Monday, November 21, 2011

Body of Water

John 7:33-52
by Daniel Harrell

The Defense Department employs a group of analysts who specialize in scrutinizing religious language and behavior in order to authenticate terrorist communications. These Arabic and Islamic theology scholars recently recognized language in one terrorist screed to be subtly derived from the philosophy of a late 13th century Syrian religious leader who declared jihad on fellow Muslims. This Syrian philosophy is the sort of thing Muslim insurgents might read to justify their own attacks on fellow Muslims in places like Iraq, Afghanistan or now in Syria itself. This helpful ability to understand ancient doctrine and its current implications has been labeled “forensic theology.” It’s been used to pinpoint groups or individuals who pose the greatest threats to national security.

In a way the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were forensic theologians. Experts in Hebrew theology and Mosaic law, they specialized in scrutinizing religious language and behavior. Not only did they adjudicate authentic conformity to the Law, they pinpointed those individuals and groups who posed the greatest threats to Israel’s national security. To them, Jesus was especially dangerous. His sacrilegious speech and rabble rousing warranted arrest. So they sent the Temple police out to pick him up. Yet Jesus cagily eluded their grasp—without actually going anywhere. He said: “I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.” The Jewish leaders could only scratch their heads.

If you’ve done much reading in John’s gospel, you know it to be loaded with irony. Here the Jewish leaders wondered where Jesus thinks he’s going that they would be unable to find him. They mockingly surmised about his going to teach Gentiles, an absurd notion for any rabbi claiming to be sent from Israel’s God. Jews don’t talk to Gentiles. But ironically the gospel did extend to Gentiles who embraced it in ways most Jews refused. Jesus also declared that his time was short. This would have been welcome news to the Pharisees who were so eager to be rid of him that they plotted his death. But killing Jesus only spelled their own demise. After rising from the dead and sending His Spirit, Jesus became more vitally and universally present than he ever was while walking the earth.

The Pharisee Nicodemus (of John 3:16 fame) shows up to ask whether legally they could judge Jesus without a hearing. Again irony is at work: Those who demanded strict adherence to the law were not themselves obeying it. The rest of the Pharisees cut Nicodemus off and accused him of “campaigning for that Galilean.” “Examine the evidence,” they demanded, “See if any prophet ever comes from Galilee!” But, of course Jesus was not from Galilee, as anybody’s who’s ever read the Christmas story knows. Not that the pretentious Pharisees would taken the time to check—they were so sure they were right.

I was out in Boston this week for a faith-science discussion that met at the Harvard Faculty Club. I have so say that Harvard does pretentiousness better than anybody. I miss it. Anyway, on my way back I stopped off in the Logan airport Men’s Room. A woman came barreling in behind me, her bags confidently slung on her shoulder. She looked at me and gave me this sly grin, then condescendingly asked, “Still having trouble telling an M from a W?” Naturally there was no need for me to respond. I only had to wait. 3, 2, 1… I’m so sure that the entire terminal heard her scream. Certainty can be a dangerous thing.

The commoners who heard Jesus speak were not so sure—though they all agreed Jesus was somebody special. Some hoped he might be the Moses-like-Prophet-to-come promised by God in Deuteronomy. Others hoped he was the King David-like-Messiah-to-come promised by Isaiah and Micah and others who would restore Israel’s political and national fortunes. Even the Temple police were inspired. “Never has anyone spoken like this!” they said. The forensic theologians berated them for coming back empty handed.  The temple police acted as na├»ve as the ignorant, unenlightened rabble whom Jesus also hoodwinked. Only fools believe. Which ironically, is also true. As the apostle Paul wrote, a former Pharisee himself, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

The context for all of this was the Jewish thanksgiving-like Feast of Tabernacles; so named for the tents or “tabernacles” built to commemorate ancient Israel’s trek across the desert on their way to the Promised Land. Jews, then as now, camp out in temporary shelters to remind themselves of God’s promise of a permanent housing in the face of fleeting earthly life. I remember an observant Jewish neighbor of mine in the city who would pitch her tent in the middle of a parking lot, abandoning the comfort of her condo in good Tabernacles tradition. Later I watched as a suburban gentleman erected a tabernacle on his back deck; only his opened up into a posh living room. I couldn’t help but feel that he was cheapening the intent of Tabernacles. I also couldn’t help but mention this out loud in his presence—in a joking way naturally. Knowing that I was a Christian, he came back at me with four simple words: “plastic blinking nativity scenes.” Good point.

Of course the main point of Tabernacles was not to remember Israel’s time in the desert (they didn’t spend forty years wandering around as a reward for good behavior). The main point of Tabernacles was to remind how in time God will usher his people into a new heaven and a new earth where He will abide with them forever. On second thought, maybe that tent on the deck did ­prove more apropos; inasmuch as it was connected to something better. Tabernacles envisions that day when all of our temporary, shabby shelters will be shed; a day when redeemed creation will thrive in sync with heaven.

Tabernacles coincided with the grape and olive harvests and included rituals geared to promote harvest success. Prayers for needed rain were prayed in grand liturgical fashion. On seven days of the eight day festival, and seven times on the seventh day, a priest would carry a golden flagon down to the pool of Siloam (where legend held that angels stirred the water). Then with a flagon full of water, the priest would lead a pomp-laden parade back up to the Temple complete with singing, palm-waving and trumpets. When the priest reached the altar, he’d circle it seven times and pour out the water as a sacramental entreaty.

