Friday, March 16, 2018
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” famously said the Greeks. Whether they ever did see him we are not told. We get the impression that once their request got to Jesus, he did not bother to meet up with them. We are told that Jesus took their request as a sort of rubicon, a defining moment, the confirmation of his choices and his doom. He says, “The hour has come.”
But we are not told why Jesus took their request that way. What I surmise is that the Greeks represent the world, the larger world outside Israel, and they confirmed in him that the world was ready for him—or that he was ready for the world.
The world had been on his mind since at least his conversation with Nicodemus three years earlier, from which we heard last Sunday. He had said, “God so loved the world,” and that “God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.”
Don’t take that for granted, because his terminology represents a controversial choice on his part, a doom, a deadly choice. He had not said, “God so loved Israel,” nor that “God sent his son into Israel not to condemn Israel but that Israel through him might be saved.” But that’s what you should expect him to have said, considering such prophecies as Jeremiah’s, who promised that God would make a new covenant with the House of Israel—not with the world! When God said, “I was their husband,” that meant that God was the lover of Israel. God’s love was for Israel, not the world.
But the Lord Jesus, as early as his talk with Nicodemus, apparently made his complex choice to be a Messiah for the world. Fine. But that entailed him being a failure as the Messiah of Israel. In that sense, Our Lord was a failure. And that troubled him, even though he believed in the choice he was making. Just because you’re choosing what you believe doesn’t mean it won’t trouble you. You grieve the loss of other possibilities, you grieve your losing the life you enjoy, and losing your loved ones. The right choice is often the grievous choice. Jesus knew what it meant when he said that “If you love your life you’ll lose it.”
He failed as Israel’s Messiah. He lost to the Romans. He failed to establish his kingdom of peace for his own people. His teaching failed to persuade the thousands of people that he miraculously fed, and at the end only 120 people were still loyal to him. He was a loser, he went down in shame instead of glory. It troubled him, that he’d have to accept them killing him, but he had made his choices, and his doom was to plant his death, like a seed, in the fertile ground of God’s future.
Despite his grief he was resolved. Maybe because of his grief he was resolved. He said, “What should I say, Father, deliver me? No, Father, glorify your name.” That was what the Epistle to the Hebrews called his reverent submission to his Father. Not submission like groveling surrender, but submission like you submit your proposal, you submit your manuscript, you submit your best work.
He made his reverent submission and then, like an unexpected thunderclap, his Father vindicated him. Didn’t explain him, didn’t convince the crowd, but certainly did vindicate his choices and his doom.
Then Jesus shared his vision, his vision of himself, which he held before himself as he made his complex choices. He said, “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” Lifted up, like on a Roman cross? Yes. But also lifted by his Father up from death. Also lifted up to heaven at God’s right hand, presiding over all the world and drawing all people to himself.
His lifting up is the last one of our signs of God. He’s lifted up like a signpost. The sign is not his cross so much as him who is up on it. The sign is your own mental image of him, and, like those Greeks who had wanted to see him, you have to be satisfied with your mental image of him, your image of him that you draw from the testimony of the witnesses and the memoirs of the apostles. His sign for you is how you envision him in your hope and in your longing.
He is a complex sign. He recapitulates the other signs of God that we have seen this season of Lent.
He is lifted up like that bronze serpent that Moses put up on the pole, so that everyone who gazes on him is healed.
He is raised up like the temple three days after it was broken down, that is, the temple of his body, his embodied life of ethical obedience, the house for God that he had built by his lifelong obedience to the Ten Commandments, the obedience he learned through what he suffered.
He is lifted up on the cross by the jeering Romans soldiers, who stripped him naked to expose his circumcision, thus to shame him and all the other Jews. But as Hebrews says elsewhere, that’s the sign “that he despised the shame—for the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross and despised the shame.”
He is lifted up from the earth like the rainbow, that sign of God for Noah and the animals, that bow-and-arrow aimed back up at God’s own heart, God saying “cross my heart and hope to die,” the sign of God’s all-in commitment to every living creature, that God freely takes personal responsibility for all the sin and evil of the world, and even takes the rap for it, though sin and evil come from us, not God. Way back at the rainbow God had committed to that doom, and now the hour has come.
Jesus is the sign of God’s identification with humankind, for better or worse, in life and death, with nothing held back. And thus the Incarnation, so that God should die! Because if God, who is pure spirit, had not become a human being, then God could not die. But why should God have to die? Because of God’s commitment to take the rap for evil and the penalty for sin. It was to be able to die a human death that God became a human being. How awful.
And yet how wonderful and mysterious is God’s answer to the problem of evil in the world, and it challenges our expectations. The No, No, No of humanity is answered by the Yes, Yes, Yes of God, but more than that, this Yes of God rises from the world as Yes to God from the life of someone who is genuinely human.. As Hebrews says, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” The Yes of Jesus is both the Yes of God and the Yes to God, said both ways in loving commitment even unto death.
So Jesus did not die a sacrifice to senseless evil, though sensible evil took him as its victim. He died a sacrifice for righteousness, but not a victim of righteousness, rather a sacrifice for righteousness just as a seed is a sacrifice for the plant rises from it. He sacrificed for justice as an investment in justice. The Romans took him as a victim, but he was really the priest who offered up the sacrifice of himself. He was no victim, he wasn’t even a guinea pig, he was the pioneer and perfecter. Jesus is the sign that points to this way as the right way, to take the risk, even at the cost of suffering, that righteousness and justice are worth the risk to gain the future of God.
He was lifted up on the cross as the priest of his own sacrifice. As a priest he offers up to God the guilt of the world that he takes upon himself. He also offers up to God the grief of the world, he offers his prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, the misery of the world and the anguish of humanity, your fear, your isolation, your frustration, your longing, and even your rage, crying out to God. “Why have you forsaken us? Why have you allowed all this? Why have you created us?”
Hebrews says that he was heard, that his prayers were heard. And yet he was not spared, he was not rescued. He was allowed to fail, to fail as the Messiah of Israel. Even in his failure he was the sign, the sign that it’s precisely in our failure that God meets us. God meets us human beings in the terrors and trials of time and circumstance.
