One fall, when I was about 20 years old, I got lost in the woods. I’d been hunting with my father, and it was getting late in the day, so we decided to split up, head in different directions and meet back at camp at nightfall. And so I struck out along a small brook I knew that flowed down from a ridge, eventually heading toward the north and home. That should have been easy enough, because I was familiar with the lay of the land; but darkness had descended all too quickly and I soon found myself caught out in a cedar swamp in the middle of nowhere. And then, adding injury to insult, I managed to trip on a small “blowdown” – and both compass and soon-to-be-broken flashlight went flying into the darkness!
So in a word, I was stuck. It was dark, getting colder by the minute and starting to rain; and now I was faced with the very real prospect of having to spend that night out in the woods alone! All I could really do at that point was to sit down on a stump and wait; and that’s what I did. It was shaping up to be a long, hard night – but the happy ending is that after a couple of hours that seemed like twenty, I began hearing calls in the distance, and before long I was greeted by my father, bearing both a Coleman lantern and a pathway back to camp!
Now, I was trying to be cool about it – you know, man in the wilderness; no big thing (!) – but I have to confess that I was never so glad to see anybody in all my life! Actually, as it turned out, I wasn’t more than 500 yards away from our camp; but out there in the blackness, I might as well have been a million miles away. Truth be told, I could have never found my own way out of that darkness; had I struck out on my own I would have wandered aimlessly all night, and probably have gotten myself more lost than I was in the first place. I really did need someone to come with a light to bring me home.
Over the past couple of weeks in our exploration of the foundations of our faith, we’ve been talking about God’s artistry and purpose in creation, and specifically what God intends for us as his creation: that is, to embrace the ways of life he has set before us, and to dwell in loving relationship with him. The reality, however, is that our human nature and propensity to sin tempt us to choose other ways than what God intends for us; and those choices inevitably lead to darkness and death.
Understand, it’s not always a radical choice to choose death; it’s not that we set out to turn from God and destroy ourselves. More often than not, it’s a case of our wandering off the well-lit path before us, only to find ourselves mired in dark wilderness with no way to get ourselves back on course. The spiritual fact of the matter, friends, is that we can’t get back to the pathway on our own; we don’t create our own righteousness nor provide our own salvation. We need help to get back in tandem with God and God’s purposes for our lives; we need a light to lead us out of the darkness, a hand to hold us along the rough patches, and a savior to protect us from all harm – and the good news is that God does “seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.” And God does this by coming to us directly in the person of Jesus Christ.
Make no mistake, friends, this is no small assertion! Truly, at the very center of our story is the coming of Christ; it is the distinctive note of the Christian faith; it is the affirmation that sets us apart from other religions. The very fact that we call ourselves “Christians” invokes the name of Christ. What we are saying is that what God has done for us, and continues to do for us, God does quite specifically “in Jesus Christ,” and what that is, is to seek to “reconcile us” and the whole world to God.
The question is, however, who is this Jesus, this one who is called Christ, Messiah, the Lord, Son of God and Son of Man, Savior and Redeemer? On the one hand, we know that he was a historical figure, a real, living person: “the man of Nazareth,” who existed in a particular place and time some two thousand years ago. He was a Jewish man born into a carpenter’s family, steeped in the traditions of his faith. We know of his ministry as an itinerant preacher and teacher, we know of his great acts of healing and hope, and how he challenged the authority of the “powers that be” of his time. And we know that he died the death of a criminal; that he was perceived as a dangerous character and a threat to those in power, so religion and government conspired to kill him. We know that he was executed by crucifixion on a rough wooden cross on the hill named Golgotha, and that he was probably only about 33 when he died.
That’s the story that history tells, but of course, that’s only part of it: truly, if that were all of what we see in Jesus, then all he’d be for us is, at best, a revered teacher; or at the least, a prophet way ahead of his time! But, of course, for us Jesus is much more than simply another prophet or teacher; he is “our crucified and risen Savior.” It’s not just that he died on the cross, it’s that he was raised from the dead; and ultimately, it’s not just that he was raised from the dead; it’s that God raised him up: “freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24) and that because of this, none of us will be held in death’s grip either.
