Sunday, January 18, 2009

Signs of Wonders (John 1:43-51)

Although it’s often short on details, every now and again a Bible story will offer up a little morsel that reminds us that these sacred stories were first lived by real people before they were told and became Scripture.

Here’s one. When Nathanael’s friends come and tell him they’ve found the Messiah, he has a specific response. “He’s from where?” Whatever Nathanael knew about Nazareth didn’t impress him much. Think about how someone from New York City might react to, say, a vice-presidential nominee from, say, a lightly-populated state out west or something…

Anyway, Nathanael goes with his friends to see this Messiah, probably for the same reason people would go see a talking dog – they don’t expect the dog to speak well, but it’s kind of entertaining to watch it speak at all. Jesus surprises him, and welcomes him with a phrase that probably means something like, “Well, here’s a fellow who says what he thinks and no beating around the bush!” Nathanael is surprised and asks how Jesus knows that about him. Jesus says he saw Nathanael under the fig tree when he was talking with Philip. The vision convinces Nathanael that Jesus is everything Philip had said he was.

“That convinced you? Well, you will see greater things than that before it’s all said and done,” Jesus says. “You will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man,” a phrase that would remind any properly-educated Jewish person of the same idea in Jacob’s vision of God at Bethel.

So is that how God works? You need a little sign to believe in him, then he uses a little sign. You need a bigger sign, then God uses a bigger one. Well, maybe. We do know that God reaches out to us in ways that get to us right where we are. He deals with our understanding, our knowledge and our culture the way they are so that we can know him and begin a relationship that lets us know him more.

But I don’t know that God has classifications of miracles to use in certain situations. Person A can get by with a garden-variety miracle, but Person B needs a Quarter-Pounder version and Person C needs a super-sized Whopper (McDonald’s and Burger King in my metaphor? I’m ecumenical!). Person A may start to grumble about getting a smaller miracle than the others.

Plus, remember what Jesus tells Thomas at the end of this very gospel: Blessed are those who have not seen and who still believe. There are many people who will never see a sign from God at all, but they will still believe in him.

And that’s something I need to think of when I get caught up in discussions about proving things about God or proving God exists or similar debates. I might think of what I have to say – personal testimony or persuasive arguments from philosophers and theologians – as evidence or even proof God exists. But that’s not so.

After all, any God I could prove existed wouldn’t be much of a God if he were limited to what human beings could understand about him. And even if I back off and call these things evidence I’m probably overstating my case some. What I have, whether it’s from my own thoughts and experience or from someone else’s I respect, is testimony. Powerful testimony perhaps, logical testimony maybe, well-documented and agreed-upon testimony, but testimony nonetheless. Not proof, just testimony that someone else can accept or reject.

See, our decision to follow God is just that – a decision. God exists or he doesn’t. We choose one of those two paths, for whatever reasons we care to use. Jesus is Lord or he isn’t. We choose which of those we hold to be true, again, for whatever reasons seem good to us.

Nathanael could have chosen to believe his buddies ratted him out for his Nazareth snark, and that’s how Jesus knew what he’d said. But he chose to believe that Jesus had seen him, and that led him to believe Jesus was the Messiah. He switched worldviews – from “Nothing much comes from from Nazareth Nowheresville” to “This man is the Messiah!” Jesus tells him he will now see greater things than these, and I believe Nathanael will now see those things because of his worldview switch.

Although Jesus is his Savior no matter what Nathanael does, ol’ Nate will come to know him that way because he’s chosen to accept him that way. Jesus’ vision is enough for him, but it wouldn’t be enough if he decided Jesus wasn’t who he said he was. The religious leaders saw the same things Nathanael saw and they chose to view Jesus as trouble, because they would not accept Jesus as Messiah.

Our choice affects our worldview in a similar way. If we reject the idea of God, we might look at all the trouble in the world and all the trouble God’s supposed followers have caused and see that as proof we’ve made the right choice – and it almost always works that way instead of the other way around, no matter what folks might say. But if we accept the idea of God, then we look at the world and we see what’s good in it and we see what good things people who claim God’s name have done, too. And again, it happens that way around rather than the other.

Nathanael’s decision shaped his view of the world. Our decision shapes ours – and if we choose to view the world through the eyes of faith in Christ, we will indeed see and hear greater things than these.

And that sounds like good news to me.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Signs of the Spirit (Mark 1:4-11)

Oh, how often we want a sign from God like the one Mark talks about here. Just some kind of recognition that we’ve done the right thing and that we’re on the right track. Doesn’t have to be on the same scale, heavens opening and spirit descending like a dove and all. Maybe a feather. And one little bitty sunshine ray that hits us right in the eye or something.

