Isaiah 41:1-10, James 4:1-10
March 29, 2009
“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called ‘the friend of God’” (James 2:23)
Don’t you love that? Abraham was called “the friend of God.” Abraham had a long history with God. He was called out of his comfortable place, and he was asked to pack up and leave his home and go on an adventure – to a new land. He was given promises by God – covenants – that he would be the father of many nations, and that he would have a son in his old age. And each time God came through. It was a long and colorful relationship. And in all of that, Abraham was called “friend of God.”
As I’ve thought about it this week, it seems to me that we are that, too. We are friends of God. That’s a big reason Jesus came. It was about the relationship. It was about the call. It was about the adventure! I was going to have us sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” today, but it wasn’t on the recorded hymn list. Sorry about that! I love that song. I’m sure you do to. Because it’s an assurance to us that God is our friend in Jesus.
That’s what I want us to know today. If you think about that, isn’t it kind of hard to “get our minds around it.” Isn’t it hard to fathom that we are friends of God? Think about your own friends. Think of the kind of closeness of those relationships! Think about years spent together. Can you conceive in your mind that God is also that close a friend like that? That’s the way it was with Abraham!
Recently I told you about an old friend of mine. After a long absence, I finally got together with Anthony, my longest and best friend from High School. We sat down to lunch a couple of weeks ago, and started talking. And before we knew it it was almost seven o’clock! That’s what true friends do! They revel in that relationship! And we can revel in our relationship with God like that! I know it’s hard to conceive, but we can. However! We can also neglect friendships, can’t we? We can let them go on with no contact for long periods of time. Like our earthly friends, we can think fondly of our friendship with God, and yet fail to make the connection. And I ask you. Is your friendship with God like that? Lent is the time to address that question.
As you’re thinking about that question today, I want you to think about the life of Jesus. I want you to think about the friends he had, and how he reached out in friendship to many. That’s another reason Jesus came, of course, to be our example. His life is a great guide for ours. And as one writer put it, in Jesus we see the heart of God.
We know that Jesus had a close circle of friends. Peter, James, and John were his best friends. And if he had a best best friend it was John. Friends were important in his life, too. And please notice that in those friendships, Jesus looked not to the status of those men. For they had no social status. He looked to the their value. That is so important. Because what God values is not the same as what the world values! Back in the Old Testament, God says that he befriended Israel, not because she was the “greatest of nations on earth,” but because she was “the least.” God doesn’t play the “friend games” we people sometimes do. He sees the value in all people.
Jesus used the word “friend” with many people. That’s often how he addressed people who were hurting. We see that again and again in the Gospels. Unfortunately, that same word was also used against him. When his enemies wanted to say what was bad about him, they said that which, ironically, was at the heart of his ministry! They said, “He is a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” And that’s true, he was! But the world didn’t understand that. And in some ways it still doesn’t. The world still plays those “friend games” it still lets things stand between people. The world still says it’s ok to “be friends with only certain people,” or to “be friends with only the right people.” And I don’t have to tell you that the world can be very cruel to the “others,” the “outcasts” of society.
Do you remember how it was when you were kids? There was the “in crowd” and then there was the rest of us. (That’s how we said it in the ‘70’s) Many people still live in that kind of thinking. And it’s nothing new. People have done that for as long as there have been people. In almost every culture in every age there has been a social strata. Some are “in,” and some are “out.” And some are “outcasts.” And Jesus would tell us that there should be no outcasts! Do you believe that? Well, it’s more than that! In Jesus, we see that God has a heart for the outcasts!
In the late ‘70’s there was a book written by a modern theologian named James Cone, called “God of the Oppressed.” And it was a book that got a lot of people mad! In it, Cone said that if Jesus were here today, he wouldn’t be hanging around with people in churches in affluent suburbia. Jesus would be down in the city ministering to and being friends with the street people, the homeless, and the outcast. And Cone did more. He equated us with the religious establishment and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. And you remember how Jesus got along with them! What was tough about that book is that there was a ring of truth in it.