You see, for us it’s impossible to talk about Jesus without including all three of those things – his life, his death and his resurrection – because they all point back to the same God who wants us to have life, and have it abundantly and eternally.
Have you noticed that in our statement of faith, when we talk about Jesus, we first speak about God’s action? We say, “In Jesus Christ… you have come to us!” In other words, God has not sent to us a messenger, even though Jesus brought us good news; God has not sent us an ambassador, even though Jesus intercedes for us before God. God has, in fact, has come to us directly in the guise of a genuine human being who dwells in the midst of our lives, who accepts the burden of our joys and sorrows, and who carries the brunt of our sin and darkness. God has sent us one who suffers as we do, so that we might be led out of the darkness and back to the well-lit path.
In other words, God comes to us in Jesus to share “our common lot.” Roger L. Shinn, in his book Confessing Our Faith, is quick to remind us that what these words mean is “life is not only a matter of grand struggles. It includes hunger and pain, friendships, joys and disappointments, good and bad weather, pleasant parties, the flu, boredom [and] accidents.” Everything we know about life, God experiences in the person of Jesus Christ, even that which makes us feel quite apart from God.
And what a blessing this is: this is how I know that when I’m feeling angry or scared or overwhelmed or utterly confused as to the pathway I’m supposed to be on, God understands: because God lived it. Because every moment that Jesus walked on the coarse sand of the hills of Galilee, God experienced every shifting sand and deep emotion of my life; because in every scourge on his bloodied back and in every pound of the nails piercing his hands, God not only experienced the worst that humanity can be, but in love suffered the worst that any of us could possibly suffer, a sacrificial act that makes me a conqueror in the midst of my own suffering. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer – himself soon to be killed at the order of Adolf Hitler – wrote in his prison letters, “God let himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us… only the suffering God can help.”
When we confess a faith in God “in Jesus Christ,” we are saying that God is With Us, and what that says is that Jesus is not only wholly human, but wholly God! Now, I understand that this is one of those assertions of faith that can make our head spin! But really, what it simply means is that our Creating, Judging God loves us so much and so determined to have us be with him that he will come to us where we are and as we are – no matter what.
God comes to us carrying that lantern of hope, saying to us that we don’t have to dwell in this deep darkness we’ve become mired within; that don’t have to settle for old patterns, old behaviors, old fears and regrets because there’s something new and better for us in Jesus. We have been given a path of righteousness that comes about not by our own navigation, but through the grace of one who already conquered everything in life that would seek to defeat us. “If anyone is in Christ,” says Paul to the Christians in Corinth, “there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” And did you notice what Paul immediately adds to this? “All this,” he says, “is from God.”
You know what I remember the most about having been caught out in the woods that night? Two things, actually; first and foremost, how grateful I was to see my father at that precise moment; how his lantern so incredibly illuminated the forest around me, and how good it was to get back to camp that night! But the other thing I remember is how, when I set back out the next morning, I had a whole new respect for the Maine woods! That experience truly made me see the forest for more than the trees!
And so it is with faith: “From now on,” Paul says, “…we regard no one from a human point of view.” Through Christ, God has reconciled us to himself, but through Christ, God also calls us to ministry of reconciliation – in other words, as Christ brings us light, we are called to bring light to others; as Christ forgives us our sin and brings us back into relationship with God, we are called to forgive others and encourage one another to walk together along the well-lit pathways. We’re gathered as God’s own creation and set forth to be a community – a family of faithful people of all ages, tongues and races, the church of Jesus Christ.
It’s good for us, I think, to know that when God comes to us, it is with the expectation that we, in turn, will be there for one another… but we’ll talk more about that next week.
For now, let us give thanks to the God who comes to us and shares our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling us to him!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry