Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Fox and the Chicken (Luke 13:31-35)

My thinking about this message from Jesus is not significantly different than it was when this text last came up for me in the Lectionary, back in 2007. Here is a reprint of that sermon:

Well, now this is different. Did we read right? Are these Pharisees who are warning Jesus about a threat from Herod? Sure, Luke tells us more about the positive interactions Jesus has with Pharisees, but still, they’re Pharisees.

As in “Sadducees and.” As in those people who get snooty about who Jesus hangs out with, and about what he says about himself and about the law. But here they are, warning Jesus that Herod’s been asking about him, and he should get out of town before this Herod can finish the job his grandfather started in Bethlehem.

It’s not a made-up threat. Luke shows us that when Herod hears about Jesus, he gets philosophical. “He sounds like John the Baptist. I had him beheaded, but now there’s this guy. Somebody bring him in so we can talk.”

I can think of a couple reasons why they would do this. Maybe they’ve set a trap. They’ll tell Jesus the best route out of town and, oops! Someone told Herod about it and those darn soldiers had it guarded. Our bad, Jesus, we’ll try to do better next time.

Maybe they want to make Jesus look bad in front of his followers. Sure, they could say. He talks a good game about his power not being from this world and he can do some neat stuff, and he has all those great things to say about following God to the very end. But when push comes to shove and the soldiers are knocking on the door, he heads for the hills just like anyone else would. Some prophet.

Or, I suppose, they could be sincere. Not necessarily because they like Jesus, but because they’re tired of this non-Jewish king going around offing nice Jewish boys. That’s a habit they, as nice Jewish boys, don’t want him to pick up. In any event, they seem to have misjudged Jesus. Whew! Things are back to normal around here.

Jesus suggests they carry a message back to Herod, whom he calls “that fox.” Tell Herod, he says, that I’ll be casting out demons and healing for the next couple of days, and I’ll finish where and when God decides I should finish, no matter what Herod says.

That finish will happen in Jerusalem, where many prophets in Jewish history ended their careers and their lives. They spoke out against the injustice of the king and his nobles, against all the people who took advantage of others and then hid behind all the “proper” religious ceremonies.

How often, Jesus says, God would have gathered the people of Jerusalem up like a hen covers her chicks for protection. But they would never come to God for protection. They trusted their armies or their treaties with other nations or their political games.

Jesus creates an interesting juxtaposition – a word I learned in seminary that I’m supposed to use when comparing things that are the opposite of each other. He calls Herod a fox, and compares God (and himself) to a protective hen.

We don’t get the full impact of the difference, because we don’t have the same image of a fox that the ancient Judeans did. Like us, they saw the fox as clever and cunning. But we see that slyness used by the fox to escape pursuit. The fox outwits opponents who are more numerous or much stronger.

The Judeans, though, saw the fox’s cleverness used to get around any barriers put up to stop him from raiding their homes, crops and small livestock. The fox was sly, all right, but he was also ravenously destructive.

Jesus points out to the Pharisees who warn him that if Herod wants him, hiding now won’t do much good. He will depend on God, rather than on earthly power or escape plans or whatever. He will let God gather him up like that hen does, no matter what enemies he may face.

Jerusalem always wanted to cut a deal with the fox, somehow believing that this treaty, or this army, or this tribute would satisfy the enemy they faced and make him go away. In the end, that got the nation conquered, exiled and nearly destroyed.

Today, we might be tempted by the same kinds of things. This court case, or this law, or this government guideline will guarantee our rights and so our church won’t go under. This Christian movie will convince Hollywood to stop marketing trash as entertainment, and we won’t have to worry when we go to the theater.

But I can’t depend on the fox of our culture or our government to do anything other than what he always does – go along until it suits his purposes not to, and then turn on me. I can only depend on God’s protection, which it seems has a better track record anyway.

A persecuted, marginalized church took over the most powerful empire in its world in about 350 years, even though its people had no special rights. They clung to God for their protection, and they overcame.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Temptation (Luke 4:1-13)

When the writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was like us in that he was tempted, but was without sin, this story probably comes to mind. We can be sure that Jesus faced many temptations during his life -- not Gibbs-slapping the disciples every waking moment comes to mind -- but these are three that we know in detail.

And interestingly enough, they share a similarity at their core, even though there are three of them. They share that same core with the temptation that Adam and Eve faced as well, and by now you might not be surprised that they share the same core with the temptations we face in our lives. Ol' Scratch turns out to be something of a one-trick pony. He's plenty good at that trick, and we fall for it often enough he doesn't have to try many others, but it's still just the one trick.

