Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Unapproachable Light

1 Timothy 6:11-16by Daniel Harrell

1 Timothy, along with 2 Timothy and Titus, make up what are known as the “pastoral epistles.” Timothy and Titus were close associates of Paul and early pastors of the thriving and rapidly expanding church. In 1 Timothy, Paul has left his trusted associate the keys to the Ephesian church with orders to halt the bad influence of false teachers that were corrupting the congregation from the inside. The flock was being led astray by its own shepherds who distorted the gospel to serve themselves. Specifically, the problem appears to tied to greed, thus prompting Paul to stress how the love of money is a root of all evil. Of the more than 500 references to evil in Scripture, 1 Timothy is the only place where any mention of an origin occurs. Greed is a deadly sin to which pastors are hardly immune. I got an inquiry from this desolate cornfield county church looking for a new pastor. Flattered, I asked a friend who lives near this church what he knew about it. He told me he heard they give their minister a free Lexus to drive. Giddy up.

You’ll be relieved to hear that I didn’t turn to 1 Timothy this morning to talk about greed, but to talk about light. Two more sermons and we’ll turn out the lights on this series, but having started in Genesis last September, I felt like we should follow the light all the way to the end. We’re almost there. Paul uses the phrase “unapproachable light” to describe God’s dwelling, a likely reference to Psalm 104: “O LORD my God, … you are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent…”  The adjective “unapproachable” only shows up here in the Bible, and seems to stress God’s extreme holiness—we cannot approach him due to our sinfulness—and his incomprehensibility—we cannot fully understand him either. Writing from the fourth century, church father John Chrysostom compared knowing the depths of God to plumbing the depths of the sea. “We call that thing unapproachable which, from the start, cannot be searched out or investigated,” he said.

Couched in Psalm 104, God’s wrapping himself in light tethers to his work as creator: “You wrapped in light as with a garment and stretch out the heavens like a tent… You set the earth on its foundations… You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they give drink to every wild animal… O LORD, how manifold are your works!” As we know, “let there be light” were the first words out of the Lord’s mouth in the beginning. However, few people took this literally since, like the Lord, the universe was always thought to be infinite with no definite beginning. Light goes on forever. But then along came Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble who theorized and confirmed how galaxies were receding away from each other over time. The universe was expanding. What this meant was that if you were to run the clock backwards far enough, you’d get to an actual point in time when all matter, energy and space itself condensed into a single spot. Astronomer Jennifer Wiseman, you may remember, told us last fall about the discovery of cosmic background radiation that fills what were thought to be the dark voids of space. This microwave light is residue from that single beginning, an echo of the Lord’s first words as it were, and has become enough to convince even the staunchest critics of a decisive start for the universe 13.7 billion years ago. 

Believers throughout Christendom naturally rejoiced at the discovery. The Bible had it right after all (once you’re willing to concede on the seven 24-hour days part). Some scientists weren’t nearly as thrilled. Agnostic cosmologist Robert Jastrow expressed his own sense of dismay when he wrote: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

We’ve labeled this scientifically confirmed beginning the “Big Bang,” and popularly conceive as some massive, fiery, bright blast out of nothingness from which hurled galaxies, stars, planets, air, water, land, you and me. But as far as we can tell, the Big Bang wasn’t big at all, but more of an infinitesimal, itty bitty soundless bing. It’s currently impossible for science to get back to point zero and describe what happened. Einstein’s theory of general relativity, connected to gravity, is very precise as to what was going on one second after the Itty Bitty Bang—when already the universe had expanded to about 1,000 times the size of our solar system. But whatever happened occurred before that in the subatomic world of quantum mechanics where general relativity and gravity don’t apply. And this is a huge problem because the math of general relativity and the math of quantum mechanics don't add up. It’s as if reality is divided in two. It doesn’t make any sense.

This gives another dimension to “unapproachable” or “incomprehensible” light. Neither physicists nor philosophers can comprehend what happened in the beginning. They have ideas, however. Stephen Hawking talks about time folding over on itself into something of rewinding tape. Time just keeps going round and round starting over and over again. There’s a theory of random quantum fluctuation, a vacuum from which popped out a little packet of energy that quickly bloomed into a universe. Brian Greene has popularized the notion of a multiverse. Tied to what’s called “string theory,” the idea is that there are an exponentially large number of universes out there, something like 10500, of which ours is but one pulled out of the deck.

Scientists and philosophers tend to agree that whichever theory proves simplest is probably the true answer. Here’s where the theologians eagerly join the chorus. What more simple explanation exists than to say, “God did it!” Oxford philosopher of science Richard Swinburne asserts that, “to posit a trillion, trillion other universes to explain our universe seems slightly mad when the much simpler hypothesis of God is available.” 

Of course for those who actually believe in the God of the Bible, the Lord is hardly a simple hypothesis. From the problem of evil to the problem of obedience, God can get pretty complicated. Again, he dwells in unapproachable light. Had he simply got the quantum particle rolling and moved out of the way, then that may have simply been that. But for Christians at least, God also intervenes in his creation. He answers prayers, reveals truths, does miracles, loves and relates to the point of taking on human flesh and dying for our sins. His willing involvement unavoidably leads to hard questions about death and disease and genetic mishaps and natural disasters and why life on earth is the only place it happens amongst billions and billions of planets, all of which seems to suggest a bit of incompetence if not outright negligence. Unless, that is, God is simply absent.

