Monday, March 31, 2014

Seeing With God's Eyes


A word on how I construct my sermons: I look for a common thread that runs through each passage, and then develop the sermon around that idea. So we look this morning at the three texts, and then work with the common thread.

1 Samuel 16
The anointing of David to replace Saul draws our attention to the contrast between Israel’s first king, Saul, and Israel’s greatest king, David. Saul represents for us kingship in its human and failed form, and David represents kingship for us as “the man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). When the Israelites first asked for a King (1 Samuel 8), God told Samuel that their request was not rejecting him (Samuel, the prophet of God), but they were rejecting God himself. One can read this statement as saying that kingship itself was wrong, but the book of Judges suggests that the kingship had the potential to be good: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (21: 25).

One basic point that emerges from the kingship narratives is that human institutions can be good and they can be bad. Almost any form of government can be good or bad. As Canadians we are convinced that democracy is the best form of government, but democracy also can be misused by sinful people.

One notes also that David was the youngest. This has happened before—God chose Jacob over Esau; God chose Joseph, the eleventh of the twelve brothers. Although David is a good-looking young man, his age and status were against him. This leads to our second basic point—found in God’s response to Samuel’s desire to anoint David’s older brothers: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” There is the human perspective on life that we all share, and there is God’s perspective, which God wants us to have.

John 9
So we turn to the gospel reading. Chapter 9 follows the controversies Jesus appears to stir up deliberately in the previous chapter, ending with his most controversial claim: “Before Abraham was, I am.” The story is full of intrigue and currents flowing beneath the surface. The Pharisees are worried about this new teaching under the travelling rabbi, Jesus. They follow his preaching and his miracles with concern.

Jesus and his disciples meet a man who was blind from birth. The disciples begin with trying to understand his situation. Jesus begins with acting to heal his blindness. In the aftermath, the Pharisees also try to understand what has happened. They grill the man who was blind. They grill his parents. They more concerned with Jesus’ orthodoxy than his actions, seen here in their annoyance that he had healed the blind man on the Sabbath (verse 14).

We can see the undercurrents of factions struggling for influence in the way that the man and his parents reply. They do their best to avoid being pulled into those currents while noting the reality of what they have experienced. Finally Jesus draws the parallel—intended for the Pharisees, as they quickly see—between the man’s physical blindness and spiritual blindness. The point is clear and straightforward: God wants us to see with Jesus’ eyes. God wants us to see Jesus, and to see all of life with Jesus.

This theme of light and seeing what is in the light is one of John’s favourites. In the opening chapter of his gospel he calls Jesus the light of the world (1:4,5 and 9-11). People avoid the light because they are afraid that their secrets will be revealed to others around them. This theme then moves us into Paul’s letter.

Ephesians 5
In the passage from Ephesians Paul observes that the way that we see life determines the way that we live life. If we see life in the light of God’s presence, we then walk in that light living the way that Jesus lived. If we see life without the light of God in us, we then walk in darkness. Of us John said, “People love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil.” Of us Paul says, “Live as children of the light.”

Integrating the Passages
This has been a brief look at the passages. There is much more in them than this overview, but a basic theme emerges. There are always more ways than one of looking at any situation, and our perspective determines how we act in these situations. There is God’s way to see life, which leads to actions that fit with God (“Live as children of the light”). There are human ways to see life, which leads to actions that do not fit with God. We can be like David, or we can be like Saul. We can be like the man born blind (who believed, when Jesus called him), or we can be like the Pharisees.

This doesn’t mean that there is one right way to see every situation—God’s way. There may be a variety of perspectives that fit with God’s heart and mind. But it does mean that God wants us to see with the eyes of Jesus and to act with the heart of Jesus, to walk in the light. This also does not mean that we will be perfect. David was far from perfect. If anything, his recorded sins were (to our eyes at least) worse than Saul’s! But David’s repentance was real, and Saul’s was not. God wants people who really do want to grow into him, to be filled with the Spirit of Jesus.

You know of course that perspective is important. A friend from South Africa sent me the following comparison of Russian and American attitudes, written as advice to Russians visiting the United States.
·         Showing up at a business associate’s home uninvited in the United States is not acceptable. You may be invited to a picnic—if you’ve known each other for several years and are social outside the office. As a rule, the invitation will be only on a weekend, and you don’t have to prepare for something extravagant. Everything is the same as ours, only with far less booze. Bring something sporty—ball, badminton, Americans are certainly fervent fans of these things.
·         Americans generally do not like long intros and prefer to go directly to the subject matter, especially if it’s a phone conversation. In Russia we talk about general topics before moving on to the reason for the call. Conversely, Americans are often surprised by the Russian habit of quickly breaking off a conversation and hanging up. Phone etiquette in America usually involves the gradual end of the conversation, confirmation agreements and standard closing remarks. By the way, “see you later” should not be taken literally. That is a courtesy, and no more.
·         Russian conversational patterns often sound harsh to Americans. Statements such as, “You’re wrong,” can be offensive. This can be interpreted as “You are telling lies!” Therefore it is better to say, “I do not think I can agree with this.”
·         When Americans are talking, they might put their foot on a nearby chair, or even a table. They might cross their legs so that one foot rests on the opposite knee. In American culture, it is considered an acceptable norm, but often causes irritation in other countries.

