The Baptized Life

January 13, 2019 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “The Baptized Life” recorded in worship (12:06)
Baptism of Our Lord, Year B
Texts: Isa 43.1-7; Ac 8.9-24; Lk 3.15-22

I’m not sure if any of you are fans of the Decembrists, but I am. Their music is catchy and melodic, but what really draws me in is their lyrics. The images are rich and a little dark, and their rhymes are often inventive which I love. Also, their lead singer Colin Meloy grew up in Helena, MT, so that doesn’t hurt either.

I bring them up because the image that I keep coming back to when reading today’s readings is from the Decemberists’ song “July, July.” The lyric goes:

And I say your uncle was a crooked French-Canadian
And he was gut-shot runnin’ gin
And how his guts were all suspended in his fingers
And how he held ’em
How he held ’em, held ’em in

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeR_j2SkW1Q

I told you they were dark. Now let me tell you why I make that connection. That’s what I picture when I think of the two people who were cut out of our readings today by the lectionary: Herod and Simon the Magus. Read more…

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Christmas Beyond the Nativity Scene

December 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Christmas Beyond the Nativity Scene” recorded in worship (10:22)
Christmas Day
Texts: Isa 52.7-10; Heb 1.1-12; Jn 1.1-18

Almost everything that we think about when we think about Christmas can be visualized in the nativity scene. These static figurine sets, ranging from tiny to life-sized or larger, have come to embody the Christmas holiday for us. We tend to think of that first Christmas night as serene and calm as the newborn baby sleeps silently in the snug manger, surrounded by quietly adoring shepherds and wise men. Everything is as still and as peaceful as the porcelain figurines that sit on our mantles or adorn our lawns.

These tableaus tell an important part of the Christmas story by helping us to imagine an actual human baby and the actual human people who were drawn to witness his birth, but they don’t tell the whole story. In the midst of our messy and constantly moving world, the peaceful vignette of the nativity scene seems so distant as to almost be a fairy tale, a representation of an event that never happened—or could never happen—in the chaos of the world we know.

That is why John’s story is so important to share at Christmas, even if it does seem out of place. It might be hard for us to make sense of Christmas without the baby Jesus, away in a manger. With no baby, there are no herald angels singing, no shepherds in the fields abiding, no silent night or midnight clear, no little town of Bethlehem, no three wise men coming from country far by the light of yonder star. And yet, this is the holiday John gives us, devoid of all the familiar trappings. The picture John paints for us is not of a world at peace and stillness while a child is born, but of a world shrouded in shadow, in chaos, in evil, in death—and of the divine light of life entering into that darkness.

In spite of the holiday cheer and festivity of the season, I think John’s image of Christmas is much more like the world as we know it. Not far beneath the thin veneer of holiday joy, there lies the same trouble that overshadows our world every day. Wars continue to rage, conflicts continue to boil, people continue to flee and suffer and die; while the stationary serenity of the nativity scene gives us hope for the peace that one day will be, it does not say much about the sin and evil that swirls around us now.

Instead of a world that seems to pause to recognize the birth of the savior, John tells us about a world stumbling blindly forward, oblivious to the savior already present; a world which owes him its entire existence, but which does not even recognize him; a world that continues spinning on through the endless night, where people continue machinating and scheming, oppressing and exploiting one another, fighting and killing and dying in the darkness, heedless of the light shining among them.

This sounds like the world we know, a world bathed in darkness, living in fear: fear of war, fear of climate change, fear of election tampering, fear of government overreach, fear of the loss of the familiar. As strangers encounter one another in this darkness, we fear each other. We huddle together into our little tribes, seeking safety within our bubbles and painting horrible pictures of the enemies around us who wish to destroy us and our way of life. We sharpen our spears and steel our nerves to fight in not only on battlefields, but in legislatures and public forums and internet comment sections. We have become so afraid of one another in the dark that every moving shadow prepares us to kill or be killed.

On Christmas we celebrate that into the midst of this dark world, the true light has come. While we throw up walls and barriers and checkpoints to separate ourselves from our enemies, from the people we have come to believe are too stupid, too malicious, or simply too foreign to let into our safe space, we remember that God has torn through the barriers of heaven and earth to become human: to become one of us. While we are separating ourselves from one another with politics and ideologies and labels, God becomes one with us in flesh and blood and spirit and truth.

