Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sermon - Believing in the Holy Spirit

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.... In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. - Romans 8:5-17, 26-27

For many of us, the Holy Spirit is a natural topic of devotion and study. We recognize the Holy Spirit as the daily presence of God in our lives. But that is not so for everyone.

The last two sermons I have preached have been “Believing in God” and “Believing in Jesus.” For the world outside the church, those may be controversial topics, but they are not new ideas. The question of whether one “believes in God” is universal, and the idea of believing in Jesus is something that at least those in our western world have heard about, even if only by hearing passing references to John 3:16.

Today’s topic is a horse of an entirely different color. If you ask most people outside the church if they believe in the Holy Spirit, you are going to draw mainly blank stares. Most people have either never heard of the Holy Spirit or dismiss the idea before they process it. Ask your unchurched friend if he or she believes in God, you will most likely get a thoughtful answer. Ask the same friend if he or she believes in the Holy Spirit, and if you get any response at all, it will be confusion or a snicker, akin to what you get if you ask if they believe in UFOs.

It is popular today to say that you are “spiritual but not religious.” Enough Americans now fit into this category these days that they get to check their own box on questionnaires. Saying they are spiritual does not mean that they believe in the Holy Spirit. Lillian Daniel’s comments on this recent brand amuse me:

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach…. Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself…. Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. [https://www.huffingtonpost.com/lillian-daniel/spiritual-but-not-religio_b_959216.html]

That’s kind of funny, but it illustrates how much of the world outside the church thinks about quote-unquote “spiritual” issues.

But the reaction of the world is not my target today. What do you believe about the Holy Spirit? In 2009, the Barna group surveyed 1871 self-described Christians, and 58% of them, well over half, agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “the Holy Spirit is a symbol of God’s power or presence but is not a living entity.” [https://www.barna.com/research/most-american-christians-do-not-believe-that-satan-or-the-holy-spirit-exist/] If you put any credence into the survey, you have to wonder what the church is teaching about the Holy Spirit if more than half of Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is merely symbolic, not real and alive.

Let’s be honest. Talking about the Holy Spirit, especially if we talk about gifts of the Spirit, makes a lot of us uncomfortable. For some, you remember “Holy Spirit services” or “Holy Ghost power” sermons, and you picture pew jumpers and remember recitations of tongues that you could not understand. Faith healers and snake handlers come to mind quickly for some when we start talking about the Holy Spirit.

Others of you are put off by any discussion of spirits at all. That is just a bridge too far for you. You can understand Father God, and you identify happily and readily with Jesus. Those are ideas that make sense to you, that resonate with your experience. You have seen depictions of those in art and literature and theatre. You remember your acceptance of God as a child. But talking about spirits sounds like Casper the Friendly Ghost or 1980s Spielberg movies. When you hear about churches celebrating the Holy Spirit, that seems like those charismatics and those hippie churches. A sermon about a Spirit that moves like the wind, something called the breath of God, seems either too 19th century or too New Age – you are not sure which, but you are having none of it.

To some, the idea of the Trinity – God in three persons - is so hard to grasp that they simply choose not to go there. It is easier to relegate the Holy Spirit to some third place standing of relatively low importance in the divine lineup, and then He can be ignored for all practical purposes or defined in whatever narrow way suits individual choices.

For still others, discussion of the Holy Spirit hits a little near to home. God the creator and Jesus who walked the earth 2000 years ago can be kept – if we want – at arm’s length. When we start talking about the Spirit of God inside you, knowing your thoughts and feelings and directing your steps, that is too close for comfort.

So today I am wading in where you may not want to go. I want to discuss and celebrate this third person of the Trinity, this breath of God that infiltrates our very lives.

The truth is that many of you are more comfortable with the idea of the Holy Spirit than you realize. You may say that the concept of God the Father is where you are most at home, but when we start thinking about that, what you appreciate is the welcoming presence that directs you and comforts you and never lets you down. That is the Holy Spirit. You may gravitate to the person of Jesus, in whom God is revealed, but in fact you have never seen Jesus, and you are reveling in the one with whom you have a daily personal relationship, the one sent to indwell you and speak to you. The one who goes through every hardship with you. That is the Holy Spirit.

There can be no dispute that the Holy Spirit is an essential Biblical character. The name “Holy Spirit” appears in Psalms and Isaiah, and references to the Spirit of God are throughout the Old Testament, beginning in the second verse of Genesis. In the New Testament, Jesus discusses and interacts with the Holy Spirit on numerous occasions, and all of the epistle writers discuss the activity and presence of the Holy Spirit.

The Book of Acts, of course, chronicles the work of the Holy Spirit after the momentous events of the Day of Pentecost. While some of your Bibles may call this book the “Acts of the Apostles,” many refer to it as “the Acts of the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit is responsible for the virgin conception of Christ. John the Baptist tells us that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us that David wrote the Psalms through the power of the Holy Spirit and that when we share the gospel, it is not we who speak but the Holy Spirit speaking through us. The Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth, Simeon, Zechariah, Stephen, Peter, and Jesus Himself, descending like a dove. You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and you will receive power after the Holy Spirit comes upon you.

OK, enough of the laundry list. You get the point. We cannot seriously study scripture without addressing the Holy Spirit and worshiping Him as a face of God.

So let’s turn to our scripture for the day in Romans 8. I am going to be a very old-fashioned preacher today, or perhaps you prefer to say that I am being very traditional. I am going to have an outline that has five points, five short point (I promise), and I am going to use alliteration to help us all remember. I believe that the scripture teaches us at least five things about the Holy Spirit, and they all start with P. They are Presence, Promise, Preparation, Power, and Prayer.

1. Presence

We start with verses 5-9, where Paul tells us that we are of the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in us. This idea of indwelling – that the Spirit of God literally lives within us – echoes Jesus’s words that we read earlier from John, where Jesus tells us that the Spirit abides with us and “will be in” us. [John 14:17] Paul tells Timothy to guard what was trusted to him with “the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” [2 Timothy 1:14] Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. [1 Corinthians 6:19]

The fact that the Holy Spirit lives within us has enormous consequences. That the Spirit of God Himself would choose to abide in us, to make His home within us, to commune with us is truly beyond our ken, and it ought to drive us all to our knees. Paul speaks interchangeably of the “Spirit of God” and the “Spirit of Christ” in this chapter, which is entirely appropriate because God and Christ and the Holy Spirit are all expressions of the same being. Jesus speaks of the presence of this indwelling Spirit as His own: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” [Revelation 3:20]

This indwelling Spirit is responsible for our Christian fellowship. When we Christians meet, even if we have not met before, there is a tie that binds. The Holy Spirit in you recognizes the Holy Spirit in me.

