Day Twenty Five: A Shared Life Taking Shape

Psalm 148
Exodus 33:18-23
1 John 1:1-9

Within the Christmas Mystery this year, I have been captivated by the wonder of the God-of-our-wide-universe
(the Maker of mountaintops and morning stars,
of sunshine and thunderstorms,
of apple orchards and cedar forests,
of fire and hail and snow and ice,
of ocean depths
and the fantastic beasts that dwell within them,
of animals, wild and tame,
of angel armies and intimate friends,
of old and young of different races and giftings;
praised by all created things as the
God-whose-radiance-exceeds-everything) – see Psalm 148 –
choosing
to enter into our lives
in the wrapped-up form of a human baby.

To borrow (and re-order) the words of the hymn-writer, Charles Wesley:

“He laid his glory by,
He wrapped him in our clay …
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.”

At the heart of my wonder is the realisation that though our Christmas celebrations centre around a historical act, it is one that spans the ages to offer me (and you), personally and intimately, the invitation to experience a shared life with God –

a life lived right beside God,
shielded by God’s own hand from the fullness of God’s glory which we cannot yet grasp or understand (Exodus 33:22),
yet fully welcome in the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
and present to the Infinite and Eternal taking shape and unfolding right before us
(1 John 1:2-3).

God not only knows you and I by name
but God longs to be known
by you and by me
in increasing intensity of understanding and intimacy …

… the God who holds everything known and unknown about the universe
in such mighty hands,
shielding us in such gentle hands,
entrusting Godself into our hands
made clean by the blood of God’s son …

… that our joy (and God’s) may be complete
as we walk and fellowship and grow in God’s truth and light.

For a moment, make your arms into the shape of a cradle waiting to receive a child. Feel the emptiness of space waiting to be filled.

Now imagine the Infinite God, wrapped in cloth, in human form, lying in your arms. Savour the weight of such presence,
the warmth of such intimacy.

Reflect on what Christ gave up in taking on such a fragile form. Wonder about some of the yearnings of God to share life with YOU. 

Such intimacy,
such trust,
such knowing
is not – as we saw in yesterday’s readings concerning Jeremiah and Stephen –
without implications or consequence:
if we long to share life with the One-in-whom-there-is-no-darkness,
that life needs to make place:
for God’s Word and Truth,
for fellowship with one another,
for confession of our sin, our need,
for God’s faithfulness and forgiveness,
for “Son-bathing” in God’s light and love
for us and for others (1 John 1:6-10).

As you think about the year that lies ahead, reflect on the space that you have created and might want to create to share life. Where and when and how will you find place to cradle and to be cradled?

Of this I am sure

*a reflection based on Ecclesiastes 12 and John 12:44-50*

I want you to think for a moment of something you’re sure of; something you know deep down inside to be absolutely infallible, 100% certain and true.

Perhaps you want to share it with your neighbour or your friend ….

If you don’t, or if you hesitated for a moment, I wonder why. Did you suddenly think that your sure thing was too silly? Or did panic and doubt flare up in you briefly the moment that I asked you to express it rather than just think it that it might not actually be 100% true? Were you worried that it might begin a debate or elicit an opinion contrary to your own?

Perhaps your sure thing was a scientific fact, like the earth is round or the grass is green. But while the world may look like a perfect circle from space, it is more accurately a bumpy sphere; and I don’t know about yours, but my grass is looking decidedly brown beneath the sun’s recent unrelenting heat.

Perhaps you’re certain that butter is bad for you, but these days the processed trans fats found in margarine are regarded as far worse and coconut oil is the in thing for the health conscious. And here’s three cheers to chocolate and caffeine now being linked to increased longevity but you’ve only really got until the next sponsored nutritional study to enjoy that “fact”.

Perhaps your conviction lies among more spiritual lines: in the wonderful assurance of God’s eternal love for you; yet, if you have ever questioned that unconditional love for a pimp; a paedophile; a person from a different race, religion or sexual orientation, then you’ve inadvertently opened yourself up to an uncomfortable little niggle of worry that perhaps there are limitations on God’s welcoming embrace – even for you.

As the season of Advent approaches, our lectionary readings offer a profound word to us in this post-modern era of shifting certainties, fake news, and relative truth; of – as the Quester puts it throughout the book of Ecclesiastes – the insubstantial, swirling smoke that clouds our vision of what is truly important and trustworthy.

