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Pentecost 12 - Sunday, August 23, 2009
Lessons: Isaiah 26:12-16,19; Ps. 67; I Cor. 15:1-11; Lk 18:9-14
We read in Isaiah: "Thou dost keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusts in Thee...."
We read also: "The way of the righteous is level; Thou does make smooth the path of the righteous..."
But sometimes -- it does not seem so. Sometimes that perfect peace is elusive, the way rough, and sometimes, hard to find at all.
Sometimes it seems lonely, no one to trust, no one in whom to confide.
Some years ago, the Lord taught me a very hard, but very helpful, lesson.
I had been depressed for some time. An aspect of my life had not been going well. One day my computer crashed. It seemed to me like my own story -- crashed. The next morning I did not want to get out of bed. I pulled the covers over my head, and tried to sink back into sleep.
But I heard, a commanding voice, "Get up! Stand up!" I understood that God was talking to me. "Stand up!" "Stand at attention!" I did not want to, but I stood at attention by my bed. The thought passed through my mind that the Lord wanted me to stand just so as to get a clear shot with His sword at my neck.
"Let the world do its worst to you!" said the Lord.
"I cannot stand here with all this abuse washing over me!" I said. "How can I let the world do its worst? I will be destroyed!"
"Stand up!" said God.
I stood there for some time, and then began to wonder at it. "I don't get it! How can I be doing this?!! I am standing here, and I am not being washed away." The Light dawned -- the Lord was showing me that I could stand with the world, the flesh, or the devil pouring abuse over me. So long as I stood with Him, so long as I obeyed Him, I could stand anywhere, any time, with anyone.
Some will recall the scene in Bambi, where the hunters had entered the forest, and Bambi had been grazed by a bullet, and knocked down. His father, that magnificent stag, appeared and said in a commanding voice: "GET UP! BAMBI! GET UP!"
His life depended on it. So did mine. God was not abusing me, He was training me to trust Him.
Paul tells us in Philippians 4:12, "I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want."
The secret is that the provision of God comes from a place deeper than any human or worldly force can touch. Not all the world, the flesh, or the devil can do can distract God from saving us. But -- Satan can distract our attention from God.
As Jesus is about to ascend back to the Father in Acts 1, He speaks to the disciples, who still have not understood what was going on, that they would be baptized in the Holy Spirit, as He had foretold. He said to them: "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."
What kind of power would this be? What kind of power does one need to be witness to extraordinary and challenging events? Not just in normal circumstances, but where rulers and magistrates and neighbors might be hostile to the very terms of the witness which God is asking you to make.
You must have the power to be a real person, to give a true testimony, to speak the truth in love with accuracy and clarity. And, to do that, you must be a secure person. It will not help to have your knees knocking, speaking with timidity.
There are two essential stabilities which we must have:
(1) stability of our being, our personhood, our identity; and,
(2) our moral stability, our reason for existence, for why we are here at all, our direction, purpose, and meaning.
Those two stabilities define our deep relationship to God, our salvation and our sanctification.
Imagine that you could step back from the cosmos, and get a snapshot of it. What might the Biblical worldview look like? Imagine a circle which is the cosmos, with God, pictured as a Triangle above, and the Hand of God extending down under the cosmos upholding it. The Hand of God is a symbol of His creative power, His ability to bring something into being out of nothing.
And then imagine another line coming down toward the top of the Cosmic Circle, representing the Voice of God. God is speaking to the world, telling it why it is here. God has a plan for the world, a purpose. God is building something with the world. Just so, God gives us life, and then tells us what it is all about, the moral dimension.
We read about what God is building in Matthew 22, where someone asks Jesus the meaning of the Law, to which Jesus replies with the two Great Commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor just like we love ourselves. "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets," Jesus says.
The law and the prophets are the Old Testament, the Scriptures for Jesus. So these two commandments are at the very tip top of all other laws and commandments. The defining purpose of the whole cosmos is love of God and of neighbor. The universe is all about relationship, building a love relationship between ourselves and God and one another.
The Hand of God is the foundation of our personal stability. If I am standing on the Hand of God, no one can pull the rug out from under me. I am on an absolutely secure foundation.
In the secular or pagan words, there is no Hand of God and thus no personal, individual stability. One's being and existence is always at risk. My being is an accident, my life is an accident, and my death will be an accident. The only stability in my life will be that given by my not very stabile community and carved out by my even less stabile self.
The Voice of God gives us our reason for existence, which is the only logically sensible basis for moral order. Without God and His commandments, there is no moral order.
So, as there is no stability of my being, in the secular and pagan worlds, there is also no moral principle. No Voice of God. In a world which evolves by accident, there can be no principle of right vs. wrong. So there is no moral stability.
Those two stabilities are what we mean by "salvation". Those two stabilities are lost at the Fall from relationship of trust and obedience to God. We no longer trust His provision for our lives, our very being, and all those things which go to make up a secure life: food, clothing, dwellings, economic and political stability. Our being, our security, is always at risk. And in the end, we die.
