Sunday, November 25, 2012

Adoption Through the Word: A Sermon on John 1:1-14 for Before Advent

You know, today's a weird day. Last Sunday we celebrated a time of thanksgiving. Next Sunday we begin the season of Advent. Advent is when we remember the long time that the people of Israel had to wait and hope and wait and hope for the Messiah to finally come to rescue them, and we wait for him to come back to complete the work he started. Advent is the season leading up to Christmas. But today isn't quite part of either season. Actually, it's Christ the King Sunday, the end of the Christian year. But since we're gearing up for Christmas now anyway, we might as well take a look at the Christmas story according to John. So hear the word of the Lord:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world didn't recognize him. He came to his own, but his own didn't receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who had faith in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born, not of natural descent or of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God! The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” [John 1:1-5, 9-14]

See, John's Christmas story is different. No manger, no shepherds, no angels, no star, no wise men. Not even a Joseph or a Mary! But did you see how it starts off? “In the beginning.” John starts where Genesis starts: at the first beginning of all beginnings, the creation of the whole universe. When John tells the story of Christmas, his Christmas isn't about one day a year. His Christmas isn't even just one season long. For John, the story of Christmas is wider than the entire universe and deeper than the depths of time itself!

And better yet, when John starts off at the beginning, he points back further, into timeless eternity 'before' creation. He points back to God alone. And what he finds there is this truth: “God is love”. Active love is the heart of who God always was, even before Genesis 1:1. God is love because the inside life of God was always a life of loving relationships. The inside life of God is a love between the Father and the Word, a love they together share with their Spirit. That insight into what God's inside life is like, is the teaching we call the doctrine of the Trinity: three distinct persons in relationship, who have always been and always will be just one God. That's what John is pointing us back to: the Word who was always with God the Father and who always belonged to the inside life of God.

John reminds us that in Genesis, God didn't have to build the world out of parts he found lying around. God created everything out of nothing – he did it by speaking, he did it by his Word. John says that there isn't anything in any universe that doesn't owe everything to the Word. God didn't need to create. It's not like he was lonely. He was filled with an eternal party of perfect love! But he created a masterpiece of art, designed to show off the glory of the God who made it. He created this universe because he was so full of life in himself that he wanted to create something to share it with. He created it out of love.

And then he made us to be his image in the world. That doesn't mean that we somehow looked like God; after all, God existed before there was space or time or matter. It means he made us to represent him to the rest of the world he'd made. God called us to rule the earth with care the way he would, to share his love the way he would. Everything we have, everything we are, everything we could become – all of that is God's gift. This was shaping up to be the happiest story ever.

But then we made it a sad story. The story tells us that, even though we should have been grateful for all God's free gifts, we wanted to take even more, and we wanted it on our terms, not his. That's still the attitude we have. We want to be in charge. We think we're enough like God that we can dictate our own rules to live by. That's called 'sin'. Sin is what ruined the big story in the first place. I mean, think about it. What happens when we confront the one who holds everything together, we look him square in the eye, and we tell him that we'd like him to just back off? We told the Way that he wasn't worth following. Is it any wonder we got lost? We told the Truth that he wasn't worth knowing. Is it any wonder we live in a world full of lies? We told the Life that he wasn't worth living up to. Is it any wonder that we get hurt and we suffer and we die? That's what sin does. That's what it means to damage the one relationship we were most made for. God gave us the entire world. And when we reached out for that tasty forbidden fruit, we let the world slip out of our hands. And it cracked.

The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that “everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one”. But the story doesn't stop there. It goes on when God picks a man of faith, names him Abraham, and tells him that his family will be a blessing to the whole world. When this people find themselves in slavery in a foreign country called Egypt, God reaches down, breaks their chains, and leads them into freedom. It's the story of the Exodus. But the Law God gives them becomes a spotlight to show just how big their sins really are. More often than not, God's chosen people were God's chosen problem. Eventually God had to let other nations lead them away into exile, because they wouldn't admit how wrong they'd gone. When they finally owned up to what they'd done, God brought them back and let them rebuild. But they still knew that they weren't free yet; they weren't truly home.

