Thursday, January 16, 2020

January 19, 2 Epiphany: The Beginning of Fellowship

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-12, I Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

The New Testament offers us four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Scholars debate which one came first, but I take the traditional view that Matthew was written first, and John last, and John was written with the assumption that you already knew Matthew but also that there was more to say.

St. John’s Gospel is full of dialogues and long soliloquies. I compare it to Shakespeare’s historical plays, like Richard III or Henry V. Shakespeare assumes your prior knowledge of the story, and his drama unfolds its meanings. Just so St. John does not depict the baptism of Jesus, which you already know from Matthew, but rather assumes it and unfolds it in the dialogue of his characters.

Let’s stage it in our imaginations. It’s the day after the baptism, and stage left stands John the Baptist, upstage center is a small crowd, and stage right enters Jesus. John points to him, and says to the crowd, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This is he before whose coming I had been speaking of.” Then John turns towards us, the audience, and he breaks the fourth wall, and testifies to us: “I had not known him, but when I baptized him I saw the Spirit descending like a dove upon him, by which I knew he is the Son of God.” The scene ends, they all exit.

Next scene, the next morning. Stage left, enters John, with two disciples, Andrew and Philip. Stage right, enters Jesus. John points. “Behold the lamb of God.” Exit John the Baptist, and his disciples cross the stage to Jesus. Jesus turns to them, and he says his very first lines in John’s Gospel: “What are you looking for?” They say, “Rabbi, where are you abiding?” (The word “abiding” is an important word all through the Gospel of John.) Jesus says, “Come and see.” Jesus turns up stage, they follow him, and on a carpet there he sits down, and they do too, and they talk.

The lighting changes, it’s late afternoon, Jesus is still there, but with Philip only. Stage right are Andrew and his brother, and Andrew says to him, “We have found the Messiah.” He leads his brother over to Jesus, but Jesus speaks first: “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas.”

That’s our little drama for today. Let me unfold it by asking questions.

How did Jesus know Simon’s name? Was it super-power or ordinary recognition? Why did he give him that nickname? Cephas means Peter, and they both mean Rocky. Did “Rocky” suggest what it does now? Was it a compliment? Did Simon have a reputation? Or was Jesus being prophetic? “Who does Jesus think he is to tell me who I really am? I prefer to define myself. Or does my baptism tell me who I am?”

What did they talk about that afternoon? The Romans? Taxes? Fishing? The Kingdom of God? Or, “Why did John call you the lamb of God, and how do you plan to take away the sin of the world?”

“O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world.” “Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi.” It’s now a part of the Christian liturgy, and John the Baptist said it first, and how did he come up with it? Since when was the Messiah supposed to be a lamb?

He was supposed to be the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. A lamb is meek and mild and not too bright, but good eating, and fit for sacrifice. Was it because his metaphor of the lamb unfolds the meaning of the dove that John the Baptist had seen come down?

In the Torah, a dove is the poor person’s substitute for a lamb, and the lamb was sacrificed to take away the sin of Israel. Of Israel. Not the world. Why did John the Baptist say, “the sin of the world?” when the Messiah was for Israel? This new combination of Biblical metaphors and expectations would give Andrew and Philip and Jesus lots to talk about that afternoon.

When Jesus said his very first words to Andrew and Phillip, What are you looking for, why didn’t they tell him? Why didn’t they say, “We’re looking for the Messiah?” Why did they redirect his question, to ask him where he was staying?

And, if they thought he could be the Messiah, why did they call him Rabbi? Since when did any prophet say that the Messiah would be a rabbi? Were they holding back and curbing their enthusiasm? Did they fear that some political informer might report them to Herod? Or where they just being smart, not showing their cards too quickly?

When somebody asks you directly, What are you looking for, do you take it as an invitation or a challenge? “Why should I tell you? Who are you that I should tell you?” Or maybe: “I don’t know, I wish I knew.” You who came here today, what are you looking for? Do you have to know, or can you be uncertain, open: “Tell me what I am looking for!”

Is that what baptism is, the absolute gift that tells you what you’re looking for? The absolute welcome that’s also a challenge? The absolute gift of  belonging that also keeps you looking? We give it to children as an absolute gift of God and work of God that for our whole lives long is both a challenge and an invitation, What are you looking for? When you ask this of yourself and testify, and you listen to others asking the same and testifying too, and you even look together, then you have the Christian community, the fellowship of Jesus.

St. John unfolds the fellowship of Jesus. Is that what we’re supposed to have? In the last verse of our reading from First Corinthians St. Paul says that you have that fellowship. But how can you have the fellowship of someone who is so distant from you in time and space?

You know of him from history, and from the language of the church, you pray to him and sing to him, and you accept at the center of your religion this strange combination of a human being and God, but he is distant, and how shall you have fellowship with him?

It can’t be like it was for Andrew and Philip. The Lord Jesus is not going to be your best friend. So do not think, “What’s wrong with me that I don’t feel Jesus close to me like that?” There is nothing wrong with your Christian experience if you do not feel like you have Jesus up close or in your heart. He came to do a job, in his Incarnation, and he did it. He came to teach and to reveal and in his sacrifice to take away the sin of the world, and he did it, and his job was not to stay on to be your special friend and junior God. But there are two ways you do have fellowship with him: as absolutely human and as absolutely God.

First, in terms of his being absolutely human, you have your friendly fellowship with him by means of your fellowship in the Christian communion. When you all sit down together, and talk about what you’re looking for, and listen to each other, you are having your appropriate personal fellowship with Jesus. He is among you not as a separate character but in the body of your community itself. The Holy Spirit makes him present in, with, and under your very human interaction and conversation with each other, and also as you serve the needy and the poor.

I am inviting you to believe that when, in fellowship with each other, you discuss these stories about him and his miracles and metaphors of doves and lambs and water into wine he is among you, and that even though you cannot actually distinguish him from your own experience, you can believe that he is with you by means of the community to strengthen and enrich you in every way.