Of course, we rarely receive such a sign. And truthfully, when we ask for a sign from God, we more often want confirmation of something we’re thinking about doing, or we want God to let us know that we’re headed in the right direction with our plans. We usually want the stamp of approval before we’ve done something, rather than a confirmation after we’ve done it.

And that would in fact make life easier in a lot of ways. If God had parted the clouds and written in the sky “Don’t take algebra yet” in the summer of 1977, eighth grade would have been a lot easier. Or if he’d said, “Don’t do it. She’s a psycho,” well, there are a number of times that would have been easier for me.

Of course, sometimes we’d like God’s guidance when it comes to serving him. We want to follow his will and do his work, but how do we know what that will and that work are? In this situation, God’s will might be speaking out about a wrong or an injustice. But in another situation, God’s will might direct us to keep quiet instead of lecturing a friend or loved one about their behavior or actions. In the first case, we speak out on behalf of God’s people. In the second, our silence keeps us from throwing up walls between ourselves and others, so they might come to us if their errors get them in real trouble.

How do we know, though, when God calls us to speak and when God calls us to be silent? How do we know which action God might call for in a different situation? Couldn’t God give us a sign?

Well, sure he could. But look more closely at what God is doing with Jesus here and you can see that’s not what Jesus receives. Jesus doesn’t ask for a sign before he’s baptized about whether or not he’s doing the right thing. John baptizes him, and then the heavens open and the Spirit comes.

If we had want we’re asking for, then we’d have that writing in the sky or whatever all the time, telling us, “Turn right.” “Turn left.” “Stop here.” Instead of a God, we’d have a GPS. And God has not offered us a GPS.

Instead, through his Son, he offers us himself.

Of course, by reading the Bible and through prayer, we can learn something about how God wants us to act. But we can’t learn every twist and turn, anymore than we learned every twist and turn of life from those who taught us when we were younger. Sometimes, we have to use what they taught us to figure things out for ourselves. And sometimes, we have to use what we’ve learned about God and what he wants of us to make decisions as well.

But what if we get it wrong, we may ask. What if we study our Bible and we listen for God’s leading and we choose something and it’s wrong? Well, obviously we go straight to hell.

No, of course we don’t! See how stupid that sounds when you actually say it? As if God expected perfection from us – if he really thought we could somehow perfect ourselves, do you think Jesus would have offered himself? Would he have thought, “Well, I’ll have a jolly old time with those Roman soldiers beating on me and finish it off by being nailed to a tree, but it’s all for fun because everyone ought to be able to be perfect no matter what I do.”

Look, as far as us knowing what God’s will is, we do have some general direction. Micah 6:8 is one example: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Are we able, most of the time, to determine whether or not what we are planning on doing falls into that category? I think we are. I know that a lot of times I may think I’m conflicted about what God wants of me, but when I start looking at my choices, not all of them are actually about doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with my God.

Some of them are about what I want to do, and my choice is more between doing something I know God probably wants me to do and doing something I want to do. Which do I choose? Well, he has shown me, O mortal, what is good and what he requires of me.

The sign Jesus receives, the presence of the Holy Spirit as it descends on him, is a sign that doesn’t direct him so much as it confirms something for him. It confirms that his path of obedience to God is the right path. And signs like that come to us in more ways than we might imagine.

When I first talked with my associate pastor about exploring a career in ministry, I just called him and asked to come over. He and his wife lived in my apartment complex. I sat down and he said, “Well, what do you want to talk about? Entering the ministry?” When his wife came home, he told her about my decision, and she said, “Well, why am I not surprised.” I thought, “Am I the only one who didn’t know this?” And apparently I was.

Gary and Lanette were not doves descending upon me – which is good, because Gary worked out and was a big ol’ boy – but I have come to see their words were words the Holy Spirit used to confirm I was on the right path the same way God’s words showed that Jesus was on the right path.

If it’s hard to figure out why we more often have signs confirm what we’ve done than to direct what we ought to do, remember this. If God told us everything we should or shouldn’t do, step by step, then where would our faith be? What would we have to believe in order to follow him? Would belief or faith even be involved at all?

The thing about following a GPS everywhere all the time is that you rarely, if ever, learn the way yourself. And even if it’s a little tough to understand, I’m pretty sure that if God acted like a GPS in our lives, then we’d find it hard to know the Way, not to mention the Truth and the Light, we were made to know.