Tuesday, March 29, 2011

living water



“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

In Philadelphia on the east bank of the Schuylkill (skoo-kel) River there’s a statue of a pilgrim with a Bible, and by that pilgrim is a stream that flows down a really steep hill into the River. And by the stream is a path that leads up the hill, and by hiking up the hill you find the stream’s source – a spring of water. And by that spring is a stone, and on that stone an inscription, which says this: “Whosoever drink of this water will surely thirst again.” Of course, this is a reference to tonight’s Gospel where Jesus Christ says, “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty again.”

We are spiritually thirsty people. We thirst for love, for acceptance, for purpose. We thirst to be at home – at home in this world, at home with ourselves, at home with God. It is our spiritual thirst, and the many ways we seek to satiate that thirst that Jesus addresses in tonight’s Gospel. “From what well,” Jesus asks us, “are you drinking?”

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Psalm 42:1. “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul thirsts for you, O God.” It reminds me of Augustine’s famous prayer, “Our souls are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you.” You see Jesus knows how restless we are, because we’re always trying to satiate that deep spiritual thirst ourselves. The message of our world is clear. “Nothing in life is free. It’s a dog eat dog world. You only get what you give.” In other words, if you want to be loved then be lovable. If you want to be accepted then perform. If you want your life to have purpose then create it. Be funny or smart or successful or attractive or popular. Be the best in your field. Roll up your sleeves, hike up that hill and find the water yourself! That’s the world’s message, to which Jesus gently replies – “whosoever drink of that water will certainly be thirsty again.” But “the water that I will give them will become a gushing and eternal spring, and whoever drinks of My water – the Living Water – will never be thirsty again.”

Before we talk about the only thing that’s ever going to satisfy our deep spiritual thirst – the living water Jesus offers us – we need to acknowledge how conditioned we are to believe that the living water is something we merit – something we earn. It start’s early. “Good boy” our parents told us, when we did something good. Our teachers “graded” us – we were classified and ranked based on our intellect and performance. Our peers classified and ranked us based on how attractive we were or how funny we were or how athletic we were. As one author puts it, “When every person in every situation in every day of our lives treats us on the basis of how we look, act, and perform, it is difficult not to project that onto God.” And so regardless of what we say we believe about grace, it is so easy for our hearts to believe that God’s love, God’s acceptance, are tied to our moral performance. If only at a subconscious level, we assume the living water must be earned. Well tonight, Jesus shatters that assumption. “If you knew the gift,” Jesus says, “if you just knew the gift of God,” you’d never be thirsty again.

That’s what’s so amazing about the woman in tonight’s Gospel. According to the cultural and religious rules of the day, no one deserved God’s love less than she did. First, she’s a Samaritan – a group that melded Judaism with paganism. No Jew in Jesus’ day liked Samaritans – no Jew, that is, except for one. Second, she’s a woman and women in Jesus’ world had no status. No respectable rabbi would ever address a woman in public – no rabbi, that is, except for one. Third, she’s alone, coming to the well at the hottest part of the day when no one else is around. Back in the day women went to the well to draw water in groups. It was the place to see and be seen, and so why is she alone? Because she’s an outcast, a moral failure. She doesn’t want to see anyone and no one wants to see her – no one, that is, except for Jesus. This woman has done nothing to deserve God’s love – she knows it, the disciples know it, and Jesus knows it. “But if you knew the gift,” Jesus told her, “you’d see that the love of God has nothing to do with what we deserve.

CS Lewis was once asked by a group of his colleagues what made Christianity different from all the other religions of the world. Lewis responded with a single word. “Grace.” Christianity is about grace. It’s not about us hiking up some hill to find water. It’s about God hiking down to give water to us. You see the good news of the Gospel is not merely that God forgives us, although that is certainly true. The good news of the Christian Gospel is that in Christ God celebrates us; that He lives for us; that God thirsts for us. As Richard Foster puts it, “the heart of God is an open wound of love. He longs for our presence.” In other words, psalm 42 talks about how we thirst for God but the living water – what Jesus is talking about tonight – is that God thirsts for us. That is the living water! The gift! Our call – the whole point of our faith – is to know that gift; to drink of the truth of how deeply we’re loved so that we can share God’s gift with the world like this woman. Of course, the question is how – how do we know the gift of God? How do we taste the living water that only Jesus can give?

