Friday, February 16, 2018

February 18, Lent 1: The Signs of God #1: The Rainbow

Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-13

What are you giving up for Lent? Are you doing any fasting? Any self-imposed deprivation? The deprivation of the Lord Jesus was imposed on him by the Holy Spirit. Now St. Mark does not say that Our Lord fasted for those forty days, as does St. Matthew, but there’s deprivation just in his isolation in the desert.

Except for animals and angels. St. Mark is the only gospel to mention the wild beasts, which makes us think of Noah, who was with the wild beasts in the ark for forty days of rain. As deprivation the Flood was a colossal one, with very tight rations for man and beast.

The forty days of rain upon the ark and the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness are behind the tradition of the season of Lent, as is the forty years of the Children of Israel wandering in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, eating only manna. Lent is deprivation, and deprivation on the way somewhere. Like the hobbits Frodo and Sam slogging through the desert wastes of Mordor, eating only morsels of elven bread, their Middle-Earth version of the Eucharist. The season of Lent puts the church on a journey of deprivation, a journey to Good Friday, to the cross, to Golgotha, to our Biblical “Mount Doom.”

To guide us on our journey God makes signs for us, signs to keep us on the path that God is on. So my sermon series for Lent is called “The Signs of God.” This is a reworking of a series from six years ago. Each week we’ll look for the signs in the lessons, and go where those signs direct us.

It’s worth noting that the Bible offers us signs of God but never proofs of God. The Bible never bothers to prove the being of God. The Bible assumes the being of God to be so obvious and reasonable that only a fool would say there is no God. What the Bible does address is which God, whose God, and where is this God going. Therefore signs, not proofs.

Proofs conclude and signs direct. Proofs settle and signs are for movement. For proofs you can sit and analyze and judge and be done with it. For signs you have to get up and get moving to where the signs are pointing you. The Bible offers signs of a God who is on the way somewhere.

The sign of the rainbow is the sign of the covenant that God makes with Noah and the animals and all the earth. The sign of the rainbow is the sign of the covenant that God makes with Noah and the animals and all the earth. The sign is given to Noah as the high priest of the creatures of the earth, to Noah as the pastor of the congregation of the animals.

Yes, the animals are in this covenant too. Nobody asked them if they wanted in, nobody asked Noah either. This covenant is totally gratuitous, it’s all God’s idea, it’s God’s commitment to the future, it’s God’s gratuitous benefit to Noah’s descendants and to the animals and to all the earth.

For the sign God selected a natural phenomenon, visible to animals as well, to give it new symbolic meaning. The meaning of the rainbow is not in the colors but the shape. What God says is clear: “I set my bow in the clouds.” That means a bow-and-arrow bow, a bow stretched back into a curve by pulling an arrow against the string. The curve of the bow is directed upwards toward the target, and the bull’s-eye is Godself.

Do you get it? God pledges God’s own life and death as the guarantee of God’s faithfulness to animals and humankind. God is saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die, if I don’t keep my promise to the earth.”

How far can we go with this? Can we shoot the arrow all the way to Good Friday and the target of God’s Son hanging on the cross? Did God shoot the arrow at the dearest person of the three-personned God, God’s Son, Godself? The arrow shoots across the seven weeks of Lent, over the imaginary road of our annual pilgrimage. This is the road that takes us to the Emerald City, the wonderful city of God, but before the city is the Cracks of Doom, the yawning chasm of the death of God.

God pledges God’s life and death with the sign of the rainbow, God commits Godself. God says, “I’m in.” Before the rainbow, God let the world have its way, God kept distant, and when things got very bad, God just wrote it off, God ordered the Flood to clean it all away. But with the rainbow God says, “I’m in, I’m personally invested in this now, I will see this through.” So the sign of the rainbow means that God will start taking personal responsibility for all the sin and suffering and misery of the world.

Not that God is the one who is guilty or at fault, but, just as our next president will have to take responsibility for our dangerous national debt, so God accepts responsibility for the evil that we human beings have let loose in the world, God submits to taking blame. The rainbow tells us that God will pay the price for all the wrongness we have caused within the world. Which seems like a very self-sacrificial and self-depriving thing for God to offer.

