idol

idolatry and tyranny

Have you not known?

In the Presbyterian Church, our constitution has two parts.  Part one is the Book of Confessions, and part two is the Book of Order—the guidelines for how we live together as the church.  It strives to bring “order” to our lives.  Of course, both are subservient to the holy scriptures.

Our Book of Order has a statement which calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05).  The book of Isaiah might go along with that.  The prophet speaks of idols created by workers, goldsmiths, and artisans (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

Speaking of the latest features, I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.)

Have you not heard?

1 is

With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

We’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  We can see the revelation of God stretching back over 13 billion years.  The advancement of human knowledge is definitely worthy of celebration.  Even so, it’s also true that a healthy perspective means knowledge and humility go hand-in-hand.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?  Hold that thought!

With chapter 40, we begin a new era in the book of Isaiah.  We move to the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon.

I’ve heard it said that the exile cured the Israelites of idolatry.  I think that’s a hasty conclusion.  As you see in our text, they still need to be reminded that the old Babylonian gods are powerless and represent something that really doesn’t exist.  Verse 18 asks, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?”  But certainly, those gods aren’t the only form of idolatry!

On that matter, George Knight said, “[We have] first to make [our] gods, or create [our] concepts, before [we] can bow down to them and worship them.”[1]

We devise all manner of concepts.  Even our concept of God can become an idol.  There are other things we conceptualize, which also can become idolatrous.  Our beliefs regarding life together are certainly in that category.  For example, so many of the posts on Facebook and other social media make claims that are taken out of context, are half-true, or are simply false.  Of course, we see this all over the place.

Sometimes we need to step back, take a deep breath, and ask if it’s really necessary that we put this out into the universe.  Still, sometimes getting tied to our idols is just too much fun!

If you think I’m kidding about idols being fun, think again.  In her book, From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Idols aid us, console us, and give us direction…”[2]  And yet, “The Bible is relentlessly anti-idolatrous.  And I don’t think it’s all out of some sort of prudish, narrow-minded…pagan-hating disapproval of certain rituals.  I think it’s an astounding revelation that however much idolatry seems to secure life, it actually diminishes it.  It doesn’t make life, it takes it.  It may provide stability and orientation, but it is giving our lives to what is not alive.  Idolatry is death.”

I like the way verses 19 and 20 answer the question about to what we can compare God.  There’s a mocking reply about a gold-covered figure with silver chains or someone getting sturdy wood and having an image carved that won’t tip over.  By the way, the Hebrew word for the fellow who chooses that wood means “to be impoverished.”[3]

Knight says, “With biting sarcasm [the prophet] suggests that if a man is too poor to rise to a gold-plated image, then he can be happy making do with a piece of wood, provided only that it does not fall over.”[4]  Hey, it’s okay if you can’t afford the top of the line.  You don’t need the latest features.  You don’t need the cell phone that lets you smell people!

If you hadn’t noticed, verses 18 and 25 ask similar questions.  “To whom then will you liken God?”  And also, “To whom then will you compare me?”  They both are answered by verses 21 and 28.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

2 is

There seems to be a bit of theological amnesia going on.

How often does that describe us?  When things are running smoothly, when the car is running well, when we have plenty of Granny Smith apples (okay, that’s me), we can say, “God is good, God is good all the time.”  However, when things fail to run smoothly, when the car breaks down, when we only have onions (again, that’s me), we can find ourselves saying, “Where are you, God?  What is happening?”

We might be like the psalmist who proclaimed, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; [but then] you hid your face; I was dismayed” (Ps 30:6-7).  We don’t know what happened for the psalmist to say God’s face was hidden, but I think we get the point.  We can forget the blessings of the past when the present seems grim, and when the future seems dark.  I don’t believe any of us are immune to that.

Indeed, there is a space for mourning.  There is a space for sadness.  The Bible is filled with notes of lamentation.  It is honest.

We hear verse 27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?”  Is this a voice of faith or faithlessness?  Here’s a question: would it make sense for a truly faithless person to bother calling out to God in the first place?

Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “He’s covered idolatry.  What about tyranny?  How is that a human tendency?”  Good questions.

The prophet says God “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (v. 23).  Another translation speaks of “princes” as “dictators.”[5]  We might not be dictators of a nation, but we can be dictators in other ways.  Has anyone ever had a boss who behaved like a dictator?  If you haven’t, consider that a blessing from God.

We can have our own inner tyrant.

3 is

Political affiliation can become idolatrous and tyrannous.  Wouldn’t it wonderful if we avoided the insults and the giving of childish nicknames?  We might expect behavior like that in middle school.  It’s quite another thing when full grown adults engage in that infantile behavior.

And it’s not just politics.  We really do it with religion.  Sometimes it gets really nasty, such as labeling others as “dog people” or “cat people.”

Labeling can actually be a form of judging.  We assign worth­­ to people.  We can sum up their whole lives.  As Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:1-2).  We get what we give.

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  There’s something else about a tyrant.  A tyrant doesn’t want to be told.  Tyrants don’t want to hear.  Tyrants assume they already know.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

My inner tyrant would have me close my ears and tell me I know all I need to know.  My puny god idol raises its head.  Sometimes, though, that tyrant works in the opposite way.  Our inner tyrant can bully us and tell us there’s no point in hearing.  We don’t know anything; we are not capable of knowing anything.

But that’s where the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, steps in.  The one who does not faint or grow weary; the one whose understanding is unsearchable arrives on the scene.  Trying the carry the world on your shoulders will wear you out.  (Do you believe me?)  However, the Lord empowers; the Lord strengthens.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted” (v. 30).

Your days of forced labor are over, O you exiles returning home.  Be rid of the idolatry and tyranny that have been your taskmasters.  You need not enslave each other.  The good news is that Jesus casts out demons, be they literal demons or the demons of besetting sin­­—the demons of continual letdown.

4 is

Idolatry and tyranny can’t stand it when we wait for the Lord.  They demand to be heard.  When we ignore their voices—and they will be there to rant and rave—we open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit.  The promise of waiting for the Lord is that we will fly like an eagle.  We will run like a gazelle.  We will take the long walk and remain strong.

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 38.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2008), 21.

[3] סׇכַן, sakan

[4] Knight, 39.

[5] Knight, 39.


freed minds

One of my favorite science fiction movies came out in 1999: The Matrix.  For those who don’t know, The Matrix stars Keanu Reeves.  His character’s name is Thomas Anderson, who by day has a job as a computer programmer.  At night, he is a computer hacker who calls himself Neo.  The movie also stars Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, a legendary hacker who the government has branded a terrorist.

Morpheus contacts Neo, and a meeting is set up.[1]  During a captivating conversation, Morpheus tells him, “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”  The entire world, everything, is an elaborate computer program, the matrix.

1 ga

(On a side note, there are some physicists who speculate that our whole universe might be something like a computer program, possibly being run by others.)

Neo undergoes a procedure, and he wakes up to the real world, a desolate wasteland.  To make a long story short, Morpheus teaches Neo how to fight within the program.  He does this because he believes that Neo can liberate everyone from the matrix; he believes he is a kind of messiah.

As they’re sparring, Morpheus shouts at Neo, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”  They go back to fighting, and Neo stops his fist just before he hits Morpheus in the face.  “I know what you’re trying to do,” says Neo.  Morpheus responds, “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo.  But I can only show you the door.  You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Free your mind.  Free your spirit.  I believe that’s a message the apostle Paul is giving the Galatians.  Or maybe the better way of putting it is, “God has freed your mind.  Accept that freedom.  Don’t go back to being a slave.”

Our scripture reading is part of a longer passage that goes back to chapter 3.  There, Paul speaks of the law of Moses as a kind of mentor, a supervisor.  But he also talks about Abraham, who lived hundreds of years before the law was handed down by Moses.  His faith, the faith of Abraham, was based on God’s promise that he would father a nation.  His faith wasn’t based on the law.

2 ga The law and the promise do not contradict each other, but with faith, in particular the faith of Christ, the law is transcended.  Old categories become meaningless.  As the apostle says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29).

So with chapter 4, he carries that thought of the law being a supervisor or a disciplinarian by saying that with faith, we grow up.  We become adults.  Paul compares inheritors, while they’re still children, as basically equal to slaves.  They are still under tight restrictions.

There’s something dramatic that happens, something befitting the Christmas season.  Paul says that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (v. 4).  One might say that’s a verse pregnant with meaning!

Like any other squalling baby, Jesus emerges from the womb of a woman.  And he is born into a family that faithfully observes the Jewish law.

This happens in “the fullness of time.”  That’s when the time, the hour, had finally arrived; it was just the right time.  What does that mean?  In part, we can think of the Jewish faith and culture, with the steadily growing hope and expectation that the Messiah is about to arrive.  That helps explain the bitter disappointment when their would-be Messiah is killed, and the nation is still being ruled by foreigners.

Still, there is something known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, with its many beneficial qualities.

For example, it enabled the Roman Empire to build a network of roads.  The Roman peace made travel on those highways much safer.  It’s easier to run an empire if you can put down those pesky local rebellions, as well as offering security against criminal elements.  Another benefit was the flourishing of architecture and the arts.