And we no longer know how to, or even want to, invest our obedience, whom to follow. There is no meaning or direction to life, so we must make up our own as we go. But it has no meaning beyond the moment, no objective or eternal meaning.
And so, when we feel depressed or angry or let down, it is almost always those two insecurities which are eroding our lives.
Jesus, at the Ascension, was saying to the disciples, "You will have the stability of your being, of your personhood, and of moral direction, when I send you out to give witness to Me and the Kingdom. You will know who you are, and where you are going. And no one will be able to take those from you."
And Jesus was saying to me the same thing, that despite the disappointments and discouragements I had experienced, my personal and moral stability came from Him, not from anything within the world. He was telling me that if I trusted and obeyed Him, I would be safe and secure, that is, I would be saved. My life and stability would be coming from a depth beyond that which the world, the flesh, or the devil could reach.
If I did not trust and obey Him, then I was on my own against the world, the flesh, and the devil. I would be neither safe nor saved.
But then, sometime later, another test came my way. There seemed to be a kind of glass wall between me and the Lord. My relationship with Him seemed dried up and impersonal. I knew He was there somewhere, but there was no sense of His actual presence. I seemed to be going through religious forms with no personal meaning to them. Just ideas and rote actions, not personal reality.
I wondered if I had slipped back and needed to go again through "standing at attention" and let the world do its worst against me. But, no, the Lord told me to do something quite different.
He said, "You must allow Me to do the worst I can against you."
I knew that we are to fear only the Lord, and that if we fear the Lord, we need fear nothing else. But this request brought to mind that the worst that God can do to us is cast us, body and soul, into hell, and eternal destruction.
He said, "Do not stand. Lie prostrate." Lying prostrate is a sign of complete vulnerability and submission. You have almost no way of defending yourself against attack. Persons being inducted into a monastic order and often at ordinations, lie prostrate before altar as a sign of submission and trust.
As I lay prostrate in my bedroom on the floor, I had no idea of what might happen. But I thought it would not be good -- maybe one more insult of life. As I lay there, I became conscious of a warm presence, soft and reaching out to me, which I can describe only as a mother's love. It was something I would never have associated with God. It was His affirmation of my personal integrity, my sense of being a someone, and that He, who could cast me, body and soul, into hell, would not, because He loves me. I could trust Him completely.
This was not my first experience of the living, personal presence of God, but it came in a way that ministered to a particular need which I had, and showed me what the real presence of God in Holy Communion can be like.
But to discover some things, you have to make yourself vulnerable, you have to risk being wrong, you have to risk harm, insult. You have to risk your worst fears coming true. To find true relationship, you have to risk betrayal.
And Jesus has to risk our retaliation when we misunderstand what He is doing, and our rebellion when we do understand -- and do not like it. Jesus has to risk crucifixion. There is deep risk on both sides.
Paul says to the Corinthians, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that He was buried, that He was raised from the dead on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.... Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain."
He who died for our sins and rose to return again to us, will not betray us in other aspects of His relation to us.
"Thou dost keep him in perfect peace who mind is stayed on thee..."
We must keep our minds, our wills, and our relationships stayed on God, focused on His provision for our lives, and on His direction for our walk. But to do that, we have to undergo what seem like strange visits from the Lord.
The Pharisee in the Gospel would apparently not submit to such visitations because he was focused on himself, and on his own accomplishments, which he seemed to think bought and merited him the Lord's approval. The Lord's approval is not for sale. He had no personal knowledge of the Lord, only his wrongly interpreted opinions of what made him special, and supported his elevation above such persons as the publican. He was taking what God had given, and using it for his own aggrandizement.
The publican submitted himself to the gaze of the Lord into his heart, which he knew to be compromised with sin against God and against his own people. He, as it were, prostrated himself before the Lord. He understood that God owed him nothing at all, but gave him everything.
To discover the grace of God, we must risk His anger and judgement. To discover the love of God, we must risk His hate and rejection. That is the nature of all personal relationship. That is true of human relationships as well as with God. Our trust and obedience, our love for others, all make us vulnerable, they all make life risky.
But that is the risk and adventure of life!!!
It means that we live by grace, by the graciousness of those about us, and supremely, the grace of God. We have no ways of guaranteeing our safety on our own. And we betray those we love and we betray ourselves when we act as though we can earn love, earn our safety, earn our sense of personal worth to justify ourselves before God and others.
No, life is a gift. It comes as a freewill choice. Meaningful life, life lived in openness, life lived in the light, life lived in love is a risky thing -- until we get to that point in our walk with God where we know from the closeness of our relationship to Him and to one another -- that we are indeed loved and cared for.
We try to cement our safety in, but it will not work. Our safety and value is always dependent on the freely given love of other persons, God first, then our family, and then our circle of friends.
As we let go of ourselves into the Hand of God, and put our obedience under his law and grace, there and there alone can we say with Isaiah,
Thou dost keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee.
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