Sunday, January 29, 2012

When Jesus Comes to Town, Everything Changes!

Parts of this sermon were influenced by the writing of the Rev. Dr. Delmer Clinton, and I don't mind confessing that the following song was playing in my head the whole time I was writing. If I am humming this tune in the pulpit, you'll know why...

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak — that prophet shall die.”

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Mark 1:21-28
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It started out as a Saturday just like any other. The residents of Capernaum gathered in the synagogue like always, the rabbi in charge started the worship service and they settled in to hear the readings and sing the psalms. Most people were looking forward to hearing from the traveling teacher that had come in to town; as much as they loved and respected the synagogue’s leader, it was nice to have a new voice comment on the Scriptures.

But this was to be an experience unlike any the citizens of this village had ever known. Because when Jesus came to town, everything changed.

He didn’t appear to be anyone special – no particular credentials from the Temple authorities, no one pointed him out as having been instructed by this or that famous rabbi – but when Jesus read from the scrolls and began to speak about them, he spoke in a way they’d never heard before.

Our Gospel reading this morning says that he “taught as one having authority.” Now, there are a lot of different kinds of authority; there is the authority someone holds by virtue of their office – Presidents and Prime Ministers have that kind of authority; there is the kind of authority one holds by virtue of the role they fill in society – police officers, doctors, lawyers and teachers have that kind of authority.

And to be sure, the leader of the synagogue and the scribes had authority, presiding as they did over the worship and the day-to-day observance of the Law, helping the townspeople follow the religious regulations found in the Torah, record-keeping and resolving disputes and the like.

But when Jesus came to town he brought a different kind of authority – not an authority that comes from citing a precedent or holding an office or filling a position or having a badge or degree, but the kind of authority that comes from within, a – dare I say it – true authority.

Now, let me explain what I mean by that. I’m not suggesting that police officers and doctors and Presidents and all the rest have a false authority. But the root of authority is the same word from which we get “author.” The idea is that true authority, the kind of authority that Jesus demonstrated in the synagogue at Capernaum, and has even today, is creative, a source of life and sustenance.

The authority that Jesus demonstrated that day was the kind of authority that meant he never had to add “or else” to the words “follow me.” Fishermen dropped their nets and tax collectors left their booths when Jesus spoke.

Jesus’ authority came from the Holy Spirit which descended on him at baptism. That’s what the people heard in the synagogue that day. Jesus had a life-giving authority to his words, words that built up and restored everyone who heard him speak.

But when Jesus came to town, he brought even more.

Now, it’s tempting to broach this particular subject with an artistic device, suggesting that Capernaum had a guilty secret – a demon-possessed man! It’s even more tempting to gloss over the whole thing and kind of ignore it, honestly. After all, most of us know about demons only what Hollywood has taught us. Theologians spend a lot of time arguing back and forth about whether Jesus cast out demons or simply cured either epilepsy or schizophrenia (depending on who you talk to). There are books and videos and documentaries about the subject, TV preachers do sermon series on the subject, and everything swings between terrifying and confusing, with occasional forays into the ridiculous.

Rather than wade though all of that, let’s just agree that, for the people of first-century Capernaum, as well as for the people of Judea in general, demons existed and unclean spirits would occasionally take up residence – possess – a human being.

These kinds of possessions were common enough in their history and experience that the Jewish people had very specific rituals for the exorcising of an unclean spirit. Chances are that this demon-possessed man was well-known to the community, and plans were already under way to bring in the ten required rabbis, perhaps they were already gathering the herbs required for burning, the ritual baths were being prepared, and the proper psalm readings were being discussed. The Jewish people understood demons to be nowhere near as powerful as the God they served, but more powerful than they themselves, and experience had taught that these exorcisms could take many hours – even days – before they were successful.

Since the demon possessed were supposed to be barred from the synagogue, it would have been a source of embarrassment for the leader that the man was able to burst in to the room and begin yelling at Jesus. Perhaps a couple of the burlier men had already stood up, making their way toward the screaming, disheveled man to drag him out.

But when Jesus came to town, everything changed.

Because as powerful a presence as the Holy Spirit is in the life of Jesus, there is even more to the story. He is the earthly image of the eternal God, the only begotten son of the Almighty. You want authority? Try the authority of the Word of God incarnate, present at and active in the very creation of the universe itself!

