Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Incarnation - Speak to Me, Baby!

Preached on the First Sunday in Advent, November 27, 2016

Scripture readings: Genesis 1:1-3; John 1:1-2

There was a new baby in the family: as normal and as perfect a baby as you could hope for. The problem was, after the end of the first year, the parents noticed that he wasn’t talking. In fact, except for crying and laughing, this was a strangely quiet baby.
Walking near the Columbia River
Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
November 2016
They began taking their little son to the doctors for testing, but the doctors couldn’t find any signs of anything wrong. The baby passed all the physical and cognitive tests for his age with flying colors.
At the age of four, the boy still hadn’t spoken a single word. Then, one day, at lunch, the boy looked straight at his mother and clearly said, “Mom, this soup is way too salty.” “Oh son, my son, you talked? You’ve never talked before. How come you’ve never talked until now?”
And the boy said, “Well, up till now, everything’s been just fine.”
Even if we couldn’t talk, we are made to express ourselves. It can be with a look, a sign, a sigh, or an expression. It can be with our actions, with gardens, with art, with music, with making things, or making things happen.
We express ourselves through what we do for others, or through what we do to others. The list goes on and on.
We’re made to express ourselves, and to receive what others express, because we are all made in the image of God. The God who speaks in the Bible is the God who expresses himself, from all eternity, and the Gospel of John calls God’s self-expression “The Word”.
Since God never changes, our God has always been a God who expresses himself, and so “The Word” has always been with God. Since “The Word” expresses what God is, “The Word” is what God is. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2)
I know this is deep. But I can’t help going on with it. The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews starts out like this: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:1-3)
If I said nothing more than the words “Jesus is awesome” (with all the power of that misused word “awesome”) then I would have done my job. Jesus is awesome. There!
But, going on from that, in our preparation for Christmas, over the next few weeks, I want us to look at the first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John. There are no Christmas stories in the Gospel of John, but these first eighteen verses tell us the meaning of Christmas. They tell us the heavenly side of what happened when Jesus was born as that baby in Bethlehem.
Before Jesus ever spoke a word with those sweet little lips of his, Jesus was God’s eternal self-expression. Jesus was, and is, God speaking to us. When we put up our Christmas decorations, if we have a Nativity set and the child in the manger, we should look at it and say, “Speak to me, Baby!”
As Christians, we often connect the word to the Bible, and that’s a fair thing to do. The Bible is the written word of God.
But Jesus is the Living and Eternal Word of God. Jesus speaks through the written word. In fact, the disciples and writers of the New Testament believed that all of the scriptures were all about Jesus.
But Jesus also speaks through his life and actions. And Jesus speaks through us, his disciples. And, since Jesus speaks through us, he also speaks to us through others, especially through other disciples. And Jesus speaks to us through our lives. The truth is that Jesus speaks to us from everywhere and through everything and through everyone.
When we meet Jesus as the God who expresses himself and speaks to us, we need to see how he does it. The written word shows us how he did it and that should give us a clue as to how he does it now.
Jesus spoke by meeting people and relating to them. Jesus told people to do something. Jesus told people to trust him. Jesus did wonderful things for them, whether they asked him or not. Jesus asked people questions. Jesus answered questions with strange answers that left people with more questions than they had before. Jesus spoke by challenging people who didn’t want to be challenged. Jesus argued with people.
More than the other Gospels, John shows us Jesus in conversation with others. The Gospel of John shows us that the Eternal Word of God is interactive. John shows us the conversational and relational God.
When John says that the Word was with God, he uses a particular Greek word for “with” that doesn’t mean “side by side”. It means something more like “face to face”. The Word who is God is also face to face with God. I’m only telling you what it says.