3 gaThe ease of travel made possible the spread of the Greek language, which served as a common tongue throughout the Mediterranean.  The translation of the scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) into Greek helped spread the faith of the Jews, the faith in which Jesus was raised, into many different countries.

The work of human beings, the arc of history, usually serves a greater purpose than what we might imagine.  Behind it and through it emerges the fullness of time.

In this fullness of time, the Son has arrived to redeem us, to buy us back, to set us free.  We are now adopted as children of God.  There is no greater freedom.  As with Abraham and Sarah—as with the Galatian church—we have been set free because of the promise of God, not because we’ve been able to obey the law.

But there’s a problem with all of this.  Paul sees it in the Galatians, and honestly, it’s also a problem with us.  There’s something in us that wants to reject freedom.  There’s something in us that doesn’t want our minds to be free—that doesn’t want our spirits to be free.

Let me give you another example from The Matrix.  One of the characters is named Cypher.  He’s tired of life in the real world, with the running and hiding from the machines that maintain the matrix.  He’s tired of its blandness; he longs for the life he used to have—like what we too often have—even though it’s an illusion.

There’s a scene in which he’s sitting in a restaurant with one of the agents: computer programs in human form who are guardians within the matrix.  Cypher is eating a juicy steak.  He admits that the steak isn’t real, but he likes it.  He wants to have his memory wiped and be put back into the matrix.  Cypher wants to reject his freedom and go back to when he was enslaved—provided he doesn’t know he’s a slave.

4 ga
How appropriate for a guy whose name means “zero”!

So remember, the problem with the Galatians is that there are those among them who still insist they must observe the law, to unwittingly return to slavery.  It applies to both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They want to go back to what they’ve known.  There is a comfort in hanging on to what gives you the feeling of control.  I certainly understand it!  Freedom can be a scary thing.

The apostle Paul sees even more at stake.  By rejecting their freedom in Christ, they actually are choosing idolatry.  He tells them, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (v. 8).  He’s having trouble understanding what they’re up to.

He continues, “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?” (v. 9).  The word for “elemental spirits” is στοιχεια (stoicheia), which has several definitions.  In this case, he’s probably speaking of the rules imposed by those old gods.  Paul is truly exasperated.  He says, “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted” (v. 11).  He wonders if he’s just been frittering away his time.

Last month, while speaking of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I noted he congratulates them on how they encourage one other.  How about the Galatians?  They must have an especially praiseworthy attribute.  If they do, the apostle doesn’t mention it.  He has already said, “You foolish Galatians!” (3:1).  Some translations are even harsher.  “You stupid Galatians!  You must have been bewitched.” (Revised English Bible).  Has somebody put you under a spell?  Are you taking crazy pills?

And remember what they want to be enslaved to: “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits,” “those powerless and bankrupt elements.” (New Jerusalem Bible)  They’re playing the role of Cypher from The Matrix!

5 ga

I wonder, how often do we reject our scary freedom?  How often do we choose those powerless and bankrupt elements?  What are these pitiful, worthless things which we place on the altars of our hearts?  How can those who “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God,” choose slavery to what is nothing?

We so often imitate the Israelites who, having fled the chains of Egypt, berate Moses and long to return (Nu 14:4).

Richard Rohr comments on this business of serving what is nothing.[2]  “Less than a block from where I used to live in downtown Albuquerque, there is a sidewalk where the homeless often sit against the wall to catch the winter sun.  Once I saw fresh graffiti chalked clearly on the pavement in front of the homeless.  It said, ‘I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing—thereby keeping us out.  Truly God is hated here.’”

So again I wonder, what are the nothings to which we so desperately cling?  How do we forget our status as adopted children of God and turn back to slavery?

Soon after being chosen as pope, Francis addressed the Vatican Curia, their governing body.  He listed fifteen diseases that he had noticed among them.[3]  (In doing so, Francis showed himself to be a frank pope.)

One disease is “Spiritual Alzheimer’s”: “a progressive decline of spiritual faculties…, living in a state of absolute dependence on one’s own often imaginary views.  We see this in those who have lost their recollection of their encounter with the Lord…in those who build walls around themselves and who increasingly transform into slaves to the idols they have sculpted with their own hands.”  Francis sees in the Vatican leadership this same forgetfulness of God and turning to slavery that we just looked at.

If we reject the loving freedom of God and turn back to idols, we will inevitably do harm to each other.

Those in Christ have been set free.  To explore that freedom, there are always new doors to open.  But like freedom, opening those doors can be scary.  We might want to stay where we are, circle the wagons, and hold on to what we already know, or perhaps, what we think we know.  We might want to stay behind the walls we’ve built, and not walk through the door into new territory.

We are on the verge of a new year—2021.

Recently during our prayer time, I shared some reflections of gratitude sent by readers of the New York Times.  They were asked to submit a statement of six words, expressing what they were thankful for from this past year.  Over ten thousand replies were received.  Many caught my eye, but here are three I mentioned: “There’s really more kindness than hate.”  “Thankful for sweet potato pie, y’all.”  “I am thankful to be thankful.”

6 ga

{a scene from Antwone Fisher of gratitude and welcome (the video's aspect ratio might be off)}

A freed mind, a liberated mind, is a grateful mind—it is a grateful spirit.  Having said that, I must also confess there is absolutely no doubt that this past year has brought way more than its share of heartbreak and sorrow.  People all over the globe can attest to that.  We here can attest to that.  Still, as the prophet says, “The people [we who have been] walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Is 9:2).

That is the subtle strength, the peaceful power, of Christmas.  This season is teaching us lessons.  Christ lives within us.  In what fullness of time do we now find ourselves?  May it be a time in which we welcome each other—and the Christ within us—as we together walk into that new freedom.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[2] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Daily-Meditations--How-Foolishly-We-Guard-Our--Nothing-----Ecumenism----July-8--2013.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=zXdIB1uvLD4

[3] www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2014/12/22/the-15-ailments-of-the-vatican-curia-according-to-pope-francis/


because I can

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”  We’ve all heard that.  Translation: whatever trouble, whatever debauchery, you get into on a trip to Las Vegas, don’t worry; it stays there.  You won’t have to face the consequences when you leave town.  The hijinks that occurred will never be mentioned!  Never mind that Las Vegas is a city where actual families live.  (Though I would question the wisdom of building a metro area in the desert.)  It still has the nickname “Sin City.”

1 1 coI start with Las Vegas because it isn’t the only place in world history noted for its decadence.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are directed to a church in a city that could give Vegas some pointers.  Corinth is a major crossroads in the Roman Empire.  It’s a prominent hub of commerce; people from many nations, speaking many languages, and many social backgrounds flow through it.  Corinth provides a market for a variety of goods and services—that is, goods and services of all kinds, appealing to appetites of varying levels of decorum.

In fact, there was a verb that came into popular use: “to Corinthianize,” referring to engaging in promiscuity and immorality.

That is the city providing the background for Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church.  As I noted last month, this church has given him plenty of grief.  He’s had to get after them for being too lax, and then for being too strict.  They’ve split themselves up into competing factions; they’ve treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  And as I said, to their credit, one thing they have not been is boring!  And that’s one thing you can say about the town they live in.  It is not boring—far from it.

That’s enough debauchery for right now, but rest assured, we will come back to it!

Here’s a very quick outline of 1 Corinthians.  The opening verses have the salutation, and then the first four chapters deal with divisions in the church.  Chapters 5 and 6 address a man and his stepmother (fill in the blank), church members dragging each other into court, and Corinthianizing.  In the middle part of the letter, chapters 7 to 10, Paul answers questions they have posed to him.  Chapters 11 to 14 are about order in worship.  Chapter 15 is about the resurrection, and chapter 16 is the conclusion.

I want to look at a passage in chapter 9 and a snippet from chapter 10.  This is in the section where Paul is fielding questions.  A common refrain among many of the Corinthians is, “Who do you think you are?”  Many folks have expressed uncertainty and/or hurled accusations regarding his role as apostle.  They are holding his feet to the fire.

Here’s where Paul wants to make a point.  He hasn’t exercised his full rights as an apostle.  He hasn’t asked for all he could.  Maybe given the, at times, problematic relationship, Paul wants to be as above reproach as possible.  He doesn’t want to give anyone an excuse to challenge his motives.  Still, in some peoples’ eyes, that will take some doing.

Imagine applying for a job.  One thing sure to be asked is, “Do you have any references?”  I think Paul has this one covered.  In verse 1 he asks, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”  Not everyone can make that claim.  It looks like Paul might be qualified for the position, at least as far as Jesus is concerned—assuming he gave Paul a good reference!

2 1 co

It’s important that Paul has his credentials in order.  His identity as an apostle is at stake.  And he needs credibility, especially since much of the discord hinges on people’s rights.

As noted before, Corinth is a cosmopolitan city, and the church reflects it.  Its members are primarily Gentiles, with the (as expected) background of pagan religions.  These would be Greek gods and whatever gods were imported by folks from near and far.

There was the question of eating food which had been sacrificed to pagan gods—to idols, as Paul would say.  Some of the food would be burned, but the leftover amount would go to local shopkeepers for sale.  Should Christian converts eat the food if they knew where it came from?  Paul says, “We know those gods don’t really exist.  But if someone who is still tempted to believe they’re real sees me eating the food, they might think, ‘Well, Paul’s joining in, so it must be okay!’”