And what is this presence? When we talk about an indwelling Spirit, what does that mean? Who is it? Do you picture this presence in any form?

I do.

The Greek word used in John for the Holy Spirit speaks to me very personally. In our responsive reading from the Gospel of John, we heard Jesus refer to the Holy Spirit as the Advocate. Other translations say “Comforter,” “Counselor,” or “Helper.” The Greek word here is paraclete, and it literally means one who is called alongside to aid in a court of law. It is particularly meaningful to me because it is the word the ancient Greeks used for a lawyer, the one who stands beside you before the judge. To this day, when I am in court, judges refer to me as “Counselor.” I am there because I know the language and the rules, because I know how to say what needs to be said and how to negotiate what is, to the untrained, a labyrinth of confusing, if not outright confounding procedures and potential penalties. Clients want me there because they are lost if they have to walk that road alone. The translation of the word as we read it, from the New International Version, as advocate is right on point: the paraclete speaks for us, takes up our cause, argues our case. We are sinners, and standing before the almighty holy God is a daunting challenge. The paraclete – the Holy Spirit – stands with us and delivers a divine closing argument on our behalf. That is incredibly meaningful to me.

Jesus was called Emmanuel, which means God with us. After Jesus ascended to heaven, the Holy Spirit, which had moved over the face of the earth, entered into us as the indwelling presence of God with us. This paraclete – comforter, counselor, helper – lives with us and in us, reminding us of the love and work and essence of God.

Another importance of the indwelling Spirit, beyond driving us to our knees and forming our fellowship and being God to us, is confirmation of our salvation experience, which leads us to ...

2. Promise

There is another particular word for the Holy Spirit, a particular role, if you will, that speaks to me. It is the word “deposit.” You may be old enough to remember a deposit you had to pay on Coke bottles; you got it back when you brought the bottle back to the store. The deposit was a promise, a guarantee of what was to come. We heard that explained earlier in the Second Corinthians text my Dad read for us. In Ephesians, Paul says it this way: “When you believed, you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of His glory.” [Ephesians 1:13:14]

In other words, the Holy Spirit is given to us a promise, like earnest money paid on a mortgage to assure future payment. I could have used another “P”-word here, the word pledge. The Holy Spirit is God’s pledge to us of all that awaits us in the kingdom. Paul calls the Holy Spirit a guarantee of what God has for us, an assurance that our salvation can never be taken away so that we live by faith and not by sight. [2 Corinthians 5:5,7] The Greek word that our Bibles translate as “deposit” is arrabon, which literally means earnest, or earnest money. Interestingly, that is the word that in modern Greek is used for an engagement ring. What a picture that is – we, the Bride of Christ, are given the Holy Spirit as a beautiful, incredibly valuable promise of what is to come.

This promise is what the “deposit” or “seal” language is all about. Jesus tells us that we will continue to see and know Him because of the Spirit, who will come to us and teach us and remind us of everything that Jesus has taught us and given us. The Helper/Paraclete will testify about Jesus to us when we need reassurance [John 15:26]

The indwelling Spirit is the key to our eternal life. In verses 10 and 11, Paul tells us that Spirit in us gives us life and will give our mortal bodies eternal life just as Jesus Himself conquered death. The rest of that paragraph, with the great “Abba! Father!” language of verse 15, assures us that the Spirit bears witness with us that we are children of God and heirs with Christ, to be glorified with Him.

It is ok to say Amen right there.

This indwelling Spirit does even more.

3. Preparation

The Spirit teaches us. We need not wonder how to behave, for the words of Jesus are constantly brought back to us through the Spirit. Jesus caps this explanation off in the 16th chapter of John, when He says this:

I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. [John 16:7-11]

This leadership goes beyond merely tidbits of information. While what we call our conscience is undoubtedly one facet of the Holy Spirit, He is not some Jiminy Cricket character, limited to whispering in our ear and hoping for the best. He is the one convicting of sin, reminding us of God’s words, and glorifying Jesus. Yes, glorifying Jesus: there is a worship service going on inside each one of us all the time, conducted by the Holy Spirit. When you cannot find a worshipful bone in your body or thought in your mind, just step back. Let what the Holy Spirit is already doing lead you. He is preparing you, leading you and teaching you.

Let me add that the preparation and leadership of the Holy Spirit are the only hope for Trinity River Church. This church was born in Jim’s and my heart out of the working of the Holy Spirit. Our many obstacles are known to all of you, and we are now facing the struggles inherent in any new work of a small congregation meeting in unfamiliar surroundings at an unfamiliar time. The only way this church will survive and grow is through the work of the Holy Spirit. That preparation will occur in each of our hearts. If each person in this room is not sensitive to the leadership of the Spirit – meaning, if you are not in prayer about our church and your role in helping it grow and helping Jesus reach people who need to be reached – we will be nothing. Our foundation has been laid, but unless the Lord builds the house, our labors are in vain. I believe wholeheartedly that this church has begun and will continue as the work of the Holy Spirit. That means I am not worried. But it also means that I must choose every day to seek out the Holy Spirit in the work and follow his leadership. I beseech you to do the same. Pray. Show up. Invite. Join the Holy Spirit, who leads this work.

That leadership is not simply preparation, however.

4. Power

The Spirit empowers us. It is the Spirit working through us that enables our service. In verses 5 and 14, we learn that the Spirit leads us. We need not wonder if we can do what God wants, for the Holy Spirit provides the ability, the impetus, the power to do what we need to do, if we just let Him do the work to help us. God will not call us to anything that His Spirit will not enable us to accomplish.

The Spirit of God inspires and energizes us to do the will of God. This is the power to resist temptation, the power not to sin. Verse 11 tells us that the Spirit who dwells in us gives to us from the very power that raised Jesus from the dead. Paul says in First Corinthians that he rests his entire preaching on the power of the Holy Spirit. [1 Corinthians 2:4]

That power is available for all of us. We have to know where to look for it and how to access it.

Many of you know the story of Eric Liddell, Olympic runner and later missionary who is the inspiration for the great movie “Chariots of Fire.” Liddell says this: “I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.”