God himself is an eternal interaction, face to face: which may be a part of what it means to say that God is love. God was, and is, never alone. It’s the eternal nature of God to be a relationship, and this is what he has made us for, in his image.
The Word whom we meet in the baby of Bethlehem is clearly not about information or even instructions. The Word is about relationships and conversations. Even the work of the Word, in creating the universe, was about relationships leading up to us.
Because of the issue that we call sin, the issue that has damaged the image of God in us and damaged God’s expression of himself through us, what we have in this world is a vast system of broken relationships: some of them horribly broken. This brokenness seems to feed on itself and multiply itself; and it brings ugliness, and fear, and anger into our world.
Sometimes it seems to make the world into a place where God is absent. But God, who is all about expression, reached into a world that couldn’t see beyond itself so that it could see God again, and hear God’s voice, and be healed by God’s work: as a baby, and a carpenter, and a condemned man on a cross.
The words “in the beginning” are John’s way of reaching back to the very first words of the Book of Genesis and the story of the creation. He tells us that God first expressed himself in time and space by means of creation. The Word spoke, and everything happened. Everything came into being, step by step.
Jesus is the unchanging Word of God, and he is still in the business of expressing himself by creation. Creation isn’t something that was done a long time ago. Creation has never stopped, because God has never stopped being himself.
This involves you, and me, and every human being. The fact that Jesus is the self-expression of the unchanging God means that, when we see him come onto the scene of our world of history, and time, and space, he comes to be the creator, as always.
The Word of God isn’t just about words. In the Bible words are nothing if they don’t have the integrity of making something happen: and it better be something good.
For us, the cross, where Jesus died, is just as powerful as the word that said, “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:1) The baby in Bethlehem, the man on the cross, and the empty tomb are the Word of God to us. They are messages, acted out, and given to us, that have the integrity of making something new happen. God wants to make that creation happen to you, and to everyone you know, and to everyone on earth.
God wants to be known because, if we can truly know him, then we can truly love him, and by loving him we can receive him, and by receiving him we can live. We can be a new creation. We can be born again.
In the second chapter of Genesis, the story pictures God making us out of clay. God still expresses himself by close and even messy actions and relationships. That’s what he wants to do with every one of us, and with everyone in the world.
Genesis shows us the picture of a God who gets his hands dirty in order to be involved in his universe; and in the lives of people who are created to be his living images in this universe. The cross was a dirty and bloody business that left its mark and stain upon the hands of God. God loved doing that because he loves his world and those who live in it.
Being a Christian is not about the right information, but about God expressing himself to us so that we can be his new expressions, in his image, for a world that needs to hear from God. This world needs the creating, and healing, and life-changing Word (the Word that comes to our rescue, which is what “saving” is all about). We carry that Word as we carry Jesus with us in this world.
We are called to be the Word of God in this world because we are called to be like Jesus and follow him. We are to share Jesus with words, but the Word of God is more than words. The Word of God spoke through his birth in Bethlehem, through his life and actions, through his healings and his care for others, and through his death and resurrection.
I saw a posting on Facebook the other day that asked this question: “Want to keep Christ in Christmas?” It said: “Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.” (possibly written by Sarah Benchley, in a photo on Facebook)
This is a message. This is the expression of the Word of God. We live together in a mission field that needs us to carry this Word to others.
The baby does speak. The baby of the Word is God invading our world so that we can see him and hear him again. This is the baby we meet at Christmas time. This is what the Baby came to give to our world, and he wants to give it through us. He wants to give himself to the world through us.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Thanksgiving Is Not an Option