The apostle is clear: I will not exercise my right to eat, if it means I will cause someone else to stumble.  It’s almost like serving wine in front of a recovering alcoholic.  (That would actually be a cruel thing to do!)

It’s a lesson he teaches them.  Basically, put yourself in the other person’s place.  “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” (v. 19).  He gives examples.  “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews” (v. 20).  Likewise, “to those under the law…, to those outside the law…, to the weak…”  “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (v. 22).

3 1 co

Understand, this isn’t saying anything goes.  It’s a commitment to forego his right to do something if it means someone else will be hurt.  That’s a crucial point to make.

Here’s where we come back to the notorious reputation of Corinth.  They have a saying which Paul repeats in chapter 10: “All things are lawful.”  And they do mean “all things.”  In this case, anything does go!

Paul finishes the thought.  “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.  Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (vv. 23-24).  Paul includes the quote earlier in the letter, and here’s how he finishes there: “…but I will not be dominated by anything” (6:12).

Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it.  Actually, when you say, “because I can,” you might get more than you bargained for.  Our dear apostle warns you might become dominated by your choice; you might become its slave.  You might get addicted.

Still, even short of that, as Eugene Peterson reflected, “We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well” (10:24).

There was a question I used to hear when we were electing new officials.  It went along these lines: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  The implied suggestion would be “no.”  That sounds like a reasonable question.  However, I remember someone speaking of a truly Christian version.  “Are your neighbors better off than they were four years ago?”  I would love to hear that question asked.

This pandemically plagued planet has posed new problems.  For example, do we have the right to forego wearing masks in public?

There was a recent article in The Atlantic by Julia Marcus bearing the colorful title, “The Dudes Who Won’t Wear Masks.”[1]  The example given was former baseball player Aubrey Huff, who wrote on Twitter that he wouldn’t wear a mask inside any business, noting, “It’s unconstitutional to enforce.”  He also posted a video getting plenty of attention.

“In his video,” Marcus writes, “he appears to be wearing a seatbelt.  Yet unlike a seatbelt, which directly benefits the user, masks primarily protect everyone else, particularly people who are older or have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.  Huff seems to understand this; he just thinks those people should ‘stay the [blank] home.’”  It looks like if he had his way, those who are more vulnerable, including children, should have their freedom curtailed, their rights restricted.

He ends the video by proclaiming, “I would rather die from coronavirus than to live the rest of my life in fear and wearing a [blank] mask.”  I guess my response would be, “He has the right to do that.”

(On a side note, I wouldn’t say I’m living in fear by wearing a mask.  I won’t deny it is tedious, and I’m still not really used to seeing people in public wearing them.  But no, I don’t think my motivation in wearing a mask is driven by fear!)

4 1 co

“I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (9:23).  That’s what Paul the apostle says.  We squabble over our rights and close our eyes to the shining glory Jesus the Christ offers.  We fight over crumbs while a splendid banquet is set for us.

Our friend Mr. Huff would rather die from the virus than wear a mask.  Our friend the apostle Paul “would rather die than” insist on his rights.  Why?  So that “no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting!” (v. 15).  He isn’t boasting about himself; he has “no ground for boasting” (vv. 15-16).  He is boasting about our Lord, who has redeemed him, just as our Lord has redeemed us.

Because of that, we are held to a higher standard than those who don’t know the Lord—the standard of love.  And that is a rigorous standard.  It requires repentance, continual repentance, a continual changing of our minds.  It calls for our lives to be a witness to Christ, who puts others first.  At the end of the day, we find wearing a mask really isn’t such a sacrifice!

Why Lord, do you pour out blessings and meet us in these very difficult times?

“Because I can.”

 

[1] medium.com/the-atlantic/the-dudes-who-wont-wear-masks-be8df1a9ec41


blow away the vapor

Last Tuesday Banu and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.  On a similar occasion when we were in Jamestown over a decade ago, I commented in front of some parishioners, referring to her, “I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized they could be taken in more than one way!  Trust me—it was not a lament; it was not a statement of regret!

1 jr{Dr. Horace Russell sees a shoe lace that needs attention}

But yes, I don’t know what I did to deserve her.  I’m not always sure what I continue to do to deserve her.  You notice I said, “not always sure.”  There are times when I’m pretty confident (probably arrogant) in that regard!  Having said that, let’s turn our attention to a story in which there is no doubt whatsoever.

That story appears in Jeremiah 2.  It is a story of betrayal.  It is a story of a lover spurned.  It is a story of an unfaithful spouse.

The chapter begins, “The word of the Lord came to me [that is, Jeremiah], saying: Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord: I remember   the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (vv. 1-2).  The Lord is grieved at the straying of a beloved bride—one who followed, even in the wilderness.  This is the bride who on the wedding day, heard the words, “for richer, for poorer,” and held onto that bit about “for poorer”: but only for a little while!

This is indeed a story about abandonment.  It’s a story about abandoning one’s source of joy, be it a devoted loving partner, a devoted loving spouse.  More fundamentally, it’s a story about abandoning the source of joy that is one’s God.  That’s the unfortunate word the prophet brings.

(As a side note, this is probably one of the earliest messages of Jeremiah.  But its being in chapter 2 doesn’t mean a whole lot.  The book isn’t exactly in chronological order.  It’s almost like someone arranged it by taking the pages, tossing them up in the air, and then waiting for them to fall.)

Jeremiah addresses the whole country.  “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel” (v. 4).  This is the basic complaint: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (v. 5).  That is the essence of the matter.  We become what we worship!

2 jr

The Lord asks, “Why did you go far from me?”  Why did you reject me?  The word for “reject” (רׇחַקוּ, raaq) can mean “become distant,” “remote,” “walk away”—pretend like you have cooties!

Remember, this is also a description of a loved one: becoming distant, becoming remote, becoming absent.

What happened when they became distant, when they walked away?  As we saw, they “went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”  That word “worthless” (הֶבֶל, hebel) is an interesting one.  For example, it appears numerous times in the book of Ecclesiastes.  (Here’s how it starts.)  “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity” (1:2).  The word has many nuances: vanity, futility, nothingness.  The primary meaning is “vapor” or “breath.”  “They went after vapor and became vapor themselves.”

Here’s how the New English Bible puts verse 5.  “What fault did your forefathers find in me, that they wandered far from me, pursuing empty phantoms and themselves becoming empty.”  I like that: pursuing empty phantoms.

(Last month, while talking about the “elemental spirits,” I noted that St. Paul calls them “only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17).  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  They’re only a shadow.  You know—don’t be scared of your shadow!)

In the same way, don’t go after those empty phantoms.  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  What are you—scared of ghosts?

The people have abandoned their one true love for something which doesn’t satisfy.  They’ve been seduced by someone who will not and cannot satisfy.  If this sounds insane to you, you’re probably right.  But then, there is much insanity within us, within all of us.

3 jr Bungishabaku Katho, a professor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, goes into how this could come about.  Referring to Jeremiah’s audience, he says, “Judah had grown accustomed to God: they were so at ease that God was taken for granted and ignored.  Yahweh was no longer the center of Judah’s life, and he was not called upon during the time of danger.  Instead, people chose to go after idols, which are ironically implied to be more helpful than Yahweh.”[1]

In her book From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Life, for most of us, is not full of clear paths and voices from heaven.  Idols help to make up for that deficiency.  Life is outrageous.  Idols help us know how to proceed.  So we form and fashion ideas, beliefs, rules to live by, ways of life, cultural codes.  Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”[2]

Our idols aren’t so very different from those of Jeremiah’s era.  We have our own loves and devotions, things seemingly much more realistic and useful than God, things that just make more sense.  Of course, there are things to do to make sure stuff gets done!  But how often do we wander from the source of our life and light and love?  How often do we trust in vapor?

The prophet speaks of the people being “brought…into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.”  However, the land has been “defiled” and made “an abomination” (v. 7).  There are symbolic and spiritual ramifications—how idolatry has led the people astray.  It also has quite visible consequences—the destruction of the environment, the invasion of habitats, the eradication of species of animals and plants.  It includes how we have fared in being the stewards of God’s good creation.

(The devastation of the Amazon rain forest is a case in point of land being defiled and made an abomination.  Thinking of defiling, we have hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste in storage or buried underground: one more unwelcome gift our descendants will inherit from us!)

Jeremiah points in particular to those who should know better.  The priests, those who handle the law (the teachers), the rulers, and the prophets have all failed in their call to be faithful.

Our leaders often fail in their call to faithfulness.  We who are leaders, in whatever context, often fail in our call to faithfulness.  That being said, how much blame do we bear in perhaps allowing ourselves to be led astray?  How often do we follow with blind faith?  How often do we fail to actually investigate what our leaders tell us?  I understand very well there are things beyond our knowledge.  Ask me to describe abatement cost, generic securities, and tax-free spinoff, and I promise you will get a far from coherent answer.

5 jr

Verse 11 speaks of something that might hamper anyone.  “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?  But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”  There’s the insanity again about exchanging the one true love, the one holy love, for a deception, for a counterfeit.

