Saturday, March 09, 2019
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13
This is my twelfth time preaching through the Gospel of Luke, and I’m finally realizing something basic about it, something hidden in plain sight, but suddenly obvious once you notice it.
Last week I said that the Gospel of Luke is the most humane of the four Gospels that we have, with the most human interest, and that’s because one of St. Luke’s distinctive themes is the new humanity that we get in Jesus Christ. Yes, the Lord Jesus is God, and partly so in order to be a human being, the firstborn and founder and leader of a new model of humanity, a new way of being human in the world.
By the time St. Luke wrote his gospel, at least two other gospels were already available. St. Matthew had invented the gospel as a literary form in order to serve the specific message that he wanted to convey. Then St. Mark used that literary form to tell the same story but with his own emphases. St. Luke did the same thing, with different emphases. Who was this St. Luke, and why did he do it?
We don’t know much. We think he was a Gentile convert, not a Jew, the only Gentile author in the Bible. He probably never met Jesus. He was an associate of St. Paul, a doctor, and well-educated in Greek and Roman terms. Before he came to believe that Jesus was Lord he will have believed other things, such as the ideals of Hellenistic culture—the dominant ideas of the good, the true, and the beautiful, what makes a person good, what is a human being. He will have learned those ideals from the philosophers and also from the epics of Homer and maybe of Virgil. He probably interpreted the mythological gods and goddesses to be the personifications of the principalities and powers of the world and the ideals of humanity. And then—we don’t know how—he converted!
So he spends a few years assisting St. Paul, organizing and teaching, making use of the gospels as they become available, interpreting them for his own context, and we can imagine him develop his own emphasis—a new way of being human in the world, with new ideals, a kind of humanity that the philosophers had not imagined, a new model human being that Homer and Virgil would not have praised, a new model citizen that the Roman Empire did not desire—the new kind of human being that we see in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And of course, a new kind of God. A kind of God who would dare to become this kind of human being. Yes, many of the Greek gods took temporary form as human beings, but none of them so thoroughly as to suffer and to die as such. You can imagine Jesus being tempted not to do that either. Who wants to be a god to be a loser, who wants to be a god if it means suffering and death? Well, who wants to be a human being to be loser? The choices that the Lord Jesus made would not have been made by any right-thinking human or any right-thinking god in the Greek and Roman world that St. Luke was addressing.
This helps to understand the devil in this story. He’s not the devil of our cartoons, he’s more like the Satan of the Book of Job, and he hangs out with gods and goddesses like Jupiter and Aphrodite and Apollo. He doesn’t think of himself as evil. He’s a realist, he knows how the world works. He believes what he says. He doesn’t tell any lies here. He even quotes scripture. Everything he tempts Jesus with is a good, on its face. But Jesus says No to these three goods, both as human and as God.
When I preached on this passage six years ago I emphasized how Jesus was being tempted as God. Satan tempts Jesus with three things that we typically ask of God, in all religions. First, feed us, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Second, give us success, give us power. Third, save us, rescue us. If God would just do these things more often more visibly in the world, more people might believe. “Just prove yourself, God, just do your job—why do you keep depending on us stumbling Christians to convince the world?”
But this time around I want to focus on how Jesus is being tested as a human being, as the prototype and test model of the new kind of human being. The proving-ground is the desert, and Jesus is like a new product being tested to the breaking point.
The United States Marines claim to take their recruits apart and rebuild them to be a different kind of human being. To become a ballet dancer you have to change the way you run and the way you jump and even the way you stand, painfully, until it’s second nature. So understand temptation as the training for your second nature.
You are tested and proven and you endure the temptation for the new humanity you are called to become. And you can’t endure if you avoid the suffering. So you can use the season of Lent a little bit of a desert, a self-imposed boot-camp or ballet lessons. So my sermon series for Lent is called Temptation, and this week, the Temptation of the Good.
For the first temptation I think about Park Slope life. Good bread, good food, good taste, good books, good music, good conversation, the good life. Such things we can accept as good gifts in our lives, as we thank God for our daily bread, so when we say “No thanks” to them we really do mean the “thanks,” our No is to confess they cannot fully satisfy, and if we are fully satisfied by them, then we cannot be the human beings that the Gospel calls us to become. We say No to them only when we say Yes to the Word of God. We believe that more, the promises of God, the judgments of God, we hold off from the goodies set before us for the hope and the vision ahead of us.
For the second temptation I think about American life. For example, I have always been challenged by the argument that if not for the military might of America the bad guys would have their way. I am sure it’s true. It’s realistic. And does it not yield the good life that I enjoy? It’s just because it’s so true and realistic, and because it yields me so much good that it’s a temptation, to which there is no argument other than “Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.” Does that mean God first and country second? I think it means God first and nothing second. This is a tough one, and a cause of constant testing, especially from good people who are the good kind of patriots.
Both of these temptations can train us to be less defensive of the goods that we enjoy and the goods to which we have allegiance, and they train us in freedom. But we will be resisted by those whose interests are those goods, from simple lack of sympathy to mockery to discrimination to persecution. The temptation is a testing. You have to keep believing with your heart and confessing with your mouth in order to endure it, to be kept safe in it, and confessing mostly to yourself, “Yes, I want to believe this, I want to believe this.” Even the Lord Jesus had to say it out loud.
For the third temptation I think about the Christian life. That we live the good life in Christ and we expect it to yield more good. I mean if we believe in a good God who rules the world and who loves us, if we walk with God, then we should expect some benefits along the way. You know, God bless us when things are good, and God save us when things are bad. “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”
But you can do this without putting God to the test. You can do this when your prayers are not answered as you asked them. You pray to God wholeheartedly without putting God to the test, though you are tempted to give up. You will be tried beyond the breaking point. There is no proof. You save it for yourself when you keep believing with your heart and confessing with your mouth, if only to that one friend who tells you it’s not worth it, give it up. You are that new model of human being who stands up in front of God and who gives God back all the mysterious and sometimes frustrating freedom that God claims, and still believe in God.
This kind of courage is called faith, this decision is belief. St. Paul says to believe with your heart. He doesn’t say your head, because belief is not mostly thinking, although it must engage your thinking. “Believe with your heart.” Belief is in your heart because belief is mostly love. Think about it—belief is faithfulness, belief is fidelity, belief is wanting the other to be other for the sake of the other, which is love, belief is wanting God to be God for God’s sake, wanting the world to be God’s world for God’s sake, and loving your self for God’s sake, because God loved you first.
Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, February 28, 2019
Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2, Luke 9:28-43a
Do you believe this story? Do you believe that his clothes lit up? Not just glowing, not phosphorescent, but dazzling, like lightning. Did his body become electric? Is it possible? Of course it was impossible, which is the point! It’s an anomaly, a singularity. St. Luke reports it as a mystery.
The transfiguration is reported by two other gospels, and though they agree on the core of the story, their reports have subtle differences. In order to make sense of St. Luke’s details we look in literary terms at his Gospel as a whole, with his distinctive themes. His Gospel is the most humane, with the most human interest, and one of his themes is the new humanity that Jesus is the founder of, a new generation of human beings of which Jesus is the firstborn, the people of the resurrection.
In terms of the literary structure of St. Luke, the transfiguration looks both forward and backward—it anticipates Jesus’ resurrection and is the confirmation of his baptism. When Our Lord was baptized, down there in the Jordan valley, below sea level, the lowest point in the land-mass of Asia, he heard God’s voice directly, for the first time, “You are my son, my beloved, in you I am well-pleased.” And now up here, for only the second time, on the highest point in Palestine he hears that voice again, “This is my son, my elected, listen to him.” The only two times that he hears God’s voice in the Gospel of St. Luke. So this is the confirmation of his baptism.
And it’s the anticipation of his resurrection. Fifteen chapters later, on Easter morning, there are two men standing at the empty tomb. St. Luke describes their robes as “dazzling” white, with the same word for Jesus’ dazzling clothing up on the mountain. St. Luke specifically calls them “men,” not angels as in the other gospels. They are people like us, but on the other side of death, like the white-robed martyrs in the Book of Revelations. They wear baptismal robes, the ordinary garments of the resurrected citizens of the Kingdom of God. They dazzle because they live already in the future, full of light, the future visible in Jesus on the mountain, the firstborn of the new humanity. St. Luke does not call this a transfiguration, as the other gospels do, but a change, a transformation.
St. Luke is the only one to tell us what Moses and Elijah were talking about. They were speaking of his departure. The Greek word is “exodus.” Of which Moses was the expert! Our translators missed the obvious, which even Peter did not, for all his confusion, as the booths he suggested were from the Feast of Booths, when Jews remember the Exodus and their years of wandering in the desert. Peter would have made them from the branches and foliage around them. But then the cloud overshadowed them like the cloud of Glory on Mount Sinai, and the disciples were terrified.
Moses was the prophet of the beginning, and Elijah was the prophet of the end. I’m guessing that Moses spoke of how to get there, and Elijah spoke of what would be there when he got there. I’m guessing that Elijah spoke from experience of how Jesus would feel alone, even while among his people, and Moses spoke from experience of how Jesus must end alone, just him and God.
Which the second half of our lesson confirms. He comes down the mountain and he walks into this tableau of a suffering son and a suffering father, and his disciples all standing around with their mouth full of teeth, looking silly and feeling worse. “We couldn’t do anything.” Our Lord can see in this tableau an image of his own impending experience. Himself the son, the son of God, seized and abused by the demonic hands of death, and his Father watching on and suffering with him, just him and God, just him alone. The dark side of the glory that he had just experienced.
Of course he was upset. It was a burden for the Son of Man to be the Son of God. That’s another of St. Luke’s themes—the interplay of the two titles of Jesus: Son of God and Son of Man. Both of these titles are lit up in the Transfiguration. But in Luke’s account the emphasis is more on the Son of Man. What Jesus is for us, as he is one of us, the firstborn of our new humanity.
My message for you today is that this vision on the mountain is an image of your own illumination and your own transformation. You too will be changed. Not a different face, but a different look on your face. Not to become divine, not an angel, but a human being who can fully bear God’s image, able to reflect the light of God upon your face without diminution, and to generate the light of God without distortion. You are a member of the new humanity, a new mind, a new obedience.
St. Paul encourages us in our epistle, in verse 18: And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of our Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is working your transformation. We do not finish it ourselves. God finishes it in our death and resurrection. But already in this life it begins for us. The Lordship of Jesus provides the algorithm, and the Spirit is the catalyst. And you have seen examples of it happening, including persons in this congregation.
Do you consider this transformation desirable? Or that it’s even possible? Do you believe that people can change? Or do they basically stay the same? Are we compelled to go through life being driven by our histories? We know that cultures change. We know that nations can be transformed. Indeed, the Bible considers it the will of God that the ethics of the Torah and the Gospel should gradually transform the nations. But what about individuals? What about you?
I believe that I am being transformed. Slowly and with fits and starts. I look back with some embarrassment at my life and I shake my head at my history, and though my remorse is not a proof of real transformation it is a sign of it. There’s always repentance in transformation, and often a plea for help. Transformation requires something from the outside, a catalyst, an algorithm, a power and an influence that is external to yourself. Neither internal evolution nor spontaneous generation make for transformation. You cannot do it on your own. That’s a judgment, but it is also liberating.
You must first pass through your own exodus. The God of Moses did not bring the children of Israel straight into the Promised Land. They had first to be transformed from a rabble of resistant slaves into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, which took the desert, the diet of manna, and the fiery serpents. First they had to go through suffering, the suffering of pain, humility, and repentance.
God does not send the suffering, it’s just part of creaturely life. Nor does God get you out of your suffering—God gets you through your suffering. God goes with you through your suffering, just as God went along with Israel during those forty years in the desert. And God was transformed too, not by any change in God, but by the transformation of their capacity to know God and experience God, and to learn God’s love. You transform your image of God in order to transform yourself.
You have some healing, but not complete. You have more joy, but also deeper grief. You fear people less because you fear God more, and you learn the fear of God that comes with love. You are more loving, more ethical, and therefore more humble and more vulnerable, but also spiritually more powerful. The algorithm is the Lordship of Jesus and the catalyst is the Holy Spirit.
You cannot undo your history, you cannot remake your body and you cannot avoid your grief. You will contend with your history and your body and your grief until you are released in death, and transformation takes maintenance. You need the prayers and the hymns and the sacraments.
Your transformation will always be something of a mystery to yourself. Yes, it is a fact, as certain as your baptism, but you will never fully comprehend it. You give up some part of it to others, to those who love you and confirm you, to God and the community. They had to tell Moses his face was shining, he didn’t know it. You get your inner light from sources outside you. But at the same time, you are already transformed in the way that you handle your history and your body and your grief, your weekly converting your tragedy into comedy. The laughter is the laughter of humility and love.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, February 21, 2019
Genesis 45:3-11, 15, Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42, 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, Luke 6:27-38
When I was a child, my mother would put my brother and me to bed, and she would talk with us and pray with us, and I learned my faith from her. I was very young when she told us about eternal life, and I was terrified. I didn’t tell her so, I kept it a secret, but I hated the whole idea of immortality.
