them his own. It is the story of the people who hear, and respond, and learn to live with a living and breathing God who is doing a great thing.

We don’t know God as he truly is until we know this God who loves a good book.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Know God - Father Almighty

Preached on Sunday, August 9, 2015

Scripture readings: Acts 17:22-34; John 3:1-21

There was a high school basketball game going on, and one of the dads was sitting at the top of the stands, leaning his back against the wall, and one of the kids on the home team was playing a really smart game. The kid had the ball, and was going for the basket, and the dad was beaming and shouted out loud: “That’s my son!”
More Pictures from Vacation Bible School:
July 2015
But the boy missed his shot, and landed, and slipped, and fell sprawling on the floor, and the dad breathed a sigh, and said: “Well, maybe not, they all look the same from up here!”
What does it mean to call God Father? What does it mean to call God the Father Almighty?
In the Old Testament book of Malachi (3:10), the prophet says: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?” This tells us that God is like a Father to the creation. God is like a Father to everything he has made.
In the Gospel of John it says: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” This tells us that the neediness of the world, the darkness and the evil of the world, are seen by God through the eyes of love, as much as through the eyes of judgment; through the eyes of a Father who shows how almighty he is, how vast his power is, by giving his Son as a gift for the world he loves.
To call God the Father is to say that God is personal, and that God values personhood in his creation: the creation of personhood, the creation of living, healthy, everlasting souls. The universe is not a cosmic machine kept in operation by a cosmic Mechanic. Our task is not to plug into a cosmic force. Our task is to belong to a cosmic Family.
In the Gospel of John (14:23) Jesus says: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
If the universe were the result of some kind of non-personal energy or rhythm, then the point of life would be to achieve some level of energy and rhythm. It might be the energy and rhythm of success, or competence, or understanding, or mastery, or enlightenment, or intelligence: some way of being in sync with the universe. Those things are all good, they are a part of being wise, and God wants us to be wise.
But God is a Father; God is, in some way, essentially personal in nature. If the center of the universe is personal, then life is about a relationship, life is about a continuous interaction with somebody with standards, and expectations, and hopes, and plans: someone who is bigger and older than you are…and you live under his roof. You can’t get out from under his roof because there is no place that is not under God’s roof. The fact that this is someone you are invited to call your Father, means that God loves you and will never be content to let you off the hook.
Now since we are modern people, living in 21st Century America, we know that our culture has problems with calling God Father. The cultures of the Bible did favor men over women, and they used the word “Father” as their preferred word of choice to describe God as the person who was always in charge.
Sometimes the Bible describes God’s love in feminine terms. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah (Isaiah 49:15), the people of Israel complain that they feel forgotten by God. And so God says: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” Jesus compares his love for Israel as the care of a mother hen for her chicks. (Matthew 23:37)
Although the characteristics of gender describe truths that are worth understanding about God, God is beyond gender. God is Spirit, a spiritual being (John 4:24). God’s ancient people knew this just as well as we do, or better. They simply used the word that best described the person who was always in charge. When we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” we are saying, “I believe there is a person in charge, and that is God.”
Faith means having a lot of daring and courage. Some people look at the world and they don’t see a Father Almighty, in the sense of a good and faithful God who truly is in control of the world. They think it takes courage to point this out. I think it takes courage to trust in God’s power when we see signs of beauty, and love, and goodness in a world that often contradicts our faith.
We do live in a world of contradictory messages. We live in a world of rainbows and roses, friends and families; but we also live in a world of Hitlers and bin Ladens, destroyers and abusers, droughts and diseases.
Now, to say that God the Father is Almighty is to say that God can do whatever he wants to do. “Nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) But then one asks, “What, exactly, does God want to do?” The answer is that God the Father wants to make human beings into his real sons and daughters. God wants to make us into personalities who will be brothers and sisters with a true, recognizable likeness to his only eternal Son, Jesus Christ.
