Sunday, June 28, 2009

The End

Revelation 22

by Daniel Harrell

The end of Revelation has been a long time coming, both in terms of this sermon series (I’ve been going at it for 3 years) and in terms of Jesus’ return (2009 years and counting). The latter wouldn’t be a problem had Jesus not said “I am coming soon.” He said soon three times in this chapter alone. Some translate Jesus as saying, “I am coming quickly,” to square with his frequent analogy of coming “a thief in the night,” emphasizing the how rather than the when. Others, more troubled by Jesus’ delay, interpret “coming soon” as Jesus’ showing up in the crises of life or at the point of each individual’s death. The problem is that such an interpretation adds more difficulty to Revelation than it reduces, and interpreting Revelation is difficult already. For me the best solution to the problem comes from the apostle Peter who wrote, “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” I like that God waits in order that all might believe. The only problem here is that not all for whom God waits do believe. While those in verse 14 who “wash their robes” in the blood of the Lamb gain access to the tree of life, even at the end there remain dogs outside the gates; “people who love and live lies.”

Patience does have its limits. When the day of the Lord does come, Peter writes, it will come “like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare… but in keeping with God’s promise we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth, a world filled with God’s righteousness.” This new heaven and new earth came in Revelation 21. With it came an end to death and mourning and crying and pain. I use the past tense because John does, emphasizing the surety of God’s promises; so sure that they can be spoken of as having already happened. In the new world there is no more problem of evil because there is no more evil. In the new world God allows no more suffering because there is no more suffering to allow. For Revelation’s first readers, faithful Christians tortured by the Romans with unimaginable cruelty, these assurances of divine deliverance and divine retribution were like fresh water on parched ground. In time, the God who rules in sublime majesty would triumph in perfect justice. And in the meantime, as the crucified Lamb, the sovereign God would patiently endure injustice alongside his people. They would wait together.

One of the interesting things I hope you’ve noted about Revelation is the way it repeats itself, going over and over the same information again and again even as its imagery varies. Seven times in fact (seven being a good apocalyptic number) Revelation cycles its warnings and blessings. In chapters 1-3, Jesus called upon existing churches with forecasts of woe and weal, readying them for the apocalypse proper which commenced in chapter 4. Chapters 4-7 described seven seals of God’s judgment, which effectively rewound and repeated as seven trumpets in chapters 8-11. After that, in chapters 12-14, came a woman giving birth to a son whom a dragon awaited to devour. The dragon turned out to be Satan who introduced two beasts to the drama for an unholy trinity, one from the sea (the 666 antichrist) and another from the earth (also known as the false prophet). Next came seven bowls of wrath in chapters 15-16, which rid the world of its evil, epitomized this time by the wicked witch of Babylon. She falls again in chapters 17-19, along with the two beastly escorts and the rest of the world’s perniciousness. All that remains of evil is Satan, who meets his doom in chapter 20, which along with chapters 21 and 22 comprise the last of the seven cycles.

Chapters 20 through 22 portray the end as a glorious wedding between Jesus the Lamb and the New Jerusalem—representative of God’s redeemed people. It’s the Big Day not just for Revelation, but for the entire Bible. In Revelation 21, John writes, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God”――just like the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost. The Holy City descends as a beautiful bride—an odd juxtaposition that we explored last time. The bride picks up on that ancient language of marriage between God and his people while the city imagery stresses his people as his dwelling place. There is no Temple in the New Jerusalem because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple, living among God’s people.

Chapter 21 provided most of the standard specs of the New Jerusalem: streets of gold and pearly gates; symbols of purity and worth. Here in chapter 22, the final details turn out to be the most significant. A river of life flows down Main Street, with the tree of life spanning the river and bursting with abundant fruit. The picture is intentionally Edenic; the Genesis curse has been reversed. In the New Jerusalem, God’s creatures no longer hide their faces in shame and seek refuge in the shadows. Instead, having had their sins washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, they freely step into the light to gaze upon God. The Old Testament had warned that nobody could see the face of God and live, a danger that mandated the high priest to identify himself with God’s name on his forehead and shield himself with smoke from burning incense when he annually stepped into the Temple’s inner sanctum. However in the New Jerusalem there is no more temple, no more smoke, no more shame and no more fear. Everyone wears the name of God on their foreheads here.

