Sunday, January 29, 2023

Open Lips, Open Ears

They'd hurried a long way to find Jesus, walking in tears all the way from Perea to Galilee. What they had to say, they believed Jesus needed to hear, and from them. They'd visited him before, relaying questions from their imprisoned master. They were disciples of John, the prophet – more than a prophet – who'd rewritten history with his baptisms in the River Jordan. Several years before, John had been imprisoned by Antipas, son of the infamous Herod. Antipas had divorced his wife Phasaelis to steal his half-brother's wife Herodias – who was also a niece to both of them – and John had denounced the divorce as unlawful and impossible. Had Antipas not read the Book of Leviticus? “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife; it is your brother's nakedness” (Leviticus 18:16). “It is not lawful for you to have her,” John had insisted in his fiery preaching, unencumbered by social niceties (Matthew 14:4). And while Antipas found John's preaching compelling, he found his love even more so. John had been imprisoned at Antipas' palace-fortress Machaerus during Jesus' desert duel with the devil, before Jesus launched his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-12).

But now, John's disciples told him, something had gone terribly wrong. These last couple years, Herodias herself had been stewing with hatred for John, and through her daughter Salome – named for Herodias' grandmother, a conniving woman who'd divorced multiple husbands and convinced her brother Herod to then execute each of them for treason – Herodias had at last found an opening for vengeance. Putting birthday-boy Antipas on the spot after lithe young Salome was offered a lavish prize from her lecherous uncle/great-uncle/stepfather for her dance, she'd insisted on the severed head of John as her reward. Terrified of public backlash but more terrified of losing face in front of his party guests, Antipas gave the order. To satisfy the vendetta of these incestuous Herodian fiends, the prince of prophets was killed. No sooner had his disciples entombed his headless body than grief propelled them to Galilee, to relay the dark news (Matthew 14:6-12).

In his humanity, where this news came to him really as news, the news hit Jesus hard. His forerunner, cousin, and friend was dead. Not only was he filled with a sense of loss and grief over someone so dear and important to him, not only did he grieve for his people at the loss of what John represented, but it wouldn't be long until the Passover, and that meant in just over a year's time, the wrath meted out to John would be unleashed on Jesus as well – and Jesus knew it. The countdown to Calvary had started ticking when John's head rolled from his shoulders. Feeling a foretaste of Gethsemane surge through his heart, Jesus felt the need to get away. Taking a boat, he rowed his way across the lake to find some peace and quiet in the vicinity of Bethsaida, where there were some wonderful open spaces really only used for grazing sheep (Matthew 14:13).

When he docked his boat, though, crowds were already waiting for him on the shoreline by the thousands. Hearing Jesus was on the move, they'd run around the sea to intercept him, desperate for his attention. And although Jesus' heart was so heavy, although he needed time alone, nevertheless as he looked into their eyes and saw their hurt, their sickness, their thirst to learn and grow, his compassion was mightier than his grief. Expending energy past human limits, he spent the day with them, healing their sick and teaching them about God's kingdom, a message all the more urgent now that the forces of death were in motion (Matthew 14:13-14).

By late afternoon, Jesus' own disciples were getting concerned. The crowds had come by foot, had stayed all day, and there were no food sources nearby. If they didn't leave now to go to the nearest villages, if they instead stayed with Jesus into the night, some of them would pass out before making it to a food vendor. The crowds, though, clearly wouldn't act even in their own best interest without Jesus' telling them to (Matthew 14:15). But Jesus had a different suggestion: the disciples should feed the crowd themselves (Matthew 14:16). With what? All they could find on hand was a single boy's lunch (Matthew 14:17)! But it was enough. Looking up to his Father in heaven, Jesus broke and blessed the barley bread, and as his disciples distributed it, it replenished itself hand to hand, in all its beautiful brokenness – much as Jesus' beautiful heart was broken. So five thousand men, and all the women and children there that afternoon, were fed an early supper (Matthew 14:18-21).

No sooner had they finished eating than he sent his disciples to his boat, telling them to sail across the sea while evening was coming on. The sun was already setting toward the horizon. He would deal with the crowds. And as his disciples rowed away, he gave them his final words and told them to go home. They obeyed. Thus, with the disciples on the lake and the crowds dispersing to the villages of northern Galilee, at last Jesus was alone – alone on the land as a quiet darkness filled the air. Walking to the top of a nearby hill overlooking the area, Jesus had his privacy. And so Jesus had his prayer. How long after sunset it took to start – how long the crowds took in their going away – it isn't clear. But his disciples were struggling with wind on the lake that blew them off course, and yet Jesus didn't walk out to them on the waters until after 3:00am. Jesus spent hours up on the mountain – just him and his Father, a practice run for Gethsemane. “He offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). Jesus prayed what he preached.

Knowing he'd be swarmed by the needy crowds yet again after sunrise when he and his exhausted disciples hit land – not a one of them having slept a wink – Jesus could have curled up and slept on the mountaintop, I guess, but instead he devoted himself to an all-night prayer vigil. More than a night's rest – if he could even sleep – he needed to talk things out with his Father, to commune with his Father. And that meant prayer, prayer in private, prayer in the absolute vulnerability possible in the intimacy of God the Father and his Son on earth. For maybe seven hours – perhaps even more – Jesus prayed. In that prayer, Jesus processed his thoughts, feelings, griefs, and fears. And in that night of prayer, Jesus set us an example.

Jesus has been called “the model and master of Christian prayer,” and rightly so.1 Over the past few weeks, you and I have talked about this great human journey we're all on, and how it's meant to reach its climax with us becoming somehow like God through seeing him as he is – a seeing we call the beatific vision. Of course, then we talked about how the journey can't be achieved under our own natural powers; we need supernatural powers to get there, we need supernatural faith and hope and love, all implemented in supernatural ways, in order to be able to see God as he is. God gives us these from the very start, when we're born again. But, as we heard last week, we have to actually act on these dispositions, use these powers and these gifts, practice this righteousness, build this relationship. I've been calling it “the great human journey,” but we could just as accurately call it “the great human courtship.” The goal is to see God unveiled, to know intimately as he is, to be united to him in divine love. And this heavenly union with God, which will be more intimate and powerful and delightful than anything in the world, is the perfect template of all marriage and all family in our experience. Where we're headed is to perfect union with God, and that means the journey there is like the journey of our most near and dear relationships. The growth we need is relational growth, relational investment, more deeply rooting God's presence in us by love. And prayer is simply the stuff of that relational investment on our end. So with the time we have this morning, let's follow Jesus up that lonely mountain, to learn what complete relational investment in God looks and sounds like. In your silence, eavesdrop on Jesus; in your words, join in with Jesus as he leads.

