Saturday, June 6, 2009

God's Path to Us

Here's a second draft of the message for tomorrow's worship... some preliminary thoughts we shared last Sunday at Outside In. You are invited to come and share worship with us at 8:30 or 10:30 a.m.

I wonder how the message will look by tomorrow morning... it's really still incomplete!

Yesterday we stopped at the Northwestern Bookstore to pick up some cards for graduates, and while I was there I happened to see a book called They Like Jesus But Not the Church. I paged through it, saw there was a DVD that went with it, liked some parts and almost went to buy it, but then I saw something that made me put it back on the rack.

One of the chapters talked about how different religions like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism… how different religions would have people get to God. The illustration in the book showed how many people think that religions are paths that lead to God, and the paths, in the pictures, were labeled with the different religions, and the paths were shown as going up a mountain.

Many people think that different religions are just different paths that bring you to the same God… that if you follow the Muslim path, or the Buddhist path, or the Christian path, that you will eventually get to the same place.

By the way, I’m in the process of inviting an old friend, Pastor John Spaulding, to come and make a presentation to us this fall about Islam. Pastor John is from Alexandria, MN, and is director of an organization dedicated to help Christians communicate with the thousands of new immigrant Muslims in the twin cities.

So—do all religions lead to the same place? In the bookstore, the book I was paging through showed that, no, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam do not lead to the same place. Instead of different paths going up to the top of the same mountain, the book showed how Christianity, Buddhism and Islam are actually paths on DIFFERENT mountains…

But when I saw that was as far as the book went, that the illustration of paths on different mountains was the conclusion of that section of the book, I put the book back on the shelf and walked away.

Christianity, you see… Christianity is NOT a path to God at all! Christianity is not a way that we walk or progress or move toward God. Christianity is a description of how God comes to us, about how God comes from outside our world, not just from a lofty mountain peak, but from outside of creation itself, and how God comes to us.

That’s what Jesus says in John 3:13, when he says, No one as ascended—gone up—into heaven—that’s a code word for where God is outside of his creation—No one has gone up to God except for the one who has come down from God—the Son of Man—who is Jesus Christ himself.

Christianity is not a path that brings us closer to God or a way for us to get in good with God. Christianity is not a way for us to somehow drum up enough goodness and purity so we can get better and little by little climb a ladder or a mountain up to God. Other religions might do that and if you want to get in good with God maybe you should try one of those other religions.

There is no “path” in the Christian life except the path that Jesus took when he came to us, down from the “mountain,” in to us from the outside of creation, when he came to us from where no one can go—not Buddha, not Mohammed, not Nicodemus or St. Peter himself.

No one can climb up to God. God has to come to us. And all we can do is to receive him, as a pure and perfect gift. If you or I or anyone else somehow climbed up to be close to God, we would be lost like Isaiah, who was given a special vision or dream of God and was so overpowered by God’s holiness that he felt like he was going to die.

God BURNS with holiness. Without grace and mercy and love from God that comes through Jesus, those of us who want to come close to God are done for. Destroyed.

It’s like Jesus explains to Nicodemus in our gospel: NO ONE can come close to God—this is verse 3 of John 3—no one can even SEE the kingdom of God without being born ἄνωθεν -- the word “anothen” comes from a root word meaning “up.”

You can’t go UP to God as you are—you need a new beginning, to start all over again and verse 8—“flesh” – human nature – we are what we are, children of our very imperfect and broken human parents… the very best we can do is to do as good as they have done… and as we grow we come to learn that our parents are very broken and sinful… we need something new and fresh and powerful, something that comes from the one who made us in the beginning. We need a new beginning from God, something that we can’t earn—how can you deserve a new start? You can’t. It needs to be given to you as a gift.

You cannot climb up to God. God has to come to you with mercy, like the angel with the symbolic burning coal in Isaiah’s dream… good that it was a dream!... God has to come to you like God will come next week to Gracie—Gracie will be drowned—not really—it’s a symbolic drowning—the amount of water or the age of the person don’t matter… but baptism is a wonderful picture of God’s grace, as we are totally dependent on God for a new beginning.

The path doesn't go "up" to God. We cannot make God love us. God has to come to us. He did that first in his Son Jesus Christ, as he came to us from eternity to be born and to suffer and to die and to rise again, to give himself for us, and to extend his hand to us and to carry us now, carry us to be with God… only Jesus can do it, we can only depend on him.

And that’s true not only for new believers, for new Christians, it’s true for each of us, no matter how long it is that we have been a part of the church.

The only way we are going to grow spiritually is to become more and more dependent, more and more open to being a child with our Lord, remembering that we are first, before anything else, God’s adopted children…

There’s a wonderful and terrible parable in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, in the 16th chapter, a parable that really shows who we are… it’s a bit hard to read—it’s not a “G” rated part of the Bible… But I’d encourage you to read Ezekiel 16—in that chapter we are the child who is abandoned and is given God’s grace and mercy to live on. In that chapter we, you and I, you and I are pictured as young woman who grows and who is dearly loved but who is unfaithful and who suffers because of it.