Well first, we need to be honest about the empty wells we keep drawing from. For this woman it was men. You see, when Jesus says, “Go and get your husband” he isn’t being mean. After all, Jesus likes this woman and he would never try and shame her. That just isn’t Jesus’ way. But what Jesus does do is ask her to look at where she keeps dropping the bucket of her soul – at where she’s seeking to satisfy the deepest longings of her heart, and for her it’s men. Jesus takes this woman to a very vulnerable place. Has he taken us yet – to that vulnerable place? Have we let him? Now just for a second, imagine yourself standing at that well in the presence of Jesus. And to everyone’s surprise, even your own, He likes you. He wants to talk. Jesus shows you his thirst. But then, he shifts gears and tries to show your own – your own spiritual thirst and the broken cisterns you keep drinking from to satiate that thirst. To the woman he said “go and get your husband.” What is Jesus saying to you? “Go and get your career. Go and get your family. Go and get your need to be liked, your need to be in control, your need to be appreciated. Go and get your obsession with appearance, knowledge, competence, notoriety, success, friends, pleasure, wealth, status. Go and get it and put it right next to me,” Jesus says, “because it can never give you what I can.” To taste the living water we first have to stop drinking from empty wells.

Now, that being said, there’s a second piece we need to look at, because the gift of God isn’t ultimately about our thirst at all – it’s about Jesus’ thirst. You see the only reason this woman had an encounter with Jesus that changed her life was because, practically speaking, Jesus was thirsty. I mean, that’s why Jesus stopped at the well and said “give me a drink” in the first place. But in the Gospel of John, which is loaded with symbols, everything has a double meaning. You see twice in the Gospel of John Jesus says that he’s thirsty. The first we heard read tonight. The second we’ll hear read on Good Friday, where Jesus cries out in agony from the cross, “I thirst.” And that thirst was the great thirst. For on the cross not only did Jesus experience that cosmic thirst we rightly deserve for our sins, but as he stretched out his arms on that cross, Jesus showed us just how deep God’s thirst for us goes.

The psalmist tells us that there “is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” By those streams is a path, which leads up Golgotha hill. And if you hike up that hill you’ll find streams Source – the Son of God crucified thirsting for the world. God give us grace to know that gift and to ask Jesus to give us the living water, and to hear yet again the word of our Lord: “come to me all you that are weary and heavy burdened and I will refresh you.”

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

jesus' glory



Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

I’d like to begin my sermon with a question. What makes our life significant? In other words, what gives it worth? Why do we matter? I have to say, this is a question our world is desperate to answer. There’s a famous song by the Righteous Brothers – “You’re My Soul and Inspiration” – and one line in particular captures what I’m talking about. “You’re all I’ve got to get me by; you’re my soul and my life’s inspiration; without you baby, what good am I?” How would you answer that question? Without blank, what good am I?

You see today’s Gospel raises that question because it’s about the glory of Jesus, which is a Biblical word that describes something of infinite worth and significance. “O God,” we prayed in our collect, “who before the passion of your Son revealed his glory upon the mountain.” The Transfiguration is about Jesus’ glory, about His infinite worth and significance. But not only that, it’s about Jesus wanting his disciples to know his significance and to know that their significance is tied to Him.

Now, you may be wondering – didn’t they already know? After all, Matthew begins by telling us this event took place “six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ.” In other words, Peter has already been tested on the doctrine of Christ, and Peter got an A! Intellectually speaking, Peter knows – he knows that Jesus is the Son of God. But, Peter doesn’t know. You see, we can know something intellectually without that knowledge taking hold of our heart. We “know” we should eat better, but until we have a heart attack or heart surgery that knowledge might not change our life. Today’s Gospel is about God giving Jesus’ disciples a little heart attack. According to Matthew, “they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” In a way they hadn’t yet experienced, Peter, James and John felt Jesus’ weight. His significance. His glory. For the first time in their life they knew.

But didn’t they already know? Well, let me ask you this – do we? You see, what Peter tried to do is something we all do – put Jesus on a shelf. Peter’s up on this mountain, Jesus starts to glow and then suddenly Moses and Elijah show up! “Lord, this is great – you’re here, Moses is here, Elijah’s here – we’ve got the hall of fame! So I’ll build three booths and you can sit here right next to Moses.” And in response to Peter’s foolishness comes a Voice. “This is my Son! He won’t fit in a booth! He’s not another prophet seeking God; He’s the God the prophets have all been seeking. This is my Son – my weighty, significant, Son – take him off the shelf. Listen to him!”