I remember a story told by my friend and Debra’s former colleague David Johnson, who was college minister at Columbus Avenue Baptist in Waco. David tells of his three-year-old nephew who spilled a Pixy Stix all over the carpet in the van. You remember Pixy Stix I hope – the paper straw full of powder absolutely guaranteed to get everywhere when placed into the hands of a child. The child’s parents naturally thought very little of the incident until later, after they got home, when they suddenly realized that their toddler was not in the house. Before they got too desperate, they found him in the garage, on the floor of the van with their Dustbuster, running it back and forth over the spilt candy and saying “Vroom. Vroom.” Of course, nothing was happening, because the child did not know how to plug it in. You see, we can go through all the right motions and make all the right noises, but without the right power source, our efforts do no good.

As I said, we have to know where to look for it and how to access it. The where is answered by Eric Liddell, for we have the power from within us. Accessing it is a matter of opening ourselves up – the Biblical word that our culture does not like is “submitting” – to the Holy Spirit of God. It is from this indwelling Holy Spirit that Jesus says we will receive power to be His witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth.

Dwight Moody said it this way:

When the Spirit came to Moses, the plagues came upon Egypt, and he had power to destroy men's lives; when the Spirit came upon Elijah, fire came down from heaven; when the Spirit came upon Gideon, no man could stand before him; and when it came upon Joshua, he moved around the city of Jericho and the whole city fell into his hands; but when the Spirit came upon the Son of Man, He gave His life; He healed the broken-hearted.

5. Prayer

The Holy Spirit prays for us. The Holy Spirit is the premier pray-er in the universe.

The discussion of the Holy Spirit in our passage of Romans 8 finishes with this wonderful security about prayer: “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” [Romans 8:26-27] The great Puritan Jonathan Edwards said: “The true spirit of prayer is no other than God’s own Spirit dwelling in the hearts of the saints. And as this spirit comes from God, so doth it naturally tend to God in holy breathings and pantings. It naturally leads to God, to converse with him by prayer.”[https://www.christianquotes.info/top-quotes/18-beautiful-quotes-holy- spirit/#ixzz57cJouXkN]

Sometimes your pastor can help you out. I had always read this verse all wrong. When Romans says that the Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray, I had interpreted that as meaning that the Spirit can come up with just the right three-dollar-word to get the Father’s attention when we are just too dumb to know the right language. My pastor in Nashville, Frank Lewis, lovingly set me straight. I was struggling mightily with an issue and could not find it within me to pray about it, and Frank explained that this verse has nothing to do with finding the right language and everything to do with our Advocate’s fighting on our behalf when we have no idea how to pray in the first place. When we are up a creek without a paddle, a lost ball in high weeds, having no idea how to approach God or even, truth be told, if we want to pray about our deepest hurts and struggles, our paraclete is already in the breach, lifting us up and arguing our case to the one who trusts the Spirit.

I do not understand the intricacies of the Trinity, but I know that Jesus prayed to the Father, and I know that the Spirit prays to the Father. I know that the paraclete, the face of God that indwells me and glorifies Christ and reminds me of all that Jesus teaches, is also my biggest fan in the Holy Court, making my case before the Father. When I don’t know the language to use, the Spirit prays with groanings that are beyond human comprehension. When I don’t even know where to start, the Spirit has long ago taken up my representation before the Father. When I cannot be convinced that my problem can possibly be solved and thus I am not ready to pray, the Spirit is already interceding on my behalf.

Hallelujah.

Presence. Promise. Preparation. Power. Prayer.

A.W. Tozer said that “the Spirit-filled life is not a special, deluxe edition of Christianity. It is part and parcel of the total plan of God for His people.”

That plan is waiting for you. Believe in the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sermon - Believing in Jesus

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God."


- John 3:1-21

What do you believe in?

I know that is not a grammatically correct question, and somewhere my seventh grade English teacher Mrs. Bowen is frowning at me, but … what do you believe in? What do you trust your life to? Where is your faith?

This past week has been one for me to celebrate the memory of Mimi on her birthday. Mimi was my paternal grandmother. We lost Mimi almost a quarter-century ago, but had she lived, she would have turned 99 on Friday.

There are lots of Mimi stories I can tell you, and perhaps I will one day. Many of them revolve around cooking, or taking me to the Dairy Castle, or playing cards, or a weeklong camping trip with my cousin Crystal. Most of the stories involve laughter, and they all involve love.

But I want to tell one particular Mimi story today. Mimi lived in Covington, Tennessee, 38 miles north of Memphis. Its geography is important to this story, because in between Covington and Memphis is a town called Millington. And that is important because in Millington was N.A.S. Memphis, now known as Naval Support Activity Mid-South. But Naval Air Station Memphis, as it was known until 1993, was the largest inland naval base in the world.

Now, the reason all that is important is that aviation activity at the Naval Air Station in Millington dates back to World War I, before Mimi was born. In other words, from her earliest memories, Mimi saw airplanes flying around her home town. Every day. She saw them. She knew flyers. She knew folks who flew with the flyers. For more than seventy years, she saw naval aviators flying without leaving her front yard.

When her sons got older and moved further away, they would from time to time fly on airplanes. Uncle Jerry flew all the way to the Philippines. My dad lived in a number of states, and while we often drove to Covington, Mimi knew that Dad would fly home on occasion.

Mimi saw airplanes every day. She knew people who flew in airplanes. Her sons flew on air planes.

Mimi knew that airplanes can fly. She had no doubt of that.

Mimi would not set foot on an airplane.

This phenomenon was not limited to Tennessee farm wives with 9th grade educations. On the other side of my family, my maternal grandfather, a high school principal with a master’s degree who read law at night and became the Gladewater, Texas city attorney, also knew all about airplanes.

He would not get on an airplane, either.

Mimi and Granddaddy knew that airplanes can fly. They both believed airplanes were safe and could carry human beings much more efficiently than any other transportation they knew. Other people told them how great flying was, and they believed it.

But Mimi and Granddaddy did not believe in airplanes.

John 3:16 is almost certainly the most widely known and loved verse in scripture. Even if you did not learn it in Vacation Bible School or Sunday School or at your parents’ knee, you cannot escape reference to it. We all remember the funny guy with the rainbow Afro wig holding up the John 3:16 sign at football games. When former New England Patriot and convicted murdered Aaron Hernandez committed suicide, he was found with John 3:16 written on his forehead in red marker. Tim Tebow had it printed on his eye black under his helmet.

Like me, you probably learned it in the King James language. Those of you who remember, say it with me: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Whosoever believeth in him.

In the new International Version that I read a moment ago, the words are almost identical: “whoever believes in him.” Virtually every English translation uses some form of the word “believe.”