Richard Swinburne counters that for a God who is good, “It’s unlikely he’d create a universe and then not take an interest in it. Parents who leave their children to fend for themselves aren’t very good parents. You’d expect God to keep a connection with his creation, and if things go wrong, to help people to straighten them out. He will want to interact with his creation, but not be too obvious about it. Like a good parent, he’ll be torn between interfering too much and interfering too little. He’ll want people to work out their own destiny, to work out what is right and wrong and so on, without his intervening all the time. So he’ll keep his distance. But on the other hand, when there has been a lot of sin around, he will want to help people  deal with it, especially those who want his help. He’ll hear their prayers and sometimes he’ll answer them.”  

Speaking of being a good parent, a number of us are enjoying a Wednesday night workshop here at the church focusing on how to be better at parenting. Admittedly, from the parents’ side, the objective seems mostly to be getting your kids to do what you want. However our instructors on Wednesday keep pushing from the kids’ side. If your kids’ interpret your parenting always trying to get them to do what you want, it won’t make for a very safe and satisfying relationship. Better to ask your kids questions. Give them some space to create too. 

One example is a boy named Jake who was regularly hitting his younger brother Ian. After  a particular battle, his mom, instead of getting angry like usual and punishing Jake, calmly asked Jake if hitting Ian was a good thing to do or not such a good thing. “Not such a good thing,” Jake said, a repentant tone to his voice. Right. His mom then asked Jake what he thought he could do to help remember that he shouldn’t hit his brother. As if he’d just made a brilliant discovery, Jake announced, “We could make a sign.” So his mom gave him some paper and a pen, and Jake wrote “No hitting Ian.” The next day, when Ian started annoying Jake again, Jake ran over and checked his sign. Right. He then proudly announced to his mom how he saw “no hitting Ian” on his sign, so he didn’t. 

“Misbehavior, is the ultimate opportunity to love,” say our instructors. Kids remember grace more than they remember punishment. Affirm what you can about every situation. Taking this to heart, a number of parents last Wednesday night wondered aloud about what to affirm when their kids deny and outright lie after being caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing. One parent suggested she could affirm her child’s creativity and imagination. Another suggested affirming the ability to problem-solve and get out of predicaments. Another suggested affirming a strong personality. I suggested affirming a future in politics. Or church ministry for that matter. Which finally pulls this train back to the misbehaving pastors in 1 Timothy.

In contrast to the bad shepherds who fleeced their sheep for a chance to drive around in a Lexus, Paul writes, “As for you, man of God, shun all this falsehood and run after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. These are good virtues for pastors and parents too.

Paul further instructs Timothy to “fight the good fight,” an analogy to the wrestling mat of ancient athletic contests. Wrestling was my father’s preferred mode of parenting. A state champion wrestler in high school, our misbehavior as kids gave him an opportunity to put us in one of his wrestling holds. He’d even give me and my brother the advantage of going two-on-one against him, but inevitably we’d end up pinned to the carpet, held down each with one of his almighty arms, unable to move and begging for mercy. I’ve tried this with Violet but unfortunately she’s stronger than I am.

Which reminds me of one of the weirder wrestling stories in Scripture. In Genesis, Jacob gets into a wrestling match with a man who ends up being an angel but whom Jacob recognizes as God Almighty himself. They wrestled until daybreak, which is weird since you’d think God could take down Jacob in a quantum second. Stranger still is that Jacob gets the upper hand, forcing the Lord to touch Jacob’s hip and wrench it of its socket. Still Jacob holds on, refusing to let go, desperate, no doubt, for a blessing he knows that he needs. Jacob had been a bad boy, not only fleecing his own father and his in-laws, but beating his brother out of his birthright. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” Jacob said, perhaps a repentant tone in his own voice. The Lord replied, “What is your name?” And Jacob said “Jacob” which means “to hold on to a heel.” And Jacob had been a heel. But the Lord took Jacob’s misbehavior as an opportunity to love him. “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” he said. “You will now be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.”

Normally such victory would stoke a sense of inordinate pride, but Jacob quickly realized the enormity of what had transpired. “I have seen God face to face,” he said, “yet my life has been spared.” Jacob made a sign for the place and called it Peniel,  which means “face of God,” as well as “no more hitting your brother.” Limping from that place Jacob looked up to see his brother, whom he had swindled, approaching with his army of 400. Cowering toward Esau with due repentance, Jacob bowed seven times and expected a reprisal, but like God, Esau also took the opportunity of his brother’s misbehavior to love him. Esau ran to meet Jacob, took hold of him and kissed him. And they both wept. 

Paul wrote to Timothy that, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” Like Jacob, Saul had been a heel. A false teacher and haughty shepherd, Saul hit God’s unapproachable light driving his Lexus down that road to Damascus, as we saw last Sunday. The Lord wrestled Saul to the ground—blinded him, blessed him, changed his name to Paul and changed his tune. “For this very reason I received mercy,” Paul wrote, “so that in me, as the foremost sinner, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”

So “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called,” Paul tells Timothy-- life forever freed from death, its curses and sorrows, made certain through the resurrection of Jesus. Don't let go. Knowing the temptations and dangers firsthand, Paul charges Timothy to hold on “without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Eternal life is not something to be possessed. Eternal life is to be lived with “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” until the “manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” when eternity becomes our reality.

