Monday, April 25, 2016

"God's Crazy Love"

Preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2016

Scripture readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

The whole fifteenth chapter of Luke is about being lost and found. First, Jesus tells a story about a flock of one hundred sheep, where one sheep gets lost, and the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to find that one lost sheep. Then he tells the story of the woman with ten small silver coins, who loses one and searches her dark, dirt-floored house until she finds that single coin.
Walking along Lower Crab Creek
North of Desert Aire/Mattawa WA: April 2016
Then Jesus tells the story we call the parable of the prodigal son. You know the word prodigal is one of those words I seem to have to look up every time I come across it. “Prodigal” means “wastefully, recklessly extravagant.”
So the story (which is what parable means) is about this younger son who rebels, and leaves home, and so he’s as good as lost to the family. Then that lost son comes home which (by the way, in that time and place) he would never do if he had a shred of dignity or honor.
His honor is less important to him than the power of being found, and he has begun to be found. He gets found first by the memory of his father’s love.
But there is another lost son in the story. The other lost son is the older brother. He’s lost, even though he never left home, even though he never rebelled, even though he never went astray, not even once in his life.
The reading about the Israelites returning to the Promised Land is also a lost and found story. It’s not about them finding the land that they lost, because they had never really possessed the land in the first place. They were the ones who were lost. They had been lost in slavery in Egypt. They were also lost in themselves. They were lost in the slave mindedness they got during their stay in Egypt. Even though God led them and showed his presence to them every step of the way, they were lost from God because they couldn’t know or trust God as long as they were thinking like slaves.
The old pioneer hero Davy Crockett claimed that he had never been lost: only bewildered, but never lost. I think that the so-called righteous, respectable people, who found so much to complain about with Jesus, would have picked up Davy Crockett’s boasting for themselves: never lost; only bewildered.
With the sheep and the coins, some are lost and some are not and (so far as that goes) the righteous people would have agreed. They could see some sense in searching for a lost sheep, or a lost coin. But they would never have searched for the kinds of lost people who were sought out by Jesus.
The people Jesus searched for were “sinners”. The word for sinner, here, is an archery-based word for missing the mark. Something in their lives, their habits, their attitudes, their mistakes, their actions missed the mark. Somehow, they missed their purpose and their meaning in life.
To the righteous, respectable people, the lost people, the people who miss their purpose and meaning in life, don’t deserve to be found at all. They don’t deserve to be sought out. They don’t belong. They shouldn’t be brought in because they don’t fit.
For the righteous and respectable people there is a deeper issue that reveals their hearts. Missing the mark could be a sad thing but those who missed the mark didn’t make the righteous people sad.
The righteous people who looked down on Jesus enjoyed measuring people and making comparisons. For them, to miss the mark was the same thing as not measuring up. Even now, righteous and respectable people often use a scale of measurement that puts themselves at the advantage.
They didn’t like the story of the prodigal son at all because it used a measuring scale that put them at the disadvantage. Jesus has a way of doing this, and we need to listen to Jesus.
In the story of the righteous, respectable older brother, you find the righteous people being set straight. They no longer have the shelter of a world where some are lost and some are not lost. They no longer have the entertainment of making comparisons and judgments. Both children are lost in their own way. This gives us the indispensable knowledge that we are all lost. At least we have all been lost and (therefore) we should love the lost.
This gives us the indispensable knowledge that the righteous, respectable child has also not measured up. The respectable child has missed his purpose and meaning in life just as much as his younger brother. At the end of the story the lost son is the one at home, and the respectable son is the one standing outside, refusing to come in.
We can see what his problem is, so long as we think that this story is not about us. We can see that the older brother is awfully good; with the accent on the awful part.
These stories of Jesus help us identify ourselves as lost. They tell us how and why the Lord seeks us out in order to find us.
The lost sheep nibbles its way into trouble; nibble by nibble. At first, the sheep is safe with the others, eating what they are eating. But he or she inches in a slightly different direction. It doesn’t seem different, but it leads into a slight cleft in the hill, and the sheep follows the cleft and disappears from sight. It’s just following its nose, nibble by nibble.
The lost sheep follows its nose. It follows whatever is right in front of it, and it feels right. The change is so gradual that it goes unnoticed. A change of heart can change unnoticed.
Some sheep start out in rough, dangerous, barren places; and so do some people. Following the first thing that appears to them leads them to danger right from the very start. They don’t seem to have a chance. Other sheep start out in a good place, and so do some people; and it takes them time to get into trouble, and to know that they are lost.
Little by little, nibble by nibble, people find their way into places where there are drugs, or the abuse of alcohol, or getting in over your head in relationships, or using your credit card too much, or looking at certain pictures, or telling half-truths, or simply shutting people out. There are little lies, and little thefts, and little procrastinations. Little by little, we show ourselves to be capable of awful, and shameful, and isolating, and destructive things.
Or we creep into the more respectable habits of anger, or bitterness, or selfishness, or greed, or self-pity, or excuse making, or complacency, or pride. Nibble by nibble we are lost sheep.
The lost coin is just there. It can’t move. It can’t change. Even though it is silver, even though it is someone’s treasure, it’s lifeless. This lostness is like being paralyzed. Perhaps we spend all our energy in finding reasons why we can’t do this, and we can’t do that. A church can do this too. Sometimes depression can play a part in this. Sometimes fear can become the main habit in life. This is a terrible lostness: the lost coin.
Then, there is the lostness of the prodigal. I have never understood the prodigal son, because, in my life, I am the older brother. Yet I am a prodigal too, I am wasteful of my purpose and meaning in life in my own way
