Friday, January 25, 2013

January 27, Epiphany 3, "The Joy of the Lord is Your Power"

 Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

We are watching Jesus of Nazareth work out being the Son of God. At the point of Luke chapter 4, the title "Son of God" does not signify the second person of the Holy Trinity, it does not yet entail actual divinity, Jesus has still to work that out; and though it was already true of him, I don’t think he worked it out until his resurrection. At this point in the gospel, to be the Son of God is to be the royal prince of Israel, the true king of the Jews, of the House and lineage of David, the entitled one, the anointed one, the christos, the Christ, the Messiah.

Two Sundays ago we read that this title was confirmed for Jesus at his baptism, when the voice from heaven said, "You are my son, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased." Three Sundays from now we will read what happened directly after that: the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And every temptation began with the words: "If you are the Son of God." If you are the Son of God, try this, try that, do this. Two of the temptations were based on scripture. Jesus had to sort through some compelling options on how to be the Son of God, he had to consider and reject some powerful possibilities to work out being the Messiah.

Today we read of him going public and developing his campaign. He doesn’t go straight to Jerusalem, straight to Washington, he starts out in Iowa and New Hampshire. In Galilee. He does the synagogues, explaining the book of the law of Moses, the Torah. Like Ezra in our reading from Nehemiah. He read the law and made sense of it so the people could understand it, he was giving them interpretation and inspiration and hope. From our perspective we can see him as God having come among God’s people, God talking to them again. But they would not have seen him as the Messiah, doing that. King David was not a teacher. They saw him as a rabbi and a prophet.

He chooses to announce that he’s the Messiah in his own home town, in the town hall, which is the synagogue. He does it by simply reading from the Isaiah scroll. Let me say in passing that Rabbi Bachman told me they study this chapter of Luke in rabbinical school, because it’s the earliest description of what happened in synagogues, earlier than anything in Jewish books. We may guess, from the account in Nehemiah, that the synagogue’s ruler will have blessed the Lord, that the people raised their hands and said Amen, that they bowed in prayer and worship, and that somebody read from the scroll of the Torah. But we know from Luke that somebody read from a scroll of the Haftorah, that is, one of the prophets, frequently Isaiah, and that somebody did explain the readings and apply them: how shall we keep the laws of Moses in a very different context when the Roman law is above us, and we don’t control the economy we work in, and we don’t even own the land we’re farming. I mean, the synagogue was as much a town hall meeting as it was a spiritual meeting. How are we supposed to live?

It’s dramatic that Jesus finishes reading and then sits down. Everybody looks at him. All his relatives and family friends. "Well, aren’t you going to explain it? Teach us. Show your stuff. Don’t embarrass your brothers here." From where he sits he says, "It’s now. It’s here. It’s me." He has announced—by quoting Isaiah. "The spirit of Adonai has anointed me." Anointed, entitled, the Messiah, the christos, the Christ, the Son of God. He has announced his platform, which is to benefit the poor and free the oppressed. Who the people of Nazareth consider to be themselves, who are hopelessly indebted to the lenders and the landlords and have no capital and cannot rise out of their poverty. He has announced his method. He will accomplish his platform by means of proclamation. "Well, you cannot make it so by simply saying it is so." He will proclaim the good news. "Thanks for the news, but what about the full story? Can you deliver?"

Eventually they will decide he can’t deliver. Over the course of three years, and despite some very positive moments along the way, they will decide he is a loser. He cannot have been the Messiah. He cannot have been the true king of the Jews. "Pontius Pilate, that inscription, please take it down." He was not the king of the Jews, he only said he was. His death on the cross is the denial of all their expectations of how he should have been their Messiah. It’s a great negation.

