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.

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