The Divine “Source Code”

A sermon on Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 4:12-16 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

Computers and the internet have not only changed the way we access information in and do business with the world around us. They have changed the way we think about our interactions with other human beings, even the way we think about the way we think.  They have provided us with a new realm of metaphors for our own mental processes and our social encounters.  Consider the following snippets of conversation you might hear even around this place:

“We need to get his input on this.  I’ll try to interface with him later this week.”

“That’s just not the way I’m programmed.”

“I don’t think I have the bandwidth to deal with that on top of everything else.”

“That’s just a lot for me to process right now.”

“It’s about time to reboot the evangelism committee.”

So, rather than fight the trend, I spent some time searching for an appropriate computer metaphor for the role that the Scriptures appear to have played in Jesus’ formation prior to his encounter with the Tempter in the desert – and, by extension, the role that the Scriptures ought to play in our ongoing formation if we are to share in his triumph over the Tempter.

I landed upon the idea of the “source code.”  Now I’m not sufficiently computer-savvy to explain this in a finely nuanced fashion; fortunately for me, very few of you are sufficiently computer-savvy to critique my explanation.  (I realize that I may be unfairly generalizing on the basis of the phone calls that I get from time to time from two of our congregation’s members, who shall remain nameless, about problems they’re having with their computers and how to fix them.) A program’s “source code” is the version of that program that real-life programmers use to communicate to one another about the program and to outline its parameters and functions. It’s the version of a computer program that human beings can actually read and fairly well understand.  It is not yet the “machine code” version of the program that the inanimate computer will actually read, on the basis of which it will actually run the program.  The source code contains the essential information, but also has to be “translated” to be put into practice in a computer’s functioning.

Scripture speaks to us, for the most part, very clearly.  It communicates, very clearly, God’s vision for how we will live our lives together, for where we will fix our desires and aspirations, and even for how we will recognize whether the impulses that surface within us come from his Holy Spirit or from some other source.  Of course, we still have to figure out which parts of it apply in particular situations; we still have to do the work of translating it from source code to machine code, from words on the sacred page to some real-time, real-world response that we are going to make in a given situation.  But we can all read and, for the most, understand quite well the details of the program God is seeking to install in each one of us as we, together with the Holy Spirit, do the real work of pushing the divine “source code” of Scripture into the “machine code” of our actual impulses and responses.

In Satan’s encounter with Jesus in the Judean desert, Satan is trying to mess with Jesus’ programming.  He’s trying to inject some subroutines that will actually cause the whole program to break down – “If X, then Y”; “If you’re the Son of God, then….”  Jesus is so well-grounded in the Word, however, that he recognizes and rejects these suggestions, these sidetracks, these viruses, and returns to that program that God has successfully put in place as Jesus has worked with, internalized, and continues to apply the divine source code.

The Judean desert is mercilessly hot.  It’s blindingly bright.  It’s bone dry.  Forty days out there without food, going who knows how long between water sources, will break a person down to the level of his or her most basic instincts.  It will show what a person is at the very core.  So of course, this is the point at which Satan decides to have a go at Jesus, when Jesus is broken down to his most vulnerable.  And what does Satan ultimately encounter?  Truly, the Word-made-Flesh – not the weak flesh that he is accustomed to overthrowing, but the flesh-made-strong by the Word that has permeated and steeled it.  He comes against Deuteronomy – the Law of God – incarnate.  Jesus may give expression to it in a parched, raspy voice, but it is Deuteronomy itself that speaks: “It is written, ‘Human beings will not live on the strength of bread alone, but on the nourishment that comes from every word that proceeds from God’s mouth’”; “It is written, ‘You will not test the Lord your God’”; “It is written, ‘The Lord your God is the one whom you will worship; him only will you serve’.”

The first and the last thing I would have you all take away from this story is how central this internalizing of Scripture was to Jesus’ own success in staying on track, in continuing to move in line with the Father’s program – and, if for him, how much more for us!  In the story of Jesus’ temptation we see the perfect embodiment of the psalmist’s declaration: “I have hidden your word in my heart so that I might not sin against you” (Ps 119:15).  Over the course of his first thirty years Jesus had devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures and to their implementation in his daily life.  He had reprogrammed himself so that Scripture itself had become his operating system (to confuse the computer metaphor even further); when everything else was stripped away, the Scriptures and continuing to walk in line with the Scriptures was what was left.  This disciplined internalization of God’s Word empowered Jesus – even here at his most vulnerable – to recognize whether the source of a suggestion was God or something other; his disciplined commitment to walk in line with God’s promptings and God’s alone, then, empower him to reject the suggestions.  During this season of Lent, take up the Word with renewed interest and devotion.  Read it; internalize it.  As Jesus’ half-brother James wrote in his letter, “receive with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls,” and as he admonishes, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (Jas 1:21-22).  Don’t just read the divine source code; keep working diligently to implement it in your life, allowing it to shape your responses, your aspirations, your practices, your very instincts.

Now, I’ve read a lot of books by scholars interested in the “Historical Jesus,” and I can tell you that this particular episode doesn’t fare too well when it comes to scholars trying to sift out the legends from the history.  I think, however, that these scholars aren’t being critical enough in regard to their own reading of the story.  If we visualize this episode as involving Satan showing up in a black suit or, as in one movie version of the life of Jesus, as an alluring woman in a red dress, of course we’re going to think of it as legend.  But when does Satan ever actually show up like that?  When does he not prefer to manifest himself as that thought that just occurs to you and then burrows in and seeks to take root?

So I see a famished Jesus looking at some nice round stones baking in the Judean sun and visualizing some hot, fresh bread. If you’ve got the power, why not satisfy that gnawing hunger inside you?  There’s nothing particularly insidious about the suggestion; no one’s going to get hurt if Jesus turns a few stones into bread – heck, no one’s even going to notice.  But it’s not just the content of the suggestion that’s important; the source is also important. Why is Jesus out in the desert to begin with?  To practice some miracles, or to learn to recognize and overcome demonic tests?  Why is Jesus in this world to begin with?  To satisfy his own cravings or to do whatever it is that God prompts?  Is it God telling Jesus to break his fast, or does the impulse come from some other source?  For Jesus, the source of every impulse must be God.  It’s not just bread that gives a person life, but the word that God speaks that gives a person genuine life.

There’s a parishioner here who has spoken to me often of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, suggesting that we need to care for people’s physical needs, get them on a secure social footing, and thus put them in a position to be able to think about spiritual things and be receptive to the gospel.   Maslow’s theories seem essentially sound and defensible as a theory of human motivation. laying out what needs must be met before other, higher-order needs can move to the forefront of a human being’s consciousness.  The temptation story, however, gives me pause about it.  What are our most fundamental needs not merely as organisms, but as creatures – created organisms, spiritual organisms?  Is Maslow’s pyramid really just a manifestation of the demonic logic and prioritization of values that our society as a whole has internalized and now accepts as a given?  I don’t know, and I’m not really qualified to say.  I’ve never known hunger, homelessness, lack of a social network, never really lacked anything on Maslow’s pyramid.  But we follow one who said:

Don’t be anxious, saying “What are we to eat?” or “What are we to drink?” or “How will we clothe ourselves?”  These are the sorts of things the Gentiles seek after.  Don’t be anxious, for your Father in heaven realizes that you need all these things.  So, first and foremost, pursue his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be thrown in for you as well. (Matt 6:32-33, DST)

How does Satan come to us, to impede our obedience to Jesus’ setting of our priorities? Put the needs of your body first. Put the wants of your eyes and body first. Put the excessive cravings of your eyes and your pride and your body first.  Make sure you satisfy your cravings, wants, and needs.  And, sure, attend to God and to God’s agenda for your life and your world once you’ve gotten those other things well in hand.

A devotional that is so popular around here is entitled Our Daily Bread.  It’s a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, of course – “Give us this day our daily bread” – but it’s also a reinterpretation of that phrase, suggesting that our most fundamental nourishment, even more fundamental than food, comes from meditation on God’s word.  (Not that I actually think Our Daily Bread provides the best such nourishment, but it’s title does point to the best nourishment.)  This is, incidentally, why fasting has always remained so central and valued a spiritual discipline, first in Jewish circles, then in Christian circles.  It trains us to re-think our hierarchy of needs and what needs are truly fundamental, truly to be put first.

Now Satan didn’t really have to physically convey Jesus to the highest corner of the Temple Mount enclosure to plant the next suggestion – and we ourselves don’t have to be tempted to some crazy, suicidal act in order to be led to put God to the test.  Similar suggestions plague us and our loved ones with merciless frequency.  “If you love me, God, you’ll heal this cancer”; “If you’re there, God, you’ll find me a job”; “If this promise of yours is true, you’ll come through for me right now.” And when the cancer grows or the job does not materialize or God does not perform, the person walks away from God, having posed a test and having come to believe that God failed to pass the test – as if the dynamics of our relationship with God permitted us to pose such tests in the first place.  No, Jesus had come to understand, God’s promises in Scripture like the one that Satan brought to his mind from the Psalms (“God’s angels will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone,” Psalm 91:11-12) are not there to be fulfilled at our initiative and upon our demand, but at God’s initiative and upon his command.  When God tells me to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, I can trust that his angels will bear me aloft.  If it’s just me wanting to see if God’s promises are trustworthy, well, the “thud” will be loud and the splatter pattern wide.

The third exchange is probably a familiar temptation to many of us, though Satan generally approaches us more subtly – and far less generously. “Make sure you get your little piece of the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  All it requires is your time, focus, and energy, and it will be yours.  And, of course, if you’ve got any time or energy or inclination leftover, by all means worship God, cultivate the inner life, and serve him.  But make sure you get these things first.”  To what extent, if we were to be truly honest with ourselves, have we set aside the commandment to “worship the Lord your God and serve him only” for the sake of getting what we want out of this world – and traded in our first allegiance to God for a whole lot less than “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”?

I paired Hebrews 4:12-16 with the temptation story as a good commentary both on the power of the Word of God and the availability of help in the face of temptation.  It begins thus:

God’s Word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating unto the splitting of soul from spirit, of joint from marrow, evaluating the thoughts and intentions of the heart – and there is not creature who can hide from his gaze, but all are naked with their throats laid bare before the eyes of him with whom is our reckoning. (Heb 4:12-13, DST)

It is a fearsome series of images – standing with our throats exposed before the judge who wields the power of a sword that is able to carve us up cleanly. But if we diligently engage the word of God now as surgeon, we will avoid encountering the word of God later as executioner.

It is interesting to me that one of the most fear-inspiring images in Hebrews is juxtaposed with one of the most confidence-inspiring:

Since, then, we have a great high priest, one who has crossed through the heavens – Jesus, the Son of God – let us hold onto our confession.  For we don’t have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way like ourselves – only without sinning.  Let us keep drawing closer, then, to the throne of favor in order that we might receive mercy and find favor for timely help. (Heb 4:14-16, DST)

The temptation story assures us that, indeed, “Jesus knows our every weakness”; he is able to feel sympathy for our weakness, because he himself experienced our weakness, our vulnerability to temptation, our experience of being tested by life’s changes and chances.  Just as importantly, however, he is able to stand before God on our behalf, procuring God’s mercy and favor for timely help, because he did not succumb to that weakness.  When we are tempted – not just to do something grossly and overtly un-Christian, but to give up on or fall short of doing what is quintessentially Christian – we can approach God’s throne, the throne of favor, with boldness, confident that God will indeed show us mercy and supply us with all that is needful to persevere in the way of faithfulness and grateful service.  Jesus will secure for us the help that we need to keep walking in line with God’s word, to continue to work out, in the routines of our own lives, the intentions of the divine source code.

Now, of course, whether or not this sermon has been of any value at all will not be determined by the level of inspiration you might feel today.  It will be determined by whether or not you open up the Word – and open yourself up before and to the Word – tomorrow.  I pray that we all, each one of us, will continue to seek out and to receive the Word that God would implant more and more fully within us, unto the salvation of our souls – and unto the consistent defeat of the Enemy of our souls.

 

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“A Necessary Spoiler”

A Sermon for the Sunday of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9; 2 Peter 1:12-19) preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

Spoilers.  You have to hate them.  Movies depend upon unforeseen plot twists to be effective entertainment.  Screenwriters and directors go out of their way to make sure that the steps of the plot are each only revealed at the right time; in the best movies, they make sure that dramatic tension is allowed to build to the very breaking point before a dramatic resolution or revelation occurs.  Imagine how much less effective When Harry Met Sally would have been if we had seen an aged Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as one of the old married couples being interviewed at the beginning of the film instead of at the very end, having wondered for two hours if they would ever finally get together? Or if we saw Bruce Willis’s widow standing by his graveside ten minutes into The Sixth Sense, or if the little kid had said, a half hour into the film, “I see dead people … like you, for instance”?  Or if, when Luke Skywalker asked old Ben Kenobi twenty minutes into Star Wars: A New Hope, “You knew my father?,” Ben replied, “Yes, a great Jedi that Anakin.  Pity he turned to the dark side and now goes by ‘Darth Vader’.”

But, when it comes to life, we desperately want spoilers.  We want to hear an authoritative voice speak the words, “we’re definitely going to beat this cancer; it will just take a few rounds of radiation and it’ll be all behind you.” Or, “things are going to work out just fine for your daughter – two years from now she’ll be a new person with this addiction completely behind her.”  Or, “I’ve already seen the two of you reconciled again with all of this mess behind you; it will just take a few months’ of work to get there.”  Sometimes we’d give just about anything – even fifty dollars to a “psychic” – for a spoiler, to get us through the hard times in which we find ourselves, to give us the assurance we crave that the outcome will be good.  If we had that, maybe, just maybe, we could persevere through the hard times and not give up along the way.

