Identity–Beloved of God: John 3:13-17

With the three children, things can get a little crazy around the rectory sometimes.  There’s a fourth on the way, due to arrive in March, so I don’t suppose that will end anytime soon.  Some of the things we find evidence for, or catch the kids in-the-act-of, just leave us asking, “Why in the world would you…?”  When frustration is great, it seems that one must scour the whole earth to find an answer for that “why.”  For some reason the question is never: “Why in the basement would you…?”  Nicky Gumbel shares, in The Alpha Course, the story of an ESL nanny who hadn’t quite mastered the nuances of the language, and upon catching her charges up-to-no-good asked, “What are you doing in the world?”  Which is a good question in it’s own right, but a different one.  Have you ever found yourself asking that question?  Looking for reasons, you ask, “Why in the world…?”  Baffled by events, you ask, “What in the world…?”  Boggled by a task, you ask, “How in the world am I supposed to…?”  Today I want to take the enterprise of being God’s people, and ask those questions of it.

Why in the world would anyone follow God?  Jesus answers our “whys” from the get-go.  God loves us.  The answer to why we would follow God is rooted in the answer to why God would have any of us follow Him.  God’s action toward us is the basis for our response toward Him.  So God’s love for us gives us the space and the impetus to love Him in return.  Because God acts out of love, to us, we can offer Him our lives.  When I was young we used to sing the chorus, “Oh, how I love Jesus.”  Do you remember the final line of that chorus?  “Because He first loved me.”

Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, put it this way: “Christ loved you before you loved Him.  He loved you when there was nothing good in you.  He loved you through you insulted Him, though you despised Him and rebelled against Him.  He has loved you right on, and never ceased to love you.  He has loved you in your backslidings and loved you out of them.  He has loved you in your sins, in your wickedness and folly.  His loving heart was still eternally the same, and He shed His heart’s blood to prove His love for you.  He has given you what you want on earth, and provided for you an habitation in heaven.”  That is God’s great love for you – surpassing that of a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent.

It’s been said that when Christians really believe that God loves them, nothing can stop them from doing what He desires.  Think of your own experience:  how easy it is to do what those who love you desire of you – you trust their desires for you, and you can trust them because they’re desires for you that rise from love.  Love makes trust easier.  But when someone whose love we aren’t sure of desires something of us, then we double-check before we act, don’t we?  Are they trying to hurt us?  Are they trying to make fools of us?  And so it is when Christians have trouble trusting, or when they doubt, that God loves them; when we think that God hates us, or is out to get us.  We avoid Him.  We run away – like Adam and Eve in the garden, we hear Him and we hide.  Painfully aware that we’re not perfect, deceived into thinking that He couldn’t love anything short of perfection.  Rather than drawing comfort from the knowledge that He’s watching over us, we fear.

Our attitudes need to be like the young girl’s, who learned that Jesus watches over her to see everything she does.  She was asked, “Does it bother you that He sees everything you do?”  Her response: “Oh, no – He loves me so much that He can’t keep His eyes off of me!”  So listen to Jesus’ words from the Gospel lesson that we heard today: “For God so loved the world that…”  Notice that it’s not hatred that motivates God’s action toward us; not manipulation; not evil intent.  Just love.

And if the answer to the “why” of being God’s people is in His great love to us, which moves us to love Him in return, and to trust His desires for us, then our second question is “what.”  What in the world is following God about?  Again, the answer we seek is rooted in the “what” of God.  God loves us, we’ve seen, but what in the world has God’s love moved Him to do?  He comes through on His commitment of love to us, and you’ve heard about it your whole life, in Jesus’ crucifixion.  Statues and pictures of Christ hanging on the cross could quite fittingly each have inscribed at their base: “This is how God loved the world!”

It was for love that Jesus died on the cross, for love that God gave Himself for us.  Our answer to this question, of what following God is all about, is just that: Jesus’ self-sacrifice.  Following God is about giving of ourselves.  You’ve heard it said, and there’s something to it, that the measure of a man is in what he gives, not in what he gets.  We look to the Cross to see that great act of love, where God gave Himself for the people He loved, because He loved them.  Because He still loves even you.  He shows, He proves, His love for us through the things that He does.  How did Jesus say it?  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”

There was a young couple who sat gazing at the sky as the sun set.  Hand-in-hand.  Enthralled with the glory and beauty of nature.  She asked him, “Do you love me?”  He pulled his eyes away from the view and glanced at her.  “You know I do.”  She turned her head, and their eyes met.  She asked him, “Would you die for me?”  He answered, “No, dear…mine is an undying love.”  But God’s answer to that question is “Yes!  Yes I will die for you.  I have died for you!  Though I am immortal I send my Son and experienced mortality and death for you.”  What in the world would make anyone want to follow God?  He loves us that much.

And so let’s look at Jesus’ words again “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…that all might have everlasting life.”  Seems straight-forward enough, but there is a “how” involved.  It’s not an automatic thing.  The question might rightly be asked, “How in the world does God loving us enough to send His Son to the world for us – how does that give us everlasting life?”  And Jesus’ answer is in the verse, and you know it already.  All that believe in Him will have everlasting life.  That’s the “how” of being God’s people, of following after Him.