Since prayer is about relational investment, since prayer is talking to and with God, it can begin with cultivating a consciousness of God. And that calls for an attentiveness to and focus on God. “Prayer is focusing on God..., refocusing each time we relate actively within the relationship.”2 To begin a time of prayer, turn your attention to God. If possible, dispose your body in whatever ways help you mentally, emotionally, psychologically get into 'prayer mode,' whatever that looks like for you. (For me, it's usually pacing back and forth.) Take a deep breath or two. Then open the conversation with a greeting, imagine God greeting you back, and picture him in front of or above or beside you, and begin. “The more concretely we envision our relationship with God,” it's been said, “the better our prayer will be.”3

Attentiveness to God will mean attentiveness to him as God. Cultivating a consciousness of him will call for an attitude of humble appreciation, of recognizing God as God and ourselves as not.4 God doesn't need anything from you. You need everything from him. But he wants you more than you want him. God cannot have a bad day. He cannot get sick of you. He cannot be too busy for you, because he transcends all we know as time. So you can trust that the psalmist's words hold good for you, too: “Truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer” (Psalm 66:19). Humbling yourself before God, confessing him as the God you aren't, you can trust that he's listening, even when all around is earthly silence. You don't have to try to manipulate your emotions to gin up whatever feelings you associate with God. He's just there, listening, attentive to you.

And when we approach him in and with Jesus, God is no longer merely the King who relates to us by his power, or even the Redeemer who relates to us by his mercy. Once we're born again to be participants in the life of Jesus Christ, God is to you and me the Father who relates to us by a love that cherishes. God's love is a love that does not know how to be anything less than infinite.5 It just doesn't! And so Jesus invites us with him to approach the Father as a person who, by the grace of adoption, belongs in the Father's arms. He invites you to approach God with a confidence that God, as your Father, isn't looking for pretexts to berate you or denounce you; God is simply happy when we put up no obstacles to his welcoming embrace. In many ways, then, prayer entails adopting the position and outlook of small children, resting in a parent's arms. “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The innocence, dependency, trust, un-selfconsciousness – in things like that, little kids offer us a model to emulate.6

Now, one caveat here: It seems to me that in today's culture, we tend to identify familiarity with informality and irreverence, thinking that being like a little child is about being like a bratty child. In modern America, we tend to make the model of the child-parent relationship about a cheeky child full of audacity. In first-century Galilee or elsewhere in the Roman Empire, not so much! A Roman father, especially, had legal power of life and death over his children. And in Jewish culture as much as Roman, life-long respect for fathers was a central value, one into which children were disciplined from the earliest age. So when Jesus advises us to approach God as our Father, he's not counseling us to approach with an abandonment of reverence and respect. He's not calling us to a flippant or casual approach, barging in on God and pretending God is just our peer and buddy. God being our Father does not occlude or exclude God's kingship and holiness and all his other great majesties. We are invited to approach God familiarly and freely as our Father, but that's not the same thing as flippantly and irreverently. In fact, the author of Hebrews says that the reason why the Father heard Jesus' prayers with all those loud cries and tears was precisely “because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7).

And so when we pray, we should have some consciousness that prayer is a religious act of value, at least insofar as it really presents your inner self to God as a gift of self.7 Prayers are a religious act of self-giving, and that's another reason they should definitely not be flippant. And we make them good religious acts by filling them with plenty of adoration, plenty of thanksgiving, plenty of praise. As a religious act, a good prayer is potentially the equivalent of a sacrifice. One psalmist hoped so, at least, when he said to God: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2). Praise, especially for God's comfort, is compared in Isaiah to “the fruit of the lips” (Isaiah 57:19). So “let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). This is one reason why we're encouraged to pray out loud, even though God hears us just as clearly when we pray silently on the inside. Praying out loud lets us serve God with everything we've got, inside and outside, by having our bodies make sounds that express our inner devotion.8

So our specific prayers are religious acts, and meant to be reverent like a sacrifice. But this reverence doesn't mean bombastic. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pointed out that for at least some pagan Gentiles, they were so fixated on prayer as a religious act, but in the absence of a confidence that their religious act would be acceptable, they'd try all sorts of verbal tricks to ensure they were heard favorably (Matthew 6:7). Those pagan prayers would heap up lots of divine epithets and titles, and so could become very formalized and flowery. A flowery prayer need not be a bad thing, but it's bad when it becomes bombastic by being more focused on the words themselves than on the sentiments they convey or the character of the hearer. Jesus reminds us that God doesn't actually need the words to know your need; he was paying attention before you started (Matthew 6:8). So our words aren't a fishing expedition to butter God up; they're a blend of incense meant to smell good to both deity and offerer, meant to make it easier and not harder to communicate with God.9

And since it's about communicating with God, that calls for sincerity. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about “hypocrites” – play-actors, some Pharisees being guilty of this – who were fond of using prayer for what were fundamentally un-religious ends. They made sure that the call to prayer caught them in a place of maximal visibility, because they wanted to impress others with their piety so as to boost their social standing. So as to pervert their prayer to those ends, they turned it into a public performance (Matthew 6:5). Jesus' advice to seek privacy for prayer, even to the point of hiding in a closet, is primarily about reducing the risk of it becoming a performance aimed at enhancing your reputation. There remains, of course, a risk of it still being a performance aimed at enhancing your self-image! But to follow Jesus' counsel, at least, would make someone conspicuously absent during the set prayer hours, allowing others to assume from that whatever they wished. Of course, in today's culture, where religiosity in public is sometimes looked down on as unseemly, people's incentives might be different – not praying in public might be a more effective reputation enhancer! In which case, the relevant advice might be more along the don't-hide-it-under-a-bushel track (Matthew 5:15-16). But Jesus' point stands: arrange your prayer life so as to guard against temptations to manipulate it for social advantage.

To follow Jesus in prayer, then, cultivate a consciousness of God both as God and as Father, let prayer be a religious act but without bombast and without performance, but above and beyond being a religious act, let it be a truly honest gift of an honest self. And, as Jesus showed on the mountain, that means honest emotional and logistical processing with God in prayer. Just as you appreciate it when friends and family serve as a sounding board for what you're experiencing when you need to vent, why not “just tell God where you are and what's on your mind”?10 That's what Jesus did. In all those night hours, he was utterly honest and vulnerable with God.

Of course, there's a danger here, too. These days, when we say we're finally being “honest” with someone, we use the word 'honest' as a euphemism for being verbally abusive – letting fly all the harsh, unreasonable, and intemperate criticisms we've been storing up in our minds and which we've at last grown too passionately angry to suppress any longer. That's not at all what I'm recommending we do to be honest with God! You're supposed to be processing with God, not against God; growing more tender, not more defensive or more self-justifying. By all means, ask the hard questions, even lay out some challenges – Job can testify how surprisingly indulgent God can be with that. But in any relationship, there are lines of contempt not to cross under pretexts of 'honesty' – our honesty should stay reverent, as Jesus' did. But this reverent honesty can be very passionate, and should be, when that's what we're really feeling. By opening yourself to God in vulnerability, you create space for him to work and draw you closer. And if Jesus processed honestly all night on a mountain, so can we.11

Within that, we can bring God our specific personal needs: “In everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4:6). And we can bring God the needs of others and of the world: “We always pray for you” (2 Thessalonians 1:11), “making supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:19). But in all this, remember that priority isn't given to any particular topic, and ultimately not even to prayer's value as a religious act. Prayer is first and foremost about cultivating that relationship, about developing conversational familiarity with God in which it becomes easier and more natural to talk with him. Prayer is a venue for opening yourself to the strengthening of those theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, to becoming holier through a real encounter with God's grace, and so to growing fitter for the beatific vision. It doesn't need to be a constant barrage of words, still less of new words or new thoughts. But even as you run out of new things to say, or even as you incorporate silent resting in God, “continue steadfastly in prayer” with open lips and open ears (Colossians 4:2). For prayer is our spiritual breath, the regular maintenance and pursuit of our relationship with a God whose unveiled union with us is the supernatural bliss we're made for. And much more could be said of it, but time grows short. Let us merely meditate on that mountain... and listen. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Roadmap to Heaven