I wrestle with how the church makes so little real difference in the world. It doesn’t matter, if the church’s only purpose is to get us into heaven when we die. But in the Reformed Church, the gospel is for the salvation of the world and the redemption of all creation. "Thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven." We feed the hungry for more than sympathy and Christian love, we do it to bear witness to the Kingdom of God. Our church has a good reputation because of Cooking for Chips and the Sandy Relief Kitchen and our Summer Respite Shelter, but where is the church on the structures of poverty and the institutionalized injustices that result in hunger and homelessness? What about climate change, where is the church on that? Our church has given its blessing to same-sex marriage, but what about real activism in addressing sexual discrimination? Some churches were powerhouses for the civil rights movement, but 11 AM on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. As far as Christian action in the world, the church has to weep like those people wept when they heard what Ezra was reading in the law.

We have to remember and take for ourselves that Our Lord’s death on the cross is the denial of his own people’s expectations of how he should be their Messiah. It was a great big "no" to all their "yesses". They saw him as a failure and yet we believe in him. You came here today to worship this disgrace as the Son of God. What has he done for you? What has he delivered us? The forgiveness of our sins? Reconciliation with God? How does that work? By God saying No to us in order to say Yes to us, by the strange exchange of God loving and accepting us precisely in judging and negating all our expectations of how to be the Messiah for us and how to satisfy our standards for making a real difference in the world. If we claim to have the Christian solutions for these real issues in the world, God says no to us. Which is good. It means that God’s love for us is free from us, so we are free. It means the freedom of our guilty consciences and the freedom of our actions in the world. It also means that the only power the church may exercise in the world is the joy of the Lord. The joy of the Lord is our power.

And so the church, as the church, can be content, without guilt, to busy itself in doing what it did under Ezra—coming together to bless God, to read out the scriptures and interpret them, to consider our failures and accept the forgiveness, to bow down in prayer, and to drink the wine and eat the food and deliver the food to those who don’t have any. So I think we’re on the right track. But that is not to let us off the hook. We are to be the body of Christ, which means a real sharing with each other, our aches and pains and our strengths and our vitalities.

None of us here is an apostle, but if you are a prophet, we must support you in your prophecy. If you are teacher, we support you in your teaching. If you are an activist, we must support you in your activism. If you are a healer, or in medicine, or massage, or therapy, we support you in your healing. If you are a helper, a server, a nanny, a caretaker, a custodian, we will support you. If you are a leader, we will support you when you take your hits. If you have the gift of speech, or of interpretation, as a newscaster or a writer, we will follow you and read you. You are a musician, an artist, a designer, an architect, a carpenter, an engineer, an accountant, a banker, we will encourage to make your difference in the world, in your activity in the world and in all your various associations, in freedom outside the church, with other sorts of believers and non-believers. We need to identify activists and support them and love them, so that their activism may have joy. That joy is the sign that our power is of the Lord. That joy is the sign of the unfailing yes of God and of the unfathomable love of God.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

January 13, The Baptism of Jesus, "With You I Am Well-Pleased"

 Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

"You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased." I think it was a very big deal for Jesus to hear these words from heaven, words of recognition and confirmation and approval. I’m sure he needed to hear it. I mean he had developed some beliefs about himself, and had worked out some ideas about his identity, and his calling—who he was, and what he should do with the second half of his life, and his ideas and beliefs about himself were so strange, too strange to have shared with anyone else, strange and daring, and compelling, and challenging, and scary, and now suddenly he gets recognized and confirmed. It was a very big deal for him.

I took some time this week to review the whole Gospel of Luke. I noticed that Luke shows Jesus developing—developing his message, evolving his presentation, exploring his identity, learning as he goes, exploring what it means to be the "Son of God," for the title means several things in the Bible, both literal and metaphorical, and he had to work it out and even advance it.

He will have begun that in his earlier life, those silent years before he came out. Thirty years, by our best guess, into which our only glimpse is when he we was twelve and he came to the temple and loved it, and he surprised the rabbis there by his precocious knowledge of scripture. Then eighteen years of anonymity. He had a lot of sorting out to do. His mother told him what the angel had said to her, and about the stable and the manger and the shepherds, and his father told him about his dreams, and the magi, and why they had lived in Egypt for a while, and the terrible knowledge that those innocent children of Bethlehem were slaughtered because of him.