And the only two people in the room who knew that fact were Jesus… and that demon… and one of them had to go.

Only Jesus didn’t need ritual. No burning herbs, no quorum of religious leaders, no psalms, no dunking the possessed man over and over in the waters of the cleansing ritual…

All he said was, “shut up and get out.”

And to the astonishment of everyone in that synagogue that day… the demon shut up and got out.

Because when Jesus came to town, everything changed.

Maybe in twenty-first century America, we aren’t so quick to find demons possessing people here and there. But that doesn’t mean that evil isn’t present, isn’t active in our day and age.

In a world where, every five seconds, a child dies from hunger, and every fifteen seconds, another dies from drinking contaminated water, where every night in the United States alone, more than a million children go to bed hungry, evil is most certainly present and active. In a world where AIDS still kills five thousand people per day, cholera kills nearly three hundred people a day, and dysentery about sixteen people every day in sub-Saharan Africa alone, evil is definitely present and active. In a world where preteens and teenagers – hundreds, according to some studies – are bullied to the point of taking their own lives, evil is without a doubt both present and active.

The clear message to those of us who are the Body of Christ – the hands and feet of the risen Lord, and to a world in need, the very face of Christ – is that it’s high time Jesus came to town.

Because, like I said, when Jesus comes to town, everything changes.

When Jesus comes to town, it is possible to feed the hungry. All of them. When Jesus comes to town, clean water can be a reality. Disease can be cured and controlled. When Jesus really does come to town, we can bring the marginalized into fellowship, and we can offer hope to the hopeless.

You see, that same Jesus who came to Capernaum that day and changed everything has died and risen and has said to you and I, his disciples, that as His body we can do as much – and even more!

Let us not be the hands and feet of Christ alone, but also the voice – the voice which speaks with authority, not only instructing that which is evil to shut up and get out, but calling out the Good News to a world full of people who need to know that God loves them. All of them.

Let us call them into the love of God, call them to leave fear behind and to step out in freedom to do God’s work in God’s way in the world. Let us call them into the love of God, to love the unlovely, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, and let us cry “shut up and get out” against the unclean spirits of war and oppression, injustice and indignity wherever they have a stranglehold on human lives.

It’s high time that Jesus came to town, because when he does… everything changes.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

We are Nineveh...

I'm indebted to the work of Rev. Stephen Brown, the writing of Paul Janssen of the Poscack Reformed Church, and the insights of Beth Tanner in putting this week's sermon together.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Mark 1:14-20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Old Testament reading today, from the book of Jonah, is interesting for what it leaves out. Jonah is told to go and prophesy in the streets of Ninevah, and because of his preaching the people repent and God’s mind is changed. Jonah is a hero, Ninevah becomes a city faithful to God, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The whole story is a lot more interesting. The book of Jonah is only four chapters, so if you haven’t ever read through it, spend a few minutes with it this afternoon, but the whole story is that Jonah isn’t much of a hero at all. He’s, well, kind of a jerk, to be honest.

See, Jonah is a Hebrew, in the land of Israel. When God first tells him to go to Ninevah and preach, he actually runs in the opposite direction, hopping a ship to Tarshish.

A storm comes, and in order to save the lives of the sailors he’s thrown overboard at his own request, God sends a big fish to swallow him, Jonah repents while in the fish, which spits him up onto dry land… and that’s where the reading picks up.

God tells Jonah a second time to go and proclaim a message of destruction to Ninevah. Can you imagine what it would have looked like? You’re in your yard, and here’s this guy, he’s been sloshing around in digestive juices and fish parts for three days, and he walks up to you and tells you, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

The next day you’re over at the market, and this same guy goes past – you know it’s the same guy without even turning around, because, well, he smells like he has been sloshing around in digestive juices and fish parts for three days, right? All he says as he goes by is “Thirty-nine days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

So the next day you have to go downtown and pay a tax on some sheep you sold. Sure enough, same guy goes by. He doesn’t smell any better. “Thirty-eight days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

It’s likely that Jonah would have gotten your attention. Maybe you’d have made fun of him. Maybe you’d have been afraid of him. Maybe he would have made you angry – who is he, after all, to come here smelling like fish guts and telling us our wonderful city is going to fall?