This word manifestation is the Greek word epiphany, related to photon or light, to shine, Paul writes, “with immortality and unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see....” at least not yet. 

Physicists await an epiphany, a unified theory of quantum gravity, the holy grail of contemporary science that will finally bring together the incomprehensible interface between the unapproachable quantum world and the world that we see with our eyes. Likewise those who trust in the Lord await the epiphany of Jesus Christ who will finally bring together the incomprehensible interface between heaven and earth; when eternity and time become one reality. “The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever.” As Paul famously writes elsewhere, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but one day we will see face to face and we will know fully, even as we have been fully known by our Father in heaven.” So in the meantime, take hold of eternal life, and hold on until the epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ, "which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Come-To-Jesus Moment

iphone-crackedActs 22:6-10; 2 Corinthians 4:1-12
by Daniel Harrell

If ever I’ve called you from my cell phone and you have Caller ID, you’ve likely seen my 617-Boston area code flash on your screen before letting it go to voice mail. Who’d be calling you from Boston? These days, with long distance being no distance, many still hold onto their hometown area codes for nostalgia’s sake. A woman who took my call on Thursday told me she’ll be a 612 girl for the rest of her life. And why not? Last month, in the midst of our one winter snowstorm, I was picking up a pizza when my smartphone accidentally slipped from my coat pocket and dropped into the snow accumulating in the street. Since it hit the snow, I didn’t hear it fall and therefore didn’t realize it missing until a few minutes later when I wanted to check the football scores while driving. The snow was deeper by then, so I decided to call myself from the pizza shop phone, and listen for my nifty Hawaii 5-0 ringtone in the snow. However when I explained my plan to the pizza people, and asked to use their landline, they said, sorry, but we can’t let customers make long distance calls. “But my phone is right out in front of your store!” I pleaded. I would have called Dawn and had her call my phone, but her area code is Boston too. And we don’t have a landline. So now I was stranded, helpless as I stood on the cold snowy street. How was I to make it without my smartphone? What if someone was trying to text me?

Life is tough when you have it easier than everybody else. Obviously I needed some perspective. The news this week reported that despite numerous public and private programs and millions of dollars spent, overall homelessness in Hennepin County increased. As I was out on the street ice fishing for my dumb smartphone, 1400 families were looking for a place to sleep. It’s the highest number in more than a decade. Advocates say homeless people still face fallout from the down economy, high foreclosure rates and a tight housing market that leaves no other options.

Martin Luther King, Jr. devoted the last years of his life to combating poverty, most evidently in his Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. Motivated by the conviction that all people should have what they need to live, King shifted his focus from civil rights after observing gains had not improved the material conditions of life for many blacks in America. The Poor People’s Campaign aimed to end poverty in America regardless of race. In 1967, King wrote, “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out. There are twice as many white poor as [black] poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and [black] alike.” It’s a challenge we still take on as a society, and as a church, through our partnerships with Calvary Baptist, CES, Families Moving Forward and other organizations. A number of our Innové applicants have submitted ideas that address poverty too.

One government program that has enjoyed recent success is called “Rapid Re-Housing.” It’s managed to put a measurable dent in the numbers of chronic homelessness, those people who’ve been without housing for more than a year. Rapid Re-housing takes funds normally funneled into shelters and food services and rents apartments instead that are freely given to homeless people. A case worker simply walks up to her homeless client and hands him keys to a new home. Darrell Bandy, a 49-year-old man who’d been on the streets for several years, now has his own apartment. “Now I can wake up and make my own breakfast.,” he said “I can wash my own clothes. ... It’s a blessing to know you don't have to wake up in that jungle [outside].” Rapid Re-housing has worked in other cities and proven economical too, but it still has its drawbacks, the most obvious being that it is morally offensive. Hundreds of thousands of poor people work hard every day, barely make ends meet and are on the cusp of being homeless themselves, but nobody ever offers them a free apartment. Yet the ungrateful bum on the street swigging cheap vodka gets one for nothing?

That is morally offensive and extremely unfair—which makes Rapid Re-housing sound a lot like the gospel. After all, from God’s vantage point, who are sinners but an ungrateful lot of chronic indigents who’ve opted for all kinds of cheap vodka ourselves? At the end of our rope with no hope of redeeming ourselves, up walks Jesus who says, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions. I am your key to a free apartment.”

It is a little hard to swallow. Imagine walking up to some downtown panhandler, dropping a set of keys into his cup and saying, “Hey friend, here’s a house in Edina with your name on it. Enjoy.” You think he’d believe you? He’d probably tell you what you could do with your keys. No wonder the apostle Paul’s detractors in 2 Corinthians, along with so many others, found the gospel so hard to believe. And so offensive. Especially since when the apostle Paul tried to drop dropped keys in the Corinthians’ cups, theirs were still full of Starbuck’s dark roast. Paul treated law-abiding latte-drinkers as if they were drunken street people. How dare he presume that they needed salvation. Salvation from what? They were good people. They were already righteous enough.