Needless to say, these prayers inferred more than plain rain. As we have seen over and over this fall, water is more than water in the Bible. At Creation, water was the chaos over which God’s spirit spoke light and life into being. With Noah’s flood and the Red Sea, water was God’s justice against evil. In the desert, the water Moses drew from a rock proved God to be faithful even when his people weren’t. Ezekiel’s miracle river of life pouring out from the Temple into the Dead Sea forecast God’s redemption of all things. Here at the Feast of Tabernacles, water poured out in the Temple stirred memories of God’s faithfulness in those original tabernacle years which stirred hope for the future. “On that day,” Zechariah declares, “living water will flow out from Jerusalem…The LORD will be king over the whole earth. All nations … will go up to worship the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.”

Imagine the energy and excitement this feast inspired; especially for people currently oppressed under Roman occupation. If but for a moment, their minds were free to dream of that day when their suffering would be washed away, their storehouses filled, their joy complete and all their prayers answered. Picture being in the midst of all of this intense expectation, enraptured by the celebration, filled with passionate longing for God’s salvation. Add the promise of a new Moses who single-handedly saved an enslaved people from tyranny. Mix in an ardent thirst for a King David-like warrior in whose presence all nations would cower. Whip all of this up to a fervent pitch—only to have some homeless, working-class, dingy ex-carpenter stand up and shout: “It’s me! I’m the one you’ve been hoping for!”

Seriously. That’d be like somebody who’d prayed her whole life for prince charming, who’d packed a hope chest full of baby clothes, who’d for years wistfully waited for Mr. Right to appear, only to reach her Quarter Life crisis and have some homely, good for nothing Mama’s boy waltz up and announce, “Hi honey, I’m home. Your prayers are answered.”

But what if it turned out to be true? Wouldn’t that be ironic?

In good Gospel of John fashion, on the last and climatic day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said (referring to the Old Testament), ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Jesus proclaimed himself to be Ezekiel’s river of life. He is the Exodus Rock from which water gushed for the parched. He is the Temple in whom God fully resides. Jesus embodied all of God’s great deeds of the past and his great promises for the future. He is the body of water poured out, who gives life to all who are thirsty, to any who will come to him and drink.

There is no life without water. Water participates in a incredible array of processes every minute of every day—you need it to make soup and clean computer chips, it drives the weather and shapes the face of the earth. The human body is more than 60 percent water; it holds our body temperatures at 98.6 degrees. Your body’s water-balance mechanisms are tuned with the precision of a digital chemistry lab, which is a bit of bad news.
You not only don’t need to drink eight glasses of water every day, you cannot in any way make your complexion more youthful by drinking water. As author Charles Fishman writes, you cannot possibly “hydrate” your skin from the inside by drinking an extra bottle or two of Perrier. All that does is make you have to go more—albeit it in French.

Clearly this is not what Jesus meant by rivers of living water flowing from inside you. His water flows from your heart—which John tells us has to do with the Holy Spirit. It’s a throwback to that John 3:16 conversation with Nicodemus where Jesus said no one can enter the kingdom of God without being reborn of water and spirit. Water and spirit go together at new creation just like they did at creation—just as they did at Jesus’ baptism, just like they do at our own baptisms. However “entering the kingdom of God” is not solely about securing a reservation for the Pearly Gates. Like in the rest of the Bible, genuine thirst-quenching faith reaps well-watered fruit of that faith. Not only will we drink in the Spirit of Jesus, but the spirit will pour out of us too.

What does it look like to have a river of life flowing out of your heart? No doubt it looks like love and joy and peace, patience and gentleness—virtues understood to be fruits of the Spirit. But I wonder if Jesus has another virtue in mind—especially given the contentiousness his Tabernacles declaration incited. To enter the Kingdom of God was to reject the kingdoms of the world. To declare yourself the fulfillment of Scripture, unless it was true, would be tantamount to blasphemy. It takes a lot of guts to say all of that. It takes a lot of guts to believe in somebody who says all of that. I mention it because the word Jesus uses to describe the source of living water in us is actually not the heart, but the belly. As the King James has Jesus saying it, “whoever believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.”

Of course we can appreciate why Bibles go with heart instead of belly. “Heart” does work as a synonym since the Greek word itself is about motivation rather than anatomy. In ancient culture the seat of one’s motivations was often the stomach, but in our culture, to talk about anything flowing out of your belly can come off as a bit too, well, intestinal. And yet I wonder if the word heart has suffered from overuse—like when people say, “I mean it from the bottom of my heart.” To be frank, “I mean it from the bottom of my heart” is probably the last thing anybody would ever say who really does mean something from the bottom of his heart.

Unfortunately, Christians who say they follow Jesus with “all of their heart” are often those same Christians who when confronted by that hard line Jesus draws between money and God, will say, “You don’t seriously have to sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, just need to have a right attitude toward them. Jesus said we’d always have the poor with us.” Or when confronted by that hard line Jesus gives about loving your enemies, will insist that Jesus only said pray for them, he didn’t say speak to them ever again.

Maybe that river of life needs to flow out of our bellies. Out of our gut. It does take courage to truly follow Jesus. It takes guts to be honest about your faith, guts to endure ostracism from the skeptic and the socially careless, guts to speak honestly 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 other people, guts to serve without being thanked for it. It takes guts to forgive those who’ve wronged you, guts to confess your sin to those you’ve wronged, guts to work on your marriage, to hold your tongue from gossip, to press on when troubles make God seem distant, it takes guts, it takes courage, to seriously take up a cross and follow Jesus with all of your heart.