I was an overly-sensitive little boy, and the thought of my mind going on forever and ever, endlessly, kept me awake at night. I would lie there sleepless, sweating, with stomach cramps, and I remember praying, Please God, you can give eternal life to Hank, but please just let me die at the end.
Years later I was happy to learn that the Old Testament does not teach the immortality of the soul. It is nowhere in the Torah and the Prophets, despite the Israelites having lived in Egypt for 400 years, a nation obsessed with immortality. The Torah assumes that our souls are just as mortal as our bodies.
Neither does the Old Testament teach that we go to heaven when we die. Heaven was no place for people! What the Israelites hoped for was to inherit the land, as it says three times in our Psalm. They were a people often exiled, wandering, and their hope was the Promised Land and life in Shalom, in peace and quiet prosperity, and to pass that along to their children’s children, who would remember them and bear their names. Being remembered was all the immortality they asked for. In their stories God remembered them, and they prayed, “Remember us, O Lord!”
The first hints of resurrection are in the last of the prophets. This was how God could keep that promise of the Promised Land. Too many Israelites had lived and died in exile, and not received God’s promise, so they would be raised again someday, and gathered back to Israel, there to live a second round, but this time in Shalom. This resurrection was for inheriting the land, and not for going to heaven, nor was it for humanity in general, but for the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.
So the sudden resurrection of the Lord Jesus was a great surprise for all involved. No one was expecting it—that was not the plan. Just one man, and not the whole nation? And only glimpsed and not explained, his resurrected body loosened from the laws of nature and the limits of creation, and then his departure into heaven, in his physical body? How could that be? What for?
It was hard to believe for the Corinthians. The Hellenistic inhabitants of the Roman Empire were brought up believing in the immortality of the soul. They were taught by Plato that their bodies were the prisons of their souls, and their best hope was to cast off their bodies when they died to free their souls to live forever in disembodied bliss. The resurrection made no sense, either as a fact or as a metaphor, either the resurrection of Jesus alone or a future resurrection for all of us.
St. Paul quotes their two typical questions. “How are the dead raised?” It’s impossible. And, “With what kind of body do they come?” It’s inconceivable. It’s so inconceivable that it can’t be possible.
St. Paul doesn’t answer the first question, and in fact the Bible never does. The Bible never explains how the Lord Jesus was resurrected or how we too shall be. It’s the second question that St. Paul answers, to establish its conceivability, and he says, You fools!
You dummies, you see the intimations of it all the time, every day you work in your garden. You take for granted that when you plant your seeds they will transform into the plants you want, and do you doubt that’s possible? Look at the seed, how dry and hard and inert it is. It doesn’t move, it doesn’t change, it doesn’t grow. You keep it in storage for years, like a stone that’s dead. And it bears no visible likeness to the green and growing thing it will become. You find that conceivable! And therefore possible! Resurrection is the same, you dopes.
You know that modern biologists still cannot explain the mystery of life in seeds. How a thing that shows no signs of life, even for centuries, with just a little bit of moisture can suddenly spring to life. No other substances can do this, not even substances created in the laboratory with the same proportion of elements. With all of our marvelous science we have never been able to generate life from dead matter.
But that must have happened four billion years ago, to get life started on this planet. Ever since then the molecules of certain kinds of matter have passed some code down to other molecules to make that matter come alive, but we humans have proven unable to introduce that code when it is not already there. All of life today is descended from that primeval life that was once for all generated out of dead matter, for which we may even indirectly hold God responsible, and if God can bring life to what is dead, then why not to your own dead body?
But how is that possible after many centuries of being dead, or maybe cremated? How does God find all the scattered molecules? Maybe God doesn’t, and we conceive of other possibilities. Maybe God remembers your DNA plus the bar-code of your life! DNA is mostly information, and how much information can be kept in a digital file too minute for eyes to see, and you can show a whole movie out of that. Maybe God will reconstruct you from the information that God has on you, for God remembers. All you need to be resurrected is that God remembers you!
Last week I asked you to believe that your body has the capacity for resurrection. I should have said it better. Your body does not have that capacity, because of the corrupting power of sin, until it dies first, and God resurrects it with that capacity. But even today your body is a miracle of God, a wonder. As weak and frail as we are, and hardly as agile as many animals, yet the human brain is one of the wonders of the universe, of impossible complexity and capacity, and the seat of this miracle we call the human mind, that can imagine eternity and even meditate on God. Your body is both a wonder and a sign, in which you can read that God has purposes for you, and God remembers you.
This is the last of my sermon series on epiphanies, on manifestations, on physical revelations of God, and this week’s manifestation is your body. Look at your bodies here, what do you see? Can you see past mere observance, can you see with the eyes of faith? Look at your bodies as something like seeds of what God will resurrect us into. How different will we be?
If the Lord Jesus is our image, then less different than a plant is from its seed, a chicken from its egg, or a butterfly from its caterpillar. Maybe we will differ only as an elf differs from a human in The Lord of the Rings, but as in the book, not the movie, without that bad hippy hair and those ridiculous ears. Maybe our difference will be more moral than physical. Certainly at least that, which is the take-home for today: The promise of the future resurrection directs your moral lives today.
Why else would you do what the Lord Jesus says to do in the gospel? “Love your enemies, do good, and lend to them, expecting nothing in return.” That’s nuts, if for this life only, but if you are planting seeds of good for God to harvest in God’s time, then you can do it. In our dying bodies what happens in the present determines the future, but you live in terms of your future resurrection, so that your future determines what you do in the present.
I invite you to see your moral life today as planting seeds within the world. And already now, in God’s pleasure, a good measure of moral harvest, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be given to you. And, in God’s time, even more.
My own body is dying, and I am closer to my death than to my youth. I still courteously dislike immortality, and I hope that eternal life will differ from the immortality I fear. Recently I have learned to answer the immortality that I fear with the resurrection I believe in. How that makes eternal life any different and thus more bearable I do not know, because the resurrection is offered to us as mystery as much as fact. I have to suspend my judgment, for my judgments must die too, and for its nature and its goodness I have to trust in God and in God’s purposes for us. The thing I know for sure about eternal life is that its atmosphere is love, a love so perfect that it casts out fear, and that what God has for us when God remembers us is whatever would agree with love.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, February 14, 2019
Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26
What do we see? We see Jesus in the middle of a crowd, a seething crowd, pressing in on him. We see individuals moving in on him and cycling out again; we look closer and we see persons limping and even crawling in on him, touching him, then rising up and walking out as others take their turns. Then we see them all turn toward him, and get quiet as he lifts up his voice to address them.
