July 16, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE LEAST I CAN BELIEVE: GOD WITH SKIN ON
The fourth in a series of seven.
There’s a carrot that you eat, there’s a carat that’s a unit of measurement for precious stones, and there’s a caret that’s a proofreading symbol. The proofreading symbol is an upside down “V”. Or a right-side up “A” without the crossbar. It means there is something missing that needs to be added to make the sentence complete.
I want to suggest that we add a caret to the first verse of last
week’s scripture lesson. Last week we started with the first verse of
the Bible. “In the beginning God . . .” Let’s put the caret between
“beginning” and “God”. That makes it look like this: “In the
beginning God . . .” Why in the world would we want to do
that? Because that’s what I think John did with the first verse of
today’s scripture lesson. So it would look something like this:
was the Word,
and the Word was with
“In the beginning God . . .”
It said, “In the beginning God . . .” But now it says, “In the
beginning was the Word and the Word was with God . . .” It’s like
John is adding some new detail to the original creation story. It
wasn’t just God creating the heavens and the earth. The Word was
with God. The Word was God. The other word for “Word” is “Logos”.
That’s the Greek word. And the other word for “Logos” is “Jesus”.
This is review for some of you. But some of you just heard something strange, new, and confusing. Some of you aren’t sure what you just heard. The Bible teaches that Jesus existed before he was born. The Bible teaches that Jesus is co-eternal with God. The Bible teaches that Jesus is the agent through whom God created the heavens and the earth and everything there is.
Here’s another verse we read last week: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image . . . “Why does it say “us” and “our”? Who was there with God? Jesus was there with God! That’s what it says right here at the beginning of the Gospel According to John.
That’s all I have to say about that. Other than to add that there are plenty of Christians who don’t even know about any of this, let alone consider it important enough to bother with. It isn’t in any of our creeds. Believing that Jesus has always existed and was God’s partner in Creation does not make the list of the least we can believe and still be a Christian.
But belief in Jesus most certainly does make the list. In fact, I’m not sure Christians really need to believe anything else. Some people come to Jesus by first believing in God. They become a theist first and then a Christian. But other people meet Jesus first. Through Jesus they come to faith in God. They start with Jesus, they end up with God. They start with Jesus and everything else pertaining to the Christian faith falls into place. They start with Jesus and everything else, period, falls into place. There is a reason “know Christ” comes first in the purpose statement of this church. “Know Christ, Love God, Serve Others.”
But who is Christ? Who is Jesus? That’s where it gets complicated. People hold different and contradictory ideas about Jesus that may not bear any resemblance to what the Bible teaches. One of the most famous prayers in cinematic history illustrates this. It shows how confused we can get about who Jesus really is. If you never got around to seeing, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” you missed one of the great movies of all time. And you also missed this prayer:
(Youtube video: “Prayer to Baby Jesus”)
Everyone in Ricky Bobby’s family had a different way they liked to think of Jesus. He was an 8 lb, 6 oz little baby in golden fleece diapers, he was a grown man with a beard, he wore a tuxedo T-shirt and loved to party, he was a ninja warrior, he sang lead for Lynyrd Skynyrd with an angel chorus backing him up. I’m sure we could add to that list, though probably in less creative ways.
We all have favorite ways we picture Jesus. I have a book called His Face that is a compilation of how artists have portrayed Jesus down through the ages. No two paintings are alike. So who was Jesus? Who is Jesus, really?
There was a little girl who was afraid of the dark. She didn’t want her mom to leave her alone at bedtime. Her mom assured her there was nothing to be afraid of. And besides, she wouldn’t really be alone in that dark bedroom. God would be with her. “God is always with you,” her mom promised. That wasn’t good enough for the little girl. She said, “I know God is always with me, but right now I need someone with skin on.”
I don’t know of a better way to describe Jesus! Jesus is God with skin on. In fact, it’s right there in the scripture we read this morning. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” “Flesh” means “skin”. So “The Word became flesh” means, “The Word grew skin”. Which means Jesus is God with skin on. It’s in the Bible.
Jesus was God, but Jesus was also a human being. He was both. Which means you can start with Jesus. Jesus is the one who is just like us. And you can end up with God. God is the one who isn’t at all like us, but Jesus shows us what God is like. Jesus leads us to God.
We’ve been asking the question in this series: “What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?” There is a short answer to that question. The answer is Jesus.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus “fleshes out” for us what God is like. He is God with skin on. And this verse tells us two other important things about Jesus. He is “full of grace” and he is “full of truth”.
Jesus is full of truth. God’s truth. Jesus used that word to describe himself. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We have to emphasize this because it’s so easy to do what Ricky Bobby’s family did and turn Jesus into whatever we want Jesus to be. No, Jesus is who Jesus is! We see Jesus and we see God’s truth in the flesh.
That means we’d better take real seriously what Jesus taught and how Jesus lived. And by the way, he taught what he lived and he lived what he taught, which is more than most of us can say. If you aren’t much of an authority on Jesus that can easily be changed. There are four short books that tell you all you need to know. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Read any of them. I recommend you start with Luke. Better yet, read all of them. All four are 111 pages in my Bible. It won’t take you long. And if Jesus is who he said he was, not just a good man, but God’s once-and-for-all Truth, it’s very important that you get real familiar with Jesus.
