Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Costly Alternative [Exodus 33.12-17] (21 July 2002)

For the associates PowerPoint presentation click here.

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a person his or her life, and it is grace because it gives a person the only true life.” That is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the kind of grace he found in the Sermon on the Mount—a sermon, which he believed described to us the Cost of Discipleship. However, this speaks of what it costs us.

But, what does it cost God? If God rains his grace so freely on us, does that mean it costs him nothing? Bonhoeffer argues that even to God the cost is immense because God paid for it with the life of his Son. Now, I do not intend to play down that sacrifice, but is there no other cost involved from God's side?

We are used to thinking of grace as a New Testament concept foreign to the Old Testament, which is characterized by Law. Being a Lutheran, Bonhoeffer displays this kind of thinking in his book The Cost of Discipleship. However, God is no Lutheran! Little did he know that grace was to come later! Why then does the passage we just read contain grace—not just as a concept, but even the cost? Maybe you did not recognize it. Maybe you still think it is not there in the passage. Maybe I've finally jumped off the exegetical deep end!

Or maybe the problem is that we are so accustomed to the word "grace" that we are unable to see nuances that we are not familiar with. Since we are dealing with a passage from the Old Testament, maybe we should use the Old Testament concept of covenant faithfulness to describe what we normally call grace. We can then say with Bonhoeffer that covenant faithfulness is costly because it costs us our lives, and it is covenant faithfulness because it gives us the only true life.

In order to understand this we need to place the passage in its proper context. Israel has very recently come out of Egypt. Yahweh has promised to take them from a land of bondage to a land of freedom—flowing with milk and honey. He asks them to stop at Sinai so that he can give them the laws by which he wants them to live. So he calls Moses up to the top of the mount. We all have probably seen the Ten Commandments. I remember the scene quite well. A frightened Charlton Hesston ascends the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. As Yahweh speaks each commandment, we see a fiery bolt lash out at the tablets and inscribe those very words.

But even as Yahweh is speaking the first two commandments, the people of Israel have already broken them. With the help of Aaron, they have built a golden calf, which they proceed to worship. In Yahweh's eyes, they have already broken the covenant he had made with them.

These days, the exposure of fraud within a number of corporations provides a stark example of how these corporations have broken trust with their stockholders. Would you think of investing in Enron or WorldCom now? Probably not! People are probably wondering if they can invest anywhere. No one wants to have anything to do with such fraudulent companies. Broken trust is often merely a prelude to a broken relationship.

That is precisely how Yahweh responds to Israel's idolatry. He tells Moses to let him visit the Israelite camp in order to destroy them. This is important to grasp. We all too often take God's presence very lightly. Yahweh says that his presence among a sinful people would destroy them. Moses knows this well and argues with Yahweh. Yahweh suggests that he will fulfill his promise to Abraham through Moses after he destroys the people of Israel. Moses does not accept this option. He asks Yahweh to destroy him with the Israelites.

In response, Yahweh gives Moses an option. He will spare the Israelites. He will send his angel to lead them. He will give them the Promised Land. But he will not go with them.

So Israel has two options. On the one hand, Yahweh promises them his presence. But his presence will destroy them. On the other hand, Yahweh promises them his absence. And his absence will preserve them.

But is this even a choice? Moses realizes that it is not. For both options have the same result—no people of Yahweh. The first option is clear. The Israelites will not be alive to be the people of Yahweh. But what about the second option? They would, after all, be alive!

I remember clearly a scene from the movie Air Force One. Harrison Ford has been fighting the main villain on the presidential aircraft, Air Force One. That airplane, however, is in a nosedive. After many breathtaking moments, he is taken aboard the refueling plane as Air Force One crashes into the sea. The control tower wants to know the status of the president. A voice crackles over the radio, “Control tower to Liberty-Two-Four, how is the president?” They want to know whether the president is alive and well. The response from the refueling plane, “Liberty-Two-Four to control tower, Liberty-Two-Four is now Air Force One. Repeat, Liberty-Two-Four is now Air Force One.”

What audacity! The common refueling plane dares to call itself Air Force One! What changed? The president had come aboard, not just to visit, but to fly in on this trip. That altered everything. The presence of the president on that lowly plane, transformed it into the flagship.

So it is with the Israelites. Without Yahweh’s presence, they would go into a nosedive and stop being the people of Yahweh. But with Yahweh’s presence, even this idolatrous people would have to be called the people of Yahweh.

Quite understandably, Moses does not care for either of the options Yahweh gives Israel. So he suggests two options of his own. But before doing so, he reminds Yahweh, “Consider that this nation is your people.” We could spend hours debating whether God needs to be reminded of such things or not. But that is not the thrust of the passage. What Moses is saying is this. Israel and Yahweh belong together precisely because Yahweh has dared to call Israel his people. Therefore, Moses dares to tell Yahweh that the options Yahweh has given them are inconceivable. They do not account for the fact that Israel is Yahweh’s people. So Moses, the mediator of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, suggests two options which would preserve that covenant. But only one of them would also preserve Yahweh’s covenant with the patriarchs. What, then, are Moses’ suggestions?

First, if Yahweh would not go with the Israelites to Canaan, Moses asks Yahweh to let them stay at Sinai. Sinai had been the place where the Israelites had been most acutely aware of Yahweh’s presence. From this mountain, they had experienced Yahweh. The thunder at the top of Sinai had seemed like the very voice of Yahweh. The lightning was like Yahweh’s hand reaching down to brand them as his own. Never again would they witness the terror involved when creator would touch creation. The events at Sinai would prove to be so singular that Israel would consider itself married to Yahweh! Yes, Sinai was where they had met their God. And Moses asks Yahweh to let them stay there. In order to be the people of Yahweh, Israel had to be where Yahweh was. And if Yahweh had chosen not to move from Sinai, then Moses begs him to let Israel stay at Sinai.

At the face of it, there seems to be no problem. What would be so problematic if Israel stayed at Sinai? Surely Yahweh could give them Sinai and the surrounding land! Surely! But Moses is implicitly reminding Yahweh of his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yahweh had promised them the land occupied by the Canaanites. What would happen to that promise? It would never be fulfilled! And Yahweh would prove to have lied to the patriarchs! God forbid! Exactly! Yahweh can no sooner accept this option than a camel could pass through the eye of a needle.

But Moses has another option for Yahweh. He suggests that Yahweh could go with the people of Israel to Canaan. The argument is twofold. On the one hand, Yahweh had promised the land of Canaan to the descendants of the patriarchs. Therefore, Yahweh had to get the Israelites to Canaan. On the other hand, Yahweh had branded Israel as his people. Therefore, he had to be where they were.

Yahweh had made too many covenants! And by his nature, he had to be faithful to his covenants. He had placed no conditions when he promised the land of Canaan to the patriarchs. He had unilaterally taken the Israelites as his people. Yet these Israelites were guilty of idolatry! And Yahweh, the only true God, the Holy One of Israel, detests idolatry. Something had to give.

Yahweh had demanded sole allegiance to him. He was not going to share this people with idols! Yet, this people were double-minded. Yahweh would be justified in destroying them. But his promises would prove empty. And that Yahweh cannot allow! So Yahweh turns the tables on Israel and Moses.

He will be true to his promises. He will bring the Israelites to Canaan. He will go with them. But at a cost. Now his face will be veiled. Whereas in 33.11 the text says that “Yahweh used to speak to Moses face to face” in 33.20 Yahweh tells Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live.” Something drastic has happened during the course of Moses’ intercession. Yahweh has veiled himself. He will certainly go with Israel. He will certainly lead them into Canaan. But from now on, no one will be able to see him. And it is significant that no one after Moses ever sees Yahweh face to face. And no one after Moses is called Yahweh’s friend.

There is, therefore, a cost to covenant faithfulness even on God’s part. To be sure, mercy triumphs over judgment. To be sure, God forgives us as a people even as he forgave Israel. And this forgiveness allows him to be present with his people and not destroy them. And his presence ensures that his people remain his people.

It is difficult to live with a hidden God. How often have we felt that our prayers go unheard? Do we not at times wonder if God is listening? And the fact that many sins are more frequent within the church than outside, has made many non-Christians question if God is indeed among the Christians.

Some Christians have tried to solve the problem of God’s hiddenness by looking to the beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The conclusion is that, if only we’d clean up our act, if only we refrained from sinning, we would see God. Some Christians have concluded that there must be something known as the beatific vision—that is, the vision of God described by Jesus in the beatitude. These Christians have tried to purge themselves of all impurities and sins in order to earn the beatific vision.