It’s all smoke, nothing but smoke.
The Quester says that everything’s smoke.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:8 (The Message)

The fun, the freedom, the exuberance of our youth quickly fades beneath the burdens and worries of adult responsibility. Between bills to be paid, houses to be maintained, children to be raised, the best years seem to fly by until we’re left tired yet unable to sleep; up with the birds yet unable to hear clearly the sweet songs they’re singing; with an abundance of free time to do the things we’d once dreamed of doing, yet unable to come and go as we will as physical limitations and fear of the rapidly-changing world take over.

Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from.
The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (The Message)

Yet the Quester, as he laments the meaninglessness of life, the futility of our toil, and the fickleness of pleasure so dramatically, does not want us to throw our hands up in despair and wonder if there’s even a point to getting ourselves out of bed tomorrow.

I remember quite clearly telling my husband in the early years of our marriage that I fully intended to take a handful of sleeping pills or fall elegantly off a rooftop just after my fiftieth birthday because I didn’t want to experience any of the frailties or the illnesses or the losses that I associated with old age at the time, and I didn’t think God would mind too much getting me back early. Now that I’m in my forties and have been touched by the dignity, the memory, the wisdom, the authentic love of those significantly older than myself, I’m all too eager to revise my position on the matter ….

… because life – lovely while it lasts – is too soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.

As he offers these words, the Quester longs to rouse us from our apathy so that we remember the remarkable gift of each new day and honour the One who has given it. He wants to shake us free of the smoke that has suffocated our passion, our vigour, our vision – those people, those “priorities,” those possessions that have actually just filled our lives with clutter and kept us from pursuing the precious and important. He wants to goad us to become people of substance in a world that has lost its way in its pursuit of power, prosperity and pleasure. He wants us to live well.

And of this I am sure: that Christ came into the world to make that good life, life real and eternal, possible for all people.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says of himself:

I am Light that has come into the world so that all who believe in me won’t have to stay any longer in the dark.
~ John 12:46 (The Message)

“Won’t have to,” “should not,” “would not continue to,” “shall not remain …” different Bible versions put it in different ways: that through his love and sacrifice, Christ has enabled us to live differently; through his teaching and actions, Jesus has made possible an alternative way of being in relationship with God and with one another and with the world at large.

But ultimately – and this is another thing I’m sure of – the choice is ours: to live and work and love and play and pray in the light of God’s all-encompassing, liberating love; or to stick to the shadows with which we have been acquainted for so long that we don’t even see them; or even, happily hide within when we begin to speak or think or act in a way that we know falls far short of the measure of God’s love for us and for the Other that we may be judging, deceiving, manipulating, disrespecting, or betraying at the time.

We don’t have to stay any longer in the dark. We don’t have to chase the fleeting, insubstantial smoke of this world of which the Quester so passionately warns us. We don’t have to ….

Yet if we choose to be children of the Light, to honour and make the most of each short day, here’s a sure thing to hold onto in the midst of the uncertainties and distractions of life – the last and final word, the conclusion of the matter, as the Quester puts it:

Fear God.
Do what he tells you.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:13b (The Message)

Jesus says it too, right before his final Passover Feast:

I know that his command leads to eternal life.
~ John 12:50a (NIV)

Fearing God is not about being afraid; it’s not the dread of a sinner or a slave.

It’s the reverence that we have as children for a Father who has consistently and unconditionally demonstrated love for us.

It’s the certainty that our respected Teacher has our best interests at heart that gives us, as lifelong students, the courage to try and to obey.

It’s the wide-eyed wonder at how giving and forgiving our Gracious God has been that inspires us to be giving and forgiving ourselves.

It’s the awe that brings order to our day – replacing appointments in diaries or tasks on to-do lists with opportunities to encounter God’s grace.

It’s the sacrifice of  worship that we offer, unrushed by the work of the kingdom and unhindered by the lack of workers for the harvest, but flowing from the deep desire to connect and reconnect with the Spirit who sustains each breath.

It’s the very real wrestling with how hard it is to be people of substance when others get to do whatever they desire – without judging them or resenting them or pitying them.

***

In his concluding chapter, the Quester writes that:

The words of the wise prod us to live well.
They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together.
They are given by God, the One Shepherd.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:11 (The Message)

I pray that his wise words might prod us to live well, and that today, these three nails have been hammered home:

  1. That Christ came that all might enter into life real and eternal.
  2. That it is ultimately our choice to live in His light or give in to the smoke and the shadows.
  3. That living in His light begins by honouring and enjoying the One who first breathed life into us and to whom our spirit will return.

Life is precious. But it is also fleeting. May we make the most of every moment all the way to our eternal rest and may the Christ who is the same today as he was yesterday and will be forever, keep us standing sure-footed through the trials and temptations of life; and, as we walk in the certain love of God the Father, and the clear leading of his Holy Spirit, may others come to know through our words and deeds the assurance of Christ with them, always.