Part of the price God pays is unfair blame. It’s the most common point raised against the being of God: how can there be a God if God allows suffering and misery in the world. The Bible would answer that God allows suffering and misery because God allows us! But we’d rather shift the blame elsewhere, so we blame God. God takes the blame. The sign of the rainbow means God’s self-deprivation of God’s rights and reputation.

On this path of God’s humility God invites us too, which for us means self-examination. So let me add here that for the Bible to try to prove the being of God would let humanity off the hook, as if we were neutral and fair and had the right to be the objective judge and jury. From the Bible’s perspective, we are the ones on trial. Only when we make the self-examining journey through our failures and our grief and anger and loss, does the being of God begin to make sense. For your mind to reason out God’s being, in front of your mind you need the ashes on your forehead.

Or on that same spot on your forehead, the water of baptism. The sign of baptism informs your mind behind it, and your conscience too. First Peter calls baptism “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Because if it were only ashes, if you just stayed with your failures and your grief and anger and loss, if your journey through the desert ended only at the chasm of the death of God, your guilty conscience would lead you to despair or else to reject the whole idea of God. But because of the resurrection of Jesus, which nobody asked for, God negates your guilt, gratuitously, just as gratuitously as God benefited Noah and the animals. God washes off the ashes from your mind and gives you a clean conscience, as a gift.

But the water of baptism evaporates, as a rainbow disappears, so what good is a sign you cannot see? The meaning of the sign is not the substance of water but the action of applying it, an action remaining in the memories of the witnesses of your baptism like they remember that rainbow they saw that summer day. The action of your baptism was attested in a certificate and recorded in a book.

These all testify that the sign was applied, and the sign means that the Holy Spirit applies to you the self-sacrifice of God in Christ upon the cross, as well as all the prior self-sacrificing of God on behalf of Israel in the desert, all the way back to Noah and the ark. All that self-sacrifice of God is applied to you by the Holy Spirit invisibly, as the water gets invisible in the application of baptism. You are given the right to the all the benefits of God’s gratuitous commitments, a clean conscience, and the right of resurrection.

Is your conscience ever guilty? I hope so! Do you have regrets about things that you have said or done? I hope so some time! So think of yourself as an unclean animal and of God as Noah, who herds you into his ark without your having asked for it, and saves you. Or believe that you are gathered along the road by God, that God is on the way somewhere, and taking you along. God is on the way with you. That this faithful God is on the way with you is how you can put your conscience to rest.

The sign of the rainbow points forward to the cross and the sign of your baptism points backward to the cross. They both are signs of God binding Godself to us. They both point us to God committing Godself to us. Not just God’s teachings or God’s laws, but God’s own self. God says, “Here I am. I’m not just God, I am your God. I’m with you and you’re with me.”

That kind of personal commitment is what we call love, especially when it’s self-sacrificial. These two signs are the signs of God’s great love for us. I invite you to believe that the most important thing that you can know about your own conscience is that God absolutely loves you, cross God’s heart and hope to die.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

February 11, Transfiguration, Prophecy #6: "Listen to Him!"

2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

I don’t hardly know what to do with the Transfiguration. I mean I’m not sure how to make it useful spiritually or give you a take-home from it.

I could talk about it doctrinally, if you have that old-fashioned taste for doctrine as an end in itself like my Dutch Calvinist immigrant farmers in Canada. Sjoerd Sierdsma told me that he liked to have something to think about all week when he milked his cows.

I could talk about it mystically, if you have that un-American love for worship as an end in itself like the Oriental Orthodox, and you cared about contemplation more than application. I could talk about it philosophically, or historically, or as literature, but what shall you make of it for your ethical life or spiritual life this week? I don’t know if it even wants that kind of application.

The disciples did not know what to make of it. They were confused by it. Quote: “They did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” And then the Lord Jesus told them not to speak of it till after his death and resurrection, I’m guessing for the reason that they did not comprehend it even though he had wanted them to witness it. Just the week before they did not comprehend his prediction of his death and resurrection, and that had terrified them too, and they argued against it. So why does the Lord Jesus want them to witness what he knows they will not understand?

