Saturday, January 31, 2015

"Stubbing Someone Else's Toe" - February 1, 2015

I Corinthians 8:1-13

            In the very beginnings of Christianity, communion was observed at the end of a shared meal, and Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth has a few things to say about that.  One issue there was that the only meat available came from animals sacrificed at the local shrine to Zeus or Apollo or Athena.  So if you bought and ate that meat, were you connected to pagan idolatry?  Some said, “Yes,” and some said, “No,” and each gave their reasons.

“Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.[I Corinthians 8:4-7]

            Paul seems to have come down on the side of those who said that there was no problem eating an Athena-brand pot roast, but that what really mattered more was what effect it might have on somebody else.

“We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”  [I Corinthians 8:8-13]

It’s kind of like when you’re eating at a Chinese restaurant and halfway through your kung-pao pork you look up and see a shelf in the corner with a little statue of an Asian deity with a flower or a stick of incense in front of it.  Do you stop your meal?  Probably not.  But if you were eating with someone from, say, Thailand or Cambodia who had been ostracized by their family when they became a Christian, you might have second thoughts. 

There might be similar issues that are closer to home, too.  Let me digress.  This story leads back to where Paul was going.

            In 1834, a family left Glastonbury, England, and settled in Watertown, New York.  They had an eight-year-old named Thomas who as a teenager in 1843 (I expect after a conversion experience) joined the Wesleyan Methodists, who were a strong anti-slavery group.  Being right on the Canadian border, Watertown was a good place for people fleeing enslavement to cross over into freedom in Canada, and Thomas became part of the Underground Railroad.[1]
            The Wesleyan Methodists also, from the start, were very much involved in the temperance movement that opposed the very heavy consumption of alcohol that was common at the time.  Their Book of Discipline opposed (in this order) both the "manufacturing, buying, selling, or using intoxicating liquors", and "slaveholding, buying, or selling" of slaves.[2]  That was why they specified an innovation that to some people at the time appeared sacrilegious: that "unfermented wine only should be used at the sacrament."[3]
            Thomas became an ordained preacher, and served in upstate New York until his voice eventually gave out on him (which suggests to me what his pulpit style must have been like), and he moved to Minnesota and became a dentist.

            In 1864, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, our own predecessor body, caught up to the Wesleyans’ practice and provided that "in all cases the pure juice of the grape be used in the celebration of the Lord's Supper."[4]  That increased demand.  Thomas moved to Vineland, New Jersey, where his sister already lived and, using a pasteurization process he had developed, he began to produce and market “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented, Unchanged Grape Juice for Sacramental and Medicinal Uses” whose label bragged that it was “Free from Sediment”.  Guess what is in the communion chalice on the altar today.

            We do that for a reason.  Not everyone can safely drink alcohol.  For the same reason, we’ve recently begun using gluten-free bread, since we have several people in the congregation for whom regular bread is a problem.  At the central act of our worship, where we recognize our communion, our being-at-one with Jesus and with the Body of Christ that is made up of the people around us, we take care to honor one another’s needs to the best of our ability, and that is how it should be.  There would be nothing intrinsically wrong with using real wine or standard bread, but we try to offer a welcome to anyone at the Lord’s Table and to recognize that we are all equal there.  (Remember how the anti-slavery and temperance movements flourished together.)

            All of this is about far more than food.  It is about mutual respect.  It is about putting aside anything that would hamper someone else from experiencing fully the presence of Christ.  It is a way that you can

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.”
 [Philippians 2:5-8]

[1] General information here is drawn from .
[2] Haines, Lee M.; Thomas, Paul William (1990). "A New Denomination". An Outline History of the Wesleyan Church (4th edition ed.). Indianapolis, Indiana: Wesley Press. p. 68. 
[3] Tucker, Karen B. Westerfield (2001). "The Lord's Supper". American Methodist Worship. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 151. 
[4]  Doctrines & Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Cincinnati: Poe & Hitchcock. 1864. p. xvii.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

“As Though They Had None” - January 25, 2015

I Corinthians 7:29-31

            Alma was a faithful and wise woman who taught Latin and German in East Petersburg for many years.  She was an amazingly well-disciplined and orderly person who approached life the way that she approached languages.  If you keep the rules of grammar clear, communication becomes simpler and, paradoxically, that makes it more possible to convey complex ideas.  In the same way, if you keep your way of life simple, it becomes more open to the intricate workings of God’s grace, where all sorts of attributes, like mercy and justice, freedom and order, or humility and confidence have to balance.  She was one of the few people I have ever known who was able to do what Paul told the Corinthians they should do,

let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.” [I Corinthians 7:29-31]