It can happen before we know it.  Am I so sure I have never changed my God for other gods?  We can be baptized into waters that become stagnant.  Our society has much to offer; it makes many promises.  Does a fish swimming in water know that it is wet?

Joan Chittister reflects, “No one lives in a tax-free world.  Life costs.  The values and kitsch and superficiality of it takes its toll on all of us.  No one walks through life unscathed.  It calls to us for our hearts and our minds and our very souls.  It calls to us to take life consciously, to put each trip, each turn of the motor, each trek to work in God’s hands.  Then, whatever happens there, we must remember to start over and start over and start over until, someday, we control life more than it controls us.”[3]

We become what we worship.

How do we see God?  Remember Debbie Blue’s comment: “Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”  I’ve often said our concepts of God can become idols.

Do we see God as punitive?  Do we see God as petty?  Do we see God as a bully?  If so, then our God is an idol.  That is not the God of Jesus Christ.  If our God is a vengeful tyrant, then borrowing Jeremiah’s language about love and marriage, such a God is an abusive spouse.

4 jr

Our passage ends on an especially poignant note.  “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (vv. 12-13).

The heartbroken Lord reveals two crimes of which the people are guilty.  First, as we’ve seen, they have said no to the covenant, the bond of love.  Living water is fresh, running water.  It is not stagnant.  It doesn’t become the breeding ground of mosquitoes!  Algae doesn’t grow in it!  It doesn’t stink!  That cool, clear water doesn’t appeal to them.

Next, they have dug cisterns; they have dug wells.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong in and of itself with digging cisterns.  We are dependent on falling rain to feed the streams and rivers.  We are dependent on ground water.  We can’t live without water!

However, that’s not the picture here.  The Lord is a never-failing fountain of running water.  God is an everlasting source of that precious liquid.  In this image, there’s no need to rely on the rain or the ground.  There’s no need to rely on the work of our own hands, but that’s what Jeremiah’s audience has chosen.

What’s worse, the cisterns are cracked.  They have become broken; the water is seeping out of them.

We might ask, “What’s the big deal about this living water, this running water, anyway?”  Jesus speaks of this in John’s gospel.  He says, “‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’  Now he said this about the Spirit” (Jn 7:37-39).

The living water is the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit can’t be held—not in a cistern, and certainly not in a cracked cistern!  It’s like trying the gather the wind with your hands.

Earlier I posed the question to myself about how often I exchange my God for those worthless gods, those idols.  How often do I trust in vapor, and then become vapor myself?  Well, I suppose the prophet would pose this question to me also.  How often do I try to grab, to hold onto the Spirit?  How often do I become content with past revelations, past experiences, of the Spirit—to the point I reject the living water and settle for stagnant water?  My guess is I might not be the only one who needs to hear that question.

Summer is nearing its end; fall is approaching.  I half-jokingly suggested to Banu we should take as a theme another scripture from Jeremiah: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).  She didn’t agree.  Still, that might not be altogether out of place.  We may feel lost, but the promise of God remains.

6 jr
Forget about building those cisterns!  Allow the Spirit to blow away the vapor.  Let’s allow ourselves to regain and reaffirm our first and true love.

 

[1] Bungishabaku Katho, “Idolatry and the Peril of the Nation: Reading Jeremiah 2 in an African Context” Anglican Theological Review, 99:4 (Fall 2017), 722.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

[3] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 172.

[The painting is Jeremiah the Prophet by Marc Chagall.]


elements of the world

Have you heard the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”?  When I was young, I had no idea what that meant.  Why can’t you see the forest?  Isn’t it made up of trees?  If you can’t see the trees, then how can you see the forest?  Of course, the point is that, by focusing just on the individual details, it’s impossible to see the grand structure.

1 co Joan Chittister tells the story, “In the Middle Ages, the tale goes, a traveler asked three hard-at-work stone masons what they were doing.  The first said, ‘I am sanding down this block of marble.’  The second said, ‘I am preparing a foundation.’  The third said, ‘I am building a Cathedral.’”[1]

Surely all of them were focused on the precise aspects of what they were doing.  They hadn’t lost sight of what they were doing.  Still, as we move along, we notice an expansion of vision, a deeper understanding.  By not simply focusing on the individual details, a growing awareness of the grand structure becomes possible.

When Banu gives me the list of ingredients in a dish she’s preparing, I take notice of certain details, certain elements.  One of the big ones is “onions.”  I do not like onions.  I really do not like onions.  When she’s cooking them, I complain that she’s employing chemical warfare.

2 coShe often gives me the explanation that I won’t be able to taste them.  My reply is usually along the lines of, “So why use onions if I won’t be able to taste them?”  Because, she says, they combine with the other ingredients to bring out the flavor.  In a way, the onions serve as a sort of catalyst.  By mixing with the other elements, they bring about a change that otherwise wouldn’t happen.  So they serve a valuable purpose!  By focusing on that single detail, I miss out on the grand structure.

But I still don’t like them.

In his letter to the church in Colossae, St. Paul issues a similar warning.  (Though it has nothing to do with onions!)  His warning regards not embracing a full life in Christ.  He wants to warn them against certain errors.  A big part of his message involves a term that appears twice in chapter 2.

In verses 8 and 20, we have the Greek word στοιχεια (stoicheia).  Stoicheia is not an easy word to translate.  In today’s passage, it is rendered as “elemental spirits.”  In the New King James Version, it is “principles of the world.”  It’s not easy to translate, because it can mean different things.  Here’s a quick thumbnail sketch:

In 2 Peter 3:10, we hear of the day of the Lord arriving, the heavens passing away, and the elements (the stoicheia) being dissolved with fire.  This goes back to the ancient concept of the elements as earth, wind, fire, and water.

3 co

In Hebrews 5:12, the author talks about becoming dull in understanding.  The hearers are told, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements (the stoicheia) of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food.”  In effect, they need to go back to the beginning, to relearn the ABCs.

In Galatians 4, the church is reminded that they have been freed of the requirements of the Jewish law.  They’re no longer minors; they are no longer “enslaved to the elemental spirits (the stoicheia) of the world” (v. 3).  And so, we come back to Colossians.

I should quickly add, just to muddy the waters a bit, that the definitions I mentioned are not shared by everyone.  There has been plenty of debate down through the ages.  Included in the debate is that, in some places, actual demons or spirits are intended.  And then others jump in, saying stoicheia didn’t mean that until a couple of centuries later.

We might say that stoicheia are the most primary component of whatever we’re talking about: the basic element, the basic principle.

Just as with missing the forest for the trees and losing sight of the whole structure for the stone before one’s face, the apostle Paul cautions the Colossians to not lose themselves in unhelpful details.  These are details that threaten to bog them down, to take their eyes off the prize.

“See to it,” he says, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (v. 8).  Another translation reads, “Make sure that no one captivates you with the empty lure of a ‘philosophy’ of the kind that human beings hand on” (New Jerusalem Bible).

One place we can find plenty of empty lures, empty philosophies, is on Facebook.  A whole lot of emptiness gets posted there, emptiness which is designed to captivate.  This emptiness is not designed to inform in a sincere way but to lure and stir up strife.  For example, a video was recently sent to me purporting to be a current member of Congress expressing the benefits of spreading Islam throughout the US.  However, a simple look at the timestamp showed it dated back to 1989.  The member of Congress in question would have been thirteen years old at the time.  It’s safe to say the woman in the video was older than thirteen!

4 co

In chapter 1, Paul celebrates how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v. 13).  To return to that darkness, to embrace the empty lure, the empty deceit, is to revert, to go back to slavery.  That slavery is more than what’s called “fake news.”  It is the whole range of bogus requirements promoted as the way of salvation.

However, there’s no need to be afraid.

For countless millennia, humans have observed the stars and noted their movements.  We have gazed and admired their awesome beauty.  And that word “awesome” should be taken literally.  We have been in awe—we have revered—those diamonds in the sky.  We have often thought of them as gods, or at least spirits, and made them objects of veneration, objects of worship.  We have worshipped the creation rather than the Creator.

In time, we devised practices and customs to direct us in faith and in life together.  Sometimes those traditions have come to be seen as divine in and of themselves.  Defying these elemental spirits, these principles of the world, could have dire consequences!

Robert Paul Roth comments , “Paul teaches the Colossians and us that we need have no fear.”  Speaking of those who insist on adding to Christ those elemental spirits, “We need no code of regulations, no bodily or spiritual exercises that we can add up on an account sheet to balance our debts with credits.”[2]

Sadly, we still have our own stoicheia, our own “elemental spirits of the universe.”  We worship our culture, our cars, our cats!  We worship our concepts themselves.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having certain beliefs.  They identify us; they help give meaning to life.  Still, it’s possible to worship even our concept of God.  You know, the two are not the same!  We can put our economic or political system in the place of God.

Indeed, as Walter Wink notes, “No age has ever been more in the thralldom of the stoicheia; no age has been less aware of its bondage.”[3]

The good news, as verse 15 tells us, is that Christ has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”  He has stripped them of their power and put them on parade.

5 co

I’m reminded of the so-called perp walk, in which the arrested suspect is marched in public before cameras and shouted questions.  And then we might have the medieval-like spectacle of people gathering around and yelling, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the unfortunate person.  (Well, at least, I’ve seen it done in movies!)