Does God recognize failure? Yes, if your failure is that point where God meets you. I’m not saying that God ignores your prayers. I’m inviting you to believe that God suffers with you whatever suffering you pray about. God accompanies you through it.
With all the misery and suffering of the world that we keep praying about, you might conclude that Jesus has also been a failure as the Messiah of the world. Where is the Messianic age? But I invite you to believe that Jesus is the sign that God is willing to go the whole way with humanity, to not cut short human history and development and cultural creativity, to give humanity lots of time and room and freedom to do what it wants in the world and seek its destiny, and God patiently and lovingly suffers us.
Suffers us, not endures us. Suffers us without resenting us, suffers us and speaks to us, suffers us and enlightens us, suffers us and writes God’s words upon our hearts. I invite you to believe in this kind of salvation, I invite you to believe in this kind of strategy of God, this motivation for prayer, and I invite you to believe that this grand strategy of God is the expression of God’s own self-denying love for the world, God’s self-sacrificing love for humanity, and God’s joyful love for you.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Sunday, March 04, 2018
Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22
In 1980 I began my first ministry, at the Hungarian Reformed Church in South River NJ. The ladies held an Election Day Stuffed Cabbage Supper as an annual fund-raiser. I love stuffed cabbage. So did the whole north end of town.
That first Election Day evening we stood on line to come into the hall for dinner, and there inside the door was a table where Mrs. Buga was selling chances. Gambling in church! I was horrified. She sat there with a black metal cash box, a roll of numbered tickets colored red, and a rotating steel mesh ball for shuffling the tickets. At the next consistory meeting I asked the elders and deacons to put an end to this practice, and they did so, which amazes me now because they were going against their wives. But I had a very positive ministry there for five years.
In 1986 I left that church for graduate school, but on Election Day we went back to eat stuffed cabbage and say hello. We came into the hall and there at her table sat Mrs. Buga, with her cash box and red roll of tickets and steel mesh ball. Kept safe for five years. They had just waited me out. So how long did it take for the money-changers to get back into the temple and set up shop again?
The Cleansing of the Temple happens on Palm Sunday, according to Matthew, but in John’s Gospel it’s way earlier, right after Our Lord’s first miracle of turning water into wine. In both events his actions were symbolic, they were meant as signs, but how opposite. Water and wine, and then wrath and a whip. One sign pointing to extravagant generosity and the other to extreme judgment.
Our Lord does this at Passover, the holiday when three years later he will be killed. Already he knows he’s in for it. He’s walking into a three-year Lent. He knows his words will be resisted and his actions opposed, he knows they’ll do away with him for doing what he has to do and saying what he has to say. To do the right thing, you have to sacrifice. To commit to the right thing, you have to pay for it. We know that’s true, but why does it have to be true? It stinks. And just because you know it’s right doesn’t mean you won’t feel anger for having to do it. As Jesus did.
Because sacrifice and suffering are not good things in themselves. You are not called to seek out martyrdom. You are called to a living sacrifice, not a dying one, you are called not to get up on the cross but to carry it—that is, to be realistic, to face the real and unfair cost of leading lives of ethical love. You know this from experience. If you’ve loved, you’ve suffered: whether from the death or misfortune of a loved one, or from having lost out when you did what was right. If you don’t want to sacrifice, don’t love.
Love costs even God. It’s suffering and sacrifice even for God when God commits to us. I said last week that for love’s sake God suffers us. We saw in the story of Noah and the rainbow that God points a bow and arrow back at God’s own heart, the symbol of God’s self-sacrifice. In the story of Abraham we saw God commit to a special relationship with Abraham and his offspring, which then subsequently required God to suffer the shamefully bad behavior of Abraham’s descendants. When God commits to the church, God suffers the relentless scandal of the church.
But even for God, suffering is not good in itself, and it’s in God’s interest to move the relationship along and do something about that behavior. God wants God’s partners to be ethical. So God gives to the children of Abraham the Ten Commandments. This was a new thing in the world, for gods and goddesses to have much interest in ethical behavior, whether among themselves or us. But this God is on a mission to heal the world, and to develop an ethical humanity to share in that healing, and God’s directions to shape that new humanity are the Ten Commandments.
You can think of the Ten Commandments as a sign, a great big sign, erected by God to direct our development towards that humanity that helps to save the world. Of course what the world would prefer is that God do it all himself and prove himself by means of supernatural interventions and convenient miracles and fixing things and stopping things. God does not do it that way, and maybe God is foolish not to. God’s foolishness is rather to be proven by the behavior of those who believe in God.
God commits to us, God identifies with us, and the result of God identifying with us is that God’s reputation is in our hands and our lives. We are entrusted with God’s image in the world. Our behavior is a house for God. Our thoughts and actions and our bodies are God’s temple. The Commandments are a blueprint for the temple of God that is our behavior. God offers this pattern of behavior as something so designed that our performing this pattern converts us into a people whose culture and character become a sign of God within in the world.
These Commandments can be examined one by one, like the details of a blueprint, but they are best in their unity, as an entity. I’m saying to think of them as a house, in which each commandment is a structural member holding up the whole, each commandment holds in tension and compression with the others. The house of our behavior is a house of God, and your ethical lives are a dwelling-place of God in the world, a temple.
For Christians the Ten Commandments are wisdom instead of obligation. For us, the Torah is not obligatory, as St. Paul said last week, but we are obligated to learn the wisdom of God that is carried in them. And we must be willing to pay the price that they demand of us. Like the sacrifice of your freedom of speech that comes with not bearing false witness. Like your sacrifice of sexual freedom that comes with not committing adultery. Like your sacrifice of your right to carry a gun so that you shall not kill. Like the surrender that comes with not coveting your neighbor’s brownstone, if you rent. To love your neighbor as yourself is usually a sacrifice.
