Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Being Worth Your Salt

Once upon a time in Pointe-Claire, there was a restaurant with a funny name: it was called Domboga. It served fine food, and diners would tell all of their family, friends, co-workers, and everyone else they knew about the amazing experience they had at Domboga. But like most things that are good, it didn’t last forever.
One day the sou-chef noticed that the pastry chef was adding some extra ingredients, one of which was a powder from a jar labeled “Na.” And, partly because the sou-chef was curious, and partly because the sou-chef was jealous of the pastry chef, the sou-chef went to the internet and Googled “Na.” – only to discover that… EEK! “Na” was a poison!

So the sou-chef went to the Manager of the restaurant to tell him that the pastry chef was adding a poison, Na, to the food. But the Manager had heard no complaints about the desserts, and, in fact, there were diners who came to Domboga exactly because of the desserts made by the pastry chef. However, the sou-chef was so convinced that the pastry chef was adding poison to the desserts that he started talking about the pastry chef behind his back…first to the rest of the staff: “The pastry chef was adding a poison to the desserts. He must be stopped!”

When the pastry chef was approached with the idea that he was adding a poison to his food, he simply showed his co-workers that it was not a poison by eating his own desserts. Many of the staff thought that Na actually made the food taste better! They took a vote in the kitchen, and the majority of the staff agreed that the pastry chef was doing his job well.

Nevertheless, the sou-chef and the other staff who rallied behind him were still convinced that the pastry chef was adding poison to his food. No matter how much the pastry chef explained himself to them, they would not back down. And so they then let it slip to some of the diners that the pastry chef was adding poison to the desserts. What a scandal! At first, there were just fewer orders for dessert, then it looked like fewer people were coming to the Domboga. But that was just temporary. Like many things in life, the sou-chef’s strategy backfired. All at once people just wanted to come to see what all the fuss was about. And the pastry chef became something of a celebrity.

That is, until in desperation, the sou-chef contacted the government. When whiff of a “public health concern” reached an ambitious junior bureaucrat in the Department of Health, he sent inspectors, initiated audits, and made life so unbearable for the poor folks at Domboga that the place had to be shut down.

Later, it came to light that the pastry chef was, indeed, adding the deadly poison Na to his desserts. But this particular pastry chef was so skilled, that he was able to add Na to his food in such a way that it ended up not being poisonous at all. In fact, he combined the poison Na with another poison with just the right mixture. You see, he hadn’t really been adding Na to the food at all! In fact, all this time, he had simply been adding…salt.

You see, salt is composed of two deadly poisons: Chlorine whose symbol is “Cl” and Natrium, whose symbol is “Na”. Another name for natrium is sodium, so we sometimes call salt “sodium chloride”. Now there are few more volatile (oh! Big word! “volatile” means “explosive”) …there are few elements on the planet that are more volatile than Sodium. And when Chlorine and Sodium come together – Oh boy! Fireworks! But then, after the fireworks are over, the Sodium and Chlorine start to work together, and together even these two explosive, poisonous elements can enhance the finest foods, and as we shall see, have all kinds of other benefits as well.

This morning, I’d like to remind you that Jesus said that you are the salt of the earth. It is an idea that we heard discussed two weeks ago, but Al gave me permission to build on that theme just a bit…. What do you think that Jesus meant when he said that we are the salt of the earth? I hope we can discover some of what he must have meant this morning.

But like every important spiritual truth, being the salt of the earth is hard to nail down. We can’t make an equation out of it – and that’s a good thing. Whenever the heart is involved instead of just the head, it is a little more difficult to pretend that we understand, but when we do understand, we’ll never lose it.

In an important sense, just like the poisonous explosives Chlorine and Sodium come together to make salt, we, as individuals, are dangerous when we are left alone, and salt of the earth when we work together. In fact, when Jesus said “you are the salt of the earth,” he used the plural pronoun. Comme “Vous ĂȘtes le sel de la terre.” That means that he wasn’t just talking to one person when he said it. He was talking to a bunch of people. But more than that, I’d like us to imagine this morning that he wasn’t just talking to a bunch of individual people, but that he was also talking to a bunch of people together. For while I suspect that we can, in fact, be the salt of the earth on our own, I fully expect that we can be even more effective as the salt of the earth when we operate together: as Paul writes in Romans: “none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone.”

There may be characters in the church that really rub you the wrong way, that drive you crazy. But it is only when Sodium and Chlorine give up exploding together that they can become salt, and it is very possible that it only when we meet those people and stop being explosive that we can truly be the salt of the earth. It is a bit of a shame that our modern world and our modern churches allow us to hide among people exactly like ourselves, as Debbie suggested a few weeks ago. We’ve learned that if we don’t like our circumstances, we can always change – folks change jobs, change churches, and more. We have gotten used to the luxuries of personal space. We have our own everything, and we have lost the gift of being able to share. As a result, we might never experience the freedom that comes from giving up the poison deep inside each one of us; we might never be challenged by God to do bigger things having been faithful with smaller things.

Rather than just providing another comfort zone in our churches, God may very well be calling us to work out our salvation at church together: to find that equilibrium between ourselves and those we are tempted to fight with the most. Perhaps then, and only then, will be really fulfill our calling to be the salt in His world. You know, I think that this might also be one of the reasons that God gave some of you brothers and sisters. As iron sharpens iron, it says in Proverbs, so one man sharpens another.

But there is another sense in which we simply can’t be salt of the earth on our own, either. Do you know that back when Jesus was walking on the earth, salt was worth more than diamonds? Soldiers used to get paid partly in salt! It is true. In fact, the English word “salary”, which means the money you make from a job, actually comes from the Latin word that means “salt”. Isn’t that strange? What would you think if you asked your Dad for your allowance, and he gave you this [a full salt-shaker]? I bet most of you wouldn’t be very impressed. Well, to understand what it means to be the salt of the earth, we need to understand how important and valuable salt was in the time of Jesus.

Do you think that the soldiers just carried salt around with them? As Al asked two weeks ago, do you think that they brought it home and put it on the shelf and looked at it? Of course not! Salt has no value to anyone, let alone Roman soldiers, if it is left on the shelf. You know, the point of salt is not to just to be salt. Salt is pretty much useless if it just sits around with other salt and tells salt stories or plays salt games. Salt is useful if it gets used up. As Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it.” Salt without saltiness is useless. And saltiness is the behavior of salt and not just the character of the salt.

So why did Roman soldiers not complain when they were paid in salt? Well, let me explain. Back in those days, you didn’t just go down the street to your friendly neighborhood Provigo and pick up a meal neatly wrapped in plastic. And when you did get food, you couldn’t just go home and put it in your fridge. Not at all! As you can well imagine, food was just as important when Jesus lived as it is now – but back then they hadn’t all kinds of ways to make food convenient.