There are many things that St. Mark does not explain to us. As I said last week, he does not write as an omniscient narrator. He never tells us what Jesus was thinking, he only shows us what could be observed of him. He does not tell us what Jesus knew or when he knew it. How much did the Lord Jesus know about the Transfiguration ahead of time? Did he control what happened there or was it more like it was done to him? Did he summon Moses and Elijah or was he surprised and delighted to meet them there? Did his heavenly Father do this to strengthen and encourage him or did he make this happen for himself? Did he know what his Father would say there? I think John Calvin would say Yes and Martin Luther would say No. I think St. Augustine would say Yes, as would the Cappadocian Fathers, but maybe St. Irenaeus would say No. I guess we’re not expected to know. We are not to put words in his mouth or in his mind, we are to listen to him.

St. Mark doesn’t explain why Moses and Elijah were there. And why those two—why not, say, Abraham or David? Was it because only Moses and Elijah had had their private talks with God on mountaintops? Was it because Moses and Elijah were prophets, while Abraham and David were not? Is there something inherently prophetic in the Transfiguration, if prophecy is the revelation of hidden things, or the future becoming visible in the present, or the exposing of secrets, and the truth that underlies appearances? In viewing Jesus transfigured, were they suddenly glimpsing the future, with Jesus resurrected and glorified, still in his physical body, but glorified with God’s glory?

I won’t be obstinate. Despite the mysteries and unanswered questions we can make some decent deductions.

We can say that God was in Christ.

We can say that the God of Moses and Elijah, the One God of the Old Testament, who shared God’s glory with no other, was investing that glory in the body and person of Jesus, such that Moses and Elijah talked to Jesus just as they had talked to God in the burning bush and on Mount Sinai. St. Paul can say the same in other words in our Epistle for today.

Also we can say what the disciples will have found confusing, that this One God who was in Jesus spoke as if there were two persons in God, a Father and a Son, which was hitherto unthinkable.

No less confusing for them was that with Jesus having recently told them that he would be killed, then how could this One God be fully in someone going to die, but we can say, after the fact, after we have surveyed the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, we can say what they didn’t yet see, that the Transfiguration was a prophetic glimpse of the unfathomable strategy of God’s self-sacrificial love.

And finally, we can say that the apostles were his witnesses, and through the ages they offer us their testimony as something we can choose to believe.

The Christian tradition has made those deductions and said all these things despite the mysteries still unexplained. The church has this story but does not possess it, the story stands beyond the church and its control. Such is Biblical prophecy. The church produced the Bible but it does not own the Bible and is not the Bible’s master, the Bible keeps breaking free.

This story I’ve known as long as I can remember, and it’s stranger to me now than ever before. The same with the story of Elijah and Elisha, how little I understand it. How foreign these familiar stories are, how uncontrolled, undomesticated, like wild animals that we can see are living just beyond the fence.

We are not told what Elijah knew nor when he knew it. We are told what the companies of prophets knew but not how they knew it. What the companies of prophets were is not explained to us, though scholars have opinions. We are told what Elisha knew and when he knew it, but not how he knew it. We are shown his prophetic power coming into play. The larger narrative of Second Kings is shifting from the story of Elijah to the story of Elisha, and our observation of Elijah is now from Elisha’s point of view.

Elisha is more with us than Elijah was. Elijah was the fiery prophet from the desert, a loner, the stranger, the wanderer. He stands for judgment and a jealous God and the absolute sovereignty of the Lord God. His name is “Eli-jah,” which means, “My God is Jah, my God is Adonai, the Lord.” While Elisha is more with us, he lives in town, and his name is “Eli-sha,” which means, “My God saves.” He’s the prophet of healing and rescue and reconciliation.

Elijah resists Elisha but Elisha will not leave him. The Bible so often resists us but we will not let it go. Elisha will not let Elijah send him away, and we will not be put off by those things in the Bible that we cannot understand and may not ever fully comprehend. If it’s true, as I have been saying, that all of you are expected to be minor prophets in some measure, then you have to stay with such stories and keep repeating ideas that you cannot master but still must love. Not only Biblical stories but the story of the world and even the story of yourself.

I see this difficult walking of Elisha with Elijah as a general paradigm. You are Elisha and your God is Elijah, and God keeps disappearing but you will not let go of God and you demand God’s Spirit.

You are Elisha and your best self is Elijah, and you will not let your best self reject or abandon the self that you are now.