God appears to have decided that Jesus’ inner core of disciples needed such a spoiler if they were going to press on, for that’s essentially what we find here in this strange story of the transfiguration of Jesus.  Things were getting a bit bumpy for them before we got to this mountaintop.  Jesus had gathered his disciples around him, asking them about public perception of him and, finally, asking them about their own perception.  Peter had boldly declared, “You are the Messiah!” In response to Peter’s confession, Jesus tells them to keep it to themselves, because “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).  None of this, of course, was in anyone’s messianic playbook, so Peter tries to set Jesus straight on what it really means to be the Messiah, earning Jesus’ sharp rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!  You’re not thinking God’s thoughts, but merely human thoughts!” (Mark 8:33).

If that wasn’t difficult enough, Jesus followed this up with an on-the-spot teaching to the crowds about what it would mean to follow such a Messiah as he was: “If any want to follow me, let them deny themselves, pick up their crosses, and follow me.  For as many as want to preserve their lives will lose them, but as many as lose their lives for my sake and the sake of the gospel will be the ones to preserve them” (Mark 8:34-35).  Such an invitation would probably have sounded like the equivalent of this: “the first person to give away all his or her money will be the richest of all.  Ready? … Go!”

I didn’t think so.

But Jesus is clearly very serious about this claim, for he follows it up with an urgent warning: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in front of this sinful and adulterous brood, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him or her whenever he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).  Whoever does not own this Jesus, even if following him means putting reputation and life on the line, Jesus will not own on some mysterious future date after he himself is … put to death.  What?  Isn’t that what he said was going to happen to him?  Why am I following him, exactly?

I think that God gave a few key disciples a bit of a break at this point.  They were being asked to swallow a whole lot, and they needed something to help them see that, yes, Jesus’ vision for his own messiahship was heading somewhere glorious.  Yes, Jesus did have a place in God’s plan that was every bit as central and exalted as he had suggested with that last bit about loyalty to him now on this side of history being determinative for one’s well-being at some future point when Jesus would come again in glory.  Yes, following this Jesus to the end and beyond did make sense as a sound investment of one’s life.  The transfiguration was a spoiler, but it was a necessary one.

Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of the glory that Jesus, as the eternal Son, had had with the Father before his incarnation; they got a glimpse of the glory that Jesus would have, not just on the far side of his resurrection, but on the far side of his ascension and, ultimately, at his coming again as lord and judge.  This was the glorified Christ that Paul would encounter as he rode off to Damascus to persecute the Jesus cult that was eroding loyalty to the covenant of Israel, as he saw it.  This was the glorified Christ that John would see on the island of Patmos, as he entered into the visionary experiences that would eventually yield the book of Revelation.  It is no doubt because of this that we always celebrate the Transfiguration at the close of the season of Epiphany.  Short of the second coming itself, it is the ultimate epiphany, the ultimate revelation of Jesus’ glory, within the story of the Gospels.

It’s a strange story, but hold on: it gets weirder.  The disciples do not see Jesus alone in this glory, but they see Moses and Elijah showing up to talk with him.  Bear in mind that, according to the Old Testament, Elijah is never said to have died, exactly.  When the time came for his prophetic ministry to be over, a flaming chariot whisked him away to the divine realm.  It is because of this distinctive departure that later Jews expected to see him again, prior to God’s decisive interventions in history.  The closing words of the prophet Malachi, in fact, are these: “Look! I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives.  He will turn the hearts of the parents toward their children and the hearts of children to their parents, lest I come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5-6).  In the final chapter of Deuteronomy, we read that Moses died (Deut 34:5-6), so his availability to appear here is harder to explain.  Nevertheless, the symbolism of these two men coming to speak with Jesus is unmistakable – the giver of the Law and the foremost of the Prophets were conversing with the One in whom both the Law and the Prophets would find their fulfillment.

Luke thought that the topic was Jesus’ “departure” – in Greek, the word is his exodos – “which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). Mark, however, doesn’t say anything about the topic of their conversation.  This was not part of the story that was important to him, and he leaves it to his readers to speculate, if they wished.  He pushes ahead to the climax, where a cloud – the visual symbol of God’s own presence settling down on a place – covers the six figures and God pronounces with his own voice: “This is my Son, my beloved one – listen to him” (Mark 9:7).  In Mark’s Gospel, the first time the divine voice speaks, it is to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my Son, my beloved; in you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  This is a second divine authorization of Jesus’ teaching, this time with his inner circle unmistakably hearing the voice.  To listen to Jesus is to obey the voice of God.

How strange, Jesus’ command to the three not to share the experience with anyone else until after his resurrection.  It must have stunk to have been Andrew! “So, bro – what went on up there on the mountain? Anything interesting?” “Sorry, bro – can’t really talk about it. Inner circle stuff.”  We are more aware as we read Mark’s Gospel than any of the others, however, how intent Jesus is that nothing should get in the way of his giving his life as a ransom for many on Calvary.  The time for talking about his divine glory is after that work is done.

How strategic, Jesus’ command to the three not to share the experience with anyone else until after his resurrection.  Even though they will continue to have trouble “getting it,” Jesus creates a mental hook for them: this awesome manifestation of his glory, this fleeting lifting of the veil that hid his divinity from view, should keep them looking forward to what would happen at the end of those long three days after he was nailed up on a cross and died.

Now, I have to admit that I am personally jealous of Peter, James, and John.  I’m jealous of Paul with his Damascus Road experience, and I’m jealous of John the prophet who was the last New Testament author to see the glorified Christ, to be visited by him and to encounter him.  I have often wished – I have sometimes prayed – for such an encounter.  I think it would go a long way toward burning off some of the mist of doubt, some of the reluctance to commit all the way.

But, I’m reminded that even such a vision didn’t resolve everything for them – certainly not for Peter, James, and John in Mark’s Gospel.  Not long after this episode we find James and John taking Jesus aside and asking him to allow them to take seats at his right and left hand in his glory.  They understood the coming exaltation of Jesus just fine and saw it as a source of personal advantage to them both – and clearly Peter was the only real competition they had to beat out.  But they didn’t yet understand what it meant to follow Jesus now on the way to glory, that whoever wishes to be most distinguished among Jesus’ disciples must most distinguish himself or herself as a servant of others, just as “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve – and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  The vision of Jesus transformed, radiant with the glory that had been and would again be his, didn’t help Peter in the courtyard of the high priest.  It didn’t embolden him, when Jesus was on trial for his life, to stand by his master and own him as his friend and teacher, as a man who had done nothing worthy of being put on trial, as a man whom God himself had invested with authority and called his Son.

Through that long Saturday, however, and through that long night into Sunday, did Peter, did James and John, remember their experience with Jesus on the mountain?  Did they look at one another in that room behind the bolted doors, and did they remember that experience that only the three of them had that day.  Did they remember that they couldn’t tell their brothers and sisters in that upper room until after Jesus’ resurrection? His resurrection!  Did it keep them looking forward, daring to hope that there would be an “after” the resurrection?

And after the resurrection, we can well imagine that the memory of this event became even more important.  “He told us all along; he even showed us; now we experience him risen – we’re not giving up now no matter what.”

If you were to read just Romans through Revelation – the back half of the New Testament – and write down everything we know about Jesus’ life from those twenty-two texts, it would surprise you how little you would write down.  But of all things, the transfiguration would be one of those events, referred to in some detail in 2 Peter 1:16-18:

For we didn’t make known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ on the basis of following cleverly invented myths, but on the basis of having been eyewitnesses of his majesty – for we were with him on the holy mountain and we ourselves heard the voice that was borne from heaven when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne from the Majestic Glory to him: “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

In this letter, the apostle Peter is preparing for his departure, his exodos (2 Pet 1:15), specifically preparing the Christian communities for which he feels responsible to carry on in the same assurance after his departure.  The letter responds to a challenge being voiced against one core conviction – “where is this promised ‘coming’ of his, for ever since our fathers died everything has gone on the same way since the beginning of creation?” (2 Pet 3:4).  Peter offers his eyewitness testimony to the transfiguration – the revelation of Jesus’ glory on the mountain – as evidence against this challenge.

Mark had also understood the transfiguration as a sign, a foretaste, a “spoiler” of the second coming.  Just prior to this episode, Jesus had said: “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God coming in glory” (Mark 9:1).  Mark understood this to be fulfilled in the transfiguration, the next episode he relates – and the only episode in the story of Jesus up to this point that he connects to the preceding one with a precise timeline (“six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and John and led them up to a high mountain,” Mark 9:2).  Second Peter understands the transfiguration in precisely the same way – a visionary experience of Jesus at his second coming.  It was an experience that, for Peter, James, and John at least, made “the prophetic word more certain” for them; the apostolic testimony can do the same for us.

We confess that the death and resurrection of Jesus occurred just as Jesus foretold; if we did not, we would have little reason to be here today rather than in bed or at Starbucks or kicking around the mall. The transfiguration gives us additional assurance that the story will yet unfold as Jesus promised – that, as we confess in our creeds, “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”  It is a conviction meant not to remain in our heads or merely to find expression on our lips, but to shape our entire life.  As Peter will express it at the close of his second letter, looking ahead to the cataclysmic coming of Christ to usher in the new creation:

Since all these things are thus slated for destruction, what kind of people, then, are you obliged to be, awaiting and hastening the coming of the day of God in holy conduct and reverent piety! (2 Pet 3:11-12a)

I don’t know that Peter would have been all that surprised to learn that the end would still not have come almost two thousand years later. He almost anticipated this as he wrote:

Don’t let this one things escape you, beloved, namely that one day is as a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years as a single day.  The Lord does not delay in fulfilling his promise, as some people reckon a delay, but he is patient where you’re concerned, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance. (2 Pet 3:8-9)

It is perhaps not accidental that the Sunday of the Transfiguration immediately precedes the beginning of Lent.  Taking seriously the promise of Christ’s return and the prospect of encountering him as the judge of all things, and rightly understanding every day that he delays as a gift to us to prepare ourselves and our neighbors more fully, naturally leads us to examine our lives more closely, to repent of all that does not reflect “holy conduct and reverent piety,” and devote ourselves more fully to all those things and only those things that will leave us unashamed at his coming in glory.

 

 

“Going to Serve Christ”

A sermon on Hebrews 12:28-13:16, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church.

 

It’s easy to lose sight of the value of a particular gift.  It’s easy for that initial flood of surprise and delight to fade away.  How many backs of closets, how many attics, how many yard sales are full of gifts that once enthralled us, then began their procession from the top of the desk or dresser where we could always access it, to the top drawer where we could reach for it occasionally, to the box in the closet, to the box in the garage, to Goodwill.  How much dust has already settled on some of the gifts you just received this past Christmas?

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes to a group of Christians, some of whom at least have begun to lose sight of the value of a particular gift, others of whom might stand in similar danger.  I say “danger,” because there are some gifts that are just so valuable, or in which the giver is just so personally invested, that you don’t dare let them find their way into the back of a closet, or a box in the garage, or – heaven forbid – a yard sale.  You know the kind of gifts I mean.  Now, I’m not talking about that hideous wind chime that you have to leave up because so-and-so gave it to you, and so-and-so comes over to your house every now and then and listens for it when there’s a breeze.  I’m talking about the gift that cost the giver a lot, that he or she acquired only with considerable care, labor, or expense; perhaps that he or she found it difficult to part with, but did nevertheless as a sign of his or her affection for you.  For such a gift to end up in a box in the garage or in a yard sale would surely damage the relationship, for the gift and how it is treated is so valuable as to have become a symbol for the relationship itself.

Some of the Christians addressed by the Letter to the Hebrews were about ready to put this gift in the back of the closet, or even in the trash, because this was a gift that was costing them too much, in terms of their neighbors’ good will, to keep displaying.  I’m talking, of course, about the gift of reconciliation with the God of Israel, whom they had come to believe was the only God – the gift of reconciliation procured for them by Jesus at the cost of his own life, an expensive gift indeed.  A great deal of the Letter to the Hebrews, in fact, is given over to reminding the audience of the immense value of what they have been given in Jesus, so as to embolden them to continue to bear the cost of displaying this gift where it would be visible to their neighbors, not least of all by continuing openly to associate with the other people in their city who gather in Jesus’ name.  They have the forgiveness of their sins and a fresh start with God; they have the assurance that God’s Son will continue to direct God’s favor in their direction as they face any difficulty or necessity; they have a place now in God’s own household, God’s own family; they have the unprecedented boldness to enter into heaven itself, the very presence of the Holy God, having been cleansed from every defilement by Jesus their high priest and atoning sacrifice, whenever that day comes when the way into heaven is disclosed; they have the promise of citizenship in God’s eternal kingdom, a homeland that will embrace them forever.

And it is this that brings us to the reading we heard today.

So then, since we are in the process of receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, and through the manifestation of this gratitude let us worship God in a manner well-pleasing to him, with reverent submission and awe – for our God is indeed a consuming fire. (Heb 12:28-29)

The NRSV translates that first verse, “let us give thanks,” the NIV, “let us be thankful”; the CEB comes much closer to the meaning of the Greek at this point with “let’s continue to express our gratitude.”  Let us treat these gifts and act toward the Giver in the manner that will show him that we understand their value – and that we value the relationship into which he has invited us by the very act of giving us such precious gifts in the present and promises of gifts yet to come.

