Sustained by a Word

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Genesis 1.3

Early on in our relationship, Caroline and I had a conversation about camping. It was October and she was getting ready to go on her annual fall, family camping trip. She asked me if I liked camping, and I said I should probably say no given that the only time I find it enjoyable is when it’s 60 to 65 degrees outside, clear blue skies and perfectly sunny. Now, I need to interject here what I meant when I said “camping.” When I said camping, I had in mind a nine-day backpacking trip I went on in college through the Rockies. It rained six of the nine days. We ate nothing more than granola for every meal, and we used iodine tablets to purify our water. “You’re a wimp,” she said. “What’s better than working up an appetite playing football all day with the family, and ending the day eating grilled beef tenderloin. And you’ve got to love curling up on your air mattress with the heater blowing in your tent.”

Clearly, we were using the same word but meaning something very different. Communication is difficult. And because I trust that you have had encounters like this one, too, it might not be a comfort to hear that we, human beings, are sustained by a word. That is, more than food, water or shelter, what keeps us alive is a word. 

Let’s talk about the word “sustained.” When I say sustained, I mean the ability to hang on to a word of hope despite the odds, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I mean the word that gets us out of the house to look for a job once again despite the fact that we’ve been told “no” repeatedly. I mean the strength of Ghandi who refused to eat for the sake of his belief in freedom from oppression. A word of hope and a promise of something better can cause us to overcome incredible odds.

Of course, we don’t have to look further than Scripture itself to learn how unreliable our words seem to be. Listen to Paul as he laments in Romans seven saying, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” The estrangement we experience as a a result of sin is not only estrangement from God and others, but also within ourselves. We can’t even be who we want to be. When we run into the complications of communication it reveals two things: (1) We are divided. We are inconsistent and unreliable; and (2) We are powerless to do anything about it. Just because I say I’m a professional athlete does not make me one. Our words reveal our weakness.

Does this say something about words? Are they not to be trusted? Or does this say something about us?

Genesis chapter one verse three says, “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” Immediately we are confronted with a different reality than that to which we are accustomed. God spoke and it happened. In fact, the time it takes to read this verse, not to mention the time it took to write it, betrays what actually happened. For God the speaking and the action are simultaneous. There is no distance, no delay between what God says and what is in the world. And when God speaks two primary things happen: (1) It exposes that the reality we try and live in is not God’s reality, and (2) it distinguishes the various parts of creation and shows each parts uniqueness.

When we’re exposed we have a tendency to hide. We hate being discovered for being a fraud, and we have clever ways of hiding. One of our best ways of hiding is to make excuses. We are trained in the art of explaining why God’s reality doesn’t apply to us. In fact, sometimes we explain that because it’s God his reality doesn’t apply to us. Grace, instead of being transformative, becomes a kind of putty filling in the cracks in our walls, hiding our flaws. God knows our flaws are there, but in his grace he sort of overlooks them.

The truth is, God intends us to be like him, to be holy as he is holy. When God speaks our lives begin to take form and, thankfully, we begin to see all the ways we are not like him, all the ways our darkness is in rebellion against him.

We also see all our goodness, too, though. God, in speaking light, distinguishes all the various parts of creation from one another – light from darkness, water from land and humans from animals. In fact, he goes so far as to distinguish each human from one another. Each person is unique before God. They have been spoken into existence by God and they bear their own unique characteristics, personality and talents.

We are sustained by God’s word by being told who we are. We are also told where we fall short of being who God created us to be. As a caveat, much has been said about vocation. Parker Palmer and others have done good work to encourage us to boldly claim who God has created us to be. To be clear, it is important for each person to own up to his or her unique calling but not because we need clarity about our career paths. God is not a career counselor. Meyers-Briggs isn’t the inspired word of God. Our hope in this world is not job satisfaction. No, our hope in this world is that we might learn to speak God’s glory in our own language in the very face of job loss, and in the absence of food, water and shelter. Every human needs to own up to his or her calling in order to glorify God. Our obedience to be who God has made us to be is the freedom of one who has found their life in God.

I think Parker Palmer is a response to a generation, of which I am part, that doesn’t know what to do with its life. The only way you know what to do with your life is to ask yourself, “For what am I willing to die?” Clarity about a career that will be well-suited to my personality profile is not something for which I’m willing to die. Offering career counseling to someone without giving them a purpose beyond job satisfaction is like telling a musician their greatest hope is to play the C-scale. It’s important, but it’s not ultimately why they play music. Charlie Parker, the great jazz saxophonist, said you learn the scales to forget them. Likewise, I think we are supposed to forget ourselves. It’s important to find out who we are, but for the purpose of glorifying God in our own unique way. We need to learn how to be great improvisational musicians, who invite people to enjoy something beyond ourselves. We might be the ones playing the music, but we want people to enjoy the music not making us a celebrity. Our obedience to our own calling is a rehearsal in relinquishing control of our lives and worshiping God instead.

This verse is before the fall we might say. Again, this is yet another excuse. This isn’t the only time God spoke creation into existence. God spoke to Abram and light was shone into Sarai’s barren womb. God spoke again in Christ, The Word. In him, God said let there be light and there was light in the darkness of a virgin’s womb. God entered a very dark world; dark because did not know him. God spoke again and light was shed into the darkness of the tomb, and thereby, it lost all of its power. The darkness of death was separated from the light of Christ. Then, God spoke again and the light of the Holy Spirit, in the form of fire, shone down on the people gathered and they spoke of the glories of God. Finally, God spoke again to us. Once we were “far off but God brought us near.” Light shone into our darkness, our ignorance of our need for God. He plunged us into the darkness of the baptismal waters and, through the power of the resurrected Christ, we rose again recreated with the Image of God, the Light and Life of all people, planted within us. 

We are also sustained by God’s word by being promised a future. What has God promised? A new city of peace. A world without death. A world where the meek will inherit the earth. We are loved. He will be with us unto the end of the age. Do we believe these things? Do we live in a way that suggests we think they are true? I wonder if the anxiety I sometimes feel is not because God hasn’t kept his promise, but because I refuse to live in the world he promised to create. What if we just pretended one of these things were true? What if we said with the man who asked Jesus to heal his son, “I believe, help my unbelief”? In other words, what if we acted like it even if we thought it were a bit far-fetched?

This is where I think the church comes in. Worship in the church is a rehearsal for the rest of time. When we gather to worship we are living in the world as it will be for all eternity. Even when all evidence seems to point to the contrary, the church is the group of people who have made a commitment to remind each other of the world promised and made possible in Christ. It is the church that helps us to talk about the world as God intended it not as we sometimes think we see it. In a very real sense, the church is language training. We are learning to speak the sustaining word of God to one another. When we are tempted to be overwhelmed by the pain and suffering in the world. When we are tempted to lose hope. It is the church who speaks that word again that says, “Death, where is your victory? Grave where is your sting?” We are learning the language of victory, freedom, life and love.

And from where does that language come? It comes from within. We have moved from mere communication to communion. We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. For every week when the church gathers we are reminded of the ultimate promise – “God so loved the world he gave his only Son.” We partake of his body and blood and thereby we are assured that God loves us and will not forsake us. We are given the ability to speak Christ himself because he has seen fit to dwell within us. He is our hope of glory. He has been spoken into our lives and we have been made new. He is our sustenance. We not only have a word spoken about our future. The Word has become flesh again in us, and we have been made one with him. We are alive because Christ is in us. Now, at this moment, we can enjoy the future God has made possible in Christ, unity with God and creation. 


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