Saturday, March 17, 2012

March 18, Lent 4, Signs of God 3: The Sign of the Serpent

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

Our gospel lesson is the second part of the conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus points to the sign of the brazen serpent. He says that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so that everyone bitten by a burning snake could be saved from death to life, so the Son of Man will be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. What did that mean for Jesus? What did Jesus see in that sign which pointed to himself?

When we claim that Jesus is divine, we often underplay his true humanity. We forget how much he had to learn himself. We assume that his knowledge of himself and of his mission just came down to him straight from heaven as a perfect package, or that what he said was automatic, without his having studied hard beforehand.

I see it differently. I believe that Jesus had to gain his knowledge of himself and of his mission by studying the scriptures, and by studying them for years. This does not deny his special inspiration by the Holy Spirit, nor does it deny the special incarnation of his birth, nor even his perfection. But his perfection was neither static nor inviolable. It was a perfection of obedience, and obedience for any Jew was founded on a life in the scriptures, the study of the Torah and the prophets. Jesus had to read the signs reported in the Bible to get the direction for his life, and for the purpose of his life, and to see his way towards God’s redemption of the world through him.

We’ve been looking at these signs. We started with the sign of the rainbow, the bow that was set within the clouds, with the arrow pointed up into heaven and aiming at the heart of God. That sign was public in the heavens, while the second sign was on our bodies on our private parts, the sign of circumcision. It was a kind of brand, a sign of bondage and ownership, that we belong to God. It was a sign of a promise, that God commits to us and God binds Godself to us. There is a little bit of blood shed, to signify the judgment and the cost, the cost to us and the cost to God.

Jesus read these signs, and they directed him to where God was going. During those silent years of his life, between the ages of twelve and twenty-nine, when he was a single man, living at home, working as a carpenter, reading his Bible every night by candlelight, he read those signs as signals from his Heavenly Father, pointing him to his real job. How long did he contemplate that sign of the serpent, where it might be directing him, imagining himself in terms of it?

It was a trophy, that serpent on a pole. Like after a battle, when the victors raise in triumph the standards of the losers. Like when the German barbarians under Arminius carried back into the forests the fallen eagles of the vanquished Roman legions. The brazen serpent was a trophy on a pole, it was defeated, it was dead, the power to which it pointed was the power of God to bring life out of death.

The trophy was like a sacrament. It was a physical sign that pointed to the promise of God. This is how it worked: to look upon the trophy was to put your hope within the promise; to look upon the trophy was to believe in the deal God that had offered them. That meant accepting the validity of the judgment that God had made against them, but it also meant trusting that behind the judgment was the saving grace of God. They were being saved by grace through their faith.

So Jesus will have studied that story in his silent years of contemplation. He will have read about the constant unbelief of his own people, and of their habitual impatience with their God, and of their repeated antagonism to the prophets God had given them. Jesus will have come to see that he would not be exempt from this. He had to anticipate the rejection of his own people.

There were other passages which had pointed him to his identity as the Son of Man, by which the prophets meant the representative of his people, a mediator, like Moses, born to lead his people and to advocate for them, to be raised up to God to mediate for them. But this story signaled to him that he would be both Moses and the serpent. He would be lifted up, but as defeated. His mediation would be through his defeat.

But the Messiah was supposed to be victorious, as victorious as David. The King of the Jews should be lifted up before the people on the shouts of their acclaim. But this sign pointed to a different royal road. Not lifted to the heights of coronation but plumbing the depths of human degradation in true self-sacrifice. He would subject himself to the keenest tests of human character, he would pass the full ordeal of human life within the world — all the poisons, all the snakes, all the rejection, and never compromise his light to the power of the dark, and never surrender his love.

Could this really be the plan of God? He had to have his doubts. It had taken complex reasoning to arrive at this strange paradox, and he must have doubted his reasoning. “Is this where the signs are really pointing me? I have no proof.” But it’s not the way of God to give us proof. The way of God is always with a risk. It’s only signs God gives us: stop signs, yield signs, signals telling us to turn, signals telling us to go. I guess when he was thirty he saw some signal telling him to go, to go the way that no one yet had ever gone before. To save the world by his defeat, to be lifted up by the Roman legion as a trophy of the Jews, the King of the Jews, ha ha. Even his own people mocked him for his failure that was obvious. It’s right for us to grieve for him, and for the evident loneliness of his silent years. It took a lot of faith. Jesus had to be a believer no less than us, and he too had to be saved by grace through faith.

