Here and Far Away

In the second half of the 1800s, Presbyterian teacher, author, and musician, Julia H. Johnston, sat down to pen a hymn that would explain the Grace the the Apostle Paul preached to the Churches at Roman, the words became the lyrics for Grace Greater than our Sin: 

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt! Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured, There, where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.

Grace, grace, God’s grace, Grace that will pardon and cleanse within; Grace, grace, God’s grace, Grace that is greater than all our sin!

Julia H. Johnston

In proclaiming Christ, John said:

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

john 1:15

Grace is a difficult concept to explain no matter who you are speaking with.  The apostle Paul found this to be true as he attempted to teach the concept to the churches at Rome.

Paul was writing to churches that consisted mostly of Jewish believers but a growing group of gentiles (non Jewish believers as well.  It was a difficult concept – receiving something for nothing. It was especially difficult when the learners are accustom to a religousity that sets up many dos and don’t, as well as many gos and don’t gos.  He started was our human condition – using references from the teachings that the Jews would have grown up with: 

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”

Romans 3:9b-12

And then Paul expands. 

‘Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. 

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of  the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;  

it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law

Romans 3:19-26, 31

Understand? Everything crystal clear?

Don’t worry it it is all still a little fuzzy, or even hugely fuzzy. It was fuzzy to most of those hearing Paul’s words as well.

Paul, recognized the existing fuzziness, so he illustrated by painting a word picture that most, could identify with.  Ironically, it is an explanatory picture that is possibly even more understandable, and relatable, today.

Paul took the listeners, and he takes us, back to a common figure – Abraham.

Abraham, given the label ‘Father of Our Faith’ by the three major world religions is a difficult individual. Let’s face it, the man used his wife, twice, as a human shield to protect himself.  He gave her away so that his life would be spared.  How is there anything redemptive in a person that would disregard his wife in such a calculated manner.

And, to make this matter more NOT understandable, he is rewarded for doing this – receiving riches from a ruler!

I have to be honest, I spent a lot of time this week trying to redeem the man Abraham, to no avail.

It finally occurred to me, the story of Abraham, is not a story of a saint, it is not  the story of a near saint,  it is a story of a man who needed a lot, I mean a lot, of grace.  It is a story that allows us to see the what grace is and what grace does.

The one thing about Abraham, the thing that puts him into this story, is that he is a man who often sincerely said:

‘Here I am.’

And,  

‘Okay.’

(or at least of verbal or action form of ‘okay’)

That is all that grace needs, ‘Here I am,’ and ‘Okay.’ These are two powerful statement.  “I Am Here’ the opposite of what Adam and Eve said when they hid from God in the garden; the same as what Isaiah said when God called him to be a prophet.  It is a statement of vulnerability.  ‘I Am Here’ just ‘Here’ no where great, and ‘I Am Not Perfect’ but ‘I Am Here.’

It is then, that grace, met by his willingness to say ‘okay’, that God moves him from our ‘Here’ through his own resistance to go to God’s ‘Far Away.’

Grace is not necessary to people who are Saints, it is not needed by perfect people, it is of no consequences to those people who are self sufficient, it is wasted on those who can go through life with a single minded focus that never sways away from God. 

In reality, the raw reality where we all live, none of those people exist, so grace is always needed, always available, and is always the balm that heals our soul.

So, let’s reintroduce ourselves to Abraham:

He gave his wife away to protect himself…..twice.

He owned people, he had slaves. 

He would have definitely have been a target of today’s ‘Me Too’ movement.

He quickly accepted his wife’s hall pass to sleep with another woman.

He sent that ‘other’ woman, and their son, out, surely, to their death.

And, that is just some of what is documented, his first seventy-five years are a mystery.

However,

When his deceased brother’s son needed a new dad, Abraham said, ‘I Am Here’.

When God told him to pack up his family and possessions he said, ‘Okay’.

When God made a ridiculous promise that, in no way, was possible, he said, ‘Okay.’

When he needed to put his own life on the line and risk everything he had to save his nephew, he said, ‘Okay.’

When his son, Isaac said, ‘Dad?’ Abraham said, ‘I Am Here.’

