Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March 22, Lent 5, Walk to the Cross 5: The Sign of Jesus

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

These Greeks who want to see Jesus — whether they are tourists or converts or something between we are not told. Nor are we told if Jesus even connects with them. What they seem to represent to the Lord Jesus is the wider world outside of Israel, the world that God so loved. They are the sign of the world coming to God, to the God who is coming to the world, and where God meets the world and the world meets God is in this guy Jesus, who is both the Son of God and the Son of Man.

Why did they want to see Jesus? What they indicate is how people come to God, with all kinds of different motivations, a whole great range of motivation, all the way from curiosity like tourists to desperation like the dying, and with all sorts of desires in between. You yourselves are in this range and you move about this range at different seasons in your life. Some seasons in your life you desire God from curiosity, and other seasons in your life you desire God from desperation, from hurt, and fear, and pain. Your sin is ever before you (Psalm 51). Sometimes you are moved by love, and sometimes you are moved by guilt, and guilt and love are so close together. You want to see Jesus, and you’re not sure why, but you suspect that seeing him might get you some answers for the world, or some relief, or some hope and reconciliation.

I doubt that the Greeks wanted to see Jesus because they thought he was going to die. In all the range of what people wanted to see Jesus for, I doubt that anyone wanted to see him because he was going to die. No one who desired him desired that. And yet, when Jesus was told that they wanted to see him, he knew it was time for him to die. How did he arrive at this? What was he thinking? Why did he choose this? Did he choose it freely or were those his “orders”? Did he choose it for God? Was God letting him choose it for the both of them?

I asked a number of people why Jesus had to die. One person gave me a simple answer: “Because it was that bad.” That’s a good answer, but it’s intuitive; it’s artistic and dramatic. Implicit in this answer is that it’s us that are that bad, the totality of us. But let me ask you, isn’t the infinity of God’s goodness sufficient to surpass how bad we are and how bad it is? Couldn’t God still say “Ally-ally-in-free?”

Another person answered that sin costs. That makes sense. The universal human intuition that sin costs is the basis of our various systems of criminal justice. All humanity agrees that when a crime is done, then somebody, somewhere, has to pay something, somehow. But just because it’s a universal human intuition doesn’t necessarily make it proper to the gospel. Conventional wisdom often gets God wrong. Do we get this from God or do we impose this on God, that sin costs?

If you were to ask the official catechism of the Reformed Church, the Heidelberg Catechism, why Jesus had to die, the answer is that “God’s law demands it.” This answer is a decent summary of the Biblical stories and the Biblical laws. But that only alters the question. You could simply ask the question in different terms: “Why did God set up the law this way, that Jesus had to die?”

We could point to the universal necessity of sacrifice. Jesus did that himself in this lesson. A seed has to die in the soil in order to bear new fruit. A tree has to die and fall to the ground in order to renew the soil for new life. When salmon run up their rivers to spawn, they die, and their dead flesh brings the nutrients of the ocean into the upstream environment for the good of all the other species. We could multiply examples of the law of nature that some measure of sacrifice is necessary to the renewal of life. And from this can we say that the law of nature is actually a law from God. But is God confined to the laws of nature? And again, the question remains, why did God set nature up this way?

Parents make sacrifices for their children, lovers for their lovers, and friends for their friends. It’s the expression of real commitment. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” We do it for love. So the necessity of sacrifice in the law of nature is a sign which points us to the love which is at the center of the universe. We say that God is love. Not just a nice and easy love, but a sacrificial love, a costly love. This love of God which runs the universe is displayed to us in the life and death of Jesus and proven to us by his sacrifice upon the cross.

If this is true, it makes some sense of that promise from the prophecy of Jeremiah about the new and everlasting covenant. The Lord Jesus was obviously attracted by that prophecy and he believed he could make it work. Jesus seem to have seen his death as the final covenant, which can never be broken, because it is guaranteed upon the sacrifice of God’s own self, and doubly so: God’s self, and God’s only child, who is dearer than God’s self.

