Your Complete Self
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 20, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Genesis 22: 1-14
John 3: 11-16
John 15: 12-17
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
We’ve reached the end of our defining Love series, though we may go one more next week, looking at the imposters of love, that which is not love, but looks like it, or that which the world thinks is love. I think there is great value in doing that perhaps, like there is value in learning what something is by finding out also what it is not. When Thoreau heads into the woods at Walden Pond he says that he is going to. . .
live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.”
He’s talking about studying life, but love would be the same, that it is good to learn to love deep, to suck out all of the marrow of love, but that we also need to put to rout all that is not love. . . I think it helps, but that will be next week. This week we will be looking at our third and final aspect of love, the idea of giving of your complete self.
We started by seeking to expand the definition of love, realizing that there is the danger of too much confinement when you are trying to define something infinite like love, that it is infinite because the experiences of love are infinite, but though it is infinite, all/everything is not love, there are specifics within, patterns that connect us to what is and what is not love. We used the idea “God is Love” to expand, by looking at all of the actions that God takes throughout the Bible, and then attributing them to our idea of love. It stretched the boundaries for sure, but then for the last two weeks we’ve looked at specific aspects. One that Love, is steadfast, it says to another, “I will not walk away” no matter what comes, I am here. Then last week we looked at the effects of love, that love, real love, leaves a trail of life behind it, and that the funny thing about love is that it does not empty of itself, but rather grows as it is given, paradoxically so. . . but this week we will look at the aspect of love that is perhaps the greatest, as Christ says that Love hath no such one than this, to lay ones life down for a friend. . . and that is what we see today in the two Scripture lessons. The Old Testament lesson is one of the more dark passages, and the New Testament is perhaps the most well known and positive statement of our faith, but they are both linked by sacrifice. Let’s look at the Old Testament first, here is Genesis 22: 1-14, the Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah. . .
22 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill[a] his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”;[b] as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
Now this story is certainly heart wrenching, and the details are just so impressive, especially since it was originally written in a language like Hebrew, where there just aren’t a lot of words for stuff. It’s an old language and there was not much time for abstract wording, but humans have always had a great capacity for expression, and Hebrew is poetic like that, much is expressed in the simplicity of details, and the way they are paralleled and repeated. The first I’d like to bring to your attention is the phrase, “Here I am.” It actually appears three times in this text. It also incidentally appears 30 times in the Bible. . . and I bring that up because it is always connected to an important concept, that of call. . . when it appears. Usually God is calling, like he does the first time here, Abraham, and Abraham responds, “Here I am.” It happens like that with Moses, God says, Moses Moses, and Moses replies, “Here I am, Samuel, Samuel, Here I am, Jacob, Jacob Here I am, even Isaiah and Jeremiah the prophets both respond when called by God, Here I am. . . it even reaches the New Testament, when Ananias is called he responds, “Here I am.” The Hebrew Word repeated is a simple one, “Hineni” always simply translated, Here I am, but based on the context, and how it is paralleled in each case, we can infer something more about the meaning, basically when someone says hineni, they are saying three things, 1. I acknowledge your voice 2. I hear what you are saying 3. I’m ready to respond. . . all that is packed into the phrase Hineni. . .but it isn’t always God calling when it is used. . . there is another category that makes up the other part of the 30, and that is between fathers and sons. . . and that pattern is introduced here with Isaac, it happens again with Jacob, with Joseph, and with Samuel. . . in this case with Isaac, Isaac is going along with all this, but notices something very wrong and says, Father. . . and Abraham answers, Hineni, right I acknowledge your speaking, I hear what you are saying, I’m ready to respond. . . . but this time Isaac says, um dad, how come there is all this wood and fire, but no lamb to be sacrificed. . . perceptive kid. . . something is fishy. . . but Abraham answers, with such a statement of faith, and one important as we go forward, he says, the lord himself will provide the lamb. . .how true right, especially since we know the rest of the story, for the 3rd heneni, here I am, comes at the end of this, Abraham has the knife, and the angel of the Lord says, Abraham, Abraham (and that is the typical pattern, name twice, followed by, “Here I am” Heneni, I acknowledge your call, I hear you, I’m ready to respond. . . . put down the knife. . . the Lord provides, and thus Mount Moriah is named. . . and that brings us to our New Testament Lesson. . . John 3: 11-16