The good does not outweigh the bad by any means.  That is why Abraham gives us the perfect understanding of grace, the grace that he needed, the grace that we need.

The promise from God was made to him that he would be the father of many people and many nations even though his wife was barren and considered too old for pregnancy; He was promised to have a land, even though he was a nomad; He was promised to be a blessing to all, even though his own house was dysfunctional.

Like most of us, Abraham had his safety net, his backups in the case God needed help with his plan.  He had his long time beloved servant Eliezar – Eliezar could be the heir to Abraham, he could birth many people and ultimately a nation – but God said ‘no’.  He still have his loved nephew Lot, but then Lot left, he wasn’t really interested, he had other plans.  

It was at this point that Abraham began to be stressed and distressed.  His back up plans had been rejected or they had withdrawn from being a option.

In the midst of Abraham’s depression, God showed up.  The promise still held, even without Eliezar and Lot.  Only this time, God specified that the son would be a biological son of Abraham.

Abraham said ‘Okay’. It was crazy, it was impossible, it wasn’t going to happen, but Abraham said ‘Okay.’

Now notice, Abraham says ‘okay’ but we are still not to a perfect, saintly Abraham. But, even with what takes place next, God still credits Abraham’s heart felt, and sincere, ‘Okay’ as righteous.

Promise is repeated, grace is extended, that is what grace is, it is not about our actions, it a gift that we don’t deserve.  God received a sincere heart ‘Okay’ from Abraham, grace was offered, grace was given. Even while Abraham was still painfully imperfect. Grace Goes Before Us

Then, there seemed a loophole had been exposed, it seemed that there was a back up plan that Abraham was unaware of.

The servant of his wife, she could be the biological mother and Abraham could be the biological father! It was genius.  And, the best part of this brilliant plan was that it was first suggested by his wife Sarah. How could this fail?!

So he agreed, Sarah agreed, and, of course, the servant Hagar didn’t have to agree.  It would work, and it did work, Hagar had a son by Abraham who was named Ishmael.

But that wasn’t God’s plan.

‘Sarah will be the biological mother of the Son that you have been promised,’ God said.

Then Abraham swallowed hard, and Sarah laughed.

Abraham didn’t say much – after all,  he did still have a back up – there was his son Ishmael outside playing.

But then, Sarah, probably due to the double rejection by Abraham, not to mention how quickly he had a baby with Hagar, Sarah became jealous. Hagar and their son Ishmael were sent away.

Now, no Son, and no back up plan. No safety net.

But then, as Abraham is without a back up plan, and Sarah apparently is without a viable womb – Sarah birthed a son.  To everyone around it was a miracle, a crazy miracle.  The kind of miracle you read about in the line to pay for your groceries.

To God – it was his plan.  It was the most basic requirement of his promise.  A Son.

Abraham and Sarah now have a son.  Neither needs a back up plan or a safety net, they are the biological parents of this promised son.

There is one more thing, and this thing is about Abraham. It is a necessity for Abraham. 

It was time for Abraham to grow into God’s grace. It was time for him to be a man of Faith and to live a life of faith.

God called on Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac 

Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, was fascinated with the story, and person, of Abraham. In 1843, under a pseudonym, Kierkegaard wrote a book titled Fear and Trembling based on Philippians 2:12, ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’. He focused on the inter anxiety, and turmoil, that Abraham must have experienced as he said “okay’ to God’s call to sacrifice the only son he had left and the son that he so deeply loved.  

Kierkegaard, in this book which many thought was an autobiographical account of his own faith, developed the concept of ‘Infinite Resignation,’ which, he says, is the final element in the process of ‘working out your salvation.’  It is the giving up your backup, the one thing that you have held back from God, the one thing that you are unable to surrender to God, the one thing that you withhold from God, the one thing with which you are unable to fully trust God. 

‘Abraham?’

“I am here.’

a conversation between God and Abraham

God knew it was time for Abraham to move from here  to ‘work out his Salvation with fear and trembling.’  He told Abraham that he was to offer his only son, the son that he loved, as a burnt offering, a sacrifice.

We don’t hear Abraham say, ‘okay’, but he did obey.  He got up early and headed to the place, with Isaac, that God would show him.