It is far, far less likely that his message would hit home, and you’d believe his words. Amazingly enough, though, this is exactly the reaction of all of Ninevah!

Reading from the third chapter, “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’”

What is even stranger than that, even more amazing, even more wonderful… “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”

God’s mind was changed!

And here we get to the root of Jonah’s problem, what makes him, well, like I said, kind of a jerk: God changed his mind, and this made Jonah furious!

Jonah is, after all, a prophet, and as a prophet he sees things more deeply than others… and I can imagine that, as he was walking half-heartedly up and down the streets of Ninevah, day after day, “Thirty-seven days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown… thirty-six days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown… thirty-five days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown…” as he began to encounter people in sackcloth and ashes, fasting and repenting, crying out to God for mercy and forgiveness, he got angrier and angrier – in fact, the original Hebrew reads, roughly, “it was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and his anger burned.” –  because he knew full well what was coming… and it just… wasn’t… fair!

Jonah knew, after all, who the Ninevites really are:  not just enemies of his Israel, who would rejoice if every Israelite were ground into the dust.

They were bloodthirsty wretches, the kind of people who would just as soon slit your throat as shake your hand.  He knows the kinds of things they do:  sacrifice children to their idols, kill old people and toss them outside the city wall where the vultures and dogs can lick their bones clean. He knows that Nineveh has a reputation for ruthlessness, for devising ever more elaborate and gruesome methods of torture in order to produce fear in the hearts of all their enemies.

Jonah knows what they deserve.  They deserve to be punished, ransacked, destroyed, wiped off the face of the earth.  No mercy.  Just vengeance. 

That’s why he doesn’t want them to repent.  Nineveh used up its last chance 1,000 chances ago.  Which is why Jonah doesn’t want God to repent, either.  Why should God have mercy on them?  Why should God let them off the hook?  What would a little sackcloth and ashes do to atone for the tens of thousands of innocents the Ninevites had killed?  What kind of God would do such a thing – forgive the worst of the worst?

And yet… that’s just what God did. The God of Second Chances, the God who gave Jonah a second chance, gave Nineveh their second chance as well… And Jonah hit the roof. “I knew it! I told you this was gonna happen! You want to know why I ran to Tarshish? This! Man, God, you’re all gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and I knew you’d change your mind! It just isn’t fair! You know what? Just kill me, OK?”

Jonah knows full well what God should be like: God should know who does right, and who does wrong, and should automatically dispense blessings to the good and punishment to the evil. 

It isn’t God should be angry:  just the opposite. In Jonah’s mind, God should be dispassionate, uncaring, detached, acting and reacting in coldly logical and predictable ways. In other words, to Jonah, God should be exactly like the pagan gods that the Ninevites worship, not a caring God who is slow to anger. Not a God who cares, loves, and forgives… at least not to people other than Jonah’s own, the Israelites!

Jonah wants a safe, predictable, consistent God, not a God who is passionate, reckless, extreme. But of course God gets angry.

God’s anger is not a “miffed” kind of anger. It isn’t a petty, petulant or self-interested anger, God’s anger doesn’t work the way Jonah’s anger – or the way our anger – works. Jonah gets angry when things don’t go his way, and that should sound very familiar to all of us.

God’s anger – God’s wrath – is passionate, deep, burning, from down-in-the-gut. Here’s the thing, though: Though we expect God’s wrath to be the catalyst for fire from heaven, though we are told by this televangelist and that talk show host that God’s wrath is the cause of this natural disaster or that disease, what we find is that God’s wrath the energizing force that kindles the ferocity of God’s love, the love that doesn’t whimper like a kitty but roars like a lion. When we say that God is love, what we are in fact proclaiming is that God is passionate, reckless, extreme. God will be God.  A God who will sometimes repent, and sometimes not.  But who will always love.  Always, love.

At the end of the book of Jonah, he’s suicidal because a worm eats a vine that was giving him shade – yet he wasn’t at all concerned for the thousands whose lives were saved by their sincere repentance. In fact, he was camping out there, outside of Nineveh, in hopes that God would switch back and destroy the city anyway.