The river of life is a throwback to Eden too, but it’s an image picked up and expanded upon in Ezekiel, an Old Testament book that reads a lot like Revelation. Water is a prevalent image throughout Scripture—springs, streams and rivers of living water emitting God’s mercy find mention in the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel and Zechariah too. In the thanksgiving-like Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, prayers were offered for water as part of an elaborate water liturgy designed to solicit God’s provision of both agricultural hydration and spiritual healing. In the original tabernacle desert years, God miraculously slaked Israel’s thirst with water from a rock. The prophet Joel foresaw a miraculous provision of God’s Spirit to be “poured out” on His people, a prophesy fulfilled by Pentecost. For Zechariah, living water signaled the final triumph of God over evil: “On that day, living water will flow out from Jerusalem…The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. …All nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up … to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.” And in Ezekiel’s vision, what began as a trickle miraculously expanded into a river gushing out from Jerusalem into the Dead Sea transforming both uninhabitable desert and languid sea into a lush garden. With living water, God redeems all creation. “Where this river flows,” Ezekiel foretold, “everything will live.”

In John’s gospel—amidst all the fervor generated by the Tabernacles liturgy, a fervor enhanced by Roman oppression and the hope of God’s deliverance— a homeless, working-class carpenter audaciously stepped forward to announce: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within.” Jesus shockingly proclaimed himself to be Ezekiel’s river of living water bringing life wherever he flows. He is the Exodus Rock from which water gushed, saving rebellious wanderers from withering away forever. He is Zechariah’s Jerusalem in whom God fully resides and from whom living water drowns evil while drawing all nations to himself. Jesus embodied all of God’s great deeds past as well as God’s great promises for the future. He is the Alpha and the Omega, verse 13, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. He is the both the Root and Offspring of David, the bright Morning Star. To whomever is thirsty he will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.

The invitation to drink came originally from Isaiah, was offered by Jesus on earth, and gets reissued twice in Revelation. First in chapter 21, and then again here in verse 17. It’s an invitation to faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. “Come and take the free gift of the water of life.” What happens when you do? Jesus says that streams of living water will flow out of you. Just like that old camp song: “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me!” But what does this mean? John explains in the gospel how this river of life from within is the Holy Spirit; a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The Spirit, like the New Jerusalem, descended from heaven and filled the first Christians and fills every Christian since. But like any flowing course of water, it cannot remain stagnant. And thus the water that flows from Christ flows through Christians, a river of life from which others can drink as Christians speak words of truth and grace, as we love our neighbors and our enemies, as we serve those in need, and suffer for what we believe.

This is not always easy. In the King James Bible, Jesus is quoted in John’s gospel as saying, “whoever believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” The NIV omits the word belly (feeling perhaps that talk about anything flowing out of the belly may sound a bit too intestinal), but I like what belly implies. It takes guts to follow Jesus. It takes guts to be honest about your faith, guts to endure ostracism and skepticism, guts to speak against injustice and cruelty when you’d rather keep quiet and not draw attention; it takes guts to renounce materialism and free up your resources for the poor, guts to bypass lucrative, personal fame in order to serve others, guts to forgive those who’ve wronged you, guts to confess your sin to those you’ve wronged. It takes guts in our culture to save sex for your wife, guts to work on your marriage, guts to hold your tongue from gossip, guts to press on when hardship makes God seem so far away.

If the book of Revelation is about anything, it’s about having the guts to follow Christ. Interestingly in America, our paragons of faith generally remain paragons of success: the Christian who is also the accomplished scholar, the profitable businessman, the prize-winning athlete, the award-winning author, the soul-winning missionary, the popular preacher, the recovered addict, the patient restored to health, the parent of behaving children. Not that these sorts of people aren’t faithful, mind you; but imagine if they were the only portraits of faith John’s original audience got to see and hear. For these early Christians, doomed to suffer under the brutal persecution of Rome, their faithfulness looked more like failure and foolishness; more like suicide than anything approaching success. To believe got them singled out, insulted, abused, tortured and crucified. Their accomplishments were the horrors they endured. The God who saved them did not save them from suffering. The God who saved them, saved them through suffering. Their loss was their gain. To lose required courage.

One of the things that’s made it hard to preach Revelation is that there are so few illustrations of people who have to suffer for their faith in America. For the earliest Christians, “taking up a cross” meant being strung up on one. But for Christians in America, as I mentioned a few months back, in America, taking up a cross is more like taking up cross-country skiing. In theory it can kill you, I guess, but you’d have to be a real doofus. Mostly, nobody cares. Now, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’m relieved most days that being a Christian in America (even a Christian minister) means that I’m generally considered irrelevant and harmless. I mean I could live in Pakistan where police recently opened fire on a Christian gathering. Or in Sri Lanka, where six pastors are currently being held prisoner. Or in Yemen, where three of nine people abducted with ties to missionary organizations were recently murdered. Or in Laos where thirteen Christians have been arrested without for believing in Jesus. Or in Saudi Arabia, where two Indian Christian workers remain imprisoned on charges of sharing the gospel.