I see three problems with such thinking. First, such striving is contrary to grace. Grace is, after all, a gift given without regard to our efforts. The contention that we can earn a vision of God is ultimately based on the erroneous idea that we can twist God’s arm to force him to do something.

Second, which of us has managed, by our striving, to conquer sin? As Paul writes in Romans 7: What I want to do, I do not do; what I do not want to do, I do. In other words, striving not to sin is counter-productive. Our only hope is to live lives led by the Spirit. You see, we often think that the worst we can do is to sin. However, sinning is not the worst we can do. Our worst is not asking God’s forgiveness when we sin. God can deal will sin. Indeed, in Jesus, he has. But what can God do in the face of people, who like Adam and Eve attempt to cover their sin?

Third, the assumption is that God’s hiddenness is at odds with his being the dispenser of grace and that we must do something to rectify the situation. The assumption is that God is trying to show himself to us, but that we are blocking him. This makes God out to be weaker than we are.

The three errors I have highlighted have a common thread—arrogance, human arrogance. And it stems from the notion that in the present relationship between God and humans, only humans have to pay a high cost. The errors consider that God’s cost is limited to his giving of Jesus.

But there is a continuing cost on God’s part. God’s giving of Jesus should show us not that God gave sacrificially at one time, but that God is by nature a sacrificial giver. His giving extends to the way in which he remains faithful to his covenants.

In order to be faithful to his covenants, this God, who earnestly desires to reveal himself, must veil himself. God has temporarily set aside his desire to fully reveal himself. The golden calf incident is the archetype of all idolatry. And if the people of God are guilty of idolatry, God must hide himself from his people, even though he forgives them and promises them his presence. Even today, we live in the painful reality that God is in fact hidden from us. For the promise of the New Testament is that in the new creation nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.

Covenant faithfulness or grace does not come to us cheap. While we can rest secure in Jesus’ finished work, we must not forget the turmoil that the offer of grace creates at the very core of God’s being. God is patient and slow to anger. And so he forgives us. He knows that sending us alone would destroy us. And so he promises us his presence. But he is holy. He cannot look directly at sinners without consuming them. And so he graciously hides his face from us. And there is the turmoil. Even as we wait with hope to see his face, God, who so desires to unveil himself to us, must put off that desire. And he waits patiently and eagerly for the day when he will finally, safely show us his face.

When we celebrate communion, we often do so remembering Jesus’ death for us. This is appropriate. In addition, however, communion is also a remembrance of Jesus’ absence. That is how Luke records the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Let me read from Luke 22.14-23.

Did you notice v. 18? Jesus says, “From now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Why? We know, from Jesus’ own words, that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard because he celebrated the reign of God with the worst of sinners. As Jesus himself said, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over a hundred people who do not need repentance.” In other words, Jesus enjoys a good party, a boisterous celebration. Yet, now he is abstaining. The Last Supper is not only Jesus’ institution of the New Covenant, but also his last celebration.

Moreover, when we eat the bread and drink the wine, we may talk all we want about the acts being symbolic or remembrances. We can debate whether Jesus is present in the elements or the act. But what we all mean in these debates, but probably are afraid to admit, is that Jesus is absent. We may say he is here spiritually. But that just hammers home the fact that he is physically absent. And Jesus said he would not celebrate until he was physically present. That is what we observe in communion—the awful fact that Jesus is now not fully with us.

As we come forward to partake of the elements, I urge you to focus on Jesus’ absence. Try to experience the emptiness that this chair symbolizes. Please dip the bread in the juice and take it back to your seat. Imagine the sorrow Jesus must experience at not being able physically to celebrate our salvation with us. Imagine how things might be different were Jesus here. Then eat the elements with gratitude not only for Jesus’ death but also for his waiting to revel with us.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Salvation by Grace [Isaiah 55.1-2] (10 February 2002)

How does one proclaim a doctrine that most everyone who is listening has not only believed but also experienced? How does one stay away from the contrived and from the trite? How does one infuse new life in a doctrine we would hardly challenge and in people who already believe it? How, in other words, can one do justice to the doctrine of salvation by grace in a sermon? How does one preach this doctrine of comfort?

And which verse or verses should I proclaim? John 3.16, Romans 5.6-8, Romans 8.1-4, and Ephesians 2.8-10 spring to mind immediately. And there are others!

Then it struck me. We have used the phrase “salvation by grace” so often that we easily assume that we—and those we address—know what it means—and that we all mean the same thing! But this is not the case.

So rather than go the route of proclaiming why or that we should believe we are saved by grace, I realized the better thing to do is proclaim what we mean when we say we are saved by grace. More to the point, what is this grace by which we are saved? And for this I have chosen two verses from the Old Testament. It is my hope that the infrequent use of these verses will shed new light on the doctrine we hold so dear—this doctrine that I call the doctrine of comfort. So turn with me to Isaiah 55.1-2.

[Read Isaiah 55:1-2.]

Here we have a clear, concise picture of what grace is. I have chosen the word “rich” to function as an acronym to explain what grace involves. I have also chosen one Old Testament character, namely Naaman, and one New Testament personage, namely Peter, to illustrate grace. I will also allude to a few other biblical characters to show examples of un-grace or the resistance of grace. And I have chosen the word “dirt” to function as an acronym to explain what happens when grace is resisted.

The first thing grace involves is recognition of need. In being gracious to us, God brings us to a point where we recognize our need. So, to exiles in Babylon, accustomed to slaving away and starving away, Isaiah hollers, “Hoy! Everyone who thirsts… and you who have no money.” To the exiles in Babylon there would have been no ambiguity. Their parched throats and rumbling stomachs testified to their decrepit state and probably heightened their sense of need. They were the ones who were thirsty and poor. And this is the first thing grace does—bring us to the point where we recognize our need.

We see this in Naaman. A mighty warrior, he was plagued with leprosy, on account of which he was disqualified from doing what he did best, namely command the Aramean troops. This disqualification gave him stark evidence that he needed something, namely a cure.

This is in stark contrast with Herod Antipas. Residing in his extravagant palace, Herod was unable to recognize the very embodiment of God’s grace in front of him when Jesus stood bound in his presence. Unable to recognize his need, he looked to the dispenser of grace and asked for an amusing miracle.

Not so Peter! When people were offended at Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, Peter told Jesus he would not leave Jesus because Jesus spoke the very words that gave eternal life. Peter knew that above all we need life. He recognized that, beneath the veneer of our self-sufficiency, resides the barrenness of death that cries to the living God to bring resurrection. It is an emptiness that yearns for meaning that only God can provide.

If we approach grace like Herod we live in a state of delusion, needy but denying with every breath our dependency and incompleteness. Need denied leads to delusion. If, however, we approach grace like Naaman or Peter we get to experience the next factor in grace.

After calling our attention to our need, God graciously invites us to have that need met. The second step in grace is an invitation. So, to the exiles with cracked lips and empty bellies, Isaiah says, “Come to the waters… come, buy wine and milk.”

Jesus alludes to these verses in John 7.37-39 when he says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” It is an invitation to have that deep yearning satisfied.

Naaman, aware of his illness, listens to the invitation from his servant, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” And Naaman accepts and goes with the servant girl to Samaria to meet Elisha.

The rich man in Mark 10 heard Jesus’ invitation loud and clear. Make no mistake; he knew that he needed something. He asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” From the way Mark tells the story, his request seems to have been genuine. His response also is truthful for Jesus does not reprimand him. Jesus does not say, “Yeah, right! You sinner! You could not have kept the commands.” No! Jesus tells him, in effect, that what he lacks is a relationship with Jesus. And Jesus invites him to remedy this. However, the invitation proves too costly for the man and he walks away from Jesus.

Peter too heard much the same invitation. Jesus asked him also to leave everything and join him as a disciple. Standing in the fishing boat, Peter held in his hands the tangible means of providing for his family. And Jesus asked him to leave it all—the nets and the boat. Jesus invited him to be his partner in something larger than life—the task of baiting humans with God’s grace. And Peter was hooked!

If we listen to God’s invitation and reject it, we remain like the rich man, aware of our need and aware that it has not been met. We may go other routes—routes that are not as costly as Jesus’. But none of these will satisfy for we were created to respond positively to the costly invitation of Jesus. Like the rich man, we will remain insatiate. God’s invitation, if rejected, leads to insatiation. If, however, like Naaman and Peter, we accept the invitation, we progress deeper into the realm of grace.

