The Dance of the Trinity

(Genesis 1:1-3; Galatians 4:4-7, 1 John 4:6-10)

The doctrine of the Trinity is perhaps the most difficult of all Christian beliefs. It’s hard to understand how God can be one, and yet three; it’s hard to define what we mean when we say that; it’s even hard to figure out what words we can use when we talk about this. The traditional formulation is that God is three persons in one being, but that has its problems; one of my seminary professors, J. I. Packer, insisted that we really couldn’t say anthing more than that God is three things in one thing, but there’s a problem with that, too—things are impersonal, and God is clearly personal.

So it’s hard to wrap our minds around this, as you can see from all the different illustrations people use. St. Patrick taught the Irish about the Trinity by holding up a shamrock, with its three leaves; others hold up the egg, which consists of yolk, white, and shell; my Nana preferred to talk about how each of us has multiple roles, so that for instance I am a son to my parents, a husband to my wife, and a father to my children. All of these are inadequate, though; in fact, some of them, if we really thought about them seriously, would lead us far astray from the biblical witness.

Actually, though I don’t trust attempts to illustrate the Trinity, the best one I’ve ever run across is the structure of our federal government. That may sound strange to say, but I’ve actually read folks who argue that trinitarian theology was in the back of the Founders’ minds (some of them, anyway) when they designed it. I don’t know about the history there—it’s an interesting idea, but I haven’t seen any primary sources that support it—but as an analogy, it has its points. There is a certain hierarchy and structure to our branches of government, but none of them are dominant; each does different things; and the relationship between them constitutes our government and makes things happen. Thus, for instance, laws are passed by the legislative branch, executed and administered by the executive branch, and enforced by the judicial branch.

Of course, God is unlimited and perfect, while our government is limited and imperfect (though it occasionally forgets the fact) because it’s composed of limited and imperfect people, but there are some real parallels there that are worth considering. One could even argue that the fact that our government is designed to function in a way analogous to the divine Trinity might have something to do with why this “noble experiment,” as Abraham Lincoln called it, has turned out so well. I would never use politics to prove theology, but it’s an interesting thing to think about.

Of course, this analogy also has its dangers—including the temptation to snipe about the tendency of government to think it’s God—but it also has this advantage, that it points us to the reason why the doctrine of the Trinity matters. It’s easy to think that it really doesn’t, because it seems so abstruse and arcane and removed from real life; it’s easy to figure that this is just a case of people with more brains than sense and too much time on their hands cooking up the most complicated thing they could think of. In truth, though, this is anything but. Granted that the Bible never uses the word “Trinity” and that there is no one passage that teaches it, this is nevertheless a doctrine that is biblically necessary and profoundly important to our understanding of God.

First, it’s biblically necessary because it’s the only way to reconcile all the biblical statements about God. Obviously, God is one and there is only one God—Deuteronomy 6 makes that clear—and God the Father is God. But Jesus Christ also claimed to be God, in many ways. John 5:18: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because . . . he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” John quotes him multiple times as calling himself the Son of God, and identifies him in the opening of his gospel as God, but distinct from the Father. Later on in John 5, Jesus identifies himself as the one who will call the dead to rise at the end of time and carry out the final judgment. Luke 5, the healing of the paralytic, Jesus forgives the man’s sins and we see the reaction of the Pharisees: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” John 10:30, he declares, “I and the Father are one”; John 8:58, he tells the Jewish leaders, “Before Abraham was, I AM”—claiming the unspoken name of God as his own rightful name. Biblically, on the testimony of Jesus, he and the Father are distinct, in relationship with one another, and both fully God.

The evidence for the Holy Spirit on this point is not as extensive, but it’s still clear. For instance, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” The Spirit of God is shown to be involved in creation, in Genesis 1; and in John 15:26, Jesus teaches his disciples that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Father didn’t create the Spirit, the relationship is something much closer than that; the Spirit is of the same being as the Father. And then in Galatians 4, the Spirit is identified as the Spirit of the Son, indicating that there’s a similar close connection there. 2 Corinthians is the only place I can think of where the Bible comes flat out and calls the Holy Spirit God, but throughout the New Testament he is treated as God.

So the Father is God and Jesus the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, and there is only one God; so we have three, and we have one, and somehow those are both true at the exact same time, and that’s God. Even one of the principal names of God in the Old Testament allows for that, because it’s a plural form. People have broken their brains trying to figure out exactly how that works, and nobody’s ever gotten there yet; the only thing that we can say for certain is that the only people who have produced explanations that human beings can fully understand have done so by denying one part or another of the biblical witness, making God less than what the Bible says he is. Or perhaps we should say, what he are, or what they is; ordinary language just doesn’t express it. All we can do is accept that this is one of those things that’s beyond our understanding—and that it ought to be, that this is a good thing. After all, any god small enough for us to fully understand would be too small to be God. When you consider that we don’t even fully understand each other, or even ourselves, we ought to expect that God should be too big for us to wrap our little minds all the way around.

Still, just agreeing with this isn’t enough. There are those who accept the doctrine of the Trinity as true but unimportant, and that’s a major mistake. For one thing, that always seems to lead to collapsing the work of one Person of the Trinity—most often the Holy Spirit, but not always—into the work of the others, or even into the work of the church. As Dr. Packer has pointed out, the latter is one of the characteristic theological errors of the Roman church—it’s why he always insisted we should study the great Eastern Orthodox theologians, because in the West, Augustine got it wrong and everybody followed him; it’s also why one of the strong emphases of the Reformation, out of which our part of the church tradition comes, was on a renewal and reinvigoration of Trinitarian thought, including a return to taking the work of the Spirit seriously. This is critical, because all three Persons of God are involved in our salvation, and all three are involved in our ongoing life. Somehow, whenever we start to lose sight of the work of one of them, we always end up losing sight of the gospel along with it; it always seems to result in legalism and salvation by works in the end.

As well, the doctrine of the Trinity reveals to us a highly significant truth: God is relational within his very nature. This is why John can say, in 1 John 4, that God is love. Have you ever stopped to think about that? This isn’t an adjective, like saying that God is good, or God is just; that would have been “God is loving.” Which is true, but not the same thing. Nor is this the same as saying “God loves.” Nor is this equal to saying “Love is God”—that we worship an emotion, or an impersonal force—because God is personal, a being, not merely a force. Is this statement just hyperbole? In other contexts, it could be, but that doesn’t fit with 1 John, where it’s made quite straightforwardly to support John’s assertion that anyone who does not love does not know God. This isn’t just praise of God, it’s a serious statement about his nature and character.

Spoken of any single person, these words would not make sense; but God isn’t just a single person. Instead, he is three in one, and the persons of God exist in eternal relationship with each other—relationship that consists of pure, unflawed, unadulterated love. We can say that God is love because love is the essence of his nature, because he exists eternally in love among themself. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit loves the Father and the Son, and this is who God is, and this is why he do what they does.

The Greek Fathers expressed this by borrowing the word perichoresis from the Greek—it’s the word for a circle dance in which the dancers are whirling about in sometimes highly complex patterns, so that there is constant movement, each yielding to the other and being yielded to in turn. The relationship of the Trinity, they saw—and rightly, I think—is a joyful dance of mutual celebration.

Once we get hold of this, it helps us to understand some things about God that we may find puzzling or even off-putting. For instance, I’ve known people to complain about the fact that God describes himself as a jealous God, demanding whole-hearted, selfless praise from his people and indeed from the whole world; why, they ask, would we want to worship a God like that? And how does that square with Paul’s praise for the humility of Christ, who gave up his glory and his prerogatives for our sake? I’ve actually heard a preacher—one I otherwise respected quite highly—come out and call God a narcissist, and then try to make that OK by arguing that God is so great that he’s the only one who has the right to be a narcissist. I don’t think that flies. But I think this makes more sense when we realize what we’re seeing here: each Person of God is jealous for the praise that each of the other two deserves. When we ignore the Holy Spirit and deny his work, for instance, I’m sure the Spirit is grieved, but I would imagine that it’s the Father and the Son who are really displeased by that.