The worse that ever happens to me is getting laughed at now and then. Each Thursday a group of us go out onto the Common where we feed the homeless, share our faith and conduct a little worship service. A couple of weeks back we stood and sang as it poured down rain. We sang “I’ve got a river of live flowing out of me.” The passersby, as they often do, stared at us like we were crazy. Some shook their heads, others rolled their eyes in disbelief. Every now and then we get to explain ourselves, thankfully. We’ve had to explain ourselves to the police a few times too. It takes some guts to stand on the Common and publicly worship God. Especially when you do it by singing badly. We can’t help but look like fools for Jesus some nights. And by the way, we could use a few more members if you’d like to join us.

Of course what ridicule we endure on the Common is a pittance compared to that endured by so many brothers and sisters around the world. Is it worth it? To read Revelation is to respond absolutely! Revelation paints a reward bursting with lavish abundance. A beautiful, bright city in which there is no more sorrow or trouble. No more night to fear, no more curse to dread. A limitless, gushing supply of water that ensures a cornucopia of plenty. The joy is endless and the company perfect. But can Revelation’s picture stir us as it stirred those earliest Christians? That depends. We live in a land where abundance is the status quo. We can get fresh fruit in the middle of winter and plenty of water at the turn of a spigot. Such abundance is not the global status quo. Many political scientists assert that coming world wars won’t be fought over who controls the oil, but over who controls the water. I’m reminded of a short term mission trip to West Africa many years ago where our water came from a Peace Corps well located a good truck’s ride away from our village. Once we pumped it and drove it back, it still required 24 hours of filtering before it was drinkable. One day, due to construction-induced dehydration amidst sub-Saharan temperatures as well as plain bad planning, we ran out of water a day before the water truck was due. Thirsty and afraid, our prayers took on a new urgency. Nothing amps up prayer like a crisis. As God would have it, the truck unexpectedly (and thankfully) arrived that afternoon, a day early.

The subsequent enormity of our gratitude reflected our prior desperation. Yet our desperation had been but day’s worth. Such desperation is every day life for the Africans who populate that desiccated countryside—just as is for those who live in so many other parts of the world. Ironically, getting back to the States rarely makes you grateful for the ample provisions we so enjoy in America. Instead, you tend to feel shame and disgust. I always feel it most fiercely in the supermarket. Many, upon returning stateside after stints in developing countries, break down crying when confronted by the endless aisles of groceries. It’s not the vast availability of food that’s the problem, but rather the blatant injustice of it’s all being here.

Verse 2 promises a tree of life whose leaves provide healing for the nations. On the one hand, as people through whom God’s river of life flows, the responsibility for this healing lies with us. Through ministries of relief and development along with evangelism and mission, the church is called to heal the nations. But Revelation’s vision stretches past our calling to Christ’s accomplishment. Ultimately, He will set all things to right. Amen, but when? We read about Pakistan, where the military’s battle with the Taliban is creating the country’s worst refugee crisis in 60 years. We read about Iraq, where at least seven bombs exploded Thursday amid an uptick in violence. We read about the developing world where the lives of 1.4 billion souls living in extreme poverty worsen with the recession. Is this why Revelation finds it necessary to reiterate its promises over and over again? In chapter 22, three times, Jesus insists that yes, he is coming soon, soon, soon.

In verse 7, “Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.” Throughout Revelation, prophecy is known by what it does: true prophecy moves people to serve the true God and false prophecy draws people away from God. That people remain drawn away from God is evident in verse 11. “Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile.” What reads like resignation to the state of things, or even like permission to go on doing what you’re doing, is better read, I think, as an acknowledgement of good and evil’s continued existence in the face of Revelation’s hope. This acknowledgement can be enough to make you lose hope, which is why Jesus speaks up again in verse 12. “I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what they have done.” This is bad news for the evildoer, good news for the one whom verse 11 describes as holy and doing right. While this is not about a salvation earned by good works, it is about a faith confirmed by good works. While you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you still must do something to show you’ve received it. Living water that flows into you must flow through you too.