Preached on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, November 20, 2016

Scripture readings: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

A father just got back from helping on his son’s Boy Scout back-packing trip. He was still pretty excited when he told his friends the highlights.
Along Lower Crab Creek
North of Matttawa/Desert Aire, WA
November 2016
They had taken a pack-horse with them. “And, boy, am I glad we had that horse!” he said, “After one of the boys got hurt, we used the horse to carry him out.”
“How was the boy hurt?”
“Well, the horse stepped on him.”
The apostle Paul says, “In everything give thanks,” or “give thanks in all circumstances.” And then Paul writes, “Do not quench the Spirit,” or, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.”
From what I know, I think Paul was pretty unquenchable himself. I think he was as full of fire as he was full of thanks, and that the two went together, and that they played a part in making Paul a person who was really, really alive.
Now, when Paul says, “Give thanks in all circumstances,” it sounds almost like a command. In a way, it is. Thanksgiving really is not an elective. It’s not an option. Thanksgiving is needed. It’s required because it’s needed. It’s required for our happiness right now. It’s required for our everlasting happiness.
In a way, thankfulness is as important as patience. It’s hard to learn patience. You learn patience by having all the things happen to you that make you impatient.
But the people who have learned patience are the people who give us peace. We can relax with them. Patient people make the hard things easier for us. They give us confidence, and they help us to live abundantly.
Then, when you find someone who is actually thankful for you (for you, of all people!): why, that is the gift of life itself! But it’s as hard to learn to be thankful as it is to be patient. You only learn to be thankful by learning the alternatives. And the alternatives to being thankful are dark, and bitter, and bleak.
If the patient and thankful people are the source of life to you, aren’t you glad they learned (the hard way) those lessons that God wants every human being to know? Then (when the Lord says, “You! You be thankful too!”) you can begin to understand why it’s so important. The command to be thankful is just as important as God’s command to love.
Jesus said, “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) The people who are truly alive around us, the people who make our lives full, have these qualities: thankfulness, patience, love, forgiveness, peace. They make life worth living now. They will make heaven truly heavenly. They create just a little bit of heaven on earth right now.
All of these gifts come from God himself, and it is God who makes heaven heavenly. Heaven is heavenly not only because God is full of glory, but because God himself is full of thanks.
There is something essential to God (as we see him in Jesus) that looks at us and longs to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:12) That’s just one example of the thankfulness of God.
God created us so that, in the end, he might rejoice over us. (Zephaniah 3:17) Thanks has its origins with the God who rules heaven and earth. If we want life with God, sooner or later we must give thanks.
The more we read, in the New Testament, about Paul (in his letters, and in the stories of his life in the Book of Acts) we realize that being thankful can’t mean a self-generated feeling of thanks. We have the responsibility to decide in favor of being thankful, but we also have to want it: really want it. The commandment to be thankful is not a command to pretend, or to conform to some sort of rule.
Paul explains that thanksgiving is part of receiving the peace of God that goes beyond our understanding, “Do not be anxious about anything; but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
Peace doesn’t mean that all conflict and struggle go away. Peace is a kind of inner harmony.
It doesn’t mean that everything is harmonious toward you. It doesn’t mean that everything is quiet and easy. It means that you have your footing; you have your foundation in God, who is peace.
So, people and circumstances may seem to be coming at you the wrong way, but you can come at them the right way. You can do what it takes to meet those things, and deal with them, because the peace that passes understanding is in you.
I think it’s called the peace that passes understanding for two reasons: for one thing, we don’t quite understand it. The other reason is that nobody else understands it either.
If anyone has the right to tell us to be thankful, it’s Paul. In his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 11:23ff) he wrote about some of the hardships he had gone through since he became a Christian. He wrote: “I have worked hard, been in prison, been flogged, and been exposed to death, again and again. Five times I have received the forty lashes minus one. Three times I have been beaten with clubs. Once they tried to stone me to death. Three times I was shipwrecked, and spent a night and a day in the open sea.” And the list goes on.