And so here is a take-home: If loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you, it isn’t love yet, it’s only being nice. Nice is good, but that’s not what we mean by loving your neighbor as yourself. You will know it’s love when somehow it costs you, even if your neighbor doesn’t know it, and even if you don’t feel very loving. In fact you might feel like Jesus in the temple. Yet you continue to wish them well and serve their good as best you can. And as you pay the costs to be good to your neighbor, you explore what love is. You all need a few relationships of potential irritation for practicing this love. A good place to find such irritating neighbors is in church!
During Lent you confess that in your ethical behavior you have failed to be good representatives of God. During Lent you have be like Jesus in the temple of your own life, pouring out the coins in your heart and upsetting the tables of your own mind. Do that within yourself. That’s confession.
But here’s the deeper level of God’s commitment to you and identification with you: God will be recognized not only in your good behavior, but even in your confession of your bad behavior. God will be recognized, not only as the God who loves the good, but even more as the God who loves the weak and the fallen. In ethical terms, that is the foolishness of God.
The most important ethical behavior that you can do and by which God wants to be known is your telling the truth about yourselves. That can feel like extravagance and extremity, like Jesus in the temple, when you confess “there is no health in us, miserable offenders.” Uncomfortable words? If confession doesn’t cost you your comfort, you haven’t confessed yet.
I said that if loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you yet, it’s only being nice. It’s true for God as well. God has neighbors too, and that means you. God has to love you as God’s self. God treats you with respect, God gives you space and room to live your life as you develop it. God abides you the way you are, God abides you in your weakness and suffers you in your failures. It costs God every day to keep on loving you as God’s self. But that’s what love does, that’s what love loves to do. So I am telling you again that while this pilgrimage of Lent is partly about us, it’s mostly about your journey deep into the unfathomable, unbounded love of God.
Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, February 23, 2018
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:22-30, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38
The two signs of God that I’m going to talk about today are the signs of circumcision and the cross. These two signs are paradigmatic of the two Biblical religions: circumcision is the costly sign of Judaism, and the cross is the universal sign of Christianity. Notice that both signs refer to violence against a non-consenting victim, whether it’s the cutting of an infant or the torturing execution of a slave! Violent signs are at the heart of both religions, and should that not be troubling?
This week I could not tolerate the news. I was already down from having the flu, but listening to how our lawmakers and our president propose to answer the violent death of children with even more violence instead of reversing it, and all of them calling themselves Christians, I found myself weeping at the breakfast table. Grief and anger. So what about this violence in the signs of God?
A cross is something to kill people on. You know it was not the earliest symbol of Christianity. Jesus never told us to make it our sign, not even in our gospel today. He chose for us the signs of water and break and wine. The early Christians for their emblem used a fish, which was non-violent.
The cross became the main Christian symbol only after the Roman emperor Constantine made it the emblem of his army—organized violence in the name of Christ. And through all the centuries after, millions of people have been killed or injured under one sign of the cross or another, especially among the circumcised. It’s small comfort that the cross was not the emblem of the Reformed churches. We did not use crosses in worship. In our sanctuary the only cross is up in one stained-glass window. I think I can say that the cross is a symbol of the shame of Christianity.
So is the Lord Jesus ashamed of us, ashamed of us who have shamed his message and what he stood for, and died for? Isn’t that what he predicted in our gospel? Does that mean that in heaven now he does not intercede for us? Or is that rather part of his suffering, that he suffers us?
As he suffered the rejection of his people and the denial of his disciples, but never rejected them, so now he suffers the misuse of his name and the complicity of the church, but he does not reject us. He bears his shame for us in the enduring wounds upon his resurrected hands and feet and side. But his resurrection is stronger than death and his love his stronger than his shame, indeed, his love is so strong as to embrace and keep loving even that which shames him. Let that inspire us as well.
Shame is not all bad. A normal person is supposed to know when to be ashamed. The absence of any sense of shame within our president is particularly distressing, and yet that absence of shame makes him particularly invulnerable and distressingly successful. Yet he uses shame when he mocks the disabled and he calls people losers. Sexual abusers count on using shame to protect their secrecy. Shame is always a signal of something wrong but it’s not a trustworthy sign. Children grow up with shame they don’t deserve. We grow up ashamed of our bodies. Already in the Garden of Eden the first symptom of the fall was the sudden shame of Eve and Adam at their nakedness. No other animal on the planet is ashamed of its organs of reproduction so as to keep them undercover.
This is why it is almost laughable that the middle seven verses of our reading from Genesis have been cut out by the editors of our lectionary. Those are the seven verses where God tells Abram that in order for him to partner in this new covenant that God is making with him, Abram has to go and circumcise “the flesh of his foreskin,” and the flesh of the foreskin of every male within his house. Those words get repeated several times for emphasis.
I guess the lectionary editors did not want you to think about that part of the male anatomy in church. Is the deletion of the verses from prudery or a little bit of anti-Semitism? Whatever, the deletion of those verses from our lesson just sharpens the point, that God made covenant with Abraham by means of a sign cut into that part of his body that has always been a focal point of shame. How troubling of God. And I would say that the deletion of those verses is an implied rebuke against the troubling side of God.
So too in the gospel, Simon Peter rebuked Jesus when he spoke of his approaching death. Up to this point in the story, according to St. Mark, the campaign has been a wonderful success, although with gathering opposition. Now for the first time Jesus predicts that the opposition will get him and kill him. If that happens the public will regard him not as the Messiah but a loser.
Yet Simon Peter believes he truly is the Son of God, and that it’s his to win, and for him to throw it all away would be a crying shame. And the disciples were so ashamed of his crucifixion they didn’t want to see it. The women were there at the cross, but only one of the men. The others fled and kept undercover.
Now when Jesus first predicts it, he does not say he will be crucified, but that he will be killed at the hands of the Judean authorities. And since the Judean authorities were not permitted to crucify by either the Torah or Roman law, the disciples will have been thinking of a death by stoning. It’s only after Peter’s rebuke and Jesus rebuking him back that Jesus gathers the crowd and for the first time mentions a cross. To follow him you must take up your cross. You lose your life to save it.