Jesus says, “I am coming soon, I am coming soon.” The Spirit and the bride respond by saying “Come on then,” to which Jesus assures one last time in verse 20: “Yes, I am coming soon.” John utters his own final “Amen” of trust. But then for good measure, he adds his own: “Come on Lord Jesus.” The final answer to life’s struggles and its evils do not lie in our ability to make a better world, but in God’s power to make a new one. Therefore, we pray it too, “Come Lord Jesus.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Caesar Salad

Mark 12:13-27
by Daniel Harrell

One of my guilty internet pleasures is scanning entries at the FML website (some of you know what I’m talking about). On it, one father wrote, “Today, after the church service was over, my two-year-old daughter started to sing into the microphone. She said, ‘Here Dad, you sing.” I picked up the microphone and proceeded to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ She took the microphone back and said, ‘No he doesn’t.’” Happy Father’s Day. I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said that the kingdom of God belongs to little children? Something about belonging to God brings out the exclusiveness in all of us. There is a nagging tendency among believers to treat God’s favor as favoritism and as license to snub those you’re certain Jesus could never love. In a conversation recently with a Christian political lobbyist, I was struck by the ease with which he vilified his opponents. I couldn’t help but wonder whether a bit more grace might win him a few more votes, and Jesus a few more converts. Perhaps such is just the contentious nature of politics. Privilege is power, and for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, their power was threatened by this rogue carpenter who taught that God’s grace was for those who least deserved it―for the outcast and the sinner who needed it most. For the religious establishment, such unfettered accessibility to God’s favor threatened their hard-earned righteousness. If righteousness could be had for free, what good is a Pharisee?

Tonight’s the last, for now, in this series of Jesus’ red-lettered sayings from Mark’s gospel. We’ve been going at it for over a year, and will pick back up with a few more in the fall as we wrap up the church bicentennial year. Coming up for the rest of the summer is a chance to hear from several other members of our able church ministry staff, as well as the pleasure to hear Joni Eareckson Tada on July 12. As for me, I have a couple of Sundays I’ll devote to my annual church fathers’ series, this year starting with the letter J. I’m actually planning to tackle one father and one mother this year: Justin Martyr and Julian of Norwich.

As far as we know, Justin Martyr, the 2nd century church apologist, was the first Christian author outside the gospels to quote tonight’s first set of red letters: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” According to Justin, Jesus meant that Christians were to be model citizens in Roman society, refusing the emperor only one thing: their worship. Of course it was Justin’s refusal to worship the emperor that made Justin into Justin Martyr.

In Mark 12, the context is not emperor worship per se, but rather how to trap Jesus. The religious establishment has been gunning for him since chapter 3, but because of his rock star popularity, they couldn’t just gun him down. They either had to discredit him in the eyes of his fans, or goad him into breaking Roman law. Ergo the trick question in verse 14: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Answer yes, and Jesus offends the occupied Jewish masses for whom Roman taxes were both economically and blasphemously burdensome. Answer no, and Jesus incurs the wrath of Rome. Either way, the religious establishment strikes a major blow. What’s interesting is that you have the Pharisees and the Herodians working together. The Pharisees chafed under Roman rule and were offended by an Emperor with delusions of divinity. The Herodians, on the other hand, were Jews who’d hopped into bed with their Roman oppressors, setting aside convictions the Pharisees were so adamant about protecting for the sake of personal benefit.

Ironically, Jesus and the Pharisees actually shared a common faith. Both were of chosen stock, both traced their ancestry to Abraham, both worshipped at the Temple and regarded the Law as God’s sacred word, and both looked toward God’s deliverance from Roman oppression. And both remembered the Sabbath day and kept it holy. Yet their politics diverged deeply—evidenced most starkly in regard to the Sabbath. As much as sexual conduct headlines contemporary political news cycles, Sabbath conduct did so in Jesus’ day. Sabbath was a core aspect of Israel’s identity. It was the tangible thing that set them apart from their pagan oppressors. As with Christians who refuse to work on Sundays, Pharisaic Jews kept Sabbath as a way of drawing their line in the cultural sand. Yet since the Romans were apparently fine with letting their Jewish subjects keep their Sabbath for the most part, it wasn’t much of a line. For the Pharisees, however, strict Sabbath observance succeeded as a political ploy. By sticking to the Sabbath the Pharisees could look like they were sticking it to Rome. By keeping the Sabbath better than everybody else they could project an image that they were better than everybody else. They cornered the market on both prominence and piety―since to keep Sabbath kept you in God’s graces.

And they pretty much got away with it until Jesus showed up and started messing with their Sabbath setup. Of course the Pharisees, like any party in power, could not allow for this. And because politics makes strange bedfellows, they conspired with the Herodians about how to take Jesus out. For the Herodians, Jesus’ kingdom talk threatened Roman hegemony and thus their own security and status that was tied to it.

