Sunday, September 7, 2008

Our Perception, God's Reality

Texts: Psalm 46; Luke 24:13-35

THERE’S AN EXPRESSION OUT THERE in the world: "Perception Is Reality." I’m sure you’ve heard it. You may even have had it aimed at you. The idea is, it doesn’t matter if something is true or not, if people think it’s true, it may as well be true.

"Perception Is Reality": We see this idea work in the world in economics. The economy may actually be in pretty good shape, but if enough people think it’s bad, they’ll act like it’s bad. We see it in politics. A politician may be a very wise man, but if the Press catches him in a momentary error, the public can perceive him as stupid and treat him as stupid, and never listen to him again.

We see it operating in the world in our jobs. I once served a church in a tiny village in the Midwest, where the executive presbyter told me I should always drive wherever I went, even if only for a block or two, because if anyone saw my car parked at the manse, he said they’d think I wasn’t working. That would jeopardize my ministry, he said, because after all, "Perception Is Reality." And I’m sure you can supply examples of this from your own job.

We see "Perception Is Reality" at work in the world in our relationships. How many couples get married, how many get divorced, how many parents and children become estranged and alienated from one another, due to perceptions each had of the other that might or might not have been true? But when they were in the middle of the situation, it didn’t matter whether their impressions were true, because, after all, "Perception Is Reality."

I hope you noticed: we’re not talking about true perception at all. True perception has to do with really getting to the bottom of things, truly discerning what’s going on. But this kind of "perception" is all about making up our minds by what appears on the surface.

That’s the way we naturally operate in the world. Our whole human-based world system says we should trust the testimony of our senses and feelings, whether we have the facts straight about the matter or if our conclusions are based on a lie. It’s the way of this world to make lies into the truth, or rather, to make decisions about people and things and act on them as if lies were the truth.

But it’s not the way of the Lord our God. And it shouldn’t be our way as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. As followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, we should look to God’s truth, to God’s reality, regardless of what our senses and feelings tell us. For His reality is the only firm ground we have to stand on in this shifting and shaking world.

This is especially true in times of disaster, difficulty, and grief. If Perception is truly Reality, when things go wrong we’d have every right to question God and His goodness and power. "Where is God? Why doesn’t He help me? How can these things happen and a loving, all-powerful God still be in control?" But our human perception is not God’s reality; and if we act as if it is, we’ll miss the comfort and benefits that our Lord would give us in distressing times.

Psalm 46, verses 2 and 3 describe a situation where we might well be tempted to let our human perception influence our view of God. The earth caving in under us! Whole mountains sliding into the sea! Tidal waves in the ocean, undermining and toppling more mountains! Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nothing trustworthy we can see.

When I read these verses, I can’t help but think of events in our recent history.

Like seven years ago, when the mountains of the World Trade Center towers came peeling down like monstrous gray mouldy bananas. And three years ago, when New Orleans and the whole Gulf Coast were inundated, washed away by the wind and water of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Whether we want to or not, we haven’t forgotten and we do remember. We remember loved ones lost, injuries suffered, property and livelihoods wrecked and ruined. Such disasters happen; they happen to us, they happen to people we love, and to people we come to love, when we go to help them pick up the pieces.

When things like this happen the follower of Christ does not rely on his human perceptions. No, he says with the psalmist, "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble." God is our help, even while we’re trapped in the burning tower. He’s our comfort even as the waters are rising and we’re trying to break a hole through our attic roof. He’s there with His hand holding ours even when we learn our teenaged son or daughter has a drug problem, even as the doctor tells us our cancer is terminal. Even at the moment of our death, right there in the midst of trouble, God’s reality is that He is our refuge and strength. Despite what seems like every reason to fear, His truth is that we need not fear at all. He is wholly trustworthy and will never fail us at all.

Some people might say, "What’s the use of that? I’m still in pain, I’m still going through agony, I’m still in distress." Is trust in God just wishful thinking? No, because the trustworthiness of God depends on His eternal character, on who and what He is. He is the Most High, the creator of heaven and earth. He made us to love and worship Him, not just in the time of our earthly lives, but all through eternity. God is He who calls us into covenant with Him and brings us to dwell with Him in His holy city. These verses 4 and 5 are partially talking about the earthly city of Jerusalem, as it was known in the days of the Sons of Korah. But they look beyond that to the eternal Jerusalem that will never be shaken and can never fall. Nations may be in an uproar, kingdoms will fall, but the Lord protects His city and His citizens day after day and forever. He is not controlled by the evil forces of this world: He is Lord over them and He can even use them as He wills to bring us safe through fire and flood and disaster to the holy place where we will dwell always with Him.

We can rely on God’s trustworthy reality despite our human perceptions because He is not a tame god. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a nice god.