This also helps us understand what God is on about in our lives. I’ve said this before, that God didn’t create us because he was lonely, because he needed someone to love or to love him; he already had that. Rather, he created us as an extension of his love. We are not children of God in the same way Christ is the Son of God, but he created us in order to adopt us as his children, in order to expand the circle of the divine love by inviting us into it and including us within it. Of course, it wasn’t long before the first humans were convinced there was something better out there, and we’ve been following various branches of that rabbit trail ever since; and so God, who created us in love, pursued us in love, and redeemed us in love. His intent now is the same as it ever was, just with a lot of suffering mixed in as a consequence of our distrust and rebellious self-will.

Finally, I think this helps us see clearly who we are in God, and to understand why all our efforts to bargain with him or earn his favor are pointless and doomed to failure. God doesn’t need our love, and he doesn’t need anything we can give him—he is complete in themself. As such, he’s not out to get anything from us, or to try to manipulate us for his own benefit, because we can’t benefit him. He simply loves us because he is love, and he delights in our love for the same reason; he gives us work to do because he loves us, because whether we understand it or not, we need it, and he takes pleasure in us when we trust him enough to do what he gives us to do. He delights in us when we delight in him, when we trust his grace, when we seek his presence. Everything we can give God is purely extra—that’s why he takes so much pleasure in what we give him. He doesn’t love you because of what you’ve done, or because of what you might do; he simply loves you because that’s who he is and that’s why he made you—and whatever else may change, that never will, and so God’s love never will.

The Life of the World to Come

(Joel 2:25-32; Acts 2:14-24, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11)

I heard a story once about a Scotsman who traveled down into England to visit some of the great English churches and listen to the great English preachers of the day. He was gone for a number of weeks, and came back shaking his head. When his friends asked him what was wrong, he declared that those English weren’t flying with both wings. That puzzled them, as you may imagine, and so they asked him what he meant; he responded, “I heard plenty of talk about Christ’s first coming, but nothing at all about his second.”

That Scotsman was on to something, I think. People tend either to focus very intensely on Christ’s second coming, or to pretty much ignore it. Again, it seems to me that reaction plays a part in this; we in the church have an unfortunate tendency to be embarrassed by our brothers and sisters who don’t do things the way we do, and to react against them, which usually results in our throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Here, you may remember a little book by a man named Edgar Whisenant entitled 88 Reasons Why Christ will Return in 1988; he even doubled down the next year with a sequel, 89 Reasons Why Christ will Return in 1989. Of course, Whisenant was wrong both times, and made a lot of people look and feel foolish—and it’s a very natural human response to go to the opposite extreme and just say, “Well, I’m not going to think about that anymore.” This is unfortunate, because it reinforces a tendency that’s there anyway to think of our lives and the church and the political situation in this-worldly terms, and thus to overstate the importance of worldly success, worldly victories, and worldly methods.

When we affirm our faith by saying the creed together, we end by declaring our belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, and that’s no afterthought. That’s nothing tacked-on. It is, in fact, every bit as essential to our faith as everything else we affirm. We miss that because we tend to think of it, again, in earthly terms as just the reward for being good and living a good life—as if God’s telling us, “You be nice and eat your broccoli in this life, and you’ll get dessert when I’m ready to give it to you.” Certainly, bribery can be very effective, as I’ve found with my own kids, but that’s really not what this is about at all. Rather, this is about the logical conclusion and completion of the life we live on this earth—our resurrected life in the kingdom of God, in the new heavens and the new earth, will be the same life we now live in Christ, only more so. It will be the new life he has given us with all the sin we still struggle with and all the pain we still bear finally removed, completely, from the picture. What we’re on about in this world is preparation for what’s coming.

This is, incidentally, the answer to those who insist that a good God wouldn’t keep anyone out of heaven. If you view heaven as nothing more than a giant party that anyone and everyone would enjoy, then the question, “Why would God keep anyone out? Isn’t he merciful?” appears to have some force. The truth is, though, that life in the kingdom of God will be the distillation of everything that those who reject God are unwilling to accept. Some years ago, I was talking with an atheist acquaintance of mine and he decided to go after me a little bit on this point; I looked at him and said, “I thought you don’t believe in God.” He said, “I don’t.” I asked him, “Would you want to spend eternity with God?” He said, “If God actually existed, no, I wouldn’t.” I said, “Well, that’s what heaven is; if you don’t want to go to heaven, why should God make you?” He looked at me for a moment and changed the subject.

The key here is that those of us who are in Christ and now live by the Holy Spirit are already living eternal life, however imperfectly we may realize it at times; the life of the world to come is not a separate thing, but an integral part of our life now. We don’t simply live in the present—we live in the future, too. Our life comes from the future, from the coming kingdom of God which is breaking into the kingdoms of this world—in us, the people of God. In us, the future kingdom of God is present, the rule of God is exercised, the authority of God in and over this world is proclaimed. We are ambassadors from the future to the present, and the life God calls us to live only makes sense if we see it in that perspective.

Put another way, what we need to understand is that biblically, we are in the last days. We don’t tend to think of it that way; when we talk about the last days, we tend to think of a very short period of time right before Jesus comes again. The Bible doesn’t do that, though. Take a look at Joel 2, at the passage Bryan read a few minutes ago. This is describing the last days, the final blessing of God on his people, the great and dreadful day of the LORD, attended by all sorts of apocalyptic events, and ultimately by judgment. He’s clearly looking forward to things we have not experienced. But then look at Acts 2, as Peter stands up to tell the crowd in the temple what they’re seeing: he starts with this passage from Joel. You’ll note that Acts even uses the phrase “in the last days” in its translation of the prophet’s message. What the crowd needs to understand, Peter tells them, is that what they’re seeing isn’t anything they can explain on the basis of their own experience, because the world has changed: the last days that Joel predicted have arrived, and the new thing God promised has begun to happen.

Now, if biblically speaking, we’re in the last days, what does that mean? Obviously the prophecy of Joel has only been partly fulfilled; things that the prophet puts right together have so far been separated by almost two thousand years. You might say that we’re still waiting for the last last days. So this isn’t a statement about the end of the world being right around the corner; people keep thinking it might be, but so far, it hasn’t happened. The point is more this: in God’s time, it will happen, and we don’t know when that will be—and for that matter, many of us will die before then, which will be the end of the world for us, and we don’t know when that will be, either—but whenever it comes, that’s the end toward which we’re moving, when everything God has begun in us will be completed and fulfilled. That’s the destination of our journey, the purpose of our calling, the goal that will make sense of everything along the way.

To live in the last days, and to live in the understanding that we’re in the last days, is to live with that orientation and that focus: toward the future, toward dying and being reborn, toward the kingdom of God. It’s to live with the understanding that, if you will, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, because what happens in the present is primarily important for the effects it will have in the future; what we do in this world matters, and this world itself matters, not because it’s all there is but because it isn’t. What matters isn’t the things, and the worldly victories, and the worldly praise; rather, what matters is what will endure: the people we meet, the truth we speak, the lessons we learn, the love we give—and of course, the ones we don’t, as well. In the end, if we shut people out, if we refuse to speak or to hear truth, if we withhold love, for whatever reason, the only person we impoverish is ourselves. If we focus our attention, our concern, our efforts, on the things the world values, such as money and power, we may get the rewards the world has to offer (or we may not), but when this world goes, they’ll be gone. As Sara’s Grandpa Van used to say, “You can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead”—and it’s only what you send on ahead that will last.

Again, the key is that the life of the world to come isn’t just for the future, it’s the life we have now; this is why, as Paul says, we are not of the night or of the darkness, but are children of the light who belong to the day. And this is why we have hope, and why life makes sense, and why death is something that can be borne without despair; and this is why James can tell us to rejoice when we encounter various trials, and why Jesus can say, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” If this world and this life are all there is, then those things don’t make any sense; it’s all well and good for James to declare that “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness,” but is that really worth the price you pay for it? If this life were all there is, probably not; but Jesus says, “Rejoice and be glad”—why?—“because your reward is great in heaven.”