You also have fellowship with Jesus as he is absolutely God, when you relate to him as God, the One God. Jesus as God is not other to you than the whole God, the very God of very God. When St. Paul says that you call on the name of Jesus Christ, he means that when you name Jesus Christ as the center of your faith, that Jesus does his job and makes himself the medium, the means, and the way for you to have that fellowship with God that is appropriate to the Almighty and Eternal God.

The form of your fellowship with God is worship, praise, and love. You love God not as some friend, but as God, who though distant to your sense experience is present to your imagination and your soul. You do not have any direct sensation of God, but I am inviting you to believe that the Holy Spirit comes into-and-under your self-enclosed experience, so that what you imagine might be true really is true, that you are having direct fellowship with this almighty and invisible God.

Not because you achieve it but because God comes to you to have fellowship with you. God is the lamb who comes into the world. I invite you to believe that God is the dove, God is the dove who comes upon little Spiro Alzos-Benke, and on you, that God is the dove because God is love.

Copyright © 2020, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

January 12, 1 Epiphany: Baptism, Beginning of Enlightenment

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

Did the Lord Jesus expect all this to happen to him at his baptism? It didn’t happen to anyone else. Was he surprised by the dove, and by the Voice from heaven? If he was, is that okay? What’s your picture of Jesus? How do you see him?

Let’s talk about Jesus today. Pretty much just the Lord Jesus. Is that okay? Not what he taught or did but who he was. That is the point of the Sundays of the Epiphany: his coming-out, his debut, his beginnings, his introductions, his manifestations, his identity.

Of course you will want some kind of take-home, some application to your life, and I will offer you one at the end, but it won’t be very pragmatic, it will be more like enlightenment, but you want that from religion anyway–enlightenment, you want “the eyes of your hearts enlightened,” as we said last week. But my main take-home is even less pragmatic, and it’s just your picture of Jesus.

Let’s make use of one of my favorite questions. “What did he know and when did he know it?” I mean about himself. Did Jesus know that the Holy Spirit would come down upon him, right there, as a dove, or, that he would hear the Voice of his heavenly Father for the first time in his life?

At this point did he even know that he was the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity? I doubt it, although I do believe he was, without him knowing it yet. I expect he knew about his virgin birth, but that did not necessarily entail that he was somehow God.

Did he know that he was the Messiah? Apparently so, already, but the Messiah expected by John the Baptist and all the rest of Israel would be a military hero and head-smasher, very unlike how the Lord Jesus was going to work it out. For that he got a signal from the dove, that the Spirit of God came down not as fire but as a dove, as both a sign of peace and the sacrificial victim of the poor. A different kind of Messiah! “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

What else could he know from what happened at his baptism? That God was in him uniquely? I think so, but what that meant he had to figure out. I do think he was surprised. And confirmed. And challenged, and maybe relieved. In any case, his baptism was his new beginning. At thirty years old!

His baptism was a sign for him, a sign with three signs in it: the water, the Spirit, and the Voice, and he had to read the signs in combination. These three signs combined signify beginning, new beginnings, new creations.

At the first creation, in Genesis, “in the beginning,” the world was a chaos of darkness and water. Then a wind from God swept over the face of the water, the Spirit of God brooded upon the water like a bird upon her nest, and then God’s voice: “Let there be light.” There were the three signs in combination at the very beginning, the water, the Spirit, and the Voice.

We get the three signs again in the story of Noah and the Flood. The water covered the earth and washed away the sin of humanity. Then God blew a wind to dry the water off, and Noah sent out a raven and then a dove to fly above the water to and fro, and then the dove came back with an olive leaf, for peace and reconciliation. And God spoke to Noah and promised the renewal of the creation and a new beginning of the world. Three signs again: the water, the dove, and the Voice.

At Jesus’ baptism the only sign that anyone expected was the water, the water for the washing of repentance. Back then it was at streams and rivers that people did their washing. The water supply of Jerusalem was notoriously poor, but in the River Jordan you could wash the whole nation symbolically.

Plus, that was where Joshua had led the Children of Israel across the Jordan into the Promised Land, and Joshua was the namesake of Jesus, that is, Yeshua. So John the Baptist was cleansing the nation to get them ready for the second Joshua to come, the second David, the Messiah, who would restore the nation to its proper purity. And that meant no Romans, and maybe no Gentiles at all, and certainly no tainted Jews. So the Spirit of God that John the Baptist expected with the Messiah was the Spirit of fire and purification and the burning of God’s wrath and judgment.

And here comes the new Joshua, to be baptized. No wonder John wants to be baptized by him.

Besides that, what has Jesus got to repent of? The Messiah should be righteous right off. But Jesus seems to sense that it’s not our righteousness, but the righteousness of God that is expanding with new generosity, and to fulfill that he needs to be one with us, fully one of us, God-with-us, God making us acceptable by fully accepting our human condition in all of our sins and weaknesses.

He had to work it out. In his humanity. And he was a great mind, a great thinker. He did not have the education of St. Paul, he hadn’t read philosophy, but he knew his Torah and the Prophets, much of it by heart, and he was a sharp interpreter of the human condition and a gifted teacher with a knack for metaphor. He wrote nothing down, but neither did Socrates. It was Socrates’ disciple Plato who did the writing, just as Our Lord’s disciples did the writing, and St. Paul. St. Paul was a great mind, but the Lord Jesus was the one who had to work it out and create a whole world.

But even Jesus needed enlightenment, which he got it at his baptism, and now he knew for sure, more than before, about himself, and he understood better his first thirty years. The signs confirmed him and inspired him and set him free and got him going.

Of course, the signs added new problems to his life. Just as with his father Joseph, they didn’t make things any easier, in fact, quite dangerous, but through the next three years of his life, with all the highs and lows, and the increasing opposition, he could remember his baptism, and the dove, and the Voice that said, “This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” That’s what he needed to know, and this was when he knew it.