On the way, as they stopped to prepare, Abraham looked, far away to where he was to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.  It was far away.  Far away from Sarah, far away from home, far away from him.  There was no way he was going to get there. However, he still said, ‘Okay.’ 

‘Dad’

‘I Am Here Son.’

‘What will we Sacrifice?’

a conversation between Isaac and Abraham

It was a long journey, far away always is.  The two must have talked about everything, everything except the sacrifice. That was a personal journey for Abraham, Sarah nor Eliezar could share it, Isaac definitely couldn’t.  It was a lonely journey to ‘far away.’

Abraham was ‘working out his salvation’ as he traveled far away, he separated God’s promise and God’s provision.  He asked himself if he trusted God enough, did he have faith enough to trust the promise and surrender the provision?

According to Kierkegaard, ’Infinite Resignation is the last stage before faith, so any who one has not made this movement does not have a full faith, for only in Infinite Resignation does an individual become conscious of his external validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.’.

Simply put, one must give up all of his, or her, earthly possessions and must also be willing to give up whatever else it is that he, or she, loves more than God.

Abraham received God’s grace when he said ‘I am here,’ as well as when he said, ‘Okay,’ to God. He received ‘Grace upon Grace.  It was then that he began his journey of faith, a faith that would carry him through life.  Grace was given long before he reached the point of surrendering everything.

It was then, at the mental surrender, he was truly a man of faith, it was then that the world could look at him at the Father of Our Faith

As Abraham was about to plunge the knife into the body of his dear son, an angel cried out, ‘ABRAHAM!’

‘ABRAHAM! ABRAHAM!’

‘I Am Here’

an urgent conversation between angel and Abraham

Abraham, far away at a place that he never wanted to go to, held the knife steady and said, ‘I Am Here.’

Sure, we know that this was a test from God. Isaac was never going to die.  Abraham probably considered the possibility as well, but to even go through the motions, he had to ask the question, ‘Is this for real?’ He had to make the decision the sacrifice would be offered.

In offering his son, Abraham made the sacrifice.  He was now living by faith in God.

The comparison with God’s giving of His son are there, the painful resignation to surrender that which is most valuable is obvious.

We, however, have much to surrender. All of us, if we have said “I Am Here’ and ‘Okay’ are on a far away journey.  We are called to a sacrifice, God is showing us the way. Not only those things that we hold dear, but also those we hold dear. We have been asked to isolate at home and, when we are out, to wear a mask for the health of others.  It was just a preparatory sacrifice as God, now asks us to sacrifice our long held prejudices and judgements.  Our own way of looking at others, especially those who are different from us and that we do not understand.  We are being called to take the initiative, to not only understand, but to love beyond words.  To become uncomfortable with the status quo of our faith in this current reality, to become unsettled with the contradictions seen in our faith and in the reality of the world – to see the disconnect between the life of Christ then and the life of believers now. 

This turmoil that we are in, in a world that cannot control the disease and the disgruntled protests in the street – It is All Part of God Moving Us Far Away – to a place of Sacrifice.

It all seems very far away. But God’s grace took him there.  This was not something great historically about Abraham, we see little else about him after this story.  But, the life he now lived was fully, and completely lived in faith.  

This far away faith journey was for him, it is what Christ meant when he said ‘I came so that you may have life, and have it abundantly!’

God is calling us, are we ready to say, ‘Here I Am’?

a NOW faith

We are in this bizarre time of social distancing, online school/church gatherings, an abundant need, yet rare shortage, of hand sanitizer, lysol spray and wipes, and not to mention suddenly finding that our enhanced internet might not always have enough bandwidth for all the returned children now working/schooling from home along side of Andrea and me.

In the midst of all this craziness we are adapting, we might even say we are evolving. Our household has eaten all of our meals at home for two weeks, Starbucks has sent out people to do coffee welfare checks in our absence, one of my daughters read scripture in church this past Sunday from over a hundred miles away in her pajamas and eating turkey bacon. In addition, we had a reader, and several participants, from other states.

Life is now surreal, it is our new reality, our new normal – it might be temporary or maybe it will impact us permanently.