Paul took their resistance as evidence they were possessed by the devil, blinded to the truth and unwilling to see the light. Not the most winsome evangelism strategy. But how else to make sense of anyone refusing abundant and eternal life? Who of their own free will would ever turn down keys to a free house? Could they not see that the gospel came from God himself? Did they not realize, that the same Lord who brought light to creation now shines new creation on anybody will to take it? Jesus was everything the Corinthians had been hoping for. “God has made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” Paul writes, piling on words that resonate throughout Scripture: “Let there be light,” said the Lord, and there was light. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” sang Isaiah, “on those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, light has shined.” “Though I sit in darkness,” said the prophet Micah, “the Lord will be my light.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In Jesus was life, and his life was the light of all people.”

The bright light of Christ had literally lit up Paul on that famous street to Damascus. More righteous in his own mind than any, drunk on the cheap vodka of his own accomplishments, Paul, as Saul, was a first rate Pharisee in need of nobody’s grace. On his way to Damascus to dispense with a few heretics, “a great light from heaven,” stopped him in his tracks. At first maybe Paul thought God was spotlighting him for being such a good person. But the spotlight was instead the hot light of Jesus, interrogating Paul for being so evil. “Why do persecute me?” came the voice from heaven. Blinded by the light, Paul was led to a Jewish Christian named Ananias, who made Paul see and understand that righteousness before the Lord was never anything he could attain on his own. All the housing in heaven is fully subsidized by grace. It is an offensive salvation; a glorious treasure.

A glorious treasure carried in “clay jars,” Paul writes in our passage, the ancient equivalent of brown paper bags; its purpose “…to make clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” This is not about us anymore. “We do not proclaim ourselves;” he writes, “we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for his sake.” Paul paid for the offensive salvation he preached. “We are afflicted in every way—perplexed, persecuted and struck down—always carrying the death of Jesus in our bodies.” To proclaim Christ as Lord is to proclaim Christ as crucified Lord—afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down himself—a morally offensive proclamation once you understand that Christ’s death is our fault, that he was struck down for our sin. “Death is at work,” Paul asserts, crucifying all of our blatant wrongdoing and bleating rationalizations, all of our fake piety and condescending righteousness. “Those who try to save their lifewill loseit,” Jesus warned, “only those who lose their life for my sake will findit.” “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The gospel gives you keys to a free house, but it often has to kick you out onto the streets to get you to take it.

I didn’t watch any of Lance Armstrong’s confession last week, though apparently 3.2 million viewers did. After being outted by former teammates and banished by the professional cycling community, Lance did what celebrities do when they’re up against a wall of scandalous shame—he turned to Oprah. While a lot of people watched, few had any sympathy. Lance strong-armed a lot of people into complying with his doping and lying, covering himself with a cancer charity while becoming like cancer to any who crossed him in order to keep his secrets safe. 

Cyclist Tyler Hamilton, stripped of his own Tour de France title because of doping, wrote how “…secrets are poison. They suck the life out of you, they steal your ability to live in the present, they build walls between you and the people you love. Now that I’d told the truth, I was tuning into life again. I could talk to someone without have to worry or backtrack or figure out their motives, and it felt fantastic… One afternoon, I was doing some business research on the Internet, looking at training websites. As happened sometimes, an ad with a photo of Lance popped up. Usually, seeing his face made me wince, and I’d click the window closed. But this time, for some reason, I found myself staring at his face, noticing that Lance had a big smile, a nice smile. It made me remember how he used to be, how good he was at making people laugh… I found myself feeling sorry for Lance… I was sorry in the largest sense, sorry for him as a person, because he was trapped, imprisoned by all the secrets and lies. I thought: Lance would sooner die than admit it, but being forced to tell the truth might be the best thing that ever happened to him.”

It was the best thing that ever happened to Paul. The truth set him free. "He renounced the shameful things that one hides." In his defense before his detractors in Acts, Paul rolled out his what many would have thought to be a rich resume: proudly educated at all the best schools, commissioned by the high priest and zealous for God, a righteously hunter of heretics. For Paul his prestige was his poison, walling him off from the God he pretended to serve. Jesus kicked him onto the street to Damascus, exposing his spiritual poverty as a spiritual necessity. You have to lose your life to find it. For Paul, writing to the Philippians, this meant, “suffering the loss of all things and counting them as rubbish for the sake of gaining Christ.” Death has to work for resurrection to work. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;” he said. “Perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. We carry around in our body the death of Jesus always, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body.”

The light that blasted Paul did so at high noon—a detail designed to emphasize how Christ’s glory outshines the sun. It caused a complete turnaround in Paul’s life, the persecution he executed against Christ became the persecution he endured for Christ. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not even worth comparingwith the gloryto be revealed to us,” he wrote to the Romans.

Paul’s dramatic Damascus road conversion provides the template for a “come-to-Jesus experience,” the abrupt reversal from going the way you were going to going the way of the Lord. I’ve told you about my own reversal from a business and marketing path onto a pastoral ministry path. It happened at a fraternity party which may explain a lot. My fraternity brothers were horrified. Why toss away business savvy and bankable ability for a career of cultural irrelevance and pot luck suppers? I’ll admit there are days when I wonder if my fraternity brothers were right. Like any work, pastoral ministry has its share of frustration and trouble. I remember once bemoaning a particular spate of trouble to a seminary class, only to have an exasperated student demand to know whether I’d really been called to ministry, given my bad attitude. I responded, “You think I’d put up with the trouble if I hadn’t been called?”

