Sunday, June 29, 2014

What does God look like?

John 4: 3-26/ Exodus 3: 13-15

Have you ever wondered what God looks like?  Maybe you have the image of an old man with a beard who looks kind of like Gandalf the Gray from Lord of The Rings, or a skinny Santa Clause.  Or, maybe you imagine the vision Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as God reaches out to touch the hand of Adam.  We can get a little obsessed in this question.  Genesis tells us that we, humankind, were created in the image of God so God MUST look like us right?  Just wiser and obviously old since God was around at creation billions of years ago. 
People have asked this question at least since the days of Moses.  Moses didn’t see God in human flesh but instead in the vision of a burning bush.  God had never been seen before and God was considered too amazing to look at so God was disguised in things like fire and cloud.  But what was Moses supposed to do- tell everyone a burning bush spoke to him? Crazy!!  He needed evidence so he asked for God’s name.  Moses is told that God’s name is “I Am”. What a powerful testimony to God!  I am, I am what? I am: creator, giver of life, love, justice, compassion, mercy, breath, bread, water, savior.  I am, I exist, I am all you can ever understand and more. 
They had never encountered such an all-encompassing God before.  In Egypt, the Pharaohs were considered gods.  The other religions that surrounded them thought of god as these wooden, stone, or metal creations that never really did anything. There were gods for each community and nation.-- It is awe inspiring to realize that all of a sudden they knew that God cannot be contained or assigned to any one thing.  Think for a moment what that means- God is “I am”  Whatever you can imagine- that is God.  God is no longer this wise old man but everything- omnipresent in all of creation.  It kind of makes me pause to think of God in this way, real and tangible but at the same time distant. 
God made God’s self known to the Israelite people so that they could know that they were no longer second class citizens in Egypt but accepted and included in the bigger plan for God’s world.  God provided them with acceptance, wholeness and meaning, leaders to guide them, food and water to help them survive in difficult times and a way to be in community with God and with each other. 
As time passed people repeatedly forgot and remembered and forgot again this characteristic of God- people began to distance themselves from God. 
Because God is in everything it became easy to overlook God’s presence, take it for granted.  Prophets had become silent, miracles and healing began being attributed to magicians and false teachers.  The people began to experience a collective Attention Deficit Disorder. They needed something to worship and focus their attention on so they focused on the temple and the rules of worship.  Instead of imitating the acceptance they received from God-Only special people were allowed to do special things.  Only people with a specific heritage, skin color, income level, only those who break the socially acceptable rules and wear the right clothes can come to worship and then only after they were willing to pay the tithe.  Sounds a little familiar doesn't it?  Churches all over the world still act that way.  Christians only want to worship with people who look, think and act like them, sin in the same ways that they sin, and follow the same rules that they think are important.  People remembered God’s name but forgot God’s spirit.  God was still the great “I Am” but many people stopped participating in God’s plan and stopped imitating the character of God in their relationships. 
The woman at the well was one of those people who were not accepted in the temple.  She was an outcast.  She was a Samaritan, a half-breed, part Jewish, part Assyrian heritage.  Just by her lineage she was deemed unworthy of the attention of a Jewish person, much less a full-fledged conversation. 
She was a woman which also immediately made her a second class citizen.  Not only was she female but she had also been married 5 times- virtually unheard of in her day and let’s be honest- not exactly honorable in our day- and the man whom she was with now was not her husband.  Not only was she shunned by the Jews but her own people had disowned her.  Her status was so low that she couldn't even go to the well for water in the cool of dawn and dusk as her neighbors did- she was forced to go in the heat of the day instead.
Even in this brief encounter we can see into the brokenness of this woman’s life.  Either she has mourned the death of husbands or been rejected by them.  She is damaged goods- her friends and family have turned their backs on her.  People gossip about her and make her feel small and useless. 