The ancient Greeks and Romans thought a great deal about gift-giving and gratitude and the quality of the relationships that these exchanges created and maintained.  Gratitude would take certain, rather predictable forms, all of them considerably more substantial than the perfunctory “thank you” notes we had to write out as kids to various uncles, aunts, and the like.  If I received a gift of significant value from someone, particularly a gift the value of which I would likely never be able to match in the future, I would show gratitude, in part, by bearing widespread witness to the gift and to the giver’s virtue in giving it.  In his manual on giving and receiving gifts well, Seneca, a Roman contemporary of Paul, wrote: “I shall never be able to repay you my gratitude, but, at any rate, I shall at least not cease from declaring everywhere that I am unable to repay it” (On Benefits 2.24.2).  He advises giving testimony to “the blessing that has come to us by pouring forth our feelings and bearing witness – not merely in the hearing of the giver, but everywhere” (On Benefits 2.22.1).  A gift that one would prefer to keep hidden from public view (hiding one’s connection with the giver), one should never accept in the first place (On Benefits 2.23.1).  One would also be watchful for occasions on which to render some appropriate return for the gift – in investing oneself in advancing the giver’s interests in the world, hence in service to the giver, if one was not in a position to give a gift of like value.

And so, quite directly, gratitude supplies the fundamental motivation that drives and shapes our response of witnessing to the Giver and looking for opportunities to serve the Giver’s interests.  The author of Hebrews helps his hearers make this very connection.  In 12:28, he speaks of worshiping God in a way that will be “well pleasing” to God, that is, by allowing gratitude for God’s gifts and promises to shape how they will live.  Toward the end of this passage, in Hebrews 13:15-16, the author returns to naming those kinds of “worship” that are in fact “well pleasing” to God – the kinds of “religious acts,” the kinds of “liturgical sacrifices,” that show God the reverence and grateful service God’s favors merit:

Through Jesus Christ, therefore, let us continually offer to God the ‘sacrifice of praise’ – the fruit of lips that profess his name.  Let us not overlook doing good and sharing, for sacrifices of this kind are well-pleasing to God. (Heb 13:16)

This is what we ourselves were after when we decided, as a congregation, that the third mandate of our mission statement should be “Go to serve Christ.”  Knowing Christ and the immeasurable benefits Christ brings into our lives must lead to grateful response in the form of witness and service.  Growing more like Christ must translate into putting ourselves – our time, our energies, our resources, our very bodies and all that can be accomplished through them – at God’s disposal, even as Jesus had done, to advance God’s interests in and to serve God’s desires for the people and the world around us.  And, indeed, the level of our investment in witnessing and giving back to God through serving his interests reflects the level at which we value – or, frankly, do not value – the gifts we have received or are yet to receive.

The author of Hebrews clearly understands gratitude to involve us in service – again in his words: “let us not forget to do good and to share, for such sacrifices are well-pleasing to God” (Heb 13:16).  In our mission statement, we emphasize “going” to serve Christ, which is good – we have to get out of this building and into the world.  But the author of Hebrews himself points us to one another in the Body of Christ as our first arena of service.

Keep loving one another as sisters and brothers would love each other.  Don’t neglect showing hospitality, for in this way some have entertained angels without knowing it.  Remember those in chains as though chained yourselves alongside them, those who are being mistreated as though you yourselves are in their skin. (Heb 13:1-3)

The needs within our own congregation are significant; the needs of our harassed and persecuted sisters and brothers abroad, staggering. The care and compassion we show one another, the time and energy and resources we invest in relieving one another, here in this congregation as well as throughout the global Body of Christ, are investments in people about whom God deeply cares, service that God receives as rendered even to himself.  These are the spiritual and bloodless sacrifices that ascend before God and proclaim loudly and genuinely in his hearing, “thank you, God, for all that you have brought into our lives.”

The author of Hebrews, however, also impels us to give expression to our gratitude in the form of testimony and witness: “Through Jesus Christ, let us always offer to God the ‘sacrifice of praise’ – the fruit of lips that profess his name” (Hebrews 13:15).  It is obvious when we offer “the sacrifice of praise” in this place, singing our hymns to God and offering prayers of thanksgiving; the author of Hebrews points to the less obvious but even more necessary “sacrifice of praise,” when we own God out there with our lips, when we acknowledge, or confess, or profess God out there, testifying to the good things God has done for us, the help God has brought us, God’s saving interventions in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love.  Every such “sacrifice of praise,” every such act of witness that we make to God’s kindness, goodness, and beneficent intervention, is an invitation to our conversation partner to experience the same – and, as such, is an act of service of the greatest value to our neighbor.

D. T. Niles, a Sri Lankan pastor and evangelist of the 20th century, eventually president of the Methodist Church of Ceylon, once said that evangelism “is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” This is a profound and justly celebrated quotation, for it tells us how we need to see ourselves and others, how we need to see ourselves in regard to the other – both beggars, one of whom has found a place that never fails to give out bread. It also tells us how we need to value Christ, what he brought and continues to bring into our lives, and what he has for the other person – the life-sustaining nourishment in which he or she stands in as much need as we did and do.

I remember what it was like going back to school, as a kid, after Christmas Break.  I was excited to tell my friends about the great toys that I had received, and they were all excited to tell us about the great toys they had received.  We’d end up going to each other’s houses and playing together with all these great, new toys.  Witness – evangelism – is a lot like that.  Only the better analogy is not boys and their toys, but beggars and bread, finding that which will nourish, sustain us, get us through.  Of course, even that analogy suffers, for witness – evangelism – is about sharing where to find life-giving bread of an entirely different and greater order.  In Jesus’ own words on the subject: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (John 6:51, NRSV).

If we are ever to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, how can we keep back from them the invitation to enjoy what has been the most beneficial relationship that we have found, the connection with God through Christ that gains for us the greatest help for this life and the greatest hope for what follows this life?  Whose good are we serving if we exert ourselves to give them a loaf of bread, but falter at taking the extra step – the eternally significant extra step – of offering them the life-giving Bread that came down from heaven?

Perhaps we shy away from witness – from evangelism – because we think of it as walking someone down a theological argument like the “Romans Road” or as imposing our religion on someone else.  That’s all wrong.  Witness – evangelism – is nothing more and nothing less than telling another person how God reached into our lives and turned things around for the better, turned us in a better direction.  It is simply telling another person about the life-giving nourishment that we found, and that is available for him or her as well.

As you come to know Christ and Christ’s benefits more fully, allow yourself to be moved to witness and service in grateful response, simply sharing what you yourself have come to know of Christ and of his interventions in your life.  As you keep growing more like Christ and seeing what God’s transforming power and purpose can accomplish in your own life and in the lives of your sisters and brothers, simply bear witness to what you have experienced.  In so doing, you are fulfilling that climactic commission that Christ entrusted to all of his followers when he said: “Go, then; make disciples out of all the nations” (Matt 28:18-20).  Honor Christ’s lordship and make his reign visible and real in this world, because it is visible and real in you, in your life, in our life together, as we give ourselves over to Christ, for him to accomplish his good purposes in this world through us, both offering his love and issuing his invitation through us.  Go, indeed, to serve Christ.

 

“Growing More Like Christ”

A sermon (largely) on Romans 8:28-29; Luke 6:27-36, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

It’s a familiar saying from Scripture, perhaps one of the more frequently quoted from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome: “all things work together for good.”  You’ve probably heard it from other Christians on several occasions.  You shared the news that a job offer didn’t come through.  “Don’t worry – all things work together for good. Something better will come along.”  You just broke up with a significant other.  “I know it’s hard, but you’ve got to remember – all things work together for good.”  You were just diagnosed with cancer.  “Don’t give up; God will get you through.  ‘All things work together for good’.”

Now in all these situations, the person pulling out that clause from Romans 8:28 means well, seeking to shine a ray of hope, an assurance of a brighter future, where a dark cloud has just settled over a friend or family member.  Indeed, we can have confidence that God has our future – a good and bright one indeed – firmly in hand no matter what unwelcome circumstances settle upon us at any given time.  But it’s also good for us to listen to what Paul actually had in mind when he wrote those words, “All things work together for good,” lest we think that the “good” that God cares most about is to bring us back to pleasant circumstances in this life, rather than to fit us for glorious circumstances in the next.  This is one of those many instances where a little attention to context brings a great deal of clarity.

Now we know that, for those who persist in loving God, for those who are called in line with God’s purpose, all things work together unto the good, because those whom God foreknew God also destined to be shaped into the likeness of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:28-29, DST)

Paul has a very clear idea of “the good” that is the aim towards which all things, by God’s providential ordering, are working – that we should be “shaped into the likeness of his Son,” Jesus Christ, that there should be an unmistakable “family resemblance” between all of us and our eldest brother in God’s household.  God’s overarching aim – and this for our ultimate good – is not to make us happy; it’s not to make us prosperous; it’s not to make all the troubles and heartaches of our lives go away.  It is to make us more like Jesus so that when at the last day he looks at us, he recognizes his Son, his righteous one, in each one of us.

The Christian life must be a journey of change – specifically change in the direction of becoming more and more like Christ. Paul was clear on this point throughout his writings: “Don’t continue to be conformed to this age, but keep on being transformed” (Rom 12:2). Every one of us is molded, is shaped, as we journey through life.  Every one of us is conformed to some pattern.  The question before us is, to what will we be conformed? In what direction will we be shaped?  Am I going to step out of the ruts that the structures and the logic and the values of “this age” have dug out for me, to keep me inclined to go with its flow, to be the kind of person it wants and even needs for me to be? Am I going to step out into new paths, the path of being transformed in the direction of Christ-likeness, ultimately the path of reflecting the heart of God and responding from the heart of God?  The world around me will keep applying its subtle pressures to conform to it, so that I maintain it; or I can cooperate with God’s Spirit as he applies his subtle pressures to transform me, so that God can also keep breaking into this world, this age, and change it through me, starting by reclaiming the space in the world that is me, that is the sphere of my interactions with the world’s inhabitants.

The first two clauses of our mission statement are: “KNOW Christ.  GROW more like Christ.”  We reflected at length last week on “KNOWing Christ” as we considered Paul’s intensely personal testimony in Philippians: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being transformed into the likeness of his death, so that I might somehow arrive at the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:11).  Notice that, for Paul, the knowing and the growing are inseparable.  Paul’s passion to know Christ drove him in the direction of growing more like Christ, specifically “being transformed into the likeness of his death,” being changed into a person who would give himself over for God’s purposes, who would live with a view to accomplishing God’s purposes for the other person and, thus, serving the interests of the other person rather than his own interests – which was precisely what Christ did in his death.  This growing, in turn, opened up new dimensions of knowing Christ for Paul – for there can be no knowing “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” apart from living in line with that “mind of Christ” who loved us and gave himself over for us.

In his second surviving letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul creates a clever contrast between an episode in Moses’ life and the essence of the Christian life.  During the period in which God was giving the Law to Moses, Moses would go up on Mount Sinai and sit in the presence of God.  As a result, when Moses returned to the camp of the Hebrews, his face was glowing with the reflected glory of having been in God’s presence.  After Moses delivered the next installment of the Law, he would put a veil over his face until the glow had faded away.  It’s different with us, Paul declared.  As we keep spending time in the Lord’s presence, the glory doesn’t fade away.  Indeed, we’re not just glowing with a reflected glory, but our very face – the self we see in the mirror – is becoming the reflection of the One into whose face we are gazing.  As Paul puts it, “we all, with our faces unveiled, gazing intently at the Lord’s glory, are being transformed” – the Greek word Paul uses gives us our English word “metamorphosis” – we are being transformed “into the same image, from glory to glory, and all of this from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

At the conclusion of his letter to the Christians in Galatia, Paul declared that it didn’t mean anything in God’s sight if a person was circumcised or not – that is, it didn’t matter if a person was Jewish or had joined himself to the Jewish people or not.  What mattered in God’s sight was “a new creation” (Gal 6:15). From the rest of Galatians, we get a pretty good idea of what this “new creation” is.  Paul himself had become “new creation” as a result of his seeking after the righteousness that comes from God to those who trust Christ to align them with what God approves: “Through the law, I died to the law so that I might come alive to God.  I was crucified together with Christ!  It’s no longer me living, but Christ living in me.  The life I’m now living in the flesh, I’m living by trusting the Son of God who loved me and gave himself over for me” (Gal 2:19-20).  This is precisely what Paul so earnestly seeks to bring into reality in and among his converts in Galatia, in regard to whom Paul finds himself at his wits’ end – “My little children, with whom I am again in labor pains until Christ takes shape in and among you!” (Gal 4:19).  Paul was after his own and his converts’ complete metamorphosis.  This was, for him, an indispensable facet of discipleship – indeed, the aim of all discipleship.

Is that your aim?

Is that where you are heading, seeking to move closer to that end day by day?

The second mandate in our mission statement – “GROW more like Christ” – drives us forward along this trajectory, urging us on to the disciplined “stripping off of the old person” that we used to be apart from Christ and the “putting on of the new person who is being made new again, reflecting the image of the Creator” (Col 3:8-15) – reflecting the image of Christ, “who is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).  Make no mistake: our goal is not merely to “become a better person.”  The goal towards which God works, the goal for which Paul strove, is to bring Christ to life within us, to make us “become a different person” who is “Christ in you,” which also gives us “the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).  This is what the Holy Spirit works to bring into being in each of our lives and in our relationships with one another, making us more like Jesus, shaping us to embody him and his attitudes and values more and more.

