Sunday, February 28, 2016

Your faults, Not Even Your Faith Determines Your Relationship with God, Read What Does Here.

Did you have a story that you loved as a child?   I had lots of them, Curious George, MikeMulligan and his Steam Shovel, Ferdinand.   And I didn’t just have those stories.  I had Bible stories too.   The one I loved most was David and Goliath.  It had Goliath, the scary, daunting villain, David the bold, young, untried hero; and those two armies in between, both convinced that David didn’t stand a chance.  And then he defeats Goliath with a single stone from his slingshot. 

But unlike the other stories I remember, that story still speaks.  It still has powerful insights for our lives.  Why?  Well you and I hopefully will never face a 9 foot spear-wielding giant, but we do face problems that feel huge nonetheless.  It may be an inner struggle, a challenge in our family, a financial stress. a health issue.  It may even be some of the scary things on the news from ISIS to the economy.   But here’s the problem with Goliath issues.    In those problems, it becomes terribly easy for Goliath to capture your imagination rather than God.   You can become like the Army of Israel facing their giant, so fearfully convinced of the power and potency of the challenge that confronts you that you can hardly see anything else.  But here’s the stunning truth of the story.  David didn’t need a miracle to defeat the giant.  He simply needed to stay rooted in a reality that the other Israelites could no longer see.  He saw that with God the bigger they come, the harder they fall.  On the day of Goliath’s defeat, the person most connected to reality was David.   

Think about it.  How often, in life, has your imagination been captured by a challenge that seemed so daunting, but when you look back, it wasn’t nearly as powerful as you imagined it to be.  Mark Twain put it well. “Lots of terrible things have occurred to me, and some of them actually happened.”   Yet even as we remember that, these Goliaths still capture us, and if we let them, they will keep us captured.  They will prevent us from living into the full and blessed life God yearns each of us to have.   So how do you not let your mind get captured by the Goliath issues of life?   How do you remember that no matter how big the challenge you face, God is bigger yet?   In these words from Romans, God shows the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

The writer Anne Lamott has said that it is hard to defeat the enemy when that enemy has outposts in your head.    And in life, it’s not simply the problems you face that challenge you, but how you see them, how they shape your view of reality.   And here in Romans, in the story of Abraham, God gives us a picture of reality far different than the one that the world tempts us to see.  In this picture, God reminds us. Neither our failure nor even our faith define our reality.  God does that.  And in God’s reality, our future is always bright. 

Abraham had a Goliath of a problem.   He and his wife, Sarah yearned for a child, and God had even promised them one.  God had said that their descendants would be like the sands of the sea or the stars in the sky.   Yet, well after child-bearing age, they still had no child.  Yet Romans tells us Abraham still believed.  Why?   He understood.  God defined his reality and nothing else.   
Now it took time for Abraham to figure that out.  Paul tells us that it wasn’t Abraham’s obedience to God that defined his relationship with God.  It was simply his trust in God’s promises.   It’s the whole point of Paul’s talking about circumcision.  Circumcision was the first law so to speak.  God asked Abraham to cut himself in that most intimate of places to signify that every part of him, even the hidden parts belonged to God.  But well before, God gave that rule, God had already given the relationship.  God had already given the promises.  God had already made it clear that Abraham was right with God.  

So God defined the reality of the relationship with Abraham.  It didn’t even depend on Abraham’s goodness, and that’s a good thing.   Because, Abraham made some big mistakes, and it didn’t take him long to make them.   Right after, he did this whole trust in God thing, Abraham travels through Egypt.   He knows how attractive his wife is. He’s afraid, somebody will kill him to get her.   So what does he do?  He tells her to lie and say that they’re sister and brother.   And before it’s all done, the King of Egypt, the Pharaoh, takes her into his harem.   Only when God intervenes, and gives the Pharaoh an unpleasant plague, does Sarah get rescued.   When it comes to protecting his wife, what does Abraham do?  He throws her under the bus to protect himself.   Now, if that isn’t bad enough, years later with a different king in a different land, he does the same thing again.   Abraham will never be a candidate for husband of the year. 