British author and Christian GK Chesterton described it, ironically, like this: “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice … [Christians] seek life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; we desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.” Indeed. The water of life is ultimately wine of resurrection. It’s always served in a cross-shaped cup.

Bottled, Tap or Fermented?

John 2:1-11
by Daniel Harrell

Whenever I think back on the scores of weddings I’ve been privileged to participate in, the first memories that usually come to mind are all the bad things that happened. Things like the time the bride fainted to the floor during the vows (and none of us caught her). Or the outdoor wedding where it was 102 degrees and both the bride and groom took their vows with sweat dripping down their noses and through their clothes (and the guests left early to find air conditioning). Or the one where the couple hired a piano player to play jazz at the reception and he independently decided that it would be a better idea to bring an accordion. Or the one where the groomsmen thought it would be funny to kidnap the groom and paint him with the colors of his alma mater, indelible shoe polish, just before the wedding pictures. No matter that all of these couples ended up married and stayed married for more than 72 days. Looking back you still recall the weddings mostly as social disasters. Like you would recall a wedding reception that ran out of wine—now and back in Jesus’ day too. You don’t invite guests bearing gifts to a wedding banquet and then shortchange them on the food and drink.

We’re doing water stories in the Bible this fall, and today’s is a memorable one. Jesus saves a family’s social standing from total disaster by changing ordinary water into choice vintage wine. Hearing the story read, you get the sense that Jesus didn’t really want to do it. He says it’s none of his business. But Jesus’ mother presses him and apparently gets her way. John’s gospel doesn’t record the entire conversation, but with Mary being a good Jewish mother and all, I like to imagine her saying something to Jesus like, “So saving these sweet people from complete embarrassment is none of your business? That’s fine my son, to whom I gave birth in a cattle trough. Don’t worry that your father and I had to endure enormous disgrace and embarrassment to bring you into this world since no one would ever have believed I was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. This is not your problem. You just enjoy yourself.”

Last Sunday’s plunge into Biblical water had us at Jesus’ baptism—the most important water event of them all. Mark’s version brought forward all of the stories we’d explored thus far. At Jesus’ baptism there was the spirit hovering over water as at creation, a dove signaling safety as with Noah’s ark, the presence of a Jeremiah-like prophet in John the Baptist, and parallels between Elisha and Jesus—both of whom did miraculous signs and whose names both mean “God saves.” Jesus was baptized in the Jordan river, reminiscent of Ezekiel’s miracle river flowing out of the Temple (a Temple which Jesus will say is himself). And finally we had Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the desert to confront Satan—a reminder of Israel’s own desert sojourn. The Israelites ran out of water there only to have Moses rescue them by miraculously drawing water from a rock; a rock whom the apostle Paul recognized to be Christ.
Just as the wedding at Cana doesn’t appear in the other gospels, Jesus’ actual baptism doesn’t technically appear in John’s gospel. All we get is the testimony of John the Baptist. He identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and says he saw the Spirit descend like a dove and remain on Jesus, and that he heard the voice of God claim Jesus as his Son. But there’s no mention of Jesus ever getting wet—though we can probably assume it. There’s no mention of Jesus being driven into the desert to be tempted by Satan either—though there would be plenty to tempt him later. In this gospel, Jesus goes straight from John the Baptist’s testimony about him one day, to gathering a few disciples due to John’s testimony the next day, to then showing up at this wedding “on the third day.”
John’s gospel being what it is, it’s hard not to see something symbolic in whatever he writes. We know that Jesus rises from the dead on the third day as the “first fruits” of the best yet to come. We know that the new reality begun with Jesus’ resurrection works like a betrothal between heaven and earth, a pledge from God to be with his people forever. And we know that the Bible envisions this betrothal leading to an eventual marriage. Revelation reports a Holy City coming down from God “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” And “God himself will be with us; he will wipe every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more; nor crying nor pain.” So sure, for John to say, “on the third day there was a wedding” could be a huge hint.
Or it could just be that on a third day there was a wedding. After all, Jesus doesn’t seem especially thrilled to be here. While it’s clear that he was invited with his new disciples, we don’t why he was invited. Was this a family wedding? Did Jesus’ increasing popularity land him on the guest list? Or did his mother make him come because he hadn’t had a decent meal in days? Discussing this passage at last Wednesday night’s sermon group, we all agreed that Jesus does seem annoyed with his mother. When the wine runs out and Mary prods Jesus to do something, he curtly responds, “Woman—what concern is that to us?” The Message translation has Jesus saying, “Don’t push me.” It’s all pretty abrupt coming from the savior of the world. And all Mary wanted was for Jesus to save the party.
What did she expect him to do? Having been through all that we’ll celebrate at Christmas—the inexplicable conception and birth, all the angels and shepherds and wise men, the heavenly host praising God that Jesus is born as Christ the Lord—maybe Mary was simply eager for Jesus to do his first miracle. Like any proud mother, she wanted everybody to see what a special boy he was. But miracles aren’t that easy to do. Jesus only does seven of them in all of John’s gospel. According to the physics, to change water to wine would require the complete rearrangement of the bond between hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which in water is spectacularly stable. The fierce clinginess of water molecules supplies the glue that holds most of the natural world as we know it together. You can’t rearrange water molecules without emitting an explosion of energy capable of leveling most of Cana. For Jesus to do that meant he’d have to absorb quite an atomic blow.
But this wasn’t why he was hesitant. As creator of the world, he could manage molecular rearrangement. Jesus was hesitant, he says, because his “hour had not yet come.” In John’s gospel, Jesus’ “hour” refers to his crucifixion, when he would absorb a blow that puts nuclear fission to shame. The Lamb of God would take away the sin of the world by taking the sin of the world onto himself. Victory will be achieved through abject defeat. This was not how Saviors were supposed to save. In the desert, Satan mocked Jesus, tempting him to be a real Son of God and show some power. Call out your angelic army and do it right. Here at the wedding, Mary pushes Jesus to use power too, which may explain why Jesus was so abrupt. It’s bad enough when people we treat like gods act like people—you don’t have to be a Penn State grad to know that anger and grief. But when a person who is God doesn’t act like we think God should act? How can you not crucify him? The clock would start ticking once Jesus’ true identity went public. He knew his hour would come fast.
To Mary’s credit, she submits to her son as her Lord, telling the servants “to do whatever he tells you.” Her faith in her son sets his fate in motion. Jesus eyes six stone water jars used for Jewish purification rites. The Judaism of Jesus’ day, set up by the Pharisees, taught that everything having to do with eating and drinking had to be ceremonial washed for the sake of ritual purity. Jesus’ ongoing gripe with the Pharisees was their emphasis on externals. The Pharisees could behave as badly as they pleased as long as their hands were clean. Never mind that Scripture said you needed a pure heart too.
Granted, water does more than just ritually clean. Due to its sticky molecular structure, practically anything dissolves in water. It’s an amazing solvent. The computer giant IBM operates a semiconductor plant in Vermont where water is used to clean computer chips. The only catch is that given the small size of the chips, the water used can’t just come from the tap. While tap water is clean enough to drink, and quite refreshing in Vermont, it’s absolutely filthy from the perspective of a semiconductor. Minerals, ions, bacteria, viruses, and plain old bits of dirt too tiny to bother a person are microscopic boulders. You’d no more wash your computer chips in tap water than you’d ladle water from your toilet to make lemonade. Water is the only thing computer chips can be washed with, but it literally has to be pure water. H2O and nothing else. What would happen if you drank this pure water yourself? No one really knows, but since absolute water is so sticky, it’d likely leach every mineral right out of your body. Sort of like Jesus would leach every impurity out of our souls. “I baptize with water,” John the Baptist had said, “but the one who is coming baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” You need more than tap water to get a clean heart.
Jesus takes the purification jars and has them filled to the brim. Then follows the nuclear reaction that blows everybody away: Jesus miraculously converts the water to wine. And not just any wine—but reserve wine. The chief steward gets a sip and immediately recognized its high quality. “You have saved the best for last!” he exclaimed—which was as much a statement about Jesus as it is about the vintage. And not only was it the best, but there was an abundance of it. Six water jars each holding twenty or so gallons filled to the brim: we’re talking wine enough to keep a wedding banquet joyfully flowing into eternity. The tap water of ceremonial cleansing had become the wine of new creation. Reality replaced ritual. Thy kingdom comes.