Back then, if you wanted to eat, you might kill a goat. But you probably couldn’t eat the entire goat right then and there. So you’d eat some of the goat, and the rest of the goat would have flies buzzing around it in no time. And folks learned really quickly that you don’t want to eat meat once the flies have laid eggs in it, and those eggs hatch into little maggots, which usually happens less than a day later. Gross, huh? I know! It is so cool. Did you know that CSI teams (that’s crime scene investigation, for anyone out of that loop) use the development of bugs on a corpse to pinpoint the time of death? *shudder*

But back to the goat… Goats were expensive! You didn’t want to have to kill a goat and only get one meal out of it. So that’s where salt comes in. You see, if you take salt and work it into meat, people found that meat lasts four of five times as long as it would otherwise. So it should be easy to see why salt would be so valuable: if you wanted to eat goat meat four days in a row, you could either have four goats and no salt, or you could have one goat and a quarter-pound of salt. With that chunk of salt, you could keep the meat from that one goat good for all four days. So obviously, a quarter-pound of salt was worth three goats. Or something like that… In any case, this was the reason that salt was considered so valuable: it was a preservative.

You see, left on its own, the world can be pretty rotten. That’s the word we use when meat goes bad, isn’t it? It goes rotten. Then it smells bad, and you really, really, don’t want to eat it, or even get near it. Because if you do, you get sick. But it is the same with the world. Left on its own, the world can go rotten, too.

In your grandpa’s lifetime, the world has seen a number of countries taken over by people who wanted to pretend that there was no God. And more of the people of those countries were killed by their own governments in the last hundred years than people have been killed by their own governments in all the rest of history put together. Left on its own, the world can go rotten really fast. And it is our calling to keep the world from going rotten as much as we can.

Even in our own day, we see people in public looking for a fight. Whatever the issue, more people seem to want to cast their opponents as evil, both ignoring the good points that their opponents make and the good that is in their opponents. Well, folks, this is the Chlorine and the Sodium still evident in our lives. That’s what we need to give up. As salt, it is our calling to see the good in everything and in everyone; to remember that God loves even those who disagree with us. In fact, it is our calling even to love our enemies, to love even those who really do have it wrong, or really are trying to hurt us.

But you know, while countries need God a whole lot, we need God on a personal level even more. As Steve shared two weeks ago, without God, rottenness sneaks its way into our relationships, too. Misunderstandings happen so often, and left out in the sun, a misunderstanding can cause irritation, then bitterness, and then a grudge. If we are hanging on to the Sodium or the Chlorine of our pride, or our ambition, it makes the rottenness happen even faster. But the salt of the earth goes to work and acts as a preservative. In really practical terms, the salt of the earth doesn’t keep record of wrongs (that is, no grudges), is always willing to apologize, and is often willing to let the other person have their way.

We sometimes say that the Christian life is all about a relationship with Christ, and we would be correct. But very recently in history, Christians have mistakenly come to the conclusion that a relationship with Christ comprises reading the Bible and praying. This is a new idea folks – you don’t find it in scripture. Now I don’t want to suggest that those things are not valuable, but they do not constitute a relationship with Christ. Well, if they don’t, what does, you might ask? Jesus himself answers this question for us. He says that when we interact with the least of His brothers, we are interacting with Him! Whatever relationships we have, or do not have, as the case may be, with the marginalized, and the sick, and the injured, and the needy, and the hungry, that, that! is the relationship that we have with Jesus himself. He doesn’t give us very much wiggle room here: he makes a point of not giving us the opportunity to consider the relationships that we have with the wealthy, or the beautiful, or the strong. He makes it clear that the relationship that counts is the one that we have with the poor, and the ugly, and the weak – the very least of his brothers.

And it is precisely these attitudes: wanting to care for the downtrodden, being willing to love our enemies, seeing the good in people who may be messed up but really, really need to know God’s love. These are the things that make us as different from the world as salt is from rotting meat.

You know, Paul might have been thinking along these lines when he wrote: “Do not conform any longer to the thinking patterns of this world.” The world just loves those who are closest; those who agree; those who conform. We, on the other hand, are called to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. How do we do this? A few verses later, Paul gives us some practical instruction: “be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves…. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is the kind of love that John had in mind when he wrote: “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” John wasn’t thinking of the love that we have toward our best friends and close family. Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them.” So once again, the love we have for one another that really counts is the love that we show to those who disagree with us, bother us, or even drive us completely crazy. Which is why Jesus tells us that we need to “love our enemies.”

When we behave that way, we aren’t just acting like a preservative, we’re also acting like good medicine. But that’s another thing that salt can do, isn’t it? I used to use salt whenever I had a really bad sore throat, too. You know, when your throat gets really sore, it often means that you are about to be really sick. But if you take hot salt water and you gargle it, the salt will often fight the infection and keep you from a terrible fever.

Have you ever heard the expression “like rubbing salt in a wound”? If salt gets on a cut it hurts, doesn’t it! But you know, the salt isn’t really causing the pain. In fact, the salt is acting like an antiseptic to ensure that your cut doesn’t become infected! The pain is there to let us know that there is an infection to be fought! It reminds us that there is weakness and vulnerability…

I can still remember watching my Dad when I was a little boy. My Dad would often spend Saturday in the yard or on the roof, or around the house fixing things. And once or twice I can remember Dad having a cut on his thumb that got infected. Have you ever had an infected cut? When your skin is healthy and you get cut, the skin will come together, and the body will heal itself. One wall of skin will accept the other wall of skin, and the two will become one. But if your skin isn’t healthy, if it gets dirty, bacteria can start to grow. Then, instead of scabbing up and getting better, the infection will keep the two walls of skin from accepting each other, and the infected cut will turn red and swell, and hurt a whole lot.

Well, because of seeing my Dad and his infections, I know exactly the best thing to do for an infected cut – and it uses salt! That’s right. You put a quarter inch of salt into an empty coffee mug. Then you put water in the kettle, and bring it to a boil. Then you fill the coffee mug with boiling water, and you stir up the salt until as much of it dissolves in the boiling water as you can get. And then you try dipping your infected thumb into the water after it cools down just a bit! At first, it will be too hot to keep your thumb in the water; but by the time that you are able to hold your finger in the hot salt water as long as you can, the salt has already gone to work and attacked the infection. I never saw my Dad ever need to use the “salt treatment” more than twice before his infected thumb was altogether healed.

Does the “salt treatment” hurt? Of course it does. But after it is done, you are healed. If you stick with the infection, the hurt goes on and on, until the only thing that the doctor can do is to cut your finger off! It is true! So that, too, is a characteristic of the salt of the earth. We need to be willing to put up with short-term pain for long-term gain. That’s hard isn’t it? It is especially hard when that short-term pain lasts and lasts. But if we are children of God, we know that our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

The Bible says that we are the body of Christ. Are there tensions here this morning? Are there conflicts? Are there hurts? My message this morning is not intended to expose such things; that isn’t necessary. But the message is to help heal such things, and that is very necessary indeed.