And yet this guy God takes as the example of faith?  Yes. That’s the point.   Neither Abraham’s best deeds nor his worst mistakes defined the reality of his relationship with God.  And what is true of Abraham is true for everyone.   It was certainly true for Paul, who before he encountered Jesus, captured and murdered Christians.  He was a sort of one man ISIS for his time.  Yet, in Christ, Christianity’s greatest enemy became its greatest leader.  We can never look at anyone as beyond the grace of God, including ourselves.  Too often, past mistakes or failings become Goliaths in our lives.  Guilt and shame can hold us back.  But those failings never define our relationship with God, God does that.   And what does God say?

Let the little old lady who had tea with Jesus tell you that.  How many of you who have been here awhile remember that story?   It goes like this.   Ms. McGillicudy, starts announcing to her church family that every Tuesday she has tea with Jesus.   The elders speak to the pastor.   You’ve got to do something about this, she’s gone crazy.  But the pastor wonders. What if she is really having tea with Jesus?  So he decides on a way to find out.   He asks.  “Ms. McGillicudy, I heard that you have tea with Jesus on Tuesday.  Is that correct?”   She replies “Yes, it is.  He just loves my scones.”   So the pastor takes a deep breath and asks.  “Well then, could you ask Jesus to tell you about a terrible mistake I made that I’ve always regretted, one I’ve asked forgiveness for again and again.   She replied. “Of course.”  For the rest of the week, the pastor hardly slept, fearing that this sweet old lady would know his shameful secret.   The next Sunday, he saw her, and anxiously asked. “Did Jesus come?”   And she replied.  “Of course he did.”  Well, what did he say?    He said, “I forgot.  I forgot.”   Your worst mistakes will never define you.  God’s love does that, and in that love God removes your failings from you as far as east is from west and God remembers them no more.    

All you need to do is believe it.  But of course, that can be harder than it sounds.  Do you ever have a day where it’s really hard to trust that God is working?  Trusting God ain’t so easy, and we can wonder.  Will we ever be any good at it.   And then we look at this Abraham guy, and think, well he really believed.   But did he?   When God was taking his own sweet time in fulfilling the promise, Abraham and Sarah figured they’d help him out.  They arranged for Abraham to sleep with Sarah’s maid so that at least he’d have an heir.  I don’t think I need to tell you that did not turn out well.  Yes, Abraham believed, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t doubt.    His doubt even led him to a terrible mistake.

What makes Abraham a great example is the simple fact he wasn’t a great example.  No figure in the Bible is.  That’s the whole point.   What Abraham got is what Paul is trying to tell us.  God defines your relationship with God, no one else.   As the great mystic Brother Roger put it.  It is never our faith that creates God.  Nor is it our doubts that put an end to God’s existence.   Nor is it even how poorly we live out the faith we hold.   

Let’s be honest, all of us know painfully well, our weakness, our failings.  Who here would want a slide show giving the highlights of their words, thoughts and actions, even of the past week? We know.  It won’t be a pretty picture.   And likely, we have one issue we’ve been struggling with for years; some bad habit we’ve tried to stop; a temper that leads us into situations we painfully regret.   We can think to ourselves.  What sort of believer am I?   And the answer is you are a believer like Abraham, like every other flawed figure in scripture.  And like them, even in your struggles, God is never going to give up on you ever.     

My son, like many kids, has been struggling with a speech delay.  And so often when he says a word, it doesn’t come out exactly right.   But every word he says however flawed it might be, fills my heart with delight and joy.  Why?  He’s my child.   That reality defines our relationship, not his performance.   And if that’s true of me, with my very real limitations as a parent, do you see how it is even more profoundly true of God.    No matter how badly you mess up, even if you feel your mistakes or weaknesses are Goliath big, they will never define your relationship with God ever.  Nor will your doubts.  God’s love does that.  All you need to do is believe it’s true.

You might say, though.  Well Abraham and Sarah did have a son.  God did answer their prayers.  But I’m not so sure God is answering mine.   Abraham had a moment like that.   And so God gave him a vision.    In that vision, God appeared as a flaming torch, and before God, Abraham saw a line of animals cut in half.  Abraham knew what that meant.   People cut up animals like that when they were making a serious agreement.  And in that agreement, both parties walked through the animals, to symbolize that they would honor this agreement with their very lives.   In Abraham’s vision, God walked through those animals.  God committed to honor the promise he had made with his life.  But he never asked the same of Abraham.  God simply made it clear.  Abraham I will put my life on the line to honor my promise to you. 

