"In Your Face"

A ten-year-old, under the tutelage of her grandmother, was becoming knowledgeable about the Bible. But one day, she surprised her grandmother by asking, "Which virgin was the mother of Jesus? Was it the Virgin Mary or the King James Virgin?"

Translations of the Bible abound and can be confusing some times. But today's Gospel lesson is quite clear in all of them: God came to earth and became one of us. The title of today's sermon is "In Your Face." It's an expression used to mean that something is right in front of your nose. It is also used sometimes as a phrase of irritation, that someone is getting in your face, that they are closing in on your space, sometimes even that when they speak to you they are so close to your face that your inclination is to take a step backwards.

In the lessons today from Jeremiah, the Psalms and the Gospel, we have instances of God being in our face. Right here-involved totally with us. Right here-trying to make us aware, trying to make us learn, trying to make us appreciate, trying to make us be compassionate, caring, loving. Right here, assuring us, loving us, caring for us, redeeming us, comforting us, sustaining us, giving us sustenance, supplying abundance, offering us peace, giving us things to rejoice about, giving us things to dance about, turning our mourning into joy.

This is a God who is "In Your Face."

And yet, in the face of enormous tragedy, perhaps the greatest known natural disaster, the earthquake and tsunami of South Asia of a week ago today, people of faith wonder "Where is God?" People of NO faith are reassured of their position that the loving God we believers speak of does not exist. What loving God would allow such things to happen, they offer. There is no such thing as the infallible, perfect God we believe in, they say, because the natural world was created with flaws-flaws so that earthquakes and tidal waves can wreak havoc upon the rest of creation.

But we believers don't have to struggle with such questions; we don't have to feel that we are on the defensive because we believe in and witness to a loving God who is here, now, in our face. And here's three ways in which we know that.

First, we know that God created a perfect living planet. God's earth is continually changing. God created a living planet. A living planet is not static, is not stagnant. A moving earth is a living, changing earth. Even as we humans grow to maturity and beyond, we realize life is constant change, and there is recurring death and life: skins cells die and are replaced; blood is renewed; infected cells die and are replaced with new ones.

As we look around us, one type of vegetation replaces another. In the cycle of seasons life dies, is transformed and is reborn. Life and death are part of our journey as human beings. When we look at ourselves as human beings we know that the Bible teaches that we were created perfect, but somehow we messed that up. We started acting like God, thinking we knew how to care for creation. But instead of being stewards, we abused and continue to abuse creation. We humans not only created negativity for ourselves, but we brought that negativity to the environment: to the land we use and need; to the air we need to breathe; to the water we need to drink and to nourish life forms on this earth.

We don't know what God's original design was for the earth. If we say it was created perfectly, we don't know that earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, tidal waves whatever, were part of the original natural design.

We do know that there are great forces in nature. It takes great force for something in nature to be born. Even as human beings we are born against incredible odds, incredible forces working against us. Think of the force it takes for a blade of grass to break through an almost cement-like earth to find the sun. Or how far some roots have to reach to find water. The process of on-going life and on-going creation is not some sentimental process. It's a process of enormous forces. Once we ARE alive, we must, every single moment, fight off disease. We are bombarded incessantly with germs and viruses and our bodies are in a constant state of fighting them off.

Sometimes we are weakened in our ability to fight this battle because of factors that are in the environment-negative factors placed into the environment by humans today and over the course of history as we mistreat, abuse, pollute and kill the very things we need to sustain life on this planet.

Second, natural disasters are not God's doing. God is not wreaking havoc upon us. They are either a natural part of the on-going changing life of the planet or they are of our own making. That is, we have altered, and continue to alter, the environment in such negative ways that the balance of nature is continually being upset. Yet we choose to ignore this or deny this. Even in the face of actual photographs of the shrinking ice masses at both ends of the earth, there are still spin specialists who represent the greed of governments or greed of individuals or corporations who will denounce global warming as a myth created by alarmists.

Even we right here in Maryland recognize that the climate is changing, weather patterns are changing. There are more extremes. Record colds and record high temperatures are recorded. The number of tornadoes increases, the number of devastating hurricanes increases. On and on. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to recognize things are changing. And every one of us, as we live our lives, thinking that it doesn't matter if we recycle, it doesn't matter what fluorocarbons we put into the atmosphere, it doesn't matter what we burn or what we exhaust our cars put out-we think we have nothing to do with it. We hardly try at all in our individual lives.

And yet God, in our face, calls to us over and over and over. What will it take to make us realize that what we do, the way we live our lives affects the planet on which we live, from which we are nourished, sustained as human beings? What will it take for us to realize that we are indeed a global village? What we do or don't do on this side of the world affects the other side of the world. And what happens there affects us here.

We humans have created and continue to create conditions that will only bring about more devastation. Not only corporations or government, but we as individuals in what we do each day that hurts the environment.

