Saturday, March 21, 2009

Condemnation Blues (John 3:14-21)

We can play around a lot with the meaning of the word “condemned.”

It can be used as a synonym for judgment. G.K. Chesterton advised people never to condemn someone unless you had walked a mile in their shoes. That way, he said, when you condemn them, you will be a mile away, and you will have their shoes.

When we use it that way, we’re talking about an action someone takes. If we condemn something or someone, we have to actually do something, even if it’s only having an opinion. And of course, whomever or whatever we condemn may or may not listen to our judgment. They may accept their condemnation as justified. “Yes, you’re right. I did wrong and I shouldn’t have.”

Or they may reject it, or offer a reason why their action shouldn’t be seen in such a harsh light. The customary defense is to point out someone else’s much greater failure: “Well, sure I lit his shoes on fire, but you don’t know what he did!”

That kind of condemnation seems to be exactly what Jesus did not come into the world to do, according to John. Remember, John is also the gospel where we find the story of the woman caught in adultery, in which we see Jesus tell someone we know is guilty of a sin that he does not condemn her.

Excellent! We can get away from all this sin and guilt stuff now, and just talk about how much everyone likes each other, and how you’re OK, and I’m OK, and the whole world is OK and full of sweetness and light and unicorns and butterflies…oops. There’s a couple of problems with that idea, aren’t there?

One, of course, is that there’s no such thing as unicorns. By that I mean that we all, Christian or otherwise, live in the real world. In that world are things that any right-thinking person, Christian or otherwise, ought to condemn. Harming someone else to get what you want, for example, or taking something that doesn’t belong to you. There are plenty of others, and some of them may have happened to us. Or we may have done some of them ourselves. Either way we know that there are things in this world that are worthy of condemnation.

The second problem is that if everything truly were just as it should be, then there wouldn’t have been much need for Jesus to have come in the first place, let alone offer himself on the cross. How does the verse go? “So that the world through him might be saved.” I find it hard to imagine Jesus coming to save something if that something didn’t really need saving, don’t you? “Well shoot, here I emptied myself and took on the form of a servant and all, obedient unto death and the whole bit, but turns out you all already did the whole job yourselves. Ol’ dopey Me!”

But wait – if we need saving and Jesus didn’t come here to condemn us, then someone else must have done it. Who might that have been? I wonder…could it have been…Sa–. Yeah, I know what you were thinking, and I imagine our enemy would have been more than happy to condemn us if that was required. I don’t think he needs to, though. As I read this passage, the job’s already been taken care of.

By us.

Yes, nobody else condemns us. Doesn’t matter; we’ve already beaten them to it. For us, in describing how we live in this fallen world, “condemn” doesn’t work as a verb. It works as an adjective. We’ve done it, nobody did it to us. At some point in our lives, we have all fallen short of the life God designed us to live. Actually, make that “points,” plural. Whether or not someone condemns us, we stand condemned, by our own words and our own actions, of living lives that put ourselves or something else at the center of them instead of God.

That’s one of the things we focus on at Lent. As Easter people, we live knowing that Christ has come to heal the broken relationship between God and his creation. We know that healing is real, we know it has happened, and we know it is happening in our lives every second of the day. We’ve chosen to accept that idea as the basis for our way of looking at the world. We live in Easter Sunday.

But we live in the Good Friday world, and the Good Friday world is one in which those things Christ’s death defeated still exist. Christ came to save the world because if he had not, its own separation from God would have ultimately destroyed it. During Lent, we recognize and remember that we have lived lives apart from God – sometimes we still live parts of our lives apart from God – and we give thanks for the awesome sacrifice Christ made so that we can live those lives united to God and growing closer to him.

I read a quote from the singer for U2, one of my favorite bands, talking about why he is a person of faith, and it kind of reminded me of who it is who stands condemned, and who came to save the condemned: “There’s no doubt about the fact that I have a wild streak and I’d be very capable of setting fire to myself. So, you know, I don’t go to church for the view.”

I go to God, I go to his church because I know here I can find the Good News that, sinner though I am, I have been saved by the grace overflowing from his love. I go to hear and be a part of the good news.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Change Is Going to Come? (John 2:13-22)

So, who do you think the story of driving the moneychangers from the temple is aimed at? Youth group fundraisers? Mission team dinners? Girl Scouts selling cookies?