            Alma had a friend who lived in Germany.  She was a relative of an exchange student they had hosted many, many years before, whose family had become friends with hers.  Now, Germans are a people who are fond of their beer.  Alma’s German friend, however, was way too fond of it, and of any other form of alcohol.  It had not yet reached the point of addiction but was clearly headed that way, and she shared her awareness of the potential with Alma.  This was years before I met her.  Even years later, though, Alma would not touch chocolate because she had made an agreement with her friend.  She never drank alcohol, so she couldn’t forgo that, but she told her that to support her she would pass up something that she herself loved and quietly offer a prayer for her friend’s strength whenever she said, “No, thank you,” to a Wilbur bud or opted not to buy a Snickers bar in the supermarket.  She honored what was good in the world, both in having and in leaving it be, in order to be someone who showed the love of Jesus for another soul.

            That is what the apostle Paul wanted to convey.  He wasn’t telling the Corinthians that the things of this life are to be despised, but that they are to be kept in the perspective of eternity.  As Arthur Guiterman wrote:

“The tusks which clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the just
Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear, whose potent hug
Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar’s bust is on the shelf,
And I don’t feel so well myself.”[1]

Keep your feet on the ground.  What we all too often think of as the goal of life may be better understood and appreciated when it is recognized as a means to an end, which is to live a life of faithful discipleship in which God supplies what is needed.

            Of course, that goes entirely against the grain from what society teaches us.  That is nothing new.  Walter Bruegemann, who is a great student of the Old Testament prophets, points to what he calls in some places the “royal consciousness” and in others the “military consumerist mentality”.  In a recent interview he explained,

“I suspect that the gospel at its best has always been a summons to think about how the world can be practiced differently. …
That ideological system causes us to be very afraid, to regard other people as competitors, or as threats, or as rivals. It causes us to think of the world in very frightened and privatistic forms.
The gospel very much wants us to think in terms of a neighborhood, in terms of being in solidarity with other people, in sharing our resources, and of living out beyond ourselves. The gospel contradicts the dominant values of our system, which encourages self-protection and self-sufficiency at the loss of the common good.”[2]
He goes on to point out what happens when people are concerned with what they have instead of who they are.  It doesn’t just leave them nervous about holding onto power and prestige and possessions.  It creates problems for everyone, problems that eventually boomerang back on them, too.

“You can watch while the differences between people who have a lot and people who have a little or nothing — that gap grows and grows. You can’t have a viable society if you organize the economy that way. You can take it in terms of healthcare delivery, education, or in terms of housing or any of the social goods. If you do not have a practice of neighborliness, society becomes unlivable.”

            Passing up a piece of candy may seem a small thing in comparison to addressing the wider issues of our day, but they are connected.  We have almost lost the habit of saying, “No,” to a smaller good in order to say, “Yes,” to a greater good.  But if we don’t do that, where are we?  Or maybe I should say, “Where will those who come after us find themselves?” 

            Paul urged the church in Corinth to set aside even the most valid of their own personal concerns for the sake of the kingdom of God. 

“Let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.”

And balanced against that are the words of Jesus:

“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”  [Mark 10:29-30]

Is it worth it?  Well, there’s a decision you have to make for yourself.

[1] Arthur Guiterman, “On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness”
[2] From an interview by Marlena Graves broadcast by “On Faith”, January 9, 2015.  Transcript is found at

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Jesus' Ladder" - January 18, 2015

John 1:43-51

            Gestures and posture can mean a lot.  A couple of months ago I heard someone recount an experience that he had many years ago in a church in Mexico.  He’s an American, so he was seeing things as an outsider, and with an outlook very much like what any of us would have.  It came to the point in the service where the scripture was to be read, and everyone stood up, like we do when the gospel is read.  Then the congregation all extended their right arms, elbows straight and fingers flattened, toward the Bible.  Now, maybe they were doing that as a variation of a gesture of blessing, but to him it was a horrible moment because it awoke in him an image of terror and evil, one unintended and apparently absent from the minds of the other worshipers, but frightening enough to have stayed with him for decades.

            On the other hand, there are also moments when a far better message may be shared.  I still recall how one of my counselors when I was a junior high camper at Pocono Plateau was talking with a few of us kids while we were waiting for devotions to start.  He was probably tired, and when he looked down and saw he was leaning on the makeshift cross that was near the campfire, he commented offhandedly something like, “Hey!  Do you realize what standing like this could mean?  I should always be leaning on the cross.”