He took some years to think about these things. He had to read and study and pray. He had to meditate upon the Torah and the prophecies. This Messiah thing. What has God promised to Israel? What does God want for the world? What can I do about it? Who do I think I am? What am I nuts? Why me? Why now? His precocious interest in scripture was self-interest. What is the purpose of my life? Who am I really? What is God to me?

What did he know and when did he know it? Did he think of himself in terms of our orthodox doctrine as the Second Person of the Trinity? I don’t think so, not yet before his death and resurrection. We can believe that he was, but that he didn’t know he was, because our orthodox doctrine teaches us that in his Incarnation he emptied himself of the rights and benefits of his divinity. So that having accepted the limits of the human condition, including the organic boundaries of the human brain upon his memory and knowledge, he would not have known this about himself. He did not have some special mental telepathy to communicate with God. Like everybody else, he had to study the scriptures and pray, even to sort out being the Messiah.

Was he active in the life of Nazareth? Was he an activist? Did he organize the carpenters into a labor union to stand up for their rights against the Romans? Or did he watch and wait? Was he friendly, cheerful, likable, dependable, but also a little reserved? Did he party? Did he already hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes? Is this why his brothers doubted him? How about that he did not take a wife? Was he good looking? A perfect face, a great body, a hunk, an Adonis? Orthodox doctrine says that his perfection was not in being like some Greek god in human form, nor even in never getting a parking ticket or a library fine, but his perfection was in his obedience to God. Which was not automatic; he had to sort it through and work it out.

That obedience, as any Jew will tell you, means lots of time just studying Torah. That study is itself obedience. And also learning by heart the prayers and the prophecies, like in Isaiah, about God’s plans for Israel, not yet fulfilled, the coming back of God, the return of the spirit of God.

These scriptures lived in him, and he figured he could be the Messiah to make it happen, but it took lots of study and reflection to resolve not to take the obvious course of military leadership that everyone was hoping for. He had to let himself wonder, and imagine how he might work it out, he had to imagine the likely opposition and get used to that idea, and even imagine how it might end very badly. He had to figure this out himself, nobody else could do it for him. He had to believe it was the Spirit of God who was whispering these things to him, and not some demon. Some nights he could not sleep, and he wished he did not have to think these things, that it was not so, that he could have a wife like everybody else, and kids like his brothers had.

He had this cousin John who was quite strange, and open about his strangeness, who started preaching and baptizing down by the River Jordan. Okay, it must be true. And if it’s true, it’s time. So of course he gets baptized. He needs to be part of this. He needs to belong to the people whom John had prepared for the coming back of God. He feels he must be last in line, and then he takes his turn, and then, I think, he gets surprised. Wonderfully surprised. By the dove and the voice. Not what he had expected. Not what baptism ever was about. For God to come down on it.

The dove. Like the dove of Noah’s Ark? The dove which had flown back and forth over the face of the flood, just as, at creation, the Spirit of God had hovered over the face of the Deep? Did Jesus wonder at this dove, and then imagine its meaning from out of his deep knowledge of scripture? Did he intuit that God had just started coming back to Israel, and coming back on him?

The voice, how great for him to hear that voice and be confirmed in all his years of study and imagination. To be recognized. To be approved. A great relief, I think, and a consolation, after all those years. And then the challenge. And the joy. Okay, let’s go. Let’s roll. He could hardly wait.

How much of what holds for Jesus holds for us? Well, you are a child of God, but none of you is a Son of God in the special ways that Jesus is. Yet one of the main points of the Christian faith is that you can claim an intimacy with the God of the universe like that of a favorite child with her daddy.