The word “prodigal” never occurs in the story. It is just a word, outside the Bible, that somehow got stuck to the story. But prodigal is what everyone in the story does son does: Prodigal means being extravagantly wasteful.
The younger son wasted everything. He wasted his share of the family fortune. He wasted years of his life. He wasted and ruined his relationships. He lived as though he were the only one in the world that mattered.
He actually was not as bad as the older brother thought. The older brother accused him of doing things that Jesus doesn’t tell us that he did. Still he was lost.
If we see the younger prodigal as someone who only thought about himself, then the thing about the deal he wanted to propose to his father makes sense. He wanted his father to make him a hired servant. This is not a slave, but an independent employee.
He wouldn’t have to be tied down by his Father. He wouldn’t have to put up with his snippety brother. He could support himself and be his own man. At least, under his own roof, he could keep on doing what he wanted, how he wanted, when he wanted.
The prodigal only pretended to make commitments. He only made deals that served himself and spoiled things for the people who should have mattered to him. He knew no other way to live. This is a kind of lostness and emptiness. Notice that the father stopped him before he could make the deal that he planned.
There is another kind of lostness and emptiness in the older brother. There is such a thing as being awfully good, with the accent on the awful part. This is Jesus’ portrait of the people who complained about his welcoming sinners. They were good: awfully good.
The older brother should have negotiated with the younger one to keep him from going away in the first place. The older brother should not have accepted his share of the estate, when the father divided it between his sons.
The older brother wanted to cut a deal of his own. He wanted to be the only son. It’s as if he said to his father, “I will be a slave to you if you will love me alone.” But the father kept on loving both his children even though neither of them deserved it. The older brother hated this.
Now we can clearly see, in this story, that the older brother didn’t love, or respect, or honor his father. He could do everything his father wanted, from sun up to sun down, and still not be, deep in his heart, his father’s true child. He was a prodigal; wasting his purpose in life.
So the Father spent all his being his own prodigal. He wasted his days on one unsatisfied and extravagant desire. He never stopped wanting both his children to really come home and be his children. The Father was probably laughed at by his neighbors as the ultimate prodigal: wasteful with his love.
The older brother is the picture of the righteous, respectable, religious people in the synagogue. The older brother is also the picture of the righteous people in the church. The older brother thought he was always innocent. He thought his motives were holy, and right, and fair.
In the story, he can’t fool us, but he has totally fooled himself. The only way that you and I can be truly innocent, and the only way that you and I can have the holiest of motives for what we say and do; is by fooling ourselves.
This is what the parable is about. It means that, in the church (as in the old synagogue), we often navigate among ourselves by living a poetic fiction. As if we were watching a fantasy or a science fiction movie, we can only really enjoy it by suspending our knowledge of reality.
We are tempted to use the church and our place in it to create an illusion of righteousness and respectability. Even if we share the story of being a prodigal, we want to escape from that story. In the church we are tempted to create a culture of respectability, because one of the basic temptations of human nature is pride.
If we listened to Jesus we would know that we are neither innocent nor holy. If we listened to Jesus, we would know that we were sinners too, and that we have come home to him by grace every day.
In the stories of Jesus, in Luke fifteen, only one in a hundred sheep was lost, and only one coin in ten was lost. But, in the father’s family, at any given time, half the children were outside, and only half of them were inside. According to that ratio, if this place were the Father’s house, at least half of the children who belong here are outside. According to this ratio, at least one half of our family in Christ must be composed of prodigals. And if they came in, the righteous people might leave.
The story asks us what the respectable children are going to do about this? The respectable son seems to say that he’d rather be outside his father’s house than inside with the prodigal. He’s hurting everyone; even himself.
We don’t know the end of this story. Jesus ends it before the end, in order to make it a question to us. What will we do with the prodigals? No! That’s not the only question. The other side of the coin is: What will we do about ourselves?
The cure for us is the same as the cure for the prodigal. The prodigal was still ready to cut a deal until the father ran and caught him at the edge of the village. The father overwhelmed the prodigal with love, protection, and extravagance. He simply defied all expectation and belief. It was a scandalous grace: a scandalous welcome. He shamed his family’s name.
If some of us are respectable children, then we need to know that we too can be scandalous and ugly in our respectability. Surely the prodigal knew, in his heart, that his older brother didn’t deserve their father’s love. Probably the prodigals around us know the same is true of us. It is true. We need to see this for ourselves.
These stories tell us that God uses all his wisdom, and wits, and skill to seek us out.  God is eager to do this.
There was a husband and wife who were walking in a crowd and he took her hand. She smiled at this and she asked, “You don’t want to lose me?” And he replied, “I don’t want to have to look for you.” God has a passion to seek us out. God uses every possible means to find us.
We have so much to learn. First we need to learn that God’s love for us is not respectable. It’s scandalous. The Father in the story gave everything he had to his children. Even though he maintained the right to use the estate while he lived; strictly speaking, it was no longer his.
In the same way, God, in Christ, on the cross, at great pains, has given us everything that is his. It is all ours: his love, his righteousness, his hope, his peace, his joy.
The stories tell us that joy is the lesson of God’s story. God so loves the lost, no matter how respectable or unrespectable they may be in their lostness. God comes in Christ and he recovers us for sheer joy. The cross is Jesus’ way to win us, but even the cross is about joy, the joy of overturning all our excuses, and explanations, and justifications of ourselves.
God is a prodigal. The cross is how God welcomes all of us, and gives us life. “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2) If we belong to this love, we must be prodigals too. If we claim this love, we will practice and model the same love in our lives with others. We need to do scandalous things in order to welcome other people for Jesus.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Lord of the Hunt

Preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016

Scripture readings: Hosea 2: 5-8, 14-16, 19-23; Luke 15:1-10

More than once, I have heard guys use a certain line to describe how they courted and won their wife. Their line is this: “I chased her till she caught me.” Unfortunately for me: the times I tried this, it never worked.
Walking along Lower Crab Creek, Starting at Lake Lenice
North of Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA: April 2016
In Hosea, the prophet the Lord chasing after his unfaithful wife, Israel, while she is chasing around with other gods. These other gods promised to give her all the things she wanted if she chased after them. But they didn’t give her anything, in the end, because they were false as well as false-hearted. The Lord kept sending her what she needed to live, and she thought it came from the gods she was chasing.
The Lord kept the chase going because he loved her. Just so, God keeps going after us, and God keeps us going, and we don’t even know it or admit it. God gives us what we need (and more so), even when we want anything but him. Yes, he loves us that much.
Israel was chasing around because everyone (all the nations around her) were all doing the same thing. The gods you could chase after were the gods who wanted you to think that you could make deals with them.
These gods were called baals. Baal isn’t a name. It means lord, in the sense of being a master: a master of slaves. These masters claimed to be able to give you lots of the kinds of success you wanted, whatever it was: money, sex, being in control, getting your way, getting good crops, putting down your enemies, safety and security.
The list of such things goes on and on. There are so many gods; so many baals; so many things that we make our masters.
These are the masters we are tempted to make deals with. They take charge of us. They become our false gods and we slave after them. All our best relationships suffer because of these masters: including our relationship with God who made us, and loves us, and would come to our rescue in Jesus.
False gods: the more you chased them the less you had, until you found that you had gotten caught, in a bad way, and really had nothing that truly satisfied you.
In those old times, when Israel was chasing around, she didn’t realize that she was being chased, herself. The Lord was chasing her, prowling for her, hunting for her. The Lord would put barriers and roadblocks in her path to discourage her from doing all that running and slaving.
Speaking for the Lord, Hosea said: “I will block her path with thorn bushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way.” (Hosea 2:6) Just so the Lord puts up roadblocks to make our lives harder and harder for us, when we want something besides him.
Then the Lord says: “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert, and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor (the Valley of Trouble) a door of hope. There she will sing (or respond) as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.” (Hosea 2:14,15)
In “The Message” (Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase translation) Hosea says: “And now, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to start all over again. I’m taking her back out into the wilderness where we had our first date, and I’ll court her. I’ll give her bouquets of roses. I’ll turn Heartbreak Valley into Acres of Hope. She’ll respond like she did as a young girl, those days when she was fresh out of Egypt.” Hosea gives us the picture of God chasing his people: God romancing his people.
Jesus says that God is like a shepherd looking everywhere for one, single, lost sheep, or like a housewife turning her house upside down, looking for one lost coin.
Most people talk about a search for God, a search for the truth, a search for meaning and purpose. People search for spiritual experiences. They search for harmony or enlightenment. Most religions, especially the Eastern or New Age religions, are all about this search.
The God of the Bible is not a God who can be found; unless he lets us chase him until he catches us. God playfully pretends to give us the grace of letting himself be found by us. The truth is that he gives us the grace of our being found.
The God of the Bible is a God who finds you. So the message about the God who came into the world, in Jesus, is not about wish fulfillment. It’s not about pursuing your dreams.
The God of the Bible does not fulfill our wishes. God confronts our wishes and our dreams. God overwhelms our wishes and dreams, and transforms them, and gives us something better than we wished for.
Who is in charge of a hunt? Who is in charge of a search? It is true that, in certain lakes and streams, there are special fish, old and wise fish, who are smarter than most fishermen. That’s what some fishermen say.
Maybe there are deer like that, too. But normally we think that the hunter is smarter. At least, that’s what the hunters would like to think.
The Bible begins our story in the Garden of Eden and the story tells us about a search. The first problem came when there was a contest between who would be in charge. Adam and Eve decided that they would be in charge, and that was their big mistake. It’s a problem we still live with. We’ve inherited the mistake.