Perspective is important! Another example from the website my friend sent me compared the way that Russian men greet women with the way that American men greet women. As the website put it: “It’s weird how one nation’s flirting is another nation’s motivation to use pepper spray.”

A more serious example contrasts the way that we see the situation in the Middle East. If we see with Palestinian eyes, we tell one story; if we see with Israeli eyes, we tell another. Even more important than cultural differences and political differences is the decisive difference between seeing with human eyes and seeing with God’s eyes. God wants us to learn to see the world with his eyes and to act on that seeing.

The Upside-Down Kingdom
The way that Jesus embodied that difference has been called “the upside-down kingdom” (Don Kraybill). Just as God directed Samuel to the one who seemed least likely to be the future king, God routinely directs us to act on behalf of the less fortunate following God’s way of the kingdom

In the political world I have wondered what our world would look like with American and Canadian leaders seeing with God’s eyes. What would have happened if George Bush had prayed aloud the Lord’s Prayer—“Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of those who sin against us—before deciding to invade Afghanistan? We could have sought justice through the International Court in The Hague, while putting our wealth and our influence to work to benefit the oppressed of Afghanistan. Instead we invaded.

What would it look like if Barack Obama would see his political opponents with God’s eyes as one Catholic Hospital after another is forced to provide abortions in order to remain open? Or if Steven Harper would look at the future of Circles of Accountability with God’s eyes before cutting funding to keep them operating?

Often we think that these questions belong especially in political circles, but they are part of every area of life. I think of life in the church. Many years ago—in the late 1800s—people in my church (the Brethren in Christ) met in homes and in barns to worship. One group, followers of a man named Martin Brinser in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, built a simple meeting house on the edge of Brinser’s farm, since their homes were too small for the growing group.

The larger group of Brethren in Christ warned the Brinser group to return to meeting in their homes, but the group refused. So we expelled them, and they became a church known today as “The United Zion”. What if we had seen them with the eyes of God—brothers and sisters who had come to a different conclusion than we had concerning the shape simplicity should take in our lives? We could have dialogued and worked more intentionally. Instead we kicked them out, and within 10 years we too were meeting in simple church buildings.

Even a group such as the Amish, known for the way that they practice love and reconciliation, are not immune to acting on the basis of their own human convictions. You may recall a story from three years ago about a group of Amish in Ohio, who forcibly cut the hair and beards of ex-members who had come to disagree on the precise outer appearance the men had to have. If they could have stopped and looked at what they were doing, if they could have seen themselves with the eyes of God, what difference might that have made?

Of course, all of these examples come in the end back to each believer. We live and think and act in community, but especially in our culture we each make the choice of how we will see life around us. The passages we read suggest that we seek God’s presence—alone and in community—and test our perspectives with each other and with God, and then act on the basis of God’s love and desire for reconciliation in the world.

Some Basic Principles
Some basic principles to guide us in seeing the way God sees:
·         Don’t trust the “outward appearance” too much. Learn to hear and see what’s going on inside of the people around us. This suggests that we should be slow to judge others. As the NLT puts Eph 5:10, “Carefully determine what pleases the Lord.” Take the time to listen and understand and finally hear God’s voice within the situations of our lives.
·         Internalize the way that Jesus saw the world. As Paul tells us, “He is the image of the invisible God, the exact representation of his being.” If you wonder how God sees the world, look at Jesus. This is I believe a particular strength of Mennonite theology—that we centre our ethic and teaching on the person of Jesus Christ. Not that we live up to that theology, but we know where to look!
·         Spend your time in prayer and in reading the Bible. The reason that Samuel could look at Eliab and Shammah and realize they were not the chosen ones, was that he spent his time before God constantly. He knew what God wanted, because he listened for God’s voice always in every moment. From his experience as a small boy in the tabernacle, hearing God all him and thinking it was Eli calling, Samuel listened for God’s voice. His very name might mean “He heard God.” (Actually: either God's name, or God heard—but I wonder ....) Spend your time listening for God, and follow whenever you hear him speak.