We don’t do what’s right for the sake of reward, or at least I hope we don’t; and there are far better reasons to follow Jesus than financial calculation. He wants us to do what’s right, he wants us to follow him, because we love him and we know how good he is and we recognize what an incredible thing he did for us and what an incredible gift he gave us. He wants us to walk with him because there’s no better thing to do and no better place to be. But there needs to be a reward—justice demands it. There needs to be a reward for those who serve others selflessly and without recognition, for those who do the thankless jobs without complaint or resentment, for those who spend years ministering to others and sharing the gospel and see no fruit for their work; and there needs to be a balancing of the scales for all the suffering of this life. Yes, God uses our suffering for good in our lives and in the lives of those around us, but—there just needs to be more than that. I’ve been thinking about this talking to Pam Chastain this week, thinking about the suffering of David’s foster mother, who has been dying a most unpleasant and prolonged death; it made me think of my grandfather, who spent eight years dying by inches, and various family members in the grip of Alzheimer’s. It’s easy to dismiss them with phrases like “no quality of life,” but much as we might see no reason for them to stay alive, God obviously does. Which means, it seems to me, that there has to be some good for them in it somehow. There needs to be something that makes it worthwhile, that makes everything all right.

And so we are promised our reward, not as a bribe, but as our assurance that the Judge of all the earth will do right. We are promised the resurrection from the dead—not some sort of ethereal existence as spirits floating around on clouds playing harps, but our whole selves, body and spirit, raised from the dead, perfected, the way they were supposed to be, with everything made right. We are promised the new heavens and the new earth, re-created, purified, made right. We’re promised a new life in a new-made world, all the best things about this life with all the darkness and sadness and pain and grief and loss and struggle and sin gone forever.

And we’re promised, most of all, that for which we were made most of all: life with God. There will be no separation between us and him; we will see him clearly, with nothing to obscure our view or confuse our understanding. We will live forever in the presence of the one who is the source of all goodness and beauty and joy and pleasure, including all that is good and right and true in us, and who loves us more than anyone else ever will or ever can. There will be no more doubt and no more fear; there will be no more need for faith, for we will see him face to face and know beyond any question that he is with us, and no more need for hope, because we will have every perfect blessing and all good things. Paul says that these three things remain, faith, hope, and love, and that the greatest of these is love; that’s because the time will come when even faith and hope will have fulfilled their purpose, and only love will remain. Only perfect love, the love of God. This is our promise; this is our reward; this is what everything else is for. This is what we live for, and it’s why we worship; it’s what God created us for, and it’s why we’re here.

The Gift of the Church

(Psalm 68:1-13, 17-20, 32-35, Ephesians 4:1-16)

Our passage from Ephesians this morning is a difficult one in some ways, largely having to do with Paul’s use of Psalm 68. As you likely noted during the reading, Psalm 68:18 says that God received gifts from people, while the quotation of that verse in Ephesians 4:8 says he gave gifts. At first glance, this seems like sheer incompetence; and yet, Paul had trained as a rabbi and he knew the Scriptures very, very well, so that’s out. What he has done here with the psalm must have been deliberate. Of course, that only raises the question, how could he justify doing what he did?

The answer seems to lie in the broader context of Psalm 68. You see, this is what has been called a “divine warrior” psalm, celebrating God’s defeat of his enemies, both past and future; victorious, he ascends Mount Zion, his holy mountain, having taken captives and plunder from those who opposed him. So far, so clear. The connecting point is that in the ancient world, kings would give away some of the spoils to their supporters, probably as a means of strengthening their position; they plundered their defeated enemies not simply to enrich themselves but to reward and strengthen their friends.

We can see this even in the text of this psalm. In verse 12, after announcing the flight of the Lord’s enemies, the psalmist observes, “The women at home divide the spoil”; and in verse 35, God is praised because “he gives power and strength to his people.” Thus the gifts Christ gives his people are precisely those gifts he has wrested from his enemies. The one who descended from heaven to the earth, Paul says, has now ascended back to heaven in victory, showering on his people the gifts he received.

And what were those gifts? Us. It’s one of the interesting things about Ephesians 4:11 that the focus isn’t on what we think of as “spiritual gifts” but on people who have been gifted to serve in particular ways. Christ came down to live among us, to die on the cross for our sins, to rise from the dead in victory over sin and death, and to ascend back to heaven in glory, where he now intercedes for us before the throne of grace; and in his victory he won us as the spoils, and from his place before the throne he now gives each of us as gifts to his people.

Paul specifically highlights those who have been given to the church in various leadership roles, but note the purpose he names for such people: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Too often, churches are defined by their pastors, denominations by their leaders, and both by their structures; but Paul says no, the purpose of those leaders (and thus, logically, those structures) is to serve the people of God, such that his saints—that’s you—are well-trained and -equipped to do the work of the ministry of the church.

Note the goal to which that’s aimed: “until all of us come to the unity”—that’s one: we’re supposed to be united; but on what terms?—“of the faith”—that’s two: “the faith” in Paul’s usage being of course faith in Jesus Christ and him alone, no exceptions, no additions, no alternatives, no fooling—“and of the knowledge of the Son of God”—that’s three: we are to be united in and by knowing Jesus Christ. The primary focus here isn’t on what we know about him, because one could know a great deal about Jesus and not know him at all; that’s part of the picture, but the focus is on the direct, personal, experiential knowledge of Jesus and his love which comes from being in close relationship with him.

That’s what the Holy Spirit is on about in our lives: telling us about Jesus, drawing us close to Jesus, helping us to know Jesus, and indeed God the Father also, in this real and personal way. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son and wants to talk about them, and so the more we’re filled with the Spirit, the better we will know them, the more we’ll love them, and the more we’ll want to talk about them, too.

Through this, we come “to maturity,” which is “the measure of the full stature of Christ.” It’s important to note that this is a collective statement, not merely that we become mature individuals—though that’s obviously part of the picture—but that collectively as the church, we become mature. Unity in Christ, after all, is an element of maturity in Christ. This is about how we live. All of Paul’s thought in this passage flows out of the clarion call with which he opens it: “I urge you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” We were created in love by God the Father, and redeemed in love at a horrible cost by his only Son, and now we have been given in love the great gift of his Holy Spirit in our lives; that wasn’t just so we could keep toddling comfortably along like the rest of the world and then go to heaven when we die. God did all this for us to give us something far, far better—to give us the life of heaven, not just after we die, but now—and he wants us to experience the full goodness of his gift.

That’s part of why he calls us as a people and gives us the church, and gives us to the church. He lays out these commandments in verses 2-3, and then look at verse 7: to each one of us grace has been given—how? Enough grace to do this perfectly by ourselves? No; to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. And then he goes on to talk about the spiritual gifts. Jesus sent us his Spirit to empower us to be humble and gentle and patiently loving with one another, to seek the good of others ahead of our own and have a long fuse with the failures and sins of those around us—why? Because those are good virtues? Well, yes, but for a more specific reason as well: because those are the virtues that enable true unity and peace. And why is that important? Most basically, because we are all called by one God, we are one people serving one Lord, filled with one Spirit and given one common faith, and we ought to reflect the unity in love of the God whom we worship; but on a practical level, there is also this: we cannot live the life of Christ alone. God didn’t set it up that way.

Understand this, because this is important, and God did it deliberately: he took all the gifts and strengths that are necessary for us to grow to maturity in Christ, as individuals and as a people, and he mixed them up and gave some of them to each of us—and then he gave each of us as gifts, to the church and to each other. He designed us and prepared us to work together, to live together, to be fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each of us has strong areas that stick out, and weak areas where we have holes; I am strong where you are weak, and you are strong where I am weak, and we fit together such that our strong areas fill in the weak areas of others.

