Every workday morning for three years I've passed by the front of the Empire State Building and encountered three groups of ticket-sellers who wear their company colors: red, blue, or yellow. A block away from the ESB they start asking anyone who looks like a tourist, "Going up?" They discourse on the heavenly views that come with a trip to the 86th and 102nd floor observatories.
Most religions are a lot like that. Priests and imams tout ways to go up to heaven in exchange for the performance of various rituals or the pronouncing of certain words. Christianity is different, since we have nothing with which to buy grace. Jesus offers us His living water for free, but the cost to Him was enormous. In gratitude believers learn to think of serving God and serving others: We cannot put aside our self-interest, but we can lose our selfishness.
Moses before the burning bush told God that the people of Israel would demand to know God's name. God told Moses to say, "I AM has sent me to you." I AM, of course, means God who is neither past nor future but everlasting, making every moment throughout eternity the present one, always focused. What a contrast with his human creations: We think woulda/shoulda/coulda about past opportunities and then chase future fantasies.
So here's a question each of us should ask, especially as Christmas approaches: Do I care most about God's I AM or my own I am? The human I am stands for the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. The A is for ambition: Magnify my name. The M stands for money: Maximize it. But neither ambition nor money buys us a ticket to God's observation deck.
We go up only through the grace of Jesus Christ, whom the apostle Paul called the second Adam-but we live by working, following what God set forth for the first Adam. God's pronouncement to Adam that he would sweat to earn his daily bread was a punishment, yes, but also a severe mercy: When we don't need to serve others by working, we typically start obsessing about our own I am. With our sinful natures, it's harmful for poor human beings to live on welfare, rich human beings to live on trust funds, or 60-year-old Frenchmen to live on pensions.
Chapter 3 of Lamentations displays the contrast between I am thinking and I AM. The first part of the chapter describes the individual reflecting on his own afflictions: He is in darkness without any light, he is walled about so he cannot escape, he wears heavy chains, he is on crooked paths, a bear and a lion are ready to attack him, he is torn into pieces, his kidney has become a pincushion for arrows, he is drinking wormwood, his teeth grind on gravel, he is cowering in ashes. It's the march of a million groaning metaphors.
In the next part of the chapter, nothing in the author's troubled situation has changed, but he has moved from I am to I AM: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness."
I imagine red, blue, and yellow salesman each accepting different currency for their tickets. The rich man's money, the scribe's knowledge, and the Pharisee's reputation for morality are all legal tender. There's nothing wrong with having money, knowledge, or a reputation for morality, but those who have it often know they have it and pride themselves on it. Those who have no money for tickets are far readier to accept the offer of free grace that provides ascension to a far greater observatory.
The goal of life is to move from the baby's first cry of I am to the wise maturity of allegiance to I AM. Our human I am is born of fear: My position and my bank account give me a haven in a harsh world. God's I AM requires trust, which is very hard for those of us who grew up amid suspicion and worry-but if it were easy we wouldn't need the Redeemer born on Christmas.
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