And as we get real familiar with Jesus, we’ll find there’s another word that’s pretty important. That word is “grace”. Jesus is “full of grace and truth”. We saw the grace of Jesus earlier in this series as we contrasted it with the gracelessness of the scribes and the Pharisees. They were big on truth. They had God’s truth all figured out. But they missed the grace of God. And without grace, they only knew part of God’s truth. Their picture of God was distorted. They needed Jesus, God with skin on, to get the whole picture.
Grace means getting better than we deserve. Grace means that even when we fall way short of the Truth as revealed in Jesus, and we all do, God does not reject us or condemn us or turn his back on us. God comes running after us. Like the prodigal son’s father. Like the shepherd who won’t stop searching for that one sheep that has gone astray. Grace means there is “more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
Jesus taught that and Jesus lived that. Those in his day who knew only condemnation found in Jesus something they didn’t expect. They found sympathy. Jesus felt for them. Jesus loved them. That was wonderful enough. But more than that, they found hope. Their future could be different from their past. They were infinitely valuable in the eyes of God. Even the worst of them. So God would never give up on them. Because God made them and God does not make junk.
We see in Jesus both God’s truth and God’s grace. But here’s the problem. Often we emphasize the truth of Jesus so much that we neglect his grace. And often we emphasize the grace of Jesus so much that we neglect his truth. We need both grace and truth. We need them both in balance.
Sometimes we get carried away on the grace side and fall into the error of thinking it doesn’t really matter how we live. Or sometimes we can get carried away on the truth side and we become scribes and Pharisees.
When Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he continued with the second half of that sentence: “no one comes to the Father except by me.” Since Jesus is “full of truth”, that makes sense. How else could anyone expect to come to God except through Jesus? But since Jesus is also “full of grace”, such an absolute statement raises questions. What about those who practice other religions or no religion? Are they given no chance?
I have to tell you I can’t resolve this one for you. I can only tell you that I decided a long time ago that when grace and truth collide, when I have to choose one or the other and I can’t have both, I’m going to err on the side of grace.
Bruce Carroll wrote a song a while back called, “Who Will Be Jesus?” It’s a song that gets at this matter of grace and truth. In the song he tells of people who are really struggling and just barely holding on. And maybe it’s their fault. Maybe they brought it on themselves. The song goes, “They do not need a judge. They need a friend. Who will be Jesus to them?” It’s a song that errs on the side of grace.
And it’s also a song that leads us right into what needs to be said next. Jesus is God with skin on. So are we. Did you hear that? So are we! None of us is Jesus, but the way it works is that since Jesus is no longer on earth in the flesh and since we are, it’s our turn to be God with skin on! Jesus lives in us, his light shines through us, and his love is supposed to be made known in the way we live our lives.
If you’re beginning to get nervous as you’re contemplating this, that means you’re getting it! This is no small thing. Jesus is counting on you and on me to be Jesus for other people. Because we just may be the only Jesus they will ever meet.
Teresa of Avila got this. She was a Catholic mystic who lived in Spain in the 16th century. Here’s how she put it:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion
on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go
about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to
bless men now.
Habitat for Humanity has been building houses since 1976. Coincidentally, that is the year Jimmy Carter was elected president. He was a little busy to be building homes then. But when his public service as president ended, his public service building homes for Habitat for Humanity began.
He was in the news last week. He’s just a few months behind George H.W. Bush as our oldest former president. He’s 92. He will be 93 on October 1. He has beaten brain cancer and he is going strong. He was in the news because he suffered heat stroke while building a Habitat for Humanity house. He was taken to the hospital and when he was released, he insisted on going right back to pick up where he left off in building that house.
In the 41 years they’ve been building homes, Habitat for Humanity is getting close to their one millionth home. That means shelters for well over three million people.
Habitat doesn’t just give homes away. To qualify you are expected to contribute what they call “sweat equity”. You don’t have to be a Christian to help build a house or to get a house, but Habitat for Humanity is a Christian ministry. They make that very clear. They partner primarily with Christian churches. So here’s something to pray about: Should this church partner with Habitat for Humanity?
The big moment comes when a new home is dedicated. All who helped with the building or the financing gather for the celebration. At one of these dedications a woman who had just been given the keys to her new home asked to say a few words. She said, “God provided this home for my family and me. But God used all of you to make it happen.”
That’s the way it works. We know God’s love because we know Jesus. And now others know God’s love because they know us. We have been Jesus to them. We have been God with skin on.
Thank you God for sending us Jesus. You didn’t have to do that. You could have just looked down on us from afar and let us puzzle over what you are really like. But you chose to come
down, to be born and to live among us. We pray for those who don’t yet know Jesus. It’s the most important relationship they will ever know. What a privilege it is to introduce someone to Jesus! And we pray for those who do know Jesus, that we will get to know him and love him and serve him more and more. That we will indeed be his hands and his feet, to make known his love, which is your love, which knows no bounds. We pray in his name, Amen.