After giving the invitation, Isaiah goes on to say, “You that have no money, come, but, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” We live in a capitalist society. We know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Right? And we know that, when we buy something, that something always has a price tag.

Imagine the exiles listening to Isaiah. Standing there with blistered hands holding the strings of empty purses they hear him invite them to buy food and drink. What would they have thought? Would they not have considered this an insult? It would be like going up to a homeless person and saying, “Why don’t you just buy a house instead of sleeping on the street?”

But then Isaiah hits them hard with the third factor of grace. The exiles are to buy without money and without price! This is a contradiction and so is grace. Grace is that glorious contradiction in which God says that our future is not going to depend on our past. Our misdeeds, our sins of the past are not going to count for or determine our future. There is not going to be a cause and effect relationship between what we have done and what we will be.

Naaman balks at the contradiction. Elisha tells him to do the absurd—to wash himself seven times in the Jordan. Naaman sees two things wrong with this approach. First, it was too easy! Should he not need to do some trying thing to prove his need? Should he not have to undergo some ordeal? And should Elisha not need to say some magic words and do some magical things? This washing business was too easy! Second, the Jordan was a filthy river. The rivers near Damascus were cleaner. How could he become clean by immersion in such a filthy body of water? The immensity of the contradictions weighed heavily on his mind and he almost walked away. But he listened to his servants and went ahead and obeyed Elisha.

In the Gospels we see the Pharisees and scribes also similarly scandalized by Jesus. If Jesus were from God, then surely he would hang out with the proper people. But Jesus fraternized with thieves and prostitutes, with Gentiles and Samaritans. So in Luke 15, they complain and say, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response Jesus tells them three parables of contradiction in which a shepherd abandons ninety-nine sheep to find one sheep, in which a woman searches for a lost coin and throws a party that would cost more than all the ten coins she had, in which a father runs shamelessly to welcome a wayward son who had wished him dead. The Pharisees and scribes are unwilling to accept this fundamental contradiction in God’s dispensation of grace and, like the elder brother of the third parable, remain outside the realm in which the contradiction of grace is celebrated.

Peter also faced such a contradiction. Prone to spontaneous outbursts, he was an unstable presence among the disciples. One instance he was receptive to God and confesses Jesus to be the Messiah. The next instance he was receptive to Satan and points Jesus away from the cross. Yet between those two moments, Jesus renames him and tells him he is a rock—a stable rock! Can you imagine what he must have thought when Jesus rebuked him? “How can I be a stable rock if I am so easily swayed?” Later he tells Jesus he would follow Jesus to his death only to deny him a few hours later. And even after Jesus’ resurrection he is still fishing! What a mess of contradictions! Yet he did not let his failings obstruct Jesus’ grace. No! He hung on to Jesus’ words as to a promise. Jesus had called him a rock. And a rock he would be.

If we want everything to play out in a predictable manner, according to set rules, we will be like the scribes and Pharisees. We will stare God’s grace in the face and in effect reject it because it is not black and white, because God accepts those with whom we would rather not associate. Indeed, to expect God’s grace to be formulaic is to continue in our rebellion. The contradiction of grace, if rejected, leads to rebellion. But if, like Naaman and Peter, we accept the contradiction of grace, and embrace it, we reach the final stage in which grace accomplishes its purpose.

Having issued the contradictory invitation to buy without money, Isaiah tells the exiles, “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” He had addressed and caught the attention of those who were hungry and thirsty. To them he says, “Delight yourselves in rich food.” The exiles are promised portions fit for royalty. God is not going to give them moldy bread and stagnant water. No! God is going to give them choice foods, rich food, food they could only dream of having. This is Isaiah’s answer to their thirst and hunger—a healing of their need.

Naaman, having accepted the various contradictions in Elisha’s solution, immerses himself in the filthy Jordan seven times and finds that his need is also met. The leprous sores disappear and he is healed.

Quite unlike Judas. Having betrayed Jesus, Judas hangs himself. However, if he had flung himself on God’s mercy and on Jesus’ forgiveness, would Jesus not have forgiven him?

After all, Jesus forgave Peter after Peter had denied him. Peter hung on for dear life to the fact that Jesus had initiated the relationship. Surely Jesus knew what he was doing! So Peter waited those agonizing hours as Jesus lay in the grave. He waited, hoping, probably against all hope, but, nonetheless, hoping. And he accepted Jesus’ forgiveness and healing when it came. He did not resist it but merely accepted it.

If like Judas we run away from Jesus’ healing, we will find our story end in tragedy much like Judas’ story. God’s healing, if rejected, leads to tragedy. However, if, like Naaman and Peter we go past the contradictions and open our hands the receive God’s healing and forgiveness, we will be forgiven and healed. And that is the purpose of grace.

So grace involves recognition of our need, invitation to have the need met, contradiction, and healing. So when we say we are saved by grace, we mean that we are delivered from our sins and for our life with God by God’s grace, which first brings us to recognize our need, secondly invites us to have that need met, thirdly proves to be contradictory in nature, and fourthly heals us.

There is nothing we can do to earn or merit any of these. Even reaching the point of recognizing our need is only by God’s grace. The invitation is wholly God’s initiative. The contradiction runs contrary to human wisdom. And the healing is solely from God. In other words, our salvation is, from beginning to end, an outworking of God’s grace in our lives.

It is important to observe that all four steps of grace are needed for it to be grace and for that grace to save. And Jesus has given us a way of experiencing that grace in the setting of the church. Christians have called it Holy Communion or the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. Eucharist probably best contains the idea that this is a means of God’s grace. Eucharist, after all means, “showing of good favor.”

Here I wish to make a much-needed correction. Protestants maintain that the Eucharist is a symbolic act of remembrance, as though there were no power in it. However, hear what Paul says to the Corinthians.

[Read 1 Corinthians 11.27-34]

Paul tells the Corinthians that some of them had fallen ill and died because they had not received the Eucharist in appropriate ways. It follows then that this act, this event, is filled with power—power both to bless and to condemn.

Approach it, therefore, with the appropriate attitude. Since this is supposed to be a communal act, I ask you to get into groups of five to seven. Please do that now.

Now spend a few minutes contemplating areas in which you are in need of God’s grace. This may be a spiritual area such as the fact that you know that you are a sinner and need God’s forgiveness. It may be an emotional area such as a struggle with depression or anxiety. It may be a relationship that is breaking up. It may be a physical area such as a broken bone or cancer. It may be financial need. Nothing is beyond God’s power.

Think of one need that you will pray for in the context of the group. I will be asking you to link your prayer for this need to the act of receiving the Eucharist. This is not to say that every prayer will be answered! No! That would make the Eucharist a rite of magic. What I am asking you to do is to be open to receiving God’s healing through this act. It might seem silly and foolish. Eating a bit of bread dipped in juice may not seem to have any bearing on your area of need. But remember the contradiction of grace. While we are often careful not to make things we do magical in that they definitely work, let us not reverse it and make it definitely not work! Let us be open. Let us be willing to receive this foolish grace.

Each group, please designate one person to come forward for bread and juice enough for the entire group. Would the designated people now please come forward.

Now take turns praying the individual prayer in the bulletin insert. When everyone has prayed in this manner, pray together the group prayer and receive the Eucharist as a group. When your group is done, please wait for the other groups to finish.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Please Tell Me Who I Am: The Identity of People of Faith [Genesis 32.22-33.1a] (28 April 2002)

Supertramp - The logical song

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Dripping with sarcasm and oozing irony, The Logical Song by Supertramp poses well the question that many people ask themselves, especially in times of transition. Because the lyrics of The Logical Song draw heavily from the experience of receiving a higher education, I chose to introduce today’s sermon with it. After all, today is the day we at NUPC are honoring our graduates.

People often ask themselves, “Who am I?” when going through change. The past that we are familiar with often has an answer different from the one offered by the unfamiliar future. And these competing answers cause us to reflect on what the essence of our identity might be. For people of faith, however, competing answers are heard not only in times of change, but daily. People and institutions are often only too willing to tell us our identities—identities that frequently are contrary to God’s purposes. Unfortunately, at times the people who identify us incorrectly are Christians. Even the church often fails in the task of telling us our true identity. Because of this, though today’s message is especially for graduates, it is also, I believe, appropriate for all of us. More to the point, it is appropriate precisely because of the passage from which I have chosen to preach.