We try to save ourselves by isolating ourselves from those who are different from us. We close borders and gentrify neighborhoods, we draw boundaries based on race and class and political opinion. It is this separation that creates the fear and the hatred that cloud our vision; but God chooses to save us by stepping into our story, by slipping into our skin to experience our hopes and joys, our fears and sorrows alongside us. The Word made flesh teaches us to step out in faith across those borders, to walk across the no-mans-land and enter into the experiences of the other, to come to see and know one another in the light of God, to even come to love each other. Instead of a motionless nativity scene, Christmas is embodied in the movement of people toward one another, mirroring the movement of Christ toward us.

This is what John means when he says that Jesus gives us the power to become “children of God.” Jesus teaches us to be like our Father; to become incarnate—fully present—to one another; and in so doing, to be able to see the light of life that exists in all people, the True Light of the Word of God. Through the Incarnation of Jesus at Christmas, God has given each of us the power to become fully incarnate to one another. We often think of Christmas as being primarily the story of a child, the baby Jesus lying in the manger, but it is as much about the story of all the children of God learning to truly see one another in the Light of the World.

The nativity scene reminds us that when Jesus became human, he was born not among the rich or well-educated or powerful, but among the poor. Because he lived among the poorest of us, he knew their struggles and he learned to love them for who they are when the privileged and elite did not. As children of God, we also have been given the power to live and work among those whom the world would teach us to disdain, to learn to love them as Jesus does. We have been given this ability not because of where or to whom we are born—not because of the will of the flesh or the will of a person—but because we have been reborn of the Spirit.

At Christmas, we celebrate that the light of the world came into our darkness and still shines there. We celebrate that because the darkness has not overcome him, it cannot and it will not overcome us. The light of the world shines within us, and we have the power to shine that light into all the dark corners and forgotten crevices of the world where people still huddle in fear of one another. Christmas is a celebration of God becoming one with us and giving us the power to become one with one another. We celebrate the Incarnation of Christ whenever we become incarnate to each other, whenever we cross the borders that divide us and reach out in love to bring joy in the midst of fear.

Christmas never was a single moment to be captured in the nativity dioramas we see everywhere this time of year. Christmas always has been and always will be a recognition and a celebration of the living, moving God who continues to break into our existence, to shine light into our darkness. Christmas is a moment of clarity, a pause to look around and recognize Christ where he has always been: in the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, but also in the bread and wine at the table, broken for us; in the faces of this community, sanctified and sent out to be messengers of God’s good news; in the poor, the hungry, and the outcast among us, inviting us into relationship; even in the enemies we have been taught to hate and fear.

Today, we celebrate that Christ has come into the world to bring us release from fear, to be one of us and to teach us to be one with each other. He is the light of truth and love, shining in the darkness; today we bear witness that the darkness does not overcome it.

The Holy Family of God

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “The Holy Family of God” recorded in worship (12:03)
Christmas Eve
Texts: Isa 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Lk 2.1-20

A friend and colleague of mine, Martin, spent time in Israel and Palestine some years ago. While he was staying in Jerusalem, the city experienced a rare snowstorm. Jerusalem gets snow even less often than we get snow, and so as you can imagine, even an inch of snow was more than they were prepared to handle. Martin was walking down a sloped street when he slipped and fell, and he ended up sliding downhill on his backside into a local gentleman on the sidewalk. With some difficulty in the slippery wet snow, the man was finally able to help Martin to his feet again, and they had a good laugh about the incident. When this gentleman learned that my friend was visiting, he insisted that Martin come to stay at his house. Martin declined, of course, not wanting to impose on this stranger he had just met, but the man wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was adamant that Martin must be his guest, and insisted that he be allowed to offer him hospitality. After much protestation, Martin finally gave in and came to the man’s house for dinner because he felt that he would dishonor his new friend by refusing.

Showing hospitality is a huge part of Palestinian culture, and has been for millennia. Two thousand years ago, the hospitality of a stranger could literally mean the difference between life and death for a traveler. Anyone passing through could expect to be given a night or two of lodging by a local at a moment’s notice simply by standing inside the town gate. Showing hospitality strangers was an important social norm because it assured the safety of all travelers.