You losers. If you’re carrying a cross that means you are a loser. The crowd along the roadside is mocking you and shaming you. Can you face that as a follower of Jesus? Notice that Jesus never says you have to die upon your cross. He did that once for all. That particular suffering he does not ask of you. But he does hold out to you the suffering of shaming by the likes of people who have no shame, or your shaming by ordinary people who are more afraid than free, or your shaming by people who are simply ignorant, or your shaming by people who are themselves ashamed.
It was the shame of Peter that made Peter want to shame Jesus. Jesus had to suffer Peter, and to endure his own disciples was part of Jesus’ suffering. The suffering of God on our behalf is what we celebrate in Lent. Of course we think about our own penitence, and our Lenten deprivations are self-imposed sufferings to keep us mindful of our shortcomings. But the deeper mystery of Lent is the suffering of God, and the mental pilgrimage of Lent directs us towards Good Friday.
Not that Good Friday was so awful. The physical suffering of Jesus was real but it was hardly as awful as the suffering of many other Jews in history, or of the countless unremembered victims of torture and abuse and slavery and oppression, or of the ordinary sicknesses some people get. The deeper suffering of God is the shame of God on how the world which God created has turned out, the shame of God for putting this world under the stewardship of our stupid species, the shame of God for the politics of Christians, and the shame of God for the relentless scandal of the Christian church.
Simon Peter shows us that just because you call Jesus “the Christ” does not mean you represent his message, and you might well even be his opposition. The lovers of Jesus can be the worst of his deniers, and his followers can be the worst of his betrayers. To the loudest of the Christian voices in America today I do believe the Lord Jesus says, Get thee behind me Satan.
Let me finish with the positive. In the Epistle, St. Paul talks about the faith of Abraham. The context of his faith was the shame of childlessness with Sarah. That was way worse back then than it would be today. So for Abraham his faith was the opposite of shame.
For some of you faith is the opposite of doubt, for others it’s the opposite of certainty, and for some of you your faith must be your antidote to shame. Whatever kind of shame you feel about yourself. The shame that others load on you. The shame that has a grip on you. That shame you counteract by your faith in God.
The opposite of your shame is faith, your faith in what God says of you, your faith in what God offers you, your faith in God’s esteem for you. Your faith in the truth despite the shaming of the shameless. Your faith that life is worth living when you having something to die for. Your faith that love is more powerful than shame, and even reverses it. What God considers shameful, the world does not, and what the world considers shameful, God does not. What we’re ashamed of God is not. The suffering of God for us is actually a matter of great joy to God. God loves in you even what you despise about yourself. So great is God’s love for you that loving you is nothing but pleasure and joy for God.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, February 16, 2018
Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-13
What are you giving up for Lent? Are you doing any fasting? Any self-imposed deprivation? The deprivation of the Lord Jesus was imposed on him by the Holy Spirit. Now St. Mark does not say that Our Lord fasted for those forty days, as does St. Matthew, but there’s deprivation just in his isolation in the desert.
Except for animals and angels. St. Mark is the only gospel to mention the wild beasts, which makes us think of Noah, who was with the wild beasts in the ark for forty days of rain. As deprivation the Flood was a colossal one, with very tight rations for man and beast.
The forty days of rain upon the ark and the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness are behind the tradition of the season of Lent, as is the forty years of the Children of Israel wandering in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, eating only manna. Lent is deprivation, and deprivation on the way somewhere. Like the hobbits Frodo and Sam slogging through the desert wastes of Mordor, eating only morsels of elven bread, their Middle-Earth version of the Eucharist. The season of Lent puts the church on a journey of deprivation, a journey to Good Friday, to the cross, to Golgotha, to our Biblical “Mount Doom.”
To guide us on our journey God makes signs for us, signs to keep us on the path that God is on. So my sermon series for Lent is called “The Signs of God.” This is a reworking of a series from six years ago. Each week we’ll look for the signs in the lessons, and go where those signs direct us.
It’s worth noting that the Bible offers us signs of God but never proofs of God. The Bible never bothers to prove the being of God. The Bible assumes the being of God to be so obvious and reasonable that only a fool would say there is no God. What the Bible does address is which God, whose God, and where is this God going. Therefore signs, not proofs.
Proofs conclude and signs direct. Proofs settle and signs are for movement. For proofs you can sit and analyze and judge and be done with it. For signs you have to get up and get moving to where the signs are pointing you. The Bible offers signs of a God who is on the way somewhere.
The sign of the rainbow is the sign of the covenant that God makes with Noah and the animals and all the earth. The sign of the rainbow is the sign of the covenant that God makes with Noah and the animals and all the earth. The sign is given to Noah as the high priest of the creatures of the earth, to Noah as the pastor of the congregation of the animals.
Yes, the animals are in this covenant too. Nobody asked them if they wanted in, nobody asked Noah either. This covenant is totally gratuitous, it’s all God’s idea, it’s God’s commitment to the future, it’s God’s gratuitous benefit to Noah’s descendants and to the animals and to all the earth.
For the sign God selected a natural phenomenon, visible to animals as well, to give it new symbolic meaning. The meaning of the rainbow is not in the colors but the shape. What God says is clear: “I set my bow in the clouds.” That means a bow-and-arrow bow, a bow stretched back into a curve by pulling an arrow against the string. The curve of the bow is directed upwards toward the target, and the bull’s-eye is Godself.
Do you get it? God pledges God’s own life and death as the guarantee of God’s faithfulness to animals and humankind. God is saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die, if I don’t keep my promise to the earth.”
How far can we go with this? Can we shoot the arrow all the way to Good Friday and the target of God’s Son hanging on the cross? Did God shoot the arrow at the dearest person of the three-personned God, God’s Son, Godself? The arrow shoots across the seven weeks of Lent, over the imaginary road of our annual pilgrimage. This is the road that takes us to the Emerald City, the wonderful city of God, but before the city is the Cracks of Doom, the yawning chasm of the death of God.