The Book of Jonah ends without a resolution. God teaches Jonah a lesson about compassion, but we don’t ever really know if the lesson took… and this is, in its own way, good news. Good news because the one thing we know when we leave Jonah, crying in the dust over a withered vine, is that God is not done with him. This reckless love, this extreme compassion, this passionate mercy that has enraged this prophet is now gently, or not so gently, leading a disappointed Jonah into a new and deeper understanding – a new and deeper relationship – with the living God.

My prayer is that this God of Second Chances, who is so loving and patient and forgiving of Ninevah, and of Jonah, will be just as loving and patient and forgiving of me… of all of us. Because, after all…
We are Nineveh. We are in a bad way.

We have lived our own way, believing we could have what ever we wanted, buying whatever we desired, possessing whatever tickled our fancies.

We have lived our own way, building our mansions away from the riffraff, borrowing for what we can’t really afford.

We are Nineveh. We are in a bad way.

We have lived our own way. We have trusted in our might, building armies to keep us safe, guarding against those who threaten our treasures.

We have lived our own way. Keeping strangers at arms length, constructing fences to hold back aliens, being wary of the foreigner.

We are Nineveh. We are in a bad way.

We have lived our own way. Treating our families as optional commodities, marriages as throw-away pleasures, children as showy playthings.

We have lived our own way. Caring for our parents out of obligation, putting them in homes for our convenience, waiting for our inheritance.

We are Nineveh. We are in a bad way.

Gracious God, God of Second Chances, forgive us.

May we be thankful for our daily bread and share our wealth. May we be satisfied in our humble abode and rejoice in the Lord’s house.

Gracious God, forgive us.

May we turn our swords into plowshares, and trust in the arm of the Lord. May we welcome the stranger and minister to the least of these.

Gracious God, forgive us.

May we treat our families as holy things, and treasure every relationship. May we honor our mothers and fathers all the days of our lives.

Gracious God, forgive us.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Listening for God...

Oh, I'm sorry, were you saying something?

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening." Then the Lord said to Samuel, "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever."
Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, "Samuel, my son." He said, "Here I am." Eli said, "What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you." So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, "It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him."
As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. 

1 Corinthians 6:12-20
"All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything. "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food," and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall be one flesh." But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

John 1:43-51
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you come to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

This is the Word of the Lord.
I have some bad news. You have a listening problem. No, not a “hearing” problem, a listening problem. Don’t feel too bad, though, I have it too. We all do.

People who study this kind of thing say that the human brain processes speech at about 400 words per minute, yet the average human speaks at only about 140 to 160 words per minute!

Think about a conversation you’ve had recently where the other person has been talking, and, maybe just for a moment, you were distracted by a thought – did I leave the iron on? What’s for dinner? I wonder when “Big Bang Theory comes on again… And you missed part of what was being said – perhaps an important part. What did you do? Did you ask the person to repeat themselves? Act like nothing was out of the ordinary? Maybe you had, without realizing it, already finished their sentence for them and already decided what you were going to say next, so whatever it was you missed really didn’t matter? It works out to a kind of intentional, selective deafness, if you will, because our brains, having picked out the high points and decided the proper course of response, has gone on to more pressing matters.

This kind of listening has been called “lazy listening,” and although it is completely natural, it serves to hurt relationships, to deepen misunderstandings, and it can cause a lot of arguments. The reason I know so much about this, by the way, is not because I am an expert in communication, but because I really, really stink at listening. I cannot tell you how many times over the years my wife has asked, “John, are you listening to me?” and the honest (though unspoken) answer has been… “You were talking?”

Thankfully, there are disciplines that we can practice which, over time can improve how well we listen. Maintaining eye contact with the other person, practicing an attentive posture, paying attention not only to what they say but how they say it, what kind of body language are they using, reflecting back what they’ve said to ensure clarity…

In our readings today, Samuel and Nathaniel have a similar kind of listening problem. Only their difficulty isn’t with listening to what another person was saying, but with hearing the call of God, and the problem they have is at opposite ends of a spectrum that we in twenty-first century America will find all too familiar.