A couple weeks ago, we talked about where we're supposed to go, where this great human journey is supposed to lead every human to ever live. And, to waste no time, every human is created with the purpose of reaching the Beatific Vision – that is, the final destination on our great human journey is seeing God as he is, and therefore being transformed to be like him (as much as a creature can be), and so to know and love and enjoy God forever as only someone made like him can. Or, as John puts it: “What we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). But last Sunday, we wondered how this great human journey could even get started. First of all, our natural powers and their works are by definition incapable of reaching God, no more than it's possible for you to run to the moon. And to make it worse, we're sinners, which puts us in debt (and so under arrest), deformed in will (and so unable to run), and dead in our sins (and so unable to achieve anything). For all those reasons, we can't start.

But, as we said, our mercifully rich God sent his Son into the world, so that by his cross and resurrection, he could overcome all these obstacles. “The reason the Son of God appeared,” says John, “was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins” (1 John 3:5). Jesus makes alive, pays the debt, renews our will, even bestows us with supernatural powers capable of reaching God. From the moment we're born again, we share in his death and resurrection. The grace God gives us in that instant both justifies us and sanctifies us. Now his grace is our new operating system. With it, God promptly installs the key system features we can call the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. They're dispositions to know God, look to God, and unite to God. These are supernatural powers, basic principles that remain when we're spiritually alive, abiding in Christ. God also installs other supernatural programs, infusing us with virtues that can actually implement faith, hope, and love in exciting ways. And, since we'd be naturally clueless at running any of these supernatural programs on our lives, God gives the Holy Spirit as tutorial, guide, and helper by his gifts. God installs all this from the very beginning so as to make us fit for our supernatural destiny.

But it's one thing to set up a computer and have everything installed, and another thing entirely to actually use it for something, isn't it? It's one thing to be equipped as an astronaut to fly to the moon, and another thing to take off or get there. God gives us startling grace the moment we're born again – so much so that, if you got fried by lightning coming up from that water, there's not a shred of doubt you'd wake up to the Beatific Vision the very next instant. But actually having to live out of that grace, out of those virtues, out of those gifts – well, that can be a messier prospect. “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning,” John tells us (1 John 3:6). “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (1 John 3:9). “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil” (1 John 3:8). John does not mince words. If we choose not to cooperate with God in the use of his grace, virtues, and gifts, if we choose to live in ways that steer us off course, then Houston, we have a problem! Some sins deviate from the course just a bit and call for constant course correction, lest they add up and make us miss our goal. Other sins mess with the machinery, placing us in mortal peril, calling for even more radical intervention. The point is, the sins we carry out, the vices we allow to form, are obstacles that must be overcome in order to see God as he is. Otherwise, it's possible to still lose out (2 John 1:8), to fall short of the destination (Hebrews 4:11). We are saved by the faith God gives us, but it must be a living faith working by love, it must be kept alive in us – and sin has the power of death. Don't “be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).

What are we called to instead? Listen to John: “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). This is the key, this is the hinge between what he said before and what he says after. Before those words, John dazzled us with the hope of the Beatific Vision. Afterward comes his discourse on the devastating nature of sin. What he's saying is that someone who persists in sin, someone who embraces sin, someone who refuses by sin to live out of what God has given, is canceling out their hope of the Beatific Vision. As we live in the world, as we take those steps from the water where we rose to new life, we must stay spiritually alive, rather than give in to death's alluring call by sin. And as even small sins inevitably stain us and take us just a little bit off course, we must course-correct, we must purify ourselves, we must cooperate with God's grace. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” but “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

Faith, hope, and love – and the other supernatural virtues that implement them – must be put into actual practice by the gifts the Holy Spirit gives for turning them into real acts, in much the same way that astronauts on a space shuttle have to cooperate with NASA and use the programming in the shuttle's systems. If they refused to train, they wouldn't make it. If they refused to course-correct when they got off course, they wouldn't make it. If they refused to carry out maintenance when something goes wrong, they wouldn't make it. But if they really live out of what they've been given, then they'll make it. “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7). By cooperating with God's grace, we allow it to shape us and fuel us. By acting out of the virtues we're given – and that's what John means by “practicing righteousness” – we not only make it easier for us to do so, but we allow God to increase those virtues in us, making us righteous by conforming us more and more to the image of Jesus who is our goal.

And Jesus is our goal. So let us decide this year to “lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us [fly] with endurance” on our supernatural voyage to him. Spurning the sin that kills, let us abide in Christ who is our life. Course-correcting daily from the sin that deviates, let us by repentance stay on target. Let us put righteousness into practice by acting out of the supernatural virtues God gives us, most supremely faith and hope and love. By acting from God's grace, we live purely, and so purify ourselves as he is pure. Cooperating with God, we have a humble but confident hope of a successful voyage, until at last we see his face. And this is what we're living for. So let's actually live it, by the help of God, because by grace we can. Amen.

God and Father of every grace, you poured into us your Holy Spirit, justifying us from our sinful deeds and wills, sanctifying us from our whole past life, infusing us with faith and hope and love so that we could be supernaturally empowered to reach you and know, love, and enjoy you forever. You've blessed us with more gifts than we can count. Now you ask us to live by them, cooperating with your work in us. Strengthen us to abide in Christ, that ours may be a faith and a hope that live by love, a faith and hope and love that reveal themselves in acts as your Holy Spirit leads and guides and gifts. Conquer every contrary disposition in us. Heal us of our sin, and forgive us where we've fallen short. Purify us of everything that hinders faith or hope or love, and root them more deeply in us as you help us practice them. Make us true practitioners of righteousness, as people genuinely born of God. Let us bear a family resemblance to you even now, as your children, and bring us daily closer to the full image of what we will be when we see you as you really are, if only we endure in the practice of righteousness that implements faith, hope, and love to the end. Make us worthy and fit for that blessed vision! For you move us to it. In Jesus' name: Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Matchless Grace

Where we left off last Sunday was with a vision – a glimpse of what life is all about, why God made us, what he made us for. We asked three related questions: “Where is the human journey meant to end? What will bring us true fulfillment and happiness? And what is any of this all about, anyway?” And we found that this journey of being human is supposed to lead us to seeing God as he is. In seeing God as he is, we'll know and have God in a way that satisfies us completely and comprehensively. We'll love him with his own love and be happy with his own happiness. That's why God made us, wanting to share his blessedness with creatures who are fit for it, and in sharing his blessedness, to somehow be made like him by seeing him as he is. That goal, seeing him as he is, is what later theologians called “the beatific vision” – it's the greatest delight there is in heaven.

