February 5, 2012

Vessels of Glory

All this month…or last month as it was…we have been talking about the image of God.  Three weeks ago I took some time and hopefully proved to you the fact that you are created in the image of God.  We know were created in the image of someone or something—a fact made apparent by the constant efforts we put into finding an image by which to define ourselves.  Well, we took the evidence of Genesis 1 combined with the inherent value that, even if it has been trampled down to almost nothing, we all know deep down in our knower that we possess and made clear that our image, the one that most truly defines us is the image of God.  Two weeks ago, then, we spent some time talking about what this means.  We don’t look like God.  We aren’t capable of all the amazing things God is by virtue of being God.  But, we do share in a number of the personal traits the Bible describes God as possessing.  This led us to the conclusion that being created in the image of God must mean we share in His personhood.  God is a person and by virtue of being created in His image, so are we.  With the proof and explanation thus out of the way, we took all of the theology of the first couple of weeks of this series and put it into practice last week in order to answer the question of what it means that we are created in the image of God when we walk out of the doors of the sanctuary and out into the world.  We discovered that there are all kinds of powerful implications of this truth.  Most notably: because we are created in the image of God our inestimable value is secure.  There is no one or nothing in this world that can add to or take away from our value.  Anyone who has ever sought to define human personhood (and thus value) on the basis of some set of criteria other than God’s image has been wrong.  And usually they have been horribly, disastrously wrong.

Well, at the end of last week’s message I made the point that all of the implications we talked through were pretty much focused on us.  My purpose in this was to take a few moments to reaffirm and perhaps to simply affirm your inherent value.  Our perception of our value gets trounced pretty regularly by the images we encounter on a daily basis.  Refocusing our eyes on the truth from time to time is a helpful thing.  In spite of how important all of that was, however, I also said there was one more set of implications worth exploring and these were potentially the most powerful we’ve yet encountered.  Namely, if God created us of all the creatures in the world—the hairless, puny primates that we are—in His image and then set us in the seat of dominion over the whole of creation, there must have been a pretty powerful reason for this.  The reason must have the potential to change the nature of our relationship with God.  This morning, I want to take a few minutes and explore what this reason might be.

Let’s think about it from the starting point I just mentioned.  If God made us in His image and set us over all of creation, then He must have some pretty awesome plans for us.  Let’s go back to the Wal-Mart illustration from last week.  If you were responsible for an organization that large in which you had a direct hand in the livelihood of thousands of people, you wouldn’t put someone in a position of great power in the company without a very good reason.  A failure there would not impact you alone.  It could have a ruinous affect on the lives of thousands of employees and their families.  Well, in these terms, the organization God has created and oversees is several orders of magnitude larger than anything ever imagined by people.  If He chose a certain creature out of the millions of different kinds of creatures He made to rule over the rest, He must have had a very good reason for doing so.  Whatever this plan is, given the size and scope of creation, He must have a vested interest in seeing it come to pass.

Stay with me for just a minute here.  If God has plans for us, they are necessarily His plans, not ours.  As Paul rightly argued in a passage we looked at a couple of Wednesday nights ago in 1 Corinthians 2, just like you are the only one in this world who really knows what you are thinking, the only person who knows the mind and plans of God is…God.  If this is the case, then the only way we are ever going to become privy to these plans, let alone a part of them, is if we get into a relationship with God and He lets us in on them.  This makes sense, right?  No one can know the deepest thoughts of your heart unless you share them and you’re not going to share them with a stranger.  You’re only going to share them with someone with whom you are in a deep, meaningful, growing relationship.  Well, what’s it take to be in a relationship with you?  A lot of things, perhaps, but first and foremost it requires being with you.  It’s hard to really develop a relationship unless you are in someone’s presence.  Now, today we sometimes digitize the idea of presence, but even if in digital form (which isn’t as good as the physical, by the way), until you get to the point of presence with someone no relationship is possible.  The same goes with God.  There is no possibility of being in a relationship with Him unless we are to enter into His presence.

There’s a problem, though: we can’t enter into the presence of God in our current state.  It is made very clear throughout the Old Testament that if we were to enter into His presence and experience the full weight of His glory in our sinful states we would be utterly destroyed; wiped away with no hope of return.  As a single example from among many, when Isaiah was taken up into the presence of the Lord, even in a dreamlike state, before He was made clean by one of God’s servants, his first words upon realizing what was happening were: “Woe is me!  For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  What saved Isaiah in this instance is what has to save us if we are to have an experience in kind: his guilt was taken away and his sin was atoned for.  Here’s the thing, though: but for a special act of the grace of God like Isaiah experienced, nothing short of our entire lives can atone for our guilt and sin.  Well, giving up our life to atone for our sin sounds like a fair deal, but it’s kind of hard to enjoy and take part in God’s plans for our lives here and now if we’re dead.  What we need is help in this venture.  And by help I mean that we need someone to do it for us.  We need someone to pay the price of our sin and absolve our guilt on our behalf so that we can hang on to his coattails to get into the presence of God.  We need a benefactor.  Someone with a great deal more resources and abilities and connections than we have who can take us under His wing and provide for us the things we will never be able to achieve on our own.

