Sunday, March 17, 2013

He Must Become Greater, I Must Become Less

This is an edited version of a message I shared in my church a couple of years ago, focusing on the "Bigness" of God and the "smallness" of us.

I’m pushing a bit of a barrow around at the moment. What I mean by that is that you know when people hold onto a certain belief, point of view or agenda, and they talk about it and proclaim it over and over again, until, regardless of its truth, you’re just sick of hearing it? That’s what I call “pushing a barrow”, and I’ve got one.

This message may hit some people pretty hard. Anyone who may be reading this with their life governed by pride, ego, self-importance, self-righteousness, or a sense of superiority above other humans, this may cut pretty deep. So, here I go.

This picture you see is earth. Its us. Taken 5.5 billion km away from earth by the Voyager Spacecraft in 1990. The photo earned the title: The Pale Blue Dot.

So, after seeing this photo, I’d like to share with you the Big Idea of this message: Firstly, We are really really really really small!!

To ram this home, I am going to read from a couple of contrasting sources. Firstly, Dr Carl Sagan was an incredibly gifted scientist of the 20th century, into astronomy and that sort of area. Unfortunately he wasted his gifts and talents as a passionate evolutionist and agnostic (interestingly he didn’t go as far as calling himself an atheist). He also used marijuana, which didn’t help his mental state at all.

The reason I am mentioning Dr Sagan is not because I advocate his views, but to give you an extreme perspective of our position in the universe. Commenting on The Pale Blue Dot, Dr Sagan said We succeeded in taking that picture from space (5.5bil km away), and if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of all the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill each other, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.

So this is how Dr Sagan sums up the human race:
“a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.”
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark

That point of view, left on its own, can kindly be described as bleak, cynical and frankly, depressing. However it isn’t just marijuana-smoking scientists who recognise our smallness. The Bible has a bit to say about it too.

Psalm 103
: As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more

Isaiah 40:6-7
: All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them…the grass withers and the flowers fall.And that’s my message, have a nice life everyone….no, fortunately there is another part to this story. We might be really really really small, but the good news is that God, our Creator, is really really really big. And to illustrate this point, look at these verses from Isaiah 40

Isaiah 40: Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales, and the hills in a balance? Who did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it who taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?

To whom then will you compare God? What image will you compare him to? He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He brings princes to naught, and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal” says the Holy One. “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great powers and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.

The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not grow faint.

So, here is the Big Idea for today in its entirety:We are really really really small BUT God is really really really BIG!!

Today I want to talk about John the Baptist, and the reason is that he was a man with a big calling, or very important job, but he knew his place, and embraced his “smallness”. He was prophesied about in Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling in the desert: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight a highway for our God.”

His job, one of incredible eternal significance, was to prepare people for God coming to earth as a man, to become the Saviour of the entire world! He was also aware of this. He quoted the Isaiah prophecy when asked by religious leaders who he was.

We also know these things about John
John was attracting big crowds

Mark 1:5, 7: “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him…
Matthew 3:4 – “People went out to him from Jerusalem, and all Judea, and the whole region of the Jordan

People thought John may have been the Messiah

Luke 3:15-16: The people were waiting expectantly, and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ (or Messiah)

John’s popularity and influence were attracting attention from higher authorities:

John 1:19-27: Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was…. “Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us.”…Pharisees who had been sent questioned him…

Just as an aside, we are also told in Matthew that “…Johns clothes were made of camels hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey…” Not sure whether that’s in there because it was the fashion and the staple diet of the time or what, but it’s clear that John had the attention of masses of people, and he was faced with a choice about how to use this attention.

John was aware he had the most important job in the world – God’s forerunner and messenger. He had popularity, influence, and the attention of the higher authorities, and people who mattered in the world. Surely this is the perfect breeding ground for pride, ego, self-promotion,  self importance, self-righteousness, worldly ambition, greed, jealousy etc…

Well…these were John’s responses:
Mark 1:5, 7
:…And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I; one whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”
Luke 3:15-16
: John answered them all “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.
John 1:19-27
He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ”. Then they said “Are you Elijah, or the Prophet?” He answered “I am not” Finally they said “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet “I am the voice of one calling in the desert “Make straight the way for the Lord”.

