Saturday, December 23, 2017

"Does God Belong?" - December 24, 2017

A Christmas Eve poem:

Does God Belong?

Does God belong
in flesh? Does God belong
in places void of dignity?
Is God found where the world's gone wrong,
where hate is strong?
What god forsakes eternity 

and leaves behind
the glory he deserves --
becomes entwined by ugliness,
by sin, by death? A god preserves
himself. Why bind
his fullness to our emptiness?

A peasant girl 
and carpenter who come
together underneath a cloud
of scandal and suspicion 
that made heads whirl--
is that a good way to start out?

A town beneath 
a capital's safe walls -- 
exposed to death in time of war

and targeted by trumpet calls --
no place to leave
a weakling child born to be a savior.

A feeding trough --
a part of every farm, 
a part of every stable, barn, 
or inn -- can take so many forms:
some smooth, some rough,
none any place to put a newborn.

Let that mind be
in us which was in Christ:
who, though he shared in God's own essence,
did not let anything entice 
to equal pride; imported presence

where absence is,
so right where God was not
God would be active -- human loss
no obstacle as we had thought.
So now love lives
in both a manger and a cross.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

“Who’s the Messiah?” - December 17, 2017

John 1:6-13

            We do not know that Jesus was born at this time of year.  Chances are that he wasn’t.  In fact, when people with a chip on their shoulder against Christmas (sometimes against Christianity itself) get on a roll, they will tell you that this time of year was a big one for the Romans, who whooped it up with a festival they called Saturnalia, and for the pagans of northern Europe, who had midwinter festivals where they lit fires and brought evergreen branches into their houses and told stories involving mistletoe and elves.  They point out that the Church decided to create its own competing festival incorporating a lot of these practices, as if that somehow undermines the validity of the holiday.

            I’d answer that the point of Christmas as we observe it is that God came to earth in Jesus and was born as one of us, and that alone is worth a party.  Since we don’t have an exact date, why not December 25?  It’s as good as any other, and better than some.  After all, for us it is the darkest time of the year, and it is in the darkest times that we are most aware that we need him all year long.  There would be nothing wrong with people in Australia or anywhere in the southern hemisphere saying that they need to observe in in June for the same reason.

            Of course, there are those who enjoy the trimmings but who don’t really go beyond that.  We all know a lot of those folks.  In one of his little-known poems, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”, T.S. Eliot says,

“There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.”

Muslims, who consider Jesus a prophet, but not the messiah and definitely not the Son of God, see no problem in celebrating his birth as we would see no problem celebrating Martin Luther King Day or Washington’s Birthday. 

            And then there are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not believe in the Holy Trinity.  They do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or that God lived in him.  They claim that Jesus was an angel, a messenger sent from God.  So, understanding perfectly well that what Christians celebrate is that Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, they will have nothing to do with even the outer trappings of a midwinter festival, since those go back to the pagans.  What a shame!  They both deny the meaning at the heart of the holiday and the joy at the edges. 

            (On a related side-note, there’s a story that’s too good not to tell.  When the Council of Nicaea was debating these matters in the year 325, there was a man named Arius, who had led a lot of people into the belief that Jesus was only a created being, a sort of super-angel, and not fully divine, and kept insisting that it would be wrong to speak of him as we do of God the Father.  One of the other bishops there became so exasperated that he stood up, walked across the room, and slapped him in the face, for which assault he was thrown into jail and stripped of office.  That man’s name was Nicholas.  Now he’s called St. Nicholas.  In other words, the major opponent of Christmas was once punched out by the man who became Santa Claus.)

There are better ways to do things.  Theology should not be settled in the boxing ring.  In fact, God’s humility in Jesus entire life models that so thoroughly that Christian joy in God’s coming to us in Jesus, that we celebrate all the time, is wide enough that it can be shared with others who don’t share its true source. We recognize a Messiah, a Savior, who is determined, not to go out and seize happiness and blessings for himself, or even for his wider circle of friends or his own nation.  He doesn’t turn his righteous anger loose on his detractors or his persecutors. He brings, even to his enemies, and at his own infinite expense, the blessings of God for those who have nothing: no joy, no hope, no sense of a future, no expectations, no love.  The gospel of John puts it this way:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” [John 1:9-16]

            When the Romans celebrated their festival of Saturnalia, there was a tradition that during that time the masters would become the servants and the servants would become the masters.  I try to picture that happening without both sides of that having in the back of their minds, “This is not going to last, and just wait until everything is normal again.”   But when God, in Jesus, took on the role of a servant it was done to recognize the servant as his child, a member of the household of God, a citizen of heaven with dignity greater than an angel’s.  As the great theologian Athanasius taught, “God became like us that we might become like God.”  In the Messiah in the manger, we can see humility and glory side-by-side, and thanks to him we can experience and even share that eternal glory while still acknowledging God’s rule over us and over the whole world.

