Sunday, September 16, 2007

freely you have received (a sermon)

Here's the text of a sermon I gave last night. I hope it helps you in some way.


Freely You Have Received
a sermon by Troy Cady

(Note: if you like, before reading this you could get yourself a piece of white card paper and trace your hand, then cut out the hand. We'll return to this later...After tracing your hand, and cutting it out, read on...)

When asked to trace their hand, I’ve never seen anyone close their hand to form a fist. It makes sense, because an open hand is more beautiful than a closed hand. I mean, think about it: trace around a fist and what do you get? A blob. But trace around a hand outstretched in a posture of…what is it? you have movement, distinct shape, identity, beauty.

When this world works the way God wants it to work, the Bible tells us that the “trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isa. 55:12)

Look at this picture.

My son made this not too long ago. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Bright green, simple. Hands waving, outstretched to heaven in a posture of…what is it?

Interesting, isn’t it? How similar giving and receiving looks? To do either you need to open your hands.

You know, many, many times when the Bible tells us that God performed some kind of wonder like blessing a person or healing a leper or delivering a nation or creating a world, it describes the action with the image of God stretching forth his hand, reaching out gracefully. See, it’s in God’s nature to give.

The Bible says “God is love”. But there is no love—there is no community—without giving and receiving. This is why, in the baptism of Jesus, we see the Father pouring forth the Spirit of love on the Son. Visually, this is represented through the image of a descending dove. In the baptism of Jesus, we see that the Son receives the Father’s love that’s given liberally and freely—and then the Son freely and gladly returns the favor with his life.

This is why, time and time again, we see Jesus pointing back to the Father by the very words he uses: " I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing…For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.” (John 5:18ff)

Think about that: “The Son can do…only what he sees his Father doing.” Well, what does he see the Father doing, what has he seen the Father doing for all eternity? Giving, loving, emptying himself for the sake of another. So, the Son does likewise.

This is why, when Jesus commissions his disciples to follow in his footsteps, he boils down their ministerial task to one very simple principle: “Freely you have received, freely give.”

In my teaching two weeks ago called "A Pocket of Grace" I mentioned those words briefly. I did so because we were talking about a very important project in which we have the chance to participate soon. In just over two weeks’ time, we will have the chance to serve the city of Madrid through helping out with a project called…well…Serve the City. In that teaching I talked about why this project was important. We said it was important because this was our small way of partnering with God in his desire to “restore all things.” We noted that God does not just want to redeem the spiritual world, he also wants to redeem the physical world. See, it’s all good: spirit and body; invisible and visible; souls and streets. And, because it’s all good, it’s all worth restoring to its former glory. That’s why a project like Serve the City matters.

To illustrate that concept biblically, I mentioned Jesus’ commission to his disciples recorded in Matthew 10. Specifically, Jesus not only charged his disciples with the task of casting out demons, but also the ministry of healing the sick and curing the leper—literally.

Now, at the close of spelling out their objective to restore all things, Jesus spoke these words as a motivating summation: “Freely you have received, freely give.”

That’s another reason the Serve the City project matters. Not only is it good to participate in serving the city because everything is worth redeeming, but it is also good to bless others because we have received blessing from God.

Now, that sounds like a simple enough idea, but, believe it or not, the violation of this principle lies at the root of our problem as a human race. Somehow, we’ve got it into our heads that our goal in life amounts to the mere accumulation and retention of blessing. Now, don’t get me wrong, we wouldn’t actually say this to anyone, but our actions confirm as much. Take, for example, the content of my prayers: too often I ask God to pour out his blessing on me, without at the same time asking him to help me be a blessing to others—or even simply to him!

Now, it’s not wrong to ask God to bless us. God delights in giving gifts to his children. But, don’t you think it saddens God’s heart when he sees us receiving so much, so freely, from his hand and giving so little back, so begrudgingly, to him and to others?

Our problem is: we want to receive but we don’t want to give. We want to hold on to what we feel is “ours”, but we don’t want to let go of what is really God’s. We live life with clenched fists but God wants us to live with open hands.

Maybe our problem is that we think about “what belongs to us” and “what belongs to God” all wrong.

I’ll confess: I love my apartment. I love our wood floors, our large living room, and our comfortable couches. I love our large television and our balcony, especially the hammocks out there. I love our bed. Whenever we come home from a trip away, we sigh in relief: “Ah, home! Our own bed at last!” Now, the fact is: I love all these things so much that, were God to ask me to give them up, I would be quite angry. “How dare you ask me to do something like that?! What kind of God are you? To take what’s mine!”

I even think that way about my job. I love my job (most days!). I love being able to live in Spain. I love the fact that we can walk our kids to school. I love the school our kids attend. I love the fact that I have the wherewithal to provide for my family. I rest secure in that. But, if God were to ask me to leave Spain behind, this job, this church, the kids’ school, to move onto something a little less secure, I would be upset, distraught, perhaps angry. “How dare you ask me to do something like that?! What kind of a God are you? To take what’s mine!”

But, were I to say that to God, he would respond: “Um…excuse me, but have you not heard? ‘The earth is [mine] and everything in it’. Who can take a breath without me giving it to them? ‘Who gave man his mouth? Who gives him sight? Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain…to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass?”

And perhaps God would begin weeping, over the tragedy of my ingratitude, as he says: “Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with water? The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. What do you have that you have not received? Is there anything you have that has not come from my hand? Everything finds its source in me and everything will find its summation in me. The earth is mine and everything in it.”