I have asked Alice to read the passage for us. So, as she comes up, please turn with me to Genesis 32.22-33.1a.

Thanks Alice.

The passage is rich in language and theology. If you want to know about the language, please come to me later. We will concern ourselves only with the theology.

Jacob’s attitude before the encounter is pretty much what we would have come to expect from him had we been reading Genesis. Always looking out for his own benefit, he has no qualms placing others in danger to save his own skin. He uses his animals, his servants, his concubines, his wives, and his children as ways of quenching Esau’s supposed need to shed blood. In chapter 32, he is furthest from the danger. He places himself at the end of the entourage. Just as he had stolen blessings from his parents and denied his brother his birthright, so also he is willing to play with the lives of those whom we would expect him to protect. If we can learn anything from this Jacob, it is that we ought not look to him as a model for being a spouse and parent.

This Jacob saw his brother as someone to overcome. He believed Esau was his rival and strove to deprive Esau of everything that was rightfully his. It is with this in mind that Jacob approached the prospect of meeting Esau. He would not repent. He would not apologize. Rather, he would seek to mollify his brother, thereby making Esau complicit in the very deception that had stripped Esau of a future.

We see a different Jacob after today’s passage. After the encounter, while he still ranks members of his family, he goes ahead of them to meet Esau. If nothing else, he is at least bold. For the first time in his life, he is able to confront someone face to face. Moreover, even the blessing he stole from Esau in chapter 27, he returns when he bows before Esau and calls himself Esau’s servant. Esau is now a brother with whom to be reconciled.

What is more, Jacob expresses a high moral standard when he deplores the deception of Simeon and Levi in chapter 34. In other words, after the fight, he condemns the very kind of behavior that characterized him before the fight. The changed Jacob has strength of character—even if he is still not perfect.

What a marked transformation! What happened in the fight that converted Jacob? Leading up to the incident, Jacob’s greatest fear is seeing his brother again. Following the incident, Jacob raises his eyes and sees Esau, but now he is no longer fearful. If we were to skip from Genesis 32.21 to 33.1b, omitting today’s passage, we would conclude that during the night Jacob overcame his fear of Esau. In other words, Jacob believed he was struggling to see his brother again. So also, when Jacob wrestles his opponent, he thinks he is struggling with Esau. Only toward dawn does he realize that there is more to his opponent.

In other words, our passage tells us that Jacob’s real struggle was not with his brother but with God. All his life he had been deceiving others and running away. Our passage tells us that all the while he had been running from God. Finally, God—whom C.S. Lewis calls the Hound of Heaven—caught up with Jacob and wrestled him. This man, who had been fleeing from God’s presence and who refused to do the difficult job of wrestling with God, was now forced to do just that. God was in his face and was breaking him bit by bit—literally!

Slowly Jacob realizes that his assailant cannot be a mere human. After all, in chapter 29 we read that Jacob was able to move a boulder from the mouth of a well! I mean, Jacob was buff! We are not dealing with a weakling here. Yet, he was unable to defeat his adversary. So Jacob too realizes that, though he had thought he was fighting Esau, his opponent was too strong to be his brother.

As Jacob wonders about the identity of the man, he hears the man ask him his name. In all prior instances, Jacob introduced himself in terms of his being the son of Isaac and Rebecca. Never before in Genesis do we hear Jacob use his own name. But finally, when God has him pinned to the ground, it comes to a head. 

“What is your name?” In other words, “Who are you? What kind of a person are you?”

Jacob is cornered. There is no getting out of this quandary. So he gives a one-word answer: Jacob. Finally, Jacob comes face to face not only with God but also with who he is. “I am a supplanter, a usurper” “I am someone who pulls others down as I climb the social ladder.” “I am a person who saves his skin by risking the hides of others.” “I am Jacob.”

This is the question we all need to answer: “What is your name?” “Who are you?” Alternatively, as The Logical Song would have it, “Please tell me who I am.”

Right from the day we are born, people tell us who we are. We have identities in our families. We are at once a daughter or a son. Maybe we are a sister or a brother. People categorize us according to age as babies, infants, toddlers, children, adolescents, young adults, adults, middle-aged, or senior. We have marital status. We may be single, married, divorced, or widowed. If you are working, you have a job title that defines you in relation to your workplace. Those of you who are graduating are going to receive new titles: Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science, etc.

Some of the titles or names assigned to us have not been positive: jerk, geek, idiot. At times, even those who ought to love us unconditionally have hurt us with their words. “You will never amount to anything.” “If only you were like your brother.” “Your sister is so understanding.”

Then we have our names—by far the most enduring label we will carry with us. These often represent the hopes and aspirations our parents have for us. My mom, even today, tells me that I am to bear the light of God to the world. After all, Deepak means lamp. Should we assume then that a man named John would be gracious since his name means “Yahweh is gracious”? Should we expect that a woman named Mary would be a rebel since her name means “rebellious”?

In Jacob’s case, what was he to expect? His parents called him “usurper.” And true to his name, a usurper he became! Here in our passage, his adversary tells him, “Take a moment to evaluate yourself. Then tell me what you see.”

And Jacob can only reply, “I see a supplanter. I have become a usurper.” How sad! Imagine having to say that to someone, to anyone!

But once Jacob is able to speak those hurtful words of self-evaluation, God overturns the verdict. “No longer,” says God. It is the “no longer” of abundant, amazing grace. It is God’s declaration in favor of him and against his parents’ declaration. While his parents charted Jacob’s future based on a past act of which he was unaware, God opened up the possibilities of Jacob’s present on the basis of a future destiny of which God was aware. That is what God always does.

An apocryphal story about Michelangelo begins with the sculptor lugging a huge block of marble to his studio. A neighbor noticed him and called out, “Michelangelo, what are you doing with that block of marble?” To that the artist replied, “There is an angel in there waiting to come out!” That is just like God. God looked at the purpose he had for Jacob and named him Israel. God names Jacob Israel because Jacob had struggled with God and had to struggle with God.

This would all be very nice information if it were not for the fact that God’s people in the Old Testament were subsequently called Israel. Moreover, in the New Testament, the church is called the Israel of God. This does not mean that the church replaces the Jewish people. Rather, it means that the church is like the Jewish people in a special way. Both the Jewish people and the church are people who struggle with God. In other words, the people of God are those who struggle with God. This is our identity.

But what do I mean when I say we are those who struggle with God? What is the nature of the struggle? What are the issues over which we are struggling? The nature of the struggle and the issues over which you struggle will depend on what you do. A doctor might need to struggle with a healthcare system that is failing more people now than ever. How can I administer healing when I have not received authorization from the HMO? A filmmaker might struggle with how graphic does violence need to be before it crosses from being realistic to being gratuitous. How can I depict the reality of the human situation without making light of it? A teacher might wrestle with an education system geared at pumping students full of knowledge. How can I communicate that who one is and how one acts is more important than what one knows?

Regardless of the issues over which we struggle, we need to realize is that to struggle is to accept that we do not have all the answers. Life is not black and white. This does not mean we never reach any conclusions. But it does mean that we only struggle in areas where the answers elude us. For instance, I do not think any of us actually loses sleep over whether 2 plus 2 is 4! That answer does not elude us. So we do not struggle over it. When we believe we have the answer to an issue, we stop struggling with the issue. Reaching an answer normally signals the end of a quest.

For over two thousand years, mathematicians accepted a priori Euclid’s five axioms of geometry. No one questioned them. They were inviolable truths of mathematics. They had the answers. Therefore, there was no struggle. However, in 1826, Russian mathematician Nikolai Lobachevski announced that the fifth postulate was not always true—Euclid's theorems could no longer always be taken a priori—and that a non-Euclidean geometry was possible. Non-Euclidean geometry made possible Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the lunar landing, and Hubble’s Law for the expansion of the universe. I cite this example only to show us that having an answer, no matter how strenuously defended, does not mean that we have the right answer.

Some of you are moving on from one stage of life to another. You are graduating. You will receive a certificate stating that you have completed the necessary coursework for the degree you are receiving. Remember, however, that this does not mean you have all the answers. Indeed, all of us are with you there. None of us has all the answers. More to the point, none of us even has the right questions! But we are all together in this struggle with God.