Why in the world…?  Because God so loves us.

What in the world…?  He sent His only Son, Jesus.

How in the world…?  All who believe in Him may have everlasting life.

Beloved of God, know today that God loves you.  Know today how He has shown that love to you.  Know today what His love can mean for you, if you will only believe.  This is the game-changer.  Amen.

This One Thing (11.0)

I was reminded this past Sunday of something that always irks me a little bit.  The Gospel lesson was from Luke 3, and John the Baptist’s ministry was described.  On the previous Sunday we’d received the introduction to his work, and we were told that he fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the one crying out in the wilderness.  This week we heard how he went about fulfilling that prophecy.

So the scene opens, and John says to the people who come to be baptized, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’: for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…”  The passage went on, and I actually preached regarding the next part of the passage on Sunday – but this is the part that always catches my attention.

“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’: for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…”  That always catches my attention.  It’s like there was some kind of measure in people’s minds, and they were good-to-go, in their own opinions, because they were descended from Abraham.  The thing that catches my attention about it is because I still hear people making the same claim – or, the same kind of claim.

The other week I ran into a great guy, and we had a great visit, and he happened to mention that he had grown up in a different Christian tradition, but had come to the Anglican Church later on in life.  He mentioned that a factor in his decision about that was Apostolic Succession.  If you’re not familiar with this term, Apostolic Succession is (generally) the recognition that the faith we hold today is the faith that the apostles handed down to us; the Christian Church that we are a part of is the same Church that the apostles themselves handed down to future generations; the teaching of the apostles is preserved in the Church to this day.  In some instances (Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox), Apostolic Succession also refers to the line of bishops – which is thought to be a direct line of appointment from the apostles themselves.  This succession gives validity, in some way, to the tradition’s expression.

Everybody wants to claim it in some way.  Don’t get the wrong impression – this isn’t relegated to just those traditions with ancient roots and episcopal structure.  Every Christian manifestation claims that it is in keeping with the tradition given by the apostles.  Nobody claims anything but accord with the original teaching of Jesus, the earliest Church, etc.  But where many claim to have “recaptured” the essence of the faith, the older denominations mentioned above claim to be the hereditary descendants of the apostles, and Jesus Himself through them and the line of bishops.

Let me be clear at this point: there’s nothing wrong with such descent.  There is nothing intrinsically evil about it.  There’s nothing sinister about a desire to be able to rightfully claim an apostolic rooted-ness for a particular tradition.  But if we start to use such realities as an excuse for what we do, rather than as a reason or even just a fact underlying our existence; if we start to judge other Christian traditions by their lack of episcopal lineage, rather than recognizing our affinity to them due to their holding to the one faith of the Church; if succession stops being our reason-for-being (from the past) and begins to be our reason-for-being (for the future), then we’ve missed the point.

The point is Jesus.  The point is the faith that succession is supposed to safeguard.  Not apostolically-successively-sanctioned idolatry.  Indeed, God could raise up from the very stones in the ground below the foundation of your church building, successors for the apostles.  As John said many years ago, so Jonathan saith now: bear fruit in keeping with the life of righteousness that grows from the one faith of the one Church.  This is about Jesus, not lineage.

A Proverb Reflection

Clearly I’m not real ‘blogger’ material – I rarely post, let alone daily, and even with something that’s supposed to be a series I am sporadic in my posts, at best.  At any rate, here’s another kick-at-the-can:

The sun loses nothing by shining into a puddle.

The logical truth of this proverb seems obvious.  The sun affects the puddle; the puddle has no effect on the sun.  Consider, briefly, what the sun does effect on the puddle, though.  A puddle is, generally, water.  It can sometimes be murky or muddy.  Whatever its state, however, the sun has the same effect – to lighten or brighten the water.  The murkiness of the water may determine how deep the light penetrates into its depths, but if we’re talking about a puddle and not a lake/sea/ocean, then I don’t think it’s a real factor.  The puddle reflects the light, also, even as the light penetrates it.

But there’s more to this than meets the eye.  Proverbs are useless if they only describe something that science could just as easily describe more precisely.  So what is the situation being referred to, here?  It’s hard to make a definitive answer to that kind of question.  Often there are many applicable situations to such a thing.  But here’s what it makes me think of:

Jesus.  He had this thing about cleanliness – about the outside and the inside.  Remember?  What’s outside doesn’t make a person unclean, but what’s inside.  He regularly touched people who were regarded as unclean, and His rule-of-thumb with that was that rather than being made unclean by them His purity was rubbing off on them.  So rather than the sun being darkened by the puddle, the puddle was enlightened by the sun.  But it takes a proper understanding of what the mud, and the light, is.

Consider, too, that you are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  He hasn’t set us ablaze to hide us under a bowl.  Matthew 5.  His holiness brings us holiness.  His light reflects off of this puddle.  He is not darkened by the endeavour in any way.  What kind of puddle are you?  It’s easy and natural for the light to reflect off of the water’s surface.  How deeply does His light penetrate you, puddle?  What is the depth of murkiness inside?