Samuel’s problem is that, despite the fact that he spends his days surrounded by the sacrifices and psalm-singing and ritual, literally immersed in the culture of the worship of the living God, and despite the fact that he is sleeping in the same room as the Ark of the Covenant, which represents the very Presence of God, he has no earthly idea what God sounds like. The fact is that Eli’s sons, who were supposed to take over the priestly duties from Eli, used the priestly office as their personal playground and, in short, made a royal mess of things. So there hasn’t been a lot of listening to God going on for the past few years. People have gotten in the habit of going through the motions, acting properly at the proper times, doing and saying and thinking the right things at the right times, and they have gotten out of the habit of listening for what God is saying to them personally and to the nation of Israel. So when God called to Samuel, he ran off in the opposite direction! Three times!
Nathaniel, on the other hand, knows all about everything. He’s a faithful follower of God, and is fully informed on the strengths and weaknesses of his fellow believers, and he knows that the idea of anyone or anything good coming out of a place like Nazareth – especially the Messiah, for crying out loud! – is utterly ridiculous. I mean, come on – you know the kinds of people that live in Nazareth. Those people.

Kind of the way I expect people in New York City or L.A. think of Alabama. Phillip says, “We’ve found the Messiah, and he’s from Cullman!” “He’s from WHERE???”

Nathaniel has carefully guarded ideas about where, when, and through whom God speaks and works, and evidence to the contrary will be ridiculed and, if necessary, ignored, thank you very much.

Samuel doesn’t know how to hear God, and Nathaniel can’t be bothered to believe that God would speak from a place like Nazareth. If these kinds of handicaps to hearing the call of God sound familiar, it’s because very little has changed.

We humans live what Father Henri Nouwen called “absurd lives.” The root of the word “absurd” is the Latin “surdus,” and it means “deaf” or “muffled.” It makes sense from a Calvinistic or Reformed approach: Calvin’s doctrine of Total Depravity, after all, says that we are so separated from God that we not only cannot hear or reach out to God; we aren’t at all interested in anything about God in the first place. We don’t need God, after all: we have stuff! We have projects and possessions and things to do and be and strive for and listen to and watch and buy…

And as our lives get crowded with things to do and things to buy and shows to watch and Internet pages to browse, the definition of our lives becomes “utterly or obviously senseless, illogical, or untrue; contrary to all reason or common sense; laughably foolish or false.” Absurd.

As Christians, we know better, but we start from the same place of ignorance as everyone else on earth. The voice of God is unfamiliar, because there hasn’t been a lot of that kind of thing going on lately. Learning to listen for God is like learning to listen in a conversation: it takes practice. Father Nouwen put it like this: “A spiritual discipline is necessary in order to move slowly from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow his guidance.”

Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking. Prayer involves becoming silent, and being silent, and waiting until God is heard.” I hope the process of listening in prayer is a part of your day Monday through Saturday already; if not, now is a great time to start.

In listening for God, we Christians have three other indispensible resources at hand as well. First, of course, we have the Scriptures. 

Hearing the Word of the Living God flows from knowing the Word of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, through the Word of God written, the Scriptures. Second, we have the Holy Spirit of God, who teaches and guides and speaks the Word of God to each of us. On top of all of that, third, we have one another: fellow Christians who are at different places in our faith journey, who can help us to hear and understand what God is saying to us.

Because hearing from God, having conversations with God, these are tricky things. Our absurdity of life means that sometimes what we think is God speaking to us is not God at all, but our own desires, or even worse someone else’s desires thrust upon us.

Having other Christians around us can help us filter out other voices, other calls, other motivations. Informed by Scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit, and supported by fellow Christians – these are the keys to letting go of our absurd lives and hearing God’s call clearly.

Because make no mistake, God is speaking. God is speaking whether we recognize God’s voice or not. God is speaking even if we don’t like the way or the person God uses to speak to us. God is speaking.

Samuel learned to listen. Nathaniel got over himself long enough to come and meet Jesus. We, too, must let go of our absurdity and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!”

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Heavens Torn Apart

I owe much to the writing of Kathryn Matthews Huey (as usual, it seems) and the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton in preparing this sermon.

Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Acts 19:1-7
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied — altogether there were about twelve of them.

Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

For many of us, our Gospel reading calls to mind a quiet, pastoral scene; one we’ve seen in the movies: John the Baptist is standing waist-deep in the water – you know it’s John the Baptist because he has the biggest beard, and he’s dressed like a caveman – and along comes Jesus, who looks a lot like Jeffrey Hunter, wading into the water as the violins swell in the background. John and Jeffery – I mean, Jesus – say their lines (with proper British accents, of course, because everyone knows people in first-century Palestine spoke in British accents), and John pushes Jesus down into the water (that makes the Baptists happy), then pours water from his cupped hands over Jesus’ head as he comes up (that makes the rest of us happy), and a spotlight comes on, a deep voice speaks, and a shiny white dove flies down.