Satan makes three runs at Jesus -- turn stones into bread, jump off a building and prove his divinity and acknowledge Satan as lord in order to receive power over the kingdoms of the earth. In each of those, what Satan wants Jesus to do is to define for himself what kind of Messiah he will be. Jesus fasts from physical food so God can fill him spiritually. He undergoes the hardships of human existence, including the humiliating agony of the cross, rather than only pretend to be human and gain fame through fantastic stunts. And he will accept only what God gives him, rather than seek his own way or some imitation offered by someone else.

In each refusal, Jesus abides by what God calls his Messiah to be rather than what he or someone else thinks the Messiah should be. He will not act as though he knows better than God what he should be doing.

Adam and Eve faced the same temptation. Remember what the serpent says to Eve when she tells him they can't eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge? She says if they eat it they'll die, but the serpent says they won't die. God doesn't want them eating of it because if they do they'll know what God knows and they can be their own Gods. They won't need him or depend on him and he doesn't want that. They can know better than God what's best for their own lives.

I imagine if we look at the temptations we face we will find a similar idea at their roots. We know right from wrong and we know we're told not to do wrong, but we come up with all kinds of reasons as to why what's "wrong" isn't really wrong for us. We know better than God does what we should be doing. We can be God for ourselves.

And we know how well that works, if by "well" we mean "incredibly poorly." When we buy the lie that we can give ourselves an identity better than the identity God gave us, we found ourselves instead the owners of an identity that's much worse. We though we could make ourselves God, but we found out we only made ourselves losers. Having tempted us, Satan now takes his pleasure at reminding us we bought a lie, and rejoices at every chance to remind us that we are sinners, impure and unclean in the face of a pure and holy God.

You may have been given a name of some kind when you were younger, or maybe even still, that sticks with you. Rather than uplift you or give you an identity to aspire to, it just drags you down and reminds you of some failure or characterstic that embarasses you.

Jesus resisted temptation because he knew that God had already defined him. He didn't need to redefine himself or to allow Satan to offer some other picture of who he was. He knew who he was, and he rooted his identity in God and God's picture of him. He didn't seek a name for himself, but allowed God to name him.

Because he did, we have our knowledge and assurance that God will define us too. We can ignore the names that weigh us down or cause us to think God wouldn't bother with us because God has already named us. We don't have to try to boost our own identity in some artificial way because God has given us an identity.

He calls us forgiven sons and daughters. And that, indeed, sounds like good news to me.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Go Transfigure (Luke 9:28-43)

My thoughts on the significance of the Transfiguration are substantially the same as they were in a sermon preached on its other mention in one of Peter's letters. So I'm reprinting that sermon, originally preached in March 2011.

From our 2,000-years-later vantage point, we tend to think of the entire New Testament being written at about the same time. Mostly because even a 20-year gap is only about one percent of that span, so it might as well be at the same time as far as we're concerned now.

But that 20-year gap can make a lot of difference when you're living in it. We were all different 20 years ago, even though whoever's around in 4011 won't think much more about that gap than we do about the NT authors. If, for example, the apostle Peter wrote the letters attributed to him, he wrote this passage about the Transfiguration at least 20 years after he experienced it. Since those 20 years included his denial of Christ, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, Pentecost and the spread of Christianity through much of the area surrounding Judea, I'm betting he had some new lenses to interpret what he and the others saw on that mountaintop that day.

In fact, he says so in those last couple of verses. No scripture, he says, is simply a matter of human interpretation because no scripture is a strictly human creation. The Holy Spirit is involved at both ends. His experience of seeing Moses and Elijah flank his teacher Jesus is more or less inexplicable without the interpretive aid of the Holy Spirit. After all, what did he say when he saw the three? "Lord, it is good we are here. Let us build three tents to mark this." Peter's culture featured the building of small tents or booths at the sites of important events as ways to mark their significance. More permanent markers might follow.

Of course, this event is significant for Peter and the other disciples. Moses and Elijah were not simply historical figures. They personified essential elements of Hebrew religion and culture. Moses was not only the leader who brought Israel out of slavery through God's might, but he also represented the covenant God made with the people. God spoke through Moses to give the Torah, or teaching, that more or less created the Israelites as a nation and chosen people. Elijah, as a prophet or spokesman of God, represented how God continued to honor that covenant by trying to lead the people back to following God's path. The prophets didn't just predict doom, they pointed out where the people had strayed and how they needed to return. A Jewish man like Peter would have seen them as signs of God's creation of his people and of God's continued faithfulness to his people.

Seeing these two men flank his teacher would indicate that Jesus spoke in the tradition of the Torah and the prophets -- definitely very important. But then something more happens! Even while something obscures their sight, they hear a voice saying of Jesus that he is God's Son and God is well-pleased with him.

This! Is! Important!