Verse 11 provides the punch lines. “Jesus did this… and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” In John’s gospel, “glory” is God’s purview alone. For Jesus to show glory says something unbelievable about him. And the disciples find faith to believe the unbelievable. They realize that God has shown up in person. The Word has become flesh. This was mostly good news, except when God’s glory showed itself on a cross. When Jesus’ hour finally arrives and the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world by dying, it took all the faith in the world to see the glory in that. But Mary was there, still full of faith in her son, the only other time she shows up in John’s gospel. And from the cross Jesus addressed her simply as “woman”, so she knew everything would turn out OK.

Then on “the third day,” which John calls the first day with a nod toward new creation, Jesus gloriously rises as the first fruit of what’s to come. He saved the best for last. The risen Jesus appeared to his disciples—whose faith had gotten a bit wobbly—and breathed the Holy Spirit on them, just like God breathed life on Adam in the beginning. It’s another nod toward new creation. Jesus converts their ordinary tap water lives into abundant fine wine. The wedding is on.

Of all the weddings I’ve been privileged to participate in, among the most memorable wasn’t much of a wedding at all. The couple each carried heavy crosses of personal hardship: hers an abusive family that caused her undue psychological stress and disorder; his an irregular heart that required surgery soon, but his insurance was reluctant to cover it and his job wasn’t enough to pay for it. These hardships drew them toward each other love each other, as hardships can do. They grew to love one another and wanted to get married, but presumed that they could never afford a church wedding. They could go to City Hall for a cheap civil service, but they believed in Jesus and deeply wanted their marriage vows to be grounded by their faith in him. Jesus was in the business of getting glory out of suffering. No problem, I said. We can get you married in church today, right now, if you like. I got the authority vested in me. Let’s do it. (They asked if it’d be OK if they went home and showered first. They wanted to change clothes.) But a few hours later they were back and scrubbed and ready. I escorted them into our spacious sanctuary, grabbing a member of our admin staff on the way as a witness. I then opened the marriage book and recited those familiar words, “Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.”
This mysterious union between Christ and his church is the marriage of God to his people, “a Holy City coming down from heaven “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” It is the word made flesh who dwells among us, full of grace and truth, the resurrection of the dead and all things made new. It is “light shining in darkness” and “every tear wiped from our eyes.” It is the glory of the Lord revealed, as of a father’s only son, for all nations to see. I saw plenty of glory in that simple wedding that day. They didn’t need a fancy reception or a truckload of gifts because they had Jesus, and he was enough. “I came that you may have life,” he promised, “and have it abundantly.” One successful heart surgery and two children later, Jesus remains enough, just as he promised. That’s the good thing about abundance. It’s always enough.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Purified Water