Jesus takes this opportunity to allow us to get a glimpse not only of this woman but of ourselves.  We have all felt rejected at some point in our lives.  We have all felt unworthy of honor and ashamed of our life circumstances.  And, as we get a good look in the mirror in the eyes of this woman, we also see into the heart and soul of God.  Jesus doesn't seem to care who this woman is.  He knows who she is- better than she knows herself and before she has a chance to tell him her story he is telling it for her.  Even if she is all this and more- Jesus, the heart of God, shows her she is worthy and loved.
We believe that Jesus is God incarnate- God made flesh and for the first time people can see God.  They can look into the eyes of Jesus and see the spirit of God.  He isn't some old man sitting on a cloud.  He is present with them, poor, dirty, thirsty and hungry just like you and me and this woman.  God is no longer distant and in this interaction we can see all the things God is. 
As Jesus interacted with the woman at the well and everyone else he encountered, we can see God’s spirit in the life of Jesus.  When we see Jesus, we see “the true nature of God.”  In Jesus we see God made flesh; we see the heart and soul of the great I Am. 
This woman was a nobody.  Everyone it seems Jesus cared about were considered nobodies: sinners, drunkards, adulterers, crooks, hypocrites, lazy, sick and broken, the very people that had been ignored or over looked by society.  As Jesus cared for them, accepted them into his company, ate with them, drank with them, spoke with them and loved them they felt all the things that God intended for us to experience from the beginning, all the things God tried to teach the Israelites by taking the name "I Am" are encompassed in the life and actions of Jesus. 
Jesus never told this woman she was forgiven or healed or accepted.  He just did it.  He welcomed this outcast into his world through conversation, companionship and the statement that she and all her people had been hoping and dreaming would one day come true- He is I Am. The Messiah had come and they too were part God’s plan for this world.  When we come to know Christ, we are called to be like this woman who is overflowing with excitement over who she has just met.  She is so excited she runs back to town- to all those people who have discarded her to proclaim the presence of the Messiah and share with them the same love, forgiveness and mercy she had received.  She has seen the heart of God and she couldn’t contain it any longer. 
When we see the heart of God- God wants us to do the same thing-Allow it to change us and overflow with the living water.  But, maybe this world too has begun to forget who God is.  It has been 2000 years since Jesus walked this earth.  Have our memories begun to fade?  Although we have story after story painting an elaborate picture of the heart of God, we still imagine him as an old man with a long beard.  We argue and discuss what Jesus would have really looked like- blond hair and blue eyes or olive skin with dark eyes and curly hair? 
Has our spiritual ADD finally kicked in?  Have we gotten caught up with the physical, the social and the emotional brokenness that separates us that we have forgotten to look past all that to see the spirit of God in each other?   We half-heartedly throw around the title Christian.  We take it on but don’t acknowledge the responsibility that comes with it. defines the suffix -ian to mean one who has the same meaning and properties as the root word.  As we accept the title of Christian we are claiming that we too have the same meaning and properties as Christ.  That means that the God who is I Am is to be seen and manifest in each one who accepts this title.  That we are to have the same spirit of God in our lives, that when people look at us and spend time with us they too feel the presence of God- the loving, accepting, challenging us to be better, forgiving and merciful God whom we confess. 
What does God look like?  God is still the Great I Am-omnipresent, in all of creation- including you and me.  Jesus, the true spirit of God is seen every time someone acts with the heart of God.  Can people see Jesus in you? As we seek to imitate the life of Jesus, we seek to imitate and show others what God looks like.  Can you accept the challenge to be a little more Christian each day and in every encounter you have with Creation?  It is a journey that only ends when we are made perfect in God’s love.  But it is a journey we can begin again today.