The apostle tells the church “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (v. 16).  Those are some of the bogus religious requirements I mentioned earlier.  He adds, “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 17).  They are only a shadow.  Another way of putting it might be, “Don’t be scared of your shadow!”

6 coI like what Paul says in the last part of the chapter.  “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [there’s the stoicheia again], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (v. 20).  I really like his question about their submitting to certain regulations.  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? (v. 21).  I can’t help but think Paul’s injecting a lot of humor.  He’s having a good time!

Apparently, the late Eugene Peterson thought so, too.  Here’s how he sums up that last bit in The Message:

“So, then, if with Christ you’ve put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it?  ‘Don’t touch this!  Don’t taste that!  Don’t go near this!’  Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention?  Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice.  They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic.  But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.”

Clearly, we can mess up, be led astray, by worshipping these unworthy things.  But that leads to the origin of the word “worship” itself.  It comes from the Old English word woerthscipe, which means “worthy-ship.”  As we just saw, there are those who pronounce us “unworthy” if we fail their expectations of worship.

There are plenty of those “elements of the world” floating around which would claim our allegiance.  Yet Paul says the elemental spirits have been overthrown by Christ.  We are reminded that we “are now under the rule of Christ who has disarmed the powers that formerly ruled over us.  Therefore we are now free to walk with the wisdom of Christ and not by vain and deceitful human traditions.”[4]

7 co

What elements of the world do we face?  What thrones or dominions or rulers or powers rise against us?  Do we still live as though we belonged to the world?  Paul says we “were buried with [Christ] in baptism, [and we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (v. 12).  We don’t enter the waters of baptism alone.  We aren’t raised from the waters of baptism alone.  Christ is with us, in and through the church, which is his body.

Alone, we’re helpless.  The elements of the world are too strong, too secretive, too seductive.  They play on our fears, our pains, our hatreds.

8 coHowever, together with Christ in the one holy catholic and apostolic church, we are more than conquerors.  We are more than conquerors, because in Christ, the war has already been won.  We’re just on mopping up duty.  The sun is setting on those elements, those principles of the world.  We need not be scared of their shadow.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 111.

[2] Robert Paul Roth, “Christ and the Powers of Darkness: Lessons from Colossians,” Word and World 6:3 (1986), 343.

[3] Walter Wink, “The Elements of the Universe in Biblical and Scientific Perspective,” Zygon 13:3 (September 1978), 240.

[4] Roth, 343.


royal revelation

What do you think of when hear “Revelation”?  And yes, it’s “Revelation,” not “Revelations.”  It’s very easy to know the difference.  Just look at the name in the Bible!

1 rv

As might be expected, many people’s reflections deal with confusion, crazy creatures, future disasters, scenarios of the rapture—a theology, by the way, which is built on a single verse (though not in Revelation) and given an extremely questionable interpretation.  But I say, “as might be expected,” because much of the teaching on the book of Revelation presents horror-movie-like themes, including 666, the number of the beast.  Folks have all kinds of fun with that one!

And then, there are the timelines of the future.  People have taken plenty of tidbits from the book and devised their own interpretation of “what soon must take place,” as it says in verse 1.  I have heard many sermons in which sober reflection has been tossed to the wind.

So having said all that, we need an approach with humility.  “If you’re unwilling to live with any uncertainty, you’re more likely to read into Revelation things that are not there.  Beware of interpreters who appear to have all the answers to even the small questions.  ‘Experts’ who claim absolute knowledge about every detail of Revelation should immediately raise suspicion.”[1]

“Revelation” means “apocalypse.”  And apocalypse: oh, that’s another fun word!  What does our popular culture make of “apocalypse”?  What do we see in movies and on television?  The aftermath of nuclear war?  A global pandemic?  Zombies walking the earth?

2 rvApocalypse refers to a revealing, an uncovering, a showing of what was hidden: indeed, a revelation.  Pablo Richard adds that apocalypse “is not neutral: what the wicked and the oppressors cannot understand is revealed to the upright, to the childlike, to the oppressed.”[2]  It’s a gift to those who love God.

As the book begins in verse 1: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.”  The revelation, the message, is intended for the servants of the Lord.  It is sent, via angel, to God’s servant, John.

In fact, in Matthew 11 for example, Jesus uses the word “apocalypse.”  “Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants’” (v. 25).  The word has been “revealed” (απεκαλυψας, apekalupsas) not to those who think they know, but to the humble—to those who are as humble as infants.

And these humble ones are blessed.  There are seven beatitudes (“blessed”) in Revelation.  (In the book of Revelation, seven is a number that appears over and over and over.)  Verse 3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.”

“Blessed is the one who reads aloud.”  This was read to the community as part of worship.  That underlines something about the entire book.  Revelation, as much as anything else, is a book of worship.  Add to that, “blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it.”  Blessed are those who hear.  Blessed are those who, in church, stay awake and set their cell phones on vibrate—or turn them off altogether!

If it wasn’t clear already, “We were not the intended audience of Revelation,” as Eric Barreto says.[3]  It wouldn’t make sense to have a book directed to people in the distant future.  Verse 4 says John sent his message “to the seven churches that are in Asia.”

I think most of us understand that the scriptures were written for the people alive at the time.  Still, they have enduring meaning as the inspired word of God passing down through the ages.  Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying.

The problem with Revelation is the symbolism which would have been familiar to most of John’s audience, now speaks a language we struggle to understand.

Perhaps we weren’t the intended audience of Revelation.  Nonetheless, “This is the word of God for us today.  They are words for us, however, by the means of some of the earliest believers in Christ Jesus…  Thus, these opening verses invite us to read the rest of this text in light of the everyday experiences, struggles, and successes that marked these early Christian communities.”[4]

There’s a whole lot more in this introduction to the book, but I don’t want to spend too much time on it.  I want to consider what today is: Christ the King Sunday (also called the Reign of Christ.)  What is this day all about?  What does it mean to say Christ is king?

The book of Revelation is addressed to Christians near the end of the first century.  Two or three decades before them, the emperor was Nero, a man who insanely persecuted the church, as well as a bunch of other people.  Now, Emperor Domitian picks up where Nero left off.  He takes things even further in how he wants to be addressed.  He demands to be called “our lord and god.”  (Here’s a guy with a real messiah complex!)

3 rv

As you can imagine, Christians are put into an extremely awkward, even deadly, position.  Do you simply go along, do the expected duty of a patriotic citizen, even if your heart isn’t in it?  You could avoid the unwelcome attention of the state.  Of course, there is that little problem of allegiance to Jesus Christ.  How do you reconcile those competing loyalties?

John’s words are meant as both encouragement and expectation.  “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come” (v. 4).  Okay, maybe there’s no problem there—not exactly, anyway.

Then we have this: “and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5).  There’s plenty of stuff there to give someone pause.

How much of this is set in stone, so to speak?  Isn’t there a little wiggle room?  Jesus is called “the faithful witness,” so this really is a message from God.  He’s also called “the firstborn of the dead.”  No one, not even Domitian himself, can legitimately claim to have been resurrected.  Here’s the kicker: “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

It’s a common thing to hear it said, “Our church doesn’t get involved in politics.  We avoid political issues.”  I can go along that, if what we’re talking about is promoting one candidate over another.  But for the Christians in John’s time, “lord” and “god” and “savior” are not only spiritual terms, they’re also political terms.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is inherently political.  The good news of salvation is intrinsically political.

That’s not a bad thing.  “Politics” is a neutral term.  In fact, it used to be taught in every school!  What is “politics”?  What is “political”?  The way we structure our society—the way we shape our values in our social contract—that is political.  “Politics” becomes a dirty word when we act in bad faith, when we employ manipulation and deception in furthering our own narrow ends.

4 rvMany applaud the idea of a “private faith.”  But don’t you dare live that out in the world!

The choice between Christ and Caesar obviously didn’t begin with the church in the time of Domitian.  In John 18, there is Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus.  There’s a debate over whether or not Jesus is a king.  He says, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (v. 36).

Pilate realizes Jesus isn’t scheming to have him overthrown.  Jesus continues, “I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate replies, “What is truth?” and then he walks out the door (vv. 37-38).  He’s really not interested in getting involved in this religious squabbling among the Jews.

Keep your faith to yourself; don’t bother me with it.

Of course, there is a problem with that if we follow the example of John the Revelator, who was exiled to “the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (v. 9).  He hasn’t kept his faith to himself.  The powers-that-be wanted him to go away.  He made his choice between Christ and Caesar.  For those who confuse the two, consider yourself as having received fair warning!

Bruce Metzger, in his book Breaking the Code, has his own cautionary note.  “Revelation…has a warning for believers down through the years.”  It speaks “of the idolatry that any nation commits when it elevates material abundance, military prowess, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, racial pride, and any other glorification of the creature over the Creator.”[5]

So again, what does it mean to say and to claim Christ as King?

Do we affirm the inherently political nature of the gospel, the good news, in a way that is holy and ennobling?  Do we take a cynical, unholy approach in a way in which we worship our own tribe?  Of course we will have disagreements, but are we mindful of the one we would serve as King?  Do we celebrate the peace of Christ, or do we celebrate the peace of empire—be it Roman or as empire exists today?  (A lot of questions, to be sure!)