Mark 1:9-13
by Daniel Harrell

Our survey of water in the Bible this fall has finally landed us on the most important water event of them all: the baptism of Jesus. It’s distinct from the other water events we’ve looked at thus far, because baptism is actually one we get to dive into ourselves. Along with communion which we celebrate this morning, baptism is a central practice of our faith; it is our initiation into Christian community. Though unlike communion, baptism is a once in a lifetime experience. Baptism comes with gallons of theological significance, most of which we tend to take for granted. As Congregationalists living in Luther-land where infant baptism is the norm, most of us can’t even remember our own baptisms. The baptisms of children, while beautiful, are still treated more as ceremonial than momentous. Maybe that’s because there’s no heaven tearing open or thunderous voice booming at our baptisms—no spirit descending like a dove. Or maybe it’s because we use water instead of fire. We do take water for granted. As recently as 1955, rural Americans without running water in their homes used ten gallons a day per person to live (as compared to cows which used twenty gallons per day per cow). Today, with running water, a normal American uses a hundred gallons, and much of that, twenty gallons a day, is just for flushing the toilet.
Whenever a family brings their baby to be baptized, their major concern is not what baptism signifies, as much as whether their baby will cry. Parents go to great lengths to guard against this: plugging his mouth with a pacifier, sedating her with milk and rocking her into a sacramental stupor. Most of the times this works, but when it doesn’t, the ensuing shriek of terror at the unexpected splash can be enough to set an entire congregation on edge. It’s definitely enough to embarrass some parents into never returning to church again.

But I say let those babies scream! Screaming babies are onto something about baptism that most of us forget. More than a bath, baptism is a drowning. It’s is not so much about having your sinful self washed clean as it is about having your sinful self killed off. Jesus called his cross a baptism and the apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, asserted that to be baptized is to be crucified and buried with Christ, so that with Christ, you might be raised from the dead into newness of life.

Early Christians were very serious about their baptisms. According to the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, a presbyter and bishop in third century Rome, getting baptized required much more than professing faith and getting wet. You first underwent a severe examination of intent, which included being grilled as to the nature of your occupation. For instance, you could not join the church if you were a pimp (for obvious reasons), a sculptor or a painter (unless you swore never to create idols), a politician (again, for obvious reasons), someone who teaches children worldly knowledge, a gladiator, an actor, a soldier, an astrologer or anyone who, according to Hippolytus, “does that which may not be mentioned.”

Once your vocation passed theological muster, you’d be allowed to hear the gospel, followed by a three-year period of instruction during which you were expected to lead a virtuous life. At the end of this period, should you prove worthy, you underwent daily exorcisms to ensure purity and cleanliness from any evil spirit, leading up to a three-day fast on the Thursday before Easter. The night before Easter was spent in prayerful vigil. On Easter morning, as the first rays of the sun broke over the horizon, you were led naked into the baptismal water (typically held in a pool shaped like a coffin and always filled with cold water) where you would confess your faith and be pushed underneath. You would be held down long enough to “feel the death” after which you would emerge gasping for the air of new life. A fresh, official Christian, you were then clothed with a new white garment, anointed with oil and escorted into to the midst of the congregation where the bishop would bless you and offer you for the first time the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. Some of this we saw last week at Confirmation, which was tied more directly to baptism early on.

How does this apply to babies? Depending on your view of original sin, Christians haven’t always held that babies get a free pass. Sin has a sinister power all its own. On the other hand, infant baptism serves as the New Testament successor to Old Testament circumcision—expanded to include female and Gentile children. Baptism, like circumcision, is the signature of a community’s pledge to raise a child to be faithful to God. And because baptism is done with water that can drown you (just as circumcision was with a knife that can kill you), it’s a pledge made under the penalty of death. Jesus himself said that whoever causes a child to fall into sin would be better off having a millstone tied around his neck and thrown into the sea. So yeah, there should be crying at baptisms.

Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism has an definite Old Testament look and feel. He starts his gospel with a citation from Isaiah that points to John the Baptist as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s own fashion statement—his camel’s hair clothing and leather belt, not to mention his diet of locusts and honey—brought to mind the great prophet Elijah who dressed and ate the same way. God’s last words in the Old Testament promised that Elijah would return “before the great and terrible day of the LORD.” Though he looked like Elijah, John sounded a lot like Jeremiah, warning of God’s justice and calling the people a brood of vipers. His baptizing paralleled a Jewish practice called “proselyte baptism” whereby an idol-loving Gentile pagan converting to Judaism first had to have his idol-loving paganism ceremonially rinsed off. Only here John baptizes chosen people instead of Gentiles, implying that the descendents of Abraham were no better than anybody else. They were sinners too.

In addition to the Old Testament language, Mark paints an Old Testament picture too. Here’s a rendition of Jesus’ baptism from the nineteenth century printmaker Currier and Ives, better known for nostalgic images associated with the holidays. Looking at this print, you’ll notice elements of all the water events we’ve gone over this fall. Let’s do a little review. In Genesis and the creation account, you’ll recall that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” but already present was water over which swept a wind, or spirit, from God. In ancient creation myths, water was feared as the abode of chaos and evil. God the Father redeems peace and beauty out of the chaos and evil for the sake of creation; just as God the Son redeems life and righteousness out of death and sin for the sake of new creation.