I’m afraid that far too often we try and keep Jesus on a shelf, in a booth. We give him a spot – maybe a Sunday morning spot – and we put him right next to everything else in our life we think makes us significant – next to our career, our reputation, our family, our need to be liked, our need to be right, our need to be in control, our need to be comfortable, our need to be successful – we put him on a shelf. We balance our devotion to him with our devotion to other things. Like Peter, we’ve confessed Him to be the Christ. Intellectually speaking, we know He’s the Son of God, but that knowledge hasn’t fully taken hold of our hearts. For instance, why are we so hurt by criticism? We can we be so anxious and irritable? Why are we always trying to prove ourselves? Why are we so harsh and unsympathetic and critical? And the answer, which is a really hard thing to admit, is that the opinions of others are often more real to us than the opinion of God. It’s that our sense of worth is tied more to what we achieve and how we look and what people think than to what God says about us and what He’s done for us.

You see today’s Gospel doesn’t give us any new information about God. But don’t you see information is not what we need. What we need is to be up on that mountain, for Jesus’ grace to knock us to the ground. What we need is to know Jesus’ glory – to have who He is and what He’s done be more real, more weighty, and more significant than anything else in our life. And so with that being said – two questions I think we need to ask. Where does that happen and how does that happen?

First, where – where does Jesus’ love become more real to our hearts than all the anxiety and fear that we carry around? Well, Peter was not on that mountain alone. He was with James and John. Our relationship with Christ may be personal, but it definitely isn’t private. You see in a matter of moments we’re going to baptize Antonio and Alivia and Angel and Saya and Lily into the Body of Christ, and as far as I know, they didn’t have to take a test or prove themselves or demonstrate their competency before coming here. And yet, we’re going to mark them as Christ’s own forever. We’re going to tell them they’re significant – that they matter – not because of who they are, but because of Who God is; not because of what they do, but because of what God’s done; not because they’re good but because God is. And today isn’t for them only, it’s for us! Not only will we take a vow to do everything in our power to support them in their new life with Christ, but we’ll reaffirm our own baptismal vows, which our way of reminding ourselves that our primary calling as a church is to provide a definitive answer to that question – that question our world is desperate to answer. What makes our life significant? Why do we matter? Baptism is our answer to that question. We matter because Christ has freely chosen to claim us as his own.

Can you feel the weight of what’s about to happen, the significance of what we’re about to do? The word God spoke to Jesus on that mountain is the same word He speaks to us in baptism. This is my son! This is my daughter! You’re now a part of my family. In baptism, God makes that promise, and so where do we gather to know that promise? Right here, this community, we’re on that mountain now!

Of course, this raises another question – how? How does Jesus become more real to our hearts than all the idols on that shelf we’ve put him next to? The answer’s hidden in the last verse. We have to follow him down the mountain. Peter wanted to stay there, but not Jesus. Because what Jesus wanted more than anything was for his disciples to know – to know that their worth is tied to His; that their significance is found in Him.

Without blank, what good am I? What makes our life significant? The answer to that question – it has nothing to do with what happened to Jesus on top of a mountain, but what happened to him on a little hill – a tiny little hill outside of Jerusalem. You see on the mountain Jesus was revealed in glory, but on that hill he was revealed in shame. On the mountain his clothes were shining; but on that hill his clothes were stripped. On the mountain Jesus is with Moses and Elijah; but on that hill he’s with two criminals. On the mountain a bright cloud overshadowed him; but on that hill darkness covered the land. On the mountain Peter blurts out how great it all is; but on that hill Peter’s nowhere to be found. On the mountain the Father speaks a word of blessing – “This is my Son;” but on the hill the Father was silent.

In his letter to the Romans St. Paul asks a question. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Do you not know? The reason the church exists – our only purpose – is to answer Paul’s question with a definitive yes. Our purpose is to know – not intellectually but in our hearts – that life has no significance apart from the cross of Jesus Christ, and that because of Jesus’ cross, all things have significance – that in spite of our failing and fears and fumbling, we matter tremendously.