Claiming Christ as King means loyalty to one who redefines the meaning of family: “pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mt 12:49-50).

5 rv

When we are welcomed into the family of God—the one who is the Alpha and Omega—we receive a royal revelation that we belong to Christ the King.  That is an apocalypse to be celebrated.

 

[1] zondervanacademic.com/blog/how-read-revelation

[2] Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation, English tr. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 37.

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1623

[4] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1623

[5] Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 88.


tepid water, please

Tepid water, please.  That’s a request uttered on The Big Bang Theory.  For those who don’t know, the show is about four nerdy scientists who are socially challenged.  Eventually, one by one, they start dating women who teach them how to behave like semi-normal men.  Sheldon Cooper, who is played by Jim Parsons, is the most intelligent among them but the least functional in dealing with other human beings.  A couple of his friends put his profile on a dating site, and they pressure him into meeting his match at a coffee bar.

1 rv

It turns out to be Amy Farrah Fowler, played by Mayim Bialik, who as a teenager starred in the 90s show Blossom.  She’s as socially dysfunctional as Sheldon, and she confesses her aversion to romantic involvement.  That actually piques his interest, so he offers to buy her a beverage, to which she replies, (guess what?) “tepid water, please.”

(By the way, later on, they do get romantically involved!)

Tepid.  That probably serves as an apt description of the church of Laodicea, the recipient of the seventh letter to the churches in the book of Revelation.  Verse 16 of chapter 3 is the one often considered to be the most colorful description of that church—or should I say the least colorful?  “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”  That’s the message of Jesus Christ through his servant John.

But you might ask, “What are these seven letters to the churches in Revelation you speak of?”  That’s a good question.  It’s one I will try to answer.  In chapters 2 and 3, the letters are messages to churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and lastly, Laodicea.  All of these churches are in Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey.  John, the author of Revelation, delivers words appropriate for every church’s situation.  They are the addressees of the book of Revelation.

2 rv

Each of the letters follows the same format; there are three parts.  First, it’s “These are the words of” followed by a description of the risen Christ.  Then it’s, “I know” followed by something about the church.  And finally, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

One more thing about the seven churches.  Only Sardis and Philadelphia receive no word of criticism.  All the rest are told there’s something against them.  With her request for tepid water, could it be Laodicea is the “Amy Farrah Fowler” of the seven churches?  (More about the water in a few moments.)

The first thing the Laodiceans are told is they’re hearing the “words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation” (v. 14).  “Amen” isn’t a sign you just finished the prayer!  It’s used to describe something as “true,” to say “so be it.”  This one is called “the origin [or the beginning] of God’s creation.”  Christ is the one through whom all things were made.

G. K. Beale says something about Christ being called “the faithful and true witness.” “With the image…in mind, the Laodicean Christians are indicted for being generally ineffective in their faith. Their innocuous witness is the specific focus.”[1]

3 rv“Their innocuous witness.”  Their witness, their testimony to the faith, the way they live their lives—it’s harmless; it’s inoffensive; it’s insipid; it’s lame.  Having said that, what would it mean for them to be harmful?  What would it mean for them to be offensive?  Are they supposed to get in people’s faces?  Are they supposed to make jerks of themselves?  If they threw a party, would anybody show up?

There’s something in the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books in the Apocrypha, that I like.  It’s what the unrighteous say about a faithful man.  “He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord.  He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange” (2:13-15).

A faithful life, almost by definition, will be seen as offensive by those who are dead set against it.  It’s an unpleasant reminder that one does not have to choose a wayward path, a constant refusal, a constant saying “no” to the Holy Spirit.  There is a better way to be.  (“Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”)

What about this business of being hot or cold?  “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot” (v. 15).  And as we saw earlier, their being lukewarm makes the Lord want to upchuck.  That might raise a question.  Could we see being hot as being aflame with the Spirit, being on fire for God?  If that’s so (and I’ve heard preachers put it in those terms), would being cold in the faith an acceptable option?  Why would the Lord want that?

Bruce Metzger in his book, Breaking the Code, suggests looking at it differently.[2]  He reminds us of the situation the Christians were in. 4 rv

Among them “were those who thought there might be a middle ground between worshiping God [that is, being hot] and worshiping the emperor [being cold] that in some way they could remain in the…church while at the same time obeying the emperor’s command to worship him.  On the contrary, in their loyalty to Christ they must be ‘hot’; those who were content to be ‘lukewarm’ might just as well go to the extreme of being completely ‘cold.’”

The book of Revelation was written at the end of the first century.  The emperor of Rome at the time was a fellow named Domitian.  He was a real piece of work.  He became so proud and dictatorial he demanded to be called “our lord and god.”  Of course, faithful Christians couldn’t agree to that.  That title was reserved for another.  They were considered to be unpatriotic, since that was part of the civic duty of a Roman citizen.  They were also considered to be subversives, enemies of the state, enemies of the people.  They became targets for persecution.

So viewed this way, it’s impossible to worship Christ and worship Caesar.  If you compromise on that, at the end of the day, you’re worshiping Caesar anyway.  Might as well be cold and give it your all!

Now, about the promise to return to tepid water.

The region around Laodicea was noted for its hot, cold, and lukewarm water.  Our friend G. K. says, “The hot waters of Hierapolis had a medicinal effect and the cold waters of Colossae were pure, drinkable, and had a life-giving effect.  However, there is evidence that Laodicea had access only to warm water, which was not very palatable and caused nausea.”[3]  The city of Laodicea was quite wealthy, and so was their water.  Their water was quite rich—rich in salt, that is.

Just like their water, the behavior of the Laodiceans makes the Lord sick to his stomach; he’s ready to vomit.

These folks are pretty clueless, because they claim, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.”  The Lord replies, “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (v. 17).  It’s like the Emperor’s new clothes.  They’re strutting around, wanting people to “ooh” and “ahh” over their fine fashions—while the whole time, they’re as naked as a jaybird.

5 rv

But all is not lost.  With verse 18, we begin to see the way home.  The Laodiceans are counseled in how they can be truly rich and how they can be truly clothed.  And then there’s this.  Get some “salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.”

Here’s one more quote from Beale: “The picture of ‘eye salve’ for regaining sight emphasizes the Laodiceans’ lack of spiritual discernment, especially their ignorance of the lethal danger that their association with idolatry posed for their faith.”[4]

Spiritual discernment.  What an opening into the interior life of faith.  The application of salve for vision happens when the Spirit anoints our inner eyes.  The Laodicean church needs cataract surgery.  Their vision has become cloudy.  They have been blinded by their pursuit of idols.  They are in danger and don’t know it.  Idols have focused them on the wrong things.

We aren’t immune from that.  We have idols which beckon to us.  Anything setting itself up on the throne of our heart is an idol.  It happens more easily than we think.

Here’s just one example; there are many.  We can see ourselves or others as a personification of a negative.  We can define ourselves, say, by a disease or a condition.  “I am cancer.”  “I am poverty.”  We can define ourselves or others with labels.  When we label someone, we have to be careful not to think we know them.  If we trust a label and think that sums somebody up, we are trusting an idol.

My wife has been reminding me of something I once knew, and truth be told, still do.  Whatever we choose to live into is made manifest in our lives.  Here’s one very trivial example, just to make the point.

Several months ago, I was watching television.  It was a lovely, peaceful night.  For some reason, I began thinking about bats.  I was thinking about how we hadn’t seen one for a long time, and there certainly are bats in that building.  I started wondering if there was in fact a bat somewhere, ready to fly into the room.  It was almost like I was conjuring it.  And guess what?  It wasn’t but a few minutes before one of those critters appeared out of nowhere and started circling the room.

6 rv

I’m not saying my thoughts manifested a bat.  I’m not saying I created one, but there is a sense in what occupies our minds, what we put out into the world, does in fact come back to us.

I suppose this has been a roundabout way of describing how the lack of spiritual discernment leaves us open to deception by idols.

If verse 18 shows us the way home, the rest of the letter to the Laodiceans is a loving, powerful invitation.  Telling us he reproves those he loves, he immediately says, “Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (v. 20).  Let’s sit around the table and enjoy each other’s company.

We’ll be singing the hymn, “Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door.”  Once again, we will be drinking from the deep well of the African-American spiritual tradition—and that water is definitely not tepid!  “Somebody’s knocking at your door; / Somebody’s knocking at your door; / O sinner, why don’t you answer?  Somebody’s knocking at your door. / Knocks like Jesus, Somebody’s knocking at your door; / O sinner, why don’t you answer?  Somebody’s knocking at your door.”

If we open the door, we will be conquerors, fit to sit on the throne Jesus prepares.  “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (v. 22).

7 rv

We request, “Tepid water, please.”  Jesus says, “Forget that.  I welcome you to the banquet.  Sit down and feast with me.”

 

[1] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 303.

[2] Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 44-45.

[3] Beale, 303.

[4] Beale, 306.


the state of the union, imho

I checked, and the title of my sermon this time last year was “Independence Day Theological Reflections of One American.”  Quite a mouthful.  This year, “The State of the Union” is a bit shorter.  And if delivering a “state of the union” address means I’m getting too big for my britches, I do add “in my humble opinion.”