As I studied John more closely, I kind of played the role of a skeptic, just for a different perspective. I think anyone can talk the talk when, handed some attention and influence, they are given the task of promoting someone greater than they are. However, for most people it becomes a different story when they are faced with that person overshadowing their glory, attention or limelight. Let’s see what John does:

The day after John witnessed to the religious leaders about who he was, (and more importantly, who he wasn’t), he was out baptising, and he saw Jesus walking along. He stopped, and drew everyone’s attention to Jesus. He cried out “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! This is the one I meant when I said “A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” John seems to fully recognise who Jesus is – “he has surpassed me (or is greater than me), because he was before me”. I say “seems to” because you do wonder if you know the rest of Johns story – when he was later in prison, sending his disciples to Jesus to find out whether he really was the Saviour.

So then I thought, full credit to John, Jesus is here and he immediately relinquished his “stage” and gave Jesus all the attention. Now it gets even more interesting, and even more of a test for John. We will soon see what he is made of: In verse 35 of John 1, we read The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said “Look! The Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard this, they followed Jesus… (one of these was Andrew, Peters brother)

Hold on just a sec! To fully understand this, let me explain something: Back in the day, disciples were devoted followers of a teacher or rabbi, who spent years learning from and striving to be like their teachers. The teachers also spent years pouring their lives into their disciples. And we read that as soon as the two disciples heard this they followed Jesus. If there were any trace of ego or pride in John, we would have known about it right then.

By this point my pretend scepticism about John is melting away, but the part that really won me over is found in John 3:22-30
After this Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them and Baptised. Now John was also baptizing at Aenon, near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptised. V26 Johns disciples came to him and said “That man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan, the one you testified about, well he is baptizing and everyone is going to him.” To this John replied “A man can only receive what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said ‘I am not the Christ, but am sent ahead of him’. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegrooms voice. That joy is mine, and is now complete. He must become greater, and I must become less.”

Wow. This guy is on the same page as God. He is fully aware of his place in God’s story – that as important as his job is, he is still really really small, and the attention and glory must always go to God. Unfortunately some of his disciples weren’t just on a different page to John, they were in a completely different book! They seemed to view Jesus as nothing more than competition in the baptising business, and they were losing – big time! John’s response is incredible, and reveals his true heart – likening himself as the best man attending his dear friend the bridegroom. Listen to these words again – He Must Become Greater, and I Must Become Less.

As Christians, we constantly sing about God being glorified, magnified, exalted and lifted up. But for this to happen, we must become less and less. Only one of us gets to have the glory, and in our humanity, in the flesh it is so hard for us to give this up. We need to “right-size” God. You might have heard the expression “putting God in a box.” That is when we limit him, and what he can do, and think of him in human terms. Whenever we do this, we actually exalt and glorify ourselves. It is clear from the Bible that it is incredibly dangerous and foolish to do this.

I have found that once a person is able to embrace this “me small God big” idea, it would be incredibly liberating, freeing etc., but don’t think for a minute that the flesh is going to give up that easily. So often we fight for every scrap of credit, recognition, self-promotion, “15 minutes of fame” so to speak. And yet our “stage” is so tiny, miniscule, fleeting that when you really think truthfully about it, you wonder why you’d bother.

I believe that life is a tale of two conflicting stories – Our Story, and God’s Story. Our Story is the one where we are the star, but it is finite and frail, as brief as the blink of an eye. God’s Story is eternal and enduring, glorious and magnificent, and he is the “writer, director, producer and main man”, with all of creation as the supporting cast. It’s like comparing a school play with a majestic Broadway musical. Who wouldn’t want to be part of the second one? Answer: people who are so consumed with pride and self, that they are desperate to be in charge, in control and not have to play a supporting role, even to God. It is eternally tragic that people make this choice, and I would encourage you, if you are in that position, take a step back from leading your little school play and allow God to be in control – be happy with a supporting role in God’s eternal epic!! You wont regret it.