It’s one of those cases where, at least for me, the story is so familiar that when I read it in the Bible my eyes kind of drift over it, not really seeing the words anymore. So it’s easy to miss the fact that there is some real excitement, even violence, going on here.

For starters, John the Baptist wasn’t just some guy who liked dunking people. He was calling people into repentance, offering baptism for the forgiveness of sins. These were the actions of a radical, a revolutionary. John was bringing people far away from the temple courts, out into the wilderness, out into the dirt and mud… but as far as the established order was concerned, this fringe-element prophet had no business forgiving sins! The temple folks had that all under control, thank you very much.

But the people came to him, because the people were thirsty – not for the muddy waters of the Jordan, but thirsty for God. Longing, anxious and eager to experience a new day, that day long promised to Israel.

For more than five hundred years the Jewish people had been reading all of the prophecies all across Scripture which promised a Messiah, which foretold of a day when the Kingdom of God would burst forth upon the earth, restoring all things to God.

And now, here was someone shouting at the top of his lungs that this day had come. Of course they would leave the temple, leave the city, journey into the wilderness to the Jordan!

And what about this repentance John spoke of, this return to God? We most often associate repentance with Lenten observance, and with our guilt, especially our personal, private sins, and that’s accurate, in and of itself. But the word that means "being sorry, remorseful, or penitent" had additional meanings in Jesus’ Judaism: According to Marcus Borg, “It was associated with return from exile; to repent is to return, to follow ‘the way of the Lord’ that leads from exile to the promised land. The Greek roots of the word suggest an additional meaning; to repent is to ‘go beyond the mind that you have’ – to go beyond conventional understandings of what life with God is about.”

“Come to the water,” John was saying. “Come change your direction. Come see things differently. Come and follow ‘the way of the Lord.’”

And Jesus came. And Jesus was baptized. And  when Jesus came up out of that water, the heavens were torn open!

Half a millennium before, the prophet Isaiah had seen the ruins of the Temple, had seen the best and brightest of Judea taken far away into exile, and had cried out to God, “Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence—As when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot to boil—To shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots! … Your holy cities are all ghost towns: Zion's a ghost town, Jerusalem's a field of weeds. Our holy and beautiful Temple, which our ancestors filled with your praises, was burned down by fire, all our lovely parks and gardens in ruins.
In the face of all this, are you going to sit there unmoved, God? Aren't you going to say something? Haven't you made us miserable long enough?”

And it was this moment that God chose to invade the sinful world with torn-apart skies and a dive-bombing dove – not to wreak havoc upon the enemies of Israel, though.

There’s a tendency to read into this account in Mark’s Gospel what’s known as an “adoptionist” theology – the idea that Jesus didn’t actually become God until John baptized him. I contend that, in this action of the heavens being torn open, and the Holy Spirit flying down upon Jesus, God is saying, “The gloves are off. It’s time to make things happen.”

The people were thirsting for God. They had looked in the Temple; they had followed this and that person, claiming to be the Messiah, only to see one after the other destroyed and his followers scattered. They prayed, they sacrificed, they searched, but it was hard to find God when they were hungry. It was hard to find God when their religious leaders were more interested in political power than in guiding the people. It was hard to find God when Caesar had you under his boot.

They couldn’t reach God.

So God tore open the heavens, and came to them. God came to them not to destroy the earth, or at least the perceived enemies of God – make no mistake, Jesus Christ turned the world on its head, utterly upset the apple cart, completely destroyed the status quo, but not through violence or retribution. No, God-with-us, Emmanuel, came to bring peace, to bring restoration, to declare the time of Jubilee, when the debt is paid, the captive freed, and that which has been lost is at last restored!

I don’t have to tell you that this is a message which our own world needs desperately to hear. Perhaps we don’t live under the heel of Caesar’s boot, but there’s plenty of oppression, quite enough poverty, and loads of worry and uncertainty in this world. And we who follow Christ, who are part of the Divine presence in this world, are called as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God to be the messengers of this great Good News – God is with us! God has not forgotten us, but has come, in Christ, with healing, with hope, with salvation!