I, too, am adapting and evolving. After a lifetime of ‘winging it’ with mere bullet points when preaching, my evolving has been to script my full sermon manuscripts for my Sunday message. I have been meaning to do this for too many years to mention, I even sat down once to try but failed – it got boring and laborious. But now, that there are many other options for participants worshipping with us at home than to sit still and listen to a much too long sermon, I must be concise and more respectful of time.

In reality, I have not faithfully followed the manuscript when preaching but it is holding me accountable and timely.

Rick

The NOW faith 

(manuscript for 03.29.20)

When Jesus called for Lazarus to come forth from the grave, and as Lazarus came out from the tomb, those who opposed Jesus knew the time had come to stop this movement and this ‘prophet’.  This was the final straw.  They had to stop the talk and discredit the rumors of Lazarus’ resurrection just as they had managed to do with the widow’s son in Nain and with Jairus’ daughter in Capernaum.  Few even talked about Jesus bringing those two back to life anymore.  Those situations had been easy, plant a subtle seed, call it a resuscitation instead of a resurrection – but those two had not been dead for four days. This one was difficult, there were too many credible witnesses, too close to Jerusalem, and Lazarus had been dead for four days!

The basics of their plan was to kill Lazarus the following day so – no resurrected life – no miracle.  If Lazarus was actually in a tomb who could prove that he had risen from death.  The opposition could claim mass hysteria, drunken revelers, or use any number of tried and effective lies and half truths.  So, they would return the following day to kill Lazarus.  An easy and permanent solution which they were convinced was flawless.  The next day, however, they found the same crowd at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  Lazarus was reclined at the table with Jesus and others, as Martha served as host.  Mary then drew even more attention to the living Lazarus as she anointed Jesus with an expensive bottle of perfume.  Now there was no way anyone would believe that resurrection of Lazarus was a hoax; there were now too many witnesses were able to testify what they had seen after they interacting with Lazarus for two days 4 days after his death.

If only Lazarus had not died, if only Jesus had not called Lararus out of the grave.  But, Jesus had called for Lazarus to come forth and Lazarus actually had.

In the minds of the opposition, this was the point when they made it their unfailing mission to get rid of Jesus once and for all.

This was also the moment when Jesus gave us all a clear understanding of why Jesus came, what he taught, and the manner in which he interacted with all.  He came so that we could all have Life Now.

As we take a moment to look at some of the characters in the story of Lazarus death and resurrection we quickly see a picture of the various presentations one the same faith.  

There were the disciples, who, after being unable to convince Jesus not to return to Jerusalem due to safety concerns, decided to accompany him to Bethany.  Bethany was basically a suburb of Jerusalem and Jesus already had a target on his head.  It was the disciple Thomas, who is usually remembered for doubting Jesus’ resurrection, that said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  The disciples had a faith of a soldier, this was their mission – to protect the one who led them.

Then there was Mary, whose deep display of grief in Jesus presence seemed to trigger his tears.  Mary was always the one that lived in the moment.  Whether it was sitting at the feet of Jesus to experience every moment in his presence, or mourning at the grave of her brother, or even sacrificing her most valuable possession to honor Jesus, she always held back nothing.  Mary’s faith was like a sponge soaking up every experience and every moment.

And we have Jesus who had seen death before, this death was different though.  At this death we see something we do not see elsewhere, we see Jesus weep.  Not just cry but weep.  Deep and empathetic weeping, the kind that others notice and cannot be hidden.  Rationally, he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, but it was the experience of loss, as viewed in his closest and most loved ones, that made this different.  His tears were about the pain of death, the pain that others experience in the loss of a loved one, and possibly the impact that would be felt at his own impending experience of dying.  Real soul crushing pain that goes to bed with you at night and wakes up with you in the morning.  That feeling you cannot shake no matter how much you rationalize.  It hurts, and Jesus, God in the flesh, experienced this at the tomb of Lazarus.

Then there was Martha – Martha often gets a bad rep, considered too controlling, maybe too rational, probably too concerned about every detail.  She was the one that was honest with Jesus, even when it didn’t sound very holy or righteous.  She was always looking at the obvious but, at the same time, looking for more. But it was also Martha who took off running to Jesus the moment she heard that he was close, while she could see no trace of him she ran at the simple mention of his name.