There is the saying that perspective is everything. “What you see depends on where you stand.” I remember a story that Ron Sider used to tell of his Uncle (perhaps Jacob—I don’t remember his Uncle’s name). His Aunt was institutionalized most of her life (many years ago, when we did not know as much as we do now about the mental and emotional processes of the human body), and his Uncle visited her faithfully throughout her life. Once when Ron asked him why he kept visiting over the years, he replied, “When you see _____, you see an old woman who doesn’t know what is going on around her, but when I look at her I see the young woman I courted and married.” What you see depends on where you stand, and God wants you to stand with him and see with God’s eyes. Then you can walk in God light following Jesus until he returns.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Strike the Rock

Exodus 17:1-7
Water from the rock
17 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, travelling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarrelled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” 4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
5 The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarrelled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Psalm 95
1 Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.
3 For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.
6 Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker
7 for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if only you would hear his voice,
8 “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. 10 For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.” 11 So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’

Romans 5:1-11
Peace and hope
5 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Comment on Romans 5
Romans 5 is one of three chapters in Romans that people in my background often choose to memorize. Romans 1 to 3 is a discussion of the basic human condition. All people have access to God’s grace, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. God judges all people on the basis of their response to that grace. God gave the Law to the chosen people, the Jews, in order to shape them into the people among whom God would come in the flesh. This gift of the Law is a great gift, but it is not the Law that saves. God’s grace saves—whether through the law or without the law. 

Chapter 4 makes the argument that Abraham himself is saved by grace through faith. Jews think of Abraham as their father and thus also the one who prepared the way for the Law; but, says Paul, it is the fact that Abraham believed God’s promises that released God’s grace in his life: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God. What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ … He received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. 

Romans 5, then, builds on this argument: “1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 

What else do we want in life? We struggle with the circumstances of our lives, searching for peace. Over the past several weeks Lois has been reading old diaries from high school and college. They have led to conversations about what life was like when those of us now in our 50s or 60s were teenagers. I don’t know about you, but if someone came to me with a time machine, I would pay good money not to go back to when I was 16 years old. It’s not that my high school years were unhappy—quite the reverse; but there is an undercurrent of struggle to life in general that leads us to search for peace.

I think of friends of ours, missionary candidates getting ready for overseas service, who are home after several years at Providence. Their son is struggling with the moves they are making, so that they have decided not to send him to school for the remaining months before they go overseas again. I can identify with him. At 14 I was a student in Zimbabwe. At 15 I was a Grade 11 student in Pennsylvania, and at 16 moved to a second school for my Grade 12 year. Then at 17 I made it four schools in four years, beginning at Messiah College. Such changes are hard; we seek for peace and resolution in this life. 

If you want more examples, read the advice columns in the Winnipeg Free Press. You don’t need to evaluate the quality of advice given; simply note the constant struggle to deal with hardship, often revolving around relationships with other people. In fact, Paul tells us that the decisive relationship is peace with God. 

When you are integrated and at peace with the Creator of Reality, you can deal with anything. Then Paul observes the normal process that seals this peace in our lives: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. 

Paul gives this specific progression because it was the experience of the first Christians. They lived with the constant reality of persecution. The first generation of Christians welcomed outsiders into their worship, but with the persecution that began under Nero (probably around 64 AD) a system grew up in which outsiders had to go through extensive teaching before they were allowed to attend worship. To be a Christian was to suffer, and Paul tells the Romans that this pattern was actually their blessing. (Compare Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:11.) Paul wrote Romans five to 10 years before persecution became a daily reality, but such matters do not grow suddenly out of nothing. We know from the book of Acts that persecution began with the birth of the church.
We do not experience such persecution today, but the pattern Paul gives in our text holds true. Suffering and pain are normal to life, and they are also God’s way to help us find his grace and place our faith completely in him. 

The remaining verses of the text grounds this process in Christ’s own suffering on the cross, which was God’s expression of love. Even when we were God’s enemies, Christ was our best friend and made a way for us to find peace and reconciliation with God. 

So our basic thought: Christ’s suffering was God’s love to give us peace. Christ’s love and suffering also then becomes the pattern for our lives: Our suffering becomes the way through which God’s hope is released into our lives more and more, bringing greater peace and joy.

Exodus 17
Turn to the account in Exodus 17. Chapter 14 gives the account of crossing the Sea and finally becoming free from the Egyptians. Chapter 15 is Moses’ and Miriam’s song of praise for their deliverance. At the end of that chapter begins a recurring theme—trouble with finding water. Since they spent 40 years wandering in the desert south of modern Israel, we can expect that they would have trouble finding a good supply of water. In chapter 15 they found water, but it was not drinkable, until Moses treated it under God’s direction. 

Then in chapter 16 the people are hungry and searching for food. God provided through quail that came in the evening and manna that came each morning, except for the Sabbath. The incident with the quail is told again in Numbers 11, with God’s judgment on those who complained that God was not taking care of them. These chapters tell how the Israelites tended to forget how God cared for them in the past and to complain about present hardship. Repeatedly God gives them new grace for the present moment. 