Last week, I talked about what it means to believe in God, and I emphasized the importance of the acceptance of certain facts, of recognizing the reality of the truth of God.

If you were here, or if you read that sermon online, I hope you stayed with it to the end, where I said that simply understanding the facts was only an intellectual exercise unless we were willing to submit to the sovereignty of God. So too, this week, we must recognize that believing in Jesus is not simply acknowledgement, not even simply reciting a certain prayer the right way; believing in Jesus is an act of submission to the leadership of the Master.

When we talk about Jesus and John 3:16, it is really important to read every word. The verse does not say “whoever believes that Jesus meant what He said” or “whoever believes that Jesus is real” or even “whoever believes that Jesus saves.”

No, it says “whoever believes in Jesus.”

Mimi believed a lot of facts about airplanes, but she did not believe in airplanes. She would not set foot in one, would not leave the safety of the ground to give herself to (as she called it) a “giant flying tube with wings.” You could have taught Granddaddy a seminar’s worth of aerodynamics, and he would never have committed himself to an airplane.

Believing facts is important. Most everyone accepts that Jesus died on the cross. Historians agree that Jesus was a real, important figure in the Holy Land in the early first century.

But believing facts is not the same thing as believing in Jesus. Muslims believe that He was born of a virgin. James tells us that even the demons believe… and shudder. [James 2:19] The man Legion, when infested by demons, recognized Jesus and called him “the Son of the Most High God.” [Luke 8:28] Knowing facts about Jesus is not a sign of belief in Him. Believing that something is true is not the same thing as believing in that something.

But we have to be even more careful with the word games. I believe in Queen Elizabeth. I have never met or seen her and have no real interest in doing so, but I believe in her existence. I can tell you that I do not believe in the Easter Bunny. I do believe in Bernie Sanders and in Ted Cruz. Presumably, at least one of those is not someone with whom I agree very often. Some people believe in ghosts. You may believe in the healing power of hot chocolate. What we really mean in all those cases is that we believe in the existence of someone or something. That does not get us very far.

John 3, like almost all of the rest of the New Testament, is written in Greek. I do not speak or read Greek, but I know how to study those who do. The word used here is pisteuĆ³, the verb form of pistis, which means “faith.” The word means to have faith in, to trust. What Jesus is really saying is “whoever faiths me,” but we don’t have a verb form of faith in English, so our Bibles translate the word as believe. It is not “believe” as in “I believe in ghosts” or “I believe I’ll go to the movies tonight.” It is not even “I believe this network tells the truth and that one does not.” It is belief as in confidence, affirmation, persuaded commitment. I believe. It is the father bringing his mute, convulsing son to Jesus, exclaiming “I believe” and expecting healing from the master.

“Believe” is a word that Jesus uses several times in the gospels as a command, often in connection with healings. “Don’t be afraid. Just believe.” [Luke 8:50]

But Jesus uses another word even more often to make the same point when true seekers ask Him for the key. That other word is “follow.” Whether it is “come, follow me” to Andrew and Simon or “follow me and let the dead bury their dead” or “go sell everything you have and then come follow me” to the rich young ruler, Jesus tells those looking for answers to follow Him. His word is that whoever does not take up their cross and follow is not worthy of Him.

We Baptists can start getting uncomfortable at this point. We were raised on Ephesians 2, where Paul makes it clear that we are saved by faith, not by works, and that saving grace is not of ourselves, lest anyone boast. We know that Jesus never predicates salvation on what we do. He does not tell Nicodemus to go give more money. He does not tell Andrew and Simon to join a soup line or to become better fishermen. He does not tell the erstwhile disciple with the dying father to offer assistance.

What we are told to do is to have faith, to believe, to follow. Even the rich young ruler is told to give his wealth to the poor in order to get that obstacle out of the way so that he can follow Jesus.

Whoever believes in Him.

Let’s look at our passage.

In verse 2, we learn that Nicodemus already knows the key facts about Jesus. He knows that Jesus is from God and is performing miracles. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” so he already acknowledges Him as an authoritative teacher. Clearly, this knowledge of facts, even important truths, is not enough. If it were, Jesus would pat Nicodemus on the back for having his eternal destiny firmly under control, and then He would change the subject. That’s not what happens.

The first illustration, the first explanation, that Jesus uses with Nicodemus is that one must be born again. When Nicodemus does not understand what this means, Jesus shifts to belief. He tells Nicodemus the words of John 3:16. He follows that up with still a third word picture, that of light and darkness, and He uses language with which we Baptists are less comfortable, language of deeds and living in the light.

In the very next chapter, Jesus shifts metaphors again, telling a Samaritan woman of salvation in terms of drinking living water. Then, in chapter 5, Jesus returns to the language of “believing in” Him.

What do we learn from all of this? I think that the mystery of salvation is beyond our ken – it is a gift of God of eternal, supernatural quality, and we can receive it much more easily than we can understand it. We need descriptions, illustrations, metaphors to help us try to grasp what Jesus offers, what God has done for us. The intellectual Nicodemus gets three different images to try to explain it to him. Others get “drink this water” or “eat the bread of life” or “follow.” Jesus speaks in parables.

What does Jesus mean when He tells us that we must believe in Him?

Well, first, He clearly includes intellectual knowledge of basic facts. Nicodemus was already there – you come from God, you do great miracles, you are a teacher. The thief on the cross knows that Jesus is sinless and is king. While Jesus never tells anyone to go do a research paper, He repeatedly demonstrates evidence of the truth of who He is and why He has come to those who seek Him. So too, if we are to believe in Him, we need to understand who He is. We believe in Him as we understand that the sinless holy one, who has done nothing wrong, invites us into His kingdom.

Second, belief in Jesus involves experience. We are reborn. We walk in the light. We drink living water. This is more than only an intellectual exercise. We don’t just look at the airplane and watch it fly and admire its beauty. We don’t even just study the principles of flight and the history of the Wright brothers. No, to believe in airplanes, we have to get on board.

Third, belief in Jesus involves relationship. The people tell the woman at the well that they don’t believe because of the facts and stories she has told them; they believe because they have seen Jesus for themselves. When we follow this leader, He welcomes and loves us, and we are His. For He is like no other leader. He is God. He is more powerful than death. He goes to prepare a place for us and comes again to us so that where He is we may be also.

That sounds like a great place to end this sermon.

But if you have not been raised in church… if the language of scripture is not second nature to you … if the words of this sermon compete with the cacophony that the world spits out … if every logical bone in your body says that all this Jesus-talk is so much superstition… then everything I have said thus far just sounds like the same old religious chitchat.