Together they suck up to Jesus in an attempt to throw him off guard and mask their scheme, calling him a man of obvious integrity and godliness. This is all true of course, but the Pharisees and Herodians don’t believe it for a minute. Mark notes that Jesus “knew of their hypocrisy.” He could smell a rat. Jesus says as much himself, asking in verse 15 why they are trying to trap him. He then gives his answer, using a Roman denarius as a prop. He asked them to identify the image on it. The coin bore the image of the current Emperor Tiberius Caesar. That Jesus uses words like image and likeness hearkens back to Genesis 1 where men and women are spoken of being made in God’s image. And thus “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” means that Caesar can have the money and all that goes with it, but God gets your very soul. This is how Tertullian, another early church father, understood it. As did Augustine. Jesus’ beef was not with the Romans. As he said to Pontius Pilate, “his kingdom was not from this world.”

Many have cited this passage as precedent for the American separation of church and state. However, that God’s kingdom is not from the world does not mean God’s kingdom has nothing to do with the world. Our faith should not be compartmentalized from other aspects of our life, political and otherwise. In the back of this sanctuary hangs a bronze plaque in honor of Arcturus Z. Conrad, pastor of Park Street for 33 years. He was quite the flamboyant figure, arriving at church Sunday mornings in his horse drawn limousine, dressed in white tie and tails underneath his preaching robe. His sermon topics typically engaged the social and political issues of his day: the necessity of prohibition, whether bank deposits should be guaranteed, the cost of coal, playing sports on Sunday, municipal corruption and graft, and the depraved presidency of FDR. Word has it that whenever Conrad caught wind of wanton legislation being debated up at the State House, he’d bolt out of the church and charge up Park St. to confront the governor and legislators head on. I guess that’s how Conrad understood “giving it to Caesar.”

Times have changed. Expectations that state government will heel to the demands of a local congregation are generally quite low—and perhaps even unwarranted. Entrusting Christian morality to secular implementation is always a dubious enterprise. Whenever Christian faith relies too strongly on governmental power to uphold its ethics, it’s life-changing power can easily dilute into a civil religion not worth its salt. And yet, there are times when God’s people are compelled toward more confrontational postures even if the expectation is failure. In Conrad’s words, we must at times “breathe that flame designed to consume us.” Such passion—albeit always infused with compassion—has been exhibited from many corners of the church as we’ve historically marshaled righteous opposition against slavery, hunger, poverty, racism, illiteracy, abortion, penal injustices, health care disparity, war and violence.

Not that this is what Jesus intends here. Here, the intention is to elude the trap. Which he does, thereby allowing the Sadducees to take their shot. Like the Pharisees, the Sadducees were members of the religious ruling council, known as the Sanhedrin. The Sadducees are mentioned only here in Mark, and unlike the Pharisees, are described as those “who say there is no resurrection” which is what made the Sadducees so sad, you see (sorry). The Sadducees rejection of the resurrection was not because the Sadducees were theological liberals. On the contrary, the Sadducees were extremely strict when it came to the law, adhering to a “Torah only” approach to Biblical authority because the Torah came straight from the mouth of God (through Moses—the Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament). For the Sadducees, if it wasn’t in the Torah, it wasn’t true. This is why Jesus answers their question from Exodus, the second book of the Torah.

The Sadducees’ question wasn’t so much to get an answer as it was to mock the idea of anybody rising from the dead―including Jesus. By this point Jesus had announced his own plans to come back to life. The Sadducees give him this silly song and dance about a childless wife with seven deceased husbands, attempting to show that once you bring in resurrection, Torah teaching on marriage no longer makes any sense. According to the Torah, a single man whose brother died without a son had an obligation to marry his brother’s widow. This provided for the widow in a society where no children and no husband meant no social security. It also guaranteed the continuance of the family line. However here, there is no line to continue because there were no children. So at the resurrection of the dead, which brother gets the wife?

Jesus replied that clearly the Sadducees understood neither the word nor the power of God―the very word and power, by the way, that paved the way for Jesus own resurrection. Jesus first teaches that there is no marriage in heaven—which explains why people say “until death do us part” in their marriage vows. Instead, as far as marriage is concerned, resurrected people will “be like the angels,” verse 25. This does not mean that we all get halos and harps and flit around eternally from cloud to cloud (as if that’s what angels do). Rather, like angels, we will enjoy eternal communion with God, the very thing that human marriage has always been intended to approximate. In Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem―representing the redeemed people of God―comes down to earth like a beautiful bride with Jesus as the husband. There’s no more marriage in heaven because everybody’s married to Jesus. As angels, they do not share in the marital bliss we humans do. But they are there cheering us on, which no doubt displeased the Sadducees since they didn’t believe in angels either.