What are the conditions of life under which men, women, and children are most likely to become like Jesus? See what Jesus is like. Look at the hard road he took to be with us, to be one of us, to identify himself with us. See how Jesus came in order to join with us in all our temptations, and trials, and hardships, and challenges. (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-8)
Look at the compassion Jesus had for those who struggled and suffered; and the way Jesus responded to them, and helped them. Look at his indignation in the face of mean-spiritedness and injustice. Look at the courage of Jesus in the face of danger and opposition, pain and death. Look at the cross of Jesus. Look at the death he suffered to free us from sin and death.
What kind of world do we need in order to shape our identities in the image of Jesus? Will we become like Jesus more easily in a world with no risks, no pains, and no dangers?
Think about this. If God chose to oppose the evil and darkness in the world by letting his powers go, by becoming a human being and dying on the cross, and if that is one of his greatest, mightiest, and most powerful works, then God sees power in a way that is different from the way the world sees it, different from the way we see it. When human beings use power to set the world right, sometimes it works and sometimes it misfires. The nations that have depended most on the use of sheer power to shape the world (as the fascists and the communists have done, or as we, ourselves, might feel tempted to do as the ultimate, responsible super-power), those have been the nations quickest to destroy themselves.
In that case, the cross points to a more powerful kind of power. The cross is a redemptive power that seems weak to the world, and yet it is the kind of power that changes people. (In the same way, freedom is a power that seems weak to much of the world but, when it is given a chance, it changes people. It helps people to discover who they really are and, unless people possess a true knowledge of themselves, it is very hard for them to know God.)
When I was a kid, I remember going by the high school in August. The temperature in the shade would be one hundred degrees or more. And out there in the sun the football team would be drilling in their helmets and pads. “How stupid,” I thought to myself. Why did they do it? Why did they put themselves through so much agony? Why did they let the coaches push them around?
They did it because they wanted to be football players. They wanted to be as tough as any team they would have to face. All that pain (as it seemed to me) for games that were an eternity away (as it seemed to me, because I always tried to pretend that school would never start) seemed absolutely brutal and senseless. If I had joined the football team I would have felt myself descending into purest hell, surrounded by the proof of a brutal and senseless universe. But then I never went out for football, and so I will never know what it is to be a football player, and to be the member of a football team.
This is not worth comparing with the true horrors of this world. But then, perhaps, there are worse things than living in a world like ours, considering what we need in life to be shaped in the image of Jesus, to become (in our hearts and lives) the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
If our real purpose is to be like Jesus, there might be worse things than to live in a world where danger, and pain, and horror are possible and present. To say that God the Father is Almighty is to mean that God can fulfill his desire to make us like Jesus in a world like our world.
I do not say this lightly.
When I was little (about six, or seven, or eight) I remember sitting together on the grass with other boys when we were resting from playing, and we compared our dads with each other. Which dad was the strongest? Which dad could fix the most stuff? Which dad had the neatest stuff? Which dad was the oldest or the youngest? It seems to me that most of the bragging or comparing we did had nothing to do with what our dads did for us.
Well, we did brag about the presents we got, or about what our dads did with us. But I don’t think we ever bragged about how willing our dads were to do what we wanted them to do. We just did not think of them that way.
There were kids who tried to brag about what their dads would let them do, or what their dads would let them get away with, but most kids would just say, “Boy, my dad would never let me get away with that.” And then we would start boasting about all the things our dads wouldn’t let us do or get away with. And that seemed to be good.
It seemed to be a point of honor to be proud of what we couldn’t do, or proud of what our dads would do to us if we tried to get away with something. We knew that our dads had something better in mind for us, something we didn’t always understand. We didn’t always enjoy it, but we trusted this. And this was our faith in our dads, in their mysterious almightiness.
This is part of our faith when God the Father Almighty does not allow our world to be what we want it to be, when he does not allow our lives to be what we want them to be. We trust there is a mysterious grace in this.