Growing more like Christ requires a death to make room for a new life.  It means our death to our own agendas, our own easily-provoked ill feelings, our own vision for how we want our lives to go and everyone else to behave.  It means coming alive to, and living for, God’s agenda, acting and responding to the person in front of us on the basis of God’s initiating love, giving our energies and time and resources over to God’s vision for how God wants others’ lives to go.

Jesus called his first followers to pursue a similar trajectory – that of growing more like God.  Since we confess Jesus to be “the image of the invisible God,” we can keep our mission statement, for to “GROW more like Christ” is to “GROW more like God,” it is to have the divine image restored in us and freshly imprinted on all our actions and interactions.  And so we read in the Gospel:

I say to you who are listening: keep showing love to your enemies, keep doing good for those who hate you, keep blessing those who persist in cursing you, keep praying concerning those who are mistreating you.  To the one striking you on the cheek, present also the other, and don’t hold back your tunic from the one taking your outer cloak. Keep giving to those who keep asking, and don’t demand that the person who takes your goods return them.  And what you would desire that people should do toward you, keep doing this for them.

            Now if you continue to love those who keep showing you love, what kind of generosity are you showing?  Don’t even sinners continue to show love to those who love them?  And if you do good for those who have been doing you good, what kind of generosity are you showing?  Even sinners do as much.  And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what kind of generosity are you showing?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much back again.  But keep showing love to your enemies and doing good and lending, hoping for nothing, and your reward will be bountiful, and you will be children of the Most High – because he himself is generous to the ungracious and wicked.  Persevere in being compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. (Luke 6:27-36, DST)

To “GROW more like Christ” is also to live in line with his instructions, for if ever anyone practiced what he preached, it was Jesus!  Who showed his enemies (including us, while we were still his enemies!) more love than Jesus did? Who prayed more powerfully for those who were mistreating him than Jesus did: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)?  Who more than Jesus showed love and did good to those who had not first loved or done good to him?

Our “old self” lives a narrow life, constrained on the one side by our self-centered, self-serving, and self-vaunting drives and, on the other side, by the good or by the lack of good that we encounter in others.  The good that our “old self” can do is generally limited by the good another has done (or might do); some words or actions of the other person can rather predictably provoke anger, enmity, or malice in us, as if the other person holds our strings.  The “old self” can never rise to the measure of God’s righteousness.  But God’s character – which is also the character we see in Jesus – is quite different.  It is, indeed, “vast, boundless, free.”  It is independent of the good or lack of good in the other; it is so full and so complete that it can be “generous toward the ungracious and wicked,” encountering the ungracious and the wicked with the transforming power that once encountered us, when we were ungracious and wicked.

To know Christ is also to remain continuously tapped in to God’s fullness, God’s completeness, as branches are tapped into and continually nourished and filled by the vine.  It is to be empowered for Christ-likeness, for acting and responding to those around us from God’s compassionate and generous character in ways that would have been impossible, incomprehensible, and ultimately undesirable to our “old self.”  I think that this is what is really meant by “justification” – not just being declared “innocent” because we have some pull with the Judge’s Son, but becoming just and good because God’s Son now drives us in our inclinations, words, and deeds.  I think that this is part of what Paul had in mind when he talked about “salvation” – not just being saved from the consequences of our past sins, but being saved from our past selves, the source of those sins, to become something else, something more beautiful, something well-pleasing to God – to GROW more like Christ.  This is what we pray for when we sing the final verse of Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn: “Finish then thy new creation! Pure and spotless let us be!  Let us see thy great salvation” as we are “perfectly restored in thee,” as the image of God, which we bore in creation but lost in our fall, is restored in us by Christ, “who is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), living in and through us.  Amen.

 

Knowing Christ

Phil 3:2-11; John 17:1-8, 25-26

A sermon preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church (the first of three focusing on the congregation’s mission statement: “KNOW Christ.  GROW more like Christ. GO to serve Christ.”)

 

Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi is one of his most personal.  It’s written to a congregation that, unlike the congregations in Galatia and Corinth, really seems not to have given Paul much trouble.  The Philippian Christians weren’t tossed this way and that in their loyalty, now toward Paul, now toward more recent teachers telling them something different and calling Paul’s message and authority into question.  This congregation was remarkably supportive of Paul, both in his missionary work and in his imprisonment – and Paul trusted this congregation enough to accept their support, something he did not do in regard to the Christians in Corinth, since they seem to have been in danger of thinking thereby to put the apostle in their pocket.  Indeed, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians exists because the congregation sent a little something to Paul through one of their members, Epaphroditus, who apparently also filled Paul in on what was going on in the congregation.

And so, in the course of addressing his friends in Philippi, Paul writes his most intensely personal testimony concerning his own experience of coming to Christ, the realignment of his values that experience provoked, and his driving passion ever since:

“Beware the dogs! Beware the wicked workers! Beware the flesh-cutters!  For we are the circumcision, we who are worshiping in God’s Spirit and grounding our worth in Christ Jesus, and not putting our confidence in flesh – even though I have grounds for confidence in flesh. If anyone else thinks to have grounds for confidence in flesh, I have more – circumcised on the eighth day; belonging to the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew born from Hebrews; in regard to the Law, a Pharisee; in regard to zealous commitment, a persecutor of the Church; in regard to alignment with the Law, blameless!  But whatever things were once a credit to me, these things I have written off as a loss on account of Christ.  Indeed, I put everything in the debit column when set against the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord – on whose account I have been debited in regard to everything, and I count all of it as trash, so that I might gain Christ, and so that I might be found in him, not having the righteousness that I could establish for myself in line with the Law, but having the righteousness that comes from trusting Christ, the righteousness that God provides on the basis of trust – to know him and the power of his rising from the dead and partnership with him in his sufferings, being made like him as he showed himself to be in his dying, if somehow I might arrive at the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:2-11, DST)

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Paul launches off into a rant against a group of rival teachers that have been active “out there” in his mission field.  He took on teachers of this sort in Galatia; it is not clear whether he thinks, years later now, that they might show up in Philippi, or whether he is just using them as a good example of how not to “do” Christianity.  Whatever the reason for bringing them up, their example is clearly one not to imitate.  They haven’t discovered the surpassing value of knowing Christ; they still think that the fact of their circumcision, their being a part of the historic people of God, their being born and carved into the covenant of Israel is the high-water mark of religion, with Christ being a winsome add-on, but not a game-changing, life-changing, value-changing tidal wave.

Paul knows exactly where these rival teachers are coming from.  In fact, nobody knows better the fulfillment that could come through being a Torah-observant member of the covenant with Israel than Paul – “circumcised on the eighth day; belonging to the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew born from Hebrews; in regard to the Law, a Pharisee; in regard to zealous commitment, a persecutor of the Church; in regard to alignment with the Law, blameless!”  So much, by the way, for the idea that the problem with the Jewish Law is that it was impossible to keep it.  Paul seems to think he had done just fine on that score.  The problem with the way of life that had been regulated by the Torah is that Paul discovered – only by virtue of having been filled by his experience of Jesus’ love and the Holy Spirit’s friendship – how empty, how poor, by comparison, his life had been.  As he would put it, somewhat differently, in his second surviving letter to the Corinthians, “what had been glorious was shown to have no glory in comparison with the surpassing glory” of Christ (2 Cor 3:10).

Paul was willing to set all of that aside, to be stripped of all the security and status he enjoyed in his circles of Pharisaic Judaism: “But whatever things were once a credit to me, these things I have written off as a loss on account of Christ.  Indeed, I put everything in the debit column when set against the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord – on whose account I have been debited in regard to everything, and I count all of it as trash, so that I might gain Christ” (Phil 3:7-8).  Paul’s driving passion was now “to know him and the power of his rising from the dead and partnership with him in his sufferings” (Phil 3:10).  It is important for us to realize that he is writing these words at least twenty years after his initial encounter with the living Christ.  Two decades later, getting closer and deeper in his knowledge of Jesus and his experience of Jesus’ fellowship is still that “one thing” to which everything else takes a back seat.

Is that your passion?

Do you know Jesus well enough to know that you can’t get enough of Jesus? To want to know him more, and to want this enough that you make the room to know him more?

We have decided, by virtue of the opening clause of the mission statement that we adopted umpteen years ago, to keep the value of knowing Christ in the front and center of our lives together in this congregation: “KNOW Christ.”  As I wrote in our January newsletter (but as I will repeat here because I’ve heard it said that not everyone actually reads the newsletter), this first imperative drives us toward a deeper knowledge of who Christ is and what Christ wants.  Indeed, though I understand that we needed to keep the mission statement to catchy sound bites, we are really impelled to seek out a deeper knowledge of God in all three Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This “knowing” is shaped by information, by learning more about our heavenly Father, the divine Son incarnate in Jesus, and the empowering and guiding Spirit, such as study of the Scriptures provides.  But this “knowing” must also shape, be shaped by, relationship, by making room for regular, personal encounter with the God who encounters us.  It was about the value of this informed, relational knowing of the Son that Paul wrote so passionately.  Experiencing – Knowing – God is the bedrock of Christian life; experiencing – knowing – God together is the bedrock of Christian community.

What are you willing to “write off as a loss for the sake of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus,” our Lord?

Do you have the “surpassing value” in view as you come here to worship on Sunday morning?  Paul was willing to sacrifice religion for relationship, specifically relationship with Christ Jesus our Lord.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all about liturgy and the spiritually formative power of the traditions of Christian worship as we allow liturgy to shape us, as we embrace the various components of liturgy as the spiritual equivalent of a balanced diet or a complete weight training circuit.  But the point of coming here this morning is not in the performance of the prayers, the hymns, the anthem, the sermon.  The point is not in the form of what we do, but in whom we come to encounter, so that we can leave knowing about him, and knowing him, a little more.  It is not in the “what’s next?” in the bulletin, but in the “how will I open up my soul even more to God in what’s next?”  Don’t settle for the religion, but strive, at every point, after the relationship.

Paul didn’t just share his heart for knowing Christ Jesus because he was feeling warm and close to the Philippian Christians.  He wanted to change something in their congregation.  A chapter before this morning’s focal paragraph, Paul urges his friends: “In humility, think of one another as possessing greater dignity than yourselves; don’t look after what is in your own interest, but after what is in the other’s interest” (2:3-4).  If you read on just a bit past this morning’s focal paragraph, you come across this topic again, and more pointedly: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche” – two leading women whom Paul considers co-workers – “to agree in the Lord, and I urge you, my genuine yokefellow, to help them” come to terms with each other rather than continuing to cherish their grudge and to foster division in the Body (4:2-3).

Paul’s sharing of his own testimony – his willingness to “write everything off as a loss for the sake of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus” – has some clear implications for the disagreements his friends are having amongst themselves.  “If you know the value of what you come together to seek out, you’ll recognize that whatever is getting in the way of knowing Christ together is just so much rubbish – and you’ll toss out your personal ‘trash’ for the sake of attaining, together, what is so much more valuable for all of you.”  Let me move from preaching into meddling.  The guys who keep their hats on in church.  The blip in the sound system or mix-up in the screens.  The blasted music director choosing yet another unfamiliar hymn.  The inappropriateness of someone’s dress. The sixty-first minute of the worship service.  The value of what you’re holding onto, if it’s anything like any of these things, pales in comparison with the value of what you could be reaching for, together, in this place.  Are you willing to set it aside as something of no account, for the sake of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus and for the sake of not allowing yourself to distract yourself from laying hold of that greater good?

Paul, of course, was not just a seeker of Christ on Sundays.  His passion for knowing Christ Jesus spilled all over his calendar.  Granted, Paul was a bit of a fanatic when it came to knowing Jesus and making Jesus known, but let’s allow his example nevertheless to challenge us.  What are you doing whenever you’re not making the time to know more about Jesus and to experience Jesus’ friendship and conversation?  It’ll never be worth more, but is it at least necessary? Important?  We will, none of us, probably ever be willing to count everything as so much rubbish for the sake of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, but are we willing at least to count some things as rubbish, and clear out some of the trash in our week, for the sake of seeking a fuller knowledge of him and seeking to know him more fully?  What will your Monday, what will your Tuesday, say to God about how much you understand the value – the surpassing value – of knowing him, of the invitation God has given to you to know him, to be known by him, to know yourself as you are known by him?

Our most basic currency as mortals is not money, but time.  I’ve found out over the years that I can pretty much always make more money, but I can’t make any more time.  It’s our most precious commodity, and yet we will all spend the same amount of it every single day.  There’s no saving it up, and there’s frankly no way to know when it will be used up.  In the midst of his prayer on behalf of his disciples on the eve before his passion, Jesus said: “This is eternal life,” this is unending life, this is life without limits – “that they might know you, the only genuine God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent” (John 17:3). We step out of the constant dripping away of time, and into that life that knows no ending, at any point that we find ourselves in touch with the only genuine God and with Jesus Christ.

We’re careful bargain hunters when it comes to our money, but we can be terrible shoppers when it comes to our time – buying an hour on Netflix rather than an hour of eternity in the presence of God, buying an hour on social media feeds rather than an hour being fed by the Bread of Life, buying an hour of browsing in a mall rather than an hour of allowing the Holy Spirit to browse us, strengthening the work of Christ in us and relaxing the hold of the flesh over us, trading an hour for a manicure but reluctant to spend an hour on soul cure.  Since we’re going to spend the same amount of our limited time every day, let’s be sure that we’re getting the best value for it.