When you go away after reading this message, try not to focus so much on the “I am small” part, but look to the sky and proclaim the God is Big part. – the magnificent, glorious, eternal, everlasting Creator of the Universe. We are but a speck before him, but we are the part of his Creation that is most precious to him. God didn’t come to earth and go through hell to save the trees, rivers, mountains, or animals, or even the incredible planets and stars. He did it for us. Think about that every day, and thank God for it!!

Learning About Trust In Ecuador

Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge God and He will direct your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

For Christians, these words are very well known and we do our best to live by them. But how often do we really trust God WITH ALL OUR HEART or acknowledge Him IN ALL OUR WAYS? I sure as heck don’t as much as I would like. When I was in Ecuador in late January, visiting my Compassion sponsored child Jacqueline, I caught a glimpse of what it really means to trust fully and completely, and I want to share it with you.

I’m so glad I went to Ecuador. When I planned my trip to Central America in January, I wasn’t originally going to include Ecuador, because it was a little bit “out of the way” compared to the other countries I planned to visit. I have been sponsoring 6 year-old Jacqueline for two and a half years, and it was her letters that got me. Here is a sample:
- I would like to meet you because I would like to know you and your toys

- Jacqueline loves you, and for her, the wish to know you is the most beautiful in her life

- She also wonders if you will be able to meet face to face someday

- She wants you to know that she would like to know you in some moment to share with you nice moments

- Do you know something incredible? You are a hero for Jacque, she would like to be like you when she grows up – a great professional. She wants to work with children, and the same as you, to be mature spiritually in faith. Jacque wants that you never get apart from Jesus. Jacque would like to be like you because you follow Jesus Christ’s footprints. Jacque asks God that you come to Ecuador. She wants to see your eyes and tell you she loves you

Alright, alright, I get the hint! So Ecuador was included on the itinerary. I say it again, I’m SO glad I went to Ecuador. It was one of the three days on the trip that I didn’t leave with some sort of heartbreak or negative feeling. And that’s not because her family’s life isn’t hard. They’re a family of seven, about to be turfed out of their house, and the parents jobs are anything but secure.

However, what I found was, because of some of the situations I experienced that wrecked me, God multiplied the impact of the joyous moments. And this day was JOYOUS
. I'll admit that the main reason I'm writing this blog is just so I get to relive the day - pure innocence, joy and excitement!

We met in the foyer of my hotel – Jacqueline, her mum, her Project Director and my translator – all women. I’d kind of become used to being surrounded by women by now (and loved it) :). I wasn’t sure what sort of reaction I’d get from Jacqueline, but she turned out to be one of the more affectionate and open of my children, right from the start. I had an 18 year old who didn’t say “boo” and I had a six year old who chatted away.

She was tiny, like a doll, and she squeezed her way into my heart right away. The visit took place on a Saturday, and our first stop was an amusement park in the city of Quito. We loaded up a prepaid card with $40 and off we went. Jacqueline was (to paraphrase Homer) “like a kid in some kind of a store.” For whatever reason, she particularly liked the rides that did nothing but go round and round. We did merry-go-rounds, giant slides, trampolines, mini-pirate ship, even the waste-of-money sideshow games (though on this day, not one cent was wasted).

I was able to go on some rides with her. To be able to share this time with a precious little girl who was enjoying what we consider to be standard childhood experiences for the first time was an amazing privilege, and more than once I got lost in the moment.

 During our morning together, Jacqueline was running purely on adrenalin and excitement. Her Mama shared with me that she hadn’t slept very well the previous night, as she was so excited, and I could see her getting gradually more tired. She made it through lunch, then we travelled an hour to her home. During this time, Jacqueline finally succumbed and fell asleep. In my arms.

I cannot describe the significance of that moment. God was showing me His love for Jacqueline and His love for me. This was Proverbs 3:5-6 come to life. To me, falling asleep in someone’s arms is the greatest example of trust we can demonstrate as humans, as we make ourself totally vulnerable, and our lives are completely in the other person’s hands. Jacqueline was showing me that she trusted me with all her heart, and God was whispering to me “This is how I want my people to trust me.” Lesson learned.

Trust is something that takes a long time to earn, but only a moment to lose. Every day I am thankful for the people God has entrusted to me to educate, encourage and love – my class, my nieces and nephews, and my Compassion kids. It is equally a privilege and a responsibility, one that I don’t take lightly.