So last Sunday, we spent our time together considering and getting excited about the destination we're supposed to get to. But, of course, the Bible is full of warnings that, just because we're meant to all reach this destination, just because it's God's desire that we all reach this destination, that doesn't guarantee that every person who ever lived is going to find himself or herself someday in heaven, someday seeing God as he is, someday becoming as much like God as it's possible for a creature to ever be. People on any trip can get lost – you can misread a map or miss a turn, you can get one place confused with another. People on a trip can even get waylaid by failing to follow the rules of their modes of transportation, like trying to get on a plane while you've got fireworks in your carry-on bag. And not only that, it's very possible to not even get started – to forget you've got some place to be, or to be clueless what mode of transportation you need to take at the first step.

And when it comes to the human journey, there are a couple big problems to face when getting started, reasons why so many people are ambling around unsure of what to do. And the first problem is this: The beatific vision is a supernatural good. Heaven is a supernatural place. And from birth, all our powers are natural. We can eat, drink, sleep, eventually walk and talk, run and think, and so on. But no amount of natural effort can add up to even one supernatural action. Natural means can't get you to a supernatural end – otherwise, they would be supernatural means! The beatific vision is all about God sharing himself. Getting the beatific vision isn't like surprising God when he's coming out of the shower. He has to reveal himself to you supernaturally, and before that can happen, he has to make you fit to see him as he is – and that, too, is supernatural.

It doesn't matter how many miles you walk, or which direction you start moving, but as long as it's just your own two feet taking you, you won't set foot in Australia from here. And when it comes to reaching the beatific vision, maybe a better analogy would be trying to run to the moon. That's one reason why Paul has to be very emphatic that it's “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9). A person can go around town being nice to everybody, donating to every worthy cause, rescuing cats from trees, and carrying out every other form of moral heroism under the sun – but as long as he's working from natural moral virtues that he got and refined himself, they just aren't proportionate to the goal we're aiming for. It's impossible to earn heaven by all the works, all the natural moral actions, a person can dream up. It just can't be done, by definition.

So that's one problem, and it's kind of a big one already. Put Adam and Eve in the garden, with no sin but also with no grace added atop their human nature, and they can't earn heaven, no matter how long they steer clear of forbidden fruit. But there's another spot of trouble here, which is that we're not in the garden. Sin has entered the picture. Sinners are, in Paul's memorable phrase, “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Sin does some very nasty things that get in the way of starting out on this journey. First of all, we have a debt that needs to get paid before we even leave our darkened caves – because until it is, we're fugitives from God's justice, and so long as we're on the wrong side of the law, we definitely aren't free to move. But as if that weren't enough, our will gets bent out of harmony with God's will, so it's stained and deformed, making it even more unfit for God.1 Not only that, but “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Ephesians 2:1). If you thought it was impossible to run to the moon before, try doing so a week after your own funeral!

Alright, so we're meant to be on this great human journey that's supposed to lead us to see God as he is, the kind of vision that's the highest delight of heaven. It's a supernatural goal that can only be reached by supernatural means, which means our natural powers can't even begin to make the first move – not because we're sinners, but because we're creatures. We'd need supernatural means to get there, just like we'd need a spaceship to achieve a moon landing – 'cause all the walking, running, and driving you can do won't get you there. And again, that's because we're creatures. But we also happen to be sinners, which means we've got a whole host of other issues blocking the first move. We're in debt (so we're under arrest and trapped), we're deformed (so we can't even run to begin with), and to top it all off, we're dead (which kind of makes the other obstacles look small, somehow!).

But God, says Scripture, was “rich in mercy. Because of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses” (Ephesians 2:4-5), he did something about our problems – all of them. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world. And so much could be said about that, I could preach it every Sunday of the year and not even scratch the surface of all there is to be said. But “God shows his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). He offered his infinite divine life sacrificially with infinite affection and devotion to his Father on the cross, and so created a mystery capable of resolving every problem.2 We won't do too much today to trouble ourselves with the mechanics, which surpass all understanding anyway. But the truly important thing is that the death and resurrection of Jesus has power to unstop our journey in its tracks.

We were “dead in our trespasses,” and so in this death and resurrection, God can “make us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). We're deformed in will, and so in this death and resurrection, God can renew us and transform us, to “conform [us] to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). We're deep in debt, so Jesus emptied himself and “became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). And he canceled out “the record of debt that stood against us” by “nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). We're insufficient in only our natural powers, so a supernatural power has to take over our life – and that, too, is provided for in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Okay, so in what Jesus did on the cross and did in his resurrection, there's power to get over all these hurdles to starting our journey. But how do we get at that? Where does our life cross paths with the cross? How begins a human life the human journey? And to that, Jesus himself gives answer: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:3). Rebirth is the key! Rebirth is the new start! And Jesus explains in more detail what he means: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). For “do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). There, did you hear that? Our question was where a human life today might cross paths with the cross. And there's a biblical answer for you. Baptism is a baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. It unites us with the mystery of Christ, and gives us rebirth just as Jesus underwent resurrection. Paul later calls baptism “the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). And Peter preached: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39).

And so when we enter that mystery, our life – whether in infancy or adulthood – crosses paths with the cross. It finds new birth, forgiveness, and gifts and graces beyond telling. Paul says that we “receive the abundance of grace” (Romans 5:17). And there's so much going on here that it could be sliced up and explained in so many different ways – and it has been! I want this morning to offer just a small sampling from one angle.

Paul writes: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Those are three things all going on at once. “You were washed” – that's baptism, that's that “washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). But to be washed is at the same time to be “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Paul elsewhere writes that “we have been justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9). Justification takes its power only and entirely from the cross where Jesus died for us. It is his blood, his sacrifice, his surrender of his whole life, that can set us right. But it's not just the death of Jesus that's involved: he “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). It's his dying and rising, which we join him in through baptism where we're washed, that justifies us. Paul adds that we are “justified by his grace as a gift” (Romans 3:24). Justification isn't earned. It's a gift from God – a free gift, for “the free gift following many trespasses brought justification” (Romans 5:16). And “we have been justified by faith” (Romans 5:1) – more on that in a bit.

So from this beginning, from this new birth, God's grace steps in to give us justification. He raises us from our inner spiritual deadness, and he washes us free from the stains of our former life. He sets us on the right path for pursuing this great human journey that's meant to lead to his face. And it only happens when we're baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But Paul says one more thing is going on. “You were washed,” yes; “you were justified,” yes; but also, “you were sanctified” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Jesus suffered on the cross “in order to sanctify the people with his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). And so God “saved us... by the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit, so that, being justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7). It's a gift that Christ gives the Church, “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26).

It's not enough for God to raise us to new life, if that new life is just a natural human life, a normal kind of life, the kind of life that Adam and Eve could've had before the fall. Because while everything we've said up until now might deal with the problems of being in debt and being deformed and being dead, there's still that problem of being naturally insufficient to reach a supernatural destination. We need a kind of life in us that goes beyond the powers of human nature. And that's what God means to give us by this sanctifying grace. It's got to be true, as Paul says, that “where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more” – not merely compensating for sin on a one-to-one basis, but taking us even higher than the point from which we fell (Romans 5:20). Being justified by grace gets us back; becoming heirs of eternal life is higher still. Peter talks about it in the daring terms of being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This grace makes us “participants in the divine life.”3 It elevates our human nature beyond itself, able to receive the gifts God wants to give.4

So with grace rebooting our system in justification, and grace rebuilding us with a new operating system in sanctification, now grace can start installing all the key system features. Because even when justified and even when sanctified, if we keep living out of the same old natural resources we used to be limited to, we still won't reach our destination. We need God to pour into us, infuse into us, new basic principles to govern our lives, a whole new way of living – principles that come from God, are motivated by God, and aim to get us to God. Old theologians took up the habit of calling those new basic principles “the theological virtues,” saying that they're installed by God alone.5 And the theological virtues are the things Paul says abide. “So now faith, hope, and love abide – these three!” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Remember that verse? Those are the key system features, the new principles that govern our new way of living – the supernatural living that can get us to God.