            This doctrine of the Incarnation, the embodiment of God in Christ, is complicated.  That’s why we express it always as “both-and”.  Jesus was both divine and human.  Jesus is both eternal and born within time and space.  Jesus is both equal to and obedient to God the Father.  Jesus both embodied the Holy Spirit and sends the Spirit to indwell his Body, the Church.  He has both come to us on earth and ascended into heaven.

            And thanks to him, we who are sinners, the same people John the Baptist called a “brood of vipers” are also open to a far brighter future – for that matter, a brighter present – than the world tells us or can even imagine, because

“to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.” [John 1:16]


“No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will
Receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.”

Consider this season itself an altar call, not summoning us to God, but to hear that God has come to us and asks to settle in, that we might share our lives with him so that he may share his life with us.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

“What’s a Messiah?” - December 10, 2017

Isaiah 61:1-4

The word “Messiah” is an anglicized version of the Hebrew word “Moshiach”, which isn’t easy for us to pronounce.  The gospel writers translated it when they were writing in Greek and used the term “Christos”, from which we get “Christ”.  It means “anointed”.

In the ancient Middle East, the act of designating someone to a special office, generally of kingship or priesthood, involved pouring a small amount of olive oil over his head or sometimes onto the chest or hands.  To this day, when an English monarch is crowned, the service includes a ritual that is considered so sacred that it was excluded from being televised in 1952.  Presumably, that will be the case at the next coronation, too.  (When czars were crowned, they were led out of the main church into the secluded area normally reserved for the priests for the same reason.)  What happens is that the new king or queen is seated on a throne that includes the Stone of Scone from Scotland underneath a golden canopy.  The choir sings the hymn “Come, Holy Spirit” and the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints the royal head, hands, and heart with the sign of the cross.  Next comes a time of prayer and only after that are the Crown Jewels presented and the crown itself placed on his or her head.

In the Old Testament, the kings of Israel and Judah, were regularly referred to as “God’s anointed”.  That is, the king was a “moshiach”, a “christos”.  That’s the origin of the idea prevalent clear through to Jesus’ time and beyond that there is an intimate connection between royalty, especially the royal House of David, and messiahship (if that’s a word).  To be anointed made someone king.  Trouble began, though, when people started thinking that to be king made someone the messiah.

Not all kings showed themselves worthy of the honor that went with the job.  Many of them turned out to be incompetent or ill-suited.  Others were led astray by bad advisors or their own pride.  Eventually, in all the wars that the Middle East is so known for, the kingdoms were swallowed up and destroyed.  People in exile looked forward to the restoration of the kingdom and with it the establishment of another ruler to be “God’s anointed”.  But the kingdom and the messiah became hoped-for parts of the future, not a present reality.

Into that stepped Isaiah and other prophets like him, who had the chance to say, “Hold on here.  Let’s get some clarity about what we’re looking for.”  They, who were collateral damage in the fighting as empire after empire rolled up from Egypt and south from Assyria and west from Babylon and then Persia, they looked for one who would free them and lift the oppression of occupation and enslavement, maybe even someone who would rebuild Jerusalem and the temple that lay in ruins like Dresden in 1945 or Mosul in 2017.  Someone would arise who would announce,

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners; 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn; 
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
   to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
   the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
   they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
   the devastations of many generations.”
[Isaiah 61:1-4] 

And they did return from exile.   Nehemiah led people from Babylon back to Jerusalem and they rebuilt the walls, and Ezra returned shortly after that and brought the scriptures, and Malachi arose to encourage the completion of the temple.  God is faithful, and did not forget his people.

            But the empires kept on rolling over them.  First it was the Greeks from the northwest, led by Alexander, and later the Romans who sailed in on the sea and set up a puppet government under the dynasty that included Herod.  There was no longer a king or a kingdom, not in the same sense.  Herod and his successors were not even really Jews.  His ancestors came from the lands to the south, at the edge of the Arabian desert, and they ruled at the whim and permission of the Senate, or later the Emperor, of Rome.  Roman money bought them their position and Roman weapons kept them there.

            Where, then, was the anointed one?  Some people began to look for a leader to arise who would beat all of the empires at their own game.  Inevitably, they were slapped down brutally.  Jesus warned his disciples,

“‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.’” [Luke 21:8-11]

Did I mention Jesus?  Let me follow up on that. 

Earlier anointed rulers had led the nation down a path of trouble.  Perhaps, if they were to be led into a future that was free from those troubles, they needed to look for different qualities in a messiah.  There was a man named Jesus, who had gone to spend some time at one point among the followers of another man named John who was proclaiming that God’s kingdom was at hand.  John encouraged people to be baptized in the Jordan as a sign of entry into or renewed allegiance to this kingdom and Jesus took part in that ritual, but as he came up out of the water the Holy Spirit came upon him from beyond this world, and he was anointed by God for something better and more lasting than to lead yet another army into yet another war.