Then comes the story we heard earlier: There was no water in the dessert, and the people grumbled and complained. Moses took their problems to God, who told him to strike the rock in front of him. When he did so, water came out, and the text implies that there was enough water to satisfy their needs. 

Note several points in the text:
·         Evidently the people had been at Horeb earlier, travelled around for a bit, and returned to this place. I am not convinced that we need to know this geography well, at least partly because I doubt that we can know it well. The names refer to places we can no longer identify with certainty. But we do know that Horeb and Sinai are used to refer to the same events in Exodus and in Deuteronomy. Moses received his commission in Exodus 3 at Horeb. The law is given at Sinai in Exodus 20ff; in Deuteronomy 4 and 5 the law is given at Horeb. Whatever we make of these two names, clearly Horeb is place where God meets his people with unique clarity and power.
·         The people’s complaints are part of a regular pattern. They could not rest and trust in what God had done in the past; they wanted God to do something for them in the present. We’re a lot like the Israelites in this respect. As Lois and I have looked over our past life together, we notice that the hard times have faded, as we experience God’s presence and goodness in the present. I notice also that, when we were experiencing trouble, it was harder to remember the blessings.
We’re like that. We live in the present, and we tend not to be satisfied with what God has done in the past. Because God is gracious, he responds to our need and works in the present also.
·         God tells Moses to take his staff—the staff he had used to strike the Nile River. This identification reminds Moses to remember the past. Moses could remember the great actions of God in setting his people free, reminded by holding up the staff he had used in the Exodus. 

These events come together to reinforce the pattern Paul describes: God works in our trouble to strengthen our relationship with him. God works in our hardships to draw us closer to himself. Therefore, Paul and the writer of Exodus might add, remember God. Don’t complain against God, but remember what he’s done for you before, and trust God to work in the present also. 

The psalm we heard read makes that same point with its final verses: “8Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. 10 For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.’ 11 So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ 

It is in fact possible to anger God by rejecting him; but that is a minor note in the combined narrative. God’s grace and love are greater than his anger, and we can rest in his readiness to work in our lives. God’s wrath is real, and we are wise not to test him, but God’s love also is real. 

Bringing the Passages Together
So what do we do with these passages today? We are in the season of Lent. How do we use these passages to help prepare us for the joy of Easter? Easter of course is the great story of how God’s self-sacrifice in Christ brings the greatest joy imaginable. How do we prepare for Easter? The Psalmist tells us; “Do not harden your hearts [against God].” When trouble comes, don’t use your troubles as a reason to turn against God, but rather use them as the opportunity to hold onto God more tightly than ever. 

Let me use an analogy. I played soccer in my college days. I remember how we trained in soccer camp. We went for a three-mile run before breakfast, and then had three hours of fairly intensive training after breakfast, finishing with wind sprints. I was dead tired, but we did 12 ten-yard sprints, followed by eight 25-yard sprints, followed by six 50-yard sprints. Between each sprint there was a short, very short, rest. Finally we did four 100-yard sprints, without stopping, no rests in between. I remember turning for the final 100 yards, convinced I would fall over before I got to the end. Then coach started running behind us and yelled out, “Anyone I beat gets to do them all again!” I found I had more energy left than I realised and finished the last 100 yards remarkably quickly. 

Why did we do that? Conditioning! Why do people do resistance training? Conditioning. If such training is true of our physical bodies, should we be surprised that God uses a kind of resistance training for the whole person, body, soul, and spirit? It is as a child tries to walk with no one holding on that the child falls—and also actually learns to walk. It is as you experience the wilderness of God’s absence with trials piling up—and still cry out to God in hope and fear—that you grow in your relationship with God. 

Our passages suggest three basic steps when the troubles of life overwhelm you:
·         Remember what God has done in the past. Take out your staff that God used in the past and get ready to use it again. Remember who God is.
·         Trust in God for the future. Strike the rock that God tells you to strike, whether you see how God will work or not.
·         Use repeated actions—such as prayer, communion, and other rituals—to remind you to trust in God. I use the Lord’s Prayer every morning. An old missionary friend used to say that when he got up in the morning he would have a cup of coffee with Jesus, referring to a time of prayer and reading the Bible as he drank his morning coffee. 

Please note also a lesson you should not learn from these passages. Don’t think you cannot complain to God. The problem with the Israelites was that they tested God. Their complaint was an effort to replace God at the centre of their lives. That is rebellion. But the Psalms make clear that the stronger our relationship with God is, the more clearly we can take our trouble to God. The Israelites complained to each other and ended up rebelling openly a few chapters later. Don’t rebel; but don’t think that God does not want to hear your pain. There is no better place to complain than directly to God.
You know as well as I do, and some of you quite a bit better, the experiences of life that illustrate what I have been saying. Comfort and encourage and help each other as you struggle with life. Then we will “glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pay It Forward

John 3: 1-17
3 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Genesis 12: 1-4
12 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.