First he points with one hand, and then he points with the other. He could be speaking of two roads. We guess from other Bible passages that he’s speaking of the Two Ways, the Way of Blessing and the Way of Woe. “Blessed are you” if you do this, and “Woe is you” if you do that. Like in the Psalm: if you walk in the way of the righteous you will prosper. We come in close and listen, and we are surprised that Jesus is speaking of the Two Ways in contradiction, in reverse, upside down!
Because, if you were poor, you might say Woe is me, but he says Blessed are you. If you were hungry, or if you were weeping, you’d say Woe is me, but he says Blessed are you. If people hate you, exclude you, revile you or defame you, then Woe is me, but he says Blessed are you. And if we prosper and are rich, we say that we are blessed, but Jesus says Woe is you. If we are satisfied and full we say that we are blessed. If we are happy and laughing, and if all speak well of us, we say, with proper Christian modesty, Well, we are blessed. Why does Jesus say the opposite, Woe is you?
I do not think he’s saying that it’s better to be hungry than to be filled. He’s not saying that the poor are better than the rich. He’s not classifying people. He’s talking about the condition of being in the way of what God is doing in the world, when God reverses the ordinary way of the world and turns things upside down, which is what salvation does.
So if we have carefully solidified our arrangements to keep ourselves comfortable in this corrupted world the way it is, and if our commitments require the world to stay the way it is, then we’re not going to like what God is doing. But on the other hand, if you have made a royal mess of things, and totally blown it with your life, then what Jesus offers is very good news.
The Lord Jesus is not dividing us into two kinds of people. We are all both kinds. It’s a revolving door. You go through times of blessing that turn into times of woe and you get through the woe to blessing again. You go from days of weeping to days of laughing and then to weeping again. You go from hunger to being filled to hunger, from being praised to being reviled to being praised. In the words of our Heidelberg Catechism, “Rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty,” cycling in and out, like the people in the crowd around the Lord Jesus.
Isn’t this cycle just the law of karma, the wheel of life, inexorably turning, you get what you paid for, what goes around comes around, cause and effect, growth and disintegration, flourish and die, build our golden cities and they fall again to dust. The suffering of existence, the inevitable suffering of reality. To ease the suffering we have our religions, and Buddhism offers an escape from it.
The Christian answer is different—to enter the suffering and turn the cycle the other way round. I invite you to believe that God pours an energy into the world to turn the revolving door towards final hope and blessing. The Lord Jesus calls this energy the Kingdom of God, and St. Paul calls it the power of the resurrection, to reverse your karma, forgive your sins, and bless you if woe is you. The Kingdom of God has power, the power of the resurrection.
This power is inexorable and yet this kingdom does not force itself, it works by love and not by arms. It is subtle, unobtrusive, often hidden, and poor, and hated and opposed, but it is irreversible and very, very patient, and because it is so sure, and yet so generous, and so unconditionally welcoming, it can afford to give its enemies full room and its opponents the freedom to get what they want. Because it is a kingdom of love, it does not insist on its own way, but it also never fails, it never fails to get what it hopes for.
In our Epistle lesson St. Paul is so strong on the resurrection because he sees it as the great new energy injected by God into the world. Not immortality, the immortality of the soul that everyone believed in already, because for St. Paul that means just the same old thing forever and ever, and at the end is only dust. And resurrection not as a metaphor, but as an actual event that happened in the world, mysterious yes, inexplicable yes, but historical nonetheless, God’s sudden investment in the world, God’s new energy to push the wheel of karma back around and turn the woe to blessing.
God prefers to exercise that energy only rarely in doing miracles or intervening in human events. God does not manipulate. God wants your freedom and your own power for blessing. God puts the energy into the proclamation and the testimony, the proclamation of what God did in Jesus Christ and the testimony of what we have seen in the evidence of faith, that when people believe this proclamation they live their lives in new patterns of hope and peace and reconciliation.
You catch that energy in the antenna of your belief and the receiver of your faith and you transform that energy into your own words and your prayers and songs and you radiate that energy by your works of love and your witness to the powers and your service to the poor.
And the energy comes also from the future back to us, in God’s Holy Spirit, sent from heaven to inspire you and strengthen you. You know that in the Bible heaven is not so much up above us as forward in the future, heaven means the once and future Kingdom of God already established by God in eternity ahead of us, shining back upon us like the dawn ahead of you, the light by which you see things differently, the same things as everyone else but in a different light and going in a different direction, and in your own small way you push that revolving door around the other way.
I invite you, one more week, to welcome the news that in real time Jesus actually rose up from the dead, never to die again, and that this makes all the difference. You can welcome this Kingdom with your own life, and learn to see it and bring it out and work its implications out. You live your life in terms of it, your decisions and your bodies, you re-imagine God in terms of it, and you see the world in terms of it.
In your body you feel your blessings and your woes, your wins and your losses, your fullness and your hunger, your health and your sickness, and eventually you will feel the signs of coming death, but you can also believe that your body has the capacity for resurrection, and for eternal life. What the world regards as trouble and a burden, this Kingdom raises into blessing.
So then, God’s Word and Spirit are the energy, from the past and from the future. The Word of the resurrection stops the great wheel of karma. The Spirit blows on it to spin the other way around, that what you get is not what you have paid for, that what you get is not what you deserve, that your future is what determines your now, that dying leads to life and evil turns to goodness.
The church can practice this. The government can’t. Welfare can’t. Even secular charities can’t. But the church can. And we look for our success in the energy of God. We don’t do it for statistics. Nor that the world speaks well of us. We do it not when we are rich but when we are poor. This is why the ministry of deacons is not an extra in the church, not just charity added on, but is central to the church and why we ordain them. They are living witness of our little actions among the hungry and the poor to illustrate the Kingdom of God and the hidden power of the resurrection.
As Jesus stood there in the middle of the seething crowd, so you can stand firm in the turmoil and vicissitudes of your own life. As the Monterey Cypress tree withstands the raging forest fires of California, and even requires the fire to open its cones and release it seeds, so you can be like that tree that is planted by the streams of water, bearing your fruit in due season, precisely in trial and trouble, fruit of blessing out of woe, rising from dying, despair to hope, and misery into love.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, January 31, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30
What do we see in the Gospel today? We see the Lord Jesus making trouble in his hometown synagogue, and then we see the locals turning against him and even trying to kill him. Were some of them his relatives? Isn’t this story rather too extreme? Overly melodramatic? How enigmatic is it? Are we seeing it only dimly, like a distant image in an ancient mirror? Are we seeing only in part?
Why did Jesus speak like a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal? Why didn’t he show them more love? Why wasn’t he more considerate of their feelings? Why did he push them so? Was he not on their side?
