That's What I'm Looking For
That's What I'm Looking For
August 10, 2014
The Rev. Dr. Jay Bartow
A Sermon preached at The Church in the Forest in Pebble Beach, California
Texts: Exodus 3:1-12 Psalm 37:1-11 Colossians 1:24-29
How is your summer going? Well, I hope. Gail and I have had a wonderful summer, beginning with a trip to England, Scotland, and Wales in mid-June with our daughter and her husband and their two boys, who are now twelve and fifteen years of age. Thanks to your kind pastor, Bill Rolland, we spent two glorious days in his house in Anstruther, Scotland, just fifteen minutes south of St. Andrews. We savored the best fish and chips in all the United Kingdom from the Anstruther Fish Bar and Grill and had a putting contest in the Himalayas, the hilly 18 hole putting course in St. Andrews which brought more laughs than a night of stand-up comedy. I had a chance to play the Eden Course at St. Andrews for the first time late in the afternoon when all the contours of the links are highlighted by shadow. What great fun!
And now I have the privilege of joining you in worship and exploration of an idea that is central to our faith and life, a concept, which, rightly understood, will bring great purpose and happiness to us.
What might that be? I want us to explore God’s purpose in creating us, or if you like, what God is looking for in us. If we grasp that idea I believe that we will find that it is what we are looking for also. That is why I chose that reading from Psalm 37, the fourth verse of which reads: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
St. Augustine of Hippo put it this way: ”O Lord, Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, said much the same when he wrote: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the human heart that only God can fill.”
If we listen to modern day lyricists we hear very clearly the search for what is missing in life. Many of us are familiar with the Irish Band, U2, and one of its biggest hits: “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Or Mick Jagger’s complaint, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Remember the incomparable Peggy Lee asking the poignant question: “Is that all there is?”
Our faith offers an answer to the question of what is missing in life as most persons experience it. Paul says in his letter to the Colossians that the rich mystery of God is Christ in us, the hope of glory. Paul preached and taught and imparted wisdom to all who would listen to present them mature in Christ.
The word rendered mature is teleios in Greek which means having attained the end or purpose, complete, perfect. God’s plan or purpose is to shape us into persons who are like Christ. C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity goes so far as to say God means to make us little christs.
When I first read that I thought, can that be? That sounds like too tall an order given the raw material we present to God to work with. But the idea is woven through the fabric of the New Testament.
John in his first letter says that in Christ God has given us an example that we should follow in his steps (I Jn. 2:6).
Paul says that if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Cor. 5:17) Paul writes to those in Corinth that they are the aroma of Christ, (2 Cor. 2:15) and that together they are the body of Christ and individually members of him.
Peter declares that we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9-10). He goes so far as to say that though God’s grace and promises we become participants or partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
Jesus puts it this way in his Sermon on the Mount, delivered to his close followers, “You are the salt of the earth; (Mt. 5:13); you are the light of the world; (Mt. 5:14). Then he goes on to remind them that they are to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them so that they may be children of their Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. He concludes with these words. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The word rendered perfect, is teleios, and we recall that means having attained the end or purpose, or complete or mature. Jesus invites us to attain God’s purpose for us, to grow up, to become mature.
Perfect is an off-putting word, isn’t it? It suggests God is like an inspector General looking for dust on a file cabinet, a scuff on a boot, a wrinkle in a bed, and blasting the culprit and consigning him to KP for a month.
But the men and women Jesus chose to accompany him in doing God’s work were far from perfect. They frequently misunderstood him and failed to keep their promises. Remember when James and John, the Sons of Thunder, asked Jesus for permission to call down lighting on the Samaritan villages that were unresponsive to Jesus’ message? That violated all that Jesus had taught them. He asked them to watch and pray with him in Gethsemenae, and they all fell asleep. He predicted they would deny him, and Peter countered, “I will never deny you, even if I have to die with you!” But later that same night he denied three times that he knew Jesus.
Yet these are the same persons Christ commissions to carry on his work as he departs from them saying: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” That rag-tag band of followers changed the course of history because they had been changed by the Lord of history.
When these commoners were brought before the religious elite of the Temple and Sanhedrin who told them to stop speaking of Jesus, they were not intimidated, but spoke eloquently and fearlessly of the risen Messiah. The authorities realized that they had been with Jesus, who spoke not as the Scribes and Pharisees, but with authority. He had rubbed off on them.