This is what it means when we say we believe in the church: not that we put our faith in the church—we put our faith in Jesus Christ—nor that we believe we are saved through the church—we are saved by Jesus Christ—but that we recognize that we are saved into the church, the one holy people God is creating for himself through the work of Jesus Christ, by the power of his Spirit. It means that we confess that we can’t live this life on our own, that we need each other, because God has designed and gifted us to need each other; it means that we understand that we are not for ourselves, but that we are gifted to serve others, to be God’s gifts to them, and that we need to accept them humbly as God’s gifts to us as well. Granted, some of those around us may not be the gifts we might have wanted God to give us, but even so, they are the gifts he knows we need.

Now, in the language of the Nicene Creed, when it affirms one church, it adds three adjectives, so let’s take a look at those for a minute; and let’s take them in reverse order. The creed affirms the one church as apostolic. There are those who take this as referring to a continuity of structure between the church now and the earliest church; this is of course the basis of the Roman claim for the authority of the popes. That’s false. What’s in view here is something much more fundamental: the true church is that which stands in continuity with the faith and teaching of the apostles, which we have revealed to us in the New Testament. We share their faith and understand ourselves as under the authority of that teaching, rather than feeling free to accept only what pleases us.

Also, the creed affirms the one church as small-c catholic: though the form and culture of the church changes through the ages, and there are differences about particular beliefs, we are not many churches, we are all one, because we all have the same Spirit and worship the same Lord. Any individual part of the church which claims the label “catholic” exclusively for itself makes a false and unjustifiable claim.

And finally, the one church is holy, not because we have reached moral perfection, but because the work of Christ in our lives has restored our relationship with God and set us apart as his people; he’s now about the process of changing us from the inside out so that our lives reflect what he has already done in our hearts. It’s rather like education—as one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s characters says, educated is what you’re supposed to be coming out, not going in. Holy is what we’ll be when God is done with us, not what we have to be to sign on.

The key in all this is that when Jesus sent us his Spirit, he didn’t do so just to bless us as individuals—he sent his Spirit to enable us to lead a different kind of life, so that each of us, in our own way and with our own gifts, might be a blessing to his people, his body, the church. He didn’t call us and fill us with his Spirit to live for ourselves; rather, he called us to live devoted lives—lives devoted to his service, to the service of the church, and to the service of all those in need—and he gave us his Spirit to empower us to do so. Thus, as we pray that the Spirit would shine the light of Jesus into all the world, we need to remember that part of the point is that his light shines into every part of our lives, as well, seeking out and burning away the darkness in us; we need to remember that looking at Jesus changes us, and the longer and more intently we look, the more we will change, because the ultimate goal is for us to look like him.

The Transforming Spirit

(Ezekiel 36:22-28; Romans 8:1-9, Romans 12:1-2)

The last few weeks, we’ve been talking about God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior; and as I noted, part of understanding what it means to confess our faith in the Father and the Son is to understand the various ways in which some in the church resist doing so. The basic impulse behind all of them, I believe, is the desire to make God safer and less challenging—really, less threatening to our pride and our selfish desires—by re-imagining him in whatever way suits our fancy. This is a constant temptation for all of us, as it’s one of the most basic ways the Devil seeks to derail us; that’s why we need to keep coming back to Scripture to correct our view of God, and to help us see him a little more clearly and truly each time.

Our tradition as Presbyterians, the Reformed tradition, is strong on this; these are more truths we need to remember than to learn. This is a good thing. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, however, we aren’t so strong; we tend not to understand his part in God’s work, and so to leave him out. Partly, this is no doubt in reaction to some of the wilder charismatic and Pentecostal types out there, who might give you the idea that it’s only when people are speaking in tongues and falling over that the Spirit is moving. That’s a false view of the Spirit’s work, but unfortunately, it is out there—and just as unfortunately, it has scared others in the church into the equal and opposite error of denying the work of the Spirit. You can hardly blame folks for saying, “Well, if that’s what the Spirit does, I don’t want any part of it—I’ll just stick with God and Jesus, thanks”; but that, too, misses the real work of the Spirit, and skews our view of God, ourselves, and the church.

You see, when I said last week that the work of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was only completed in his ascension, that points us to another truth: the work of his ascension was only completed at Pentecost, when he poured out his Holy Spirit on all who believed in him. In Jesus’ crucifixion, the price was paid for all our sin, leaving no penalty or punishment remaining; in his resurrection, the power of sin and death over this world and over us was broken, freeing us to receive the life of Christ; in his ascension, Jesus opened the way for us as human beings to enter heaven, and took up his place as the one who intercedes for us before the throne of God; and in giving us the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, everything he did became for us, applied specifically to each of us. It is by the presence and power of the Spirit that the work of Christ becomes real in our lives, that it becomes not just redemption in general, but our redemption. It is the Holy Spirit, you might say, who plugs us in to what God has done, and is doing, and will do.

It’s important to understand this, that before Pentecost, the life of the people of God was very different. Before then, only a select few people received God’s Spirit; at Pentecost, that changed, as God poured out his Holy Spirit on all his people, giving all of us the direct relationship with him that only prophets, priests and kings had known up until that point. God had promised that this would happen, that he would put a new spirit—his Spirit—in his people to give them new life; at Pentecost, he kept his promise.

Jesus had told his disciples before he left that this moment was coming, and coming soon, and so they set about preparing themselves for it. As part of that, they gathered together regularly to pray, and so they were all together on the day of Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks, which is one of the high festivals of the Jewish calendar. We don’t know where they were; some think they were gathered in the upper room; but we know that they wound up in the temple, because where else would a crowd of devout Jews have been on such a day? For that matter, it seems only logical that Jesus’ followers would have been there as well to celebrate the feast together; and so it seems likely to me that they were in the temple area, right in the religious center of Judaism, when the Holy Spirit came on them. After all, the Spirit of God shouldn’t be kept under cover in a back room somewhere; with his coming, the time for the disciples to hide was past.

The results were astonishing, as they tend to be when the Spirit is powerfully at work. Suddenly there was a sound like a high wind, which Acts says “filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Along with the great sound came what looked like tongues of fire; and just as the wind is associated with the Spirit, so too fire is associated with God’s appearances. The wind and flames were unmistakable signs to the Jews that God had just entered the building, and that he had come in power.

This was the fulfillment of the promise God had made through prophets like Ezekiel and Joel; it was the eruption of the kingdom of God into the kingdoms of this world on a broad scale. No longer was his realm to be identified with an earthly country, no longer was the rule of God directly identified with the rule of a particular human king, no longer was there a need for a human mediator between God and his people. Now, by the Spirit of God, people of every language and nation would become subjects of his king-dom, under his direct authority; for as Paul told the Philippians, whatever our citizenship may be on this earth, we are first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God, and his ambassadors to the people and nations of this world.

If that sounds like it makes us different, it’s because it does. As followers of Jesus, we have been reborn, from above, by the Spirit of God, and we are not the same as those who do not follow him; we have a new and different nature, and a new and different orientation—to use the old cliché, while the rest of the world is marching in lockstep, we are called to march to the beat of a very different drummer indeed, following a different leader, serving a different master, pursuing different interests. To the rest of the world, we should be as independent, unpredictable and uncontrollable as the wind, for “so it is,” Jesus said, “with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

This is the point Paul makes, and drives home, to the church in Rome—and through them, to us. They, and we, are no longer under the power of sin and death, but under the power of the Holy Spirit; we no longer live the life of the flesh—which is to say, the life of this world, which operates according to the law of sin and is subject to death—but we live instead the life of the Spirit of God. The ways of the flesh, the ways of this world, lead only to death, and so the mindset and attitudes of this world, this-worldly ways of thinking, can only bring death; but if our thoughts and attitudes are in line with the Spirit of God, we find life and peace. That’s what the Spirit comes to do in us—to change our mindset, our frame of reference, our assumptions, our values, our attitudes, our ways of thinking, so that we will think as God thinks and see the world around us as he sees it, and thus live our lives accordingly, rather than living them according to the ways of the world and its conventional wisdom.

