Sunday, April 25, 2010

(Easter 4) Nothing is lost on God

Easter 4: John 10:22-30; Rev. 7:9, 13-17; Psalm 23:1-6

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The scripture readings this morning are truly rich.
A great story from the early church in Acts.
And in the Gospel of John,
in Revelation,
and in Psalm 23
we have some beautiful and profound
scriptures on which to meditate today
and seek new depths of truth.
And we will, in just a moment.

But first, I want us to pause,
and drink in more deeply
the song we just sang,
while the music is still resonating
in our ears and hearts.

This song has quickly become a favorite of this congregation
since the purple songbook came out.

The poetry is exquisite.
The power of this text lies in its vivid images,
and the thoughts these images evoke.
Even without putting the whole song together
and weaving a narrative out of it,
these 4 and 5-word phrases,
all by themselves
just shimmer with truth and beauty.
no feather too light,
no flower too brief,
no dust in the air,
nothing is lost . . . all is seen and known by God
no distance too great,
no child too small,
no ending too soon,
those phrases, by themselves, conjure up in our minds
a wonderful truth about God . . .
God knows, sees, and cares.
This is an intensely personal and intimate portrayal of a loving God.

But it wasn’t until this week,
with today’s scripture rolling around in my head—
John 10, Revelation 7, and Psalm 23—
that I saw this song in a fuller light.
This is more than a string of beautiful images about God’s intimate care.
It’s more deeply theological that it seems at first sight,
and grounded in a biblical view of God.
This is not sentimental fluff.
The poet (and composer), Colin Gibson, is a retired
professor emeritus of English literature
at a university in New Zealand,
who specializes in the interchange of word and image,
and has written numerous hymns.
This is carefully crafted theology
informed, I think, by the same understanding of God
that we get from today’s texts.

What this song is saying, one verse at a time,
is terribly important for us to hear
in the times we live in

This song (and today’s scriptures) articulate a view of God,
that stands apart from two other popular views of God
that, in my humble opinion, get God completely wrong.
One view, that many people hold,
is that God manages and controls every happening in our world.
That God sits at a big control panel in the sky, pulling switches,
causing . . . every circumstance people face in life.
That God’s finger literally and deliberately
paints every particular sunrise,
coaxes every bud into flower,
decides where rain should fall,
causes traffic lights to turn green and parking spots to open.
And, following that logic, God’s finger also controls
where the next earthquake will strike,
who will die from cancer or flood
or terrorist attack or collapsing coal mines,
and causes that light to turn green at a certain moment,
putting someone in a precise spot down the road
where a runaway truck collides with them head-on,
in a fiery explosion.
And that God is doing all this for a specific reason,
even if the reason is hidden from us, for now.

The other popular view, an opposite one,
is that God is aloof, and unknowing, and uncaring.
That if anything good happens in the world,
it is purely by our human good will and good effort.
That maybe God did create the universe,
and put it in motion,
but now is letting things take their course,
just watching from afar,
if watching at all.
That God is some ambiguous force or energy field,
but not a loving being
that is interested and active in the world today.

This song, and today’s scriptures,
dispute both those views, powerfully.

Nothing is lost on the breath of God . . .
no suffering, large or small, goes unnoticed.
No God is not directing every feather and grain of dust,
causing every impulse of every creature,
making things begin too late, or end too soon.
But nothing is lost on God.
No matter what happens in life, large or small,
God’s breath is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.
Look at the end of the third verse.
Some things do begin too late.
Some lives end too soon.
God did not pull a switch to cause these events.
But there is no premature or tragic death,
that isn’t gathered, by God,
and known in its goodness.
God sees with love, and that love will remain.
God’s heart is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world, holding us,
no matter what.
Nothing is lost on the God of love.
_____________________

If the reason for a sermon
is to expound on the scripture of the day,
and make it memorable and formative,
the song we just sang is sermon enough.

But let me say a few more things about these texts.
First, Psalm 23.
This is without doubt the most well-known
and most beloved passage of scripture.
The psalmist paints a wonderful visual image of God.
God is a shepherd and we are God’s sheep.
You can practically see this vivid picture of a kind shepherd
who knows just where to take his sheep.
When we need a good place to graze,
our shepherd finds lush green pastures.
When we need to lie down and rest,
our shepherd finds a spot
where the grass is especially soft and full.
When we are thirsty,
the shepherd lovingly leads us to cool, clear, still waters.
Wherever the Lord, our shepherd, leads, is the right path.

It is right, even when we walk through
the dark valley of the shadow of death—
when it’s is so dark you can’t see the path in front of you,
the sounds in the darkness threatening,
the sense of dread overwhelming.
Even there, in the valley of the shadow of death,
we need fear no evil,
because God is with us,
because our shepherd carries a strong rod and a long staff.
And that rod and staff comfort us.
Even surrounded by enemies, we are secure.
The presence of our shepherd
allows us to eat in peace,
at an elegant table, our enemies looking on.
Our cups are running over.
We shall not want for anything,
and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,
because the Lord is our shepherd.

Isn’t that a wonderful picture?
A picture of perfect security.
Perfect protection.
Perfect love.
Even when we are hassled and harried sheep.

Now, without taking anything away
from the truth and the comfort of that psalm,
did any of you find yourself saying, “Okay . . . but”?
Okay, if God is my shepherd,
it hasn’t always felt like it.
Okay, if God protects and provides for those in God’s care,
why do some people get a raw deal in life?
Was their shepherd looking the other way, or what?