So if strangers could (and can still!) expect to receive such gracious hospitality, of course the same would be true for family. Although we have this mythology built up around Mary and Joseph sleeping in the barn because there was no room for them at the inn, this isn’t quite what Luke says. He tells us that they had traveled from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem and that there was no room in the “inn;” but that isn’t quite the right word. The word actually means a guest room, such as many houses would have had.

Whether he had grown up there or only had loose familial bonds with the place, Joseph wouldn’t have gone to stay at an inn—a place reserved only for merchants passing through on business—he would have stayed with relatives. If he hadn’t, he would have insulted them. In fact, he could likely have found a room with anyone in Bethlehem by simply knocking on a door saying, “I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, Son of Levi,” and the occupants would probably have responded, “Levi was my grandfather’s uncle, please come in!” or “Heli was my cousin’s barber’s butcher’s son; you must stay with us!”

Most houses were built around a single room in which the family stayed, with a guest room tacked on to the side or on the roof. The guest room offered to the young couple was already full with other guests—also probably family—but there was no chance that his hosts would have said, “Sorry, we’re already full up. You’ll have to find somewhere else,” because that’s not how you treat family. Leaving family to fend for themselves was not only shameful, it was dangerous. What if something happened to them? While it was far from ideal, any relatives of Joseph’s—whether close or distant—would have been more than happy to provide whatever accommodations they could, because that’s just what you do for family.

Nevertheless, with the guest room already packed to the gills, there was no room to deliver the baby, so when Mary went into labor, she had to do so in the main room, where the owners of the house lived—the main room adjacent to the stables, with mangers dug into the floor to feed the animals.

This is a small but important detail to this story. You see, the way we tell it, Jesus was born in the middle of a strange town in a barn devoid of anyone else except animals. In reality, it is far more likely that he was born into a cramped house surrounded by chaos and noise—but most importantly, by family. The son of a peasant craftsman and his young bride, Jesus came into this world with next to nothing—not even in his own house; but what he did have was family.

One of the most incredible things about the Incarnation to which we seldom pay any attention is that, as a human, Jesus had ancestors and relatives. Both Luke and Matthew include a lineage in their gospel stories so that their readers will know who Joseph is, and therefore who this baby being born is. In Matthew’s gospel, the lineage goes all the way back to Abraham with whom God made the covenant. It’s Matthew’s way of reminding his Jewish audience that Jesus is one of them. He’s their family, their kin. Luke takes things even further by extending his genealogy all the way back to “Adam, the son of God;” a reminder that not only Jews, but also Gentiles are included in Jesus’ family because we all come from one ancestor, and we all have God as our ultimate progenitor.

So family plays a central role in this story of Jesus’ birth. His parents were taken in by family in the hometown of his father, and he came into the world surrounded by animals, yes, but also by relatives who cared enough about his father and about him to make whatever room they could in an already full house—even if he did have to sleep in a food trough. But what is really interesting about Luke’s story is that it doesn’t stop there; more people showed up. It wasn’t the family we might expect—cousins, aunts, uncles, great-uncles’ cousins’ aunts six times removed… The news was not spread among kin, but among shepherds, out watching their flocks by night.

Shepherds had a reputation for being not only smelly and unsophisticated, but also unscrupulous and violent. When Luke says they were watching their flocks, he means they were protecting them from other shepherds who might try to steal them. These men may be even been armed. But when they burst into the house and share the news the angels told them, a miracle happens. Instead of being thrown out, instead of everyone running out the back, everyone is amazed. For a little while, this crazy collection of people—a young, bedraggled Nazorean couple, a family of kindly but completely callow Bethlehemites, and a bunch of gruff and bewildered shepherds—become family; a family all brought together by this extraordinary baby lying in a manger.

So often we reduce the life of Jesus to what happened at the end of it, and we forget that Jesus didn’t come to die, he came to live—and to live among us. The miracle of the Incarnation is that the Creator of the Universe entered into human flesh and blood. Jesus was born into a family, and his birth created a new family; one brought together by God through open doors and heavenly messengers and even Caesar Augustus himself, though unwittingly, and that census of his.