What do you need to know and when do you need to know it? I did not know that I was called to the parish ministry until after I couldn’t get out of it. My colleague James Brumm says that God doesn’t tell you all that you’re in for until it’s too late; even Jesus only realized the full magnitude of what he let himself in for, and said “take this cup from me,” when it was already too late, and he knew it.

You too accept God’s call on your life based as much upon what you don’t know as what you do, because if you knew it you’d run for the hills. What you do need to know is that your life has meaning, and purpose, that your life is not a waste, and you need to know that now.

What can you know about your life by looking back? What other people tell you. When someone tells you something about your past that surprises you, you suddenly feel enlightened, for better or worse. What you know can save your past and present life and set you free. It’s never too late to be surprised. It may set you free and get you going despite what you cannot know about the future.

You need to know that people love you, particularly some people in your life. Once my therapist told me that all my life I’d been waiting for my father to tell me that I was his beloved son and that he was pleased with me. Eventually my dad did, indirectly, but I have friends whose fathers never told them at all.

And for me, it’s not the approval of God I doubt as much as the approval of you. I confess that when I give a sermon, I’m more concerned about what you think of it than what God thinks of it. I’m more secure with God than with you. Or maybe if I were truly secure with God I wouldn’t care so much about your approval. Maybe I need to know better that I am God’s beloved.

If you want to have some religion in your life you need to know that you are God’s beloved. The way you know this is by enlightenment, and your enlightenment is your baptism. That’s an ancient Christian take on baptism, not typically Protestant. It means that when you look out at the world as one who has been baptized, and claimed by God, from that stance looking out you get more light into your heart, and the Holy Spirit inside you energizes your receptors to register that light as God’s love and to hear it as God’s voice, telling you that God is well-pleased with you, right now.

For a life with God, for contending with good and evil in the world, you need to hear that every day. Every day is a new beginning of knowing that, because you have changed a bit since yesterday. You need to know that you are God’s beloved for charting your choices for the days ahead, and also for accepting and understanding your life in the past, who you have been and what you have done that you cannot undo. You have been baptized. Your whole life behind you can love again, and who you are today you can love, because you are God’s beloved.

Copyright © 2020, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

January 5, Christmas 2, The Beginning of Fulfillment

Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 84, Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a, Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Two Sundays ago I preached about Joseph, and his first dream, when the angel told him that Mary’s baby was from the Holy Spirit, so he should marry her and accept her baby and call him Jesus. I said that his dream did not make things any easier, even more difficult, yet Joseph decided to believe his dream and act on it. As he has to do with his second, third, and fourth dreams in our lesson today.

His second dream gets the Holy Family down to Egypt. It is not coincidental that Joseph shares his name with the original Joseph in Genesis, he of the coat-of-many-colors, whose dreams got him sent down to Egypt. The third dream of Joseph brings them back, and his fourth dream gets them to Nazareth in Galilee. How did Mary like it when Joseph woke her up and said, “I had a dream.”

And little Jesus gets bundled about from place to place. Not in a car-seat, but in a sling or a papoose or a basket. Like Moses in the basket, also in Egypt, also rescued from the raging of a king and the slaughter of baby boys. Moses was in the care of Miriam, and the name “Mary” is a later form of “Miriam”. To Matthew it’s not coincidental, it’s all fulfillment. Miriam for Mary, Joseph for Joseph, Pharaoh for King Herod, and Moses the Prince of Egypt for Jesus the Prince of Israel. “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” The long history of Israel begins its fulfillment in this Jesus boy.

The word “fulfillment” means several things. The first is that the Old Testament story is so true that it keeps coming true again. The story is paradigmatic and typical. By the word “typical” I mean both senses, that while human behaviors are not inevitable they are so typical that you can expect them, and also that individual characters are “types” within the paradigmatic stories.

Jesus is a type of Moses in the paradigmatic story of children being the innocent victims of the powerful. Both Pharaoh and Herod are the types of rulers who will sacrifice children and families to preserve their power. Can you think of any rulers in power who are doing this today? Despite their power and their greed and pride, what really drives them is their fear, and they exploit their fear.

Both Miriam and Mary have more to fear than rulers do but they are not driven by their fear and they choose for life. They are the type of women who protect their children at risk to themselves. And Joseph is a type of Joseph in how God worked salvation in the world through him by his reading the signs and making hard choices and investing his life in the right thing, regardless of his interest. As Mary also had to do. It’s an old story that gets fulfilled in new ways because it’s a true story.

The second meaning of fulfillment is that the names and details in the story reach behind the story. The particulars are the icons and the links to the great and comprehensive story behind it that is poking through it. The names are hyperlinks to connect you to the other stories within the greater scheme. St. Matthew invites you to the larger story behind the details of Joseph and Joseph, of Miriam and Mary, of Pharaoh and Herod, and of Moses and Jesus.

St. Matthew is also inviting you to believe that while the individual characters are free to act as they see fit, and that nothing is inevitable, yet there is a long-range plan of God at work, a grand strategy, that is fully able to gather up our particular momentary choices into God’s design. I invite you to believe that, just as Joseph had to believe his dreams. Sometimes you believe it because what else is there to believe in?

How much did Joseph know, and when did he know it? Faith is always a projection. Faith at its best is a vision, and at its worst a fantasy, and how do you know the difference? How many nights during the childhood of Jesus did Joseph lie awake, wondering and worrying what he should do next? How many nightmares did he have, and how did he know which of his dreams to believe?

I figure he must have thought about those stories from the Torah of Moses and Pharaoh and Miriam and his own namesake. Joseph must have seen those stories as paradigms for him. And you too have to see your own life in your own way as a fulfillment of the scriptures.

The greater story is true again in you, and if you believe that, and compare your own particulars to the paradigmatic stories of God’s design, you can be ready to do the right thing when you see the danger ahead.