But they did believe in the Torah, so when Jesus asks whether they’ve read the part about the burning bush (where an angel happens to appear), that had to make the Sadducees hot. Of course they’d read the part about the burning bush. OK, but had they understood it? In Exodus 3, God spoke to Moses out of that bush, identifying himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The context is Moses’ commissioning to go rescue God’s people out of Egypt, a mission Moses felt completely unqualified to do. God’s assurance of Moses’ success is based on God being the God of Abraham, et. al., the idea being that if God protected the patriarchs—who were the recipients of God’s promise to save a people for himself—then surely God will keep that promise and protect Moses too. And not just in this life, but forever. This is how it was that God could speak of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the present tense (and how Moses could show up at Jesus’ Transfiguration). If death got the last word, as the Sadducees believed, then God had broken his covenant promises. But since “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (verse 27), then Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must somehow still be alive.

But how can the patriarchs be raised from the dead if Jesus himself has yet to blaze the trail? If belief in Jesus gets you eternal life, how do you get it if there’s no Jesus yet to believe in? For the Old Testament saints, it was their hope in God’s salvation to come that comprised their saving faith. As the apostle Paul wrote regarding Abraham’s faith, “he believed God’s promise and it was credited to him as righteousness.” But how can they be raised from the dead if there had yet to be any resurrection?

In the book of Colossians, the apostle Paul describes the Colossians as “already raised with Christ” even as they still lived and breathed on earth. In doing so, like Jesus, Paul hints at a dual reality, an already-not-yet existence, an eternity that occurs even while earthly clocks still tick. According to some interpretations of Einstein’s theory of relativity, our experience of time as the constant tick-tock move toward the future is for the most part just an illusion anyway. What truly exists is a greater reality beyond the speed of light where no time passes and everything occurs in the conceptual present—whether past, present or future. God abides in this dimension unbound by time, interacting with all events of history simultaneously (sort of like a comic strip reader reading the comics). In the tick-tock of temporal time, our bodies and our selves return to the dust from whence they came, awaiting new creation. Yet in the dimension of eternity, we are seated with Christ in heaven already, just like Paul said. The day of resurrection has already happened on God’s clock; we merely await for our experience of it to catch up with it on that day when, as Revelation describes, the New Jerusalem finally comes down from heaven, and eternity and time compress together and God’s will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven.

The Sadducees were badly mistaken, Jesus said. And like the Pharisees and the Herodians, they fail to trap Jesus. That they eventually succeed at getting him killed is not a testimony to their own eventual cleverness. Instead, their eventual success at destroying Jesus only further demonstrates his authority. Not only does he teach that in God’s kingdom the only currency is sacrificial love, Jesus proves it so loving the world that he dies a sacrificial death. And not only does he teach the resurrection of the dead, Jesus proves it by doing it.

The Rejected Son

Mark 12:1-12
by Daniel Harrell

Throughout this survey of the red-letters of Mark’s gospel, the chief theme of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God was that by any earthly estimation, it wouldn’t be much of an earthly kingdom. Two weeks ago, in chapter 10, Jesus informed his followers for the third time how, as king, his coronation would look more like an execution. He would be betrayed, condemned, mocked, flogged and crucified. But then three days later, he would rise from the dead. And not only would he rise, but all who likewise took up crosses to follow him would rise from their own deaths too. I’ve told before how many years ago in this room, during a morning service sermon, an usher scurried up to the pulpit and slipped the preacher an urgent note. Turned out that one of our long-time members had just keeled over dead in his pew. The minister preaching that morning, our previous Senior Minister David Fisher, read the note and looked over and observed that sure enough, the pew spot which this longtime member occupied every Sunday—and had been sitting in when the sermon started—was now vacant.

David stopped his sermon and led the congregation in prayer for this man and his family. At the amen, we all looked over toward the empty pew where the longtime member who was dead, bless his soul, suddenly sat up. While we preach the resurrection of the dead in this church, none of us had actually ever seen one happen! (OK, the man had merely fainted, but it still looked like a resurrection.) The usher was embarrassed, but David Fisher went home feeling pretty good about his sermon that day.

Not too long after David’s miraculous sermon, it was my turn to preach and while in the middle of what I’m sure was an inspiring point, the back doors suddenly swung open and a stranger frenetically burst into the sanctuary and ran down the aisle shouting that he had a word from God for the church. The ushers tackled him and escorted him out. I ducked behind the big pulpit. The man yelled all the way out that he was a messenger sent by God. We never did get to hear what he had to say. Not that anyone remembered what I said that morning either (including myself). But I do remember this thought crossing my mind: “I sure hope he really wasn’t a messenger from God.” Having read enough of Mark’s gospel, I knew better than to write off the crazy-sounding man simply for sounding crazy.