It’s remarkable, according to St. Luke’s version, that the first opposition to Jesus came not from the scribes and Pharisees, as in St. Mark, but from his own people, and that the first people who tried to kill him were not the Romans but the very people he had come to save.
A prophet is without honor in his own country. No prophet is accepted in his own home town. I am no longer honored in the Classis of Brooklyn, though I’m the senior pastor in it, and of all the pastors in the Classis I am the only one who spent my childhood within it, and this is the Classis I wanted for years to come home to.
I am a life-long member of the Reformed Church in America, I have devoted my life to it and all my scholarship, and I have been blackballed for leadership in it. I am treated as a trouble-maker because I have spoken out to welcome and affirm LGBTQ Christians. Of doing that I have no regrets, and I stand by it, but you can understand my sense of loss.
Why were the people of Nazareth so suddenly upset? I think it was only natural. Their condition under the Romans was poverty and oppression. They were like captives in their own land. And as we saw last week, Jesus had just read out from Isaiah the prophecy of bringing good news to the poor, and lifting the oppressed, and liberating those in captivity. And then he said, “The time is now, and the Messiah prophesied is me!” So the people were delighted with their hometown boy.
If he was going to do that, then it was natural to expect him to judge those who kept them poor, and punish their oppressors who taxed them so, and vanquish the occupying soldiers who treated them like slaves. Be the enemy of our enemies.
But then the Lord Jesus reminded them of stories of God being as good to their enemies as to them, even to healing an enemy soldier who had defeated their own in battle, and it hit them that Jesus did not intend to be the enemy of their enemies. Of course they felt betrayed by him, and hurt, and enraged, with the extreme emotions of a crowd.
When we cry out for salvation, when we cry out for God to intervene, we naturally want God to fix our circumstances but leave us as we are, thank you very much. Save me, and save me as I am. Fight for me, that I win, and I get back what belongs to me. But the Savior has to save us mostly from ourselves. Our own worst enemy is us. So it’s good news that the Lord Jesus befriends our enemies, as that includes us! He has no enemies, only friends. Which sometimes hurts our feelings. But our feelings are what Jesus does not come to save. This is important.
It’s not that our feelings are not important. Jesus shared our feelings. This is one reason that our Savior had to be a fully human being, to feel first-hand the things we feel. Parents are right to care for their children’s feelings. Friends are careful of each other’s feelings. Lovers are all about each other’s feelings. If you love people, you care about their feelings.
It’s because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings that you might not say what you know to be true. Discretion is the better part of candor. And you have to ask yourself, Do they really need to hear it or is it my felt-need to say it? My mentor once explained to me that as a pastor I should tell somebody something only if that person is able to hear it. If he or she can’t hear it, then I am not obliged to say it.
Was that the problem with the people of Nazareth, that they were unable to hear the good news in what Jesus said? It’s why depressed citizens often respond to politicians who will end up hurting them more instead of responsible leaders whose truth is hard to hear.
But at the same time, when we say that we don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, it’s often as much our own feelings we’re protecting, because if you tell that truth they will think less of you, or even get angry with you, like with Jesus. I confess the many times I did not tell the truth about myself because it was my own feelings I was protecting as much as the feelings of the person I was speaking to. Is it their feelings that you do not want to hurt or in fact your own? Or both? It’s hard to distinguish when it’s your family with whom you share your feelings or any group of people that you love. So how is Jesus loving here, when love is patient and love is kind, as in First Corinthians 13?
But love has its distinctions. It’s worth remembering, that the Greek language has three words for “love” to only one for English. Three kinds of love, and they blend into each other. Two of them are all about feeling and one is not. The first kind of love is eros, intimate love, sexual attraction, the love between lovers and spouses. It’s based on feelings and is very physical. It is wonderful and powerful and it can be dangerous and to keep it safe requires great protections.
The second kind of love is philia, brotherly love, sisterly love, family love, tribal love, even patriotic love. Its feeling is affection. At one end it’s family feeling, and at the other it’s the friendship of best friends. It’s based on shared genetics and language or shared experience and loyalties. It has to mean that some folks are in and some folks are out. These two kinds of love are good and natural, and they occur among animals. But they are not the kind of love that’s in First Corinthians 13.
I often notice Christians saying that the church they belong is like a family. They mean well, but the New Testament never uses “family” for the church, but for the whole of humanity. That’s because the church has to be based on the third kind of love, which is agape.
This is a rarer kind of love, Godly love, Gospel love, love beyond affection, love beyond feeling, love beyond friendship because it treats its enemies as friends, love beyond family because it treats strangers the same. It is not based on feeling and your feelings can confuse your loving this way when you want to. Feelings can oppose it, and hinder recognizing it when you receive it, especially if you’re judging it by the other kinds of love. Like at Nazareth. It is often unrequited—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King loved his country with Gospel love and was killed for it. You live by this kind of love and it will get you into trouble. It’s unrealistic and practically impossible.
But I invite you to not rule it out because you fear it’s unrealistic, rather that you keep coming back to it and always imagine again, in both expectation and humility, how to try again to put this love into practice. Don’t ask how you can adjust the claim of love to conform to our reality, but how you change yourself to conform to the claim of love. What losses can you anticipate and accept as worth it, and what loss can you even welcome in order to gain the salvation that it offers?
This kind of love cannot depend on feeling, so it requires faith and hope. You can approach the claim of love when you live by faith instead of your own internal certainties. You can answer the challenge of love when you live in hope instead of your own realities. Love is always beyond you, so to attain it means the constant exercise of faith and hope. Faith and hope are the means to the goal that is love. You practice faith in order to love. You practice hope in order to keep on loving. And you can do this, love this way, if you do it by faith and if you accept the proof of it in your hope.
This kind of love is beyond your possession. It is in you but beyond us. That’s simply because it belongs to God. It’s not that love is God but that God is love. God defines what love is. Love is patient and kind because God is patient and kind. God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God does not insist on God’s own way. God bears all things, God believes all things, God hopes all things, God endures all things, and God will never end. For now you love as in a mirror dimly, but then you will love face to face. Now you love in part, but then you will love fully, even as you have been fully loved.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, January 25, 2019
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6,, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21
Our sermon series for Epiphany is “What We See.” And what we see in two of our lessons today is people in church. Which is surprisingly rare in the Bible—depictions of actual worship services. Of course there’s lots of instruction on how to behave in church, but there is not one nice, full set of instructions for the Christian liturgy, nor is there one description of a Christian worship service from start to finish. We are offered only glimpses, and not many of them, but we get two of them today.
