Forgive the song that falls so low

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples, and I will sing praises to you among the nations. (Psalm 108:3)

Forgive the song that falls so low,
Beneath the gratitude I owe–
It means Thy praise. However poor,
An angel’s song can do no more.

Great God, and wilt Thou condescend
To be my Father and my Friend.
I, a poor child, and thou, so high.
The Lord of earth, and air and sky.

Text taken from the Sacred Harp tune “Cowper.” The first verse is by William Cowper (original in The Olney Hymns, which also contains Amazing Grace by Isaac Newton).  The second verse is by Ann Taylor, who, along with her sister Jane (the author of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”) wrote many popular poems and hymns for children.

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You are my destiny

[The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will. (Ephesians 1:9-11)

The first chapter of Ephesians is an ecstatic meditation on the wonder of God’s improbably marvelous plan “from the foundation of the world” to retrieve, “in the fullness of time,”  all things that have been scattered. This is something which gives God great pleasure to do, and God brings us into the plan: we can fully expect to see that God’s plans for ourselves and the universe will be accomplished.

I suspect that the earliest Anabaptists took great joy and comfort in these words, but I suspect that many Anabaptists thinkers have shied away from talk about God’s choice–and that scary word, “predestined” which is used in this chapter twice, although you’d be hard put to notice this in the version chosen for today’s passage.

From the Southern Baptists who first prompted me to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I learned that I had to choose to follow Jesus, and that Jesus would save me.

From Christians in the Reformed tradition, I learned that God was sovereign, and something of the ecstasy of delight in this deepest of truths.

From the Mennonites, I have been learning again (and again, and again) to choose to follow Jesus as teacher, role model and Lord both personally, and in the company of fellow disciples. And I hope in doing so, I do not forget these facts: Jesus will save me, and God is sovereign.

Reactions to the teaching and power of Jesus

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (Mark 1: 27-28)

This is the initial reaction to Jesus’s teaching. People were excited. People were glad. Jesus came with something new to say, something they hadn’t heard before. And he didn’t just quote scripture–it was as if he was making scripture. Jesus came with power, heaing those he chose, and ordering evil around, evil spirits fleeing at his command. No wonder word about him spread.

In Luke’s gospel telling of this story, this follows immediately after the first attempt on Jesus’s life. He’d taught with authority and power in his hometown, but this so angered them they attempted to push him off a cliff. But he miraculously escapes.

Eventually, the anger of crowds will kill him.

Like good men of many times–one thinks of Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatma Ghandi–he is put to death by evil. Unlike even the best of these others, his death became a pardon for his followers; and unlike even the best of these others, he is raised by God to raise his followers to new life. And it is news about this that has spread from Jerusalem, to Galilee and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Holding the word in an honest and good heart

But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance. (Luke 8:15)

Mark’s version: But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.

Matthew’s version: As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

Luke’s version: And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.

In all these, seeds being planted is a picture of hearing the word (which, in Mark is just the word, but Matthew calls it the word of the kingdom and Luke the word of God). The reaction to to the word varies slightly: the hearer in Mark accepts it, the hearer in Matthew understands it, the hearer in Luke’s version hears it and then holds it fast in an honest and good heart, and the yield comes with patient endurance. The result varies: the good bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold, Matthew is very similar, but in reverse: a hundredfold … sixty … thirty. Luke’s good soil merely brings forth fruit.

We all want to be good soil for God’s word, at least on our good days. Luke’s version helps us understand a bit better of what this means. Our hearts must be honest, that is, willing to take God’s word to us as it comes and however it ends up describing ourselves, our God or the world. It might be a word of encouragement or correction; having an honest heart towards it means taking it as it comes. The better our heart is, the better our reception of the word: to me, it gives a picture of a feedback system, a “virtuous cycle,” in which the better our hearts become, the more we can receive the word from God, and one result will be our hearts will become even better, and the cycle continues. We also need to bear fruit in patient endurance. Bearing fruit will take time. We need to be patient with this, recognizing that it will take time. And we need to continue to receive the word over the long haul of time.

It may be that the fruit is meant to mean additional people coming to follow Jesus, but I suspect the fruit this parable speaks of is more in the manner of Galatians:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

God brings life

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9)

Ask a typical (Protestant?) Christian why God sent Jesus into the world and they may recite John 3:16, but if you ask them to put it into their words, and they’ll probably say “to save us,” that is, they’ll focus on the “should not perish” part of John 3:16. And so God did. But both in both the gospel and the letter the focus is on the life that God brings to us through Jesus.

(There’s much more to be said on this, but my internet connection is wonky, so I’ll leave off now).

God is …

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)

God is…

God is light, love, a consuming fire.

And so we are

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. (1 John 3: 1)

I’ve always liked the conclusion of the first sentence of this verse: “and that is what we are.” God loves us, we are called children of God, because that is what we are, all because of God’s love.

It’s not surprising that people don’t understand us at times, because people ususally get God wrong. In fact, the closer we are to God, the more this misunderstanding is likely. Why do you care about the things of the spirit? Why love one another when you should just look out for yourself? Why give your money away? Why risk the label of “intolerant” just to maintain some foolish morality that we don’t believe? Why spending time praying to an invisible being?

But as God’s children we do understand. We care about the things of the spirit, because God has moved us, and we want to know God better. We love one another because God is a being who loves, God so identifies with love that God allows the truth of the identity “God is love.” We give our money away because we follow God’s profligate example. We try to be consistent morally (and often fail) because our focus is God-ward. We spending time praying because, well, at least just because it’s polite to ask, and we have seen how God has acted on our behalf in the past.

We are called the children of God, and so we are.