We search for the truth that we can claim for our own, and when (and if) we find it, we decide whether it was the truth we were really looking for, or whether we should keep on searching for something else. 
When I was a kid, we would go camping every summer in the mountains, in the forest, and we would do some day-hiking. When I was a child, my Dad would remind me that, in case I got lost, as soon as I realized I was lost, I should stop and stay put; because, if I was lost, and kept on looking, I would just get more and more lost.
If I was lost, my job was to stop and let myself be found. If I got myself lost, that meant I was not smart enough to find myself. And I would not be smart enough to find the people who might be searching for me. I had to let someone find me who knew the forest and the mountains.
Little kids don’t know how to hide very well (unless they are truly lost). When little children are deliberately hiding, even when they find a good place, they give themselves away. When you’re a parent, or an older brother or cousin, you know exactly where those kids are.
Maybe the truth is that a little child is smarter than any grown-up in at least one way. A child is smart enough to hide in order to be found. Older kids and grown-ups aren’t that smart.
We live in a world where God knows where we are, no matter how well we think we are hidden, no matter how completely we think we are lost. We are not hidden or lost to God.
There are times when a searching parent can’t see everything, but God sees everything. God knows where we are, even when no one else does.
Jesus told the parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, because he came to seek the lost. There were people who thought so highly of themselves that they thought they didn’t need Jesus to find them. They didn’t know, or they wouldn’t admit, that they were lost.
Some of those lost people looked down on others whom they thought were not as good as they were. They thought these so-called inferior people were the ones who were really lost; but they had no intention of hunting for them or finding them. “Let them stay lost,” they said.
They looked down on Jesus, and they thought they were better than he was, because Jesus searched for little things. Jesus searched for those whom the self-righteous people thought should just stay lost.
Jesus came to be the great seeker, the searcher, the hunter, the rescuer. Jesus is God in the flesh. So he is a really good hunter. He knows what to do. He knows how to track his prey. He knows how to flush us out of hiding. The cross shows us who Jesus is hunting for: those who need mercy and forgiveness.
When people met Jesus, and judged him, they demonstrated that they didn’t know their way around the kingdom of God as well as they thought they did. This was because they were really just as lost as anyone could be.
When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, it was because they wanted to be in charge of their own search for truth and meaning. That was when they, and we, got lost.
We are lost children searching for ourselves in the forest. We are generally getting more and more lost; until we give the job of finding us to the Lord: letting ourselves be found.
When Adam and Eve hid in the Garden of Eden, they didn’t want to be found, and they didn’t want to admit that they were lost.
If they let God find them, or if they admitted they were lost, then it would be the same thing as admitting that God was right; that God should be in charge of them. That’s why they got themselves in so much trouble. Most of the bad and the terrible things that happen in our world are the work of people who don’t want to admit to being wrong and lost. They don’t want to be flushed out of hiding by any truth that they are not in charge of.
In Eden, and in the Israel of Hosea, and in the Gospels, it’s the people of God who are lost along with everyone else. Even God’s people need to stop and let the Lord be their hunter and finder. They need to let themselves be found.
Sometimes, in the gospels, there are people who think they have found the Lord. In the end, though, they realize that they were lost and found.
Jesus is God come in the flesh, just as he is. The people he met didn’t have an easy time with this.
In the Garden of Eden, in the Israel of Hosea, in the gospels of Jesus, whenever someone was found, they were not given what they were searching for. They were given a new relationship with the Lord where the Lord was in charge.
This wasn’t what they were looking for. It was something different, something that would take them places they had not thought of before, something better.
The key to the Christian life is not in finding Christ, but being found by Christ. Suddenly this huge bloody and scarred shape comes crashing through the undergrowth, and there is Jesus. There he is. There God is. And he says, “Now what are you going to do with me?”
I see in God a glory, and a holiness, and a beauty that are so high, so magnificent, and God says, “What are you going to do with me?” Again, I see Jesus bloody, and bruised, and crucified for me; sacrificed for my sins, and for the whole world, and he says, “What are you going to do with me?”
I haven’t been given this choice because I am the one who is in charge. I have been given this choice because Jesus is the one in charge. I need to decide that, yes, this is so. Then I will let myself be the one who is found, and no longer the one who insists on doing the finding.