1 independence

Right away, I freely admit hearing the prophet Jeremiah chew people out at the temple and hearing Jesus telling us to love our enemies is not your typical Independence Day sermon.  However, I do have an explanation.  But we’ll get back to it in a few moments!

I can’t resist tossing something in about paying your taxes.  Did you know it’s a spiritual discipline?  Well, sort of.  In Romans 13, St. Paul says, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (v. 7).  And that, coming from a guy who knew all about being persecuted by the government!

So there is that political dimension, which makes sense.  Words like “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr), in the first century, are not just theological, but they’re also political.  The terms “Lord” and “Savior” are titles attributed to the emperor of Rome.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues (which are qualities bullies possess), are especially insistent about it.  They crave adoration with a vengeance.

2 independence

When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing.  For them, it isn’t an empty phrase.  It’s not something to put on Facebook and hope that you’ll get plenty of “likes.”  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

Neither the northern kingdom of Israel nor the southern kingdom of Judah had empires.  Still, like most countries, they had their own brands of patriotism.  Banu has told me on several occasions when she was growing up she was taught, “There’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!”

Jeremiah faces a situation in which the temple is being used as a tool of the state.  It has been co-opted by patriotism gone wild.  The temple has been turned into an idol.  The threat of the Babylonians, who have been gobbling up countries right and left, has the people of Judah fearing for their lives.  And that’s understandable.  But in times of fear, even paranoia, the temptation to grab easy answers can be almost irresistible.

That is what’s going on here.  There is a belief that God will not allow Jerusalem and the temple to be destroyed.  In the midst of uncertainly, while the winds are howling, there’s a safe haven in the storm—and it’s the symbol of national pride and where the priests do business.

Unfortunately, as the prophet points out, if your conduct is criminal, if you disregard the distressed, if you neglect the needy, the temple won’t protect you.  But talk like that flies in the face of the official line.  Jeremiah is tired of the propaganda, the empty slogans, and he makes fun of them.  “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (v. 4).

3 independenceAnd he’s saying all of this at the temple of the Lord!  The prophet calls out the political and religious powers-that-be, and he does it in plain sight.  (Or as my mom told me when I was a kid, “Before God and everybody!”)  He issues his protest, “Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail” (v. 8).

As you might expect, Jeremiah is labeled a traitor, and all kinds of bad stuff happens to him—but we can leave that for another day.

Distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be a tricky thing.  Love of country is part of the love of God’s good creation, though caution is warranted, lest it divide us.  Loving the gift of God is right and praiseworthy.  Still, too often we love the gift more than the Giver.

We might put some questions to the fellows we just looked at.  Do we go along with Paul and pay taxes, even if they’re used for an evil purpose?  The Romans ruled with an iron fist.  Of course, Jesus also paid taxes, and he wound up getting the death penalty.

What about Jeremiah?  Is he a whistleblower, or is he endangering the country?  Is he a precursor to Edward Snowden—though not many people would call Snowden a prophet!

I think there are more questions than answers when we look at this stuff, but questions are a good thing.

I just said distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be tricky.  For those of us who would maintain that Christ and Caesar are not the same thing, we do have to tread carefully.  An Independence Day sermon can be tricky!  Choosing to do one can be tricky.  Talk about treading carefully.

Something that came to mind this past week was an experience in 1991, just as the first Gulf War was beginning.  My pastor made it quite clear he was in favor of the war.  I was not, but that’s really not my point here.  The Sunday after the war started, I knew it would be the theme for worship.  And I knew I would be miserable, so I attended church elsewhere.  At the big Methodist church in town, the war was mentioned in prayer, but that was it.

I went back to my church during the week, and the red, white, and blue bunting that adorned the stage was still there.  I thought it looked more like an election campaign headquarters than a church.  Recognizing the difference between Christ and Caesar can indeed be difficult.

4 independence

The apostle Paul says paying taxes is an act of faithfulness.  At the same time, the prophet Jeremiah speaks truth to power.  Now, here comes Jesus, with his call to love our enemies.

Melissa Bane Sevier has interesting thoughts on the matter.[1]  She notices how Jesus expands on loving our enemies, especially in verses 46 and 47.  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

5 independenceShe says, “I can say I love someone while not really liking that person, right?  Avoiding them helps with the illusion that I don’t hate them, and if I don’t hate them, I must love them.”  That must be it!  Problem solved.

Still, she continues, “Avoidance doesn’t seem to be an option with Jesus.  I am required to greet all people, whether I love/like them or not.  And if I only love/like the people who love/like me, I’m not being the person I need to be.  That’s more difficult than I thought.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I believe she is speaking to me.  I believe Jesus is speaking to me.  And it is something I recognize.

I’m no fan of the big cable news networks.  They’re more interested in entertainment than journalism, in my humble opinion.  That’s a reflection of our society and its dualistic, simplistic view of reality.  It’s us and them, winners and losers, black and white.  To be honest, it’s too often a reflection of the church.

Greeting those with whom I disagree is more than not getting into an argument.  It actually involves engaging with them, even if it seems so tiresome!

6 independenceSevier notes, “Praying for them is so much more difficult than not-hating them.  Not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active.”  And it’s not simply praying for their hearts to change.  I’ve been guilty of that one!  When we pray for our enemies, it’s most of all, our heart that changes.  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Your enemy is your best teacher”?

She concludes, “Praying won’t make me less convinced of the rightness of justice, but it will help me see the person on the other side as a real person, not as someone I want to defeat…

“For the next week, I’m going to choose one public figure a day—one who I think is really wrong-headed…and pray for that person.  I expect I will be changed.  Not in my convictions, but in my humanity.”

Imagine the state of the union if that were our measure of faithfulness.

Imagine the state of the union among us if that were our measure of faithfulness.

7 independence

[1] melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/praying-for-enemies


interwoven

A few years ago, Banu and I lived about a half hour’s drive from some Mennonite markets.  One time, I noticed a sign saying they would be closed for Ascension Day.  It’s always the Thursday forty days into the Easter season, so it was this past Thursday.

I told Banu I found it interesting that the Mennonites actually take the day off to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord.  For many of us, I imagine the day came and went this week without our even being aware of it.  That shouldn’t be entirely unexpected; Ascension is one of those days it’s hard to wrap our heads around.  Ascension—what the heck is that about, anyway?

1 ascension

In his gospel, here’s how St. Luke puts it: “Then [Jesus] led [the disciples] out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (24:50-53).

In ancient times, people tended to think of the universe as though it had three stories.  Some people still do.  We might imagine a three-story house.  The heavens were the top story, maybe the attic; our world was the first floor, and as for the underworld, as the name suggests, it’s down there below the surface.  It would be the basement.

Well, we’ve been in outer space, where there is no “up” or “down.”  And as for the nether regions, I once heard a traveling evangelist tell an interesting story about that.  He claimed workers in France doing deep well drilling made a bizarre discovery.  He said they could hear the screams of the doomed rising up to them!  Apparently, the location of hell is under France.

(I’m not so sure.  I think the evangelist’s comments were based on a subconscious aversion to the French!)

Anyway, today we wouldn’t describe the Ascension of the Lord as someone floating up into the sky.  We no longer perceive the cosmos in the “three story” way, as did the ancients.  We don’t see ourselves the same way.  You do realize we are mostly empty space?  At the atomic level, there are electrons spinning around the nucleus, like tiny solar systems.  Smaller and smaller particles are being discovered.  A few years ago, evidence of the speculative Higgs Boson particle was detected.

2 ascension

Going in the other direction, by using ever more powerful telescopes, we’re gazing deeper, toward the edge of the universe itself.  We’re looking at light that has taken billions of years to arrive at Earth.  (It appears we have a new “three story” image:  macrocosmic, mesocosmic, and microcosmic!)

Luke is speaking of the resurrection body of Christ.  Imagining the physics of that is enough to get your head spinning!  We might think of him as becoming interwoven with our space and time.  Earlier in chapter 24, that could be how he appears and disappears to the disciples at will.

However we conceive of it (and I won’t belabor the point), why is the Ascension of the Lord so important?  Why must Jesus depart?  I promise you—this isn’t just abstract theory.  This has very “real world” meaning for us.

There’s an Australian missiologist named Michael Frost.  At a conference in Budapest, Hungary, he said he’d spoken with some Christian surfers a few years earlier.[1]  When he asked who their favorite surfer was, he described it as “pandemonium.”  They were yelling different names, but he got them to narrow it down to Kelly Slater, who was described as the greatest surfer ever.  He was able to get them to describe him in detail.

3 ascensionThen he asked them to describe Jesus.  Aside from stuff like, “Son of God” and “died for our sins,” they couldn’t say very much.  Frost said he’s noticed the same thing in the church and even in the seminary where he teaches.  He’s noticed people being unable to talk about Jesus the person.

But as I watched the video of the conference, what really caught my attention was something else he said.  Frost spoke of a “spirituality of engagement.”  This is a spirituality of engagement as opposed to a spirituality of retreat, of withdrawing.  That is, retreating or withdrawing from the world.

It’s the idea that the only way to really connect with Christ is by retreating to worship services, or by going on retreats, or by going to places specifically labeled as “Christian.”  He doesn’t reject those experiences; he very strongly affirms them (as do I).  But he also emphasizes engaging with Christ in the world.