Perhaps many of you already do what I am about to recommend, in which case, may God keep you fervently in love with him so as to continue to do so.  To the rest, I would urge each of you (each of us, to be perfectly honest) to set apart – to sanctify – times during each day for growing in your knowledge of God, both your knowledge about God and your experience of knowing God, of being present with God.  A staple for such times would be the reading of Scripture, combined with prayerful conversation with God, with the living Christ, inviting the Holy Spirit to illumine both the text and you in light of the text.  It might also involve reading what those who have known God deeply and closely have written about knowing God deeply and closely – what we might call the “devotional classics” of the Christian faith.  It would surely involve prayer, preferably using different resources so as to open yourself up to God in different and, therefore, more complete ways.  In my own life, the Book of Common Prayer has been indispensable in this regard, but you could also turn to collections of prayers such as The Oxford Book of Prayer and to the texts of many hymns that are essentially prayers set to music.  The benefit of such resources is simple: we do not know everything that we ought to pray for or pray about; we are not always disposed to pray for all those things that we do know we ought to be praying for.  These resources expand our conversation with God; they expand the dimensions of our knowing God and experiencing God.  And the most critical of all components – waiting in patient silence for God, for Christ, to show up.

But experiencing God need not – indeed, should not – be limited to those hours (though we need those hours if we are to remain in the awareness of God’s presence and companionship in other hours).  The Triune God can be known in the midst of one’s everyday activities as well.  A great devotional classic in this regard is The Practice of the Presence of God, the compilation of notes taken by a certain abbot during several visits with a kitchen monk named Brother Lawrence, together with a series of letters written by Brother Lawrence to an inquiring lay person.  Paul came “to know Christ and the power of his rising from the dead and the fellowship of his sufferings” not only in private prayer, but in the thick of his missionary work, his travels, his imprisonments and beatings, his teaching in the house churches, his leatherworking in the commercial market.  We can as well, if we keep our hearts and minds attuned to Christ and conversing with Christ, in the midst of all those activities and occupations into which we would invite Christ.

Our mission statement is our constant memo to ourselves: “Know Christ.”  Keep writing off as a loss, and throwing aside as trash, everything that gets in the way of that pursuit.  Keep spending your time in ways that reflect the all-surpassing value of knowing Christ.  Amen.

 

Living Into Baptism

Matt 3:1-18; Romans 6:1-14

A sermon delivered at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church (Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord)

“In those days, John the Baptizer – John the Immerser – showed up, proclaiming in the Judean wilderness, saying: ‘Repent – change your hearts and lives – because the kingdom of heaven has drawn near’” (Matt 3:1-2). 

What was John up to, dunking people in the Jordan River?  Just as John himself appears to have one foot in the Old Testament, showing up in Elijah’s camel-hair garment, and one foot in the New Testament, calling for readiness for a new visitation of God, so his immersion was something distinct both from the ritual baths of the Old Covenant and the baptism of the New Covenant, with which we would identify.

Immersing oneself into water as a means of purifying oneself was routine in first-century Judea.   One finds in archaeological site after site one or more smallish pools, each with a staircase leading down into the water that filled the pool to about chest level.  Such a pool is called a mikveh in Hebrew, and these were used regularly for ritual immersion – a kind of artificial replacement for the “living water” of a river that was harder to access in most parts of Judea.  They are often to be found in the houses of priestly families, who tended to be quite careful to observe the instructions in the Law of Moses concerning dissipating everyday pollutions, or adjacent to synagogues throughout Israel.  One would walk down into the mikveh and, once at the bottom of the basin, kneel so as to immerse oneself completely, and then ascend back up from the basin. A number of these pools even had a short dividing wall built into the staircase, such that one could be sure to descend “unclean” on one side of the steps and ascend “clean” on the other half of the steps.

MIkveh.Jerusalem Temple

 

A person could contract “uncleanness” through many sources – touching a carcass, touching anything touched by a woman during her period, experiencing a seminal emission, contact with someone who had any one of a variety of skin conditions or discharges, and the like.  We shouldn’t think of these concerns as “health issues,” however, either on the part of the Lawgiver or the Jews who were attentive to these matters, though our own anxiety about who touched the bathroom door handle before us, and whether he or she washed before doing so, and whether we should use a paper towel to open the door for ourselves and/or reach for our Purell shortly after does reflect a similar mental dynamic.  Rather, I would immerse myself so as to restore myself to a state of ritual cleanness or purity, such that I would not contribute to multiplying pollution in the holy land that the holy God had chosen for his dwelling.

It was particularly important to perform such an immersion prior to entering the Temple precincts.  The removal of all such defilement was essential before encountering the holy God, into whose presence one simply does not carry pollution – lest one risk God’s holiness breaking out to consume the polluted one or the holy God withdrawing from the Temple.  Thus one finds mikvehs (technically the plural is mikvaoth, but I’m trying not to be too pretentious) in abundance in the priests’ buildings and in the open spaces all around the Temple in Jerusalem. The city was also equipped with massive pools, each of which probably functioned as a public mikveh serving the thousands upon thousands of residents and pilgrims that came to the Temple each day – not to mention the tens of thousands upon tens of thousands that flooded the city during the annual festivals like Passover and the Feast of Booths.  The Pool of Siloam, famous for its role in the story of Jesus’ healing of the man who had been born blind in John 9, only one edge of which has been uncovered, is one such pool. Another is the Pool of Bethesda, the site of another healing miracle of Jesus recorded in John 5, and also only very partially uncovered.

All this to say – the idea of being immersed in a body of water in connection with removing pollution for the sake of preparing oneself to encounter God would have been quite familiar to everyone who went out to the Jordan River to be immersed by John.  But John’s baptism – the immersion that John performed upon people – was also distinctive in some important respects.

Most obviously, John is immersing people for an encounter with God, but far from Jerusalem, its Temple, and its establishment.  “Prepare to meet God,” but not there. If John had preached and immersed in one of those large pools surrounding the Temple Mount, I doubt he would have had his head handed to him by the authorities.  God is indeed going to show up in a powerful and epoch-making way, but not there.  “Prepare a spiritual highway for God to use as God comes to visit us,” out here in the margins of Judea, out here by the river.

John was also clearly not concerned merely with ritual purity.  He called people to come to this immersion ready to change their hearts and their lives – how the Common English Bible has consistently translated the word the NRSV renders “repent.” Your security before God isn’t in claims about the past – “Don’t presume to say ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (Matt 3:9) and think that everything’s therefore alright between you and God.  Show in your lives that your repentance is real, that you’ve left the loveless, unrighteous, mean-spirited ways behind you.

And, as far as we can tell, unlike the routine and repeated immersions performed throughout Judea and Galilee, John immersed people once in preparation for encountering God, in preparation for God’s epoch-making intervention.  This was a decisive cleansing looking forward to a decisive act of God showing up.

And so Jesus shows up at the Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John.

We remember this event each year on the Sunday after Epiphany, continuing the season of epiphanies, for two reasons.  First, Jesus’ showing up is the manifestation for which John was waiting and for which he had been preparing the people in his call to a change of heart and life and his washing away of their pollutions.  John recognizes this as he expresses his discomfort with being the one to immerse Jesus, preferring that Jesus should immerse – and thus cleanse and prepare – him.  Second, God shows up as well to give Jesus an unparalleled endorsement: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The Son of God who identified with us by sharing our flesh and blood thought it proper, now living in our flesh and blood, also to identify with John’s immersion and with those who came responding to John’s call, even as Jesus took up John’s proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is drawing near!” (Matt 4:17). Indeed (Jesus would declare), God is visiting God’s people and God’s world in an epoch-changing way; indeed, the time for a change of heart and life is now; indeed, a decisive change is happening in history that calls for a decisive change in people’s lives.

But the baptism that John offered, and the baptism that Jesus underwent, is not the baptism to which you and I were called, into which you and I were immersed.  John called people to change their hearts and lives and to purify themselves in baptism prior to and in preparation for God’s epoch-making intervention; the Christian church, beginning with the apostles calling those first thousands at the feast of Pentecost, calls people to an immersion on the far side of, and in response to, God’s epoch-making intervention – the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus. The first episode in Acts 19 gives an early testimony to this difference, as Paul encounters believers who had only been baptized by John – whom he now baptizes in the name of Jesus and into the transforming power of his death and resurrection, with the result that the Holy Spirit descends upon those disciples in a powerful way.

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we hear a very early sermonette on the meaning of baptism as the rite of entrance into the Christian church or, better, the rite of initiation into the “baptismal life.”  In these paragraphs, Paul seeks to answer a basic question: is God’s grace toward us in Christ merely supposed to inoculate us against the consequences of our sins, or is it supposed to utterly transform our lives?

Some people in Paul’s world have misunderstood his message and caricatured his preaching as a result.  Earlier in Romans, Paul writes: “If my unrighteousness serves to establish God’s righteousness, what should we say?  Why not do wicked things so that good things can come of it?  This is what some people slanderously claim that we are preaching” (Rom 3:5, 8).  I often wonder how Paul himself would react to what many have made of Paul’s gospel of a cheap grace that demands no change of life, no giving back to Jesus a life for a life. Paul himself, after all, gives voice to a very different vision:

“What are we to say, then? Shall we persist in sinning in order that grace may become even more abundant?  Heck, no!  We who have died to sin – how will we go on living in it? Or don’t you realize that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  So we were buried with Christ through baptism into his death in order that, just as Christ rose from the dead through the Father’s glory, so we also might walk in a new kind of life?” (Romans 6:1-4, DST)

You might hear this and think, “well, to be honest, I’ve had very little trouble continuing to sin.  If I’m actually dead to sin, I’m surprised at how active our relationship – sin’s and mine – has remained over the years.”  But our baptism and the availability of the Holy Spirit has changed that relationship significantly.  The relationship is awkward now.  We might occasionally hang out together, sin and I, but the spark has gone out of our friendship.  Or it’s like that shirt that, as soon as we put it on, we’re sorry that we took it off the hanger, because it just doesn’t fit right or look right or feel comfortable any more.

What we’re bumping up against here is the tension between description and prescription in Paul’s letters (as, indeed, in the work of other New Testament writers).  In one breath, they declare what God has accomplished in us; in the next breath, they instruct us to live up to what God has accomplished in us, as if to make the potential God has created with us real and actual, or to let God’s gift to us and working within us have its full effect in us.  We must live in to what God has done for us.

And so Paul declared: “Our former self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be eliminated – in order that we might no longer serve Sin as its slaves” (Romans 6:6, DST). “Our former self” isn’t a pretty sight. It’s greedy, jealous, angry; it thinks and speaks ill of others, especially when they get in our way or do something we don’t happen to like; it acts viciously to protect its own interests.  In other words, it lives quite far away from loving our neighbor as ourselves, from looking out for the other person’s interests before our own, from reflecting Christ’s heart in our own.

Jesus’ death and resurrection are not just acts that he undertook on our behalf; they have become events in which we are invited to participate, and this is at the core of our baptism. Just as Jesus died and, having died, was no longer liable to death, since his mortal life was over, “in the same way, count yourselves also dead where sin is concerned”; just as Jesus now lives an entirely new kind of life in God’s power, the resurrected life, “in the same way, count yourselves … alive in Christ Jesus where God is concerned” (Romans 6:11, DST). We join ourselves to Christ in his death, which means, we keep putting our old self with its impulses and drives behind us as something “dead to us,” for Christ’s death on our behalf has made this very thing possible for us; we join ourselves to Christ in his resurrection, which means, we keep living from the “newness of life,” the “new kind of life,” that came into being in us by the spark of God’s Holy Spirit and that God’s Holy Spirit continues to breathe into greater and greater strength and presence within us.

“Let sin, therefore, no longer exercise authority in your mortal bodies, so as to make you obey its impulsive desires, nor continue to put your body parts at sin’s disposal as its tools for unrighteous activity, but keep putting yourselves at God’s disposal as those living on the other side of death and your body parts at God’s disposal as his tools for righteous activity.” (Romans 6:12-13, DST)

This new person, with which we clothe ourselves in baptism, is beautiful: compassionate, kind, humble, patient, forbearing.  In its relationships it exhibits the beauty of forgiveness, love, and harmony.  The new person is Christ living in us, and us living for Christ; to live this life is to be created anew by God, to become our “best self” in him.

Ultimately, it is our dying to the “former self” with Christ, who died for us, and our living from the “newness of life” that the Spirit provides that, according to Paul, gives us reliable assurance about one day also living the resurrected life of Christ ourselves:

“For if we have become closely identified with the likeness of his death, we will also be closely identified with the likeness of his resurrection.” (Romans 6:5, DST)

“And if we died with Christ, we trust that we will also live together with him.” (Romans 6:8. DST)

All of this Paul connects to the rite of baptism, a ritual act that mystically effects our participation in Christ’s death and brings Christ to life within us – not because of anything special in this water, but because it has pleased God to act wherever this water is applied in his name and in the name of his Anointed One.

For baptism to be fully baptism, it must not cease its work when we leave the font.  It must become more and more the mold that shapes our lives, until Christ lives in us and we live for Christ.  It must become more and more the compass point from which we chart each day’s course, until we follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit – that is, walk in newness of life – more naturally and readily than we follow our own desires. As Martin Luther once expressed, baptism is to become the “garment which the disciple is to put on every day, each day putting the old person to death a little more and nurturing the new person toward maturity.”