            When Jesus first saw Nathanael, as John tells of their meeting, Nathanael is in one of those potentially meaningful positions.

“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’” [John 1:47-48]

To us, this sounds just sort of weird, especially the reaction that it gets from Nathanael:

‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’” [John 1:49] 

But in the back of their heads, they probably had an image drawn from the prophet Micah:

“For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 
He shall judge between many peoples,
   and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war anymore; 
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
   and no one shall make them afraid;
   for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”
[Micah 4:2-4] 

When the kingdom would come, every true Israelite would be able to rest peacefully under their own fig trees, as Nathanael was doing when Jesus arrived.

            My guess is that Nathanael was one of those people who see meaning in unexpected places.  For the most part (and this is just my own feeling, probably because I am not one of those people – maybe you are, in which case I ask your pardon here), you have to watch out not to overdo that.  If a black cat runs across your path, it may just mean that there is a dog chasing it or a mouse to catch.  To Nathanael, however, this interchange indicated something deep and Jesus did not let the opportunity pass to enhance his message.

            Nathanael was “a true Israelite”, and Israel was another name used by Jacob.  You remember him, right?  The one who lay down on the ground one night when he had run away from home,

“And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”  [Genesis 28:12]

So Jesus goes with that,

“And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’” [John 1:51]

All of which was an elaborate way of saying that Jesus is the one who provides a pathway for God’s people from earth to heaven.  It’s a long way around to get to that.  On the other hand, though, it shows that Jesus understood the way that Nathanael’s mind worked, and could do what it took to get through to him as the person that he was.

            That, in fact, is what it means for Jesus himself to be that kind of ladder between earth and heaven.  He knows what it takes to reach every human being, wherever they are, and whatever they are like, and to build that link for them between here and there, between life as it is and life as it can become, between what we are now and what we can be in the kingdom of God.  Some people are reached through their hearts and some people are reached through their minds.  Some people are reached through moments of deep struggle and turmoil.  Some people are reached through experiences of joy. 

The life that Jesus led upon earth included all of these things and more, all the variety and depth of human experience, and every single moment, both good and bad, also included the holiness of God.  Every aspect of his life provided a step on the ladder that leads us to heaven, that climbs toward God, in a way that no other life has ever done or could ever do.  He will find a way for you, whether in a straightforward way or in the roundabout sort of way he found with Nathanael, to set your foot upon the ladder that leads to God.

If you go through the bell tower and turn right, or through the lounge and turn left, outside the nursery you will find the coffee and tea that are there every Sunday morning.  Help yourself.  While you’re there, take a look at the framed paper that’s on the wall above it.  It’s an old print of some words that come from a sermon preached in 1926 by a man named James Allan Francis.  He was talking about Jesus.

“Here is a man who was born in an obscure village as the child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in another obscure village.
He worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty and then for three years was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book.
He never held an office.
He never owned a home.
He never had a family.
He never went to college.
He never put his foot inside a big city.
He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born.
He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness.
He had no credentials but himself.
He had nothing to do with this world except the naked power of his divine manhood.
While still a young man the tide of popular opinion turned against him.
His friends ran away.
One of them denied him.
Another betrayed him.
He was turned over to his enemies.
He went through the mockery of a trial.
He was nailed upon the cross between two thieves.
His executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth while he was dying, and that was his coat.
When he was dead, he was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today he is the center of the human race and the leader of the column of progress.
I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that were ever built, and all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon the earth as powerfully as has this one solitary life.”

Saturday, January 10, 2015

"Baptized with the Spirit" - January 11, 2015

Mark 1:4-11

            The ritual of baptism was around before Jesus, and scholars have tried to pin down what exactly folks like John the Baptist thought they were doing.  There are two streams of thought (pardon the pun) on this. 

One points to the various rituals of cleaning that are detailed in the Old Testament.  Various forms of washing are prescribed for people who have been sick or touched a corpse or given birth or been involved with a number of other activities before they are allowed to rejoin the community at worship.  In Jesus’ day there were semi-monastic groups who lived in the wilderness because they considered the worship in Jerusalem to have become corrupt and who practiced these kinds of washings regularly.  Some people think that John the Baptist had been part of one of these groups, or at least was influenced by their thought.

Another guess about what he was trying to do looks at the fact that he gathered his people and preached and immersed people specifically in the Jordan River.  Just like we think of the specific historical reference to Washington crossing the Delaware, the people of that time and place would have remembered that when the people of Israel entered the Promised Land, they did so by crossing the Jordan.  Maybe what John was saying was that God was renewing Israel and creating a new people, so if you are ready to be part of this coming kingdom then you need to cross through the river and start living right.