My basic point this morning is found in the title. God blesses us both for our own sake, and for the sake of those around us. We are part of a much bigger story than our own lives. We play our part, in order to bring about God’s desire to reconcile the whole world to himself. So when God calls you and blesses you, he expects you to become a blessing to others—to pay what you have received forward to others around you.

We’ll look briefly at the passage in John, a little more at Abram’s call in Genesis, and then ask what that has to do with us today. 

In John 3 Jesus has begun his ministry. Chapter 2 gives two incidents—one from the beginning of his ministry: changing the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, and one from the end of his ministry: clearing the temple during the preparation for the Passover. The former begins to reveal who he is; the latter notes that many people saw the signs he did and believed. Jesus himself remained free from whatever others did, “for he knew all people…, he knew what was in each person.”

So in the passage we read, one of the Pharisees (his chief opponents) came to learn more about him. Nicodemus shows us that the Pharisees were not simply bad people; they were also truly searching for God’s work in Israel. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, many Pharisees were among those who followed the risen Christ (Acts 15: 5). So with Nicodemus: he wanted to know if Jesus was really the Messiah.

Jesus began Nicodemus’ education in a new way to see the world. Those who are born into their place in this world know what is going on in this world, but that’s all they know. If you want to know about the world that is real and full and complete, you have to be born into this new world: “You must be born again.” This new birth comes only by God’s Spirit, acting in the person who comes to God. “New Birth” is a metaphor to describe the incredible change that takes place in a person’s life when he/she re-orients their life around God, something that is possible only as a gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

In the final two verses, the gospel in a nutshell (as it is sometimes called), John gives his own commentary on Jesus’ words. Truly these two verses describe what God is doing in our world—what he was doing when Jesus lived on earth, and what he is doing now:
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Our first point this morning is to recognize that this new life is what God wants in everyone’s life here. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in a Christian family or came to faith when you were 30 years old. It doesn’t matter if you know the Bible from back to front, or have trouble finding the Scripture reference without a page number. It doesn’t matter if you have been a really good person (as our society thinks of it) or a drug dealer. God wants the same thing for everyone of you, just as God wants it for me: God wants each of us to have the new life that he gives by the Holy Spirit.

Abram (and Sarai)
Genesis 12 has sometimes been called the first or foundational missionary text. In chapter 11 we see the people try to “save the world” through their own efforts. In chapter 12 we see God’s work to save the nations. Millard Lind (my OT professor at AMBS) used to call chapter 11, “the Canaanite city-state” and chapter 12, “God’s community of faith”. Note the differences through parallel construction.
Chapter 11                                            Chapter 12
2: they found a plain in the land                     1: Go  ...  to the land I will show you
3: let us make bricks                                           2: I will make of you
4: let us build
5: let us make a name for ourselves                 2: I will  ...  make your name great

You see the difference. The people of chapter 11 tried to build a city that would make them invincible, and they failed. God then took one family from all the people scattered in chapter 11 and built them into a people who would live forever. In their own way the Pharisees from whom Nicodemus came repeated the mistakes of Genesis 11. They tried to build a system of laws that would make them fit for God’s presence. Jesus told Nicodemus there is only one way to be ready for God: You must be born again.

Look again at what God called Abram and Sarai to do.
·         Leave your home and family and go to a new land—God will tell you when you get there.
·         Implied: Rely on God to keep you and protect you as you travel and when you get to this new land.
Observe what God said he would do for them.
·         I will establish you.
·         I will bless you.
·         I will make your name great.
And note what God said this process would do for others.
·         People around them will relate to God based on how they relate to Abram and his family. The words that follow sound a lot like the way that Jesus tells the disciples that what they bind and loose on earth is bound and loosed in Heaven.
·         Good relationships will lead to blessings; bad relationships will lead to curses.
·         This process will eventually encompass the whole world.
Abram and Sarai and some of their extended family followed God’s call and began the trek to what we call the Promised Land.

You see the basic truth that God called Abram for the sake of the world. At one level this gives us the overarching storyline of the Bible—God used the children of Abraham, the Jews, to be the means by which God himself entered the world in the person of Jesus. At another level this truth gives a pattern that applies in all of life. When God blesses you and me, the blessing is always for more than just us. God seeks to bless the world through us. We live in Christ for the sake of the world.

Paying It Forward
I am reading a book by Alan and Eleanor Kreider called Worship and Mission. Alan and Eleanor were Mennonite missionaries at the London Mennonite Centre. Now they are part of the faculty at AMBS. In this book they explore the relationship between worship and mission.

