This morning, I preached at my internship church - Bellevue United Presbyterian Church. I just love that church so very very much and it'll be terribly bittersweet when I have to leave after graduation this year. I can't say enough how honored I've been to be a part of the community there and how great it's been to have such an incredible place to learn and grow.
Close your eyes for a moment and think about a time you felt close to God. A time you knew that God was in control and that you felt fully reliant on God’s grace and love.
Perhaps it was when you first heard the good news of the Gospel. Perhaps it was when you started an exciting new job. Maybe it was when you took a leap of faith and made a bold life change because you just knew that God had something great or important in store for you. It might have been earlier this morning or it might have been years ago. For some, it may be a good time, for others a difficult one. Maybe you can’t bring a time like that to mind at all.
The day that always comes first to my mind when thinking about being close to God is the day that we had our first ultrasound when I was pregnant with Levi. That day my husband and I were told our son was likely to die before he was born. It was the most gut-wrenching day I can remember. It was also the day that I felt more connected to God than I’d ever felt before. I know that Tim remembers that day as vividly as I do.
It was actually a beautiful day in late June. For some reason, I remember the sun streaming though our windows all day. We came home from the hospital and sat down together in our bedroom in that warm sunlight and spent the rest of the day in prayer. We didn’t have a choice. If we didn’t rely on God in that moment, we’d have fallen apart. That day launched us into several months of keen awareness of our total reliance on God for the next step. We had to keep our eyes on God because one glance in another direction could have cost us our son, our marriage, or our faith.
That’s how it is sometimes. There are times we feel close to God because the blessings in our lives are apparent to us. And there are times we feel close to God because we have no choice but to admit the world is out of our control and we can’t navigate it alone.
During that scary time when we still weren’t sure our son would make it or not, an old friend of mine asked her husband, “Why them? Tim and Charissa are good people. They don’t deserve this.” And her husband simply said, “Who says it’s about what anyone deserves?”
We’re so conditioned in today’s culture to think that we always get what we deserve. . . or perhaps the more culturally appropriate word here is “earn.” If something good happens, it’s because we worked hard and earned it. If something bad happens, it’s because we messed up and earned the consequence. Success is generally equated with moral character and being hard on your luck is often seen as being less wholesome.
Actions certainly do have consequences. This is a lesson I spend much of my time trying to communicate to my children. Levi had to learn the hard way last winter that when you jump off of your sister’s dresser and try to fly like Buzz Lightyear by bouncing off the bed. . . the result is stitches. Lexi recently got a great score on a test in a subject she’d been lagging in at school because she spent extra time and effort preparing for it and the effort paid off. Those are good lessons. We can’t forget that there are consequences to our actions. The problem is that in a society that so highly values pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and earning the way to the top, we have to be careful that we’re not subconsciously applying those economics to God.
Our Western brains have trouble getting around the idea that God loves us no matter what and that sometimes “blessings” aren’t what we expect. There’s nothing we can do or not do to earn God’s love. It’s already been given in spite of everything else. Even if we know this academically. . . it’s really hard to internalize the idea that we are loved without condition.
The author of Psalm 121 which we sang earlier seems to be embarking on a journey of some sort and it acts as a reminder of God’s provision in that journey. There are plenty of theories and debates about where exactly the Psalmist was headed, but it really doesn’t matter. Most of us can relate readily to the idea of setting off into the unknown. Abram (back before he was renamed Abraham) was asked by God to set off on a long journey to a new land and God promised to bless him. And Genesis 12:4 says very simply that he went.
Imagine that. I’ve always been astounded by that move. God told Abraham to leave everything he knew. He was to take only his immediate family and a nephew he took care of and go off far away to a new land. I get wigged out when I have to sit in a different chair in class because someone took my normal seat, and here Abraham gets up and just goes! Just like that!
Abraham’s journey was never an easy one. It was rough. I imagine there were many many times he thought, “Where are these blessings God promised?” I wonder if Abraham got to thinking sometimes it couldn’t possibly be worth it. God told Abraham he would be “blessed,” but Abraham struggled just like we do. He was sent to a new land where he knew no one. More than once he lied about who his wife was in an attempt to save his own skin. He and his wife struggled with infertility. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son. When we reach further into Genesis, Abraham isn’t always what we would call “blessed” by today’s standards.