And what Abraham saw in a vision, God did in real life.  In Jesus God did do what he promised.   Jesus took the curse even though we were the ones who had broken the promise.  He took that curse so that nothing would separate us from God ever.   Don’t you get it?  In that cross, Jesus defined God’s relationship with you forever.  No mistake is too great, no faith too weak, that God cannot meet you there.   And in that meeting, God opens you to a future that is brighter than you can conceive, one where not even death, will separate you from love’s embrace, from the beauty and wonder of life with God forever.  So when Goliath problems arise, remember the one who rose for you.   And in the power of that reality, you will know.  No problem, no challenge will ever defeat that love. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

How Boasting Can Change the World

This is Justice Sunday.   And I have to admit it.   Part of me doesn’t like it.   All this talk about Justice Sunday makes me uncomfortable.  I know. The Bible again and again shows God’s call for justice.   I can go to verse after verse where God calls us to care for the widow and the orphan: to stand up for righteousness, for what is right and good before our leaders.   Still, it bothers me.   Why?

So often, I have seen calls for justice get mixed up with judgment and self-righteousness. People pick one side, whatever it is, and assume that they are the righteous ones, and those folks on the other side, whoever they are, they’re the bad folks, the evil ones.   It gets so ugly, so quick, and those in the middle of it, can’t even see it.   They can’t see how ugly it has become.  And they say, it’s all about God, but is it?   Or is it really about them, about their need to be right, about their need to win?    As the Baptist preacher Tony Campolo says, “Mixing religion and politics is a lot like mixing ice cream with cow manure.  It doesn’t really bother the cow manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream.”      
So how do you deal with people in power, and not mess up the ice cream?  How do you work for justice, and not get caught up in self-righteous arrogance?  How do you stand up for what is right, but not get caught up in judgment and condemnation?   How do you do what God calls you to do, to stand up for what is right and good, and actually do it in a way that is good and right?  How does that happen?   In these verses from Romans, God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How do you work for justice and righteousness, but do it in a way that glorifies God, rather than glorifies you?   You move from boasting to faith.   Or to put it more clearly, you move from boasting in things that don’t ultimately matter to boasting in the only thing that does.   But before, we see what that only thing is, why does boasting lead us so astray to begin with?  Why does the Bible speak so strongly against it, not only here, but in many other places as well?

To understand that, we need to understand where boasting comes from.   In the ancient world when people talked about boasting, they were thinking about the battlefield.   Before an army entered battle, their leader would always enter into a boast.   He would talk of how they were going to demolish the enemy, that he would have the enemy king’s head on the end of his spear.   And that boasting had a practical purpose.  How do you get people motivated to go out and put their lives at risk in a battle?  You fire them up.  And what better way to do that, than by boasting about how great they are. 

Heck, when you look for it, you see ritual boasting in a lot of places, even in literature.    Have you ever heard the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry 5? If you haven’t check it out on You Tube, it’s a humdinger.  And how does it end? With a huge cheer. And who are they cheering.  They’re cheering themselves. 

But you don’t need to go to Shakespeare.  If you had gone to the locker rooms before the Super Bowl, you would have heard a boast there.   You can bet that the coach on either side fired up his team by talking about how great they were, what heart they had, how victory was theirs. 
But what the Bible gets is that boasting doesn’t only happen before a battle or the big game, it happens all the time in every human heart.   It’s why God said in Jeremiah these words:
Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.

See, here’s the human problem.  In our hearts, human beings are always looking to something to bolster themselves, to give themselves value and significance.    After all, life can be a battlefield of sorts, and you need something to cheer you on, to move you forward.    So you make your boast in something.  You say, “I’m a good provider or a good parent or a good spouse or a good worker, and this is why I am worthy.  This is what I can boast in to feel good about myself.”