This is why Paul says in Romans 12, “Don’t be conformed to this world”—or as Eugene Peterson translated it, “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking”—“but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God.” This is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, renewing us and transforming us from the inside out. Being a Christian, living out the life of Christ, is not a matter of simply following a bunch of “thou shalt”s and “thou shalt not”s, as if outward conformity to some particular standard was sufficient; but neither is it about some free-form idea of “love” and “grace” that makes concrete standards of behavior irrelevant. Rather, it’s about something far greater than either: it’s about learning to walk according to the Spirit, opening ourselves up to be changed by the Spirit, from the deepest wellsprings of our behavior on out, so that our lives will be set free from the world’s mold, to be conformed instead to the character and the holiness of God.

The problem is, of course, that old habits die hard, and old ways of thinking die even harder, especially when the world around us keeps reinforcing and drawing us back to those old ways of thinking; it’s all too easy to lose our focus, and we’re all too prone to resist the Holy Spirit’s work and leading. To really follow Christ, to really walk by the Spirit, we have to begin by listening—and listening in the expectation that we will be convicted, because we will. If we open ourselves up to hear what God is trying to tell us, we will be convicted of sin in our lives that we don’t want to admit, we will be convicted that there are areas in our lives where we need to change, and we will be convicted of the ways in which we are immature and need to grow. We tend to resist that, because we really don’t think there is anything wrong with us the way we are; and so we live our lives according to the ways of the world rather than according to the Spirit.

That, incidentally, can be true even if we’re living “good Christian lives.” After all, it’s perfectly possible for most of us to be nice, moral people—good enough on the outside to make most folks happy, at any rate—in our own strength; and in this country with its Christian heritage, the world is perfectly happy to let you live a nice, moral life, as long as you are properly “tolerant”—which is to say, that you don’t do anything that makes anybody else uncomfortable. It’s a way of living that makes it easy for us to look at ourselves and think we’re doing just fine, and not realize how much we need God—while on the inside, our hearts can remain closed to him. As C. S. Lewis said,

We must not suppose that if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world.

The world is perfectly happy for us to believe in a safe God who doesn’t challenge us or anyone else, who is content to let everybody do whatever suits them; as religion goes, that’s a pretty comfortable and inoffensive form. What it isn’t is any sort of biblical faith. God doesn’t call us to be nice and never make anybody unhappy, he calls us to follow him and he fills us with his Spirit; and the Spirit works in us to grow us and stretch us, to expand us day by day that each day we might be filled a little more, and each day we might be able to hold a little bigger view of God, to see him a little more clearly and know him a little more truly. The Spirit breaks us out of our comfortable expectations of how the world should be, and how life should go, and what God ought to be like; his goal is not to grow us into nice Christian people, but into something far more—indeed, to grow us out of merely being nice Christian people, into those disconcerting, unpredictable, awe-inspiring people called saints. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.

We are to be the ones who take off our shoes, because we understand that God is that big, and that his Spirit is alive, present, and at work in every moment, in us and in the world around us, speaking to us, speaking through us, transforming us. We are to be the ones who live out of that awareness, following a voice the world cannot hear, to the glory of God and the praise of his name.

Crucified, Resurrected, Ascended, Coming

(Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Acts 1:6-11, Philippians 2:5-11)

This is what defines us as Christians: our confession of what Jesus Christ has done for us. This isn’t the foundation of our faith—that must necessarily be God the Father, the one who made us. Nor can it be separated from our understanding of who Jesus is; had he been just another human being, nothing he did would have mattered a whit. It’s because he was the God of all creation become one particular human being that his work is worth everything instead of nothing. But it’s when we consider the astonishing reality of his life that all this stops being merely theoretical and becomes for us in a way that no other religion accepts. Judaism begins with God, too, and Islam even honors Jesus as a prophet; we are the only ones who bow before him as Lord and Savior.

Now, back when the early church was fighting about who Jesus was and what he did, going through the process of figuring out which popular beliefs about him were true to Scripture and which ones weren’t, they laid out five basic affirmations about his redeeming work. In one of the least creative titles in the history of preaching, I got four of them in there, but couldn’t fit all five. Obviously, first, Jesus Christ is God become human—the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, born by the power of the Holy Spirit as an apparently ordinary human baby to a most decidedly ordinary human woman, with a human father even more along for the ride than we usually are. This is a truth which the poets have generally handled better than the theologians, because it’s just too big for our propositional language; thus, for instance, the Anglican priest-poet John Donne wrote, addressing Mary,

That All, which always is All everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful Virgin, yields himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; . . .
Thou hast light in dark; and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

This truth has launched a thousand speculations, many of them designed to avoid having to face it squarely, but in the end, I think Michael Card offers the wisest counsel in his song “To the Mystery”; having spent the verses exploring this inexplicable reality, he finally concludes, “Give up on your ponderings and fall down on your knees.”

That really is, I think, all we can do in the end as we contemplate this. The God of the universe traded in the throne of glory for a working-class childhood—not that his family was poor, they probably weren’t, but they were of no real status in a highly status-conscious society—then spent his adulthood as a vagabond, an itinerant teacher with no fixed address and no financial security. He spent the time teaching his disciples and preparing them for what was to come—not only in telling them he would have to die, which they never understood, but in teaching them what they would need to know in order to be able to carry on his mission to the world. The teachings of Christ in the gospels are not incidental to his redemptive work, but are an integral part of it.

Of course, any time you speak the truth without flinching and without obscuring it, you’re going to make people mad, and you’re going to make enemies, because all of us have places in our lives where we’re actively walling out the truth, and for a lot of folks, those places are pretty big and pretty central to their lives; in Jesus’ case, the enemies he made were the leaders of his own people, who decided he had to die before he ruined everything for them. Through a mass of trumped-up charges and quasi-legal interrogations and trials, they succeeded in accomplishing his judicial murder, never really registering that they were only carrying out things which he had set in motion, or that they were only able to kill him because he let them.

From the Roman point of view, of course, Jesus wasn’t a citizen, so he wasn’t a real person; as such, if it was expedient to get rid of him, his execution need not be carried out with any sort of respect, and so they crucified him. As I’ve noted before, this was a form of execution designed for maximum pain, both physical and also emotional, because it was intentionally degrading, humiliating, and dehumanizing; what I don’t think I’ve mentioned is that this was even worse for the Jews than for anyone else. You see, Deuteronomy 21 declares,

If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.

From the Jewish point of view, then, to be crucified was not merely to be executed, it was to be accursed. Paul picks up on this in Galatians 3, quoting this passage and concluding, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” These are the depths to which he was willing to go for the sake of his people.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, but of course, that wasn’t all that needed doing; nor could death ever hold the maker of all life. As we talk about on Easter, his resurrection was both inevitable and necessary; having paid the penalty for all sin by his death, by his resurrection he broke its power forever, putting death itself to death and giving us his life in its place. As I’ve said before, in his resurrection it’s not merely that he rose from the dead, but also that we rose with him, spiritually speaking, from the death of sin to the new life of God. I don’t think we can repeat this enough, that in Christ we are no longer bound by death and grief and loss and defeat, because in him, we have overcome the world. These things do still oppress us now, but their presence in our lives is only temporary; Jesus has conquered all of them, and in him, so have we. His full victory is still coming, but its coming is assured, because he has already won it.

Having done this, Christ finished his work when he returned to heaven. This is something that’s often overlooked; I preached a series on it a couple years ago, and I expect we’ll be touching on it again later this year, but Christ’s ascension is not merely an afterthought. Rather, having made the sacrifice once and for all for human sin, in his ascension he returned to the presence of the Father to complete his work by bringing the sacrifice into the holy of holies, then sat down at the Father’s side as our great high priest. There he intercedes for us before the heavenly throne, inviting us into God’s presence and bringing our prayers to the Father. It’s because he ascended and is now our great high priest that we can come freely to God in prayer.