If you think about our times of worship as times we experience God’s blessing, you begin to see how this pattern applies to us. When we meet God here on a Sunday morning, at least two things are always true: 1) God blesses us for our own benefit; and 2) God blesses us for the benefit of those around us.

I want to focus on this pattern. First in our services here in the church: We come together in worship and praise. Often we ask: What do I get out of our services? It’s a fair question. We praise and worship the Creator of the universe. We can expect that this worship should change us somehow. I suspect that we take worship too casually sometimes. We may not really think that God is here, or we may be so burdened by the weight of daily life that we can’t sense anything beyond our own need. But you came here to meet God this morning. Abram didn’t seem to be expecting anything in Genesis 12, but he met God. Nicodemus came looking for Jesus in John 3, and he met God. This is the first and most basic aspect of our worship together. We are here to meet God.

And God is here too.  As the hymn has it:
God is here among us; let us all adore him, and with awe appear before him.
God is here within us; soul, in silence fear him, humbly, fervently draw near him.
Now his own who have known God in worship lowly yield their spirits wholly.
Come, abide within me; let my soul, like Mary, be thine earthly sanctuary.
Come, indwelling Spirit, with transfigured splendor; love and honor will I render.
Where I go here below, let me bow before thee, know thee, and adore thee. 

Gladly we surrender earth's deceitful treasures, pride of life, and sinful pleasures.
Gladly, Lord, we offer thine to be forever, soul and life and each endeavor.
Thou alone shalt be known Lord of all our being, life’s true way decreeing. 
If you don’t come to church with that expectation, you need to! Come expecting to meet God and receive God’s blessing. That blessing may take shapes you don’t expect, as it did for Abram; but you can’t live without it!

Now when God blesses you in your Christian walk, whether in worship here, or in a care group, or in your own prayer time, or when you’re walking down Main Street, God expects that blessing to have an effect in the lives of people around you. You know, your friends are watching you. If God heals you of some deep hurt, they will see it. If you love God more than anything else in life, they will see it. If you talk a good story, but you don’t actually walk with God, they will see that too! 

Over time the blessing you receive in following God will leak over into your friends’ lives, and they too will want to follow God. When we say that we are a missional church, the first and most important way that is true is in what your friends see of God in you. If God blesses you, they will know, and they will seek God’s blessing too. 

God’s blessings also come to us outside the church. The events of our lives also become God’s blessing with which we bring blessing to others. I think of what happened to my own parents many years ago when they first went overseas. They went to Zambia in 1946 with a one-year old daughter, my older sister. In 1948 they had a second daughter, who my sister, Dorothy. When she was eight months old, Dorothy contracted malaria and died. This was devastating to my parents, as you would expect. The missionary family and the Zambian Christians gathered around them to comfort and strengthen them. 

Some months later my parents got word that a family living in a nearby village had just lost their child. My parents went to the village, where the bereaved mother was wailing, inconsolable. My mother went to her and embraced her, and the two mothers sat and grieved together. In the process, mother was able to give the Zambian woman comfort where others could not. Because they shared the same grief, she could also pass on the comfort and strength she had received. God blesses us—even with strength in times of trouble—so that we can pass that blessing on to others. 

In 2003 Lois and I and our sons were back Sikalongo, where my sister Dorothy is buried. We had visited many people in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and they all identified me by my family—my grandparents, and my Uncle and Aunt, and my own parents. But when we got to Sikalongo it was different. We met the headmaster of the school there, and when I said our names, he replied: “Your parents are David and Dorcas. Your sister is buried there” (pointing at the cemetery). One of the teachers took us to his house for tea and biscuits. As we visited, he told us that his family also had lost a child the year before, and they had used the verse on Dorothy’s grave for their own funeral: “Suffer the little children to come to me.” 

The blessing of God’s grace present in our grief had continued to bless others in that place even 55 years after the event. I don’t understand how these things work, but it is clear that we are bound together in relationship as a human family. God normally uses people to bless people, so that when you experience God’s goodness and grace—even in times of great sadness—that experience is meant for you and for everyone you know. 

I used the well-known phrase “pay it forward” to express the way we are to live. The same idea is found in the old hymn “Make me a blessing to someone today.” Not in a pushy way, where we decide we’re going to help this person or that person. You may know some people who are so ready to bless you that you run for your life! 

But I’m talking about something more organic, more natural. God calls you, just as God called to Abram and to Nicodemus; and you respond to God’s call. Don’t hide it. Don’t pretend that nothing happened. Be natural. Be open. Share what God is doing with you. God is working in you for your good, and for the good of everyone around you. 