And then God did something awesome. Remember that Word who created the world? The Word full of life, the Word full of light? That same Word showed up in the world! The time had finally come. God dictated his own Autobiography to us as a human person. He pitched his tent at our campsite to be with us. Christmas came to town! That person, that 'God-with-us', was named Jesus – and he was the Chosen One, the Messiah, Christ the King. He came to show us what it looks like for a human life to match the love of God. He came to lead us in an exodus out of sin and into the promised land of new life. He came to bring us home from exile, back to the God we left.

He announced the kingdom of God. What that means is, God is finally taking charge of the situation in a new way, and he's doing it through Jesus. And because God is taking charge, it's time to give up on disobedience, time to give up on rebellion, time to give up on sin. And to deal with this sin, Jesus went to the worst death around: crucifixion. It was painful, it was bloody, it was designed to be humiliating and shameful.

Even while we were still treating God like an enemy, Jesus died on the cross for us. And then suddenly, his grave was empty. And Jesus started making visits of the kind that dead people just don't make. He visited people who believed in him already, and he even visited people who didn't – people like Paul and James. He convinced them all to spread the amazing news that God was fixing the world through what Jesus had just done. This was the story of a lifetime!

For most, it was an offensive story. Crucifixion couldn't be mentioned in polite company, so the idea of a crucified god from an obscure part of the empire wasn't exactly an easy sell. The message was a threat to everybody in power. If the story were a lie, stopping it would've been as easy as pointing to the body. They didn't, because they couldn't! So the followers of Jesus kept telling their true story. They knew the facts beyond a shadow of a doubt, and they gave up their comfort and even their lives to spread the good news: the Jesus who died on the cross is the same Jesus who rose from the dead to rule the whole universe!

Without the cross, without the resurrection, Christmas is nothing. But with the cross, with the resurrection, Christmas is everything. The Word was the light that came into the world, like the dawning of a new day, a fresh start. He invited his own people to receive the Word, which means trusting the Word and obeying the Word. That's what it always meant in the Old Testament to 'receive the Word of the LORD'. So he invited them to receive and accept him that way. After all, “there's no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey”. But his own people said no, which they pronounced, “Crucify him, crucify him!”

But what about those who do receive the Word? What about those who trust this Word made flesh, this Jesus, and put all their eggs in his basket? What about those who obey the Word's message about the kingdom of God here among us now? John's answer is, they can become God's children. None of us start out as God's children, but we can become God's children.

See, the thing that's important to know here is that people in the ancient world believed that who you were – your personality, your value, your character, your status – those were all things that you were born with. You got them from your parents. They stayed the same throughout your life. Who you were born to be is who you were always going to be. If you were born on the wrong side of the tracks, you were destined to live on the wrong side of the tracks. And that's a problem for us, because even the great King David says in the Psalms that we're born broken, born to be sinners from the very get-go

But that's why it matters so much when Jesus offers the chance to be “born again”. If our goodness and our status and our value are all stuck at birth, then being born again means literally getting a clean slate. It means that everything we inherited, including our sinful ways and crooked start, can all be rewritten. This is a change so radical that the only thing Jesus can compare it to is being born a second time around. It's a fresh do-over. John is careful to say that it doesn't come from human parents. Our new life, our new identity, doesn't come from any other person on this earth. It comes from getting God as our new parent. That's the promised gift to everyone who really receives the Word by faith in Jesus Christ.

That's why Christmas is so important! The birth of the unique Son of God on earth was to offer us a new birth that comes from heaven. Think of the Christmas carol: “Mild he lays his glory by, / born that man no more may die, / born to raise the sons of earth, / born to give them second birth”. We can be born into a new life that will never, ever fade and never, ever end. We can become the sons and daughters of God. We can be adopted as part of God's family, joining Christ the King to receive the whole world as our inheritance from the God we can finally call 'Abba, Father'. This isn't something we can earn. You can't earn adoption. Adoption is an act of grace. All you can do is accept it in faith.

Think about this: some people are the sons and daughters of criminals, some people are the sons and daughters of farmers, some are the sons and daughters of business managers, some are the sons and daughters of presidents and prime ministers.... but we can be the sons and daughters of God! That's what Christmas is for. That's the point of the Christmas story! Christmas means that we can be born again. Christmas means that there is nothing in our past and present that can't be redeemed. Christmas means that we can join the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit at the eternal Christmas party that's been going on since before creation. Because they're family now. And that's what Christmas is for.