As you go on to the next phase in your lives remember that, as part of the people of God, this is your holy calling. You are Israel! You are to allow God to surprise you in the darkness of your life, when you are alone, when you are afraid. You are to allow God to lock you in an embrace in which you tremble. You are to struggle with God and elicit the blessing from him, even if it means coming away maimed. You are to approach your new life as a sacrament in and through which God will make himself known to you and to those around you. If life stops being a challenge, ceases to be worth living, if you find that you have more answers than questions, ask yourself why you stopped struggling with your God. For, if he has called you Israel, then you not only are Israel. You are to become Israel.

Donald McKim has written, “God’s call is to all who believe to be Christian in all that we do.” All that we do leaves no sphere untouched by God’s call. Whether you are going to be a doctor, a filmmaker, a teacher, a researcher, or in my case a pastor, God asks that we fulfill these roles in a Christian way. Moreover, if the call is to be Christian, it implies that what comes naturally is to be not Christian. In other words, being Christian takes effort. It is a call. Therefore, it is a struggle.

When you do this, when you make your careers the arena in which you struggle with God to be Christian, the words of The Logical Song should warn you about what to expect from people: they’ll be calling you a radical, liberal, fanatical, criminal. After all, only a radical would seek to inform her career with her faith. And only a fanatic would try to enlighten his faith with his career. However, as the great reformer, Martin Luther stated, “There is simply no special religious vocation, since the call of God comes to each at the common tasks.” Indeed, to struggle to hear God’s voice and to obey it at our jobs, in our schools, at our homes, when we are out of the supposedly safe environment of the church, is to be Israel.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Scandal of Judah's Lion [The Revelation of Jesus Christ 5.1-14] (18 August 2002)

[For accompanying presentation click here]

Did you see it? Did you see it? We are so accustomed to hearing portions of scripture that we often miss the important points. Or is it that Isaiah’s words are true of us: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand”? Is it indeed that our hearts have grown dull because we reject what is revealed to us? Did Isaiah have us in mind when he said, “Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

Let us pray.

The passage you just heard was from The Revelation of Jesus Christ 5.1-14. What you heard was a recording of a dramatic reading of the book on December 31, 1999 at Glendale Presbyterian Church. Alice and I were two of the seven readers. May be you recognized our voices. Whether or not you did, the question remains, “Did you see it?”

The last book of the bible is a book meant to be read aloud. John tells us this in chapter 1 verse 3, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy.” The book is meant to be read aloud because through its vivid imagery it aims to reach into our imaginations and enable us to see things that cannot be seen with our physical eyes. It is only the eye of the imagination that can see the unseen.

Throughout the book, John hammers home this point. Even in the passage we heard, he informs us about the key role of the imagination. In v. 11 he writes, “I looked and heard the voice of many angels” How does one look and hear? We would expect to listen and hear. But John looks and hears. Such mixing of metaphors, juxtaposition of language, is characteristic of the book and we will miss what John is trying to tell us if we do not recognize the startling way in which he uses language.

So, did you see it? Perhaps some visual aids might help. What animal is depicted on the screen? And what about the second picture?

That would be our normal response.

However, John is telling us something else. Listen to the scriptures again. [Read vv. 5-6.] Did you see it? John is telling us that the second picture depicts a lion.

You see, when the angel tells John to look at the Lion of the tribe of Judah, in John’s mind, what he is going to look at is the quintessential lion, the lion who has conquered, the lion who is victorious. But when John turns to look, he sees a lamb—A lamb standing as if slaughtered. The Greek word implies a lamb standing with its neck slit.

When the angel tells John to look at the conquering Lion of Judah, we would expect John to describe next a powerful lion, standing with a proud mane, the blood of its victims dripping from its mouth. But no! The conquering lion who is worthy turns out to be not one who has inflicted wounds on others but one on whom mortal wounds were inflicted. The victorious Lion of Judah turns out to be a lamb standing with its neck gashed.

The church has consistently taught that Jesus will return to judge all people. Often the scenarios are gory. Jesus will descend on clouds and ride on to battle with the forces of evil, killing all those who have aligned themselves with Satan. The word “Armageddon” sends chills up people’s spines. Popular Christian literature mints money by scaring readers about the terrible day when Jesus returns as conqueror.

But do we not see how abhorrent this is? Let us do some statistical work. The word “lion” refers to Jesus only in this passage in the entire bible. However, the word “lamb” refers to Jesus once in the Old Testament in Isaiah 53:7, four times in the first twenty-six books of the New Testament, and 28 times in The Revelation of Jesus Christ. It is by far the favorite title for Jesus in the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

You may wonder why I call the last book of the bible “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Most bibles may have the title “Revelation,” or “The Revelation,” or “The Revelation of John,” or “The Revelation to John,” etc. I have not found a single bible in which the title is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Yet, that is the title of the book. The first words of the book, which in those days served as the title of the book, are “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” See in your own bibles the way the actual text of the book begins.

You see, the last book is not only a revelation given by Jesus to John. It is also a revelation about Jesus. That is, Jesus gives John a series of visions to show John what Jesus is really like. And, if our statistics help us, we realize that Jesus is most like a lamb.

The point is not to be missed. Jesus is first revealed to be the lamb right after John is told to turn and look at the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The title Lion of the tribe of Judah, though never used in the Old Testament, served as a messianic title in the first century. The Jews were waiting for the warrior messiah to come and vanquish the Romans. They were waiting for the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

So, when the angel tells John to look at the Lion of the tribe of Judah, all John’s messianic expectations would have been aroused. He was at last going to get a glimpse of the warrior messiah.

But he saw a slain lamb.

What Jesus is telling John—and through John us—is that Jesus’ way of conquering is different not only from the world’s way of conquering. It is also different from the church’s way of conquering.

You see, we Christians are bloodthirsty. Though Jesus himself said, “Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword,” we think that he has made an exception for himself. Though at his arrest he refused to resort to violence, we think that he will come back with weaponry that will make the gizmos of Men in Black or Matrix look like water pistols. And that he will then blast his enemies to smithereens.

And if asked, “Where in the bible do you find this?” we are quick to point to John’s vision of Jesus’ return in Revelation 19:15, where John tells us, “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.”

But have we paused to observe three things?

First, what kind of warrior rides with a sword in his mouth? If this were to be a physical battle with real literal swords, Jesus would be the most pathetic warrior of all. After all, he rides out with the sword in his mouth!

Second, the judgment is directed not at humans but at the nations. That is, the judgment in chapter 19 is directed at human communal life rather than human individuals.

Third, in chapter 19 verse 13 we realize that Jesus’ robe is bloodstained before the battle. This blood can only refer to the blood he shed on the cross. Even at his second coming, his death on the cross is at the fore and visible.

The point about Jesus made by Revelation 19 is that he is the one who speaks God’s word, that same word, which Hebrews tells us is a sharp two edged sword capable of carrying out God’s judgment. John is telling us that Jesus’ weapon is not a literal sword but the truth that he but need speak. In context, the truth Jesus proclaims will be that in death he was victorious. Judgment proceeds from this declaration on everything that rejected or opposed Jesus’ victory on the cross. And the first aspect of human life that is judged by God’s word is our communal life—church or state, sacred or profane, religious or secular—by which we not only justify our violence in God’s name, but by which we also claim that God is a God who through Jesus will inflict violence. After all, the final reason for judgment on Babylon in chapter 18 is “in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints; and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.”

Make no mistake about this. The more we insist that Jesus is going to return and make Braveheart seem like Little Miss Muffet, the more we will call down the judgment of God’s word on ourselves. The more we insist that Jesus will inflict physical violence on God’s enemies, the more we reveal that we really believe that it is not the truth Jesus speaks that sets us free, but violence. The more we insist that Jesus is going to lead an army at a final battle, the more we reveal that we really do not believe that it is by Jesus’ word that the universe is sustained. To put it blatantly, the more we insist that Jesus is going to put into effect God’s judgment with more than his word, the more we show ourselves to be idolaters who worship not the God who gives life and who condemns the slaughter of humans but the various pagan gods of war, violence, and death.

Does this mean that Jesus is not a conqueror? Far from it! In the Revelation of Jesus Christ, Jesus is warning us not to view conquest in ways dictated by the world.

Remember, the angel tells John to look at the Lion of the tribe of Judah who had conquered. Jesus’ victory is not up for grabs. Jesus’ victory is not being questioned. What is being scrutinized is our understanding of victory and how it is to be achieved.

Let us allow the scriptures to shock us. What can be more jarring than the idea that the victorious one is the victim? Who would ever think of a slaughtered lamb as anything but the one who was defeated? “Look!” cries the angel, “the lion of Judah!” But what John sees is something that is completely different from a lion. He sees a meek butchered lamb.