I wonder what our church could look like if we learned to expect God to touch us as we’re gathered together in worship, as well as when we’re living our lives the rest of the week. I wonder what our church could look like if we learned to share God’s goodness to us as naturally as we share our delight when the Jets win a game. I wonder what would happen if we allowed God’s blessings to flow into us and through us into all the people around us. 

The potential is here for us to be a sacred place where we laugh and love and discover God’s presence from the cradle to the grave. It doesn’t need to be dramatic, although it may be sometimes. It doesn’t need to be worth putting on the front page of the Carillon, although it may be sometimes. But it does need to be real. 

Only God can make it real. Only God can make you born of the water and of the Spirit. Only God can call you to leave everything and follow him. When God calls you, do like Abram and Sarai and Lot. Follow God! When God calls you, do like Nicodemus. Go to Jesus and let him sort you out. And as you discover the blessing of God’s new life, share the blessing with everyone in your life. Pay it forward for eternity.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Triumph of the Law

Exodus 24:12-18
12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.” 13 Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.”
15 When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
2 Peter 1:16-21
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 17:1-9
1After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

One of the basic problems with preaching from a particular passage—especially in the OT, but also in the NT—is the fact that each separate story actually means something based on the larger story of which it is part. The kind of preaching we do encourages us to separate one from another and turn them into something they were not meant to be.

The response to this problem is, of course, to set the small story in its big story, where it makes more sense, not to omit it or forget about it. With this task of remembering the grand story of redemption as we read our texts, we turn to the book of Exodus.

Exodus 24
This whole scene begins in chapter 19, as Moses went up to God and receives the great vision of what God wants to do with Israel:
Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
This commission helps us to understand what God has been doing, first allowing the Israelites to become slaves in Egypt, and then setting them free in the Exodus from Egypt. God is preparing to redeem the world as a whole for himself—the same world that rebelled against him at the beginning of creation; the same world that rose in rebellion before (and after) the flood; the same world that tried to set itself up against God in building the tower of Babel. God called Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12 to begin the process of redemption, and here God takes the next great step in bringing the world back to himself.

Then Moses ascends the mountain again, where God warns him to allow no one else to come up the mountain lest they be destroyed. Moses went back up the mountain and received the Ten Words, various Laws about how to live as God’s people, and the assurance of returning to the land of promise. So to chapter 24, in which Moses gives these beginning Laws to the people, and they receive them gladly. Then Moses goes back up for 40 days and nights to learn more to bring back to the people.

Chapters 25 to 31 contain this further revelation, primarily to do with the Tabernacle and the process of worshipping God, finishing with a command about the Sabbath. You remember what happens next. Moses comes back down the mountain, with Joshua who had attended him. They find the golden calf, which Aaron had made at the people’s request. They find rebellion. They find failure. They find people who could not wait for God to return, but had given up on God—even though a short time earlier they had proclaimed their joy and faith in this same God. 

How can I title this sermon “the triumph of the law”? Should it not be the failure of the law? God gave the Law, and the people failed even before Moses could return to them with God’s revelation. This sounds more like a radical failure than any kind of triumph. 

But of course God is not surprised by human failure, and God always finds a way to move forward. That’s why Paul can say (in Romans 8:28, a verse we sometimes misuse): “All things work together for good to those who love God….” God always finds a way forward, even when we conspire against God’s purposes in our world. 

What is God’s triumph (which is what we are really talking about) here? Although the people turned aside from God, even the way that they turned aside reveals what God had planted deep inside them: “Come, make us gods who will go before us.” They knew that they could not move without God. They knew that they were helpless on their own. They knew their need, and they acted on it. From creation until now, like the Israelites we have inside of us a deep inconsolable longing for something beyond ourselves. Even those who say they need nothing betray their belief in their own transcendence.

Eternity in Their Hearts
The preacher describes this truth in Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” He has set eternity in the human heart.

There are those who say that belief in transcendence is not needed, and that we are enough in and of ourselves. Last Wednesday I listened to a story on NPR (in the States), describing a group of atheists in California who are as evangelistic (odd word, considering!) in their atheism as any Christian in his/her faith. One of the things that struck me was their ready acknowledgement of the awe and wonder the world creates in us. That awe is what I’m talking about: Eternity in the human heart. By itself, awe and wonder do not necessarily lead to God; the atheists in this particular news story make that clear. But the reality of this awareness of our smallness and of the greatness of something else around us is what I am referring to.

Human efforts to discern the truth behind the awe we feel lead in many different directions. The Israelites went in the direction of the gods around them. The golden calf has connections to the deities of the Egyptians and Canaanites, who formed the cultural background to the Children of Jacob/Israel. Chapter 32 raises many questions, which I leave aside this morning. We note simply the tendency to look for meaning and power and hope for the future.