What's the point?

Lamentations 3: 19-24/ John 3:1-15 

A teenager stares confused at his math homework, frustrated at its complexity, slams the book shut and yells… What’s the point!?!   A mother in her 20’s tries her best to console her crying baby.  Leaning her head against the wall she too begins to cry.  Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing with my life?
A 50 year old man looks out his office window- long hours and a stressful job separates him from his friends and family.  Sighing, he mumbles, there’s got to be more to life than this! A couple in their 70’s drives home from yet another funeral.  Family and friends keep leaving them behind and they each silently gaze out the window pondering the meaning of life.

What’s the point? What am I supposed to do with my life? What is the meaning of life?   We’ve all asked these questions or ones like them at some point and time or another.  Even joyous moments bring up these feelings- We saved up all year long for this family vacation- for what-to drive 15 hours and stand in line in the hot sun to see a man in a mouse suit? 

There’s got to be more to life than this… we are all searching for  the answer to this universal question…what’s really important?  We aren't alone in our search.  Many people have this void in their lives and we search diligently to find something-anything to fill it.  We fill our time with worry, anxiety, anger and resentment towards others- allowing other things and people we can’t control to occupy our thoughts. If your single- maybe you are looking to find fulfillment in a spouse.  Or if you’re married, maybe you’re looking to find confirmation of your youth and vitality in the arms of another person. Maybe we fill our time with so many small, menial, and pointless chores- over-committing our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from our real problems and giving the appearance of perfection so that we don’t have to look at our own flaws. 
Maybe for you its money- if I only had a little more money, then I would be happy.  We play the lottery, or work long hours for that raise or promotion.  But this too is a moving target.  A professor at USC discovered that “at all levels of income, the typical response is that one needs 20% more to be happy” (Richard Easterlin- Professor of Economics at University of Southern California)
We numb the pain and emptiness of life with endless streams of technology; TV shows we just cannot miss- 280 channels and nothing on.  Or if you’re like me it is the stupid game on my phone that I cannot seem to master- an hour will go by and I won’t even realize it.  The problem is, all these efforts to fill the voids in our lives is like binging on junk food- it fills you up temporarily but it never really satisfies or gives true nourishment, and after a few minutes you are hungry again.  Our priorities have gotten out of order.

We all do it.  We all allow our priorities to get out of whack.  It doesn’t really matter if you are rich or poor, how educated you are or how spiritual you are; we may try our best to focus on what’s important but we get distracted or we realize that focusing on what is not important is much easier than trying to pay attention to what really matters. We allow ourselves to get so caught up in the little things that we don’t have the time or energy for what is really important.
Nicodemus knows this all too well.  He is a well-educated, spiritual, and devout believer in God.  But, he too is searching.  Something is missing from his life, something he has been searching for in the scriptures, in books, in rituals, and rules.  Things he thought were so important but yet something is still missing. He does everything he is supposed to do and yet, he still has not found the one thing that will fill the void in his life. 
Sometimes we think of people who don’t have faith as seekers.  But we are all seekers; even the religious teachers and preachers are seekers.  We are all searching to find the one thing that is most important in this world, remove the distractions and fill that God shaped hole in our hearts. Nicodemus is doing just that, searching, but because he thinks he should know all the answers already, he goes to Jesus under cover of darkness- embarrassed by his ignorance but also determined to find the answer to the meaning of life from this man he knows is from God- Who better to ask how to fill the God shaped hole than the one who is God?

What Jesus tells him is confusing and puzzling to him though- be born again!  How in the world are we supposed to be born again?  Nicodemus is too smart for his own good- but he has book smarts not life smarts so he tries to figure out how this would be physically possible.  I can just imagine Jesus rolling his eyes and saying seriously man, come on Nick- think about what I am saying.  It isn’t a physical re-birth it is a spiritual one.  One that doesn’t just happen once at baptism or conversion; it happens every day, every time we decide to refocus our lives on what is most important: a relationship with Christ.  Jeremiah knows this too.  He tells us in this section from Lamentations that he is on this journey with us.  Even when it seems nothing is going right.  The world is falling apart and we are lost in all the distractions- God is still there; guiding us, loving us, showing us how to be found- by keeping our focus on the most important part of life- our faith.  It is what gives us hope, encouragement, security and strength to get through the all the other parts of life.  