Think about it.  How do you defend yourself when you are attacked?   You find your boast.  “I’m a good person.  Look at what I do for others, how I care for my kids, how I do my job, or even how I stand up for what is right.”   But God says.  “Don’t do that!”  Why?    

When you boast, you’re not simply boasting. You’re delivering a battle cry.   And every battle cry carries a taunt.   In other words, even as your boast lifts you up, it does it by bringing someone else down.     So if you boast in your tolerance and acceptance of others, you will have to feel superior to those you see as intolerant and unaccepting.   Or say you boast in your commitment to God and to obeying the Bible.  Well, then you’ll look down on those who are don’t believe in God or the Bible at all.   

And that brings us to the problem with Justice Sundays.   Too often when folks talk about justice whether it be in a church or a debate hall, it turns into boasting and taunting.   Look at how righteous we are, which means anyone who thinks differently has to be bad.   Boasting first gives you a false sense of your own righteousness, and then gives you an exaggerated picture of other people’s lack of it.   And God forbid, that you fail in what you boast in, or what you boast in fails you, that will shake your foundations.   Boasting and taunting messes up our world.

So how do you stop boasting?  Paul tells us.  Faith destroys boasting.   And he gives the example of Abraham.  How did Abraham find approval from God?  Did he earn it, because of all the good things he did?   No, he didn’t earn it.  God gave it to him.   All Abraham did was believe God.   And that belief, that faith saved Abraham from boasting. Now how does faith do that?  How does believing in God’s approval save you from boasting?  To see that, we have to realize that all this talk about boasting here goes back to an argument Paul began almost from the beginning of this letter.  

When he criticized his fellow Jews near the beginning, what did he criticize them for?  He didn’t criticize them for keeping the law.  He criticized them for boasting in it, boasting as he put it, in their circumcision.  They were saying.  “See because I keep the law, because I am circumcised, I am better than those nasty Gentiles with their pagan ways.” But Paul says. “You don’t get it.   You can’t get your approval from the law, because first of all, you really haven’t kept it as well as you think you have.    But second, you can’t get approval there, because God’s have given you his approval, written it into your very hearts.”    And then he gives this sentence “Such a person (a person who realizes this approval) receives praise not from others but from God.”     And that’s the key.

When I lived in New York, each year Gay Men’s Health Crisis put on this huge dance-athon at the Convention Center.   It was a blast.   All the best DJs played sets, and there were over ten thousand folks on the dance floor.   But what I really liked the most was what happened, when you came in.    As you walked through the lobby, the thousand volunteers who had organized the fundraiser lined up behind ropes on either side of you, and wildly cheered you as you walked in.   It felt awesome to have a thousand people wildly applaud you.   And we all need this.   We all need approval, validation from outside ourselves. Kids get this.  When I get together with the two year olds, after every song they want to applaud.  And they can’t get enough hugs or high fives or fist bumps.  We all need folks to show us the love.

And Paul is telling us that’s exactly what you have in Jesus.   Jesus opens you to the applause of heaven, to the cheers of the creator of the universe for you.   You get your high fives from Jesus.  You get your fist bumps from no less than God.   And all this applause, you didn’t do anything for it.   But God did.   God laid down his life for it.   In Jesus, God suffered the jeers of the crowd, so you can hear the cheers of heaven.     God faced utter rejection so you might have utter acceptance.  God endured scathing hatred so you can have joyous and loving adulation without end.    And when you get this, when you grasp what God at infinite cost has given to you, then you are ready to boast.   But now you are boasting not in what you’ve done, but in what God has done for you.    And in that boasting, God works wonders not only in you, but in our world. 

In the Civil Rights movement, on the night before they marched, what did they do? Did they hold rallies where they lifted up their own goodness, and hurled abuse at their opponents?  No they held worship services.  They praised God.   They celebrated God’s goodness to everyone.   They prayed for their enemies.  They boasted in the Lord, in God’s grace and love.  And that filled them with the power and faith to face fire-hoses and attack dogs, and batons and guns.   And in that power, in that faith that came as a gift they knew they had not earned, God turned the hearts of a nation to the right.   