It requires a strong dose of daring and courage to hold a faith like this: when the loudest voices of our world condemn such a faith, when the world itself seems to contradict our faith. But we can hold onto a promise that we do not see if we know for ourselves the God who makes the promise. We must know this God in order to hold onto this faith, if we are going to say, without fear: “I believe in God the Father Almighty.”

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Know God - The Father of Intimacy

Preached on Sunday, August 2, 2015
Scripture readings: Matthew 6:1-18; Ephesians 3:14-21

My two grandmothers had completely different personalities. I loved them both, but I must admit I had a favorite.
Mattawa/Desert Aire Vacation Bible School
July 2015
On my dad’s side there was grandma: Grandma Evans. Grandma was very proper and self controlled. She was very smart and did all kinds of things well. She liked to tell stories about what she had said and done. 
She liked Norman Vincent Peale and his philosophy of positive thinking. She encouraged us grandkids to have the same philosophy. Some other time, I’ll tell you why that didn’t work for me.
She had a number of favorite sayings. One of them was, “If you don’t toot your own horn, nobody else will.”
Grandma was also responsible for taking me to Sunday school when I was very small. That was how I first learned that Jesus loves me. She also had me learn my first Bible verses by heart.
My other grandmother was Baci. Baci is a sort of affectionate version of the word Babcia, which is Polish for grandmother. Baci was very Polish. Her stories tended to be more about what others said and did, and how she had found those things interesting and surprising, and how what other people said and did shaped her life.
Baci was not an optimist, and she didn’t use positive thinking at all but (at least for her grandchildren) no one was better at encouraging you than she was. Baci laughed much louder than Grandma ever did. Baci hugged tighter and stronger than Grandma. Baci could grab you and swing you around the room with joy.
One of Baci’s favorite sayings, which she would only say about herself, was, “What do I know, I’m just a dumb Polak?”
You need to know that the word Polak is a Polish word, and it simply means a Polish person. As such, it is always a compliment. If anyone who isn’t Polish ever calls you a Polak, then it’s either a joke from a good friend who knows that he can get away with it, or else someone is saying the word as an insult: someone is saying it to put you down.
I loved both of my grandmothers. Both of them played large parts in making me who I am. Both of them clearly loved me, but their way of expressing their love was different.
This is a very long, round-about way of describing two alternative kinds of God. When we wonder what it means to know God and to live in that God’s world, what does it mean to be loved by that particular kind of God? What kind of children of God do we become?
Jesus gives us two alternate ways to be good based on the kind of God we know (the kind of God who forms our world). Jesus uses the word “Father” for one of the alternative Gods. He doesn’t give the other alternative God a name, because Jesus doesn’t know that alternative. For Jesus, the alternative to the Fatherly kind of God doesn’t exist.
Paul is in the same boat. He served the other God for a long time, and his life was changed when he met the Father. “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom the whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge: that you may be fill to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19”
Both of my grandmothers loved me. Grandma gave me a smiling love, but I don’t remember her telling me that she loved me. I remember her kissing me, but not hugging me.
Her oldest son was my father, and I was in my fifties before my father ever told me that he loved me. I think he was raised that way. He was raised with the kind of love that smiles but doesn’t say “I love you.”
Grandma had been a teacher, and she was very good at recognizing, encouraging, and rewarding achievement and positive behavior. Baci was very good at saying “I love you.” Her hugs were as good as her kisses: and better than her kisses, really; especially when I got to the age when I didn’t want to be kissed by old ladies. The best thing about Baci was that you didn’t have to do anything at all to be hugged or kissed.
I remember doing and saying a lot of things to get recognition and praise from Grandma. I don’t remember trying to do that with Baci.
Hypocrite is a terrible word. It really just means somebody on stage: an actor. An actor is someone who is playing to an audience. An actor is someone whose recognition depends on their skill at keeping their real identity out of sight, while their act is going on. Their reward comes from how effective they are at creating a convincing superficial self. They are not rewarded for what they are on the inside; in their heart.