What is the point?  What is the meaning and purpose of life?  What does God want from us?  God wants us to be on the journey to a closer relationship with Christ.  God wants us to be seekers. Even those of us who think we’ve found all the right answers. Sure there will be days when it seems a boulder is in the way.  And days when we get one of those little pesky pebbles in our shoe and it is so annoying it nearly drives us crazy but the more we fill our hearts with the important things.  The more we focus on a relationship with Christ- the more we will want to stay focused on following him and the less necessary and important the distractions in life will seem.  And praise God this isn't a one-time, use it or lose it opportunity!  Because of the endless grace of God we get a chance to start over each day- being reborn in the Holy Spirit, an opportunity to remind ourselves of the big picture, what really matters, to choose our battles and words wisely, read the words of God more closely, to be more Christ focused than the day before, to be in service in love for others more than the day before, to be more welcoming towards the stranger and more generous to the poor, and more patient with others on the road. 
I was reminded of this at least twice this week.  Tuesday night at the High School graduation- we were reminded that while we celebrate achievements- commencement is not the end but the beginning of their journey.  Then again, at Wednesday morning bible study we heard Paul’s words in 2 Timothy about not getting distracted with trivial things: stay focused on the one thing that really matters-Christ. 
We won’t get it right today and we won’t get it right any of the days after but each day we can be further along on the journey and that is what is most important for our lives and to God- that we earnestly try to move forward in our faith and be willing to follow where God is leading.  God is the only thing that will fill that void in our lives and the way we experience that is through a personal relationship with Christ.  But there’s more good news- this isn't a lonely journey.  We are all on it together (this is the point of church)- here to encourage one another, challenge each other to remove the pebbles and walk around the boulders, and cheer each other on as we cross barriers and overcome obstacles to our faith and to lead and assist those newly on the journey to stay fast and true to our commitment to follow Christ. 
That is the meaning of life.  To be on this journey we call faith, focused on the goal of loving God and loving all the others who are on this journey with us.  Are you ready to go? 

Sunday, June 1, 2014


Ephesians 1:15-23
Maybe you have heard the story of the elderly father who is saying good-bye to his daughter at the airport.  He realizes this may be the last time they see each other and as she leaves him he wishes her “enough”.   She replies that he has already given her all that she needs and she too wishes him “enough.  When a by-stander asked what he meant, with tears in his eyes he says it is an abbreviated way of saying:
*I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
* I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
* I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
* I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
* I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
* I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
* I wish enough hello's to get you through the final goodbye. [1]