Earlier in that same letter (4:8ff) he wrote, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed…” It is in the middle of a life like that that Paul encouraged us to, “give thanks in all circumstances.” Paul gave thanks as an experienced and sensitive human being, not as some kind of thanksgiving robot.
He wrote (Rom. 12:15), “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” After a friend recovered from a nearly fatal illness Paul wrote, “But God had mercy upon him, and not only upon him, but on me also, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.” (Philippians 2:27) A thankful heart is a feeling heart, a vulnerable heart, a caring heart, a breakable heart that has its footing and foundation in God.
What do you say, when someone asks, “How are you?” Some people have a stock answer to that, besides saying, “Fine!” They might say: “Can’t complain!” And they are always waiting to add: “It wouldn’t do any good!”
These are people who could give, if they chose, a long, long list of reasons why they could complain. But they have made their choice to be easy on you, and on themselves, by not reciting that list.
More than that, they know there’s more to their life than their list of pains and struggles. No matter how long that list grows, they are thankful for their life, and they do have another list up their sleeve. It’s the list of God’s blessings. They have learned that you can have an abundant life, a full life, and a happy life by keeping the right list up your sleeve.
Thanksgiving is not an option. It’s the foundation of life. We are made for thanks. We are made to receive thanks. According to Jesus, one of the great experiences we are created for is the future day when we come into his presence, and he will laugh and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much, enter into the joy of your Master!” (Matthew 25:21) We will give thanks to hear the Lord’s own “thank you.”
We are created to give thanks, because giving thanks is part of love. Think how quick thankful children are to show their thanks and love by making presents, and cards, and pictures for those who love them, or for those whose love they long for.
Thanksgiving is only a stifled instinct in us. It is a lost habit waiting to be regained.
I could do so much better at being thankful. I think it would help if I started by learning to give thanks for little things. That is part of the reason for giving thanks when we eat.
I often forget to give thanks before my meals. I didn’t grow up in a home where this was normal. Sometimes I remember to give thanks in the middle of my meal, or after it is over.
I’m not a bad cook, for the things I do cook, but I find that giving thanks makes the meal better. Not that it changes the taste, or the amount of nutrition I get from it. Giving thanks changes a meal from being a thing into being a gift. It gives life to the meal. If my meal wasn’t all that good, then giving thanks gives me a sense of humor. That makes a big difference.
Giving thanks changes everything that way. People are changed, circumstances are changed, pains are changed, struggles are changed, and failures are changed. They don’t look any different. They don’t act any different. They don’t feel any different. But you are changed, because you have gotten your footing in God, and everything else becomes a calling, or a cause, or an opportunity, or a gift, or a challenge. That makes a big difference.
You know if you need reminders to give thanks. Get a reminder, or make something, to remind you to give thanks. Maybe you have someone at home who helps you be thankful. Put a note on your mirror. Have a picture, or a poster, or put a gift from someone out where you can see it and remember to give thanks.
Patiently ask the Lord to show you how, and where, and when to be thankful. God will teach you.
Sometimes, by giving thanks you will find healing. By saying thanks, you will feel that you have dropped a burden into God’s hands, or you will see how you should have given thanks a long time ago. You will see the Lord’s gifts better than you ever saw them before.
Saying “thank you” sharpens your senses. It helps you see the difference between the good and the bad things. This is important because it can be risky to actually thank God for something we feel is bad, because God doesn’t do the bad things. Thanking him for the bad may lead you to blame him for it. But if you thank the Lord, in spite of the bad thing, your eyes may be opened, so that you can say, “Here was the evil that happened. I can see now that God didn’t do that thing, yet he was there with me in the middle of it all. He has helped me, taught me, guided me, and changed me, as a result of it. God has brought me through, and I am glad to see how he has done it.” “Thanks” can be hard work: but “thanks” has this reward.
Now, when Paul says that “thanks” is God’s will for you he means not only that it’s necessary for you, but it’s the thing that God is working for in your life. “Thanks” is the shape of your soul in God’s blueprint for your life. “Thanks” is your destiny.
God became human, in Jesus, to live a perfect life for you that you could never live on your own power. You have a good life in Christ.
God came in Jesus to die a perfect death for you that you could not die, yourself. You have a perfect ending and a perfect new beginning. In Jesus, God died for you; for your forgiveness, for your healing, for your peace, for your everlasting joy.