That’s something to think about. And the think about those religious leaders was that they should have known better. They knew the Psalms. You can open the Psalms almost anywhere and read words like “Blessed is he who considers the poor! The Lord delivers him in the day of trouble. The Lord protects him and keeps him alive. He is called blessed in the land.” (Psalm 41) God has a heart for the poor and outcast. And in Jesus we see the heart of God. He started his famous “Sermon on the Mount” with the words, “Blessed are the (what?) poor in spirit.” (Matthew 5:1) Luke’s version simply says “Blessed are the poor.” In fact, the constant, recurring theme throughout Jesus’ ministry is that those who are great and least the world’s eyes are not so in God’s eyes. For him, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
We find the same understanding in the letter of James. In the fourth chapter we read, “God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) He’s actually quoting there from Proverbs 3. So that was nothing new! And the thing is, the people in Jesus’ day should have known all about that! They should have praised Jesus for being friends of tax collectors and sinners! That’s the glory of the Church, his body. But instead, that became their accusation.
Friends, if we are truly his disciples, like we’ve been talking about during Lent, if we are going to be the “friends of God,” we should remember the heart of God. And in Jesus, he was all about humbling the proud and exalting the humble. It has been said of Jesus that he came to “comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.” I know it’s easy to forget that. And that’s usually how it happens. God’s people don’t usually reject the things of God outright. They just forget them over time. We need to be sure to remember. “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.”
During Lent, people used to talk about the “Seven Deadly Sins.” We don’t much any more. But I think maybe we should. Well “Pride” was one of them. And that’s not pride as in “I’m proud of my kids.” Or “I’m proud of my accomplishments.” That’s a good kind of pride. But the Greeks had two words for pride. They had a separate word for the “pride” which was the “deadly sin.” It was thought of as “tragic pride.” We could also use the word “arrogance.” It was the kind of pride that “puffs up” as Paul says. It’s a pride makes a person think they are better than someone else. It’s the pride that makes a person think they don’t need God. And in all the ancient Greek tragedy plays, it was always that tragic pride – “hubris” in Greek – that brought down the hero in the end. That’s what James is talking about here.
God is our friend. And it is good news that God humbles the proud, and he exalts the humble. Which one of us does not feel downcast, oppressed, and “beat up” at times. It is truly good news that God is our friend. He sent Jesus for that purpose – and not because we deserve it. If we think about it, we don’t really feel like we deserve it, do we? But that is the very reason we are his friend! That’s kind of hard to fathom, isn’t it? I think we need to spend some time “getting our minds around that” God is our friend. But we also need to spend time nurturing that friendship! Because it won’t happen all by itself.
We need to think about our hearts being “in tune” with God’s heart. If we find that tragic pride living within us, what should we do? What should we do to achieve that humility? You know, while pride was one of the “deadly sins,” it used to be that “humility” was considered to be a virtue. But that’s not so anymore. In our world, humility has been seen as being too close to the word “humiliation” which people want t avoid at all costs. Actually those two are not that far apart. The main difference is that humility is something we take on ourselves, and humiliation is something that someone else does to us. The interesting thing is that God exalts both! He honors us when we humble ourselves, he picks us up when we are cast down by others.
So as we think of being friends of God, we have a dual message. First it’s the message of Paul to the proud, “Let none of you think of yourself more highly than you ought…” (Romans 12:3) But the second message to us as friends of God is the message of Jesus, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest unto your souls.”
It is truly amazing to be friends of God! We have so much in our relationship with him! And I encourage you this Lenten season, if you do nothing else, to spend time with God each day. And if you already do that, concentrate on speaking with him in the same way you’d speak to an old friend. Revel in that friendship. Try to laugh with him. I believe God loves laughter! But like the best of friends, God also weeps with us when we need him most. I believe God is that kind of friend!
God our Father and our friend, we thank you for sending your son, to show us more about you. Help us to live and to love as he did. Help us to reach out to people without reservations. Help us grow more and more to be reflections of your love and your glory. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.