Search and Rescue

(Psalm 24Ezekiel 34:11-16John 14:1-7)

“The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it”; the world, and those who live in it, belong to him. In the Hebrew, just to make the point as clear as possible, the opening words of the psalm are “The LORD’s”; we might render that, “The LORD’s, the earth is.” It’s an emphatic statement of the truth that is the foundation of everything else, all other truths, everything we believe: the Lord God rules over everything that is, because he owns all of it. There are no other claims to ownership, and no other claims to authority, that can stand against him; all such claims are secondary. The only valid earthly powers are those which God has established, which derive their authority from his authority, and they’re only fully valid as far as they acknowledge his authority and conform themselves to his will. As for our claims to ownership of this, or that, or the other thing, all are temporary, matters of convenience only, not reality. God owns everything always—he merely lets us use some of it for a little while, and he holds us accountable for how we use it. We are stewards, managers caring for someone else’s property, nothing more.

On what basis does God make such a sweeping claim? On the best basis of all—he made all of it, including all of us. We sometimes describe people as “self-made,” but in truth there’s no such thing; everyone is God-made. In our laws, we recognize intellectual property rights, through such things as copyright law; if you write a book, or a song, or a computer program, that’s yours, and you have the right to control what’s done with it, unless you sell those rights. You also, of course, have the right to profit from it, and anyone who deprives you of that profit without your consent is a thief and may be prosecuted as such. In a way, we might think of the universe as God’s intellectual property, because all of it began existence as a thought in his mind, and came into being when he spoke the word; nothing of anything would exist otherwise.

Now, one could scarcely blame such a powerful God if he didn’t care tuppence about us one way or the other. After all, to take a human analogy, how many human authors actually care about all the characters they write? The Scriptures make clear, however, that God does care about us, and indeed that he created the world primarily in order to create us, so that he could invite us into the circle of his love. Unfortunately, we fouled that up, rebelling against his authority and breaking our relationship with him; and so while God still seeks to draw us close, now there’s a problem. 

“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?” writes the psalmist, “And who shall stand in his holy place?” Who is fit to enter the temple, the place on earth where God made his home, and to stand in his presence? It’s an important question, with a daunting answer: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who don’t put their trust in what is false”—this might refer to idols and idol-worship here; it might also mean “falsehood,” and thus people who trust in lies and dishonest schemes—“or swear deceitfully.” This is a description of a person who is innocent of wrong against God and against other people, who is committed to truth and free of any sort of deception, and who worships and serves God alone. That is the kind of person who is welcome in the presence of God.

Now, does that describe anyone you know? I’m sure you can think of people who are a lot like that, at least some of the time, but do you know anyone who’s all the way like that all of the time? It’s a high standard. In fact, it’s impossibly high. No one can live up to that. That’s why in the Old Testament, there was the whole sacrificial system we talked about last week; people sacrificed animals to pay the price for their sin, a few sins at a time, so that they would be pure enough for God for a little while. But that was only a temporary system at best, and a limited one, enabling people to do nothing more than go to the Temple to worship God from a distance; to get closer, to actually enter the presence of God, was still impossible, for all but the high priest once a year, and not even the high priest could do so with confidence and peace of mind. The barrier between us and God had been breached, but it still stood; to restore the relationship sin had destroyed required more. It required a permanent solution.

What it required was something unprecedented, and to that point unimagined, in human history. The human idea of religion always boils down in the end to us seeking God, which casts us in the role of independent agents using our own wisdom and strength to find and please whatever deity we identify; but the biblical picture is a very different one, indeed. So far from portraying us in this light, the Bible shows us as sheep, dumb fuzzies so focused on the grass we’re eating that we’re forever wandering away from God. Not only are we not capable of pleasing God on our own, not only are we unable to earn his favor, we aren’t even capable of guiding or protecting ourselves properly—we need his guidance and his care. We aren’t making our way toward heaven, we’re lost on the open hills, unsure which way is home, or how far we have to go to get there.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t up to us; if we’re like sheep who’ve wandered away from the flock, our God is a good shepherd. Even after sending his people into exile as a judgment for their sins, scattering them by his own hand, he still promised to gather them back to himself and bring them back to their own good pasture. This he did, by his own hand, coming down himself as the man Jesus of Nazareth to seek and save the lost, to gather in the lost sheep of Israel—and not only of Israel, but through them, the whole world. He didn’t sit up in heaven waiting for humanity to work its way back to him, which is what the religions of the world expected; instead, he came down to us, going out on the hills as the good shepherd in a search-and-rescue mission to find his lost sheep, to bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured, and to strengthen the weak, fulfilling the promise he had made through Ezekiel.

