At first we grew and grew. We come into the world with an insatiable urge to grow. All we did at first was feed and sleep. Yet it was more than that. God's design for human life was that from the very beginnings of our life in the world we would be growing in relationships. We came at that at different rates - some with a natural trust and out-going-ness that was itself a worry at times, others with a shyness that may not have completely disappeared even in adult life.
But we were also growing in our ability to make maximum use of this marvellous body. Crawling was a milestone, then walking. These were just the big visible things in a whole process of developing muscular coordination and fine motor skills. We developed at different rates and arrived at different levels.
Alongside this was a powerful drive to learn. We began in the cot. But the limited world we could see was frustrating and tantalising. When we were carried, there were other rooms and a whole wide world out there. Our hands and knees brought a freedom to explore. There was so much to find out about. Time came when our learning had to be formalised. Some people think that spoilt learning for them! But, while we were living now, we couldn't just live for now. We were becoming. We had to be prepared for the people we were going to be and the life we would live. We discovered that there was so much to learn. Nobody could learn it all. Choices had to be made and our special areas of learning would equip us for the next phase of our life.
Sometimes, for a whole variety of reasons, a difficulty has arisen in a person's development in one of these areas. An attempt has been made, not always successfully, to correct the problem. Perhaps as adults we recognise that we have an area where we are "not so strong", and we do our best to compensate.
From time to time someone will say to me, "I'm just not religious." He/she considers it a simple statement of a full alternative approach to life. However, it represents a serious deficiency and should be regarded as parallel to statements like, "I am asthmatic", "I am dyslexic", "I am anorexic", "He's autistic"... What I am emphasising is that there is nothing normal about a life without God. It is a life that is incomplete and perilous.
There is, of course, a problem in our relationship with God. That problem is sin - sometimes expressed positively as conscious and active rebellion against God, sometimes negatively as a failure to reach God's intended standards.
Throughout the world (and throughout human history) the fact of the sin-barrier has led humankind to endeavour to overcome the unsatisfactoriness of life in a whole variety of religions. There have been gods many and lords many, sacrifices to appease for sin, sacrifices to gain favour and power, augurs and oracles to find out what to do. There have been incantations and meditations, ecstasy and passivity. It has been said that human beings are incurably religious. The breakdown of our relationship with God has left an aching void which we try in every way possible to fill. Even the person who says he is not religious is trying to fill that emptiness, even though he is not seeking to bridge the gap between himself and the ultimate reality of God.
Our desperate need is to know God. But if there is a God - holy and just - and I am a sinner - a rebel, a failure - how can I know him?
Do you know John Major? We saw him on TV last night. You know who I mean, but do you know him? We can confidently recognise him on the news. We may learn to pick his voice. We may read up about his family and political background. We may study his policies - domestic and foreign. We may reach a stage where we feel we can predict his reaction in a particular situation. With practice we may even be able to mimic his speech and mannerisms. But does that mean that we know him?
God had expressed his goodwill to all people through the Jewish race and they had learnt much about him, yet how well did they know him? In the fourteenth Psalm David wrote, "The Lord looks down from heaven at mankind to see if there are any who are wise, any who worship him. But they have all gone wrong; they are all equally bad. Not one of them does what is right, not a single one" (vv. 2-3). The Philosopher in Ecclesiastes comes to the pessimistic conclusion "It is useless, useless. Life is useless, all useless" (1.2). The prophet Isaiah was called to take God's message to the people, yet in the presence of God he said, "There is no hope for me! I am doomed because every word that passes my lips is sinful, and I live among a people whose every word is sinful..." (6.5).
Confucius, teaching the need for goodness, honesty and human-heartedness,
said he had never seen anyone with these qualities, though he
thought them within everyone's power.
The words of Henry Twells' hymn sum up our problem -
This is the thread that runs right through the Old Testament. The whole sacrificial system of the Jews was so different from pagan sacrifices. They were about "covenant", about the God who wants a restored relationship with people.
It is the theme of the coming of Jesus the Son of God into human history. Before his birth, Joseph was told, "You will name him Jesus - because he will save his people from their sins" (Mt. 1.21). In Jesus' reply to the power-seeking of James and John, he said, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people" (Mk 10.45).
Paul, writing to the Corinthians, said, "I passed on to you what I received, which is of the greatest importance: that Christ died for our sins, as written in the Scriptures (the Old Testament); that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later, as written in the Scriptures..." (1 Cor. 15.3-4).
So God, by his initiative, has done what our human religious quests could never achieve, whatever their style or shape.
Recently I was talking to a grandmother who was concerned about a grandson who has gone "fundamentalist" - "he believes the Bible too literally and says that various people will be going to Hell! We have to recognise these days that there are many other religions in the world." It sounded to me as if he was a bit extreme. Yet, frankly, I myself don't know what other way to believe the Bible than literally taking very seriously the words of Jesus, Paul and the others! Jesus himself gave us grim warnings about Hell and offered no assurances that the Jewish religion in itself would bring people to salvation. Living in a world of many religions he made the exclusive claim, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me" (Jn 14.6).
Trusting Jesus as our Saviour and Lord is the key to knowing God. That represents the beginning of our personal relationship with God. And in today's Bible reading, we hear him saying, "For you gave [your Son] authority over all mankind, so that he might give eternal life to all those you gave him. And eternal life means knowing you, the only true God, and knowing Jesus Christ, whom you sent" (Jn 17.2-3). It is because of what Jesus has done that we can truly know and experience God as "our Father".
In university days I heard Rev. John Stott, then rector of All Souls' Church, Langham. Place in London. His theme was "What is Christianity?" Christianity, he said. is not essentially a set of doctrines, a code of ethics or a series of ritual observances, though Christians rightly have doctrines, ethical standards and rituals. Rather, Christianity is believing in Jesus Christ as our Saviour, acknowledging Jesus Christ as our Lord and knowing Jesus Christ as our Friend. In essence, Christianity is to be seen, not so much as a religion, but as a relationship.
There are a number of things that used to be called "means of grace" - including, for instance, the Sacraments - to be seen, not as ritual acts, but as a means of growing in knowing and expressing the reality and life of God.
Reading the Bible and praying aren't a chore to be fitted in somewhere. They are part of the lifeblood of a relationship. They are part of our listening and speaking with our Heavenly Father. It makes a world of difference when we view them that way.
Jesus said to the Jewish authorities, "You study the Scriptures, because you think that in them you will find eternal life. And these very Scriptures speak about me! Yet you are not willing to come to me in order to have life" (Jn 5.39-40). Read the Scriptures, Jesus was saying, with the openness of faith in him.
In the Sermon on the Mount, we hear him warning against the prayer-style of the hypocrites who are looking for public approval or of the pagans who think that "their gods will hear them because their prayers are long". Prayer, Jesus is saying, is coming to your Father who really is there and who already knows your needs (Mt. 6.5-8).
We have our casual greeting, "How are you going?" We are not necessarily wanting a full answer when we ask that! But this morning's question is a bit more probing, "How are you growing?"
Following the incident of the boy Jesus in the Temple, we read, "So Jesus went back with them to Nazareth, where he was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. Jesus grew both in body and in wisdom, gaining favour with God and men" (Lk. 2.52).
"Eternal life means knowing you, the only true God, and knowing Jesus Christ, whom you sent." How are you growing?
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