You know how some people think that Christianity is boring? You know, go to church, sing the hymns, hear the sermons, do the rituals, lather, rinse, repeat.

Well, I want to suggest to you that, to a world which is thirsty for God, in a world which, whether it knows it or not, is looking for hope and reconciliation with its Creator with every breath, every heartbeat, Christianity is boring – but I use the word in a different meaning – boring like the steady, incessant spinning of a drill bit is boring, cutting holes through the jaded crust of privilege and excess, of politics and reality television, of consumerism and jealousy, reaching to the core of life.

It begins, of course, with our own lives, as day by day, week by week, the Christian message and life in community bores ever deeper into our souls, until, we begin to realize the truth – that we are a beloved child of God, we are marked with the cross of Christ forever, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are called to follow Christ, we are to love one another unconditionally, we are forgiven and called to forgive others, we are ambassadors for Christ.

This boring life of faith is begun at baptism, and is not completed until the day we die. Each day, we grow in realization that God is not done with us yet – that it is a fact that God loves us with a love so deep, so wide, so complete that nothing, ever, can separate us from that love.

And when that fact hits home, we will at last loose our tongues to sing God’s praises and free our hands to do God’s works in a world desperately thirsty to come up out of the water, to see the skies torn open, to see God descend in love.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

"They Looked At a Baby, and They Saw Grace and Hope."

I'm indebted to a great degree this week to the writing of Kathryn Matthews Huey. My boss has a saying: "I'd rather copy genius than create mediocrity," and Rev. Huey's genius has been an ongoing source of guidance and inspiration when writing these sermons.

Kemper Crabb (who is an amazing musician, and is indirectly responsible for getting me my first job in broadcasting) pointed out that today isn't really the new year; for Christians the year actually began with Advent. Still, let's look to the new calendar year with an eye to sharing the great Good News of God's love and grace for all creation, and may God's best and brightest be yours.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Galatians 4:4-7
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”  So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Luke 2:22-40
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It was, really, just another day at the Temple, which is to say the courts were crowded with people coming and going, the air was thick with the acrid smoke of the sacrifices, and the stone walls seemed to amplify the cacophony of voices and animal bleats and priests singing psalms, until everything – the sights, the sounds, the smells, blended into a single, endless kaleidoscope of color and sound.

Little wonder, then, that we might have missed that couple carrying their newborn. There wasn’t anything unique about them, after all. The Law required that, forty days after bearing a male child – and twice that long following the birth of a girl – women were to present themselves for purification at the Temple. Even that day, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were but three among hundreds. The fact that Joseph carried two turtledoves, rather than leading a lamb, meant that they weren’t well off. So, all in all, nothing to make them stand out in that kaleidoscope.

Why, then, was Simeon there, on that day of all days? Why was he walking through the crowd, staring intently at every couple as they passed by? And look, even Anna was moving around, in a different area of the Court of Women than Simeon, yes, but with the same purpose of movement.

Everyone who had been to the Temple more than once knew about Anna. Years ago, she had been married, and she’d been a widow for far longer than most of the people at the temple that day had been alive. More than a few people couldn’t remember a time when Anna had not been standing or kneeling in one area or the other of the Temple court, praying and offering prophecies. She fasted and prayed constantly, in an attitude of mourning – not for the husband lost so many years ago, but mourning for Israel.

Our reading from Isaiah provides something of a backstory. Israel was no more, and Judea had been conquered. Solomon’s Temple had been burned to the ground, the best and brightest of the Jewish people had been carted off, exiled to Babylon, and much of Jerusalem lay in ruins.

More than six decades passed before Babylon was conquered by Cyrus the Great, and the Jewish people were allowed to return to their beloved Jerusalem.

I can imagine that the first group who topped the hill where they could at last see Jerusalem in the distance wanted to turn around and go back. There was no Temple shining in the sun, the walls of the city were breached, the gates burned, and far too many homes had been reduced to piles of rocks and dirt.

What kept them going was the promise of God, spoken through Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.

“The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”

As Cyrus’ reign had given way to Roman rule, as rebellions had been squashed and armies had occupied, the Jewish people kept on going, waiting for the day when Isaiah’s words would be made a reality.