Of course I am being anachronistic. The glimpse in the Gospel is not of people in church, but in a synagogue. But the synagogue is the mother of the church. The earliest churches were Christianized synagogues, and church worship evolved from synagogue worship. Not from temple worship, with its altars and sacrifices, but from synagogue worship, with the reading and interpretation.
And I am being doubly anachronistic because the depiction in the First Reading, from Nehemiah, is not of a synagogue, but of a public meeting outdoors. I say “public” because it was equally church and state. The nation’s constitution was being read out loud to its citizens, in the original Hebrew, and then it was translated for them into the Aramaic dialect that they now spoke. And this experience moved them to worship. This event depicts the origins of synagogue worship, and so this event is like the grandmother of going to church. This is one source of what we do here every week.
Temple worship was different. There was no congregation. The priests did their sacrifices and the Levites made their music and you could watch it from a distance, if you were a man. Now, for temple worship, the Bible does have a full set of instructions, in the Torah, especially Leviticus.
But when the Temple was destroyed, and when Jewish communities scattered through the world, they developed the substitute of the synagogue. There they read out those same instructions from the Torah and interpreted them, not for the How but for the Why. If God wanted the Levites to do such-and-such in the ritual, then how shall we ordinary Jews apply that in our daily lives? Even way out here in Babylon or Africa or Rome? Or Brooklyn?
So which kind of worship does God desire, temple or synagogue? The sacrificial ritual or the book interpreted? Jesus attended both. But he also kept saying that crazy thing that his body was the temple. And then, on the night before he died, he instituted a sacred meal, and to that meal he applied the temple language of sacrifice when he called it his body and his blood, a little temple on the table. Which meal the apostles kept doing every week after his resurrection—first the synagogue-style reading and interpreting, and then the temple of his body in the meal. Word and Sacrament.
Over the following centuries, the church evolved into the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, and the worship got more like the temple and less like the synagogue. Eventually the Mass was the priestly sacrifice for the laity to watch from a distance, with no participation and little understanding.
The Reformation reacted and made the worship more like the synagogue again, Bible and interpretation, with our pastors more like rabbis than priests, and we minimized the sacraments. Recently both sides recognized that we went too far, so Catholics have restored the Bible and the language of the people, and many Protestants have restored the weekly sacred meal.
So this is why reading and interpreting is an act of worship. We meet God here, in the reading and interpreting. It’s not just talk about God, it’s God talking, and we talk back. God is present in the meeting of our minds. We find God here, God finds us here, and here we find ourselves.
That’s why they wept, when the people heard the reading of the Torah. They wept because they found themselves, they got present to themselves. Because they found God they worshiped and because they found themselves they wept. Because God was present to them they worshiped and because they were present to themselves they wept. Just from reading the Book and interpreting it.
And that’s why in the Gospel story Jesus went up to read. That’s called the Aliyah, when an ordinary Jew comes up to read. You might read from the Torah or you might read from what’s called the Haftarah, the second lesson from one of the prophets, say Isaiah. The Haftarah reading is less prescribed than the Torah reading, and when Jesus went up, and the elders decided it should be from Isaiah, Jesus could choose what from Isaiah.
What he chose was his campaign platform for being the Messiah. His vision statement, his public mission statement. But I’m sure it was also personal for him. This was his personal mission statement. In these words he found himself and his private experience. Here he was present to himself as much as God was present in him.
In my own small way, I do something similar every week as I prepare my sermons. Before I can apply the scripture lessons to you, I have to get personal with them, I have to find myself in them, how they challenge me. If my preaching has any value, it’s that I wrestle with the text every week. I have to be converted by it every week again.
It can be draining, and the weeks when I don’t have to prepare a sermon are such a relief. I get lots of church-work done and spare myself that self-examination. And yet I crave it. It’s the drug that I’m addicted to. I depend upon that sermon preparation to keep me engaged with God, and also honestly present to my own soul.
Isn’t that why you came here today? Not to hear a lecture, but a sermon. Not just teaching but preaching. What I mean is you didn’t just come for information, though you do want that, but you came for here for confirmation, for integration, for transformation, for one more bit of conversion.
You came here to listen to the reading from the book and the interpretation, and there to find God present in the meeting of your mind, and also to get present to yourself, you came here to find yourself with God. To put your own self on the table, and make a temple of your own body and soul.
Jesus said that he came to bring good news to the poor, and you think, that’s important information, and a necessary reminder of the Christian attitude to the poor. But how about you, how are you poor yourself, and what for your particular poverty would be good news, and if you heard it, would you weep, in recognition?
He said that he came to bring release to the captives, and how are you captive, and what are you captive to? I think when you recognize your own captivity you might well weep.
We are to recognize ourselves in these words, both individually and as a congregation. We are to let ourselves be described by this words, even if we would not say to other people that we are poor or captive or blind or oppressed, even if it would be not honest for us to describe ourselves this way considering our wealth and our health and our freedom and our privilege.
But when we are in the presence of God, we are invited to be present to ourselves as poor and captive and blind and oppressed, and to confess it, and weep, and be relieved, and resurrected, and be told to rise and eat the fat and drink sweet wine, and share with others who have none. In this weekly dying are we born to eternal life.
And then Ezra says this very strange thing: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” What does that mean? Well, what kind of strength do you want? What personal power, spiritual stamina? What strength can you draw from the joy of the Lord? What is “the joy of the Lord?” That’s poetry, so you have to use your imagination on it for few years, to wonder how the joy of the Lord might strengthen you.
I can tell you this, that when you lend your strength to any effort that’s good news to the poor, be that political or social or charitable, you will find your strength in the joy of the Lord, because that’s his campaign platform.
And when you lend your power to what’s good news for prisoners, from ending mass incarceration or ending the bail system to liberating your friends from the prison of their days and the oppression of their shame, that’s what the Lord rejoices in.
And when you yourself are wrestling with your own poor, blind, and oppressive emotional captivity, your will find your strength in that joy that knows the weeping through to the celebration.
I am saying more than I can understand here, we have to believe it a while in order to begin to understand it, but I do believe it and I invite you to believe it too, that there is strength here for you, and there is joy here too.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, January 17, 2019
Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11
My first congregation was Hungarian. Most Hungarians are Roman Catholic, but a strong minority is Reformed, and their emblem was the Communion Cup, because they were allowed to drink from it, while their Catholic neighbors were not. And drink from it they did, not just little sips. Hungarians are wine-makers, and my parishioners had grapevines in their yards along with plums and apricots. In the old days the members would donate their homemade wine for Holy Communion.