You may consider yourself the beloved of God. Not just loved, as God loves the world and everything in it, but the beloved, God’s sweetheart, you are the object of God’s affection, which is why you have a soul, for you to receive the affections of God into your life. So the purpose of your Christian life, your learning and your prayer, is to explore in your life your belovedness to God. Which does not depend on your earning it. It’s not your goal, it’s your beginning, it’s a gift to you at your beginning, and to be a Christian is to sort it out and grow into it, develop it, advance it—your belovedness to God.

And with you God is well-pleased. Before you have done anything. You do not have to justify yourself to God. Of course you can’t, but you think you must because it’s something you do all the time in your daily life. You’ve got to look good. You’ve got to look better. You’ve got to keep the approvals working. You’ve got to cover your bases and cover your you-know-what, or you may lose your place. I think there’s more guilt spread around by our New York City culture than by any religion ever made. The Park Slope way of life requires so much justification. If we fallen creatures expect this of each other, how much more must a righteous God?

But "with you I am well-pleased." Here is the entrance of God into your life. Not, "you’re fine, you’re good, you’re great." It’s not about you, it’s about God, and about God’s attitude toward you, the unshakeable affection which God has for you, which is the core of your identity, and the beginning of your life of service in the world. When you serve God in the world, for justice and for peace and for mercy and healing, you will be resisted and opposed, but not by God. Your attempts at the right thing will be half-way, and you could always do better, but this you cannot shake, "with you I am well-pleased." Unconditionally? God’s love for you is unconditional, God’s love is absolutely free, God identifies what love is just by being God. God is love.

Who are you? What is the purpose of your life? What is your own personal contribution to the healing of the world, and how can you find happiness in your life? You cannot help but ask these questions all your life, just because you are a spiritual creature. You are on a constant quest to explore this in your life. Your answers will develop through your life.

But your starting point is this, unshakeably: "Who are you?" There’s lots I don’t know about myself, but I am God’s beloved, and with me God is well-pleased. So let’s go. Let’s roll.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, January 04, 2013

January 6, Epiphany, On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

Isaiah 60:1-6,  Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

The twelfth day of Christmas is today, January 6. Epiphany completes the Christmas story, with the arrival of the Magi, who did not ever go to the stable with the shepherds, but some time later came to the house where the Holy Family was living. In our crèches of the Nativity we place the Magi and their camel behind the shepherds, but it is not Biblically accurate. Our traditions like to mix in all these things, and often the tradition is not Biblically accurate. The magi are not kings. They work for kings. The tradition calls them kings from the overlay of passages like Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72. The tradition can be misleading, and it can distract us from the real point of the story of the Magi, which we don’t include within our crèches, and that’s the contrast between the Magi on the one hand and King Herod on the other, which will result in Herod’s terrible slaughter of innocent children and the flight into Egypt and the second homelessness of Christ.

The Protestant principle is to scrap the traditions of the church because the traditions clog up the message of the scriptures, and they often do. But the Protestant Reformers did not anticipate that the traditions which are part of the marketing of our consumer economy have more power than the church traditions ever did to manipulate our desires and manage our imagination, and we have jumped from the frying pan into the fire, from the traditions of the church to the traditions of the market. So it is worth the risk for us to practice the traditions of the church, as long as we keep them measured by the scriptures and we honor the freedom of the Word of God.

We are committed to this balance at Old First. As much as we can we honor and employ the great traditions of the church. We do not reinvent the wheel. Some of our own local practices go back 350 years. But yet, when we believe the gospel calls us to, we take our freedom from our traditions.

It’s against the Christian tradition to have women pastors. But the gospel calls to this freedom. It’s against the Dutch Reformed tradition to have communion every week, but we listen to the invitation of our Lord Jesus. It’s against the human tradition to be fully inclusive of gay and lesbian persons without any conditions at all, but the gospel compels us, and this obedience to the gospel means freedom from the tradition.

In this regard I might have said that we are like the Magi and the gospel is the star, and we all have to leave the places of our safety and comfort and such, and follow that star across the moors and mountains of our lives without our having to think about the path that it might lead us on. But I cannot say that in good conscience, because the magi did not follow that star. Maybe in the tradition, but not in the Biblical text. Certainly not at first. For the star to have led them they will have had to see it in the West. But they told King Herod that they had seen it, literally, “in the East.” Had they followed it East they would have ended up in Pakistan, not Palestine.