Family is central to how many of us celebrate this holiday, but even in the midst of our family preparations and traditions, through the miracle of the Incarnation God seeks to blow our definition of family wide open; Christmas is part of God’s promise to free family to be what it should be; not the place where we escape from the injustice of the world, but the place where that injustice is healed.

For if in the Incarnation Jesus becomes family to each of us, then it also makes us family to one another. All of us—shepherds and magi, kings and peasants, Democrats and Republicans—we are one family in Christ. We all trace our lineage back to the same family tree that has God as both its root and its crown. In Christ we are all connected by the blood given for us at this table and the water in which we have been washed.

This is not just a hollow sentiment about the general interconnectedness of humanity. Instead, it is God’s way of saving the world from itself; of helping us to realize that we all have the same responsibility to one another that Joseph’s family had to him in Bethlehem. At Christmas, God in the face of the baby Jesus invites us to look across the room, across the border, across the aisle, and to see that the people standing over there are just as much our family as the baby lying in the manger because the spare room is plumb full up. Yes, it’s an inconvenience; yes, it costs us money or comfort or safety; but can we really leave family out there to fend for themselves? What if something were to happen to them?

In God’s family, when one of us is sick, we take care of them. When one of us is persecuted, we stand up to protect them. When one of us is hungry, we feed them. When one of us is oppressed, we stand alongside them. When it comes to family, we don’t do this out of a sense of obligation or to escape punishment—at least, not ultimately. We take care of one another because we love one another, because we are bound to one another in a way we can’t really understand or articulate. That love is what slipped into our skin on Christmas night—and what we worship here tonight.

Imagine a world where we treat everyone—from immigrants to shepherds to strange men sliding on their backsides through the snow—as though they were family. That is the world we see coming to birth at Christmas: a world in which we can look into the face of another—whether friend or stranger or enemy—and see a cousin, a sibling. A Christmas celebration that runs away from or ignores the problems of the world to focus only in our families is an anemic, malnourished holiday. But when Christmas can expand our definition of family and teach us to look outward, to begin to see the people around us—even weary, pregnant travelers and shepherds—as kin, then we become co-creators of the kingdom of God, celebrating the hope of God’s promise of ultimate salvation at Christmas. When we can look at one another with the eyes of Jesus, to see and love one another as he does, then something new is born.

Feel the Burn

December 16, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Feel the Burn” recorded in worship (14:30)
Third Sunday in Advent, Year C
Texts: Zeph 3.14-20; Phil 4.4-7; Lk 3.7-18

If you’re having a hard time hearing the good news in John’s message, you’re not alone. Talk of fire in scripture most often conjures up for Christians images of Hell with its unquenchable fire that burns the wicked for eternity. Fire mostly makes us think of condemnation and punishment, not things that we usually associate—or want to associate—with the coming of Jesus. Because we have been conditioned to fear the fires of punishment, it makes it hard for us to hear the good news in John’s message. John actually mentions fire three times; and although two of those seem to fit with our classic understanding of judgement and punishment, the third—the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire—gives us a clue that John is talking about something different than we might think. We have no reason not to think that each time John talks about fire, he means the same thing, and yet we mentally separate these instances into good and bad, hopeful and threatening.

Bonfire, Walpurgis Night, near lake Ringsjö, Sweden. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here, the metaphor of fire is actually helpful for us. Fire is fire is fire: there is no such thing as “good fire” and “bad fire.” The fire that cooks our food is the same as the fire that burns it; the fire that warms our homes may easily become the fire that destroys them. The bible describes fire as being both cleansing and destructive—but it is cleansing because it is destructive; those are not separate things. Fire refines metal because it melts it and burns off the dross. The “unquenchable fire” about which John talks is the same fire with which the Messiah will baptize. It is not the fire of Hell or the pain of suffering; it is nothing less than the refining presence of God’s Holy Spirit. All humankind—all creation—will be purified in that fire; that’s a promise. That’s good news. So why doesn’t it sound like it?