I mean, just take faith, for starters. “Through [Jesus], we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2), and “the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). “The life I now live in the flesh,” says Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). That kind of faith isn't something that anybody on the street can just choose to have one day. The capacity for it, the disposition for it, is a gift of God. Paul says so outright: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). It's a supernatural principle that will direct your mind, your intellect, to God.6 It yields a disposition towards believing everything God says and does – because it recognizes God's truth and authority. Submitting in reverence to God as to the primary truth, it leads toward assent to God as he reveals himself. And thanks to the inner light of faith, we're able and even inclined to believe things that our natural minds could never grasp. “The natural man” – literally, soul-driven man – “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Faith is the operating principle that lets us do that, that takes the blinders off. And faith, as a disposition, is something given by God right from the start. Faith itself is a gift of grace, and “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).

Already from the new birth, we begin – however vaguely still, however incompletely – to be able to know God, and this is the beginning of our spiritual fulfillment.7 But separated from the other theological virtues, we're told that “faith... is dead” (James 2:26). A dead faith can't help you be alive in Christ. So God has to install some more. “By faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5), and there's the second virtue. Just like supernatural faith, supernatural hope is something God has to give us. And Paul says he did! God “gave us... good hope through grace” (2 Thessalonians 2:16). This hope fills us with desire to reach what grace has promised and what faith has believed, especially the mysteries of the kingdom. “Hope enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” (Hebrews 6:19-20). “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2), and in the meantime, “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25), knowing that “hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5). This hope is a supernatural principle aiming our will toward God as being actually reachable. Hope is the anchor that latches on to the promise and, by a supernatural strength, won't let go, even when every natural power in us would. And hope, as a disposition, is given by God right from the start, in that baptismal package.

But “hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). And there's the third theological virtue, the greatest and most perfect of them all: love. Not just any kind of love – God-style love, the love that Greeks called agape and Latins called caritas or 'charity.' This kind of God-style love “believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Just like faith and hope, it's not something we're naturally capable of. It has to be given by God. It's a supernatural principle that directs our wills toward God, not just as reachable, but as united with him already, because this is the kind of love that God is. God gives us a gift we couldn't muster on our own, and that's to love him for who he is, and to love everybody and everything else through God's love for them – to be made capable of seeing them as he sees them, loving them as he loves them, because in love we're becoming united to God who is Love. Acting out of this virtue unites us with God in incredible ways.

So when we're born again, not only does God justify us by his grace, not only does God sanctify us by his grace, but God equips us with these three new basic principles of supernatural living: faith, hope, and love. And from the moment we're born again, we are disposed toward supernatural living. Of course, to actually apply them as first principles of our lives, we're going to need other supernatural virtues installed in us, programs that can implement faith, hope, and love as their language in different kinds of ways.8 And, what do you know, God pours them into our heart too, infuses them too, so that we have a supernatural ability to no longer be “slaves to various passions and pleasures” the way we would be if we were merely natural (Titus 3:3). And like the theological virtues, these other ones also remain alive in us whenever we abide in Christ and his grace. Not only that, but from the very start, God gives us gifts that make us responsive to the Holy Spirit when it comes to finding ways to translate these virtues into supernaturally empowered practice, so that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God,” like Paul says (Romans 8:14). But we're out of time to explore all that today.

What we need to see is that, in the instant we're born again, the moment we're baptized into Christ, we are given vastly more than we ever imagined. Supernatural life becomes liveable! An entire amazing set of graces and virtues and gifts gets installed into our hearts, into our souls. All the basic programs we need to be fit for our supernatural destiny are already there, waiting for us to begin our journey. Thank God for his matchless grace, which brings us all these gifts for beginning our great pursuit of a blessedness that outstrips everything we've seen or heard or imagined!

Gracious Father, you are the Giver of
every good and every perfect gift (James 1:17).  Graciously and lovingly, you showed your rich mercy by sending your Son to a world of sinners, to suffer and die for us who were dead in our sins, and to rise from the dead for us.  In him alone is faith well-placed, in him alone our hope is found, in him alone is love's true meaning revealed and set free.  By his death and life, you, Father, are infinitely pleased.  And you are indeed, as Scripture says of you, the God of all grace (1 Peter 5:10).  Your grace is marvelous, your grace is wondrous, your grace is surpassing, your grace is matchless indeed, for even from the moment of our baptism into your Son, we are washed, we are justified, we are sanctified, we are graced with the theological virtues of faith and hope and love, we are infused with supernatural moral virtues, we are granted the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so that, following his leading, we will be able to put into practice all these virtues and so live a supernatural life fit for heaven, the life of faith and hope and love.  None of this would be possible to us on our own two feet.  None of this is achievable by our natural powers.  But you have made us able to receive the supernatural.  Now, as your servant Paul has written, let us not receive the grace of God in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1).  As we glory in the immensity of your grace already given, help us to fly in this very grace toward your blessed face, that this supernatural life may soar to its fulfillment in our seeing you, knowing you, loving you, and being blessed with all your blessedness, in Jesus, through whom we pray for such purity of heart.  Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

To See Him As He Is

There are a lot of things I can't remember in life, but I'll always remember the first time I read it. I'd graduated from college two days earlier, and in spite of the workload of all my final papers, I'd been reading a lot that year. Tackling some classics, too. And this was certainly a classic. I reached the end two days after graduation, and I would never be quite the same. The book I'm remembering was written just over seven centuries ago, in Italy, by a man named Dante Alighieri. And in the grand epic poem we today know as his Divine Comedy, he offers a sweeping and imaginative guided tour of the afterlife. Most people thinking of Dante think of the first third of his poem, the part titled Inferno – “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!” Dante's graphic vision of nine circles of hell, through which he pictures himself slowly descending to witness and interview the fates awaiting various kinds of sinners, has captivated the world's imagination ever since. Nearly forgotten in comparison – and I think it's tragic that they are – are the parts that follow, called Purgatorio and, lastly, Paradiso. In Paradiso, Dante recounts his imagined visit to heaven, ascending sphere by sphere and meeting virtuous and saintly souls.