You are Elisha and justice for the world is Elijah, justice, fairness, truthfulness, honesty in politics, economic equity and basic safety, and it keeps eluding our grasp, but you will not stop going for it and calling out that you see it.

You are Elisha and Elijah is the light in the darkness, and you keep reaching for the light.

You are Elisha and Elijah is the Transfiguration, and you don’t know what’s behind it, but you hope that you are glimpsing the future shining back into the present darkness in his body with the justice and the light of God.

This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him. There are many competing voices in the world, and much confusing talk of what the Christian faith means, especially on the current issues of the day. But it’s wonderful to me how Jesus is respected in the world not least by people not in church.

I was watching a comedian named Alonzo Bodden, he’s a regular on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. He talked about healthcare in Canada, and he said, “In the United States . . . the Republicans are like, ‘Healthcare for poor people? We will shut down the government! In the name of Jesus.’ (Laughter.) They always slip Jesus in on things Jesus would have nothing to do with. (Cheering and applause.) Listen, I’m not Biblical, I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty confident Jesus would be okay with healthcare. I mean it just seems like the kinda thing he’d go along with. I mean Jesus used to lay hands on the sick.”

My point is not healthcare or Republicans but that the secular audience was cheering about Jesus. As I watched I thought that Jesus keeps getting his message through. “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.”

There is so much we do not understand nor can we. But you don’t have to be an expert to know what the messages of Jesus are. Stay with them. Repeat those messages. Among all the voices, listen to him. You keep on walking with Jesus, for he has told you where he is going.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

February 4, Epiphany 5: Prophecy #5: The Message Is the Miracle

 Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

The Bible has many miracles, but not till Jesus does healing become the typical miracle. Before him, most of the miracles were miracles of judgment: like the Flood, or the Ten Plagues on Egypt, or fire from heaven on the enemies of Elijah and Elisha, and many more. Often these judgments included miraculous rescues from the judgment: Noah in the ark, or Israel escaping through the Red Sea.

Less frequent are miracles of sustenance: water from the rock and Manna in the desert, or the jar of meal and the jug of oil for Elijah and the widow. Least frequent are miracles of healing, only five: the healings of Miriam, Naaman, and Hezekiah, and two dead boys raised up by Elijah and Elisha.

With Jesus, none of his miracles are judgment, three of them are sustenance, and all the rest are healings and rescues and raising the dead. It’s a remarkable shift. From judgments to healings. It had been foreseen by the prophet Isaiah, but it is Jesus who makes the shift. The point is that Jesus makes the renewal of health to be the confirmation of the good news of the coming of the kingdom.

It’s not what they expected of the Messiah. They expected a warrior and a judge. That’s what John the Baptist expected. So I don’t think that the reason that Simon told Jesus that his mother-in-law was sick was to get Jesus to heal her, but rather why she would not be serving them, and to warn him that she might be contagious.

Yet Jesus enters her room and touches her. He raises her up—an early hint of resurrection. Quickly the word gets out, and as soon as the restrictions of the Sabbath day are over the people carry all their sick to him and he heals them. This new teacher is a prophet who has such authority to cast out demons and to heal. But that was not the job description of the Messiah that they were expecting.

That night he had to sort this out. Only just a day before he had never yet done a miracle! I wonder, when he touched Peter’s mother-in-law and lifted her up, how confident was he that she would be healed? How much was that a risk for him? How much was he making it up as he went along? No one had ever been the Messiah before. He had to create it. Was healing how he should occupy himself from now on? Is he supposed to deal with symptoms or with systems and structures? So to sort this out he goes to God in prayer, as much for understanding as for strength.

He talks to God at length, probably repeating the Psalms he knew, and listening to the silence, and he decides to move on. His message is most important, his miracles serve the message, not the other way around. He has to address the systems. The message is itself the major miracle.

But the Messiah was not expected to be a messenger any more than a healer. The Messiah was to be a prince, and a prince would have a messenger to go before him, his herald to announce the good news of his coming, but the prince is not his own messenger. How strange of Jesus to be the messenger of his own coming. He’s not acting like the Messiah should. No wonder many Jews did not believe in him, especially the educated ones. They figured he didn’t know what he was doing.