This is what God is all about. This is why Jesus came. And he says, “What will you do with me? Will you let yourself be found?”

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Looking the Truth in the Face

Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016

Scripture: Leviticus 19:9-18; Luke 10:25-37

An expert in the law, a scholar in God’s way for Israel, as it was written in the Old Testament, came to Jesus looking for an answer. I’m not sure that the expert knew what kind of answer he was looking for.
Photos along the Columbia River/Priest Rapids Lake
Mattawa/Desert Aire WA
Late March 2016
He came with a question, but Luke doesn’t say that he stood up to ask Jesus a question. He stood up to test Jesus.
He stood up to ask, while Jesus sat and listened. Teachers always taught sitting down. Humble students always stood to ask their questions. It was a good sign that the expert questioned Jesus standing up.
He stood to test Jesus. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The word test and the word tempt are the same word in the Greek language, but that doesn’t make testing bad.
Jesus sometimes tested his disciples, as any good teacher would. (John 6:6) He tested them for good reasons: to make them wise, to make them grow, to bring out their faith. Teachers usually test their students for good reasons.
Students sometimes test their teachers, in the same way that children test their parents, but not always for the best of reasons. Some students do this because they want to prove that they are smarter than their teacher.
Some students test their teacher to see if the teacher is strong and stable. They may really want to know whether their teacher can be counted on to know what is going on. Then they can settle down to learn.
Teachers usually know why they test their students. Students can’t always say why they test their teachers.
The expert gave the same kind of answer to his question that Jesus would have given. Jesus was asked this, or similar questions, more than once in the gospels. The people of Jesus’ day must have talked a lot about this. What’s the most important thing in life? What’s the mark of a life that is truly in a living relationship with God? “To love the Lord with everything you have got, and your neighbor as yourself.” Good answer! The expert seemed to know something worth knowing.
But the expert wasn’t happy; not even with his own answer. He acted like an expert. He had the facts right. But something in his heart was not right. Something about Jesus made him doubt himself and feel that he needed to prove himself.
He dealt with God’s word as if it were a textbook, or a manual, or an encyclopedia of information, not as the place where the Lord himself would come to meet with him and deal with his heart, his faith, and his life. This is what Jesus’ answer required of him. “Be a neighbor, even when it is inconvenient.” “Show mercy, even to your enemies.” “Be prepared to do the very thing you don’t think is required of you.”
Sometimes I’ve found that God specifically required something from me that he didn’t require from anyone else. He deals with me about this kind of thing by speaking to me by his Spirit through his written word and in his Spirit’s speaking to me in prayer.
Well the expert who suddenly didn’t feel like an expert came to test Jesus. He came prepared to use the scriptures themselves to test Jesus. But Jesus used the scriptures to challenge him and test him.
The expert came to find out the truth about Jesus. Was Jesus a fake, or was he for real? I have a strong feeling that the expert didn’t want Jesus to be for real.
In spite of the expert’s half-heartedness, Jesus led him in the right direction. Jesus used the scriptures the way they were designed to be used in order to come to the truth. Jesus said, “What is written in the law? How do you read it? (“How do you interpret it?)
Jesus said that if you want to know the truth and talk about it in an intelligent, meaningful way, you have to get your wisdom from the Scriptures. The first thing to know is that, if the truth is written down someplace where we can go to see it together, then we can’t babble among ourselves about what we would like the truth to be. Yet there is a living word behind the written word that is waiting to test your heart when you read the scriptures.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is introduced as the Word of God. Jesus is God expressing himself to us. The whole Bible, from beginning to end, is not about the human quest to find God and to find the truth.
The Bible is the story of this God told from this God’s perspective. The Bible is about a creation, and a human race that has been hiding from the truth and hiding from God, and a God who does not let them go on hiding, but seeks them out. This God comes to express himself, to speak his mind, to reveal his truth, because he is a God who reveals himself. That is the nature of God. That is why God gives us a book.