This scandal is one over which the church continues to stumble. We are so dissatisfied with this meek, slaughtered Jesus, that we project all the violence we would like him to do onto his second coming. We are so fraught with violent tendencies that we make Jesus do at his second coming everything he refused to do at his first.

More shamefully, we draw a sharp contrast between Jesus’ first coming—supposedly in humility—and his second coming—supposedly in glory—when the New Testament time and time again tells us that Jesus’ glory is best revealed when he strained against the nails that held him to that blood stained cross.

Why? Why do we not see this? Why do we refuse to see the full glory of Jesus on the cross? Is it not a sign of a rejection of Jesus’ glory on the cross to insist that he will return as a commander-in-chief of a literal army? If the forces of evil were defeated once and for all at the cross—and which of us will say that they weren’t?—then what more does Jesus have to do but announce his victory to those defeated foes?

Why? Why do we refuse to recognize Jesus’ glory? Why do we make Jesus out to be no different from pagan gods who vanquish their enemies in gruesome battles?

There is only one reason. Listen carefully, for none of us likes to hear this.

If we believe Jesus will abstain from violence at his second coming, we will have no justification for our violence today. If, however, we believe Jesus will inflict violence when he returns, we will be able to justify in his name our violence today.

You see, we Christians are like all other humans, bloodthirsty to the core, seeking vengeance in every way possible. Instead of reading scripture and letting its portraits of Jesus transform us, we find ways of reading scripture that justify our blood lust, thereby creating Jesus in our image.

Our desire to see ourselves avenged makes us ashamed of the slaughtered lamb. In our minds, this slaughtered lamb can only show himself the victor if he became a ferocious lion. And it is here that scripture condemns us. For what The Revelation of Jesus Christ ultimately tells us is—mark this—there is no lion! There is no lion. There is no victorious lion for whom we wait. There is no conquering lion who will come to solidify his reign.

What The Revelation of Jesus Christ ultimately tells us is this—there is only a lamb, a butchered lamb. At the center of creation, at the focal point of history, in the throne room of the universe stands a lamb who was slain and who forever will bear the marks of his victorious death.

The obstacle for the church has been the same as that for the Jews. The Old Testament in many places tells us not to resort to violence.

Unlike pagan creation stories, in which creation is the by product of a war among the gods, Genesis tells us that creation is the good work of a good God who was never opposed in his designs. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt without their having to raise a sword. Joshua witnesses the walls of Jericho fall to the sound of worship. Gideon commands his small band to shatter earthen pots and watches as God confuses the Midianites.

God warns the Israelites against having a human king precisely because human kings would lead them to war. Isaiah tells us that a time is coming when humans will beat their swords—tools of destruction—into ploughshares—tools of production. Jeremiah counsels the Jewish exiles not to plan revolt but to pray for their captors. Ezekiel pronounces Yahweh’s judgment on the leaders of Israel for sending the young men to war and not relying on Yahweh’s supernatural deliverance.

Daniel has a vision of earthly kingdoms established by violence being superceded by God’s kingdom established without violence. Hosea denounces the international treaties made by Israel, which have only led to bloodshed. Joel comforts Israel by telling them that God will, without the aid of their armies, deliver them from their enemies. In Amos, God announces that he detests Israel’s fortresses, with which they display their strength.

God admonishes Jonah for wanting God to refuse to forgive the Ninevites even though they repented. Micah repeats Isaiah’s call to beat swords into ploughshares. Nahum rebukes Nineveh for the bloodshed it had caused. God tells Habakkuk that the right way to deal with impending conquest is to have faith that God would deliver them, not from, but through the disaster.

Zephaniah paints a day of cosmic calamity, which turns out to be for the purification of the world. In Haggai, God urges the Israelites to finish building the second Temple so that God could usher in worldwide peace. Zechariah challenges the Israelites who returned from exile to watch as God changed them from being objects of cursing to objects of blessing among the nations. And Malachi foresees a great and terrible day of the Lord, which is characterized not by destruction but by healing.

Despite all this, the Jewish people in the first century expected God’s deliverance to come through a warrior messiah. We Christians pooh-pooh them for this as if to say, “If only they had eyes to see!” As though we had eyes to see!

If we did have eyes to see, why is it that we hang on to the only mention of Jesus as a lion—even when John never sees a lion—and neglect the 28 instances in the same book that tell us that Jesus is—and always will be—a lamb? Like the Jews of the first century, we cherish a vision not of the suffering and victorious Jesus but of a sword-wielding, destroyer Jesus.

But the Revelation of Jesus Christ tells us that, if we are expecting Jesus to be like the deliverer that the Jews of the first century expected, we are looking for a phantom. That Jesus does not exist. The only Jesus who exists is the Lamb of God, who by his death has exposed the lies of Satan, defeated the forces of darkness, and who need only speak the word of truth in order to completely unravel once and for all Satan’s lie—the lie that we in the church also believe, namely that there is violence that is redemptive.

This is the only Jesus there is. This is the Jesus who offended even John the Baptizer. But as Jesus told John, so also he tells the church today, “Blessed are those who are not scandalized on my account.” The scandal associated with Jesus is the scandal of Judah’s Lion. We may wait all we want for Judah’s Lion. But he will not show up. Because the scandal of Judah’s Lion is that there is no lion. The only one who will show up is not Judah’s Lion, but Calvary’s Lamb. “Blessed are those who are not scandalized on his account.”

Friday, April 6, 2012

Mission Accomplished [John 19.30] (22 April 2011)

The four Gospels do not give us the same perspective or provide the same information about the moments leading to Jesus’ death. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus cried out loudly and then breathed his last. Luke tells us that he gave his Spirit to the Father. John, however, tells us that Jesus said, “It is finished” before yielding up his life.

“It is finished.” By itself, quite an ambiguous statement. What does the word “it” refer to? What exactly has been finished? And as soon as we have answered that another question crops up: What does the word “finish” mean?

Is Jesus saying, “The wine is over?” Or is he saying, “My life is finished, my body is now broken, my spirit is crushed.” V. 30, by itself is a verse without hope. For Jesus could well be saying, “My hopes are now done for, they are finished, there is nothing to look forward to, God has abandoned me. I had hoped he would come to my rescue, but he hasn’t. And so there’s nothing more to do than die. It is finished.” If we take v. 30 by itself, we have no way of refuting these claims. V. 30, by itself, would seem to be the final statement of a gory defeat.

But we do not have only v. 30! Thank God for that! And we have in John an artist, a wordsmith who knows how to direct our attention where it needs to go simply by his choice of words. Many of you may have heard that the Greek word Jesus uses here is “tetele,stai” and that it is used only here and in v. 28. We must, however, consider two things. First, Jesus probably spoke only Aramaic and Hebrew, not Greek. So “tetele,stai” is John’s choice rather than a recollection of what Jesus had said. Second, to say that the word is used only here and in v. 28 is misleading. Would we consider “complete”, “to complete”, “completing”, “has completed”, “to be complete”, “has been completed”, and “completion” different? No! They are different forms of the same word, that would function differently in different sentences. In the same way, the root “tele,” is used as a verb, noun, adverb, adjective and participle no fewer than 90 times in the New Testament and 8 times in John’s Gospel.

Once we divest ourselves of the assumption that one particular form of the word, in this case “tetele,stai”, carries meaning, we open ourselves up to what John is telling us. For now we can answer the initial questions: “What does ‘it’ refer to?” and “What does ‘finish’ mean?”

There are two groups of words which the Gospels use to convey the ideas of fulfillment or completion. One is words with the root “plhro,” which the other Gospels use when talking about fulfillment of scripture. John also follows this practice, with one exception, here in v. 28 where, while mentioning scripture, he uses the second word. The second is the group of words we have here, with the “tele,” root, which the other three Gospels mainly use for phrases like “when Jesus finished talking” or “then comes the end”. In other words, they use it in a matter of fact way.

But John uses the words in the “tele,” group differently. Let us consider the uses other than “tetele,stai” in vv. 28, 30. The first time he uses it is in 4.34 where Jesus tells his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Then in 5.36 Jesus again says, “The works that the Father has given me to complete testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.” In his prayer in 17.4 he says, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” Again in his prayer in 17.23, while praying for us he prays, “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.” And finally here in v. 28 John tells us that Jesus said, “I thirst” “in order to fulfill scripture.” Since this last use is the exception we saw earlier, let us look at the other instances.