And when we come together as brothers and sisters in Bold Justice, that’s what we do.   We come to boast in the Lord, in God’s vision for a world redeemed by God’s love.  We come to live out the Lord’s Prayer, for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on this earth as it is in heaven.  We come to celebrate a God who loves us in spite of ourselves.    And so when we see things like a bill in Tallahassee that makes civil citation the law of the land move forward, when no one said it could, we don’t pat ourselves on the back.  We give glory where glory is due, to a great God who works through us, not by power, not by might but by my Spirit says the Lord.   And as long as we boast in the Lord, then God will use us, not to divide but to unite, to bring God’s healing and justice to our land.   So sisters and brothers, take a moment. Do you hear it?  Do you hear the applause of heaven for you?   Bask in that.  Rest in it.  But realize.  You didn’t earn it.  God gave it to you.  And in the power of that gift, go forth to boast in the Lord, a Lord who didn’t simply come to bring you to heaven, but to bring the beauty and the love and the justice of heaven to earth. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Why an Angry God is the Best News That You Could Ever Hear

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  I can be a dangerous person to invite to a dinner party.  Why?   I love to talk about the two things everyone says you shouldn’t, religion and politics. 

Take politics.  Now, I was kind-of excited about the Super Bowl.   I enjoyed watching the game.   Still, if you had asked me a few weeks ago, what was happening in the playoffs, I wouldn’t have had a clue.  But if you had asked me about the Iowa Caucus or the New Hampshire Primary, forget about it.  I would have talked your ear off.   I love political play-off season.   Can Bernie, the Vermont Socialist, defeat Hillary?   Will Trump defy the odds and be the nominee?  And if not, Trump, who?  Will it be Cruz, Rubio, Bush, Kasich?  Who knows?   It’s exciting, at least, to me.

Even if you haven’t been following the political play-offs, one thing is becoming clear.  Folks are carrying a lot of anger to the polls this year.  They’re not all upset about the same things, but whatever it is, they’re really, really angry about it.   Strangely enough, that may actually be good news. 

But whatever you think about anger in politics, it’s definitely good news when it comes to God. Thank goodness, God is angry.   That’s some of the best news you could ever hear.  Why?   In the words, we’re about to read, God shows us.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

As strange as it sounds, hearing that God is angry is great news.   Why?   Because: without God’s anger you can’t have God’s love.  But before we see how anger and love go together, let’s ask.  What made God so angry to begin with?

One word, a somewhat strange word here, gives us the answer.  All through this passage, Paul is declaring this incredible news.  God has now brought about a right relationship with us (that’s what righteousness means), a right relationship that had never ever happened before.  But how did God do this? Here is where it gets weird.  Paul tells us.  God redeemed us.   Do you get what this means?   Paul is telling us that God bought us back.    

That’s what the word redeem means.   It means a purchase.  In the Bible, it goes back to rules and regulations in Leviticus related to indebtedness.   In ancient times, you couldn’t declare bankruptcy.    If you got into serious debt, your creditors didn’t just take your land.  They took you.   You literally became their slave until you or your descendants worked off the debt.   But the legal code in Leviticus gave an out.   One of your kinsman could redeem you.  They could buy you back.  It wasn’t easy.  They had to pay the debt in full.  And it had to be voluntary.  They had to do it out of love not obligation.  And basically, Paul is saying that’s how God brought about the right relationship.  God bought us back.  In Jesus, God became our kinsman redeemer.  

But then who owned us?  Who enslaved us?   Basically, Paul tells us we usually have many masters.   First of all, our own guilt and shame own us.   People don’t like to hear these two words.  But let’s be honest, don’t we all feel them?    Don’t you sense, no matter how good you are, that somehow it’s not enough?    Don’t you feel the gap between the person you want to be and the person you really are?   And doesn’t that bother you?   That’s why so many folks become workaholics or get captured by anxiety and stress?   That’s why everyone works so hard at impression management?  You know, those moments when you act like everything is fine, when it isn’t at all.  Everyone knows.  This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.     