Don Richardson has written a book called Eternity in Their Hearts, in which he gives examples of many different cultures and the way that God’s presence is already revealed before the Christians faith was brought by missionaries of one sort or another. I think of a different kind of example, which does not make its way into Richardson’s work—the way that other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism so often echo Christian themes. One such echo is in something called Pure Land Buddhism, in which the Buddha Amida allows his grace to overflow into the lives of anyone who will place their faith in him. If you hold Amida Buddha’s image in your mind as you die, you are said to come to his pure land (Heaven). We may evaluate Buddhism negatively—the desired final destiny for Buddhists is extinction, not union with God. But the way in which Amida Buddha gives grace freely to all echoes the way that Jesus gives grace to all. An echo of the gospel in the heart of Mahayana Buddhism.

God has so made us that we search all of our lives for something more. The Israelites were not satisfied to sit at Sinai and remember that God had spoken. They wanted more. I suspect that a basic reason some Christians lose their faith (as we say) is that they have stopped searching. If you sit there content with what you have and not pursuing God to the end of your life, something else will come in to fill that need we feel in the depths of our being, the need to see eternity.

The NT Texts
As an old man Peter recalls that great vision of Jesus transfigured on the mountain:
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. 19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
The triumph of the Law is to nurture this deep desire to see God. The Israelites took that desire and twisted into an awful rebellion—with awful consequences. But the desire remained, so that when God came to them they repented and followed God through the wilderness for 40 years. Through the years of the Judges they wavered back and forth, following the gods of the Canaanites around them; but when God would appear to them again, they recognized that he was the one they wanted; they knew that God was the only true God.

The story of the OT circles around these themes of grace and rebellion, followed by judgment and repentance, and new grace. The result was to form a people whom no conqueror could tame. The Persians tried, but the literature between the Testaments (especially Maccabees) testifies to their constant desire to know God. The Romans tried, but the Jews were stubborn and kept turning back to God. Finally God had formed them into the people to whom he could come in human form. So he came as the man, Jesus bar-Joseph, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. He arrived on the scene as a preacher and teacher with the Twelve Disciples, including Peter. Peter remembers those days. Most people did not recognize God incarnate walking among them; but who could be expected to recognize such an absurdity, such an impossibility? Only those whom God had formed through the centuries through the triumph of the Law given at Sinai. So Peter remembers that day when Jesus went up the mountain with Peter and James and John:
18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. 19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The gospel account from Matthew 17 gives us the story that Peter remembers. God appears on earth, and the moment that the Law was given to prepare is finally revealed.

Living with this Triumph
How do we live with this action of God in our lives? The evidence of the atheists in California reminds us that the options in front of us today are many and varied. People can leave this church building this morning and search for transcendence in all kinds of places. Some analysts of the contemporary scene refer to the smorgasbord of religious options before us and note the way in which people pick and choose from those options to create their own religion, unique to themselves. The trouble with these efforts is the same (I think) as the problem with the Californian atheists—one ends up with something that is really no bigger than oneself.

The answer I believe resides with God. God was the only one who could break into the daily reality of the immigrant Israelis’ lives. They were stuck in the desert. They could not hope to find God on their own. Their efforts to do so led only to real trouble. The same thing is true for us today. If you try to find God on your own, most likely you will simply set up some human creation and worship it. Your God will become what keeps you from the true God.

The gospel passage, with Peter’s memory of that event, reminds us that God is the one who reveals himself to people. We are not the ones who can make God show himself. On the mountain with Moses, the initiative rested with God. On the mountain with Peter, James, and John, the initiative rested with God. We do have something they did not have—the record of God’s activity with the human race found in the Bible. But even the Bible tells us only Who we are waiting for.

God has given us glimpses of himself in the Bible, in the OT and the NT, giving the Law and in creating a People. And what a people! So messed up, so often pursuing other gods, so often practicing great injustice and trapped in bad social-political situations, so often rebellious and frustrating, but also so committed to God that they refused to bow down as a nation to any other ruler.

God has given us glimpses of himself in each other, in our history and in the stories of our families, in the story of this particular church (or cell within the larger church, as I heard Gerald Gerbrandt put it this past week). God has given us enough glimpses to know that God is there for you and for me.

So we wait for Jesus like the children of Israel waiting at the foot of the mountain. We wait for God like the disciples waiting for Jesus and his companions. We wait for Jesus to show himself making connections—bringing together the disparate elements of our past and present and making sense of them, like Jesus showing up with Moses and Elijah so that the disciples could see their lives gathered into the history of their people.

As we wait for Jesus we refuse to settle for any other substitute. We are waiting for Jesus to make us part of his new reality when our prayer comes true, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” And Jesus shows himself to us. Sometimes the wait is long, but Jesus always comes. And the joy when he comes is overwhelming. In that joy we can live God’s life in this world until we die, or until Jesus returns and brings in God’s reign in power and glory. As we wait, we sing,
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.