Finally, we affirm that in the proper time, Christ will return; this sinful world will come to an end, the wicked will be judged, and all things will be made new. Christians disagree about the details, but on that much, we can all agree, that those who are alive in Christ will live with him forever in the kingdom of God, filled with his love, made new in his perfection, shining with his glory. This is our hope in Christ.

Now, this is central to our faith; this is basic truth that the church ought to teach all of us from the time we are very young, because it’s essential to our understanding of who God is and who we are in him. This is the gospel, the good news; it’s what we’re supposed to be on about. The problem is, far too many in the church believe that because this is basic, it’s kid stuff that they’ve outgrown; they don’t think it matters to their lives, and so they think they need something else to speak to their problems and challenges. For an example, let me share this with you from a Christian counseling website:

Jeremy & Carol do not like each other. Jeremy is passive and Carol is hurt. Carol has been in therapy for many years and their problems have not gone away and their marriage is no better off today than it was when Carol began her therapy sessions. The fundamental problem with Jeremy and Carol is that they do not understand the Gospel.

When I shared this with them, they dismissed this notion with a wry smile. The Gospel is too simple and they had already “accepted Christ” twenty something years ago. From their perspective, they understand the Gospel, accepted the Gospel, and are now looking for something a bit more sophisticated to help them through their marriage difficulty.

In that response, they aren’t uncommon among American churchgoers, but they are unfortunate; they think they need something better and deeper than the gospel when in fact there is nothing better and deeper. Their problem is that they don’t understand their problem; as the author goes on to say,

they are spoiled Americans who believe they deserve better than what they currently have. They believe they are better than what they are receiving, when the truth is they deserve a lot worse than what they are receiving.

As, in truth, we all do. Their problem—which is a problem to varying degrees for most of us—is that they don’t take their sin anywhere near seriously enough, and thus don’t think the gospel is really all that big a deal. Their shrunken sense of their own sinfulness has given them an even more shrunken view of the redemptive work of Christ, such that they truly do not understand the incredible grace and mercy of God; thus when they face problems in their lives, they think they need something else in addition to the gospel in order to deal with them.

This is nothing less than a tragedy, because it leads them, and us, to believe that Jesus is not enough, and thus to look elsewhere for redemption when he is the only redeemer there is to be found. It’s a tragedy that is driven, I believe, by the desire to avoid looking too closely at ourselves and our sin. The only solution to it is to do exactly that: to look unflinchingly at our lives and ask God to teach us to see our sin as he sees it. To pull from this piece about Jeremy and Carol one last time,

Suppose Jeremy & Carol truly understood that they were on the precipice of hell. Let’s further suppose that they knew they were the worst, wickedest, and most undeserving people who ever lived. And there was not one ounce of an entitlement attitude in their souls. They were the worst of the worst.

Now let’s suppose someone came and totally transformed their lives. If anyone had ever gone from worst to first, Jeremy and Carol were those people. They received an “other worldly” gift that they not only did not deserve, but they were absolutely helpless in ever earning. Jeremy and Carol were truly regenerated: they were born again. They are now seated in heavenly places with the One who fully secured their regeneration. They have been affected by the Gospel.

That’s what all of us need to understand, because that’s where all of us are. God doesn’t owe us anything except judgment—even the best of us. But instead of giving us judgment, he gave us himself; he gave us his Son, Jesus Christ. We were and are utterly undeserving, and he saved us anyway, at unimaginable, immeasurable cost to himself; he did it because even though we turned our backs on him, he loved us too much to let us go. This is the reason for everything Jesus did, and it’s the reason he is the answer to all the deepest problems of our lives; it’s the reason that the truth of the gospel is sufficient, that it doesn’t need any of our human fake “wisdom” piled on top of it like poison ivy on a hot-fudge sundae. The gospel is enough; his grace is sufficient.

So what does it mean to live this out? Well, that’s what Paul’s talking about in Philippians 2. I think the best expression of the idea here that I’ve ever heard came from Fr. Ernest Fortin, a philosopher and priest from Quebec—the Roman church in Quebec is not exactly known for being saturated with the gospel, but he was, and I love this quote that was attributed to him by one of his students:

The Christian virtue par excellence is humility. . . humility first of all of a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many. But humility as well for the believer—to understand that all is grace; that we have no right to claim anything as our own—not our life, not our gifts, not even our faith. We are at every moment God’s creation.

That’s really the bottom line: all is grace. Everything that is good in our lives is grace. Everything that is good in us, everything that is best about us, it’s all grace. It’s all Jesus, it’s all his gift in us, to us, through us. At every moment, we exist because he made us, we live because he gave us life, we love because he first loved us, we have faith because he placed it in us, we have hope because he is the source of hope, we see because he gives us light . . . all is grace, and we can take no credit. All we can do is give thanks, and bow in humble awe at how good is our Lord, how good he is to us.

One Lord Jesus Christ

(Exodus 33:17-23; John 1:1-18)

This is an amazing story. For context, Moses had been up on Mount Sinai, meeting with God, receiving the Law; in fact, he’d been up there so long that the Israelites got restless. After a while, they went to Moses’ brother Aaron and said, “We don’t know what happened to this guy Moses, and we’re tired of waiting on him. Make us gods to go before us, and let’s get out of here.” So Aaron took all their golden earrings, melted them down, and made them a golden calf to worship—not as a new god, but as an image of God, which of course he had commanded them not to do—and they had a party.

God sees this and sends Moses back down the mountain; Moses sees it and explodes with fury. You can just see his brother backing away, hands up, saying, “Whoa, whoa, calm down. It’s not my fault, they’re wicked people.” And then Aaron uncorks what might be the dumbest excuse in the history of excuses: “They gave me the gold, I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” Seriously, look at Exodus 32:24. “I didn’t make the calf, Moses, it just happened!” You may have heard me say there are no excuses, only explanations—but not only does that not excuse anything, it’s the lamest attempt at an explanation I’ve ever heard. My kids could do better than that.

After this, God tells Israel, “Go on up to the land I promised Abraham I would give you, and I’ll send my angel before you—but I won’t go with you, or I would destroy you on the way; for you are a stiff-necked people.” At that, the people mourn, and Moses pleads with God to reverse this decision, for the sake of his people, and for Moses’ sake. Notice why. It’s not that God won’t bless them—he’s still going to give them the land, and all the other good things he’d already said he’d give them; it’s that he’s refusing to go with them. He’s keeping his presence from them, promising only to send an angel with them to do all this rather than going with them to do it himself.

The NIV calls this statement “these distressing words,” but the English Standard Version is blunter: they’re “disastrous.” God’s blessings are nice, but having his presence with them means far more; that’s what sets them apart from the other nations as his people. Without that, without God going with them, they were no different from anyone else, either to themselves or to any other nation. Thus when God says in verse 14, “Don’t worry, Moses, I’ll still be with you and give you rest,” Moses responds, “That’s not good enough. Either go with all of your people, or don’t bother.” Nothing else will do—not for Moses and not for Israel, and ultimately, not for God, either. After all, what would it do for God’s reputation to lead his people out of Egypt and then leave them in the desert? In response, God says, “All right, Moses—for your sake, I’ll do as you ask.”

At this point, Moses does something extraordinary. You can understand why—he’s probably giddy with relief, for one thing; but more than that, God had just made him a promise, and he wants confirmation, and so he asks, “Show me your glory.” This might not sound like a big request, until we remember that Moses had been spending considerable time with God on the mountain—he was up there for eleven chapters of Exodus before the Israelites decided they’d rather worship a golden cow; he’d seen quite a bit of God, in fact, and now he’s clearly asking for something more. He’s talked with God, he’s seen demonstrations of God’s power and glory; now he wants to see God.