But then, at the end of this parable story, we have these words of grace and love, totally not deserved… verse 60… God says that, in the end, he will “remember my covenant” and “establish with you an everlasting covenant.”

The incredible thing about God’s way with us is, when he comes to us from BEYOND, when God comes to us with his grace, he never turns around. When Jesus Christ gave his life—FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD, THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON… when Jesus came to us so we could TRUST and BELIEVE that we are loved… WHOSOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT PERISH BUT HAVE EVERLASTING LIFE… when Jesus comes to us he does not change his mind!

We are so often unfaithful like the whore in Ezekiel 16, ungrateful, unloving, looking for selfish, short term pleasure for ourselves and the ones who are like US… but still, God continues to come to us, to come to us, taking whatever path is necessary to find us and to claim us as His own once again.

Ezekiel 16, beginning with verse 62, says this about God’s amazing and forgiving grace… when we come to know it… God says:
… you shall know that I am the Lord! You will remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again (in self-defense) because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God.
God comes to us from the outside of our abilities and our strength. God comes to us with his word, in baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, to share his grace with us… and we receive it for what it is, a totally undeserved gift.

That's all I've got time for writing now. I'm heading out to a couple of graduation parties... big weekend here in Cokato, MN.


  1. Hi, didn't Jesus mention something about the kingdom within? Thanks, Marc

  2. Actually, Mark, the Greek is better translated "the kingdom is among you." The word "you" in that sentence is plural, not singular. It is true, however, that once the Holy Spirit comes and transforms us, that we do have God "in" us, but that God comes from beyond us, not from what we can do in and of ourselves.

  3. Then it doesn't matter what religion you are because no matter what you do, it's God who decides who gets the holy spirit and not any particular practice?..........M

  4. Sorry if I wasn't clear, Marc, but it's not religion that saves us but only Jesus, who comes to us from God, and our trust in Jesus Christ. The Christian "religion" if you want to call it that, is simply a way of helping people trust their Lord. We gain nothing from it except that trusting relationship with the only one who came down from heaven for us... Like I said above:
    "The path doesn't go 'up' to God. We cannot make God love us. God has to come to us. He did that first in his Son Jesus Christ, as he came to us from eternity to be born and to suffer and to die and to rise again, to give himself for us, and to extend his hand to us and to carry us now, carry us to be with God… only Jesus can do it, we can only depend on him."

  5. Hey,... but still isn't "trust" or a "way" a type of method that opens the mind to a different mode of being? So then even though God is all powerful,a process must be done or gone through so the effect takes place?

  6. Yes, you could say that trust is a way, though the scriptures say that Jesus HIMSELF is the way, not technically our trust in him. Trust is admitting that we can't save ourselves and opening ourselves to the one who CAN save us. The trouble is that we human beings always want to say that we did it ourselves, at least a little bit. As long as we know it's ALL GOD'S WORK in our lives, then we can use the analogy of saying that Christianity is a "way." But, if so, it's a very short "way," because we die to ourselves, fall in his arms, and allow the Holy Spirit within us to bring us along. As you will learn, brother Marc, every way of talking about "the way" is imperfect because the only perfect one is the Lord himself. If you want to talk more, let's do it face to face! Thanks for sharing!

  7. I loved the sermon. It is a message that I need to hear everyday. It truly is the good news! Amen brother and thanks for delivering it to our congregation!!

    Mike L

  8. I had been having a back and forth on these comments with a "Marc"... I thought it was someone from our area but now I found out that he lives in New Jersey. Here's the beginning of a comment that I decided not to post in its entirety because it included a long quote from what seems to be a Buddhist text.

    Marc, I really didn't want to "end" this back and forth conversation! I thought I knew who you were but now I find out that you are from NJ... Feel free to comment again. I'd really like to know more about who you are and how to contact you personally instead of in this impersonal public forum.

    The comment that Marc wanted to post just after noon central daylight time today follows, but with just the first stanza of a 20 stanza quote that he added to his comment. (I do moderate comments on this blog..._
    Hlaktoong said...
    Ok I can tell you want to end this, besides I live in NJ. Even though yes ultimately the Holy Spirit is beyond thought forms there is still a necessity to have as a basis correct reasoning to what the true nature of Reality is. To do otherwise is to create a duelistic vision that will eventually clash with the observable objective universal realities.
    If there is no real practice then how can onself and others determine the validity of acheving the Holy Spirit? Emontionally pushing people into the state of non-self make work temporarily, but without the intellects reasoning power you will soon get the inevitable split between the subjective experience and what people endure in this world. So I leave you with this, the state beyond thought, the view of no-view, the non-dual of pure awarness.
    PS. you should buy that book, :-)......M
    Nagarjuna's Mahamudra Vision

    Homage to Manjushri!

    1. I bow down to the all-powerful Buddha
    Whose mind is free of attachment,
    Who in his compassion and wisdom
    Has taught the inexpressible.