God pledges God’s life and death with the sign of the rainbow, God commits Godself. God says, “I’m in.” Before the rainbow, God let the world have its way, God kept distant, and when things got very bad, God just wrote it off, God ordered the Flood to clean it all away. But with the rainbow God says, “I’m in, I’m personally invested in this now, I will see this through.” So the sign of the rainbow means that God will start taking personal responsibility for all the sin and suffering and misery of the world.
Not that God is the one who is guilty or at fault, but, just as our next president will have to take responsibility for our dangerous national debt, so God accepts responsibility for the evil that we human beings have let loose in the world, God submits to taking blame. The rainbow tells us that God will pay the price for all the wrongness we have caused within the world. Which seems like a very self-sacrificial and self-depriving thing for God to offer.
On this path of God’s humility God invites us too, which for us means self-examination. So let me add here that for the Bible to try to prove the being of God would let humanity off the hook, as if we were neutral and fair and had the right to be the objective judge and jury. From the Bible’s perspective, we are the ones on trial. Only when we make the self-examining journey through our failures and our grief and anger and loss, does the being of God begin to make sense. For your mind to reason out God’s being, in front of your mind you need the ashes on your forehead.
Or on that same spot on your forehead, the water of baptism. The sign of baptism informs your mind behind it, and your conscience too. First Peter calls baptism “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Because if it were only ashes, if you just stayed with your failures and your grief and anger and loss, if your journey through the desert ended only at the chasm of the death of God, your guilty conscience would lead you to despair or else to reject the whole idea of God. But because of the resurrection of Jesus, which nobody asked for, God negates your guilt, gratuitously, just as gratuitously as God benefited Noah and the animals. God washes off the ashes from your mind and gives you a clean conscience, as a gift.
But the water of baptism evaporates, as a rainbow disappears, so what good is a sign you cannot see? The meaning of the sign is not the substance of water but the action of applying it, an action remaining in the memories of the witnesses of your baptism like they remember that rainbow they saw that summer day. The action of your baptism was attested in a certificate and recorded in a book.
These all testify that the sign was applied, and the sign means that the Holy Spirit applies to you the self-sacrifice of God in Christ upon the cross, as well as all the prior self-sacrificing of God on behalf of Israel in the desert, all the way back to Noah and the ark. All that self-sacrifice of God is applied to you by the Holy Spirit invisibly, as the water gets invisible in the application of baptism. You are given the right to the all the benefits of God’s gratuitous commitments, a clean conscience, and the right of resurrection.
Is your conscience ever guilty? I hope so! Do you have regrets about things that you have said or done? I hope so some time! So think of yourself as an unclean animal and of God as Noah, who herds you into his ark without your having asked for it, and saves you. Or believe that you are gathered along the road by God, that God is on the way somewhere, and taking you along. God is on the way with you. That this faithful God is on the way with you is how you can put your conscience to rest.
The sign of the rainbow points forward to the cross and the sign of your baptism points backward to the cross. They both are signs of God binding Godself to us. They both point us to God committing Godself to us. Not just God’s teachings or God’s laws, but God’s own self. God says, “Here I am. I’m not just God, I am your God. I’m with you and you’re with me.”
That kind of personal commitment is what we call love, especially when it’s self-sacrificial. These two signs are the signs of God’s great love for us. I invite you to believe that the most important thing that you can know about your own conscience is that God absolutely loves you, cross God’s heart and hope to die.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, February 10, 2018
2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
I don’t hardly know what to do with the Transfiguration. I mean I’m not sure how to make it useful spiritually or give you a take-home from it.
I could talk about it doctrinally, if you have that old-fashioned taste for doctrine as an end in itself like my Dutch Calvinist immigrant farmers in Canada. Sjoerd Sierdsma told me that he liked to have something to think about all week when he milked his cows.
I could talk about it mystically, if you have that un-American love for worship as an end in itself like the Oriental Orthodox, and you cared about contemplation more than application. I could talk about it philosophically, or historically, or as literature, but what shall you make of it for your ethical life or spiritual life this week? I don’t know if it even wants that kind of application.
The disciples did not know what to make of it. They were confused by it. Quote: “They did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” And then the Lord Jesus told them not to speak of it till after his death and resurrection, I’m guessing for the reason that they did not comprehend it even though he had wanted them to witness it. Just the week before they did not comprehend his prediction of his death and resurrection, and that had terrified them too, and they argued against it. So why does the Lord Jesus want them to witness what he knows they will not understand?
There are many things that St. Mark does not explain to us. As I said last week, he does not write as an omniscient narrator. He never tells us what Jesus was thinking, he only shows us what could be observed of him. He does not tell us what Jesus knew or when he knew it. How much did the Lord Jesus know about the Transfiguration ahead of time? Did he control what happened there or was it more like it was done to him? Did he summon Moses and Elijah or was he surprised and delighted to meet them there? Did his heavenly Father do this to strengthen and encourage him or did he make this happen for himself? Did he know what his Father would say there? I think John Calvin would say Yes and Martin Luther would say No. I think St. Augustine would say Yes, as would the Cappadocian Fathers, but maybe St. Irenaeus would say No. I guess we’re not expected to know. We are not to put words in his mouth or in his mind, we are to listen to him.
St. Mark doesn’t explain why Moses and Elijah were there. And why those two—why not, say, Abraham or David? Was it because only Moses and Elijah had had their private talks with God on mountaintops? Was it because Moses and Elijah were prophets, while Abraham and David were not? Is there something inherently prophetic in the Transfiguration, if prophecy is the revelation of hidden things, or the future becoming visible in the present, or the exposing of secrets, and the truth that underlies appearances? In viewing Jesus transfigured, were they suddenly glimpsing the future, with Jesus resurrected and glorified, still in his physical body, but glorified with God’s glory?
I won’t be obstinate. Despite the mysteries and unanswered questions we can make some decent deductions.
We can say that God was in Christ.
We can say that the God of Moses and Elijah, the One God of the Old Testament, who shared God’s glory with no other, was investing that glory in the body and person of Jesus, such that Moses and Elijah talked to Jesus just as they had talked to God in the burning bush and on Mount Sinai. St. Paul can say the same in other words in our Epistle for today.