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you[a] do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[b] 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[c]
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
We know that passage so well right, God so loves us that we he gave his son as a sacrifice, his only son, so that we shall not perish but have eternal life. . . the story that was begun back in Genesis is now brought to fruition here. . . God himself has provided the lamb. . . how poignant that the Old Testament passage is clear on it, that simple detail in a story where details are few. . .as is the case in most Hebrew tales, what is there is, must be important, so the Himself, added to God, God himself will provide the lamb is prophetically beautiful paired with the Christian understanding of John 3: 16, is it not? The Lamb that was slain was God’s only son, no he spared Abraham’s only son, and gave his own instead. . . himself, God self, given for you and for me. . . impressive stuff, and the very high definition of Love, must be right. Christ himself later in John’s gospel says,
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
And he says this completely surrounded by love commandment language, it is preceded by the command, he says, this is John 15: 12-13
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
And then 14
14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
So this raises the question, is following in Christ’s literal footsteps, laying down your life for you friends, following in this greatest of loves, is that actually required of us for salvation? I mean there is no mistaking it right, the greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor, we are to love because Christ first loved us, but there is not greater love than to lay your life down for your friends. . . . Christ in the other gospels talks about carrying the cross, pick up your cross and follow. . . what would the cross be for, excect for the full sacrifice of one’s life. . . and our Christian faith to be honest if we were to think about it is founded upon such sacrifice and following in Christs footsteps, thousands of early Christians were martyred for their faith by the Romans, horrible deaths. . . Romans pitting Christians against the lions, and those lions were undefeated. . . following in Christ’s footsteps. . . the call to love. . . perhaps, but what about this story of Abraham and Isaac? Is there something to the idea that Christ himself is the lamb who is to be slain, so that we would not perish. . . that God calls for Abraham to stop the knife. . . does he do the same for us? Maybe. . . . I don’t want to down play and short change the notion of literal sacrifice, but I think there is nuance here, and part of it has to do with the notion of “have to” “must” etc. . . because look at the language Christ uses. . . he says friends. . . and friends shouldn’t do out of compulsion, not out of guilt, not out of manipulation, but out of gratitude. . . an important distinction. Let’s look at the rest of the John 15 passage, and I’ll read the verses I’ve already read again, so we have the context. Remember he starts with. . .
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants[d] any longer, because the servant[e] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Not servants but friends. . . yes there is command language, but commands between friends. . . look at what Jesus says is the difference, I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything. . . you see the free decision, not a test, not an onerous necessity is given, not out of the withholding of information, for some kind of manipulation, but because all has been revealed. . . and what is revealed is the amazing power of love, the I will not walk away, and that the cup is never empty, death is not the end. . . but that is just the way it is. . . love is not then required, it is not quid pro quo, rather it has been done, all this has been done, how do you respond? When were you saved? 2000 years ago! There is no game. There is no trick. There is no guilt, this is not the carrot and the stick, this is not controlling behavior, this is not master and servant, this is friends, this is love, Jesus says, I have done this, this is the way the world works, I am giving these commands, so that you “may” love one another. . . . it doesn’t make it necessary, it makes it possible. And his command is the same as the first commandment in the Bible. . . do you know that? Pop quiz? What is the first commandment in the Bible? . . . . Be Fruitful and Multiply. . . I appointed you to go and bear fruit. . . you see that is that trail of life. . . bear fruit, create a trail of life.