But what captivated me was the end. Having reached the nine choirs of angels and seen the souls of the faithful enthroned like the petals of a brilliant rose around which the angels fly like bees, it seems that it couldn't get any better than that. But, of course, it can. The last half of the last chapter of the last poem finally reaches the end of Dante's tour. And who else is left to encounter in highest heaven but the One who made it all? “Oh grace abounding that had made me fit / to fix my eyes on the Eternal Light / until my vision was consumed in It! / I saw within Its depth how It conceives / all things in a single volume bound by Love, / of which the universe is the scattered leaves; / substance, accident, and their relation / so fused that all I say could do no more / than yield a glimpse of that bright revelation. / I think I saw the Universal Form / that binds these things, for as I speak these words, / I feel my joy swell and my spirits warm.”1

I remember, I tell you, the night I finished reading the Paradiso for the first time. “Experiencing that Radiance, the spirit / is so indrawn it is impossible / even to think of ever turning from It. / For the good which is the will's ultimate object / is all subsumed in It; and, being removed, / all is defective which in It is perfect.”2 As Dante imagines his encounter with the perfect and unchanging God – the 'Eternal Light,' the 'Universal Form,' the 'Living Radiance' – he realizes that it would be impossible to turn away, because this Light is all he wants to see, the ultimate aim of every human thought and every human desire. And soon, he begins to peer into God, and see the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation – and it was in reading and meditating on these lines, that night nearly thirteen years ago, that I wept tears of joy, and can barely hold them back as I read them now: “Within the depthless deep and clear existence / of that abyss of light, three circles shone - / three in color, one in circumference: / the second from the first, rainbow from rainbow; / the third, an exhalation of pure fire / equally breathed forth by the other two. / But oh, how much my words miss my conception, / which is itself so far from what I saw / that to call it feeble would be rank deception! / O Light Eternal fixed in Itself alone, / by Itself alone understood, which from Itself / loves and glows, self-knowing and self-known; / that second aureole which shone forth in Thee, / conceived as a reflection of the first - / or which appeared so to my scrutiny - / seemed in Itself of Its own coloration / to be painted with man's image. I fixed my eyes / on that alone in rapturous contemplation. / Like a geometer wholly dedicated / to squaring the circle, but who cannot find, / think as he may, the principle indicated - / so did I study the supernal face. / I yearned to know just how our image merges / into that circle, and how it there finds place; / but mine were not the wings for such a flight. / Yet, as I wished, the truth I wished for came / cleaving my mind in a great flash of light. / Here my powers rest from their high fantasy, / but already I could feel my being turned - / instinct and intellect balanced equally - / as in a wheel whose motion nothing jars - / by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”3

Why did I react as I did? Partly because of the profound theological subtleties Dante weaves into his verse – but partly also because of the way his writings, building to this wondrous climax, take up three related questions that I want to lay before you this morning. First question: “Where is the human journey meant to end?” That is, this road of life we're on – if we take the path we're supposed to take, where are we supposed to end up? What's the destination? Second question: “What will bring us true happiness and fulfillment?” What is it that makes a life a really good life? What satisfies our deepest longings? And then a third question: “What is any of this all about, anyway?” That is, why go through the trouble of living? What does it all mean? What's it for?

These are three questions we dare not suppress or ignore. All too often, though, we – or our neighbors – pass the days, the weeks, the years, the decades, and try their best to dodge such questions. And in refusing to pose these questions, we untether our lives from the pursuit of what's really true, really good, really beautiful.

A long time ago, there was a psalmist who didn't make that mistake. The author of Psalm 27 was living in hard times: “Evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh” (Psalm 27:2). “False witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence” (Psalm 27:12). It would have been frightening, if it weren't for the confidence of his faith in his God sustaining him. “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident” (Psalm 27:3). And the God in whom he trusts had given a command, given it to all and sundry: “Seek my face.” In return, the psalmist's heart replies: “Your face, O LORD, do I seek!” (Psalm 27:8). And so we catch the psalmist praying for three things to happen. First, his desire is “to inquire in his temple.” The word for 'inquire' there is very similar to 'seek.' He wants to keep seeking, and he wants his seeking to be in the right place, in the temple, in God's palace. Second, his desire is to “dwell in the House of the LORD all the days of my life.” At one level, he's looking for shelter and guidance, a refuge and help amidst his struggle with his enemies.4 But at another level, he's looking beyond that. The psalmist wants to finally find a restful home in God's heavenly palace. He wants to rest in God, to live with God, and never have to leave. In the face of this changing world, he wants an unchanging place he can't be forced out of. And third, his desire is “to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD (Psalm 27:4). Just like Dante imagined seeing into the Eternal Light of God, the psalmist wants to move into the temple and spend eternity gazing on God's beauty.

Almost two and a half centuries before Dante, another Christian writer – Anselm, the bishop of Canterbury in England – opened a very influential work of philosophy with a prayer inspired by Psalm 27. And here's what he said to God: “Never have I seen you, Lord my God; I do not know your face.… What shall your servant do, tormented by love of you and yet cast off far from your face? He yearns to see you, and your countenance is too far away from him. He desires to come close to you, and your dwelling place is inaccessible. He longs to find you, and does not know where you are. … I was made in order to see you, and I have not yet accomplished what I was made for. How wretched man's lot is when he has lost that for which he was made!”5 Anselm was struggling with the distance between where he was – this world and its confusion, where we don't quite know where to find God, where we don't have access to God's heavenly palace, where we can't yet see God's face – and the deep-felt truth that he was made in order to see God and be with God forever.

The Apostle Paul talked about that distance, in one of the passages we read this morning. On the one hand, we are now wayfarers on the journey. And that, Paul says, is when spiritual gifts have their uses, to build up the church on the journey. But these things have their limits. “We know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10). Right now, we live in a time and place of the partial. It's not nothing! It's not only distance, not only exile. But there's coming a day when the partial will yield ground to the perfect. Right now, our knowledge is partial: “Now I know in part.” Our knowledge is mixed with ignorance, assumption, even sometimes doubt. But at the end of the road, there's something more: “Then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Paul compares the way we're going to know God, if we're faithful, as similar to the way God knows us – and that's only possible if God shares something with us of his own knowledge of his own essence, the “Self-Knowing and Self-Known.”6 That's what Dante was recounting: “the truth I wished for came, cleaving my mind in a great flash of light.”7

Paul also talks about our present perception being partial: “Now we see in a mirror dimly.” Our vision is dim and distorted. What we look at, even when we look to God, is somewhat of a cloudy reflection of who he is. It isn't directly at God we're able to look, but – like Moses – more at the after-effects of glory at his backside after he passes by (Exodus 33:20-23). “For now we see in a mirror dimly,” as Moses did, “but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). The psalmist asked for it; now Paul says there's hope of getting it, when the partial gives way to the perfect.

And the Apostle John agrees, in the other passage we read this morning. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! And so we are” (1 John 3:1). If you're in Christ, you are a son or a daughter adopted into the family of the Almighty, the Most High, the Maker of the most distant stars, the Designer of the subatomic details that make up everything we see. Isn't that incredible? Isn't that dazzling, to be part of the family of God (as we're so fond of singing)? Aren't we so glad for it? It's an act of love, to be so adopted into such a family, that the Father chose to become our Father. He doesn't merely call us children, as if it were an inside joke, or a legal fiction. He has made us, truly and really and astonishingly, his children: “So we are.” But did you know that there's something even better?