Just like last week, you can hear the language and smile and nod, quietly certain that I am pushing something that we all know is not so, just a comfortable story to tell our children and to make us feel better when tragedy strikes.

That is why Jesus uses the word “believe” or “faith.” We are not talking about accepting a rationalization that helps us sleep at night. We are talking about what we incorporate into our being as truth. We are discussing the thing in which we place our very lives. I can say I have faith in the Cowboys, but that is not faith – that is just a wish. I have faith that that chair will hold me, but that is easy to say as I stand here. When I go place my full weight on it, that is faith. I commit myself to the chair – I cannot hold back.

Mimi did not have any faith at all in airplanes.

Billy Graham routinely explains John 3:16 “belief” this way: “The word “believe” in the Bible means more than simply agreeing in our minds that something might be true. It means “trust”—that we believe so strongly in God that we are willing to commit our lives to Him and live the way we know He wants us to live.” [https://billygraham.org/answer/what-does-it-mean-to-believe-in-christ/] When we use the word commit in this context, we can be easily misunderstood, because being committed in other contexts often means that we just really, really intend to work hard to achieve a result. And of course belief in Christ has nothing to do with our working really hard to achieve a result.

Instead, think of commitment in the sense of committing someone to an institution. When y’all come and get me and commit me the funny farm, you will be placing me in their hands with the expectation that I will stay there. When I committed myself to my marriage, I was saying that I believed in this person and this relationship to the point that there is no turning back. It is giving one’s whole self.

You all know the joke that in a ham and eggs breakfast, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.

Jesus of course gives us the best example of commitment as He dies, trusting His Father fully when he says “into thy hands I commit my spirit.” This kind of commitment is a complete giving over in faith.

So if you are smiling and nodding at all the religious talk, hear me when I tell you that this is neither an intellectual exercise nor a bedtime story for dullards; this is how we Christians live our lives. This is a total commitment. This is everything we have, everything we are. When Jesus tells Nicodemus he must “believe in” Him, He is calling Nicodemus to leave the old and become new. When He tells the woman at the well to drink the living water, He is inviting her to leave her old life behind. When He assures the thief on the cross that his newborn faith is sufficient, He is making a promise of complete transformation, utter salvation, total provision. Forever.

There is nothing more important than this, nothing more long-lasting, nothing more complete. “Believing in Jesus” has very little to do with how you answer a question on a piece of paper and everything to do with where you place your trust, how you live your life, what lodestar you follow.

You have all, somewhere along the way, played “follow the leader.” Come on, think way back there. You remember. Someone is the leader, and everyone else, if they want to stay in the game, has to follow. That does not mean just trail along behind – it means do what the leader does. It is not enough to end up at the same place – the game focuses on how you get there. If you are playing follow the leader, and the leader takes giant steps while singing the national anthem, you also take giant steps while belting out “Oh say can you see.” You turn when the leader turns. You don’t make your own path. You don’t sit down and watch and study. You do what the leader does.

That is why Jesus uses the word “follow.” Following Jesus involves walking like Jesus walks and walking where Jesus walks. We can never be Jesus – we don’t do miracles or walk on water – but we can follow Him. It involves reaching out the same way that Jesus reaches out. In between the many New Testament commands to follow and to believe are repeated words about giving a cup of water and loving our brothers. In this very chapter of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that what we do must be plain to all as being done in the sight of God. That is living in the light. Paul, in the verse immediately after the Ephesians “saved by grace not works” verse, tells us that we have been created as God’s workmanship for the purpose of doing good works.

No, what we do does not save us. Jesus and Paul and Peter and John are all clear about that. But belief in Jesus nonetheless speaks to our walk, not just to our intellect. When James says that faith without works is dead, he is parroting Jesus’s words to Nicodemus and Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus. Belief comes first, then salvation, then actions. Don’t get the order wrong. What you do does not save you, but if you are saved, your walk is different. We can tell you are saved by what you do.

That is another good place to end the sermon, but I am not quite done. We have discussed what it means to have that initial belief in Jesus. That is the most important decision any of us will ever make. The impact of that belief, that faith, is eternal salvation, and nothing compares to that.

But it is not the only thing.

You see, when we Christians live our lives, we need to keep on believing in Jesus, following Jesus on purpose. Our salvation is assured, and our place in God’s family is set in stone. No one can snatch us from His hand.

But life happens. The devil’s darts continue to fly. We sin. We hurt one another. We are prone to wander.

Sooner or later, and usually sooner, we realize that believing in Jesus does not mean that everything goes smoothly. We get sick. We get depressed. Those who love us most disappoint us. Doors get closed on our new church, and we cannot meet when and where we would have chosen to meet. We mess up. Job interviews do not turn our right. We do what we do not want to do, and we do not do what we should. Life is not always happy.

If that is where you are now, then my suggestion to you is that you believe in Jesus. Again.

Remember those three things I said earlier that it means to believe in Jesus?

First, believing in Jesus means believing facts. When you are unhappy and sick and put upon and sinful, it helps to know for sure that the Son of God loves you, has made a way for you, and will never leave you. Remind yourself what He says, and believe it. Remind yourself who He is, and believe it. Believe in the one who will not disappoint. Believe in the one who does not abandon you when you abandon Him. Believe what He says.

Second, I said earlier that believing in Jesus means experience. Walk in the light. If you are down, if you do not hear His voice, follow where you have known before that He leads. Walk in the light, even if you don’t see it.

The anonymous poem reads this way: “I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining. I believe in love, even when I cannot feel it. I believe in God, even when He is silent.”

You are going to have times of silence. Walk in the light anyway. You know how, even if you don’t feel like it. You have a great teacher, even if you do not hear His voice right now. You are going to feel sad, depressed, ill. Thinking great intellectual religious thoughts will not do much for you, but serving will. Go help someone. Go to church. Read your Bible. Show the love of Christ that you know to be true, even when you are not feeling it. Did you pay attention to those beautiful words we sang: “I looked to Jesus, and I found in Him my star, my sun; and in that light of life I’ll walk till traveling days are done.” Get on board the airplane. Believe in Jesus.

Third, believing in Jesus means relationship. Follow the leader. Pray. Throw yourself fully into the arms of Christ. When you are at your lowest, turn to Him and know once again that He will remember you when He comes into His kingdom. Take His yoke upon you. He will give you rest.

Believe in Jesus.