I’m thinking about that church shooting in Texas last Sunday where the murderer was killed by parishioners bearing arms. This is being celebrated, which I cannot do, although it’s not for me to judge them. There are Christians today who would have to tell Joseph and the other fathers of Bethlehem to arm themselves to protect their families. Not with guns but knives. Should the Jews at the Hanukkah party in Monsey last week have been prepared with their own knives, considering the rise in anti-Semitism?

These two events are both horrible and horribly typical. Should we see them as paradigmatic? As Christians we are not supposed to see them as inevitable, lest we too resort to violence as our response to violence. Joseph and Mary should not arm themselves.

How do you know the right thing to do? We don’t depend on dreams, nor on our natural intellect, but, according to St. Paul in Ephesians, we depend on “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may come to know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” 

That’s how. You determine your choice for the right thing by your hope, not by your fear, and not by your past experience but by your future inheritance among the saints, and not by your own power but by the immeasurable greatness of his power. The risk is that’s a fantasy, a foolish dream, but it is the vision to which God is calling you, the vision that takes your faith, and directs your choices and your responses to the dangers ahead of you.

To see your way you need enlightenment from the Spirit of wisdom and revelation. You need the eyes of your hearts enlightened. Now that’s a strange metaphor. Hearts with eyes. It’s because your heart is at your center, between your head and your guts. Your heart is where you combine your mind and your feelings into your convictions, where you merge your thoughts and your desires into purposes. Your heart is the home of your will and of your wanting. Your love comes from your heart because your love is the combination of your thoughts and your emotions into your willful purposes.

The Holy Spirit opens and illuminates the eyes of your hearts. Not what you look at, but what you look for. Not your observations but your investments, what you desire, what you want. It’s from your heart and within your love that you will discern what is the immeasurable greatness of his power to you who believe.

It’s why King Herod could not see the power of the baby. Nor Pharaoh. They were strong rulers, both of them, but they operated out of fear, not love. It is why Miriam and Mary could both operate so fearlessly in caring for Moses and Jesus.

It’s why Papa Joseph could keep on moving through the world and trusting his direction, despite his being on the run from fear of death and persecution, because he was navigating from his heart. His heart told him more than he could think and understand, his heart told him more than he could feel, and what it told him was that there was something immeasurably great behind the small and risky choices he was making.

That’s the right move coming out of Christmas. That’s the Incarnation’s proper follow-through. You must see your own small life and your own small choices as another particular fulfillment of this great story. Which means that you too must address this world and all its agony in love.

Yes, please do think about it with intelligence and sober analysis and critique, and yes, do fully feel it, from pleasure to anger and from happiness to grief, but then only from the choices of love do you make your way into the world, or else the world will be cruel and bitter, no matter how much power you have.

But you have been enlightened. It’s to your eyes of love that the great riches of your glorious inheritance begin to show themselves, and the immeasurable greatness of his power is for the greatness of your hearts and for the power of your love. What you are fulfilling in your personal particulars is the never-ending story of God’s love.

Copyright © 2020, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

December 29, 1 Christmas, "In the Beginning Was the Word."

Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-26, 4:4-7, John 1:1-18

The Sunday after Christmas is called Low Sunday. Attendance is low, energy is low, and the preacher is low on inspiration. The shepherds are back at work and trying to remember how that music went. Joseph is out apartment-hunting, the cattle want their manger back, the swaddling clothes are dirty, and the family needs food. The Incarnation leads to hard facts for physical bodies in hard times on the hard ground, and thus, Low Sunday.

Yet one of the most lofty passages in the Bible is given as our Gospel reading today. We might have preferred a nice cozy story, but we are given the most theoretical passage in all four Gospels. It’s the Prologue to the Gospel of John, and in it, the only mention of Christ’s birth is that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” 

Of course that is the reason for the season and the theological purpose of the birth, and the Prologue is the story from a very high view, and it’s why the Prologue is the climax lesson on Christmas Eve, after we’ve read the more cozy stories from Matthew and Luke. St. John knew that we already had Matthew, and maybe Luke too, so he didn’t have to redo the story. Instead he interprets it. “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.”

He does so audaciously. “In the beginning was the Word.”  The beginning, not of Jesus’ life, but of the world, the beginning of time. St. John is quoting the first line of Genesis, the first word of the Torah, B’reshit, “in the beginning,” and he’s putting the Son of God there, at Creation, with God, as God. Which means he’s claiming that, in the Incarnation, the God who created the creation became a creature within the creation. He’s claiming that, in the birth of Christ, the God who said, “Let there be light” became the light.

St. John says that “the true light, who enlightens every person, was coming into the world.” The true light is Jesus, who came into the world at his Incarnation, and St. John is claiming that he had been coming into the world long before that, as the Word, capital W, whenever God spoke. Not yet as Jesus the Messiah, not yet a distinct person, not yet discernible from God-the-Father and God-the-Holy-Spirit, but the Son of God had come already to Abraham, already to Moses, whenever God came and spoke to Israel, whenever God’s Word came into the world to give us life and give us light.

But his coming was unwelcome. St. John writes that “he came to his own, and his own people received him not.” Please understand that he means this typically, not totally, because while he was typically rejected, there were many persons who did receive him, and this was true in Israel in the centuries before his birth, and in the thirty-three years of his Incarnation, and in the church ever since. From Adam till today, whoever does believe in his name, to them he gives power to become the children of God.

St. John is also claiming that there was something profoundly new about his coming at the Incarnation, when the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. This Word who talked with Abraham, who spoke the Law to Moses, this Word went beyond just speaking to flesh and took on flesh. The Word who is the Son of God got his flesh from his mother. From his mother only. He must have looked remarkably like his mother, like a male version of his mother. The Word became flesh.