And this guilt, this sense of inadequacy carries power.  It drives people to find relief in all the wrong places.   So they get obsessed with excelling at work or with how much money they have or don’t have.   They try to find relief in relationships or popularity.  “He loves me so I must be ok”  “They think I’m fine so I must be.”   Or maybe they look to a substance or even religion to get relief.   In the end, we human beings don’t simply have one master, we likely have many.  

And let’s be real about what a slave master does.    Slave masters have no boundaries.  They can do 
anything to the people they own, and they do   And what owns us does exactly that.   Against their power, we have no boundaries.   And under their power, we do awful things not simply to ourselves but to those around us.   Our slavery wounds us.  It wounds everything.                  

And this slavery and the way it wounds us and others, that makes God angry.   And God has to do something to satisfy that anger.   In fact, that’s literally what Paul tells us God does.   When he says that God put Jesus forward as a sacrifice of atonement, he uses a word, hilasterion.  And that word doesn’t simply mean a sacrifice.  It means a sacrifice specifically done to satisfy the wrath of God.  
And that can sound scary, but is it?   Think about it.   If you’re angry, it means you care.  Whenever I’ve talked to marriage counselors, they say.   If a couple comes in angry, it’s a sign of hope.  It means they care.  But if they come in with no emotions whatsoever, that counselor knows.  That couple likely has no hope.  

In our politics, whatever people are angry about at least it means that they care.  They want this nation to be better, their lives to be better, and they believe their elected officials can help make it so.   And that is far better than having citizens who don’t care at all.  

You see.  The strongest enemy of love is not anger. It’s indifference.   In reality, anger is often love’s greatest ally.   Where does the word anger come from?  It comes from a Norse word forgrief, a sense of loss. Think about it.   It makes sense.  We feel the energy of anger when we sense loss, when we feel the gap between things as they are and the way things should be.   And that energy drives us to act.   It’s what is behind our work with Bold Justice which we’ll celebrate next week.   When we see people and families tormented by mental illness, and no one offering the help they desperately need, we care.  When we hear that some vulnerable senior has to lie in their own waste for days in a fly by night nursing home, we feel anger. Why? We care.  

And God cares.  God loves.  And because God loves, God gets angry.  God sees the losses that our slavery brings about, how it devastates us, and how it devastates everything.  But God doesn’t simply see the loss, he feels it.  Our slavery devastates God, how we brutalize ourselves and one another, and how we look to everywhere else but God for comfort and deliverance.  God feels that pain in ways we could not imagine.    

But still, why does the anger lead to a sacrifice?   Why does God have to bleed, have to pay.     Well, let’s think about it.   If you want to deal with a wrong done to you, you have two choices.  You can deliver payback.   You hurt me.  Well, buddy, I’m going to hurt you right back.   And in the moment, it might even feel good.   But in the end, it’s devastating.    You become a harder, more brutal person.   But more than that, you generate a cycle of retribution that can continue for generations.   Vengeance only leads to more vengeance and more vengeance, a world consumed by bitterness and violence.   Payback doesn’t overcome evil, it just creates more evil.     Or you can make a different choice, you can forgive.  But if you forgive, someone still pays.  You pay.  You bear the loss.  You carry the weight of the wrong.  But only forgiveness offers a way out.   Only forgiveness gives an opportunity for change, for the wrong-doer to see the light.   Only forgiveness protects your heart from bitterness and evil.  Only forgiveness stops evil from winning.

Think about it with your kids.  At some point, children always hurt their parents, and I’m not talking accidentally hurt.   Every kid at some point will say something to their parents that they know will hurt.   It may be the simple, “I hate you!”  And even if as a parent, you know it’s a temper tantrum, it still hurts.   But what do you do?  Do you deliver pay-back?  Do you go, “Well, I hate you too!”    Is that the right answer?  No, I don’t think so.  You take the hit.  In fact, the more graciously you take the hit, the more powerful the opportunity for change becomes.   If you respond, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I love you very much.”   That has power.  But make no mistake, it still costs you.    
When a wrong is done to us, we only have two options. They suffer or we suffer.   You can’t wish away wrong.  Somebody has to pay, us or them.   Now if you know that’s how it works in an individual life, how can it be any different for God?  God can no more wish away our wrongs than we can.    Somebody has to pay.  And when we look at Jesus bleeding on the cross, we see who did.    We see God taking the hit for us. 