In the attic I found three big pewter pitchers. These were the old Communion pitchers. At Communion the people would stand side-by-side around the sanctuary, and as they passed the cups from hand to hand, the elders had to follow them to keep refilling them. Especially when particular members had made the wine. One of their communion hymns had language about drinking deeply from God’s cup. Who decided that at Holy Communion our portions should be so small?
There on the table is our old Communion pitcher and most of our old Communion beakers, from when we also passed the cups along and drank the wine. We are more careful now, more careful of addictions and fearful of disease. We also take for granted our abundance, more food than we can eat, more clothes that we can wear, more stuff than we can store. We fear the scarcity we do not live with and we are desensitized to our bounty, the abundance that comes from God. The Belgic Confession calls God, “the overflowing fountain of all good.” There are the signs right there.
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” The first of his signs. John’s Gospel never calls them “miracles” but “signs.” Visible revelations, epiphanies, manifestations. A sign is something you see that directs you to something beyond itself.
A sign can be simple or complex. A sign can be richly interpreted, and maybe sometimes overdone! So how richly symbolic was this first of Jesus’ signs? We begin by noticing what we see, and then we will consider what it points to, and we do this in order that we too might believe in him.
We see a wedding reception, however that went back then. People on the floor, on carpets, eating and drinking. Maybe some dancing. We see there, sitting together, Mary, and Jesus, and his four friends—Simon, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael. We see Mary lean over to say something to Jesus. His response to her pulls her up sharp. She glares at him, but she doesn’t answer back.
A few minutes later we see her get up and walk over to where the servants are. Let’s say there are three of them. She speaks to them and then she turns and points to her son. She sits back down.
A couple minutes later, he gets up and goes over to the servants. They follow him to the front door, where there are six big stone jars, like barrels, say 25 gallons each. They contain the water for the guests to wash their hands and feet when they come in. He tells the servants something. They look at him in surprise, but eventually they nod their heads. He goes and sits back down.
Now we watch the servants fill the jars with water. It’s a job. They have go and get it from a public well, and how many trips does it take to fill those jars up to the brim. When they are done, Jesus quietly gets up again and talks to them. Again they look surprised, but one of them gets a cup, dips it in the barrel, and takes it to the master of ceremonies. He sips it, and now he looks surprised, and he goes to the groom and talks to him, and he then looks surprised. The servants are watching this from the back of the room.
That’s what we can see: Five brief conversations—Mary and Jesus, Mary and the servants, Jesus and the servants—twice, and the steward with the groom. We see two actions—one long and laborious, and the other brief, a drink.
We can ask questions: Will the bridegroom just accept the compliment, or will he admit that he doesn’t know where the good wine came from? Will they now drink all that new wine? It’s a good 650 bottles worth, 3500 cups of wine. How long will that reception go on? The guests will have to start wondering. The servants eventually will have to tell what happened. The disciples find out. But do the servants ever determine precisely when the water was transformed?
More questions: Why did Mary set Jesus up like this? Why did she think it was his business? She was not just making an observation—that’s obviously not how Jesus took it. And why did he put her off at first? Was he wrong about it not yet being his time? Was she impatient with him? He was thirty years old and he had still not acted on his destiny. Is that why she forces him, by talking to the servants? And how was she expecting him to solve the problem? Why would she expect a miracle? She knew that her son was the Messiah, but no one expected the Messiah to be a miracle-worker.
What’s the actual sign? The six big jars? Is abundance the sign?
Or is the sign the movement of the water and its transformation—that the water of cleansing becomes the wine of celebration?
Or is the sign the excellence of the wine—that the old was good but the new is better?
Is it part of the sign that wine is a mild intoxicant? Water is clean and sober, but wine is free and loose, and even dangerous?
Is there something to the wedding feast—that if it’s the bridegroom’s job to provide the wine, then Jesus has become the new bridegroom here? Is this all a sign of who Jesus is, and what Jesus brings to life, compared to whatever was life before him? You can read all these things into the sign.
Who is Jesus? If he wants to manifest himself as the new bridegroom, then according to the prophecy of Isaiah he might as well be God. Not just that he acts for God or stands in for God, but that he impossibly identifies himself with God. Although the disciples believe in him, they don’t connect the dots till after his resurrection. But Jesus already manifests it here, that in him is not just the Spirit of God, which many of us share, but the glory of God, which belongs to God alone. Who does Jesus think he is, to manifest himself this way!
If that’s who Jesus is, what does he bring to life? The gift of life in abundance, overflowing life, intoxicating life. Nature made into supernature, animal made spiritual, vegetable and mineral made spiritual! Natural gifts made into spiritual gifts. Not spiritual and natural in opposition, but spiritual gifts from natural gifts.
This is important for the Christian life. Our Epistle lesson speaks of spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit does not make these out of air, but from out of your natural gifts.
What are you already good at doing? What do you love to do? Don’t deny those, rather deny that you do them for yourself. Do what you are good at and what you love to do, not to keep as your own, but as gifts for the glory of the bridegroom, who transforms them into spiritual gifts, by forgiving any sinful use of them and inspiring your use of them for love and more abundant life.
Last Tuesday night we had a meeting at the church and fifteen of you were seated around the table, and I was struck by the abounding giftedness of our congregation. Who am I that I should pastor such a group! I have few real talents of my own, but I work with an abundance of gifts because I work among you all. We keep thinking our congregation is small. And thereby also poor and weak. But we must not dishonor the bridegroom! We shall not discredit the Holy Spirit!
Our group was listening to a speaker who spoke of scarcity and abundance. Scarcity is real. A billion people on this planet are hungry. My parents did not have enough money to retire on and I worry about it too. We will survive, but maybe no trips to Europe to see our grandsons. The threat of scarcity is real within my soul. When is it accurate and when is it temptation?
But I want to believe in Jesus as the bridegroom, as the God who is "the overflowing fountain of all good," so I am also required to believe in his abundance, in some real way, in some real way that challenges me. We must be transformed by the gifts of God in order to receive them as the gifts they are, we must be challenged by God’s love in order to receive God’s love.
You can believe this, like the disciples, before you can connect all the dots. I invite to believe in it again, one more week, one more year, that God is abounding in gifts to you, that God is your overflowing fountain of life, and God is the unquenchable source of love for you. And if it's not scarce, and so abounding, then you can share it. Why don't you!
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
Friday, January 11, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
What do we see? Let’s make this gospel a painting, since St. Luke is the patron saint of painters. We’ll make it a clear day, with a bright sky. Across the center is a crowd of people in a clearing in a valley among some willow trees, and the ground is green. Behind the crowd is a river.