St. Paul makes a similar claim in Galatians: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law. So the Son of God received his flesh from a woman descended from the Abraham whom he had talked with, and she brought him up under the Torah that he had spoken to Moses. He is filled with all that time and experience, the fullness of time is in him, and of his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace, the grace of the Gospel upon the grace of the Torah.

He was full of grace and truth. Together, grace and truth. That’s not automatic. We usually choose between them, being either gracious or truthful. You know, like, “I’m not going mention the hard truth here, I’m just going to be gracious.” But in Jesus they come together. His every truth is full of grace, and his every grace is full of truth. Which conditions what we mean by truth.

Our granddaughter Naomi sleeps over at our place on Friday nights, and on Saturday mornings she wakes up while I’m saying my prayers, and she climbs onto my lap while I pray them. She had me write down a prayer of her own, which I now pray every morning: “Dear God, I pray for all the people who have no homes and no food and no pillow and bed and blanket. Please make them have good food, and make them brave and true. And the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ. Amen.” 

I like the “brave and true” part. I figure she got it from the movie Pinocchio. The fairy tells the puppet that she will turn him into a real boy if he proves himself “brave and true.” So I would say that being “brave and true” is a moral category for my granddaughter.

A couple weeks ago she dictated a second prayer. “Dear God, please make other people good and helpful. Please forgive the people who are mean, or not true, or not happy. Please forgive them that I want them to be happy. For Jesus Christ. Amen.” There’s the word “true” again. She doesn’t mean the objective sense of “true,” as in true facts, but the subjective and personal sense of being true. We say that you are true to your convictions, and true to your word and true to your promises and true to your commitments and relationships. Integrity. You are as good as your word.

I think that’s the truth that St. John means when he says that when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us he was full of grace and truth. Doctrinal truth yes, historical truth yes, but more so personal truth. Faithfulness. Promise keeping. The Son of God is as good as his word, so that he is rightly called the “Word” with a capital “W.” The Word is as good as his word. And thus, the Incarnation of the Word in the flesh is how God keeps God’s gracious promises with integrity.

And here’s a next step that both St. Paul and St. John take: God became the child of Mary so that we become children of God. He by nature and we by adoption, adoption as the benefit of liberation and redemption. Redemption means that God buys us out of our slavery to the darkness. And God redeems us in order to adopt us, as children, and desires not our service but our freedom, and not our submission but our love, and our initiative, and in our freedom and initiative that we be true.

That’s your challenge. That you be true, as true as your first-born brother is. That’s the Christian ethic that comes out of the Incarnation. Not of legal obedience but of freedom with inner integrity. Your integrity that is also gracious. That the promises you keep are gracious promises. That you are true in your relationships and gracious in them. That you are true to your convictions and that your convictions are gracious convictions. To be true like this may require you to be both brave and true—brave enough to see it through. So God gives you the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s the next step, the Holy Spirit. From Galatians: “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, and because you are now children, God also sent the Spirit of the Son into our hearts.”  That is, when it was time, God came as the Son, as the Word made flesh, and ever since that time, God is coming as the Spirit, as the Spirit of Jesus into your own flesh and blood. The same Holy Spirit that made the child of Mary the Son of God now makes your own mother’s child a child of God. The birth of Jesus is for your own new birth and his Spirit is your Spirit. His grace for your grace, grace upon grace.

You are adopted. You have a new name. And now at last we can turn to our first lesson, Isaiah: You have a new name that he gives you. And, having come naked out of your slavery you put on the new clothes that he gives you, clothes for you to rejoice in, the garments of salvation, the robe of righteousness, the garland of a bridegroom and the jewelry of a bride. Jewelry is a present for lovers. The adopted children get jewelry because they are loved the same as the firstborn son.

This whole doctrine of the Incarnation is a doctrine of love. The strategy of the Incarnation is a strategy of love. The birth of the Son of God reveals that the heart of God is a heart of love. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh, to make real to you the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, December 20, 2019

December 22, Advent 4: The Baby Is the Beginning

Isaiah 7:10-18, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph had a dream. His dream resolved a dilemma, but added complications. Let’s consider what was at stake for him. Remember that in those days a marriage was a deal between two men: for the right of one to take the daughter of the other, and it was the father’s job to deliver her as a virgin. And now Joseph’s fiancé is pregnant, and not by him, so that’s over. He is a righteous man and could demand his compensation, but he’s also kindly and wants to minimize the shame on Mary.

Then he has the dream, that he should take her anyway. That forces a new dilemma. If he takes her anyway, well, people can count, they can count months, and then he loses his righteous reputation for having taken advantage of the girl before he had the right to her, or else he is the cuckold, and people will gossip and whisper who the father really is. Joseph will have his own shame to add to Mary’s shame. And in fact the people did whisper that Jesus was illegitimate (John 8:41).

When you’re a facing a dilemma, do you look for a sign? A sign to tell you what to do? And if you get a sign, does it settle things, or add new complications? Joseph got a sign that settled one problem but added many more. The baby was just the beginning. It was born with complications.

Joseph was descended from the King Ahaz of our first reading, and St. Matthew wants us to know that, for he mentions it just nine verses earlier. King Ahaz was not a good kind, and he was in trouble. His capital city was under siege, and his people were starving. In this predicament the prophet Isaiah offered him a sign, but Ahaz would not take it. He thought that would make him look weak and irresolute, and he wanted to look strong. “I’m the decider! I don’t need your sign!”

“Well, Ahaz, you tiresome poser, I tell you what, I’m giving you a sign anyway, both to save you and to judge you. A child will be born, and before he knows how to behave he will be eating very nice food. The siege will be lifted, but not by you, but by God against you and without your help.”

The sign that Ahaz got was neither down in Sheol nor up in heaven, but right in the middle of human life, the sign of a childbirth in the midst of a siege, in spite of the siege. Such a sign is easily discounted by the skeptical and rational. One has to imagine an ordinary childbirth as the presence of God, Immanuel, God with us. One needs the imagination of belief to even see it as a sign!

