Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fulfilled! (Luke 4:14-21)

Jesus probably taught in different synagogues dozens of times during his earthly ministry. Stories about those days must have been all over the earliest Christian movement. So why, we might wonder, does Luke pick this one out to tell? What's special about it?

Is it somehow sharper or more direct than others? Did Jesus have "off-days" or something when what he said didn't connect to the people so well? Is Isaiah Luke's favorite book? Is what Jesus said here somehow truer than what he might have said at other times? Hard to say.

They probably did not take him literally -- you might imagine a guy in the synagogue saying, "Well, great -- that means my wife's good-for-nothing brother's gonna get out of jail and he's gonna head straight for my house." No, they would have heard Isaiah's words in a much bigger context.

Many of the prophetic writings gathered up into the Jewish scriptures focus on the topic Isaiah covers here. He refers to the Day of the Lord, which the prophets saw the same way we Christians see what we call the Second Coming of Christ and which offers a lot of the same themes. On that day, God would restore things to what they were supposed to be. The nation of Israel would be made whole again, and have its own sovereign ruler. God's presence would be manifest in the Temple again, in a way it hadn't been since the Exile. And God would have a direct relationship to humanity again, for the first time since the Fall.

All of these things fulfilled different promises God had made to the people over time -- to Eve that her seed would triumph over evil, to Abraham that his offspring would bless the earth, to David that one of his descendants would sit on the throne of Israel forever, and so on.

Because devout Jews would have attached such powerful meanings to this Scripture, we can see why they were upset when a guy they watched grow up down the street started proclaiming that he was bringing them its fulfillment. Was he making fun of them? Joking around with scripture? Thinking way way too much of himself for someone who's from right here in Nazareth just like the rest of us?

Of course they would have seen that the Romans still ruled their land and the blind were still blind and the temple that should have been their holiest place was a huge monstrosity of a building put up by that monstrosity of a king, the half-Edomite Herod. Captives were still captives, slaves were still slaves and the poor probably didn't need to head back home to check to see that they were still poor. To play with the idea of the Day of the Lord was just a little over the line.

As Christians reflected on this story and on the scripture Jesus read, they began to see a different meaning, though. By proclaiming that Jesus was Lord, that he was in fact God with us and that he was the divine Son of God, they saw another way that the prophecy Isaiah made was being fulfilled. Again, not literally, because all of the things that hadn't happened for the people of Nazareth that Saturday morning still hadn't happened for Christians scattered through the Roman Empire a few decades later. What his prophecy of the Day of the Lord had in common with other prophecies of the same type, though, was the theme that God would be with the people again. The relationship ruined by the Fall would be healed and the people could know their creator as intimately as human beings had known him in the beginning of Creation.

In Jesus, Christians said, that took place. His death and resurrection made restoring that relationship possible. And they decided that was very likely what he meant when he said the scripture was fulfilled "today, in your hearing."

Today we too might be looked on as a little weird if we were to take Isaiah's words and tell people they were being fulfilled even now, while we spoke. For many of the same reasons -- poor are still poor, captives not free, the blind still blind, etc. -- as well as for the additional reason that we believe only Jesus to be the Son of God and thus only he could embody God's presence. In fact, we understand that kind of reaction well enough that we might anticipate that response and decide against proclaiming anything of the sort. But should we?

We might reduce "proclaiming" to "saying" if we want to, but maybe we should remember that working to make something happen can be a part of "proclaiming" as well. There's a story in Time magazine this week about a minister in South Africa who's trying to help teenage prostitutes escape that life and the pimps who literally hold them prisoner. He's proclaiming release to the captives -- he and a king-fu-trained church volunteer who goes by the name of Shadrack -- and he's trying to make it happen.

And we have to remember that at the core of the prophet's words we find the claim that humanity's broken relationship with God is being restored. That can happen regardless of circumstances -- we don't have to be ninjas raiding South African brothels in order to let people know that God is right here among them and wants to connect with them in the way they were made for.

I'm afraid that, even though I have been made a part of the body of Christ, I don't do enough proclaiming that this scripture is fulfilled today, right now. Not with my words, and certainly not with all of my actions. So thanks be to God that there is forgiveness for my shortcomings and that I am given another chance to be his child and his follower -- hey, whattaya know? I can proclaim the good news after all.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gifts for All! (First Corinthians 12:1-11)

Note: This week's sermon is substantially similar to one from a couple of years ago on the passage immediately following this one, because when I preached then I used all of chapter 12 instead of part of it. So I will reprint the earlier sermon, from January 2007. Sorry if you've already read it. Send me contact info and I'll mail you some Sominex as a substitute.

I love the Corinthians. If they didn’t exist, I’d have to invent them. If there were no Corinthians, then every time I wanted to tell my church about one of our problems, I’d have to say it was one of our problems, rather than say, “Can you believe what those wacky Corinthians did this time?”

This passage is in the middle of Paul’s explanation of spiritual gifts. Since this letter is probably a reply to a letter the Corinthian church sent Paul, we can guess with some confidence they've asked him about these gifts of the Holy Spirit.

We piece together something about the Corinthians from these letters, information we have about the culture and society of the time and just general human nature. That gives us a pretty good idea about their questions as well as some of the issues behind them.

The Corinthians have probably asked Paul which spiritual gift is the best one. Which one is “most spiritual?” Which one shows the most divine favor? Paul wants to answer them, but he also wants to dig into what’s behind the question.