The best description I have discovered of what it means to be mature or whole in Christ comes from Alan Richardsons’s Theological Wordbook of the Bible, a slender volume brimming with fresh insights as to the meaning of biblical words.
Teleios means to be wholly turned, with our whole will and being to God, as God is turned to us. It is God’s command springing from God’s own life, and our obedience is not the beginning of some vague progress on a shadowy moral way, but is the acceptance of grace, which is always whole, complete, perfect.
What does that look like and how do we get there?
When our five-year old granddaughter who lives in New York comes to visit us she runs with arms wide open and a smile on her face into our outstretched arms and hugs us with all her might. That is perfect! That is what she is looking for and what we are looking for, an embrace that assures her of our great love for and pride in her.
We aren’t expecting her to be perfect. She can be headstrong and cranky at times as can we, but she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that we love her and are proud of her and would lay down our lives for her without a second thought. Her parents’ love since her birth and our love for her in those times we have been together. She lives in New York, but we see her four or five times a year, seeking to lay for her the foundation for a good and happy life. We want her to come at life from a position of surplus and not deficit. People hurt others when they are hurting and needy and afraid and unsure that anyone cares for them and will provide a place for them. But our granddaughter knows that we care for her on good days and bad and that she will always have a special place in our hearts and home.
God wants us to know beyond a shadow of a doubt how much God loves us and how much our Creator believes in us and our capacity to carry on God’s work in the world.
When God called Moses to lead his people to freedom Moses was a fugitive from justice, a man who had committed manslaughter when he struck an Egyptian who was abusing one of the Hebrews. Read the rest of Chapter 3 of Exodus and you see Moses trying every way he can to convince God that he is not qualified for what God is asking him to do. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:12) God answers, “But I will be with you.”
Moses tells God he is not eloquent, but slow of speech and tongue. God replies, “Who made the human mouth? And besides you have your brother Aaron who speaks well.”
God wasn’t looking for a perfect person, but simply for someone who would take note of the extraordinary sight of a bush burning and yet not consumed. And when God called to him out of the bush Moses said, “Hineni” which is Hebrew for, “Here I am.” The conversation began and Moses grew in the grace and knowledge of God and led his people to freedom.
George Bernanos in his Diary of a Country Priest writes: “God often visits us, but we usually aren’t home.” God visited Moses at work, but he was home, which is to say that he was listening, and willing to dialogue with God.
That is what all the heroes and heroines of our faith dare to do. To be present to God, to listen, to turn aside and look again. To turn toward God as God is turned toward us. That is what God is looking for.
So how does this happen? For me it happened when as a young idealistic agnostic from an non church-going family I met a student at UCLA who invited me to explore the New Testament with him. Since that was an unexplored world for me I thought, why not? Every educated person should become somewhat familiar with the Bible. As I read the Bible for the first time I identified with J.B. Phillips, an English pastor who translated the Greek New Testament into modern English and said that in doing so he felt like an electrician rewiring an old house with the power on.
My friend and I met every Friday and I had a raft of questions to ask him and with patience and respect he heard me out and pointed me in the direction where I might begin to find some answers. As I read the words and way of Jesus I was amazed. Where had I been? Every human frailty and problem that plagued our world he addressed with clarity and compassion. His call to mercy, forgiveness, generosity, simplicity of life, concern for the least of those among us, spoke to me with power. When I entered college I wanted to become a diplomat and work for world peace, but after reading the New Testament I realized that no country or government ever put forth a more profound and sane path for peace than Jesus of Nazareth.
I sensed that he was calling me to apprentice myself to him, to come and see for myself who he was and what he proposed to do in and through me. And when I said yes to his invitation my life began to take on a meaning and purpose that has only deepened over the decades.
If we want to grow up in God, to turn to God as fully as God is turned toward us, there is no substitute for the Scriptures which reveal to us how much God loves us and counts on us to further his work. It is never too late to begin.
I think that my happiest moments of ministry in my thirty-six years at First Presbyterian Church of Monterey were spent with persons in their seventies and eighties who had accomplished so much in their careers and families, but who came to admit they really had no first-hand experience with an inductive and no question off limits discussion of the Bible alongside others who had a bit more experience than they in that regard. We learned so much from one another, grew to love and trust one another and to love and trust God more. And that is what God and what they were looking for.