Not long after,

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ 
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
 [Luke 4:16-21]

            Now, since this is a sermon series and I’ve already crossed over into territory that’s for next week, I’m going to stop there.  But I will say this as a matter of conclusion: over the ages, messiahs have come and gone with varying degrees of effectiveness.  One messiah, however – the one who opted out of the rigged games and false hopes that the others became entangled in – that one messiah has done what none of the others ever did, and brought an end to oppression and a freedom from all kinds of captivity that the others never even envisioned, and of him it can be said in a way that cannot be said of any of the others,

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” [Matthew 16:16]

Saturday, December 2, 2017

“Why a Messiah?” - December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
   so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 
as when fire kindles brushwood
   and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
   so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” 
[Isaiah 64:1-2]

Biblical scholars suggest that the book of Isaiah incorporates the words and the experience of more than one prophet, but that it covers a span of events that can be taken as one distinct and increasingly disastrous period in the history of the kingdom of Judah.  Judah was the part of Israel around Jerusalem that had survived conquest by Assyria in 722 B.C. but would not survive invasion by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.  A handful of survivors, including the prophet, became prisoners of war.  Some of them were forced into exile.  Some of them became slaves.  All of them bore with them the horrors of what had happened.

“Your holy cities have become a wilderness,
   Zion has become a wilderness,
   Jerusalem a desolation. 
Our holy and beautiful house,
   where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned by fire,
   and all our pleasant places have become ruins. 
After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?”
[Isaiah 64:10-12]

In exile, their captors had no trouble making them relive the moments of devastation for their own amusement.  Psalm 137 tells of that, and what it did to them.

“By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ 

How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my highest joy. 

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
   the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
   Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
   Happy shall they be who pay you back
   what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock!”

There you have one response to genocide and to horror, to the uncaring and unashamed lust for power that cares nothing for the suffering of the helpless and the innocent: the desire for revenge.

Have you heard about the sentences in trials of Balkan war criminals that were handed down last week?  For many of the victims, they do not do enough.  And then there was the insult of the Croatian man who managed to get hold of poison and drank it in the courtroom and died, thinking to subvert justice.  For that matter, I find myself wondering what kind of human justice could ever even up the score when you consider what misery and terror these people and their confederates inflicted on entire towns without signs of mercy or conscience.  A quick execution seems to let them off lightly.  What victim could be blamed for feeling disappointment or for even seeking comfort in the thought that such people meet a fuller judgment beyond death?

The enormity of such crimes, and the cruelty that is part of them, is that they are so systematic.  It is not just one angry perpetrator, or even one twisted mind or warped soul that does these things.  If it were, there would be some level of compassion somewhere, some ability to say that wrong had been done in a fit of rage or had grown out of an uncontrollable insanity.  That is not to excuse it, but to make it understandable.  That would be to make it possible to categorize it and put it onto some mental shelf somewhere, the way that a medical museum puts terrible tumors or painful growths into jars and says, “Look what happens when things go wrong.”

But here it is a matter of cold, deliberate policy.  It is what names mass murder as “ethnic cleansing” or torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques”.  It is what relabels evil as expedience.  It is what happens when the powerful decide that others are expendable, as when Caiaphas the high priest stood before a council of his peers and explained that they should have no hesitation to hand Jesus over to the Romans, saying:

“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” [John 11:50]

Wrong can be confronted and corrected.  People do terrible things and then cry out, “What have I done?”  There is hope in that.  There is the beginning of repentance.  Evil says, “I have done nothing wrong.  I don’t really need to justify my deeds, but if you must know, I do everything for the greater good.”  So if wrong can be confronted, evil must be resisted and opposed.

Thus there appeared among the Jews in exile a hope that went beyond revenge.  There arose a holy longing for one who would, at God’s behest, be more than the prophet calling in the wilderness.  There arose a faith that God would send a chosen one, a messiah, who would go to the heart of the deepest evils of the world and tell them, “No!  No, you don’t overrule God!  You do not get to declare what is acceptable.  You may not disguise yourself any longer as other than you are.”  It is like what happened when Jesus met a man filled with demons and cast them out and they fled into a herd of pigs, and then not even the pigs could bear to host them and jumped into the sea and drowned. [Matthew 8:28-33]

Isaiah expresses the longing for deliverance from the structures of oppression more clearly than any other, expresses it on behalf of himself and of his people and of all who are tugged into the grinding machinery of unresponsive and heartless wickedness.  And in his cry the people heard more than pain.  What they heard was God’s promise of deliverance to come.  Paul Hanson puts it this way:

“The doubts, the contradictions, the tensions, the pains that have been expressed in the lament are not thereby resolved.  But they are lifted up in one final impassioned plea to the only one who can help.  Memory of God’s gracious saving acts of the past remains intertwined with the hardships of day-to-day existence.  In the act of lament and supplication, troubles do not vanish, but human vision is lifted above human helplessness to the heavenly parent.  In such a situation, where no human parent deserving of the name could remain unmoved, is it possible to imagine that the source of love will remain silent? …Therefore, even when God seems to have withdrawn, the suffering faithful individual and the stricken faithful community persist in directing their cries to the heavenly parent, ‘Yet, O Lord, you are our Father.’”[1]

[1] Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 in the Interpretation Bible Commentary series (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 240-241.