In spite of the best efforts of the evangelists and the Church Fathers and Mothers and the Reformers, we have come to more or less treat salvation like it is a destination at which we arrive, whether it is when we pray the Sinner’s Prayer, or when we come to believe in or accept Jesus, or when we are baptized; once we’ve arrived, there is no more to be done. To put it in John’s terms, we think that simply being “children of Abraham” is enough; his statement to the contrary causes us to fear that there is something we have yet to do, some righteousness we have yet to fulfill in order to be safe from that unquenchable fire of punishment.

The reality is that salvation is not a destination; it is a journey, a process. It isn’t something that we can achieve by being or doing or believing the “right” things, because if it could, then once we had fulfilled the requirements, we would no longer need God. The purifying fire of which John speaks is not—as we often like to imagine—the fire of Hell that waits for those who fail to earn or receive salvation, but the unquenchable presence of God. Salvation comes through being in perpetual relationship with that presence.

Allow me to unpack that. Our sense of self is far less concrete than we like to think. As we grow older and become more set in our ways it becomes harder to tell, but the truth is that, to some degree, our personalities change based on who we are with: as we are around different people, we ourselves become different people, especially over time. We act, think and even talk differently when we are around church people than when we are around buddies from work, for example. When I go up to the farm where my dad grew up, I unconsciously start talking with a thick brogue. Or when I am around my sister, we fall into the same old patterns from when we were kids.

Another way to think of it is that it’s like marriage. When two people join themselves together in the covenant of marriage, they slowly become more like one another in certain ways. They pick up mannerisms or habits from their spouse, they start to adjust diets and expectations and even entire lives to one another. Some people even begin to look alike after being together for so long!

But the changes don’t stop there. Marriage means that both people are forever seeing themselves and their actions in light of their spouse. People become hyper-aware of the faults and failures of the other partner even as they are forced to recognize their own. This deeply intimate reflection that characterizes marriage is an uncomfortable process; but in the end, marriage is about more than that, and that is why people do it. It can even be a part of how marriage (ideally) makes one a better person.

It works the same way with God. As we enter into this covenant relationship—this “marriage,” if you will—with God through baptism, both God and us become more like one another. God takes the first step in becoming like us through the incarnation: Jesus, though divine, took on human form to not only live among us and relate to us, but to become one of us. He initiates that relationship with us through his incarnation so we can start become more like him. We learn to love as he loves, to care for others as he cares for us, to give of ourselves as he does.

Martin Luther calls this the “happy exchange.” Because we cannot be righteous on our own, we need a righteousness—a goodness—that comes from outside of us: an “alien righteousness.” Being in relationship with Christ allows us to receive his “alien righteousness” and become better people, people recreated in the just and righteous image of God. At the same time, the sinless Christ takes our sinfulness—our brokenness, our faults and failures—into himself and—because he is also God—heals it. He becomes like us so that we can become like him. Salvation then, is not achieving a state in which we no longer need God to be righteous on our own, but entering into an eternal relationship with God in Christ and therefore always righteous.

“Fire,” Porch window Stained glass by Pippa Blackall. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55589

Although this exchange is indeed happy, like any relationship it is also hard work, and it can be uncomfortable. This is the process by which God is saving not only us, but the whole world. And so Zephaniah sings of the elation that follows God’s purification of the remnant of Israel and the restoration of Jerusalem. That restoration is accomplished, he writes, when the LORD is in the midst of the city; then, the people will no longer be proud or haughty, they shall do no wrong nor utter lies, and no one shall be afraid.

The idea of divine punishment that’s been implanted in us works in a black-and-white world, but it falls apart in a grey one. When we hear John’s message, we have a tendency to get hung up wondering who is “saved” and who is not. Perhaps we might instead begin to recognize that people are not grain or chaff, but stalks of wheat; we are not barren or fruitful trees, but orchards. The wheat must be purified by separating the chaff; otherwise it is no good to eat. An orchard must have the barren trees removed in order to make room for more productive trees. We all have chaff that must be burnt and unfruitful trees that need to be replaced. That is precisely why John’s message is real good news. It isn’t some hollow encouragement for the self-righteous, but a complex word of both hope and warning for a complex world.