So Jesus is mounted up on the cross as the target of that arrow of God, the arrow in that archery bow that God had set within the clouds at the time of Noah, with the arrow pointed up at God and at God’s heart, when God had said to Noah, “Cross my heart and hope to die.” Jesus put himself up as the target and the arrow is let loose and it flies at the target who is God’s son upon the post and it hits the heart of God. Jesus died in the place of God. People say that Jesus died in our place, as our substitute, which is true, but it was also in God’s place that Jesus died, as a substitute for God.

Why did Jesus have to die? So that God could die in him. You know it is philosophically impossible for the God of the Bible to die, but God was able to die in the death of Jesus. God was able to take the blame for the world, which is that bad. God was able to say, I will accept responsibility, even though it’s not my fault. I am doing it for love. God was able to make that ultimate sacrifice of love. God wants to show us what God is like, and wants to show us the direction of the world, and how we sustain each other, and how we give each other life.

Why did Jesus have to die? Because the secret of life is love. Love is what generates life. And the love of God is so passionate and powerful that it can die and not be stopped by death, because the love of God is not a what but a who. The love of God and the love who is God is what carries you through death and meets you on the other side of death.

The road of Lent that you are on and the road that God is on are converging at the cross, the narrow gate that leads to the resurrection. You are on the road towards your own death and God will meet you there, and then God will carry you on that single dark and narrow pathway of the dead, to the other side, to the resurrection, where God puts you on your feet again.

You are not told very much of what it will be like there. But I can tell you this: you will be living in that same love, and you will at last be able to give that love back fully, with no flaws, with no half-heartedness, you yourself that boundless love which is the love of God. You want to see Jesus because you want to see that living love which is the deepest desire of your own life. You’re on the right track, you’re on the right road. The Lord Jesus welcomes you to invest your life in that same God that he did.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

March 15, Lent 4, The Walk to the Cross: The Awful Trophy

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. That conversation comes early in the Gospel of John, at the beginning of Our Lord’s three-year campaign. And we can infer that the Lord Jesus can already see the cross in the distance, because already, this early, he talks about the serpent in the wilderness as a figure of himself. According to St. John, the Lord Jesus saw his whole campaign as a long walk to the cross, a three-year Lent.

I’d say that already before his baptism Our Lord had contemplated that story, before his coming out. And I wonder: in those eighteen years of his silence between his bar mitzvah (anachronism warning!) and his baptism, how did that awful story challenge him, and what guidance did it give him, and how did he come to regard that story as prophetic of himself?

When we read the story today, we are put off by the petty vengefulness of God to send those snakes. But when the story was first recorded it was assumed that any god had the right and the privilege to do such things whether humans liked it or not.

This is the kind of story that people raise in objection to the Bible and its God. They don’t want that kind of a god. If they want a god at all, they prefer the loving God of Jesus, the God who “so loved the world.” And yet the Lord Jesus himself was able to hold together his belief in the God of the serpents and a loving God the Father, and he speaks of the two things together in one speech.

Indeed, he sees his own future in that brazen serpent. Does he expect to be a trophy on a pole? The brazen serpent was a trophy, of an ancient sort. It was not a modern trophy, like the Stanley Cup. If hockey teams got ancient trophies, the winners would skate around the rink lifting up on their sticks the skates and sweaters and helmets of the losers, and, depending on the franchise, even the face-mask of the goalie with his head still in it.

You get it that the body of Jesus lifted up on a cross was a trophy for the Roman soldiers, when that body was identified as of the "King of the Jews". He’s not just been killed, like the thieves on either side of him, he’s been defeated. And does Jesus think that this is what God wants? What sort of a God is this that Jesus believes in?

On the face of it, your Lenten pilgrimage is about your repentance of your sins, but as I have said, your repentance is not really about your sins but about your discovery of God, this God whom Jesus believed in. This God is not the nice progressive God of Brownstone Brooklyn. This God is both more wonderful and more terrible than that.