Some of you have already mapped out the next thing I’m going to say.  As it turns out, this is exactly what we have in Jesus Christ.  Jesus did everything right.  He didn’t sin.  He never incurred any guilt before God.  And then He gave His life to pay for everybody’s sin.  By this act of obedience and sacrifice, when we pledge our lives to Him and accept what He did on our behalf, we are covered by Christ’s righteousness, His right-relatedness to God.  It’s like we were on the way to meet someone very important, dressed in our Sunday best, but on the way stopped to play in the mud.  Unfortunately there wasn’t time to go back for more clothes.  Fortunately, though, we joined the traveling party of someone who had not only already met this important person, but who had an extra set of clothes to put on over our grubby garments so we could get in the door.  The thing is, we actually have to join this other traveling party in the first place.  We have to enter fully into a relationship with Jesus—who accepts us just as we are, by the way—in order for Him to be able to cover us with His righteousness.  He’s not going to force it on us and in spite of what people might argue to the contrary, until we are ready to fully submit our lives to Him, we wouldn’t want Him to do it.  Righteousness is a hateful thing to those accustomed to unrighteousness and not yet ready to leave it behind.  Let me put it this way.  On Sunday mornings when we are getting ready for church, we let Noah play with his toys in the living room until we are ready to get him dressed to go.  Now, Noah loves coming to church.  But, when he’s in the middle of a big living room adventure and we try and stop him in order to put on a shirt that isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world, he will fight us tooth and nail.  If he’s not ready to stop playing and come on his own there is no convincing him we’re trying to take him somewhere he loves to go.  He’ll fight and kick and scream, “I don’t want to go to church!”  The reality, however, is not that he doesn’t want to come to church.  The reality is that he wants to come to church on his terms and in his time.  But if he waits, he’ll miss it.  Are you with me?

Jumping back to our traveling analogy, the exciting truth in all of this is that when we finally and fully enter into the presence of this important person—God—He is going to give us a completely new set of clothes that will properly reflect His identity.  In this way we will share in His splendor.  It’s actually what we were bound for all along.  We started the journey because He created us—in His image—and desired for us to come to reflect that image with glorious splendor.  You see, one of the defining features of God, expressed all throughout the Scriptures, is that He is glorious.  Now, the glory of God is really a hard idea to define, but for now let’s say it is a word that describes God’s full splendor and beauty and greatness.  God is jealous for His glory.  Glory is not an inherent attribute of anything else in this world.  The Bible describes various aspects of creation as reflecting God’s glory or revealing God’s glory, particularly in the Psalms, but never as sharing in it.  With one exception: us.  In Romans 1 Paul describes the process of willful sin in part as people trading in the glory of God for images of earthly things which are not glorious.  The implication is that we had His glory to start with.  The apostle Peter in his first letter to the believers in what is now Turkey described God as having called them “to his eternal glory in Christ.”  Paul in his second canonical letter to the believers in Corinth in 4:17-18 notes that faithfully following the path of Christ through the various trials of this life “is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are [the images by which we are surrounded on a daily basis] but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”  My friends, this all finally points us to the plan of God in creating us in His image.  The glorious plan of God in creating us in His image is to make His glory known through us.  God wants His glory made known through you.  You are a vessel of glory.

When I stand up here before you and say things like, “I want to see you become fully who God designed you to be,” this is what I’m talking about.  We are each created to reflect God’s glory in a unique way, but we were created to reflect His glory.  God wants His glory made known through you.  And once you’ve given Him the opportunity to start doing that by joining Christ’s traveling party—which means fully submitting every part of your life to His direction and giving up what you hold dear in exchange for what He does (some of which you’ll receive back in its proper place and form)—He’s not going to stop until the work is completed.  I hope you’re hearing all this properly.  God doesn’t want you to “become a Christian” in order to get baptized and live a pretty happy life.  He wants you to start following His Son in order that you might be covered by His clean garments in order that you might be able to enter into His presence in order that He can see the plans He had when He created you brought to fulfillment; in order that He can see you become fully what He designed you to be; in order that He can see you come to reflect His glory as fully as possible.  And this isn’t a short-term thing.  You were created with an eternal spirit so you can reflect and even share in His glory for all eternity.  In these terms, then, following Christ is glorious.  God wants His glory made known through you.  Refusing Him, however, is terrifying.  If we don’t reflect His glory we will necessarily reflect the images around us which are broken and dark.   Over the span of eternity, then, as we attempt to reflect these images and maintain some most preferred image in the blackness apart from the light of God our misaligned efforts will result in an ever more horrible and terrifying appearance.  We are thus bound for either glory or terror.  One of these is the ultimate end of every person you meet without exception.  Every person in this world is created in God’s image.  God wants His glory made known through us.  What remains, then, is for us to respond.  The choice is whether we will respond by embracing God’s image, or one of these other images.  Will we recognize and interact with the image of God, calling those around us to do the same, and treating them and ourselves appropriately as creatures made in His image and capable of reflecting His image, or will we be content to see them settle for whatever other image is out there, apathetic to its endgame?  God wants His glory made known through you.

In light of this, there are some words by the great Christian thinker C. S. Lewis that I think capture well the path we have pursued for the past four weeks.  Let me read these words for you and we’ll get out of here.  Hear them well, though, because the truth they reveal is an important one.  “Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.  A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.  The following Him is, of course, the essential point.  That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I [and we] have been indulging.  I can think of at least one such use.  It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour.  The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.  It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.  It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.  There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.  This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.  We must play.  But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.  And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feelings for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.  Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your sense.  If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”[1] God wants His glory made known through you.  He made you in His image to see it happen.  Will you let Him?

[1]C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” from The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1949), 45-46.