I suppose under some circumstances any of them could be the proper subject of a lesson from this story, but I think there’s probably some more useful interpretation of it. Let’s check into the background.

First of all, the moneychanging itself was not the real problem. In fact, according to the teaching and the Law of Moses, the money used for sacrifices and tithes at the Temple had to meet some pretty specific criteria. Remember the first commandment, about no graven images? Well, most Roman coins had pictures of the Emperor on them. All but the strictest followers of the law might use these coins in everyday business, but there was no way they would pass muster at the very Temple itself! When you add in that Roman Emperors every now and again claimed divine status for themselves, you had money that was just plain old-fashioned unclean and unusable for something as holy as paying a tithe or buying a sacrifice.

Of course, everyone else used Roman money, so the problem came in how people changed their unclean Roman money into acceptable Temple coinage. Enter the moneychangers. They’d take your Roman money and give you back Temple coins, less a percentage for themselves. Kind of like those coin-counting machines in the grocery stores, only not as much fun to watch work.

Then there were the sacrifices themselves. The Law was clear – a sacrifice must be an animal without blemish, perfectly clean and whole. You could bring a sheep or goat of your own, but there was no guarantee the priests would pass it as acceptable for sacrifice. Even an animal that looked OK to you might have a flaw that only the expertise of the priests could see.

At the Temple, you could buy animals that were sort of “pre-certified” to be clean and acceptable for your sacrifice.
You can see where the trouble can come in. The moneychangers and the Temple animal salesmen had a captive market – people who wanted to obey their religious duties had no choice but to do business with them.

You give the moneychanger ten Roman coins and he gave you back five Temple coins, who could you complain to? The Temple officials? Where do you think some of those extra coins wound up? Temple lambs cost twice as much as a regular lamb, so you decide to bring your own and show it to the religious examiners, but, oh guess what, your lamb has a nearly invisible blemish here that disqualifies it from the sacrifice. Again, who do you complain to? The same examiners who work with the people who sell sacrificial lambs? Yeah, that’ll work.

Maybe the original moneychangers and original animal sellers had the idea of helping the people out with a needed service. But at some point, someone had seen the cash flow and realized they could make money from it, and there went any possibility the system could ever be fair.

That’s one reason Jesus was so upset with them – not that they were making money, but that they were cheating in order to do so. Remember, he probably worked in the carpentry business some before he began his ministry. He told lots of stories about people who were paid for their work or who knew how to invest money and so on. But there’s no honest exchange of money for goods and services here. There’s gouging so deep it’s the same as theft.

An even deeper issue is one we are more likely to face today, I think. After all, we don’t have any special standards about what people can donate – look at the couch in the average youth room, or see how long past the expiration date some food is when it comes into a food pantry and you’ll see not everybody figures you have to have something special when you're donating to charity. But the cheating and theft were the symptom of the real problem, and that’s what I think we all face quite often today.

That real problem came when the people who started charging extortion-style rates for changing coins or sacrificial animals figured out they could use the Temple for their own purposes. Whose house is the Temple, according to Jesus? God’s house, right? Well, how do we act when we’re in someone else’s house? Do we treat it like our own, or are we aware we’re guests? Would you be happy if I came to your house and starting trying to sell Amway from your phone, or would you think I was rude and ask me to stop?

As a pastor, I know all too well the temptation to use the church for some means or purpose of my own. I know it as a temptation I’ve resisted and as one I’ve given in to and sought forgiveness for.

But clergy are certainly not alone in this failing. We know people, don’t we, who come to church for some need or desire they have. It’s a place to be important. It’s a place to show off. It’s a place to make us feel superior to those who aren’t here, or to be entertained, or score our points with God.

Those other things we use the church for don’t have to be bad. Maybe we use the church to help a cause we believe in, like protecting the environment or helping the poor. Neither of those is bad, nor are a score of others that come to mind. There are certainly parts of God’s work which focus on them both. But when we put our church in service to them, rather than understand we might do them as our service to God, we fall in to the age-old trap of insisting that we know what God should do and we know how God should act.

At the worst end of that choice is nakedly using God for our own ends without caring about it at all, like the money-changers. At the best end is taking a service we do in response to God and moving God from the center of our lives so we can fit that service in the place where God belongs, and that’s still a very big problem.