Like most passages of scripture,
this one doesn’t say everything that needs to be said.
Else, our Bible would not be a book, but a pamphlet.
So we turn to other texts
to tell other facets of the truth.



Let’s look again at the great N.T. shepherd text, John 10.
We read the last part of the chapter.
In the first part, Jesus talked about himself as the Good Shepherd,
who loves the sheep, and even lays down his life for the sheep,
unlike the hired hand, who sees it as a job,
and will go only so far to take care of the sheep,
but not as far as self-sacrifice.

Well, this last part of the chapter is a different scene,
probably the same day.
Here Jesus is walking around the temple,
and the air is tense.
The religious leaders are trying to expose Jesus as a blasphemer.
So they are following him around,
pressing him on the one crucial point.
“Tell us once and for all.
Are you, or are you not, the Messiah?”

So he brings up this sheep and shepherd theme again.
He says, “The reason you don’t believe me,
is that you are not part of my sheep.
My sheep know my voice, and I know them.
They follow me, because they trust me.
I give them life, and they will never perish.”
And then here’s the kicker,
“No one will ever snatch them out of my hand.”
No one.
Threaten me if you will. Threaten my sheep.
But no one takes my sheep.
And they were threatening.
In the very next verses, they tried to stone Jesus,
but he escaped, John tells us.

So if we are the sheep, and Jesus the good shepherd,
this statement is tremendously comforting.
“No one will snatch us out of God’s hand.”

Jesus is reassuring all who would follow him,
there is nothing anyone can do to you,
that will remove you from my love and care.
No one can snatch you from me.
When someone snatches sheep from a flock
they do it by stealth.
They sneak up
and take what they want quickly and secretly.
They get one over on the shepherd.
But no one gets one over on God.
God is on guard. Attentive. Alert.
There is nothing anyone can do,
to outwit, overpower, or outmaneuver God.
Nothing.
Nothing is lost on the breath of God,
the eyes of God,
the heart of God.
We are always within reach of God’s love and care.
No matter what happens,
God is there.
God cares.
God saves.

It may not be the kind of care or the kind of salvation
that we were hoping for.
It might even look sometimes like the devil got one over on God.
There might be a beginning too late, or an ending too soon.
There might be deep sadness, even overwhelming tragedy.
There might be agonizing pain, even death.

But the message of this Easter season
is that God already won the battle over sin and death.
Nothing can happen in this life
to snatch us from God’s hand,
out of reach of God’s love and care.
Nothing is lost on God.



The Book of Revelation provides yet more evidence.
In the passage we heard from Revelation 7,
we have another amazing and imaginative image
painted with words.
What is pictured here is “a great multitude that no one can count,
from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb,
robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
And they are all crying out loudly,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne,
and to the Lamb!”
And the angels and elders add to their song,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Now who is this crowd in white robes,
shouting praises and waving palm branches?
And where did they come from?
The answer is given.
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship God day and night within God’s temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne
will shelter them.”

These are the people who gave their very lives for their faith.
These are the martyrs.
People who know what suffering is.
We ask, “Where is God in the midst of suffering?”
These people know.
They have been there and done that.
Their robes had been stained with blood.
Now they are washed white in the blood of the Lamb . . . Jesus.

They are on the other side of the suffering now.
It says in Revelation 7,
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd . . .
and God will wipe away every tear.”

At one time,
the sun did strike them,
they did hunger and thirst,
their eyes stung with tears.
I wonder. When all that was going on,
did they every question where God was in it?
Did they ever feel like a sheep without a shepherd?
Probably.

But now they see things from a larger point of view.
They know now that their great ordeal
never separated them from the love and care of their God.

So now they stand before the throne of God, singing and shouting,
“Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb.”

God saves.
Salvation is who God is.
It is fundamental to God’s nature.
From the creation to the flood to the Exodus . . .
from the Exile to the rebuilding of Jerusalem . . .
from the birth of Jesus to his death to his resurrection . . .
from the appearance of Jesus to his disciples,
to the day of Pentecost when 3,000 persons believed,
were baptized, and joined the new community.
From the beginning of time until now,
God’s nature and purpose has been to save.

That does not mean God always prevents suffering and death.
Or that God shields people from the consequences
of all the sin and brokenness in the world.
Or that we will never suffer at the hands of others.
But God will never let us out of the reach of his love and care.
We may well get blood stains on our robes.
But God will wash them.
We may well get persecuted or humiliated.
But God will spread a table before us
in the presence of our enemies.
We may well be threatened by would-be sheep-snatchers.
But our good shepherd will never let us be
taken out of his loving grasp.
We may well experience a beginning too late, or an ending too soon.
Nevertheless . . . nothing is lost on the breath of God,
but is gathered and known in its goodness.

That is the word of hope from the scriptures
on this fourth Sunday of Easter.

That is also the word of hope in the song we are about to sing.
Turn to #575 in the hymnal, “Precious Lord, take my hand.”
This song was written by the black Gospel musician,
Thomas A. Dorsey (not Tommy Dorsey the big band leader).
In 1932, his wife Nettie died in childbirth,
and their newborn son also died a few days later.
In his grief, Dorsey stopped singing and playing the piano,
for a long time.
Until a good friend of his took him to a piano practice room
at a nearby college,
and left him there.
Alone in the room with the piano,
Thomas Dorsey experienced anew the presence of God
in the midst of his pain and suffering.
It was in that room, that day, that he wrote this song.

Let’s sing it together, in hope, and in confidence.

—Phil Kniss, April 25, 2010

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