Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
– Reinhold Niebuhr
Gospel Lesson: John 1:1-18
Epistle: Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
In the 1950’s, there was a missionary named Jim Elliot who felt called by God to go to Ecuador to minister to native peoples there. Along with his team, he started to build relationships with a particularly remote tribe—first dropping gifts from their missionary plane, then working toward introducing themselves, continuing to clear the way with more presents to show their goodwill. Finally delegations from each group met. On this big day, Jim took a photo from his pocket to show the tribespeople that the missionaries were friends with a member of their tribe.
Having never seen a photograph, they assumed that Jim had eaten brother, since he had taken the likeness of this person out of his body to show them. They murdered Jim and his companions immediately.
I wonder if we sometimes make the opposite mistake about Jesus. I wonder if we take Jesus to be just a picture of God—only an image or likeness, but not really God himself. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but if I had my choice I’d take the thousand words every time—there’s so much more to learn from studying a description of someone than reducing a whole person to a single photograph.
Our Gospel passage today is bursting with poetic description of God; it harkens to another description of God elsewhere.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That description goes on to reveal that God created humanity “in God’s image”—which means that we ourselves are a sort of photo in some way—and when God created humanity, he furnished a place for his people to live and provided for their every need. You know this story—here’s where the montage of Adam and Eve frolicking and eating and naming animals fits in—and then something goes wrong. (you can imagine the sound of a pin dragging against vinyl) Adam and Eve decide that God may have been lying to them after all, and they test the truth God had told them—whether it really did matter so much how they lived.
Now we really learn something about God: that evening, arriving for their daily walk, God calls out for his companions, his cherished creatures. They’re hiding—they know they shouldn’t have tested God and shouldn’t have doubted that God was telling the truth, but they really would rather not face up to it.
We’re not that different, are we? Instead of recognizing our crookedness, we bury it and move on. I read a story this week of a professor who, when his desk got too full of letters to be answered and tasks to complete, he’d spread out an edition of the New York Times and then start over as if his desk was clean. We paper over our sins, too, instead of owning up to them before God.
On that evening, God knew exactly what had happened and where his creatures were; he could have come rushing in, screaming, demanding that they leave immediately, as if he was a righteous landlord. But that’s not the description of God that we’re shown here at the very beginning of Scripture.
Scripture begins with a God that is so full of love that he dreams each of us up out of nothing. Then, when each of us, as we all do, decides to test out whether God is really telling the truth, he gently asks what it is that we’re doing—giving us a chance to tell him the truth and to own up to our schemes. We grab a New York Times, or a fig leaf, to try to cover up the mess we’ve made, even though God can already see the mess. The God who’s described here in the pages of Genesis is the same one described in the first verses of the Gospel of John—the God full of grace and full of truth.
Being full of grace and truth sounds lovely, but I argue this morning that it makes God very off-putting. That same professor didn’t cover his desk with a newspaper just once, but did it habitually—when he finally died, they dug down many layers of newsprint, finding all sorts of unpaid invoices, unanswered inquiries, and unfinished assignments. Can you imagine the horror he might have felt if this practice had been discovered and challenged while he was alive? God knows all the layers of newsprint we’ve used to paper up our lives. Even when I’ve lost count of the path and number of lies I’ve used to cover up various deeds—done and left undone—God knows each and every one. God is full of truth, and that sounds kind of terrible.
Thomas Keating, a 20th century monk, says that when it starts to dawn on us just how many layers of deception we’ve built our lives on, we think we’re getting worse, but truly, we’re just realizing how bad off we always were, and that, he says, is an enormous grace.
We look up at God from the bottom of our crumpled-paper and sticky-sin lives, and he reaches down and scoops us up in his hand, brushing away the debris. This is grace. While truth is hard, I think grace might be harder. The law, our epistle says, was our disciplinarian before Christ came. The law, or rule-following, lets me continually hit myself against a wall when I do something wrong. I punish myself and pay for the wrong I’ve committed. All the time, I’m trying to be dependent only on myself.
This isn’t how we were made to be, though. We were made to be in the midst of God’s grace and truth. God’s grace is the hand that comes down to the cave of our sin and scoops us up and out of it—we don’t have to run ourselves against a wall, we don’t have to sit in the dog house for months on end; we’re forgiven. The hard part is to accept God’s grace, to live as if we are truly forgiven, not punishing ourselves any more, but acknowledging honestly the shortcomings we suffer.
I’ll close with a bit of a poem by W.H. Auden:
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.
God is full of truth—he knows what’s under your newspaper. God is full of grace—he brushes away all the debris by his death on the cross and resurrection.
Will you accept his hand?