I have been preparing a sermon based on Romans 11, which is where the Apostle Paul reflects on the troubling question of whether God has rejected the Jews whom God had previously chosen as a special people destined for God's blessings and redemption. Paul's answer is a resounding: "No, God is faithful and true even if no one else is; and God will keep his promise to Israel and save this special people of God." Read Romans 11 and then marvel at how the Church through the centuries has ignored this very plain affirmation of the Jewish people by the leading voice of early Christianity. Somehow as I was reflecting on this, I was realizing how Paul's experience as a Jew, as a persecutor of Christians and then as one who proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah from God and joined Christians as a leader/Apostle - I was realizing how all of this must have opened Paul's heart up in a remarkable way. This letter to the Romans shows just how big Paul's heart got, just how big his Gospel was, just how universal his hope was. This was one of his latest letters, it seems. Well, all of this raised my hopes for us all and below is what I have written as the concluding portion of the sermon for Sunday, August 7:
"Paul understood so well just how easy it was as a human being to be deluded about oneself and life in general. Paul understood very well how terribly easy it was for a human being to fall into a false way of living and lose all touch with the reality of God. And, Paul knows the God of Jesus and has experienced that God’s will to save is so much greater than our will to reject life from God. Paul’s life is a life of hope. His preaching is preaching filled with hope, not just hope in general, but hope in the living God who is at work reconciling the world and every human being in it to himself. Paul sees this and feels this at every turn in life, and as he proclaims it, he awakens this hope in others. And, I proclaim this same truth today to you and among you.
'God was in Christ reconciling the world and all of us in it to himself. God’s Spirit is working right now to bring reconciliation to your life: reconciliation with God, reconciliation with others, reconciliation of your broken and divided self. God’s Spirit is at work right now to bring reconciliation between groups of people who have been hostile towards each other. I tell you this is a reality in our world. And, this reality of God’s reconciling Spirit is the most important reality there is. And, it is a reality that you can experience, and participate in because in truth it is the reality by which you live. In this reality, “we live and move and have our being” whether we are aware of it or not.
"You do not have to live out your life stuck in the ruts of despair and meaninglessness and hopelessness. You are a child of God. That is what Jesus came to reveal by the way he treated people, by the way he cared for the sick, by the way that he upheld the dignity of the poor, by the way he respected authorities enough to tell them the truth even if it hurt their sense of importance and even when it threatened their sense of power and control in life.
"You do not have to live out your life cut off and alienated from the life-giving Spirit of God. As Paul once said: “In God, we live and move and have our being.” The Spirit of God is closer to you than you are to yourself, but somehow you and I are keeping this life-giving and gracious power at arms length. Somehow we are living like strangers when we need to realize we are at home in this world. You are a child of the living God, made to live at peace with God on this earth, made to be at home on this earth, with other human beings, and at home in your own life, at peace in your own body and with who you are in God’s will.
"Although many of us gathered today have experienced the gracious presence of God at many times in our lives, still so often we live as if God’s Spirit is not at work in the world and in our lives. Although many of us gathered today have sung praises that we really mean this morning, when we turn to face the realities of our lives, we will begin to lose touch with the reality of God in our lives and in our world. But, we don’t have to. We don’t have to. A few of you in here today really know this – you know it better than I do. You know that there is a way to live close to God’s Spirit and consistently be at peace with God and others – I didn’t say live perfectly, but consistently at peace with God and others in the Spirit of God. There is a way to walk into the world and not lose touch with the Holy presence of God. At times, I have experienced this, and at times it slips away. But, there is a way to stay nearer this reality that is more basic and essential than all the other realities we deal with. To stay nearer, it takes some real devotion to God, and openness to learning how God is present not just in the time of worship but in the time of leisure and the time of work and the time of anger and in the time of humor. It takes an openness to the Spirit of God in all of life to learn that God is a God of reality; God is present in our world in all aspects of life. God does not abide in houses made of human hands, but in all the living beings he has made.
Jesus revealed the way of living near to God in all of life. He was at home on the sea, fishing with his disciples; he was at home in the desert surrounded by wilderness and wild animals; he was at home with tax collectors and sinners, even at the parties they held; he was at home eating and drinking wine with common people or religious leaders; he was at home in his own body; he was at home reading the scriptures in holy worship; he was at home alone in prayer with his God; he was at home in times of celebration, and he was at home in times of sorrow and grief. Jesus knew what is was to live on this earth as a child of God, near to God, living close to the reality of God and so living fully in the reality of life in this world.
"And, God’s Spirit remains free to move with or without us; God’s Spirit continues to create good out of evil, love out of hate, order out of chaos, chaos and then new order out of unjust and oppressive order. If we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to understand and experience – then, we can experience and be near this reality of God throughout our lives. To be near God is everything. It gives life purpose and hope and renews our strength when we feel we have nothing left to life for, nothing left to live on, nothing left at all. To be near God is everything in life. I am convinced we can remain a lot nearer to God a lot more often than we have ever imagined before. I am convinced that it is more natural to do so, than not to do so. It is how we are made in our depths. And, if we will start living from the depths of our lives, and quit living out of the shallows of our lives, we will come to a more natural, less fabricated, way of living, and then one day we may say very simply what a lot of sane, genuine people who love life have said for centuries:
“For me, it is good to be near to God. . . ."