Sunday, December 12, 2010

God's Toy Story

The other day, I saw the Nutcracker ballet with my family. It’s the story of a girl who receives the gift of a toy soldier, a soldier that magically comes to life and takes her on a great adventure. As I watched the performance… I started thinking (with a little prompting from a chapter in Lewis' Mere Christianity entitled, "The Obstinate Toy Soldier") about how many children’s stories have this same theme. Can you name a few? Corderoy, Raggedy Anne & Andy, The Velveteen Rabbit, Pinocchio; and the popular film…Toy Story where toys only pretend to be lifeless when their owners are not around.

In that movie, all the toys know they are just toys…except for one: Buzz Lightyear. He’s the one who thinks he’s really a Space Ranger on a mission from Star Command: “To infinity and beyond!” he likes to say. That is until he sees a TV commercial selling Buzz Lightyear action figures for Christmas… and he discovers the truth. Of course, he learns that while he may be just a toy, he can still bring joy to a child’s heart (Please join me in a collective, "ahhhhhhh").

Why is it that we are so fascinated with stories about toys and playthings coming to life? There are probably several reasons: but I think it’s because we have a God-given desire to nurture and bring forth life; and because we dream of being forever alive ourselves, to go to infinity and beyond. And now we are getting closer to the message of Christmas and the message of John 1: 1-12, for…

What children (and adults) make believe, God has the power to do. John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (John 1: 1, 10). In the beginning, says John, was the Eternal Word, the Logos; a word that enbodies the Hebrew concept of wisdom (hokmah)  and the Greek concept of reason and mind (logos).  John says that this Logos is the eternal, creating, illuminating, sustaining mind of God that has always existed (Barclay).

Now it’s the testimony of the gospels that in the person and work of Jesus the invisible God is made visible. In his words, in his actions, in his love and compassion, and most of all, in his death on the cross and resurrection…we see God, hear God, experience the victory of God over the darkness of this world. What we dream of doing as children (bringing things to life) Christ did among us: “in him was life,” says John, “and that life was the light of all people.”

In the middle of the 3rd century, a fanciful story about Jesus… The Infancy Gospel of Thomas was written to satisfy those who were curious about Jesus’ boyhood. Though these are tall tales to be sure…and Jesus is sometimes portrayed as an impulsive trickster and magic worker (the authentic gospels are very lean in their accounts of Jesus as a boy, and as a worker of miracles.  Miracles always have a purpose and are never done for ostentatious display), there is one story I’d like to share with you…

When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed. Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him. And a certain Jew, seeing the boy Jesus with the other children doing these things, went to his father Joseph and falsely accused the boy Jesus, saying that, on the Sabbath he made clay, which is not lawful, and fashioned twelve sparrows. And Joseph came and rebuked him, saying, “Why are you doing these things on the Sabbath?” But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.” And the sparrows, taking flight, went away squawking. When the Pharisee saw this he was amazed and reported it to all his friends (trans. by Tony Burke, 2009).
Now I find this story interesting because (1) it portrays Jesus playing – which I am sure he did; and (2) it portrays Jesus doing as a child, what every child dreams of doing; and what countless stories help us to imagine doing, bringing a toy to life. And though I am fairly certain that this is not an authentic gospel story…there is an important truth here that is grounded in the canonical Gospels: that when God’s Son was born, it was his mission not just to live as one of us…but to bring us to life. And again, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people” (John 1:4).

Now this is an incredible offer…to be brought to life and all, but we have to remember that there can be no resurrection without a death; that redemption and transformation often involves letting go of things we’re convinced we can’t live without; and so not everyone appreciated Jesus’ message. Indeed…

What God could hardly conceive, human beings did. For “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him…” (John 1: 11).  When I was a boy I had a favorite teddy bear…I named him Snowy. He was my first not quite real friend. I imagined that he got cold when I went to school so I put him under the covers. I imagined that when my grandma had to sow back his torn arm, and give him a new mouth, that it might have hurt and I felt sad. I imagined that when I had hugged all the fur off him, that his fur was actually growing back…but I could never have imagined that Snowy, my bear, would ever turn against me.  And yet what a child can hardly conceive or imagine, we did when God offered us his Son. Lewis asks us to imagine a tin soldier that you had the power to heal and bring to life… but that toy, stubborn and willful refused to be changed, fearing that the transformation would kill him. Like obstinate toy soldiers, we have feared having our natural life transformed by God into a supernatural life – we have feared that in submitting ourselves to God’s gracious plan…it would mean the death of us.

It’s true, of course, that even the most modest change in our set pattern and way of doing things can be threatening and scary….that overcoming a destructive habit, finding the courage to face one’s fears, to say the words, “I’m sorry,” to ignore peer pressure and live by a different standard than our friends…may feel like death…because it is the death of what’s familiar, safe, and comfortable, the death of our old selves and our old ways. And Jesus did say, “If anyone wants to come after me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross and follow me!” We may fear that accepting God’s gift to us in Christ will be the death of us…but his promise is this; that…

Those who receive and believe in God’s Son are brought to life as God’s children. "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1: 12-13). About that stubborn toy that didn’t want to become human…fearful that the change would kill him…What would you do as its owner?