What do you want from your Christian faith? Do you want to add God to the world as it is, to make the world better? You should. Do you want to add God to your life as it is? You should. Do you want better health? You should. But if Jesus is the brazen serpent, it’s beyond better health, it’s about healing from poison. To add God to your life means yielding your life, arresting it so that God might start it up again. To add God to the world means accepting the judgment of God upon the world, which means our dying to the world and the dying of the world to us. Not that God condemns the world itself. No, God loves the world. God condemns the poison in the world which is the power of the world, to which we’ve built up tolerance and think we are immune to.

What do you want from your Christian faith? You might want success, but God offers you rescue. You want respect, but God offers forgiveness. You want fairness in the world, but God offers reconciliation. You want honor, but God offers you forgiveness. You want spirituality, and Jesus points you to the serpent on the pole, to the end that you imagine Jesus up there too.

In our prayer of confession during Lent we repeat those words that we are “miserable offenders” and “there is no health in us.” It takes some complex reasoning to repeat those words with honesty and understanding, and it takes faith to repeat those words with hope and joy. That’s my point today, as for every Sunday during Lent: to rehearse that complex reasoning which Our Lord worked out ahead of us, that bundled into the judgment of God is the promise of grace and the signs of the love of God. We rehearse the complex paradox that there is greater freedom in dying to the world than in being loyal to the world.

God does not take away the snakes. God does not take away the darkness. But the light shines in the darkness. You can see the signs of light, the glimmers in the gloom, the green shoots in the shadows. The energy of that light is the energy of the love of God. God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him, and seated us with him, to show us the immeasurable riches of God’s grace.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

March 4, Lent 2, The Signs of God 2: The Signs of Circumcision and the Cross

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:22-30, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

The lesson we just heard is at the midpoint of the Gospel of Mark. Up to this point the campaign of Jesus has been a wonderful success, although with mounting opposition. Now suddenly Jesus predicts that the opposition will get him and kill him and his campaign will be seen as a failure. The disciples don’t like this. That’s not why they signed up. They believe 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.

He says, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words . . . , of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes into the glory of his Father with the holy angels,” that is, when he enters the presence of God the Father, upon his ascension into heaven. We are taught in other places that Jesus ascended into the presence of God in order to stand for us, to represent us, to intercede for us. This is why we pray to God in Jesus’ name, because we communicate with God by means of Jesus representing us. If this is true, then what Jesus means here is that while he’s representing us he can be embarrassed by us whom he represents, and even ashamed of us. Well, does he not retain his full humanity and all his human feelings while ascended into heaven?

He does not mean that he condemns us or rejects us. That is not the way of love, nor of the suffering that love accepts. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, love never gives up. He will not let us go when we let go. He has committed to us indissolubly. It’s in his love that he feels the shame, it’s from love that he feels it when we act ashamed of him. Especially the church, which so often hides the full truth of his message.

A case in point is our first reading, from Genesis 17, one of the key texts in the Bible, about the covenant with Abraham, from which were deleted verses 8 through 14, the very important verses which institute the sign of the covenant, and that sign would be the sign of circumcision. You might remember that in my sermon for January 1, I spoke of the church’s historic shaming of circumcision, and the condemnation of those who were circumcised, and the church’s hatred of the Jews. We have given Jesus much to be ashamed about.

I suspect the editors of the lectionary would say that it was not from anti-Semitism that they took those verses out, but simply to avoid embarrassing the church with the graphic language of circumcision, and the repetition of the phrase, “the flesh of your foreskin,” which makes you think of a certain body part which we don’t expose in public and certainly not in church. Well, it is not wrong to value decency and decorum. We want this church to be a safe church. But safety is not the same thing as salvation, and sometimes salvation can be unsafe. The shedding of the blood of the innocent little child reminds us that our salvation is not nice and safe, but a matter of life and death. The ancient ritual might strike us as barbaric and cruel, but it need not shame us, unless we’re in denial about the deeper cruelties and more subtle barbarities which we today allow to multiply under the surface of our pretensions of progress and modernity.