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”

“The works that the Father has given me to complete testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.”

“I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.”

“That they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.”

So, according to John, when Jesus says, “It is finished” or “It has been completed” he is saying that he has completed the task for which his Father had sent him. And that task is not limited to what happened on the cross. To the contrary, his entire life was one which involved completion of his Father’s commission. And we can now see that the exception in v. 28 points not to a simple fulfillment of one verse of scripture. Rather, John is telling us that in Jesus’ death even his fulfillment of scripture is complete.

You see, we make the grave mistake of thinking that Jesus’ only work was dying on the cross for us. That is important, critical, and absolutely necessary. But Jesus’ work was much more than that. We focus on the forgiveness of our sins because we are self centered. We want to know only how this man’s death benefits us. This is revealed in many of our catechisms. Indeed none of our creeds mention anything between his birth and his suffering under Pilate – an omission of 78 of the 89 chapters in the Gospels! Would we even be interested in this remarkable man were it not for the fact that his death benefits us?

Some preachers have gone even further and drawn up formulas for why Jesus had to be on the cross for a specific amount of time and that Jesus died only after he had paid for each and every sin I and you have ever committed or will ever commit. We make a fetish of the cross when we do this. Jesus’ obedience to the point of death is what is important and crucial. The time of day and the duration of his sufferings, do not really count. He could have said “it is finished” after fifteen minutes or fifteen hours. He could have said “it is finished” at noon or at sundown. As soon as the nails were driven in, as soon as backing out was an impossibility, he could have said, “it is finished”.

You see, according to John, when Jesus says “it is finished” what is at the front of his mind is obedience to his Father. Forgiveness of our sins, so important and crucial to us, and central to John, was like a corollary for Jesus. Its truth, important though it is for us, is only of secondary and derived importance. For John, the axiom, the unquestionable, irrefutable truth, the solid foundation on which that corollary rests, was his obedience.

Because, you see, it is not just the fact of ending up on the cross that is important. Two others managed to do it the very same day and place as Jesus. Getting crucified was not a big deal really. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that during the reign of Augustus many thousands of Jews were crucified in the Palestine region. No, it was not the fact of crucifixion that was important. Rather, it was the road that led Jesus there that was the important factor.

You see, Jesus ended on the cross not because he was a sinner, but precisely because he was not a sinner! He died precisely because he was obedient, precisely because he had done no wrong. He was obedient to the point of death on the cross. It was his obedience that put him there. You see, for John, the cross is not primarily about us and our sins. It is the crowning act of Jesus’ obedience to the Father for without that his death would have been empty – for him as well as for us.

And so “it is finished” is not said to us, but to the Father. We can certainly draw out all the benefits that pour out for us from Jesus’ death. But for John “it is finished” is the completely obedient Son telling his Father, “I have obeyed you all my life. And it has put me here on this cross. I have obeyed you to the point of death. I am going to die now. Mission accomplished.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Jesus, Not Towing the Party Line [Matthew 21.1-17] (8 April 2001)

Call me Ishmael. Almost to this very day tens years ago happened the things about which I now tell you. A bright day it was, warm and sunny. I had gotten up early in order to go to Jerusalem for the festival, the great Passover. Now, by my name you would probably realize that I am not a descendent of Isaac. Rather, his elder brother Ishmael, from whom I take my name, is my ancestor. Why, then would I want to celebrate the Passover? For many years I have been what you might call a proselyte. And a critical role in my journey was played by a famous text from the prophet Isaiah—a text that showed me that, despite some trends among the Jews to restrict the Holy One’s blessings to the Jews, the Lord was eager for all to worship him—even one like myself a hated descendent of Ishmael, who even bears that despised name. And that text became a kind of life verse for me. And, like every day since my becoming a proselyte, I began that day ten years ago by reading that very text.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

What a glorious text! What a vision! And for many years, I had started every day with those words that promised me acceptance before the God of Jacob, who also is the God of Ishmael. And finally, after many years, I was about to myself go to the mountain of the Lord to offer my sacrifice. How I had waited, eagerly, expectantly, for this day.

And as I thought of these things, I heard the sweet music of the pilgrims pass outside the inn. And they were singing, “Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God; Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God; and he will teach us his ways and we will walk in his paths. And the law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” When I heard those lilting sounds, how could I but go outside and join the holy procession?

And so I too began to sing, raising my voice and joining in the fanfare. The procession was much larger than I had imagined and it kept getting bigger and bigger for at every house, every inn, and every crossroad more people streamed in and joined in the festivities. I had timed my entry correctly for I was just about thirty yards from the head of the procession. And behind me the throngs extended as far as the eye could see. At the head of the procession I could see a man, quite stately, riding a horse. He looked regal, to say the least. The people around him were waving palm branches and throwing the branches or their own robes on the road in front of him. What a sight! And soon the song changed. Now they sang another of the traditional processional songs, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Who was the man at the head of the procession? I had to know. So I tapped the man in front of me on the shoulder. He turned, singing the song with every ounce of his being. “Who is the man riding on the animal?” He looked at me bewildered at my ignorance. “Do you not know?” he replied. “This is Jesus the one who is going to deliver us from the Romans.” I was taken aback. “You mean he is the Messiah?” I asked the man. “Yes,” he said, “The Lord has finally heard our cries for deliverance. As in the days of Moses and Joshua and Judas Maccabaeus he will set us free with a mighty hand.”

We were speaking quite loudly in order to hear ourselves over the singing. Jesus, it seemed, heard us speaking, for he turned and looked in our direction. Yes, he did look so regal. And so commanding was his look that the man and I stopped our conversation and once again joined in the singing.

A few minutes later I heard, over the singing, a faint voice. “Could someone please help me? Please take my hand and lead me to the temple.” I looked in the direction of the voice and saw a frail old man. He was blind and I wondered why no one would help him. I wondered why Jesus would not stop or at least tell his disciples to help the old man. But I realized that the singing was so loud that Jesus probably could not hear the whispered shout. Not wanting to bring the whole procession to a halt or to disrupt the celebration, I left the procession. I just had to help the man.

I walked over to him. “Here, father, let me assist you. Take my hand and we will go together to the temple.” He turned in my direction and ran his hand over my head, felt the coarseness of my yamaka and then ran his fingers through my beard. “Ah! My son,” he said, “I am so glad you are a son of Abraham. Yes, take me to the temple.”

I knew what he meant. He had taken me for a Jew. And though I was not a descendent of Jacob, I shared in his faith. So I did not think it necessary to correct him. “Yes, father,” I replied. “Let us both go to the house of the Lord.”

When we rejoined the procession we were quite far behind Jesus. And as we hobbled along singing the festival psalms, we were passed by another extremely large group of people waving palm branches and singing, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” In the midst of them was a man riding a donkey. He was deep in thought. “Stragglers,” I thought to myself. But anyway, it was good company to have for the rest of the journey. This group was processing much slower than the group headed by Jesus. And their pace was perfectly suited to the blind man whom I was leading.

In a couple of hours the blind man, the large group of stragglers, and I entered the gates of Jerusalem. “Ah!” I thought to myself, “I am finally here in the great city. Soon I will also enter the gates of the holy temple and offer my sacrifice.”

As we processed toward the temple a few men, who I later realized were an odd mix of Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, halted the group of stragglers. They were having an argument about something. Since the blind man and I were not part of that group, we did not bother to wait with them.

Here we were, a blind man and his guide. Neither of us knew the way to the temple—I having never before been to the city, the blind man having never seen anything in his life. Yet I decided to follow the teeming hordes of people. Where else could they be going except the temple itself? And sure enough in a few minutes I could see the temple. It was marvelous, built of huge stones and reaching up to the sky, its height apparently increasing as one drew nearer and felt dwarfed in its presence. This truly was the house of God.

When we entered the gates of the temple we once again heard the beautiful song, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” I wanted to sing but my eyes were drawn to a magnificent figure in the temple courts. It was Jesus, who I had seen riding on a horse. And he was addressing the huge crowd gathered in the court. Both the blind man and I wanted to get closer so we could hear what Jesus was saying. After all, if he were the Messiah, we could do no better than to listen to his words.

“Make way,” I said, “I am with a blind man and we want to hear the words of Jesus.” No one seemed to hear me. So I raised my voice and shouted, “Please let us through. I am with a blind man. We want to hear the words of Jesus.”