And Simeon, that guy darting around the crowd, looking intently at people’s faces as they passed, knew something that no one else knew. Oh, he had known for some time that the Messiah – the One who would finally bring the vindication of Jerusalem, the one who would establish the Kingdom of God – would come in his lifetime. He had probably told folks about this – after all, that’s the kind of great news you just can’t keep to yourself!

What Simeon knew, that no one else knew, was that today was the day he would finally lay eyes on that Messiah! That’s why he was in the temple that day, why he looked here and there.

And then – it was as if time stopped, and all the noise of the Temple faded away. There was Joseph, holding his turtledoves, and Mary beside him, holding an infant.

Who Mary and Joseph met in the Temple that day wasn’t just an old man and an old woman. Simeon and Anna were, in the words of Fred Craddock, “Israel in miniature, and Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God's promises.”

Imagine being Simeon, and holding in your arms not just an infant – that’s a sensation that is amazing enough, in itself, a small bundle of life, a tiny package of potential, of promise for tomorrow – no, what you’re holding in your arms is this most wanted child, the hope of the ages, the yearning of your entire life.

In this moment, you realize that God didn't come down as a powerful emperor or a rich man. God came down as an infant, to elicit love, to nurture tenderness. Now, at last, your watch is over, your duty as a sentry is fulfilled, and you can depart in peace, knowing that God is with us.

For Anna, who comes up as Simeon is singing his praises to God, this child has been the central hope of her life, the focus of her heart: “God's blessing,” James Howell writes, “was not a continual smorgasbord of titanic experiences and shiny baubles. [For Anna,] God's blessing was just one thing, and it was eighty years coming.”

We don’t know what, if anything, Anna said to Mary and Joseph. But we know that this prophet set immediately about telling the Good News to all who would listen – at last, at long last, Messiah had come! Finally, God is with us!

But let’s not skip too quickly past what Simeon is singing – and make no mistake, his words are a hymn of praise. Already in this journey through Advent and into Christmas, we’ve heard songs of praise from Zechariah, John’s father, and from Mary herself. But these songs aren’t simply about the spiritual life. They don’t simply reflect how church should be, how worship should be done. John Dominick Crossan and Marcus Borg write that “These hymns proclaim and remind us that the God of the Bible is concerned about the whole of life….this language is about how the world should be.” The songs of Zechariah, Mary and Simeon recognize that Jesus “decisively reveals and incarnates the passion of God as disclosed in the Law and the Prophets – the promise and hope for a very different kind of world from the world of Pharaoh and Caesar, the world of domination and empire.”

Simeon and Anna looked upon the baby Jesus, yes, but they looked beyond the child and saw the Christ, the Promised One. Surely, neither of them could comprehend the mystery that Simeon held in his arms that day. But they allowed for the possibilities of God’s power to unfold in ways they could not imagine, but could only hope for. They looked at a baby, and they saw grace and hope. 

Like Simeon and Anna, we can speak out the good news, not just for ourselves, but for every one of God’s children. Like Simeon and Anna, we can see beyond what’s right before our eyes to the future unfolding of God's plan, to the promises of God being fulfilled here and now, and in the days ahead. We know something that Simeon and Anna couldn’t know, after all. We’ve seen what that baby Jesus became – a worker of miracles, a healer, one who brought worth and hope to the downtrodden and who put the powerful and oppressive in their place, who ultimately gave his very life to reconcile to God a world too far gone to care… and who rose from the grave a victorious King, not of a temporary, worldly empire where power is based on who has more money or influence than another, where control is maintained through force and coercion, but of the now-and-coming eternal Kingdom of God, where power and control are irrelevant, and where no one is less than another.

On this first morning of the New Year, we, like Simeon and Anna, have a message of grace and hope to proclaim. And what a need there is in this world for Good News! What a need there is for people to hear that, despite the unemployment rate and the stock market, despite the uncertainty in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula, above the cacophony of the Occupy Wall Street protests and the never-ending political campaigns, God is with us!

On this first morning of the New Year, we can say with boldness that, indeed, we have seen the salvation of the Lord! Through the indwelling Holy Spirit, we know and can proclaim to all the world, Emmanuel – God is with us!