For those who care about connecting with Jesus, there can be the danger of living in a Christian “bubble.”  There’s the danger of not being able to see Jesus in the cinema, in art, in the workplace, in school, in science, in everyday life.  As he was talking about this stuff, it dawned on me that this is what Ascension is all about.

As the Nazarene professor Andy Johnson puts it, “our very flesh is constantly interchanging elements with the rest of the material universe.”  There’s that subatomic particle stuff again!  At that level of reality, it’s hard to draw a line between “us” (our bodies) and “not-us.”  Thinking about that theologically, with God’s raising the body of Jesus, “the redemption of the cosmos as a whole has begun.”[2]

(You know, the difficulty in seeing a line between “us” and “not-us” gives a whole new spin on describing people as “joined at the hip.”)

Because of the Ascension of the Lord, Jesus as the Christ is everywhere.  What that means is there are no “God-free” zones.  Nothing is truly godforsaken.

Frost also talks about “prevenient grace,” that is, the way God works prior to anyone’s action.  God extends grace before we decide to do this or that.  The question is not: “Will we bring God into a godless world?”  The question is: “Will we find out what God is already doing in the world and get involved?”  Again, there are no “God-free” zones.

So, here it is again, just in case what I’ve said isn’t crystal clear: why is the Ascension of the Lord so important?  Why must Jesus depart?  Why does Jesus say, in effect, “It’s time for me to fly!”?

Jesus must depart, because frankly, it’s time for the disciples to grow up.  In John 16, Jesus tells them, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (v. 7).  He’s told them they will do even greater things than he has done (Jn 14:12).

Without Jesus around, even the resurrected Jesus, the Spirit of Christ pervades—is interwoven—everywhere.  The Spirit of Christ indwells us.

It can be difficult to understand.  Earlier in Luke 24, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus are downcast; they’re crestfallen.  Jesus comes up and speaks with them, though they don’t recognize him.  They say “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21).  But notice what happens.  “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

Now we have today’s scripture reading.  When he appears to the gathered group of disciples, he tells them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (v. 44).

Our friend Andy Johnson points out, “the Old Testament never directly says that the Messiah will suffer, die, or be raised from the dead.”[3]  That’s true, and that’s why Jesus was such a problem, even for well-meaning people.  The disciples need to understand.  So Jesus repeats what he did on the road to Emmaus.  For the disciples who think they’re seeing a ghost, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 45).

Johnson says, “Jesus begins reshaping their imagination, reshaping the categories they had used to make sense of what God was doing in their world.”  Their culture has shaped them to think in a certain way.  Then here comes Jesus, completely turning that stuff on its head!

There can be a difference between translating and interpreting.  When we translate, we go from one language to another.  For example, we take the English word “dog” and go to the Spanish word “perro,” or to the Turkish word “köpek.”  However, when we interpret, we assign meaning, and sometimes that meaning can be quite different from what we expect, or want, to hear!

For the disciples to understand who Jesus is, it will mean “reinterpreting the entire biblical narrative, ‘all the scriptures.’”[4]  Jesus knows what he has to do.  He has to open their minds.  He has to blow their minds.  He has to rock their world!

The disciples have their vision radically expanded, re-imagined.  They must learn “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (v. 47).  The old categories no longer work.  They can’t presume to “have” or “own” Jesus.

Can we think of ways in which we do that?  Is it possible others are turned away if and when we present Jesus as our property?  (I include myself in the question.)  Do we too rarely ask the question, “How can we as the church serve the community?”  Or do we too often wonder, “What can they do for us?”  Remember, there are no “God-free” zones.

Having said all that, I believe the desire to serve the community is in evidence here.  I believe it was evident on the day of the presbytery meeting.  You are building on the past and allowing a new vision to form.

In my sermon eight days ago, I quoted part of a prayer we used earlier in the service.  “Help us to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.  Save us from empty slogans or senseless controversy.”  I like that: empty slogans or senseless controversy.  (Not the slogans or controversies themselves, but being made aware of them!)

I also quoted our Book of Order’s warning about “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05), and how that might appear in us.  Do we ignore prophets, avert our eyes from visions, and disregard the dreamers?  Possibly, but it looks like good progress is being made on encouraging the dreamers—paying attention to our own dreams.

ThinkingmanAre we pushing the boundaries, even as it dawns on us the ascended Christ is everywhere?  Therefore, do we understand that we are interwoven with everything around us?

Today’s affirmation of faith is based on Ephesians 1, which is the epistle reading for Ascension.  The end of it comes from verses 22 and 23.  God “has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  The one whose body fills all in all.

We are the church of Jesus Christ, and the fullness of Christ fills us.  So, let us weave our stories into the visions that are forming and transforming us.  Let us not disregard the dreamers, but rather encourage each other in following our dreams.  The Spirit who has been promised gives us strength.  Like those first disciples who witnessed the Ascension, we can go out with joy.

 

[1] vimeo.com/22699742

[2] Andy Johnson, “Our God Reigns: The Body of the Risen Lord in Luke 24,” Word and World 22:2 (Spring 2002) 141.

[3] Johnson, 136.

[4] Johnson, 136.


have you not known? have you not heard?

Have you not known?

Our Book of Order, when it calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05), agrees with Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah, if you like).  An idol is the creation of workers, goldsmiths, and artisans, as the prophet tells us (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.  By the way, how many of us have turned off our phones, or at least, set them on vibrate?)

Have you not heard?

With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

1 isaiahWe’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  Still, going from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, we have to be careful about overestimating the worth of our own efforts, our own accomplishments.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?

There’s something I read in Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped.  (I imagine he’ll say a couple more things about it this afternoon!)  It’s something I’ve used as a devotional.

About halfway through the book, he brings up the story of the poor widow.[1]  Jesus points out that the wealthy are contributing to the temple fund out of their abundance, money they won’t even miss.  However this widow, with her two coins, is putting a major dent in her finances.  The moral of the story, the way it’s often presented, is that we should praise and imitate the widow; she’s making a big sacrifice for God.

Our friend Doug speaks about a visitor to their church while they were having a discussion about this story.  I love the line this fellow comes up with.  “I think you have that story totally wrong.”  Well!  Would I be mistaken in saying that somebody needs to do a flip?

But it’s true.  The system of the temple, with the religious and political structure that go with it, can be a beast.  It can chew you up and spit you out.

2 isaiahDear friends, I have to tell you: we are the system!  We are part of the religious and political structure.  I must confess (and I’m likely not alone in this) that I’m not fond of being part of the system.  I think that feeling was especially heightened in college when I started reading those revolutionary and counter-cultural authors.  And it was also in college that I started reading the scriptures, and for the first time in my life, I really began to understand them.  Talk about revolutionary and counter-cultural!

Still, being part of the system is neither good nor bad.  The system is how things operate; it is how things happen.  It occurs to me I might rephrase what I just said.  The system actually is a good thing.  Think of the ecosystem.  It’s how life operates.  I think that’s a good thing!

The question is, what do we do with the system?  Do we make it into a beast?  Does it turn us into beasts?  Do we give in to cynicism?

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” (v. 27).  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, giving power to the faint, strengthening the powerless.  Isn’t that amazing?  We don’t have to be beasts!

Therefore, if we have a God who makes such promises, who follows through on those promises, what is our response?

My wife Banu and I have been in this presbytery for a little over a year, so in that time, we’ve gotten a pretty decent lay of the land.  Part of the lay of the land is rather obvious: we are a presbytery in transition.  It’s a transition in structure; it’s a transition in terms of several folks retiring.  And regarding structure, the Leadership Team is an expression of that transition.

Because of all of that, we are in a special position.  This is something you learn as interim pastors.  Transition presents us with new opportunities.  We are given permission (as if we don’t already have it!) to try new things.  Unfortunately, sometimes when presented with new opportunities, we are too quick to say “no.”  We try to find ways it won’t work.  We try to find ways to get out of doing it ourselves.  (Or could it be I’m the only one here who’s ever done that?)

In Acts 2, St. Peter, drawing on the wisdom of the prophet Joel, says, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (v. 17).

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.

3 isaiah

I wonder, do we quench the Spirit that has been poured out on all flesh?  Do we as a presbytery do that?  Do we idolize our system and make it an agent of tyranny?  I understand: we don’t throw people into an iron maiden or have them drawn and quartered!  Even so, does tyranny reveal itself among us by ignoring prophets, averting our eyes from visions, and disregarding the dreamers?  I don’t know.  Maybe.

In our opening prayer, we asked God, “Be with members of our presbytery.  Help us to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.  Save us from empty slogans or senseless controversy.”

Empty slogans and senseless controversy?  What’s wrong with them?  They’re so much fun!  They make us feel like we’re getting stuff done.

Again, we have to heed the warning about idolatry and tyranny.  That’s our challenge as a presbytery.  That’s our challenge as congregations.  That’s our challenge as Christians.  That’s our challenge as those in Christ, those who love Christ.  Is our love sufficient?  I don’t think so; it always falls short.

4 isaiah

But here’s the good news.  We are promised that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (v. 31).

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

 

[1] Doug Pagitt, Flipped (Convergent Books: 2015), 97-102.