If all the hypocrites hired trumpet players to signal their good deeds (like the ones whom Jesus talked about), then all the hypocrites that Jesus knew of must have been rich. This can’t have been the case.
The truth is that we don’t always know what kind of God we have. When we don’t know what kind of God we have, we are all capable of tooting our own horns. It’s safer that way, because we don’t want to look bad in the world of a God who knows how to give recognition, but doesn’t know how to say, “I love you.”
Jesus isn’t talking about hypocrites hiring trumpet players. Jesus is saying that it is better for no one to know anything about the good that you do for others, than it is for you to be playing for recognition.
Jesus isn’t saying that you should never pray aloud in a place of worship, or out in public. Jesus is saying that it is better for no one to ever know that you pray, at all, than it is to pray while you play for recognition; or to “toot” afterward in order to get noticed. If you pray with the intent to play for recognition, then you aren’t praying to the Father. You are worshipping the god of recognition, and not the Father of Jesus.
There is a word behind the word “father” in the teachings of Jesus and in the prayer he taught us to pray, in which we begin by coming to God as “our Father”.
In the Temple in Jerusalem, and in the synagogues where the Jews worshipped, worship was in Hebrew (the old language, the language of the Old Testament). There are just a few places in the Old Testament where God will compare himself to a father, or a prophet or a psalm will compare God to a father, and the Hebrew word for Father is “ab”.
As short as it is, “ab” is a formal word. It carries dignity.
Jesus prayed in the garden on the night before he was crucified, and he called God “abba”. (Mark 14:36) “Abba” is Jesus’ word for God. The word “abba” isn’t used to describe God, or any human father, in the Old Testament. It is a word for daddy in the Aramaic language which the Jew’s had picked up from their neighbors who outnumbered them. By the time of Jesus, they used Aramaic as their common language. It was the language of home, but it wasn’t the language of faith. There was no daddy in their language of faith.
“Abba” means daddy. There are people in the Middle East who still speak Aramaic. Most of them are Christians. They would say that “abba” was the first word that every baby learns.
Toddlers and little children say “abba” before they learn their manners. They shriek “abba” when they are afraid. They squeal “abba” in joy.
Watch little children play with their daddies. They wrestle. They snuggle. They climb on his lap, and then they pull themselves up on his shoulders to be carried.
This has nothing to do with recognition. It has to do with intimacy. Nothing is easier for those children to say than, “I love you, Daddy.” They want nothing better than to hear Daddy say, “I love you, child.”
These children love their daddy’s recognition and praise (and their mommy’s too). But recognition and praise are different when they come from someone who hugs you, and kisses you, and says, “I love you.”
In the story of the first sin, in the place called the Garden of Eden, the first humans were told that God was holding something back from them. They were tempted to take that something for themselves. Then they could be like God. Then they could take care of themselves. They wouldn’t need to hold hands with God.
They were created for intimacy, but now they tried to live outside of that intimacy. They built a wall of doubt and mistrust. That (and not sex) was the forbidden fruit.
That is what sin is really about. You close off at part of your self from God, and from others, and even from yourself. You close yourself off from your own heart. You talk and manipulate your own feelings, and you behave in ways that build walls and separations between you, and others, and God.
Even intimacy no longer works. Intimacy is not intimacy without the promises of a complete and transparent faithfulness that cannot be broken. Intimacy without the faithfulness and the transparency of little children is not intimacy at all. We are created for intimacy with God and with our fellow children.
We say “Our Father” because we are a gang of little children who are learning to live in the world of a “daddy”. What we have with our Father in heaven is also what we are called to learn to have with each other: a complete and transparent faithfulness that cannot be broken.
How sad that, however much we have convinced ourselves that we love “Our Father”, we get fed up with our brothers and sisters, and we run away from them, in the hopes of finding better brothers and sisters. We express our faithfulness to God by giving up on each other. We tell ourselves that God must love us for being smart and wise enough to do this, and being that smart and wise makes us very happy.