When we enter into covenant relationship with God, we are entering into the red-hot furnace of God’s righteous presence which burns away everything within us that resists God’s good and gracious will for us and for creation. True discipleship will cause suffering because the way of God is so alien to the way of the world that to be aligned with one is to automatically be at odds with the other. We can either be comfortable now, taking full advantage of the unjust privilege we’ve accumulated, or we can give up those comforts and privileges now to pursue justice. This is what Jesus means when he says that to be his disciple is to take up our cross and follow. Being in relationship with him means following his lead—even when that path leads to the cross.

Being a disciple is not just about encountering Jesus in the Bible; we also come to know Christ through his living promises and his presence at the font and in the Holy Supper and the community shaped by those sacraments. Our God is an incarnate God, a God who chooses to be known in relationship, which means that we cannot know God in isolation. To know this God in Christ and to follow Jesus’ call to discipleship will sometimes mean that we are at odds with not only the powers of the world, but sometimes even with the very communities gathered in his name; but if we heed that call—to love and serve all people following the example of Jesus and strive for peace and justice in all the earth—we will find that even though that relationship is difficult, it is ultimately fulfilling, bringing us into closer relationship with God and with our fellow siblings in Christ and even those who we might call our enemies because in following that call, even those conflicts—destructive as they can be—have the capacity to also be healing and purifying, like a refining fire.

John’s message is that being in relationship with Jesus now will mean discomfort and persecution and maybe even death while the rulers of the world fight their losing battle to hold onto their power and privilege; but when God’s reign comes in its fullness, when the LORD is finally in the midst of God’s people, then the light of God’s unquenchable presence will shine among us forever, and the jubilant celebration of Zephaniah’s song will be ours.

And so, yes—this unquenchable fire is good news because that fire is the presence of God in our midst that burns away everything in us that resists God’s salvation. That fire is Immanuel—God with us—the presence of the LORD in the midst of the city; and since God is with us, the sin and death that plague the world are slowly being burned away. That is the Christmas gift we are all anxious to receive.

“John the Baptist,” Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56715

Be Careful What You Wish For

December 9, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Be Careful What You Wish For” recorded in worship (12:01)
Second Sunday in Advent, Year C
Texts: Mal 2.17-3.5; Lk 1.68-79; Phil 1.3-11; Lk 3.1-6

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” the adopted son of Augustus and second emperor of Rome, remembered as a vengeful and tyrannical ruler. “When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis…” The historian Philo of Alexandria describes Pilate as having “vindictiveness and a furious temper,” and according to Josephus, he was actually removed from his office as governor and recalled to Rome to answer for his exceedingly harsh treatment of the locals.

Philip and Herod were not much better. They were sons of Herod the Great, the bloodthirsty king of Judea. Due to political intrigue and his own paranoia, he ordered multiple executions, even within his own family. Augustus allegedly joked “it is better to be Herod’s pig than his son” (a pun in Greek: ‘better to be his hus than his huios’), because Herod was half Jewish and, as such, didn’t eat pork, so at least his pig would be safe. (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2:4:11) Luke will later recount how this Herod, Herod Antipas, decapitated John the Baptist to protect his pride (Lk 3.19ff) and executed James the Apostle, brother of John and son of Zebedee, and arrested Peter with the intent of executing him (Acts 12).

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Andrea Solario, ca. 1465-ca. 1520. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54128

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Christian Hope

December 2, 2018 1 comment

Audio Recording of “Christian Hope” recorded in worship (12:16)
First Sunday in Advent, Year C
Texts: Jer 33.14-16; 1 Thess 3.9-13; Lk 21.25-36

It’s kind of funny how some words can have such a wide range of meanings. Sometimes the meanings change over time, like “awesome.” “Awesome” used to mean awe-inspiring, something that stopped you in your tracks; but now it means simply “cool” or “agreeable.” Or the word “fear;” when Martin Luther says that we are to “fear and love God,” he doesn’t mean we should be terrified of God, and yet that is what that word now means. Sometimes the meanings are similar but differ in scope, like the word “love.” When I say “I really love pizza,” I’m talking about a very different emotion than when I say, “I really love my wife.”