Those were words for Nicodemus. They were words for Jairus as his daughter lay on her deathbed. But they were also words for the apostles themselves after the resurrection as they cowered in the upper room in a time of depression and shame. They needed to be restored, to know that all was not lost. Jesus appeared to them and told them to “believe.”

I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come to me and rest, weary one.” I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Drink the living water I freely give.” I heard the voice of Jesus say, “I am the world’s light. Look to me and your day will be bright.”

Believe in Jesus.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Sermon - Believing in God

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you;the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. - Psalm 139:1-14

The world tells us that reason and Christianity cannot co-exist. Our society is influenced greatly by the idea that faith is at odds with science, education, and scholarly thought. We can ask ourselves, “If Stephen Hawking and Ayn Rand and so many other smart people are atheists, are we ignoring good sense?”

Mark Twain, in the guise of his character Pudd’nHead Wilson, famously wrote, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

We all agree that the mystery of God and the inherent nature of faith are such that we will never understand it all. I know that I will never figure some things out, even after doing my best, and I have no trouble concluding “God says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Does that mean that religion is a matter solely of the heart, and not of the head, and thus we can accept what the church professes without having to examine it? Do you assume that preachers will ask you to swallow a heap of stuff that ignores good sense, that you know ain’t so, so you might as well just smile and nod and not think too much?

I challenge that notion. I don’t believe that faith and brainpower are mutually exclusive. I reject the Pudd’nHead philosophy, and I deny that Christianity requires us to accept what we know is wrong. To claim that faith is counter to education is to decide that God does not care about what makes sense, that God has played a big trick on us by giving us intellectual curiosity.

We can never think our way to heaven, for faith, the substance of things not seen, is indeed a matter of the heart. The problem, though, is that, when we correctly affirm that mere head knowledge does not save us, we often then tend to ignore the facts altogether, to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. In other words, facts alone are not sufficient for salvation, but knowing what you believe is necessary. It is indispensable.

We Christians minimize what we believe. We act as if we don’t know anything, that we only think or prefer. We seem scared of the word “truth,” instead saying that we have a “point of view.” We are too quick to retreat to a position that says something like this: “Faith is inherently unproveable. If it were scientific, it would not be faith. Therefore, since we cannot prove what we believe in a laboratory or a courtroom, it would be presumptuous of us to say that we know it.”

Believing in God involves actual facts. Jesus says that we shall know the truth, and the truth will make us free. [John 8:32] He tells His apostles that “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given” to them. [Matthew 13:11] Paul says that in Jesus we have been enriched in all our knowledge. [1 Corinthians 1:5], that we know the mystery of His will. [Ephesians 1:9] What we believe is confirmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Many people say that God is of utmost importance in their lives, but that affirmation makes no difference in how they face crisis because they have no real idea what they believe. Their understanding of who God is is no match for what they experience. Too many skip the belief part and try to jump straight to the living and doing part, and making that leap always falls short. That is why, in the twelfth chapter of Romans, Paul predicates our transformation on the renewing of our minds. [Romans 12:2]

We do not, and must not, check our brains at the door when we enter the sanctuary or the prayer closet.

Let’s be honest … there is an epidemic of unbelief. Many do not amit the possibility God exists. They are uncomfortable even saying “Jesus” or “God” out loud unless they are cursing. They don’t want to admit giving credit to what is dismissed by so many, lest they be accused of believing that the magician has really sawed the lovely assistant in half.

Those who study such things have identified reasons that people who call themselves Christians have trouble believing in God. For some, God is nothing more than an easy answer to what they cannot understand until they find out the holes in knowledge they thought God was necessary to fill can be closed otherwise—for example by science. Some grow up thinking of God as a cruel judge and even the author of evil and innocent suffering and come to think that this all-determining, judgmental God is not worth believing in. Others believe that God is the only source for moral living, that only believers can or will live “good lives,” and then they discover to their surprise that atheists can also live good, moral lives, so God becomes unnecessary. Many grow up thinking their parents or pastors are “God-like” and then, when they become disillusioned about their parents or pastors, they discard their belief. Still others, having discovered adolescent or adult temptations, decide believing in God is too much trouble for their consciences. Finally, many self-identified Christians have simply come to identify “God” with the trivialized deity of those from whom God has become little more than a cosmic prop for their political slant.
[Roger Olson, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2013/09/must-a-christian-believe-in-god-godless-christianity/#c7FT3GQTG6SccRfx.99

That’s a lot to chew on, and each of those points could probably be a sermon unto itself, but as a whole, those observations boil down in most cases to people making God too small, having too limited a view of God, which in turn makes belief in Him easy to abandon when it is challenged. When God was never any more than an excuse to avoid complicated questions, our need for God disappears as we learn more. When you blame God for storms and sickness and divorce, you don’t have any reason to keep God around. If all God is good for is helping you be a nice guy and pay your taxes and not kick your dog, you don’t need him very long. When God is no more than what you see in some important person in your life, your view of God cannot last when that person inevitably disappoints. When you buy into the culture and reduce God to bumper stickers, there is not much to believe in when the going gets tough. You can’t stick long with a too-small God.

Thinking too small about God does not mean you are stupid or silly. When the scientist cannot recreate God’s work in a test tube, or when the mathematician cannot come up with the right formula, or when the logician and philosopher cannot reason their way through the infinity of God, too often they choose their understanding – it is comfortable. It is what they know. It is what they have devoted their life to.

Add to all that the fact that people cannot see God. His invisibility is a barrier their reason cannot get past, and then they cannot accept the supernatural at all.

And then, some people do not look for God, or do not want to look for God, and so they miss God when He is right in front of them.

Psychologists tell us that there is something called “inattentional blindness,” the failure to perceive something in plain sight. I teach my law students about this when talking about eyewitnesses in the courtroom. I show them a video – you can find it on YouTube - called “The Invisible Gorilla,” where there are several players passing a basketball, and the watchers are asked to count the number of passes during the one-minute exercise. About 40 seconds in, a man in a gorilla suit walks right across the stage. When the exercise is complete, most of the people can correctly tell the number of times the ball was passed, but more than half of first-time watchers have no idea that a gorilla appeared, stood in front of the ballplayers beating its chest, and then casually walked off. Even more incredible, once you tell them about the gorilla and then show the same folks almost the same exercise, except this time one where one player leaves the stage in the middle and the color of the backdrop changes, everyone sees the gorilla, but less than 25% notice the missing player, and even fewer the changing color. We humans naturally suffer from inattentional blindness.