My words were heard and by none other than Jesus himself. He turned to me. My heart became light with expectancy. And he spoke: “No blind man may enter the temple and no one who is lame or deaf or in any way unwhole. This is a sacred assembly and no one impure may enter.” Then he fixed his eyes on me and said, “But you, you are whole. You may enter the assembly.”

“But,” I protested, “I cannot leave the blind man now. Not after having been with him so long.”

“Go on, my son,” said the blind man. “It is enough for me that I have reached the temple. Go on without me.”

Reluctantly I went on ahead. As I was about to enter the court I heard someone call my name.

“Ishmael? Is that you?”

I turned toward the voice and saw the man responsible for my becoming a proselyte. “Samuel!” I exclaimed. 

“Yes it is I. It is so good to see you after so long. Come with me into the temple courts.”

“What!?” I heard Jesus say and turned toward him. “Your name is Ishmael!? Then you are not a Jew. You cannot enter the courts for you too, like the blind man, are impure.”

I had, by now stepped into the courts. Jesus’ eyes burned with anger. He charged toward me reaching for the sword in his belt. He would have killed me I think had Samuel not pushed me. The sword struck my right leg. I felt a piercing pain shoot through the entire right side of my body and I fell to the floor. I grasped my leg and covered the gaping wound. Samuel came to my aid and tied a piece of cloth around my thigh. That would stop the bleeding for a while.

What was happening? Why could the blind man and I not enter the temple? Was Isaiah wrong about God’s graciousness? Was my birth as Ishmael, the descendent of Ishmael, to be held against me forever? Was my faith in the God of Jacob not enough? Was there no salvation for me?

All these questions welled up inside my heart. But I had no time to ponder them for a big commotion had started in the courts. The man I had seen riding a donkey came into the courts and began to overturn the tables of the moneychangers and set free the animals that were there to be sacrificed.

“Who is this?” I asked Samuel.

“This is Jesus,” he answered.

“Jesus?” I replied quite confused. “But isn’t the man who attacked me Jesus?”

“Oh yes” said Samuel. “Both are named Jesus. The one who attacked you is Jesus Barabbas. The man now disrupting the temple activities is Jesus from Nazareth.”

“And,” I exclaimed, “both of them are doing things so I will never be able to make my offering. The one refuses me entry into the temple courts. The other is doing away with the sacrifice itself. Where then is there hope for me?”

Jesus of Nazareth had finished setting free the animals. Then, glowering at Jesus Barabbas and at the temple authorities who stood motionless, he said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, but you have made it into a den of inhumane nationalists.’” Jesus Barabbas and the temple authorities slunk away arguing among themselves. Though I could not hear what they were saying I presumed that they wanted a way to get rid of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus of Nazareth came toward the entrance to the courts where I was lying. He passed me and went to the gates. The blind man had made his way to the gates. Jesus addressed him, “Come into the courts, old man.” The blind man came in. Jesus asked him, “What do you want most?” “That I might see,” he replied. “Then go,” Jesus said, placing his thumbs over the blind man’s eyes, “you can now see.” He removed his thumbs from the man’s eyes.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!” exclaimed the man. “I can see! I can see! I am no longer blind. I can see!” And continuing to shout, he left the temple precincts.

“See,” said Samuel. “Jesus of Nazareth is compassionate.”

“Sure,” I muttered to Samuel, “and his words sounded great. He, unlike Jesus Barabbas, would let me enter the temple. But, after his disruptive actions, how could I make the sacrifice?”

Jesus heard my words. He turned toward me and said, “What is it you want most?”

“I came here to offer a sacrifice,” I answered, “but you have stopped all sacrifice.”

“Then go,” he said, “there is nothing for you here.”

I was amazed at his sharp words. But his words rang true. If I had come here to make a sacrifice, there was nothing for me here anymore. I tried to get up, but couldn’t feel my right leg. I tried again to no avail.

Jesus stood towering over me. “Well,” he said. “Why are you waiting? Don’t you see there is nothing for you here?”

“I cannot get up,” I replied. “My right leg is paralyzed. Heal me like you healed the blind man and I will leave.”

“Is that what you want me to do?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said, “I want to be able to walk again.”

“And you believe that I can do this?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I believe.”

“Then,” he said bending down and taking hold of my right hand, “arise! Your faith has healed you.” He pulled me to my feet and I realized that I could feel my right leg. Jesus went down on his knees and unwrapped the piece of cloth around my thigh. The bleeding had stopped. Moreover, there was no sign of the wound either.

“Then I will leave,” I said to Jesus.

He looked at me, his eyes filled with compassion and said, “As you go remember that your faith is accepted as the appropriate sacrifice.”

I left with thanks. The temple in which I wanted to make my sacrifice could no longer accept it. But, in some strange way, I had, nonetheless, made a sacrifice and it had been accepted. A sacrifice, not of animals, but of faith, accepted, not by the temple, but by Jesus.

Today is Palm Sunday. And you have just heard a dramatic presentation of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his actions in the temple as recorded by Matthew. Jesus’ actions on Palm Sunday constitute probably the most misunderstood part of his ministry. Having said that, please turn to Matthew 21:1-17.

At the time of Jesus, part of the Passover celebrations involved joyful processions into Jerusalem that ended with sacrifice at the temple. So we should not think that what sets Jesus apart is his procession. That was quite normal. Also, Jesus was not the only person who claimed to be Messiah. Quite a number of Jews did that and the most opportune time for them to assert their right to rule was during the Passover celebrations. In the same year that Jesus rode into Jerusalem there might have been a few others who also did the same. In fact, the first century Jewish historian Josephus indicates that around the early 30s one Jesus Barabbas proclaimed himself Messiah only to be summarily thwarted by the Romans. It is quite probable that this happened the same year that Jesus was crucified.

One thing that set Jesus apart from the false Messiahs was the fact that he rode on a donkey and not on a horse. Matthew indicates that this was to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah. The lowliness of the Messiah was something that the other messianic claimants were not willing to display. And this was one reason why the Jewish establishment felt threatened by Jesus. But there is another more incisive reason.

Now as I said the Passover processions normally ended with a sacrifice in the temple. This is another way in which Jesus differs. Rather than offer a sacrifice, he puts an end to sacrifice. In the story I reported that Jesus said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, but you have made it into a den of inhumane nationalists.’” You will have noticed one major difference in this from most translations. Most translations would have “den of thieves” instead of “den of inhumane nationalists” and I believe the translations are wrong. In the passage Matthew uses the Greek word 'lestes', which in common Greek referred to violent nationalists who financed their revolutionary activities through banditry. In other words, the primary characteristic of a 'lestes' is violent insurrection with thieving being only a secondary quality. The same word is used to describe Barabbas and the two men who were crucified with Jesus. And crucifixion was not the Roman penalty for thieving but for revolt.

That Jesus has violent nationalism in mind is evident when we realize that he has merged Isaiah 56:7 with Jeremiah 7:11. In Jeremiah God asks, “Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you?” The Hebrew word translated “robbers” is 'preetz' which means violent person. In Jeremiah’s day the temple had become a symbol of Jewish nationalism and the same was true in Jesus’ day. Because of this the prophecy of Isaiah could not be fulfilled. Isaiah had announced that Gentiles would also worship God in the temple. However, because the temple had become a symbol of Jewish nationalism, Gentiles were automatically excluded from worshipping there. And that is why Jesus announces the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24. And here in Matthew 21 Jesus announces that the temple had gone so far in its nationalism that it could not be the place where Isaiah’s prophecy would be fulfilled. Because of this he puts an end to the entire sacrificial system.

It is for this reason that the Jewish authorities decide to kill Jesus. While they cherished their temple worship to the point of excluding the Gentiles, Jesus valued worshipping Gentiles more than the temple sacrifice. According to he Jewish leaders, Jesus had wrong priorities that resulted in his blaspheming the temple of God by stopping sacrifice. And the due punishment for this was death.

Now Jesus could not just stop such an important part of Jewish life without offering a replacement. The main task of the temple was to accept sacrifices and to pronounce healing. Having stopped these two important functions, Jesus takes them on himself. It will be he who will become the one accepted sacrifice. And he himself heals others. 

It is in this context that we need to understand the New Testament metaphor of our being the temple of God. While it is certainly correct that this implies that God dwells in us, it also means that we are now the place at which God accepts our sacrifice of praise and faith and where God heals people in every way. And since it is we who are the new temple of God, it means that worship of God does not happen in supposedly holy places but where at least two Christians meet in the name of Jesus.