Now, of course, I wouldn’t like what God said to me. It would sting, but, let’s face it…would I have any argument to return in my favor? I mean: the earth really is the Lord’s and everything in it. I mean: what’s mine is really God’s and the only reason it appears to be “mine” (for the time being) is because God is good enough to give good gifts to me.

Maybe that’s our basic problem. I don’t think we really understand just how freely we’ve received. I don’t think we understand the extent to which God blesses. If we did understand this, maybe we wouldn’t have so much trouble letting go of things. Maybe this is why the apostle Paul prays that we “may have power…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God.” Maybe that’s why the Scriptures are always reminding us just what God has done for us. Because we keep forgetting how richly blessed we are.

And maybe that’s why the Scriptures remind us: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” (I Cor. 6:19-20)

Think about that a second: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.”

You know what’s funny about God? He’s the only person I know who pays for things that are already his. That’s how lavish God is with his grace. That’s how freely God gives.

He tells us: “You’re mine. I made you. But, just in case you forget that, I’m also going to pay a price for you. I don’t have to do this, because, by rights, you’re mine anyway. But, see, that’s how much I love you.”

And, in case you think I’m just making this idea up to try and be “clever”, you should know that this isn’t my idea; it’s Paul’s—sort of (at least, Paul is the one who reports on this idea). In Ephesians 1, Paul tells us that God is going to make good on his promise to claim what is rightfully his through a process that’s described as “the redemption of those who are God’s possession.”

Think about that phrase, because it’s kind of strange: “the redemption of those who are God’s possession.” Redemption in the ancient world involved purchasing something or someone in order to claim ownership. It actually was a term used in reference to the slave trade. If someone wanted to purchase a slave, you would pay a price to “redeem” that person. So, here, in Ephesians 1, Paul tells us that, in making a claim for himself, God, in Christ, makes a purchase.

The question is: just what does God purchase? Answer: “Those who are God’s possession.” The idea here is not that God purchases what isn’t his, and then, because of his purchase, we become his; no, the idea is that God purchases what is his already (“those who are God’s possession”) in order to show that, yes, he will make good on his promise to claim us for himself.

See? We really are not our own; we were bought with a price.

Okay, let’s add one more layer to this description of how much God has given us. God is not only the source of everything that we have, he is also the source of all that we are. In God, we have food and shelter, and abundant spiritual protection and provision. Everything that we have is God’s. But, in God we also are given identity.

This is why God needs to remind us: “Who gave you your mouth? Who gave you your feet? Who made you man? Who is it that made you woman? Who gave you your hands?”

God gave and, because God keeps giving, he gives you your identity. Put another way: God gives you “you”.

You think those fingerprints on your hand are yours? Did you make those? “We are” because “God is.” If God were saying it himself, he might put it this way: “You are because I AM. Remember, I give you ‘you.’ Even down to your unique identity, even down to your very fingerprint.”

So, even our hands are God’s. And this means that even our ability to be able to receive is from God. Amazing! Truly, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

So what does this mean? What difference does this make? Well, the answer is in the second part of the phrase: “freely you have received, freely give.” Okay, fair enough. But, give what?

Biblically speaking, the place to start is by giving thanks. Psalm 136 says: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” This requires that we open our hands in gratitude. See, God intends for us to keep our hands open to receive what he would give to us; but he also intends for us to keep our hands open to express gratitude—to give back to him and to give gifts to others in love. In short, when God gave us hands, it was never his idea for us to close our hands, for to do so is to close oneself off from receiving and giving. Fists are not God’s invention, they’re ours. Clenched fists signify entitlements. Like Gollum holding onto the ring, we contest: “I will not let this go! It’s mine, you understand? Mine!” Entitlement.

Open hands say: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. Everything that I have and everything that I am is God’s. Freely I have received. Thanks.” “Thanks” is a beautiful word and gratitude is the antidote to entitlement. You cannot say “thanks” and “keep away” at the same time. You’re either doing one or the other.

So, in the coming weeks, we'll have a few more teachings in which we will have the chance to take a deeper look at practicing gratitude.

For now, I’d like to close with a brief reflective exercise. Consider the hand you cut out earlier and listen to these words, allowing your mind to search your heart. Listen now:

Freely you have received: “This is what the LORD says— he who made you and who will help you: Do not be afraid, for I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on you and your offspring, and my blessing on you and your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams.” “The LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. I will not forget you! I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…”

Freely give: Because of this “One will say, 'I belong to the LORD '; still another will write on his hand, 'The LORD's.'" (the above texts are excerpted and adapted from Isaiah 44 and 49)

In a gesture of faith now, take the hand that you’ve cut out and, as simply or as artfully as you wish, write out “The Lord’s” on it. This will serve as a reminder to you that you have received all things freely, that nothing is yours that has not been given to you by God. All that you have and all that you are, even your very identity, your very fingerprint, is a gift from God to you. You are “The Lord’s”. You belong to him and he’s paid double for you. He paid for what was already his because he loves you, not to obligate you to anything, but in hopes that perhaps he might woo you with his extravagant giving.

And, in case this seems hard for you to do, God would plead with you, gently yet passionately, so that you would remember: he is not asking you to do anything that he himself has not done time and time again. God asks us to give because he gives. And we may write on our hands that we belong to the Lord, but God has done one better: he has engraved us on his hands (literally, as Jesus’ hands were pierced in God’s supreme act of giving).

We can write God’s name on our hand because God has engraved our name on his hand. We are his because he is ours. Freely you have received, freely give.

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