Because only God should be at the center of our lives – it’s how we’re made, it’s what he wants, and it’s the only way we can find ourselves becoming who and what we were always supposed to be.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

They Called Me Bruce (Mark 8:31-39)

Back in the early and mid 1980s, a pop singer named Rick Springfield was pretty well-known and sold a lot of albums. But earlier in his career, when he wasn’t as well-known, he found he was sometimes being mistaken for another musician with a similar name. So he wrote a witty little song about it, which he never intended to release. The music company that owned the rights to his songs, however, decided to update the instrumentation and release the song without Rick’s cooperation, so in 1984 we got to hear Rick Springfield sing about how people he met often called him “Bruce” because they thought he was Bruce Springsteen.

Everyone from fans to his own mom to the young ladies that flocked to singers they thought were famous called him “Bruce,” and it was very upsetting for him.

I sometimes wonder if Jesus had some of the same feelings during the incident Mark writes about here. It follows just on the heels of Peter’s declaration, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” At last, Jesus might have thought. At last they really get it! Now I can tell them about how things will play out so they can be ready for it.

But they don’t get it, and that shows up quickly when Peter decides to tell Jesus what he can and can’t say as the Messiah.

On the one hand, Peter’s words make some sense. Jesus has reached a high point in his earthly ministry. He draws crowds. People want to hear him and they want to follow him. At last his very important messages about God and what God wants people to know can get out to a large number of people! Who knows what kind of change this might bring about? Might the people return to their original, Moses-and-Joshua era faith? Might they find themselves strong enough to tell toga-boy Pilate and his miniskirt-wearing soldiers to take a hike?

Well maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but it’s darn certain that nothing good can come of Jesus saying that when he finally does confront the religious leadership, he’ll lose and get himself killed. Who’s going to follow a guy who walks into a fight thinking he’s going to lose?

We know Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, and so I imagine he must have felt some disappointment when he realized that even his closest followers didn’t understand one of the most fundamental elements of his Messiah-ship.

At one level, there’s the problem of the different understanding of what the Messiah is to do. Most of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day saw the Messiah as both a religious and political leader. They believed he was to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel in the most literal sense. He would re-create the independent Jewish nation that had existed during the time of Samuel, Saul, David and Solomon. He would restore Temple worship and an independent priesthood. Although Peter had seen enough that he probably understood things wouldn’t be exactly like that, it seems he and the others still held some of those ideas.

But there’s an even deeper problem. After all, if misunderstanding Jesus was all it took to be equated with Satan, then each of us would probably have that as our middle names. Peter’s admonitions, though, strike at the very root of who God is and who Jesus is as his son. When Peter says, “You can’t say stuff like that,” he is actually trying to limit both Jesus and God. He questions one of God’s most foundational statements and attributes.

Remember when Moses asked God what his name was, and God said, “I am that I am?” In Hebrew, that can translate “I will be who I will be,” or other phrases close to the one we’re more familiar with. In all of these different meanings, we find God saying that God alone will determine who God is. And God will determine what he does. No one has the standing to suggest a different way to be God.

In Jesus, God has decided to reconcile humanity to himself through a sacrifice on the cross. By doing so, both his perfect justice and his perfect mercy can be satisfied. Peter’s rebuke is an attempt to tell Jesus how to be the savior that God has already told him how to be. And as we remember, the other time someone tried that was Satan tempting Jesus in the desert.

We may follow in Peter’s footsteps more often than we think we do. I am certain there have been times I would have advised God on how he should act in this or that situation or against this or that person. But to do so is to set myself up as someone who knows better than God what God should be doing. I’m trying to assert myself as someone who could be like God, knowing good from evil, and I’m sure we remember where we’ve heard that before, too.

When we try to set ourselves up as those who know better than God how God should do things, we take on one of two roles. We’re someone who thinks we can lead God where he should go, or we’re obstacles in his path on the work he wishes to do. In such cases, “Get behind me” is not only a rebuke. It’s a good reminder of how we are designed to follow God, not lead him, and it’s pretty good advice to keep from being run over.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

From Fear to Faith (Exodus 15:1-19)

You may have noticed I sometimes focus on unusual responses we see in the Bible. Something happens and people react, but not in the way that we’d figure they’d react, or not in the way that we’d react if we were there.