Amen.

Costly choices

A reflection based on “beyond the lectionary” readings:

The decision to follow Jesus is one often made in response to a moving, tangible experience of God’s grace – without too much thought or concern about what may follow; but, if taken seriously, it is a choice that has serious and abiding implications, and sometimes complications, for our lives.

For me, the crucial moment came one Sunday during a youth church meeting. As I watched the crucifixion of Christ being dramatised, I was struck by the enormous realisation of what God’s love for me had cost Jesus as he suffered upon the cross, and I knew that I wanted to return such love with reverence and devotion.

Truthfully though, since making that heartfelt commitment to follow Jesus at the age of thirteen, there have been plenty of painful moments in my walk with God that have made me wonder: if I had known then of the valleys of dryness, of darkness, of death through which Christ would lead me, would I have made the same choice?

I certainly have not regularly responded with the humility and obedience of Job who, after losing all that he valued most – his security, his livelihood, his family – fell to the ground in worship and proclaimed:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth.
God gives, God takes.
    God’s name be ever blessed.

Job 1:21-22 (The Message)

Job’s story is a constant reminder that it is easy to love God and to shun evil when all is right in the world, when we seem to be living the abundant life that Scripture promises, when the Good Shepherd leads us into green pastures and beside still waters instead of into the places of desolation and despair.

This is the very charge that Satan levelled against God; the accusation with which he mocks us this day: it is so simple, so natural to say that you love God when you’re hemmed in, protected; when the works of your hands are blessed and you lack nothing. But when things get tough, when you’ve sustained a great loss, when you don’t know how you’re going to make ends meet, you’ll turn your back on your beliefs and curse the One you claimed to love.

Jesus too, in our Gospel reading, criticises the crowd who follows him – an audience made up of those who have heard his testimony and believed that he is, indeed, the light of the world who they should follow in order to claim eternal life.

Yet even as they profess their faith in him, Jesus sees within their hearts the desire to continue living exactly as they had before. They want the benefits, the blessings, of the light of life without having to hold onto Jesus’ teachings and give up their sins or their spiritual pride. As descendants of Abraham they should be capable of great faith and obedience to God, yet ultimately they have no room for God’s word in their lives and may well end up as part of the crowd who shouts “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

In Paul’s second letter to the community in Corinth, we see a similar inconsistency between belief and action: Paul has been trying to collect money to support those Jews in Jerusalem who have been disowned by their families because of their conversion to Christianity but the Corinthians have been slow to see this matter as any concern of theirs and have not contributed meaningfully to the call.

Paul urges them to express their faith as generously as the Macedonian Christians who, in spite of a time of great trial and persecution, had exceeded all expectations and given beyond their capability because they so greatly desired to share in what it cost others to follow Christ.

Mary Flannery O’ Connor, a North American novelist, wrote:

What people don’t realise is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.

Each one of these passages urges us today to count the cost and still choose the cross:

  • If life has been so easy for such a long time that you find yourself merely going through the motions of faith because you think that you’re actually the one who has everything under control – choose the cross.
  • If you made a commitment to God so many years ago that you’ve forgotten the reasons behind it or the devotion that you once felt – choose the cross.
  • If things are such a broken mess; so painful, so chaotic that you’re questioning whether God ever loved you – choose the cross.
  • If you’ve lost everything – home, family, employment, faith – choose the cross.

Choose the cross not because of what you might gain – future blessings or eternal life or a fresh chance to start again with all your sins washed away.

Choose the cross because God chose you and has never forgotten, never forsaken, never been unfaithful to his promises and his plans.

Choose the cross knowing full well that it comes with a cost.

For Job, the cost was being willing to hold onto God’s faithfulness even in the midst of unimaginable anguish; to declare God’s praises and God’s presence even when others suggested that God had abandoned him or was punishing him.

For Jesus, the cost of true discipleship is allowing God’s Word to take such firm root in our lives that it displaces the shame, the pride, the lust, the anger, the greed, the laziness, the hatred – all the sin in which we have indulged and to which we have been enslaved for so long.

For Paul, the cost of the cross is intentionally taking upon ourselves and sharing in the burdens of someone else – though we may have trouble enough in our own lives and our resources may seem scarce.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who ultimately gave his life for his belief wrote:

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell that he has. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives the man the only true life.

As you choose the cross this day – and each day – in a hundred different choices and an infinite number of ways – may the true life of overflowing joy, costly grace, and rich generosity be yours.