Left of center is one man standing in front of the crowd, and the people are turned towards him as if they are listening to him. He has very long hair and a cloak of shaggy brown fur. But he’s not looking back at the crowd, he’s looking to his right, and pointing with his right hand at another man beyond the crowd.
That man is standing off, turned half away from everyone, bending halfway over, and above him is a bird, descending upon him. Should we picture the bird diving down, like above our main front doors, or fluttering down to alight on him? The bird looks like a dove.
That first man is John the Baptist. We can tell by his hair and his cloak. He is already famous here, and for years to come he will have many followers throughout the Jewish world, even in Egypt and Asia Minor. He has ignited a revival movement among the Jews, both religious and political. He has no ambitions of his own nor any loyalties, but to every political and religious group he gives stern warning. But his warnings are also appealing, and the people have flocked to him.
He offers washing, cleansing, and through that cleansing, hope and expectation. Expectation of what? St. Luke tells us: Of God’s return to Israel along with a Messiah—who will come with fire! And if John cleansed them with water, the Messiah will cleanse them with fire and with the Holy Spirit, the fearsome purifying fire that is unquenchable becomes it comes from God.
When he says “Holy Spirit,” he does not intend what a modern Christian thinks! No one as yet believes in anything like one of the three persons of the Trinity. At this point, the term “Holy Spirit” implies the whole of God, the One God, the capital-S Spirit who is capital-H Holy, high and lifted up, Holy, Holy, Holy. But this One God had made visitations, like to Moses from a burning bush, and to the whole of Israel from the top of Mount Sinai in the column of fire and smoke with flashes of lightning.
A new visitation of God will be scary, and thrilling, and judgment, and purging, and it will be salvation. Fearsome as it is, the people hope for it—the Lord of Hosts returning to Israel like in the ancient days, and the Messiah as God’s representative upon the throne of David in victory and power. These people are gathered in expectation. They are hoping for God’s return.
In this picture the people are all done getting baptized. We don’t see Jesus getting baptized, nor talking with John, like in Matthew and Mark. We see him after he’s baptized, and not listening to John but praying, standing up, bending at the waist, head down. Like at synagogue? Is he praying the Eighteen Benedictions, is he praying the Amida? We are not told what his prayer is.
Shall we picture him with his hands on his chest, or lifted up, like in the Psalms? It makes a difference for how the dove lands. Does it land on his lifted hand, like a trained bird? Or on his head, or maybe on his shoulder, to be closer to his heart, as Riley once said in Sunday School with a child’s insight. How long will it rest on him? Will it fly off again? Or does it somehow merge into him, does it enter into his body? All that we are told is that this dove is the Holy Spirit taking on a form.
That’s weird. God as a dove? Is that even allowed, God as an animal? Isn’t that prohibited as leading to idolatry? God is never manifested as an animal, but only as fire. The closest God gets to a bird is in one of the possible translations of Genesis 1:2, before Creation, when the Spirit of God moved over the face of the Deep, or hovered, or brooded. But not a dove, because a dove is a sacrificial animal, like a calf, a dove is a poor man’s calf. But the Messiah was not for being sacrificed, the Messiah was to be mighty in battle and victorious over his enemies. Well then, maybe this was like the dove from Noah’s ark, that flew out over the Flood three times, until the waters had receded enough for her to make her nest. Does this dove manifest deliverance and peace?
We have pictured John the Baptist watching this dove come down on his cousin Jesus. But after all that he had preached about the Holy Spirit coming with fire, could he even imagine this dove to be the visitation of God? Can John the Baptist keep up with this brand new thing of God that he had not foreseen in his prophecies? Was he helped by the words that came from heaven? Could he even hear those words?
The words are addressed to Jesus directly, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” What those words would have meant to Jesus for his own soul I preached about six years ago, but today I will just put those words in a word-balloon, to the horror of classical painters, a word-balloon coming down from heaven over Jesus’s head. If it’s only Jesus who can hear these words, at least he finally knows for sure that he is supposed to the Messiah.
So in what we see here what is manifest? These are the Sundays after Epiphany, and the word “epiphany” means manifestation, some revelation in what you can see. Well, if this dove is the sign of this guy is being anointed as the Messiah, then this Messiah was confirmed in choosing to identify with John’s repentance movement.
You see, he might have joined up with the Pharisees, who were the patriots of purity. Or with the Sadducees, who controlled the Temple, and were the heirs of the Maccabees, the last successful independence movement. Or he might have joined the Zealots, the revolutionaries who armed themselves for the resistance like the irregulars who had fought with David against the Philistines. No, the only group he joined was the whole people that was repentant.
But what did he have to repent of? I mean, he’s Jesus! Well, what do you think repentance is? Repentance is not just the penance for sin, and it’s not even really that. Repentance is an attitude, an attitude of vulnerability, a stance of openness, making space within your life, and keeping that space open before you. “The whole life of Christians is repentance,” is what Martin Luther wrote in his 95 Theses.
This guy Jesus had to repent in order to be anointed the Messiah. He had maybe nothing in particular to repent of but he had to share the stance, the attitude, the vulnerability, the opening, the bending, the offering your neck. Which is what lovers do when you make love. If repentance is the stance and angle of opening up yourself, than repentance is a stance towards love. The risk of love.
Now if we read the gospel in the light of the epistle reading, also written by St. Luke, what’s also manifest is the very first occurrence of the Baptism of the Spirit. The dove is the sign of a new thing, begun with Jesus himself and expanded to his followers. The dove has converted a Jewish ritual of repentance into a work of the Holy Spirit, the subtle miracle we call a sacrament. Just as the dove was the small sign of God visiting and inhabiting Jesus, so baptism is the sign that God inhabits you, God invests in you. You don’t just follow Jesus, God lands on you, enters you, merges into you, as certainly as the water of baptism was put upon your head. On children too, in whom the Holy Spirit delights to dwell.
So what I want to say about our painting is that the picture tells a story, and in this story you are included. I invite you this morning to believe that you are included in this story of the painting, not just among the crowd, but on the right, with the dove descending on you. And I invite you to believe that God also says to you, “With you I am well-pleased.”
Not, “you’re fine, you’re good, you’re great.” It’s not about you, it’s about God, and God’s attitude toward you, the unshakeable attitude of God towards, which is the impact of God in your life. God does it this way in order to free you for 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 ignored, or lack impact, or not be as good as you might wish, and you could always do better, but still you are free for action and creativity, because you cannot shake God’s pleasure in you, it’s unquenchable, it’s from God, “with you I am well-pleased.” Unconditionally? Yes, God’s love for you is unconditional, God’s love is absolutely free, God identifies what love is just by being God. Look at the dove and see that God is love.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.