Here’s a good example. The Hebrew people have been slaves for 400 years, almost twice as long as we’ve been a country. Four hundred years ago, about 99 percent of the Europeans in North America spoke Spanish and lived in Florida, if you want to get a picture of the time involved. Just within the last few days, they’ve finally been released from their slavery by Pharaoh. But now, they face that same Pharaoh and his mighty army of chariots, sweeping towards them. They’re terrified because they’re trapped against the Sea of Reeds, sometimes called the Red Sea.

These are a broken people – according to the estimates Exodus makes of their population, they heavily outnumber Pharaoh’s army, but they were slaves so long they can’t even dream of fighting. God acts through Moses and offers them an escape route, through the very sea itself, which he parts so they can walk across on dry land.

The Egyptians pursue and the danger is not over yet. But God closes the sea up again and the Egyptian army drowns in its midst. Their God has used his power over the sea itself to defeat the mightiest foe they could imagine. What would you do if you had seen that?

I figure I might have backed away slowly until I was outside the crowd and then I would have run for the proverbial hills. Did you see what God did? To the Egyptians? You hang around and stay on his radar if you want to, buddy, but I’m not that brave.

The Hebrew people, though, sing. In fact, they sing praises to the God whose awesomely lethal power has just been demonstrated. I’d still be scared. What if he didn’t like the song? What might happen if that awesome power gets aimed at us? Why risk it.

But the Hebrews sing songs of praise to God, seemingly without fear even in the face of the overwhelming power they’ve just seen at work. Why do they do this, instead of run screaming in fright?

I believe it’s because they know the God whose power they’ve just seen demonstrated. Yes, it’s an awesome power, and yes, it could destroy them with the same ease it wiped out the Egyptian army. But it is the power of God, and as they are just beginning to rediscover, that God is on their side. I don’t mean that God picked a side like we might pick a football team. I mean that they understand this God made a covenant with their people in the time of Abraham and no matter what else happens, he’ll keep his end of the deal. This awesome power will be used to protect them, guide them and strengthen them so they can fulfill his purpose for them. Their troubles later on in the story come because they forget the “fulfill his purpose” part.

Now, because we don’t see God’s power demonstrated in things like the Red Sea Expressway, we may tend to be less in awe of the idea of that power. Our science and our abilities have expanded over the years, and we don’t have as much to marvel over as the people of ancient times did. Or do we.

A minister friend of mine went on a mission trip with his church to a Latin American country a few years ago. One of the people they met there was a man who had been in prison during one of his country’s different political upheavals, one in which he was on the side that wasn’t in power.

The prisoners were beaten or tortured in some way every day. Their jailers were told to make life very hard for them in order to break down their opposition. This man told my friend and his church members that after some time in the prison, he found himself as a sort of spokesman for the inmates. He would go to the guards and ask to see the commander and communicate on their behalf.

One day, he went to the commander and asked a favor. We know you must beat us, he said. We know you have orders and you have to do these things. But could you do them at the same time every day? That way we would know we would have some hours of the day where we wouldn’t have to be as fearful. The commander agreed.

Some time later, the man went to the commander again and said that he and many of the other prisoners who were Christians wanted to have communion. Could they have just as small amount of bread and wine so they could have communion together? The commander agreed, but he and his men were present for security reasons when the prisoners gathered for their communion. We have one more request, the man told the commander when they were all together. Will you and your men take communion with us?

The beatings and torture completely stopped the next day.

We may look at this bread and juice as just symbols or we may hold a deeper understanding of them, depending on what we’ve been taught about them. But there is power in them, symbol or not, that is beyond our ability to comprehend, beyond our capability to even imagine. Annie Dillard once wrote that when we come to worship and invoke God’s presence, we do it with such a lack of concern when we ought to realize we’re like children playing with dynamite.

I say this not to make anyone scared to touch the bread or worry about spilling the juice or wine, but to remind us of what the Hebrew people knew and sang their lungs out about when they were on the shores of the Red Sea. The unimaginable power of God is real and a part of the word in which we live – and it is in the hands of One who loves us so much he would rather die than live without us and who has made for us a role in his work.

That, I believe, is good news.