The sign that Isaiah gave to Ahaz is quoted by St. Matthew for the case of Joseph. Not to somehow prove the Virgin Birth. That’s not the point of the quotation. The point is fulfillment, that what God did once God does again, and better, that what God begins God carries through on, and that the whole broad story of human history has another story working within it, the story of God-with-us. And though the story of God-with-us put Joseph in a predicament not of his choosing, it then required choosing of him, but God was with him in the making of his choices.

The sign he got was challenging. Do you take your dreams literally? Don’t assume that people back then were more gullible than we are today. His new dilemma is whether to believe his dream. And then, if he believes his dream, he has new complications besides taking the shame of Mary on himself.

On the plus side, he can trust Mary again, that she’s not been unfaithful, but that also entails the impossible, that she is still a virgin, even while pregnant. That was harder to believe back then than it is now. In their notions of biology the embryo was 100% the seed from the man. All the woman contributed was her womb, for a man to plant his seed, and if this did not happen, well, then Joseph was the first man to wrestle with the doctrine of the virgin birth, and right up close; and did he say to himself, “What am I nuts? The Holy Spirit did it? Who is the Holy Spirit anyway?”

If he believes his dream, how will he convince his friends and family? More challenges. He is a righteous man who will have to learn a new kind of righteousness, for he will have no code of laws and commandments to be observant of. His obedience will be what St. Paul called “the obedience of faith.” Not the possession of faith, but the obedience of faith.

Critics of religion say that religious faith is how we try to solve the hard complexities of life. I don’t think so. I find that my Christian faith increases my complexities. Don’t you? You welcome your challenges, you believe it’s all worth it, and your faith does give you comfort and security and it’s fulfilling and it expands your joy, but it also expands your unknowns and your uncertainties. The baby is just the beginning.

This obedience of faith calls you to address what you’d rather avoid and go where you fear. In the dream the angel said, “Joseph, fear not to take Mary as your wife.” The angel has to say it because Joseph will fear it. You know how shaken you feel when you wake up from a powerful dream. Imagine the poor guy sitting on his bed in the dark before the dawn, the dream all in his head, and he is facing all these new uncertainties—so much in his life outside of his control, that he now must take and name and raise a child who belongs to God, with a destiny beyond him for which he is now responsible. “Joseph, son of David, fear not!” We are right to admire this quiet man.

He did not know that we’d be talking about him 2000 years later. Could he imagine all that God was up to with him? That the baby was the beginning of a whole new order that no one had ever yet imagined? God did not tell him very much. God told him just enough, and then God depended upon his righteousness, for him to “refuse the evil and choose the good,” to estimate the right thing and do that whenever he faced his next uncertainty. His obedience was not to an instruction manual but an obedience of stepping out in faith and not by sight. “Now what’s the right thing I can do here, despite the complications in front of me and the unknown complications still to come?”

It’s remarkable in the great story of God how much God depends on the partnership of ordinary people precisely in our dilemmas and predicaments. A God who is all-knowing and omnipotent depends for God’s plan on you to make your choices right within your troubles and uncertainties. This God partners with us, God-with-us, depends on us, submits to your initiatives, and constructs a highway to Zion from the material of your fragile choices. God puts Godself into your hands. Joseph experienced the new way of God in the world, the baby was the beginning.

Well, not absolutely new, according to St. Paul, who says in our Epistle that the prophets promised it beforehand in the scriptures, but God was now fulfilling those promises in new ways beyond anyone’s expectations. Not just God-with-us, not just God along with us, but God as one of us. God submitting to childbirth. In the midst of us. In spite of us! The baby was the beginning of a new inhabitation of God with us, a new order of God’s investment in us, God invests Godself in us. “That’s who the Holy Spirit is, Joseph, who entered inside your fiancé when she said, ‘Yes, let it be to me,” and who now will come inside all of us as well.”

So your belief makes all the difference to God. You, Christian, sitting out there. God submits to your belief. You are God’s sign. When you face decisions and dilemmas, I know you might want to ask for a sign from God, and occasionally you might get one, but I’m warning you, that sign will just increase your complications, and that’s not God’s preferred practice now, anyway, because God is in you as the Holy Spirit, and you yourself are a sign from God. God says, “You choose! You estimate! I’m not going to tell you very much, just enough, but I trust your desire to choose the good. And precisely in your fragile choosing, my dear believer, is how I make myself active in the world.”

The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name, God-with-us. God saves the world through the soft inside and not from the top, and you must receive God in God’s chosen vulnerability. That’s the sign for your faith. As Joseph will receive Mary in her vulnerability. I’m wondering how it felt for Mary when Joseph somewhat shyly came up to her and said, “I take you, Mary, to be my wedded wife.” Not a typical love story, this one, is it, so full of complications, but a wonderful love story all the same, and a story that carries the love of God for people just like you.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

December 15, Advent 3: Can You See the Beginning

Isaiah 35:1-10, Magnificat, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

Why do we get this gospel lesson on December 15, when we are ready for the manger? Why do we get John the Baptist on the Sunday of our Children’s Pageant? We are on the way to Bethlehem. The Isaiah lesson fits better with this Third Sunday of Advent, which is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for “Rejoice.” Gáudete, gáudete, gáudete. We’re ready for joy, so why delay us with John the Baptist?

But the Epistle lesson says, Patience. Don’t rush. James says, Be patient until the coming of the Lord. There’s reason to wait for ten more days. The reason for the season of penitence is that you can get Jesus wrong. You can welcome Jesus, and rejoice at his coming, but get him wrong. As John the Baptist did. As we all do. That’s okay, it’s expected, but it’s why we need to be patient and penitent.

What was John the Baptist expecting? He had baptized the people to prepare them for the revolution. He was expecting the Messiah, in the words of his second cousin Mary, to cast down the mighty from their thrones, and in the words of the prophet Isaiah, to come with vengeance, and with terrible recompense, and purge the land of Israel. For that expectation John was now paying with his life. And he did not see it in Jesus. “So cousin, no offense, but should we be looking for someone else?”