St. John goes on: “We are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2). It hasn't yet been revealed. All that the Bible has said? It has not told us what the next step is after becoming children of God. What we're going to become, what we're supposed to be made into, what our real destiny is, is beyond all that has been revealed, all that God told us through the apostles and the prophets. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him,” to borrow again from the words of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 2:9). If you receive that final transformation of grace, you will become something beyond everything your eye has ever seen. You will become something you've never even heard of. You will enter into a reality that outstrips everything your wildest imagination can concoct. God has prepared it already! Something greater is in store for us. “But we know that when he appears” – or, when it is revealed at last – “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). What God has prepared is for us to be like him, like Jesus.

And as if that weren't enough, St. John drops a bombshell when he explains how that transformation happens, and what it really means. “We shall be like him, because... we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Pause there, pause on those words. Really think about what John's saying. The transformation that takes us beyond children of God to something even more unimaginable, the transformation that makes us like God in ways we dare not begin to dream, comes about through seeing him. And not just seeing him as we imagine him, or as we reflect him, or as we see him in that dim and darkened mirror. It comes on the day we see him as he is, see him in his fullness face-to-face, see him in his very essence. In the way Moses was denied seeing God, in a way no mortal can survive seeing God, we will see God as he is, and that vision will change us.

In the Bible's last chapter, John makes sure we don't forget that, either. As John explores a new heaven and new earth, as he passes by the tree of life growing freely in the garden-city that's Eden and Jerusalem rolled into one, he finds that Genesis 3 is undone, and everything is back on track: “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (Revelation 22:3). “The Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). Natural and artificial light become irrelevant when God's light shines everywhere, shines even in his people where curses are no more. In this perfect world, those who dwell with God are pictured as living forever and reigning forever, finally holding the dominion for which we were made, and more. And what's the secret heart of this? “They will see his face” (Revelation 22:4). It's such a simple phrase, we could easily miss it. But those who dwell with God in this new world are promised to see God's face, to see God as he really is, thanks to the light he shines. And that is what transforms us into our supernatural destiny. In that experience, in that beatific vision, we will at last reach total and complete blessedness, which is to perfectly possess the perfect good with a perfect grasp.8

Anselm dared to pray, “I was made in order to see you.” And seeing God is not something that we, as creatures, are capable of in our own bare nature. This is a supernatural destiny, a supernatural completeness beyond all we are. But that really is what we were made for. That really is what God means for us. And that's why I find Dante's poem so moving. Because through his vivid imagination, I feel like I can catch, for a fleeting moment, an infinitesimal glimpse. And though neither my heart nor Dante's heart can imagine how much higher and vaster and greater the truth really is, yet even that dim reflection of the Love that moves all things is moving.

We earlier faced the question, “Where is the human journey meant to end?” And the answer is, in seeing God as he really is. The human journey is meant to lead us to seeing God unveiled, seeing God with eyes that God alone can strengthen to behold his brightness. As was said more succinctly by somebody else: “The final end of human beings is the vision of God.”9 Seeing God as he is – that's our destination. Seeing God as he is – that's our goal. If our journey ends anywhere else, anywhere short of that, then we have missed our meaning. And if our journey is not guided in the direction of this destination, then that is the definition of being lost.

Another question we faced earlier: “What will bring us true fulfillment and happiness?” And the answer is, knowing and having God in a way that can't help but satisfy us so completely and so comprehensively. For to see God is to become light in his light, to be assimilated to his own blessedness, to be happy with his very own happiness, to live with his very own life, to love him with his very own love.10 Everything else we think will make us happy – well, on a merely natural level and in a merely temporary way, some of it might. But full satisfaction, soul satisfaction, isn't something we can find in the world. “You rouse [us] to take delight in praising you: for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you”11 – that's what St. Augustine prayed over sixteen centuries ago, and it's no less true today. We are so made that nothing can give our hearts true rest until we rest them in God, and nothing can satisfy us perfectly except God's own delight in himself shared with us. Reaching it is what heaven is, where “the souls of all the saints... see the divine essence... plainly, clearly, and openly; and in this vision, they... are truly blessed and have eternal life and rest... without any interruption and without end, until the Last Judgment and from then on forever.”12

And then there's that other question: “What is any of this all about, anyway?” And the answer is, it's all about God's loving desire to share his blessedness, his perfect delight in perfectly possessing the perfect good – himself – with a perfect grasp – which is also himself. And so he made us so that he could elevate us even beyond what he made us by nature. He made us so that he could show himself to us and share himself with us. He made us so that knowing God directly and loving God unrestrainedly would make us as much like him as a creature could ever be, and indeed, far more than we find it possible to imagine. He made us so that his own life and love could be ours to savor eternally by this radical grace. He made us to see him as he is, and so to be made like him by having him and holding him, and therefore enjoying him forever. That is what it's all about.

Why does it matter that we know this? Because a pilgrim journey is all about its destination. And just by being human, we are on a journey that is supposed to lead us to this specific destiny, and it will be a tragedy if any of us end up anywhere else, and it would be madness for any of us to live so as to meander and wander in the desert when we could be hastening toward our promised land and our promised love. So for the first half of this year, we're going to spend our time together reflecting on the journey and on some ideas and practices that will hopefully be helpful in orienting us toward our destination and helping us to draw closer to it. But as you hear it, as you meditate on it, as you pray about it, I want you to keep your destination firmly in mind. Because if we do not hear these things and understand these things and use these things as part of a quest to see God as he is, then what good are all the sermons in the world? What good is anything, if you do not use it in keeping with what – and who – you're for? Our quest, our desire, is spoken of by the psalmist and Paul and John, by Augustine and Anselm and Dante: To be made into the people who see God as he is, to have our vision all consumed in the Eternal Light, and so to behold all things bound up in unity within the Love that is God. May you reach it!  May you enjoy this heavenly vision forever!  May you content yourself in the pursuit of nothing less than to see God as he is!

O God, Eternal Light, Self-Knowing and Self-Known, you Father who called us out of darkness into marvelous light, who even now declare us your children, and who has prepared for us a glory beyond all seeing and hearing and imagining:  Show us your glory!  Pour your light of glory onto our intellects, cradle our wills in the forge of your loving will, and enrapture us to a supernatural destiny which this life cannot contain or comprehend.  Though you are Creator and we are creatures, yet you love us more than our nature can hold, and so you purpose to open us up to your life, to your happiness, to your blessedness, in us.  Bring us where our natural powers fail, and grace us with your supernature.  From the wayfarers and pilgrims we are in this exile, make us then comprehenders fully at rest in you when we reach your heaven, there to gaze eternally on your beauty and there to be made more like you than we even dream.  Fit us for this beatific vision that will change us so.  Let us behold you at any and all costs, and make all our days and all our hours about pursuing the holy love whereby we can be the saints we are already called as, and so be ready to see you.  Turn us, by your love, from glory to glory, from light to light, until at last we find our perfect beatitude in perfecting having and holding you, whom we have already begun to glimpse in the face of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God-made-manifest.  Amen.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

You, Be Evergreen

Once again, Happy New Year, everyone! Today, this very day, marks the onset of a new year – a new realm of grace, a new sphere of possibilities, a new chance to experience and enjoy the life God has given us. Today is a holiday. Actually, two holidays. Merry Christmas! For while the year 2022 has now closed, Christmas hasn't. New Year's Day is, every year, also the Eighth Day of Christmas – you know, like in the song. We're only at the eight maids a-milking today. We haven't even gotten to any drummers drumming, pipers piping, ladies dancing, or lords a-leaping yet! We've got four more days – and verses – to go.