Simon Peter wanted Jesus to play it safe, and win his campaign, and save his life. I guess he did not understand that Jesus was already suffering, even then, that Jesus was suffering having Simon Peter as his chief disciple. We say that Jesus suffered on Good Friday, but he also suffered during his whole life, beginning with his birth as homeless and his childhood as a refugee. He had to suffer his disciples, and he suffers us, the church. And if Jesus suffers, that means God suffers. It means God suffers the inhumanity of humanity and the misery of all the world.

This is the cost God pays for God’s commitments. God commits. In the narrative of the Bible, God commits to a series of covenants. Last week we saw the covenant with Noah, and the sign of the rainbow. This week we see the covenant with Abraham, and the sign of circumcision. These covenants include God promising to do some things and not do others. You see how God limits God’s own freedom by making such commitments. We call this cost an opportunity cost. But the cost to God which is much heavier is the suffering which comes with commitment. God will feel the suffering of Abraham and his descendants whenever they suffer injustice or oppression. God will also suffer in Godself when God’s partners fail to keep their commitments. God suffers with the church and God suffers from the church. And God stays in it for love.

The suffering of God on our behalf is what we celebrate in Lent. Of course it’s our own penitence that we think about in Lent. We are mindful of our shortcomings and our sin, and to stimulate our mindfulness we deny ourselves a thing or two and do a little voluntary suffering. But the 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 and of the countless unremembered victims of torture and abuse and slavery and starvation and oppression and the just plain 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 relentless disobedience of the children of Israel, and the shame of God for the relentless scandal of the Christian church.

The symbol of shame is the symbol of the cross. The cross which Jesus referred to was not as yet a Christian symbol, it was a Roman symbol of a humiliating execution, designed for slaves and traitors and people without civil rights. Something like lynching. It was shameful for Jesus to be crucified. It was shameful for the God of Israel that the Romans could crucify the Son of God. The shame of Jesus and the shame of God is the climax of our six more weeks of observing Lent.

Or maybe not. Maybe God is not ashamed of us at all. I mean we know that what the world considers shameful, God does not, and what God considers shameful, the world does not. The church is between. We have to sort out what is truly shameful and what is not, and we often get it wrong. On the one hand, our culture tells us there is no shame in sexual exposure or political infidelity or conspicuous consumption or economic greed or public dishonesty for the sake of public gain. On the other hand we shame the people who are not successful or who don’t look good or who can’t compete. The Park Slope culture shames its children all the time. What we are ashamed of God is not. Maybe the suffering of God for us is actually a matter of great joy to God.

Is it true? I don’t know for sure. I’m wondering what God is like. I’m wondering if beneath the outer level of the shame of the Son of Man and the middle layer of the suffering of God there is the deepest level of God’s joy, God’s infinite and indissoluble joy, and that is where we’re aiming in our inner pilgrimage of Lent. And it’s to get to that pure joy that we give up everything else, the chocolate and the meat and the martinis, and we give up the guilt and we give up the shame, and all we’re left with is our naked souls in exposure to the joy of God.

This sermon is only a meditation on what God is like, we learn what God is like by observing Jesus. There are layers of observation in observing Lent, as I was taught by Melody. You observe Lent by observing Jesus, and you observe yourself observing Jesus. You watch yourself watching him. You follow him as he takes up his cross and denies himself. So you deny yourself by putting Jesus’ priorities and purposes before your own. You take up your cross by being willing to suffer the consequences of committing to his priorities, the resistance of the world and even the world’s revenge. You follow him along the self-defeating signs of the rainbow and of circumcision and of the cross. You surrender your pretensions and defenses and your fears. You aim for the doorway of the cross, but that is not the goal. Behind the door is the resurrection and the gift of life. Behind the curtain of shame is the fountain of joy. It’s mystical. You have to give yourself to it. There is surrender here. There is no way around surrender here. You have to surrender to what you cannot fully know and what you certainly can’t control. That feels like death. It goes against your every instinct of self-preservation, and worse, of dignity and decency.

God invites you to surrender to this joy. God invites you to accept this life. Again and again, till death do us part, and there is no shame in accepting this invitation every week again as if it is brand new. There is no other way to accept a joy which is infinite. This is how to receive a love which knows no shame. No matter who you are or what you think about yourself, I can tell you this is true, that God rejoices to love you with everything God is, and that everything God is, is love.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.