Granted, you don’t have to go to seminary or work in a church to do the work of the Lord. If anything, the Kingdom of God could probably do more, missionally speaking, with fewer pastors and more Christians viewing themselves as “ministers” in their own vocations. This is part of the purpose of Innové, trying to “do church” in ways that don’t look like church has always looked. When our jobs are done for the Lord, they have their own integrity apart from anything else they might accomplish, for the work itself brings glory to God and therefore joy to us.

Maybe this is what that seminary student considered so exasperating. It’s one thing to suffer for Jesus. It’s another thing to whine about it. Not so for Paul. On the contrary, we rejoice in our sufferings, he wrote to the Romans, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, hope does not disappointus, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” A glorious treasure in brown paper bags. Death at work so that resurrection can work: the life of Jesus made visible in our bodies. Free keys to a home in glory land that outshines the sun.

I should add that Dawn found my phone. She took hers over to the snow bank and called mine, retrieving it from its frozen grave, run over, crunched and broken but still functional. There's an analogy there somewhere.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fire from Heaven

les-miserables-trailer-ukLuke 3:15-22
by Daniel Harrell

Continuing in our seasons long theme of light in the Bible, we spent last Sunday on Epiphany and the star power that drew the Magi to Jesus. This past week another kind of star power shone with the debut of this year’s Oscar nominations. I’ve seen three of the best picture nominees: Lincoln, which I loved. Beasts of the Southern Wild, which reminded me a little of some of my relatives. And of course, Les Miserables. A lot of church folk have flocked to this film, including a lot of you. For some, its message of grace and redemption provides an apt substitute for a whole month’s worth of sermons—especially if your preacher happens to be long-winded. Like heaven, this movie went on forever. The religious imagery abounded to be sure, with Wolverine hauling a wooden mast in the beginning that looked a lot like Jim Caviezel carrying a wooden cross as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. There was plenty of faith and hope and love in Les Miz, along with plenty of mediocre singing too. I know this will come as a grave disappointment, and even sound sacrilegious (if that’s possible in Hollywood), but I found Les Miserables to be tres Miserables. I didn’t really like it. Unfortunately I made the mistake of posting my opinionon Facebook, soliciting mounds of scorn from my Facebook friends. They demanded to know what kind of Christian pastor I think I am.

My response to that question is always: “a bad one.” I make no claims to ministerial greatness. If you’ll remember back to the very first sermon I preached from this pulpit, I made John the Baptist’s protestation my own: “I am not the Christ.” Obviously. Shoot, I’m not even Hugh Jackman. Nevertheless, people catching John the Baptist’s dramatic performance down by the riverside thought him to be Oscar material. Luke tells us that they “were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah.” It’s not only what he said and what he did, but how and where John the Baptist did it. He did it dressed in camel hair and leather just like the prophet Elijah, and he did it out in the desert where Moses had done all his best work. The Old Testament predicted Israel’s Savior would resemble Moses and Elijah. Add to that the fact that John baptized with water: a prophetic sign reminiscent of Noah’s flood and the Red Sea, two instances where God’s salvation was on mighty display (despite the fact that in each of those instances the ones being saved never got wet). 

 Nevertheless, in this passage traditionally slotted for the Sunday after Epiphany, John squelches any Messianic expectation by telling the crowds how they ain’t seen nothing yet. “One who is more powerful than I am is coming whose sandals I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John then scares everybody to death by adding how this fire will be unquenchable fire that burns up the bad chaff separated from the good wheat. Judgment Day was coming. John sounded just like a Baptist, in stark contrast to Jesus, the respectable Congregationalist. No hellfire from him. Just nicer sermons about the blessedness of the poor and the meek and how you should love your neighbor. Sure, there was some silly stuff about loving your enemies too, and how you should even pray for your persecutors, but nothing about burning them up, thank God. No unquenchable fire. Not even any quenchable fire.

This worried John the Baptist. Imprisoned for rebuking the local ruler, King Herod Antipas, for swiping his brother’s wife, Herodias, John had figured he wouldn’t be in prison for long. He’d seen the heavens open and the sky tear apart over Jesus. He saw the Spirit descend and heard God’s thundering approval. He knew Jesus would be wielding his winnowing fork and fire any minute. But then came the reports. Jesus wasn’t sticking a fork into anybody. And there was no fire to be found. In Matthew’s gospel, a worried John sends a couple of his own followers over to Jesus to find out what’s wrong. They ask: “Are you really the Messiah, or should we wait for somebody else?”

Did John the Baptist have Jesus all wrong? Not exactly. This being Luke’s gospel, if you want to see Holy Spirit and fire, you have to go to the second volume. Luke also wrote The Acts of the Apostles, meaning that John the Baptist’s mention of “baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” was a prediction of Pentecost. In Acts 2, after Jesus was crucified, dead and buried, raised and ascended to the right hand of the Father, his disciples gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish harvest of Pentecost. “Suddenly,” we read, “tongues of fire separated and came down to rest on each of them” and “they were filled with the Holy Spirit,” leading to a harvest of a different sort. 