Well, this is what God did. He came to us in his Son, Jesus (“and the word became flesh”) -- he became just like us; and then, miracle of miracles, did exactly what we most fear to do…he surrendered himself to the will of the Father even unto death…and was raised up on the third day. Jesus, our fully human Savior, was raised up to new life (a toy soldier had for the first time, become fully alive).  Why did he do this? He did it so that we might become like him…He came to transform toy soldiers into real human beings…. into children of the living God.

How does God change us into his children? There are two sides to this lifelong process (the human side; and God’s side): On the human side it happens, as John says, by our receiving and believing – that is, it happens by our faith and active participation (v. 12a). To “believe” in the biblical sense always involves both trusting and doing. When, for example, Jesus commanded us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven,” it meant that we were to imagine ourselves to be God’s son or daughter; to dress up like Jesus. Now the moment we do that, we realize how different we really are from Jesus. For unlike the Son of God whose will and desire is one with the Father…our interests are often of a very different kind… self-centered, prideful, full of jealousies and fears.

On many Sundays, as we sit in church praying or singing or nodding approvingly of the message, we may inwardly feel like hypocrites….And yet the odd thing is…Jesus wants us to do it. He wants us to call God “Our Father.” He wants us to practice being his children. Question: Why do children love to “pretend”? Why do they dress up in their parent’s clothes? Why does a child pretend to be a knight and slay the dragon…or dress up like a beautiful Queen, presiding over her royal court? Why do children like to play house, dress up their dolls, or go on treasure hunts? They are pretending to be grown-ups. They’re developing their imaginations, sharpening their wits, strengthening their muscles… preparing for grown-up challenges and grown-up responsibilities. When we pretend to be like Christ…we’re doing the same thing. We’re imitating his prayers, we’re imitating his way of speaking and acting and loving. We’re trying to do the things that we imagine he would do if he were us! We may not feel like Christians half the time…but that’s not the important thing. What’s important is that we practice…keeping in mind that as we do so…we have a helper.

Remember that there are two sides to becoming children of God. On the human side it happens by our receiving and believing, but then there is God’s side…"for to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1: 12). The power is not ours…it is his. Power to become children of God…power to serve…power to heal…power to tell others… power to love…and power simply to be and to know that we really are his children.

Do you know you are a child of God yet, brought to eternal life in Christ?  Dr. Fred Craddock tells a story about vacationing with his wife when he noticed a gray haired gentleman greeting people at every table in the restaurant. “I hope he doesn’t come over here.” He didn’t want anyone intruding on their privacy. But sure enough, the man did come over. “Where you folks from?” he asked kindly.  “Oklahoma,” Craddock said. “Splendid state, I hear…and what do you do for a living?” “I teach homiletics at the graduate seminary of Phillips University,” Craddock replied. “Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach? Well, I’ve got a story to tell you.” And with that, the man pulled up a chair and sat down. Craddock groaned inwardly, “Oh, no! Here comes another preacher story!”

The man stuck out his hand. “I’m Ben Hooper. I was born not far from here across the mountains. My mother wasn’t married when I was born. When I started to school, my classmates had a name for me, and it wasn’t a very nice name. I used to go off by myself at recess and lunch time because the things they said to me cut me so deep. When I was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to our church. I would always go in late and slip out early. But one day the preacher said the benediction so fast I got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. I could feel every eye in the church on me.

Just about the time I got to the door I felt a big hand on my shoulder. I looked up and the preacher was looking right at me. ‘Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?’ he asked. I felt this big weight coming down on me. It was like a big black cloud. Even the preacher was putting me down. But as he looked down at me, studying my face, he began to smile a big smile of recognition. ‘Wait a minute!’ he said. ‘I know who you are. I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.’ With that he slapped me across the rump and said, ‘Young man, you’ve got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.’

The old man looked across the table at Fred Craddock and said, “Those were the most important words anybody ever said to me, and I’ve never forgotten them.” And as he smiled and walked away, Craddock remembered that on two occasions the people of Tennessee had elected to the office of governor men who had been raised without a father. One of them was a man named Ben Hooper.

Whose boy or girl are you? God’s Son was born so that all who receive and believe in him might be brought from death to life and know they are children of God. Jesus is not playing with us here. He means it; and if that describes the desire of your heart I invite you to pray with me...
Gracious God we thank you for sending us your Son so that we could become true sons and daughters – not by the will of the flesh, but by the will of God, filled with your Spirit and eternal life. We confess that we have behaved like stubborn toy soldiers who, when offered real human life, have chosen to remain dead, painted wood! We have feared what you might do to us, instead of giving thanks for what you want to do for us. Forgive us for our sin and foolish pride. Thank you for showing us in Christ what real human life looks like, and for proving that not even death can destroy the life of those who believe in your name. Therefore, we humbly ask you to change and transform us as we believe in your Son, imitate his life, speak his words, pray his prayers, and do his works. Father, let this Christmas be not only the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, but the celebration of his birth in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If that prayer expressed your heart’s desire, if you claim your inheritance through God’s Son, know that God has claimed you as his child...from this very moment, from this day forward…from here to infinity....and beyond.

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