At this point, nobody’s ever going to be able to say exactly what statement John or anyone he baptized was making, but it probably had elements of both.  Both have certainly carried over into Christianity’s understanding of baptism.  On the one hand, we think of it as a sign and promise of God’s forgiveness of our deepest sin.  By that we don’t mean just the things that we do.  No little baby is rightfully called a sinner.  But every human being has an inborn limitation and an inescapable self-centeredness that we need to be forgiven before we can set about the hard work of living as the good, beloved people that God made us to be.  That’s where the aspect of becoming a part of a community of faith comes in.  We need one another’s help to grow into our best selves, and not just as children but all throughout our lives.  Baptism brings us into alignment with God and with others.

There is one key element in that, though.  The outer activity does not matter at all without the inner activity of God within our souls, which is what Jesus’ presence (then and now) added to the earlier practices.  John could lead people through the motions, but he pointed them to the coming of Jesus, of whom he said,

“‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” [Mark 1:7-8]
If you forget that the Holy Spirit is involved, you miss out on the most vital part, which is the gifts that God puts into his people so that they can be part of the kingdom not just in some distant future but here and now.

            There’s an incident that is recorded in the book of Acts:

“While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them.” [Acts 19:1-7]
That’s the sort of thing that can happen when the Holy Spirit that Jesus breathes into his people goes to work.  For some people, like these, it is something dramatic.  For others it shows itself in personal character, as the Bible teaches that

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” [Galatians 5:22-23]
Either way, the Holy Spirit shared with us at baptism is at work both through and within God’s people.

            The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of Jesus’ own, lasting presence with his people, and along with that comes the grace to be ready for whatever comes along.  Think of it like a Christmas gift or a birthday present.  There’s the whole fun of looking at the package and unwrapping it, and then maybe it’s something really showy and spectacular like a ukulele that you immediately start strumming or possibly a box of cookies that you open right away and pass around.  On the other hand, it might be something like this: a quilted windshield scraper.  Not much to look at, is it?  Let me tell you, though, that at 5:30 in the morning, when the temperature is eighteen degrees and the wind is blowing at twenty miles per hour, this is better than forty ukuleles. 

            None of us ever really knows ahead of time what situations or challenges we may face.  When I meet with a couple preparing for marriage, we look at the wedding vows closely.  They promise to marry “for better or for worse”.  What does that mean?  It’s totally and intentionally vague.  The promise, however, is to ride things out together without reference to how it’s going at any particular moment.  As human beings, though, there are times when it’s clear that after working long and hard at that, even with the best intentions, it isn’t always going to work out.  We accept that, with sadness but with practicality. 

            The promise of God is even greater than the promise that a couple makes, because it relies on God and not on us.  Whatever comes our way in life, for better or worse, with God’s presence in our lives, with the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we find strength and help to ride out anything difficult, and we find the joy of meeting the challenges to serve others that are put in front of us when things are going well.  Maybe a marriage is falling apart, but the Holy Spirit is there to help the partners pull themselves together again and, in time, to move on.  Maybe a student has discovered a new interest and the Holy Spirit is there to ask the question, “Well, what are you going to do with this knowledge?”  Maybe someone’s life has gone totally off the track.  The Spirit is there to speak to the conscience, saying both, “This has got to stop right now,” and, “There is forgiveness for the past.”  Maybe somebody is holding a sleeping child, and the Spirit is saying, “You have so very much love to give.  Here is someone to receive it.”

            You never know what the Holy Spirit is going to do.  In the Greek that the New Testament was written, the word for “spirit” and “breath” and “wind” is the same word, and in the gospel of John [3:8], Jesus says,

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
It’s a little bit scary, if you think about it, but it’s also comforting, because wherever the ride takes you, you don’t travel alone.

            That is the greatest gift of the one who baptizes us, through the gift of water, with the Holy Spirit, and who sends us out with both a challenge and a promise:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  [Matthew 28:19-20]

Saturday, January 3, 2015

"Adopted" - January 4, 2015

Ephesians 1:3-14

“He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”  [Ephesians 3:5-7] 
Consider the full depth of that for a little bit.  Do you ever think of what it means that God has adopted us?  You and me: adopted by God, made part of his everyday life, treated as his own, watched over when we get the sniffles, missed when we don’t stay in touch, mourned when we turn our backs, loved every second.