So that’s what it is all about this morning. If you have a perfect life, I should have given you permission to take a nap. But if there is any conflict at home, or at work, or in your neighborhood, you are called this morning to be a preservative and a medicine. You are the salt of the earth if you are willing to fight against those things that cripple relationships – if you are willing to set aside the grudges, and see the good in all people, and forgive as God in Christ forgave you.
On the other hand, if you like looking down on others, or if you like keeping track of other people’s failings, or talking about folks behind their backs, then Jesus says something really quite scary: Matthew Chapter 5, verse 13: “if salt loses its saltiness, it becomes worthless, and will be thrown away.”

Imagine that: first, Jesus was talking about something that was considered very, very precious at the time – it was soldiers’ salary. But now he says that even something as valuable as salt can rapidly lose all of its value. How can this happen? Simply by losing those characteristics that made it salty in the first place. If you take action that causes relationships to go rotten, you’re still being like Sodium or Chlorine. On the other hand, if you behave in a way to preserve relationships, then you are the salt of the earth.

Are you worth your salt this morning?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

What to Wear to a Wedding

Twenty-five years ago last month, there was a very, very famous event. It was the most-watched event in history at the time, and it continues to this day to be the most-watched event of its kind, only surpassed in viewing by recent Olympics and World Cups. Does anyone know what it was? That’s right: it was the wedding of the twentieth century. Charles, Prince of Wales married Lady Diana Spencer. An estimated 750 million people watched it on television around the world. That was roughly eighteen percent of the population of the world at that time. A national holiday was declared that day.

I’m going to ask you to use your imagination this morning. Suppose you could go back in time, and suppose that you were living in London in 1981. Now suppose you go to the mailbox one morning and you receive an invitation to the royal wedding. How do you react? Remember: roughly one in every six people on the planet was going to be watching this event on television. And you receive one of only 3500 invitations. Those odds are only slightly better than winning a lottery. Imagine how you’d feel to receive such an invitation.

This morning, I’m going to be preaching from one of Jesus’ parables. And this parable asks you to do exactly that. Think about how you would feel to receive an invitation to a royal wedding, an invitation to the wedding of the millennium…

1Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.”

When you get invited to a wedding, it is a great compliment. There, you are permitted to share in the joy of a glorious occasion. The food, drinks and entertainment are usually paid for by your host. In this parable, the host was the King, and this King had apparently pulled out all the stops to have the biggest and the best, and the most extravagant and exciting wedding feast ever. These days, a wedding reception is over in an afternoon or an evening. Back when Jesus lived, they could continue the party for as long as a week or more. And when it is the King giving the party, an invitation also meant a free week of vacation, too. After all, what boss would dare tell the King, “I’m afraid that Jack can’t come to your party – he really has to be at work”? In the UK, a national holiday was declared for the day of the royal wedding. In the land of the King, the holiday would last as long as the party. So an invitation to the King’s son’s wedding party was nothing more than an invitation to the most fun you could possibly squeeze into one week, all expenses paid. Imagine getting an invitation to such an event!

But the parable is full of surprises. And the first one comes right off the bat: verse three – [the King] sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Can you imagine? They refused to come! I bet when Jesus first told this story, he had to stop here to let the crowds calm down. They would have been saying to themselves, “are they crazy? Who would turn down the chance to go to the party of the century?”

Why would anybody turn down such an invitation? Well, I’m afraid that this is one of those cases where the reasons that people give would be slightly different from the real reasons. Some might say that they didn’t want to come because they didn’t like the King. Others might say that they didn’t like the other people who were coming to the party. But surely they would be plenty of people at the party that anyone could get along with! You wouldn’t be made to sit beside any you disliked. In fact, in spite of all the excuses, there is really only one reason not to go to the King’s party: whoever refused to come was simply too full of himself. But you see, the parable is telling us a little bit about ourselves. Sometimes, we’re really just too full of ourselves to be willing to accept the riches that God offers to us.

“No way!” you might reply. “If God was to offer me a week’s vacation of all-expenses-paid fun, I’d never turn it down.” Ok, we might not be the kind of people to turn God down flat, but what about what happens to the people in verse five? Starting with verse four: 4“Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.' 5But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.” Now we might not be the sort of person to turn God down exactly, but Jesus warns us that the most common and easy way to turn God down is not to pay attention!

Now you know why your parents told you that paying attention is so important. I guess the idea is that if we make a habit of paying attention to our parents and our teachers, it will be easier to pay attention to God.

Notice, however, that the real problem in the parable is not so much not being able to pay attention, but choosing to pay more attention to other stuff. There might not be anything particularly wrong with watching some television, but if television takes over our lives, we better do something about it. There might not be anything particularly wrong with shopping, but if shopping takes over our lives, we better change things quick. There might not be anything particularly wrong with our work, or our hobbies, or our friends, but if they distract us to the point that we cannot hear God calling us to come to his party, then we’d better be careful.

And then the parable takes another interesting turn: 6“The rest [of those who were invited] seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7The King was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” Now strange as it might seem, these two verses are Jesus way to give his listeners a clue about what he is talking about. You see, everyone listening to Jesus knew that the prophets of long ago were servants of God, and that those prophets were mistreated and killed by the leaders of the people hundreds of years ago. What’s more, everyone believed that God had let the kingdoms of Israel and Judah be conquered and captured, and God had let the city of Jerusalem be burned precisely because the leaders would not listen to the prophets. So this part of the parable is simply Jesus way to make sure everyone knew that the King in the story is really God.

Oh, and there is another point here, too: Jesus lumps those who killed the prophets together with those who are too busy to pay attention to God, doesn’t he? That’s probably a good lesson, too. Don’t be too busy to let God get your attention. And when God wants to get your attention, don’t be too full of yourself to refuse to listen. You know, we always make time for the things that are most important to us. How important is God in our lives this morning?

So the party is ready. The food is hot. The tents are up. The entertainment is charging by the hour. Only one problem: all of the people who have been invited aren’t showing up. Not to worry, though: the King has a plan. Verse eight: 8"Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' 10So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Imagine that: Jesus says that anyone who is invited but refuses to come didn’t deserve to come in the first place. And what’s more, the King would now have just anyone come to his party ‑ as Jesus says, “both good and bad.” Let me give you a hint: just because there are bad people at the King’s party is no reason to stay away. It is far, far preferable to be in the presence of the King to staying at home because, hey, let’s be honest, you are too full of yourself. So yes, the good and the bad are invited to the wedding. There is no discrimination at all. The King demonstrates his great kindness by offering places at his banquet to absolutely everyone. No one is too young, or too ugly, or too stupid, or too broken, or too hurting. The King makes sure that everybody is invited to the wedding. Isn’t that nice? Not a bad way to end the parable. But Jesus doesn’t end it there. In fact, let’s read the whole parable…(Matthew chapter twenty-two, if you’d like to follow, I’ll give you a chance to turn to it in your Bibles)

1Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

4"Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.'

5"But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6The rest seized [the king’s] servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

8"Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' 10So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless.

13"Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

14"For many are invited, but few are chosen."