I’ve skipped chapter 11 since we looked at those red-letters during Lent. You might remember my describing the episode of Jesus cursing a poor fig tree and clearing out the Temple in terms of a Mark Sandwich. Throughout his gospel, Mark often sandwiches one story of Jesus inside another in order to amplify the meaning of each. Jesus’ cursing a fig tree provided the bread for the Temple clearing meat. A hungry Jesus wanting some breakfast stumbled upon a fig tree that had no fruit. Like any of us might do when we’re hungry, Jesus got irritated and cursed the fig tree to death. Why didn’t he simply command the tree to pop out some breakfast? Instead, Jesus comes off as petty and petulant, picking off a helpless plant just because it had nothing to pick. But that was the point. Remember, the fig tree was figurative.

Throughout the Bible, God’s people are compared to fruit trees, expected to flower and bloom and produce fruitful deeds in accordance with their redeemed nature. Yet in accordance with their human nature, the chosen people resisted his grace, treating his favor as favoritism and as permission to do as they please. The prophet Jeremiah stood in the Temple centuries prior and conveyed God’s displeasure. “When I would gather you, declares the LORD, there would be no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave you has passed away from you.” Their sin ran deep―but the topper was the way they used the Temple system to cover their rear. Jeremiah (sounding like a crazy man himself) yelled, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to idols, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are saved!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” Jesus quoted this last line in his own Temple tirade, intentionally reenacting Jeremiah. If you read “den of robbers” as “hideout for evil,” then you understand how the people regarded the Temple as a safe-house for their sin. No wonder Jesus got so furious.

However he finished the sandwich not with promises of retribution, but with prayers for grace. “When you pray, forgive, if you have anything against anyone,” Jesus told his disciples, “so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive your sins too.” For a Messiah in such a bad mood, this was a remarkable concession. He angrily killed a tree to predict the end of relationship between God and sinners, then prayed to throw the whole mountain of mess into the sea, only to turn around and forgive. Remember that whenever Jesus spoke of the Temple he also spoke of himself. Both were the dwelling places for God. And both would be destroyed. The curse Jesus put on the fig tree and the Temple was the curse Jesus put on himself. And yet the curse Jesus put on himself was one intended for you and me. And if you can accept that, then the grace of God will not only save your soul, but make you fruitful and raise your body once its dead.

Unfortunately for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, accepting that from Jesus was out of the question. They viewed him as a flagrant blasphemer who was always interrupting their sermons claiming to have a message from God. It’s easy when you’re a religious professional, a master of divinity, having devoted all those years to training and study, having kept company with scholars of impeccable wisdom, having lived week in and week out with your head in the Bible, musing on the Greek and the Hebrew, acquainted with the nuances, the lingo and the theological terms—it’s easy to presume that you’d know a genuine messenger from God if you saw one. The religious types in Jesus’ day, presuming to know God inside and out, insisted that as far as Messiahs went, God would never send one with Jesus’ pedigree. The clincher came after he cleared the money changers from the Temple courts. The chief priests, teachers of the law and the elders stormed over to him demanding to know who told him he could behave as he’d behaved in God’s sanctuary. It obviously hadn’t been God. As usual, Jesus answered their question with a question they couldn’t answer―this one about John the Baptist and baptism―and then commenced to tell them the parable read from tonight’s passage.

It’s a story they would have already known. It came straight from Isaiah chapter 5: “Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard… he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” The priests and elders would have known the vineyard to be a metaphor for Israel, bad fruit a metaphor for Israel’s disobedience and the vineyard owner a metaphor for God. However Jesus, taking a few liberties with Isaiah’s imagery (which Jesus being Jesus was at liberty to do) shifted the focus off the bad fruit and onto the ones who grew it: a group of tenant farmers whom Jesus introduced into the story.

It was customary for prosperous absentee landowners to lease out land to tenants who would manage the vineyards, farm the land, turn a profit and then pay rent with a percentage of those profits. The absentee owner in this story happened to be very absent—off in some far country—so he sent a servant around at harvest time to collect the rent. The tenant farmers, for some inexplicable reason, decided they weren’t going to pay. So they grabbed the servant, beat him up and sent him away empty-handed. The owner sent another servant whom the tenants insulted then pelted with rocks. The owner sent still another servant and this one the tenant farmers murdered! It was ludicrous. Still, the vineyard owner kept sending servant after servant and the tenants kept beating and killing them all. The vineyard owner was either a sucker for sedition or unbelievably long-suffering.