How was Pentecost a baptism? There wasn’t a drop of water in sight. Were the disciples ever even baptized with water? The Bible never mentions it. True, Jesus did recruit some of his disciples from John the Baptist’s ranks, so its safe to assume that they’d been doused. But we never hear anything about the rest. If this Holy Spirit and fire was their baptism, and the way Jesus would do things after Pentecost, then why did the early church go back to using water? Was the fire too hot? Was the Spirit too strong? Did it get too dangerous? Are there supposed to be two baptisms or just one? Sprinkle, dunk or detonate? Infants too or just adults? Needless to say, for such a core Christian practice, baptism can get pretty confusing.

We try to to sort it out for parents who want to get their children baptized at Colonial, but mostly they end up as bleary eyed as I did watching Les Miz.  Frankly, most parents are less concerned about getting the theology straight. They just pray that their kid won’t cry during the service. And they’ll go to great lengths to guard against it: sedating their baby with milk and rocking her into a sacramental stupor, plugging his mouth with a pacifier. Most of the times it works, though I did baptize this one baby boy who launched his pacifier out of his mouth into a beautiful arc that splashed down right into the font. Other kids get startled by the surprising splash on their head, especially when the ministers forget to warm the water. These startled babies let loose a shriek of terror shrill enough to set an entire congregation on edge. It’s definitely enough to embarrass some parents into never returning to church again. 

But as I’ve said before, let those babies scream! Screaming babies are onto something about baptism that most of us forget. In the Bible, water is a sign of judgment. It flooded evil on earth with Noah and deluged Pharaoh’s army with Moses. Those saved through the flood and the Red Sea exodus never got wet. Baptism is a drowning before it’s a cleansing; a killing off of sin more than a mere washing off. Jesus called his cross a baptism, killing him and our sins dead with him. The apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, asserted that to be baptized in Christ is to be crucified and buried with Christ, which is why Jesus said we have to take up crosses too.

Paul wrote that only by dying with Jesus in baptism do we get to be raised. It’s the only way we get to walk in newness of life. Baptized in water by John, Jesus underwent our judgment. He suffered our fate. He endured our condemnation. But he also became our Noah’s Ark, our dry pathway through the personal Red Seas of our sin. Only Jesus emerges from the baptismal waters to heaven’s applause. The skies part and the Holy Spirit descends “in bodily form like a dove” (another nod to Jesus as our Ark). And a voice thunders its approval, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” By being baptized into Christ’s death, by receiving his life into ours, we are washed clean by grace and so become beloved children of God too.

What about the fire? Fire burns to be sure, but as with water that drowns, heaven’s fire burns for the sake of salvation. The prophet Malachi described its blaze as a “refiner’s fire… that purifies God’s people like gold that they may present [lives] of righteousness to the Lord.” This is what happened at Pentecost as fire refined a band of timid disciples into impassioned apostles, eager to step up and step out in truth and love, their own tongues now ablaze. However, since Jesus is the only one who can baptize with fire, the church resorts to water for baptism to signify all of this: judgment and cleansing, purifying and power, light and new life. God the Father shines as light at creation, through the desert exodus and atop holy mountains. Jesus shines at his own transfiguration as the light of the world. The Holy Spirit shines as Pentecostal fire, infusing all that he licks with the light of new creation, the power of faith and the capacity to love and do right. 

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 sway 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 too. Baptism, like circumcision, is the signature of a community’s covenant to raise a child to be faithful to Christ. And because baptism is done with water that can drown you (just as circumcision was done with a knife that can kill you), it’s a covenant we make with utmost seriousness. 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.

But as with baptismal water and fire, tears of terror always give way to tears of joy. The water that kills also cleanses, the fire that burns refines. We experience this not only in baptism, but over and over as the Spirit keeps refining our souls. Our failures and sin that drag us down become the material for our own redemption. Grace burns away our guilt and shame and fires us up to live righteous lives.

In a small but somewhat related way, our Innové project is about lighting fires. We received 138 creative ideas for doing good and right in the world: non-profit and for-profit plans to feed and teach and serve and innovate for the sake of the gospel, all of which could easily bog down for any number of reasons, from poor planning to bad market analysis. As often than not, as many of us can attest, good ideas founder due to the overconfident missteps of the idea-makers themselves. The bright light of creativity can cast a prideful shadow. Entrepreneurial enthusiasm isn’t readily open to critique. It doesn’t like to take advice. But good ideas need fire (and failure) to become productive realities: fire burns away pride and the parts of a plan that can’t work. It hones creativity sharp and ignites with a passion for service. Innové is not just about the money. Money is good kindling, but you burn through that quick. What keeps up the heat are people like yourselves willing to pray and coach and befriend and speak truth in order to refine idea-makers into doers who serve the world for Christ’s sake. This is good news for those who’ll take it. But you do have to be willing to take it.

One part of Les Miz I stayed awake through was the part where a duplicitous Russell Crowe gets caught infiltrating a blockade erected by the young French revolutionary entrepreneurs. Doomed to die for this treachery. Jean Valjean boldly intervenes with everyone anticipating that he’ll deliver the justice. Having seen Javert viciously hound and mistreat Jean Valjean for so many years, we impulsively cheer for Valjean to exact his righteous revenge. Yet consumed by holy fire, Valjean does what nobody anticipates, the least of all Javert himself. He mercifully sets Javert free. He gives him grace. But Javert cannot take it. He gruffly sings of Valjean: 
“Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he?
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
…How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
… I am reaching, but I fall.
And the stars are black and cold.
As I stare into the void,
Of a world that cannot hold.