And God says, “I can’t do that, because you wouldn’t survive it. No human being can see my face and live.” God is infinite, and we’re finite; he’s perfectly holy, and we’re sinful. The gap between us is great, and the attempt to cross it, to experience the full reality of the infinite God, is simply more than we can bear. And so God tells Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name, the LORD; I will put you in a crack in the rock and cover you with my hand while my glory passes by, then I will remove my hand, and you may see my back; but my face you shall not see.” Now, I don’t know what this looked like to Moses; I’m not sure what exactly God meant by his “back”; but what’s clear is that God told Moses, “I won’t show you my face, but I’ll show you who I am; I’ll reveal my character and my goodness to you.”

That would have to be enough for Moses, and for everyone else, for a very long time. God is simply too big and too bright for us to see; if we, frail and sinful as we are, were to come unshielded into his presence, we could not survive the experience. Our limited senses would overload and burst. No one could see God and live, for the gap between us and him was too great; we could not leap across that chasm and even hope to make it, let alone to survive the jump. It was impossible—from our side; but nothing is impossible with God, and where we could never cross that gap, he crossed it for us. This is the first meaning of the Incarnation, that in Jesus, we have seen God.

This is an incredible truth, wonderful beyond our full ability to understand it; but it means that we need to take Jesus rather more seriously than we sometimes tend to do. My friend Jared Wilson has written a terrific little book called Your Jesus Is Too Safe in which he sets out to correct the tendency of our culture, including the church, to replace the biblical Jesus with a version of Jesus which we find safer and more appealing, such as Therapist Jesus, Role Model Jesus, or Buddy Jesus. As Jared points out, the Bible presents us with a very different Jesus from any of those counterfeits—and first and foremost, it shows us Jesus as Lord.

Now, to fully understand the significance of that, take a look again at Exodus 33. You see there this conversation between Moses and the LORD, and if you pay careful attention you’ll notice that “LORD” is in small caps; that’s because the word here in the Hebrew isn’t the word for “lord,” which is adonai, but is the personal name of God. If you were here while we were going through Genesis 2, you may recall my saying that this was so holy a name that the Jews stopped speaking it for fear of accidentally taking it in vain. When they came to it in the text, instead of saying it, they would say “the Lord”; when they translated the Scriptures into Greek, they translated that holiest of names as “Lord,” the Greek word kurios. Our English translations follow that practice, and the small caps are an indicator to the reader that that’s what they’re doing.

As a result, for people in Jesus’ time who were familiar with the Hebrew Bible, the word “lord” had a distinct double meaning. It could just mean “master” or “boss”; but as a religious title, it had come to denote Almighty God, the maker of heaven and earth, the one whom no one could see and live. Thus to say, as the church has said from the beginning, that Jesus is Lord is to say that this Jesus who was born in Bethlehem to a Nazarene carpenter and his wife, who spent three years as a vagabond wandering around Israel with a ragtag bunch of followers, who was crucified as a bad security risk—this Jesus is the God of whom Moses asked, “Show me your glory.” This Jesus whom you crucified is Almighty God, the one through whom and for whom all things were made; in him, we have seen what Moses longed to see—we have seen the face of God.

Which means that when we affirm with the ancient creeds that we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, we’re saying something very, very large indeed. We’re saying that we acknowledge him not merely as the one who saves us, not merely as someone who blesses us, not merely as someone who loves us and whom we love, but also as the God of the universe, the one who created and sustains and commands everything that is; we’re bowing before him as the one who has the undisputed right to our wholehearted worship, our absolute allegiance, and our unquestioning obedience. No exceptions; no qualifications; no ifs, ands, or buts.

Which is easy enough to say, especially here in church where we’re all sitting together and not really doing anything else; but of course, just saying it isn’t good enough. This is one of those things, if you just say it and don’t do it, you haven’t really said it at all; making this confession commits us to actually living it out—and that’s the rub, because there are always places where we don’t want to do that. We tend to want to tell Jesus, “OK, you can be Lord of 95% of my life, or even 98%—but I have this thing over here that I want to hang on to, that I want to keep doing my way. It doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t affect anything else, so just let me keep doing this one thing and you can have the rest of my life.” To us, that makes sense; to us, that seems perfectly reasonable. We don’t understand why Jesus looks back at us and says, “No. You need to give me that, too”; but that’s what he does, every time.

In truth, whatever is the last thing you want to give up is the first thing Jesus asks of you, and the first thing that truly acknowledging his lordship requires of you. It may be a sin, or it may not; it may be something he intends to take away from you, or it may be something he intends to let you keep. Indeed, it may be your greatest gift, the one thing he will use most powerfully in your life for your blessing and the blessing of others. But whatever it is, good or ill, you have to give it over to him and let it be his, not yours. Anything you will not give up, anything of which you are not willing to let go, is something which is more important to you than Jesus is; and anything which is more important to you than Jesus is an idol, and God will not tolerate idols in our lives.

It’s tempting to look at this and say, “No, it really doesn’t matter that much.” Even if what we’re trying to hang onto is a sin, we can always convince ourselves that it’s not that big a deal; and if it isn’t—well, marriage, for instance, is a good and biblical thing, and if we’re married and love the person to whom we’re married, it doesn’t seem particularly unreasonable to tell Jesus no, this person is all mine. God can have the rest of my life, but my marriage is all mine. And certainly, we have enduring allegiances in this world that are good and right: marriage, for many of us, children, if we have them, other family, friends, perhaps our calling; on the broader scale, we’ve been blessed to live in the greatest country in the world, and I happen to think we have a good little church here, and I think those things deserve our loyalty as well, and also our gratitude.

But here’s the rub: every single one of those allegiances, and every last one of those loves, has to take its proper place—behind our love for and our allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ. We love our family, our friends, our church, our country, maybe our jobs, and then along comes Jesus and says, “Anyone who comes to me and doesn’t hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, cannot be my disciple.” No, I didn’t make that up, it’s Luke 14:26. Obviously, “hate” is a strong word, especially when Jesus commands us to love everybody, but this is a rabbinic way of speaking—he’s saying that our love for everyone other than him has to come so far second to our love for him that we’ll put him and his will first, even if it means that others come away from it thinking we hate them. This is the degree of allegiance our Lord wants from us, and the totality of worship he desires from us—with no competition, no exceptions, and nothing else smuggled in.

That sounds pretty demanding, but it really isn’t; it’s simply what’s necessary. C. S. Lewis explained this well when he wrote,

God claims all, because he is love and must bless. He cannot bless us unless he has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. Therefore, in love, he claims all.

Do you understand that? The lordship Jesus asserts in our lives is the logical extension and conclusion of the love he showed for us in redeeming us. In love, he left the throne room of God for a feeding room of animals; he went homeless for three years, which he spent teaching the unappreciative and taking every opportunity to tick off the rich, the powerful, and the influential; he endured being flogged to within an inch of his life, nailed to a cross, and hung up in public to be jeered and spit at by his enemies; and then Jesus, the maker of all life, died. He did all this, and then he rose again, so that you could have abundant life. When you, or I, try to keep something for ourselves, when we try to insist on our own way in some area, we’re trying to keep him from blessing us—we’re trying to refuse his life. The question is, are we going to trust him to bless us? Or are we going to hold on to our distrust and insist on our own way?

God the Father

(Isaiah 64:4-8; Romans 8:15-17, 1 Corinthians 8:5-6)

I said back in January that for a year this important, I think we need to go back to the beginning, to better understand where we came from and who we really are; and in that same spirit, we’re going to take the next few weeks to focus on the fundamental truths of our faith. To do that, I want to use the great creeds as an organizing structure. I know that will take some explaining, since some are dubious about them. I realize that folks around here tend to come from the free church tradition, which uses a much simpler liturgy than the classic Reformed tradition in which this church stands, and doesn’t include the regular affirmation of faith. The key thing to understand here is that in saying the creeds we’re not saying that we believe in them, but that we believe what they affirm; we believe through them, in essentially the same way as we believe through the Bible. We believe in God the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ his Son, and in his Holy Spirit.