This union with Christ in his death and resurrection is a spiritual grace continually held out to us in our baptism. It is a precious gift from God, allowing us ever to leave behind whatever is destructive to human relationships, to community, and ultimately to ourselves, and to move into a life with God and with one another that releases God’s love into this world and preserves us with Christ for eternity.  And so the Church perpetually reminds us: remember your baptism, and be thankful.

 

 

“Prepare Him Room”

A Sermon for Christmas Eve on Luke 2:1-7; Titus 2:11-14, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

One of the most poignant images from that first Christmas is the detail from Luke’s Gospel that, when Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son,” she “laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).  Think of every Nativity set you have ever seen.  Like the shepherds who were given this very sign by the angel, we recognize that we’re looking at the baby Jesus – at a Nativity scene – because the baby is lying in that most unconventional crib, a manger, an animal’s feeding trough.  In hindsight, it was most prophetic that there should be no room for Jesus to be born in a proper house or in the Bethlehem B&B, for it would always be a struggle for us mortal men and women to make room for Jesus to come in, to take on flesh among us, to take on flesh within us.

And so the Son of God is born off in some corner of a stable, quite possibly in the company of the livestock for whom that was a proper home.  Now I don’t think that the innkeepers of Bethlehem are much to be blamed.  According to Luke, there was a great deal of movement among the population of Israel that month.  Heads of households that had moved away from their ancestral towns were traveling back to those towns in droves to be registered there, and the supply of hospitality – no doubt throughout Israel – was simply exhausted by the unusual demand.  Imagine that by some terrible scheduling fluke every high school and college in this country held its reunions on exactly the same weekend.  A lot of people would find that there was no room for them in the local inns and guest houses.

Indeed, one could say that a particular innkeeper or some other resident did the best that he could for Joseph and his pregnant wife, at least opening up his barn to them and affording them what shelter was available.  He had no idea who it was that Mary was carrying.  Doing the best he could under the crowded conditions no doubt seemed like enough – perhaps more than enough.

You and I, however? We can hardly excuse ourselves today for not doing better to make room for Jesus.  On this side of his marvelous acts that showed how God was with him – his acts of healing, his deliverance of those possessed, his raising even of the recently deceased; on this side of his crucifixion, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven, which announce as with trumpets who this man is in the hierarchy of God’s kingdom, we cannot treat him as did that ancient innkeeper leading Mary and Joseph to the stable down off the road, well behind the guesthouse. The extent to which we do make room for Jesus, clearing out the spaces at the center of our lives for him, and the extent to which we do not make room for Jesus, ushering him out back to the margins of our lives – these are the markers that show God how much or how little we value God’s grace, when it showed up.

In a letter to his junior partner, Titus, the apostle Paul gives us one of the most compact and incisive statements about the significance of Christmas, as well as clear guidance on making room for Jesus.

The grace of God showed up, bringing deliverance for all people, training us so that, by renouncing ungodliness and this-worldly desires, we might live soberly and justly and piously in the present age, while awaiting the blessed hope – even the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself on our behalf in order that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify a people for his own special possession, a people who are fanatical about doing good. (Titus 2:11-14, DST)

God’s favor, God’s gift “showed up,” “revealed itself,” “appeared on the scene.”  This is at the heart of the miracle of Christmas.  The birth of Jesus, God the Son appearing on the scene in human flesh, is the precise moment when “the grace of God showed up” in a way that would forever change how God and human beings related.  Human beings had alienated themselves from God – the Gentiles by ignoring their Creator, putting other gods at the center of their lives, distorting and defacing their lives and relationships as a result; the Jews by not honoring God through obeying God’s law, through putting love for God and neighbor above all else.  But instead of giving up on human beings and letting loose his anger on us as we deserved, God does something completely unexpected and unbelievably generous: God invests himself in a new and marvelous way in the very human beings who had dishonored him by not making room for him who had created them, who had given them whatever room in this world they themselves enjoyed.

“The grace of God showed up” with a purpose: to bring deliverance – salvation – for all people.  This purpose is captured in the very name that the angel commanded the Christ child be given – “you will call his name ‘Jesus’, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).  In the first instance, Paul no doubt has in mind deliverance from the final consequences of our sins – God’s wrath, God’s satisfaction of his honor that his creatures had trampled, holding them accountable and punishing them as their shameless affronts merit.  But Paul also hints here at deliverance from the immediate consequences of our sins as well – the very disorder into which our lives had fallen, the personal, relational, and systemic dysfunction that becomes its own prison, its own hell, for the sinners who help to create and sustain it.

How does God bring about this deliverance? Paul may surprise us here, because he doesn’t jump at once to a phrase like “by dying for our sins” or some such thing that Christ did on our behalf.  Instead, he talks about this deliverance coming about as God changes us through God’s training (or, perhaps better, re-training) us.  God’s grace manifests itself here first and foremost by educating us in how to live so as to give God our Redeemer at last the room that God our Creator has always deserved in our lives.  Jesus, who was above all else a teacher, provided and continues to provide this training in the instructions that he gave and that have been preserved for us in the Gospels.  His apostles provided further training as they sought to shape communities of disciples that would shape each individual disciple into a reflection of the mind and heart that was in Jesus, leaving us a record of this in the Acts, Epistles, and Revelation.  The Holy Spirit, our personal trainer in righteousness and God-centered living, continues to provide this training to all who make room to hear and follow his promptings.

There is indeed a lot to clear out of our lives if we are to make room for Christ, if we are to give now to Christ the space he merits in our lives.  Paul speaks of God’s grace training us to “renounce ungodliness and this-worldly desires.”  When you hear the word “ungodliness,” don’t think immediately only of the most salacious self-indulgent or self-destructive activities.  The word simply names the absence in a person’s life of giving God the concern and attention that God merits.  It is as much a lack of living reverently as it is living irreverently.  And, as such, it catches quite a few more of us in the mirror it holds up.  Similarly, “this-worldly desires” aren’t all about excessive drinking, recreational drugs, and illicit sex.  Paul is again naming a much broader slice of what occupies us, what pushes God out, what takes up so much room in our lives that there isn’t room for him.  We spend a lot of our limited time going after what this world offers, enjoying it, distracting ourselves with it, passing the time with it, and getting entangled in it, such that there’s hardly any room left for God.  If we were to be honest with ourselves, many of us would probably have to admit to fitting him in to the margins of our weeks – a Sunday morning here, maybe an evening there.  And so Christ is back in the feeding trough, the manger, because there’s no room for him in the house where we live most of our lives.

God’s grace seeks to train us to renounce our lack of concern for the God who showed us such great concern.  God’s grace seeks to train us to renounce our attachments to, and investments in, the things that push God out of the room, to stop saying to God, when we give hours of our attention to distractions that will not leave us any better for having engaged them, “No, I want this more; I am drawn to that more; I need this more; I value that more; I expect, from this, more.”

Keep the miracle of Christmas before your eyes, ruminate upon the love that God showed you here, by taking on our flesh and blood so as to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to himself, and grace will “train” you by awakening gratitude and teaching you how to live out that gratitude in living for God. This child was born, Paul goes on to say, to redeem us from “every lawless act” so that we might be pure, so that we might be fully Christ’s own.  By purifying us from our past sins, he made room in us and in our lives to possess us fully, to make us fully his.  Let gratitude train you to return the favor, to make more room for Christ indeed to be born in you, to grow in you, to raise you to the full stature that Christ attained (Gal 2:19-21).

If we allow God’s grace thus to train us, we will find ourselves living “soberly and justly and piously in the present age, while awaiting the blessed hope – even the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

  • Soberly, because we are living as people who are waking up to what’s most valuable, most important;
  • Justly, because we are living in such a way as does what is right in God’s sight, making room again and again for God-pleasing service because we are “fanatics for doing good”;
  • Piously, because we are living in such a way as gives God, and what God merits, due attention, making appropriate room in our lives, in our selves, in our affections, desires, and commitments, for God;
  • Soberly, again, because we know what is coming, and for what we must continually prepare – our “blessed hope – even the appearing,” the next “showing up, of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Christ was content to be born in a stable and placed in a manger once, before we knew who he was.  No longer.  How will you clear out the very best place for him, the most central, the most honoring place for him in your hearts, in your homes, in that complex of activities from morning to night to the next morning that make up our lives?  This Christmas, indeed, let every heart prepare him room.  Amen.

“A Mother for God’s Son”

A sermon on Luke 1:26-38 (etc.) preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church on the Fourth Sunday of Advent

 

It is said of Jewish mothers that they typically think of their sons as God’s gift to the world.  Mary was one Jewish mother who could legitimately make this claim.  It has been my experience that Protestants don’t give much attention to Mary apart from the season of Christmas with our nativity scenes that minimally include Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child (“ox and ass sold separately”).  I think that we Protestants largely avoid Mary because a lot of us are squeamish about the level of attention that our Catholic sisters and brothers give Mary.

Mary, of course, is a figure of central importance in Catholic theology, liturgy, and spirituality.  She is often depicted in Catholic art enthroned in heaven alongside Christ; she is routinely asked by worshipers to intercede with God the Father and with her son Jesus on the basis of the position she is believed to occupy as “queen of Heaven” and on the basis of the relationship that she still enjoys with the glorified Christ as his mother.  Based on the almost universally shared Christian conviction that Jesus was God the Son in human flesh, our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters will speak of Mary as the “Mother of God” which, while we Protestants would have to concede that this is technically true in a limited sense, nevertheless makes us profoundly uncomfortable.

In reaction against all of this, we tend to ignore or diminish Mary, probably erring too far in the opposite direction.  I have heard Protestants object: “Mary was a sinner like us whom Jesus would have to redeem, an ordinary woman like any other.”  While I regard the first statement to be true, I think that the second is not.  Mary was an extraordinary woman who, in yielding herself in obedience to God’s will and in embracing her son’s mission, shows us a great deal about the heart of the genuine disciple.  She also had to become an extraordinary mother to love, nurture, and support such an extraordinary son on such an extraordinary mission – one that would cost her most of the natural joys that mothers might expect of their children.

In our Scripture reading today, we heard once again the familiar story of the annunciation, the angel Gabriel’s appearing to Mary to tell her of what God would accomplish through her in the son that she would uniquely engender and bear.  While we think of the virgin birth in terms of the miraculous and wonderful significance of Jesus as “Son of God,” we should never lose sight of the cost that accompanied Mary’s embracing her role. When Elizabeth, Zechariah’s barren and aging wife, became pregnant, she declared that God had taken away her reproach among her neighbors (Luke 1:25); when Mary became pregnant, it could only have brought her reproach.

We might not appreciate the importance of Mary’s assertion, “I do not ‘know’ a man” (Luke 1:34).  Sexual purity was the indispensable element of a woman’s virtue and honor in Mary’s world.  One example will have to suffice.  A century or so before Jesus, an anonymous Jew wrote a historical romance about a woman named Judith, who became the savior of her city and ultimately of the Jewish people by seducing an enemy general into a drunken stupor and cutting off his head.  Her first words when back in the city with the general’s head in her knapsack? “I only seduced him with my looks. He committed no sin with me, to defile and shame me” (Jdt 13:16).  Having delivered her city from a desperate siege, Judith still couldn’t let anyone think that she had extra-marital sex to accomplish it!

Mary was about to sacrifice her reputation for the sake of serving God’s design for deliverance.  The Gospel according to Matthew gives more attention to the unwelcome consequences of the angel’s “good news” for Mary.  While Joseph, her betrothed, might have planned to break off the engagement as quietly as possible so as to spare Mary any unnecessary shame, coming to full term as a single mother would have nevertheless brought a great deal of unavoidable shame in first-century Judea or Galilee. One wonders about the extent to which first Mary, then Jesus, had to endure taunts regarding his irregular birth.  Mark remembers the villagers of Nazareth asking one another in response to Jesus’ sermon there, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mk. 6:3).  Matthew would render this differently – “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matt 13:55) – but Mark may preserve something closer to the real thing.  And to be called “the son of Mary” is quite a significant thing in a village where every male takes his father’s name as an identifier (think of Simon Bar-Jonah – Simon, son of John — or Jesus Bar-Abbas – Jesus, son of Abbas).  One wonders if John’s Gospel doesn’t preserve some reflection of this as well when those with whom Jesus finds himself in an argument about whether or not they are truly Abraham’s children say: “We weren’t born from fornication” (John 7:41).

Mary valued God’s promise enough – what this child would become and what this child would accomplish for God’s purposes in the world – to endure the shame that was likely to come.  This cannot help but foreshadow for us the very posture that her son would one day take, who, “for the sake of the joy set before him, endured a cross, despising shame” (Heb 12:2).  It would be a posture that many in the early church would have to imitate in order to follow Jesus; that many over the centuries, most numerously in the 20th and 21st!, have had to imitate.  But Mary was willing to bear reproach for the Christ before the Christ was even born.

Eight days after Jesus’ birth, an old man named Simeon hinted to Mary that she might not be raising this child with a view to enjoying the typical life-long relationship that mothers cherish having with their children.  After he celebrates having lived long enough to see the one through whom God’s redemption would come into the world – the one who would be “a light for revelation to the nations and the glory of God’s people Israel” (Luke 2:32) – Simeon looks at Mary and adds: “This one is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel and for a sign that will provoke controversy in order that the inner thoughts of many hearts may be uncovered – and a sword shall pierce your own soul as well!” (Luke 2:34-35).  Thank you, scary old man loitering in the temple. May I have my child back now, please?