Evidence of God is everywhere. Our planet, just the right distance from the sun in our solar system which is placed at just the right location in a safe arm of our spiral galaxy, which is necessary for our survival, is encircled by a moon that gives Earth just the right tilt for us to have our temperatures and seasons. Caterpillars turn into butterflies and pollywogs into bullfrogs. Photosynthesis continues without interruption. Gorillas are everywhere.

I want to address whether, and what, we really believe in God. I am not talking about what you accept because somebody – your parents, some teacher – told you. I mean what you really know to be true.

When you are ready to believe in God, you will require intellectual assent to the existence of a supernatural, more-powerful-than-you, authoritative, personal entity. Let me give you that list again:

· supernatural
· more powerful than you
· authoritative
· personal.

If you do not believe in the truth of all four, you do not believe in God. We can disagree about the nature, form, gender, level of concern, and means of communication of God. But anything less than supernatural is simply created. Anything of equal power is only inspirational. Anything not authoritative is merely to be considered. Anything not personal may be an amorphous supreme being but will not require following - it would simply be a historical artifact to be acknowledged.

A great issue we have is saying we believe in God but then rejecting what God says because it “does not make sense” to us. If you say you believe in this personal, authoritative God but then ignore or discount what He says, then what you really believe in is a set of religious constructs from which you can pick and choose according to what makes you feel good, or accords with your understanding of the world, or is what you have come up with on your own. Perhaps you choose to agree with what other really smart people propose and defend. Whatever ... you have made yourself, your feelings, your intellect, the intellect and persuasiveness of others, and your perception to be your god. This is, of course, the essence of what is now called “post-modernism”: the idea that there is no objective truth; thus, we are all in charge of forging our own authority.

I am reminded of a radio conversation between Canadian authorities and a US Navy ship off the coast of Newfoundland in October 1995:

CANADIANS: Please divert your course 15 degrees south to avoid a collision.

AMERICANS: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees north

CANADIANS: Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees south to avoid a collision.

AMERICANS: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

CANADIANS: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

AMERICANS: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the US Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand you change your course 15 degrees north. I say again, that's one five degrees north or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.

CANADIANS: We are a lighthouse. Your call.

When we do not understand all the details of God’s word, too many of us, when push comes to shove, do not trust the Almighty, no matter how many signal lights God sends our way. We all ask questions at times to discern God’s will, but to reject what you know God wants solely because it does not make sense to you is a telling indicator of your lack of intellectual acceptance of the reality of our authoritative God. You are arguing from your perspective, from your own big powerful ship, and you are failing to recognize the lighthouse. That is why we are called to trust in the Lord with all our hearts and not lean on our own understanding.

Too many so-called believers fall short when it comes time to obey, to do what God says; we don’t think God’s idea makes sense because we are certain we are unable to do what God asks. “No, God, no way can I speak to that person, lead that group, teach that class, take that job, go to that place. I am not able to do what you ask me to do. I don’t have the stuff. It does not make sense that you would send me.” If you say you believe in God but then decline to do the hard things you feel called to do because you “cannot do” them, then your present belief in God falls somewhere behind your belief in good intentions limited by human failings, age, disease, and inefficiency. I saw a great Facebook exchange a few years ago in which a friend of mine (who in my estimation shows deep insight and belief in God), suggested how Christians should respond to a certain public event. The culture, even much of the Christian culture, responded differently to that event then the way my friend suggested. Someone replied that my friend’s idea was not humanly possible, and my friend of great insight responded: “I'm glad Christians aren't called to what's humanly possible.” Belief in God means knowing you can do what God calls you to do solely because God will enable you to do it.

Belief in God separates us from the culture. It demands a focus on something higher than even outstanding intentions, innovations for justice, help for the poor, and defenses of personal dignity. (Those things are not wrong of course, but when they are the purpose rather than the byproduct, they have become the thing in which we believe.)

Let me walk carefully. We intuitively know what Pudd’nHead meant when he accused the church of pushing what we know ain’t so. If you are having trouble believing in God, nobody here is condemning you. To the contrary, we have good news that we want to share with you. We all get the mind games and the doubts and the intellectual struggles. I am not today casting aspersions on you or your friends if you are having a crisis of belief or if you have not yet reached a place of acceptance of the fact of God.

The great theologian Fredrich Buechner says, “a twelve-year-old can see that no one [so-called logical proof of the existence of God] is watertight. And even all of them taken together won’t convince anybody unless his predisposition to be convinced outweighs his predisposition not to be.”

And yet… and yet… we do believe in God. We readily acknowledge that logic cannot prove the existence of God; still, we do know God in reality, in spirit and in truth. In the same essay, Buechner goes on to say that “it is as impossible for man to demonstrate the existence of God as it would be for even Sherlock Holmes to demonstrate the existence of Arthur Conan Doyle… God cannot be expressed but only experienced. In the last analysis, you cannot pontificate but only point. A Christian is one who points to Christ and says, ‘I can’t prove a thing, but there’s something about His eyes and His voice. There’s something about the way He carries His head, His hands, the way He carries His cross – the way He carries me.’” [Fredrick Buechner, Wishful Thinking]

So, to what facts can and should we agree? What do we believe about God? We do not have time this afternoon to dive into the ontology, personality, spirituality, or trinitarian unity of God. But we can, and should, agree on a few things.

1. The infinity of God.

This is the point of what we read from Psalm 139. God knows no boundaries. God is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omnitemporal – we combine these ideas into one word and, with scripture, call God “infinite.” God has no beginning, no end, no perimeter.

The Psalmist focuses first on the omniscience of God. God’s knowledge is, in the words of verse 6, too lofty for us to attain. Verse 1 says that God has searched us and knows us. Verses 2 and 3 tell us that God knows what we think and where we are going. Paul says God’s knowledge is unfathomable

The Psalmist then turns to God’s omnipresence. God is in all places at once. We can go nowhere that God is not. Whether we try heaven or the darkest place we can find, God is already there. The beauty of verses 7-12 cannot be overplayed. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there God’s hand will hold me fast.