When we know the Lord, when we know God in Christ; our life is built upon this gift of love, our life is built on thanks for this love. And when you know his love, you also know that God is thankful for you. You are the child that God has won for himself. Real life is thanks, from beginning to end, from everlasting to everlasting.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Journey of Faith - A Living Sacrifice

Preached on Sunday, November 6, 2016

Genesis 22:1-19

God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, his beloved son Isaac, as a burnt offering. This is one of the most horrific and mysterious events in the Bible.
There is only one other event in the Bible like it. That other event happened almost two thousand years after Abraham and Isaac. It’s also the story of a loving Father, and the sacrifice of his Son. We’ll talk about that later.
Walking under the Wires
Lower Crab Creek near the Columbia River
North of Desert Aire/Mattawa WA
God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, his beloved son Isaac, as a burnt offering. The strangest problem about this is that God did not want Isaac to die, or to be hurt in any way.
Abraham was of the same mind and believed, with as much faith as he could muster, that God (as he had always trusted God to be) would not want Isaac to die, or to be hurt. It was with this mind, with this agreement, that God and Abraham went to the mountain of sacrifice with Isaac the living sacrifice.
We don’t know how much Isaac knew about the test beforehand, let alone what he might have been feeling, not knowing what his father was up to, beside confusion and puzzlement. Whatever he was thinking, once they got to the mountaintop, Isaac was engulfed by a sickening terror in the face of what was being done to him by his father. Then, suddenly, that terror was followed by a confused and trembling relief. He was alive!
Why did God tell Abraham that he wanted Isaac sacrificed as a burnt offering, when he wanted no such thing? My head knows why, but my heart doesn’t.
Well, my head remembers what the Bible says. The Bible says that it was a test: not a temptation, but a test. The Bible is very clear that God may test, but doesn’t tempt. Even though the same word, in the Hebrew and in the Greek, is used for both testing and temptation, the difference is that God doesn’t lead or draw anyone to do what is wrong or evil. (James 1:13-14)
In this story, we know what would have been wrong. It would have been wrong for Abraham to disobey the Lord. And we know what would have been evil. It would have been evil for Abraham to kill Isaac. It would have been evil for God to want Abraham to kill Isaac.
If God had wanted Abraham to kill Isaac, he would not have been himself. If God is not himself, then what is he? Nothing good could come of that.
Here, the strange thing is that Abraham passed the test of faith by refusing to believe what he was told.
Abraham went through the motions of obeying what he was told. But he trusted God so much that he refused to believe what God said, or seemed to say.
More than once, the Bible tells us that Abraham was, and is, God’s friend. (Genesis 18:17-19; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23) Teachers and examiners give tests to prove how much the examinees, or students, know, or don’t know.
God, as Abraham’s friend, already knew how much Abraham knew. God wanted to see Abraham putting his faith to work.
Sometimes you don’t completely learn something until you have had to do it yourself. You never really know how to fix a thing, or put something together, or cook a recipe, until you can do it yourself, by yourself, with the instructions put away. You simply don’t know what you really know until you do it by yourself.
Abraham wasn’t really by himself at all, but the test made him feel as though he was all on his own (and maybe it made him feel as though he was even without God, as he had learned to know God).
Abraham was trusting the God he knew and loved, even when God seemed to have changed. What God said made Abraham feel not only alone, but in the dark. This is part of what makes Abraham an example and model of faith for us.
God was his friend, and God was also the friend of his young son. Abraham believed this. Years of experience had taught him this; and so, now, even in the dark, he hoped against hope that both he and Isaac would make the trip back home again together, alive and well. He told the servants that they would both be back.
Abraham kept faith in what he knew about the Lord. He knew that the Lord would hate such a sacrifice.
This is hard stuff. Even so, it has a lot to teach us, since God can sometimes call for us to make difficult sacrifices.
Abraham lived surrounded by people who followed bad religions that called for horrible sacrifices: sacrifices exactly like the sacrifice of Isaac, except that those truly horrible sacrifices always ended in death. The gods of the Canaanites who lived in the land at that time, and the Phoenicians to the north, had numerous gods and goddesses who (it was claimed) could be pleased with human sacrifices.
Their gods claimed to offer great rewards for such terrible sacrifices. Parents believed that they could guarantee success in a project, or avert a disaster, by giving a child of theirs to a priest of Moloch or Baal for sacrifice by fire or by the knife.
Part of the test was whether Abraham and his descendants would believe that the Lord was such a god: a god who expected such unholy sacrifices. Would they believe that they could win God over, and get God to bless them, for making horrible sacrifices?
Black magic and voodoo can call for human sacrifice, and for the sacrifice of babies and children. Even now, it seems that there are fanatics of some religions who encourage children, or young people, to become martyrs by fighting soldiers, or by wearing bombs and blowing themselves up along with innocent bystanders. I don’t, for a moment, believe that Islam teaches this, but some fanatics who claim to be Muslim practice this.
I believe that when unborn infants are robbed of life for nothing more than the convenience and freedom of their mothers, it is a kind of evil sacrifice, because freedom and convenience are some of the false gods of our culture and our time. They are part of the false religion of our present day.