Much of what Simeon had said about Jesus might have been unsurprising to Mary, after what the archangel Gabriel had announced prior to Jesus’ conception and after what the shepherds had reported seeing and hearing at his birth.  But this last bit was new: this “good news,” this divine revolution, wasn’t going to be painless for Mary or her son.  Accepting his destiny meant steeling herself for suffering as well – another foreshadowing for us of what it means for most of the world’s Christians to follow, to hold onto, this Jesus.

The very next episode in Luke fast forwards us twelve years to the story of Jesus in the Temple. (Parenting Pro-tip – don’t leave a major city during its most crowded tourist season assuming that your pre-teen is somewhere in the caravan.)  We can surely sympathize with Mary once she and Joseph have found Jesus: “Child, why did you put us through this?  Your father and I have gone crazy looking for you!” (Luke 2:48). Jesus’ answer – “Why did you have to look for me? Weren’t you aware that I’d have to be attending to my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49) – was a reminder that her son had a calling, in response to his heavenly Father, that would take him away from his family and that his mission eclipsed his attachment to them.  The most surprising thing here for me, who as a child could get lost and as a parent could look for a lost son, is how unperturbed Jesus is after having been left essentially on his own in a big city for three days!  How that strange calm must have unsettled Mary, who had been frantically searching for a boy who was completely untroubled that he was without her for such a long time.  Did it remind her once again: “My son was not born for me”?  Did it remind her that the love and nurture she was pouring into him – and would continue to pour into him – was for the sake of his accomplishing his “Father’s business,” the destiny that she embraced for him as well?

Nowadays when a son or daughter only leaves home at thirty, we consider it a “failure to launch.”  Not so in first-century Galilee.  As the eldest son – and, in all likelihood, after Joseph’s death, since Joseph has completely disappeared from the scene – Jesus would have been the pillar of the family business and the acting head of the household.  All things being equal, he would have become and remained the gravitational center of the bar-Joseph family for his and the next generation – and, quite importantly, the staff of Mary’s old age.  But Mary had to give up her dreams for a “normal” and secure life with her firstborn son at the center of a normal household for the sake of Jesus’ mission to secure God’s good for many households.

It was Mary who, according to John’s Gospel, prompted Jesus’ first miracle.  Mary and Jesus went as guests to a wedding in the village of Cana in Galilee, with Jesus’ first disciples tagging along.  These wedding banquets were multiple-day affairs and, at some point, the wine ran out.  Mary came to Jesus and said, “They have no wine.”  Jesus’ reply was essentially, “How is that our problem?” He understood what was implicit in his mother’s bringing the problem to his attention – Mary’s conviction that her son could do something about it on the spot.  He added, “It’s not my time yet,” as if he understood that she were saying to him, “This is as good a time as any, Jesus, to start doing what you were born to do.”  Jewish mothers apparently don’t hear their sons when they say “no,” so Mary says to the servants standing nearby, “Do whatever he tells you.”  This is, of course, the best advice one can ever give to another in regard to Jesus.

Notice what Mary has done here: she has put her Son in a position to act by publicly raising expectations that he would, and she has disposed those around him to cooperate with him in whatever way he says.  While it’s not our practice, one can hardly read this and blame Catholics for praying to Mary to intercede for them, because she does appear to have known how to get her Son to intervene even when he might have been reluctant to do so.  At the end of the episode, we read: “Jesus performed this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee and he showed forth his glory, and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). Within the story of John’s Gospel, it is Mary who launches Jesus into the active revelation of his glory that would culminate in his crucifixion, the hour of his glorification.

Joseph and Mary raised four sons and several daughters alongside Jesus. Scripture hasn’t left us any testimony to their growing-up years, but can you imagine what it was like for James or the other siblings in that household?  “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” “Give me a break, Mom; I’m sick and tired of being compared to Mr. Perfect over there!”  According to John’s Gospel, there were indeed some hard feelings between Jesus and his half-brothers in the early period of Jesus’ ministry.  Matthew and Mark tell of an episode in which Jesus radically redefined his family – a word that has given comfort and encouragement to millions of disciples but that was no doubt difficult for Jesus’ blood relations to hear:

While Jesus was still speaking to the crowds, … someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But … Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:46-50 NRSV)

I can only imagine that it was painful for Mary to hear about Jesus’ response; it was probably disappointing that, by all accounts, he stayed inside the house teaching and did not break away to talk to his blood relations.  This was another occasion for Mary to die a little more to herself and to her own expectations for what her life would be like.  She, like all of us, especially those who have close relationships within their natural families, was challenged to accept Jesus’ vision of a much larger family – a larger family whose claims on one superseded even the claims of one’s natural family.  It is important for us to recognize both this challenge and the fact that Mary and her other children, insofar as we know, did come to embrace Jesus’ vision of family – the family that would be formed by faith, by his blood – and thus remained part of Jesus’ family and a vitally important part of that larger family that Jesus was calling together.

Of course, we all know where we will find Mary just a few years later at the end of Jesus’ ministry, for the sake of which he left the construction business and a rooted life in Nazareth.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (Jn. 19:25-27 NRSV)

This scene is deeply etched in Catholic piety, immortalized in a poem quite unfamiliar to most of us but well known to any Catholic, the “Stabat mater.”

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

Through her soul, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

You can hear the echo there of old Simeon’s prediction some thirty years before.

There were many things not to like about Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, but one thing I very much did like was the attention given to Mary during those terrible twenty-four hours – how, despite the fact that her own heart was breaking, she remained present, giving all her strength to her son, showing him a loving face in the midst of a mocking mob, reminding him that he was not alone.  However many liberties Gibson might have taken with this, that had to be the message, at least, that Jesus received when he saw his mother close by him from his cross.  From the cross, Jesus gives his mother over to the care of the “beloved disciple.”  Mary would have to live the rest of her natural life without enjoying a natural relationship with her eldest son.  It would be henceforth the spiritual relationship with the risen and ascended Christ that we all have the possibility of enjoying.

On the other side of the resurrection and ascension of her son, we see Mary – for the last time in Scripture – there in the upper room with Jesus’ eleven disciples plus the newly chosen twelfth, with the women who had accompanied and helped to support Jesus and his disciples’ ministry, with Jesus’ half-brothers, and about a hundred other devoted followers.  She is surrounded by, and part of, that larger family that Jesus embraced – those committed to doing the will of Jesus’ Father in heaven.  The descent of the Holy Spirit upon those hundred-and-twenty disciples in the upper room, the event we celebrate on the Day of Pentecost, is counted as the birth of the Church.  But just as Jesus was born of divine and human parentage, it might also be fair to think of Mary, in that upper room, in the midst of the family that she, too, helped birth by virtue of her humble submission to God’s will, her willingness to endure reproach to accomplish God’s purposes, her giving up of her own dreams and expectations to embrace and support Jesus’ mission, and her steadfastness in standing by Jesus in love even when the sword was piercing her own heart.  She proved herself a fitting mother for God’s Son and, in so doing, shows us much about being fitting disciples of God’s Son.

 

“A Messiah Nobody Expected”

A sermon on Luke 1:68-79 and Isaiah 11:1-5, 10-12 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

Our New Testament reading today is known as the “Song of Zechariah.” Luke introduces this as a prophetic word spoken by Zechariah, uttered as he was moved by the Holy Spirit.  It is a deeply poetic expression of hope for what was happening in Israel as a result of God’s activity in Zechariah’s own family.  You may recall Zechariah’s story.  He was a priest in Judea, and his wife Elizabeth was also born from a priestly family.  They were getting on in years, and Elizabeth had not been able to have any children – not until, that is, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, while Zechariah was burning incense in the Temple, and told him that his wife Elizabeth was going to conceive and bear a son in nine months, whom they would name “John,” which in Hebrew means “God has shown favor.”  Zechariah said, essentially, “Yeah, right.  Why should I believe that?”  Gabriel replied, “I’ll tell you what; I’ll give you a sign.  You will be mute, unable to speak another word for nine months until what I have foretold comes about.”  This, in turn, prompted the “Song of Elizabeth,” an exuberant hymn of praise to God that has not been recorded in Scripture.

Zechariah now knows that his own son is going to be special, having been announced by an angel as very few babies had been announced in Israel’s history.  Six months later, cousin Mary comes to visit the pregnant Elizabeth with surprising news of her own – she, too, is to bear a son, about whom the same angel, Gabriel, said even more amazing things:

“He will be great, and will be called the son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever – there will not be an end to his kingdom!” (Luke 1:32-33). 

Zechariah has three more months to ponder these things until Elizabeth comes to full term and gives birth to their son.  At the baby’s circumcision, with all the family gathered around, Elizabeth announces that the child will be named “John,” as the angel had instructed. The extended family has trouble with this, since it’s not a name in the family, so they go to Zechariah and make signs to him to find out what he wants to name the baby.  He reaches for his writing tablet and wrote down, “His name is John.”  Actually, the first thing he wrote down was, “Really? Sign language? I’m mute, not deaf, you idiots!”  Nevertheless, when he fulfills the angel’s word by naming his son “John,” he is able once again to speak, at which point he shouts the hymn of praise that we heard read today.

In this song, Zechariah says that God is doing great things for Israel, raising up a “horn of salvation” for God’s people.  This is an image that has long since ceased to communicate, but in the literature of ancient Israel a “horn” was a symbol of strength and ascendancy.  In a number of texts, it is specifically connected with the Davidic king and with God’s restoration of David’s line of kings:

“The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed” (1 Sam. 2:10 ESV).

“There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed” (Ps. 132:17 ESV).

This seems to be Zechariah’s expectation as well: “He raised up a horn of deliverance for us in the house of David, his servant, just as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Luke 1:69-70).

But what was Zechariah really expecting? What was Zechariah looking for in a Messiah, God’s “anointed one”?  I dare say that he had no expectation of seeing Mary’s child nailed up to and dying on a Roman cross; he had no expectation that his own son, as the forerunner and herald of this Messiah, would end up imprisoned and beheaded by a king not from David’s line – Herod Antipas, a Jewish puppet king propped up by Rome, whom Jesus would leave on the throne of Galilee alongside the Roman governor ruling Judea.

We have the benefit of looking back on Jesus and his Messiahship from a vantage point almost two thousand years after his resurrection from the dead.  We have the benefit of centuries and centuries of re-reading the Old Testament and seeing from beginning to end what we now think of as “prophecies” about Jesus, about the kind of deliverance that Jesus accomplished for humanity, and about the shape that his Messiahship would take – a process that, according to Luke, started with Jesus himself as he walked with two of his clueless disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection:

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27 NRSV)

I have frequently heard people remark, “How could the Jewish people not recognize their Messiah when Jesus lined up with so many prophecies in their own Scriptures?” What is clear in hindsight – and from the position of having experienced being accepted and adopted by God in Jesus, of having experienced the resurrected Lord and being enlightened by the Holy Spirit – was so far from clear for those in Zechariah’s day looking ahead to God’s deliverance that no single Jewish author prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and no single Jewish author outside of the Jesus movement that formed after Jesus’ death and resurrection, gave expression to this kind of Messiah. He was truly a Messiah that no one expected, at least, no one that’s left us anything in writing from the period – and that’s a lot of writing.  I’ve been through almost all surviving Jewish literature between the Old Testament and the second century AD – the Apocrypha, the collection known by the horrible title “Pseudepigrapha,” the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Philo and Josephus, and the earliest rabbinic texts – and not one, I repeat, not one Jewish author talks about a Messiah who would teach, heal, lead a peaceful resistance movement, die a condemned criminal, rise from the dead, and ascend to God’s right hand until some future coming in judgment.

Now, the Jewish people were not all expecting the same kind of Messiah.  Hopes for what the Messiah would do and who the Messiah would be depended in large measure on what particular Jews thought was most wrong in the world as they were experiencing it.  There was a great deal of consensus about a few things that were wrong, however.  Gentiles, whom God had not chosen, were in charge of the land and the people that God had chosen.  The majority of the people that God had chosen were scattered across the Mediterranean and Middle East outside of the land that God had given to them as a result of centuries of Gentile conquest and domination. The Jewish rulers who had enjoyed authority prior to Rome’s intervention, and the Jewish rulers who now enjoyed authority in cooperation with Rome, were not the people to whom God had promised such authority, which belonged to the family of David.

This rather broadly shared sense of what was wrong in the world, given God’s historic promises to the people of Israel, gave rise to a broadly shared set of convictions about what God’s Messiah would do when God chose to send deliverance to God’s people. We can listen to one Jew from about fifty years before Jesus’ birth give expression to these expectations for a Messiah:

Look, O Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, … that he may reign over Israel your servant. Endow him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers and that he may purge Jerusalem of the Gentile nations that trample her down to destruction. In the wisdom of righteousness he will thrust out sinners from the inheritance; … he will destroy the godless nations with the word of his mouth….  And he will gather together a holy people, whom he will lead in righteousness…. And he will divide them according to their tribes upon the land. And neither sojourner nor alien will live among them anymore…. And he will have the people of the Gentiles to serve him under has yoke…. Blessed are they that will be in those days, in that they will see the good fortune of Israel, in the gathering together of the tribes, which God will accomplish. (Psalms of Solomon 17, selections)

According to this profile, our hymn “Come, thou long expected Jesus,” is inaccurate.  A Messiah may have been “long expected,” but not the Messiah that Jesus turned out to be.  Where did the Jews get their expectations?  If we were to be completely honest, we’d have to admit that they have deep scriptural roots.  We have to be very selective when reading Old Testament “prophecies” in Advent.  Consider our lesson from Isaiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse [David’s father], and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” a promised ruler upon whom God’s Spirit will rest, who will judge in righteousness, who will bring peace to the land.  But what didn’t we read from Isaiah 11.  “They shall swoop down on the backs of the Philistines in the west, together they shall plunder the people of the east. They shall put forth their hand against Edom and Moab, and the Ammonites will serve them” (Is 11:14) – a vision of a restored Kingdom of Israel, specifically, violently subjugating the non-Jewish nations all around Israel’s territory.