God is omnipotent, all-powerful. God is creator and sustainer. Whether the task is creating life, as in verses 13 and 14, or bringing life from the barren womb or the virgin womb… whether it is raising the dead, driving out demons and forbidding them to speak, or calming the storm, God is all powerful. When the subject is how can the rich man be saved, Jesus explains to his bewildered disciples that while this is impossible for humans, nothing is impossible for God. [Matthew 19:26]

God is omnitemporal. God, the creator of time, is in and outside of all times simultaneously. Perhaps a way to think of it is to picture a river. If you are on a boat on that river, you can see a certain distance ahead and a certain distance behind, but the bends in the river and, ultimately, the horizon prevent you from seeing the whole thing at once. If, on the other hand, you are in a hot air balloon at a sufficient height, you can look down and see the entire river at the same time. You would be outside its boundaries and able to see all of it at once. So too, God is not encumbered by time, His own creation. Verse 4’s declaration that “before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely,” makes sense from a heavenly perspective, because God is not constrained by human time words like “before.” The biblical word for this omnitemporality of God is “eternity,” and it is what makes God’s gift of eternal life realistic.

Thus, we sing hymns like “Immortal, Invisible.” Not only is our God our comforter and our friend; He is our immortal author and creator. He is eternal, everlasting. He is forever.

So that is the “immortal” part of the hymn. What about the other part? The hymnwriter is quoting Paul’s letter to Timothy when he calls God immortal and invisible. I mentioned earlier the barrier of the invisibility of God.

God is not transparent, nor is He a magician’s illusion, conjured out of oblivion to entertain and amaze and then destined to return to nothingness.

No, God is invisible to us because we are human. God is so magnificent, so multi-dimensional, so beyond our comprehension that our eyes cannot begin to capture Him. God is invisible in the literal sense: He is unseeable. It is kind of like trying to watch Netflix without an internet connection. There is a lot to see and hear at that site in cyberspace, but if all you have is a 20th Century VCR, you cannot see it. To you, the movie is invisible and silent. We cannot see a quark; we cannot see Andromeda; we cannot see pain; we cannot see a radio signal. Just because our human eyes do not have the right cones and rods to decipher something does not mean it does not exist.

We cannot see the face of God because we can neither comprehend nor survive exposure to that level of holiness. That is why Moses had to be hidden in the cleft of the rock as God passed by. [Exodus 33:18-23]

God will not always be invisible to us. One day, we shall see God face to face, as He is. [1 John 3:1] For now, what we can see is the work of God – spiral galaxies and tadpoles and the rest of it. The heavens are telling the glory of God. And beyond that, thanks be to God, we have met Jesus, the image of the invisible God. [Colossians 1:15]

We have a powerful, all-seeing and all-knowing invisible God who is not burdened by our dimension of time. Now, those attributes of God could be scary. They do not have to be scary, but they can be. To view that properly, we also have to consider...

2. The Perfection of God.
God is holy. God is righteous. God reveals and represents truth. God is Love. In the coming weeks and months, we will explore each of these characteristics of God in detail, but for now, take it as a whole. The eternal, all-seeing and all-knowing power of God is not frightening because God is perfect. James 1:17 tells us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights….”

God is love. Whether you turn to the gospels or First John or Romans or Psalms or many, many other places in scripture, the message is the same: God is love. God, who sees everything – my sins, my hurts, my deepest desires, my disappointments, my abilities, my opportunities – loves me. He is not limited to the perspective of my parents or my clients or my law partner or my readers. He is not even held within the boundaries of what I choose to reveal to Him. He, and He alone, can see me as I am. And He loves me anyway.

The perfect one who truly knows me does not see my falling... my failing... my constant disrespect for His simple wishes as a reason to dismiss me, to throw me in the garbage. Instead, the perfect one loves me and uses almighty power to change me. Biblical writers say that he restores me. That is perfection.

But recognizing the infinity and perfection of God is not enough. We have to know why those things matter to us.

3. Submission to the infinity and perfection of God.

The scholarly term for this is the sovereignty of God. What difference do the qualities of God make to us? Can God change us? Will God enter our lives? Will we let Him?

Too many of us offer token assent to the omniscience and omnipresence of God, nodding to the idea of God without living as if God’s infinite nature matters at all. We go our own way as if God does not exist, as if He is not interested in entering into our lives and helping us out.

The Bible teaches differently. Everything I said about God’s infinity and perfection is an interesting study that never goes beyond the intellectual unless we understand the petitions at the end of the Psalm 139, in the part I did not read earlier, where the Psalmist concludes by praying, in verses 23 and 24, “Search me O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Too often we talk about God’s power without once asking God to make any actual changes in our lives or our motivations, without really believing that God is powerful enough to transform our hearts and make us better than we would otherwise be.

If God knows my thoughts before I do, shouldn’t I ask God to reveal them to me and to change the wrong ones? The Psalmist lays himself bare and asks God to isolate any wicked way and to change him, setting him on the “way everlasting.”

Submission to the sovereignty of God means accepting that God is God and we are not. It means self-denial, getting out of the way and allowing God to work through us. I know what people intend when they talk about living our lives for “an audience of one,” but we must never forget that God is much more than an observer. We don’t play our own songs – we open up so that God works and speaks through us, so that God’s music fills the world, so that God’s purpose and God’s power and, yes, God’s word touch every needy ear and heart.

Why does our submission matter? Because God so loved the world. Because the eternal omnipotent God is trying to save the world.

More times that we can predict, this supernatural, bigger-than-we-are God has chosen us as His instruments.

God is the one who works through our hands, whose mind we have, whose spirit is our very being, who stands ready to unleash the universe’s creative, loving, eternal power through us. We are God’s people, the conduit for the all-powerful, invisible, all-knowing ruler of the universe. Our prayer for Him to lead us in the way everlasting is only pretty words unless we know – I mean know beyond question down in our guts – that God can, and God will, reach into our puny, natural, sinful, weak humanity and perform a miracle, reaching this world with His all-seeing love and holiness, transforming the world in ways that are otherwise unthinkable, often using our hands and our words. Using us.

The question for us, then, is do you believe in this God? Do you acknowledge – do you intellectually accept and know – that God is eternal and perfect, and do you submit to Him so that His sovereign perfection can work in and through you?

For nothing is impossible with God.

We should use our heads, and we do that in ready acceptance of the authority of God. We do our best, and we submit to His sovereignty.

Of course, we see through a glass darkly. We do not know now as we will one day know. [1 Corinthians 13:12] We will never master the Master, never figure it all out this side of heaven. But, as children of God, one of the great gifts we have is insight, clarify, knowledge, the unraveling of at least some of the mysteries of God. When we say we believe in God, we are saying a lot. We know the truth, and the truth has made us free. And when the Son sets you free, you are free indeed. [John 8:36]

God is not just proud of us, like a clockmaker admiring his handiwork or Geppetto hoping that Pinocchio can become real. No, He is the omnipotent God, ready to do His good work through us, to change the world with His undefinable power, ready to take us on His way, the way everlasting.