God is not punishing certain people who died or were injured in these, or any other, natural disaster. It's not God that withholds food from human beings. It is human beings that do that. There is enough food and water in this world for everyone. But we have to share. We have to care about sharing. We have to care that people are starving. We have to DO something about it. Look at the response of the world to this recent natural disaster. And yet, why have we not done anything about the incredible disaster of starvation in the Sudan where thousands die every day?

Third, God is in our face as our creator, redeemer and sustainer. God is in our face as our support, our strength, our comfort. God is SHOUTING to us trying to make us realize that through Christ and the Holy Spirit WE are God's hands made real in the world. Even though we have messed up the earth, messed up the on-going life of human beings, God has not left us wanting, not left us just to flounder, to suffer from our continual mistakes. No, God stands by us, stands with us, Immanuel, God with us. God is there to support us, strengthen us, guide us through the mess we have made. God is there for us if we will turn to God for the strength and guidance. God does not take away the consequences of our actions, but sustains us in coping with the challenges we create for ourselves.

God in our face, a living God is seen all over the world, as people of faith, and people with no faith, become the heart and hands of God as they are motivated and mobilized by basic instincts, basic God impulses (whether they recognize them as that or not) to reach out to those in need, whether those needs be physical, emotional or spiritual.

All over the world, men and women are reaching out to those who are suffering. We see hearts broken; we see prayers offered; we see help is volunteered; we see wallets and pocketbooks opened.

The Bible is full of guidance for us as to how to respond. And if we don't respond willingly, in compassion when God needs our hands, God will use us whether we are open to it or not. And when God uses us against our will, we find that our lives take a turn for the worse. Since we won't give freely, the laws of the universe that God created will work against us in our selfishness, our greed, our lack of concern, for others or for the environment.

In a wonderful article I received over the internet from the editor of a magazine, HOMELETICS, a magazine for pastors and others interested in studying Scripture, Timothy Merrill writes,

"The point is that in this present crisis, we see that our hands become the hands of God, our feet the feet of God, our words the words of God. As my colleague Stan Purdum, a writer and Methodist minister puts it: 'This is a time to urge the church to be the church, and remember that when Jesus told us to love our neighbor, he had a REALLY big neighborhood in mind.'

"And the church is being the church. Every denomination is gearing up to provide relief and aid to the suffering. Church-related staffers and doctors are nurses and truck drives and mechanics and carpenters are on their way to the Pacific Rim as we speak.

"In other words, we're responding to the tsunami with a faith tsunami of our own! A tidal wave of love and compassion that will sweep across the bodies, if not the souls, of thousands upon thousands affected by this disaster.

"And we're soberly reminded that in our own communities, there are similar disasters, on a much smaller scale, that occur every day. People all around us are swept out to sea, hit by tsunamis they didn't see coming. They're floundering emotionally, spiritually and financially. Their lives have been shredded to ribbons. Their relationships are in tatters. They're looking for help. They're looking for love. And the church must be the church."

In your face. God couldn't be more in my face and yours. We just had a reminder in celebrating Christmas that God is with us. Immanuel, God is here, now, not out there in the sky and at some distance, not a God of some time ago as recorded just in words in the Bible.

In your face. Here. Now. Empowering each one of us to be his heart and hands. Willing or unwilling. If God needs us, he uses us. Believe me, when God opens our eyes to the needs of others, it isn't just a matter of sending cash to help those on the other side of the world; God opens our eyes to see the needs of brothers and sisters right here in our community, our state, our country who need our hearts and hands to work for God.

That's how we believers know that our God is a loving, caring, involved God. God, in the birth and life and suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, is involved with us. Jesus taught us how to cope, how to meet challenges, how to love, how to forgive, how to be compassionate, but we so often choose not to follow what he has taught us. And the more we stray from what he taught us (loving one another, sharing with one another and caring for one another and all that God created) the more havoc we bring about on ourselves.

Believers have to care about EVERONE, even those who are NOT believers, those of NO faith. Jesus didn't tell us to care only about those who believe in him, but to care for all of God's people, all of God's creation.

The tsunamis may have happened in South Asia, but it got our attention, and God is not going to let us pretend to be unaware any longer. I know, because just this week I had three instances of God in my face-as I was asked to help others at a time when it was totally inconvenient for me to help. I had a full schedule already. I had appointments to keep-people to see, places to be. But I had to alter plans, to work around situations, because I realized that God brought those people to me because I needed to remember that helping is NOT always convenient or easy. God in your face is the people all around us who need what we have that God gave us to share with others.

God in your face when you are becoming more and more detached or removed because you are relying on your strength alone. God in your face is not always convenient. But it IS always rewarding, knowing that as you respond, you are responding as the heart and hands of God working through you. And it may start small, but it will build into a tsunami of love.


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