So like when you read the news today, and you get indignant and upset, I would say that when God reads the news God doesn’t get just indignant and upset, God has “wrath”, as St. Paul says. Does God have the right to God’s wrath, even if we don’t like it that God should have sent the snakes? What is God’s wrath directed at, and at whom, and for what reason?

Isn’t more at stake for God than for us? How complex and inclusive is God’s love? When God so loves the world, how many species does God love, how many landscapes, how many glaciers does God love, and how many young black men and how many coral reefs, how many aboriginals and even young terrorists does God love, not to mention yourself, and your history, and your conscience, and your very body? Consider how much does God’s love include and to what extent, and then let’s talk about God’s wrath.

What Jesus did is remarkable. When he said to himself, I will be that brazen serpent, he faced the wrath of God and he took God to the cross with him. He said to himself, I will be the Son of Man, interceding in heaven for my people. But he also said to himself, I will be God, the God up in heaven who judges the world, but also the God up on a cross; I’m the God who requires it and the God who endures it, the God who lives and the God who is dead on the trophy of humanity. 

The Lord Jesus embraced that all, and gave himself to it. And why? He saw the deal that God had offered the Israelites in the desert, and made that same deal universal for humanity. The deal is expressed in all three of our lessons in their own ways: If you look upon him, if you believe in him, if you believe the deal that is being offered you in terms of him, and the relationship behind that offer, then you will be saved, you will not die, you will live. Not because of anything you can boast of, not because of your own victory, but because you have been defeated by his love.

Last week I reminded you that during Lent we pray the confession that “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. So your walk to the cross during Lent is when you rehearse the steps of that complex faith and reasoning which Our Lord worked out ahead of us, that bundled into the judgment of God is the sign of grace and the promise of love. 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 energy of that light is the energy of the love of God.

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? Okay. Do you want to add God to your life as it is? Okay. Do you want better health? Good. But if Jesus is the serpent, it’s beyond better health, it’s about healing from poison. To add God to your life means yielding your life, arresting it for God to start it up again. To add God to the world means accepting the judgment of God upon the world, which means your dying to the world and the dying of the world to you. Not that God condemns the world. 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 tell ourselves we are immune to.

What do you want from your Christian faith? If you want success, God offers you rescue.
If you want sympathy, God offers you challenges.
If you want respect, God offers you forgiveness.
If you want fairness, God offers you reconciliation.
If you want honor, God offers you mercy.
If you want spirituality, then Jesus points you to the serpent on the pole, so that you desire the God who is up there on it too.
If you want answers to the problem of God in the world, the answer that God gives you is love, a very deep and ancient and complex love.
Your pilgrimage of Lent is your exploration of this God, who is rich in mercy, who 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 © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

March 8, Lent 3, Walk to the Cross #3: Investment

Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

In St. John’s version of the Cleansing of the Temple, Jesus did this early in his campaign, right after he turned the water into wine at the wedding. Both times his actions are symbolic, but how opposite his actions are. Water and wine, and then wrath and a whip. Extravagant generosity and extreme judgment.

It’s no coincidence that he does this at Passover, the holiday when three years later Jesus will be killed. Already knows he’s in for it. He knows his words will be misunderstood and his actions opposed, he knows that to do what he has to do and say what he has to say, they’ll do away with him. He’s walking into a three-year Lent. To do the right thing, you have to sacrifice. To commit to the right thing, you have to pay for it. And so he’s obviously angry and aggrieved. Just because it’s the right thing doesn’t mean you don’t get angry and aggrieved!

Because sacrifice and suffering are not good things in themselves. You are not called to seek out martyrdom. You are not called to get up on the cross but to walk on under it, to be realistic, to face the real cost of leading lives of ethical love.

You know this from experience. If you have loved, you have suffered: the death or misfortune of a loved one, or from having lost out when you did what was right. If you don’t want to sacrifice, don’t love. Loving your neighbor as yourself is more than being nice and neighborly. It means that you might make substantial sacrifices on your neighbor’s behalf. If your relationship to your neighbor hasn’t cost you anything, then it isn’t love yet. All of us need a few relationships that cost us something, to practice this kind of love. One good way is to go to church, where you have to love other people just as unlovely as you are.