What they did was to interpret it. That was their business, after all, for the magi were the royal astrologers of Babylon. Their job was to calculate the meaning of the stars by their risings and their transits and their relationships to other constellations. That is what they did with this new star, by the arts and skills of their astronomy and astrology, which back then were the same.

There’s the rub. The God of Israel, who had forbidden Israel to use astrology, was willing to use astrology for revelation. Well, it’s hardly the only case in the Bible where God may do some things which we may not. In the Old Testament, God is free to act outside the covenant as long as God’s free actions do not compromise the covenant. And here God appeals to the heathen practice of astrology in order to communicate with the Magi.

But not fully. Their calculations got them as far as Jerusalem, where their research would naturally lead them. It took the scriptures to get them to Bethlehem. And then they saw the star again, and for the first time it was before them, leading them to the house where the child was. Which tells us that the star must have been angel all along, who took the form of a star in order to appeal to them in a way that they could recognize. Which means that it is useless for modern researchers to try to identify that star with some comet or supernova or such. There will be no record of that star in historical astronomy. It was an angel, as came to Mary and to the shepherds and to Joseph in his dreams.

There is a lesson here for us. You pray to God leading and direction in your life, for help with what to do with your life and what direction to take and decisions to make. You should do this. But God will not provide you with some star for you to just keep following over the moors and mountains of your life. God’s direction for you may rise in a place quite opposite to where you need to go, and you need to interpret it, which requires you to use your mind and your heart and your brain, and never with full inner certainty.

There is great value to goal-setting and long-range planning. I do it for myself and our elders and deacons do it for the church. But in all of our goal-setting for 2012 did we ever plan that we would set up a relief kitchen to produce almost 100,000 meals by December 31? The last four months have been remarkable for Old First and we believe that God has been leading us but it’s not like we had some star out there in front of us. The gospel of Our Lord Jesus has risen once for all above Jerusalem, and we have seen it, and we do our best to interpret it by all the arts and sciences we know, and then we start walking forward as best as we can figure out.

You need to make plans for your life. You need to be responsible, and that for those who love you and depend on you. You direct your life as best you can. But then a storm slams into you, or you get sick, or your child gets sick, or your landlord sells the building, or your spouse tells you its over and you get thrown back, or you say something stupid and you pay for it, and suddenly you need new plans. “O God, please help, O give me some direction.” But the gift of freedom means some uncertainty. Even when things are good, God gives you no yonder star to follow.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with you. You can believe in the rising of the gospel, and then patiently apply yourself with all the ordinary arts and skills that God has given you to calmly address the next steps of your life, because while you are responsible there is also so much out of your control. Don’t sit and wait for a personal message which you can simply follow. You have to engage the message that has been given to us all, with patient openness and in humble consultation and in prayer, and patiently trust that gospel to help you address each new uncertainty.

Don’t worry about not getting it right. You will make mistakes along the way, you will get things wrong and do wrong things. There is a wonderful and liberating Calvinist doctrine with the unfortunate name of Total Depravity. What it means is that even the best steps that you take will have some wrong in them and even the worst things that you do will have some good in them, so that absolutely everything you do is under grace, which liberates you to use your freedom and take risks and make your mistakes. You are under grace, and you cannot prevent the hurricanes and  wall street crashes and other dangers will come into your life, so do not try.

Use your freedom. You will make mistakes but you will not end wrong as long as your goal is the Magi’s goal: to worship this Lord Jesus Christ, and to offer to him your most precious gift, the first part of your life and what you stand for, and whatever you do, the first part of the work of your hands and the first part of the work of your mind. With that goal, no matter how you go, you cannot end wrong, but, like the Magi, you will end in joy, the joy of worshiping Our Lord.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.