Zechariah likely expected his son John, who would become known as John “the Baptizer,” to be the forerunner and herald of such a nationalistic Messiah – a Messiah who would restore the monarchy and kingdom of the house of David; a Messiah through whom God’s promises to Abraham and Abraham’s legitimate offspring, the people of Israel, would be reaffirmed – a numerous people enjoying self-governance in their own land; a Messiah who would gather the dispersed Jews throughout the world back to their ancestral land, which would be redistributed to the twelve tribes just as it had been in the days of Joshua, Jesus’ namesake.  Jesus’ own disciples did not want to give up this same set of expectations.  Recall how, after Jesus forewarned his disciples about what would happen to him in Jerusalem, Peter took Jesus aside to give him a lesson in true Messiahship (Mk 8:31-33): “No, Lord; that’s not what’s going to happen here!” Recall how, after Jesus forewarned his disciples the third time about his death at Gentile hands, James and John came to him, jockeying to become his wingmen when Jesus took over Israel (Mk 10:35-40).  Recall how, after the crucifixion, those two disciples on the road to Emmaus expressed their disappointment in Jesus: “we had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).  Recall how, even after Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples still asked: “So will you now restore political independence to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  It wasn’t till after Jesus was gone again that his own disciples began to realize that the Messiah God had sent was not the Messiah they had expected.

If we think about where Jesus’ Messiahship took the “Jesus people,” we might get a sense of all the hopes and expectations that Jesus’ Jewish followers had to give up in order to say “Yes” to him.  He took them away from the hope for a renewed Jewish monarchy in Israel; away from the hope for the subjugation of the Gentile nations; away from the hope that God’s future meant a return to the “good old days” after Israel’s conquest of Canaan and division of the spoils of the land among them. Jesus inaugurated a kingdom of a very different kind, one that did not privilege one ethnic group to the exclusion of others, one that was not built on political power and military might, one that broke down the dividing walls between people rather than reinforcing them (see esp. Eph 2:11-22).  His Messiahship answered the universal problem of what had gone wrong for all humanity, not merely the problems of local and ethnic interest to Israel.

All of this begs the question: do we understand what kind of Messiah has come in Jesus, or do we impose upon him expectations and hopes that are foreign to his mission as God’s Anointed?  Have we spent enough time with him, have we meditated long and hard enough on his word, that we also have discarded our false expectations for him and yielded to the kind of Messiah that he really is and, therefore, what it means to experience his deliverance – his salvation – and follow him as God’s Anointed One?

Do we expect a Messiah who will put his power behind our nation and its interests, who will adopt our nation’s agenda in this world as his own?  Jesus didn’t advance his own nation’s interests in the world.

Do we expect a Messiah who will save us from life’s pains and unpleasantries, make everything work out comfortably for us, make things go our way, or keep us flush with funds?  Jesus told anyone who wanted to follow him that it would mean denying themselves, taking up the cross that he bore, serving as he came to serve, and enduring any hardship or embarrassment that came their way for his sake.

Do we expect a Messiah who will give us the unfathomable riches of his spiritual blessings while we give to him the leftovers, the most token offerings, of our time, energies, and resources?  Jesus called his disciples to a radical reinvestment of themselves – to leave everything else behind then and there and to follow him, giving all their time, energy, and resources to advancing God’s kingdom thenceforth.

Do we expect a Messiah who will be our “personal Savior” without also being our Lord?  Jesus, as many of you will recall, asked his disciples: “What’s the value of calling me ‘Lord, Lord’ if you’re not going to do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:36)

In all probability, Zechariah died long before he ever came to understand the Messiahship of the One whom his son John would announce to the people, and thus long before his life could be transformed by the encounter with, and by the tutelage of, such a Messiah.  I pray that the same will not be true for any one of us.

 

Advent: Our Wake-Up Call

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent on Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

Today marks the beginning of another season of Advent, that period of watchfulness, of renewed waiting, that begins the church year.  This Sunday’s readings – the readings appointed for the first Sunday of Advent – remind us that the season of Advent is not just about, nor even chiefly about, getting ready for Christmas.  Indeed, I’ve long felt that it was rather artificial, Advent after Advent, to act as if we were looking “forward” to Christ’s first coming in humility as a baby born in Bethlehem.  Putting ourselves in the position of those who, more than 2,000 years ago, were anticipating the coming of a Messiah and acting as if we were yearning for the baby yet to be born has long seemed to me to be a kind of play-acting, of holy “make believe.”

The readings appointed for this Sunday, starting off this Advent, however, remind us of that for which we are indeed still waiting, that for which we need very much to get ready – Christ’s coming again in glory.

“O that You would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at Your presence!” (Isa 64:1)

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” (Mk 13:26)

“What I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” (Mk 13:37)

If we find that Christmas is upon us this year and we’re not altogether ready for it, it won’t be the end of the world.  But if Christ’s coming again finds us unprepared, living as people who haven’t been looking for it, well … that’s another story, isn’t it?  Advent is our wake-up call to what is coming, to Who is coming, rousing us to shake off our sleep and restore our souls to vigilance.  And we cannot afford to keep hitting the snooze button on this alarm.

Preparations for Christmas tend to overwhelm Advent, to bury beneath an avalanche of gift-buying, travel-planning, cantata-preparing, menu-mapping, and home-decorating what Advent, as a gift of the liturgical year, seeks to give to us – a chance to examine ourselves and to realign our lives, both as individual disciples and as a church family, so that we will move this year toward greater readiness to meet our Lord at his coming in glory to judge the living and the dead.  So let’s pause together and unwrap these two texts, and see if, perhaps, they might help us to receive this gift of Advent and make the best use possible of it, rather than set it aside in favor of our Christmas preparations.

The passage we heard from Isaiah 64 really begins in the previous chapter.  The prophet tells once again the familiar story of Israel.  God showed them great favor, leading them out of Egypt and into the land of promise.  Rather than keep faith with God by living as he commanded in his covenant, they rebelled against God and God’s Law, so that God brought upon them the punishments that God had promised – destruction and exile.  And now things are simply not the way they were meant to be.  God’s chosen people are not walking in God’s ways and relishing God’s presence; Israel is not experiencing the promises that had been extended to it.  It’s all just wrong.  How can God stand it, Isaiah asks?  How can he not simply “tear open the heavens and come down” and set everything right, the way it ought to be?

And, indeed, we might ask the same questions – perhaps not on our own behalf (though we, too, have no doubt had our moments), but on behalf of the many who have suffered significantly due to the evil or callousness of others.  And we can be sure that the blood of the innocent cries out with these words before the throne of God day and night – “O that You would tear open the heavens and come down!” – the blood of a young family killed during a house robbery; the blood of countless children dead or maimed by the violence of mercenaries in Africa or land mines in abandoned war zones; the blood of a young woman raped and killed; the blood of generations who died as slaves; the blood of thousands who disappeared as a totalitarian regime protected its interests against potential dissenters; the blood of those who died simply because others refused to share with them the gifts that God intended for all.  Iraqi Christians, refugees from the Islamic State, are crying out this prayer today; a Nigerian Christian woman and her children, whose husband and father was lynched in the street, are crying out this prayer today; Christians in the wake of the massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, are crying out this prayer today.   How can it be that Christ will not come, that a God whose heart is justice itself should not bring all to account before Him?

Now I’m not one to ignore elephants in the room.  It’s been about 1,987 years since Jesus uttered the words we heard read from Mark’s Gospel today, and he still hasn’t come back.  This raises some difficult, but legitimate questions.  First, if God is going to tear open the heavens, if the Son of Man is going to descend upon the clouds surrounded by the hosts of heaven, why hasn’t he?  Second, if he hasn’t in the last 1,987 years or so, why should we be concerned this year or next or the year after that, that he will? How important a compass point for us can this “coming again” still be?  Of all the things for which we might spend our lives getting ready, why should we say that this one is still so important that it should be placed at the top of our list of priority events for which to be prepared?

We all need to solve these questions for ourselves.  My own solution to the second question is not theologically profound, but one of simple math.  I figure that, at the absolute maximum, I have forty or forty-five years of life left (and that’s, in all probability, high-balling the figure).  If Jesus hasn’t returned within that time frame, I shall certainly go to him before the end of it.  And the next thing I expect to see after death closes my eyes is the scene portrayed for us at the beginning of today’s reading from Mark 13:

“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

And it won’t much matter to me how much time elapses between death closing my eyes and the last trumpet opening them again.  Jesus’ coming again is, for me, at most the rest of my lifetime away.

As for the first question, it seems to me that God will only tear open the heavens and come down when one of a few possible conditions has been reached.  One condition would be that God has seen positively accomplished on this earth and in the human story all that God has wanted to see accomplished, such that there is no longer any good left to come from delaying.  Another condition would be that God has given up hope on humanity in general and sees that his church has exhausted its ability or its willingness to mediate his deliverance further to the people of this world, such that there is no longer any good left to come from delaying. The day on which God chooses to “tear open the heavens and come down,” when “the Son of Man” will be seen “coming in the clouds,” will indeed at last mean justice for every soul, bringing to each either vindication or condemnation.  But: every day on which God does not tear open the heavens means opportunity for every soul.

I’m not speaking here just of an opportunity to “get saved” or “accept Jesus” or any such pale shadow of what God seeks from each one of us.  I mean here an opportunity to do the work that our Lord has entrusted to us – to each one of us as a disciple, to all of us as a congregation, and to all congregations together as the global Body of Christ.

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”  (Mark 13:32-37 NRSV)

This last sentence is one point in Mark’s Gospel where we find Jesus himself thinking beyond his immediate circle of hearers, namely his disciples who have gathered around him on the Mount of Olives for this teaching, and thinking about the many who will hear him through them.  We can almost see and hear Jesus at this point speaking to us, looking past his disciples and directly into the camera, as it were, at us to deliver this admonition: “Keep awake!”

The question for us in this interim is not “how long will it be?” or, heaven forbid, “can we figure out exactly when it will be?”  It is also not “Why isn’t God doing anything to help? To make things better? To make it easier for us to believe and to invest ourselves in his work?”  The question for us is, are we doing the work that Jesus has entrusted to us like servants who hope to be found faithfully and diligently doing that work when he returns?  Or are we doing our own work, attending to our own agendas, seeking our own interests, making up our own list of things to do each day that have little or nothing to do with the work that God has laid upon us to do?  Servants cannot afford to act that way: servants must attend first and foremost to the work the master has given them, and then to their own interests only as time permits – not the reverse.

When Christ comes, he will encounter each one of us as either part of the problem or part of the solution in regard to the ills that beset this world.  There will be no middle ground – and those who stand on the sidelines watching the ills that beset the world, shaking their heads, and complaining that God isn’t doing anything about it are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

What, then, is the work that the master has laid upon us, to occupy us in this interim?  This church’s mission statement actually captures this pretty well.  God wants for us to know him, to live fully in relationship with him and in response to him.  God wants for us to grow into the person that he is re-creating us to be through the working of God’s Holy Spirit in our midst – to be changed from self-centered and self-driven people into other-centered and Spirit-driven people whose joy it is to do what pleases God.  God wants for us to go out to bear witness to and extend his kingdom, his hope, his love, his provision, his justice everywhere that there is need.  We can say so much about the work generally; each one of us has to discern our particular tasks toward attaining these ends.  Scripture is an indispensable and inexhaustible resource for us in this process of discernment.  Every page reveals something about the character, the heart, the driving passions of the God we serve. Every page reveals something to us about the character, heart, and driving passions of the people that Jesus died to empower us to become. Every page has something to say about how to invest ourselves in real-world actions that will advance what God wants to accomplish through us.

Jesus’ word to us this Advent, Jesus’ word to us today, is that those who wake up to understand and pursue these things, who refuse to be as one asleep to God or to God’s purposes for us any longer, are indeed favored.  He invites us to renewed attentiveness – to watchfulness – in regard to this work of knowing, growing, and going as he desires and directs day by day by day.  He invites us to put at the top of our list of things to do: his list of things to do.

The question that his coming again will pose to each one us when we lay eyes upon him is this: Did your life show my death to be worthwhile? Did you devote your individual lives and your common life together to everything that my death opened up for you, and did you diligently discharge the responsibility that my death placed upon you – to live no longer for yourself, but for the one who died and was raised on your behalf?

The first gift of Christmas is this gift of Advent – the gift of an opportunity to ask ourselves these questions and work to realign ourselves such that we will be better able to answer “yes” in the coming year than we were in the year that is now past.  And when we can answer “yes,” then we will be living as people who are fully awake, rather than still asleep to what’s really important in this world, for this life.

As we close our service after communion today singing the familiar hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” I would invite you not to sing it as we might imagine the people of ancient Judea singing out their prayers for a Messiah who would come to deliver them, nor as if the object of this hymn – this prayer – was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus so long ago.  I would invite you, instead, to sing it to the Christ who sits enthroned at God’s right hand, whose coming again in glory we confess as a pillar of our faith, and whose future interventions we count on for the fulfillment of our hope.  I would invite you to sing it as people who are newly committed so to live and invest yourselves that you will have no cause for shame, and he no cause for disappointment, when he does come in fulfillment of his word.