Confess the faith of Christ crucified – let his cross be more real and more weighty and more significant than anything else in your life. Listen to what He says. “Don’t be afraid. Get up. I’ve claimed you as my own. Let’s go down the mountain – follow me to the hill and watch what happens there – because even though you believe what I want more than anything is for you to know.”

can a mother forget?

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at Holy Trinity, Dickinson. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. I am so honored to be with you this morning – thank you so much for having me – it is really great to be with you.

I’d like to begin this morning by acknowledging something that we all really know, but don’t like to admit. Faith is hard. Staking our lives on the faithfulness of God is really, really hard. You see, there’s an enemy – an enemy that lurks like a lion and is always on the prowl. And that enemy isn’t science. Or consumerism. Or the media. Or “the culture.” No, the greatest threat to our faith is despondency. Despondency is what happens when the brokenness of life breaks us – it’s what happens when we lose hope. And knowing that faith is hard, and that it’s often threatened by this lurking enemy of hopelessness, we need to address this question: When we feel despondent, what assurance do we have that God loves us, that He’s with us, that – as Revelation puts it – He’s at work “making all things new?” What is our assurance as Christians?

You see this is the question the people of Israel are asking in today’s reading from the Book of Isaiah, and in the first five verses, it’s God that does all the talking. He’s responding to the people’s fear and to their real sense of loss that comes with being exiled. You see Israel’s temple had just been destroyed and that temple was their assurance – their assurance that God loved them, that God was with them, and that God would never forsake them. And when the Babylonians demolished their temple, they demolished their assurance. So in the first five verses, God tries to comfort them. “The prisoners,” He says, “are going to be set free one day. The people in darkness will come into the light. My kingdom will be established and people from all over the world will flock to be a part of it.” And in verse 13 God really takes it up a notch. “What I’m about to do,” God says, “is so amazing – so amazing – that even the mountains will break forth into song!” But the people of Israel are too despondent to care and they interrupt God. “The Lord has forsaken me,” they say, “My Lord has forgotten me!” But here’s what they’re really saying. “You say you love us, that everything’s going to work out fine. But we feel forgotten, and for all we know it’s just a bunch of talk. How can we be so sure?”

Now, before we look at God’s response we need to pause. At some point in our life we’ve felt like this. We’ve all had those moments – and if we haven’t yet we will – when the brokenness of life threatens to break us. We get divorced. The prognosis is bad. Someone we love dies. We get depressed. We lose our job. We lose our hair. We lose our confidence. We see the failings within and the pain without. We turn on the news – nothing but war, earthquakes and crooked politicians. We all have those moments, and it’s those moments that make faith hard! Yes, we know the promises of God, but we want assurance! “God says He loves us – that everything’s going to work out fine. But we feel forgotten, and for all we know it’s just a bunch of talk. How can we be so sure?”

Well, God begins answering our question by asking one of His own. “Can a woman forget her nursing child?” Now, this won’t shock anyone but I don’t know a whole lot about nursing a child. But what I do know is that no image more tender can be found. You see in all human relationships a certain level of give and take is required – a friendship, a marriage, a business partner – both parties have to give and take. That’s just how our relationships work, they’re conditional – that is, of course, except for one; the relationship of a nursing mother to her child. This relationship is unconditional – the mother gives everything! But not only that, it’s a relationship where the mother’s physical and emotional comfort is tied to her ability to nurse. Now, I did some research, and I now know about prolactins. When a mother nurses her child, her body releases chemicals that fill her with an overwhelming sense of delight and contentment, and if a mother should forget, or stop nursing, her own body’s going to start to hurt. In other words, both emotionally speaking and physically speaking – it is impossible for a nursing mother to forget her child. What God wants Israel to know – and what God wants us to know – is that His love for us is like that – unconditional. It’s a relationship where God gives everything, where God feels an overwhelming sense of delight and contentment when He can feed us, and where God feels incredible pain when He can’t. As a 17th century Puritan by the name of Matthew Henry put it, “God’s compassions to his people infinitely exceed those of the tenderest parents towards their children.”