You know, in Anglican churches across Canada, after scripture is read, the reader will say, “This is the Word of the Lord.” Do you know how the people respond? That’s right: “Thanks be to God.” This is not a bad idea – especially when we read a portion of scripture that it a bit difficult to digest. And these verses from Matthew certainly fall into that category. Here, we read that the King of the Kingdom of Heaven sent an army to destroy those who mistreated his servants, and later we read that the same King would have a dinner guest tied up and thrown out into the darkness for not following a dress code. And so, when scripture is difficult to swallow – and especially when scripture is difficult to swallow – it helps to be reminded: “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.”

When I was attending university, I had a “eureka” theological experience. You know what that is, don’t you? Eureka simply means “I found it!” in Greek. So the next time you’ve lost something, you can look really geeky by saying, “eureka” when you find it. But we talk about a “eureka experience” as the experience of figuring something out.

The first one happened to the famous Greek mathematician named Archimedes. The king, so the story goes, started to wonder about the royal goldsmith. You see, it was the royal goldsmith’s job to ensure that the royal crown was the purest possible gold. But the king suspected that the goldsmith was cheating: using a mixture of gold with other metals, and keeping the extra gold for himself. So the king sent for Archimedes and asked if he could determine if the crown was pure gold without destroying it.

Archimedes thought about the problem for a while. And one day, while he was taking a bath, he figured out how to do it: you see, he noticed that when he entered the bath, the level of the water rose. And at that moment he knew exactly how to determine whether the crown was pure gold. The story says he yelled “Eureka” and ran down the street. You see, the difference between pure gold and not-so-pure gold can be determined by the density of the material. That is, the relationship between the size of the crown and its weight. Now it was easy enough to weigh the crown; but it was tricky to know how big it was… He could have beaten the crown with a hammer until it was a nice little brick, and then measure the brick, but the king would likely be less than impressed with such a strategy, especially if the crown turned out to be pure gold.

So Archimedes had figured out a really cool way to measure an object’s volume: you immerse it in water, and you measure the amount that the level of the water changes. And to end the story, it turned out that the goldsmith was, in fact, cheating the king. We don’t find out what happened to that goldsmith, but it probably wasn’t very pretty.

Now when people hear this story nowadays, they mostly think “big wup?” After all, everybody knows that the volume of an object can be measured by the volume of water it displaces. But Archimedes was the first to notice this. When he lived, it was quite a revelation.

Now I expect that many of you will react the same way to my “theological Eureka moment.” You might say, “O come on, Doug, everybody knows that.” But you need to understand that there was a time that I did not understand this at all. Maybe I was a little slower than the other kids…

So what was this “theological Eureka” that I’m talking about. Well, it happened like this. I was attending a meeting of a university Christian group. And in that meeting, everyone was always talking about the love of God. So far so good. Talking about the love of God is always a good thing to do. After all, the Bible says that God is love. It says that anyone who loves is born of God. So I have no beef with talking about God’s love. We don’t do it enough. But after a while, I noticed that the way university students understood God’s love was somewhat odd. Apparently, for most university students, God shows his love by simply letting them do whatever they want. For them, God’s love meant unending forgiveness, patient, and forgetfulness. God’s love meant that he never cramped their style. And as this became more and more apparent, it finally dawned on me that the God that these students were talking about wasn’t really involved in their lives at all.

In that meeting, all hints that God might place demands on his children were downplayed. No demands of justice; no demands of honesty; no demands of consistency; no demands of any kind. Any suggestion that God might judge us was dismissed, and there certainly wasn’t anything like Hell. For these students, God couldn’t get angry. If God could get angry, they thought, it meant that God couldn’t be loving. As if the two could never go together… Some seem to think that God’s holiness, perfection and justice take away from his love. But the “Eureka” that I had was that God’s love is made greater, and not less, when we appreciate God’s holiness, justice, and perfection.

You see, it is easy to be merciful when you have no expectations. During the week, these pews and these windows don’t get in your way. But it would be wrong to say that they were loving or merciful. God, on the other hand, demonstrates enormous love and mercy when he doesn’t get in your way. Why? Because he is expecting a lot of us in the first place. In fact, God’s love is demonstrated in the fact that he lets us have our way precisely when we do not live up to his very high expectations.

Now it is true that when someone loves you they don’t crowd you or stifle you; they give you space. But there is no real difference between having a lot of space and being completely ignored. God’s love isn’t like that. Yes, he loves us. Yes, he gives us space. But no, he does not ignore us.

And in the parable, the King did not ignore the fact that one of the guests was not wearing a wedding robe. And that person appears shocked (“speechless” the Bible says) to discover that such a kind and merciful King, one who would invite anybody and everybody to his feast, should enact judgment on a guest who was simply wearing the wrong thing. Yes: our King of glory is a God of grace and a God of love. He is not willing that any should perish. But we should not take advantage of his kindness and grace by thinking that nothing is required of us!

So what, exactly, is required of those who wish to attend the King’s feast? Simply to wear the king’s clothes! That’s right: the wedding garment was also a gift from the King. Apparently, the ancient tradition was that the guests didn’t need to bring their own festive clothing: the host would offer some to any guest who came unprepared. The only folks not wearing a wedding garment were the wedding crashers – those who snuck into the party – and those who refused to wear the clothes that the King provided. Now in our case, since the King invited absolutely everyone to the wedding, there couldn’t be any wedding crashers. So this person had simply decided that his own clothes were good enough to go with. Fair warning: we need something from God to be acceptable to him. If we figure we’ll make it on our own, we are only kidding ourselves.

The language of clothing shows up again and again in the Bible. As we read in Isaiah 61:10 “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness.” In Galatians, we read that when we are baptized, we are clothed with Christ. In Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit will come and clothe them. In Ephesians and Colossians, we are commanded to put off the old self, and put on the new as if they were clothes to wear. The image of clothing is an important one, because we are in the habit of dealing with clothes on a day to day basis. We put on clothes every morning. Similarly, we should be prepared to come to God every morning and accept what he provides for our salvation. Just like we breathe in and then breathe out, we need to get in the habit of choosing against the old nature, with any anger or malice, and put on the new nature, in the image of Christ himself, with kindness and compassion.

So what, exactly, does the wedding garment represent in the parable? How can we be sure that we will be welcome at the King’s feast? Different people over the centuries have had different ideas about what it must mean. Isn’t it fascinating that something that appears to be so important, that means the difference between enjoying the feast and being cast into darkness isn’t made clear at all? Actually, there may be great wisdom in its lack of clarity. After all, every time someone decides that they know what the wedding garment represents, it causes a split in the church.

It would be a good joke if it weren’t so true. And ironic, to say the least. The parable makes it clear that the feast is inclusive: it is open to everybody. On the other hand, what the wedding garment represents is not made clear. But whenever someone thinks they know what the wedding garment represents, they manage to turn it into an excuse for exclusion. Only God gets to decide who is in and who is out. That’s not our task at all.

Rather, since it is left unclear what exactly Jesus meant when he was talking about the wedding garment, it means that we need to work out our salvation. It means that we need to seek to find, we need to ask to receive and we need to knock to have the door opened.