Our passage from Romans gives us important insight into Abraham’s faith and righteousness. He didn’t go because he was super good at following the rules and doing as he was told. Abram wasn’t counted as righteous because he left his home country when God said to go. Abram left his home country when God said to go because he had already been counted as righteous.
But what about this “blessed” business? We should consider what “blessed” means. It’s not the same thing as “perfect” or “charmed” or “successful.” I recently read an article that asked Christians to stop using the words, “I’m blessed” as the catch all to mean, “I am happy with how things are going” or to connote success. We aren’t blessed just because we have a good job or a nice car or a pretty family. Those things are nice to have and they aren’t inherently evil, but to define blessing by listing those things does a disservice to the faithful Christians around the world who have none of those things. Aren’t they blessed to? Isn’t blessing more than success and privilege or power and possessions?
Abraham did not lead a charmed life. But he led a blessed life. He was made righteous in God’s sight because God made him righteous and he acted in obedience as a result of that. Things weren’t perfect for Abraham after that, but God’s blessing on his life was apparent. And while Abraham didn’t live to see all his many promised descendants, the greatest blessing on Abraham’s life was the blessing he became to the nations.
You may or may not know this about me, but I used to teach knitting and crochet professionally. I know, it’s a strange career, but I like to keep people guessing. Out of all my students, the only ones I had who couldn’t learn were the two (only two) who walked in and said, “I can’t do this.” Before even trying.
Sometimes, I would get students who were re-learning after some years or who were just quick learners and they would pick it up lickety split like it was nothing. The most common, though were the “tight knitters.” I knew what was happening just by seeing the look on their face. They were concentrating SO HARD on what they were doing and on getting it JUST RIGHT that they would knit or crochet these teeny tiny little stitches that were so tight, you could hear their needles squeak as they tried to get them through the sweaty loops.
They were knitting, but it was painful. These students would have to stop every row and shake out their hands from the cramps they were causing. It was exhausting just watching them.
Meanwhile, just to make a point, I would walk around the classroom with a small bag of yarn slung over my shoulder, knitting as I watched them and talked with them. Inevitably, a student would say, “ THIS IS KILLING ME! And there you are just walking around like it’s nothing!”
And I’d say, “So stop trying so hard.”
“You’re thinking about it too much. Just knit.”
And ever so gradually, they would start to loosen up and I could almost see the light bulbs going on above their heads as it clicked. The trick to knitting and crochet – as with many art forms – is to stop trying so hard. You can’t be creative when you’re trying too hard to be perfect!
You cannot fully appreciate the love of God while you’re still trying to earn it.
Stop trying so hard!
If you’re here to earn God’s good graces. . . knock it off! You have already been made righteous. You are already loved by God and God will NEVER stop loving you. Now go live like it! Don’t worship just because it’s your duty, worship because God has offered for each of us far more than we could ever earn! Don’t do good deeds because they’ll get you brownie points with God – do them because God loves the people around you as unconditionally as God loves you.
Stop living like someone who has to prove their worth to God who loved you so much God sent Jesus – God’s own Son – so that we don’t have to get everything perfect!
We don’t have to get the steps to the dance all right before we’re allowed to dance for joy and praise! It’s not about what we’re doing, it’s about who we’re doing it for. We haven’t earned anything – we can’t. All we can do is respond in faith. We are freed to be a joyful reflection of God in the world before we have it all together. To be blessed isn’t just about individual success or earning anything from God. The joy and blessing that come from knowing you are unconditionally loved by God are contagious and we can’t help ourselves but be the light to everyone we come across.
Stop trying to hard.
Abraham didn’t leave his homeland because he was trying to earn anything. Abraham left because he had been made righteous by God and he was blessed for his obedience.
God loves you. Period. No if or but. God loves you.
Jesus came to earth as a human being because God loves you. No matter what. Not the person you think you should be. Not even the person the world thinks you should be.
You can set off on the journey – whatever it is – with your eyes on God who takes care of you.
“The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.”