I also believe that many living children, and spouses, and families are wounded or sacrificed on the invisible altars of freedom and convenience; or for pride, or anger, or whatever feels good. Even Christians make these horrible sacrifices; to get their way, or to please themselves, or to address some dark need in themselves.
A while back someone asked me to list my priorities for them, in order. I told them that unless my first priority was my own relationship with God, I wouldn’t be any good to anyone else. Then I said that my next priority would be my relationship with wife and children and so on (if I had any). And then would come my relationship with my friends. Only then would come my relationship with the church.
How could I ever serve God’s people if I didn’t take care of my relationship with God, my family, and my friends? And my relationship with God demands that I protect family and friends and serve them. My relationship with God demands that I seek to be a blessing to others, in the proper order of things. How can anyone do otherwise?
Ministers sometimes sacrifice their family and friends to the church. Some people sacrifice family and friends to the god of work, or to money, or to their emotions and moods, or to the hurts of the past. These are all unholy sacrifices.
There is another thing for us to learn from the test that Abraham faced, in which he had to decide whether the Lord wanted Isaac dead or alive. It is possible for the people who believe in God to be afraid of God, and of what God will ask of them. They don’t really know that God is their friend in the best sense of the word.
For them God is a taker and not a giver. For them God is a grim reaper and not a life giver.
The Lord called upon Abraham and Sarah to leave a prosperous and secure life in one of the great civilizations of the ancient Middle East. God made them wanderers and nomads.
This could have seemed like robbery to them, that they were expected to leave what was familiar, and easy, and safe. But God didn’t rob them of life. God gave them an adventure instead. God gave them more life. God gave them abundant life.
They didn’t stop living. They began to live. They would be able to look back and see the difference. They had become alive as they never had been before. God called them to a life of faith.
Some sacrifices mean taking risks: they can seem dangerous, but they are on the cutting edge of life. To not be able to make good sacrifices is to not be able to live.
Marriage and parenthood are sacrifices that lead to more life. They also lead to more sacrifices than anyone can imagine who has not gone that way. But those sacrifices also lead to more life.
What it means to follow Jesus turns out to be exactly what he said about it. Jesus said, “If anyone would come with me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
Feeling called and moved to follow in the footsteps of the Christ, who died for you on the cross, can feel like a calling to be robbed. Of course it looks scary and hard.
It looks sacrificial. You have to give up things. You have to give up your very self. But you also get yourself back, better than before.
The Bible talks about being a living sacrifice to God, not a deadly sacrifice. (Romans 12:1) God wants us to make our own lives into a living sacrifice, not a killing sacrifice. It’s possible to do a lot of hard, challenging things, and to find yourself not wallowing in misery, but swimming in life.
I think that a lot of this comes because faith means seeing your life as a gift from God. In the giving that comes from God nothing is lost or wasted. Faith means believing how much you are loved, and staking your life (and all your risk-taking) upon that.
I believe that Abraham took Isaac to offer him as a living sacrifice. He told his men that the two of them would come back together to meet them. Abraham told his son that God would supply a lamb for the sacrifice. Faith means believing that other people, including the people you love most, the people you depend on most, are gifts from God.
When you love and trust God, you never make the people you love into wounded or deadly sacrifices. Making the people you love into living sacrifices means teaching them to go forth and live.
Entrust them to God, who made them. God loves them more than you do.
This faith is the difference between clinging and enjoying. It’s the kind of faith that any good mother and father must have in order to send forth resourceful, able, and wise children. It’s the kind of faith that grown children need to have to make their parents proud.
It’s the kind of faith that Christians need to have for the mission of Christ, and for the Body of Christ. We have to know that the mission of Christ, and Body of Christ, come from God, and that God loves them more than we do.
We are called to make the sacrifice of taking risks in order to give life to the mission of Christ and body of Christ. We will live more fully in the process of taking those risks. God wants to give us this kind of freedom, which is part of his abundant life, which comes to us through Christ.
Isaac returned home with his father, as a living sacrifice, because God provided another lamb as the real offering for that day.
But there was another offering to be made; an offering of infinite value. This would be the real sacrifice that gave life to all people, in all times and places. This sacrifice was the real lamb who died for Isaac and Abraham, for you and for me. That lamb was Christ.
There is this one other story of a horrendous and mysterious sacrifice. It involved the love of a Father, and the sacrifice of a Son. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) God the Father entrusted God his Son to the world as a gift of life.
The Good News of Jesus tells us about the love of God that is rich, and not poor; that is not life-robbing, but life giving. Jesus was a dying sacrifice that became a living sacrifice for us.
He died for us and rose for us. He gave till he could give no more, and then, suddenly, there was no end to his giving. This is the cross-love and the resurrection-love.
Jesus died to take away our sins so that we could be living, life-giving sacrifices, ourselves. This is who God is. We meet this God in Jesus.