Peter's response: Let's mark this spot! That's normal and human, and often the right thing to do. We mark spots where we want to be sure to remember what happened, like 5th and Robinson in Oklahoma City or downtown Manhattan or Normandy or the Argonnes Forest. We must remember what happened at these places and we will erect memorials to ensure that happens.

But that same tendency can also tend to anchor the event we want to remember to the place it happened, and sometimes we want the exact opposite. Some events transcend -- or transfigure, if you like -- their location in space and time. Universally significant, they can't just stay in their one spot or their one moment.

Peter, reflecting on the Transfiguration many years later, sees its significance as confirming Jesus' message in terms of God's covenant. He didn't see the full impact of that significance until later, maybe Pentecost, but he knows now it was much more important than just a vision of his leader and two great icons of his people's history. Unpacking that full meaning is a matter for another sermon. What we would focus on here is how Christians want to try to understand every event -- ordinary or extraordinary -- with the help of the Holy Spirit.

We do so because the Holy Spirit gives us an understanding we probably wouldn't reach on our own. On Communion Sundays, for example, the people at my church take a plain old loaf of bread, bought maybe at a Wal-Mart, with a cup of plain old grape juice from the same place, and hear me say the same plain old English words I've said before. Perfectly ordinary in every respect.

But we seek the presence of the Holy Spirit among us when we do this, so that our bread and juice and words become something more -- a real "union with" our Savior and with Christians across the world who do the same thing we do.

If I'm honest about my own spiritual journey, I don't pray for that Holy Sprit's presence with me in every event or at every moment of my life.

My loss.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Great High Priest (Hebrews 2:14-18)

The letter to the Hebrews may puzzle us some -- we're not a part of pre-Exile Jewish life and so our experience with the role of a high priest might be limited. Especially if we're Protestant and we hold the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. We see Jesus as the only intermediary between ourselves and God, and we recognize no human agency other than Jesus in that role. So when the letter emphasizes Jesus' role as the great high priest, it might confuse us, or sound like something we can set aside.

But Christianity's Jewish roots mean it is important for us to understand what kinds of things the writer wanted to say about Jesus when he gave him that title. What did the high priest do, and how do Jesus' actions follow that role?

Apart from administrative duties, the major role of the high priest was to preside over several very important sacrifices as part of the temple worship. One of them was the sacrifice of atonement, offered once a year as a sign of the people seeking God's forgiveness for the sins of the previous year. Although modern Jewish worship focuses on the life of the synagogue and involves neither temple nor animal sacrifice, the Day of Atonement is still important today. Fasting, prayer and acts of repentance are a part of the day, generally held just before the new year of the Jewish calendar.

During the days of the Temple, the high priest would offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people. Now, they didn't believe that in order for God to forgive them, some animal had to die. After all, the animal hadn't done anything wrong. The sacrifice was a symbol for them that God's forgiveness had a cost, and although God did not require them to pay it, that didn't mean the cost went away. It just meant that God assumed the cost himself, the way that a person does if they forgive a monetary debt owed to them.

Before the high priest offered the sacrifice of atonement, he had to offer a sacrifice for his own sins in order to be ritually clean for the ceremony. In so doing, he was shown to be one of the people himself and not above them in any way. He needed to atone for his sins just like they did. One of the effects of this practice was to reinforce for the people the seriousness of his actions. Sin was real, and even the man who offered a sacrifice for their sins was affected by it.

What does this mean for us and how Jesus has a priestly role for us? For one, we note that no one had to offer a sacrifice for Jesus. He was already without sin and required nothing in the way of atonement himself. Hebrews makes this characteristic of Jesus clear several times. He was like us and went through life like we do, even to the point of being tempted to sin. But unlike us, he never sinned.

Another major meaning for us is how Jesus is like us. He went through everything we go through. He knew what it was like to have to hold your temper when your friends disappointed you, or what it was like to be deserted by someone he depended on. He knew what it was like to be hungry, thirsty and tired -- any human condition you can think of execpt maybe jet lag.

That matters because sometimes when I think about God and how immense God's power and knowledge are, I wonder how he can know what it's like to be a limited human being. Sure, I accept it intellectually, but we all know how we can sometimes proclaim something as true but wonder at how it could really be true.

And so God sent Jesus, who went through life like we do and in him, the divine Logos and second person of the holy Trinity, I can be reassured that God knows what this limited life is like and really means it when he offers me a relationship healed and made whole. An ancient Christian writer named Gregory of Nazianzus said, "For that which he has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved."

Hebrews tells us that in Jesus, we not only have a high priest without sin who can offer the perfect sacrifice of atonement, but we have one who has lived a life like ours and knows it intimately.

And that sounds like very good news to me.