Jesus neither defends himself nor answers directly. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor get good news.” But to John that’s all beside the point. He already knows all that. Doing that stuff is fine, but that’s not the job of the Messiah, not according to what the prophecies have told us to look for.

I expect the Lord Jesus knew that his response to John would not satisfy him, but in his answer is a challenge: “Look again, cousin, look again at what you have been seeing. The problem is not my evidence, but the solution that you’re expecting.”

Yet Jesus was not disappointed in John. His doubt did not offend him. It just had not been given to John to see the new thing coming down the pike. No one but Jesus had foreseen it, and no one else would see it until after his resurrection—his whole new way of being the Messiah. So Jesus doesn’t hold it against his cousin that he didn’t see it.

What do you expect from Jesus in your life? What do you want from God in the world? What news will you consider to be good news? What are you looking for in the world?

Those congressional hearings on impeachment I regard as necessary, but I’m glad they’re over. What struck me is how differently the two sides viewed the same evidence. I will give the side I disagree with the benefit of the doubt, that they just see it differently. Is this not from what they want to see, what they desire to see, what they expect to see, and what should we be on the lookout for—what’s the danger, who are the enemies, what is fire, and what is only smoke?

Once I was a volunteer fireman, honest! We were prepared for fires—we knew they’d come but not when or where. We had to expect the unexpected. You can expect what you do not know. The word “expect” comes from the Latin for “looking out.” Not as in “Look out!” when danger comes flying at you unawares, but as in being on the “lookout,” like from a Fire Service lookout tower in a National Forest. You have to be very, very patient in your looking, and you have to know the signs of what you are looking for. You are actively patient and always prepared.

John the Baptist was looking for the fire of righteous retribution with the Messiah’s coming, and you can imagine that his patience was tested by his imprisonment. John was looking for an ending, but Jesus offers a beginning. John expected the Day of Judgment and a final resolution. But Jesus offered previews, foretastes, appetizers. His healings were temporary, and despite the good news, the poor would still be poor. There are ways that the Lord Jesus does not satisfy our expectations of him, until we adjust our expectations. The coming of the Lord Jesus is a judgment, on everyone, good and bad, and it judges us who welcome him, but it’s a judgment that does not condemn us.

In the very judgment you have to look for joy. That’s so unexpected, but that’s the trick. Your joy comes not from avoiding judgment, but the judgment shows you your signs for joy. As I said last week, joy is not the same as optimism, because the world is actually worse than you think it is, and even the most critical among you do not judge deeply enough. The world is worse than you know, and yet you are called to choose for joy. It is a moral choice you have to keep on making, and you make that choice because it is God who judges with a perfect justice. Precisely because of God’s righteous judgment of the world, you are challenged to choose for joy. Gáudete, gáudete!

The benefit of choosing joy is that it changes what you want to see. It doesn’t change what you can expect, but how you take what you expect. Joy is not forcing an emotion on yourself, it is rather choosing how you approach the world and what you look for. In that sense joy is penitential, when you have to give up your prior rights to how you see your expectations. Joy is penitential because it changes your preparations. And joy is penitential because it forces you to be patient.

Patience does not mean passivity. Our Gradual Hymn uses the Biblical phrase, to “run with patience.” Distance runners know what that means, it’s about pacing yourself, it’s about running your own race and not somebody else’s. That kind of patience, that kind of penitence. That kind of running is endurance, but then running is also exuberance, as when my granddaughter sees me and runs and jumps up on me. Let your endurance be open to exuberance. You may be looking for an ending  but can you see that it’s a beginning? Get up on that highway God is building and choose for joy.

Why am I speaking of exuberance when I say that your joy is not a feeling that you have to generate? I am not naturally exuberant, but I open myself to the exuberance of others. Like the native exuberance of children, which is why the Pageant is unexpectedly appropriate for the gospel lesson about John the Baptist. My penitence is in letting go of my own expert expectations to welcome the joy of others into my life. Especially children, and I can take personally what the Lord Jesus says, “The smallest (mikroteros) in the kingdom of heaven is greater than me.” I had better make room for their joy.

Can you see the Kingdom of Heaven? Look for it with a double vision, as I said two weeks ago. You look for that great and universal new life of the world to come beyond the resurrection of the dead, and you look for small signs of the Kingdom now: the mustard seed, the leaven in the loaf, the little flowers breaking through the hardness of the soil, the voices of children singing their praise. Look for those small and passing signs of God’s love in your own life, and bear witness to them. “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” He needs your witness, he needs your encouragement.

Like John the Baptist you are tempted to think that your witness makes no difference, and that the Lord Jesus is not performing as you were led to expect. So I challenge you to the active patience of a farmer, who knows the time for plowing and planting and the time for watching and waiting. You have your work to do, but the fruit depends on a power beyond your view and your control. You are neither to be despairing, as if nothing might change, nor self-sufficient, as if we ourselves can make the change. You do what you do and depend on God to do it. So strengthen your weak hands. If the world is worse than you think, then get up on that highway that runs through it with joy.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

December 8, Advent 2: Prepare for the Beginning

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

John the Baptist tells the Pharisees and Sadducees to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” And he baptizes them. He doesn’t require them to repent first to get baptized, but to follow their baptisms with lives of repentance.

He doesn’t mean specifically identifiable penitential actions, but common activities that fit with a penitential attitude. To “bear fruit” suggests positive repentance, life-giving and life-expanding repentance, life-sharing, and benefitting others. Yes, sacrificial, but not self-abnegation; rather, sacrificial rather in terms of investment and cost and risk. And pruning too, as fruit trees are pruned to bear better fruit, so that positive repentance will entail some intentional losses.