Also we can say what the disciples will have found confusing, that this One God who was in Jesus spoke as if there were two persons in God, a Father and a Son, which was hitherto unthinkable.
No less confusing for them was that with Jesus having recently told them that he would be killed, then how could this One God be fully in someone going to die, but we can say, after the fact, after we have surveyed the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, we can say what they didn’t yet see, that the Transfiguration was a prophetic glimpse of the unfathomable strategy of God’s self-sacrificial love.
And finally, we can say that the apostles were his witnesses, and through the ages they offer us their testimony as something we can choose to believe.
The Christian tradition has made those deductions and said all these things despite the mysteries still unexplained. The church has this story but does not possess it, the story stands beyond the church and its control. Such is Biblical prophecy. The church produced the Bible but it does not own the Bible and is not the Bible’s master, the Bible keeps breaking free.
This story I’ve known as long as I can remember, and it’s stranger to me now than ever before. The same with the story of Elijah and Elisha, how little I understand it. How foreign these familiar stories are, how uncontrolled, undomesticated, like wild animals that we can see are living just beyond the fence.
We are not told what Elijah knew nor when he knew it. We are told what the companies of prophets knew but not how they knew it. What the companies of prophets were is not explained to us, though scholars have opinions. We are told what Elisha knew and when he knew it, but not how he knew it. We are shown his prophetic power coming into play. The larger narrative of Second Kings is shifting from the story of Elijah to the story of Elisha, and our observation of Elijah is now from Elisha’s point of view.
Elisha is more with us than Elijah was. Elijah was the fiery prophet from the desert, a loner, the stranger, the wanderer. He stands for judgment and a jealous God and the absolute sovereignty of the Lord God. His name is “Eli-jah,” which means, “My God is Jah, my God is Adonai, the Lord.” While Elisha is more with us, he lives in town, and his name is “Eli-sha,” which means, “My God saves.” He’s the prophet of healing and rescue and reconciliation.
Elijah resists Elisha but Elisha will not leave him. The Bible so often resists us but we will not let it go. Elisha will not let Elijah send him away, and we will not be put off by those things in the Bible that we cannot understand and may not ever fully comprehend. If it’s true, as I have been saying, that all of you are expected to be minor prophets in some measure, then you have to stay with such stories and keep repeating ideas that you cannot master but still must love. Not only Biblical stories but the story of the world and even the story of yourself.
I see this difficult walking of Elisha with Elijah as a general paradigm. You are Elisha and your God is Elijah, and God keeps disappearing but you will not let go of God and you demand God’s Spirit.
You are Elisha and your best self is Elijah, and you will not let your best self reject or abandon the self that you are now.
You are Elisha and justice for the world is Elijah, justice, fairness, truthfulness, honesty in politics, economic equity and basic safety, and it keeps eluding our grasp, but you will not stop going for it and calling out that you see it.
You are Elisha and Elijah is the light in the darkness, and you keep reaching for the light.
You are Elisha and Elijah is the Transfiguration, and you don’t know what’s behind it, but you hope that you are glimpsing the future shining back into the present darkness in his body with the justice and the light of God.
This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him. There are many competing voices in the world, and much confusing talk of what the Christian faith means, especially on the current issues of the day. But it’s wonderful to me how Jesus is respected in the world not least by people not in church.
I was watching a comedian named Alonzo Bodden, he’s a regular on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. He talked about healthcare in Canada, and he said, “In the United States . . . the Republicans are like, ‘Healthcare for poor people? We will shut down the government! In the name of Jesus.’ (Laughter.) They always slip Jesus in on things Jesus would have nothing to do with. (Cheering and applause.) Listen, I’m not Biblical, I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty confident Jesus would be okay with healthcare. I mean it just seems like the kinda thing he’d go along with. I mean Jesus used to lay hands on the sick.”
My point is not healthcare or Republicans but that the secular audience was cheering about Jesus. As I watched I thought that Jesus keeps getting his message through. “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.”
There is so much we do not understand nor can we. But you don’t have to be an expert to know what the messages of Jesus are. Stay with them. Repeat those messages. Among all the voices, listen to him. You keep on walking with Jesus, for he has told you where he is going.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Saturday, February 03, 2018
Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39
The Bible has many miracles, but not till Jesus does healing become the typical miracle. Before him, most of the miracles were miracles of judgment: like the Flood, or the Ten Plagues on Egypt, or fire from heaven on the enemies of Elijah and Elisha, and many more. Often these judgments included miraculous rescues from the judgment: Noah in the ark, or Israel escaping through the Red Sea.
Less frequent are miracles of sustenance: water from the rock and Manna in the desert, or the jar of meal and the jug of oil for Elijah and the widow. Least frequent are miracles of healing, only five: the healings of Miriam, Naaman, and Hezekiah, and two dead boys raised up by Elijah and Elisha.
With Jesus, none of his miracles are judgment, three of them are sustenance, and all the rest are healings and rescues and raising the dead. It’s a remarkable shift. From judgments to healings. It had been foreseen by the prophet Isaiah, but it is Jesus who makes the shift. The point is that Jesus makes the renewal of health to be the confirmation of the good news of the coming of the kingdom.
It’s not what they expected of the Messiah. They expected a warrior and a judge. That’s what John the Baptist expected. So I don’t think that the reason that Simon told Jesus that his mother-in-law was sick was to get Jesus to heal her, but rather why she would not be serving them, and to warn him that she might be contagious.
Yet Jesus enters her room and touches her. He raises her up—an early hint of resurrection. Quickly the word gets out, and as soon as the restrictions of the Sabbath day are over the people carry all their sick to him and he heals them. This new teacher is a prophet who has such authority to cast out demons and to heal. But that was not the job description of the Messiah that they were expecting.
That night he had to sort this out. Only just a day before he had never yet done a miracle! I wonder, when he touched Peter’s mother-in-law and lifted her up, how confident was he that she would be healed? How much was that a risk for him? How much was he making it up as he went along? No one had ever been the Messiah before. He had to create it. Was healing how he should occupy himself from now on? Is he supposed to deal with symptoms or with systems and structures? So to sort this out he goes to God in prayer, as much for understanding as for strength.