Many are invited but few are chosen. As Rob read last week: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Be one of those who find life this morning. Accept God’s invitation to his feast and be prepared to change the “clothes” you are wearing to suit the occasion.

Monday, April 3, 2006

A Living Parable

Let me tell you a little bit about what I do for a living: I play with computers, and with words, and with language. I do! I work for a company that is trying to get computers to understand language. And I have a secret to tell you: in spite of what you might have read in the newspapers or seen on television, computers are never going to be able to understand what you say to them. I’m serious. Computers don’t understand anything. Their programmers build in their own understanding of what they anticipate you will say. If you say something that the programmer did not expect, the computer is completely befuddled. The reason that this is a secret is that if it gets out, I’ll lose my job – I might have to fall back on preaching… or something…

Now we’re not going to talk about computers this morning – but we are going to talk a little bit about words. And one of the things that you learn when playing with words is that not all words are created equal. Some words have very little meaning and don’t make a lot of difference. Other words can make a critical difference to what we mean. Some words carry plenty of emotion; others, none at all. Some words are particularly weak; while others are very strong.

I’d like to start this morning by considering one of the most powerful words in the English language. With this word (a question word), a four-year-old can render a full grown man helpless. If you are a parent, or you’ve ever spent a lot of time around four-year-olds, I expect that you will know the word that I am thinking of; can anyone tell me what that word is? That’s right: the word is “why?” Here’s an example conversation:

“Get on your coat.” – “Why?”

“We’re going out.” – “Why?”

“We’re going to visit grandma.” – “Why?”

“She likes it when we visit.” – “Why?”

“Well, she can be lonely.” – “Why?”

“Well… well… do you have your coat on yet?”

But the question “why?” and questions in general are not just a power-trips for four-year-olds, though. Questions are a life-skill, and knowing which questions to ask is a valuable asset. As Kipling put it:

I keep six honest serving-men / (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When / And How and Where and Who.

We should never be afraid to ask questions, and we should never be afraid of questions being asked. Asking questions and expecting answers is exceedingly healthy! In fact, questions are an indication of the image of God in our hearts. Neither animals nor computers ask questions (ok, computers can be programmed to look like they are asking questions, but they won’t understand the answers). Questions are a way that we reach out for that spiritual potential that is part of our image-of-God nature; to explore the unknown in search of a better understanding of our creation and ourselves. We’re going to ask some questions this morning. In particular, I’d like to remind you of a story in which the disciples asked Jesus the question “why?” But before we proceed, let’s pray…

Our story this morning, which can be found in John chapter nine, starts one day when Jesus and his disciples were visiting the temple in Jerusalem. On his way off the temple grounds, Jesus and his disciples walked past a beggar. Asking for money, there, just outside the temple, was a blind man. Now the Bible doesn’t explain how they knew, but the disciples seemed to know that this man was born blind.

Now when we’re exposed to suffering, it is only human to ask “why?” Have you ever asked God “why me?” When one’s life falls apart, it is a natural question to ask! But here the disciples are asking the similar, compassionate question: instead of “why me?” they are asking “why him?” Why was this man born blind?

Like most people that ask good questions, the disciples already had ideas as to what the answer might be. One of them wondered out loud, “Is he blind because he sinned?” Now it would seem a little strange if the man was being punished in such a severe manner for sins committed before he was even born! But imagine for a moment how the blind man feels as the disciples are offering up these ideas in front of him. After all, he’s blind, not deaf! He’s been poor, and blind, and suffering for many years, certainly more than thirteen, likely more than twenty. And these strangers add insult to injury by suggesting that his suffering is his own fault! He likely knows that he isn’t perfect, but he also senses that their answer just isn’t right.

Another one of the disciples, perhaps sensing the difficulty in this position, had an alternative idea: perhaps the man was born blind because of the sins of his parents. Of course, this idea also has some difficulties. In Jesus time, there were debates raging as to whether Deuteronomy [5:9] took precedence over Jeremiah [31:30] or vice versa. In Deuteronomy, it says that God will indeed punish the children for the sins of their parents. On the other hand, Jeremiah makes it clear that one day “everyone will die for his own sin.”

But we should be grateful that the Bible doesn’t just leave us with the disciples’ ideas about why this man was born blind. Even those closest to Jesus can have crazy ideas sometimes. Even those who walk with him daily can interpret life in mixed up ways. So I’m glad that the Bible records Jesus’ response to the question “why?” in order to set his disciples straight. And this is it: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” What an awesome answer to a difficult question: “… so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”

This morning, I’d like to suggest to you that this is the reason for whatever difficulties that you might be going through, too. I’ll grant that I don’t know the folks here; I haven’t walked in your shoes; I can’t and I won’t claim to understand how difficult life might be for you. But I am still going to be so bold as to claim that the reason that you are going through these difficulties is precisely “so that the work of God might be displayed in your life!” God is the master of bringing victory out of tragedy.

But Jesus proves his words in his actions. What did he do? He spat on the dusty trail. He bent down, and made some mud out of the dust there on the ground, and put the mud on the blind man’s eyes. Then, he told the blind man to get up and to go down the street, around the corner, past the market, to turn right at the synagogue, and then wash the mud off in the pool of Siloam.

Now this is truly remarkable. Did Jesus need the mud to heal the blind man? Of course not. Did Jesus need the pool of Siloam to effect the healing of this man’s eyes? Of course not! So why?! Why on earth would Jesus submit this poor handicapped man to such indignity? First, the blind man likely found the discussion of the disciples to be rude that day. Second, he likely wasn’t altogether taken by the application of spit-mud on his eyes. On a hot and dry day, the source of the mud couldn’t have been lost on a man whose ears have taken on the role of critical sense. What’s more, given that the Pharisees taught that all suffering was the result of sin, there might have been people in those days who wouldn’t think it inappropriate to spit on such a beggar. I wonder if the blind man had ever been spat upon. I wonder if he winced as he heard Jesus spitting. I wonder whether there was revulsion as the mud from this process was applied.

Finally, why ask the blind man to take a long walk through a crowd on a hot day with mud on his eyes when it wasn’t necessary? Jesus didn’t even send one of his disciples to give the poor man a hand! Usually, when a blind man walks around, people can tell by looking at his eyes that he was blind. And so if they bumped into him in a crowd, they are likely to be apologetic. But when someone is walking around with mud on their eyes? I’m sure that there were whispers… And I’m sure that there were giggles… And I’m sure that there were doubts. You can imagine what the blind man is thinking after he turns that first corner: on the one hand, what he has been told to do is wild… and why should he have any expectation of it accomplishing anything?

After all, there was no promise of healing in our story; from the text found in John chapter nine there is only the suggestion that Jesus was overheard telling his disciples that “this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” But I think that there was more than that – something between the lines of our text this morning. There must have been something – something else – that kept him going all the way to the pool! But the Bible doesn’t make it clear what it is! I’m guessing that the special ingredient was in the voice… or perhaps in the touch of Jesus. Something that made the blind man decide that, as strange as the experience was, here was someone he could trust. You see, the what simply isn’t enough to get us all the way to complete health. We need to focus on the who. We need to focus on our Master, our Great Physician. In the next chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus says that his sheep know his voice. There is something special about Jesus voice, and it is vital that we keep our ears attuned to it.