And since it's still Christmas, that gives us time to tie up any loose ends left over from last Sunday's message. If you remember, if you were here, all throughout Advent and into Christmastide, we've been reflecting on lessons taught to us by the Christmas tree that stands here beside me this morning. And last Sunday, Christmas Day, we made our way through the book of the prophet Hosea, the back-and-forth between mercy and judgment, until we reached that final oracle of fresh hope. And in that strange and unique passage, God compared himself to a tree. “I am like an evergreen fir tree – in me your fruit is found” (Hosea 14:8). And so we celebrated that, at Christmas, this God-Tree planted himself in our earthly soil. That's Jesus, the true Christmas Tree – and these Christmas trees we set up in church and town and home, we said, show themselves as icons of Christ.

Hosea caps off that revelation by saying these closing words: “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the LORD are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them” (Hosea 14:9). And that opens the door to today's passage, Psalm 1, the very beginning of Israel's collection of prayer and praise. For this psalm sets before our eyes and ears two pictures, two ways to live life, and they're the same as the two alternatives Hosea ended with.

One picture the psalmist paints us is a picture of sin. He speaks of “sinners,” of “scoffers,” of “the wicked” (Psalm 1:1), to mean those Hosea marked as “transgressors” (Hosea 14:9). Whichever word you use, whatever the added nuances it brings to the portrait, the overall idea here is of someone who ultimately disconnects from God. That's what sin boils down to: disconnection from God. When we disconnect from God – even when we think we have him – that's when we start crossing some lines. We can become proud of ourselves. We can get caught up in focusing on irrelevant earthly matters. We swell up and magnify penultimate goods at the expense of the ultimate. We get so focused on what's in front of our senses that we scoff at what we've lost sight of, paying such things no mind. Missing the mark in life, we don't guide our steps by God's instruction. We don't fuel ourselves off of God. Instead, we allow ourselves to be filled with myriad other things and other influences – and where that tends to leave us is on a bad path. It places us, gradually, among the wicked.

The psalmist compares the wicked, though, to “chaff” (Psalm 1:4). Now, if you don't know what chaff is, chaff is the coarse outer husk of a grain. Part of getting at that inner seed is getting the chaff off of there. The psalmist isn't saying that the wicked are like the inner grain. He's saying that they're like chaff. Chaff isn't something you'd plant somewhere. It isn't a seed. It doesn't grow. In fact, it's dead. It isn't drawing new life. And neither do those who disconnect from God. Nor is chaff edible to humans. Some of our livestock animals can digest it, but you and I can't digest chaff. It doesn't have many uses, and so it's readily expendable. The psalmist would point out that sin cheapens us, makes us indigestible and unhelpful for what this world and this life are really about. And finally, chaff is best known for the fact that it's mostly allowed to blow away during winnowing. In ancient Israel, after the grain got threshed, bruised so that the husks would split open, these grains got tossed in the air in a light breeze, which wasn't so fast that it'd blow away the valuable seeds, but was just enough to send the chaff flying. Chaff is light and impermanent. It doesn't stick around for long. And, in spite of the way the world seems, neither will the wicked. Much as chaff is blown away in winnowing, so the wicked will be blown away and perish in the judgment (cf. Psalm 1:5-6).

But that's only one of the psalmist's pictures. In the other, he paints a portrait not of sin but of its opposite, the blessed life of taking proper delight in God. Instead of referring to sinners, here the psalmist refers to those he calls the “righteous” (Psalm 1:6). Here we meet “the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers” (Psalm 1:1). The ideal righteous person does not follow the same path of increasing disconnection from God. He's traveling the other way, contrary to influences that magnify penultimate goods at the expense of the ultimate. The righteous person is focused on putting first things first, and organizing his life accordingly. The righteous person is in search of a deeper connectedness to God. Humbly, he chews on all that God has said and all that God has done, day in and day out (cf. Psalm 1:2).

And just like the psalmist had a plant-based image for the wicked, so he's got one for the righteous like that. He says that this righteous person who's living life for the right things is like a tree. And not just any tree, but “like a tree planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3). A person who chews on what God says and does is like a tree planted in the best place, by canals that deliberately and wisely funnel life-giving water right to his roots. That's the exact opposite of chaff, which is no longer planted at all. Chaff is waste material from an ex-plant; this tree is a whole flourishing organism. Where chaff is dead, this tree is alive. The psalmist says so, right out: “Its leaf does not wither.” Not only is the tree alive, it manifests its life continually in its unwithering leaves, which continue year-round to draw in energy from the sun. Evergreen trees may not photosynthesize at quite as high a rate as deciduous trees, but they make up for it with consistency. “Slow and steady wins the race” is their motto as much as the tortoises. This evergreen tree is in it for the long haul. Not only that, but whereas chaff is inedible to humans and hence of very limited value, the psalmist describes the righteous as a tree “that yields its fruit in its season” (Psalm 1:3). That's useful, that's valuable, that's edible – that's a tree doing what chaff can't, and making a real contribution to the world. That's a tree that combines beauty and function.

There's one other big difference between chaff and this evergreen tree. Chaff, remember, is light, impermanent, blown away and discarded during the winnowing process. But nobody's going to winnow this tree. It's here to stay. It is stably and deeply rooted. It has a hope and a future, for as the psalmist adds, “The LORD knows the way of the righteous” (Psalm 1:6). He knows it because, as Hosea pointed out, it's his way: “The ways of the LORD are right, and the upright walk in them” (Hosea 14:9).

As we enter a new year, these two pictures are set before us, inviting us (as it were) to make a choice of our own – would we rather be the chaff, or would we rather be the tree? Now, chances are, in your homes you may have already taken down the Christmas tree in your midst. In mine, as was once traditional, we're leaving what little decoration we have up through the twelfth day of Christmas, taking it down just before the arrival of Epiphany. But down it will come. And just the same, it probably won't be too long until we take down this tree here in the church, either. For this Christmas tree beside me is only for the season that is passing.

But we need to replace it. And what we need to replace it with is... you. We need you to be the Christmas tree now. We need you to be evergreen. We need you to decorate yourselves, hanging ornaments of faith and hope and wisdom, garlanding yourself with righteousness that comes from above, topping yourself with love as the bond and crown of perfection. We need you to be lit up with the beauty of grace and mercy that's appropriate in every season, and which will carry forward into reality all that resides in the Christmas tree as a symbol.

And to do that, to pick up in yourself where our Christmas tree leaves off, to become the tree the psalmist points to, you're going to have to be remade in the image of the real Christmas Tree, the God-Tree, who is Christ the Lord. For he, as we considered last week, is the true Christmas Tree. And to be remade in his image, you'll be needing to feed on the God-Tree's fruit and drink up the God-Tree's sap. And that, in a very real way, is what's to be laid this day before us on the altar: Christ's body and Christ's blood. For in him your fruit is found (Hosea 14:8)! So as Christmas bridges our way into a new year, let us prepare to begin the only way that's discerning and wise and righteous: to taste, to chew, to delight, and so to be remade into what we represent. Amen.