Ages before the coming of God in Jesus, Abraham trusted that this God, as he knew him, must be something like that. This is why Abraham went to the mountain of sacrifice in faith. This is what it means to walk by faith in Christ.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Journey of Faith - Partnership with God

Preached on Sunday, October 30, 2016

Scripture reading: Genesis 18:1-25 ff

There’s a joke that asks the question: “Do you know how to make God laugh?” And the answer is this: “Tell God your plans.”
Tall Timber Ranch
Leavenworth, WA
October 2016
When we begin to love and trust the Lord, we also begin to have a sense of humor about the difference between our priorities and the Lord’s priorities. We grin and confess that God knows what he’s doing.
But the Bible (in the stories of Abraham and Sarah) shows this joke working the other way. The question is: “Do you know how God makes you laugh?” And the answer is this: “God makes you laugh by telling you his plans.”
God made Sarah laugh by telling her his plan for her to have a baby in her old age. Sarah wasn’t particularly guilty in her laughter. In the chapter before this (Genesis 17:17), Abraham also laughed at the very same promise. He had heard the same, basic promise, in one form or another, so many times, and nothing ever came of it. How could it?
Eventually, the baby would arrive, exactly as promised. Each time Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s plan for them to have a baby, God told them to name the child “Laughter”. The Lord told them to name the baby “Isaac” which means “laughter.” True to form, when that baby was born, Sarah did laugh. (Genesis 21:6) Or, at least she claimed she did.
Isaac was God’s joke on them. It was a sign that God understood laughter and, for God, even the laughter of disbelief is not a disqualification for true faith. The old couple who laughed at the impossible are the parents of our own faith.
This has a lot to teach us about the journey of faith, which is a kind of partnership with God. And it has a lot to teach us about the journey of prayer, which is also a partnership with God.
Faith and prayer are a way of what we might call “living in the presence of God.” This, in fact, is what human beings were created for. The story of the Garden of Eden teaches us that you and I, along with all human beings, were made to be at home in a place, and in a life, where God comes, and meets with us. The whole world was meant to be in sync with heaven and the kingdom of God.
But Adam and Eve teach also us that we have wanted to get a bit outside of the presence of God. Only the problem is that you can’t get just a little bit outside the presence of God, and his life and glory. The world, as it is, shows us what comes from being a bit outside the presence of God.
This mysterious meeting in which the Lord came to Abraham and Sarah in the form of three men tells us about what it’s like to “live in the presence.” It tells us about faith and prayer.
It shows us that there is a pattern of give and take, in faith and prayer. It really is a relationship, and that relationship is personal. God takes his relationship with us personally. God weighs his part in it. God weighs his input, and pushes us, and pulls at us, and God is not afraid to make us laugh. God is not afraid to make promises that we will doubt and laugh at.
The story’s strange. In a world like ours, and with people such as we are, it should strike us as strange, and a little crazy, seemingly, and a little laughable.
Abraham’s head was probably nodding as he sat in the shade of the flap of his tent, at siesta time, in the heat of the day. Suddenly he saw three men in front of him, standing out in hot the sun. We don’t know how he knew that he was in the presence of the Lord. Abraham speaks to them as if they were one, and they speak to him as one. In the next chapter, the three become two.
Let’s not worry about what this means. Meeting God is strange. Faith is strange. Prayer is strange. Face it!
Abraham ran up to them and bowed with his forehead, touching the dirt. He called them Lord. Why did he offer them water to wash their feet? Were God’s feet dirty?
He begged them to stay for a morsel, and off he went, running all over the place. First he ran into the tent to have Sarah bake three loaves of bread.
Then he ran to the cow herd, and slaughtered a prize calf on the spot, and told a kid to skin it, and clean it, and roast it on a spit over the fire. How long was all this going to take?
When everything was ready, and the places were set, Abraham stood beside the picnic cloth waiting to serve as needed. The good host is there to serve.
This is hospitality, and it runs all the way through this chapter. All the way through, in his actions and words, Abraham showed that he was putting the Lord infinitely higher than himself, and putting himself to the side.
This is part of the strangeness of prayer and faith, because people like us always want life to be about us. We want to come out on top, even with God.
The Abraham sort of hospitality is a lesson for us. We learn to speak with God, and listen to God, while we stand to the side of ourselves. In prayer and faith, we stand to the side of ourselves, and we make room for God to be God.
At the same time, God is also our host, with a hospitality all his own. The Lord treated Abraham like a fellow expert, or even as a critic. The Lord stood to the side of himself in order to show Abraham what he was working on; what he was up to.
The Lord was like an artist standing away from his art to let someone, whom he wants to please, enjoy it. The Lord was like a cook, with something on the counter, or on the stove, standing aside to show the guests the meal the cook is making for them. Although God is God; God sees us as his family, or his friends, and stands aside to make room for us. God came as a human in Jesus to make room for us.
When the Lord said of Abraham, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” And the Lord also said, “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just…” (Genesis 18:17-19) The “I have chosen him” part is a friend word. It’s a partnership word.
Hebrew is so different from English. This word “chosen” is also a word of recognition. It is like suddenly recognizing that the person in front of you is a friend or a potential partner. It’s like love at first sight.