Too often, folks in churches get caught up in the what. We know what we’ve been told to do, and so we do it. But we’re surprised that our children aren’t particularly inclined to follow us in obedience. And we’re surprised that our neighbors aren’t particularly drawn toward the “light of the world” that we’re supposed to be. But the mistake that we make is that we’ve lost the echo of our master’s voice in our heads. If you’ve ever been in love, you may have had the experience of hearing the voice of your beloved bouncing around in your head long after you have talked together. Is our love of Jesus such that his voice, his words stay with us throughout the day? Are we too caught up with the what that we’ve forgotten the who? Dear friends, it is only the who: Jesus Christ himself that can keep our children in our churches. And it is only Jesus Christ who can draw our neighbors to the truth.

But you know, all that still doesn’t explain the puzzling way in which Jesus healed the blind man. Of course, we know from experience that sometimes healing doesn’t always take the form that we would prefer.

Let me tell you two stories from my own life to illustrate this principle. When my oldest daughter was four, she once came to me with a sore foot. She absolutely, positively refused to let me touch her foot, but she did see the sense in at least letting me look at it if I was going to help her at all… And lo and behold, her father knew immediately what the problem was! The dear little angel, who loved to discard her shoes, had a splinter stuck in the bottom of her foot. But when I described to Grace the appropriate remedy for such a problem, my daughter started to shake her head! Under no circumstances was she going to let me do what we all know is the best and most effective treatment for her problem. Sometimes I wonder if we are like that: having a heavenly Father who is ready, willing and able to help us; and we aren’t willing to let him get near us….

At about the same age, Grace once came to me with a broken toy. “Can you fix it, Daddy?” she asked sweetly. I took the toy and gave it a thorough inspection, and after careful consideration, I replied: “yes, I can!” And I stood up. And I walked out of the room. And… Grace was very angry. Why was she angry? Two reasons: first, she thought that I could fix the toy with my fingers; second, I didn’t tell her that I was going to get the necessary tool. Sometimes I wonder if we are like that, too: we get impatient with our Heavenly Father because we don’t appreciate that the quickest, surest path to fixing us is also one that we don’t at all understand, the one that he is asking us to trust him on….

So even though the form that healing takes can sometimes surprise us, I strongly suspect that Jesus didn’t ask the blind man to go through an obstacle course for him at all. I think that Jesus did this for us! That’s right: the blind man didn’t need the mud or the hike to the pool to be healed. But we need to see them, we need to meditate on them, and to understand them. Jesus was giving us a “living parable” – he was creating an illustration for us: the commands of Jesus can be relatively easy to understand. But obedience is often quite inconvenient!

Folks across the nation are wandering away from God this morning not so much because they don’t believe in Jesus; not so much because they don’t understand the words of Jesus; not so much because they don’t acknowledge the wisdom of Jesus. Folks are walking away from God this morning because obedience is inconvenient! Sleeping in; going to the gym; hanging out with friends are so much more comfortable… It is as if we demand healing served on a platter. We just aren’t willing to suffer more in order to suffer less!

I expect that most people in our churches are in between the temple and the pool in at least some aspect of their lives. The issue isn’t physical blindness. Rather, it may be selfishness, it may be greediness, or it may be insensitivity. These things aren’t just sins, they are also handicaps – things that true followers of Christ would love to be delivered from. And indeed, aren’t these heart-issues ultimately that much more important than just body-issues? But here we are, between the temple and the pool: we've heard the voice of Jesus, and we are trying to work out what it must mean to be obedient to him. But the inconvenience of the journey might be taking its toll, and the feeling that Jesus is now far away makes it even more difficult. But for all of us, the two critical ingredients are trusting in the voice of Jesus and obedience to that voice. Of course, we should also be careful not to judge what the Lord is doing in other's lives. Every person is unique and consequently ever person's road to healing is also unique. Let’s not be judgmental if someone else’s journey may look very strange to us.

But eventually, in order to make the illustration complete, the blind man in our story finally arrives at the pool of Siloam, and when he washes the mud from his eyes, for the first time in his life he opens his eyes and can see everything! If they made a movie of this, this part would be accompanied with amazing music, and shot in slow-motion! The light that suddenly flooded into this man’s eyes, amazing as it was, is just a symbol of the Light of the World that needs to come and illuminate every aspect of our lives.

But what do we say, friends, to people who continue to suffer? What do we say to those who don’t receive miracles of deliverance? As Jesus himself said (Luke 4): “there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when … there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

Can God’s work still be displayed in the lives of those who end up suffering? Can God still be at work in the lives of those who end up dying? Of course He can! In fact, His strength is made perfect, and demonstrated perfectly, in weakness. The healing that He demonstrates in Jesus’ miracles is not intended to be a promise that all of our problems will be taken away. Rather, it is a demonstration that He has the power to help us where it really counts. Jesus doesn’t heal every pair of blind eyes in Israel; he doesn’t cast out every demon; he doesn’t raise all beloved brothers from the dead. These are just pictures; pictures for us; pictures of the power that God wants to reveal in us. In our bodies? Nope. Sorry about that. Our bodies are outwardly wasting away. But inwardly we are being renewed day by day. It is in our hearts that God wants miracles to happen. And this is where God wants his work to be displayed.

You see, the real question isn’t “in whom does God want to display his power?” The answer to that question is simple: he wants to display his power in everyone. Every human being ever born is encumbered with the handicapping shackles of sin that limit us much more than a man’s blindness. The question is not “in whom does God want to display his power?” Rather, it is “to whom does God wants to display his power?” Contrary to popular Christian inclination, God isn’t that interested in demonstrating his power to the skeptics. Really! The skeptics are those to whom Abraham would say “if they didn’t listen to the words of the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!”

So if not to the skeptics, to whom? Well, we have a hint, don’t we, in Hebrews chapter twelve. There, we read: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith!” These are the witnesses to whom God wishes to display his power, aren’t they? In our weak and stumbling state, we barely recognize, let alone appreciate, the work of God in the world. But those who have been sanctified by heaven are not only there to cheer us on, but to “Oh” and “Ah” appropriately at the work of God as it is displayed in our hearts this morning. Indeed, among these witnesses are those cataloged in Hebrews chapter eleven. There, we read both of those who experienced a miraculous deliverance, and those who went to the grave with the expectation of a better resurrection. But what did they all have in common? They had faith. And it is faith in Jesus this morning that gives us entrance into their company, that gives us the privilege of joining the audience applauding God’s power at work in the world today.