Now, I’m not sure if you noticed or not but I still haven’t answered the question. As moving as this image is, at the end of the day, it’s still just an image – more talk – and our God is a God of action. Well, in the final verse, what God says is astounding – “I’ve inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” Now, in Isaiah’s day a master would sometimes tattoo his own name of the palms of his servant but never would a master tattoo the name of his servant on his own palms. For one, it would be beneath him, a master would never lower himself in the sight of his servant like that. But second, it would hurt. The English may say inscribe but the Hebrew says engrave. In Hebrew the word literally means to “cut into something with a hammer or a chisel.” Imagine a spike being methodically driven into someone’s hands. Now, think about this. Engraving someone’s name on your palms isn’t just painful, it’s permanent. Laser scar removal technology wasn’t around in Isaiah’s day. If you engraved someone’s name on your palms, that name would be there forever.

Well, centuries after Isaiah was written there was this guy named Thomas, and Thomas was despondent. Thomas had lost his best friend and he had lost his hope. “My Lord has forsaken me,” he said, “My God has forgotten me.” Of course, Thomas’ friends were all saying “he is risen, he is risen, he is risen!” but Thomas was too despondent to care. He felt forgotten, and for all he knew it was just a bunch of talk – how could he be so sure? Well, Jesus appeared to Thomas and what Jesus did next was so significant. He showed him his palms – palms that have been cut into with a hammer and a chisel, palms that recently had been driven into with spikes, palms that had been engraved. “Thomas!” he said, “Here is your assurance. I will never leave you or forsake you. Your name is engraved on my palms.”

What makes Christianity unique isn’t our belief that in the face of human despondency God speaks a grace-filled word – it’s our belief that in the person of Jesus Christ, that Word became flesh, was nailed to a cross, and embraced all the world’s despondency both with us and for us. Our God is not a God of talk! He’s a God of action. Yes, we’re going to have those moments – those moments that threaten to break us. But, our assurance lies in the knowledge that on the cross our Master was broken for us, and that He was broken in a way that allows us to be made new.

“Faith,” says the author of Hebrews “is the assurance of things hoped for.” What, exactly, is that nature of that assurance? It’s that our names are permanently engraved on the palms of God; it’s that it would be more likely for a nursing mother to forget her child than for God to forget about us; it’s that on the cross God gave everything! Let the heavens sing, and the mountains break forth into song. For the Lord has comforted his people.

choose life

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Mark’s, Rosenberg. My name is John Newton, and I just began working as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation, which means that I have the privilege of thinking and praying about how all of God’s people can be formed into the image of Jesus Christ. That is, after all, what faith should so – form us into people filled with Jesus’ love, mercy, and compassion – into people filled with His life. Formation is about life. The Bible is about life. Salvation is about eternal life. In today’s reading from Deuteronomy Moses pleads with the Israelites: “choose life.” Even Jesus describes his mission by saying, “I’ve come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” This plea in Deuteronomy to “choose life” brings to mind a couple of questions I want to wrestle with this morning: Is embracing the life that God offers us hard or is it easy? Is God’s bar of salvation high or is it low?

Now, people in Moses’ day thought that finding a new life was hard. There was a myth that everybody would have known about at this time – an ancient myth in every culture about an epic story of humans seeking life from the gods. The myth went something like this: Only the gods hold the key to life, but the gods are hard to find. They lived up in heaven or beyond the sea and trying to find these gods was incredibly dangerous. But across these myths, in every culture, a daring hero built a tower to the sky or crossed a great sea to wrestle life from the gods. The real story behind these myths, the logic that drove them, was that something as precious as eternal life had to be earned. Sure, one could find eternal life but first he had to prove himself worthy. This is the myth that everyone believed in Moses’ day: finding life was hard and only the worthy could attain it.

Now, the Israelites knew about this myth, and they may have started to believe this myth, especially after forty years of wandering in the desert, which is the background of our reading from Deuteronomy. They would have known, for example, the story of Gilgamesh, who courageously crossed the sea to bring back the secret of eternal life from the gods. And so I imagine they started to wonder – “Moses is great, but it’s been forty years, we may need someone like Gilgamesh to go to heaven to get life for us.” So, Moses corrects them, “Look – the life that God offers isn’t that hard and it’s not that far away. It’s not in heaven,” he says, “You don’t have to scale a wall to get it. It’s not across the ocean,” he says, “You don’t need to cross the sea. The life God offers is very near. And so choose life.” But I’m not sure the Israelites got it because what Moses was saying was so easy it was hard.