Does that shock you? But think about it. If by "nice" we mean being a pushover, God is not nice. If by "nice" we mean overlooking things that are wrong because He doesn’t want to offend anyone, God is not nice. If by "nice’ we mean He just wants everyone to be happy and satisfied, no matter what we do to each other or to Him, no, God is not nice.

The Lord God is not nice, but He is good. He is good with the purifying goodness that sees sin as a parasite on His creation and judges our sin for our own good. As it says in verse 8, He is good with the overwhelming goodness that will allow hardship and even desolation to come into our lives, if that’s what it takes to get our attention. He is good with the fear-inspiring goodness that commands our foolish warfare to cease, that makes us stop babbling about our shallow perceptions and start facing up to His awesome reality.

These verses 9 and 10 remind me of a fight going on among a group of squabbling children, and dad or the principal walks in and everything just goes quiet. Suddenly whatever it was they were fighting over is no longer important; the important thing is that they have incurred the righteous wrath of their father. His presence straightens out their perceptions. What’s odd thing is how some people misquote verse 10, and show how sinful and human their perception is still. They quote it, "Be still and know," period, the end. Do they believe we can magically gain wisdom simply by quieting ourselves, maybe by practicing some form of meditation? Be still and know what?

But the verse actually reads "Be still, and know that I [the Lord] am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth."

This Scripture has nothing to do with anything we can do for ourselves or perceive for ourselves; it has everything to do with God breaking in from outside of Creation and replacing our misperceptions with His rock-solid reality. Do we think God is somehow low and ordinary until we exalt Him, as if human praises were the gas burner in a hot air balloon? Oh, no, friends, God will be exalted because He is the Exalted One. Exaltation is simply the response His reality commands and deserves. In these days, it is given to us His people to truly perceive something of His praiseworthy power and glory. But there will come a day when all peoples of the earth, all nations will perceive and recognize that He is high and lifted up, and give Him the honor and praise that He deserves.

In the meantime, we who belong to Him, we who bear His name can be confident that no matter what happens, no matter what our perceptions might be, "The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress." He is called the "God of Jacob," for by that name we are reminded of the covenant He made with His chosen people Israel. We are the heirs of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham, and the promises God made to them He also makes with and keeps to us.

We inherit those promises through the new covenant sealed in the blood of His Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Whenever your perception tempts you to doubt God’s faithful reality, remember what happened on the Road to Emmaus. Cleopas and the other disciple thought their perception was reality. Once, they’d perceived that Jesus might be the Messiah, but that’d been destroyed by His crucifixion. So they replaced it with another human perception, that their hope in Jesus was over and done and they may as well give up and go home.

But our Lord comes alongside them and replaces their faulty human perceptions with God’s perfect reality: "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?" Yes, He did. It was ordained for our Lord to die for our sins and to be raised for our life. The death of Jesus Christ calls us truly to perceive God’s view of our situation. For whatever sorrow or trouble we might experience in this world, our worst trouble is our own rebellion and warfare against God. It was always planned by God that the sacrifice of Jesus the Lamb of God would propitiate the wrath that God justifiably felt against our sin. God had willed from the beginning that the heinous murder of the incarnate Son of God, the worst disaster in human history, should result in the greatest and most lasting and most glorious blessing for the children of Man, eternal life and unity with God.

The crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord call us to recognise how God brought life out of death, strength out of weakness, and joy out of sorrow. The world’s perception could never discern that divine reality, not in a million years. We could never perceive it, if the Holy Spirit did not invade our lives and turn us from our own lying perceptions to God’s holy reality. We need to be still and know how Jesus willingly allowed Himself to be judged for our sins that we might become citizens of God’s holy city. Our perception must be divinely cleared and corrected, that we might recognize the risen Christ and enter His presence and have fellowship with Him.

The beautiful thing is, Jesus Himself makes sure this happens. He will not appear physically and walk with us along the road. But He gives us His Scriptures, that tell of Him from Genesis to Revelation. And He gives us His Holy Sacraments, where we can truly perceive Him in the living waters of Baptism and the bread and cup of Holy Communion. He is here with us, guarding us, guiding us, redeeming us. Our human perception does not create that divine reality. Rather, the Lord Himself has promised that He will be present in the witness of His Word and in the breaking of the Bread. The Holy Spirit blesses our hearing of Christ’s Word and the receiving of His Body and Blood, sanctifying our perception, that we may lay hold of the truth that is our crucified and risen Lord.

Human perception is not necessarily reality, and believing a lie does not make it the truth. But beyond all our limited perceptions lies the reality of God: Who He is, What He is, and what He has done for us in Jesus Christ. Be still, and know that the Lord is God. He will be exalted among the nations, He will be exalted in the earth. And may His holy Church say amen, and praise and glorify Him with confidence and joy, now and forever.