It was Martha who allows us all to better understand that Jesus came to so that we can have life now.  It was possibly for Martha, and then for all of us who read her story, that Jesus permitted four days to pass following Lazarus’ death before he returned to Bethany.  It was Martha that had the interaction that provided her, and us, the essential element of faith, a faith that permits us to understand what it is to Live Now.  We see this displayed in the dialogue that was probably less than a common paragraph, a lesson that began with Martha’s statement:

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not  have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Martha was placing her hope on, and defining her faith by, a coming event, a coming moment – Resurrection.  Jesus corrected her, and possibly our,  theological understanding through his use of three small, yet powerful, words that explained everything:

I, Am, Life.

I

The one letter word ‘I’ is pretty self explanatory.  Jesus is talking about himself,  there is no question, what comes after ‘I’ refers to him, and only to him. We see this same definite direction as Genesis one says, 

‘In the beginning GOD created’  

It is also much like the “I’ in his statement detailed in John 14:6

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

There is no discussion or argument, he is referring to himself.

AM

The word ‘AM’ is not an event to come, or even an event that has already taken place, actually it is not an event at all.  ‘AM’ is a statement of ‘was being’, ‘now being, and ‘will begin’.  It is, in the case of Jesus, an infinite identifier.  Jesus is, Jesus was, Jesus will be, Jesus is a forever ‘Now’.  This is what Jesus is and it is what Jesus does.  He was before Martha embraced and followed, it was what Martha experienced as she journeyed with Jesus, it was her own resurrection and her existence – it was why she automatically took off running.  It was in this teaching moment with Jesus that Martha a Now Faith began to click, she began to understad.

Life

Jesus said:

I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.

Greek word zóé: life or live

It is not just life as we think of it but both of physical or present and spiritual now or future existence. 

Martha, without realizing it had already experienced the life, she had already partaken of the resurrection for she had also previously been dead in her sin.  Jesus, in very definite, yet simple, words, taught Martha, and us, that his mission was not just about a future event, a physical resurrection or his own resurrection, or our own eternity, it is about NOW, and the faith he leads us in is a NOW faith.

As followers of Jesus we are also partakers of the resurrection that IS Jesus and of the NOW life, we are not waiting for this life it is NOW.

Faith, the faith we call Christianity, is not a waiting faith, it never was and never will be.  We do not wait for a moment and then start living, we do not delay the life until heaven – We live NOW.

It is when we are alone and when we are with many, it is when we are surrounded by those who treat us unfairly and when we are around those who we can fully trust, it is when we are poor and when we have plenty, it is when life is miserable, it is when life is pleasant, it is when life is scary and when life is easy, it is when we are uncomfortable and inconvenienced and when things are just right, it is when we feel unloved and it is when we feel loved,  it is when we are free to move and do and it is when we are in quarantine and lock down.  It is NOW. 

This is what Jesus was talking about when he prayed:

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

This is OUR mission, that we would live now in as if we were living in heaven.  It is our reality as believers, it is our way of life as followers, it is living in the unseen and enjoying even in the midst of the unenjoyable. 

It is NOW.

So, How do we live in a NOW Life, a Now faith?

Much like the Disciples, Mary, and Martha, who each approached their believer journey, their life differently, living with a NOW faith is also going to be personal. 

Somewhat different for each of us, somewhat different depending on each of us.

It probably will start by looking for our Joy, the Joy that reminds us what our calling, our mission, is – what are life is about.  Not just happy things but those discoveries that remind us of our NOW faith.  Maybe it is a memory grasping truth, maybe it is a happy or a sad moment or experience, possibly it is just realizing that what you can see and how life feels is not always true to what life is.

It is what takes us back to the place that Martha went to when she realized that she was not waiting for an event but that life was right there with her.

It is what led Martha hold a dinner party the next day in honor of Jesus.  It is what led Lazarus to recline at the table with Jesus, it is what led Mary to anoint  Jesus.  

What is your LIFE NOW FAITH leading you to do?