In the passage just before this one, he reminds the Corinthians that all spiritual gifts come from the Holy Spirit. This ought to be a no-brainer, but it has a point. He re-emphasizes it by talking about the distinct but indispensable roles of the different parts of the body.

The Corinthians seemed to want to put one spiritual gift at the top of the list, and that can cause problems. Their focus seems to have been on speaking in tongues. So if that’s the best spiritual gift, then people should try to work towards it, right? They should focus their prayers, their devotions, their study, etc., on being able to speak in tongues.

See the problem? That kind of focus could easily lead a person to ignore the spiritual gift they already had. If everyone spoke in tongues, where would the gifts of compassion or of teaching or of wisdom be? If everyone had the “top” gift, then who would serve?

A church where everyone either has or seeks the top-level spiritual gift would be a church as unable to do its work as a hand is unable to see. It would also be a church defying God’s plan, since everyone’s gifts came from the Spirit, and not from any sort of human hierarchy or scheme.

Sure, we should improve ourselves in all areas of Christian life. If I don’t have the “spiritual gift” of compassion, I don’t get a free pass to act like a jerk. I may need to work at it harder than those who seem to have such a gift, but it’s still my responsibility to live out that aspect of a Christian life. Even so, there’s no overlooking the reality that each of us has these different spiritual gifts.

Now, Paul says later on in this letter that he himself doesn’t see speaking in tongues as the most important spiritual gift. But he wants to make this point clear first, because it wouldn’t do the Corinthians much good if they switched one top gift for another.

There is a “top” gift, but Paul describes that later, and it’s the kind of gift that belongs on top because it can be there without unbalancing a Christian or the community of believers.

For now, Paul reminds the Corinthians that in the case of the body, we show our “less honorable” parts greater respect and attention. Think of a woman’s unending search for the exact pair of slacks that won’t make her look fat, or a man’s undending search for the precise arrangement of hair so that no one will know he has that bald spot.

Maybe speaking in tongues is a showier, flashier spiritual gift. But it has its proper place, Paul says, or else the church is unbalanced. Maybe compassion is the quieter, more reserved gift. But it must never be forgotten, or the church can’t be the church.

If the church ignores any of its spiritual gifts, it will find itself blind, deaf, mute, crippled and helpless. In such a case, of course, we’re thankful God is always a healer.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Mourning Has Broken! (Jeremiah 31:7-14)

What a promise this is from the man whose name we now use to describe long rants against everything that's going wrong. If someone gets up and talks about how things used to be great and how not great they are today, then that's a "jeremiad," and it's named after the prophet himself.

Jeremiah lived in the last days of the kingdom of Judah and saw things getting worse and worse all around him, so we can imagine why he'd have a burr or two under his saddle. But if his prophecies were ever delivered as public speeches, then I bet this one made people ask whether the prophet had found himself an extra wineskin or two. "He said the Lord would turn mourning into what? Jeremiah? Are you sure?"

When I was considering this uncharacteristic passage, I ran across something J.R.R. Tolkien said about the new creation Christians expect after the return of Christ. In it, he said, things like sadness and tears would be "un-made." That phrase kind of resonated with the most poetic part of Jeremiah's vision, the transformation of sadness into joy and God consoling his weeping people.

Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic and he found the idea of God creating things fascinating. He held that one way human beings bear the image of God is in our ability to mimic that creativity. We obviously can't create something from nothing like God did (unless we are Barry Sanders turning a backfield tackle into a touchdown run), but we do create works of art and even spiritual and emotional environments with our talents, words and actions. He called it "sub-creation."

Obviously, talented artists, writers and musicians create works with their abilities. So do chefs, woodworkers, stonemasons and others. But even those of us who think we have no talent can create an environment of peace and tranquility if we help calm someone who's tense for some reason. Or we can create it in ourselves so that we find some communion with God.

Along with this creative ability we carry in God's image goes our free will. We can align that image of God within us to God's vision of the world and create things that uplift, or cause people to think about things, or maybe just amuse them and bring them laughter. We can align our ability to affect people's moods and ways of thinking with a belief that they are God's children and seek to bring them closer to God.

Or, of course, we can freely choose to do the opposite. Talented artists can, instead of aiming high, aim low. Gifted movie directors can use their skills to play in the garbage instead -- I'll call every Saw movie, and all of Eli Roth and Rob Zombie's work as my witnesses. Someone with an ear for tunes or rhythm can glorify selfishness or violence or killing.

And the same voices that can create uplift in people can also create sadness and anger. The Grinch created a Santa Claus suit, transformed his dog into a reindeer and used his stealth and slyness to try to steal Christmas from the Whos. He failed, of course, because he couldn't un-make what Christmas really was.

At the end of days -- whatever form that takes -- Christians say God will transform this fallen world into a new world that's in full and perfect communion with him. In doing so, God will un-make some of the things our fallen creativity and selfishness have produced, like sadness.

It won't just vanish or fade away into memory. We won't just say, "Wow, we're happy now when we used to be sad." The very idea of sorrow itself will be un-made. Instead of having the spiritual equivalent of an abandoned building that no one uses anymore, God's new creation will demolish the old and rebuild it as it was always supposed to be to start with.

That may be a tough concept to wrap our heads around, but it's what God is doing with us in our relationships with him. He is un-making the person we've turned ourselves into and making the person he had in mind for us to be.

And we in turn create with God instead of against him -- with his work of un-making the world as it has become so that he can make the world as he designed it to be. We are being re-made, and that is good news for us. And because we are being re-made we have good news for our world.