“Hope” is one of those funny words. In our common usage, it most often means something we’d like to see happen but don’t expect, like “I hope the rain holds off until I can get to my car.” Or we use it for things that are of little consequence, like “I hope you have a good day.” Frequently, the word “hope” can be accompanied by a sense of futility and helplessness, like “I hope the tumor is benign” or “I hope surgery goes well.” In most cases, when we use the word “hope” we could just as easily substitute the word “wish:” “I wish the rain would stop,” “I wish you a good day,” “I wish the prognosis were better.”

Photo by Flickr user Kwerfeldein. “Hope and Pain,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54357

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The Kindom of God

November 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “The Kindom of God” recorded in worship (12:39)
Feast of the Reign of Christ (Christ the King Sunday), Year B
Texts: Dan 7.2-14; Rev 1.4-8; Jn 18.33-37

After Babylon was conquered by Persia, the Persians allowed the Jews to return from exile to their homes to Judea. In time, the Persians were conquered by Alexander the Great, who died before having to figure out how to govern everything he conquered and his kingdom fell apart. Eventually, the larger part (encompassing Judea) was ruled by a king named Antiochus IV. Unlike his father, who had more or less left the Jews to themselves, Antiochus attempted to exert his influence over them and make them more “civilized,” meaning more Greek. He outlawed many Jewish rituals and customs, like circumcision, and set up an idol to Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem, to which he slaughtered a pig as a sacrifice. He was bloodthirsty, arrogant, and a terror to the Jewish people. He was so enamored of his own power that he took the name “Epiphanes,” from the caption under has face on the coins he minted: “Theos Epiphanes”—“manifest god.”

Antiochus IV. Caption reads “King Antiochus, manifest god, bearer of victory.” Image courtesy Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Daniel’s vision is a shrewd and satyrical political cartoon aimed at Antiochus Epiphanes. Although it is set during the Babylonian exile, it was actually written 400 years later during Antiochus’ reign. Daniel records a vision of four beasts coming up out of the sea: four powerful kingdoms. Atop the fourth beast—the most horrifying and powerful—are 10 horns, representing rulers. As Daniel watches, another horn comes up, plucking up three others by the roots. After King Seleucus IV, Antiochus’ brother, was assassinated by another government official, he ousted the official and later assassinated his brother’s heir to usurp the throne—three horns “plucked up by the roots.” Daniel describes this horn as a little one, with eyes like a human and a mouth that spoke arrogantly.

As Daniel watches, the great beast upon which this horn sits is unceremoniously killed and burned up, all while the little horn natters on about its own importance. The implication is clear: no matter how powerful or important King Antiochus Epiphanes thinks he is, he is nothing compared to God, the true king of the universe—nothing but a stunted horn, too distracted by his own arrogance to notice the flames of judgment already consuming him.

There is another story about Antiochus Epiphanes. During his reign, he invaded Egypt—twice. During his second invasion, the Egyptian king sent to Rome for help. Instead of an army, Rome sent a single emissary, a man named Gaius Popillius Laenas. Laenas met Antiochus outside of Alexandria and handed him a decree from the Roman Senate ordering him to cease his invasion, pack up his army and leave immediately. Incensed, Antiochus told Laenas that he would need to consult with his advisors. In response, Laenas picked up a stick and drew a circle in the dust around Antiochus’ feet and calmly informed him that he would give an answer before he left the circle. Then King Antiochus IV, god-made-manifest, bearer of victory, meekly agreed to Rome’s terms and returned home with his army.

The Seleucid Empire (in yellow) as ruled by Antiochus Epiphanes. The Ptolemaic Kingdom (Egypt) is in dark blue, and the Roman Republic (prior to the Imperial period) is in light blue. Image courtesy of Luigi Chiesa (talk · contribs)derivative work: Morningstar1814 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

This is the kind of story we love: a story where the arrogant blowhard is put in his place by someone bigger than himself. This is the kind of God we may think that Daniel’s story primes us to worship: an omnipotent God-king orders of magnitude greater than Antiochus Epiphanes or Rome or any other earthly power we can imagine; a God-king who out-bullies the bullies and who conquers the conquerors. That is the image behind our holiday today, the feast of the Reign of Christ: a king whose power and glory puts all earthly rulers to shame.