But still, it’s so bloody.  And here’s the reason.   Because what God did on the cross isn’t a nice fairy tale.  It’s real.   It happened.   The creator of the universe entered into this messy and messed up world, and he bled for you.   But his blood only touches the surface of the sacrifice he made.  
God knew.  The only way to bring us home was to become a slave like us, to put himself utterly at evil’s mercy.   And in that cross, in Jesus, God did that.  God entered into the heart of evil.  And God said. Here take me.   Let these people go.   God became the ransom that set you free.   He took the brokenness that was yours so that you can be healed.  He absorbed the ugliness of your guilt, your shame, so that he might restore your beauty.   He turned away from love and life, so that he might love you forever.   He became utterly alone and abandoned so you would never be abandoned ever.    

And his anger led him there.   His anger led him to act, to absorb the pain, to take the loss, to become the ransom that brought you home.    You don’t want a God, who acts as if wrong can be papered over, swept under the rug.   That’s a God who doesn’t care.  It’s like a parent who thinks it’s no big deal if their kids are dodging cars on Hollywood Boulevard.  Who wants a parent like that.   No you want a parent who will run into traffic to save you, and be angry as they do it.  Why?  That’s a parent who cares, who loves his kids.  And that’s the One who bled for you, a God who infinitely cares for you.  And it was his love-driven anger that rescued you, that led him to redeem you with his very blood.

So when guilt and shame rise up in your life, remember.  They don’t own you.  The debt has been paid.  You are free.   And when you’re tempted to look to anything else but God for comfort or security, remember.  None of that will ever fill the deepest longing of your hearts.   Only the One who created you, who died for you, who gave up everything to bring you home will do that.  What can wash away your sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.                

Sunday, February 7, 2016

How Do We Get Significance? We Don't. It's Already Been Given to Us

At my old church in Long Island, folks had a terrible Christmas Eve this year, and it was because of me.    It began with my parents’ Christmas letter.    Every year my mom and dad send out a letter updating all their friends, well really anybody whose address they have, on the goings on of the kids and grandkids.  This Christmas they mentioned how my brother-in-law, Kenny, is fighting stage 4 cancer (he’s doing quite well by the way).   So someone in my old church got the letter, but he didn’t read Kenny there. He read Kennedy.   And so that Christmas Eve night, he went around sharing the news of how Kennedy had stage 4 cancer.   People were devastated.  They were heartbroken.
Now when someone finally told me all this a few weeks ago, I’d like to tell you how sad I was that this false bulletin had ruined Christmas Eve for so many.    But I can’t.   Honestly the mess made me feel good, even flattered.  I thought.  Sheesh, it’s been ten years since I left and they still care.   It was like getting a glimpse of my own funeral, and it was kinda nice.

But pretty much every human being yearns for something similar.   Everyone wants to know that their lives matter, that they have worth and value, someone who will not be forgotten.   And we, more than we even realize, focus our lives on finding that significance.   We get haunted by the fear that in the end, we will be pretty much forgotten, that much of our significance will die with us. 

But our yearning for significance, for self-worth, isn’t something we get over.  It’s built in to us.  It’s part of who we are.  The problem is that we try to get signficance.   But you can’t get it. It can only be given to you.    And in these words from Romans, God shows us the way that gift comes.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Human beings yearn for significance, to feel that their lives have value and worth.   Now we may not sense that we’re yearning for that.   But deep underneath the yearning drives us.  But you can’t get significance.  Significance can only be given to you.   In these words here, Paul is showing us how that happens. 

That’s what Paul is telling us when he says the righteousness of God has been disclosed, a righteousness through faith in Jesus.   Now when we hear that word, righteousness, we can think of good deeds, or simply an absence of bad ones.  But righteousness means more than that.  It means a right relationship with others, with ourselves, and with God.  That’s what has now been revealed.  

Last week, we talked about why our relationships aren’t right.   It’s because everything we do, even our good deeds, always centers on ourselves.  On our own, we cannot but be self-focused, even self-obsessed.   In everything we do, even our best deeds, we’re always looking for a pay-off.     And what is that pay-off?   We’re searching for significance; for worth; for value.