And then he went home, to take the next step in that process. Note Jesus’ words in John 14—his promise to his disciples isn’t based on what he’s taught them so far, or even on his crucifixion and resurrection, but on the fact that he’s going to leave them. It’s his going away that makes the fulfillment of his promise possible.

Note why he goes. First, he says, “I go to prepare a place for you,” a place in “my Father’s house.” There are two aspects to this. One, from his place at the Father’s side, he would continue to prepare his disciples for their place in heaven, in the kingdom of God, through the Holy Spirit; this is the transforming work of God that we’ll talk about in a couple of weeks, which is the Spirit’s job. Christ, being human, could only be in one place at a time, but the Spirit can and does work in all of us at once, making us ready for our place in the kingdom. Beyond that, though, Jesus also returned to the Father’s side in order to make room for us there, to make a place for us. Some of that we talked about a few weeks ago, that in bringing our humanity into the presence of God, Christ made it possible for us to enter his presence in our full humanity; he made a place for us in that sense. Beyond that, we don’t know what exactly Jesus means by this, what exactly he’s doing for us in this respect; but we know his purpose, that he is making a place ready in heaven for each and every one of his people, that none of us might be left out.

Second, even as he goes to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house, Christ goes before us to make the way there. Jesus tells his disciples, “You know the way to the place where I am going,” and Thomas immediately shoots back, “No, we don’t. We don’t even know where you’re going—how can we know the way?” There’s the tendency here, as later, to pile on Thomas a bit for his question—sort of a “there goes Doubting Thomas again” reaction—but if you stop to think about it, he’s just being honest. The disciples know roughly what Jesus is talking about, but at the most basic level, they don’t know where he’s going, and they don’t know how to get there—because they can’t. None of us can, on our own; no human being is capable of knowing how to get to where God is, much less walking that road. It’s beyond our capacity. Thus Jesus responds to Thomas by saying, essentially, “Yes, you do, because you know me, and I am the way.” The only way to God the Father is through Jesus, who is the truth incarnate—the only visible revelation of the God who is the goal of the journey—and the only source of the true life possessed by all who stand in the presence of God. And so Jesus goes ahead of us, returning to heaven, in order to be the way for us to enter heaven as well.

The key in all of this is that when Jesus ascended, when he returned to heaven, he wasn’t leaving us, he was leading us, going ahead of us to prepare our way, to show us the way, to be our way. That’s why he says, “If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am, there you may also be”; and that’s one reason why he sent us his Spirit, as the agent through whom he leads and guides us in this life, on the way toward the kingdom of his Father. Remember, “the earth is the LORD’s, and all that is in it,” and he’s actively at work in all of it—and that includes speaking to us and guiding us.

Most basically, of course, and most importantly, God speaks to us through the words he inspired, which include the record of the life he lived for us on this earth; it’s through the Bible first and foremost that Jesus leads us by his Spirit, as he continues to speak to us by his Spirit through these words, and he will not say anything that contradicts what he has already said. But that’s not the only way he speaks to us; it’s not the only way he guides us. He speaks through us sometimes as we talk with each other, making us agents of his wisdom; sometimes he may speak truth to us through people outside the church; he touches our minds and hearts through his creation, the natural world; and sometimes he speaks to us directly, in the back of our minds and the quiet of our hearts. I’ll never forget one time I was absolutely furious at someone—a couple someones, actually—and in my mind I heard Jesus say, “Show them grace.” I knew it was God, since it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, and I protested angrily, “They don’t deserve it.” To which he responded, “I know. That’s why it’s called grace.”

To be sure, it’s not always easy to recognize his leading—though that time was pretty obvious—but even when we’re not sure how or where Christ is leading us, we can always trust that he is, and that he’s good enough at what he’s doing that he won’t foul it up. We simply need to spend time reading his word, since it’s the main way we come to know him and recognize his voice, and in prayer—not just talking to him, though that’s important, but spending time being silent, listening for his voice—so that we learn to know him when he speaks; and we need to learn to expect him to speak, because he is at work leading us by his Spirit every day, in every moment. Christ came down to seek us out in our sin and rescue us from the power of death, and he’s busy right now bringing us home; and what he starts, he finishes. Period.

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