We could wish here that St. Mark would give us a decent summary of his message, more than just a phrase or two, but he doesn’t. Maybe he figured we’ve already got it from St. Matthew, who laid it out in the Sermon on the Mount. But actually I think that St. Mark’s particular point is that Jesus is his own message, his message is himself, his person, his “Here I am.” I am the miracle!

Who is this guy? What is this guy? Yes, a teacher, a prophet, maybe a prince, but more than all of these together. Yes, the Messiah, but here too he creates a new definition. St. Mark is showing us a person who is sui generis, unique, beyond definition, beyond expectation, to whom you can attribute many attributes but who exhausts them all, a messenger whose message is himself. “Here I am.”

What is St. Mark showing us? Not telling, but showing? In his own way—different from St. Paul who wrote before him, and different from St. John who wrote after him—St. Mark is showing us a person in whom we readers can recognize the presence of the Living God. How fully so, how totally, and in what way he does not define.

St. Mark does not explain how much Jesus knew about himself, or how far he could see ahead, or whether he equated himself with God somehow or just that he was doing what he thought God would do if God were there. St. Mark writes not as an omniscient narrator, he has no access to the private mind of Jesus. He shows us the effect of him, the startling effect of him, that he was saying, “Here I am, I am the miracle.” And in him we read God.

But isn’t God properly up in heaven? Doesn’t God sit above the circles of the earth? Have you not known, have you not heard, has it not been told you from the beginning? We are like grasshoppers before him, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads the heavens like a tent, who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. The Holy One says, “To whom then will you compare me, who is my equal?” Be careful, this is God we are talking about, so how dare you say that even in such a remarkable guy as this Jesus, that in him God should be saying “Here I am!”

Because the prophet Isaiah foretold it. Have you not known? Have you not heard? This lofty and far-off God comes down to give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless. The one who counts the number of the stars and calls them all by name is the one who heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord lifts up the lowly. And Jesus lifts up the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. Yes, the message of Jesus is that in him God is saying, “Here I am.” The miracles serve the message that he himself is the miracle.

Melody reminded me that when we read the gospels, we are too easily drawn to the healings, just as the disciples were. Especially as we Americans are so preoccupied with physical health. She said that we spend one-third of our economy on health care, in which healing means getting to live a little longer with medicated symptoms. The message of Jesus is not that you can live a little longer with medicated symptoms. In fact he will call on you to die.

Better put, he calls you to a life you do not control the end of. There are limits to your power and boundaries to your knowledge. As I said, St. Mark is not an omniscient narrator. If the real miracle is the message that God says, Here I am,” then your life has meaning and value beyond the satisfaction of your expectations.

You see in this story the Lord Jesus as the long-expected one who keeps on acting unexpectedly. He acts no differently with you today. He is both faithful and surprising, he is both dependable and unpredictable, he is both constant and free, he loves you but you cannot hold him down. If he treats your symptoms he challenges your systems. You need him and you think you know what you need from him but he knows better and he keeps ahead of you.

So this is your take home: God satisfies your expectations and moves you unexpectedly. Yes, your God satisfies your expectations, never totally but sufficiently, but also keeps moving you unexpectedly. You find yourself like the disciples, saying, This is good, stay here, but he says, Lets go, let’s keep moving. Oh no, you can’t see what’s ahead, so how can you know it’s good? You do know what is behind, and even if it wasn’t great, at least you learned to live it. You know why people don’t like change: it’s not what they might gain but what they might lose of what they have. And yet your take home: God satisfies your expectations and keeps on moving you unexpectedly.

Your second take home is that you have a message to share and that message is yourself. I don’t mean some stock evangelism message that you have to tell someone for them to get saved. Don’t let the caricature ruin that you still have a message to share. Your message is yourself, by which I mean the meaning of your life as you get the meaning of your life from God. I mean your accounting of how and when in your life you felt God saying, “Here I am.”

Your message will evolve as God comes to you in evolving combinations of judgment and sustenance and rescue and healing. You recognize your message when you come to terms with your own life, and in your life you read God.

It’s only fair that I tell you my message. You might have guessed it. I testify that God has satisfied me with what I did not expect. That God is both free of me and faithful to me is the message of my life. And in that combination of freedom and faithfulness is what I recognize as love.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.