Now when people seek this worth from God, they do it by trying to generate a good moral record.   If I do the right things, am kind to others, obey the golden rule etc. then God values me. God sees me as worthy and significant.    But those who go this way always wonder.  How good is good enough? How much is enough?   Am I really as worthy as I think I am.  

But Paul says, this significance, this worthiness has come to you, and have no doubt, it’s good enough.   In fact, this worthiness, this right relationship is nothing short of perfect.   And it frees you from your yearning for significance.  Why.  Now you have it, this value, this worth, utterly and completely. 

Now before we dig deeper into what this worthiness is, let’s be clear.   You don’t have to even believe in God to be seeking this significance or worthiness.  Everyone seeks it.  It’s why as the writer David Foster Wallace put it, everyone worships.  

As he said to the graduates of Kenyon College:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.  And the compelling reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
If you worship money and things if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.  And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you…Worship power, you will up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.  Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is…. they’re unconscious.  They are default settings.

What is Wallace talking about when he talks about worship?  He is saying that every one of us has some way in which we’re looking to find significance and worth in our world.   Every one of us is looking for something that justifies our existence; that says that we matter, that we are worthy.  But wherever we look not only does it not bring the worth we seek, it actually undermines what worth we do feel.  

A week or so ago, I was listening to the radio as a psychologist talked about how he saw far too many parents trying to be their kids’ best friend.   They dreaded being thought of as un-cool by their kids, and as a result they had huge difficulty setting appropriate boundaries.   For example, instead of saying to their kids before they went to bed, “Your cell phone stays locked up until the morning.   You need your sleep more than texting your friends at 2 am in the morning.”   They’d simply let them have it.   And then they wondered why their kids were distracted and inattentive at school, not realizing that they were simply sleep deprived.    But the parents he saw were reluctant to enforce such boundaries, because they feared how it might affect their relationship with their kids.   Their kids had become a source of their self-worth, of their value.    If my kids like me, then I must be pretty good.   But their passion for their child’s happiness was utterly selfish, to make them feel good, and their selfish passion was destroying their kids.  And some day, when their children mess up, as all children do, it might destroy them. 

Now you might say, well those parents just need a therapist.  It’s a psychological problem.  No it isn’t.  It’s a psychological manifestation of something we all have, the yearning for worth, for significance for value.  Think about it.   Everyone cares about what others think, how others view them or value them.    More than that, even if others think that we’re awesome, amazing, incredible, we know.  That ain’t us.   We may be good, but all of us know however good we are, we could be better.   We all sense that in some ways we’re not measuring up.  So we look to our looks or our wealth or our success or our families or even our religion to shore ourselves up.  But that doesn’t work either.

So what does?   It’s what Paul is telling us here.   In Jesus, God justifies you.  God validates you.   God makes us worthy.  God justifies your existence and it costs you nothing.  God gives it as a free gift, at least free to you.      

Too often, Christians think that grace and justification, that salvation is simply about forgiveness.    But God gives us far more than that.   In Christ Jesus, God places a worth, a value upon you that makes any other value you might yearn for pale in comparison.  That’s the gift that God gives, that you and I are infinitely worthy and valued, more significant than you could possibly imagine.   And you don’t get it.   You don’t earn it.  God gives it to you

But of course, someone, even God telling you that you are worthy and significant hardly makes it so.   But in Jesus, God didn’t just tell you your worth.  Jesus Christ showed you your worth.  This gift of worth and value may come freely to us, but it came at infinite cost to God.  It cost God everything, even God’s very life.  

We become so lost, so captured by our fruitless search for significance and value that nothing less than the death of God could bring us back.   But in Jesus, God brought us back.  Jesus lost his home so that we might come home.  Jesus became utterly worthless and insignificant to restore the worth and value we had lost.   How do you know that you have significance, that you have worth and value?   In Jesus, God gave up everything for you.  That’s how much you are worth.

Leave all your fruitless seeking for worth behind, all your false justifications. In Jesus, you have perfect justification. In Jesus you are made completely worthy.    In Jesus, God gives you a significance that not even death can take away.