In the Garden of Eden, the first humans were tempted to put themselves in charge of their own knowledge of all truth. That was the reason for the special temptation of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It’s our nature to want things the same to this day. We want to be in charge of the truth that rules our lives and our thoughts.
To ask, “What does the whole story of the scriptures actually say?” is the healthy antidote to our desire for a truth that we can control.
To say, “What is written…and how do you read it?” requires us to admit that there is a difference between what is written and how we read or interpret it. It reminds us that we can still do a lot of wishful thinking in the way we interpret the Bible.
The Protestant Reformation was a return to the early church, which got its teachings from the Bible and didn’t force the Bible into its mold. But Protestants have sometimes created their own molds to make the Bible say what it doesn’t say. So we must first ask, “What is written?” What does it actually say, and how does our truth stand up to what the words plainly say or what they plainly don’t say?
The expert, who knew in his heart that he was no expert, had planned to use the Scriptures to test Jesus. But Jesus had hardly to say anything at all, when suddenly the expert found himself tested by the scriptures.
He suddenly saw that the Scriptures, which he knew by heart, didn’t define his faith; rather, they judged his faith. The fact that all the religious people hated some of their neighbors made it hard for them to see this challenge. When they claimed to love their neighbors as themselves, it was a lie. After all, God could surely not expect them to treat THOSE PEOPLE as their neighbors. Not THOSE PEOPLE!
In later years, the Apostle John would write, “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:20-21)
But Jesus is even clearer. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
I don’t know if the whole message of the Bible could say it any clearer: “If you love your brothers, and your sisters, and your enemies, and those who mistreat you, then you have to absolutely love everyone.”
The expert knew very well what was written. Now he was hearing what was written in the living presence of the Lord. The Bible is like holy ground where we can’t spread ourselves out and be at home unless we deal with the living presence of the living God, who insists on being our God.
God (and God as we meet him in Jesus) is a living, moving word. And this God lives in his written word, as ready to challenge us as to bless us.
This is why all cults, and some real, serious Christians, deal with one verse here and another verse there, and stack them together in order to come up with a message that isn’t written anywhere in the real Bible as it is written. They can’t just take the whole thing without the risk of bumping into the real truth of God: The God of truth.
It’s not a matter of exactly what was written in one verse over here and another verse over there, but exactly the whole story as it all holds together. In understanding the truth revealed in the Bible, the one thing that is needed is exactly everything.
Then it needs to be seen that where the expert sought the truth about the way to everlasting life, and the truth about who Jesus is, the answer was in a story about an outcast who brought healing to his enemies: The Good Samaritan who saved his bleeding enemy on a dangerous road.
In Jesus God reveals himself as the outcast who heals his enemies. If we want the life that comes from God, in Christ, then our lives have to receive the imprint of that life. We need to be willing to become just like the outcast who heals enemies.
Whatever kind of truth the expert wanted, it wouldn’t be the whole truth without the story of grace. None of us can know much about the truth that really matters, if we don’t know the good news of the gospel; the story of Jesus who found us when we were down, and wounded, and robbed, and lost, and who died for us on the cross.
We cannot know the meaning of our own lives, or of anything that happens in this world. We cannot know how to respond to anything in this world until we see it in light of the cross, and in the story of a God who came in the flesh to die for his enemies.
The expert wanted to find an answer. There was something he needed to know. He came in search, and it might have been hard for him to understand what he was really looking for. In the end he didn’t merely find the truth, but the truth found him.
The light of the truth showed where he was empty. It showed what was lacking in him. It showed him why he needed Jesus, and the gifts that only Jesus can give.
This wasn’t what he thought he was looking for. And we don’t know where he went from there.
Desert Aire, WA, Looking toward Umtanum Ridge Crest (?)
April 14, 2016
A lot of what goes on in our lives is explained by a search for a truth that we lack, and we are not quite sure what we lack. And we don’t want to admit that we’re lacking anything at all. We are lost, and we may not want to be found. We are wounded, and we may not want to listen to the answer that will heal us.

