Sunday, January 15, 2017

Priceless - 2nd Sunday of Epiphany


Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all he had and bought it.”  Matthew 13:45-46

In the telling of this parable, I dare say that if the merchant really understood the value of what is priceless, he would have also given the shirt off his back – for “all he had” would not have been nearly enough! 

That’s the rub for us, isn’t it?  That while we may find it within ourselves to express gratitude for salvation in Christ in certain moments, as when things are going our way, we do not fully appreciate its true value when things are not going our way.  Another preacher has said, For the ‘believer’ who has not comprehended the gift of God, he or she is living in bondage from a self-imposed form of reproach” (Damian Phillips, 2012, “The Free Gift of Grace”).  If we are still being ugly to each other and are willing to harm those we don’t happen to like, what can we possibly think we understand about “grace” that we would claim it for ourselves but deny it to others?  Gratitude is not expressed by what we have but in what we give – what we do with what we have.

How can we measure that which is priceless (that is, no human value can be assigned) and yet comes at such great cost?  This, I think is an important element in understanding a Priceless Treasure.  There are many references to Divine Grace as being a “free gift”, and there are some Bible translations that use the word “free”.  But what is a “gift” if it is not free?  What is a gift if there is a cost attached to that gift?  In other words, if someone gives us a gift but actually expects something in return, then it is not a gift – not if there are strings attached. 

But what is more perplexing is how eagerly we will rush out to buy a gift we had not intended to give only when we are given a gift, yet knowing what we have been given from our God through Christ does not produce that same enthusiastic, truly transformational response.  And the question is why? 

Why are there good Christians who would literally give the shirt off their backs to someone in distress, but there are other professed Christians who would politicize the distressed person and ultimately turn away, “judging” the neighbor rather than blessing them?  Why do some Christians tithe faithfully as a matter of gratitude while other Christians see tithing as “old law” – or at least use that excuse to keep their money for themselves?  After all, worship should not cost us … right?

St. Paul expresses “free” in this way: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  That is, while humanity was in active rebellion and least deserving of anything, The Lord still did this thing.  Even as we were showing Him we are not interested in being children of God, He still made reconciliation with Him possible.  Possible … but not necessarily probable.  Still, calling it “free” or “without cost” (depending on the Bible translation you use) is being dishonest not only with the text but with the principle.

St. Paul also wrote, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  However, it seems The Lord did not do this thing just because.  Even He had a purpose, an ulterior motive, perhaps?  “We are what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). 

“Good works” as our “way of life”.  But is this the “catch” as if The Lord wanted something out of it?  Or is it restoration and fulfillment of the created Divine Order established “beforehand”?  Before sin entered into the world? 

Could this Divine Order actually be why The Lord created the heavens, the earth, and humanity?  What must it be for our understanding so that it may become so “priceless” for us that we would willingly and literally give up all we have – our homes, our cars, our pensions, our savings - to obtain it?  What must it become for us that it is not already?

20th century pastor and author A.W. Tozer once said, “The reason why many are still troubled, still seeking, still making little forward progress [in going “on to perfection”, Hebrews 6:1] is because they haven't yet come to the end of themselves.  We're still trying to give orders, and interfering with God's work within us.”

And if we find ourselves in such a state of being in which we have not – and will not, reasoning we “don’t have to” in order to be saved – we do not see nor do we acknowledge or even comprehend “the Lamb of God” as St. John the Baptizer did.  And more’s the pity … because we are cheating ourselves – and one another – out of not only a genuinely Priceless Treasure but the fullness of life which comes with that Treasure and cannot be measured in human terms.

As if Mr. Tozer were actually speaking directly to me this past week, he also challenged me as I now challenge you.  He wrote: “By the authority of all that is revealed in the Word of God, I say any man or woman on this earth who is bored and turned off by worship is not ready for heaven.” 

By this he surely means mot only corporate worship when we gather on Sundays, but also the worship of participating in the means of grace meant to draw us closer to The Lord.  Fasting is worship.  Tithing is worship.  Scripture study alone and in small group is worship.  Prayer is worship – or should be.  So if we will not and cannot find any sense of fulfillment in these religious practices and disciplines designed to prepare us for something greater, how can we say we are ready for something greater?

We cannot say we are not still looking for something, though.  Can we?  When the Baptizer was standing with two of his own disciples, he exclaimed, “Look, there is the Lamb of God” (John 1:35-36)!  Once these disciples heard this, they began following Jesus.  When Jesus noticed them following Him, He asked what they were looking for.  And the best answer they could come up with was, “Where are You staying?” 

I would like to think if Jesus were to turn to me and ask me what I’m looking for, what I’ve been seeking for a very long time, I would like to think I could come up with something a little more profound than, “What’s up?”  Now we may think they wanted to know where He was staying so they could stay with Him just as they did.  But if following Him and staying with Him in order to learn more about Him were the point in the first place, why didn’t they just say so?

Though the Baptizer was continuing to fulfill his mission by “making straight the way of The Lord” and leading his own disciples to the Messiah, it may be said these disciples still had no real idea about Jesus, the Promised One, the Coming Messiah, the Lamb of God, and what He meant to them then … and what He means to us now.

For us, up to this point, it may be as the prophet wrote; “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with The Lord, and my reward is with my God … my God who has become my strength” (Isaiah 49:4, 5c)

So it may be said that while we may conceptually know of our God as the very “strength” of our being, it may also be said that much of our lives has been spent “for nothing and vanity”.  That is, we do not appreciate what is priceless more than we value what is most important to us.  C.S. Lewis once wrote, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get comfort or truth - only soft soap or wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”

So when the Lamb of God teaches us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), He is telling us what sort of answer He will expect when He turns to us and says, “What are you looking for?”  More than even this, however, He is teaching us what must be our focus from the time we awake to the time we lie down again.  Everything we do and everything we are must be devoted to the Kingdom of Heaven and for the sake of His righteousness; i.e., mercy and justice.  Everything. 

Our God, our Holy Father “whose Name is Jealous” (Exodus 34:14), will never play second fiddle to the world we have created for ourselves because only He knows what it is we truly need.  There is, however, a catch to even this.  In order for us to get what it is we truly need, even if it is adversity to strengthen us, we must first give ourselves completely to Him.  That is the “catch”.  That is the “cost”.

Only then will we come to know of what is truly Priceless, and only then will we come to comprehend its value.  For ourselves, for our “neighbor”, and for the sake of the mission of the Church.  Amen.

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