Last Sunday I described positive repentance as “the self-giving works of your creativity and the live-giving actions of your imagination. Not punishing yourself but serving others, reconciling, cleansing, sharing, creating examples in your life and in the world of what you imagine may be normal in the life of the world to come.” You offer examples of human activities that you imagine will be normal in the New Jerusalem. You demonstrate human relations as you foresee them when the Kingdom of Heaven has fully come on earth.

It’s okay that these are passing and fragile, and your moral achievements will not last long. Your demonstrations and examples are first-drafts and test-cases; not marble monuments but more like lovely meals that last a couple hours. Not permanent, like the plastic fruit in our parlors of the 1960’s, but fruit that ripens and then is harvested and eaten; or it falls to the ground to drop its seed and make new life, and its genetic code lives on, so that its short and passing life is not wasted but goes on into the future. Just so, God keeps gathering into God’s future satisfaction your passing and fragile actions of positive repentance.

John the Baptist does not offer any concrete examples of positive repentance in St. Matthew’s account. But he does so in St. Luke’s version. He says that if you have two coats, share one with someone who has none, and if you have food, do likewise. Tax collectors, take no more money than what’s appointed, and soldiers, be content with your wages and don’t extort the populace.

Doesn’t seem like much, but the last two examples were counter-cultural, and with wages so tight you would need self-control to resist the opportunities that your little bit of power offered you, and you’d be ridiculed by your officers. The resistance of the world to you is part of your repentance.

Where St. Matthew does offer his concrete examples is in his following chapters, in the Sermon on the Mount. He says, Be merciful. He says, Be peacemakers. Not conflict-avoiders who take no risks, but wade into conflict working peace. He says, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, and that is costly, which feels like penance. He says, Judge not, and if you must judge, then take the log out of your own eye before you judge the speck in your neighbor’s eye, which feels like physical therapy. He says to forgive those who trespass against you, which takes self-control. And he says to pray the Lord’s Prayer, which keeps you dependent on God’s initiative.

I hesitate to hold up concrete examples from people in our congregation, because I will have to pass over some of you. Forgive me ahead of time. But let me mention a few of you.

One of you had a stroke a year ago, and you leveraged your disability into advocacy for the disabled getting full access to our mass transit system. That’s positive repentance.

One of you young mothers responded to the persecution of undocumented immigrants by sacrificing your time to help the mothers and their children that our government is oppressing.

One of you has given her life to the global campaign against man-made climate change and its dire effects especially among the poorer populations of the earth.

One of you is sacrificing his free time to take his turn in serving as our church treasurer, a time-consuming job, a positive penance that others of you have done as well in your own turn. I could give you many more examples.

Don’t depend on only your preacher to hold up such examples. You as a congregation need to recognize these actions and devotions among you. Recognize each other, honor each other, bless each other, encourage each other. Recognize the fruits that the others among you are bearing, and recognize your own fruit as well. Bear fruits that befit repentance, not as single trees but an orchard, shading each other, cross-fertilizing each other, and sheltering the little birds among your branches.

Encouragement is a concrete example from Romans 15. As is also living in harmony. Not in unison, but in harmony, by sharing your different voices with other, and listening to others as you sing, to get yourself in tune with the voices that differ from your own. That requires active hospitality as you welcome other voices into the same space as your own. To welcome each other is positive repentance. You give each other room, not to keep your distance, but for living room for company and hospitality. Just as Christ has welcomed you.

And if I may change the subject slightly, that welcome of Christ, that hospitality of God, is the answer to the problem of why the Lord Jesus takes so long in coming again. If it seems like he’s waiting forever, 2000 years and counting, that’s from the perspective of our own short lifetimes. But that’s no time at all from the perspective of the planet or even of the existence of Homo sapiens. And yet the real point is that God is being hospitable to us in terms of time itself.

Time is one of God’s best creations, and a gift to us, and God keeps giving us time, lots of time, within which we ourselves create, and imagine, and bear fruit. Lots of time to rehearse, lots of time try out things, and try again. We’re all of us moral Thomas Edisons, with one success for 99 failures, and even that one success will soon be out of date, because none of this is forever. The Lord Jesus gives our species lots of time to make our various and passing preparations for his coming again. You are preparing, not for the end of the world, but for the beginning. You are preparing not for your exit but for your entrance. It’s positive repentance when you prepare for the beginning.

Some more concrete examples from Romans: It’s positive repentance to be steadfast in your faith, against the trials and testing of the world, especially the world’s success. For, as I said, the resistance of the world to you is part of your repentance. It’s positive repentance to choose for hope. Not optimism, because things are worse than you know, but right within the negativity, your hope is to welcome God’s initiative and God’s time, no matter how long it seems to take.

It’s positive repentance to choose for joy, especially considering all the evils slung against you that then cling to your memories of your sins. But you despise the shame to choose for the joy.

And it’s positive repentance to choose for love, despite the successful powers of fear and hatred in the world. But that’s why this penitential season comes down to a baby, a baby, “babies, babies everywhere,” to tell you that the greatest of all fruits that befit repentance are the grapes of joy and the apples of love. Those vines and those trees are for the healing of the nations. And your passing joys and your fragile loves are your preparations for the greater harvest still to come.

And so you prepare yourself for not the end but for the beginning. And you prepare yourself by being open to God’s preparing you. That’s why you are here today. The good news is that Christ himself prepares you.

When I was a child, I had asthma. So my mother put in my bedroom a little machine called a vaporizer, with a small tank of water, and in the water she put some Vicks Vaporub, and if I breathed it I could sleep, and as I kept breathing in my sleep it opened me more and more. The Lord Jesus prepares you by his Word and his Spirit, he opens you up, and he makes you able to expand your lungs, both to give you rest and restore your strength for living in the morning.

That’s why you came here today. You want to breathe God’s joy into yourself. And you can be encouraged that even your fragile fruits are planted in the fertile ground of God’s eternal love.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.