By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 1:1-18; 1 John 4:7-16
I want to begin my message with a verse from Revelation 1:8: I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.[i]
During my sabbatical, as some of you may recall, I spent some time on retreat at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. At the conclusion of each prayer service, we affirmed our faith in the God who is, who was, and who is to come. We find this affirmation, this description, repeatedly in the Revelation of John[ii], our final book in the Bible. Jesus, Revelation affirms, is the witness, the revelation of the God, who is and who was and who is to come.
[i] New Revised Standard Version
[ii] John 1:4, 8; 4:8.
As I’ve mentioned over the past couple of weeks, we are currently in the season of Advent, a season of preparation to remember and celebrate the coming of God in Jesus, the baby of Bethlehem, and to give thanks and anticipate that Jesus will come again at the end of time as Christ the cosmic king. The word Advent means “coming.” But if we can clearly identify the God who was – that baby born in Bethlehem – and the God who is to come – Jesus the King at the end of time, what about the God who is. Where do we see the God who is? How do we experience the God who is? If there is a present tense “coming,” what does it mean for God to “come” into our world today and how does that happen?
Well, this morning’s scripture from 1st John answers that question. The theology of John is theology of “abiding.” In the gospel and letters of John, the relationship between Jesus and his followers is presented in a very intimate and organic way. Images like that of a grapevine are used to show that, through our relationship to Jesus, we are bound to God and actually have a share in the life of God in the same way that a cluster of grapes could not grow and ripen if they were separated from the vine. In the introduction to John’s gospel, we’re told we are brought into God’s family by “receiving” Jesus, trusting in him; receiving in the sense of opening ourselves to receive God. This kind of receiving is an inner hospitality; it means to give Jesus “access to one’s full self.” When we truly welcome a guest into our home, we don’t make them stay in the dining room and we don’t lock up the closets or cupboards. We want them to make themselves at home. When we receive Jesus, we give him full access to move into us so Jesus’ Spirit can make a home within us. Friends, God is still, today, coming into the world through us – those of us who have this abiding connection, this intimate relationship with Jesus, who have given God access to our deepest selves. And what the “coming” of God looks like was clearly shown to us in Jesus. God looks like love because God is love.
The coming of Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem – that Jesus who grew to be a rabbi and healer, and who offered his life on a cross – the coming of Jesus was God’s “spoken definition,” so to speak, of love. Jesus is God’s spoken Word of love. God spoke to us human creatures in a language we could understand: incarnation. The Word became flesh and blood like us. Jesus was the love of God embodied and that is what we are called to be as well. Now, I’m not suggesting that we ARE Jesus. But that, like Jesus, we can embody the love of God and reveal it to the world. The God who IS is in us and is in the world through us when we love in ways that are generous and gracious and sacrificial. So love, in truth, is hard. It requires a lot from us. Love is not the same as enabling or co-dependency because that doesn’t actually “help” the other. But love does do what is helpful to the other, even if it requires enormous sacrifice from us.
Bible scholar David Rhoads, in his book The Challenge of Diversity, shares the following story:
In a concentration camp of American prisoners, the guards had so intimidated the prisoners and so violated every code of civilized treatment that conditions were horrible. The prisoners had tried to cope by a dog-eat-dog existence. To survive, each man was out for himself. Prisoners stole food and medical supplies for themselves, robbed from each other, ratted on other prisoners in order to get favors from the guards, and isolated new prisoners who came into the camp.
One day as they were coming in from work detail and putting away the tools, it was discovered that a shovel was missing. The guards were irate and lined the prisoners up and threatened them.
Finally, the guards said, “If the person who stole that shovel does not come forward in ten seconds, we’re going to shoot all of you.”
After a long silence, one of the prisoners finally stepped forward, at which point the guards pounced on him, beat him with their gun butts, and then shot him to death.
When the guards told the prisoners to finish putting away the tools, a strange thing was discovered. All the shovels were there. No shovel had been missing after all. In shock and silence, the prisoners went back to their barracks.
It took a while for it to sink in that one of the prisoners had voluntarily given his life so that the rest would not be shot, and [because of that] gradually the attitudes of the prisoners began to change. Other acts of sacrifice began to take place. Prisoners began to share medical supplies with each other and formed teams to attend to each other’s wounds and illnesses. Some made artificial limbs for those who had lost a leg or an arm in the war. Some sick prisoners in the camp actually gave up their food to weak prisoners who had a greater chance for survival. Others risked death by sneaking outside the camp to procure extra food for the sick. They established a secret system of communication to give each other information and support. They welcomed new prisoners and quickly incorporated them into their network. The generosity was contagious.
In the midst of the most horrible conditions, there emerged a remarkable humane society of prisoners, all made possible because of the effect of this one prisoner who gave his life for them to live.[i]
Friends: I know I shared that story once before here at Trinity. But I shared it again this morning for two reasons. One, it is a powerful illustration of love. But two, because I cannot share with you – due to confidentiality – the numerous stories that I wish I could tell about the ways in which you all have cared and sacrificed for one another. For the sick, for the poor, for the grieving; for those with mental health or addiction struggles who are part of our Trinity family. And pretty much every week, as I talk with those folks and check in with them, they share with me how someone here at Trinity has reached out to them: taking them to lunch, taken them to the store or to get groceries, taken them to the doctor, spent time listening to them. Members of this congregation have even welcomed others in our congregation into their homes when they had nowhere to go. We have become family to one another and freely sacrificed time, money and energy to love one another. We are what God’s love looks like.
And I want to continue to encourage you to live and to love in that way. It asks a great deal of us. It’s not always easy or convenient and it is often exhausting. But it is the revelation of God’s love. Through the gift of the Spirit and through our commitment to be the body of Christ, we are – like Jesus whose birth we will soon celebrate – we are incarnating the love of God. As I so often say: Christianity is not a belief system. It is a relational system; it is all about our relationships with God and with one another. So beloved Trinity, as the evangelist writes, “…if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”[ii] Do not grow weary or discouraged because the God who is and who was and who is to come is coming into the world, bringing light into darkness, through us.
[i] The Challenge of Diversity: The Witness of Paul and the Gospels by David Rhoads; Fortress Press; 1996; pp. 73-74.
[ii] 1 John 4:12b
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