Spoiler alert: Javert throws himself into the rushing river below, baptismal waters that prove to be his own condemnation. Grace is free but never forced. The water that kills is the water that cleans: but you have to be willing to take it. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Star of Wonder

Matthew 2:1-12Nativity
by Daniel Harrell

For liturgical calendar watchers and church history enthusiasts, today ranks as the third most important Sunday of the church year, right after Easter and Pentecost. That’s right, Epiphany trumps even Christmas. It was one thing for Israel’s King to be born among Jewish shepherds and angels. Quite another to have him revealed as the King of the Gentiles too. Epiphany means revelation, and with the revelation of Jesus to the Magi, God’s plan to save his chosen people turns out to be a plan to save the whole world.

By the time we get to Matthew 2, Jesus is a toddler and sleeping in a bed. His family thankfully upgraded to a house, which may have had something to do with all those glorious angels. Anybody witnessing that spectacle surely scrambled to make more room available, if only to get on the Lord’s good side. The family still resides in Bethlehem, however, having yet to make the move back to Nazareth (which they’ll end up doing by way of Egypt to further secure Gentile credentials). Here they’re famously visited by a collection of exotic magicians from the east, described by tradition as three kings or wise men, easily the strangest dudes to show up in the gospels so far. Scholars conclude they were likely astrologers, who having checked their the skies, determine an important king has been born who was worth checking out. With the kind fervor currently reserved for Prince William and Kate’s scone in the oven, these astrologers trace a star toward Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city. They drive straight to the royal palace since that’s where you’d expect a king of the Jews to be born.

For the ancients, astrology was the best that science had to offer as far as the cosmos was concerned. It was a world where the earth sat at the center of the universe and stars and planets were thought to be alive. What did the Magi see up in the sky that night? An astral anomaly? A blazing comet? A bright supernova? An alignment of planets? A bird or a plane? Speculation runs rampant. But whatever they saw, I like how the Magi used the science of their day to pursue truth and how it brought them to Jesus. Searching for truth does that.

Scholars conclude that “from the east” probably meant the Magi hailed from Persia, Babylon or Arabia, known to us as Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, nations whose significance to peace on earth is as important then as now. What are these Arabs doing looking for a Jewish Messiah? Plenty of scholars remain suspicious about whether this epiphany even happened. Who can believe a bunch of Arabian astrologers chase a moving star to go looking for a Jewish kid they think to be divine? Then again, it’s not the sort of story you concoct as a gospel writer trying to get a new religion off the ground. For serious Old Testament readers this was not a surprise encounter. Isaiah the prophet saw it coming in chapter 60: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” This is where we get the idea that the Magi were kings. Isaiah goes on to foresee how “the wealth of nations shall come to you; a multitude of camels shall cover you…” (This is how camels get into Nativity scenes.) And finally, “they shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord,” which is how Isaiah 60 gets linked to the Magi.

Isaiah uses the imagery of light and darkness we’ve been exploring since last September. I’m obviously milking this light theme for all that its worth. Israel had walked in darkness for a long time, both literally in exile and spiritually in disobedience which led to their exile. God’s merciful glory now returns to Israel, shining like the sun overhead, not only giving light but causing Mt. Zion and Jerusalem itself, to glow with glory. In time, God’s glory reflecting off a place gave way to glory reflecting off people. As Jeff preached last Sunday, this reflection is what the New Testament meant by calling God’s people shining stars and the light of the world. We shine so to attract others to the light of the Lord. And thus: “Nations come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
Perhaps the Magi knew something of Isaiah, which would have given them corroborating reason to follow the light to Jerusalem. They get to the palace but don’t find a new king. There’s just the crazy old king: A maniacal monarch, King Herod was paranoid about his power to the point of murdering his own wife and sons out of fear that they threatened his throne. The Roman Emperor Augustus remarked how it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his kid. As Herod later approached his own death, he cruelly ordered a large group of prominent citizens be simultaneously executed as he breathed his last so that ample tears and grief would accompany his own demise. We all know the atrocity he commits against innocent children. News of a newborn King terrified Herod. He checked with his Jewish religious advisors and finds that the Magi’s calculations were six miles off. The prophet Micah had later foreseen Israel’s savior to be born in Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem. Putting on some fake piety, Herod sends the Magi to Bethlehem on a diabolical hunt: “Go and search diligently for the child. And when you find him, bring me word so that I can go and worship him, too.”

The irony is unavoidable: pagan astrologers travel the long distance to adore Israel’s Savior, but Israel’s ruler just wants him dead. And not only that, but Israel’s religious leaders, who know the prophecies inside and out and actually believe, fail to join the journey even though for them it was only a six mile trip. Why bother? What could a kooky bunch of Gentile astrologers know? Despite the popularity of daily horoscopes, Judaism debunked astrology as dangerous if not demonic.