Love costs even God. It’s suffering and sacrifice even for God when God commits to us. That’s the sign of the cross upon God’s heart. In the story of Noah we saw the grief of God for the results of the Flood, and we saw the bow and arrow in the clouds as the symbol of God’s sacrifice. For God to commit to a special relationship with Abraham and his seed was a sacrifice for God, for now God must suffer the relentlessly bad behavior of Abraham’s children.

So it’s in God’s interest to move the relationship along and do something about that behavior. God wants God’s partners to be ethical. And so God gives to the Children of Abraham the Ten Commandments.

This was a new thing in the world. The gods and goddesses had never had much interest in ethical behavior, whether of their immortal selves or of mortal human beings. But the Lord God is on a mission to develop an ethical humanity for the healing of the world, and the Ten Commandments are part of God’s business plan to do that, as well as them being for our own good.

You can think of the Ten Commandments as a mission statement. Because God includes us in God’s mission God invests in our behavior, and our behavior represents the character of God. God’s wants God’s people to be examples, exemplars, living symbols, so that from looking at our behavior the rest of the world can reckon what God is like and what God wants.

What the world would prefer is that God show himself and prove himself by means of supernatural interventions and convenient miracles and fixing things and stopping things. God does not do it that way, and maybe God is foolish not to. Maybe God is so foolish as rather to be known by the behavior of those who believe in God.

God’s reputation is in our hands and our lives. We are entrusted with God’s image in the world. Our behavior is a house for God. Our thoughts and actions and our bodies are God’s temple. The Commandments are a blueprint for the temple of God that is our behavior. God offers this pattern of behavior as something so designed that our performing it converts us into a people whose culture and character brings the righteousness of God into the world.

You can examine these Commandments one by one, but they are best in their unity, as an entity, as say a solid with ten sides, like a decahedron, a great large jewel, that God is casting into the world.

Or you can think of them as the ten links in a chain, suspended from the first link and the tenth link, hanging between the love of God and the love of neighbor, with the eight links in between about the love of both, for if you look closely you realize that each of the eight commandments between is about both God and neighbor.

All the commandments interplay. So you can also think of them as a house, in which each commandment is a structural member holding up the whole. As I said, God inhabits the house of our behavior.

For Christians they are wisdom instead of obligation. For us, the Torah is not obligatory, as St. Paul said last week, but we are obligated to learn God’s wisdom that we can find in them. And we must be willing to pay the price that they demand of us. Like the sacrifice of your freedom of speech that comes with not bearing false witness. Like your sacrifice of sexual freedom that comes with not committing adultery. Like the surrender that comes with not coveting your neighbor’s lovely brownstone, especially if you rent. To love your neighbor as yourself is often a sacrifice. As I said, if loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you, it isn’t love yet, it’s only being nice.

During Lent you confess that in your ethical behavior you have failed to be good representatives of God. But here’s the deeper level of God’s investment: God will be recognized even in your confession of your bad behavior. God will be recognized not as the God who is known by loving the good and successful, but the God who is known by loving the weak and the fallen—not as the God who loves the righteous, but as the God who loves the sinner.

How foolish God looks against the wisdom of the world. The most important ethical behavior that you can do and by which God wants to be known is your telling the truth about yourselves. You do that with extravagance and extremity, like Jesus in the temple, when you confess “there is no health in us, miserable offenders.” Uncomfortable words? If confession doesn’t cost you your comfort, you haven’t confessed yet. 

“If loving your neighbor hasn’t cost you yet, it’s only being nice.” It’s true for God as well. You are God’s neighbor, God gives you space and room to life your life as you develop it, God treats you with respect, and then because God loves you, it costs God too.

God abides you the way you are, God abides you in your weakness and suffers you in your failures. It costs God every day to keep on loving you as God’s self. But that’s what love does, that’s what love loves to do. So I am telling you again that this pilgrimage of Lent is not about us, it’s about the exploration of God.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.