I thought of that poem as I read the scripture this week- especially v18 when Paul says “I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s powerful strength.”  That is a pretty big prayer for the people of the church in Ephesus and for us here.  
Enough- this seems like an unusual prayer.  I don’t know about you but most of the time when I pray for something I want it all.  And once I get my mind on something I am a very impatient person.  I want what I want and I want it yesterday.   Patience is not my strong suit and as much as God tries to teach me to savor every step, appreciate the journey and celebrate each little accomplishment I really struggle to accept all these little bits and pieces as enough. 
We want these amazing Ah-ha moments.  We want life to be full of joy, excitement, answered prayers, and these moments of ecstatic revelation when everything goes just as you had hoped and dreamed…   But that isn’t the way life is.  Life is all too often- ordinary, routine, same ol’-same ol’.   Sitting at home, watching TV, work, ball games, reading, going to Bible Study- again, cleaning-  whatever it is that is occupying your time. In these ordinary times, we often struggle to see the richness of God’s inheritance amongst the humdrum of life. 
But then we hear of someone who seems to have had a miraculous God moment-a revelation as to the will of God and our cynical side comes out.  We hear of a woman who goes in for a procedure to remove a tumor and the tumor that was there on Friday is gone and we immediately think- the doctors must have mixed up the x-rays- she was never really sick.  Or the Alcoholic who has a conversion experience and vows to never drink again- but we have our doubts-placing verbal bets on how long his new found sobriety will last.  While we want to see and have these amazing, life altering, and exciting- Mountain top- God experiences- we struggle to believe them when they do happen.  It is beyond our normal scope of reason- so we doubt. 
It seems we just can’t be satisfied.  So Paul prays that we, the people of God, the church, can learn to see God in all these moments- the ordinary and the extraordinary and that in these moments we would come to know Christ better. 
I would garner to guess that most everyone in this room feels like they know Jesus.  If nothing else we know about Jesus.  We know that he was born to a virgin, Mary.  We know he died by crucifixion.  We know that he healed people and feed multitudes with small portions of food.  We know that he had 12 best friends that followed him around and that he liked to challenge the religious leaders of his day.  We have read his biography- most of it anyway.   But do we really know who Jesus is and what it is like to be in a relationship with him?  The surface level knowledge is only the beginning. 
Life is a process of learning that never ends.  People who are married don’t stop talking and sharing just because they have known each other for a long time and think you have heard all the stories of their childhood.  Just because you have been married for 40 years doesn’t mean you know everything there is to know about the other person.  You don’t stop calling your best friend since childhood because you already know every quirk, every detail of their life, every dream and every heartache.  We are even still learning things about ourselves.  Whether we are 25 or 95 we are still learning about who we are, what we like and don’t like and why we think and feel certain ways.  So if we feel that way about a spouse, our best friend since 4th grade and ourselves- why would we ever think that we know all there is to know about God? 
It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve read the bible through or how many times you’ve heard a sermon or participated in a Bible study lesson on a particular scripture- there is always something to learn.  It is about more than just the words on the page, or the words spoken by a preacher.  It is about what those words are speaking to our hearts, how it guides us and affects what we are going through in that particular moment.  Reading and listening are only the beginning. 
John Wesley believed that faith and being in love with God was like breathing- we breathe in the words of God as we read scripture, listen to sermons,  hear Christian songs and speakers on the radio or TV and as we talk with others about what we believe.  As we do this, as we pray, we are inhaling all that God has to offer.  As we think about it, process it, and digest these words, experiences and conversations we are taking in nourishment, learning and growing and aligning our will with Christ’s will.  But once we have breathed in and nourished our souls, we must exhale.  We must send out into the world the results of that wisdom and knowledge we have gained.  We must exhale in order to inhale another life giving breath. 
In this very ordinary action of breathing we can see and experience God.  In the very ordinary action of cooking- we nourish and share love with others.  In the very ordinary act of arguing over when to have a meeting or who is invited to participate, we learn tolerance and patience.  In the very ordinary act of shaking someone’s hand we offer the hand of Christ in welcome and hospitality.  In the very ordinary act of disagreeing over politics or God’s will for this world we learn compassion and the beauty of diversity.  In the very ordinary laughter of children we see the love and joy of Christ.  As we take communion,  in the very ordinary juice and bread of the Lord’s table- we experience the unconditional love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace of God. 
We don’t need exciting awe struck moments of revelation to know God.  God has already given us enough to know God better.  All we need is to open our minds enough to see that God is in and of all things.  That is the true spirit of wisdom that comes from a relationship with Christ- not just knowing of Christ but knowing him as our personal Lord and savior and desiring to know him more and more- knowing that there will never be a time when we reach the limit and stop growing in our faith, loving him more, or able to be in a deeper and more intimate relationship with him. 
Like Paul’s prayer to the church to have enough… God too wishes us enough.  Enough joy to get us through times of sadness, to know the love of God enough to get us through the times when we don’t feel love from others.  Enough hope in a Christ who is risen from the dead to know that we can experience resurrection in even our toughest situations.  Enough knowledge of the life of Christ, so that we can imitate his character and love towards others.  Enough glimpses of the Holy Spirit so that we know we can trust its guiding and be willing to follow.  Enough ordinary moments with God that we know that Christ is always with us.  Open your heart enough to welcome Christ into your life to taste and see the glory of God’s kingdom and to glimpse the love God has for you- ordinary you- loved more deeply than you can ever imagine. 

[1] Copyright © 2001 Bob Parks --- Sent in by Karen McGriff ---