But as we look forward to Advent this year, maybe there are some people here who have never received the Word. Maybe there are people here who aren't putting their faith in Jesus Christ and his finished work as the only thing that can give us all the blessings of God's family. If you're relying on anything else, any ritual or any good deed or any tradition, if you think there's any room for earning or meriting any part of this, that doesn't cut it. It's grace. And remember that faith isn't just a one-time thing. We can't just claim faith one time and then set it to the side. Faith is a continuous walk with God, a daily welcoming of the Word into our lives and surrendering to him. Now, I know we don't have the power to fully surrender on our own. We need the power of God's Holy Spirit to surrender, but Jesus wants to deck the halls of our hearts with that same Spirit. If we aren't living day-to-day by faith in Jesus Christ, if we aren't living through the power of his Spirit, then we aren't living as the children of God.

If that rings a little too true for you this year, I'm begging you: receive the Word, receive Christ the King. Become a child of God, and live as a child of God, a son or daughter who receives the Word into your life each day with open arms. Don't go through this Christmas season and miss the real power of Christmas to give you a slate as clean as the freshly fallen snow of a winter wonderland. Don't miss Christmas! We're going to have a time of prayer now. If there's anyone here who needs to receive the Word today – whether it's for the first time, or you just know you need God's grace to see how to live as child of God – I'd invite you to come forward so that we can pray with you and for you. There's always a place for you at God's altar here, and you can walk away with God's Christmas power changing your life, changing it into an everlasting time of thanksgiving to that one and only God who adopts us through his Word. Let's pray.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"Wishing (for a) Well": A Sermon on 2 Samuel 23:13-17

“During harvest time, three of the thirty chief warriors came down to David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem. David longed for water and said, 'Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!' So the three mighty warriors broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the LORD. 'Far be it from me, LORD, to do this!', he said, 'Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?' And David would not drink it.” [[2 Samuel 23:13-17]]

A long, long time ago, there was a baby born in the little town of Bethlehem. People from all over the world have heard his name. That name was 'David'. Have you ever wondered what life was like for him growing up? Can you imagine what the world looked like through David's eyes? He was the youngest of eight brothers, all strong sons of their father Jesse. Bethlehem was their life, their world. David spent his life outdoors in Bethlehem's fields; he knew the area like the back of his hand. When he was old enough, those fields were the fields where David tended his father's sheep. He spent his days out there, alone with his music and the sheep (and the occasional lion or bear). And when he or his sheep were thirsty, he knew just where to get water. It was from the well by the town gate, the well of Bethlehem.

When David was just barely into his teens, he was probably confused when Jesse called him out of the fields, away from the sheep, to come meet an old guy named Samuel who poured greasy oil all over him. But back to the sheep he went, until called away again and sent to entertain King Saul. But David still went back home as often as he could to care for his sheep. When his three oldest brothers enlisted in the army, David made sure to bring them bread from Papa Jesse in Bethlehem. And I'm sure, whenever David went home, he eagerly drank water from his hometown well and thought about his childhood.

But after that whole Goliath thing, the simple life of youth was over. He became best friends with the prince, he became a leader in the army, he became the king's son-in-law, he became a sensation. But celebrity has its drawbacks; it's not all glitz and glamor. When jealous Saul got in a murdering mood, David went on the run. David set up camp at a stronghold called Adullam. His family and all the men of the countryside who were unhappy with the status quo joined him. With his brothers there, with his cousins there, at last David had a little taste of Bethlehem, a taste of the home he missed so much.

But then the message arrived that the Philistines had taken over that little town of Bethlehem. Can you imagine how sick to his stomach David must have felt to learn that Goliath's family and friends were in his town? It must have gotten David thinking about the days of his youth, before Saul, before the Philistines – when everything was peaceful and innocent, when David was home. I'd bet that when David closed his eyes, he could picture it all perfectly. And his heart was filled with this longing, this nostalgia. Now I'm sure David had water there at Adullam, probably in cisterns that filled with rainwater. But this was the dry season now. The water left in the cistern had been there a while, stagnant and brackish. With every sip he took and winced, he got missed the familiar well of Bethlehem even more. One thirsty day, David was musing out loud about it. I'm sure all his soldiers from Bethlehem nodded their heads in heartfelt agreement. But three of David's top warriors loved their leader more than they loved life, and they decided that if David's thirsty for Bethlehem water, well then David will get Bethlehem water!

They fought their way for miles through the Philistine camps until they reached the well of Bethlehem. They went miles again back to Adullam. Can you imagine the look on David's face when they walked back into camp? No matter how much he longed for that water, he knew that he and his own satisfaction weren't worth the risk of human life. Only God was worthy of that. The water might as well have been their blood, and so he treated it that way: he poured it out to God on the ground as an offering. And David's words might as well have been, “Render unto David what is David's, but render unto God what is God's”.

There's a powerful lesson in that, about what it means to have our priorities in the right order, about what it means to make sure that our lives are caught up in giving the God-treatment only to God and not to any hero, not to any celebrity. But is there maybe, just maybe, even more going on here? I'm convinced there is. Henry Francis Lyte, the man who wrote the hymn “Abide with Me”, also once ended another poem this way:

There is a well in Bethlehem still,
A fountain, at whose brink,
The weary soul may rest at will,
The thirsty stoop and drink:
And unrepelled by foe or fence
Draw living waters freely thence.

Oh, did we thirst, as David then,
For this diviner spring!
Had we the zeal of David's men
To please a Higher King!
What precious draughts we thence might drain,
What holy triumphs daily gain!

A thousand years after David's time, there was a much more important baby born in Bethlehem. There is a well in Bethlehem still! It's the only well we'll ever need, the only one that can give us living waters. That well is Jesus Christ! All of us have thirsts in our lives, all of us are parched and filled with longing from time to time. Turn to Jesus and drink freely. No one bars your way. You don't have to fight through the Philistines to get to this well of Bethlehem. Jesus already conquered all our Philistines. No Philistine can ever separate us from the well of his love. Go to Jesus. Turn back to him again and again and again, rest by his side, and let him quench all your thirst. There is no water purer, no water freer, no water more satisfying than the water of salvation that he offers. But it works more than just a one-time salvation; this water is good for every need, every thirst. We don't need to stay content with sipping the mosquito-infested water of the world's cisterns, looking for fulfillment in all the wrong places. Just turn to Jesus. He satisfies.

When David was brought the water from the earthly well in Bethlehem, he poured it out on the ground. He poured it out because it was like blood, and he knew that he wasn't worthy of blood; blood was reserved for God. But look at this great reversal! The water that gives us life, the water from the heavenly well of Bethlehem, is the blood of Christ that was shed on Calvary, the precious redeeming blood that washes away every stain of sin and purifies the soul to stand in the presence of a perfectly holy God! The blood that means life and death belongs to God alone – and yet when God became flesh and blood, he offered us not merely the flesh and blood of an Israelite soldier, but the flesh and blood of God the Higher King. And he said that unless we ate and drank of it, unless we made him the sole source of our nourishment and our satisfaction, we should surely perish, because only in that costly gift could we ever have life everlasting! And he invites us: Come to the well and drink freely, for the bill has been paid in full already!

But as you come to this well, to this Jesus, don't keep the water to yourself. Look to the example of these three men. They went to the well of Bethlehem and out of love they brought that water to someone else. Friends, the world is full of Davids. The world is full of people who are incredibly thirsty, full of dry and dusty souls. Every person you meet is either drinking from this well already or badly in need of its water, even if they don't realize it. This is the only water that can satisfy. The world is full of Davids, full of people whom this water can make priests and rulers in Christ. Greater than David is the least man or woman in the kingdom of God!

There are so many lost and thirsty around us. Can we see that hope of glory in them? Can we find it in our hearts to love and serve them for the sake of our King of Kings and Lord of Lords? We're called to let no effort be spared in serving those around us for the love of God. And what better way to love than to bring the water of life? Bring them what you've found: this satisfaction, this refreshment, this healing from the wounds and scars and wars of this life. Bring them this precious Jesus, carried in the bucket of your heart that overflows with his love. Let this be our challenge: to see this whole community come to thirst no more, because they've turned from the stagnant water of this world's cisterns to gathering around the well of Bethlehem, filled with the water of our true home. Make no mistake: there is a well in Bethlehem still, and all who drink of it may have life, and have it to the full. Amen. Hallelujah and amen!