A child who is adopted becomes as much a part of the family as one who is born into it.  When I was in school, there was a family that was about as German-looking as any you could imagine.  They all had blond hair and blue eyes and perfect posture.  Their youngest daughter was the exception.  Jenny was Korean by birth but had been adopted as a baby.  The only difference between her and her brothers and sister was her hair and eye color.  They had the same sense of humor, the same manner of speaking, the same outlook on life, and (yes) she also had perfect posture.

That really is what adoption is supposed to be.  It means that somebody not only gets a legal guardian and legal status as part of their family, but really becomes their child no less than any biological offspring.  You can get into that whole “nature and nurture” discussion, where scientists debate how much of our personality is inborn and how much is taught or acquired through experience.  Different people reach different conclusions but there is no one who denies that many of a person’s most important attributes may come, not through biology, but in the one-on-one sharing that is part of the parenting process.  For example, there is a clear record of a boy named George born in Baltimore in 1895 and sent to an orphanage when he was seven.  Although he wasn’t directly adopted, Brother Matthias, of St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys took George under his wing and taught him, among other things, how to play baseball.  Somewhere in there, George Ruth got the nickname “Babe”.

So if you and I are adopted by God, if we are God’s daughters and sons, what effect does that have on us?  I think of it in terms of the two sons in the parable of the prodigal son.  There’s the first son who makes a mess of things, and his father never gives up on him and, when he comes to his senses and returns home, gives him a party.  That’s the one who would understand being part of God’s family in terms of the mercy that a parent shows a child, as he puts it

“redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.” [Ephesians 3:7]
That is a big part of it.  The prophet Hosea [11:1-4] spoke of the love of God as that of a parent who could not and would not forget his children, no matter what.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
   and out of Egypt I called my son. 
The more I called them,
   the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
   and offering incense to idols. 
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
   I took them up in my arms;
   but they did not know that I healed them. 
I led them with cords of human kindness,
   with bands of love.
I was to them like those
   who lift infants to their cheeks.
   I bent down to them and fed them.” 

            There was another son in the parable, though, the older son, whom his father had to remind,

“Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” [Luke 15:31]
That, too, is part of what it is to be part of the family and is actually the better part to play, if you can avoid the petty jealousy that he showed toward his brother.  It is to be let in on God’s plan,

“a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. [Ephesians 3:10]
As God’s children, we are to be a part of the whole wondrous picture of God’s glory.  Sin, which is part of our old self, is to be put away and put behind us.  It is real, but it is the childish part of us that God seeks to help us put away so that we can give our efforts to things that matter, to the aspects of our lives that are part of our full maturity and, in the end, the parts that reflect best not only on us, but also on God.

Think of it: a parent who is a great person is honored all the more when the children also show greatness.  There was a Hungarian baker who had to flee to Germany because being a Lutheran in a Catholic country was dangerous in the early 1600’s.  He took with him a little guitar and a love of music, which he passed along with his last name (he was, as I said, a baker, or, in the local dialect, a Bach).  He had a son who was a part-time piper and a grandson who was a professional musician of some sort and a grandson who was a violinist, and a great-grandson named Johann Sebastian who took up work as a church organist and composer.  You may have heard of him.  You may also have heard of some of his many children: Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Johann Christian Bach, all of whom wrote music that is still played. 

God’s greatness increases when we, by his help and encouragement and empowerment, do wonders or show, in any way, the family resemblance.  On many of his compositions, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the letters “SDG”, which was his abbreviation for “Soli Deo Gloria” (“To God Alone the Glory”).  He is said to have written that

“The aim and final reason of all music should be none else but the glory of God and refreshing the soul. Where this is not observed there will be no music, but only a devilish hubbub.”[1] 
Not everyone will be a great composer, obviously.  But those who turn to Christ to remove the stain of sin and let his renewing Spirit work within them will find that whatever good they do in his name becomes both part of them and part of the wonders of heaven.  Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyons, wrote that, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”  To be adopted by God is a mandate to cherish and develop the image of God that lies within you. 

Here at the start of the New Year is as good a time as any, and a better one than most, to take a step on that road.  Ask yourself what makes you feel most fully alive.  Is it something that brings you closer to God?  Is it something that makes you more aware of Jesus’ love?  Is it something that speaks to your soul, not just something that fills up time?  If it is, ask how it can be used to glorify God.  I guarantee that there will be some way because

“In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” [Ephesians 3:13-14]

[1] Cited many places, including Rick Marschall, Johann Sebastian Bach (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 78.  I have been unable to find the original source.