Throw an ark in the water and you’re reminded of Noah, the floodwaters serving the sentence of God’s justice, the due consequence of taking God’s grace for granted. The New Testament writers all understood the flood to prefigure the baptismal waters. Later prophets, like Jeremiah, in whose stead John the Baptist follows, cautioned the people again. But because they insisted on doing God wrong, disasters came and practically wiped them out. But God’s anger against their sin and infidelity never rained down for the sake of destruction alone. His fury refines for the sake of redemption. Peter referred to Noah’s flood as water that destroyed the world in order to save it; the same water, he wrote, that now saves us. St. Augustine understood the wooden ark to foreshadow the wooden cross. God saves us through the waters of his justice by the cross of Jesus, which is our ark of grace. A dove gave the all clear sign to Noah, showing it was safe to disembark. At Jesus’ baptism, the dove signals that in Christ everybody’s safe.
Now there is no floating ax head at Jesus’ baptism, if you remember that sermon from 2 Kings. But there are parallels between Jesus and Elisha. The Bible refers to Elisha as not just any man, but as the man of God. Floating iron verified Elisha’s true identity. Elisha means “God is salvation,” and through Elisha God saved his people from a whole host of self-inflicted disasters. Jesus also means “God saves,” and through Christ God saves us too. Elijah anointed Elisha with a double portion of his spirit. John the Baptist—the New Testament Elijah—did the same for Jesus, anointing him with the fullness of the Holy Spirit and verified Jesus’ true identity. Elisha was the Man of God, Jesus is the beloved Son of God with whom the Father was well pleased.

Baptism’s ultimate trajectory is new life in God’s presence. In Ezekiel, which we looked at last Sunday, God’s presence was symbolized by a glorious new Temple out of which flowed a miracle river symbolizing new life. The Temple and the river turn out to be previews of heaven. The river shows up in the book of Revelation as the river of life, but by then it’s clear that the Temple is no longer a building but “the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” himself. God becomes so present to us that buildings are no longer necessary. His people are his dwelling place.
Jesus goes through the water of baptism and is confirmed to be God’s beloved son. He is anointed with the Spirit of power. He will make way a path to new life. But the first order of business for the Spirit is to lead Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan. So much for being God’s beloved Son. At our Wednesday night sermon group, someone pulled out that verse from Hebrews that reminds how Jesus needed to be temped like us in order to sympathize with us, and that he “learned obedience from what he suffered so that once made perfect, he could become the source of eternal salvation.” What? Was Jesus not perfect already? What did have to learn? It turns out that while the word “obedience” derives from the Hebrew verb “to hear,” it always comes tied to the verb “to do.” Jesus knew that obedience to God was a whole body proposition, but he didn’tlearn it until he did it.

This holds true for us too. Bob from our Wednesday night group told us about the birth of his daughter and how there were problems with her heart. She was rushed to the NICU where a chaplain soon showed up and asked if he’d like to have his daughter baptized. Far from a ceremonial gesture, this was every parent’s nightmare. Bob knew he believed in Jesus, but did he have faith enough to trust Jesus with his daughter? He didn’t learn it until he did it. Baptism demands all that we are. Bob gave his daughter to God. And God gave her back. This past Wednesday she started Confirmation.

Jesus went through the waters of God’s justice and into the desert of temptation just as Israel did with Moses. God saved his people and did his justice to Pharaoh’s army. God blessed his people with his spirit, who accompanied them day and night. And that led Israel into the desert where they had a chance to learn obedience too. And yet they failed over and over again. But where they failed, Jesus succeeded and became “the perfect source of eternal salvation” for all who follow him. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Our ancestors all passed through the sea, and were baptized in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”

If you remember that sermon from Exodus, you’ll remember that though God led his people out into the desert to test them, they ended up testing him. They people ran out of water and complained to God, though the word used for complain was more like the verb to sue. It meant “to legally challenging somebody’s authority.” The people sued the Lord over their water rights! Moses responded, “Why do you test the Lord?” He then turned to God and asked, “What am I supposed to do?” What came next was truly remarkable. The Lord let his people take him to court. A rock served as the courtroom dock where the defendant stands. Moses staff was the executioner. And then God said to Moses, “I will be standing on the rock. I will be the defendant. Smite the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” So Moses’ smote the rock, in effect condemning God, and sprung forth water for the people. The Almighty Lord, Yahweh himself, pled guilty!

This is how Paul interpreted the rock in the desert as Christ. It was another foreshadow of the cross. In John’s gospel, as Jesus hung on the cross, a soldier pierced his side with a spear and water came out. The cross smote Christ, condemned God, and sprung forth living water for all people. As Paul would later explain, “God made him who knew no sin to be our sin, so that in him we might gain his righteousness.”

To be baptized into Christ makes his cross your cross. “To be baptized into Christ Jesus is to be baptized into his death.” But to be baptized into Christ’s death also makes his resurrection your resurrection. His life is now your life. So much so that God’s words to Jesus now apply to you: “You are my Son. You are my daughter. My beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Waterfront Property

Ezekiel 47:1-12
by Daniel Harrell

It’s good to see everybody in church today. I was concerned folks might not be back after last Sunday’s water sermon from Jeremiah—we’ve been focusing on water in the Bible all fall. Granted, last Sunday was about a lack of water, a drought brought on by God himself in response to Israel’s unfaithfulness. Bad enough that God held back the rain. Worse that God held back from helping his people. He refused to answer their prayers due to their hardheartedness. But today is Reformation Sunday, so let’s reboot. Turn the page. Pick a different prophet. Make a change. This is what God does. No, the Lord doesn’t himself change—the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. What God changes is his people. By the end of Jeremiah, and here in Ezekiel, the Lord gives them a new heart and a capacity for relationship—a new covenant not written in stone, but written inside their souls. Jesus speaks to this new covenant over the communion table—a covenant made possible by his own blood shed. In Christ, God “forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.” Grace marks a new beginning, it is a reformation.