Now, in saying this, am I putting the creeds and confessions equal to Scripture? Of course not. Scripture is inspired by God, while the creeds and confessions are human efforts. They’re valuable human efforts, though, because they point us to Scripture—indeed, they bring us to Scripture, and cannot exist apart from it. Their purpose is twofold: first, to help us understand the word God has given us; and second, to keep us from fundamental misuse or misinterpretation of his word. In my observation and my reading of church history, since the Reformation, there has never been a major departure of the church from the gospel that didn’t involve, early on, abandoning the historic creeds.

To be sure, there are plenty of churches out there that use the creeds and just never bother to get around to the gospel, and thus leave the creeds as dead things; but those who would actively defy the word and will of God must get rid of the creeds, or replace them with ones more to their liking. Why? Because if you want to call yourself a Christian but not do what God says (and a great many people do), you must either twist the Scripture to say what it does not say or find an excuse to remove those parts of it which contradict you—and the creeds won’t let you do that. They lock us down to fundamental Scriptural assertions about who God is, who we are, what God did, and what he’s doing, and they refuse to conform to what our self-absorbed age would prefer to believe.

Take for instance the first article of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” It’s short because in the fourth century AD, it was uncontroversial. The church was at war over other things, primarily Jesus, but everyone agreed on this. Nowadays, though, people are a lot happier with Jesus; they usually want to jigger him around to fit their preferences better, but they can find excuses to do that, beginning with statements about how Jesus loved and accepted everyone, so long as they can unhook him from this Almighty God the Father guy who keeps insisting on holiness and stuff like that. For our age, it’s God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth with whom they have trouble.

And understandably so, really. During the weeks we spent in the first part of Genesis, we’ve talked about the significance of the truth that God is the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible; and in particular, we’ve come to understand that if God is the Author of everything that is, then he has authority—which is to say, author’s rights—over all of it. Because he is absolute Creator, therefore he is absolute Lord. Hence this image Isaiah uses of the potter and the clay—which is an image that has appeared before in the prophet’s message; in earlier chapters, he asks if the clay have the right to criticize the potter’s work, or to deny the potter who made it. The answer is of course no; any such efforts are foolish and unjustified, and doomed to failure.

Nevertheless, human pride demands the attempts, in its continual insistence on asserting itself against its Creator, and so people keep making them. As we saw back in January, one way people do this is by denying God as maker of heaven and earth, in order to deny that he has the right to tell them what to do; this is the head-on challenge. Isaiah 29:16 asks, “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me’?”—and some people say insistently, “Yes!” But there is another way to do this as well, and that’s by denying God as Father; doing this accepts that God may have the right to tell us what to do, but contends that he doesn’t have the will to do so. You see, to affirm God as Father—and specifically as our Father, as Isaiah does, as Paul does, as Jesus teaches us to do—is to say that he didn’t just make the world, but that continues to be at work in it. It’s to say that he cares about us, and is involved in our daily life—and that he’s involved as our Father, which means among other things that he gives us instructions and discipline and expectations and direction.

Now, a lot of people don’t want that sort of God, because they don’t want to deal with anyone’s expectations but their own. They would kind of like a god of some sort that they can ask for things, but a God who tells them what to do and expects things of them will only cramp their style. I’m sure we don’t always want God to tell us what to do, either, as we can see in the fact that we don’t always do what he tells us; but a lot of folks simply reject him in favor of the vague god of “spirituality,” whom they imagine as content to smile benignly and let them find their own path without intervening or offering any unwanted direction. It says much about human pride that people would prefer such a disengaged and fundamentally uncaring god to a God who loves them enough to warn them when they’re about to jump off a cliff without a parachute, but there you go: if loving and being loved means losing control of one’s life, many people would really rather keep the illusion of control instead.

Then you have those who object to the title “Father” as sexist, patriarchal, and so on; this is the attitude expressed by the radical American academic Mary Daly, who once wrote, “If God is male, then male is God.” The argument made for this is always that calling God Father has led to lots of bad things; even if this is true, it doesn’t prove that it’s wrong to call God Father, only that human beings are amazingly creative sinners who can turn any good thing into a weapon—which is not news. But look where these folks want to go, what they want to accomplish by calling God Mother (or something else) instead of Father: what you see is the desire to reinvent God in their preferred image, using the justification that male language has given us a false view of God which must be corrected. Unlike those who want to see him as distant and uninvolved in their daily lives, those who want to call him Mother go the other way, toward a more pagan or pantheistic sort of view; they argue that we are literally born from God, and thus divine in ourselves.

The problem both ways is that people are arguing from an understanding of God that is far too small. To conclude that calling God Father means that women are somehow less in the image of God and are thus inferior to men (whether one likes that conclusion or not), one must begin with the assumption that if God is Father, this must necessarily mean that he’s just the human male writ large, the ultimate alpha male—and this is completely wrong. As we saw earlier this year, Genesis clearly affirms that God made humanity, male and female combined, in his image; both are necessary for his image to be complete, even damaged by our sin as it now is. God is simply bigger than any attempt to reduce him to human gender; projecting your distrust of one sex or the other onto God, believing him to be too small to trust, is a mistake.

As for those who prefer a god willing to sign a non-intervention pact—the distant Divine Administrator rather than the encircling Divine Womb—the problem there I think is distrust born of pride, and the refusal to accept any god bigger than me. It’s a natural human tendency, not to want to believe that anyone knows better than me, that I’m the best judge of what’s good for me and nobody has the right to tell me otherwise. Raised to the level of a theological principle, this leads to the vague spirituality of contemporary America, with its god who vaguely wants us to be nice and happy and not hurt any non-consenting adults, and occasionally will give us nice things if we really want them. Nowhere in there do you have any god worth worshiping, let alone the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who is at work for the redemption of the world from the blight of sin and death. And that’s a shame.

To proclaim God as Father is to say something far bigger than the world can say, and indeed something far bigger than the world understands us to mean when we say it. (That is, by the way, why we have to be careful about changing our language for the sake of the world. Yeah, some of our churchy lingo is unhelpful, but when it comes to the great biblical words like sin and redemption, the basic problem isn’t that the words are strange to outsiders—it’s that the concepts are strange.) To call God Father is to say four distinct, interconnected things, three of which we’ve already noted this morning. First, God is the creator of everything that is, and thus has total authority over it. Second, God the creator is distinct from his creation; he created everything that is out of nothing, not out of himself, so we aren’t made of the divine stuff. Third, God the creator is closely involved with and cares deeply for every being he has made and every aspect of his creation; he is neither detached from the world he has made nor indifferent to its behavior and fate. And fourth, God is our Father not only as our Creator, but also as our Lord.

Think about it. When we think of fathers, we understand that the child-raising part is the most important. What’s the job here? It’s to teach and guide and lead and build up our children toward full maturity, and to supply them as best we can with the things they will need to grow; it’s to do everything we can to help them grow up to be people who know and love God, people of godly character and wisdom who use the gifts he’s given them for his glory. To say that God is our Father is to say that he relates to us in this way, and that this is his purpose for each of us as he works in our lives. It’s to say that when he gives us commands to do this and not that, when he rewards us for following him and disciplines us for disobeying him, when he allows us to suffer pain and grief, or to bear the weight of injustice, he’s doing it all for our sake. He’s doing it for the sake of our growth and our blessing, to accomplish his purposes in our lives for our good, including preparing us so that he can work through us for the good of those around us.

If this ever seems hard to believe, remember this: we weren’t automatically God’s children—only Jesus is the Son of God in that sense. He created us, but we were separated from him, alienated from him, by our sin and rebellion. But God loved us—God loved each of you—so much that he refused to let that be the last word; instead, as we talked about during Holy Week, he gave his only begotten Son to die at our hands, in order to buy us back from our slavery to sin and adopt us as his beloved children. This is why we can call him Father; this is what it means, and no less, to say we believe in God the Father.