Jesus is the face of the God of Truth who is on the loose in this world. Jesus is God who is on a search to make himself known to us, and to claim us for his own, and change us in the way that he chooses to change us. Jesus is God searching for us to make us like himself. Perhaps that means that he wants to make us like himself. Jesus wants to make us like outcasts in his world going in search of people who don’t know their own great need.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Heaven - In My Father's House

Preached on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 3,2016

Scripture readings: Psalm 23; John 13:36-14:9

There was a child who described an elevator ride this way: “I got into this little room, and the upstairs came down.” (“1000 More Humorous Illustrations”; ed. Michael Hodgin; # 78)
Enjoying April Flowers, Desert Aire, WA: 2016
That isn’t far from the way it will be when Jesus comes to us at the time of our death. Jesus said it like this: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:3)
Jesus said, “In my Father’s house, there are many rooms; if it were not so I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2) Jesus was talking about heaven.
The disciples desperately needed to hear him talk about this, because they were afraid. They didn’t know how close they were to the things they were so afraid of. But they were only a few hours away from the cross. Jesus was about to be betrayed, and beaten, and nailed to a cross. He was going to die on that cross.
They were going to be at a complete loss without him. They were going to wonder why. They were going to wonder what it meant. They were going to wonder what would become of them. Jesus was answering those questions but the disciples didn’t understand. That’s how we are.
For months, maybe for most of the years they knew him, Jesus had been talking about this; sometimes clearly, sometimes in mysterious ways. In mysterious ways he called it being “lifted up” (maybe because, on the cross, his feet wouldn’t touch the ground). (John 12:32)
Maybe being “lifted up” was more like another mysterious way Jesus had of talking about his dying on the cross. He called it “being glorified”. (John 12:23-24)
His death on the cross would be glorious because it would show God’s love; as in the verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” (John 3:16) There is nothing more glorious than that. Jesus thought it was glorious because he said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) That’s glorious too.
Jesus had been talking like this more and more and, that evening of the last supper, he told the disciples that he was going away now. They couldn’t follow him, yet; but they would later. This scared them as much as anything else that Jesus had ever said.
So Jesus told them about his Father’s house; just a little bit. Let us take a look at what that house is like: what heaven is like, in the words of Jesus.
Jesus said, “I go.” (14:2, 3) Jesus was going away because his Father’s house was not in this world.
In the sixteenth chapter of John, Jesus said, “I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.” (16:28) Heaven is not a part of this world of time and space, where we live now.
How will our life in heaven unfold, since it exists outside of time? Eternity is not a thing that goes on, and on, and on, and on until we are tired of it, because things going on and on can only happen within our universe of time and space. And yet eternity is a thing that will never stop or end.
What kind of scenery, or architecture, or “geography” will heaven have; seeing that it does not exist in space? Since heaven is beyond time and space, it can’t be measured by length, or width, or distances, because it has none. If heaven can’t be measured by distance, then it may not be very far from us, here in this world; even if we have to go there, in order to be there. It’s mind boggling.
Heaven is another place: a place to which we must “go”, in order to be there, because our Father’s house is a place from which Jesus said, “I will come.”
Our whole life with Jesus, even now, is a life where Jesus comes to us. Jesus is constantly arriving. Jesus told the disciples that they would see him again after he died on the cross and rose from death; even though the world was going to think that he was gone and done with.
He said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” (14:18-19)
When we know Jesus in all his mercy, and power, and love it is almost like seeing him. Seeing Jesus makes everything in our life more alive.  It’s like having heaven now. Because Jesus lives, we are more alive than people without Jesus can imagine. Or we should be.
Christ comes to us and gives us glimpses of heaven on earth, not necessarily in the sense of supernatural euphoria, or good-feeling, or spiritual goose-bumps, and not necessarily in the sense of actual visions.
Those may happen, but Jesus normally comes to us in ordinary life. Real places, and real things, and real people will often give us a foretaste of heaven, because of Jesus always arriving and sharing his life with us through each place, and thing, and person.
I believe that Jesus will come to us, and take us home at the time of our death. Some people believe that Jesus will only come back to take us home at the end of the age, at the resurrection. But, if Jesus is always coming to us in this life, I don’t know why he would not also come to us at the time of our death.
And, besides that, the resurrection is intended to bring us here. It will happen here. It will not be a time when we go to be with Jesus. It will be a time when we come back with Jesus.