Who is your audience this morning? Hebrews 12 suggests a cloud of witnesses, watching our progress through life. Did you win that game? I don’t think they care too much about that. The real question is did you hold your temper when you were cross-checked. Did you land that account? The saints in the cosmic galleries aren’t so much interested in that as they are interested in whether or not you stuck to the truth in order land it. Suddenly what we accomplish isn’t nearly as important as how we accomplished it.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the only people in the stands were the people cheering for you? Wouldn’t it be freeing if the thing that they were cheering for was the work of God displayed in your life? And wouldn’t it be healing if all your sins, all your hurts, all your circumstances, and all your pain were an opportunity for God to display his work in your life? It could be, you know. It could be. But the secret ingredient, the magic that turns trials into opportunities, is the voice of Jesus. Listen! And do what he tells you to do. Sometimes it might not altogether make sense to you. Sometimes it might take longer than you think it should. But the freedom and the vision that he offers at the end of the road is more than worth it. Pay attention to the Master’s voice this morning.

Friday, January 6, 2006

Promises, Promises

Good Morning. It was very kind of you to ask me back – especially considering that the last time I was here I preached on the wrong passage of scripture! I think I have the right passage this morning: John…chapter 14. But before we focus on that scripture, please permit me to tell you a true story.

When my children were young, one of the things that I tried to do was to create a sense of order in the house. And, in order to have order, you need to have orders – or commands – or rules. And one of the rules that I tried to impose on my children was one of the rules that I had grown up with as a child: no food in the living room. The last thing Mom wanted was to find months-old cookies slowly turning green under the sofa cushions.

So imagine how I felt one day after dinner. As I was shuttling between the kitchen and the dining room, putting things away and preparing the dishes for washing, I walked into the dining room, and there in the living room was my youngest daughter and her little brother Nathanael in a bout of no-holds-barred wrestling. Now Nathanael, even though he is younger, was a bit of a brute, and sure enough, he was on top.

“Nathanael!” I barked, “Get off your sister right away.”
Well, I’m sure he didn’t obey me “right away” but we can pretend he did for this story. So up jumped Nathanael, eyes blazing, little fist extended toward his father in triumph.
And as he opened his fist, he explained the incident with a sense of supreme (and sincere) justification:
“Meg had a cookie in the living room!”
And there, falling between his fingers was the jam-covered, cream-filled evidence. As my gaze traveled from my son to my guilt-stricken daughter, I could see a trail of more such evidence ground into the carpet.

Let me highlight a few salient points. First, the reason behind – in fact the whole point of – the no-cookies-in-the-living-room rule was precisely to avoid jam and cream ground into the carpet. I wonder if we, as Christians, in our self-righteous enthusiasm to enforce some rules, sometimes defeat the reason behind those very rules… What is the reason for the rules of scripture? Well, the Bible doesn’t always tell us what the reasons for the rules are, but it is possible that a hint of that reason is found in Ephesians 4:3 “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Wouldn’t it be tragically ironic if the very reason for some of the rules that we fight about was actually so that we wouldn’t fight at all!

But there is a second, perhaps even more important point to the story: you see, the no-food-in-the-living-room rule was reinforced oh, maybe once every few weeks. There was another rule, one that was so important that it was reinforced daily, sometimes even hourly. Unfortunately, Nathanael once again conveniently forgot the don’t-beat-on-your-sister rule.

I wonder if we ever feel that the maintenance and enforcement of lesser rules is sufficient grounds to break the important rules… Actually, I find it amazing how people, even well-meaning people, and especially well-meaning Christian people, can and do take rules, set one against the other without noticing, and in so doing manage to both defeat the reason for the rules in the first place and break the more important rule?

So which are the important rules? Well, Jesus was asked that question, wasn’t he? And how did he answer?
• Love the Lord, your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (and the second was like it:)
• Love your neighbor as yourself.
I wonder how often God must be heart-broken to see these important rules get overlooked in favor of the enforcement of lesser rules? God does not ask us to be responsible for other people’s obedience. This is a principle that modern Christianity struggles with. Just because there is a command in scripture does not mean that Christians should prosecute those who break that command. He simply asks obedience of us. He asks us to love each other – to love our neighbor; to love our family; to love our co-workers. And even to love our sisters. 

Please turn with me in your Bibles to the fourteenth chapter of John. Let’s pray…

As many of you have noticed, the gospel of John is written quite a bit differently than the other gospels – there are many layers to this gospel. But this morning, I’d like to avoid the common preacher strategy… and rather than peeling back as many layers as possible, digging deep, and focusing in, I’d like to consider the big picture this morning. In science, we often talk about analysis and synthesis. Sunday mornings are often analysis, and while analysis has its place, and is good and proper, this morning I’d like to attempt to do a little synthesis. So with the gospel of John, in order to get to today’s message, I’m going to skip over some verses. I apologize in advance if I am going to skip over your favorite verse. In fact, feel free to read the verses that I skip, just to make sure that I’m being honest. But the idea is that rather than go down layer after layer, I’d like to skim the surface, getting the essence of the passage. John 14... Jesus says:

1"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2There is plenty of room in my Father's house ... and I am going to furnish one of those rooms for you. 3 ... I will then come back and take you to be with me.
6... "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 10... The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.
15"If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever… 17the Spirit of truth. know him, for he lives with you and is in you. 18...Because I live, you also will live. 21Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him."
23Jesus reiterated, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24He who does not love me will not obey my teaching.

Our passage this morning starts with an amazing promise; an expression of God’s grace to us; a beautiful picture of what awaits us in glory. Jesus is making rooms ready for us in his Father’s house! How wonderful! And then, only a few verses later, we are also promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are perhaps the two most wonderful promises in all of scripture. But (and there is often a “but”, isn’t there) as we read through our passage carefully, we see that the fulfillment of this promise seems to depend on us! That’s like conditions! Conditions! Can you imagine?

You see, a promise is not just a logical category; it is not just a unilateral intention. A promise is an expression of the heart. And expressions of the heart are always for the purpose of connecting with another heart. Jesus’ promises this morning are made for you, because God wants to connect with your heart this morning. And expressions of the heart are incomplete without a response from that other heart. This is what Jesus is telling us in our passage this morning. Yes, there is a wonderful promise for us – an incomparable gift for his children. But Yes! There is also an understanding that this gift will be accompanied by an appropriate heart-response.

So how does this morning’s promise depend on us? What is the appropriate heart-response to God’s promises this morning? Well, it is clear from the passage that we read that the sharing of a home with the Father and with Jesus depends on our love for Him! In fact, there seems to be a theme in this morning’s verses. Let me re-read verses 15, 21, 23a and 24: “(1) If you love me, you will obey what I command… (2) Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me…(3) If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. (4) He who does not love me will not obey my teaching.” Wow. Jesus might have thought that this point needed to be emphasized. 

Now the fact that a promise in scripture depends on us in any way should not be a burden to us. We are not spoiled children. Rather, we should accept this truth as adults: ready and willing to accept the challenge of a road that Jesus would have us walk. God does not ask of us things that we are incapable of doing. If He promises something, but needs us to be worthy of that promise, you can rest assured that we are indeed capable of achieving that promise. God does not set His children up for failure.