The Protestant Reformers stressed grace alone as the means of new birth. Salvation is all God’s doing. You can never do anything to earn it. And yet you still must do something to show you’ve received it. Jesus said that you can only tell a tree by its fruit. The apostle Paul said you have to run the race to win it. So run with perseverance, the Bible says, and fix your eyes on Jesus who not only makes sure that you run well, but that you always win.

Jesus describes a day when those racers having loved their neighbors, served the poor, told the truth and worked for justice are confirmed as “good and faithful.” Dressed in white and anointed with the oil of victory, Jesus says to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your prize, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” Call it Judgment Day, the Second Coming or the Finish Line, Christians have always affirmed, as we did today, that Jesus will return to do justice, reward the righteous and set the world right forever. It’s a hope that shows up in the Old Testament too. It’s the ultimate outcome of Jeremiah’s new covenant, a vivid watercolor painted here in the prophet Ezekiel.

Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah prophesied concerning Israel’s captivity to the Babylonians—a savage nation devoted to slaughter and conquest. God would have saved Israel from Babylon had they stayed faithful. He’d chosen Israel of all nations to be his beloved, had moved into their neighborhood and blessed off their sandals with prime real estate, national defense and guaranteed retirement. Yet despite being graced by God’s presence—symbolized by this magnificent Temple in which resided God’s glory—the Israelites behaved as if they were entitled to it. Like the prodigal son they took advantage of their father’s goodness and did as they pleased—browbeating the poor, defrauding their neighbor and engaging in an immorality so vile that even the surrounding pagan nations were appalled.

Unlike the parable of the Prodigal Son, here in Ezekiel, it’s the father who took off. Just as God’s presence had been a sign of His favor, his departure became a sign of His judgment. In response to his people’s shameless behavior, God packed his bags and declared lights out for the Temple, Jerusalem and the nation. He left in a glory-filled fury, abandoning Israel to its destruction. God’s exit cleared the way for Babylon to wipe them out.

But now, here in Ezekiel’s fourth and final vision, the father returns. God comes back. His judgment had been for the sake of their salvation. The Lord flips the lights back on so that “the glory of the Lord filled the house.” It’s a house, a new Temple, for which Ezekiel provides eight long, detailed, even tedious, chapters of plans. While God’s return was wonderful and exciting, reading through these house plans can be brutal: “The building whose door faced north was a hundred cubits long and fifty cubits wide. Both in the section twenty cubits from the inner court and in the section opposite the pavement of the outer court, gallery faced gallery at the three levels. In front of the rooms was an inner passageway ten cubits wide and a hundred cubits long.” It makes you want to pick up Leviticus just for fun. If you’ve ever led a Bible study that felt like it was going nowhere but you felt guilty about ending it, pull out Ezekiel and you won’t have to worry about anybody ever coming back.

My Wednesday night sermon small group was concerned. Here in chapter 47, our passage for this morning, the emphasis shifts to the landscaping, and at first glance the tedium is still present: “Going on eastward with a cord in his hand, a man measured one thousand cubits, and the water was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and the water was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and the water was up to the waist.” This stream of water spilled out from inside God’s new house, as if someone had left the shower running. What started as a trickle got so deep so fast that soon you could swim in it. And suddenly you’re like, wait a minute, any trickle that becomes a river in less than a mile and a half is a miracle trickle. Verdant trees with leaves that never turned brown bore fruit every month along each bank. And all of this lushness blooms in a dead desert near the Dead Sea, barren badlands where trees don’t grow and fresh water don’t flow. God transforms both uninhabitable desert and languid sea into a abundant garden. The Lord raises even the land from the dead.

For a people ravaged by war and exile brought on by their own shameful mutiny; severed from God with no hope of reunion or redemption; such an unexpected and underserved paradise ushered forth hymns of joy sung with tears of relief. Ezekiel paints their salvation with vivid images of abundance: limitless water, boundless fresh produce, medicine for healing, fish and animal life to enjoy. It’s actually sounds a lot like America—enough that I wonder whether Ezekiel’s vision has the power to stir us as it must have stirred our exiled Israelite forebears. Abundance is status quo in our country. Why yearn for Ezekiel’s paradise when you can get fresh fruit even in the winter, medicines at the pharmacy, beautiful scenery on any day at the lake and water no further than the twist of a spigot?

Of course such abundance is not the global status quo—talk to those who’ve recently returned from the Dominican Republic, just off of America’s southern coast. Many political scientists assert that coming world wars won’t be fought over who controls the oil, but over who controls the water. In India, about 170 million people drink water every day that has been carried home by foot, one out of six people in a country of 1 billion. That’s the number of people in the United States who live east of the Mississippi. It’s as if everyone from Maine to Key West, from New York to Chicago, from Memphis to Atlanta, relied on water that someone had walked to collect every day. In India, their space program made possible the discovery of water on the moon. But even the Indian scientists and engineers who oversaw the project don’t have running water at home. In the twenty-first century, it is estimated that as many as 100 million people worldwide are making the water walk every day, with hundreds of millions depending on water that has been carried, almost always on the head of a woman or girl.