Our home, in the resurrection, will be a new creation. There will be a new heaven and earth. But it won’t be another place. It will be this place; this universe, recreated and transformed in an unimaginable way: all the evil, corruption, injustice, danger, pain, sickness, sorrow, suffering and death won’t be found anywhere anymore.
Jesus was going to his Father’s house and now he’s going to take us there until the time of the new creation of the resurrection, when we will be made new. Even our bodies will be made new. But heaven will be a great place to be, until then, because we will be there with God, and we will be there together.
Heaven is not our final home. And, in some strange way, heaven is not even God’s final home, because, in the Book of Revelation, when the new heavens and the new earth appear, God says, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.” (Revelation 21:3) Since heaven is where God is, this must mean that heaven and earth will be one.
The mansions, or rooms, within the Father’s house are described with a simple Greek word that’s hard to translate (monai). It is a word that usually means stages of rest along a journey. But a house does not go on a journey.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told the dying thief on the cross, “This day you shall be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Paradise, as a word for heaven, comes from the life-styles of the rich and famous, and from the life styles of royalty.
A paradise was a king’s park. It had places of sun and shade, groves, fruit, flowers, open places, peacocks, wonderful things to look at. It was a place to go to rest and renew oneself. It was a bit like Camp David is for the president of the United States.
The king, with his family and friends and servants, would go to the royal paradise to celebrate life as a preparation for the next great thing to do. Heaven itself is a resting and celebrating place, before God’s next great thing.
The permanent thing about the Lord’s house, or the Father’s house, is that it is much more than a place. It is a relationship (a permanent relationship).
It’s made up of many, many relationships; but above all, it’s your relationship with God. Jesus said, “I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.” (14:3) Heaven is being with the Lord.
David planned to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. That was the place that would be called the temple. It turned out to be a job that had to be postponed and wait for David’s son, Solomon, to build it.
The temple was different from a church building (though we know that the church is not really a building). The Temple was considered more like a house, because God’s presence would live there in a unique way. But I believe that the house of the Lord, which David was thinking about, in the 23rd Psalm, was something outside this world. I believe David was thinking of the heavenly house of the Lord.
Heaven, the Father’s house, is the place for meeting with God in his glory and mystery, face to face. It is the place to be with the Father, and with the Son, and with the Holy Spirit.
You will meet something there that you can never get to the end of. You can never get tired of it. You will meet something there with greater and greater depths of knowledge, and love, and faithfulness. You will meet something there with greater and greater challenges, and greater and greater grace. Jesus doesn’t describe it in physical terms, except to call it home.
The Father’s house has many rooms. Jesus told his disciples that the great thing about his Father’s house was that there was always room. Heaven is big, but never lonely. It is built for hospitality, and fellowship, and wonder.
When I was a kid, one of the most homelike houses we lived in was one that was never done. It was an old, old farm house but, when we lived there, it was never finished. There was always something planned, and there was always something that was only half done. My mom often was frustrated by this.
Yet, in a sense, your room in heaven is done. It has been done ever since Jesus died for you on the cross. It’s done, but you and I will never be done with it, because your room is your access to God that comes from Jesus.
What Jesus had to prepare was not so much the place for you, as it was the road for you to get to that place at home with him, and with his Father, and with the Holy Spirit. Without the cross and the resurrection, the place would be inaccessible.
There was the canyon of our sin and our separation from God that Jesus had to cross over, for our sake. He had to build the road for us, with a bridge, and a gate, and a door that you would be able to walk on, and cross over, and pass through.
When Jesus said, “I am the way,” he didn’t only mean that he was the example to follow, although he is also that. When Jesus said, “I am the way,” he especially meant that he was the road that we must take. The forgiveness of our sins on the cross is the road, and the bridge, and the gate, and the door to the Father’s house.
Jesus is the road of grace, and we can only arrive at home through that grace. Grace should always be the greatest gift of being at home.
Some homes have very little grace in them, but the Father’s house is full of grace. Only grace will serve, and so there is no other way home. There is no other grace in the universe except the grace that comes from God on the cross. That is the truth, and that is where life is found, with Jesus on the cross and outside the empty grave.

The way, the truth, and the life are not what we do and believe, but what Jesus has done for us, and we must put our trust in what he has done, if we want to really live. A life that begins with heaven on earth comes about from discovering this amazing gift, and believing in it.