So the first and most obvious question is…when Jesus says “If you love me, you will obey what I command” well, “What commands is Jesus referring to? What is Jesus’ teaching?” Well, if you like, you could carefully read through the first thirteen chapters of the book of John, and you could write down everything that Jesus says that resembles a command. Then, you might want to set aside things commands that Jesus gives to specific people. For example, when Jesus tells the servants at the wedding “Fill the jars with water,” this is, of course, a command, but it is likely this wasn’t one of the commands that Jesus had in mind in our passage this morning.

So, depending on how you interpret the words, you might get as many as three commands in those thirteen chapters, but exactly one would stand out from among the others. That’s right: In John chapter fourteen, Jesus tells us just how important obeying his commands are, but the previous thirteen chapters of scripture might suggest that Jesus was only have been thinking about one particular command. Now I expect that many of you know what that command is; let me remind you where it is found: in chapter thirteen and verse 34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (repeat)

A few years ago, my dear then-teenage daughter Meg came into the dining room as I doing some work at the table and said, “I love you, Daddy.” And I replied: “thank you, dear Meg! I love you, too!” But then I added: “but you know… If you really loved me, you’d be nicer to your little brother.”
And Meg ever-so-helpful as always, replied, “No, Daddy, if I was nicer to Nathanael, it would mean that I loved him.”
“Well,” I replied, “Nathanael is very precious to me; whenever you are kind to him, you are being kind to me.”

And this is the dynamic that Jesus is presenting to his disciples, isn’t it? If we love God, we must also love one another. But you know, there is something irksome about this command, isn’t there? It isn’t particularly measurable. Managers are continually told to provide their employees goals whose progress and completion are measurable. There is nothing quite so frustrating to an employee as having the goal-posts move just before his performance evaluation. But guess what? Our Heavenly Manager doesn’t provide us with measurable goals!

As convenient and safe as it would be to be judged against other commands… “do not murder…check!” “do not steal… check!” “do not commit adultery… check!”. When we were children, our parents gave us the impression that righteousness is just a matter of doing what you are told: which is what we understand “being obedient” to mean. But that just isn’t the yardstick that we’re being measured against. How come? Scripture makes the shortcomings of rule-keeping explicit in…

Colossians 2:20-23 says “[the] rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!?’ … are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”

Interesting, isn’t it: scripture clearly teaches that the failure of rule-following is that, while it appears to be wise it does not and cannot change our hearts: rule-following has no real impact on our sinful nature. What can have such an impact? How do we gain victory over our inclination to sin? What do we need to become the people that God wants us to be? We find the answer to this question in 1 Peter chapter 2: “Jesus’ divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness… so that through his very great and precious promises we may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

That’s right: the promises of Jesus, like the ones we opened with this morning (the promise of a room in our Father’s house, and the promise of a Comforter), challenge us to live in love and obedience. As our hearts respond to the promises of Jesus, God works in us to turn us into the people of His Kingdom and fill our hearts with love. For it is only that true love from God that can conquer the evil within that keeps us from admission into God’s house. It is only that true love from God that we need to exercise among ourselves. And it is that true love from God that enables the divine nature to develop in our lives.

So instead of simple, convenient and measurable rules, we’ve been commanded to love each other, and if we are honest with God and honest with ourselves, we know deep in our hearts that we don’t really do a very good job loving each other. Of course, this should keep us humble… and that isn’t such a bad thing, either. Sure, we might do ok loving those who love us, but let’s remember that Jesus also says, “If you love those who love you, how are you any different from the people on the street? Instead, love your enemies…” and then, as it says in Luke, our reward will be great indeed. Remember what Paul writes in Galatians: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

You see, if we have acrimony in our churches, if we have gossip, if we have back-biting, it really doesn’t matter what our excuses are for those things. Folks who participate in such things are no better than Nathanael beating on Meg because she had a cookie in the living room. The more important rule was “no beating on your sister”, and the most important command is to “love your neighbor.” Backstabbing is not loving. Period. Gossip is not loving. Period. Acrimony is not loving. No ifs ands or buts. And according to Jesus, love is the ticket into heaven. This is the key to that room that he is preparing for you: love one another.

I have another story about my children this morning that illustrates the dynamic between love and obedience that Jesus was saying is necessary for our fellowship with God.

In the fall of the year Nathanael turned five, I went outside to rake the leaves. At the time, our yard wasn’t very large, but it was in a lovely neighborhood with lots of big trees, so the leaf-raking task was going to take a while. I wasn’t outside for more than five minutes when Nathanael, with bright eyes, joined me outside to rake the leaves with his plastic rake. “I wonder how long this will last,” I thought! But as we raked, and raked, and raked, I became exceedingly proud of him, as he kept with the task until all the leaves were raked, and bagged, and against the curb. It took almost three hours – impressive commitment for a five-year-old.

But at about the two-hour mark, Nathanael's older sister opened the front door and disdainfully called out to her little brother:
"You're doing it wrong!"
And, indeed, she was right. In spite of gentle recommendation, Nathanael had both palms facing the same way on the broom handle. What’s more, she could have claimed, with reasonable accuracy, that her brother was actually slowing the task rather than contributing to the leaf-gathering. He was, in fact, sometimes in my way and sometimes spreading more than collecting the leaves. On occasion, he was even raking the leaves the wrong way. But instead, in mid-sentence of her harangue, she chirped,
"Oh, it is cold out here!"
Upon which she promptly slammed the door and went to watch television in the warm basement.

When we were all done, we came inside, and Nathanael’s Mom, my wife Sharon, had made us some hot chocolate. Without any prompting, Nathanael announced to his mother, “Daddy and I raked all the leaves.” And here is the important lesson: of course I gave full credit to my dear son! Doing it wrong or not, at occasional cross-purposes or not, almost certainly not speeding up the task completion… those things really didn’t matter to me. I wouldn't have traded his precious company and “help” for an army of mechanical rakers “doing it right.” Nathanael, by his enthusiasm for his father’s work, demonstrated his love for me. And my heart’s response to that love was (of course!) – as any sensible father would – to give that dear son credit for his effort.

Similarly, I suspect that our Heavenly Father, in his great mercy, will be gracious to his children attempting to help him with his work even when we might be “doing it wrong.” What’s more, I have to underline the obvious point. I had two children in this story: the one who knew how to help me in my work, but preferred the warm basement… and then there was the one who wanted to help me in my work even though he hadn’t had formal training, he hadn’t passed a course, he hadn’t even read a book on raking. And you can just imagine which of those children I was most pleased with. Of course, the same is also true with God. Don’t think for a moment that knowing the rules is enough. Remember, the wise man who builds his house on the rock is the one who hears the words and puts them into practice.

Hear the new command that Jesus has for us this morning: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This is the command that takes precedence over all those other lesser rules. This is the one that God cares about far more than the one that might be causing a fight. Listen to this new command: “Love one another.” This is also the command for which knowing how to “do it right” simply isn’t enough: we need to put on our boots, get out in the cold, and enthusiastically participate in God’s work. Listen to this new command one more time: “Love one another.” But don’t just listen: Go! And put it into practice.