He talks to God at length, probably repeating the Psalms he knew, and listening to the silence, and he decides to move on. His message is most important, his miracles serve the message, not the other way around. He has to address the systems. The message is itself the major miracle.
But the Messiah was not expected to be a messenger any more than a healer. The Messiah was to be a prince, and a prince would have a messenger to go before him, his herald to announce the good news of his coming, but the prince is not his own messenger. How strange of Jesus to be the messenger of his own coming. He’s not acting like the Messiah should. No wonder many Jews did not believe in him, especially the educated ones. They figured he didn’t know what he was doing.
We could wish here that St. Mark would give us a decent summary of his message, more than just a phrase or two, but he doesn’t. Maybe he figured we’ve already got it from St. Matthew, who laid it out in the Sermon on the Mount. But actually I think that St. Mark’s particular point is that Jesus is his own message, his message is himself, his person, his “Here I am.” I am the miracle!
Who is this guy? What is this guy? Yes, a teacher, a prophet, maybe a prince, but more than all of these together. Yes, the Messiah, but here too he creates a new definition. St. Mark is showing us a person who is sui generis, unique, beyond definition, beyond expectation, to whom you can attribute many attributes but who exhausts them all, a messenger whose message is himself. “Here I am.”
What is St. Mark showing us? Not telling, but showing? In his own way—different from St. Paul who wrote before him, and different from St. John who wrote after him—St. Mark is showing us a person in whom we readers can recognize the presence of the Living God. How fully so, how totally, and in what way he does not define.
St. Mark does not explain how much Jesus knew about himself, or how far he could see ahead, or whether he equated himself with God somehow or just that he was doing what he thought God would do if God were there. St. Mark writes not as an omniscient narrator, he has no access to the private mind of Jesus. He shows us the effect of him, the startling effect of him, that he was saying, “Here I am, I am the miracle.” And in him we read God.
But isn’t God properly up in heaven? Doesn’t God sit above the circles of the earth? Have you not known, have you not heard, has it not been told you from the beginning? We are like grasshoppers before him, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads the heavens like a tent, who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. The Holy One says, “To whom then will you compare me, who is my equal?” Be careful, this is God we are talking about, so how dare you say that even in such a remarkable guy as this Jesus, that in him God should be saying “Here I am!”
Because the prophet Isaiah foretold it. Have you not known? Have you not heard? This lofty and far-off God comes down to give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless. The one who counts the number of the stars and calls them all by name is the one who heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord lifts up the lowly. And Jesus lifts up the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. Yes, the message of Jesus is that in him God is saying, “Here I am.” The miracles serve the message that he himself is the miracle.
Melody reminded me that when we read the gospels, we are too easily drawn to the healings, just as the disciples were. Especially as we Americans are so preoccupied with physical health. She said that we spend one-third of our economy on health care, in which healing means getting to live a little longer with medicated symptoms. The message of Jesus is not that you can live a little longer with medicated symptoms. In fact he will call on you to die.
Better put, he calls you to a life you do not control the end of. There are limits to your power and boundaries to your knowledge. As I said, St. Mark is not an omniscient narrator. If the real miracle is the message that God says, Here I am,” then your life has meaning and value beyond the satisfaction of your expectations.
You see in this story the Lord Jesus as the long-expected one who keeps on acting unexpectedly. He acts no differently with you today. He is both faithful and surprising, he is both dependable and unpredictable, he is both constant and free, he loves you but you cannot hold him down. If he treats your symptoms he challenges your systems. You need him and you think you know what you need from him but he knows better and he keeps ahead of you.
So this is your take home: God satisfies your expectations and moves you unexpectedly. Yes, your God satisfies your expectations, never totally but sufficiently, but also keeps moving you unexpectedly. You find yourself like the disciples, saying, This is good, stay here, but he says, Lets go, let’s keep moving. Oh no, you can’t see what’s ahead, so how can you know it’s good? You do know what is behind, and even if it wasn’t great, at least you learned to live it. You know why people don’t like change: it’s not what they might gain but what they might lose of what they have. And yet your take home: God satisfies your expectations and keeps on moving you unexpectedly.
Your second take home is that you have a message to share and that message is yourself. I don’t mean some stock evangelism message that you have to tell someone for them to get saved. Don’t let the caricature ruin that you still have a message to share. Your message is yourself, by which I mean the meaning of your life as you get the meaning of your life from God. I mean your accounting of how and when in your life you felt God saying, “Here I am.”
Your message will evolve as God comes to you in evolving combinations of judgment and sustenance and rescue and healing. You recognize your message when you come to terms with your own life, and in your life you read God.
It’s only fair that I tell you my message. You might have guessed it. I testify that God has satisfied me with what I did not expect. That God is both free of me and faithful to me is the message of my life. And in that combination of freedom and faithfulness is what I recognize as love.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, January 26, 2018
Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
Our reading from Deuteronomy is one of the reasons for my doing this sermon series on prophecy. Prophecy is big in Biblical religion. And it takes various forms.
Typically the prophet is the person with a special connection to God, who has something to say in a time of crisis, in a day of decision, who tells the truth in a moment of truth. Prophets break open the logjams of history, they get things moving, they challenge the status quo.
That’s why they’re opposed, not only by those in power who have interests in the status quo, but also by those in bondage to the status quo, who have reason to fear the prophet only making bad things worse. “Moses, just leave us alone!”
Two weeks ago I said that Biblical prophecy is more often speech than sight. I said that when it’s sight, it’s less often seeing into the future than seeing the hidden reality, the reality hidden in plain sight. I said that when it’s speech, it’s rarely predicts the future, like a Greek or Roman oracle, but it states the crisis that is now, with its future implications, so that you can make the right ethical choices to bring about the better future. The Greeks and Romans believed in fate and destiny, but the Hebrew prophets taught human freedom, freedom for the sake of doing righteousness.