My Wednesday night group was quick to remind me that living here in the land of abundance doesn’t mean you have access to it—especially in these difficult days as joblessness and poverty have intensified. He same was true for Israel. There was plenty of abundance available, but they had no access to it. And it was their own fault. Despite eight chapters of magnificent, if meticulous, plans, Ezekiel’s Temple never got built. Instead, what did get built once the Israelites returned from their Babylonian captivity was a comparably low-rent replacement. Moreover, according to the prophet Haggai (and later Jesus too), this lesser rendition didn’t house God’s glory the same way that the first one did. This was because the people soon started trashing the new Temple as badly as they’d trashed the first. The Lord said in Ezekiel that surely my people “will never again defile my holy name with their detestable practices and their loathsome abominations.” But they did. Divine judgment and near-total annihilation failed to induce any lasting reform. No sooner were they restored to their land than their willful and hypocritical disobedience resumed. Haggai and other prophets pick up denouncing the people where Jeremiah and Ezekiel left off.

Perhaps this is another reason why Ezekiel’s Temple was never built. God knew better than to try and live among people again. He knew that taking up residence in their midst would only lead to their total annihilation. Holiness cannot tolerate infidelity and injustice. So God kept his distance. Just “describe the temple to the people of Israel,” the Lord commanded Ezekiel. He never says build it. “Let them consider its appearance,” God said. He never commands them to purchase stone and lumber. “Just show them the plans,” he said,  “that they may be ashamed of their sins.”

How would a set of plans cause shame? Hope maybe. I had some good friends flooded out by a raging tropical storm in the South. The water rose waist high throughout their subdivision as they slept. Had not their 2-year-old awoke, seen the water rising around his bed and screamed, he probably would have drowned. As it was, they all awoke and scrambled for higher ground, salvaging a few personal belongings but basically losing everything else. Homeless, the four of them were shoe-horned into a small apartment when I stopped by to visit. They recounted the dismal days they’d spent pouring over lost mementos and treasures, lamenting labor now wasted remodeling their house on their limited budget, as well as time spent haggling with insurers and government relief agencies. But just as I was about to conclude that their plight was an inconsolable saga of sadness with no end in sight, they pulled out this long tube of paper and grinned. Giddy, they unrolled the source of their happiness. House plans. Blueprints. “This is going to be our new home,” they said.

Ezekiel’s house plans were Israel’s hope too. But how would God’s plans for a new Temple ever induce shame? As a kid I lived in a house my brickmason dad built himself. I remember the house plans and my brother and me getting to pick out our own room. We got to have real wood paneling and blue shag carpet, a red bean bag chair with peace signs and beads and a lava lamp (it was far out). Six weeks later, my parents were out to dinner and I was asleep in my room. I awoke to smoke encircling around my face. Our house was on fire. I was rescued by a heroic babysitter who yanked me out of my drowsy stupor and, along with my little brother, high-tailed it across the street to our neighbors’ just as the flames burst through the roof. All of my parents’ hard work and dreams literally went up in smoke.

But what made it worse was that it turned out to be my fault. I had mischievously  knocked over this basket of blankets my hard-working mom had folded downstairs. Goofing around, I jumped on them like a trampoline mashing them down into the hot coils of this electric heater. That night, while my parents were out, the blankets caught fire. What the fire didn’t get, the water from the fire truck hoses did. And unfortunately, insurance didn’t cover everything. Some of the damage would remain. My dad and the architect had to draw up a whole new set of plans, salvaging whatever they could for the reconstruction. Seeing that set of plans made me feel horrible. Ashamed. I knew that the replacement house would never be as good as the original. The stains that splotched my Dad’s beautiful stonework fireplace were permanent reminders of the way things weren’t going to be now because of me.

Maybe that’s the kind of shame the Israelites felt when they saw Ezekiel’s plans. That glorious Temple would never be built in their lifetime. The low-rent replacement they’d enter each Sabbath for worship would remind them of the way things weren’t going to be now because of them. In the parable of the prodigal son, it’s desperate shame that turns the ungrateful young boy’s life around. He’s no longer fit to be called his father’s son anymore—he returns to his father and asks to be treated like a slave. But his father would have none of it. Overjoyed that his son is alive, the father puts a white robe on his shoulders and lays out a spread fit for a prize-winning athlete. The hard love that beckoned the prodigal son to feel shame was the same love that brought him back, and presumably the same love that brought about some change in his life. We can do nothing to earn God’s grace, but we still must do something to show we’ve received it. Grace will change you. I don’t play with blankets anymore. And I’m still really careful when it comes to electric heaters. But that’s not why my parents let me live in their rebuilt house. They let me stay because they love me and they were overjoyed that I was alive.

The house my Dad rebuilt was never as good as the original—but it also wasn’t the last house. Many years later, they built another one out in the country among the Carolina pines. It overlooked a river where the fishing is good, as well as the verdant green of a beautiful golf course where the trees never turn brown. The sun sparkles every morning and it’s quiet and peaceful and better than that first dream house ever was. And I got to live there too. Ezekiel’s house plans are a preview of heaven, a final house being built not with lumber and stones, but with you and me as living stones, made righteous by Christ. Turn to last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation and there you find “the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” and “the tree of life producing its fruit every month; and leaves for the healing of the nations.” There’s “no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be our light, and we will reign forever and ever,” overjoyed that everybody’s alive and that everybody’s home.