And yet, the Christ we celebrate today is anything but that. As Pilate questions Jesus in his headquarters, he wants to know one thing and one thing only: “Are you the king of the Jews?” It is a simple question with a simple, yes-or-no answer. Daniel’s reply—our reply—to Pilate’s question is an emphatic “Yes!” but Jesus’ response is not so simple. Instead of claiming to be a king, Jesus basically tells Pilate that “king” is a poor label: “King is your word, not mine,” he says. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; and when your only concept of power is a crown, you are always looking for a head to wear it.

Our use of words like kingdom, reign, dominion, almighty, and even power when applied to God are metaphors which are, at best, narrowly applicable, and at worst can be dangerously misleading. This is what Jesus means when he says to Pilate “my kingdom is not from this world.” He isn’t saying that his soldiers are somewhere else, or even that his jurisdiction doesn’t overlap with Rome’s. What he is saying is that “kingdom” is the wrong word. If Jesus were a king, if God did want to establish a kingdom, then his followers would rise up and fight—and they would win; but he isn’t a king, and God doesn’t want a kingdom. Remember what he has been teaching his disciples: whoever would be first must be last; the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve; true disciples take up their crosses and follow. Jesus’ “kingdom” is not like any kind of kingdom in this world; but it is most definitely something that happens in this world.

As Jesus followers, our call is not to take up arms and fight against ruthless kings like Antiochus or Pilate, nor is it to bless or condone the “good kings” who bring peace or prosperity like Caesar did. Both of those things are a fundamental misunderstanding of what Jesus is about. For this he was born, and for this he came into the world: to testify to this truth. It is a truth that Pilate doesn’t understand, because he can only conceive of power or authority in earthly, kingly terms. It may not even be a truth we fully understand, but it is the truth to which we are called.

“What is truth?” (Christ and Pilate) Nikolaĭ Nikolaevich Ge, 1831-1894. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55296

The truth is that while kingdoms rage on earth and kings plot and scheme, Jesus asks us not to place our trust in another kingdom with another king, but in something else. In John’s gospel, Jesus rarely uses the phrase “kingdom of God.” What John does write about is the act of “abiding” or “remaining.” In John’s gospel, Jesus describes life with God as a kind of community with God at its center but that is fundamentally lived out among us; a community in which everyone looks to the needs of others—even enemies; in which everyone is kin. The truth is not the kingdom of God, but the kindom of God.

The truth to which Jesus testifies is that power is not the ability to control another, but the ability to give of oneself. Jesus’ true glory is not revealed in his enthronement in the clouds, but in his enthronement on the cross. Any exercise of worldly power that is not grounded in the self-sacrificial love of the cross is illegitimate and ultimately doomed. Let the kings and presidents issue their decrees, because it is in our day-to-day lives that God’s kindom is ultimately revealed.

We don’t always want this kind of power. We would prefer to have strongmen leading us, authoritarians who will protect us, who will conquer and kill to make us safe. We want a God-king who comes riding on the clouds; but in his absence, we’ll settle for Barabbas. What Jesus offers us instead is the power and majesty of a Lamb, slaughtered and yet living: a quiet and meek but inexorable power to change the world not through violence or coercion, but through love and relationship—through mutual abiding with one another and with God.

It’s not a question of if or even when God’s kindom will be victorious; God’s victory is already assured. The only question is how we will get there from here. It will not happen at the tip of a spear or the muzzle of a gun; it won’t be legislated by an executive order or an act of congress; it will occur neither by the righteous decree of a good king nor in the glorious revolution against a bad king. God’s kindom is alive in us when we bear faithful, patient, confident witness to Christ, the firstborn of the dead, in all that we say and do: everything from how we treat our neighbors and our enemies to where we spend our money to how we vote.

The truth to which Jesus calls us is that it doesn’t matter who is king—whether Antiochus Epiphanes or Caesar Augustus or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump—the kindom of God is at hand. God’s vision for the healing of creation is assured not because of who is king, but because Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the one who loves us and frees us from our sins. To him be glory and dominion forever. Amen.

“Christ in Judgment,” Sant’Angelo in Formis Basilica, Capua, Italy. ca 1100. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48990