Finally, all out of servants, the owner decided to send his only beloved son. (An obvious tip-off to those who’d been at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration and heard God refer to Jesus that way.) “Surely they’ll respect my son,” the owner reasoned. But the tenant farmers had already gotten away with murder, why change their ways now? Instead the tenant farmers said to each other, “This is the heir to the vineyard! Come on, let’s kill him too and the inheritance will be ours!” So when the son arrived, they killed him and tossed his body out of the vineyard without even the decency of a proper burial. What sort of idiots were these farmers? Their lease arrangement was customary and profitable. Why did they brutalize the vineyard owner’s servants? Did they think the owner was that far away? Or were they trying to cover up the bad fruit their work had produced? And how did they figure they would inherit anything by killing the son anyway? They were tenants not kin! Moreover, the vineyard owner, the murdered son’s father, was still alive and well and soon to be breathing down their necks! What did they think that the vineyard owner was going to do to them once he finally returned? Jesus answers this one: “The vineyard owner will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Mark adds in verse 12 how the religious rulers “knew Jesus had spoken this parable against them.” I’m sure they did.

Jesus rubbed it in. “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Of course they had. Having devoted all those years to training and study, they had their Bibles down pat. They would have been able to recite Psalm 118:22 by heart: “The stone the builders tossed out has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous, astonishing really.” No doubt the religious leaders and chosen people had always considered this verse to be speaking about them. But Jesus rejects that application and applies the verse to himself. He declares himself to be the rejected cornerstone―rejected by the chosen people themselves. The rejected become the rejecters. And yet the stone tossed out by the builders, like the beloved son the tenants tossed out of the vineyard, ironically ends up being the cornerstone of God’s redemptive plan.

The religious leaders committed a double sin: they not only rejected God’s beloved Son—along with all the servant-prophets who had previewed his arrival—but they outrageously ventured to usurp what belonged to God for themselves. Our tendency is to write off them off as corrupt, greedy, power-hungry malcontents whose illusions of entitlement blinded them into seeing themselves as immune from reaping what they’d sown. You feel no sympathy for them. Certainly no affinity with them. But still, the thought does cross your mind, would I have been so righteous and blind to Jesus too? While the gospels tend to group the religious leaders together as one insidious lot and label them Pharisees, there were surely those whose faith in God was genuine. Surely there were those who devoutly studied their Torahs, who worshipped sincerely, who cared for people, aided the sick, thoughtfully preached, who abided by the law while they eagerly and fervently awaited the coming Messiah. Yet surprisingly the gospels make no distinction between the faithful and the deceitful when it came to recognizing Jesus. The faithful priests and elders missed the Messiah too.

Yet if all the priests and elders weren’t in fact as deceitful as Jesus paints them in this parable, why does he use such a broad brush stroke? Understand that Jesus often employed hyperbole in his parables in order to elicit exaggerated responses which would then be turned back on the hearer’s head as either indictment or grace. In this parable, the tenant farmers’ over-the-line behavior elicits outrage. They deserved the punishment they got. The hyperbole, however, stresses not how all were equally evil, but rather, that all were equally ignorant.

And not only them. Just as surprising, if not more, was the fact that even some of Jesus’ own followers failed to recognize him even after he had risen from the dead. As startling as it was for us to see that longtime member sit up in his pew, it must have been terrifying for the disciples to see Jesus following his crucifixion. Luke reports that when Jesus showed up that Easter Sunday night, his disciples mistook him for a ghost. In John’s gospel, as I mentioned last Sunday morning, after the resurrection the disciples hilariously went back to their boats to fish, as if all they had been through with Jesus was nothing more than extended time off (“Wow, that was some trip. OK, now back to work.”). The resurrected Jesus showed up again, this time on shore to wave them in, basically saying “Hey guys, we’re not done!” Though I still think he should have walked out to get them.

The stranger who burst in on my sermon those many years ago probably wasn’t a messenger from God, but he made me wonder. He made me wonder about the times I do refuse to recognize the hand of God, the times I’m reticent to listen and quick to judge. I may not be as twisted and deceitful as Jesus’ parabolic tenants, but I can be just as ignorant. I can claim to see and still not get it. Rather than taking up my cross, I whine about my inconveniences and sufferings as though I deserve something better. I get bitter because life hasn’t turned out like I thought it should. I selfishly want what I want and disregard people in need. I forget that all I have is gift from God and how that should elicit from me gratitude, humility, generosity, and service. And I rationalize all of this based on perceptions of a Jesus who loves me just as I am—even though he was clear I can never follow him and stay just as I am.

And thus I return to the communion table, this fruit of the vineyard, to have my perceptions fixed; and I do so without presuming upon God’s grace, but confessing my genuine need for it. Join me.