Now, there’s a story from II Kings that illustrates this perfectly – the story of Naaman, a Syrian general diagnosed with a terminal case of leprosy. Naaman is desperate, and so when he gets word that the God of Israel can heal, he sets out on an epic, Gilgamesh like quest, which leads him to the house of Elisha. Well, Elisha doesn’t even answer the door – his intern does, and here’s a paraphrase of what the intern says. “Go wash in the Jordan seven times and you’ll be healed, it’s just that easy.” Well, Naaman gets furious – absolutely furious – and this is what his servants tell him. “If you had been asked to do something difficult, you would have done it. So why not do something so easy?” You see, what’s difficult for Naaman is the simplicity of what’s being asked because Naaman, in his own eyes, is a great man, and he came ready to prove it. You see Naaman thinks he’s on one of those epic quests seeking life from the God of Israel, and Naaman came ready to earn that life – to climb to heaven to get it, to cross the sea to find it. But what Elisha tells him to do is something a child could do. Wash in the Jordan? What God, he wonders, has a bar of salvation so low? The life God offered Naaman was so easy it was hard.

You see what makes faith hard isn’t the law but grace – the bar of salvation is so low, it is so low, that in order to crawl under it we have to drop everything, which is what Naaman couldn’t do. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “grace is free, but it certainly isn’t cheap.” And just so there’s no confusion, God has always related to His people on the basis of grace – grace isn’t a New Testament innovation, it’s how God has always worked. And so this morning Moses isn’t saying that if you keep the Law you’ll have life. After all, God didn’t give Israel the law and then save them. No, first God saved them, He bound Himself to Israel and made an irrevocable promise, and only then did he give them a blueprint on how to live. God has always related to His people on the basis of grace, the life He gives has always been a gift, but there is something about God’s terms that threaten us. After all, God didn’t save Israel because they were worthy. No, God chose Israel because by all human standards they were the least worthy.

God doesn’t give us life because we’re worthy – that’s the ancient myth. God gives us life because He’s good, because we’re not worthy; because apart from Him we have absolutely no worth. And that may sound simple, but admitting it and living it – that’s hard, because salvation by grace is a deathblow to our ego. It shatters the illusion that we’re in control of our life, or that God owes us anything, or that we have any kind of claim on God at all. To put it differently, if everything is a gift – if apart from God we really have no value – then is there anything He can’t ask of us?

Now, I want to tell you why all of this is relevant. The ancient Israelites were tempted to buy into a myth that said life had to be earned or achieved or that life was rewarded only to heroic people at the end of some epic quest. This myth is still alive and far too often our hearts buy into it. You see, we may say that God loves us and that in Christ He delights is us, but then we go and make our life about some other quest – some quest to find meaning outside of God. In the words of Moses, “we bow down to other gods and serve them” – the gods of money and success and approval and sex; a million different gods we think will give us life. I’m sure you’ve seen the first Rocky movie. It’s the night before the big fight and Adrianne doesn’t want him to go through with it, but this is what Rocky tells her. “I’m a nobody. I really don’t care if this guy splits open my head ‘cause all I want to do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, I’m going to know for the first time in my life I’m not just another bum.” Going the distance with Creed, that was Rocky’s quest, where he thought he’d find life. What’s yours?

You see whether embracing the life that God offers us is hard or easy – well, that all depends on how we answer the question, whose quest is it? It is ours? Is life, meaning, value, salvation, forgiveness something we have to achieve? Is it our courage and our effort and our performance that matter? Is our life ultimately about our quest to know we’re not a bum? Or, is our life found in Jesus’ quest for us? You see, that’s the difference between that ancient myth we’ve been talking about and the Gospel. The myth says we’ve got to climb up to heaven. The Gospel says Jesus climbed down. The myth says we’ve got to get life from the gods. The Gospel says God wants to give life to us. The myth is about us going the distance. The Gospel is about Jesus Christ going the distance – all the way to a cross – to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. Which one of these two very different stories are we living?

The last verse of our reading from Deuteronomy says “love the Lord your God for that means to you life,” but after doing some research it’s become clear we have a pretty poor translation. This is how America’s leading Hebrew scholar, and just about every other Bible, translates this last verse. “Love the Lord your God, heed his voice, cling to him, for He is your life.” Jesus said, “I came that they might have life.” “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus is here. He wants to form us into people filled with his love, mercy, and compassion – into people filled with His life. The hardest thing about embracing that life is how easy it actually is. Jesus’ bar of salvation is so low we have to drop everything and cling to Him alone to crawl under it.