Monday, October 27, 2008

Are We There Yet?

(This is the fourth in a series of sermons titled 'A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer.')

I went to school with a guy named Paul—we had classes together from 3rd grade into high school. When I got involved in school music programs in 7th grade, when I was 12 or so, Paul and I ended up in the same performances pretty regularly. Paul was an unbelievable guitarist—he had the first Fender Stratocaster of anyone I knew, and he could play it beautifully. In the 1978 John Muir Jr. High School Talent Show, when I was in 8th grade, I sang in a madrigal quartet—we did a song called ‘Il le bel e bon’—I still have no idea what that song was about. Paul and his band followed us (and erased us from all memory) with a blistering performance of Lynyrd Skynrd’s ‘Free Bird’ that I can still remember today, more than 30 years later.

I tell you that story because on Friday Paul found me on Facebook, and we’ve been swapping memories over the weekend. Facebook does that for a lot of people, I think. Old friends find us after years and years, and we remember relationships that used to exist. I knew Paul really well for a few years a long time ago, but haven’t talked to him or heard anything about him for decades.

The point is that we all have these deep friendships that for some reason don’t last or endure. We form connections that in the end become, well, disconnected.

We’ve been on a journey through the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is an important stretch of teach that introduces us to what life can look like under God’s reign—his Kingdom. The prayer is a summary of both the beliefs and practices of the life of Christian discipleship.

Mostly, the Lord’s Prayer is a declaration of dependence. It is a statement of our need for God not just in the shape of hunger or thirst, but a need for God in the form of completion or connection—the kind of connection that grows and nourishes and renews and lasts.

We’ve been talking about the Lord’s Prayer as the heart of the Christian faith—as a place where we come in our brokenness and exhaustion and confusion and isolation, and where we receive healing and renewal and faithful wisdom and fellowship. The Lord’s Prayer takes us in depleted, then refills us with oxygen and pumps us back out into fullness and service.

So this prayer that many of us have recited for years is shaping up to be a pretty life-changing set of words. In the prayer we acknowledge our belief or at least our hope that God exists. We recognize that God in his own way has brought us into his plan for the world—that we serve each other because God has called us into relationship with him. Last week we got to the radical part of the prayer when we said:

‘Thy Kingdom Come.’ Let your reign take over. Rule in our hearts.

Our text this week is the knockout punch that last week’s text set us up for. Thy Kingdom come is one thing, but right after that we pray: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ In other words: We choose your ways, God. We long for things to be the way you made them to be from the beginning.

There was an old Burger King commercial when I was a kid where they tried to distinguish themselves from McDonald’s by showing that you could order a hamburger just how you liked it. Remember the song? ‘Have it your way…’

‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

If there was ever a time when it was appropriate to say ‘be careful what you ask for,’ this is it.

We choose your ways, God. We long for things to be the way you made them to be. Have it—have everything, O God—your way.

There is a moment that happens in conversation between friends and relatives, coworkers and husbands and wives. You get into an argument about the way to do something, and then there’s the dramatic turning point where one person says to the other: ‘OK, we’ll do it your way!’

Now, we all know what’s really meant by that phrase, right? What we mean by that is that we’ll do it the other person’s way because it is so obviously doomed to total and catastrophic failure. Then, after the dust settles, not only will we be proved right, but we’ll also get to do it our way after all.

That’s not what we’re praying in this part of the Lord’s Prayer. When we say ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,’ we’re admitting that we finally see that God’s ways are better and purer than ours. Our way may not always lead to total and catastrophic failure, but mature faith will show that our attempts to go it alone just can’t compare with God’s way of living and deciding and spending and loving.

Well what is that way? What is it that God wants from us and for us? What does it mean to say ‘on earth as it is in heaven? Some of that we’re just never going to fully understand.

When we were getting ready to move to London, Julie and I went to Ian’s 1st grade class to talk about where we were going. Some of the kids had been here before, or had seen pictures of some landmarks. We talked about the flight and how Ian would go to a new school. When we were done a little girl raised her hand, and with tears in her eyes asked: Where was Ian going to sleep, if his bed was still here? We explained to her that we were moving our things with us, but she had a hard time picturing how our new home could compare to our old one.

There is a lot that we don’t understand about eternity—about what heaven is like—but there are some things about it that we can begin to grasp.

Maybe it’s easier to think of heaven as a place where everything is as God intends for it to be—where his plan and priorities are understood and lived. The best clues to God’s priorities, of course, are found in the Scriptures, where the teachings of the Bible call us to a new way of living. That’s what’s happening in much of the Old Testament, and when Jesus appears, talking about the values of the Kingdom, he represents the beginning of the end of that conversation between God and his creation.

But how do we find those priorities? And when we do find them, how do we make them our own? Because we can’t look at God with a straight face and say: ‘have it your way,’ then elbow him in the ribs and say something like: ‘but only if it’s really my way.’

‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

We choose your ways, God. We long for things to be the way you made them to be from the beginning. Have it—have everything—your way.

What is that way? There’s so much to say about this, but for now it’s enough to say that biblical priorities can be found in three main categories:

Faith in God
Justice for the world
Love for each other.

The first priority is to have Faith in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now it’s important to say here that having faith includes all of our struggles and doubts and wondering and frustration. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, or despair or even science. The opposite of faith is the illusion of certainty—believing that we’re capable of knowing all and seeing all. Last time I checked, those two qualities were above our pay-grade.

Having faith is developing an attitude of trust that God is who he says he is, and that he will do what he promised to do. God never says to anyone in the Scriptures: ‘Figure me out, and then I’ll love you and sustain you and redeem you.’ What he does is say: ‘I’ve loved you and sustained you and redeemed you already, and all I ask is that you believe in me in return.’

The second priority is to be on the side of Justice for the world. This one is so easy to miss, but it’s clearly a top-three priority in both testaments. How we defend the cause of the weak and hopeless, how we meet the needs of those who live in poverty, how we engage the political process not only to make our own lives better, but also to improve the lives of others. Those are not just nice, Western values that make us feel warm all over. It’s not the American Way, or what it means to be British, or even what it means to be good. Being an active agent for justice in the world is a big part of what it means to say ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

Finally, God calls is to show Love for each other. The concept of heaven, or eternity, whatever else it might mean, promises that the deep friendships and connections we make with God and each other will last forever—they won’t rise and fall or flash and fade. It won’t be like the friends that find us after years of silence on Facebook.

That’s why the focus today was on our fellowship ministries. It’s not just that we like to get together for meals and parties and Quiz Nights, although that’s a great thing. It’s also not that fellowship is somehow less important than the other things we do. I’ve said it dozens of times already from this very spot: True fellowship, alongside our worship, discipleship and mission work, is a sign of a healthy and thriving church of Jesus Christ. Fellowship ministries are a sign of hope. The fellowship that we build here—the relationships we make and tend and nurture—they represent for us a glimpse of what heaven might be like. Deep relationships—surrounded by the deep relationships of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—living and lasting forever.

To answer the question in the title of this message: No, we’re not there yet. But the promise of the Scriptures—and the promise of the Lord’s Prayer—is that God wants this for us—that he calls us to believe it and live it even as we pray it over and over. When we declare our dependence on God we aren’t throwing ourselves into a big empty hole. Recognizing how much we need God isn’t a cause for despair or depression. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is a celebration—a celebration of communion and connection and completion.

Let’s declare our dependence on God, as we pray that prayer once again...

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