The God of glory, whose perfection and power make us shake and want to run and hide, because of our own shame and embarrassment, is also a daddy who dearly loves all his children, and we don’t know him at all until we know this. When we see our own play-acting and horn-tooting in his light we are afraid; not just of him but of ourselves. If we really had a god of recognition, that is what we would recognize.
 We are designed for intimacy, transparency, and faithfulness. That was to be our beauty. It seems to be a lost beauty in this world. We have become the least beautiful part of creation when we were created to be the height of the beauty of that creation.
God came into our world in Christ to tell us that we are as beautiful to him as the dearest child. I think he would have me tell you this. “Thus says the Lord, “You are beautiful to me.””
By this he doesn’t mean that you are more beautiful than others. He simply means that he loves to look at you and contemplate you. Believe this and you will do amazing things. You will amaze yourself.
God came down from heaven to our world, in Jesus, to hold us. The arms of Jesus, stretched on the cross with nails, are the arms of God that ache to hold you tight. The cross and the resurrection are God’s “x’s” and “o’s”. They are his kiss and his hug written in flesh and blood that are so real, and so painful, and so surprising. The message is that his love is so wide, and long, and high, and deep that you can’t get away. You know this, if you know him.
I think fasting tells us about focusing on God, and seeing nothing but God, and knowing him as he is. I will tell you that I don’t fast the way some people do. I stopped doing that kind of fasting during my first year in my first church because I either couldn’t keep it a secret; or I would have to be impolite or I would have to lie about it.
When I visited people, they would offer me cookies or, if I saw someone on Main St., they might invite me to the diner or the restaurant. If I said “no” it would seem rude. If I told them I was fasting it wouldn’t be a secret anymore, so I stopped.
Prayer, giving to others, and even fasting, or so many other things that are part of being God’s children are not for recognition. They are for making room for intimacy and for an audience of one. Even that doesn’t say enough. These parts of a Christian life, these habits, the life of a child of God, are not for anything except for making room for oneness and intimacy.
There was a motivational speaker and thinker named William Purkey who had a classic saying that went like this: “Sing like no one is listening. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching and live like it’s heaven on earth.”
In a well-functioning family and in a healthy marriage there is this singing, this loving, this dancing, and this living. The fact is that there is someone there listening and watching, but they are not really an audience. They are love. They love to hear you and watch you.
If you lose the audience of love, which is so much better than any audience of recognition, that is grief. That is loss. But there is another audience that is better than any audience, and that is God. That is the scary God who has turned into your daddy and who has made you a little child in his arms.
There was a Catholic Christian author named Henri Nouwen who wrote some wonderful books about the spiritual life and here is something he wrote about our intimacy with God through Jesus: "Why is it so important that we are with God, and God alone, on the mountaintop? It's important because it's the place in which we can listen to the voice of the One who calls us the beloved. Jesus says to you and to me that we are loved as he is loved. That same voice is there for us. To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of our being and permeate our whole life. Who am I? I am the beloved. If we are not claiming that voice as the deepest truth of our being, then we cannot walk freely in this world." (Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Living”)
This way of meeting God and knowing God, as he is: this is essential. This is why God became the baby Jesus, and the Jesus on the road, and the Jesus on trial, and the Jesus on the cross, and the Jesus who is the conqueror of sin, and death, and hell. This is the only place to meet God and know him as he is. It is this kiss, this hug, this lap, this nail-pierced hand in our hand that we must know, or we don’t know God.
There is a poem by Robert Frost that says this about family and home: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” (“The Death of the Hired Man”)
The truth of God is so much better than that. The God we meet in Jesus, and the family of our brothers and sisters who are given to us by this God are so much better than that.
Some people live in a world where the only music they can hear comes from someone tooting their horn, or from themselves tooting their own horns.

We have a different God. This world doesn’t help us to know the different God; but Jesus does. Jesus teaches us to know the daddy who makes us truly and faithfully the confident children of God: the children of transparency and faithfulness; the children of intimacy.