The Gospel reading from St. Mark offers Jesus as the kind of prophet that Moses predicted in Deuteronomy. And because all the prophets after Moses always had one eye on the Torah, and the because the Torah was read out loud in the synagogue, the synagogue is where Jesus offers himself as a prophet. In the liturgy there, the Torah reading would be followed by the Haftarah reading, usually one of the prophets. Jesus offers himself as a prophet, he’s offers himself as a sort of living, breathing Haftarah! He’s a teacher but more than a teacher–a prophet like of old.
He’s got a new teaching, a new departure, an advance, depending on your point of view. While the other rabbis continued to teach that a person is always a free moral agent, and always able to choose between good and evil, Jesus taught that your freedom of choice has been compromised and impaired, that you’re in bondage to spiritual powers too big for you, so that you do not have the freedom you’re supposed to have to choose the good. And what need is liberation.
That’s the second thing that St. Mark wants to show us, that Jesus is the liberator. He liberates the guy in the synagogue from the power of the unclean spirit over him. This is the first miracle by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. The point of the miracle is that the miracle validates his teaching, that his teaching has prophetic authority. His words are more than just information. His teaching brings about what he teaches. He only has to say it. Like the prophet Elisha of old, his words have power to cleanse the unclean and liberate the man in bondage. His teaching does the liberating.
The teaching of the scribes did not have such authority. They didn’t expect to. They didn’t see themselves as prophets. Their job was to interpret the authorities already established, using the official commentaries, in order to work out the rules and regulations of daily behavior. No scribe would ever claim a fresh, new, personal interpretation of his own, but like any lawyer today would always cite some prior authority. While Jesus claims his own authority. Who does he think he is? He acts as if he speaks for God. He could be dangerous. His authority is at once appealing and threatening. Liberation is threatening if you’ve spent your life in a cage.
The scribes taught not for liberation but for survival, for holding the Jewish people together under a foreign regime. They taught you how to manage your ethics under a regime that was hostile to your ethics; how to get along under the Romans and still be holy; how to share the marketplace with your pagan neighbors and still be clean; how to have no other God even when the Roman gods were the ones in power. The teaching of the scribes was to manage this predicament. And here is this prophet of liberation. The danger of that is sensed by this man who speaks up.
Don’t get this story wrong. Don’t assume that the man in the unclean spirit was rabid or abnormal. I suspect the unclean spirit was not obvious to the others in the synagogue. Maybe the guy was unlikable, or maybe known for being contentious, or even maybe a creep, but it was not with some demonic voice that he challenged Jesus. In fact, he was being reasonable: Jesus will be trouble.
The Gospel says he had an “unclean” spirit. Unclean means good dirt in the wrong place, on your shirt instead of in the garden. Or good food going rotten, which is still food, only now for bugs instead of you. Or unkosher, or treyf. Unclean can mean pollution, a toxic environment. The Gospel calling the spirit “unclean” means the spirit was not essentially bad but only effectively bad.
It was not a demon from hell. The Gospel is not a medieval document. The unclean spirit belongs to the natural spirituality of the world, but of a world corrupted, a spirituality polluted by human violence and greed and oppression, disordered by human sin in its political and economic expressions.
It’s a toxic environment, and the man is infected. He’s in the power of pollution. Maybe he’s got a toxic boss, or a toxic family. Maybe he’s Tony Soprano at Mass. He is bonded to powers greater than himself, powers human and more than human. He is beholden to corruption both natural and supernatural.
As all the Galileans were in Jesus’ day, more or less, willingly or not. They were in the power of Roman soldiers, Roman taxes, Roman imperial idolatry, and Roman gods and goddesses. Did the Roman gods really exist? Not essentially, but effectively, from human projection, so that their power did exist. Their spiritual authority existed and their spiritual power was unclean.
This guy was specially infected maybe because of his obvious spiritual sensitivity. He calls Jesus “the Holy One of God,” which means he can sense the holiness of Jesus, his purity, his cleanness. The guy is telling a visionary truth. He’s being prophetic. “Jesus, I can see who you are.”
But his prophecy comes up short. He thinks he sees Jesus starting a liberation from the Romans, a rebellion they cannot win, and they’ll end up collateral victims of Roman reaction, so sensibly he challenges Jesus to just leave them alone. They’re stuck, there’s no way out.
And the guy himself wants no way out. He’s corrupt. What deals has he made, what are his conflicts of interest? We don’t know, but he resists the authority of the savior who can help them in their predicament.
Jesus rebukes the man’s resistance. He silences his corrupted sensitivity. He calls the spirit out of him. Jesus the prophet could see the unclean spirit hidden in the guy, and his word had power to cast the spirit out and liberate the man. That shows that his teaching is more than information. The teaching of Jesus is the liberation to set you free to start choosing for the new creation.
Here’s your first take home. If you are looking for the miraculous power of Jesus in the world today, you don’t have to look elsewhere than his teaching. His teaching is the miracle you need. Be open to his teaching and you’ll be open to his power in the world. Honor his teaching with his authority and experience his power in your life and in the world today. The teaching is your miracle.
The second take home is that because the miracle is teaching it is not anti-intellectual. It may cross into the supernatural but it still is for your mind and for your intellect. It may be mystical but you are meant to engage it with your understanding. To follow Jesus is to be a lover of learning.
The third take home is that if his teaching is threatening to you in any way, that means you’re getting it. If you think the teaching of Jesus is all nice postcards, then you aren’t listening. If his word is in some measure threatening, then you’re getting it. It is life-and-death teaching, so it is challenging. It’s like learning Latin, or calculus, or gymnastics. You’re going to fall, you’re going to make mistakes, it can be hard, and it resists you, and it takes time. But you can learn it. You’re meant to.
And this teacher is on your side. As I said last week, this prophecy is on your side. This prophet is more than a messenger of God, this prophet is the incarnation of God, this prophet is in it for the love of his people. This teacher doesn’t just love the material, he loves the students.
This prophet is like that high school teacher who sees you, and sees more in you than you see in yourself, that teacher who calls you to become the person that you can be, that teacher who makes a difference in your life. That is a kind of love, a very important kind of love, and that is how God loves you too.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.