It also didn’t work. The Magi missed it by six miles. However maybe that was due to human error. The Magi may have been wise men, but we all have our biases, even when it comes to divine revelation. If you’re looking for royalty, you look for it among glitter and splendor like you find in capital cities, not in Podunk backwater towns like Bethlehem. Who could have imagined a King being born to working class commoners engulfed by the kind of scandal that swamped Mary and Joseph? Jesus wasn’t Joseph’s baby and everybody knew it. That’s why they couldn’t find a place for Mary to give birth in Joseph’s hometown. People still seek Jesus in places you’d normally expect to find a king: amidst respectability and success, security and contentment. We presume the Lord to be present mostly when there’s money in the bank, the career’s intact, our relationships are enjoyable, the kids succeed, our bodies are fit and the weather is nice. And not that we shouldn’t. I even like seeing football players thank the Lord for scoring touchdowns, though I doubt God really cares about who wins (a comfort to Vikings fans this morning).

Now that I mention it, I’m not sure God cares so much about your bank balance either, even on this Stewardship Sunday. I’m not sure God cares so much about how far you’ve made it up the career ladder—or about your relational enjoyment, your kid’s success, good fitness or the five-day forecast—at least not if God’s track record is any indication. The fact is that for most Christians, even the faithful ones, money goes away, careers collapse, relationships break, children disappoint, our bodies get sick and the weather can kill you. Remember, the Magi gave Jesus myrrh for Christmas, a spice used for burying bodies. It was like putting embalming fluid under the tree with Jesus’ name on it, or wrapping up a sword for his mother to be buried with (for those who were here Christmas Eve). You get the sense these wise men knew how things would turn out. Jesus himself warns that following him requires a cross. Whether you take that literally or metaphorically, the point seems to be that coming to Jesus can be hazardous to your health.

This was certainly true for the Magi. Knowing the horror Herod wrought upon baby boys in Bethlehem, it’s not hard to shudder at what he had planned for the Magi had they met up with him again. God warned them in a dream to take the back roads home, and fortunately they were the sort who paid serious attention to dreams. Their lives had been changed. They returned to their own country, but they went back as different people. Though we never hear from them again, artists and poets over the centuries since have speculated plenty. TS Eliot mused over the wise men’s emotions in his poignant work, The Journey of the Magi. Listen to the last stanza,

… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…

Coming to Jesus can be hazardous to your health—whether you take that literally or metaphorically. New birth feels like death, hard and bitter, because being born again means death to the sinful life you’ve been living, and that can hurt. Yet as painful as new birth can be, the new life it brings gets described, and experienced, as both abundant and eternal, full of grace and joy. We read that the Magi were “overwhelmed by joy” upon coming to Jesus—and he was still just a toddler. They bow before him and pay homage though he’d yet to speak a word or do a miracle. “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and proclaim the praise of the LORD,” just like the prophet said.

Pagan astrologers travel the long distance to adore Israel’s Savior while Israel’s ruler just wants him dead. Though Israel’s religious leaders know the prophecies, they don’t even bother. The irony is unavoidable and intentional. As a baby Jesus already shatters human categories of religion and race and class and privilege. Outsiders are welcome inside. Before the story is over, the homeless and destitute, prostitutes, lepers, Roman centurions, condemned criminals and the IRS will all be welcomed inside too. But the welcome wasn’t merely an opening of doors and putting out a welcome mat hoping outsiders might drop by. The disturbing beauty of the gospel is how Jesus became an outsider himself: marginalized and outcast, scandalized and condemned.

I’ve mentioned how my old church a group of us served dinner to homeless folks on the Boston Common one night a week. We’d invite them to church too, but it was tough getting them to come inside. We quickly realized that if we wanted these friends in church, we’d have to take church outside. So we did. And it made a difference. When I was back in Boston last summer guest preaching, it was fun to see the back pew filled up with my homeless buddies. We speak of the Magi as outsiders coming in to Jesus. But it may be more accurate to say that Jesus got into them.
He said, “I have come as light into the world to save it, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” Among the many things we’ve learned about light in the Bible so far, the most important, I think, is light’s role as the Lord’s signature. It is the sign of his presence. For Jesus to call himself light in the world to call himself God in the world. If you can see that light, then with the Magi, you will be overwhelmed with joy. And joy inspires worship. With the Magi you bow before your king with gifts fit for a king. On this Stewardship Sunday, there are any number of other reasons I could offer for giving gifts to God: your cheerful participation in Christian community, your covenant obligation, simple obedience, supporting the work of the church in a needy world, showing gratitude, practicing generosity. But when it comes right down to it, you give to Jesus because Jesus is your Lord and your King and you’re happy to do it.

Sixteen hundred years ago, on another Epiphany Sunday, the church father Chromatius preached of the Magi who “fell to their knees immediately and adored the one born as Lord. They worshiped him with gifts though Jesus was merely a child. A boy he is, but it is God who is adored. How inexpressible is the mystery of his divine honor. The invisible and eternal nature did not hesitate to take on the weaknesses of flesh for our sake. … It is he who though a child was truly God and King eternal.”

And so we pay homage, with our treasures and with our lives. To partake of the bread and the cup is to stake our lives on God’s mercy. Jesus gets inside and causes a hard and bitter new birth that results in an abundant and joyful new life. Let us come and adore our King, by laying down our sins, by taking up his cross and by making his life our life—our money, our bodies, our work, our relationships and our families and our future.