Now how do you do that? What is it about? Now first we have shown that it is not about earning anything, it is not about living up to any standard, other than love, and love if we want to be honest does require the giving of your complete self. . . so if we truly want to be honest, it is a gift you are never finished giving, it is not one where you can say, yep, I’m done, I paid that debt off. . . now I can do what I want. . . it doesn’t work that way, that way at its heart is self serving. . . trying to pay off the debt is self serving, trying to earn it is self serving, doing it so you can go to heaven is self serving, and love is not, cannot, will never be self serving, it requires doing completely for others, giving of your complete self for others. . . you see it doesn’t even exist on the give and take, quid pro quo basis, doesn’t even live in that world. And this is why we must confess our sins every week here together in worship, because as long as we are still breathing, we are not done, and are withhold a part of ourselves, we haven’t completely picked up that cross yet. . . ok we haven’t done it yet, but how do we begin to do it, where do we start, how do we give of our entire self?
Remember that word, Hineni. . . Here I am. . . I acknowledge your call. I hear what you have to say. I am ready to respond. . . this is the loving stance. . .
I acknowledge your call. . . now what’s going on there. . . just like with Abraham, or with Moses and the others, God calls you by name, you are his sheep, he is your shepherd, and he knows you by name, he call you by name, and his sheep they hear his voice. . . you see it all connects together. What does it mean to acknowledge this call though. . . one is that you know the voice of the one calling, you know God, you know what amazing things he has done, and you cannot help but be grateful if you’ve come to know the amazing works. . . but it also means you know yourself. . . you know the gifts that God has given you, you value them, you realize that they are yours, given freely to you, to do what you are called to do, and that if God was taking this moment in time, to #1 create you, #2 give you those gifts, and #3 call you. . . you must be pretty special, pretty important, and crucial to the world that God has made, and all of that is wrapped up in Acknowledging your call. . .
I hear what you have to say. . . there is the discernment, what is God calling me to do and be. . . this open dialogue between you and God is happening through all the ways God has to speak to you, through events, through circumstances, through gifts, scripture, others, people and places, everything. . . we call this dialogue discernment, but that is what it is. . . we used to talk to our football players about having their head on a swivel. . . looking for the ball, looking for would be blockers, looking for the play as it unfolds trying to anticipate, to read. . . that is what discernment is about. . . doing the same thing in life about life, if you can come to know, then that is the second part. . . you can say, I hear what you have to say, God . . .
Then finally. . . I will respond. . . I will take the first step, and then each step after, wherever they may lead, even if it leads to the giving of my entire self, until I am completely spent, or taking up my own cross. . . again not for my own gain. . . I have already been given all gifts imaginable. . . I respond to God’s call to love because I have come to know the love he has shown for me, because as a friend He has let me know, and I then simply do. . .
I put in your bulletin a poem from Whitman, 5 years ago, my how the time flies, 5 years ago I was asked to speak at the graduation at Blue Ridge where I used to teach. My speech was entitle “Love as if your life depended upon it” it came from a quote from a poem I had written for the previous years’ graduation. . . but in that speech I used this Whitman poem. O Me O Life! Take a look at it.
O Me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
I love that poem. . . mostly because the last two lines. . . the rest is talking about the sadnesses and frustrations, the heartache and the natural shocks that flesh is heir to. . . to borrow words another great writer. . .(another pop quiz if you can name him). . . ha ha. But the last two lines state the culmination of the good, what good amid all this, he asks. And the answer, that you are here and life exists. . . right gratitude for creation, the gift of life. . . and identity. . . that we are individuals, uniquely made, with our own self to give, otherwise we could not love. . . there must be a self to give. . . God gives us that self, and it has great value. . . that the powerful play goes on and you get to contribute a verse. . . you must contribute a verse. That is what life is about, and that is what love is. . . it is not that we are required to love so that we may earn eternal life, it is that we love because that is the stuff of eternal life, it is the cup that runs over, the oil that is never empty, the manna from heaven, the cup of salvation, and the tomb that could never hold it inside. God has made you, given you life, and identity, and a self, to give in love. . . what amazing verse has he given you to write. . . for God so loved the world. . . and all God’s people said. . . no not amen this time. . . all God’s people said, and let us say it together today and every minute going forward in our lives. . . what word. . . yes, Hineni. . . Here I am!