I knew a widow who remembered the day she first met the man who was going to become her husband. The year would have been about 1920. She was walking, with a friend, down the Main Street of her home town, and she saw two young men leaning against the wall of a store; and she saw one of the young men point at her, and say to his friend: “I’m going to marry that one.”
Chosen means a recognition like that. Sometimes our own recognition of God comes like that. We sense that God experiences the same thing with us all the time: love at first sight, all the time.
The idea is that the Lord has decided that Abraham is more than a creature: and so are we. Abraham is the friend, and even the partner, who needs to be in on the secret. Abraham shares responsibility with the Lord for getting a certain job done. That job is being a blessing to the world. The job includes understanding what is right and just, and living accordingly.
Abraham took the Lord up on this and became the Lord’s partner in the matter of what to do about Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham said: “Far be it from you to do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)
These strange things, called prayer and faith, make for pretty daring talk. The point is that this is the talk of partners, as unequal as we are to God. We are God’s partners in caring about what is right and just, and doing it, and making sure that we’re on the same page with God.
In some strange, way God agreed with Abraham about what was right. In the same strange way, God agrees with us about the way things should be.
We see what it means to live out our agreement with God, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) Praying “thy will be done” includes the prayer for God to enable us to do his will on earth, just as the angels, and our brothers and sisters, do God’s will in heaven.
We are the children of God’s kingdom who have been placed here to do God’s work. We need to ask God what he wants us to do for his kingdom here, where we live. This is what prayer and faith are all about.
Prayer and faith are also about receiving God’s blessings. Part of this includes receiving God’s blessing of partnership that we’ve been thinking about.
It also includes letting God open our closed doors. Sarah laughed, just as Abraham had done, at the closed door of the blessed baby. The baby was their impossibility. It was the thing they could not do. God’s blessing includes what he may tell you about the closed doors of your life.
They had come to terms with the closed doors of their lives, and they had made other plans. It was their way of giving up. God told them to stop doing this.
I don’t know what to say about this. In “The Singing Nun” Sister Maria says that the Mother Superior had a saying: “Whenever God closes a door, he opens a window.”
It may seem like that. That is part of what you and I need to pray about. We need to take God’s blessing into our hearts, and not laugh at it. At least we need to do more than laughing. We need to find the door of God’s promise that we have closed and that God wants open. It might not be what you think.
God arrives, and we hardly know what’s going on. Prayer with God includes our hospitality, God’s recognition, God’s blessings, our questions, our requests, treating God as God.
Prayer and faith are like that strange discussion between the Lord and Abraham about what the Lord was doing about Sodom, and about what was right and just. Life in God’s presence is just that: it’s a discussion.
Abraham wasn’t haggling with God about numbers. Some people think that, if Abraham had argued God down to saving Sodom even if there were only one righteous person there, that the destruction would never have happened.
The discussion wasn’t haggling. It was an exploration in which Abraham got to understand God better. The point is that God doesn’t count numbers at all. If it’s about numbers at all, the story tells us that God values innocent life even when it is a tiny minority. Goodness counts more than evil. Goodness carries more weight. In fact, goodness carries all the weight, all the way.
God understood what it meant to spare Sodom for the sake of goodness, and God had been sparing Sodom all along. God had used Abraham and his men, in battle, to spare Sodom.
The Hebrew word for “spare” (as in sparing the city) is also a word for forgiveness, and it is also a word for carrying something. The gist of it is that forgiveness carries sin: forgiveness bears sins. In his exploration of God, Abraham got a glimpse of something he had never thought of before: that God’s forgiveness means that God carries our sins. In some way, the burden that God carried in Jesus on the cross must have included Sodom.
Justice, in Hebrew thought, is the process of carrying out decisions that will put an end to evil and making it possible for goodness to live. When God forgives our sins because he carried them, in Christ, on the cross, it means God putting an end to the evil within us, and within all human being, and making it possible for goodness to live in its place, if we will embrace this promise.
That is what it means to die in Christ and rise in Christ. It’s part of what Paul meant, in Galatians, when he wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
Abraham didn’t see all of that. He only saw that God might do such a thing as carry the sins of sinners so that they might live.
If Abraham saw anything in his discussion of what to do about Sodom, he saw that God was good and cared about goodness. Abraham saw that God cared about what was right and just. Abraham saw that God could be trusted, even when things didn’t turn out as he hoped and prayed.
The purpose of prayer is to explore the heart of God. Our exploration is for the purpose of knowing God, and living in his presence by faith and trust. God teaches us, as he taught Abraham, that daring (and almost irreverent) questions are not out of place in a life of prayer and faith. You can discuss daring things with your friend; and here we are taught to be God’s friend, and we are taught that God (as God) wants to be our friend.

This is what our journey in life is about. We live by faith and prayer. We learn to be God’s partners and God’s friends.